Category Archives: UK Domestic Politics

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
24 July 2017

Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City, University of London, is Co-Editor of the book Aesthetic Labour: Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, published this year by Palgrave MacMillan.

I asked Professor Gill about the relationship between beauty politics, aesthetic labour and neoliberalism, the role of social media and the impact all this has on women.


Ian Sinclair: What has happened to beauty politics since the turn to neoliberalism in the Western world from the late 1970s onwards?

Rosalind Gill: Over the past two decades we have seen an extraordinary intensification of beauty pressures that are connected to a variety of changes – some of them social, cultural, economic and technological. In terms of technological change, for example, the ubiquity of camera phones with very high capacities for magnification has led to a new and unprecedented surveillance of women’s bodies. It is a truism to say that this is the age of the image, of the photograph – 24 billion selfies were taken in 2016 alone. No previous generation has ever been the subject or object of so much visual attention. This was bound to have an impact on beauty pressures. When you add to it the mainstreaming and normalisation of cosmetic procedures – both surgical interventions and nonsurgical beauty treatments such as Botox, liposuction, skin peels and fillers, promoted as  ‘everyday’ even ‘lunch hour’ interventions, you can see that even at the level of technological change there has been a growing impetus to focus on appearance. Yet on top of that there are key social and cultural changes, and the vast economic growth of the cosmetics industry too, blurring and hybridising into surgical and pharmaceutical industries. Now, more than ever before, it really makes sense to speak of a ‘beauty industrial complex’.

One of the ways that this is connected to neoliberalism is through the emphasis upon the body as a project – something to be worked on, and something which is thought about as our own individual capital. This idea has been around in social theory for some considerable time now, linked to theorisations of late modernity in which we are all held to be responsible for the design of our own bodies. Interestingly a lot of this writing has been quite general, even universalising, in tone – but I think what we are seeing much more now are attempts to ground this in specificities – for example in terms of gender or race or disability. While it is clear that there is a broad imperative around the symbolic value of the body, it +matters+ whether you are cis or trans, whether you have a normative body or are fat, and still – I think – whether you are male or female.

Allied to neoliberalism there have been a series of shifts that have come to be understood in terms of a ‘postfeminist’ sensibility circulating in contemporary culture. One of the key features of this sensibility is the emphasis on the body as the locus of womanhood and the core site of women’s value. This has displaced earlier – equally problematic – constructions of femininity – which placed emphasis on motherhood or on particular psychological capacities such as caring. Today, the requirement to work on and perfect the body has reached such an intensity for women that it has become – in Alison Winch’s words – ‘her asset, her product, her brand and her gateway to freedom and empowerment in a neoliberal market economy’ – even though it must also always be presented as freely chosen, not the result of any coercion or even influence. A beauty imperative has gained more and more traction, with the idea that sexual attractiveness is the measure of success for a woman – whatever else she is she must also strive for beauty and perfection. Depressingly you don’t have to look far to see instances of this in popular culture – even our female politicians are subject to this as we saw graphically in the notorious ‘LEGS-IT’ headline a few months ago, comparing and rating Theresa May’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs.

When I make this kind of argument the first responses is usually for someone to say ‘men are under pressure too’. And this is undeniably true. I’ve done a lot of work over my career on changing representations of male bodies – from the ‘sixpack’, to the trend for removing body hair, to the promotion of skincare products targeted at men. For me it is absolutely clear that the beauty industry is moving in on men, big time; they represent an enormous potential market – and it is especially clear this year as we see cosmetics companies begin aggressively to market make up to men. Cover Girl’s first male/gender fluid ‘ambassador’, James Charles, is simply the most visible example. It seems to me that there is a relentless market-driven pressure being brought to bear on men – especially young men. Having said that, the pressure and scrutiny that women are under is still far greater, has a different history, and greater significance and centrality in women’s lives.

IS: In the book you refer to ‘aesthetic labour’ and ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’. Citing some examples, can you explain what you mean by these terms?

RG: The term ‘aesthetic labour’ had been around for some time, especially used by sociologists of work. It has been part of a toolkit of terms designed to unpick the different forms of labouring involved in various occupations – emotional labour, affective labour, venture labour, and so on. A body of work by scholars including Irene Grugulis and Chris Warhurst has been interested in how soft skills are increasingly called upon, including the need for workers to ‘look good and sound right’ in workplaces such as coffee shops. More recently Elizabeth Wissinger has also developed the notion of ‘glamour labour’ to talk about the work of models and fashion industry insiders. A particularly valuable feature of this is the way it shows that this labour isn’t just about the physical body but also involves attention to qualities like ‘cool quotient’ – which involves relationships, social media use and style or reputation.

With our intervention we wanted to build on these really interesting bodies of work to argue that these practices of what we see as aesthetic entrepreneurship are not bounded by the workplace, but rather are much more widespread in contemporary societies that are dominated by new forms of visibility, appearance and looking. The requirement to curate an appealing self is not only a work requirement; it is a growing social and cultural imperative. Secondly we also wanted to highlight the psychosocial dimensions of this, with an emphasis on the fact that in today’s makeover culture it is not just the body that is reinvented but the whole self, the making of a beautiful subjectivity.  And finally by using the term ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’ we wanted to draw links to neoliberalism more broadly – that is to this idea of selves as enterprising, calculating, reflexive, and so on. One of the things this does – for us – is to break the impasse in feminist beauty studies – an impasse in which some talk of women as autonomous and creative agents, and others talk of passive and docile subjects. Our intervention – and shown through the chapters in the book – is to argue that women are both subjected +and+ creative. A chapter in the book by Simidele Dosekun illustrates this beautifully. The affluent, fashionable Nigerian women she interviews are shown to be operating in a beauty regime in which particular features are highly valued and others disparaged – in this sense their aesthetic labour is culturally compelled. Yet far from being ‘passive dopes’ Simi shows that these fashionistas are knowing and sophisticated consumers, investing in notions of vigilance and rest – e.g. giving their skin time to breathe, their nails ‘time out’ from gel add-ons, and so on – practising aesthetic entrepreneurship to mitigate risks.

