Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Against the New Authoritarianism

By Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer in Sociology  

Recent research prompted me to write this blog in order to think through the broad social and political landscape of Britain today. Working on material for one of my undergraduate modules, Sex, Death, Desire, which focuses on the social and cultural value of psychoanalysis, and a current research project on psychoanalysis and globalisation, I read a Samaritans’ report, Men, Suicide, and Society. This report explains the rising rate of suicide amongst socially disadvantaged men and paints a bleak picture of contemporary British society. This reminded me of the recent visit to Keele by Swayne O’Pie, author of a book about the hatred of men in contemporary Britain, and also put me in mind of debates I had watched on the BBC2 current affairs programme Newsnight – in particular, I was reminded of a debate focussed on the state of welfare and public opinion about issues of poverty broadcast on 7th March, 2013. It occurred to me that these apparently unrelated events can be seen as symptomatic of a deeply worrying trend in British society and politics – a more or less unopposed swing to the right that recalls the popular authoritarianism of the Thatcher years.

Reading the Samaritans’ report immediately reminded me of O’Pie’s book – Why Britain Hates Men. This is essentially an anti-feminist polemic full of claims that women choose inequality, sexualisation, and abuse that simply ignore, and are indeed designed to defend, the embedded nature of gender inequality and violence in society. At this point, I think I must stress, there is nothing in this book that would lead one to explicitly defend the position of men in contemporary society, because it is an attack on women’s right to fight for equality. However, from a psychological point of view, and students of my current module on psychoanalysis would recognise this, O’Pie views are clearly the result of his perception that men have lost their place in society. While this may be true, because of the decline of industry and the rise of the post-industrial mode of production, it is not the fault of feminists who want to pursue the emancipation of women from patriarchal domination.

If men are indeed redundant in contemporary Britain, this is because of a mode of production which has left them behind, and a form of globalised trade which has outsourced industrial work to other parts of the world. The impact of these systemic effects on men is evident in the Samaritans’ report, which was also reported on Newsnight (broadcast, 5th March, 2013). Centrally, what the Samaritans’ work highlights is the problem of men committing suicide in a society wracked by high levels of social and economic precariousness. The key here is the emphasis on social and economic precariousness – this is the proper sociological / psychoanalytic response to this kind of condition because it focuses on systemic effects. Unfortunately, this is not the established line in contemporary Britain, where the populist position, often advanced by politicians courting public opinion, is to attack other groups. This position, which reflects the authoritarian, fascistic, response of social problems, is useful for elites because it excuses them from having to take on systemic problems. Essentially, it is much easier to blame others and turn them into ‘out groups’.

Unfortunately, this rightist, authoritarian, response to social problems is far too prevalent in Britain today. On the 7th March Newsnight debate, for example, we were told that the public has no time for the poor, and that welfare is a burden that Britain cannot afford, because the vulnerable are simply lazy. This position ignores basic sociological truths. One does not need to be a leftist to know that the idea of full employment is a fantasy in capitalist society and that there will never be enough work for everybody. As one of the founding fathers of sociology, Karl Marx, taught in the 1850s, capitalism relies on a reserve army of labour to keep those in work on their toes. Marx called this reserve army the lumpenproletariat. Today, we call them the underclass, the excluded, or chavs. The latter is, of course, the language of class hate, which Owen Jones discusses in his excellent Chavs. The Lancaster Sociologist Imogen Tyler, reflects upon the same condition of systemically produced hatred in her new book Revolting Subjects, and I have also spoken about this new authoritarian politics in my article Hoodie Horror. Essentially, what we find in these works is an explanation of the way a society systematically creates outsiders, who it then blames for their own exclusion in order to evade the difficult question of the need for socially and politically managed inclusion.

