Ball of Confusion

I was given the latest of Tony Benn's published diaries, indeed the last, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, for Christmas, and it dovetails well with my pre-holiday reading, Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Both are texts that inhabit a sense of political defeat, the defeat of leftist parties and organisations, or in Benn's case, dictated at the time of Brown's tenure as PM in the last Labour government, a kind of self-betrayal. It's strange to read Benn's entries for that time, a period when I was personally deeply unhappy and struggling with difficult things in my personal life, and see how conflicted Benn is. On one hand, he despises New Labour, and is happy to see its defeat; yet  he is far-sighted enough to know that the economic crisis of 2008 would have long-lasting effects, that prognostications of a 'two-year' recession were optimistic at best (delusory at worst), and that the fall-out might well be a shift to the right and a coalition government. Benn struggles to keep up his punishing schedule of speeches and events in the face of declining health, advancing years, and intimations of his own mortality. Regularly his entries express contentment if death were suddenly to visit him; the flame of life, of political struggle, of hope, lingers, but a sense of the necessity to have some kind of reckoning with his own life, and to manage the end of it, seems increasingly urgent.

It's the only book of Benn's diaries that I have read, but it has whetted my desire to go back and look at the earlier ones, especially when he was in the political thick of it (rather than having become a 'national treasure', something about which he is clearly deeply ambivalent). But, just like Orwell, amidst the wreckage of defeat, Benn retains hope in the potential for human beings to come together, to achieve political ends that improve the lot of the majority of people rather than just a privileged few. When he cites that Labour manifesto on 1945, its simplicity and directness rings across the years: 'The nation wants food, work and homes. It wants more than that - it wants good food in plenty, useful work for all, and comfortable, labour - saving homes that take full advantage of the resources of modern science and productive industry. It wants a high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them'. (The whole text can be found here.) In an age of foodbanks, unemployment and yet another housing price bubble caused by a shortage of housing, it's troubling to realise just how much remains to be done even to bring that vision into permanent being; indeed, protect it against those who wish to roll back the massive social gains of the immediate post-war years, in terms of the NHS or in education.

I'm close to finishing a project that has been hanging over my head for longer than I would care to confess, and in doing so, I'm returning to an old theme: utopia and dystopia. I've always been attracted more to dystopias (and in fact wrote my doctoral thesis on American dystopias), like most. For someone of my generation, it suits the tenor of my times: coming to voting age in the 1980s, growing up in Thatcherite Essex that I felt deeply uncomfortable with, in another period of political defeat for the left, the world painted in dystopian colours is one that I recognised all too easily. Yet, as I've grown older, the necessity for utopia, of being able to imagine a future better that what we live through today, has come to seem to me absolutely crucial. That, I would say, is the great victory of the Right in today's world: being able to imagine and articulate the other of this fractured, anxious, 'austerity'-ridden place and time has become increasingly difficult. You only have to listen to BBC Radio 4's Today programme (or the storm-in-a-teacup that followed PJ Harvey's guest editorship of the programme over Christmas, where voices of dissent were actually given airtime) with half a critical ear to diagnose a pro-business, pro-establishment, conservative consensus that simply ignores what is politically inconvenient. (Benn notes the BBC's omissions with a kind of glee: 'twas ever thus.) Voices that might have something else to say, such as the admirably vocal and energetic Owen Jones, have to fight to be heard.

Sometimes, of course, I look back to the future, particularly to the 1960s, as a resource, as a means of generating hope (rather than succumbing to nostalgia for the future). Over the last few days, a lot of psychedelic soul has been rattling around my head, and in particular The Temptations' brilliant 'Ball of Confusion'. Though the lyrics seem full of anxiety - ‘So round and around and around we go/ Where the world's headed, nobody knows/ Great googamooga! Can't you hear me talkin' to you?/ Just a Ball of Confusion/ That's what the world is today’ - the music is driving, uplifting, inspiring. The band doesn't just play on: it makes you want to get up, to sing, to shout. To make your voice heard. So, struggling with that sense of defeat, of confusion, of the hopelessness of dystopia, I return once and again to those things that bring me up, to give me energy and hope.

Our Christmas tree has come down today, and I'm not looking forward to getting back to work with much sense of excitement or anticipation. But I'm determined that I'm going to lend my voice and any other powers to try, in 2014, not to give in to despair, to continue to hope and work for a better future, to enlist myself on the side of utopia. 'Great googamooga!', as George Orwell would undoubtedly not have said.


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