In this week's New Statesman: Islamophobia on trial

China's rise, America's fall | Hari Kunzru dances to Kraftwerk | US Writing Special

Breivik's paranoid fantasies

As the trial of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik begins, the New Statesman reflects on the wider ideology, and hatred of multiculturalism, that informed his actions. Read the New Statesman's leader, "The most shocking thing about Breivik is how many agree with his opinions", here.

Without the declaration that Breivik is too insane to stand trial, Daniel Trilling, the author of the forthcoming Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right, writes that we’re forced to ask where such hate doctrine in Europe and the US originates from:

To think that every cultural conservative is a secret extremist or a Breivik-style killer-in-waiting would be [a] paranoid fantasy. But the point about far-right ideology is that it is parasitical on the mainstream. 

The fascism of the 1920s and 1930s succeeded because it played on wider fears, winning the support of those who would never have thought of themselves as “extremists”. The Nazis used anti-Semitism because it already existed in German society. Their successors today use Islamophobia because it already exists in our societies. From a tiny grain of truth – the threat of Islamist terror – has been spun a whole mythology about the imminent collapse of western civilisation and, whether they realise it or not, conservative ideologues are helping spread the poison that enables the far right to grow. 

Elsewhere in the magazine, Peter Wilby considers Islamophobia’s insidious printed form, referring to “studies [that] suggest more than two-thirds of British press stories about Muslims portray them as a threat to British values.”

China's rise, America's fall

The financial crisis has seen the global economy turned on its head. In back-to-back essays this week, the New Statesman charts the economic rise of China against the US’s concurrent decline. 

In “The beginning of a new world order”, the journalist and co-founder of the think tank Demos, Martin Jacques, demonstrates how, as we emerge from the wreckage of the global recession, China - rather than America - is set to dominate through both soft and hard power.

Alongside this, Edward Luce, the author of Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline, reveals, from his extraordinary access to Pentagon officials, that even they admit the era of US global dominance is over.

Hari Kunzru dances to Kraftwerk

On 15 April, the novelist Hari Kunzru joined 449 neophiliacs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for one of an eight-night retrospective performance by Kraftwerk, “generally reckoned to be the most influential pop musicians of the past 30 years”. 

Kunzru reconsiders the German electronic outfit’s “rigorous aesthetic modernism” – “They seem to celebrate post-war Europe as perhaps the ultimate “nonplace”, banal but somehow perfected, and sing out its banality as a kind of transcendent pop joy” – and describes the joy instilled in him last Sunday by these four now middle-aged men:

We are experiencing the aural equivalent of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, a towering symbol of the New. And we are finding the New quite funky, thank you. The auditorium is soon filled with 450 very lucky New Yorkers succumbing to the sexual discipline of the disco, bodies jerking masochistically to relentless, synthetic, industrial beats.

In the Critics

The bulk of the Critics section this week is devoted to an American writing special. Mark Greif and Heidi Julavits, editors from two of the US’s leading literary periodicals, n+1 and the Believer, examine the recent flourishing of “little magazines” across the Atlantic. “The field of US small magazines has grown in the past few years,” Greif writes – especially magazines perched at the intersection of politics and culture. “The prospects for left-wing cultural life seem more generous in 2012. Maybe that’s because the ethos that you should make art and thought, not to feel like an artist, but because you have something to say, has found an opening in history again.” Julavits is slightly more pessimistic about the prospects for long-form literary and cultural journalism: “No matter how well (or not well) something might be written, the new challenge is this: how much time a reader will read any text before his or her brain flips to another text.”

Also in this US Writing Special, Sophie Elmhirst profiles Jonathan Safran Foer; the novelist and critic Ben Marcus asks why American writers today are obsessed with apocalypse; Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Shalom Auslander about his novel Hope: A Tragedy, in which the protagonist discovers an elderly Anne Frank living in his attic in upstate New York; Olivia Laing reviews The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, a contribution to the debate raging in the US now about “how fictional non-fiction is allowed to be” and Jonathan Derbyshire revisits Michael Harrington’s book The Other America: Poverty in the United States on the 50th anniversary of its publication. 

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

All this plus Denis MacShane on the implications for the democratic left if François Hollande is victorious in the French presidential election, Nicholas Wapshott argues that it’s not yet time to write off Mitt Romney, and Mehrezia Labidi, a speaker in Tunisia’s parliament, tells Mehdi Hasan how Islam, feminism and democracy are compatible.

 

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.