Paul Mason Interview Pt 2: Downturns and Uprisings
This is the transcript of a conversation I had in June with Newsnight’s Economics Editor, Paul Mason. Some discussion of reportage and Mason’s family background is absent, forming the basis of a profile in the December issue of British Journalism Review, otherwise it’s pretty much verbatim. We discussed his two books, Live Working or Die Fighting, 2007, about the history of the labour movement and its lessons for an emerging global workforce; and Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed, 2009, on the origins and likely consequences of the international banking crisis.
He walks across the courtyard of the British Library and, as is often the case, the figure you meet in the real world doesn’t quite square with the one on TV. Something about talking heads on the box tends to caricature, and with his tense smile, quizzical eyebrows and strong Lancashire accent the figure prompted in my imagination had been that of Wigan’s beloved inventor, Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit fame). Close up, however, he’s altogether more concentrated; there’s a quiddity that’s anything but cartoonish. He accepts the bottle of water I hand him and redirects me further into the shade. Concerned it’ll get too warm, he says he knows what it feels like to roast. (A significant part of Mason’s job in the last few years has seen him travelling in China, Kenya, the United States, Argentina, Bolivia, Eastern Europe and India.) Thus repositioned, he takes off the jacket of his sharp blue suit and lays his mobile on the table. He looks to see if the tape recorder is running and satisfied my archaic technology is up to the job, waits for me to start firing.
KW: Could you say something about the way personality influences your work as a journalist?
PM: [laughs] Well what do you mean by personality? I think above all, if I’m in, say, Western China then the television viewer sees me react to a series of situations, and what they want to know is who I am when I’m reacting. If I meet a bunch of poor people on a train going to be migrant workers, then I respond in a way that is conditioned by lots of things: having grown up in a working class town, having witnessed the defeat of the British labour movement, having been a journalist in very diverse places where people are in the same situation as them. So, yes, I think for television, personality is an anchor point for the viewer to understand from. And if you’re honest, journalists have to work hard to get rid of all the crap that prevents you from being you in the situation where you are, because a lot of television encourages you not to be yourself.
KW: I thought you were going to say the problem for journalists is to differentiate themselves from one another because they’re all so alike. But perhaps that’s easier for you because you’re not quite in the same mould.
PM: No, I’m not.
KW: In the Introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans talks about James Agee and what it was about him that made it possible for the two men to walk into the homes of Alabama sharecroppers, to sleep in their beds, to let them interrogate, interview and photograph them. What he says is: “He won over everybody… even though some of the individuals were hard-bitten, sore and shrewd. Probably it was his diffidence that took him into them.” When I asked about personality, I suppose I was thinking about diffidence – or charm, of which it can be a brand. [PM chuckles] What you’ve said is you have to be you, to react as yourself, but isn’t there something more about going out to people, putting them at their ease? To what degree do you have to construct an image that people can relate to and trust?
PM: On television the common instruction – and I think it’s the right one – is be yourself, only 5 percent more. The people who look ‘natural’ on television are effectively doing that. They are either unconsciously or consciously doing that. But that’s about presentation. To me, the most important thing is getting the story, whatever that story is. The story can put me in a Kenyan slum or it can put me on Wall Street with a bunch of guys with red braces. And I have a conscious determination to make people the centre of the story. Not everybody in TV does that. Certainly in my writing, above all, I think people are at the centre of the narrative. I’m prepared to listen for hours on end to people’s stories. That’s what unites my writing work with my TV work. What you see on TV is just the tip of the iceberg of what I’ve done. Also I’m constantly triangulating with people. If I’m talking to Person A, who’s a migrant from Szechuan, I’m also thinking what does this woman who’s an office worker on the train who has to sit next to them, what’s she thinking? The key to all good journalism, I think, is just letting people speak to you, but also having a framework for where they’re coming from.
