Monday, July 25, 2011

The Star Trek Myth: towards a historical materialist critique

The following text is still one of the best things I've read on Star Trek. It was originally published in a magazine called Melancholic Troglodytes by somebody who I had some ultra-leftist adventures with back in the day. While respecting their anonymity, I don't think it will be giving too much away to say that they may have had something to do with the remarkable book Zones of Proletarian Development. Later in 2002 I published it on Red Giant, a radical space site that was killed off when the Death Star obliterated Geocities - some of it still exists on a mirror site, but as that is rather precarious and this text doesn't seem to anywhere else I'm going to stick it up here.

The Star Trek Myth: towards a historical materialist critique

by Fatemeh Faza-navard

Abstract: Where Donna Haraway (1985) holds, "the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion", the Trekkician (Trekki Dialectician) boldly goes where no academic has gone before: sci-fi (and in particular, Star Trek), s/he contends, is the indispensable tool for demystifying capitalism (and in particular, US capital). The text starts off by analysing the mythological aspects of Star Trek using Levi-Strauss and Barthes. It then offers a conceptual map of Start Trek based on Debord's differentiation of the spectacle into concentrated, diffuse and integrated. Finally, it looks at how labour power and class struggle are mystified by the Star Trek saga.


The mythological aspects of the Star Trek phenomenon (i.e., the whole shebang, five TV series, movies, comic books, novels, computer games, ritualised acts of celebrity-worship, etc.), resemble a Levi-Straussian bricolage, an assembly of disparate factors which "using the disarticulated elements of the social discourse of the past ... creates structures out of events". The signs that the bricoleur collects are already shaped by their particular history and previous uses. It is not inconceivable that what myths say collectively, and in a disguised form, "is a necessary poetic truth which is an unwelcome contradiction" (quoted in Leach, 1970). In this sense, they can have a positive role to play.

Alternatively, according to Barthes (1979), "in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signified in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs". This is the "repressive" value of myth, and "it is at this level that the morality and ideology of a society are above all invested"(ibid, p 40). This repressive impulse is magnified during times of structural and cultural transformation. This explains why Star Trek is prescribed viewing at some American psychiatric wards! (Zerzan, 1995)

Barthes's work could also be used to demonstrate how Star Trek's constant allusions to the troubled past work as inoculation, "by holding out the promise that the issues of the past (and the present) will eventually be solved by the same system that engendered them" (Boyd, in Harrison, 1996). Viewers are de-memorized by being inoculated with a harmless version of history. This de-historicization is one of Star Trek's most pernicious strategies for dealing with the resurgence of a collective proletarian memory.

Star Trek's civilizing mission is encapsulated in the 'Prime Directive', which is Starfleet's moral code of conduct for dealing with primitive species. The Prime Directive reveals itself for a non-too-subtle privileging of a positivist model of development. This model of development has a 'modernist' and a 'post-modernist' phase. Within its 'modernist' phase, it opts for barefaced expansionism (as seen in Enterprise with the hopelessly wooden Captain Archer and the Original Star Trek with Kirk and co). Later, in its 'post-modernist' phase, it employs a more sophisticated policy of post-colonial 'non-interference' (as seen in The Next Generation and Deep Space 9).

Star Trek (ST) can perform successfully as myth, bricolage, and inoculation against subversion, precisely because of its ability to be a cocoon of warmth and security in an increasingly turbulent world. Following Benedict Anderson (1983:16) we could call ST an imagined community, "because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in it, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship". This false community is at evidence most explicitly in Voyager, where the crew stranded behind enemy lines, has to battle not only for its physical survival but also for its very identity. In the journey home, captain Janeway forges an extended family identity and then uses this group identity to secure the royalty of her crew.

ST achieves its civilizing/domesticating mission through many mechanisms, chief amongst them the practice of marking and transcending frontiers. These frontiers are conceived of as both internal markers in our imagination and external signposts in the galaxy. Internally, Deep Space 9 (DS-9) and Voyager, play upon the insecurity of the boundary between 'I' and the 'not-I' and present the 'Other' (be they alien, Arab or Communist) as a threat to identity (Jameson, 1981:115). This groundwork then permits "the surfacing of social norms as personal traits and desires"(Donald, l992:92). Externally, "it constructs a limit-text, an imaginary frontier in space where rationalization of colonialist practices take place" (Harrison, 1996:158). The Original Star Trek and Enterprise specialize in this type of missionary colonizing.

The de-memorizing agenda of Star Trek alluded to above is linked to the acceleration of the effects of history. Baudrillard (1994:6) talks of the acceleration of the effects of history, as its meaning is slowing inexorably. "Right at the heart of the news, history threatens to disappear. At the heart of hi-fi, music threatens to disappear...Everywhere we find the same stereophonic effect, the same effect of absolute proximity to the real, the same effect of simulation". History disappears by becoming its own dustbin: "History has only wrenched itself from cyclical time to fall into the order of the recyclable"(ibid., p 27).

It is precisely this simulated recycling of history that ST is so good at. Haraway attests to its power when she writes, "We have all been colonized by those origin myths, with their longing for fulfilment in apocalypse". And as Barthes (1993:121) says, "Myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear". However, the "mode of presence" (Barthes) of a mythical concept is not simply literal, it is also memorial. John F. Kennedy and Reagan's theories of a 'Communist' offensive, and Bush's warnings of annihilation at the hands of Iraqis "rang true because many voters had heard -and seen- it all before" (Carter, 1988:141). Star Trek treats the viewer like the Macintosh game Deja-vu, "where the player 'awakes' as an amnesiac, and where part of the task involves the rediscovery of identity and the recovery of memory" (Stallabrass, 1993:95). Only what is 're-discovered' is the bourgeoisie's version of history whilst the collective memory of the proletariat is fragmented, ignored and distorted in various ways.

For nearly four decades, ST has been the perfect vehicle for disseminating the US bourgeoisie's message worldwide. It does not so much imagine the future, as to "defamiliarise and restructure our experience of our present" (Jameson, quoted in Bernardi, 1998:12). And yet its success masks a deep rnalaise. For "the universalization of facts, data, knowledge, and information is a precondition of their disappearance. Every idea and culture becomes universalized before its disappearance" (Baudrillard, 1994:104). From within, a culture seems immortal. Thus the insolent triumphalism of ST fails to recognise itself as the bourgeoisie's protracted and spectacular death agony. The suicide of the New World Order, serialised!

Myth: Levi-Strauss's version

Myth and racism

Levi-Strauss (1990) argued, "there is more structure to a myth than the mere narrative succession of episodes". He also suggested that resemblances are not the only close links between them, inversions typify another link. The mythic bricolage is a mode of representation and not a mode of explanation. The Egyptologist, Gerald Massey (1995), understood this a century before Levi-Strauss.

The racism permeating Star Trek requires easily recognisable stereotypes for the smooth transfer of prejudice. Masks and make-up allow the sign to adopt a hybrid position, "at once elliptical and pretentious, which is then pompously christened nature" (Barthes, 1993: 28), as with the wearing of fringe in Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar. Such masks, says Adorno, "which freeze what is most living in the real face, are 'emblems of authority' - allegorical combinations of image and command" (quoted in Stallabrass, 1993:87).

In The Way of The Masks, Levi-Strauss (1975) made a further contribution. By concentrating on three types of masks, he showed "each individual mask was, from a formal point of view, a transformation of another mask in the system". The technological invention of 'morphing' (e.g., the Dominian changelings) takes this to extreme and "codifies the similar function of extra-terrestrials and non-white humans as threats to whiteness" (Bernardi, 1998: 89). The Dzonokwa mask, for example, is an inversion of the Swaihwe. The former is painted black, eyes half closed with a rounded mouth, the latter the exact opposite. These masks should be seen as part of a structural relationship, reinforcing each other through inversion and similarities. Their authoritarian and stereotypifying tendencies are due to them being part of a closed system of representation.

Similarly the masks in ST are the result of multiple series of semantic associations that relate to their specific cultural contexts. The human visage is the norm and the other species represent deviations from this 'perfection'. The rigid forehead of a Klingon signifying aggression, the heavy jaw and projecting eye ridges of a Cardassian signifying criminality, and the large nose, ears, bad teeth and protruding cortex of a Ferengi signifying greed (the unacceptable face of usury capital). This, of course, is phrenology at its crudest, a pseudo-science that having been thrown out of the party (Rose, 1984:53), tries to crash it through the back door.

