Class struggle in the house
Dave Craig assesses George Galloway's three weeks of 'reality' TV
Things are looking pretty grim for George Galloway. As I write, he is facing a vote over eviction. The Sun called on Big brother fans to "get rid of the galling Galloway". They put up a big billboard in his east London constituency saying: "Evict George from the house? You decide." The house pictured in the background of the poster is, of course, the House of Commons. The Sun declared that "pussy prat George Galloway has proved he is just as big a plonker as his mad mate, Saddam" (January 24).
I am reminded of an adventure story by Conan Doyle about a French cavalry officer, Brigadier Gerard, during the Napoleonic wars. Gerard is captured and held at his majesty's pleasure in Dartmoor prison. But he escapes. Since cloud cover hides the moon and stars, he runs for 10 miles in a northerly direction, using the wind to guide him. But when dawn breaks he sees Dartmoor prison is no more than 300 yards away. The wind had changed direction. He is back where he began. It seems so depressing after such an effort.
Brigadier Gerard tells us: "One lesson I have learned in my roaming life, my friends, is never to call anything a misfortune until you have seen the end of it. Is not every hour a fresh point of view?" The prison guards are looking for him miles away. They are not searching 300 yards from the prison. He could not have found a safer place to hide. Sometimes even a disaster has a silver lining. Let us not therefore rush to judgement while the saga is in progress.
Certainly George has won me over. Not to Respect, of course. That organisation has been found seriously wanting in the last two weeks. I have been won over to Big brother. George told the housemates that he was the leading politician on the left. So I started having a little peek to see how our champion was getting on. Would he slay the class enemies and emerge triumphant? Or would he be damaged?
I should put my cards on the table. I am not anti-Galloway. He is no better or worse politically than most of the Labour lefts. And on the Iraq war his record was very good. It was excellent that one of the war's harshest critics was able to beat Blair's toady in Bethnal Green. But, with Galloway, what you see is what you get. I therefore doubt that anybody is under any illusions. Yet my view is the opposite of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty's. The AWL will not join Respect because of George Galloway, whereas I had not joined with Galloway because of Respect. It is politics, not personalities, that is the key question.
Respect has got crap Labourite politics. It promotes economism, the failed reformism of the past. It has no real strategy for the current period. It is not committed to the fight for democracy and it clearly does not organise with any basic democratic norms or culture. And it is not intending to become a new party. It treats the rest of the left with barely concealed contempt. It treats its own members in the same way if they dare to criticise.
Anybody who went to the January 21 RMT 'working class representation' conference could see the score. The Respect/Socialist Workers Party speakers put on their best non-sectarian face for the RMT. They even made a joke about Big brother. But the mask slipped when Paul Holborrow warned the conference that the "Respect ship has already left the port" - by which he meant, 'You lot have been left behind'. Well, if so, it has departed without the working class, without the trade unions and without the rest of the socialist movement. Is it possible they set off from the wrong port, going in the wrong direction?
This whole Big brother farrago has surely proved my point. Where was Respect when George was getting stuck in? Going round looking embarrassed and saying it was nothing to do with them. I beg to differ. They failed to plan a political campaign around Galloway's intervention. They did not even seem to know what was going on. What sort of organisation is that? Respect seemed to have woken up as startled as the rest of us to see George, suitcase already packed, disappearing over the horizon.
So what is Big brother all about and how did our class struggle champion get on? I come from the SWP's Pat Stack school of traditional thinking. Big brother is a load of tosh. Why would anybody except morons waste their precious time watching it? If I had looked at it briefly before it was only to wonder what was the point of watching people standing round doing inane things. This was surely the product of Thatcherism, which had alienated young people. They should be told to turn off the telly and engage in revolutionary activity. Whilst this thinking remains valid, it reflects a one-sided and philistine view.