IS: How have the changes you have set out been influenced by the increasing popularity of social media?

RG: Social media are so ubiquitous now that they are hard to disentangle from other influences. One of the things that interests me greatly, though, is the impact of social media on our ways of seeing. A lot of writers have tried to engage with this in some way – Terri Senft has talked about ‘the grab’ of social media, whilst Malcolm Gladwell famously talks of ‘the blink’ as our current modality of engagement. Personally I am really interested in current attempts to think about surveillance beyond the metaphor of the Panopticon. Of course there is loads to be said about big data and surveillance which is hugely important. But my focus has been on something slightly different: the idea that our ways of seeing are literally transforming. I notice with my students that they pore over and really scrutinise images on their phones – whether this is of celebrities, their friends or themselves. It involves the kind of forensic form of looking in which magnification is to the fore. This is producing all kinds of new visual literacies, particularly of the face, and they are literacies in which I am not competent. As someone who believes thoroughly in the idea that we are socially and culturally shaped, I can recognise that my own visual habits and competencies have been formed in another era: when I look at an image on social media I simply do not ‘see’ what my students (often 30 years younger) see. I am constantly astonished by the detailed and forensic quality of their ways of seeing, as well as the way they are often framed through a ‘pedagogy of defect’ (to use Susan Bordo’s famous phrase) in which minute flaws and imperfections are itemised. Compared with this I feel my own ways of seeing are almost akin to a blur or at best a casual glance – and mostly more benign.

These new visual literacies have been engendered and taught not simply through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat but also through the vast proliferation of beauty apps that I have been writing about with Ana Elias.  Some of these are filters: ‘swipe to erase blemishes, whiten teeth, brighten dark circles and even reshape your facial structure’ (Face Tune) or ‘to look 5, 10 or 15 lbs. skinnier’ (SkinneePix). As we have argued, many of these filters encode deeply troubling ideas about race as well as gender – with skin ‘lightening’ a common feature, and recourse to problematic ideas from evolutionary psychology. Aesthetic ‘benchmarking’ apps are another huge category allowing users to get a score on ‘how hot am I?’ or ‘how old do I look?’ or get rated by the ‘ugly meter’. These apps call on users to upload a selfie – after which they will be given a ‘score’. Claiming to tell you things your friends wouldn’t, the apps trade on a certain algorithmic authority and may also highlight which features need to be changed, with ‘helpful’ hints about treatments or surgeries that would elicit a higher score. As such they shade into another type of app we discuss – namely the cosmetic surgery try-out apps that allow you to ‘visualize a new you’ with whiter teeth, or larger breasts or a remodelled nose. As Ana and I argue in an article that has just come out in European Journal of Cultural Studies, these kinds of apps (and others we discuss) not only generate new visual literacies but also bring the cosmetic surgeon’s gaze out of the clinic and into our most intimate moments, via the smartphone. We argue that they are part of the shifting of meaning-making about surgery and other interventions – made more seductive through the gamified features of these apps.

IS: How have women been impacted by the ‘intensity of beauty norms’ pushed by what you call the ‘beauty-industrial complex’ and wider culture?

RG: It’s quite hard to answer this question. It seems strange doesn’t it – yet there really is a paucity of research around these issues – at least outside of psychology. Psychology and the ‘effects tradition’ has the upper hand in this field with lots of studies correlating social media use or posting of selfies etc. with poor body image, mental health issues, greater propensity to undergo cosmetic surgery and so on. This is all valid of course, but tends to be focussed in a narrow effects tradition with all the problems that are well documented. The lack of sociological studies makes it feel as if we lack a sense of the way feelings and practices and everyday reasoning around appearance are actually part of the texture of everyday life. On the other hand when we do have more ethnographic studies they often seem invested in a particular perspective – for example the claim that young people are robust, resilient, critical users of media and there isn’t really a problem. I don’t find either perspective particularly illuminating.

I have to admit that the main insights I get come from my own students’ discussions of these issues in my courses on media. Some are scathing and critical and may claim their engagement with beauty culture is always mediated by ‘having a laugh’. Others tell of painful struggle with weight or skin conditions, or experiences of untagging themselves from multiple photos in which they don’t think they look good, or of trying to score higher on some attractiveness-rating app. I think it’s fair to say that none of us exist outside of the rapidly intensifying and extensifying beauty industrial complex. I say extensifying as well as intensifying because what is striking is how beauty pressures are also spreading out – across new domains (facial symmetry measurements, thigh gap) and new parts of life – childhood, old age, pregnancy etc.

IS: I was interested to see you discuss Dove’s ‘Love Your Body’-style Campaign for Real Beauty, which was launched in 2004. Though it has been widely celebrated, you have some criticisms of it?