This racism is connected to the binary opposition between sacred and profane. Mary Douglas (1970), in a structuralist analysis of Leviticus, observes that etymologically, holiness means 'set apart': "Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused". Hybrids are, therefore, impure and unclean, because they confound the general scheme of things.

Likewise Edward Leach pointed out in 1966 that "in England the only common fish subject to killing and eating restrictions is the Salmon"- an "anomalous" fish as it is red blooded as well as being both a sea fish and a fresh water fish. Leach postulates that: "We make binary distinctions and then mediate the distinction by creating an ambiguous (and taboo-loaded) intermediate category". The close, domesticated animals are usually denoted by monosyllables, the wild ones distinguished by giving them semi-Latin names- elephant, hippopotamus, and so forth. For example, house animals like dog and cat are inedible, farm animals (pig, cattle) are edible if sacrificed, forest animals (deer) are edible (no rules), and remote/wild animals (tiger) are inedible. The hybrids in Star Trek are always under greater scrutiny for acts of disloyalty.

Myth and morality

Racism and the sacred/profane axis are closely related to secular morality and Star Trek is certainly permeated by morality. A book like Star Trek Speaks (Sackett: 1989), a compilation of quotes and axioms from the Original ST, is the concrete manifestation of this home-spun (common-sensical in Vico's vocabulary) philosophy. The book contains chapters on Universal Truths (e.g., Kirk: "All your people must learn before you can reach for the stars"); Emotions and Logic (e.g., Spock: "it would be illogical to kill without reason"); The Military (e.g., Kirk: "I'm a soldier, not a diplomat. I can only tell the truth"); On Women (e.g., Spock: "Extreme feminine beauty is always disturbing"); On Government (e.g., Lokai of Cheron: "You're from the planet Earth. There is no persecution on your planet"); On Religion (e.g., Kirk: "Mankind has no need for gods. We find the One quite adequate").

This 'secular' morality seeps into every nook-and-cranny, including the architecture, the food and the fashion on display. Nothing escapes its malevolent influence. For instance, in The Original ST and The Next Generation (TNG), occasions arise where essence and appearance are at odds. The Trekki knows that under the enlightened guidance of Kirk/Picard, the 'essence' of the problem will eventually emerge out of the shadows. The modernist and liberal-humanist assumptions in such a narrative are explicit. Accordingly, the architecture of the Enterprise is open, bright and pristine like the interior decor of any modern office block (Altman: 1 994). The division of labour amongst the crew is likewise, sharply delineated. By the time the movie Insurrection came out, the naivety, optimism and heroism associated with Kirk's humanism has degenerated into Picard's halting, humbled and self-conscious humanitarianism (see Paul Mattick for further clarification of the difference between humanism and humanitarianism, 1978:158).

The decor of Deep Space Nine (DS9), on the other hand, is hard, dark and angular. The sets have more contrast, reflecting the shadowy nature of characters and alliances conceivable. Quark's holo-suits (recreational offspring of today's virtual reality equipment), which merge the sharp distinction between reality and simulacrum, play a more prominent role in the 'postmodernist' DS9. On Voyager the copy/simulations frequently pose a threat to the crew's survival, as the "skin-jobs" in Blade Runner threaten the status quo.

The architecture of ST is mythic partly because its inhabitants identify themselves as users and not creators. Everything is already available through technological sophistication. As Barthes (op cit, p 146) says: "There is one language that is not mythical, and that is the language of man as producer'. The tension between production and consumption is embodied in contrasting attitudes towards the replicator - a device capable of creating food/clothes, "out of thin air". In one episode, Picard's brother chastises the good captain for eating too much synthetic food. Captain Sisko (and his father) on DS9 and Neelix on Voyager are accomplished chefs. Food preparation in ST is a ritualistic act of familial bonding, which the ubiquitous replicator challenges.

Finally, there is a class dimension to eating in Star Trek that often goes unnoticed. In The Culinary Triangle (1966), Levi-Strauss observes, "Boiling provides a means of complete conservation of the meat and its juices, whereas roasting is accompanied by destruction and loss. Thus one denotes economy; the other prodigality; the latter is aristocratic, the former plebian". This is precisely the reason the ex-Borg (Pleb), Seven of Nine, has difficulty grasping the significance of a "hearty meal".

Myth and Barthes

Racism and civilization

The Negro soldier in French military uniform on the cover of Paris-Match, analysed so perceptively by Barthes (1993:116), finds its Star Trek counterpart in the shape of the 'liminal' Lt. Commander Worf. "Liminality" is a postmodernist term for the social position or state of being "betwixt and between" cultures. Postmodernism portrays this as a malaise and a loss. In fact, the way capital works, it cannot be anything else. Consequently, the signifier of Worf's language-object (his meaning as a Klingon in Starfleet uniform) signifies the greatness of the Starfleet (American) empire.

As meaning (the signifier of the language-object) passes toward form (the signifier of metalanguage), "the image loses some knowledge: the better to receive the knowledge in the concept (signified part of the meta-language)". The knowledge contained in a mythical concept is made deliberately confused, a matrix of "yielding, shapeless association". Myth, after all, is "speech stolen and restored", a "brief act of larceny...which gives mythical speech its benumbed look" (ibid.). Picard's soliloquy on the eve of an impending Borg attack imbues Starfleet's cause with eternal legitimacy and at the same time links racism with the survival of white, Anglo-Saxon civilization. This is an example of "myth as depoliticised speech":

"I wonder if the Emperor Honorius watching the Visigoths coming over the seventh hill truly realised The Roman Empire was about to fall ... Will this be the end of our civilisation?"

Worf, of course, is a far more complex character than Barthes's Negro soldier. The Star Trek narrative usually invites implicit metaphorical parallels between him and stereotypes of African American, Native American and Japanese samurai (Harrison, 1996:59). Worf functions as a site where racial/species, national and cultural tensions collide and are always resolved in favour of cultural assimilation by Starfleet values. Picard employs "inferential racism" (Hall, 1990) in his dealings with Worf, inviting the latter to constantly prove his loyalty to Starfleet. This stereotyping always functions to buttress hierarchy in Star Trek. In fact, this ritualistic avowal of loyalty is expected and enacted in most American narratives as the high percentage of 'immigrants' in U.S. society demands a stricter coherence to the concept of an imagined community than is required in more secure forms of nationalism. Thus 'minorities' are routinely urged to prove their allegiance to their adopted U.S.A. (e.g. the sacrifices made in The Deer Hunter).

In an episode of DS9, the Dominion forces in the Gamma quadrant capture Worf and a number of other Starfleet/Klingons. Worf has to fight his Jem' Hadaar captors in bouts of ritualised combat in order to give his colleagues time for completing their escape attempt. The scene combines the characteristics of wrestling as a noble sport (i.e., Greek/Olympic wrestling where feudal concepts like honour determine the conduct of champions), and wrestling as a spectacle (here analogous to the Elizabethan Masque based on bull-fighting and pantomime).

The wrestling protagonists have a "physique as peremptory as those of the characters of the Commedia dell'Arte, who display in advance, in their costumes and attitudes, the future contents of their parts"(Barthes, op cit, p 17). Dario Fo's (1991) Pantaloons and Harlequins, therefore, allow an immediate reading of juxtaposed meaning. This spontaneous pantomime allows suffering, defeat, and justice to be exhibited in public and in the form of a secularised passion play.

Worf fights honourably the first eight cornbatants. Battered and bruised, he is only spared defeat (i.e., death) by a reciprocal act of honour from his Jem' Hadaar captor. Honour here functions as exchangeable gift, as African potlatch, oiling the wheel of human transactions in what is basically a capitalist world.

A relatively recent example could illustrate the point more cogently. The wrestling tournament between the USA and Iran, referred to euphemistically by journalists (Hirst, 1998) as 'wrestling diplomacy', re-enacts the stylised rituals of Worf's escapade. The competing media apparatus of both states used techniques such as 'rhetorical amplification' (Barthes), in order to build up the event, with each side vying for the role of the gallant Worf. There was a great deal of honour at stake and honour, although a feudal concept can still generate wealth in terms of cultural capital.

The contradictions inherent in oiling capitalist development with residual cultural concepts such as honour can be viewed from a slightly different angle. Levi-Strauss makes a useful distinction, which deserves attention here. Rituals, he argues, are the opposite of games. "Games -an activity characteristic of 'hot' societies- use structures (the rules of the game) to produce events (victories or defeats). They are fundamentally disjunctive, as their aim is to separate the winner from the loser. Rituals are conjunctive- their aim is to bring together".

