Monday, May 30, 2011


Doesn’t every Adam Curtis documentary disprove the claim that postmodernism / late capitalism cannot be represented visually? It has often been assumed, since manufacturing industry is generally no longer very visible in the West, that the economy is now so ephemeral as to be impossible to portray artistically. It is easy (given the requisite talent) to make an ironworks or a steam train appear sublime; it’s not so easy to do the same with collaterised debt obligations or capital flows.

In fact, Curtis solves this problem via that old modernist technique: montage. Splicing together footage of deserted stock exchange floors or long, lingering shots of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton’s courtship with images from nature, he evokes the permanently weird, alienating effects of living in the 21st century. He takes our everyday reality, skews it a little, juxtaposes its contradictions and absurdities and plays us back to us, so that we see it for what it is: not quite right.

One of the reasons we generally feel unsettled is that we often cannot see the connections between events that we know, deep down, must be linked. The way that capitalism shifts money from place to place, account to account, in order to make it work for the investor often is tortuously complicated. We know from Enron, and more recently from sub-prime mortgage lending, that books are often cooked to hide fraud or unsustainable risk. But despite the abundance of sophisticated financial tools, the way capitalism works is really very simple.

Whenever the capitalist system comes across something which acts as a block to maximising profit, it must get rid of it. In the early 1970s, capitalism came up against two blockages, one big and one less big. The big blockage was hyperinflation in the prices of primary products (especially oil from the Middle East); the smaller one was the strength of organised labour, which had negotiated a compromise with capital for better wages and conditions. As we know from British politics in the early 1970s, the public debate centred around unions: it was their belligerence that was impeding Britain’s productivity.

But in fact, the reasons for the slowdown in global profits had little or nothing to do with unions. They could be found in the Middle East, where oil exporters improved their hand in the Arab-Israeli conflict by restricting supply and raising prices, and Vietnam, where the US had massively over-stretched itself and had run up a huge trade deficit. Unable to balance its budget, the US allowed the value of the dollar to be unfixed from gold, and the value of all currencies thus became determined by the market. In this period (early to mid seventies), all the major currencies of the world experienced galloping inflation – i.e. they lost value fast. This inflation (which in several Western countries, including Britain, was accompanied by stagnating growth) was blamed on workers’ pay rises, whereas in fact it was due to the opening currency values up to the money markets.

After the Bretton Woods agreement collapsed, the rules of balanced budgets no longer applied. During the 80s and 90s, the US could run up deficits as recklessly as it liked, which indeed it did. Having spotted openings in South East Asia, capital flowed at breakneck speed to develop markets where the cost of production would be cheaper than in the West. By the mid to late 90s, it became clear that too much capital was being invested into the Thai economy, and that its emerging export and weak domestic consumer markets couldn’t respond quickly enough. Investors panicked and withdrew their money. In a classic cycle of debt deflation, prices collapsed, firms went bankrupt, profit margins shrunk, unemployment soared and confidence in the South East Asian economy evaporated. The collapse of the baht spread to other Asian economies, which in turn decreased demand in those economies for primary products from Japan, which had struggled with its own overinvestment crisis for a decade already.

This is where Curtis picks up the story. The IMF offered to bail out the Asian economies, on the condition that they turned themselves into neoliberal economies – i.e. reduce state spending (on infrastructure, welfare etc) and open themselves up entirely to the free market. In other words, they must adopt the very model which had swallowed them up and spat them out. This worked in Thailand, but in Indonesia the dictator-President General Suharto refused to accede to the IMF’s demands. In order to generate a return on investment, US capital depended on temperate economic conditions in Indonesia, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin decided there was no alternative but to force Suharto from power.

Curtis intersperses a self-justifying interview with Rubin – who sat on the Boards of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup immediately before and after he became responsible for the US’s financial and monetary policies – with reports of the collapse of Indonesian political and economic life. Rubin repeatedly defends his actions by claiming to act in the interests of the “global economy” – but by global economy, he means the holders of capital, those few, wealthy people who hoped to get wealthier by restructuring Third World economies into profit machines.

Suharto gave in and the IMF agreed to the bail-out loans. But almost instantly, the Indonesian currency collapsed, losing 80% of its value. The same happened in Thailand and South Korea. Why did this happen? Why did huge injections of capital fail to stabilise these tottering economies? Because, as Curtis explains, the money that was paid into Indonesian and Thai and South Korean banks was immediately used to pay back the loans of Western lenders. The loans were never intended to help the countries, only to compensate the American financiers who had over-invested their capital into countries without the stability to withstand such rapid injections. The result was that these countries never saw the IMF loans, their economies collapsed, and their taxpayers were still faced with massive debts to pay back.

