About half my earliest memories consist of being buggied about London by my mum on anti-Thatcher demos. The witch stuff, to me, ain’t even a metaphor. When I was a kid, the boundary between fairytale and contemporary history simply didn’t exist—it was as if an evil witch was in charge of our United Kingdom, and the only way happiness could be restored was if she could be killed… or voted out.
This was the weird thing. Every election, she’d win, and my mother would literally weep with hatred and disappointment. People obviously voted Wicked Witch Party. I didn’t get it.
It was partly this childhood mystification that saw me attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral procession in London yesterday…
I arrived at St Clement Danes Church about the same time as Thatcher’s coffin, which was shortly to make its way to St Paul’s along disappointingly busy streets. Heavily decorated paratroopers stood trembling with psychopathic rigidity outside the entrance to the church, and an additional police presence to those lining the road patrolled the pavement—portly, distinguished old coppers in white-gloves.
Besides these various showings of Establishment muscle, the streets were filling up with the Establishment’s biggest admirers—flag-waving patriots thronging the pavements, plus significant amounts of tourists, and the odd gutsy protester, planted right in the midst of a hostile crowd.
I stopped to listen to one of these, a Welsh ex-miner with a conspicuous banner, as he conducted an interview with the BBC. He was asked if he thought a funeral an “appropriate” place to protest. “When is the time to protest?” he responded, “Where is the place in this country where they say, come along, protest, and we’ll listen to what you’ve got to say.” It was a good point, and passionately made, but as I stood scribbling his answer into my notebook I felt something push against an elbow.
Looking up, I saw a giant copper peering skeptically down at me. The thing touching me was his rigid, vast belly. I stared back, rather surprised. His message was clear. The television crew was welcome to interview this political subhuman—they could be relied upon to edit his measured responses into banality (or worse)—but a writer, unaffiliated with any obvious outfit, was suspect.
I took the policeman’s tacit advice and moved on, leaving the ex-miner to the milling wolves. I heard someone say that most of the protesters were gathered at Ludgate Circus further up, and decided to check it out. En route, the military procession began, countless gleaming platoons blasting out great slabs of murder muzak—rolling drums and hyperactive brass augmented with the heavy tread of boots.
They all seemed to express the same message: the Establishment possessed the power, and the firepower; it always did exactly what it wanted and it honored whoever it wished to.
Up ahead I could begin to make out the protesters, a dense scrum of them on one side of the junction, the rest of which thronged with Witch fans. Even in these more significant numbers (there must have been a few hundred crammed together) these protesters’ gumption was noteworthy. A snarling line of police stood right in front of them; veterans on the other side of the junction jeered at them, and occasionally a fresh platoon arrived via Blackfriars, so that a hundred gun barrels and twice as many gimlet eyes swept across them.
Meanwhile, the mass media swarmed around, the journalists wearing the gleeful expressions of vultures come upon carrion, all busily ripping off the crowd’s rottener strips to present to their audiences.
I went around the back of the protesters, up a little further and came to a halt. From the last quarter mile or so to St Paul’s the pavement looked too busy to bother trying to squeeze through.
Around me, there were local bankers and lawyers, retired servicemen, frail and wholly likable old ladies, sporty closet fascists, and entire suburban family units.
Most intriguing, however, was a large but seemingly disparate contingent of middle-aged Essex women, all of them with long blond hair, massive moles, and tight smiles. Many of these were very bellicose concerning the protesters. One of them kept telling her friend that it was only the possibility of arrest that stopped her going over and attacking one dawdling nearby. I thought she was full of shit, but perhaps not, because when Thatcher’s coffin finally approached, and the only thing that could be heard was booing and chanting, she raised herself on a bollard and screamed, “YOU BUNCH OF FACKIN SCUMBAGS,” sparking a storm of applause and cheering.
As the coffin passed through all this noise, draped in the Union Jack and surrounded by soldiers and police on horseback and on foot, my thoughts turned to Thatcher’s close friendship with Jimmy Savile.
What does being fantastic pals with a man who was perhaps history’s most prolific child rapist say about someone?
As I noted in a DM article last year, Savile claimed to have spent “eleven consecutive Christmases at Chequers” with the Thatcher family: “Denis, me and her, shoes off in front of the fire.” Cute.
Sir Jimmy, of course, was buried with similar military pomp.
The average right-winger, you’ve got to say, couldn’t spot a psychopath if one was stabbing them repeatedly in the face.
With Americans’ interest in socialism rising, we need to seriously consider alternative designs to the current system, argues Alperovitz, in this practical critique of some known models.
