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Thursday, 23 October 2014

A master of everything.




The title of Bukowski’s second novel is actually stolen property, pilfered by English, like so many others, from Latin. The implications are worth noting for a factotum is a “master of everything” and in the case of Henry Chinaski this means not just repairing bicycles and factory work, it means gambling, drinking and womanising. Just as Karl Marx viewed production as a sensuous human activity, as much a part of our species-being as it is our alienation, Bukowski seems to take a more literal line – he is production.

Henry Chinaski makes his way across the States often desperately penniless and drunk. He works any job he can find and hangs his hat wherever he can. We follow Hank as he sleeps on park benches and rides the rails from place to place. The only thing going for him, in the world of work, is the time he can afford to sell and the sweat he can shed for meagre wage-packets. Inevitably Chinaski is propelled forward by crises. He never seems to hold onto anything for too long, whether it’s jobs or a place to stay. In a society where everyone is supposed to be middle-class, or working to be, Bukowski writes about the gutter and for the gutter.

All in all, I found Factotum (1975) was a much more focused piece of work than Post Office (1971). What do I mean by this? It doesn’t wander too far from its themes. Perhaps because the latter was the first completed book it was inevitably going to encompass a lot. Both read as aimless, staggering odysseys through American society. But it’s Factotum which takes aim at work.

To the reader Bukowski levels his anti-work ethos and prods and pokes the assumptions we hold about work and its demands on us. At one point Bukowski writes: “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?” It’s a good question.

In one chapter Henry loses his job and pushes the boss to make sure that he gets his welfare payments. He speaks as ‘the working-man’ here, not the poet of skid-row. The moment fits well. After all Bukowski stands out from the petty-bourgeois universalism of American society, – pretentions to meritocracy, individual liberty, and even democracy – it’s all up for grabs in this world. Chinaski is in one way an exemplar of the Protestant work ethic. He proves his father wrong by being able to go from job to job. But the story is hardly an advertisement for the ‘American Dream’.

Of course, the narcissism of the dirty old man is on show in the work. He’s both proud of his life as a working-class Joe, but he’s also imbued with self-love over his knowledge of just how worthless it all is. He feels he has profound insights to offer. And even as Hank leads a meaningless life, as we all surely do, his prose makes it meaningful. This is the heart of the heartless world.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

On benefits.


There are few people I rank lower than the middle-class, overpaid, expensively educated, journalists who spend their working lives demonising people living on benefits. These people work to turn the poor against each other and to support benefit cuts. So the working-class is expected to turn a blind-eye to bald parasites like Iain Duncan Smith, a man who lied about his qualifications, who claims expenses for a £39 breakfast, and then cuts benefits to disabled people.

I was lucky to only spend a few months on benefits. What can you expect from benefits? If you're my age you're entitled to £56 a week (the most you can get is £70) plus housing benefit. You're not entitled to anything if you're on an unpaid internship and you'll have to apply for 14 jobs a week to prove you're "serious" about getting a job. Meanwhile the job centres have been given quotas to 'sanction' three people a week - cutting them off from any subsistence for weeks and sometimes months.

Once you do get a job you'll be cut off and just scrape by on whatever you've managed to save (out of the £56 a week?). Don't worry, the job centre will give you travel money, but nothing else, because you've got a wage packet coming at the end of the month. It's clear that this is not a system of free handouts to pamper hordes of 'scroungers'. As a socialist, I invite the working-class to face the people fucking them and reach for the nearest blunt object.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Reaction to Scotland's No vote.


So the votes are in. Scotland has voted 44.7% for independence and 55.3% to remain within the United Kingdom. Voter turnout was close to 87% in a display of participation greater than we have seen in any recent election. The EU elections in May drew 33.8% of the British electorate out of their homes to the local voting booth. It’s standard in UK general elections for turnout to be almost twice as high as in EU elections. Consequently, the protest vote looms large in one and not the other (at least usually this is the case).

It was said in the run-up to the referendum that Alex Salmond couldn’t lose either way: if it’s a ‘yes’ then Scotland becomes an independent state, if it’s a ‘no’ then Scotland will win more powers. Originally the proposed referendum was to include three options, not just yes or no, but the option of maximal devolution would have been on the table too. This led many to suggest Salmond was really pushing for greater powers. If Salmond was aiming for independence then this might not be the end of the story, as we have seen in Quebec where there have been two referendums on independence. The major issue for Whitehall is how they can prevent such an occurrence in the British Isles.

No wonder then David Cameron has raised the West Lothian question. He speaks of a ‘devolution revolution’ for the English and not just Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Endless bifurcation has its appeal to international capitalism as each entity can be picked off, its economy chiselled and its workforce disciplined. The appeal is to English parochialism, the same mobilising force behind UKIP, Powellism, and the EDL, can be seen as a move to strengthen the rightward trend of British politics through coalescence and triangulation. Boundary changes would have to be made in any large-scale constitutional shake-up in a country where such questions have been held-off for far too long. So devolution may not necessarily result in an automatic Conservative stranglehold in Westminster.

Decentralisation in a neoliberal world would suit Cameron and his party just right. The Conservatives are facing inexorable decline, having only increased their share of the vote by 3% in 5 years against the Brown government. It’s highly unlikely for any governing party to increase its share of the vote, even if you have the Liberal Democrats as human shields. Meanwhile, the Labour Party lacks any vision or impetus to stand up for its traditional social base. The bet may not be for a rejuvenated Tory Party, that fight may have already been lost. It’s not just that the social democratic model is rotting before our eyes; the old Toryism is going the way of the dodo too. In that regard, what is left but to fall back on the trilateral consensus and devolve the Union into a morass entrenching austerity.

As for the Scottish National Party, it was once the case that the left-right coalition (which composes the SNP) was set to break apart once they had achieved independence. It looks unlikely that will be the case as long as Scotland remains within the UK. Salmond will try to maintain the public services and welfare provisions in Scotland for as long as he can. Additional powers may help this, or hinder this, it’s difficult to foresee. It still is the case that the SNP is not a socialist party, it isn’t even a republican party, and it was willing to accept NATO, as well as international free-trade agreements, and the vanity projects of Donald Trump. I can see the ultra-left in Scotland pinning the blame on the SNP for not being pure enough and Salmond will rebuke this with the language of pragmatism.

This post was written as an immediate reaction to the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence. It will be reproduced at Souciant later.