In the case of unemployment, the truth is that unemployment has nothing to do with laziness. The unemployed are not happy, and I do not believe that they are basking in the warm glow of excessive benefits paid for in hard earned taxes, but are instead an excluded group who suffer the kinds of psychological problems outlined in the Samaritans’ report. As anybody who has ever been unemployed will testify, unemployment destroys a person from the inside out. Unfortunately, this psychological destruction makes the unemployed an easy target for critics of welfare who want to drive down taxes and encourage a society based on violent, aggressive, individualism. How can the unemployed, the poor, the vulnerable speak when they first, have no political representation and second, have no sense of their own value because they have been psychologically undermined by conditions such as worklessness?

In this way, those men made redundant by capitalism, men who feel under fire, who Swayne O’Pie feels the need to defend against the virus of feminism, have a real problem. But this problem is that they are being attacked by rightist critics of welfare who condemn them as the underclass, lazy, feckless, and undeserving of support. The problem with O’Pie’s position, then, is that he is attacking the wrong target – the target is not fantastical, monstrous, feminists who are pulling the strings from behind the scenes to destroy men. The real target is the socio-economic system which has made some men redundant, but also transformed many women in sex objects, branded ethnic minorities freeloaders and scroungers, and made children into the frontline of consumerism. As Bernard Stiegler shows in his excellent, and disturbing book, Taking Care of Youth, advertising agencies think about children in terms of available brain time to be colonised and controlled. Here, the child is an object, an object to be exploited for the sake of profit. Of course, all of this violence is excused away by elites, who would rather not confront real social problems, because this would require large scale systemic change.

The truth is that contemporary capitalism is in favour of equal opportunities – it is indiscriminate in its violence. It does not care. All that matters is the bottom line. Of course, in times of economic stress and recession it is easy for people to turn to the politics of hate, because the politics of systemic exclusion mean that it is either you or me. We live in a society defined by precariousness and what we know most surely is that our socio-economic position is not secure. On the contrary, life is defined by insecurity. Under these conditions, it is easy to attack the other who is different from you, seek to elevate your own position, and make yourself feel secure by attacking them. If I can demonise and destroy the other it means I am more likely to survive. This is a Hobbesian world and one that I think we have to resist. As students of my module on psychoanalysis would again be able to explain, this is a politics of sadism, a politics of abuse, that we must seek to escape through a sociology that is sympathetic to others and does not see them as dangerous enemies. There is no future in a society of spite, violence, and destruction. As even Hobbes understood, even if I destroy you today, it is only a matter of time before a bigger fish comes along and wipes me out. This is the logic of precariousness and even the most hardened realists - Thomas Hobbes and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud – knew, it is suicidal for humans to try to live this way.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Teenage Kicks: conference on representations of youth cultures at Keele

Dr Mark Featherstone and Dr Andy Zieleniec are two of the co-organisers of this conference that will be held at Keele in July, more details are given below of the call for papers that is currently open:

Confirmed speakers include:
Professor Scott Wilson (author of Great Satan's Rage: American negativity and rap/metal in the age of supercapitalism)
Alex Wheatle (author of Brixton Rock, East of Acre Lane, and The Dirty South)

The legendary UK DJ John Peel has the words 'Teenage Dreams so hard to beat' carved on his gravestone, the opening line of The Undertones' classic punk song 'Teenage Kicks'. Peel's love of the music, style, attitude and outlook of youth subcultures encapsulates a general and ongoing fascination for writers, filmmakers and critics alike. From Teddy Boys to Hoodies, subcultural groups have formed the backdrop or basis for a series of imaginative works.

This interdisciplinary and international conference aims to bring together researchers, academics and practitioners working in the field of subcultural studies, and in particular in the representation of youth subcultures in fiction and film.