Little noticed by most Americans, Merriam Webster, one of the world’s most important dictionaries, announced a few months ago that the two most looked-up words in 2012 were “socialism” and “capitalism.”
Traffic for the pair on the company’s website roughly doubled from the year before. The choice was a “kind of no-brainer,” observed editor at large, Peter Sokolowski. “They’re words that sort of encapsulate the zeitgeist.”
Leading polling organizations have found converging results among younger Americans. Two recent Rasmussen surveys, for instance, discovered that Americans younger than 30 are almost equally divided as to whether capitalism or socialism is preferable. Another Pew survey found those aged 18 to 29 have a more favorable reaction to the term “socialism” by a margin of 49 to 43 percent.
Note carefully: These are the people who will inevitably be creating the next American politics and the next American system.
As economic failure continues to create massive social and economic pain and a stalemated Washington dickers, search for some alternative to the current “system” is likely to continue to grow. It is clearly time to get serious about a different vision for the future. Critically, we need to be far more sophisticated about what a meaningful “systemic design” that might undergird a new direction (whether called “socialism” or whatever) would entail.
Classically, the central idea undergirding various forms of “socialism” (and there have been many, many forms, some of which use the terminology, some not) is democratic ownership of “the means of production,” or “capital,” or more simply, “productive wealth.” Quite apart from questions of exploitation, systemic dynamics (and “contradictions”), the core idea is simple and straightforward: Those who own wealth - and the corporations that operate it - have far more power to control any system than those who don’t.
In a nation in which a mere 400 people own more wealth than the bottom 180 million together, the point should be obvious. What is new in our time in history is that the traditional compromise position - namely progressive, or social democratic or liberal politics - has lost is capacity to offset such power even in the modest (compared, for instance, to many European states) ways the American welfare state once represented. Indeed, the emerging direction is to cut back previous gains in many areas - not to sustain or enlarge them. Even Social Security is now on the table for cuts.
Perhaps the most important reason for the decline of the traditional reform option is the decline of labor: Union membership has steadily decreased from roughly 35 percent of the labor force in 1954, to 11.3 percent now - a mere 6.6 percent in the private sector.
Along with this decay, and give or take an exception here and there, major trends in income and wealth, in civil liberties, in ecological devastation (and the release of climate-changing gases), in poverty and many other important indicators have been “going South” for several decades.
It is, accordingly, not surprising that dictionary look-ups and polls show interest in “something else.” If, as is likely, the trends continue, that interest is also likely to increase. But what, specifically, might that “something else” entail? And is there any reason to hope - even as interest in the word “socialism” grows in the abstract - that we might move from where we are to “some other system” that might nurture equality, liberty, ecological sustainability, even global peace, more than the current decaying one we now have?
New Models of Socialist Structures
The classic model of socialism involved state (national) ownership of most large-scale capital and industry. But it is now clear to most observers that the concentration of such ownership in the state also commonly brings with it a concentration of political power as well; hence, the model can be detrimental to democracy as well as liberty (to say nothing, in real world experience, of the environment).
Alternative places to locate ownership have been suggested by different traditions: in cooperatives, in worker-owned firms, in municipalities, in regions, even in neighborhoods. Some of the advantages and challenges involved in the various forms are also well-known:
Starting at the ground level, there appear in virtually all studies to be very good reasons - for small and medium-size firms - to arrange ownership through cooperatives and worker-owned and self-managed enterprises. This is where direct democratic participation is (or can be) strongest, where a new culture can be developed and where a very different vision of work can evolve. Very solid proposals have been offered in such books as John Restakis’ Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital and Richard Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (on what he calls “worker self-directed enterprises”).
On the other hand, for larger, significant-scale enterprises, worker-ownership may not solve some critical problems. When worker-owned large firms operate in a market-based system (as proposed by some progressive analysts), groups of workers in such firms may develop narrow interests that are not necessarily the same as those of the society as a whole. (It may be in their interests, for instance, to pollute the community’s air and water rather than pay cleanup costs - especially when the firm faces stiff competition from other private or worker-owned companies.) Studies of worker-owned plywood companies in the Northwest found that all too easily workers developed narrow “worker-capitalist” attitudes (and conservative political views) as they competed in the marketplace. Nor does such ownership solve problems of inequality: Workers who “own” the garbage companies are clearly on a different footing, for instance, than specific groups of workers lucky enough to “own” the oil industry.
