My interview on ‘All That is Solid’

This interview was originally posted at:

Phil is a great blogger with a lot more intellectual weight behind his posts and a good guy, so please check out the rest of his site. His blog also takes its title from ‘All that is solid melts into air’, which is one of my favourite quotes from Marx.

‘Sam Fawcett is a blogger from Somerset who, at term time, can be found residing in Exeter studying sociology and politics. He’s also the deputy editor of the Young Fabian’s magazine,Anticipations and pens his own thoughts at The Condition of the Left in England. Like most lefties he’s an inveterate tweeter, and his 140 character pearls of wisdom can be followed here.

Tell us a bit about your work with Anticipations, the Young Fabian magazine.

I’ve been fulfilling the role of deputy editor withAntics since April 2014. I was approached completely out of the blue by the (now ex) editor because he’d liked some articles I’d written for the publication previously, which I was shocked and flattered by. I can’t pretend I’m slaving away at my desk 30 hours a week, nor that the large part of my work is glamorous; most of my role is proofreading and editing submissions. Having said that, I’ve set the theme for the magazine a few times and do a fair bit of blogging for too. Unfortunately, this always seems to end in a rant that’s a cross between Owen Jones and Noam Chomsky.

You’re relatively new to blogging. Why have you given it a go?

I always bore my parents, sister and girlfriend with rants whenever possible, so I’ve always fancied blogging. It mainly came about since starting uni, however. I found that every day on my way to and from uni I’d be having passionate debates in my head about the merits of different sociological and political theories and it suddenly struck me I should write some of this stuff down, for revision if nothing else. Another factor was my sadness at seeing large sections of the left becoming very censorious and seeking to shut down debate very quickly, which to me is the opposite of what our movement was and should be about.

Apart from the masterly All That Is Solid, are there any blogs or other politics/comments websites you regularly follow?

I quite enjoy Ben Cobley at A Free Left Blog, I’m often to the left of him and don’t agree with him on all his points, but I admire his independence. Aside from that, I’m a big fan of both Paul Mason’s and Paul Krugman’s blogs. Very astute commentators on capitalism as it stands. I also enjoy looking at Left Futures when I get really annoyed with Labour’s direction and fancy letting off steam. Oh, and PoliticalBetting is invaluable.

Do you also find social media useful for activist-y things?

I do. I’ve made so many connections at the Fabians, Compass and even the British Humanist Association through Twitter. It does concern me, however, that Twitter also has a great propensity to become an echo chamber preaching to the converted, and I fear that some people greatly overestimate the reach it has, and use it rather than actual activism on the ground.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

I am. I’m reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as it always appears in everything I read about literature, and I’ve seen the big debate over how prejudiced it is or is not, so I thought I’d better see if it’s worthy of the attention. To be honest I’d say it’s not so far. I’m also reading Camus’ L’exil et le Royaume as I’m studying French and thought it’s about time I read some actual French literature.

Do you have a favourite novel?

It always used to be Catcher in the Rye in my teen years, but now it has to be The Great Gatsby. I studied it at A level and was just stunned by both the writing and themes underlying it.

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

I think reading Tony Benn’s diaries made me think of politics in a lot less of a noble light and really illuminated for me the enormous democratic deficit our country faces. However, since starting uni I’ve read Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and found it so profound. The section about history always repeating itself, first as tragedy, second as farce is so pertinent, and there are so many examples. It’s fascinating how humans do have this tendency to revert back to what we’ve always known, but there’s also quite a sad, fatalistic air about it.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

I know many people would lynch me for this, particularly the section of the left I tend to identify with, ironically, but I spent a lot of my teen years listening to Noam Chomsky. I know he’s not very popular in many circles, but I actually think he gets a lot more flak than he deserves. It’s true that he is sometimes perhaps too keen to lay blame at the West’s door, but it’s foolish to pretend we’re whiter than white, and many of his judgements on the relationships between labour, capital and power are spot on. I don’t think anarcho-syndicalism is the answer at all, but the assessments are sound.

What was the last film you saw?

This will sound very pretentious, but technically it was Journal de France, a French film chronicling the life of photojournalist Raymond Depardon. It follows him driving around France taking evocative stills while being interspersed with film he’d taken of world conflicts and uprisings. I really enjoyed it, very insightful. However, the last film I saw at the cinema was Pride, which was just fantastic.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Hmm. I’m currently a member of The Labour Party, Compass, The Fabian Society, Labour Humanists and Republic. If I had the money I’d definitely join the British Humanist Association, and probably Amnesty.