RG: Love Your Body (LYB) advertising has really taken off over the last decade or so with brands like Dove, Always, Weightwatchers and Special K queueing up to spread the self-love and body confidence message to women. I feel deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand these exhortations to self belief, body love and confidence are genuinely a welcome interruption to a stream of commercial communications that have focussed on body hate and pointing out what was wrong with us and how we could do better. Yet against this it is hard not to feel cynical when it is the exact same companies that sold us HYB (Hate Your Body) that are now preaching a quasi-feminist empowerment. Special K telling us to “shut down fat talk”?! Come on! Even the Daily Mail called it ironic. And clicking through on that very ‘positive’ campaign takes you straight to the company’s BMI calculator…

Some other relatively obvious criticisms of LYB are about its fakeness – it uses the exact techniques  it claims to repudiate: hiring ‘non-model models’, using photoshop, etc; it’s pseudo diversity – try comparing a Dove advert with an image from Fat Activism and see how ‘diverse’ it really looks; and its ‘re-citing’ of hate talk – when Special K told us to shut down fat talk it obviously had to spend most of the advert reminding us just what those hostile messages were (obvs!). But more than all this I’m very critical of LYB – and what Shani Orgad and I have called ‘confidence cult’ discourses more generally – for some more profound reasons. First because they blame women for their own lack of confidence, and exculpate patriarchal capitalism by implying that low self-esteem or body insecurity are things that women do to themselves (try watching Dove’s ‘Patches’ if you don’t believe me). And secondly because I believe that this new culture of confidence actually represents a new form of regulation: one that seeks to regulate not simply the physical body but also the self and one’s feelings and relation to oneself and others. Body love and self-confidence have become compulsory dispositions. It is not enough to work on and discipline one’s body, but one also has to have the correct, upgraded, body-positive subjectivity. Insecurity and vulnerability have become toxic states – something that links to the wider culture of what I call the ‘femspiration’ industry. Be afraid. Be very afraid. This is about the affective life of neoliberalism: how it not only shapes our economic and political formations, and our subjectivities, but also colonises our feelings.

Climate change: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Green voters

Climate change: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Green voters
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 July 2017

There is a tendency in the UK to look contemptuously upon the US political system. And nowhere are the deficiencies of the ‘shining city on a hill’ more glaring than its side-lining of climate change – “the missing issue” of the 2016 US presidential campaign, reported the Guardian. According to the US writer Bryan Farrell, the topic was discussed for just 82 seconds during the 2016 televised presidential debates, which was actually an improvement on the 2012 debates, when it wasn’t mentioned at all.

Tragically, this omission was mirrored in the UK’s recent General Election. “The issue of #climatechange was completely marginalised during the #GE2017 media coverage”, Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture tweeted about their election analysis. This absence, the media watchdog Media Lens noted, is “the great insanity of our time”. Why? Because climate change is arguably the most serious threat the world faces today. In January 2017 writer Andrew Simms surveyed over a dozen leading climate scientists and analysts and found none of them thought global temperatures would stay below 2°C – the figure world leaders agree we cannot exceed if we wish to stop dangerous climate change. Last year, top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson told the Morning Star the pledges made by nations at the 2015 Paris climate summit would likely lead to a 3-4°C rise in global temperatures. Frighteningly he also told the author George Marshall that it’s hard to find any scientist who considers four degrees “as anything other than catastrophic for both human society and ecosystems.”

Surveying the environmental policies of the main parties just before 8 June, Friends of the Earth scored the Green Party top with 46 points, followed by Labour on 34, the Liberal Democrats on 32 and the Conservatives trailing last with a poor 11.

The environment and climate change did not play a significant role in the Labour Party’s hugely successful election campaign. And though Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself rarely mentioned the topic on the campaign trail, the manifesto was a pleasant surprise to many. “I’ve been really encouraged by Corbyn’s commitment to safeguarding our environment”, Nancy Strang, the Women’s Officer in Brent Central Labour, tells me. “The 2017 manifesto pledges to increase renewable energy production and investment, to tackle our air quality with a Clean Air Act, to protect Britain’s wildlife, and to ban fracking are all huge steps in the right direction… these pledges go beyond those in any previous Labour Party manifesto that I remember.”

The Green Party’s Dr Rupert Read agrees. “Corbyn’s Labour have some good environmental policies”, he tells me. “For example, their new-found opposition to fracking is much to be welcomed.”

However, he highlights a “fundamental problem” with Labour’s manifesto. “It is their unreconstructed insistence on ‘faster economic growth’”, Read, Chair of Green House thinktank, argues. “Faster economic growth means faster environmental destruction. It’s that simple. Net ‘green growth’ across the economy is a fantasy, nothing more; and in any case, that isn’t even what Labour’s manifesto promises. It speaks of an industrial strategy for growth across all sectors of the economy (i.e. ‘grey’/’brown’ as well as ‘green’).” He goes on to note “Labour is committed to a whole raft of de facto anti-environmental policies”, including a road-building programme, High Speed 2, the expansion of Heathrow, and Trident renewal.

“Whilst I may have been tempted to join the Green Party had Labour party members chosen a different leader, I genuinely believe that under Corbyn Labour will make meaningful steps towards tackling climate change in ways another leadership team may not have”, Strang notes. “Ultimately, I have to be pragmatic and make a decision based on which party is most likely to gain power and have a realistic chance of being able to implement their environmental policies.”

Strang’s reasoning has resonated widely, with many Green Party supporters switching their allegiance to Corbyn’s Labour Party – according to the polling organisation YouGov Labour managed to attract 59 percent of 2015 Green voters at the General Election.

Speaking to the Morning Star last month, the former Green council candidate turned Labour supporter Adam Van Coevorden concurred with Strang’s analysis. “Labour’s success is needed if we’re going to implement policies to protect the environment because at the moment big business has the whip hand, and as long as it does, nothing is going to change”, he noted. This echoes Canadian environmentalist Naomi Klein’s argument in her seminal 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate – that stopping the worst effects of global warming will involve massively degrading corporate power and “challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism”.

“Corporate power has undoubtedly been a big part of the erosion of our environment”, Read agrees. “Yet despite this we should not forget that some of the biggest ecological catastrophes that our planet has witnessed have come at the hands of big government initiatives – I am thinking particularly of the Soviet Union and China’s huge mining, deforestation and infrastructure projects, or even Venezuela’s state-run oil companies.” The crucial point for Read is “to challenge the logic of infinitely expanding production.”