KW: You don’t feel there’s anything more strategic in what you do? And does it vary with the Wall Street wallah and the guys in China you talk about in Live Working or Die Fighting, who’ve lost limbs in industrial accidents?
PM: Yes it does. I just think the best way to do it is to show an element of understanding. Even if you think what they’re doing is quite horrible. When in Kenya I met a lot of people who were effectively involved in a small-scale ethnic war. And although many of the issues they were fighting around were just – what you saw was a bit like The Wire, in the sense that there were local politicians who’d probably got a decent case that the election was stolen from them, and then down from them, were people mobilising on the streets, the youth, in a perfectly legitimate and yet violent way, to protest the election. But when you met the politicians in their locality you realised a) they had a very fragile grip on those people, and b) some round the table were involved primarily in ethnic hatred of others. But the thing to do is to sit there and listen. I’m not saying you don’t go in there with a framework. One of the things I’ve realised is I do go into a lot of places with frameworks about understanding social spaces. I always look for what’s the informal social space. Who’s the real leader? What is the real network? It might be a mosque. But there might be something else going on. It might be a village and the village leader says he’s the leader. But then who’s this ‘ere and why’s everybody deferring to them? Who’s this other person? These are just skills. I don’t claim any patent on them; these are the skills you learn from doing journalism.
KW: In an article you wrote for Red Pepper, you discuss Dispatches [Michael Herr’s 1977 book on the Vietnam War], saying it showed you “the kind of journalist you wanted to be…the unflinching truthfulness of the gaze.” Do you think the image presented by some news journalists gets in the way of the story, lessens the possibility of that unflinching gaze? There are all sorts of examples, John Simpson in Iraq comes to mind, when you wonder if the journalist can really look around, because they themselves are so much the centre of attention.
PM: I think every journalist should just do what works for them. If John Simpson is such a big guy, big in terms of his reputation, that where he goes… well you can’t have the Heisenberg principle: wherever he goes will affect where he is. In a way, I kind of want to see his reaction. My thing is to make a contribution by doing a certain type of journalism, and I don’t think it’s about not being me and not being the centre of attention either. Why Dispatches still inspires me, and there are one or two other books like it, is that it’s really…
KW: …beautifully written?
PM: It’s beautifully written and, I was gonna’ say, it’s reportage. Some of the stuff in LWODF is reportage, some of the stuff I do on Newsnight is reportage, some of the stuff I do on Newsnight day to day is not reportage, it’s news reporting. If you read Orwell’s Diaries on the trip to Wigan Pier, and then you read The Road to Wigan Pier, you realise that he’s put two things together. He sees a woman here, poking a stick up a drain, and he’s on a train at another point. But in the final thing he’s on a train and he looks out of a window and he sees a woman poking a stick up a drain: that is reportage. Whether or not the audience is going to accept it anymore [because they’ve become so used to the internet’s raw footage]… it’s interesting. I don’t know. But I do think it has a value because it’s…
KW: …it’s getting to the truth of the thing. It puts you in there, too. And isn’t it also to do with the time and place you’re working in? If you think about the involvement of writers in the Prague Spring or the Velvet Revolution, or those from other countries who’ve been involved in intensely political moments, then lines between fiction and non-fiction blur. There are great truths, and important truths, in all kinds of work.
PM: Yes. I just think you’ve got to understand what genre you’re doing it in as you do it.
KW: You come across as a fairly twitchy, seat-of your-pants guy.
PM.: I am.
KW: I wonder if the speed and movement of the job, the peripatetic nature of journalism…
PM: …no it’s me, it’s me!
KW: Well where does that comes from? From your Dad, the lorry driver? Did that love of the road come from him? Did you go out with him as a kid?
PM: No, not at all. It’s weird. My Dad’s lorry driving days were spent within a fifty mile radius, mainly a ten mile radius.
KW: But even that can seem quite romantic when you’re young.
PM: No. Not at all. I’d say my personality, complex as it is, as all personalities are, I think the best word to use is driven: fair enough, I’m driven.