Often here - and in several other variants of socialist ideas - it is hoped that a new culture (or ideology) or progressive forms of taxation, regulation and other policies can offset the underlying tendencies of the models. However, there is reason to be skeptical of “after-the-fact” remedies that hope to counter the inherent dynamics of any model, since political power and interest group influence often follow from ownership irrespective of good intentions and the hope that progressive political ideals, or ideology, will save the day. If the attitudes nurtured by the plywood co-ops turn out to be the norm, then new worker-owned companies would likely not generate strong support for regulations and taxation that help society at large but restrict or tax their own firm.
Let me stress that we simply do not know whether this might or might not be the case. It is, however, a mistake to assume either that socially responsible regulations can be “pasted on” to any institutional substructure (especially if they create costs to that substructure), or that institutions will automatically generate a sufficiently powerful cooperative culture and institutional power dynamic in favor of regulations and taxation even if it adds costs to their own institution and is detrimental to the material interests of those involved.
To get around some of these problems, some theorists have proposed democratically managed enterprises that are nonetheless owned by the broader society through one or another structural form. Although workers in the “self-managed” firm could gain from greater efficiency and initiative, major profits would go to the society as a whole. Still, note that in such cases, too, the incentive structure of the competitive market tends to create incentives to reduce costs - for instance, by externalizing environmentally destructive wastes. Also, when there are economies of scale, market-based systems generate very powerful pressures to adopt new technologies and prioritize growth (or lose out to other firms that also are under pressure to grow and adopt new technologies) - and this dynamic, too, runs counter to the needs of an ecologically sustainable future.) John Bellamy Foster’s The Ecological Revolution, among other efforts, gives depth to the ecological foundational arguments further systemic designs must consider.
Designing for Community
We are clearly at the exploratory stage in connection with these matters, but the really important question is clearly whether a new model might inherently generate outcomes that do not require “after-the-fact” policy fixes or attempted fixes it is hoped the political system will supply. Especially since such “fixes” come out of a larger culture, the terms of reference of which are significantly set by the underlying economic institutions, and if these develop competitive and growth-oriented attitudes, the outcomes are likely to be different from those hoped for by progressive proponents. Lest we jump to any quick conclusions, it is again important to be clear that no one has as yet come up with a serious “model” that might both achieve efficiencies and self-directed management - and also work to create an equitable, ecologically sustainable larger culture and system. All have flaws.
Some of the problems and also some of the design features of alternatives, however, begin to suggest some possible directions for longer-term development:
For instance, a third model that has traditionally had some resonance is to locate primary ownership of significant scale capital in “communities” rather than either the state or specific groups of workers - i.e. in geographic communities and in political structures that are inclusive of all the people in the community. (By definition geographic communities inherently include not only the workers who at any moment in time may only include half the population, but also stay-at-home, child-rearing males or females, the elderly, the infirm, children and young people in school - in short the entire community.)
Community models also inherently “internalize externalities” - meaning that unlike private enterprise or even worker-owned companies that may have a financial interest in lowering costs by not cleaning up environmentally destructive practices, community-owned firms are in a different position: If the community chooses to continue such practices, it is polluting itself, a choice it can then examine from a comprehensive perspective - and in a framework that does not inherently pose the interests of the firm against community-wide interests.
Variations on this model include the “municipal socialism” that played so important a role in early 20th century American socialist politics - and is still evident in more than 2,000 municipally owned utilities, a good deal of new municipal land development and many other projects. “Social ecologist” Murray Bookchin gave primary emphasis to a municipal version of the community model in works like Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future, and Marxist geographer David Harvey has begun to explore this option as well. (As Harvey emphasizes, any “model” would likely also have to build up higher level supporting structures and could not function successfully were it left to simply float in the free market without some larger supporting system.)
Current suggestive practical developments in this direction include a complex or “mixed” model in Cleveland that involves worker co-ops that are linked together and subordinated to a community-wide, nonprofit structure - and supported by something of a quasi-planning system (directed procurement from hospitals and universities that depend in significant part on public financial support). An earlier model involving joint community and worker ownership was developed by steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, in the late 1970s.
The Jewish theologian Martin Buber also offered a community-oriented variation based on cooperative ownership of capital in one geographic community. He saw this “full cooperative” (and confederations of such communities) as an answer the problems both of corporate capitalism and of state socialism. Buber’s primary practical experimental demonstration was the Israeli cooperative commune (kibbutz), but the principle might well be applied in other forms. Karl Marx’s discussion of the Paris Commune (and of the Russian village commune or mir) is also suggestive of possibilities in this direction.
