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Review: 1997: The Future that Never Happened by Richard Power Sayeed (Zed Press 2017)

Gerry Fitzpatrick

27 January 2018


Zed press are a radical political publishing house who choose their writers carefully. Their reputation for the highest quality analysis was established in the late 1970s when they began publishing books by an intellectual milieu critical of the direction of the Communist Party that at that time dominated Marxist politics and theory in academia. After 1991 and the fall of Stalin's regimes in Eastern Europe they continued as a group that established their authors as radical up-top­-date thinkers on history, sexuality and culture. This, as one of their recent books indicated, they achieved from a political standpoint between the “New Left and Trotskyism.” Given that both these traditions are, or have become more directly involved with providing services to activists now, it has had an effect on Zed and its attempt to continue the Stuart Hall tradition of demonstrating the social dynamics of “cultures of resistance” to the ruling class hegemony.

Now that that hegemony is in crisis, it throws into question the adequacy of all political and social theory. Having moved to support the socialist occupation of the “centre” by activists, the New Left and Trotskyism are actively concerned to preserve and extend recent gains. This important and significant contemporary development means that Zed can be more accurately described as occupying a position of resistance by means of a sociology of non-conformism, which has currently a very tenuous relationship to current Marxist and socialist organization. This new book by Richard Sayeed can be taken then as a change of approach.

On Modernity Versus Class Politics

The radical meaning and historical significance of alternative cultures that blossomed outside the workplace in the 1960s, had by the late 1970s been stymied by a combination of piece-meal reforms and the rise of the neo-conservative domination of public discourse. This was, as professor Stuart Hall put in 1979 added up to, “the great moving right show”. The problem with this analysis was, that it described an ideological totality where all the ideas were related and worked together without any gaps. However, Hall did indicate this change had as one of its aims the traditional attack on working class living standards and organisation. But as the late Paul Foot would write, the change in ideas was in fact a softening-up exercise for the Ridley Plan—a paramilitary plan of combined police and government action to ensure that the de-nationalization, privatization and the implementation of industry wide closures—would politically succeed. In what has been described as a “civil war without guns” the social and political devastation that took place following the defeat of organised labour—particularly after the year-long Miners’ Strike (1984?1985).

However, the success was not total—marginalized communities did fight back—in Ireland (1980-3) where local and international support for republican Hunger Strikers produced the first modern republican MPs; the revolts in Brixton and the working class inner cities in 1981 and 1985 and finally central London against the poll tax in 1990. But more importantly, for the content and argument of The Future That Never Happened is the hidden history of modernity (1997-2017).

I say “hidden” as Sayeed's analysis has an estranged relationship to the theory described above, in that Sayeed's analysis attempts to distance itself from the “cultures of resistance” model theorized by Hall and his influential department at the Open University. Hall, having ushered in the era of new social conformity, when at the OU had become more interested in the failure of conservative governments and society generally-to control or suppress cultural and social change. Beginning with the co-authored, Policing The Crisis (1978) Hall showed that the Windrush Generation had produced a more confident second generation of “Black Briton's” and how they had resisted police and media targeting to form a more socially conscious politically active black community. As the 80s progressed Hall was impressed by how a small group of LGBT activists were disproportionately successful in tackling conservative governments and media moral panics. Hall lived to witness former hostile conservative politicians who supported a ban on the “promotion of homosexuality” to support Gay Marriage. In other words Hall had lived to see the triumph of his theory of social resistance driven by modernity. This view of modernity according to Anthony Giddens comprised a consciousness which amounts to, “a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention”.

Sayeed instead returns to the sociology of the pre-Hall era to stress the opposite characteristics of modernity—of Weber and the rationalisation and disenchantment from the world. Where Hall looking at ideological domination of neo-conservativism found powerful and successful “counter narratives”. Sayeed, looking at Blair and New Labour gives an account of how the counter culture and social movements were somehow appropriated and undermined by the Blairite aristocratic embrace. To give this approach gravitas Sayeed gives an account of the 1997 Scottish Labour Conference which, given in the derisive manner of John O'Farrell, tells the story of how those who were now seen as not part of the New Labour project were quickly voted off and out of the party. When you read that it was two feminists who had managed to survive previous votes that constituted the “threat” to the new neo-liberal consensus, you get the point of Sayeed's insistence on how Blair saw the political effect of his own persona and what it would mean for those who he thought were a threat. This was Margaret Thatcher's conservative government by New Labour means. And Sayeed has only been the most recent commentator to make that point. So why go back?