KW: So what was it like in Leigh [the Lancashire town he hails from]? What kind of cultural background did you have? What books were there in the house when you were growing up?
PM: Stuff my Mum was studying at college, lots of novels, everything from commercial trash to the usual staples. And once I was at grammar school, we’ve got the whole thing: 1984, Animal Farm, The Grapes of Wrath. And me and me Dad both loved Tchaikovsky.
KW: Did you go to the Halle?
PM: Yeah, we went to the Halle, went to the opera in Manchester. So it’s that kind of background. But there’s a great feeling of autodidacticism in this sense: we know we are limited in what we can find out.
KW: I wanted to ask you about that. I wonder what it was that propelled you – whether that sense of intellectual impoverishment, frustration at not being able to get out into the world of ideas…
PM: …well that’s always the feeling that anybody in a small Lancashire town has. You don’t feel impoverished at all.
KW: I mean in terms of ideas.
PM: That’s true. But remember there’s also a great radicalism in those small Lancashire towns; a great radicalism and a great conservatism. And they live side by side. Marxism is not strong there like it is, say, in South Wales; Methodism is a great influencer, and therefore labourism. What else? I’d say most of my peers as kids in grammar school, and the others who weren’t in grammar school, probably a lot of ideas that opened us up to the world came from music. Things like David Bowie or Bob Dylan lyrics which are poetic…
KW: I want to discuss this question of injustice more. In Catch 22 Yossarian keeps getting trapped in the insane bureaucracy of the war machine. And people say to him: it’s not personal. But he insists it is personal: it’s happening to me. I wonder, how personal is it for you?
PM: From my grandmother, on my father’s side, that comes again and again: the sense of bitterness going back generations. My granddad was a miner, my grandma, a cotton-weaving woman. Even though they would never tell you anything about the social history of the stuff they’d been in. Eventually you did get out of them that they saw all the German prisoners being brought to Leigh in World War One – because it was a big event: Leigh had a German prison camp. And what’s interesting about this social history is how little they hated the Germans. How they feared, but respected them. We know that because somebody’s done some research. But it’s absolutely there in the folk memory of that side of my family: that they’d had to live through poverty, that it was unjust, that nobody ever helped you.
KW: There’s a moment in LWODF where you write about your realisation that power has become as important as class. It’s no longer just a question of bosses and workers, now it’s about power and monopolised power. And with the ascendancy of monopolised power, class consciousness has eroded. What do you think can be done when people no longer feel they have a shared history or the sense of solidarity that comes with class consciousness?
PM: Okay. What I’d say is that for twenty years as a vaguely politically active person, and as a trade unionist, and in all ways, I tended to look at everything from the point of class. And I still think that class as an analytical tool is fundamental. You can understand nine-tenths of your experience through it when you’re looking at society in the West.
KW: But it’s verboten.
PM: And that’s why I’ve written the book because I think it still is the case. And I don’t mean class culture and consciousness – I just mean by function class is a great underpinning. But the thing I came to realise in the Nineties, through reading people like Foucault – there’s a great quote by Foucault in an interview with Felix Guattari, he says: it took us a hundred years to understand class, but we still haven’t understood power. Then he sets out to try and understand it. I think he goes too far down the route of psychology. But when I’m going into a situation now, whether as a writer of a book, or as a journalist, it’s important to understand power as well as class. By class I mean, who are the factory owners? What’s their relationship with the workforce? Then you can look at the workforce. There are power structures within the workforce. And once you get into the global South or away from places like this – away from the classic experience of the Western workforce – and you get into Kenya or Bolivia, there power is more important as an analytical tool than pure poverty and class. But even in the West it’s changing: when you go into, say, the workforce of UCH [University College Hospital], where I’ve just been to someone’s leaving do, that same power structure is stronger now because all the domestics are Madeiran, and lots of the junior nurses are Nigerian, and this is not the world I grew up in. So power, and its layers, are more important than ever.