In the various community models there is also every reason to expect that specific communities will develop “interests” that may or may not be the same as those of the society as a whole. (Again think of communities located on top of important natural resources versus others not so favored.) The formula based on community ownership, however, may have a potential advantage that might under certain circumstances - and with clear intent - help at least partly offset the tendency for any structural form to produce narrow interest-group ideas and power. This is the simple fact that a fully inclusive structure that nurtures ideals of “community” - as opposed to ideas of individual ownership, on the one hand, or worker-group ownership of specific firms, on the other - may offer greater possibilities for building a common culture of community, one in which norms of equal treatment and common interest are inherently generated by the structural design itself (at least within communities and possibly beyond.)
To the extent this is so, or could be nurtured, a systemic design based on communities (or joint worker-community ownership) might both allow for decentralization and also for the generation of common values. A subset of issues also involves smaller scale geographic community ownership, in the form of neighborhoods. And such a model might also include a mix of smaller scale worker-owned and cooperative forms, and even (larger scale) state and nationally owned public enterprise as well - a structural form that is now far more common and efficient in many countries around the world than is widely understood.
Questions of Scale
Social ownership by neighborhoods, municipalities, states, and, of course, nations (all with or without some formula of “joint” worker ownership) are not the only models based on the fact that geography is commonly inherently inclusive of all parties - and therefore potentially capable of helping nurture inclusive norms and inclusive cultures. A final formula (for the moment) for significant scale and ultimately large industry is also based on geography, but at a different level still. This attempts to resolve some of these problems (and that of genuine democratic participation) by defining the key unit as a region, a formula urged by the radical historian, the late William Appleman Williams, as especially appropriate to a very large nation like the United States. It is not often realized how very different in scale the United States is from most European nations: Germany, for instance, can be tucked into a geographic area the size of Montana. Nor have many faced the fact that our current 315 million-person population is likely to reach 500 million over coming decades (and possibly a billion by the end of the century, if the US Census Bureau’s high estimate were to be realized.) During the Depression, various regional ownership models like the Tennessee Valley Authority were proposed, some of which were far more participatory and democratic in their design than the model that is currently in place. Legislation to create seven large-scale, publicly-owned regional efforts was, in fact, supported by the Roosevelt Administration at certain points in time.
Many other variations, of course, also have been proposed. The Parecon model, for instance, would attempt to replace a system of market exchanges with a system in which citizens would iteratively rank their preferences for consumer goods along with proposed amounts of proffered labor time. Proposals, like that of David Schweickart in After Capitalism, pick up on forms of worker self management, but also emphasize national ownership of the underlying capital. Seth Ackerman, in a recent essay for Jacobin, urges a worker-controlled model, but stresses the need for independent sources of publicly controlled investment capital. Other thinkers, like Michael Leobowitz in his book, The Socialist Alternative, have taken inspiration from Latin America’s leftward movement, and especially from Venezuela, to articulate a participatory vision of socialism rooted in democratic and cooperative practices. Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature argues that the impending ecological crisis necessitates a fundamental change away from the private ownership of earth’s resources.
And, of course, the question of planning versus markets needs to be put on the list of design challenges. Planning has its own long list of challenges - including, critically, who controls the planners and whether participatory forms of planning may be developed drawing on smaller scale emerging experience and also on a much more focused understanding of what needs to be planned and what ought to be independent of public direction. (Also how the market can be used to keep a planning system in check.)
As noted, there is also the question of enterprise scale - a consideration that suggests possible mixes of different forms of social ownership: where to locate the ownership and control of very large scale firms is one thing; very small another; and intermediate still another. Most “socialist” models these days also allow for an independent sector that includes small independent capitalist firms, especially in the innovative high-tech sector.
Related to all this is the question of function: The development and management of land, for instance, is commonly best done through a geographic institution - i.e. a neighborhood or municipal land trust. Public forms of banking and finance tend also to be best anchored in (though operated independently of) cities, states and nations. Though medical practices must be local, social or socialized health systems tend to work best in areas that include large populations - i.e. states or nations. In some cases, quite apart from efficiency considerations, ecological considerations make regions especially appropriate. (One of the rationales, originally, for the Tennessee Valley Administration had to do with managing a very challenging river system.)
