One of the notable features at the inaugural conference of the Radical Film Network in Birmingham last weekend was the mix of generations, from new blood to survivors from the days of the IFA (Independent Filmmakers Association) in the 1970s. Speaking as one of the latter, it was pleasing to find that what the comrades did back then has not been entirely forgotten, but more important, that this new initiative has a genuine sense of history, of historical inquiry, and is disposed to look to past experience both in order to commend what was achieved and to mull over its weaknesses.
But of course the political conjuncture of post-crash times is markedly different from those days, and there’s been a signal change in the political modus operandi. One of the questions back then was were you ‘organised’?—that is, who did you belong to? It wasn’t obligatory, because many alternative cultural groups in different fields operated as cooperatives, for example, and there were plenty of non-aligned fellow-travellers (like myself). But the dominant model of political activity in the extra-parliamentary left, notwithstanding the fresh wind of feminism, was still Leninist and centralist, defined by Communist Party practice or differentiation from it, and unfortunately prone to splits and sectarianism. Thankfully it seems that kind of factional politicking has gone—the model in evidence at Birmingham was the twenty-first century anarchist style of consensus employed by movements like Occupy, and mood was open and congenial. There was much discussion about how the new network should be organised—as loosely as possible. It remains to be seen how robust this will be, but that also depends on the wider political arena.
Marxism remains thoroughly relevant, of course, as a paradigm for left social and economic theory, but not as a guide to political organisation. There are several reasons for this, but it’s partly because of the shift in class structure brought about by a quarter century of neoliberal ascendancy, followed by the crisis regime of austerity. In short, the contraction of the traditional proletariat of industrial capitalism, the weakening of trades unionism, and now the massive growth of unemployment and precarious employment. Prompted by the keynote by Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill, the question ‘what is the working class now?’ became one of the issues of the moment. It’s not of merely theoretical concern, as the Labour Party is learning to its cost. For us, it’s about where we try to focus our work, whom we should address, where and how we should insert ourselves. There are no rules, but can a radical filmmaker succeed without asking these question? Radical has become a slippery and problematic word since being hijacked by the media for the extreme right, but can one really be a radical filmmaker, engaged with issues of social justice and representation, if the questions of class evade you?
Another current of concern was the relationship of the incipient network to academia. The event was mounted by one university, hosted by another, and the majority of participants were academically affiliated one way or another. Indeed it is precisely people’s academic location, even if precarious, that enables them to spend the time researching the historical and other topics that populated the numerous panels—the ones I attended were consistently interesting and well-informed. But this condition also gives rise to a certain wariness about academese, which surfaced in Maragaret Dickinson’s criticism (in her closing keynote) of high theory. In part, I think, this is because few people quite trust the appeal to abstract discourses any longer, but mainly because it becomes too distanced from the proper sense of political urgency.
Again recalling the 1970s, another undercurrent which came to the surface was the distinction made back then between two avant-gardes, political and aesthetic. This is another element that has been transformed, in at least two ways. One is the technical revolution of digital video which blurs all sorts of boundaries and allows everyone to be as experimental as they like. But I wonder if there is nowadays any such thing as avant-garde. As if the term has become an historical category, because the cultural economy in which it flourished belonged to another period and has also been reshaped. With the total commodification of culture, everything outside the mainstream is now a niche market. Worse still, this condition is compounded by the merging of the supermarket mentality of mass culture with that of its virtual double, the internet, where what you have to pay for competes with what you can get for free (in return for ceding information on your tastes and habits to the databanks which comprise the hidden commercial trade of the web—if you’re not the customer then you’re the commodity).
But the loss which this ineluctable process of commodification entails is an inescapable part of the conditions in which we now have to operate, the digital citizenship we now employ to summon our networks into existence in the interstices of the internet giants, the medium in which we create and disseminate our films and videos. The problem is that our efforts remain marginal to the mainstream public sphere which is deeply normative and controls the national political agenda through a creaking system of gatekeepers, balances and investigations. (Except occasionally when something ‘goes viral’, but that’s something no-one can count on.) While this is not necessarily an argument for shunning the attempt, it represents a realistic appraisal of the difficulties. Mike Wayne spoke of the relevance of the concept of third cinema (neither commercial nor auteurist) which also comes down to us from the 1970s, and I agree, but would add a caveat: as originally advanced by the Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino*, third cinema was oppositional because the system couldn’t stomach these films—for ideological reasons. Today our films are mostly still unacceptable to the system, but it’s easier and cheaper to make them. It’s also easy and cheap to disseminate them outside the system via the internet. However, it’s no easier to make a living doing so. On the other hand, there are now a lot more of us doing it. Across the world.
To put this in perspective, I offer the example of Secret City, the film I made in 2012 with Lee Salter about the City of London, a critique of the Square Mile that has been described as ‘the Vatican of financial capitalism’. Using social media, this film achieved around 90 screenings throughout the country in its first year, and since then the YouTube copy has had more than 30,000 hits. A modest success, but the point is that the majority of the screenings were organised by local activists in pop-up venues and attended by audiences drawn from local community groups. What struck me, going around the country, was that few of these groups were connected with organised politics. But the direct encounter with these audiences, and the post-screening discussions of economics, politics, media and citizenship, were clear evidence of widespread and mostly youthful politics outside the system. We are still, in the UK, an extra-parliamentary left.
The cultural activism of the left is of little import if it isn’t connected to real communities, but it’s also a way of discovering community, bringing people together, feeding solidarity. The gathering at Birmingham is a sign of the times, and the times they are a-changing—we were meeting two weeks after the election in Greece of the first anti-austerity government in Europe (and there could be another in Spain by the end of the year). The Radical Film Network is a community committed to the same repudiation of austerity, and I found myself asking what Syriza’s victory meant to people. Is it even possible, I wonder, that the newly forged popular anti-austerity politics in southern Europe might have an effect in the north-western islands—especially as we approach the wide-open general election in May? We are facing the fragmentation of party politics, including the decline of Labour, like the centre left in other countries. The problem is who to vote for (because voting is still our democratic responsibility). The only anti-austerity party in England are the Greens, which is why the subservient media were so reluctant to include them. (Personal disclosure: I haven’t joined the Greens only because I’ve never joined anything.
But we need watch out. The last time round coincided with the first mass protests in Greece against austerity. I distinctly remember. For a week at least they topped the television news agenda, displacing the electioneering. They were reported, of course, ‘objectively’, but they carried a strong sense of menace, as if to serve as some kind of warning of the danger of chaos that comes from voting the wrong way (although no-one explained why). The current tactics of the big media is to label Syriza and Podemos ‘far left’. Pablo Iglesias, interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight the day after the Greek elections, responded (in English) ‘It’s not a problem between left and right. It’s between democracy and austerity, and I think democracy is going to win’. Given the democratic deficit built in to the way Europe is run, this is spot on, because socialist egalitarianism is impossible without the democratic defeat of la casta, as Podemos calls the high elite.
We watch, knowing that austerity, which is cruel and has failed miserably on its own terms to rescue European economies, is a continental ideological project, the European version of Naomi Klein’s notorious shock doctrine. It’s too soon to say whether Syriza will succeed and on what terms, but there’s everything to play for. What’s happening in the ancient birthplace of democracy matters not just to the eurozone but to the whole of Europe. What happens in Greece also happens to us.