KW: But one of the things Foucault talks about is the dispersal of power: power is everywhere. And the problem with that is it makes it harder to find a target. Clearly in the Third World where things are less mediated, where you don’t have a media obscuring relations…
PM: …there’s an Us and Them everywhere…
KW: ..it might be easier to see an Us and Them. Whereas here the sense of identification, fraternity, connection, either with people through a shared history, or solidarity with workers across the world, these things have wained.
PM: They have wained but I don’t write them off completely. They are still there.
KW: How do you stir them?
PM: Well it’s not my job to be stirring. Unfortunately that’s the truth about the job I have.
KW: But as a writer? You’ve talked about Orwell and people like that.
PM: First of all, don’t write off the fact that the old class consciousness has survived in pockets and still continues to influence reality in a way that…
KW: …You’re talking about something like the Lindsey strike?
PM: Lindsey is a good example. It doesn’t fit into anybody’s narrative but the TUC has organised, and done well for, Bulgarian and Polish workers in farms in the South-West of England. Nobody wants to write a book about it. Nobody wants to put it on the tele because it doesn’t fit the idea that unions are in decline and the Poles are all very atomised. But this has actually happened. Likewise the American labour movement has revived itself.
KW: Through migrant workers?
PM: Partly through migrants. And you look at London Citizens in the East End and that’s the same there. These things are islands of social capital in a stream that is constantly washing them away. But I think a lot of people start from the idea there are no islands or dams or eddies – people have a very negative view of what modern capitalism is from the point of view of social organisation. And that’s partly a product of twenty years of defeat. But one of the things I try to do, certainly in LWODF, and to an extent in my work as a journalist, is point out that there are these great islands of social capital and what they’re up against. We are certainly in a pre-1889 situation; the tide has not turned, to change the metaphor, but don’t rule it out.
KW: At the end of Meltdown you ask, so where are we after the credit crisis? You say it’s your hunch that “organised labour looks set for a comeback.” But there’s not much sense of what this is based on, neither here, nor in LWODF, where many of the examples you give of people across the Third World have them trembling on the brink of action but still disparate, not yet organised or unionised; not having established the kind of communities you talk about in the historical sections of the book – the education, health and social groups. So what is it, other than wishfulfulness, that makes you think a resurgence is likely?
PM: What it is… I don’t believe the labour movement is an inevitable history of cycles of destruction and revival, but nevertheless they are observable patterns. The workforce that created the 1848 revolution in Paris was unrecognisable to the workforce that created the Paris Commune [in 1871]. There were a few people still around but they were effectively locked in a mourning cycle for what had gone – for the pre-1848 movement, for the artisanat of the inner faubourgs of Paris. Whereas now the working class of the outer faubourgs are all living in tenements rather than hovels, often beguiled by pop culture, effectively. And you can feel this in their reactions: Louis Blanc, a leader of 1848 and a workers’ leader, first and foremost just rejects the Commune.
KW: He rejects it as what? Too bohemian?
PM: Too bohemian…
KW: You say of Louise Michel, that in the Commune there was a social experiment in living that gets overlooked…
PM: …and even the workers who are organised get dragged into that social experiment. In another example of the same period, the workers that made Chartism in the late 1830s and 40s, and were its vanguard, their world disappeared by the time labourism and trade unionism is being reinvented in the 1880s, 1890s. You get the odd person who’s the link between them. Someone like Engels, as an old man, stands up on the cart in Hyde Park saying: I never thought I’d see the day; after thirty years the British working class is back! I think it’s Theodore Rothstein’s book, From Chartism to Labourism, that tells the whole story. But remember it spans a period from 1848 through to 1888. That’s a heck of a long time. I believe the [Karl] Polanyi observation that capitalism calls forth a ‘double movement’ is really fundamental and true.