On the Ground Now
Finally, there is much to learn from models abroad - particularly Mondragon, on the one hand, and the worker-cooperative and other networks in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, on the other. The first, Mondragon, has demonstrated how an integrated system of more than 100 cooperatives can function effectively (and in areas of high technical requirement) - and at the same time maintain an extremely egalitarian and participatory culture of institution control. The Italian cooperatives have demonstrated important ways to achieve “networked” production among large numbers of small units - and further, to use the regional government in support of the overall effort. Though the experience of both is extraordinary, simple extrapolations may or may not be possible: Both models, it is also important to note, developed out of historical contexts that helped create intense cultural and political solidarity - contexts also of extraordinary repression by fascist regimes, Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy. Finally, although the Emilia Romagna cooperatives are effective in their use of state policy, both models are best understood as institutional “elements” that may contribute to a potential national solution. Neither claims to, or attempts to, develop a coherent overall “systemic” design for a nation.
These various abstract considerations come down to earth when one realizes that there is far more going on, practically, on the ground related to the ownership forms than most people realize - a great deal that is not covered by the increasingly hobbled and financially constrained press. For a start, around 130 million Americans - 40 percent of the population - are members of one or another form of cooperative, a traditional collective ownership form that now includes large numbers of credit unions, agricultural co-ops dating back to the 1930s, electrical co-ops prevalent in many rural areas, insurance co-ops, food co-ops, retail co-ops (such as the outdoor recreational company REI and the hardware purchasing cooperative ACE), health-care co-ops, artist co-ops and many, many more.
There are also many, many worker-owned companies structured in ways different from traditional co-ops - indeed, around 11,000 of them, involving 10.3 million people, in virtually every sector, some very large and sophisticated. Technically, these companies are structured as ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) - and in fact 3 million more individuals are involved in worker-owned companies of this kind than are members of unions in the private sector. (Though there have been a variety of problems with this form, there has also been evolution with greater worker control and also experiments with unionization that in the future might suggest important additional possibilities.) Finally and critically, the United Steelworkers have put forward a new direction in union-worker co-ops.
There are also thousands of “social enterprises” that use democratized ownership to make money and use both the money and the enterprise itself to achieve a broader social purpose. By far the most common social enterprise is the traditional Community Development Corporation, or CDC. Nearly 5,000 have long been in operation in almost every US city of significant size. For the most part, CDCs have served as low-income housing developers and incubators for small businesses. Early on in the 50-year history of the movement, however, a different, larger vision was in play - one that is still present in some of the more advanced CDC efforts and one that suggests additional possibilities for the future.
Still another form of democratized ownership involves growing numbers of “land trusts” - essentially neighborhood or municipal corporations that own housing and other property in ways that prevent gentrification and turn development profits into support of low- and moderate-income housing. One of the best known is the Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont, which traces its modest beginnings to the early 1980s and now provides accommodation for more than 2,000 households. Hundreds of such collective ownership efforts now exist, and new land trusts are now being established on an expanding, ongoing basis in diverse contexts and cities all over the country.
Since 2010, twenty states have also considered legislation to establish public banks like that of North Dakota, which has operated with strong public support for more than nine decades. Approximately 20 states have considered legislation to establish single-payer health-care plans. Nor should we forget that the United States government de facto nationalized General Motors and AIG, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, during the recent crisis. It started selling them back once the profits began to roll, but in future crises, different outcomes might be ultimately achieved if practical experiments at the local and state level begin to create experiences that might be generalized to national models when the time is right - especially if the current system continues to decay and deteriorate. (Many of the national models that became the core programs of the New Deal were incubated in the state and local “laboratories of democracy” in the decades prior to the time national political possibilities opened up).
At this stage of development, there is every reason to experiment with many forms - a “community-sustaining” direction that I have suggested might be called a “Pluralist Commonwealth” to emphasize the plurality of common or democratized wealth-holding efforts.
I obviously do not hope in this brief sketch to try to offer a fully developed alternative. My goal is much simpler: First, to suggest that the questions classically posed by the word “socialism” that is now coming back into public use need to be discussed and debated by a much broader group than has traditionally been concerned with these issues; and second, to suggest further that if one looks closely there is evidence that some of the potential real world elements of a solution may be developing in ways that might one day open the way to a very American and very populist variant (whether called “socialist” or not). It is time, accordingly, to discuss the deeper design issues carefully and thoughtfully and in ways that involve a much larger share of the very large numbers of people, beyond the traditional left, who the polls and dictionary inquiries suggest may be interested in these questions.
Even as we learn more and more about the various forms and their positive and negative features and tendencies, hopefully we can engage in a far-reaching and thoughtful debate about how a new model might be created that is both systemically sophisticated and also appropriate to American culture and traditions - a model that nurtures democracy and a culture of inclusiveness and ecological sanity. Many serious and committed people on the left have been struggling with these issues and keeping the critical questions alive for decades. Even though the way forward, politically, is obviously daunting, difficult and uncertain, it is time to widen the dialogue in ways that include the millions of Americans who now seem increasingly open to the challenge.