This is what I mean by the simplicity of capitalism. The need for capital to remain profitable trumps everything else. In the mid-90s, US capital came across the biggest blockage of all – it was locked into economies which were too fragile to generate a return. Whatever the human cost, however immoral the notion of the richest people in the world being bailed out by the poorest, this capital had to be set free. Curtis clarifies this situation beautifully (and by putting aerial images of Citigroup office-blocks side by side with street protests in Jakarta, ironically too) by finding a way into the story.

From the way that Curtis tells the story of globalisation (or, in The power of nightmares, of neoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism), it is clear that he doesn’t believe neoliberalism was caused by the novels of Ayn Rand. This is a MacGuffin (in Lacanian terms we might call it the objet petit a): an otherwise unimportant device which nevertheless brings together a cast of characters and allows the viewer to find a way into the story. It may be true that dot com capitalists loved the books of Ayn Rand, or that Alan Greenspan was a friend of hers, but Curtis is careful not to blow her role out of proportion. But without drawing the story back to her, how else would you begin? 1997 has its causes in 1971; but 1971 has its roots in 1944 (the Bretton Woods conference), which in turn responded to the crisis of 1929 and even the October Revolution in 1917. A strict documentary might have begun in any of these places, but Curtis’s films are thrillers as well as documentaries. They rely on strange parallels and moments of tension.

Roll on episode 2.


HELSINKI (from Tom Gardner's Flickr account)



Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Before I started this blog, I wrote a couple of fragments for my good friend Snowball's blog - slight, ill-informed snippets on Latin American history. I was travelling in Argentina and Paraguay at the time, and I felt rather mixed-up inside. On the face of it, I was unhappy because someone I'd met in Buenos Aires had ditched me, but actually I was embarking on a painful-but-fruitful year of re-discovery. Step 1 on the road to recovery was immersing myself in Kate Bush's Aerial as I travelled.

A few months later, in early 2006, I started this blog (not that you'd wish to, but some of the baffling / baffled reactions to this painful-but-fruitful year make up its first dozen or so posts). Five years later, I have reached a milestone. For this, dear reader, is my 500th post. And waddya know, Kate Bush has got another record out!

I have only listened to it once. I'm not a big fan of either The sensual world or Red Shoes - the former suffers from horrible production, the latter from a paucity of decent songs. Consequently, the beefed-up re-makes of SW's (and she does pick that album's highlights) glitter, where as with RS, well, you know that expression about polishing a turd.

The most radical re-make is of "This woman's work" - RBG found the word for it last night: amniotic. It evades the melody of the original, and Bush's voice is very different (blurred and deeper), but it does make a mockery of the criticism, "what's the point?". Even so, you can't help but compare the two. I have, and I'm not sure of my conclusion yet.

Here are both versions:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


"A 'sincere' believer in the official Socialist ideology was potentially much more dangerous than the cynic: he was already one step from dissidence. There was the fundamental paradox of ex-Yugoslav self-management Socialism: the official ideology exhorted people all the time to participate actively in the process of self-management, to master the conditions of their life outside the 'alienated' Party and state structures; the official media deplored people's indifference, escape into privacy, and so on - however, it was precisely such an event, a truly self-managed articulation and organisation of people's interests, which the regime feared most. A whole series of markers delivered, between the lines, the injunction that such official exhortation was not be taken too literally, that a cynical attitude towards the official ideology was what the regime really wanted - the greatest catastrophe for the regime would have been for its own ideology to be taken seriously, and realised by its subjects."

Slavoj Zizek, Did somebody say totalitarianism?, 2001

Monday, May 02, 2011


Last Monday, I spent the day at Ipswich Records Office reading a book by my great-grandfather, Robert Ratcliffe. Entitled A history of the working class movement in Ipswich, it is the foremost book on the subject, although it has never been published. As I have mentioned previously, Bob was on the railways all his working life, was a leading trade unionist, and was elected on a number of occasions as Labour Councillor for several wards in Ipswich. He joined the Ipswich branch of the Independent Labour Party in 1912; the Ipswich Labour Party in 1930; was elected to Council in 1932; was twice elected Chair of the Welfare Committee; was Mayor of Ipswich in 1957-58; and retired from the Council in 1964.