Whether Corbyn’s Labour Party will begin to critically engage with the ideology of economic growth is an open question. Read is doubtful. “Environmental sustainability will never get a proper hearing from the Labour Party because it is at fundamental odds with Labour’s underlying philosophy”, he argues. “The Labour Party is built upon the principle of increasing production and sharing the proceeds (relatively) equitably among the wider society.”

However, one hopeful opportunity may be the Labour leadership’s attempts to increase democracy within the structures of the party – one way new and old environmentally aware-Labour supporters could decisively influence Labour Party policy. At the same time it is clear external political pressure from the Green Party – “they have led where others were not so bold”, says Van Coevorden – also has an essential role to play in pushing Corbyn’s Labour in the right direction on green issues. It should also be noted that Corbyn personally opposes some of the environmentally damaging policies the broader Labour Party currently supports, such as Heathrow expansion and Trident renewal. So, arguably, increased backing for the Labour leader and side-lining his neoliberal opponents within the party will likely improve Labour’s environmental policies.

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2017

The morning after a draft of the Labour Party manifesto had been leaked, Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s general election co-ordinator, was interviewed on the BBC Today Programme in the high profile 08:10 slot.

Ten minutes earlier, the 08:00 news bulletin had reported that the manifesto promises to “nationalise the railways as franchises expire and to abolish tuition fees in England… to return Royal Mail to public ownership, to bring in an energy price cap and introduce a levy on companies with large numbers of staff on what it calls ‘very high pay’.”

“It looks like a great big wish list… that no government could possibly push through in five years or even fifty years”, stated presenter John Humphrys, interviewing Gwynne. “It is just unrealistic, isn’t it? It’s also far too to the left, far too much to the left for the British public to stomach, don’t you think?”

Some listeners may have swallowed the subtle assumptions behind Humphrys’ question but luckily a poll released the next day inserted some reality into the debate. Far from being “far too much to the left for the British public”, the Independent’s report on the research was titled ‘British voters overwhelmingly back Labour’s manifesto policies, poll finds’.

According to the ComRes survey 52 per cent of people support the state ownership of the railways (22 per cent opposed), 49 per cent support the state ownership of the energy market (24 percent opposed) and 50 per cent of people support the renationalisation of Royal Mail (25 per cent opposed). In addition, 71 per cent said they back Labour’s proposal to ban zero-hours contracts, while 65 percent supported Labour’s plan to increase income tax for those who earn £80,000 or more.

These findings are not a one off – a November 2013 YouGov poll found 67 per cent of people thought the Royal Mail should be run as a public service, 68 per cent supported nationalising the energy companies and 66 per cent wanted to nationalise the railways.

Humphrys’ attempt to dismiss Labour’s policies fits with the broader media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn. Analysing press coverage during the two months after he was elected Labour leader, a 2016 London School of Economics study observed “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” Corbyn, “assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Other left-wing leaders have received negative press attention, though “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.” Another study conducted by the Media Reform Coalition “indicated how large sections of the press appeared to set out systematically to undermine Jeremy Corbyn with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage.”

The supposedly neutral and objective BBC, the most trusted news source in the UK, has played a key role in this political denigration and exclusion, with Sir Michael Lyons, the chair of the BBC Trust from 2007 to 2011, arguing in May last year there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party”. Lyons continued: “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.”

One such senior voice could well be BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, who was found to have erroneously edited a November 2015 interview with Corbyn to make it look like he didn’t support a shoot-to-kill policy during an ongoing Paris-style terrorist attack. The interview breached the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy guidelines, the BBC Trust found.

More recently, the Today Programme’s Nick Robinson dismissively tweeted “No-one should be surprised that @jeremycorbyn is running v the ‘Establishment’ & is long on passion & short on details. Story of his life.”

Rather than being aberrations, this bias against Corbyn arguably reflects the BBC’s wider politics. “Its structure and culture have been profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Dr Tom Mills argues in his 2016 book ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’. Unsurprisingly then, the BBC’s news output “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

Analysing the number and type of guests invited onto the programme, research conducted by Cardiff University’s Dr Mike Berry into the BBC Today Programme’s coverage of the financial crisis, confirms Mills’s thesis. “It was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions”, Berry told me.

With the Labour Party’s running on a transformational manifesto and Corbyn promising “a reckoning” with the unscrupulous sections of the British elite if he is elected Prime Minister, is it any wonder the establishment-friendly BBC is unable or unwilling to give the Labour leader a fair hearing?

 

 

How does UK foreign policy raise the terror threat in the UK?

How does UK foreign policy raise the terror threat in the UK?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 June 2017

We are in the middle of a high stakes propaganda war.

With the Conservative poll lead shrinking by the day, the establishment have been throwing everything it has got at Jeremy Corbyn to put a stop to his increasingly credible bid for Downing Street.

Perhaps sensing the floodgates of the Tory attack machine would be opened after the atrocity in Manchester carried out by Salman Abedi on 22 May 2017, the Labour leader did the smart thing and took control of the narrative himself. “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home”, Corbyn explained when electioneering started up again on 26 May 2017.

Though much of the press didn’t take kindly to this argument, a YouGov poll found 53 percent of people agreed with Corbyn that the wars the UK has supported or fought are partly responsible for terror attacks in the UK (24 percent of people disagreed). However, despite – or perhaps because of – the broad public support for this position, Theresa May and her cabinet have continued to smear Corbyn on the topic by wilfully misrepresenting his argument.

With this in mind, it is worth summarising the three main ways UK foreign policy has increased the terror threat to the UK — a task made even more important in light of the terrorist attack in London on Saturday.

