‘True Spies’

‘Honest, Guv – we ain’t no subversives’

Sadly, that’s the truth.

Last night [written 28 October 2002] on BBC2, True Spies, the first in a series on the extent of the infiltration by state agencies of organised labour and the Left from the late 1960s. We were told that the State realised in 1968 that its intelligence was inadequate as a result of the ferocity of the demos outside the American embassy against the Vietnam War. One response was to establish a special unit whose members went into deep cover for years on end, with new IDs – they were known as the ‘hairies’ because they would grow their hair long in order to ‘go native’. The programme consisted of contemporary news footage and interviews with activists, ex-infiltrators and an ex-Special Branch senior officer.

Tariq Ali – then leader of the International Marxist Group, a leading force in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – was told that someone who must have been a close friend had copied his keys to burgle the offices of the IMG. His comment was:
‘A form of fundamentalism – you are prepared to use all your energy to further your political aims .. This is amazing, I just felt betrayed.’
This struck me as a stunningly naïve remark, as at that time Ali was a proponent of Lenin’s theory of the revolutionary party, whose cadres would behave in precisely that way. A common term for an infiltrator is ‘mole’ – the name of the IMG’s paper was The Red Mole. I wonder how the name-change from earlier The Black Dwarf came about, I wonder if the infiltrator had a sense of humour.

We were told that Ford motor company had agreed to establish a new factory in Liverpool because of a deal with MI5 and the Special Branch to vet all applicants for employment in order to exclude militants. It was put to the ex- Brancher that this was ‘blacklisting’. He replied:
‘No other word for it. But done for what, to my way of thinking, was for the right reasons.’
‘Why did you blacklist Tom [a Liverpool worker, who was also being interviewed] ?’
‘He had a record of disruption. I’m sorry for him, but in any sort of war there are going to be casualties.’
Tom’s comment was :
‘You were blacklisted for fighting for your rights. Yes I was a member of the Communist Party, but your political views should have nothing to do with this [i.e. employability]’

George Matthews, then Chief Press Officer for the Communist Party of Great Britain commented on the discovery of bugging devices in the Covent Garden HQ of the CPGB:
‘If the State wants to fight us, let it fight us on the legal field, not by interfering with our legal democratic rights.’ This reminded of a discussion in the Guardian letters page some years ago on state surveillance of the CPGB. Its industrial organiser wrote that this was ‘unfair’. Matthew’s wife, Betty, whinged that the CPGB was actually not at all a revolutionary organisation, but a ginger group to the left of the Labour Party (which, in fact was true, but the state never quite grasped this)

This theme was continued by Jack Dromey, a leader of the support for the Grunwick strikers in 1976. He referred to the surveillance of the picket leaders as:
‘This anti-democratic activity .. The idea that you blacklist people because of their politics is crazy… Anyone would have thought I was an IRA member or a Soviet spy, rather than standing up for workers’ rights’

This was put to the ex-Brancher.
‘What right has the Special Branch to vet?’
‘In the real world this has to be so’

What astonished me about this was the naivety of these militants re the role of the bourgeois state. Their complaints only make sense if one holds a pluralist view of the state as in essence a neutral mediator between competing interests. From that position it makes sense to see the State consistently being on the side of the business-class as a perversion of its true role. But for the avowed politics of many of these people it makes no sense at all, it is precisely what is expected from a marxist view of the State. Indeed no-one took the opportunity to cite this history as evidence for that theory of the State.

None of this history was hugely surprising. What was surprising was the revelation that the SB’s Industrial Section had cultivated friendships with top trade unionists who informed on their mates. One of these was Joe Gormley, President of the National Union of Mineworkers during the strikes of ’72 and ’74. As to why he did this, the ex-Brancher replied:
‘Because he loved his country, he was a patriot’.

It was claimed that 22 or 23 top union leaders had also been snitching to the SB. When Arthur Scargill was asked if he was surprised his reply was that his only surprise was that the figure was not much higher.

