Friday, February 18, 2005

Mr Livingstone I Presume?

Last night I picked up a copy of London Reviews - A selection from the London Review of Books 1983 -19851. In it I found a review by Neal Ascherson of Citizen Ken by John Carvel2. Parts of it read as though the last twenty years had not happened.

Surprisingly Livingstone believes in hunter-gatherer State of Nature socialism with the Fall being the introduction of agriculture (which brought with it wealth, surplus, hierarchies and technology and modern society with its medicines, increased life expectancy and horible things like that).
[Hunter-gatherers] were 'a very together, well-organised and sophisticated proto-culture'. Everything that we are today has emerged from the hunter-gatherer tradition. 'All of our ability, the development of our intellect, all of our early culture grows out of those kinship groups operating overwhelmingly in a co-operative way ... The hunter-gatherer is what humanity is'.

So far, so Fourier, or Rousseau or St-Simon. The most interesting questions about state-of-nature utopian thinkers is where they insert the Fall and what they consider to have played the serpent. Ken Livingstone has no doubts. It was the introduction of agriculture, the Neolithic revolution 'twenty thousand years ago' which ruined everything. For a start, it accelerated the growth of population until the ecological balance collapsed. 'Hunter-gatherers have a basic diet which means you can't wean children easily. It's all hard, scrunchy stuff. There's no animals' milk or mushy foods.' And with the junk food of planted crops came the creation of wealth, surpluses, hierarchies, technology.
'If you look at the way the City of London works, it is operating in exactly the same way as the most primitive of those societies based on agriculture ... The basic motive force is greed and exploitation, which is there from the start once you move away from that co-operative group. We haven't learned to cope with surpluses and distribute them without greed becoming the major motive factor and the desire for power over others. I do not think that is a natural state for humankind to be in.'
This is all fearful heresy to those - like myself - reared on the work of V. Gordon Childe, whose Marxist version of the natural state was located precisely in the world of Neolithic agriculture, perceived as a non-competitive, co-operative and equal society bonded together by kinship and by the need to give and receive food surpluses to relieve crop failure. For Gordon Childe, the 'origins of inequality' were to be found in the invention of metallurgy, creating, out of the families who possessed the secret, hereditary castes which would eventually develop into a primitive bourgeoisie with all its attendant vices of greed, privilege and war.

But then Gordon Childe, as a Communist, took a basically optimistic view of history. His metallurgical Fall might have wrecked the 'undifferentiated substantive' of primitive farmers. It was, however, the first 'contradiction' in a dialectic which would in the end create equality and co-operation at a higher synthesis - the victory of the industrial world proletariat. What is fascinating about 'Red Ken', so much a child of the Seventies, is his pessimism. A man who does not see history as in at least some sense a progress will never make a recognisable Communist, whether Stalinist or Trot. Talking, or rambling on, to Carvel, Livingstone derides the whole idea of progressive evolution, biological or social. 'It's there in the thinking of a lot of people around Stalin - that man is getting better, that we are part of this inevitable upward progress. We're not really ... We're still trying to adjust to changes that came over us twenty thousand years ago.' Well, it was there in the thinking of a lot of people around Karl Marx as well. But Ken Livingstone, a man for compassionate issues rather than ideologies who was brought up in South London suburbs rather than among proletarian terraces, simply points to the city around him as evidence of negative evolution. People now live on their own, surrounded by other isolated people. They do not gather tubers with their comrades, neither do they enjoy that 'music, dancing, relating to each other, the constant flow of conversation' which is proper to the species. 'The isolation you get in society, particularly urban society, where people are frightened and embarrassed to turn to other people for support, means that we are living in a way which is completely at odds with the best part of fifteen million years of evolution which turned us into what we are.'
So according to John Carvel Livingstone does not believe in "progress". I think that seeing progress as some ineluctable force is wrong. What we do have is the opportunity to make things better. Indeed this may be through"a dialectic which would in the end create equality and co-operation at a higher synthesis - the victory of the industrial world proletariat" or it may be through some other means but the opportunity is there.

Asherson then discusses that 80's staple Ken's lizards and salamanders.
And at this point Citizen Ken brings on the reptiles. Everyone who can read a paper knows that he keeps lizards and salamanders; given the sort of press he gets, millions probably think he uses them to enrich the cauldrons of lesbian separatist covens dancing on Peckham Rye. In fact, he uses them not for food but for thought. Some lizards, he explained to Carvel in the second part of this immortal conversation, reproduce by parthenogenesis - females reproducing themselves without male involvement. (First the Russians discovered such a lizard. The Americans dismissed it as fraud until they discovered one of their own. 'So it's now established that the superpower blocs have parthenogenic lizard parity,' says Livingstone.)