The first is the most simple and direct relationship – UK wars in the Middle East have created a well of anger that has energised and motivated a number of people to carry out terrorist attacks on British soil. “Until we feel security, you will be our targets,” Mohammad Sidique Khan stated in his 7/7 suicide bombing martyrdom video. “Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.” According to a report in the Independent, the last message left on the WhatsApp messaging service by Khalid Masood, the perpetrator of the 22 March 2017 Westminster attack, “declared that he was waging jihad in revenge against Western military action in Muslim countries in the Middle East.” Similarly, Abedi’s sister told the Wall Street Journal “He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge”.

These justifications concur with the testimony of the former head of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, who told the Iraq Inquiry in 2010 that the 2003 invasion of Iraq “substantially” increased the terrorist threat to the UK.

Interestingly, those who try to downplay or deny a link between terrorist attacks and UK foreign policy, such as Jonathan Freedland in his recent Guardian piece titled It’s A Delusion To Think This Is All About Our Foreign Policy, focus their attention on this connection alone, thus creating straw man to knock down. The link, as Freedland surely knows, is deeper than this.

The second way UK foreign policy increases the terror threat to the UK was set out by Corbyn in the Channel 4/Sky Battle for Number 10 programme: “We have to have a foreign policy… that doesn’t leave large areas without any effective government… which can become a breeding ground of enormous danger to all of us.” In a video for Novara Media, Dr David Wearing from SOAS, University of London fleshes out this thesis. Islamic State (ISIS) “grew out of and flourished in the chaos created by the 2003 invasion of Iraq”, he argues, before also explaining the UK-backed Saudi bombing in Yemen has created a “chaotic situation” in which Al-Qaeda and ISIS have grown in strength. “ISIS and Al Qaeda they love the chaos created by conflict”, he notes. “That’s where they thrive, that’s where they operate, that’s where they exploit people’s grievances.” Ditto Libya, where the 2011 NATO intervention contributed to “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [ISIS]”, according to a 2016 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report. And it is not just overt military intervention. In Syria the West has covertly armed rebels and played a little known role in blocking peace negotiations, thus helping to intensify and prolong the conflict, creating the perfect conditions for extremist groups to prosper.

The third connection is largely ignored by Westminster and mainstream commentators: the longstanding diplomatic, military and economic support the UK has given to its close ally Saudi Arabia.

The authoritarian Gulf monarchy – propped up by the UK and US – has “exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years”, according to the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking in 2013.

Starting in the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia made huge efforts to spread its extremist form of Islam, Wahhabism, across the world. “They took the massive petro dollars they had accumulated and started spreading it, creating these madrassas, or schools, aswell as mosques, importing Imans and teachers and then sending them back home indoctrinated”, Medea Benjamin, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, told me last year.

The UK has not been immune to this influence. “It is no secret that Saudi Arabia in particular provides funding to hundreds of mosques in the UK, espousing a very hardline Wahhabist interpretation of Islam”, Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, recently wrote to the UK Prime Minister. “It is often in these institutions that British extremism takes root.”

While Corbyn is repeatedly grilled about his relationship with the IRA and Hamas, the fact the Tory Government has been selling billions of pounds of armaments to the biggest exporter of “extreme ideology” on the planet has been swept under the carpet by our so-called fearless fourth estate. A more perfect example of the propaganda function of the media you’ll be hard pressed to find.

Finally, recent reports point to one more example of how UK foreign policy likely heightens the terror threat. “MI5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, facilitated the travel of many Islamist Mancunians back to Libya” to fight the Libyan government, according to the Financial Times. The Middle East Eye news website provides more detail, noting British authorities “operated an ‘open door’ policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi even though some had been subject to counter-terrorism control orders.” The Financial Times notes that security officials have repeatedly highlighted the dangerous dynamics of the Syrian war – which are also applicable to Libya: “a cohort of young Britons who will be brutalised by the conflict, skilled in the trade and tools of war, connected to transnational networks of fellow fighters by powerful bonds of kinship and shared suffering.”

Of course, UK foreign policy is not the sole cause of the terror threat from radical Islamists. However, UK foreign policy is the one aspect of the problem that we have the most influence on – both as UK-based activists and the British government itself. And while it may not eradicate the threat completely, a foreign policy that does not repeatedly military intervene in the Middle East and prop up dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia would likely significantly reduce the terror threat to the UK. With the UK’s stretched security services reportedly currently investigating 3,000 people in the aftermath of the Manchester attack surely this can only be a good thing?

Interview with Karen Ingala Smith about the Femicide Census

Interview with Karen Ingala Smith about the Femicide Census
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 March 2017

In early January 2012 Karen Ingala Smith, Chief Executive of the London-based domestic violence charity NIA, noticed an upsurge in the number of news stories about women killed by men. She started to make a list of the names, and then read a police statement that referred to the killing of one woman as “an isolated incident”.

This, she tells me when I visit her in her east London office, made her cross – and also motivated her to continue counting: “So many women in so few days. How can this be not seen as part of a trend? How can this be seen as ‘an isolated incident’?”

Gaining support from the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and another generous donor, Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women blog became the basis for the ‘Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men’. Published by Women’s Aid and NIA at the end of last year, the landmark report shows how, far from being “isolated incidents”, 936 women and girls over 14 years of age were killed by men in England and Wales between 2009 and 2015. Most women who were killed were found to be killed by a man known to them, with 64 percent killed by men identified as current of former partners.

Though she has years of professional experience of Intimate Partner Violence, 49-year old Ingala Smith says several findings surprised her, such as the number of older women killed in burglaries and robberies. “I would also say the number of women being killed by sons was also something I hadn’t expected to see”, she notes. “And the ages that women continue to be killed by intimate partners. That, again, is sad to see. You think of the years and years of abuse that a woman has lived with before she is finally killed in her 70s or 80s by a man who she has been with for years.”

Most shockingly, Ingala Smith explains how the report highlights what is called “overkill”, which she describes as “when men submit women to a level of violence that killed them several times over. So not only has he killed her once, he continues to injure her with an injury that would have been fatal had she not already been killed.”