Nor should the pessimism of the moment undercut what needs to be done: Anyone looking at Latin America 30 years ago might easily have been judged foolish to think change could occur - and that debate concerning these kinds of questions was important. Yet even during and through the pain - and the torture and dictatorship - new beginnings somehow were made in many areas and by many people. Our own course may be difficult, but easy pessimism is an all-too-common escape mechanism to avoid responsibility. It is also comforting: If one buys the judgment that nothing can ever be done, that it is impossible, one has an excuse not to try and also not to try to reach out to others. The fact is the failings of the present system are themselves forcing more and more people to explore new ideas and develop new experiments and new political efforts.
The important points to emphasize are three:  There is openness in the public, and especially among a much, much broader group than many think, to discussing these issues - including even the word “socialism;”  It is accordingly time to get very serious about some of the challenging substantive and theoretical issues involved; and  There are also many on-the-ground experiments, and projects and developments that suggest practical directions that are under way, but also that a new politics (whatever it is called) might begin to build upon them if it got serious.
Posted here with the permission of Truthout and Professor Gar Alperovitz.
1976 was a difficult year for the satirical and current affairs magazine Private Eye.
This was the year its then editor, Richard Ingrams received over 60 writs from disgruntled billionaire businessman Sir James Goldsmith (aka Sir Jams Fishpaste, as the Eye called him). Goldsmith had objected to 3 stories the Eye had published about him—one in particular that suggested Fishpaste had helped his friend, Lord Lucan escape Britain from a murder charge.
Goldsmith and Lucan were bonded by several things, one in particular was a belief Communists had infiltrated western media, and Britain was on the verge of a Communist revolution. It led Fishpaste and Lucan to discuss the pros and cons of a Fascist military coup over “smoked salmon and lamb cutlets.” Their conversation reflected the paranoid, Boy’s Own fantasies of a very privileged and ruthless class.
“[Goldsmith] set out to destroy the little magazine that had presumed to offend him. He sued….But he spread the net far beyond Private Eye. In a novel exercise in overkill, he issued separate writs against all the distributors and wholesalers of the magazine. There were over 60 writs. Private Eye faced a huge financial burden. It was liable to indemnify all those whom Goldsmith had chosen to sue.
The first task was to reassure the recipients of these writs that the indemnity would be honoured. Private Eye lacked the resources but had a lot of supporters. A drive to raise money began, inspirationally named the Goldenballs Fund.
Peter Cook and Richard Ingrams check an early edition of ‘Private Eye’
The legal action brought considerable media attention, and in October, the BBC made a documentary about Ingrams and Private Eye:
“Richard Ingrams’ offices are at 34 Greek Street. A former haunt of prostitutes and drug addicts. Now the main problem is writ service. Rented at sixty-pounds-a-week, the building is small and dilapidated, but it’s all that Private Eye can afford. The magazine runs on a shoe-string budget. It comes out once a fortnight, price 20 pence, and has a circulation of 90,000.”
Ingrams may have looked like an unassuming university lecturer—dressed in a corduroy jacket, with a Viyella shirt and tie, but he was (surprisingly) a reformed drinker and smoker, who believed in God and played the organ at the local church. He was, more importantly, a superb and strongly principled editor, who understood Private Eye‘s role:
“It has to be anarchic. It has to be prepared to hit everyone—even its friends. As long as you attack everybody indiscriminately, completely indiscriminately you are safe. Immediately you start taking sides, or sticking-up for somebody, or keeping quiet, then you get into difficulties.”
Under his editorship, Private Eye had a golden decade in the seventies. It attracted some of the very best writers, journalists and artists, who brought an excellence other magazines (Punch) could only dream about. There was Auberon Waugh who produced an hilarious and corruscating diary; Paul Foot who delivered brilliant investigative reports; Peter Cook offered memorable comic contributions; and “Grovel” the Eye‘s (in)famous gossip column written by the late, Daily Mail diarist, Nigel Dempster, who claimed:
“We live in a banana peel society, where it gives no-one greater pleasure than to see someone trip up.”
Not all of the Eye writers were happy with Dempster’s column, Christopher Booker thought it edged too close to exaggeration, without thought of the damage done.