'Hot' societies employ hierarchy and linear time. The Next Generation (TNG), for example, "constructs its utopian future by drawing on a nineteenth-century faith in progress, human perfectibility, and expanding frontiers" (Harrison, 1996:95). This is an example of 'celebratory' or 'whiggish' historification (Harris, 1997). Social conflict is supposedly superseded. Money, wage-slavery abolished, at least, implicitly. Alienation and racism a thing of the past, or so it seems at first glance. Comte's three types of progress are exemplified by various TNG crew members: Practical Progress whose agency is 'Activity' embodied in First Officer Riker or Chief O'Brien; Theoretical Progress whose agency is 'Intellect' personified by the android Data; and Moral Progress whose agency is 'Feeling' typified by the female 'care-taker' characters, Troi, Guinan and Crusher. Only the paternalistic Picard is allowed to synthesize the three traits.

'Cold' societies (non-hierarchical and with a cyclical conception of time and usually no writing), on the other hand, use rituals and classificatory systems to resist change. The disjunction between spectators and officiators, sacred and profane is overcome. This is precisely why 'cold' societies pose a threat to Star Treks ideological hegemony and why they are nearly always depicted in a caricatured manner. American viewers may be encouraged to pity and patronise the primitive 'cold' societies but the identification must fall short of sympathy and solidarity.

Myth and taste

For Pierre Bourdieu (1997: 49) each social class is characterised by a set of "social competencies, a set of intellectual skills and sensibilities acquired through social background and educational environment and expressed through taste". Taste is externalised through signs but significantly, the same sign may carry different meaning for opposing social classes.

Wine used to be associated with the bourgeoisie in Britain but now it is also popular with proletarians. Iranian peasants and proles indulged in wine copiously throughout their history, whereas today they sip the occasional glass in secret for fear of Islamic punishment. Alternatively the same class may represent and mediate its social encounters through different drinks. For instance, "for the (French] worker, wine enables him to do his task with demiurgic ease", as lager used to be an essential dietary requirement of the London river-worker, and tea an indispensable method of pacification/forced relaxation.

Picard's fondness for Earl Grey is by contrast a "social gesture" (Barthes), as wine-drinking helps the French intellectual "demonstrate his control and sociability". Here, wine is the foundation for collective morality. Klingons' predilection for blood-wine and blood-pie represents a crude form of biological determinism ("you are what you eat"). The fanatical Jem' Hadaar (Iranians) neither eat, drink or bother with procreation, but are kept permanently drugged, as the historical assassins were by the 'Old Man of the Mountain'. As for changelings/shape-shifters (in this context, sufi masters), by contrast, have no need for nutrients or physical contact, because they have evolved beyond mere "solids"(i.e., humans).

On ST "fashion is often used not necessarily to distinguish between classes but between species". To be fashionable in ST is to be able to "stand out and fit in simultaneously" (Harrison, 1996: 117). Troi, Dax or Seven of Nine who undergo various degrees of 'striptease' (Barthes) during the show, advertise sexual promiscuity better to impede and exorcise it. The public are "inoculated with a touch of evil, the better to plunge it afterwards into a permanently immune Moral Good". Kirk and Uhura's famous inter-racial kiss, Dax's bi-sexual tendencies, Worf and Dax's sadomasochistic relationship, Kes's lolita impression, and Seven of Nine's aggressive man-hunting technique, all reveal themselves as acts of recuperation.

Myth and Debord

If the five series of ST represent a Debordian spectacle, then the relation between its elements can best be analysed as different phases of the spectacle. Not only that the various series follow different models of warfare. We will try to combine these two facets below.

The Enterprise, the original ST and TNG represent colonial and post-colonial tendencies of Debord's concentrated spectacle (l 987:64) respectively, a backward form of bureaucratic capitalism associated with authoritarian societies like Fascist Germany or Leninist USSR, or the liberal humanism of turn of the century USA. These three series typify the expansionist wing of the US bourgeoisie, and belong to the Errol Flynn genre of naval imperialism and the switch from piracy to patriotism. The military engagement against the cold war foe (Klingons/Russians) or the post-cold War foes (Borg and Romulans/Russians and Chinese), are based on modern models of warfare, where civil society is temporarily suppressed in favour of a total political mobilisation (Clausewitz).

Deep Space 9, which re-enacts the western genre of the besieged army outpost surrounded by hostile Indians, typifies the diffuse spectacle and favours the isolationist wing of the US bourgeoisie. The model of warfare on DS9 is based on the Arab-Israeli conflict (or Eastern Europe), setting the "measured anti-terrorist operations of Captain Sisko against the terrorism of the slimy Cardassians (Nazis/Iraqis/Palestinians) and the jihad of the pious Jem' Hadaar warrior-assassins (Iranians), fulfilling the grand plan of their changeling gods (Ayatollahs). In Marxian terminology, the jihad is the expression of civil society (camouflaged by a false religious unify), in pursuit of political society.

Finally Voyager, which plays on the anxieties of the American public over losing their soldiers behind enemy lines, is an expression of Debord's integrated spectacle (in existence in France and Italy since the 1980s and Russia since the 1990s). In Baudrillard's (1994: 31) less rigorous vocabulary, this phase is characterised by the "retrospective transparency of all the signs of modernity, speeded up and second-hand ... of all the positive and negative signs combined: that is, not just human rights, but crimes, catastrophes and accidents". Captain Janeway, having defied the Prime Directive, is stranded in a distant quadrant of the galaxy, forced to fight/negotiate her way through a maze of complex tribal allegiances. Tribal war is a mode of regulation through exhibition, a forced movement towards preventing the separation of political society (state power) from a nascent civil society.

Myth and space

In The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat, Barthes (1993:65) observes a crucial point about Jules Verne's self-sufficient cosmogony: "Imagination about travel corresponds in Verne to an exploration of closure, and the compatibility between Verne and childhood stems from a common delight in the finite, to enclose oneself and to settle". He further notes, "the basic activity in Jules Verne is unquestionably that of appropriation. The image of the ship, so important in his mythology, in no way contradicts this ... the ship is an emblem of closure" (ibid. p 66). Barthes posits Rumbaud's Drunken Boat, the boat which says 'I' and proceeds towards a "genuine poetic exploration", against Verne's Nautilus.

We could map this onto the Star Trek terrain. The ideologically christened spaceship Enterprise is obviously an updated version of Vern's Nautilus- more a habitat than a means of transport. Bakhtin would have called it a chronotope, an "intrinsic connectedness" of space and time. "As a chronotope the Enterprise is simultaneously a spatial marker, a curvaceous curvature of matter, and a temporal indicator, guiding diegetic adventure and assimilating history in the process" (Bernardi, 1998: 75). The space station on DS9 is a version of 'Gunsmoke' and the ship Voyager resembles a mobile Camelot.

The emblematic ship of concentrated spectacle, TNG's Enterprise, encloses as it appropriates. Its positivistic philosophy requires a philosopher-king at the helm in the shape of Jean-Luc Picard. Its relative simplicity of plot and characterization evokes "an age of pure belief, or regression to childhood simplicity" (Stallabrass, 1993: 90). That is why there is minimal conflict amongst its crew. The DS9 station by contrast sits at the edge of 'civilisation' beyond which is the 'Pale'. It encloses its inhabitants and settles. Its more complex imperatives (diffuse spectacle) demand the arbitration of a prophet-warrior, Captain Benjamin Sisko. And finally, the ship Voyager encloses as it takes flight toward its holy grail (i.e., magical technology or worm-hole capable of sending it back home), and mixes the positivist and mystical facets of TNG and DS9 as the integrated spectacle combines the worst of concentrated and diffuse forms of the spectacle. Kathryn Janeway as embodiment of a matriarchal Amazonian Queen.

The spatial code (Levi-Strauss's term for the changing location of mythic heroes), and the social code (Levi-Strauss's term for relationship pertaining to parenthood, marriage, chiefship, friendship, etc.) outlined above, form a system - a 'matrix of meaning'. Levi-Strauss's (1970) basic hypothesis in The Raw and the Cooked is that "myths come into being through a process of transformation of one myth into another". It is the adaptability of sci-fi, which facilitates this transformation and makes it the perfect vehicle for the intermingling of spatial and social codes. Thus The Raven (an episode of Voyager) is an updated version of the Searchers, and the movie Outland (starring Sean Connery) is flexible enough to re-enact Gary Cooper's High Noon. In fact, the latter fulfils all the defining criterion of a (western) genre as proposed by Edward Buscombe (1970: 43), namely: iconography (e.g., sheriff's badge, shoot-out with real bullets, and the ever-present clock), structure and theme. Just like the chain of McDonald restaurants littering the globe, a successful mythic film "depends on a combination of novelty and familiarity".