He sees an analogy here with his view of human development. The lizards who developed parthenogenesis at once collected an enormous short-term advantage: by avoiding all the dangers and uncertainties of sexual reproduction, they solved the problem of keeping the species going. But in the long term, the solution must lead to extinction. The gene pool is not mixed, healthy mutation and adaptation cease, and a population of identical, mindless little creatures without an original idea or physical variation among them will be easily wiped out by some catastrophe.
Ascherson then pulls out a section describing Livingstone's politics:
Ken Livingstone is a utopian socialist, a man who does not fit most of the categories crammed around his neck by the media. He is anything but a Trotskyist, although he will gladly use small Trot groups for support when it suits his tactics. He is not a working-class politician formed by poverty, but neither - as Carvel points out - is he a 'paperback Marxist' from a 'lumpen polytechnic'. He had no real higher education, and his grasp of theory, as the hunter-gatherer parthenogenesis hypothesis shows, is wonderfully sketchy and personal. In most ways, he is more of a classical anarchist than a Marxist. His style is to work through a constantly changing series of caucuses, cabals and temporary alliances; one of the reasons the Parliamentary Labour Party hates him so fervently is Livingstone dislikes the discipline of permanent political structures, even though he still seems anxious to enter the House of Commons. If there is anyone in European politics whom he resembles, it is Erhard Eppler, the veteran Social Democrat in West Germany, an infinitely graver and more consistent thinker who nonetheless commands a similar coalition of leftists, life-stylers, Green-minded socialists and nuclear disarmers, whose outlook is also pessimistic and who was the first in his party to welcome the 'end of growth' and put forward a sweeping reform programme which did not amount to the mere redistribution of capitalist surplus in years of expansion.

Ken Livingstone complains that the society he lives in has almost killed off the capacity for social 'mutation'. But, as a matter of fact, he himself is a mutation. Citizen Ken is one of the first known examples of a new strain of politician entirely resistant to all known forms of media poison. The last ten years have brought campaigns against the personal and public lives of selected left-wing politicians of a viciousness scarcely seen in Britain since the Victorian period, but none of these campaigns - not even that against Arthur Scargill - acquired the intensity of the hounding of Livingstone. Scargill and Benn, of an older generation, have acquired signs of paranoia under this treatment; Tatchell was nearly destroyed by it. But Livingstone actually feeds on pesticide. The more hysterical the abuse, the more provocative he becomes. The quotes about the IRA, the Royal Wedding, gay rights and black pride continue to flow; his wretched Labour group on the GLC have often paid the price, pockmarked by the shower of missiles aimed at their leader and obliged to watch many of their most 'popular' measures obliterated from view by the latest scandal over 'Red Ken' and his big mouth. Meanwhile, Livingstone himself was turning the publicity steadily to his own advantage, emerging as a skilled, unflappable and charming radio and television panellist and interviewee. Increasingly, his case has been heard, and Londoners have developed for him both affection and some respect. Carvel observes that 'Livingstone's crucifixion in the media formed the basis of his subsequent political strength and popularity.'
He is no administrator and , really, no hero. He has a cheerful super-rat gift for dodging upwards through chinks in situations. He is a shameless carpet-bagger and opportunist with a gift for bringing together coalitions of people who all slightly suspect him for different reasons but find his flair irresistible (in this, he has something in common with Lech Walesa, whom he probably regards as a clerical fascist). As a schoolboy, taught at Tulse Hill Comprehensive by the expansive Philip Hobsbaum, he became, in his own words, what he was to remain: 'an argumentative, cheeky little brat'. John Carvel, who obviously admires him, often seems in this book to shake his head with exasperation over the chances Ken takes with his reputation.
So there we have a twenty-year old description of Ken Livingstone, the 'pessimistic', 'argumentative, cheeky little brat' whose 'crucifixion in the media formed the basis of his subsequent political strength and popularity'. That puts Livingstone's recent contretemps with the Evening Standard into perspective. His relationship to the media can be summed up with a quote from Goethe "that which does not kill me makes me stronger". Has anything changed over the past twenty years?

1Spice, Nicholas, ed. "London Reviews - A selection from the London Review of Books 1983 - 1985". London: Chatto & Windus. 1985. p71-77.
2Carvel, John. "Citizen Ken". London: Chatto & Windus. 1984.

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