Archive for February, 2012

After the overnight eviction of the protest camp at St Paul’s, BBC Radio 5 Live featured a debate between left wing activist and author, Owen Jones, and the right-wing blogger, Guido Fawkes aka Harry Cole (28 February). Was the eviction a defeat for the protestors and the message they wanted to get across? Have a listen to it here.

"A victory for the rule of law, private property and common sense" - Guido Fawkes

Given their avowed political positions, it was a predictable enough argument between the two. But something Guido Fawkes said perked my interest right away because I’m always on the alert for little ideological smokescreens thrown up when the right faces a compelling argument for why it’s fundamentally wrong. He described the eviction as “a victory for the rule of law, a victory for private property and a victory for common sense” because it stopped the protestors trespassing on private land and causing a public nuisance to patrons of St Paul’s Cathedral.

See what he did there? It’s that old phrase again: “common sense”. You’ve got to admit it comes in very handy in a debate, especially when you don’t have a proper argument. And it’s usually a favourite weapon of conservatives because it denies the obvious need for change, forcing the opposition to argue not for the need for change but against the apparently reasonable denial. How could one possibly argue against common sense?

Here’s how it works. Common sense, or “conventional wisdom” as it’s called in the USA, is the bedrock of capitalist ideology, the cement that both binds and makes invisible the inherent contradictions of the system. For example, it makes perfect common sense that the opposite of common sense is stupidity, stupid! It’s common sense that we are where we are in this financial crisis and that there’s no point looking back, trying to make sense of it all and identifying the culprits. I mean, really! Are we seriously going to argue that we’re not in fact where we are? Now that would be stupid.  It’s common sense that in a democracy one has the right to protest. But, and this is a crucial “but” in this line of reasoning, it is also common sense that one should not protest or strike in full view of the public; or at the inconvenience of those with the common sense not to do something so stupid as to protest against an ever yawning gap in social equality that, after all, in a capitalist system like Britain’s, makes total common sense. Get it? That’s the thing about we lefties. The right just has to throw in a bit of common sense and we’re all over the place.

Mind you, if you’ve listened to the debate, you will have heard the presenter, Nicky Campbell, Mr Common Sense himself, contrast the Occupy protests against capitalism now in the West with the protests in East Germany in 1989 that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual collapse of Stalinism. As he put it to young Owen, the good people of East Germany protested, but for capitalism, not against. Priceless, Nicky!

"Ich bin ein Berliner!" (Or: "Take me constable but please don't beat me!")

Though I’m sure our Owen thought the East Germans protested for freedom and democracy and against Stalinism. When they went back home after the party in West Berlin, they found to their cost that the capitalism bit wasn’t so agreeable; unemployment, inflation and rents soared as West German money and power rolled across the border, stripped out the factories and looted the place. (They called it “inward investment”.) But that’s another great thing about common sense – it doesn’t need to be justified or explained. It just makes sense. Brilliant.

I’ll be back next week to talk about another favourite of mine: “We common, decent taxpayers”.