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In this week’s magazine | Why empires fall

A first look inside this week’s New Statesman.

 

16 MAY 2014 ISSUE

 

COMRADES AT WAR: EDWARD PLATT ON THE IMPLOSION OF THE UK’s FAR-LEFT SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY

 

MEHDI HASAN: PRESSURE INSIDE LABOUR TO SHUN A TOXIC COALITION AND GO IT ALONE IN 2015

 

Plus

 

FROM ANCIENT ROME TO PUTIN’S RUSSIA: TOM HOLLAND ON THE RISE AND FALL OF EMPIRES

KATE FOX ON ENGLISHNESS AND THE TABOO OF NATIONAL CULTURE

RAFAEL BEHR: LABOUR BASHES GOVE BUT WOULDN’T UNDO HIS REFORMS

JOHN GRAY ON THE GLOBAL POWER OF MAO’S LITTLE RED BESTSELLER

GEORGE EATON ON ELECTORAL ARITHMETIC AND LABOUR’S SEATS VERSUS VOTES DILEMMA

A GALAXY OF BRAIN CELLS AND LAUGHTER – BRIAN BLESSED ASKS: “WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?”

PETER WILBY ON GARY BARLOW’S TAX AVOIDANCE AND BRITAIN’S BILLIONAIRES

 

 

COMRADES AT WAR: EDWARD PLATT ON THE SWP

 

Edward Platt investigates the Socialist Workers Party, which is imploding in the wake of a rape scandal. The collapse of the SWP has exacerbated a more general crisis of the extra-parliamentary left, he writes. The alleged sexual harassment and rape of “Comrade W” by “Comrade Delta”, a senior SWP member, was a sign of an undemocratic and exploitative party ethic, Platt argues:

 

[The SWP’s] broader culture was also called into question. “When you treat human beings as disposable objects in the name of la causa, when appropriation of activists’ labour and good will is the norm, when exploitation of your own side goes unchallenged, sexual abuse is one probable outcome,” wrote Anna Chen, who worked unpaid on various SWP press campaigns, including Stop the War. She believed the SWP’s habit of “ripping off their activists for wages, thieving their intellectual efforts and claiming credit for their successes” had initiated a pattern of “diminishing regard for their members”, which had led to the point “where even someone’s body is no longer their own”.

 

The turmoil in the SWP has left a cluster of other far-left parties in Britain poised to pick up socialist activists - if they can avoid repeating its mistakes:

 

David Renton [an SWP member] and 165 other people left in January to form a new group called rs21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century) and he believes the SWP has been left with no more than 200 active members. [The Marxist writer] Richard Seymour says its rump of “worker-ist activists” is “brain-dead, unpleasant and thuggish” – and destined to become more so. “It is toxic,” he says. “It’s doomed.”

 

[The student member] Rosie Warren’s verdict is even more damning: she says the only thing left for the leadership to do is to issue a full apology, and then “declare that anything that was ever good about the SWP has been utterly destroyed, and pack up and go home”.

 

[The SWP’s national secretary] Charlie Kimber says the party is “far from doomed”, though he concedes that the left cannot afford any more splits. Unfortunately, its propensity for internecine conflict seems undiminished. The International Socialist Network, which Richard Seymour, China Miéville and others set up after leaving the SWP, lasted less than a year before disintegrating over an online argument about a sexual practice called “race play”. Seymour now believes it will take a generation to reconstruct the left, and might not happen at all. But the implosion of the SWP has given it a starting point, at least. David Renton believes it will have to begin with an appraisal of the failings of the party to which he belonged for most of his adult life. “Our mistakes were so awful that anyone trying to rebuild the left is going to have to say, ‘We are not at all like them.’”

 

 

MEHDI HASAN: GROWING PRESSURE FOR LABOUR TO GO IT ALONE IN 2015

 

In his Lines of Dissent column, Mehdi Hasan argues that Labour has good reason to go it alone next year and avoid being bounced into a coalition with the “tainted and toxic” Lib Dems. Minority government has been the “elephant in the negotiating room” until now, he writes, but senior Labour figures are increasingly opposed to the idea of a Lib-Lab coalition:

 

“Under no circumstances would we want the Liberal Democrats in a formal coalition with us,” an influential member of the shadow cabinet tells me. “It would be incredibly damaging to us.” “It would be difficult to form a coalition with the Lib Dems,” says another shadow minister, pointing to his party’s relentless attacks on Nick “the Un-Credible Shrinking Man” Clegg.

 

Senior Lib Dems’ claims that a minority government would be weak and undemocratic are brushed off:

 

This is “desperation” on their part, counters a senior Labour frontbencher. Power-hungry Lib Dems, he tells me, don’t want to hand over the keys to their ministerial cars and offices. The reality is “we could form a minority government and we could know we’d be in power for five years”.