KW: He means capitalism moves itself relentlessly forward, taking whatever it can? And the double movement is the response, the attempt to restrain or curtail it?
PM: [Nods] I think a lot of the rest of what Polanyi writes is a bit crap. It’s an anti-Marxist justification of the progressiveness of capitalism. But this is a better insight in some ways than Marx’s idea that capitalism summons forth its own destruction. We don’t know yet, as Zhou Enlai said about the French Revolution: it’s too soon to tell. But what it’s not too soon to tell is that capitalism summons up socially cohesive movements of those who feel the downside of it. And the organised workforce, come what may, whatever is thrown at it, seems to come back.
KW: So that’s what your hunch is based on?
PM: It’s more than a hunch. I think it’s an inspired guess, notwithstanding the fact that we’re in a downturn. At the end of Meltdown I say we’re probably at the beginning of a tech-driven upturn that will last us another fifty years. The issue is: do the people of the world impose some kind of sustainability and social justice on that? Or do the people who benefit most from it get to dictate the way it goes? For the first time ever that issue is posed globally. Last time we had a boom this was an issue for workers in France, Britain, Germany, America and Japan. And all the answers came out differently. Now I think we’re probably on the eve of – it’ll probably be delayed five or ten years – but there could be an up-rush. Capitalism’s got great reserves and therefore it will pose again the issue of who gets what from that reserve of growth.
KW: You said at Housmans [a radical bookshop in North London] you were thinking about writing a novel. The writing in LWODF has the virtues of good journalistic writing – it’s punchy and in the moment. But I did feel the lack sometimes of connecting tissue. I know you were keen not to produce a lessons-of-history book.
KW: There are moments, though, where the writing changes. There’s a section on Germany, 1905, it’s just five pages…
PM: …where I just sort of imagine…
KW: It’s languid, erotic – homoerotic even.
PM: Yeah, it is.
KW: There’s something about the imagination quickening the material. I wonder if that might be the direction you intend to go in?
PM: I think it is. There are two things pushing me in the direction of fiction. (I don’t want to give too much detail because you should never tell anybody what you want to do.) Every line of Meltdown was effectively overseen, okayed by the BBC. I understand why they have to do that and I’m glad to do it. It’s the rules. It creates a limitation, though, on what you can write. And the next thing I write I’ve got to be absolutely free.
KW: Do you think if this wasn’t the case you’d still be moving to fiction, regardless?
PM: I’m not moving irrevocably to fiction. But some of the things that need to be said about now are being said in the world where fiction meets journalism. For example, among TV dramatists the great question is: how do we get a British version of The Wire, whatever its limitations (there are some stereotypes, above all you can see the Robert McKee school of story structure written all the way through it.) But I like The Wire and it’s interesting you’ve got dramatists saying, shit, to get close to this we’ve got to use David Simon, a journalist on the Baltimore Sun, to get this we’ve gotta’ get echt, we’ve gotta’ get reality and therefore we’ve got to get closer to journalism than we are. Now I’m feeling it from the other side. To tell the truth about certain situations I’ve gotta’ get closer to fiction than journalism. And those situations might be about now, but equally I’m very attracted to writing historical fiction. So I’m still mulling about what I’m gonna’ do. And because I’ve got a history in creative production, I mean I was a musician, I did write hours of unperformed operas, I’m quite confident I’ll produce something. It’s just when and what do I want to do.
KW: You should write autobiographically.
PM: But when I do it comes straight out on the page. Someone told me the best bit of LWODF is the last three pages where I write about myself. And he’s right.
KW: If you’re going to write about now, the idea of going out and finding drug dealers on the street…
PM: ….but that’s not what the now is. The now, that no TV drama has got to the nub of, is the total empowerment of the rich and powerful by the situation we’re in, and the total disempowerment of everybody else.
KW: You could get to that through your family.
PM: You could get to it through a lot of things but the problem is, I also think that, in drama, weirdly, there’s an absence of imagination.
