Monday, April 20, 2015

Richard III, or how to be an anthropologist in your own country

By Steve Hanson

AMERICAN friends often comment on British culture, particularly its weirder manifestations. I usually respond by explaining that it is often no less weird for the island’s inhabitants. It comes and goes, but recently the weirdness has spiked, with the live, televised re-burial of the remains of Richard III, which were found in a car park in Leicester. Here we had a resurgence of what many academics call the “invented tradition”.
“Invented traditions” are no longer a radical proposal. The historian Eric Hobsbawm first used the term when writing about the televised Investiture of Prince Charles at Carmarthen in 1969, commenting that the “imagined communities” of the country suddenly seemed more real than their inhabited spaces.
Benedict Anderson wrote about the historical rise of these “imagined communities”, emerging from newspaper coverage of geographically distant, but suddenly imaginable places. The Investiture in 1969 presented a kind of televised, imaginary medievalism, but in the re-burial of Richard III, we perhaps had a much more real, authentic, 2015 medievalism, to go with the very real poor on the streets in Britain.
No, the “invented tradition” has a de facto curriculum now. For instance Raphael Samuel on the Lost Gardens of Heligan botanical centre, and Patrick Wright on the raising of the Tudor warship the Mary Rose, which I watched all day at school, when I was 10 years old, in October 1982.
As the Mary Rose was being lifted, Government statistics for unemployment were being switched. They were now to be based on the numbers of those claiming benefit, rather than on those registered as unemployed. In the same month, Margaret Thatcher justified her economic policies as “working”. Their cruelty was not really the point, monetarism was, and the emaciation of ordinary people just a by-product of laissez-faire economics. We always have to ask ourselves, when we smell “invented tradition”, what is being masked, and what is being highlighted?
Here was the general atmosphere that the televised raising usefully covered, but what was being pointed to? The Mary Rose was lifted on the 11th October, and the day after, a parade was held in London to celebrate “victory” in the Falklands. The British media had focused on the naval battles, coverage which included the controversial “GOTCHA” headline on the front page of the Sun newspaper. War in Ireland continued, although the Irish National Assembly was in motion. Here was a conflation of “victory” in the Falklands with a naval battle in the 16th Century: It was “invented tradition”.
Prince Charles actually became Prince of Wales in 1958, but the investiture took place over a decade later, in 1969, the point at which Welsh nationalism had taken, in places, the violent form it took in Ireland. The ceremony was only “formal”, not required to rule, but we must think of its “formalism” in art school terms here, aesthetics hooked up to rhetoric, propaganda.
It was doxa, unexamined opinion disguised as natural fact. It was a mishmash of historical litter, re-collaged and re-presented to the population as “authentic”. But the director of the ceremony, Lord Snowdon, wasn’t the first Kurt Schwitters of spin. The 1911 Investiture of Edward, later King Edward VIII, presented a “Welsh” collage, largely stitched together by Lloyd George.
We can fast-forward to the Royal Wedding in 2011 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee party a year later, and then watch Stephen Frears’ film The Queen, to understand what those occasions masked, alongside their functions as celebratory highlights in a time of “austerity”. Then of course we arrive at the present day and the re-burial of Richard III, a re-burial that also re-inscribes a monstrous character as a national hero.
So, what might the re-burial of King Richard III be both masking and highlighting? This most desperate of “state” funerals occurs at a time when statehood and democracy in Britain is at its most tattered and fragmented. Its forms have been petrified by globalisation, not just here, but right across Europe. If you think you smell a whiff of white English protestant chest-beating pride in the burial of Richard III, which might contain a trace of euro-scepticism, as I do, it is easy to rebuke without using cockney rhyming slang (in which Richard III has a very special significance).
