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What's Going On?
Book Review by Alex Callinicos, September 2008
Mark Steel, Simon & Schuster, £12.99
How could someone as charming, talented, and funny as Mark Steel have produced as sad and at points as unpleasant a book as this? The answer that Mark himself gives is that the past decade has been a bad one for him.
Personally, he turned 40 and a longstanding relationship painfully fell apart. Politically, even though mass resistance to neoliberalism and war developed on a spectacular scale, he believes, "The link between the left and youth now seems almost completely broken." And - partly in response - Mark tells us at the end of the book that he has resigned from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
Inevitably this last aspect of the book is of particular concern to this review. Mark's midlife crisis is no one else's business, even if he chooses to share it with the rest of us (and one can't help wondering what the woman who Mark consistently calls his "ex-partner" must feel about him ventilating his side of their breakup so publicly). As for the political commentary that runs through the book, it views the SWP and the rest of the left from a great height. It is from this vantage point that we all seem to Mark petty, old and stupid.
This means it's hard to know how to argue with him. His political pronouncements reflect an immense degree of detachment from the movements and organisations on which he passes generally damning judgement. I don't agree with some of the things he says about what the SWP did in the 1990s, but at least they show an insider's knowledge, for Mark was still quite an active member then. What he says about the past decade evinces a kind of grandiose ignorance that is a consequence of the fact that he's no longer actively involved in the SWP or indeed anything else.
What seems to have reawakened Mark's interest in the SWP was the crisis in Respect. He thinks that the SWP leadership was wrong not to have broken with George Galloway when he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother - an act on whose iniquity he waxes most eloquent - and also wrong to have defended ourselves when the same Galloway attacked us.
If you think it's hard to find the logic in this, you will be even more puzzled to learn, though Mark doesn't mention it himself, that he has publicly associated himself with Galloway's breakaway from Respect. The only principle one can detect here is that the SWP is always in the wrong.
Amid the muddle and special pleading, there is much that is both perceptive and engaging about this book. Mark is, for example, eloquent about the immense power of the media and their culture of celebrity to deflect and to incorporate. But, if Galloway's trajectory bears witness to this power, so too does Mark's. He tries to generate some pathos from the moment when he cancelled his subscription to the SWP, but the truth is that he'd left us in spirit years before.
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