Does recording these horrendous crimes take an emotional toll? “Yes, in a word”, she replies. “I’ve sort of developed a pattern now where at the end of every month I review the month and total women for that month, and update my blog on a monthly basis. And when I used to do that at first I literally did have a cry after every time I did it, sit in a darkened room and want to be on my own for a little while. Now I just get on with it.” However, she is concerned she doesn’t always get as upset as she used to. “I don’t ever want to be unshockable”, she says.

Though the media often represents violence against women and girls as perpetrated by a stranger down a dark alley or a predatory taxi driver, Ingala Smith says the most dangerous place for a woman is her own home.

Surely we are talking about an epidemic of violence against women, I ask, thinking about the 2013 Crime Survey of England and Wales’s estimate that 28 percent of women have experienced domestic abuse? “We are talking about a massive scale problem”, she confirms, though she prefers not to use the word ‘epidemic’ because that “implies a medicalisation” of the issue. She argues this violence “affects all women even if we are not directly affected. I think all women are controlled by male violence and all men benefit from male violence even if they themselves never perpetrate it.”

There is, it seems, a deep-seated problem with the dominant type of masculinity men are expected to embody today. Ingala Smith agrees: “It’s about the social construction of masculinity and the social construction of femininity. So it’s about gender rather than about biology.”

“I think you have to look at the relationship between women and men and everything that creates the inequality between women and men”, she continues. “So entitlement, patriarchal laws, sexism, the objectification of women – all these create a context where women are seen as less than, and men expect control and dominance. I think that reproduces itself in some intimate relationships.”

Turning to solutions, Ingala Smith says reforming the criminal justice system and policing is important, though she believes they won’t solve the problem on their own. “If we look at the things that make men men and make women women, if we tackle those, so gender inequality, objectification of women, sexism etc. – that is where the big work has to go.” The Femicide Census itself argues for “statutory sex and relationship education covering healthy relationships, domestic abuse, consent and challenging sex role stereotypes as part of the national curriculum” because “better education about healthy relationships will help to prevent domestic abuse, and ensure that victims and perpetrators know where to go for help.”

She notes the Tory’s austerity agenda has led to more women being endangered, with local authorities passing on the cuts imposed on them to the services they fund, such as refuges for vulnerable women. For example, women’s services in the UK suffered a huge blow in 2015 when Eaves, a specialist service for women victims of violence, was forced to close. Frustratingly, the specialist services that survive are often at the mercy of grant funding based on contracts and competitive tendering, which means the services can end up being run by the lowest bidder and organisations which are not led by feminist women.

Is she hopeful about the recent feminist resurgence associated with women such as Laura Bates and Kat Banyard? “I really hope that women continue to find feminism”, she says. “I hope they don’t find liberal man-pleasing feminism. It does give me hope but not hope enough. I’ve found that as often as feminism reinvents itself there comes a backlash against that feminism.”

“I want to be hopeful but I’m not really”, she laughs ruefully, though later apologises for her negativity in an email.

Talking about her own feminist politics, Ingala Smith says her brand of feminism “tends towards” radical feminism. “I think inequality is structural, I think patriarchy exists”, she explains. “The things that identify radical feminism is that you talk about patriarchy and the male dominated society, you see that men’s violence against women is part of creating that patriarchy and maintaining it.” Another common tenant of radical feminism is the importance of women-only organising and women-only spaces. Ingala Smith doesn’t think men can be feminists, though believes men can make a difference and can be part of the solution. “I am saying that when we have feminist spaces they can butt out and make the rest of society a more feminist space.”

What concrete actions does she think men who support women should take? “Shut up and listen to women”, she laughs. “Fundraise for your local refuge.”

“I believe in decent men”, she says, “but I think men are a big problem as well. Masculinity is a big problem.” Again she is keen to highlight that she doesn’t think biology is destiny. ”There is a question, isn’t there? Why are men more violent than women? Men do most of the killing. Mostly they are killing other men more than women but you don’t see the reverse of that. Why is that?”, she asks. “It’s either nature or nurture or a combination of both. For the good of all of us as a species I’m hoping that it’s more nurture the nature.”

The ‘Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men’ report can be downloaded from https://www.womensaid.org.uk/what-we-do/campaigning-and-influencing/femicide-census/. See also http://www.niaendingviolence.org.uk/.

 

Book review: ‘The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power’ by Alex Nunns

Book review: ‘The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power’ by Alex Nunns
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
February-March 2017

Though there have now been a number of books published about Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the Labour Party in 2015, including Richard Seymour’s impressive Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (PN 2596-2597), The Candidate is arguably the definitive account of those exciting days.

As the Political Correspondent of Red Pepper magazine, Alex Nunns is perfectly placed to chart Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign, writing a detailed, journalistic and engrossing account. He ends with a short afterword about the 2016 coup attempt and second leadership election – in which, amazingly, Corbyn increased his vote share to 62 percent.

All this feels a long way from Labour’s defeat in the May 2015 General Election. With the Labour left believing itself to be in an extremely weak position – journalist Owen Jones didn’t think the left should run a candidate because they would likely be “crushed” – Corbyn’s candidacy was initially given 200-1 odds by Ladbrokes. However, Nunns explains three large political forces came together to create the mass movement Corbyn rode to victory – the shift to the left of Labour Party members, the trade unions rejection of New Labour and grassroots campaigners like the anti-war movement and Occupy.

The section on the media’s hostility to Corbyn’s rise is particularly impressive. With the press going into “full blown panic mode”, Nunns’s focus on the Guardian’s opposition to Corbyn will be a wake-up call to those who see the newspaper as a friend of radical change. Nunns also includes lots of fascinating tidbits, from revealing the big unions didn’t want Corbyn’s closest ally John McDonnell to be Shadow Chancellor to how Labour HQ staff wore black on the day of Corbyn’s election to mourn the party they had lost.