Because under the Plantagenets, England was ruled from Europe as a slightly backwards colony, and Richard III – Richard Plantagenet – took his name from a family with lands in Anjou and Aquitaine. I write this from an ideologically pro-Europe standpoint, but the far right could well invert the point, with some logic-defying acrobatics. If you want to be nationalist about all of this, and I don’t, the Mary Rose was sunk fighting the French, but King Richard III and the Plantagenets were “French”. But really, they were as “French” as the Windsors, our current Royal family, are German: not very. This is all ideological conflation. It is invented tradition.
The recent casting of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III is interesting. He is already a kind of international trope of the “‘naturalness” of the British upper classes. There was an attempt to symbolically re-embed a “right to rule” for the old elites in the re-burial, but also a simultaneous mourning for the waning of their power, as the “elite” inevitably morph once more, through the processes of capital accumulation, into the London demographics we might see now: Russian, Chinese, global billionaires, living in and among the remnants of empire.
It seems somehow fitting that Cumberbatch read a poem for the fragmented remains of a man accidentally discovered in a car park in Leicester. Cumberbatch was tenuously introduced as “a cousin of Richard”, before reading a poem written for the occasion by Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. There was no incense burning but Cumberbatch delivered a censer full of romanticism to intoxicate the nation. Watching the funeral service live on television made me want to read a Raoul Hausmann sound poem over a discarded KFC party bucket full of chicken bones, before burying it somewhere random, weeping uncontrollably.
Of course, this was not a “state” funeral with the full Royal Family in attendance; they are well advised of the risk of people like me pointing fingers, and so sent some minor players along, to be simultaneously present and not-present. Neat trick.
 Julian Fellowes, writer of the vastly influential English heritage fantasy Downton Abbey, sat on the sofa to comment on the burial during its live broadcast to the nation. His very presence, along with Cumberbatch, unconsciously attached the re-burial of Richard III’s remains to the equally fragmented patriarchal, monarchical, Christian, conservative, white upper class vision of Britain, right at the moment when it is becoming remnants, with the recent near-devolution of Scotland, and future challenges looming.
As the German philosopher Walter Benjamin explained, to really seize hold of the past is to grab an image of it in a moment of crisis. The televised re-burial was full of such images of desperation. We could focus in to see the controversy of a ceremony for a Catholic king in an Anglican church, but the city of Leicester itself, the most multicultural city in Britain, was the larger complexity being masked and suppressed by this fantastical imperialist performance.
This is not a conspiracy theory, nor is it even a complicity theory. These rituals are no different to science fiction, and science fiction is not about some future time, or distant galaxies, but the here and now. The re-burial of Richard III is not about the past either. The author Mark Fisher writes about dyschromia, popular culture constructed from decontextualised bits of the past. But this is nothing new. The past of Richard III was also symbolically constructed from scraps of other times and places. As I watched the purple-robed priests by the TV celebrities and khaki-clad pallbearers, I may as well have been watching a Nambikwara rite-of-passage in the Amazon.
This, for me, wasn’t evidence of the persistence of “postmodernism”, here was proof that it is still both possible and worthwhile to be an anthropologist in your own country.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Life in the Hall of Mirrors