Concluding remarks

One of the main themes running through sci-fi concerns the re-molding of labour-power, through re-coding the chromosomes, the neural system and time-compression techniques. A process of scientific engineering that ironically goes hand in hand with the revival of religious obfuscation. "That the holy trinity of God/Work/Family is always crucial in times of repression is a well-tested truth capital has never forgotten" (Caffentiz, ibid. p 58). Arnold (1998) concurs: "...the cinematic apparatus provides a partial means of integrating people who are violently subjected to the alienation effects of industrial capitalism into its social formation. This partial integration represents a dialectical process whereby the pleasure of its modernized subject is offered in exchange for new forms of subjugation". Similarly, Hugh Ruppersberg (1990) notes a close association between technological sophistication and religious exaltation in Close Encounters of The Third Kind: "Technology has redeemed the aliens from original sin, made them godlike..." .

Interestingly, whereas in Alien, there is a marked social hierarchy with the working class (Brett and Parker), "holding the least allegiance to the corporation" (Byers in Kuhn: 1990), Star Trek, seldom overtly discusses economic arrangements. Once class differences are denied, the only hierarchy left is a meritocratic one based on rank and experience. Star Trek is a bourgeois myth with the primary function of extending the spectacle into all facets of life. "A controlled reintegration of workers which unites the separate but unites them as separate" (Guy Debord). Lest we forget, Gene Roddenbury was a LAPD cop before turning to filmmaking. The liberal and populist aspects of Star Trek combine to suppress class struggle.

Open class struggle breaks out only very occasionally on ST, as for example, when the Ferengi, Rom, organises a trade union (and an impromptu strike) against his employer/brother, Quark. The conflict is portrayed as a sanitised family squabble, and ends in the predictable Langian handshake between capital and labour. The whole episode is no more than a 40-minute Barthesian inoculation against the virus of class hostilities.

Lack of reflection regarding complex issues is encouraged in the sci-fi viewer, through the adroit use of special effects. As Ben Brewster (1987) has pointed out, it is not merely disbelief that is "suspended", but often also knowledge and judgment. The camp element of sci-fi special effects is designed to protect the spectator both from disappointment, should the effects fail to convince, and also from genuine trauma, should the effects succeed too well (Christian Metz). Telotte (1990) believes that the attraction of Star Trek's special effects "attest to our urge to gain access to the meeting ground between the specular (everything we see on the screen), and the blind (everything that moves outside/under the surface of things)".

Stern has noted, "The simultaneous movement of foregrounding special effects while backgrounding effects not recognised as special, corresponds to the structure and role of other forms of discourse in advance capitalist society. News, for example, is taken to be what is not routine" (see Kuhn, 1990: 69). In the process, technologies of domination, phasers, photons, force fields, etc., are naturalised. A legalistic language borrowed from a future U.N. is imposed on other species, through the handy technological gimmick that is known as the Universal Translator. And, Warp Speed acts as a rubicon differentiating civilised planets from "primitive" ones.

Many scholars have attempted to read radicalism into star Trek. Jenkins (1992) has made a great deal out of 'poaching', which is defined as a "sort of nomadism in which readers read intertextually, drawing on various texts and discourses in constructing and extending the original text" (Bernardi, 1998). But even he is careful to point out that these resistant readings of many Trekkies, "ultimately fits within the ideology of the overall series". Or as David Morley puts it: "The message is 'structured in dominance', by the preferred reading" (ibid. p 149). The famous 'nomadic poaching' of ST fans may turn out to be no more fruitful than the medieval pastime of counting the number of angels that could fit on a pin top.

And finally…

To the disinterested outsider, the whole Star Trek saga may seem a tad infantile. There is some truth in this. Dieter Lenzen (1989) warns us that the status of adulthood is disappearing, "a phenomenon brought about by an expansion of childlike aspects in all spheres of our culture". This expansion contains a mythological element as it involves the deification of childhood and a corresponding acceleration of the apocalyptic element in our culture. I would like to suggest here that this infantilization is a direct attack on the working class, an attempt to pacify and domesticated us. The truth of the matter is that series such as Star Trek have been extremely successful in this process of infantilization.

To the devoted insider (the uncritical Trekki), Star Trek is akin to a Levi-Straussian "machine for the suppression of time". It provides certainty and hope, warmth and security. It provides Anderson's imagined community. This aspect of Star Trek is also completely anti-working class as it involves de-memorization and se-politicisation.

To the critical Trekkician (who is simultaneously inside and outside the myth), Star Trek is bourgeois mystification, as fascinating as it is repulsive. It mythologizes by distorting the past, entrenches by reifying the present, and seduces by desiring the future. However, its continuing appeal also reflects certain real needs and shortcomings that capital denies the majority of people in society. Radical critique must therefore demystify the past Star Trek continuously distorts, de-reify contemporary bourgeois relationships Star Trek suppresses and imagine a future superior to the fluffy capitalism it offers.


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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Lucian Freud

The death of artist Lucian Freud this week reminded me of going to his big exhibition at Tate Britain in 2002. As a sometime mandolinist the painting that has most stuck in my mind is his 'Large Interior, W11'.

It was painted in his west London flat in the early 1980s. A lot of the coverage of Freud's life and death has focused on his tangled family relationships - and yes this picture does include his daughter Bella Freud on the mandolin next to his son Kai Boyt, with Kai's mother Suzy on the right, and Celia Paul (with whom Freud also had a child) on the left.

But there's more to this picture than a Hello-style celebrity line up. Its compositon is based on Pierrot Content, an early 18th century painting by the French artist Jean Antoine Watteau. This is one of a number of paintings by Watteau based on figures from the world of Commedia dell'arte, the travelling Italian theatrical troupes from where the stock theatre and ballet characters of Pierrot and Harlequin were derived. The troupes were often denounced as vagabonds, and indeed one of the main companies was expelled from Paris in 1697 after complaints about their 'gambling, gluttony and drunkeness'. Freud was also a travelling artist in his own way, or at least a refugee whose family left Berlin to escape the Nazis.

Friday, July 22, 2011

New Cross Street Art

Took this last week in Laurie Grove, New Cross (that's South London for you out of town people). Just around the corner from Goldsmiths College with its many art students, so you'd hope for some decent street art. This example isn't graffiti as such, it's actually done on paper and pasted on to the wall.

Naked man is saying 'cos the 20th century people took it all away from me', plus a Zizek reference with part of his anatomy labelled 'Big Other'.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Short Hot Summer 1981: Bradford 12

As the uprisings of July 1981 died down, the focus shifted to the defence of those arrested. The most remarkable trial was that of the Bradford 12, arrested following events on the 11th July when Asian youth had taken to the streets prepared to confront the threat of a racist attack on their community. Despite admitting making petrol bombs, the defendants were acquitted by the jury who seemingly accepted the argument that they were acting in self defence.

The following analysis was written by The Race Today Collective (165 Railton Road, Brixton, London SE24) and publihsed in their 1983 pamphlet 'The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain'

Reflecting on the Trial of the Decade: The Bradford 12

On July 17 1981, the attention of the West Yorkshire police was drawn to two milk crates of petrol bombs which were hidden in high bushes at the back of the nurses' home in Bradford. The police removed the petrol from the bottles, replaced it with tea and set up a vigil for the manufacturers. No one turned up. Thirteen days later, 12 young Asians from the Asian community in Bradford were arrested and subsequently charged with the following:

Count 1: Making an explosive substance with intent to endanger life and property contrary to Section 3(1)(b) of the Explosive Substance Act 1881. That on the 11th day of July 1981 (the 12) unlawfully and maliciously made an explosive substance, namely 38 petrol bombs, with intent by means thereof to endanger life or cause serious injury to property or to enable other persons to do so.

Count 2: Conspiracy to make explosive substances, contrary to Section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. On the 11th day of July 1981 (the 12) conspired together to make explosive substances, namely petrol bombs, for unlawful purposes.

These charges were returned by the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions upon examination of evidence provided by the West Yorkshire police. They carry a penalty of up to life imprisonment, and legal pundits forecasted prison terms of seven to ten years should the defendants be found guilty.