Is there anything you particularly enjoy about political activity?

I actually find it quite therapeutic. Leafleting is monotonous and whiles the time away while you feel you’re doing good.

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you’ve changed your mind?

I think, generally, one of the biggest realisations for me recently was that people on the left can be as bitter, selfish and vile as people on the right. I sort of grew up thinking that everyone on the left was great and the worst charge to made against them was that they were naïve, but recently, particular after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I’ve realised some people on our side are actually pretty unsavoury individuals who fit more into a right-wing, individualist world than a socialist one.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

For me it’s one of the fundamental pillars of socialism, the idea that we are not truly completely autonomous individuals who exist outside society. We are all influenced massively by our environment and those around us. Simply put, no one, no one, can rise to the top alone. It’s a myth the right love to peddle, but it’s fatuous. I don’t mean we should be pushing a Communist, ‘there is no self, only state and motherland’ notion, but the idea that if we work to better society, the collective benefits will accrue to all; whereas, if we only work to better ourselves at the expense of society, it will only end in collective impoverishment.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

For me they are twofold and almost equal in importance. Firstly, we need to combat the myth I outlined above of the neoliberal concept of individualism. Likewise, we need to show that the neoliberal concept of individual freedom only boils down to freedom of enterprise. Alongside that, however, I think it is very important to combat the extreme side of postmodern thinking that has infiltrated the left. By this I mean the dangers of forgoing the idea of objective truth in favour of cultural and moral relativism. Of course it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of believing we are infallible and hold the only key to universal truth like the Catholic Church. But this relativism has excused some of the most heinous patriarchal, homophobic and misogynistic abuse, and I find it awful that the left has let down feminists, socialists and LGBT+ people worldwide in the name of ‘progress’.

Who are your political heroes?

In terms of the Labour party, Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee and Tony Benn. Aside from that, Millicent Fawcett, and not just people always think I’m related to her, Bertrand Russell and Einstein for their unwavering commitment to sensible pacifism and Voltaire for his huge influence in secularising politics.

How about political villains?

Leaving the obvious aside, I’d say people like Arthur Seldon, Keith Joseph, Friedrich Hayek. These people are not the obvious, populist tinpot racists such as Farage, but are as or more dangerous. Not least because they dress up their ideas as being about ‘freedom’ when they are nothing but. I also reserve a special place for Milton Friedman for the same reason and the atrocities in Chile under Pinochet.

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

It’s a completely forlorn hope, but actually restoring some semblance of political debate to political debate. I mean, when you look at this election campaign it’s been ridiculous. PMQs focuses on whether there will be a TV show, politicians battle over soundbites and Harriet Harman drives around in a pink transit van. When you see David Cameron call Ed Miliband ‘despicable’ for not ruling out a coalition with the SNP as if he’d refused to rule out a coalition with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you realise why people no longer care about politics.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Bringing rail and public utilities back under public control. Not only have taxpayers lost out, but these services should never be run with profit rather than people in mind. Full stop.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Resource depletion. I hate to sound like a sci-fi dystopianist, but we have to face the fact that unless we either cut down our consumption drastically or make huge strides in renewables and recycling we are going to soon hit a point where resource extraction will not become profitable in the current market. The response of the most powerful nations will be very interesting …

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

My most important piece of advice about life is to not be afraid of seeking it. I’m not talking about subjecting every choice you make to a panel, and there are of course times when initiative is very important. However I spent a lot of my teen years feeling very frightened and bleak about the future and my self-worth, and I just spent it reading Catcher in the Ryeand didn’t consult anyone. Sure I’m a dashing, successful socialite with the future of the left on my shoulders now, but I put myself through a lot of needless anxiety and sadness when so much could have been alleviated by just sharing it.

Oh, and if you’re a guy, don’t try and control your girlfriend. The same is true vice-versa obviously but sadly I see more of it from our gender. I’m a staunch atheist, but one of the most beautiful things I ever heard was from a sociology teacher who was an ex-vicar who said, ‘The reason God gives us free will is you can’t love anyone unless you let them be themselves.’