Big brother is like the state. It controls the lives of its subjects. It lays down the rules and watches the housemates' every move. It controls the amount of food they get and offers rewards for good behaviour. Yet they are not the proletariat. There is no work to be done except preparing food. Their existence is one of idleness. This is not 'reality' TV. It humiliates them and plays divide and rule. It has taken Galloway's intervention to show how political it really is. Behind the Big brother facade are the bosses of Channel 4. As The Independent on Sunday confirmed, "The Big brother bosses had the claws out for Galloway" (January 15).
The politics works on two levels - small 'p' politics inside the house and big 'P' politics on the outside. Not knowing anything about Big brother, I naively thought Galloway would be able to use it as a political platform. But this was a false perspective for two reasons. The other celebs were a bit resistant to any preaching. More to the point, there is considerable editing and censorship. Channel 4 would not allow Big brother to be used as a party political broadcast on behalf of Respect. No doubt the government would have been keeping a watchful eye on the situation, reminding Channel 4 of its 'obligations'.
But Big brother is about small 'p' politics - the interpersonal politics of daily life. The situation is artificially manipulated across the dialectic of rivalry/competition as against cooperation/solidarity. Should people compete or cooperate when faced with the traps laid for them? Are Yanks and Brits different? Should women be called "trollops"? What about gorilla coats? Can a black contestant win? Should we defend the vulnerable or kick them when they are down? Can we relate to or understand a cross-dresser like Pete?
It is at the level of personal dynamics that politics can fascinate. It is the old slogan that the personal is political. And it seems to fascinate millions, especially young people. It is the same interest that people have in the soaps. Young people are especially interested in learning more about relationships.
How do or how should people behave in modern life? How should family, sexual and interpersonal relations be conducted? This is highly political, even though it is not often recognised as such. If young people are not interested in politics, it is because they associate it with boring bourgeois politicians. But they are interested in this. And of course soaps and Big brother are transmission belts for bourgeois ideas and social values.
Should socialists intervene at this level of politics? Of course we should. And do we have anything to say about this? I think we have. So I think there is nothing wrong in principle with Galloway going into the lions' den. The question is whether this is recognised as a sphere of class struggle and the 'party' is primed up politically for the battle - both inside and outside the house. That was obviously not the case here. But if Respect was not ready for action then it was heading for trouble.
Inside the house George got off to a bad start and could have been kicked out at the first opportunity. But he survived. Then Big brother ambushed him with the animal impersonations. Some people thought his cat imitation went too far. It was a bit creepy to see him seeming to enjoy having his 'fur' stroked by Rula Lenska. But so what? Most human beings like having their fur stroked from time to time. At least he was not being a stuck up, pompous politician. He did as he was required. He joined in the spirit of the task as part of the collective.
Meanwhile in the real world of big 'P' politics the knives were out. All the machinery of bourgeois politics, the press and politicians, was ready for war and revenge. The lion that roared in Washington had turned into a little pussycat. MPs of all parties lined up to denounce Galloway. He was a cad and bounder and everybody should regret having voted for him instead of that nice Mr Blair and his friend, the hard working and dedicated Oona King.
The BBC's Radio 4 even went to the extraordinary length of commissioning a special poem by Ian McMillan called the Mystery cat. It had choice lines like "George Galloway's a mystery cat, an enigmatic puss, who slinks around the BB house, and kicks up quite a fuss." Or "George Galloway's an MP, but voters stand in line, At his vacant surgery while he sits quaffing wine."
Next came the solemn and stern pronouncements about Galloway's neglect of his duties to the working class. Government chief whip Hilary Armstrong launched a petition calling on him to get back to his constituency. The Daily Mirror said that "Galloway has been criticised for neglecting his duties as an MP" and going on Big brother to "get publicity" (January 23). Getting publicity is something odious which the rest of our high-minded politicians never stoop to! And more. Bethnal Green and Tower Hamlets have been neglected by every government for decades. They have starved it of money, houses and jobs. Yet Galloway is absent for two weeks and politicians queue up to denounce him for neglect. What do we learn from this? There is a pungent smell of hypocrisy at the heart of government? That MPs are such important people that we cannot survive without them?