The 12 appeared before the local magistrates on Saturday, August 1st and were refused bail. The defendants spent the next three to four months in prison before they were granted bail on conditions which included large sureties, daily reporting to the local police, an evening curfew and a complete ban on attendance at all political meetings, later relaxed to a ban on those meetings which related directly to their cases. Giovanni Singh, Praveen Patel, Saeed Hussain, Sabir Hussain, Tariq Ali, Ahmed Mansoor, Bahram Noor Khan, Tarlochan Gata Aura, Ishaq Mohammed Kazi, Vasant Patel, Jayesh Amin and Masood Malik appeared at the Leeds Crown Court on April 26 1982. They were all represented by counsel with the exception of Tariq Ali who chose to defend himself. The trial lasted 31 days before Judge Beaumont and a jury of seven whites and five blacks. All the jurors were local Leeds residents.

The main line of defence was self-defence. Gata Aura, Singh, Patel, Hussain, Mansoor, Malik, Sabir Hussain, Khan and Vasant Patel admitted to being involved somewhere along the line. Ali, Amin and Kazi denied any involvement at all. All claimed that he was told by Gata Aura about the existence of the petrol bombs and he advised Gata Aura to destroy them. Amin's counsel cross examined on the basis that his client knew nothing about the operation and was playing cricket at the time. Kazi denied any involvement at all.

Those who accepted that they were involved advanced the line that they were legally and morally right to manufacture the petrol bombs. They had heard that racialists were on their way to attack the Bradford Asian community, and after a meeting at Amin's house, they took the decision to make and use the petrol bombs to create a wall of flame along Lumb Lane which would deter the attackers from violently set-ting upon the Asian community. They had not intended endangering life or property; they merely set out to deter.

The English Common Law upholds the right of self-defence, qualified by the fact that the force used in self-defence must not be in excess of that which is reasonable to repel the attack. The defendants claimed, therefore, that the manufacture and possible use of the petrol bombs was a perfectly legal act and necessary for the defence of the community against a racialist onslaught.

The second line of defence turned on the definition of explosives. The defendants argued, through counsel, that petrol bombs were not explosives, that on impact they did not explode. On June 16, the jurors, after deliberating for a day and a half, re-turned verdicts of not guilty. The breakdown was eleven to one.

The Mass Youth Movement and its Origins

Firstly, who are these young men and what are the forces which shaped them and their actions? The 12 defendants are all young Asians, that is to say the offspring of immigrants who arrived in Britain from India and Pakistan. They are products of the British educational system and are aged between 17 and 25 years. With the exception of Jayesh Amin, a university graduate, and Ishaq Kazi, a bank clerk, they were, at the time of their arrest, either unemployed workers or employed in working-class jobs in the city of Bradford.

Politically they were members of the United Black Youth League, (UBYL), a small organisation which, at the time of their arrest, was three to four months old. By then no statement of policy and position had been stated by the organisation, but an interpretation of their activities in campaigns indicated a radical approach to the issues of racial attacks on the Asian community and deportations of Asian workers.

What is certain is that these young men did not fall from the sky, nor are they odd balls prone to irrational behaviour. They are products of an historical movement which first made itself felt at the heart of British society in the summer of 1976.

Every new historical movement invariably emerges around a single issue and has as its objective the transcending, perhaps, the shattering of the old. In this case the issue has been and continues to be the constant and murderous stream of racial attacks against the Asian community. The old at this juncture was and is being represented by the moderate approach of the traditional Asian organisations backed by the British state. The moment? The murder of 18 year old Gurdip Singh Chaggar by a gang of racialists on the streets of Southall on June 4 1976.

Up to that moment, the Asian community throughout the United Kingdom had been complaining about racial attacks to anyone who would listen. Their experiences in this regard stretched way back to the late 1960s. Right-wing fascist organisations in some cases actually carried out the attacks and where they did not, they were able to stimulate disaffected young whites into what was popularly referred to as Paki-bashing. The Asian community made it clear, through their organisations, that the British police showed a marked reluctance in tracking down and bringing their assailants to justice. They were perfectly right. The official position, repeated in parrot-like fashion by police forces up and down the country, was that the term, 'racial attack', was a figment of the Asian imagination. These acts, claimed officialdom, were merely the expressions of vandals.

The Asian community responded to this phenomenon with an uncharacteristic moderation. Apart from scattered groups of vigilantes in East London they seemed to reply on complaints to the authorities as a way of dealing with this issue. Another factor needs to be considered. During the late sixties and throughout the seventies, the Asian community had developed a remarkable militancy on the shop floor. Theirs is a history of militant strikes in opposition both to the employers and the trade union bureaucracy. These militant activities won, for those activists in the traditional Asian organisations, recognition from the authorities. Some of them were rewarded with jobs inside the trade union bureaucracy, others became local councillors; the mosque and the temple attracted visiting Members of Parliament and other dignitaries. Add to this the vast race relations bureaucracy and the Manpower Services Commission with its equally vast and paralysing sources of state funding, and the corruption of traditional Asian organisations was complete by the time Gurdip Singh Chaggar lay dying on the pavement of a Southall street. The effect of this corruption was and continues to be the stifling of the traditions of militancy in the Asian community.

A whole generation of Asian youth had grown up by then. They, like everyone of the defendants, had been to school here. They were socially confident. They rose en masse to challenge the old ways and methods of dealing with racial attacks and to break through the solid wall of Asian organisations which maintained the status quo.

The first major expression of this new force came in the aftermath of Chaggar's murder. The terrain was Southall. It is a West London suburb in which some 30,000 Asians reside. They hail mainly from the Punjab. They work in local factories in the main and in various jobs at the Heathrow Airport. Theirs is a solid proletarian base. The children are socialised in local schools and pursue lives increasingly dominated by British circumstances. The Indian Workers Association, the Sikh Temple and the local race relations industry dominate. That particular organisational formation exists in every Asian community in Britain.

In the days following Chaggar's murder, the youth took to the streets. They organised patrols and in a sharp outburst attacked white motorists and opposed the police. When two of their number were arrested, they surrounded the local police station and secured the release of their comrades. Meanwhile, the identical process was in motion among Bengalis in the East End of London. Young Asians in other parts of the country stirred in response.

This was a massive social upheaval involving thousands of young Asians throughout Britain who were prepared to throw the caution of their parents to the wind. They distinguished themselves from all that had gone before by employing militant and violent methods to defend themselves against racial attacks. Such was the impact that the rest of British society had to take notice. No longer could the issue be clouded by the smoke screen of official jargon and police semantics. Thousands of whites responded in support. They were mainly political radicals and well-meaning liberals. The mass of the British people were not against; they were merely bewildered, waiting for a positive lead. And the first generation Asians, who got nowhere with their moderate approach, were willing to go along with the youth.

All the defendants in the trial of the Bradford 12 cut their teeth in this mass movement. It is on this general terrain that they were blooded. But there is more to it than just the general. All new historical movements must constantly contest the old if they are to ground themselves and meet the historical tasks required of them. And this movement was no exception. The old is represented by a panoply of formal Asian organisations formed during the early stages of Asian immigration. They were progressive once, but had turned into their opposites. Behind this solid wall stood the British state ready and willing to hold the line against the invading hordes of young Asians.

The British state was cautious at first, leaving matters up to the entrenched Asian formation. The traditional Asian organisations did not manage too well. They barely contained a mass revolt against the demonstration which followed Chaggar's murder. Up to the morning of the march, no one knew whether the youth would demonstrate or not. Here are a couple of comments made by a young protester: "These people [the elders] have done nothing. Some of them have got rich. The party wallahs are asking us to join them when what they should do is join us, otherwise they are finished".

Posit these comments against those expressed by traditional moderates: "These people [the youth] are not political, they have no politics. It is we who have the political experience". Those were the political lines to emerge in the cut and thrust of events surrounding the Southall murder, but they replicated themselves among the Asian community throughout the country. As it is with these contests, the manipulation began. The young Asians set up youth organisations in Southall and elsewhere. The old struck back and their ways were many. Take this as an example: In Blackburn, a northern town, a youth organisation had surfaced. The membership challenged the old on a range of issues. At the end of the day, the major figure in the youth movement was savagely brutalised by thugs organised by the old leadership. In other areas the soft option prevailed. The youth leadership was guided with much encouragement into state funded projects. The new was constantly courted with persuasive offers to sink differences and join up with the old. All manner of pressure was bought to bear.

These manoeuvrings penetrated large sections of the organised youth leadership, but the mass movement remained largely unaffected. When the front line fails it is the turn of the backline to prevail. In this case the backline was the coercive forces of the British state.