What was remarkable was that when the SB passed onto MI5 the information about the likelihood of a miners’ strike in 1972 it was discounted and the Conservative Government was told that such a strike was unlikely. The explanation given for this was status rivalry between the two security services: MI5 being public school (i.e. where the parents pay) and the SB ‘grammar school or lower’(grammar schools being the then top rung of the state system). There was no discussion of another explanation, namely that elements in MI5 wanted a miners’ strike in order to provoke class confrontation sooner rather than later and prepare the ground for a military coup.

All in all, it was very depressing in terms of the competency of the State and the naivity and stupidity of those who were the leaders of industrial and protest militancy.

Currently there is the possibility of a firefighters’ strike. Much is being made about the likelihood of deaths as a result of this. Imagine the fuss if one of the strikers quoted the words of the ex-Brancher above that: ‘in any sort of war there are going to be casualties’.


A Cosy Look at English Cosiness

FOX English

FOX 2004

Kate Fox,

Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

Hodder, 2004

p1  A main object of this book is clearly political, though – in one of the many ways in which this text is not so about but is of its putative object – this purpose is then promptly forgotten and the political is never acknowledged. It is about the continuance of the English identity (said by some commentators to be extinct), which is found to be constituted in the persistence of behavioural codes. Continue reading “A Cosy Look at English Cosiness”


There may well be a term in rhetoric or in art criticism for what is going on in this cartoon, though I don’t know what it is: What is remarkable about is that the actual meaning of the cartoon (image+text) is the exact opposite of what is clearly its intended meaning. Yes, I’m aware that there are issue in the notions of actual meaning and of intentional meaning, but we’ll leave those.

It’s from Punch, 1921. This was a satirical magazine, something like Private Eye, though without its investigative journalism. Like the Eye it prided itself in taking nothing too seriously, in mocking each and all with equal force – see the episode with the Eye’s founders in the BBC4 series Reunion (available on the BBC website) for a clear statement of this. But, as with the Eye, this claim for Punch is utterly bogus. Despite their occasional mocking at the pretention and corruption of the elite, their political stance has always been with the bossclass. On this, in relation to the whole 1960s ‘satire boom’ see Stuart Ward, ‘ “No nation could be broker”: the satire boom and the demise of Britain’s world role’, in Stuart Ward (ed.), British Culture and the End of Empire, Manchester University Press, 2001.

The political context to this cartoon is the drastic reduction in wages forced upon the miners by the owners, to whom the mines were returned from state ownership during the Imperialist War; note the pit winding-gear in the background. The capitalist has doffed his top hat and tails and is squaring up to the miner; he makes a claim of the same kind that was made in the 19th C when legislation was introduced to limit working hours: that what is at stake is not a matter of choice over which there can be negotiation, bargaining and even physical coercion; no that there are ‘iron laws’ operative here which have the same impersonal implacability as those of the physical world. This is the ‘champion’ to which the capitalist refers.

But what we actually see, round the corner, is a hired thug, labelled ‘economic law’. In other words the situation is not at all that of the actors in class war fighting within the framework of objective laws; these ‘laws’ themselves are a mystified, reified expression of human action. So what the cartoon actually illustrates is a point which is completely the opposite of the one it appears to be making. It’s tempting to say that the latent meaning subverts the manifest meaning; but the trouble with this is that the meaning which does the subverting is up there, on the surface, in yer fuckingface. I find it hard to see how this point was missed by the editors of Punch; but unless we presume that they had a level of awareness of the critique of political economy which – given their milieu – is implausible, it obviously was missed.

It’s one of Clio’s best jokes that just that political voice which never tires of asserting that marxism believes in impersonal, iron laws of history (see, for eg Isaiah Berlin, ‘Historical Inevitability’) is itself in thrall to the notion that human action is constrained by ‘economic laws’. It’s worth noting that whilst those of Berlin’s kidney always have recourse to the explanation that the marxist theory of history is a crypto-religion; marxism has a very different kind of explanation for the illusion of the objective nature of ‘economic laws’.