Then it was pointed out that Galloway could not appear in the House of Clowns if he was clowning around in the Big brother house. I have no time for this either. The Commons is a pathetic institution. It has little power, which it is frightened to use. It is treated with contempt by government. This house is largely empty, whilst its many bars are full. MPs know this. Real power lies in the ministries, the boards of the multinationals, and in the financial centres of power in the City.
Of course, this does not prevent MPs pretending it is very important when the situation is to their advantage. If we had any honesty they would have told the truth. Although Galloway was absent from the House of Clowns it would have made no difference had he sat there day and night. At least with Big brother it is possible to see what your MP is getting up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Meanwhile the Daily Mail was not untypical of the press when it declared Galloway "public enemy No1" (January 20). It claimed he was "vilified by people he's paid to represent, hated by his fellow contestants". Supporters of Muslim preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed issued a fatwa attacking Galloway and describing him as the "lowest of the low". George was declared dead and buried. No more would he be able to embarrass Blair or Bush.
With everybody attacking him and nobody defending him in the outside world, things were looking pretty bleak. But it was not all over. It became clear that George began to win some support and respect from the rest of the housemates. After he survived the first exit, Pete Burns, the cross-dresser, declared he had been wrong to nominate George. He now believed that Galloway was a positive factor which held it all together. George seemed to become a leader. When they were depressed by lack of food it was Galloway who said they were much better off than the starving masses in the third world. It helped them calm down and get a sense of perspective.
Then there was the game involving each housemate getting into a claustrophobic cardboard box to see who could survive the longest and emerge the winner. Galloway came up with a plan. Instead of competing they should all act together. They should collectively decide that one of them should be the winner and all the rest should simply leave their boxes. After a short period they came round to see that cooperation and unity was the only way they could triumph. They decided to let Rula Lenska win, as she was under the greatest stress. As a result of their collective action there was a real sense of solidarity. They could win against the BB machine if they could stick together. Galloway reminded us about Spartacus.
From being one of the first to be nominated, George survived the next eviction without nomination.
But then it started to go downhill. As in the real world, these acts of solidarity were too few and the ability of BB to set one against the other too powerful. George broke the rules on discussing nominations twice. The punishments meted out were designed to damage his relations with the rest. He was unable to counteract it and the housemates began to divide into two opposed camps. It led to a vote on whether Galloway could take part in the next round of nominations. Galloway lost this vote 4-3.
That was bad enough. But his reaction was worse. He was absolutely furious, especially with Preston, the lead singer of the Ordinary Boys, and not much enamoured with former TV 'personality' Michael Barrymore. Preston, who had previously confessed to having been won over by Galloway and really respecting him, now described him as a "cheating politician". Galloway declared: "I don't think I'm ever going to forget having my rights taken away from me. If I ever have the chance to repay those who took my rights - inside or out ..." This sounded both menacing and ridiculous at the same time (remember, he was talking about the 'right' to nominate a member of the house for eviction).
Next came the bank game, when the housemates were divided into two groups with instructions to lie to each other for the sake of a bigger food budget. One group was then able to view on camera the privileges enjoyed by the other. Divide and rule was never better organised. Again this led to bitter exchanges, with Galloway rather pompously declaring that the naive Preston was a "sneak and a liar and exposed to the whole country".
Then Galloway had an unpleasant bust-up with Barrymore. George was furious that Barrymore had "betrayed" him. He claimed that Barrymore was only interested in himself. He was the worst self-obsessive Galloway had ever come across. Given his time in the House of Clowns, this is difficult to believe. In any case Barrymore was not in the best of mental health. Even if it was true, Barrymore came out of the exchanges with some dignity, whilst George was left looking either petty or vindictive. It wasn't a pretty sight. It was embarrassing to see Galloway behave in this way.
Later, when Galloway's allies were alone discussing these events, housemate Traci Bingham, the Baywatch actress, tells them that she thinks Barrymore may be crying. Galloway says that Barrymore has cried a few times and so has rap star Maggot. George is disgusted and says, "What kind of men are they?" I was reminded of the previous occasion when Pete had made an extended verbal attack on Traci designed to humiliate her. Galloway sat in the room and said nothing. That was not his finest hour.