During the general election of 1979, the fascist and racist National Front put up candidates in constituencies where there were large black communities. They had no chance of winning but it would give them the right to hold public meetings in black areas. And a public meeting was carded for Southall. Young Asians gathered in their thousands to prevent the meeting taking place. The police mobilised in enormous numbers. They proceeded to attack the protesters with a savagery which no section of the society, except the Irish in Northern Ireland, had experienced in years. One person, an anti racist school teacher, Blair Peach, was bludgeoned to death by police batons. Over 300 people were arrested and the cases were heard by carefully selected magistrates throughout London who returned a disproportionate number of guilty verdicts. Only by the most vulgar, empirical violence could the British state hope to contain the Asian mass movement and its white support under the hegemony of traditional Asian organisations.

There is the time honoured conclusion, born out of centuries of social and political experience, that repression of this order only serves to strengthen the resolve of the mass movement. In a period of five years, the young Asians had transformed the balance of power in this crucial struggle. Thousands of them participated in this movement. One moment of violent excess on the part of the police would not crush it.

All 12 defendants had at one time or another been activists in that general movement. Their membership in the UBYL placed them in a special category though. By being members of that organisation, they were openly repudiating the traditional Asian formations which dominated the Bradford community. They were, therefore, consciously laying down the challenge to the state and its Asian phalanx for the hearts and minds of the Asian community.

Gata Aura and Tariq Ali were involved in the initial breakaway from the old. They, along with others, founded the Bradford Asian Youth Movement in 1977. There they mobilised for anti-fascist demonstrations and campaigned against the deportation of Asian workers. The Bradford AYM had planned the Freedom March which would begin in Bradford and take in all major immigrant conurbations in Britain. they had hoped that this tactic would lay the foundation for Asian and West Indian unity. The march did not win effective support and was cancelled.

In the cut and thrust of attempting to transcend the old, a faction within the Bradford AYM succumbed to the practice of state funding and welfare activities. Gata Aura and Ali walked out and set up the United Black Youth League through which they aimed to draw membership from the West Indian community and to travel along a radical and revolutionary path. Above all, they persisted in their efforts to take the mass youth movement, with the support of older Asian workers, beyond the reactionary confines delineated by the old guard. For the membership of the UBYL, the manufacture of petrol bombs for use in the event of a racial attack was a normal activity. For this generation of young Asians there was nothing at all extraordinary in this approach. Also, Gata Aura had emerged as a national political figure as chairman of the Anwar Ditta campaign. He pursued this activity while being a member of the UBYL. Anwar Ditta, an Asian woman, was prevented by the immigration laws from having her children join her here. The campaign was national in scope and ultimately successful. Constant reports in the press and a documentary on television brought the issue to the nation's attention. The point to be made here is that by organising campaigns of this scope, Gata Aura and his organisation were in fact making clear what the traditional Asian organisations were not doing.

The Campaign to Free the 12

As in Southall in the general election of 1979, the British state drew the line. On this occasion the Director of Public Prosecutions was the cut-ting edge. Once that office received the evidence collated by the police, two options were open to the judicial arm of the British state. The Director could take the normal course of charging the defendants simply with manufacturing petrol bombs. It would have been a low key, straight forward matter. During the summer riots, which were going on at the same time, many were so charged. He chose the ab-normal and consequently highly political course. Out came the political bludgeon disguised in judicial garb aimed at smashing that tendency in the Asian Youth Movement which sought to transcend the moderate approach.

By opting for the conspiracy charges, the DPP lay down a major challenge to the youth movement and its organisational activists. How did they fare? Here was a political opportunity, par excellence, to galvanise the thousands of young Asians into motion. They were there, alive and vibrant. They had shown their mettle over five dramatic years and all the evidence indicated they were on the move. Only weeks previous to the arrests, skinhead fascists were bussed into Southall for a pop concert at a local pub. Four members of the party abused an Asian shopkeeper and attacked Asian shop windows on the main street. The young Asians of Southall organised themselves, marched on the pub and despite police protection burnt the building down. Not only did a campaign to free the 12 have the opportunity to mobilise young Asians, the way was open to take the issue to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Thousands on the Asian continent would have responded. And finally, such a campaign would establish an organisational bridgehead which would have had the effect of eclipsing the traditional Asian organisations once and for all.

A group of activists from the Bradford AYM, in alliance with other forces in the community, formed the July 11th Committee to free the 12. The issue, which at once preoccupied the committee was the political line they would adopt for mobilisation. This, of course, would tun on the defence which those arrested would employ. Courtenay Hay, a former member of the defunct Bradford Black Collective and now Chairman of the Committee, visited Gata Aura in prison. Gata Aura tells us that he informed Hay that the line was self-defence. Hay moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. He returned to the Committee with the line that the defendants were framed. His campaign message was that: "The UBYL, because of its political activities of fighting racism, its resistance to fascism and carrying forward the anti imperialist struggle has been made a victim of political persecution by the state police".

It was obvious that he had elevated the UBYL to a position which did not accord with reality. The organisation was all of four months old, just about cutting its teeth and had made to date little impact locally or nationally. Had political activists been operating in a situation in which the British state would deliberately frame an entire organisation on conspiracy to make petrol bombs, then we were living in dire straits indeed. Nowhere in the country was such evidence available. There was ample evidence in the trial that the Special Branch tailed the UBYL waiting to pounce once a mistake was made, but the frame up line was indigestible to all but the most gullible.

The July 11th Committee went to the public for the first time on August 12 1981 at the Arcadian Cinema in Bradford. The leaflet inviting the public to the meeting screamed, 'Framed by the Police'. Some 900 Asian youth attended that meeting but the explanation for the arrests was difficult, almost impossible to swallow. The 12 defendants were their peers whom they knew politically and socially. The audience would know that the 12 were quite capable of making petrol bombs. No big thing. Some of them might even have known of the details. This is not pure speculation. Large numbers of Asian youth in Bradford were aware that all the defendants made statements to the Police on arrest, that they were party to making the bombs. The frame up line fell on deaf ears.

There was more to come. The platform boasted Councillor Ajeeb, Councillor Hameed and J.S. Sahota of the Indian Workers Association. The political practice of the speakers has been in mortal opposition to the mass radical and revolutionary movement of Asian youth. From that meeting onwards, the mass of Asian youth voted with their feet. They went away and stayed away.

Meanwhile the Yorkshire police had been visiting the elders of the Asian community warning them away from supporting the 12. They were terrorists, admonished the police. The elders accommodated the police and subsequently spewed out the line to their followers that the 12 were evil terrorists who had let down their villages back home.

The Committee persisted with the frame up line. In November, a full three months later, the Committee held a meeting at the London School of Economics and again the leaflet harangued, 'Framed by the Police'. The degeneration was complete. Southall, Brick Lane, New-am are traditional strongholds of Asian youth revolt. Yet the meeting was held at the LSE. It was clear that the campaign was firmly in the grips of the Asian middle classes (student types) with every left tendency, every miniscule radical outfit on board. Whatever else the campaign would do, it certainly could not take the mass movement one step further.

And the only line which would generate support in the Asian community was the self-defence line. Sections on the committee in Bradford argued for it, debated the issue week after week. In the end they were defeated, overruled by the solicitors. The solicitors? Yes. The legal team advised that it would be the correct course to keep the defence secret and surprise the prosecution with the self-defence argument. They carried the day. Unimaginable!

We defy a single lawyer to explain what could the prosecution have done to strengthen their case if the self-defence issue was made public. Nothing at all. Here we need to explain the legal procedure involved. The police collate their evidence and send it to the Director of Public Prosecutions who returns the charges. All the police evidence is handed over to the defence. All. What on earth could the prosecution do to hinder the defence if the self-defence position was made public? Sweet F/A.

A word about lawyers in general. They, most of them, have the tendency to dominate the client. Not for them words of advice which the defendants may or may not accept. Their word is law. It needs a powerful, political campaign and equally strong defendants to hold the fort. Otherwise, lawyers do as they please, requiring of campaigns mere orchestration and stage decoration.

In time the campaign switched line to the obscure and liberal position that conspiracy charges were legally oppressive. Listen to this. "Conspiracy charges relate more to defendants' political views and activity than to anything else. They have been used before as a political weapon by the British state to repress opposition." The question to be posed here is 'so what?' That argument is appropriate to the National Council of Civil Liberties who convince intellectuals about complex legal matters. It could not mobilise a single Asian youth. Young Asians would have responded to the line which said, 'Yes, we made the bombs, we made them in defence of the Asian community. Self-defence is No offence'. They would have flocked to that position from every Asian community in this country.

