Sepia Rebels: What Russell Brand and Antonio Gramsci Have in Common

Despite assaults against actions (voting) and concepts (atheism) that don’t seem as entirely terrible as he would contest, Russell Brand’s leading article in his guest-edited edition of the New Statesman is actually quite good. Many commentators have been eager to attack the piece as vague, rambling or imprecise in what increasingly seems like a professional closing of the ranks: ‘Don’t tread on our turf!’ Though, while it may be all those things to a greater or lesser extent, shouldn’t we encourage this sort of thing more often?  A man who enjoys mass cultural appeal and attracts a lot of attention has started speaking passionately about the rampant inequalities and injustices that ought to be at the heart of discussion in the West, ahead of, say, Apple’s latest built-in-obsolescence product launch. Even the slightest dent in the armour of apathy so many people encase themselves in at the moment is a welcome one in my book.

Antonio Brand

While it tackles many burning issues from the London riots to climate change in a genuinely poetic way, the point Brand is arguably best on concerns the ‘Revolution of Consciousness’ tagline that he chose to be New Statesman’s sub title for the week. In a nutshell, he argues, quite accurately, that we’ll never get true progressive change, never tackle mass poverty and injustice, without changing the way we all think: ‘we are enslaved by old ideologies, be they theological or economic…’. This is a perspective he shares with a dead Italian Marxist called Antonio Gramsci, who was locked up for most of his adult life by Mussolini’s fascists and so had a lot of time to think about these sorts of things. Gramsci called this ‘enslavement’  ‘Hegemony’. Why are genuinely revolutionary changes so difficult to achieve in the Western world? Because, he wrote, the ruling elite, through institutions like the government, corporate mass-media and so on, deliberately limit society’s horizons. The current (grossly unequal) state of affairs, so they will say, is essentially the only possible order of things. It can’t be changed, it IS the real world, everything outside it is meaningless, undesirable, impossible.

So hegemony makes genuine change extremely difficult in capitalist countries because, with limited horizons, many people’s appetite for it isn’t there. Material appetite and attention is stronger; for new things or even just necessities everyone needs to get by. Each to their own individualism has led to widespread acceptance that the current way of doing things, i.e. the liberal-capitalist way, is really the only possible, desirable approach. Many don’t appreciate that things could be different, are different elsewhere and have been different before. On this point Brand was lyrically impressive, highlighting how many great achievements of social movements that fought the status quo here in the UK often go uncelebrated these days:

A potent, triumphant leftist movement is a faint, idealistic whisper from sepia rebels. The formation of the NHS, holiday pay, sick pay, the 8-hour day…were not achieved in the lifetime of the directionless London rioters. They are uninformed of the Left’s great legacy as it is dismantled around them.

I came to a similar conclusion recently. After watching Ken Loach’s wonderful film Spirit of ’45 with some flatmates, I was shocked to learn that some, undergrads like myself at the time, had had no idea that key industries used to be in public ownership, or that higher education was essentially funded by the State and not just huge student debts. Ignorance like this stifles moves towards progressive change since it makes it so difficult for people to imagine alternative ways of doing things; other realities, in a sense.

Challenging this collective amnesia and its accompanying apathy is therefore absolutely vital if we want to fight the unprecedented disparity between rich and poor that exists in the Western world; engineered and maintained by the 1%, for the 1%. In making this point, Brand (whether knowingly or not) aligned himself with Gramsci and the idea of hegemony, and also helped renew that challenge. His article, together with the melodramatic accompanying interview with Paxman on Newsnight last week, has stoked up debate about inequality, corporate greed and mass poverty, propelled by Brand’s global celebrity. This discussion, as Gramsci said, is exactly what must happen on the road to changing our current, immensely unbalanced and unjust society for the better. For all his imprecision and haziness, Brand injected some radicalism into the daily political discussion that is much needed and most welcome. Long live the Revolution of Consciousness!


Malala, Obama and the Drone Wars

President Obama, former undeserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, was embarrassed in the Oval Office on Friday by the world famous Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, after she took the opportunity of the Presidential invitation to criticize Washington’s continuing campaign of drone strikes in her Pakistani homeland. While she thanked Obama for making progress in increasing aid to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syrian refugee camps, she successfully shamed the President by adamantly refuting the success illegal US drone strikes in the region have had in countering terrorism.