This explanation uses the notion of ‘fetishisation’, ie the ascription to an object created by humans of powers that actually inhere in the object’s creators. The model for this explanation is, of course, the pivotal chapter of Capital Vol 1’The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret’. This is a notion which is routinely vulgarised into a kind of moralistic sociology on the lines of ‘people make too much of material things’. I believe this is the thrust of Slavo Zizek’s use of this term. Funnily enough, a prominent member of Oxford Philosophy in Pubs had scheduled a session on ‘Is Commodity Fetishism, not Capitalism the Enemy ?’. He wisely withdrew this, as he doubtless realised that even by his standards of arrogantly ignorant bombast he would not be able to present anything on it.

More Shit on Toast

Trying out Alfie’s Voice

… that’s not Lilly Allen’s little bro’ you understand. It’s Bill Naughton’s eponymous hero – handy word, that – of his book and movie. And, BTW if you know of anyone who needs to know what the world was like before the Womens’ Liberation Movement (OK, it’s been ‘feminism’ for so long that the first has gone done the Memory Hole … but don’t get me started on that one ! ) then give them a copy of that movie. But, though I’m not a one for the ‘Trigger Warnings’ that the young softies make so much of: It’s not at all a jolly ‘Swinging Sixties’ romp; 3/4 through is a gutwrenching abortion scene … and a good reminder of why Rees Mogg could do with his guts being wrenched …. right out, if you get my meaning.

Anyway ….

…. here’s a tip for you. If you’ve got a bit of the hump, do something a bit new. Not maybe completely new, as it might be hot-air balooning … now why did that pop up ? … oh yeah, but I’ll come to that later.

Well yesterday I fair had the hump, I did. To do with what’s coming up at a meeting this evening. More to the point, what I’m going to bring up … if I can be arsed. I swing from obsessing about it, to thinking: why give a fuck ? No-one else does. What’s it all for ?, kind of thing. I’m about as popular there as if I walked into the Cowley Road mosque chomping on a bacon sarnie and swigging a can of Kestrel. Which we’ll also return to.

But Cowley Road does come into this. What I did was I went to the ‘Oxford Arts Group’ from that Interweb thingy ‘Meetup’ that’s all the rage nowadays. Continue reading “More Shit on Toast”

Promoting Passivity 01

‘The Beer Went Mad’

Lynn Truss, in her ranty book, Talk to the Hand – which tries to do for everday personal interactions what her earlier book did for grammer an speling – quotes some remarks on their actions given by convicts to the cultural conservative and prison shrink Theodore Dalrymple:

‘The beer went mad’

‘The knife went in’

‘Something must have made me do it’

‘My trouble came on again’ (this uttered by a serial church burglar and arsonist).

He characterises remarks like this with the useful phrase ‘locutions of passivity’. Continue reading “Promoting Passivity 01”


The Term and the Figure ‘The Troll’


We’re all supposed to respect “community”, and – of course – respect itself. The negation of these warm and cosy things is often said to be ‘trolling’. Wikipedia is interesting on the origins of this; as is so often the case with etymologies, it’s not at all clear as to where it came from. There’s a fishing practice which involves dragging a lair along beneath the ship, and it’s documented that in 1972 US Navy pilots would go ‘trolling for MIGs’ ie try to decoy the fighter planes defending the Democratic Republic of Vietnam against the American invaders. Continue reading ““Trolls””


A Prescient Passage from Metamorphoses

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk Xll, Melville trans.


Remind you of anything … does it?


... Here Rumour dwells,

Her chosen home set on the highest peak,

Constructed with a thousand apertures

And countless entrances and never a door.

It’s open night and day and built throughout

Of echoing bronze; it all reverberates,

Repeating voices, doubling what it hears.

Inside, no peace, no silence anywhere,

And yet no clamour of voices, but muted murmerings

Like waves one hears of a remote sea, 

Or like a far-away thunder rumble,

When Jove has clashed the rain-clouds.

Crowds throng its halls, mobs of liteweights

That come and go, and rumours everywhere,

Thousands of them, false mixed with true, roaming to and fro,

And words flit by, phrases all confused.

Some pour their trash into idle ears,

Some just pass it on, and as each

Gossip adds something new so the story grows.

Here is Credulity, here reckless Error,

Groundless Delight, Whispers of unknown source,

Sudden Sedition, Overwhelming Fears.


All that goes on in heaven or sea or land

Rumour observes and scours the whole wide world.