Highlighting the important role of social media and describing how the campaign organised itself to create one of the most successful social movements the left has ever seen, the book is a hugely important resource for progressive activists. Frustratingly there is no index, though the extensive footnotes provide plenty of sources for those wishing to delve deeper.

With Corbyn’s leadership currently in something of a lull, with low poll ratings and a general election fast approaching, the crucial question is: what now? How can the left revitialise the establishment-beating movement of 2015-16? The answer will shape British politics in the years ahead because far from being the end of a campaign, in reality Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was just the beginning of a much longer struggle to overturn the dominance of neoliberalism and the UK’s aggressive foreign policy.

 

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
3 February 2017

Dr Mike Berry, a Lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, co-wrote Bad News From Israel (2004) and More Bad News From Israel (2011) with Professor Greg Philo.

In recent years Dr Berry has turned his attention to the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis. I asked him about his findings and why they are important for British democracy.

Ian Sinclair: In the last few years you have published two journal articles studying the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis – one analysing BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s output on the banking crisis in September and October 2008 and the other looking at the coverage by BBC News at Ten of the debate around the need to reduce the public deficit in the first seven months of 2009. What were the main findings of these two studies?

Mike Berry: Before answering that question directly I’d like to backtrack a little and provide some context to these events and explain why they are intimately linked. After 1979 the Conservatives introduced policies which fundamentally changed the nature and composition of the British economy. The withdrawal of the state from intervention in industry, the lifting of exchange controls and the deregulation of finance strengthened the power of capital at the expense of labour. The effects of what the Oxford historian Andrew Glyn described as, ‘Capitalism Unleashed’, was a shift towards an economy dominated by the service sector, a dramatic polarization in regional economic activity and sharp rise in income and wealth inequality. However this rise in inequality had a deflationary impact on the economy which was only compensated for by a steep rise in household debt. When New Labour came to power they largely accepted the Thatcherite settlement – the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector would continue to be the principal private motor of the economy whilst manufacturing was allowed to continue its long decline. However Labour did introduce record increases in social spending in areas such as health and education which in large part were paid for by tax receipts drawn from the City and the property boom. This meant that public spending increasingly took on the role of an ‘undisclosed regional policy’ by boosting state and para-state employment in areas outside the South-East where private sector job creation was ‘weak or failing’. However this unbalanced growth model, based on asset price inflation and ever expanding household debt financed by an outsized, reckless financial services sector was unsustainable and exploded spectacularly in 2008.

This is the point at which my research picked up the story and I was interested primarily in how the crisis was explained, how the bank rescue plans were discussed and the range of debate on how the finance sector could be reformed. Would the key role of the banks in creating such an unbalanced economic model be unpacked and would there be any voices featured who called for more democratic control of finance and restrictions on the free market? When I looked at the coverage on the Today programme it was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions. This meant that that on the question of what to do with the banks there was strong support for the government bailouts and the idea that the banks should be re-privatised as soon as possible. It also meant that arguments in favour of long term public stake in banking which could be used to support long term productive investment – rather than real estate speculation – never appeared in coverage. In a similar vein, major reforms such as heavier regulation of the shadow banking sector, the introduction of a financial transaction tax, the regulation or even banning of certain derivative classes, a clampdown on tax havens or restrictions on the revolving door between politicians, regulators and major banks, were also invisible. It was remarkable that in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, which was precipitated by extraordinarily irresponsible behaviour by the banks, the Today programme featured a variety of City sources warning about the dangers of too much regulation.

The banking crisis led to a major recession which shrunk the tax base and sharply increased the public deficit (the gap between the tax take and public spending). It also precipitated a major debate about how to respond to the increase in public debt. At the heart of these debates were three interlinked questions: How serious a problems was the deficit? How quickly should it be eliminated?, and how should it be reduced? Some leading economists were sceptical that the deficit represented an economy emergency and believed that deficit reduction needed to wait until the recovery was well established. There were also many voices calling for the burden of deficit reduction to be primarily borne by those who had most benefitted from the sharp increases in asset wealth seen over the previous thirty years. However these voices didn’t appear in coverage. Instead the dominant perspectives in BBC News at Ten reporting were that the deficit was highly dangerous and needed to be dealt with quickly by sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive forms of taxation. These perspectives were mostly expressed by politicians, think tanks and City sources but on occasion they were directly endorsed by leading journalists. So for instance on 10 June 2009 a reporter commented that ‘What will be cut, by how much and when? As the Government’s coffers grow ever more empty, those are questions that can no longer be avoided.’

IS: Is this coverage a step change in the BBC’s coverage of finance and economics news, or is it a continuation of previous output?

MB: In many ways this is a continuation of previous output. There is a long history of research stretching back to the mid 1970s which has found that BBC economic news tends to reproduce free market perspectives on the economy whilst marginalising left wing views.

For instance research on BBC reporting of Britain’s industrial malaise in the 1970s tended to blame  industrial action by trade unions whilst sidelining the culpability of management and very low levels of investment in plant and capital, which meant that the average Japanese car production worker was using equipment worth ten times that of  their British counterpart. In the 1980s, research noted that BBC reporting of the Conservatives’ privatisation of state assets was heavily influenced by the governments’ PR campaigns with the consequence that most coverage focused on the potential profits to shareholders while excluding those who argued that 80% of the population would no longer have a stake in the newly private industries.