KW: Drama’s so class-bound in this country. You’ve got people who’re allowed to do the working class in a certain way and then you’ve got frocks and toffs.
PM: Isn’t it weird – we live in a world where the novel is almost owned by women as a genre? You think about it…
KW: I do. And I don’t know that it’s the case.
PM: It’s also the world of imagination. And yet drama is owned by men and it’s the world of reality.
KW: Well there are obvious reasons for that historically: you can write a novel in the corner of the room.
PM: Of course. But now, more than ever, you’ve got this bifurcation. When was the last time you saw a TV drama that had any element of imagination or unreality in it?
KW: Don’t write a drama. Write a novel.
PM: If I could write what I want tomorrow it would still probably be something fictional and something that goes to the core of this problem about now: about our acceptance of the fact that so few people have benefited from the economic and political and social changes of the last twenty years; and that so little of the official discourse is either about that or cares about it. That’s my big frustration, which I think you can tell in both books actually.
KW: Have you read In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje?
KW: The beginning of LWODF reminded me of it. Ondaatje began as a poet and moved gradually into fiction.
KW: It begins with the workers who’ve been building the Toronto viaduct. In LWODF you start with that little act of rebellion where a worker secretly leaves a message to posterity in the foundations of a building. It’s a similar thing in Ondaatje. Before the bridge is about to be officially opened, one of the bridge builders breaks through the barrier and zooms across on his bike, taking the moment for the workers. Ondaatje writes beautifully about all kinds of work: dyers and tanners of leather, men in the abattoir, those swinging from ropes over the side of the bridge, dynamiters, loggers, farmers and thieves. It might be interesting for you to look at, but perhaps you’d hate the poeticism.
PM: I don’t hate poeticism. I think English literature is missing poeticism.
KW: I have a question about defeat and the loss of idealism, and how you might recover from it. There are two ideas underpinning the history of workers’ struggle since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the Cottentots, two Enlightenment ideas about progress that preceded the struggle and defined what it was trying to achieve: both have been eroded in the last quarter century. One is about the nature of the liberation people were battling for – a notion of human potential and fulfilment, achievable in the worker’s paradise some envisaged. The other is about progress, and at the root, a feeling that it is workers, and not bosses, who are on the side of history. Of this last, one strand is teleological – dialectical materialism guaranteeing you a destination at the Finland Station if you only have the guts to hold fast. Another is the belief that science and technology will inevitably improve people’s lives. But these are now suspect: communism as it evolved meant, as Kundera and others saw, gulags attached to the side of paradise; and with the planet ecologically under threat, the belief that science and technology can deliver us out of pain and superstition, also seems doubtful. Yet these ideas were fundamental to the history of the labour movement and in getting people mobilised – getting them to see above the parapet of their daily lives.
PM: Alright. The science and technology thing. Basically, the development of capitalism will create the basis for a more just society, is something I believe. I might just be a product of – I don’t know – whether it’s Catholic grammar school, working class background, long engagement with Marxism, I don’t know what it is, but I believe it and I’m not going to stop believing it.
KW: So the end-ism of the mid-century, and where technology took us with the bomb and the camps, don’t really matter in relation to making you a better washing machine?
PM: No. The bomb is one thing. Technological determinism absolutely I reject. But at the end of the day I don’t think the gulag or the holocaust came out of people’s belief in scientific progress. It came out of the other part of what you’re talking about. I think that within the working class movement, and all forms of radicalism under capitalism for two hundred years, to adapt the Polanyi idea, there’s been a double movement. And at the very roots of it there is always a liberationism, and there’s always a kind of Jacobinism. The fatal attraction of forms of Jacobinism is something that, again, have been wrongly understood by twentieth century Marxism.
KW: Because [in a figure like Louise Michel] they’re incapable of uniting the cat lover and the woman with the rifle in the street?