My conclusion takes me back to Brigadier Gerard. It is too soon to say how this will pan out. Galloway took a gamble and went into the BB house. He opened the door to heavy attack by bourgeois politicians. But the claim that Galloway is neglecting Bethnal Green is hypocritical. The claim that Galloway has been absent from the Commons is part of the pretence that parliament is anything other than a rubber stamp for the government. Neither should we play the bourgeois game of humiliating Galloway because of the cat business nor the red leotard BB required him to wear. Let us not play the game of the reactionary rags like The Sun and laugh at Galloway. Laugh instead at the pomposity of bourgeois politicians and salute George for his courage and indefatigability.
But what of Galloway behaving like a representative of socialism and the working class in the Big brother house? He was at his best when he turned the box game into a collective act of solidarity. But, as far as I can see, he blew it in the end, as the game approached its final meltdown. There is a competitive side to Galloway, which seems unpleasant, if not malicious. Big brother shows the destructive nature of competition. It shows the power of the state to control what we know, and can say, and to manipulate people, one against another. Fighting each other is playing the bosses' game and in the end Galloway fell into the trap.
Our criticism of Galloway is not the same as that of bourgeois politicians and editors. There is nothing in principle wrong with using Big brother as a site for class struggle. But the question is how does this relate to Respect, the working class in Bethnal Green or the wider working class and socialist movement? What plans did Respect have for this struggle? What campaign did Respect run locally or nationally to support Galloway? How did Respect prepare working class constituents for this and how might it be advantageous to them? Of course the Respect organisation can run surgeries in Galloway's absence and help local people with problems. But did Respect negotiate any provision with Channel 4 for Galloway to be called out for special or emergency situations? BB is a game, so 'walking out' for principled reasons serves us better than 'winning'.
When everything is weighed up and a balance sheet drawn, Galloway will merely have confirmed our previous assessment of him. It is Respect which has been shown up. The Respect rank and file have no control or accountability over the Respect leadership. Neither has that leadership any control over Galloway. The Big brother struggle was about Galloway, not about Respect. It is not Respect that we need, but a new mass working class party, which campaigns together and keeps its leaders under control. And, when I used the phrase "courage and indefatigability", I was, of course, referring to the working class.
January 25 turned out to be quite a day for George Galloway. Forget about the latest 'scandal' jubilantly 'exposed' by The Guardian and the Evening Standard, according to whom the serious fraud office might launch a criminal investigation against him relating to alleged corruption surrounding the oil-for-food programme. Hot air, which is bound to come to nothing.
If anything, this was a smokescreen intended to cover up the fact that The Daily Telegraph had on the same day lost its appeal against Galloway. They now have to cough up the £2 million in legal fees, incurred when Galloway sued them for publishing 'evidence' which was supposed to prove that he had taken money from Saddam Hussein. Communists celebrate this small victory against a nasty rightwing rag.
Less agreeable from his point of view is his unsurprising eviction from Celebrity big brother. "That was my last election and I lost it," he told Channel 4 presenter Davina McCall. Not only did he not talk much politics (or did not get much aired). The few political bits Channel 4 did show made him look remote, unpleasant and compromised: for example, his musings about Saddam Hussein, who "wasn't hated by the ordinary Iraqis"; only "by political opponents". I think that might depend on which "ordinary Iraqis" you asked.
No wonder SWP comrades are so ashamed of the antics of Respect's leading figure: not only was his lack of accountability and democracy thoroughly exposed, but Galloway utterly failed to prove he was 'different' from other politicians.
The way he two-timed most of the housemates - gossiping about them behind their backs and then spinning them a line about it - made him look like the archetypal bourgeois politician. His strange inability to engage with them on a human (as opposed to feline) level also did not win him many new admirers.
Undoubtedly, there will now be many more people who have heard about Galloway. But a good number of them will automatically start laughing when they recall his appearance on Big brother.