However, there are two key trends since the 1980s that have narrowed the range of opinion even further. The first was the decision by the Labour Party to abandon contestation of economic policy following a series of election defeats in the 1980s. By the time New Labour was elected in 1997 the party had wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism and the primacy of finance sector in the economy. Since the BBC tends to reproduce the spectrum of opinion at Westminster it meant that the major voice which had traditionally argued for an interventionist state and controls on the free market disappeared from coverage. The second factor was changes in the sociology of journalism. The 1980s saw the disappearance of the industrial news beat which had provided a platform for the views of the trade unions and a space where left-wing collectivist opinion could be articulated. At the same time financial and City news became a much more prominent feature of BBC reporting which provided much greater space for City experts and their apparently neutral opinions on the latest financial and economic news stories.

IS: How does the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis compare to that of other British news organisations?

MB: The BBC, due to its statutory duty to maintain impartiality, doesn’t employ the kind of aggressive editorialising that you see in parts of the national press. Nevertheless the range of opinion is similar.

So during the banking crisis both the Today programme and most national newspapers overwhelmingly viewed the part-nationalisation as the only option and featured commentators who argued against full nationalisation and public ownership of banks. In a similar vein both Today and the national press – with the notable exception of the Guardian – featured little information about serious structural reforms to the finance sector. If anything Today coverage, due to its exceptionally heavy reliance on City sources, tended to feature less criticism of the finance sector and more arguments against further regulation than any national newspaper.

In a similar vein, when I looked at the coverage of the debates around the public deficit what was remarkable was the degree of similarity in broadcast and press coverage with the key differences being in tone and tenor. So both the press and the BBC tended to treat the deficit as an economic crisis which threatened serious consequences such as currency depreciation, interest rate rises, bond strikes and even national bankruptcy whilst sidelining voices who questioned these claims. Similarly both the BBC and the right-wing press overwhelming presented sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive taxation as the only possible solutions to the ‘crisis’. The argument made by some on the left that some of the burden should be borne by the most wealthy just doesn’t appear in BBC coverage and even in the left of centre press it is largely absent except for the Guardian.

IS: The BBC prides itself on the principle of impartiality, and is even seen as left-wing by many commentators. Why, then, were the parameters of the coverage of the financial crisis on two of the BBC’s flagship programmes so narrow and City-friendly, and so dominated by elite, often City-based sources?

MB: If you ask journalists this question they will tell you that in comparison to academic economists City sources are invariably ‘available’ and ‘up to date’ on the latest events. Journalists also argue that you can rely on such sources to give clear concise arguments within the constraints of a brief news item and that they are the sources with the expertise needed to understand the intricacies and complexities of the financial crisis. All those are valid explanations but I think these sourcing patterns also reflect the fact that journalists internalise strong assumptions about who is qualified to speak on the economy or finance sector and this usually means a front bench politician, specific think tanks or a City source. These voices are then routinely over accessed and serve to sharply delineate the boundaries of what is said about how the economy can be managed. But of course there are always alternative sources who could be accessed to broaden the parameters of debate.

IS: Why are your findings about the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis important?

MB: Broadcast news remains a key information source for most citizens and so what appears has significant implications for the construction of public belief and attitudes. In my research in addition to analysing the content of media broadcasts I also run focus groups with members of the public in order to examine how news accounts impact on what people think and believe. What was clear from the focus groups was that most people were quite confused about key aspects of the financial crisis – for instance what a derivative was or the difference between the public debt and deficit. However what they had picked up tended to be very heavily influenced by what they had seen in the press or broadcasting. So most people knew about the ‘fat cats’ and the bonuses but nobody I spoke to had heard of the financial transactions tax or knew about the ‘revolving door’. When I asked people about how the public deficit could be reduced they overwhelmingly pointed to solutions they had picked up from press and television accounts such as reductions in quangos, public sector pension provision, benefit payments or immigrants. Nobody mentioned clamping down on tax avoidance or introducing progressive wealth or income taxes. However when I brought these up as potential solutions in focus groups they were received very well, reflecting the findings of large scale surveys in this area.

The press and television thus plays a key role in framing how we understand the economy and the range of possibilities as to how it can be managed. If the great bulk of the press argue that the public deficit represents a national emergency which can only be solved by cuts to a ‘bloated’ and ‘inefficient’ public sector – and crucially if such views are reinforced (in rather more temperate language) in public broadcasting then it is hardly surprising that such views become widely accepted amongst the public.

IS: What changes do you think the BBC should make to provide a wider selection of voices and a broader debate when it comes to financial and economic news?

MB: I think that the first thing that needs to happen is for the BBC to recognise that its economic reporting should be more balanced. On the day that the bank bailouts were finalised (13 October 2008) the discussion during one news segment was conducted between Sir George Cox, described by a BBC journalist as ‘someone with a liberal, free-market economic background, Institute of Directors and from perhaps the more right end of British politics’, and Patrick Minford who was introduced as ‘one of Mrs Thatcher’s chief economist supporters’. Such a narrow range of reporting was not uncommon and appears to reflect a belief within BBC economic reporting that, as Mrs Thatcher famously put it, ‘there is no alternative’ to the free market.

However, when even economists at the IMF, the organisation mostly closely associated with the promotion of neoliberalism, are now publishing papers explicitly linking the decline in labour bargaining power with debt increases, financialisation and economic crises then surely it is time for BBC reporting to widen the spectrum of opinion it features in its new programmes.

There are many alternative sources that the BBC could turn to to provide an alternative to free market perspectives. Individual sources such as Ha Joon Chang, Geoff Tily, Simon Wren-Lewis, James Meadway, Ann Pettifor, Mariana Mazzucato, Mark Blyth or Graham Turner could offer fresh perspectives. Institutionally the BBC could source from thinktanks like the New Economics Foundation, the Tax Justice Network, PRIME or from academics connected to the Manchester Business School or SPERI. Occasionally such sources do appear, but to provide true balance they need to be featured routinely as a counterpoint to the views of City economists who tend to dominate reporting.