Sunday, 4 August 2013

A political awakening

Number 3: A political awakening
 Richard Walsh explains how a debate over the August 2011 
riots led to his political awakening. 

One of the iconic images from the August 2011 riots.

It was August 2011 and across the major towns and cities of the United Kingdom youths were running amok. Violent battles with police, arson, looting, disorder and mayhem were a nightly occurrence. I didn't know it then but it would be a time that was to have a profound effect on the way I looked at the world and would awaken within me a political side to my personality that I didn't know existed. I was 25 years old and working as a gas mains engineer with my dad, as I had since leaving school at 16. Born and bred on a council estate in north Liverpool, the son of an Irish immigrant, I was always proud of my hometown and working class roots. One thing us scousers have is a strong sense of identity and community spirit. We look after our own here, like in many old industrial northern cities. There's nothing like being shat on from a great height by your own government to foster camaraderie and togetherness.

Anyway, I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the way the world worked. Not that I’d ever taken an active interest in politics, but I read the paper most days and watched the news when I got home from work so I felt myself qualified to discuss world affairs with work colleagues and friends down the pub. Sometimes if I was feeling particularly adventurous, I'd even stay up to watch BBC Question Time, so I firmly believed I had a knowledge of current affairs to at least match most people. When coverage of the riots reached me I felt an overwhelming sense of anger. Who did these scumbags think they were, going out causing mayhem and vandalising other peoples property like that? The police seemed far too soft on them, unorganised and undermanned, it looked like a shambles to me. Get the bloody water cannon out on the little wankers, I thought to myself. Why are we not bringing this flagrant lawlessness under control?

Enraged, I took to social media to vent my frustrations. While flicking through my Facebook news feed, I stumbled across a friend of mine with a very different attitude to my own. He was making the point that the big shops use sweat shop labour, mark their products up 3000%, employ people on poverty wages (that need to be topped up by the taxpayer) and then break their necks to avoid paying anything like their fair share of tax on their profits so good luck to the looters! I couldn't believe his attitude. What about the innocent people caught up in the melee? The cost to the taxpayer? These hooligans were causing chaos for kicks, not because they were championing some justifiable political uprising. In Egypt they riot for freedom, here its for Adidas trainers and flat screen TVs. So we became embroiled in ideological debate over the next few days, both obstinately standing our ground. I knew I was right but I was also aware that there were gaping holes in my knowledge which needed filling in with some research. I wasn't even sure what left wing and right wing meant in a political context, I mean I’d heard of right wing fanatics like the BNP who fantasised about rounding foreigners up like cattle and putting them on the first boat home after giving them a good kicking but I couldn't explain what left wing meant. We hadn't covered anything remotely political at school bar George Orwell's animal farm and that was to examine the literary techniques used, not the political connotations (although I do remember the teacher nudging us towards the notion that communism was bad, and can never work as people are inherently greedy). Any other political understandings I had learnt came from the media, either televised or the press. With hindsight, I now realise that I was very intellectually lazy during that period of my adolescence. Most of my spare time was spent out partying, drinking, mucking around or trying to get my leg over. It's true what they say, youth is wasted on the young and wisdom on the old!

Anyway, determined to improve my arguments against my friend (and pull his to bits), I decided to read the Communist Manifesto. I didn't really understand what communism was so it seemed like a good place to start. Anytime I'd heard communism mentioned in the media it had been in a derogatory manner, either in conjunction with human rights abuses, paired with the message that people in communist countries live in abject poverty while the ruling elite live in luxury or referring to some politician as a “crazy old commie”. I didn't know exactly what communism was but I knew it was bad and that was enough for me.

So I set to work reading the Communist Manifesto expecting to find a few fundamental flaws to expand upon and criticise but I ended up finding much more than that. Lots of the themes hadn't occurred to me before and although it was written over 150 years ago I found it strikingly relevant to the modern world I saw around me. People slaving away all their lives just to subsist while a chosen few inherited capital and power and lived lives of luxury on the back of others' misery and hard work. Children starving to death while food is simultaneously wasted or stockpiled, class divisions, the value of labour. This book got me asking a lot of questions that it had never occurred to me to ask before. Questions about myself, my own life, my job, the world I was a part of. Why had I never asked these questions before of my own accord? I’d always thought of myself as reasonably intelligent, I passed an entrance exam to a top secondary school where I was always in top sets, found schoolwork easy (although I only studied up to GCSE level), so why had I never thought about any of the issues Marx raised, rather than just accepting things at face value and carrying on with my life? It was a sobering thought, and really quite a frightening one. I think the main reasons were distraction and disinformation. After spending all week working long hours to pay the bills, in my spare time I wanted to do thing I enjoyed, relax, watch football, go out with friends and let a bit of steam off. I never had the time nor the inclination to question the status quo or seek out different political viewpoints and alternatives. Thus I only ever received a very narrow, one sided point of view from the mainstream media which I had gradually assimilated into my own thoughts through continual exposure. I hadn't searched out many alternative political viewpoints because I had no reason to distrust the ones I was already following. I suppose I had a subconscious trust in the integrity of the media and the uttering of politicians and so called “experts”. You just assume that they are in their job because they are intelligent and have the relevant education and experience to know better than the average person, such as myself. I wasn't naive enough to believe that all public figures could be trusted but there were systems and procedures in place to remove people whose moral integrity was questionable, so surely most must act to promote the common good?