This lack of thought had led a 100 people to sue Private Eye by ‘76, which had depleted much of the magazine’s profits. But then the Eye was never really that interested in profits—it was a product of those patrician attitudes Public Schools can afford to inspire.
The magazine’s original quartet Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker, Paul Foot and William Rushton had all met at Shrewsbury School, where they had produced their own teenage satirical magazine—a first issue was covered with hessian and embedded with free seeds. After school, university, where Ingrams hoped to become a leading comic actor. It didn’t happen, and the Famous 4 regrouped to produce the very first Private Eye in 1961, from typescript, Letra-set and cow-gum. It is interesting to note how this amateur, home-made style has remained very much the template for the Eye ever since.
This new magazine chimed with the so-called satire boom, in which Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller conquered the world with Beyond the Fringe, and producer Ned Sherrin made a star of David Frost (who Booker later described as a man with “..a peculiar ambition to be world-famous simply for the sake of being world-famous”) on the highly successful That Was The Week That Was—which proved so successful it was canceled after 2 series.
The Eye continued long after both these shows and the satire boom had run out of laughs, in part much aided by the backing of Peter Cook, who helped finance the magazine until his death in 1995.
What makes Private Eye essential is the ephemeral nature of its exceedingly good journalism. As Auberon Waugh once wrote (in the introduction to Another Voice—his essential collection of writing for The Spectator), “Timeless journalism is bad journalism”:
“The essence of journalism is that it should stimulate its readers for a moment, possibly open their minds to some alternative perception of events, and then be thrown away, with all its clever conundrums, its prophecies and comminations, in the great wastepaper basket of history.”
Though it has been occasionally wrong (MMR comes to mind) and wrong-headed (comic attitudes towards race, women, and gays have been questionable), Private Eye is indispensable and essential reading for those with an interest in the follies of politics and business of contemporary life, or the strong tradition of good investigation journalism, which most newspapers appear to have abandoned long ago. This is what made, and still makes Private Eye truly great.
Sir Jams Fishpaste launched his own magazine Talbot!, which soon disappeared without trace, before forming the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Margarine Party, a popular movement that failed to be..er..popular. He died in 1997.
Richard Ingrams quit Private Eye in 1986, and appointed alleged schoolboy Ian Hislop as Editor, who has managed the magazine with great success ever since.
Ingrams started a new magazine The Oldie in 1992, which has been described as “the new Punch and the new New Yorker,” which he continues to successfully edit today. Richard Ingrams is 94.
J. G. Ballard once said, if by some terrible calamity all art from the 20th century was destroyed except for the work of one artist, then it would be possible to recreate all of the century’s greatest artistic developments if that artist was Eduardo Paolozzi.
Deliberate hyperbole, but there is an essence of truth here, as Paolozzi produced such an incredible range and diversity of art that it has been difficult for critics and art historians to classify him. He began as a Surrealist, before becoming the first Pop Artist—a decade before Warhol put paint on canvas. He then moved on to print-making, design, sculpture and public art to international success.
Born in Edinburgh, to an Italian family in 1924, Paolozzi spent much of his childhood at his parent’s ice cream parlor, where he was surrounded by the packaging, wrapping and cigarette cards that later inspired his Pop Art. This early idyll of childhood was abruptly ended when Italy declared war on Britain in 1940. Paolozzi awoke one morning to find himself, along with his father and uncles, incarcerated, in the city’s Saughton Prison, as undesirables, or enemies of the state. Paolozzi was held for 3 months, but his father and uncles were deported to Canada on the ship HMS Arandora Star, which was torpedoed by a U-boat off the north-west coast of Ireland. The vessel sank with the loss of 630 lives.
Considered psychologically unsuitable for the army, the teenage Paolozzi studied at the Edinburgh School of Art, in 1943, before finishing at the Slade School in London, which he found disappointingly conservative in its approach to art.
After the war, Paolozzi moved briefly to Paris where he visited some of the century’s greatest artists, then resident in the city—Giacometti, Braque, Arp, Brâncuşi, and Léger. In his youthful boldness, Eduardo had telephoned each of these artists after discovering their numbers in the telephone directory. He was greeted as an equal, he later claimed, most probably because the war had just ended. The experience taught Paolozzi much, and emboldened his ideas. On his return to London, Paolozzi presented a slide show of adverts and packaging, which was the very first Pop Art.
Paolozzi developed his distinctive collages and multiple images of Marilyn Monroe long before Warhol and even Richard Hamilton, the artist with whom he showed at the now legendary This Is Tomorrow exhibition, at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956.