What is your favourite song?

A tough one because I like so much. Depending on mood, it’s a toss-up between If You See Her, Say Hello by Bob Dylan, Ambulance Blues by Neil Young, The Stranger Song by Leonard Cohen or Pale Blue Eyes by The Velvet Underground. But it’s quite rare I’m in the mood to listen to songs so serious, so usually I’ll be listening to disco, French house or hip-hop.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Okay, so the best video game released without a doubt is Half-Life 2. However, my favourite is Rome: Total War. I must have racked up easily over 1000 hours. I’m a massive history and geography nerd, so it’s just a no-brainer. Special shout outs to Streets of Rage 2 andRoad Rash though, as they got me into gaming.

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?

Humility and the ability to forgive. We have a pretty vicious world these days and everyone’s always baying for blood and getting more and more entrenched in their opinions. I happen to believe most of my opinions are demonstrably correct, but if a person shows me they are wrong I’m not going to be a dick about it. I’m not infallible and no one else is. As for forgiveness, it’s one of the most human things and if we don’t have a concept of rehabilitation I genuinely don’t know what hope for the world we think we have.

What personal fault in others do you most dislike?

Disinterestedness? If that’s a word. By that I mean people who seem to have literally no curiosity about the world around them at all. I actually don’t know how they do it. I could easily have picked about five degrees to study and I’m always looking to learn new things. I sit in seminars sometimes and people just show up, never contribute and obviously have no interest in the topic. If you can’t motivate yourself to be interested when you’re at a top uni paying 9K a year, what can motivate you?

What, if anything, do you worry about?

I wish I could be like my mum and worry about mundane things, but it’s always grandiose things that I can’t really change. My main worry is that British society will continue to become more individualistic and selfish and the people who suffer the results will continue to be ignored and demonised until we end up with a proper, two-nation, bourgeoisie-and-proletariat-style Britain. I actually do love this country, and it’s a heartbreaking thought.

And any pet peeves?

Unfortunately, my pet peeve has no remedy. I love languages, and I can’t stand it when someone says like, ‘Cher-borg’ rather than ‘sher-bor’ or ‘lan-dud-no’ instead of ‘clan-did-no’. I think if you’re going to talk about foreign towns or foods at least accord them the dignity of pronouncing it right. However, anyone who does actually try and pronounce it right rarely fails to sound like a pretentious dick, me included, so it’s just going to be a lifelong pet peeve.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

In reality play less video games and study more, but sod that. I’d have made myself do more extra-curricular stuff. I wish I’d picked up the piano, learnt music theory, taken up a martial art and learnt to draw. ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ as they say.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I love going out for drinks with people. Not clubbing, just going to a bar and talking the night away. That’s my ideal night out. I read quite a lot. I blog. I play video games. I have a YouTube channel. I also play a lot of poker. I love poker, but the problem with it is the players are split fairly evenly between effortlessly cool men who shame me and men who wear fedoras, talk about anarcho-capitalism, and masturbate over My Little Pony hentai drawings.

What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t actually have any heirlooms or anything. So it would have to be my car: a little red Micra from ’97.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I guess hip-hop is kind of a guilty pleasure, seeing as my upbringing has been far from downtown New York. But then I don’t believe music taste should be dictated by circumstance. So probably podcasts about linguistics and Baileys. Apparently it is not befitting to either my age or gender,

What talent would you most like to have?

A tie between being a fantastic pianist and a great painter.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true – apart from getting loads of money – what would you wish for?

To be able to drink a bottle of wine a night without sliding into alcoholism. That’d be good. Or teleportation, but just for me and those close to me.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

Hmm. Yes and no. I’d buy a car with a great music system and some expensive guitars and a piano. But I’m too young to want to retire now, so I wouldn’t change anything that drastic.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Karl Marx, Max Weber and Jesus Christ. The former two because it would be fascinating, and the latter because I’d like to ask him what was actually going on; and the wine trick would come in handy.

And lastly … Why are you Labour?

I can’t pretend the party isn’t, sometimes quite significantly, to the right of me on many issues, but it is still the party with the most chance of changing things for working people in Britain. Likewise, it is the only party to have trade union representation. Perhaps it is a bad thing to be a member of a party based on what it was and what it has the potential to be, but that isn’t going to stop me.’