He wrote the book, which is in four volumes, through the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Each volume covers the following dates: to the end of the nineteenth century (I), 1900-1918 (II), 1918-1926 (III); 1926-1935 (IV). What follows are the notes that I took, almost entirely limited to Volume I. They are rough notes, and of course lack the narrative flow of Bob’s book. They are for my own benefit as much as anything, so I hope you’ll forgive me the indulgence of posting them here.


Combination Laws 1799-1825 – outlawed assemblies of workers, caused depression in wages. “Midnight meetings in open fields” etc. Meeting in The Sailors pub, 1824: “sailors in Ipswich came together to demand an increase in wages; the bailiff banned their mode of assembly but said he would present their petition to the shipowners and merchants.” The dispute was thus settled.

1825 – Combination Laws repealed.

17 December 1812. Meeting in Town Hall to discuss the plight of the poor. Town clerk recommended a town fund, rather than leaving it to individual parishes. A fund was raised, but poverty increased. Rise of the Luddites – 1815 destruction of threshing machines at Gosbeck. 1816 protest at Norton against low wages. Other Luddish incidents at Bury, Diss, Laxfield, Stowmarket.

22 June 1819. Robert Owen addressed a gathering at the Freemasons Hall in Ipswich.

1807. Creation of voluntary schemes to support elderly, and then younger, women, including mothers. Long waiting lists.

1824. First Unions in Ipswich. Shipwrights Provident Union Society & Benevolent Sawyers Society. On their second anniversary, members assembled as follows on the Cornhill:

• One of the Trade on horseback with a model of an axe handsomely gilded.
• Two Union Jacks and a band.
• A purple banner.
• The Shipwrights’ arms motto “union of sentiment is the strength of society” with the inscription “Shipwrights Provident Union Society 1824”.

"A grand procession".

1830. Cobbett visited East Anglia; addressed meetings in Ipswich on “the evils of national debt and church property, and complained bitterly against the government who had spent over £2m to disband the Hanoverian officers.”

6 December 1830. Meeting arranged on Rushmere Heath to protest against church tithes. Concerned magistrates advised labourers against attending: “desperate and depraved characters make it their business to invite men to assemble for illegal purposes who, in the end, leave them to ruin.” But the meeting proceeded in an orderly manner.

9 December 1835. Meeting of working class in Ipswich Arms in support of the Six Men of Dorset.

“In spite of the law against conspiracy, men united for defensive purposes; local unions, craft and sectional, came into being, and were as common as blackberries, some lasting about as long.”

1837 General Election – Ipswich results:

• Gibson (Tory) – 601
• Tufnell (Reformist) – 595
• Watson (Reformist) – 593
• Kelly (Tory) – 593

Tufnell unseated for corruption in ’38 and replaced by Kelly! Eventually both Tories were also unseated for corruption.

Late 1837. Definite formation of Ipswich Working Men’s Association. “The Association adopted the Charter which advocated all voting by ballot, short parliaments, and universal suffrage.” Rural people also involved. August 1838 – big meeting in the Town Hall.

15 September 1838. Report in the Times of a meeting in Colchester. “These vagabond orators do not like work but that of agitation ... the wildest nonsense was uttered ... among the things it was suggested that the working classes might obtain all they demanded by simultaneously ceasing to work ... what must be the consequence? ... a famine, or rivers of blood ... The rich and the poor are mutually dependent on each other ... in a free country like this, there are perpetual changes of condition; the sun of today, which shines on the poor man, may tomorrow rise to gladden him as one of the rich.”

Working Men’s Association superseded by Ipswich Chartists. Did not contest elections in 1841 or 1842 (which was caused by the unseating of two Liberal MPs for bribery). Further by-election in 1842 (more bribery) saw Harry Vincent (Chartist) coming close 4th with 472 votes. Vincent was well-known and had an election song:

The time has arrived when freedom’s voice shall ring
To fling from our services the foes of the King.
The choice of the people, tis plainly clear
Is Vincent the brave, with a conscience so fair.
...Then hurrah one and all, rush away to the poll
And return the man who’s not tempted by gold.

During the following years, Vincent addressed packing meetings on Cornhill / Theatre. 1847 election: Vincent again 4th, but with 546 votes.

Chartist meetings widely attended until April 1848. Little political activity for a while thereafter. Also meetings opposing slavery.