Part of the journalist’s job is to tell a dramatic story in the hope of being asked to write the “stranger than fiction” mini-series and there is no reason why this book should not be dramatized for television by Sayeed as it would help to draw a line under the New Labour's neo-liberal credo. That is what Sayeed attempts in the text but fails simply because Sayeed's high prose and reportage is too often about forlorn incidents and images. So much so that the writing makes the reader increasingly forlorn as well which clearly not his intention.

But there is an aspect of Blair's 1997 win that Sayeed strangely neglects: the notorious non-aggression pact with Murdoch. Others have written of the day when Tony met Rupert, but for Sayeed to almost eliminate it or not even to explore the New Labour relationship with Murdoch—to the extent he does with Dacre and the Daily Mail—was definitely an oversight. To be fair a book that is critical of Lord Dacre and Murdoch would indeed be one that any ordinary publishing editor would be more than wary of. The space that could have been devoted to this is occupied in the book, by an in-depth analysis of Blur and Oasis albums and their relationship to ironic versus the macho portrayal of English life—the latter being momentarily appropriated by New Labour—this is time and space that would have been better devoted to giving an account of the operation and facts of the pact and what it meant for Labour after Blair made peace with Murdoch.

That said, the initial story of how the Daily Mail became involved in the Stephen Lawrence case is reporting at its best. Sayeed reveals the jaw dropping details of how the Mail had originally planned to rubbish the Lawrence’s and their campaign for justice for their son, who had been stabbed to death in a racist attack. When a black journalist arrived to interview the family and dropped a hint that he had been instructed to undermine the families' campaign; Stephen's father Neville Lawrence, asked the journalist who his editor was and once the journalist gave Dacre's name, Mr Lawrence then correctly described Dacre to the journalist. He was able to do so, as he had recently been in one of Dacre's house's to do some work there. He then called Dacre and identified himself as the person he and his paper were preparing to rubbish.

The upshot was that Dacre not only backed off but later changed tack. The front page of the Daily Mail that later named the suspects as murderers after they had recently been cleared of all charges in court, was as Sayeed details, actually an attack on the judiciary, who Dacre believed were too liberal in their approach to suspects. In refocusing their attack on the liberal judiciary, this was also a way as Sayeed writes, for Dacre and the Mail to deflect attention away from the police’s own cover up of their negligence. Few socialists would have a problem with this investigative journalistic account. It's when Sayeed tries to evaluate and analyse its meaning that any genuine socialist would have problems with Sayeed's reasoning.

First, it is most certainly not the case that Dacre and the Mail were successful in simply manipulating the Lawrence’s for their own ends. Dacre and the Mail despite their power and influence did not add up to the “establishment”. Nor could they—otherwise Sayeed’s account of Mandela's meeting with the Lawrence's and the positive effect that that had on the case could not have had the effect of reopening of the case. Sayeed also misses the possibility that the reason why Dacre acted to help the Lawrence family was to protect himself and his reputation from any possible future legal action for libel or defamation connected to his original notorious intentions. Besides, Dacre's reported aim to “protect the police” was as Sayeed later writes was dramatically undermined by the police themselves as the scandal of the police infiltration and spying on the Lawrence campaign was exposed. All this can't be adequately or sufficiently explained by the “symbolic exchange” model that Sayeed adopts; where-in the cost of the Lawrence Campaign's social “visibility” given by Dacre, New Labour and the Mail ensured, ultimately—their political invisibility to the country at large. Similarly, Sayeed's account of how the black politics associated with the term “institutional racism” were neutralized by the McPherson Inquiry also can't be sufficiently explained by the symbolic exchange model - for the simple reason as we have found here, even if you have political determination and support—establishing the precise relationships between a dishonest police force and those who they politically favour may be your aim, but not the result as John Stalker and John Stevens found out to their cost.

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