PM: Yes. But also because the Jacobin response is a response to the defeat and betrayal of the reformist libertarian attempt. So Louise Michel, after she’s been on New Caledonia, comes back in the 1880s, knowing that most of her people are dead, that she’s had ten years of suffering, and stands in front of this huge working class crowd at the Gard du Nord. And she thinks, you know what? The nihilists are right. There are 10,000 people here who will be shot or go to jail, if they do what I want them to do. Why don’t I just do it? And for me to do it, I have to amplify the power of me. And, therefore, within years she’s into the world of Ravachol, of the individual anarchist attempts to blow people up. So that’s what I call the Jacobin response: fuck you, we’re gonna’ impose freedom on the world. That’s where Bolshevism comes from and it’s there in the 1848 revolution.
KW: It shares Nietzschean tendencies too.
PM: Yeah, it does. The will to power. And yet what I think for anybody who’s involved in the struggle for social justice or social liberation, they have to understand that on certain points a little voice will whisper in their ear, fuck this, we’d be better off if we went down the route of an absolutist authoritarian method of solving this. To me, now, in retrospect, the greatness of a figure like [Eugene] Varlin, who I write about in LWODF, is that he understood – No, actually if it involves another directorate, another Committee of Public Safety, then the Commune is not going to lead us where we want to go. He realises that the need for a Committee of Public Safety and arrests and hostages arise out of the weakness and, probably, the unripeness of the situation. And he says, we’re not going to do that. It’s unfortunate that the dominant narrative of the workers’ movement for a century is authoritarian elitism.
KW: And LWODF was written as an antidote?
PM: Well I have to say, if you think so, that it’s written out of a profound knowledge and engagement with the opposite. Without going into all the details, I have been an activist on the Left when the only tradition you could be in was effectively something influenced by Marxism and Bolshevism. Even if you were in the Labour Party, even if you were in a trade union, even if you were organising workers’ aid for Bosnia – which we were, during the Bosnian civil war, doing things on the right side. I worked with dockers who filled up a lorry to take to Bosnia to help the Bosnian muslims. The only language we had with each other was this language of early twentieth century Marxism. They wouldn’t have understood the idea of Seattle, although they played their part in creating a movement where it became possible for Seattle to exist.
KW: But you seem not just frustrated but almost jaundiced about the modern forms resistance takes, the “low-level, non-ideological, anti-political culture” of think global, act local. As you say, you can’t tackle the banking crisis branch by branch.
PM: The first demonstration I went on in the City of London was against the Bank of England. It was quite funny to see a coalition of Marxists and anarchists try and march on the Bank of England because the answer to the crisis they were protesting about, the uber-radical Keynesian answer, is to do what the Bank of England has done, which is to print money and slash interest rates. You could be, as I have been, implicitly critical of the Bank of England for not slashing interest rates sooner, but it reflects an other-worldliness when people are not even engaged on the same page, on the same blogosphere, as anybody who understands that to stop two million unemployed becoming four million, you have to do what the Bank of England did. That’s why I’m frustrated by the lack of engagement in the anti-capitalist Left.
KW: You mean they say they’re anti-capitalist – campaigning on ecology or poverty – but they’re not paying attention to signs in the capitalist economy?
PM: It’s true. Look at the way the NGO’s reacted to the downturn in the Third World. At the Washington summit in November, they handed out leaflets saying: don’t forget aid to Africa – this, in a month when a million workers lost their job. Is it not their business to stand up and say, don’t forget Detroit, don’t forget Indiana? Who’s saying that? Alright, we know who’s saying that: pork-barrel politicians of both parties. But does the radical Left not believe it has a job to do defending the American workforce?
KW: But that’s partly the problem about the dispersal of power. It’s easier to organise around issues of ecology and poverty than getting down to the gritty business of defending jobs.
PM: It is.
KW: Okay, last question: about Louise Michel again. I wonder, other than the splendid idiosyncrasy of her prison letters demanding news of her cats, what was it that attracted you to her?