15 June 1846. “Eastern Union Railway, the first railway to reach Ipswich, was opened to the public ... the station was situated where the present loco department now is in Croft St.” Tunnel dug through Stoke Hill – poor working conditions. 6 April 1846 – poor weather meant men assembled on Cornhill. Protested against low wages etc. Fear of violence meant shops were closed, police called.

1846. Successful strike action at foundry. Unsuccessful strike a year later. 1852 – strikes at Ransomes and May.

Post-1825. Formation of trade unions, especially 50s and 60s. Various petitions for increases in wages: agricultural workers, coal porters (’53), shipwrights (’55). 100 seamen met at the Steam Packet Inn on Duke St in 1853 to establish a society, which quickly grew and gained negotiating power. 1860 Building Dispute over the length of the working day. Also, 1860 – Mayor’s fund to alleviate poverty and unemployment by getting them back to work (“the general conditions of the workers were very low and poverty was very acute ... the Mayor’s appeal eased the position bu little, for it did not deal with the causes of the trouble”).

1862. Establishment of a Working Man’s College “in a room at the Town Hall ... Dr Christian, who was a lecturer on science, became the principle, and with the help of Dr GS Elliston, the Medical Officer of Health, and a few others, the college soon caught on and became a going concern. Lecturers were arranged and scholarships for students offered. All this for ½ d per week ... later on moved to premises in Tower St.” “By 1865, the College had 1000 books and this number was added to by Mr Read who presented 100 more ... the College lasted for several years ... later on, it lacked new entrants and in the end disbanded.”

1865. St Helen’s & St Clement’s Working Men’s Clubs.

Further strikes: builders (’65), painters (’66), shipwrights (’73) etc. Not very successful on the whole.

1872. The Nine Hour Movement – appeal from carpenters, bricklayers, labourers to the Master Builders for a half-day on Saturday . The Master Builders refused, the men came out on strike on 4 May – over 100 in all. The Master Builders offered a ½ d per hour advance, but no change in hours (financially this represented a better deal than the half-day). Master Builders threatened a lockout in case of the men not returning to work. But the pickets went on. Strike committee met daily at 33 St Matthews St. Eventually settled by arbitration, where the men got the half-day and were awarded extra rates for overtime. Significant, as this was an assembly of different types of trades.

April 1874. The Great Agricultural lock-out. Agricultural Labourers Union asked for increase from 13 to 14 shillings per hour for a 54-hour week. Farmers responded with a lock-out. Spread across Eastern and Midlands counties. 500 men on the Ipswich strike funds; open-air meeting on 2 May. Collection boxes handed round on the Old Cattle Market. Farmers set up their own Farmers Defence Association and a scab organisation. “The struggle ended in July after the union had spent £21,365 in strike pay. Several farmers refused to take men back, others were dismissed. Grass replaced grain over hundreds of thousands of acres, and the demand for agricultural labour fell off. So bad were the conditions that many emigrated to the Colonies. It is recorded that in one week seventy persons left Suffolk for Canada. It was often the painful duty of Mr Arch [secretary of Agricultural Labourers Union] to advise the men to accept lower wages. This lockout almost broke up the nation.”

1875. Formation of Ipswich Representation League. Contested by-election following death of Tory MP Cobbold. Their candidate: William Newton from Stepney. Election attracted national interest as it was one of the first to follow the Secret Ballot Act of 1872. Election on 1 January 1876: Con 2213, Lab 1607.

(“Tailoring, one of the oldest known trades, was first introduced by Adam and Eve, although we do not know what kind of needles they used, whether they were “between” or “shapes”!”)

1876 Dock Dispute. “No organisation existed to assist the dock-workers; they had to strike the best bargain they could on the spot.”

1884. The first Trades Council for Ipswich. W.E. Wingate [another of my great-grandfathers was 23rd President; R. Ratcliffe the 21st. [The last chapter of Volume I is dedicated to its first 25 years]


More to follow...


Paul Graham’s photographs, particularly his pictures of Britain in the 1980s, are empty of what we would usually call events. Like Patrick Keiller’s lingering shots, they present landscapes and people in an unpolished, unspectacular light.

The photographs which make up A1 – the great north road are in deep contrast to “on the road” sequences like Robert Frank’s The Americans. Frank’s photos appear to show momentary bursts of activity or revelation, as though he had sat through hours of nothingness in order to capture his own brilliant moment. They create an alternative reality which may have little to do with the scenes which they purport to convey. We think of them now as showing the myth of Americana, but we forget that they played an important role in creating that myth.