Much work has been done in sociology, criminology, cultural studies, cultural history and musicology to map and analyse subcultural identity and issues around youth, but comparatively little academic work has been done on the way in which youth subcultures have been represented in fiction and film. Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners set the trend for the subcultural novel in the 1950s, and by way of Nik Cohn’s I am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo, Richard Allen’s 1970s Skinhead novels, Jonathan Coe’s The Dwarves of Death and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia in the 80s and 90s, to Gautum Malkani’s Londonstani and novels by John King and Alex Wheatle in the 2000s, fiction has provided a rich source of articulation and engagement with subcultural positions and lifestyles. This is in addition to the DIY fiction and fanzines that have accompanied subcultures down the years. On screen, iconic works such as The Wild Ones, Performance, A Clockwork Orange, Blitzkrieg Bop, Quadrophenia,: The Punk Rock Movie, Trainspotting, The Filth and the Fury, 8 Mile, This is England and Ill Manors have mapped both the experience of subcultural belonging and the various moral panics they have caused.

The conference organizers welcome proposals for 20-minute papers, and panels, from academics and researchers working in the field. Part of the aim of the conference is to generate interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary debate and interaction, so proposals are welcomed from a range of disciplines including literary studies, film studies, cultural studies, media studies, sociology, criminology, cultural history, music and musicology.

Although many of the novels and films cited above have UK and USA settings, we welcome papers on the representation of subcultures from all parts of the world, and are indeed interested in the way in which subcultural identity circulates internationally. From Scandinavian Death Metal to K-Pop; from La Heine to Pussy Riot, the international range of youth subcultures has provided material for the expression of emotional, ethical and political sentiment in fiction, film and other media.

We also aim to include a strand of creative practice into the conference, so would welcome 20-minute presentations/performances/films or displays from literary writers (fiction, poetry and drama), film makers, photographers, visual artists, musicians and other creative practitioners.

Abstracts should be 250-300 words in length and emailed to n.bentley@keele.ac.uk by 31st March 2013.
We plan to produce a collection of essays based on papers given at the conference.

Click here to register for this conference.
Registration closes: Sunday 30 June 2013. Early bird rates are available until 30 April 2013
The conference organizers are Dr Nick Bentley, Dr Mark Featherstone, Dr Beth Johnson and Dr Andy Zieleniec. The conference is in association with the Keele University’s Humanities Research Institute, the Keele Cultural Research Group, and the Subcultures Network: The Interdisciplinary Network for the Study of Subcultures, Popular Music and Social Change.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Land and the People – Breaking the Links in Uganda

By Betty Okot, PhD student in Sociology  

Where I come from, land means more than real estate, a slice of earth, which can be farmed, inherited, built on, sold or bought. In most of Uganda, including Acholiland, land equates to history, heritage, identity, belonging, rights, and relationships and so on. It creates social security and contains worlds of social, cultural and religious beliefs systems. However, when these collide with the idea of creating a market in land, the people who live on and work the land suffer. In Uganda, land tenure relations are changing fast, but no one is asking how these wrenching, drastic changes will transform the lives of people who depend on land for their identity and social status as well as their livelihoods.

What is happening now is similar to what happened in England between the 14th and 18th centuries when enclosures, a massive land grab by the ruling class, drove small farmers off land they had tilled for centuries and turned them into low-waged labourers on what was once their land. And in that regard, suffice to say, they lost the heritage constructed around land, but their landlessness then meant they were disposed to supply the cheap labour needed at the nascent stages of the industrial revolution. Do modern Ugandans want or need to go through the same process?

My study examines the rapidly changing land tenure relations in Uganda. It also focuses on post-conflict Acholiland (Northern Uganda) where the introduction of new but chaotically-administered land policies that encourage land sales and massive commercialised farming, are leading to land grabs and disputes, which are creating a profound and ubiquitous social crisis. As Acholiland emerged from almost a quarter of a century of violent insurgency, the region has become wracked by land conflicts. In their 2010 report entitled ‘Land or Else’, Gareth McKibben and James Bean captured the essence of land conflicts in post-conflict Acholiland. From about 1996 to 2007 nearly 90% of the Acholi population were forced off their land and dumped in displacement camps where they were fed and watered but left to rot in idleness. This removal from the land into displacement camps followed brutal attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) or possibly by the Uganda army. Now they have returned, but a pall of grim memories of death and displacement hangs over the whole society. The people find themselves lost between vague memories of the way things were done – almost an entire generation of elders has died while they were in the camps – and new laws and government structures that they have no access to and do not understand.