 

[. . .]

 

Miliband hasn’t yet formed a view on whether or not to go solo come May 2015. Yet a growing number of senior Labour figures are now of the opinion that if (when?) the election produces another hung parliament, their party shouldn’t have to, and – more importantly – doesn’t have to, start wooing the Lib Dems. “Sitting in government for five years with a bunch of bloody timid compromisers is not what we should be about,” says a Labour frontbencher who backed a Lib-Lab coalition in 2010.

 

 

COVER STORY: THE FALL OF EMPIRES

 

For this week’s cover story, the novelist and historian Tom Holland argues that the fall of Rome still shapes the west’s understanding of the notion of empire:

 

What rises must fall. This seems to most of us almost as much a law in the field of geopolitics as it is in physics. Every western country that has ever won an empire or a superpower status for itself has lived with a consciousness of its own mortality.

 

From anxieties expressed by the poet Rudyard Kipling at the height of the British empire in 1897 to nervous pronouncements by the US comptroller general in 2007 about American immorality and overconfidence, the example of Rome’s decline and fall has been adduced throughout history, Holland argues. Today, he suggests, Putin’s Russia is the global power where “the tug of the Roman ideal” can be felt most keenly:

 

Moscow, to western eyes, does not look very much like Rome. There is no Senate there, no Capitol Hill. No buildings, as they do in Paris or Washington, seek to ape the look of Augustan Rome. Even so, if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can still be felt as a palpable influence on its leader’s policy, it is Russia. In 1783, when Catherine the Great annexed Crimea, it was in pursuit of a decidedly Roman dream: that of restoring the Byzantine empire under the two-headed eagle on her own banner. “You have attached the territories,” Potemkin wrote to her, “which Alexander and Pompey just glanced at, to the baton of Russia, and Chersonesus – the source of our Christianity, and thus of our humanity – is now in the hands of its daughter.” No one, as yet, has written in quite these terms to Putin; but if someone did, it would not be entirely a surprise.

 

 

THE POLITICS COLUMN: RAFAEL BEHR

 

This week, the NS’s political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that although the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is “consumed by dread that his work will be undone by a left-wing establishment”, his worries are unfounded. Labour loves to bash Gove, he writes, but if the party makes it into government in 2015 the “forces of Govism” will not be halted; Gove’s schools revolution will be “modified, not reversed”:

 

That won’t be enough for large sections of the [Labour Party] and cries of betrayal will surely come. Yet for the time being [Ed] Miliband is protected by public animosity to the Education Secretary. As long as the policy can be dressed in anti-Gove slogans, the activists are on board. Gove plays along by insisting on ever greater leaps forward, smelling counter-revolution in every compromise. If he could see how little of his legacy is under threat from Labour or Lib Dem policy, he would embrace the fellow-travellers in other parties, which is the last thing they want. It is lucky for them that he cannot.

 

*Read the Politics Column in full below*

 

 

BRIAN BLESSED: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?

 

The actor and adventurer Brian Blessed is the latest contributor to our What Makes Us Human? series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. Blessed’s response to the question is characteristically ebullient:

 

Each of us has over a hundred billion cells in our brain, comparable to the number of stars in a giant galaxy. The cerebral cortex is liberation. No longer are we at the mercy of our reptilian brain. I experienced the cortex in all its glory when I reached 28,400 feet on Mount Everest in 1993 without oxygen. It was a stunning sensation, a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points. When I closed my eyes coming down the mountain, I could see the cortex and observed millions of flashing lights, dissolving and emerging in a sea of cosmic delight – I couldn’t stop laughing.

 

We have so much to be proud of. In our insatiable quest for knowledge we are revealed as fine, brave explorers who are heaven-bent on seeking limitless horizons. Science works, though it is not perfect and it can be misused; I find myself huffing and puffing trying to keep up with it all. Exploratory spacecraft have been launched to study 70 worlds. Twelve human beings have been to the moon. We are the children of stardust.

 

 

Plus

 

Laurie Penny: abortion on demand is a woman’s reproductive right

In Edinburgh Ed Smith feels British for the first time – but is it too late?

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: Press Gallery grumbles about James Landale’s Latin grace

Alan Cochrane charts the new rise of the Willies – Edinburgh-London commuters

Will Self keeps his mother’s spirit alive with a production line of American pancakes

Sophie McBain on the surprisingly political world of breadmaking

Erica Wagner on Lynn Barber, the doyenne of celebrity interviews

Kate Mossman on the snap and crackle of Neil Young’s latest pop offering

Philip Maughan reviews Akhil Sharma’s darkly comic memoir Family Life

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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