Instead, the campaign persisted in the conspiracy argument with the consequence that support came exclusively from Asian university students, law centre workers, other state-funded projects workers and various denominations of the white left. Here the campaign organisers had a fine political opportunity and squandered it. What is most ironic is that the campaign eventually adopted the self-defence position, but only after the trial was half-way through.

However all was not negative. The 12 entered Leeds Crown Court with much behind them. The mass movement's dramatic actions over a period of five years ensured that no jury in this nation could be un-aware of the general issue of racial attacks. That was a major plus. The campaign, although not historically in tune with the needs of the move-ment, was able to let thousands know of the trial. And the de-fence secured a major weapon when a Home Office study revealed the existence of 2,581 instances of racial attacks in two months. William Whitelaw, Home Secretary, was forced to change the official position. In his introduction to the Home Office report he said, "The study has shown quite clearly that the anxieties expressed about racial attacks was justified". That admission was dragged out of him by the ceaseless militancy of young Asians on the question. And finally a team of radical lawyers, blooded in and shaped by the black revolt in Britain would take the fight to the judicial authorities.

There was one major hurdle to transcend nevertheless. Tarlochan Gata Aura, on arrest, made two statements to the police. They had offered the inducement that he would be granted bail if he came clean. They also prompted him with the information that his finger-prints were found on one of the bottles. In his statement he men-tioned Ishaq Kazi, Praveen Patel, Jayesh Amin, Bahram Noor Khan, Sabir Hussain, Tariq All and Vasant Patel as part of the general organisation. He admitted to making the bombs for use "in case the National Front were there causing trouble". Following Gata Aura's admission, all the other defendants crumbled and made varying ad-missions. Without these statements the prosecution would have had no case.

Gata Aura's admission created a great deal of acrimony among the defendants. The rank and file membership expressed a serious hostility to the leadership trio of Gata Aura, Amin and Ali. The three, they claimed, got them into the mess and created extra difficulties by being the first to sign statements of admission.

More needs to be said on this issue. On the face of it a serious question mark is raised when the leadership of a radical and revolutionary political organisation crumbles so easily before normal police interrogation. In this instance, the issue is much more complex. Gata Aura admits that he signed because he thought "it was the end of the world". Obviously he could see no way out. His attitude is quite understandable. The UBYL was perhaps the sole Asian youth organisation which sought to take the struggle forward against the state and a solid and entrenched wall of Asian reaction. An immense task, one which they were attemp-ting in virtual isolation. Once the entire membership was locked up, with apparently incontrovertible evidence at hand, it was likely that a youth of 25 years with little experience of police stations, would crumble.

The Trial at Leeds Crown Court

And so to the Leeds Crown Court, April 26 1982. The first major issue at the trial turned on jury selection. Defence counsel challenged the fact that out of a panel of 75 none of the jurors were from the Asian community in Bradford and only two prospective jurors were Asian. Old legal statutes were invoked, complex arguments were offered, specialist and technical jargon was employed. Eventually, Judge Beaumont, by an administrative sleight of hand, met the defence half way having expressed his sympathy with the view that there should be some black representation on the jury. Evenutally 12 jurors were sworn in, seven of whom were white and five black.

Paul Kennedy opened for the prosecution. Not a man of great sparkle, wit and incisive intellect which are the characteristics of an exceptional barrister. He was quite ordinary, mediocre even. He re-ferred the court to events of July 11 1981 when he recalled "there was considerable disturbance in Bradford City Centre in which windows were broken, property was damaged and crowds behaved in a menacing way and had to be dispersed." Tariq Ali, he offered, was identified by police officers as moving between groups of Asians. Tarlochan Gata Aura, he added, was organising members of the UBYL to attend a meeting in which "Tarlochan made it clear that trouble was expected that evening and that petrol bombs should be made."

And here was the major point around which the central contention between defence and prosecution turned. "There was no threat from skinheads and the National Front... they [the bombs] were to be used against the police... against large shops when they would have a larger effect... they were to be used in a riot". Then he outlined the specific allegations against the 12:

Tarlochan Gata Aura - Co-leader of the United Black Youth League (UBYL). Organised the meeting and the manufacture of petrol bombs. Obtained the petrol, stuffed the bottles with wicks. Wiped the bottles clean of fingerprints. Went to the town centre to participate in a 'riot' and was arrested and charged with threatening behaviour.

Tariq Ali - Co-leader of the UBYL. Took decision with Tarlochan Gata Aura to make petrol bombs on July 11. Went to town centre to agitate and incite a riot in which petrol bombs would be used. Arrested for disturbing the peace.

Jayesh Amin - Leading member of the UBYL 'reluctantly' allowed his home to be used for the manufacture of petrol devices.

Giovanni Singh - Bought rubber tubing for syphoning petrol. Arrested in town centre intervening in Ali's arrest.

Praveen Patel - Present at UBYL meeting. Obtained milk bottles, filled with petrol, syphoned from car.

Ishaq Mohammed Kazi - Present at meeting. Allowed his car to be used to obtain necessary materials.

Bahram Noor Khan - Present at UBYL meeting. Obtained petrol, kept watch while others made devices.

Masood Malik - Present at UBYL meeting. Obtained materials necessary for petrol bombs. Kept watch while others made devices.

Vasant Patel - Present at UBYL meeting. Obtained milk bottles and material for wicks.

Saeed Hussain - Present at UBYL meeting.

Sabir Hussain - Present at UBYL meeting. Arrested in town centre intervening in Ali's arrest.

Ahmed Mansor - Present at UBYL meeting. Obtained bottles, kept watch, wiped bottles clean to remove finger prints.

The basis of all this information lay in the statements of admission signed by all the defendants.

Then there followed some 37 officers most of whom testified to the fact that they accurately recorded, in the language and wording of the defendants, hundreds of questions and answers. The line of cross examination by defence counsel aimed to show that sizeable areas of the police documentation were fabricated and that they intimidated, harassed and used violence against the defendants to sign certain admissions.

The major issue turned on the use for which the bombs were manufactured. The police claimed that some defendants admitted that the bombs were to be used against the police and property. The defence denied this allegation and claimed that those words were fabricated by the police.

The high point of the fabrication issue was reached in Helena Kennedy's cross examination of Officer Maloney. He claimed that he questioned Sabir Hussain extensively without taking any notes. Some 200 questions were asked and replied to. Maloney claimed to have gone away and recorded verbatim 196 questions and answers. "Did you do that from memory?" teased Ms Kennedy. "Yes, I did", replied Maloney triumphantly. What was the first question I asked you today?" demanded Kennedy, a sharp edge to her Scottish brogue. "I can't remember", surrendered Maloney.

And then there was the crafty 'hatchet job' on Detective Inspector Sidebottom executed by Paddy O'Connor, counsel for Masood Malik. Paddy enquired of Sidebottom whether, "Further to my previous statement I would like to clarify the points which I did not mention before", were really the words of "an 18 year old Yorkshire lad?" "Yes", replied Sidebottom.

O'Connor then read from Sidebottom's own statement, "Further to my previous statement I would like to clarify the point I did not mention before". Out came O'Connor's sledge hammer. "Did the 18 year old lad draft your second statement for you?" Sidebottom was demolished.

Highlights those were, but there were many like moments in the detailed and rigorous cross examination by defence counsel. At the end of the day the jurors were aware that the police were prolific at putting words in mouths of defendants. Then there was the other key issue. Were racial attacks prevalent in Bradford? Officer after officer described Bradford as a haven of multi-racial peace. They would not budge even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. They made themselves sound and look ridiculous.

At the end of the prosecution's case, the defence is invited to make submissions. They are invariably to the effect that the prosecution had not made a case against this or that defendant. Following like submissions, Sabir Hussain and Saeed Hussain had count 1 dropped against them. There was no evidence to show that they had participated in manufacturing the actual devices. Both charges were dropped against Jayesh Amin, there being no prima facie case made against him. He was set free.

It was now the turn of the defence. Mansfield opened for Tarlochan Gata Aura who then went onto the witness stand. Soft features belied a formidable political experience. Tarlochan had just turned 25. He was blooded in the anti fascist, anti racist movement of Asian youth and sought relentlessly for some organisational and ideological clarity through which to advance the Asian struggle. He had joined the International Socialists, a Trotskyist off-shoot. There he was part of a black caucus which probed and prodded the leadership on its grasp of the black question and its practice in relation to this vibrant and lively terrain. 'Black and White Unite and Fight' was all the leadership could muster. Tarlochan and the majority of the caucus left and formed `Samaj inna Babylon,' a combination of Asian and West Indian activists who produced a newspaper. That organisation fell apart and he moved on to the Indian Progressive Youth Movement in Bradford, then to the Bradford AYM, the Black Socialist Alliance and finally the UBYL.