Of the meeting, she said

                ‘I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fuelling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.’

Simple, peaceful ideas such as this seem routinely absent from Obama’s foreign policy. Concerning the ‘War on Terror’, his approach has often failed to promote understanding ahead of mailed-fist unilateralism and aggression. As the link below maps, since 2004 the US, using unmanned drones, has perpetrated a snowballing bombing campaign in Pakistan, responsible for over 3100 deaths, 175 of those children. The frequency of strikes has increased significantly since Obama took office in January 2009. As Noam Chomsky commented, where George W. Bush opted for the imprisonment and torture of alleged militants, many of whom still reside in Guantanamo Bay, Barack Obama favours simply killing them without even a hint of a trial or criminal charge. It goes without saying (though is worth re-iterating) that both approaches are severe breaches of international law, not to mention founding American notions of universal liberty and justice before an impartial legal system.



The meeting in the Oval Office was arranged, of course, as a morale-boosting publicity stunt for a President under huge domestic pressure from the hostile, petulant, reactionary Republican Party during the on-going governmental ‘Shutdown’. See how just our wonderful leader is in championing this poor victim of Taleban bigotry and intolerance! In all likelihood, then, he was caught off guard by such a wise and elegant assault on one of his flagship counter-terrorism strategies from this 21st Century heroine who breaches the East/West narrative. The teenage blogger and activist Malala’s rise to celebration in the West has come rapidly after her attempted assassination by Taleban foot-soldiers while returning from school almost precisely a year ago. Flouting the risk of becoming merely a tokenistic pawn for Western interventionism in the Muslim world, Malala has recovered to continue her inspirational activism for women rights and education globally. She is also an outspoken socialist, a fact conveniently ignored by the mainstream liberal and right-wing press.

She had been widely tipped to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, though last Friday’s ceremony handed it to OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) following its work in Syria. Obama, ultimately responsible for routinely bombing Malala’s homeland, is a former recipient of the prize whose previous winners also include (among many more peaceable, worthy candidates) Imperialist racist Theodore Roosevelt, war criminal Henry Kissinger, and loyal attack-dog of the papacy’s global anti-abortion campaign, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, aka Mother Teresa. While Malala is evidently worthy of a global peace prize, it arguably seems this particular institution would not do her already remarkable achievements justice. Providing Obama with the message that promoting education over bombing is the best way to fight terrorism, that which plagued her home and nearly killed her, is just the latest stunning action in the life of this brave activist everyone can learn from.


E.P. Thompson & the Peterloo Massacre

It was a bright day in August, 1819, and between sixty and a hundred thousand men, women and children had gathered on St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demonstrate for constitutional and democratic reform.  Instructed to arrest radical dissidents speaking to the demonstrators, mounted Yeomanry charged into the crowd, cutting their way through those in their path. Hundreds were injured and eleven killed, earning this brutal episode in British social history the title ‘massacre’. Studying as he did the formation of the English working class, British Social Historian E. P. Thompson examined Peterloo in depth in his seminal The Making of the English Working Class, and, in these days of renewed social upheaval, it seems an appropriate case study with which to examine both the event and Thompson’s innovative ideas on society, class and their importance.


Perhaps Thompson’s most influential contribution to British social history was his revolutionary thesis that Social Class was first and foremost an active historical process within society, over a passive, unshakeable structure to categorize men with. In the famous preface to The Making of the English Working Class Thompson outlined his view of class as:

an active process which owes as much to agency as to conditioning. A historical phenomenon [found] in the raw material of experience and consciousness…when some men, as a result of their experiences, feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

Here the conditions are set for understanding Thompson’s perspective as a social historian; one stressing agency, experience and Marxian class conflict. The events of Peterloo can provide us with as good and poignant example as any of how important and useful Edward Thompson’s history remains.

