How I grew to see that without broad Marxism the arts and its unserious, networked and commodified lit-libs are for sale.
An extract from the essay ‘Being a Marxist Poet in the Twenty-First Century’ by Kevin Higgins.
More than a quarter of a century ago a man-child called Kevin retired from politics as he turned twenty seven. He had joined the then somewhat notorious Trotskyist group, the Militant Tendency[i], at the age of fifteen. After twelve years of activism, which began in membership of Galway West Labour Youth the month the Falklands War kicked off and fizzled like the saddest of fireworks in London in the aftermath of Mrs Thatcher’s Poll Tax, against which he had been a somewhat obsessively focused campaigner, it was over. “Retirement” was the face-saving word he used to describe his departure from politics. From the inside it felt like a personal tragedy. And it was. After more than a decade as a fiercely loyal ‘comrade’, Kevin had had enough of Militant and they had had enough of him.
Dialectics being the contradictory beasts they are, a total exit from active politics may have been the best thing that could possibly have happened to him right then. But it didn’t feel like that to him. Instead of world socialist revolution, with which history had refused to oblige him, the spectres haunting the little part of Europe with which Kevin was then mostly concerned were, from his point of view, disappointing: Tony Blair and the Celtic Tiger, which got given its name the same year Blair became UK Labour leader: 1994.
Kevin sloped back to Galway from London via the Holyhead ferry that April with a mouthful of bad teeth: he wasn’t much of a one for looking after himself then.
Though he would march to defend the NHS for other people until his shoes disintegrated; he did not partake of such services himself.
Kevin arrived in Galway with no particular plans, apart from a notion that he might do something artistic. Not artistic in the prettifying sense: he had no interest in describing the rocks around Connemara and the like. Indeed, he had little interest in any kind of beauty. Or so he thought. He wanted to express things he had been unable to say during his years as a (partly-self-appointed) leader of the vanguard of the North London semi-lumpen proletariat. Mostly, this would involve going into some detail about all the people and ideas and institutions he was against. It was no small list.
High on it was his endlessly-self-sacrificing former self, who had worked himself some of the way towards a possible early grave, in an attempt to fight the political tide of the early 1990s that was, in the end, more about masochism than socialism. By “doing something artistic”, he meant stuff to do with words – songs, poems, maybe plays, novels… In the last years of his activism, when he was Chair of Enfield Against The Poll Tax in the North London Borough then represented in the House of Commons by, among others, Michael Portillo[ii],he had become increasingly focused on how best to say what needed to be said. It wasn’t enough to say it. It had to be said well. And, if possible, said wittily.
He didn’t know it at the time but writing political letters with a satirical bent to the local papers in Enfield in the very early 1990s was his beginning as a poet.
This Kevin, who was of course me, hoped to escape politics via poetry but also harboured illusions that he might somehow find a way of combining the two. It is a contradiction I have been working out ever since. From the inside it has felt more to be a case of this obvious contradiction working itself out using me as a somewhat extreme public example. Of late this contradiction has grown starker and as a result perhaps been somewhat resolved. In the course of my work as a poet, I regularly meet those strange creatures, the literary liberals, who ascribe to themselves every progressive and humane value while at the same time apparently finding no place in their imaginations for even the possibility of a world not run in the interests of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Apple Inc. They are the sort of people who, if they didn’t necessarily agree with her, would at least have understood where artist Tracy Emin was coming from when she called David Cameron’s coalition of 2010-15 “the best government…that we’ve ever had”. Politically, Emin may be an ignoramus. But her incontinent mouth is useful since it makes her spell out what others in the arts are only brave enough to occasionally think.
It has been my experience that, post-2008, most established literary creatives cannot imagine as possible a world in which a substantial percentage of the populations of countries such as Ireland, Britain, and the United States don’t live in Victorian levels of poverty.
Just look at the queues of homeless being fed each Friday night outside the GPO in Dublin by the charity, Muslim Sisters of Éire. Despite such images, the idea of properly taxing the super-wealthy, and making sure they don’t find a way of avoiding that tax, is seen by your average sensible member of the literary classes as a notion only seriously held by annoying teenagers and people who think it’s still 1975.
According to this broad school of thought, if it can be called thought, there never was any other possible solution to 2008 but spending less on the lower orders and using that money to bail out JP Morgan, Anglo-Irish, and the Royal Bank of Scotland in the hope that the pre-slump status quo could somehow be restored.
So your average literary stuffed jacket, or pants-suit, tends to quietly cut characters such as Varadkar, Obama, and Cameron a huge amount of slack. As long as they give them things like a side of same-sex marriage to go with all those hungry schoolchildren and people sleeping in wet cardboard boxes. The same lit-libs who, should your criticism of things as they now are become too harsh, will leap to list off the (actually very short) list of good things people like ‘Barack’ and ‘Leo’ did while leading their respective countries, and then pull the sort of face one does while having a catheter inserted if you dare suggest some bit of communist craziness such as that, to pay for the Covid crisis, Ireland should consider increasing its notoriously low corporation tax rate from the current 12.5% to, say, 13% for the next five years. An increase of just 0.5%. Once the pain of the metaphorical catheter insertion passes from their hugely tolerant face, it will be replaced by the faraway, superior look of a 1980s Irish religion teacher trying to move past the appalling fact that one of their students just said the word “abortion”. Then they will look at you and say something like: “but you’ve always thought that, haven’t you”. It’s a variant of Mandy Rice-Davies’[iii] “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”.
They offered similar responses if they thought one was getting irresponsibly enthusiastic about the movements around Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, or Syriza in Greece in 2015, or the successful anti-water privatisation movement in Ireland or, if they are that particular sort of American, the idea of Medicare for all, or a minimum wage of $15 per hour. It’s a way of reducing what the person to their left is saying to a collection of perceived dogmas they no doubt think one has held to fanatically, like some dusty bedsit socialist ten commandments, since Arthur Scargill[iv] were a lad.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Marxism is something I spent several years actively trying to get away from. But couldn’t. Precisely because the ideas that dominate the mostly middle-class poetry world, in which I have been immersed for two decades, are so absurd in comparison. It is precisely because of this lack of intellectual seriousness, which looks increasingly obscene set against events; not to mention its by product: the almost comical chancerism and opportunism which literary liberals call “networking”, that has led me to start acting and thinking in an overtly Marxist way again, since around or about 2014. The networking phenomenon lately reached possible apotheosis with one of Ireland’s premier literary resource organisations using its website to advise beginner writers to get a professional headshot taken and some business cards made. It went on to suggest new writers take a course with said organisation which would, among other things, help them in building their “brand” as a writer.
Marx predicted capitalism would, in time, magic everything into a commodity. And now an Irish state-funded arts organisation proves him right by overtly urging young writers to see themselves as commodities from the start.
I am though a different kind of Marxist to the one I was thirty years ago, far less party-orientated, far more concerned with the broader movement. I again have people all around the world who I consider comrades. People who, though their faults may be many, try to resist the current fashion for putting oneself up for sale at what usually turns out to be a pretty low price.
[i] Trotskyist organisation which worked inside the Irish and UK Labour Parties, particularly during 1970s and 1980s
[ii] Member of Margaret Thatcher’s later governments
[iii]Welsh-born model best known for her her role in the Profumo affair, which discredited the Conservative government of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963
[iv] President of the UK National Union of Mineworkers during their 1984-5 strike