After the Communist Manifesto put a crack in my rose tinted glasses I began to search out other alternative political literature and media to clarify my own opinions and broaden my political horizon of understanding. The ragged trousered philanthropists, George Orwell, Ernesto Guevara, Noam Chomsky and Seamus Milne were all valuable steps on my journey of enlightenment and before long the rose tinted glasses were off and I was seeing a much bigger picture than the one I'd seen before.
When you understand that governments actively try to keep unemployment high enough to suppress wages and inflation you have a different perspective on benefit claimants and welfare austerity. When you understand the shocking absence of social mobility in this country and the continuous efforts to kick the ladder away further, you can see how generations of teenagers become alienated from a society that ostracises them and offers them no future. You realise that from infancy our eyes and ears are bombarded by corporate advertising campaigns, inseminating our minds with the insatiable urge to purchase and consume to the point where we measure our social standing by the possessions we have, the clothes we wear, the money in our pockets, the car we drive, the house we live in. These things all too often take precedence over our achievements, our personalities, our morals and our humanity. Little wonder then, when you create a forgotten generation, detached from society with no prospects, surrounded by nice things they're indoctrinated to worship but can't afford, that they will steal them or turn to other acts of criminality to make themselves money, when society has long since washed its hands of them. Of course there are myriad contributory factors to the problems of society and outpourings of violence such as the 2011 riots, but to properly treat an illness you must target the root cause rather than just try and alleviate the symptoms with doses of police brutality and hasty imprisonment. This was what I came to realise after taking the time to educate myself.

Another Angry Voice has also been a fountain of great information for me, the incisive direct journalism on current affairs was like a breath of fresh air and the “what is ... ?” tutorials really helped me to fast forward my knowledge of economics, which is a must if your going to back up your political arguments. Right wing fanatics love nothing better than arguing with someone on a simply moral agenda because they can dismiss them as hopeless idealists, as a soft lefty, who believes in an unworkable cloud cuckoo land utopia. When you can back up your arguments with cold hard facts and economics they can't negate them, not if they're honest anyway. It gets really frustrating now for me personally, watching the mainstream media consistently repeating and giving credibility to information which is either misleading or simply not true, especially when I think of how I was taken in. If people were more aware of the real facts, I’m sure there would be greater resistance and hostility towards government policy, as most people value fairness and don’t like to see others suffering unnecessarily. The beauty of the truth is that it is true whether you choose to believe it or not. You cannot banish it no matter how many lies you shout from the rooftops, it is always there waiting to be found. It’s the moral responsibility of everyone who understands the crimes being committed against good decent people in this country and around the world to stand up and resist it, whether it is by protesting, organising or spreading the word to others. The more people who are helped to see through all the bullshit and lies, the greater the potential for positive change. Hopefully with Neo-Labour now seemingly intent on distancing themselves from the last tie they had with ordinary people, the trade unions, the left can stop flogging the Labour party dead horse which quite frankly is beginning to stink out the joint, and consolidate to form a new party.

I believe the next few years will be a pivotal time in British politics and its time for a swing back towards the left. The ever increasingly top heavy distribution of wealth in this country is bad for the economy, and relying on endless credit to paper over the cracks is unsustainable, as we keep finding out. It’s up to each and every one of us to get off our backsides and make the effort to do something positive, lead by example and build a better future for ourselves, our children and everyone else. As Margaret Mead once said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has".

 About the author

Richard Walsh is a frustrated political observer and social activist from Liverpool.

Another Angry Voice is a not-for-profit website which generates absolutely no revenue from advertising and accepts no money from corporate or political interests. The only source of revenue for Another Angry Voice is the  PayPal  donations box (which can be found in the right hand column, fairly near the top of the page). If you could afford to make a donation to help keep this site going, it would be massively appreciated.

The Great Neoliberal Lie
What is ... Wage Repression?
What is ... Conformation Bias?
What is ... Neoliberalism?

The Tory "War on Justice"
The "unpatriotic left" fallacy
   Tory economic illiteracy
Libeling the evidence: The Iain Duncan Smith fallacy 

A letter to Tory reactionaries


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