Graham’s photos, on the other hand, show those hours of nothingness. Indeed, they show more than hours; what we see is not just the Britain of 1981, but the history which has made the Britain of 1981. It acknowledges that Britain is inseparable from its history, but it also shows it at (what we now know is) a pivotal moment in time.

The series follows the route of the A1 northwards, from the City of London up to Edinburgh. So we inevitably begin outside the solid stone walls of the bank, with two young upstarts smiling over a piece of paper and an unseeing woman passing them, a little out-of-focus.

We barely recognise them as humans, but then nor do they recognise us. They are inextricably linked with what they do, with a system of money-making which keeps us at arm’s length. Coming first in the series, we might expect this photo to set the scene, but in fact it is quite out of kilter with the rest of the series. It is more like one of Frank’s photos, in that it captures a moment which then becomes an emblem of what we associate with the City (the point of which, lest we forget, is its resistance to being seized in an image).

A half-hour drive up the A1, and we see another woman. She stands waiting for a bus at Mill Hill in north-west London. The wind reddens her face and blows back her jacket, and her hands, plunged into pockets, clutch her hips. She looks straight at us, and however we interpret her expression, she sees us.

There is no romanticism or mythology here. The photograph speaks for itself and without making any assumptions of the subject, it suggests a way of life. The photograph of the bankers is dated, but this one is not. The graffiti (KGB / PUNKS) may have changed, perhaps the flyovers have collapsed, but the subject matter and the composition still speak to us.

As we drive further north, we see the people who maintain the circulation of goods around the United Kingdom: the truck-drivers, and the service station attendants who keep them fed on bacon sandwiches, ketchup, strong cups of tea. In the corner of a motel room sits a bright red bible on a white bedside cabinet. In another extraordinary picture, a sign saying “hotel” stands in the middle of a burning field. Was there a hotel here once? Are those Gideon bibles going up in flames?

Graham’s other projects during the 1980s speak of more explicit themes: recession and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although these photos share the documentary effect of the A1 photos, what is interesting about them is that they could never have appeared alongside newspaper reports of the day.

The pictures in Beyond caring of DHSS offices show people staring defeat in the face, or people who long ago accepted that society had defeated them. Taken from floor-level, you can almost step into the realities which these photos depict. You can smell the stale cigarette butts that litter the floor; you can read the cheerily helpful notices on the wall that give the lie to the hopelessness of unemployment. Children and pushchairs are present in virtually every scene. Those children are in their late twenties now. The younger men and women are approaching retirement. The older ones are probably dead. The social security offices have since been closed down, or spruced up and sub-contracted to the private sector. But despite these cosmetic improvements, the mood within will not have changed. But no newspaper photographer would dare (or be allowed) to step inside, and so the subjects of these photos are reduced to statistics.

Troubled land is the last series in Graham’s 1980s trilogy, and the most strikingly different. There are no people in the foregrounds of these photos, nobody looking back at you. With their huge blue skies and terraced houses, they are disarmingly passive, normal and disquieting at the same time. Unlike most war photography, an image like “Roundabout, Andersontown, Belfast, 1984” (above) does not record a sudden moment of agony. Whereas many war photographs only show what is happening “right now” (and can therefore make it difficult to work out what happened a moment ago, or a year ago, or what will happen as a result of this event), “Roundabout” is more like a moving picture. Wondering what could be “wrong” about an apparently normal scene, our eyes wander through the image and gradually pick up clues: the “P.I.R.A.” graffiti on the railing, the rubble on the roundabout, the street-lamps craning like birds without their bulbs and with election posters stuck to their necks. Then we see a soldier on the left-hand side running to catch up his colleague who is further down the road. A man walks by with a dog, pretending not to notice what is going on around him.

In an essay on war photography, John Berger writes: “The image seized by the camera is doubly violent and both violences reinforce the same contrast: the contrast between the photographed moment and all others.” Paul Graham’s photographs of conflict, whether geographical, economic, political, etc, blur this contrast. They bring us closer to those who were there in that situation. By not capturing what we would usually think of as the moment of violence, they stretch time and make the image linger in our minds. Keeping one’s distance from the horrors that we see thus becomes impossible.

Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006 is at Whitechapel Gallery until 19 June 2011. Admission is free.