 By Steve Hanson

Afzal Amin, the Tory candidate for Labour marginal seat of Dudley North, was accused in March of secretly conspiring with the English Defence League to stage a fake racist march which would then be scrapped with Amin taking the credit for defusing the situation. He has now resigned.

THE ALLEGED plot Afzal Amin hatched with the English Defence League (EDL) is currently attracting all kinds of commentary: Arguments over whether Amin is actually to blame and the EDL were misled victims; whether or not the EDL should be off-limits to the political mainstream or not. I will leave it to others to debate those details. The contradictions and tensions are clear, a far right party concealing their xenophobia, allegedly making deals with a man who has Asian roots.
But I am not surprised. In my book on small towns, I tracked a white neo-Nazi, running for local councillor, for a tiny, far right cult of a party. He brought a female east-Asian fascist into town to canvass, talking to Pakistani market traders, posing for photographs, which he posted on his blog. Because of this, he was immediately expelled from his own party, and eventually arrested for election fraud. This man and Afzal Amin reflect each other in the warped hall of mirrors that is contemporary politics. But I want to argue that they are both figures through which we might think about the wider, contemporary social world as well.
People dismissed the local neo-Nazi as “an anomaly”, as an eccentric, an almost comforting, harmless, amusing feature of small town life. Yet when I contacted them, Hope Not Hate confirmed links to some very heavy, disturbing political figures. And now, all around me, people are describing the Amin story as “bizarre”, “weird”, saying “you couldn’t make it up”, as though we have just witnessed the political equivalent of a hail of frogs.
It is, to be fair, quite an extreme example in many ways, as is the case of the neo-Nazi I have just outlined. But I would argue that neither of these stories are “anomalies”. Because I began to see on that “local” landscape that what Hegel described as a “contradiction embodied” shot right through most forms of political, cultural and economic life to be found there: Members of the anti-monarchy group Republic going to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee party, anti-supermarket campaigners who designed the very same supermarkets they protested against.
“Extremes” like these are not exceptions. They are intensities that flow into everything around them. We only have to look at popular political comedies such as The Thick Of It to see Ministers push policies they hate, while dealing with all sides like wartime black marketeers. The warped hall of mirrors these figures stand in is not just the mash-up of ideology that passes for contemporary neo-liberal politics, it is the current social space most of us operate in, as people cruise through jobs, relationships and opinions, with an overnight bag permanently packed. 
I have described this before as the simultaneous cohesion and erosion of “conviction”. This is part of an epic hangover from the industrial, colonial, patriarchal Britain of the post-war consensus. Here is the subject haunted by conviction.
“Conviction” also means “to make prisoner”, and in some ways this is appropriate, as people were much more ‘trapped in place’ previously, and some still are, mentally. But to think of these figures as “now released” would be too simplistic, because being in-between “conviction” and “release” is what generates much of the contradiction here. Political life is where the tension between being “a player” and holding convictions is perhaps at its most taught. But this existential conundrum also saturates everyday life.
Some people stick to their old convictions, “their guns”, but their opinions, their subjectivities themselves in fact, are too heavy now. Like a piece of 10-ton factory machinery from the industrial era, they risk crashing through the floor, because the social floor of the old world has decayed, it is weak. The new world is fluid, endlessly mobile, mercurial, the opposite of “conviction”, and this fluidity creates a kind of relativism beyond itself. This is what we are seeing here.
But this is not necessarily “freedom” either, as the sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, has pointed out. A world of endless “choice” has placed us in a new kind of inferno. The Afzal Amin case is just one more example of the horribly absurd, Hieronymus Bosch landscape and polity we seem trapped in.
The General Election in May looks as though it will deliver the same cubist, coalition jumble we have just had for four years, only inverted. We are about to witness another round of “Britain’s Got Prime Ministers”, as political candidates desperately try to demonstrate every millimetre of difference between them. They are opposites in many ways, but only in the sense of a sock turned inside-out: As much of an embodied contradiction as Afzal Amin and the EDL.

Steve Hanson is the author of Small Towns, Austere Times that was published by Zero Books in 2014.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Stalin’s purges – what really happened?



By Andy Brooks

STALIN'S PURGES' OF 1937-38:  WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? by Yuri Emelianov, Scientific Socialism Research Unit, West Bengal India 2015, 80pp, illus, £3.00.

IN RUSSIA today Joseph Stalin is remembered as a great war-time leader. But he is still reviled by the powers-that-be as a tyrant who had his rivals shot on trumped up charges and sent millions of innocent people to Siberia during the massive purges that swept the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Much of this narrative comes from Stalin’s successor, Nikita Krushchov, whose anti-Stalin critique, which began after the 20th Communist Party Congress, was used to remove and disgrace all those who opposed his revisionist line.
Khrushchov’s lies were used by bourgeois and Trotskyist historians alike to portray this period as the time of "Stalin's terror". Ludicrous figures were given of the numbers sent to labour camps during the crackdown and astronomic numbers were said to have died in the camps. Most claim "millions" perished. The most rabid talk about "25 million" in an effort to equate Stalin with the very real number of people who died on the orders of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazis during the Second World War.