To establish why Peterloo happened at all, we must look back into socially incendiary times that gave rise to the demonstration on St Peter’s Field on that day in August. Facing, in some ways, strikingly similar economic times to those we face today, Britain suffered a period of austerity and depression. The slump in the country’s industrial economy that occurred after the strains of two decades of the Napoleonic Wars had caused mass unemployment among working people, enhanced by the many returning service men disbanded after 1815. Radicalism was fostered amongst this atmosphere, with themes of constitutional reform and enfranchisement- key demands of the St Peter’s field crowd- central. As Thompson described, Peterloo ‘was the outcome of an extraordinarily powerful and determined ‘constitutionalist’ agitation, largely working-class in character’, and in highlighting the class based nature of the event’s formation, he provides the most plausible answer as to why the demonstration took place. The marchers’ temperament, or constitutionalist ‘identity of interests’ united them into a mass gathering for political reform; a defiant act against the disenfranchisement of the working class from politics that existed in 1819.

While other historical interpretations are keener to stress the pressure on the Yeomanry to act and arrest their targets in the crowd that had gathered on the field, it seems Thompson’s interpretation comes closer to understanding why they actually chose to begin cutting down the peaceful protestors. Class divisions undoubtedly divided the participants; the protestors being overwhelmingly working class, and the Yeomanry comprised of the local bourgeoisie, such as manufacturers and merchants. These divisions were physically pitted against each another that day, and they boiled over for the Yeomanry into violent fury- could anything else have conceivably driven them to draw sabres on a pacific crowd?:

the attack was made on this multitude with the panic of class hatred…[the Yeomanry] were the men who pursued the banners, knew the speakers by name and sought to pay off old scores, and who mustered and cheered at the end of their triumph…There is no term for this but class war. But it was a pitifully one-sided war.

Peterloo thus stands as a concrete example of Thompson’s key ideas on British society at this time, played out in the most brutal fashion. Class divisions, encouraged by the economic downturn, had brought the protestors and the Yeomanry both to the field (the Yeomanry were all volunteers), and the class war Thompson describes was demonstrated in a brutal reality on the field.

The titles ‘Peterloo’ and ‘massacre’ were both earned in the event’s immediate aftermath, and both hold testimony to how brutal the day’s proceedings were. The ‘Peter-loo’ epithet is particularly striking- a reference to the bloody battle of Waterloo four years before, no doubt still fresh in the consciousness of some of the demonstrators. Indeed, the astuteness of Thompson’s analysis is further demonstrated by uniquely highlighting the depth of the event’s immediate impact: ‘Within two days of Peterloo, all England knew of the event. Within a week every detail of the massacre was being canvassed in ale houses, chapels, workshops, private houses.’ That the colloquial and evocative name originally offered has become the episode’s official title is telling evidence to support this.

To assess Peterloo’s wider impact to British social history we can look to its imprint in local and national memory and it’s more enduring legacies, of which Thompson showed to be momentous. Firstly, it is important to appreciate Peterloo as a genuine turning point in British social and political history. Not only did it spark an immediate outpouring of horror and anger from the British populace at the time, but it precipitated abrupt and Draconian action from those in power at the time, culminating in the infamous Six Acts, which clamped down on public protest and wrote serious progressive reforms off the table for decades. His analysis of the backlash which drove the radical leadership towards the Cato Street Conspiracy a year later, with immensely gripping, detailed research, further demonstrates the depth of Peterloo’s national impression. Further consequences included the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper, still thriving as the broadsheet Guardian newspaper today. A further and perhaps defining positive effect of that brutal day’s events was the crucial fact that it was a nightmare impossible to conceive of again in Britain-

Even Old Corruption knew, in its heart, that it dare not do this again. Since the moral consensus of the nation outlawed the riding down of an unarmed crowd, the corollary followed- that the right of public meeting was gained…never since Peterloo has authority dared to use equal force against a peaceful British crowd.

With these words Thompson touches on how important the Peterloo massacre was to British history. His own analysis stands out as the most pertinent and useful, as it best explains how such a tragedy could happen and how much it mattered then as now; his view of class as an active process, and the relevance of class conflict, both demonstrated by the dynamic and conflict ridden struggle of the day. It would be a shameful tribute to the victims of Peterloo if this fundamental event to the course of British history is not remembered as such, and it consequently deserves a proper monument, as many have already suggested, lest we should ever forget.

(First published in the University of Sheffield’s New Histories Online Magazine, 15/3/2012. http://newhistories.group.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/wordpress/?p=3414 Editing and additional research by Liz Goodwin).