Through interviews and other means of gathering information and ideas, I have reached the conclusion that for the Acholi region, this transition period is not just about land. It also embodies the Acholi struggle for the legitimacy of their own ways and the attempt to define or redefine, express and uphold their communal land rights. This is not mere sentimentality – a return to the past. It also correlates with their desire to rebuild and recover from the ravages of war and grow wealth again but all within a culture and social system that remains anchored in the land.

In my study of the significance of land in Acholi sociology, I am investigating how the long insurgency in Northern Uganda has transformed land relations among the Acholi and how customary notions of tenure have changed. Professor J. P. Ocitti’s (1973) work, ‘African Indigenous Education as Practiced by the Acholi of Uganda’ explains that traditionally the Acholi had four main types of tenure relating to the uses of land: farmland, settlement, grazing and hunting. Each was governed by traditional laws within customary tenure. To me, these are the key four tenets that framed Acholi social practices and their philosophy of identity. They also defined their sense of spirituality, belonging, family and community relationships and their wider social relations; livelihood security, generational continuity through entrustment in land and so on.

Theirs was a strong system supported by hierarchies of ownership and kinship links that originate from the head of a family right through to the Rwot (Chief) at the top of the hierarchy. His position as chief makes him the custodian of the people’s collective land rights. Acholi is a decentralised society of about 54 major clans and several sub-clans; each clan is headed by a Rwot (Chief). Collectively, the 54 clans make up the Acholi Chiefdom, now headed by Rwot Achana II, (Paramount Chief). Each major clan and its sub-clans, occupy a particular geographical place in Acholiland from which they derive identity, kinship, belonging and so on. Nevertheless, this social organisation is only important and real because it is inextricably linked to the land. Thus you hear of the Rwot of Patiko or son of Patiko, Rwot of Atiak or people of Atiak. Patiko and Atiak are places in Acholiland but they are also the clan names and clansmen’s identity. However, this structure was destabilised by the forced removal of the Acholi from their customary lands at the peak of the Kony rebellion and their encampment as internally displaced peoples (IDPs). Removed from the land, the new generations could not learn the traditional cultural knowledge, practices and skills, especially awareness of the land, how it was divided, used and cared for. Not only was that relationship between people and land distorted but the knowledge about it could no longer be accurately handed down. With this, the scene was already set for a chaotic return to the land at the end of the war. And meanwhile new state laws and practices on land tenure had been decreed that were not understood or even known about by the vast majority of Acholi people. All this created easy opportunities for land grabbers and illegal sales that threaten the land rights of tens of thousands of Acholi people. Unsurprisingly this phenomenon also created a new conflict that ostensibly set the Acholi against the state and proponents of a free market in land. In that light, my study argues that the impact of a sudden and chaotic replacing of customary tenure by free market ideas in Acholi will be landlessness and a new class of impoverished or even unskilled landless labourers. Such a change would also destroy the system of social security which was provided by collective land rights or ownership.

Nevertheless, this is not just about land laws and land rights. My study draws on wider sociological arguments for non-monetary values of land embodied in customary laws elsewhere. Moreover, what has happened to land ownership and use in Acholi transcends the boundaries of what I term in the study as ‘land activism’. It resonates wherever socio-economic and political transformations involve the fundamental relationship between land and the people. Similar issues have arisen in Latin America, Asia and the rest of Africa, and they are likely to become more frequent wherever the commoditisation of land has set the state, the people and business against each other.

Betty Okot is a PhD student, supervised by Dr Jane Parish and Professor Pnina Werbner