PM: I’ve since found out I am simply the English branch of a new beatification movement. In France, finally, after every other Communard got their square, Louise Michel gets the big one. She gets the square outside Sacre Coeur. Sacre Coeur was built to ‘expiate’ the memories of the Commune. Why does she matter? I think she’s an historical figure that deserves more attention.
KW: But what is it about her personality and character that engages you?
PM: We’re lucky that she was a woman engaged enough with the masses to be ‘real’, and literary enough and vain enough to have written it down. When you stare at the pictures of the women, after the commune, who were tried as petremerses, or even those who’d been artillery women in the Commune, you know there is probably a story like hers behind every one of them. But the brilliant thing about Louise Michel is she wrote it down. And not only that, she maintained a literary engagement, quite delusional in her case, with some of the great figures of her time. There’s a poem about Michel by Victor Hugo [‘Viro Major’], there are others by Baudelaire, by Verlaine [‘Ballade a Louise Michel’]. She’s writing to Victor Hugo while she’s on Noumea.
KW: So it’s something about her audacity.
PM: It’s her audacity…
KW: And being a character so far out, who just assumed the centre ground, who refuses to be left out beyond the perimeter.
PM: And I think the discovery of that character has been an antidote to all the mock and fake heroicism imposed on the working class narrative by Stalinism in the twentieth century. And when I say “by Stalinism”, Stalinism imposed that heroic way of looking, so there had to be a Stalinist hero, but this way of seeing has filtered down: Kier Hardie is looked on in this way by Labour people. She’s there, under bombardment, during the middle of the Commune and she goes to a church and simply decides, because, frankly, she’s got slight problems with reality…
KW: …maybe that’s the only way to treat it.
PM: She basically walks into the church and decides that every time a shell goes over she will play one of her own voluntary compositions on the organ. So much so, that the guys on the battlements come down and order her to stop because she’s attracting shellfire. She’s made up a composition in her own mind – The Organ Plus Shellfire. When she’s on Noumea, she’s doing the same stuff. She tries to organise an orchestra of Kanak instruments for the French settlers to play. And she embraces it, because she’s a musician: that’s another thing that attracted me to her. We know that people like Debussy, Duparc, Satie, were obsessed with quarter-tones. Louise Michel heard the Kanak people singing in quarter-tone and tried to notate it, tried to engage with it, tried to teach them to sing in tones and semi-tones. She is an early musicologist of the South Pacific. And to be that, and a barricade fighter, and to come back to France, and then just decide, well, fuck it, I’m going to do it again, is extraordinary. She goes on the demonstration in 1883; she’s in prison again for three years – it’s just the indefatigability of her. Since writing LWODF, I’ve discovered other figures like this, but I think she stands, quite rightly, as this almost-beatified working class hero from the mid-century, precisely because she is not…
KW: …in the mould of the heroic worker…
PM: …the so-called heroic worker. In the Spanish Civil War the first Franco-Belgian battalion formed in the International Brigade, named itself the Louise Michel Brigade. But the bloody Communist Party came over and a) disowned it, and b) changed it to something like the Maurice Thorez battalion [Thorez was a communist leader who called for an end to the wave of strikes organised by syndicalists in France in 1936], something ridiculous like that. They didn’t want Louise Michel. But what did those workers mean by doing that? They mean: we are fighting for personal liberation, not just for some ideal. I think they absolutely understood that.
KW: And the power of her waywardness, as opposed to the discipline of the Party line.
PM: It’s the power of waywardness and the power of illogic as well. She’s relentlessly illogical. The more I’ve read of her you see she’s influenced, as well, by the storytelling of the Kanak people. Weirdly, you now realise, if she’s sitting in a pub in Brixton in 1880 talking to a bunch of anarchists at the London Conference, she’s probably telling them stuff about Kanak culture. All that gets lost in workers’ history. There’s a lot more to do to rediscover it.