But when the archives were opened up in the 1990s a different picture emerged. Two  academicians discovered that the total number held in the Gulags was much lower, little more than half-a-million, and that most were common criminals. Other Russian academicians are now challenging the very foundations of the myth of the “great terror”. Yuri Emelianov is one of them.
            Back in 2012 Emelianov, a social scientist in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, wrote a series of articles on the purges that were published in Communist Review, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Britain. Now an Indian progressive publishing house has made them available to a much larger audience.
            The author draws on archival documents and direct past experiences in an attempt to answer the old questions of why did the purges happen and who was to blame for breaches of Soviet legality.
Emilianov starts off by debunking the figures for those executed during the purges and the numbers sent to the Gulags that are regularly trotted out by Russian bourgeois historians, even today. He then looks at the Moscow Trials. Most of this is familiar ground for New Worker readers. Some of it is not.
The purges followed the assassination of Sergei Kirov in Leningrad in 1934. Kirov, regarded as second only to Stalin himself in the Party leadership, was shot dead by an agent of those long opposed to Stalin within the Bolshevik party. Stalin’s enemies within the Soviet leadership were arrested and charged with treason. All the accused confessed to being members of a secret "Block of Rights and Trotskyites" that was responsible for all sorts of anti-Soviet crimes in preparation of a coup to overthrow the Stalin leadership.
 Emilianov says that “though some of the accusations were plausible most of them now appear far-fetched”. But he adds:  “Practically no-one in the Soviet Union had doubted the indirect responsibility of the two opposition leaders (Zinoviev and Kamenev)  for Kirov’s murder; so it was easy to believe that both of them, as well as their supporters, were directly involved in organising the murder not only of Kirov but of other Soviet leaders as well.”
            The author then startlingly argues that while Stalin was battling against his old foes inside the Party there were other hidden enemies, like Krushchov, who posed as loyalists while encouraging mass arrests to sabotage the new “Stalin” constitution plans for secret ballots and multiple choices at elections.
 Emilianov says: “The leaders of the provinces and republics were afraid that they would lose the first general, direct, equal and secret elections with alternative candidates. By resorting to reprisals they wanted to create an atmosphere of Red Terror, characteristic of the situation in Russia during the Civil War. In such an atmosphere it would be impossible to conduct political debates between different candidates but it would be easy to make loud speeches against class enemies.”
            Though Emilianov defends Stalin he also criticises the Soviet leader for not bothering to “check many of the dubious accusations made at the Moscow Trials”; condoning false accusations; failing to make a profound analysis of “these tragic events” and not finishing the political reform of the Soviet Union that he, himself, had initiated in the first place.
             There is plenty more of this in the profusely illustrated, quality publication from India. It’s an important contribution to the study of Soviet history and it’s available for just £4.50 including postage from:
 NCP Lit, PO Box 73, London SW11 2PQ.