Tarlochan gave his evidence quietly and moderately, if somewhat nervously. His delivery under examination in chief and cross examination could be described as `suaviter in modo, fortiter in re'. Moderate in manner, strong in content.

Yes, he had made the bombs; yes, he had organised others to manufacture them. He would take full responsibility. He had pursued the course because he was told that the fascists were coming to attack and a wall of flame would deter them. No, he was not a man of violence. He had not left the Bradford AYM because he wished to pursue violent methods. He left because the organisation had degenerated into living off state funding. Cooly and calmly he informed the court of the d it ferent campaigns in which he had been involved. At the end of his three day ordeal, he impressed the jury and the public as a young man of moderation and sensitivity, searching for ways and means of alleviating the Asian condition. It was a splendid performance and the high point of the trial.

Evidence was called to show that the Asian community througout Britain had been living under a reign of racist terror, and that on July 11 1981, the whole community was under virtual siege once news of an impending racialist onslaught spread like wild fire. Evidence was also put forward, and not questioned by the prosecution, that a Chief Inspector was actually informed of the impending attack and the police did nothing to protect the community.

Then came the dramatic moment. Not a single defendant, apart from Tarlochan, would go into the witness box. They would make statements from the dock on which they could not be cross examined. Even Tariq Ali, a formidable political activist, stayed away. It was a curious decision. Thousands throughout Britain would have been moved by their responses to the prosecutor's questions. Silence!

The lawyers advised on this course because they speculated that the defendants were too naive to withstand lengthy and hostile cross examination. We beg to differ. These speculations are based on interviews between the lawyers and defendants. A more precise analysis of those interviews must be presented if we are to be convinced.

It is understandable that the defendants were thrown on 1he de l'ensive when they discovered that the campaign failed to muster the Potential support from young Asians, but that they could not wilh stand hostile cross examination because of their naivete is so much liberal speculation based on the poor, docile Asian victim theory.

Five years of mass revolt do not docile Asian make. All of these voting men have experiences in organising demonstrations, campaigns and other militant activity. They have lived through the jungle of the school playground, the cut and thrust of working class urban social life, three to four months in prison and the rigorous discipline of the bail conditions for close to a year. At the end of that process you become many things and certainly not among them are docile and naive victims. The mass of Asian youth up and down the country would have warmed to the spirited defences which they surely could have mounted.

The closing speeches and the judges summing up were of the usual order, apart from odd flourishes of rhetoric from defence counsel. The jurors deliberated for a day and a half before returning verdicts of not guilty. The verdict carried clear implications. The five black and seven white jurors were asked by the defence to scale two formidable hurdles.

Firstly, they were asked to say that the manufacture of petrol bombs was a legal act required to meet the threat that racialists posed against the Asian community. And that the petrol bombs were necessary because the police failed to protect Asians from racial attacks. Secondly, they were required to accept, that 'the best police force in the world' contained men and women who would fabricate evidence against defendants. In a provincial area, far away from London, a mixed jury, by accepting the defence's version of events, defied the fundamental propositions that the police placed before them. There, the mass movement of recent years was expressing itself.

Text of leaflet:


Everyday our families are split apart by the racist Immigration Laws. Our homes are raided by Immigration Officers. We are harrassed by the police on the streets and arrested on any pretext. We are criminalised through arbitrary charges confirmed by the racist judiciary. They played a major role in the struggle of Anwar Ditta, Jaswinder Kaur and Nasira Begum against the racist Immigration laws and of Gary Pemberton against the lying West Yorkshire police.


Our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers are attacked and murdered in the streets. The police do nothing. Our homes and places of worship are burned to the ground, nobody is arrested. Families are burned to death. The murderers and firebombers speak openly of their organised violence against our communities. In Bradford people face racist attacks everyday. For example on July I4th a white gang with a petrol bomb attacked an Asian Shoolboy. On July 24th two Asian homes were gutted by racist firebombers.

The only Conspiracy is Police Conspiracy - DROP ALL CHARGES NOW


For years Britain has been a police state for black people. This year the repression has been stepped up by paramilitary attacks on the black communities - the army of occupation in Brixton, police vehicles crushing people to death and CS gas bullets in Liverpool and highly developed surveillance techniques all over Britain In Bradford black youth have faced increased surveillance over the last 18 months. The 'riots' were an excuse to arrest our brothers and frame them for conspiracy. While the racist attackers of Asian homes on the 24th of July are out on bail, our brothers are being held in prison and refused bail'.

There's an event at SOAS in London this Saturday 23rd July - Self-Defence is No Offence! 30th Anniversary of the Bradford 12, 'A Day of Speakers, Discussion and Celebration'. Details here.

Top two images from Tandana, onlne archive of materials from Asian youth movements in this period

Monday, July 18, 2011

Rock Against Racism Documents, 1979

Rock Against Racism was a significant cultural force in Britain during the late 1970s, mobilising some of the best punk, post-punk and reggae bands of the periods to perform and publically condemn the far right National Front (predecessors of today's British National Party).

Here's a few RAR internal documents from 1979 (click to enlarge). First up is the RAR constitution: 'RAR is rockers against racism and the shit conditions that create it. We are against the National Front, the British Movement, all racist politicians and racists everywhere. We are for multi-racial roots unity, forward sounds and militant gigs. We are politically and financially self-supporting but we gig with anyone who shares our aims… Although we are called ‘Rock Against Racism’ we support the struggle against other forms of oppression. There is no way we will allow women, gays or Irish people to be put down or made the butt of dumb jokes from a RAR stage. While RAR is a deadly serious political message, we are also a bunch of loonies dedicated to keeping Britain Dayglo’.

Organisation was based around ‘RAR Locals’ sending delegates to an annual Dub Conference, as well as RAR Quarterlies. National co-ordination was by an elected ten person 'RAR Central'. Obviously one risk was that local groups using the RAR brand would not adhere to the values of the movment - the consitution stipulates that 'RAR Locals must keep the faith with RAR tradition of good gigs, militant entertainment and a fair deal to fans'.

This November 1979 internal newsletter includes a report of a quarterly ‘RAR remix’ conference held in London, with 50 delegates.

It gives an idea of some of the practical concerns, such as dealing with Councils and commercial agents for bands when putting on gigs. RAR developed a Standard gig contract to deal with this that ‘protects you against being ripped off and will give bands confidence in your organisational abilitiies’.

In 1979, the Dance and Defend tour had included 20+ gigs ‘as a response to the police riots in Southall, West Brom and Leicester’ (all involved clashes with police on anti-National Front protests). The biggest event was ‘Southall Kids are Innocent’ at the Rainbow in London, two nights featuring The Pop Group, Misty, The Ruts, Pete Townsend, Aswad, The Enchanters, The Members and The Clash.

Some RAR Locals had put out records as well as putting on gigs ‘Tyneside record sold out… Alternative Paisley Mk. 1 nearly sold out and Stevenage RAR EP sold out almost’. Groups were also being formed in other countries ‘Active RAR groups across Canada, USA, Sweden, Norway, West Germany, Belgium and Holland’ .

RAR Central put people in touch with each other who wanted to start a local group. When I was at school in Luton in this period I wrote off to RAR for information, and got this letter back:

I knew absolutely nothing about putting on gigs and didn't get any further with Luton RAR. But I did start to get involved with going on anti-NF protests, which was the start of a great adventure...

The letter was signed Irate Kate, who I now know to have been Kate Webb: 'In 1977 I dropped out of college and started working for Rock Against Racism. I was seventeen and called myself (I wince at the thought) Irate Kate. I began as a volunteer but soon became RAR’s first paid worker and the youngest member of its national executive... I left RAR in 1981 as the central collective was tearing itself apart over differences about the way we should proceed (an argument, as I recall, between becoming more corporate and professional, or returning to the grass roots and staying outside the mainstream – and inflamed as these things often are by personal animosities). I had organised a benefit with UB40 at the local fleapit in Brixton; sensing RAR had run its course, and wanting to get into film, I went to work in this cinema, then known as The Little Bit Ritzy'.

Kate's brief account at her blog New Mills has links to some other RAR resources, but as she notes there's still a lot about that time that has never been properly documented.

See elsewhere: Deptford RAR poster from 1978; Lewisham '77 (site on the anti-NF movement in SE London).