Paolozzi eventually tired of his association with Pop Art, as it limited his incredibly diverse artistic vision. The same year as This Is Tomorrow, he played a deaf mute, with fellow artist Michael Andrews, in the first major Free Cinema movie Together by Lorenza Mazzetti.
By the late 1950s, he had moved on to industrial print-making, before producing an incredibly awe-inspiring range of designs for buildings, sculptures and public art—from his mosaic for Tottenham Court Road tube station to the cover of Paul McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway, through to such epic sculptures Newton, outside of the British Library, Vulcan, Edinburgh, and Head of Invention, Design Museum, London.
In 1984, Paolozzi conceived and produced a brief strange and surreal animation 1984: Music for Modern Americans, which was animated and directed by Emma Calder, Susan Young and Isabelle Perrichon, and based photocopies of Paolozzi’s original drawings.
I’ve been listening to the music of Neil Innes a lot this week as I’ve been writing and as always, enjoying his work immensely. It’s a feast. Truly he is one of the best pop songwriters we have, a chameleon of musical styles from the earliest stages of his career. Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville, psychedelic rock, Beatles pastiches, even reggae, there’s nothing he can’t do. As Innes gets older, his genre hopping songwriting gets even better, something that can’t be said of all—or even many—of his Sixties contemporaries. Sadly, although he is undeniably a musician’s musician, Innes will probably never be recognized as such. Why? Because he’s funny, too.
Since I was a wee lad I’ve been been a fanatical fan of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the wonderfully zany group of Dada art school rejects featuring Innes and “ginger geezer” front man Vivian Stanshall. I discovered them listening to the Dr. Demento radio show when he played their cover of “Hunting Tigers Out in ‘Indiah’” (I heard Noel Coward and The Mothers of Invention for the first time during that same show, three life-long obsessions launched that fateful evening). I ran right out and spent my birthday money on The History of the Bonzos, a two LP set with a glossy booklet filled with insane photographs and a history of the group. I loved every single song on it. Still do.
The Bonzos were much beloved of all the really heavy rock groups of the Sixties and they opened for The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Kinks. Eric Clapton was a huge fan. Paul McCartney produced their only hit, “I’m The Urban Spaceman” (under the name “Apollo C. Vermouth”) and they made a guest appearance in the Beatles’ TV special Magical Mystery Tour as the band in the strip joint playing “Death Cab for Cutie” (and yes, this is where the band got their name). If you’ve never heard their seminal albums Gorilla, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse, Tadpoles or Keynsham (my favorite) you really don’t know as much about Sixties music as you think you do, it’s just that simple.
It’s like never hearing Captain Beefheart or The Velvet Underground and thinking you’re all clever, a glaring and unforgivable cultural blind spot, sez me.
I’ve gone out of my way for three decades now hunting down Bonzo Dog Band related bootlegs, especially video. There wasn’t a lot of it about until a few years ago when the DVD of Do Not Adjust Your Set was released. DNAYS was a hip Sixties tea-time kids show, beloved of children and parents (think Pee-wee’s Playhouse from an earlier era). It starred pre-Python Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin (Terry Gilliam did animations for the show). The Bonzos were the primarly musical performers and members of the group appeared as extras in the comedy sketches. DNAYS was thought lost for many years when the ones that were released on DVD were re-discovered. Now there is a terrific amount of “new” Bonzo material for fans like me to feast on much that has been uploaded to YouTube.
After the breakup of the Bonzos, Neil Innes continued his association with his former DNAYS co-stars by appearing and writing material for the final 1974 series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the series after John Cleese left (only Innes and Douglas Adams were ever given writing credits outside of the six Pythons during the show’s history). Innes appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the annoying minstrel and singing his memorable Dylan parody, “Protest Song” (“I’ve suffered for my music and now it’s your turn…”) in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Post-Python, Innes and Eric Idle created the wonderful Rutland Weekend Television series (think Brit version of SCTV) and Innes went on—solo, I think he and Idle had a falling out—to The Innes Book of Records, a musically-oriented comedy series., quite ahead of its time.
And of course there were The Rutles in All You Need is Cash, Idle and Innes’ adroit parody of the Beatles. Innes went on to a number of children’s shows in the 1980s and 90s such as Puddle Lane. He tours solo and with others and has reformed The Bonzo Dog Band for a reunion concert (with luminaries like Britwits Stephen Fry and Paul Merton filling in for the late Vivian Stanshall). A film was made about Innes’ life and career (and featuring many of his famous friends) in 2008 called The Seventh Python, which has never been released on DVD.