or from our online bookshop

Saturday, March 07, 2015

An African Warrior Queen

By Caroline Colebrook

QUEEN Ana de Sousa Nzinga is famous as a 17th  century African warrior queen in the region now known as Angola who fought against the colonisation of her homeland by the Portuguese and the slave trade, making a stand where her father and brother had been unable to do so. She was renowned for her strategic military tactics and political and diplomatic intelligence.
Nzinga was born to King Kiluanji in 1583. According to tradition, she was named Nzinga because her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck (the Kimbundu verb kujinga means to twist or turn). It was said to be an indication that the person who had this characteristic would be proud and haughty, and a wise woman told her mother that Nzinga would become queen one day.
According to her recollections later in life, she was greatly favoured by her father, who allowed her to witness as he governed his kingdom, and who carried her with him to war. She also had a brother, Mbandi, and two sisters, Kifunji and Mukambu. She lived during a period when the Atlantic slave trade and the consolidation of power by the Portuguese in the region were growing rapidly.
In the 16th  century, the Portuguese position in the slave trade was threatened by England and France. As a result, the Portuguese shifted their slave-trading activities to the Congo and South West Africa
Mistaking the title of the ruler, ngola, for the name of the country, the Portuguese called the land of the Mbundu people "Angola" — the name by which it is still known today.
Nzinga resisted Portuguese colonial occupation of the region for over four decades but officially she ruled Ndongo only from 1624-1626 and 1657-1663.
Prior to Nzinga's birth, the Portuguese had settled along the southern part of the Congo River and began moving up the Kwanza River Valley in search of slaves and gold. According to historical reports, the Imbangala in the 17th  century mostly comprised bands of pillaging warriors native to this region, founders of the kingdom of Kasanje. They aided the Portuguese colonial campaigns as early as those of Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos in 1618.
The first European records concerning Nzinga was of her acting as an embassy on behalf of her brother, who was king at the time, at a 1622 peace conference with the Portuguese Luanda governor João Correia de Sousa. Luanda is an Atlantic coastal city, the largest city in Angola and the country's capital.
The immediate purpose of her embassy was her brother's attempt to get the Portuguese to withdraw the fortress of Ambaca that had been built on his land in 1618 by the Governor Mendes de Vasconcelos, to have some of his subjects in Kimbundu and sometimes called slaves in Portuguese who had been taken captive during Governor Mendes de Vasconcelos' campaigns (1617–21) returned and to persuade the governor to stop the marauding of the Imbangala.
Nzinga's efforts were successful. The governor, João Correia de Sousa, never gained the advantage at the meeting and agreed to her terms, which resulted in a treaty on equal terms.
One important point of disagreement was the question of whether Ndongo surrendered to Portugal and accepted vassalage status.
A famous story says that in her meeting with the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Sousa did not offer a chair to sit on during the negotiations, and, instead, had placed a floor mat for her to sit, which in Mbundu custom was appropriate only for subordinates.
Not willing to accept this degradation she ordered one of her servants to get down on the ground and sat on the servant's back during negotiations. By doing this, she asserted her status was equal to the governor, proving her worth as a brave and confident individual. The scene was imaginatively reconstructed by the Italian priest Cavazzi and printed as an engraving in his book of 1687.
Though a treaty was signed with the Portuguese at this peace conference, they never honoured it. They did not withdraw from Ambaca, nor did they release the slaves. And they soon hired the Imbangala to fight against the Ndongo Kingdom as they pushed to capture more slaves.
Nzinga's brother committed suicide following this diplomatic impasse, convinced that he would never have been able to recover what he had lost in the war.
The Mbundu tradition prohibited women rulers. After her brother’s death Nzinga's became regent to his son Kiza. She soon convinced the Portuguese to support her bid to the throne. In 1622, she was baptised and took the Christian name Ana, the surname of the Luanda governor de Sousa and the Portuguese title Dona. So Princess Nzinga became known as Dona Ana de Sousa in a political move to help secure her succession to the Ndongo Kingdom throne.
The Portuguese began negotiating directly with Nzinga. The arrival of Fernão de Sousa in 1624 started with discussions with her, but because she was not submissive to the Portuguese, they ended with her being ousted from Kidonga.
That same year she is reported to refer to herself as "Rainha de Andongo" (Queen of Andongo). After she was ousted by the Portuguese, Nzinga continued fighting against them while in exile. She fled east but reclaimed the title in 1627. She was again driven out by the Portuguese in 1629, the year her sister was captured by their military forces.
By 1641 Nzinga had entered among the earliest African-European alliance against a European nation when she entered into negotiations with the Dutch. In 1646 her army defeated the Portuguese at Davanga, but her other sister was captured.
By 1647 her alliance with the Dutch was fruitful in the seizure of Masangano from the Portuguese. In 1648 her army retreated to Matamba, a pre-colonial African Kingdom located in what is now the Baixa de Cassange region of Malanje Province of modern day Angola.
In a 1657 speech, Queen Nzinga reportedly said to her army that an alliance with the Imbangala was then a necessary evil in the military war against the Portuguese. But in the same year she signed a peace treaty with the Portuguese.
She had fought against their colonial and slave raiding attacks for decades.  Queen Nzinga died on 17th  December 1663 at the age of 80. Unfortunately her death accelerated Portuguese colonial occupation, as well as their Atlanta slave trade activities in South-West Africa.