Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Penny Red – Notes from the New Age of Dissent
By Laurie Penny
Pbck. £12.99
Pluto Press

Since her blogs form the front line of the student demos in 2010 and her column in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny has becomes the unofficial voice of the recent youth rebellion. This is a selection of her published blogs and articles.

She writes with a visceral, often unrefined, but eloquent style, full of righteous indignation. She encapsulates the frustrations and anger of a generation abandoned by the political elite, those being forced to pay for the mess these and the bankers have created.

Her reporting from the thick of the student demos of 2010 is reporting at its very best, conveying the fear, exhilaration and blow-by-blow chronology of events, while also reflecting on their significance. It is not the refined and honed journalism as written from the comfort of a newsroom or TV studio; it is raw and clearly experienced first-hand. She provides an antidotal and revelatory narrative to the ‘mindless thugs’ put-down of the mainstream media.

Penny is foremost a feminist and a number of articles here confront the commodification of sex in our society. She demolishes the idea of phenomena like burlesque and lap-dancing as empowering women. They only serve to objectivise and define women as sexual objects. She demonstrates time and again how capitalism warps the values and ethical base of society. You may not agree with everything she says, but her commitment, her passion and anger, but also understanding of what is cancerous in our present society cannot be questioned. Her succinct take on the infatuation with princesses and the adulation of Kate Middleton is exemplary. ‘She is the perfect modern-day princess,’ she writes, ‘in that she appears essentially void of personality, a dress-up dolly for the age of austerity.’

This book is an invaluable commentary on our times. If Penny doesn’t get sucked into the circles of the comfortable commentariat, she promises to become one of the best journalists of this era.
Remaking Scarcity – from capitalist inefficiency to economic democracy
By Costas Panayotakis
Pubs. Pluto Press and Fernwood Publishing
Pbck. £18.04

This book is an invaluable addition to any catalogue of modern Marxist economic thought. Panayotakis delivers a devastating critique of neo-liberal economic dogma and at the same time provides an up-to-date analysis of capitalism’s inbuilt destructiveness.

He lucidly demonstrates, giving detailed sources, how the capitalist system creates and exacerbates scarcity. It is often argued that capitalism, if nothing else, is efficient (particularly vis-à-vis socialist economies), but Panayotakis demonstrates that it is in fact the opposite. He also provides a cursory explanation of why the Soviet system collapsed without resorting to simplistic labelling or knee-jerk clichés. He also underlines what many forget, that despite all its weaknesses the socialist world not only provided a bulwark against the worst ravages of capitalism, but also pressured capitalism into making concessions to the working class; ones that are now being rapidly demolished.

He also polemicises against those who argued that socialism would usher in an era of super-abundance and unlimited productive capacity. Whatever the system, he argues, we have to live with scarcity in order to ensure an environmentally sustainable world.

The unprecedented lobbying power of big companies has led to an abject subservience of governments and states to their dictat, as seen in Greece and elsewhere. Panayotakis argues that this corrosive relationship can only be broken by struggling for and extending economic democracy alongside political democracy.

He concludes by offering useful pointers to a way forward – not a blueprint or quasi manifesto – towards what he sees as the key to change: economic democracy. Economic democracy for him means everyone having a say in setting society’s economic priorities and the way wealth is distributed. He sees the world social forum, popular budget-setting as practised in Porto Alegre and in Kerala, as well as worker take-overs of factories in Argentina and Venezuela, as positive examples of people power. He emphasises, though, that successful local struggles or isolated examples of co-operative action will not, of themselves, bring about the necessary changes at national or world level. Panayotakis’s prose can be dryly academic, sometimes repetitive, with the flow interrupted by an over-abundance of source quotes, but despite this minor caveat, this is an insightful and illuminating read for anyone wishing to better comprehend the present crisis and the mechanisms of capitalism. He is also strong on environmentalism and the importance of the feminist project. In his concluding chapter he examines several ideas for future organisation and illustrates these with examples from around the world, without donning any particular sectarian or ideological straitjacket.