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Will Self: How to let yourself become part of LA’s autopia

In all civilised cultures there are patterns of social conformity that act to align the wayward individual with her conformist fellows as invisibly but irresistibly as magnetic waves arrange iron filings around a lodestone. 

"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles,” or so the opening line of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero would have it. For myself, I’ve never seen the least evidence for this, any more than I have that happy families are all alike. Everywhere I’ve ever driven in LA, its inhabitants have cheerfully braided me into their steely weave until I too have merged with their allconsuming automotive abandon.

This time, arriving from Dallas, I was offered for $40 extra per day a retro-styled Dodge Challenger in DayGlo orange with a black stripe running from hood to trunk. This is a reincarnation of the humpbacked shark of a car synonymous with those Seventies belted-cardie-wearers (and sometime crime-fighters), Starsky and Hutch. Without any ado I heaved my plastic, roared off the lot on to Airport Boulevard and passed the Airport Endoscopy Centre – a timely reminder of what a pain in the ass 21st-century air travel can be.

In all civilised cultures there are patterns of social conformity that act to align the wayward individual with her conformist fellows as invisibly but irresistibly as magnetic waves arrange iron filings around a lodestone. In Los Angeles, not to drive is an aberration on a par with being . . . well, homeless. Heading north on La Cienega I passed CAR CASH: Borrow Against Your Car, and pondered the ghastly predicament of those who had sub-prime car loans; at best, driving a car in a big city is a ceaseless calibration of time, speed, distance and money, by which the human psyche is transmogrified into a hideous chimera, part satnav, part spreadsheet. But to have the added anxiety that the rubber matting might be pulled from beneath your feet . . . well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Coming down off Baldwin Hills, with their dipping-prehistoric-bird oil pumps, I passed under the Metro Expo Line and fell to considering the bizarre history of LA transportation. Even now, in 2013, the light railway line from downtown to Santa Monica, some 20 miles distant, is only just about to reach the coast, joining together by public transport two urban centres that became incorporated into greater LA decades ago. True, there was once an extensive streetcar network that covered the entire LA basin, but by the early Twenties – around the same time car ownership reached one per head of the population – the steel tracks began to be pulled up to make way for more tyre ones.

This Eleatic paradox lies at the very core of LA’s polymorphously perverse being: the light railway line halving the distance to Santa Monica and then halving it again and so never arriving, while the Streamline Moderne skyscrapers, chelonian under their copper shells, win the race in a few short years. Looking at photographs of LA in the Twenties, I’m always struck by this technological discontinuity: the buildings so sleekly speedy, while the cars retain the flimsily foursquare aspect of horseless buggies. Narrowly avoided by the snout of my Challenger, a cyclist huffing along beside the six lanes of spluttering traffic is just such an anachronism. Reyner Banham, in The Architecture of Four Ecologies, his Starsky & Hutch-era survey of Los Angeles, coined the term “autopia” to describe the city’s vast concrete graticule of freeways and boulevards.

In European cities, despite the botched bits of Le Corbusier that have been bunged down on them, car transport remains quite at variance with the built environment: the Arc de Triomphe is inexorably eroded by the circulation of Citroëns, but in LA the car is the built environment; traffic reports have the epochal character of earthquake warnings and by night the city’s very fabric ripples in the convection of its own exhaust fumes, so that merging with the freeway one is flipped end over end, a satellite orbiting the daemonic earth.

I concede, when it came to it I probably wouldn’t last five minutes but I still have a childlike passion for Los Angeles, and in particular for its car culture. To be in a place where people say porte cochère with no hint of affectation (indeed, “porte cochère” is about the only thing they say unaffectedly) is some kind of strange liberation for me. Everywhere else I drive the traffic jam presents itself as a vicious instantiation of the human predicament under late capitalism, but in LA it’s just the stuff of a very ordinary workaday madness.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.