Against Capitalism and Empire: Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

This article originally appeared in the newsprint publication, Constructing Connections: Fiction, Art and Life, published by Tressell Noonan Associates in 2017.  My thanks to the editor, Paul Rooney, for permission to reprint it here.

A unique expression of working-class culture, Robert Tressell’s 1914 novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, still occupies a marginal position within the field of literary studies.  A tale of painters and decorators who are forced, daily, to compete with one another in an economic race to the bottom, “the painters’ bible” as the novel became known, was quickly recognised as an important radical, even insurgent text.  Circulated among workers in Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool and Glasgow upon its first publication, it motivated and inspired labour organization in these and other cities in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Focussed on the grinding misery of working-class existence, it presents a troubling picture of the ruthlessness and relentlessness of capitalism.  Read and re-read by workers, many of whom were given copies by their trade unions at the beginning of their apprenticeships, it assumed a central position as a foundational text of modern class struggle. With its importance relayed to workers via these channels, rather than through the conventional academic and critical spheres that traditionally confer literary works with status and authority, it became a classic of the socialist literary canon. With millions of copies produced during 117 English-language printings between 1914 and the present, it has also been translated into Chinese, Farsi, Russian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Polish, Slovak, Czech and Spanish.

The novel’s graphic descriptions of poverty, along with its searing portrayals of working-class families enduring hunger and even starvation, are accompanied by Tressell’s repeated criticisms of British imperialism: his narrative of working-class distress opens by subverting James Thomson’s 1740 colonialist anthem, Rule Britannia, declaring, with firm irony, that “Britons never shall be slaves”.  Asking the reader to reflect upon the inherent contradiction of imperialism’s claim to liberate its subjects, Tressell highlights the repressive fusion of capitalist economics and imperialist expansion, both at home and in the colonies. The novel is particularly scathing of British colonial policy in Ireland where he warns the reader that  British policy deliberately “exterminated” four million peasants during the Irish Holocaust of the 1840s and 1850s (referred to, misleadingly, as the “potato famine”).  Tressell warns that the next logical step is for such genocidal policies to be implemented in England, where the ruling class has already convinced itself that “half of this country ought to be exterminated as well.”

Thoroughly politicized and influenced by Karl Marx’s analyses of capitalism, the novel foregrounds the crises and traumas experienced by Edwardian workers, and its subtitle, Being the Story of Twelve Months in Hell, Told by One of the Damned, underlines Tressell’s concern with the unremitting mobilisation of capital against the interests of the working poor.  Its infliction of physical, psychological and economic shocks against workers is integrated into the text and, in turn, this repeatedly disrupts the novel’s narrative, exposing the relationship between these pressures and the system that generates them.  Its disrupted and disruptive aesthetic captures a desolate, impoverished world that is “falling to pieces and crumbling away” around the working-class characters who inhabit it.

Its significance lies in its uncompromising realism because, unlike earlier ‘condition of England’ fictions (such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South [1855] and Mary Barton [1848], and Charles Dickens’ Hard Times [1854]), it rejects the formal and long-standing conventions of the nineteenth-century novel.  As Gary Day has emphasized, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists does not rely on sentimentalism or romance, as Tressell denied the reassuring closures that characterized bourgeois fiction – conclusions that reflected these authors’ affiliation with liberal reformism.  Instead, he deployed fiction as a means of confronting the economic violence lying beneath the surface of bourgeois normality.

Composed amid the uncertainty that marked working class experience at the beginning of the twentieth century, the novel is ideologically precise and politically assertive in its descriptions and analyses of class violence.  Attempting to educate English workers who, Tressell found, were either thoroughly terrorized or desensitized by the combined violence and authority of capitalism and the state, his novel has traditionally been regarded as a specifically English expression of working-class identity rather than the product of an internationalist, anticolonial consciousness.  In his introduction to the 1965 edition, Alan Sillitoe described it as “the first great English novel about the class war” and in 1969 the Marxist critic, Jack Mitchell, praised it as “one of the greatest tradition-breakers in the English novel”.

Tressell’s illustrations of unstable living conditions, the impact of poverty upon mental health and the workers’ ceaseless struggles with the ever-present threat of starvation led its first publisher, Grant Richards (who also published James Joyce’s Dubliners in the same year), to describe it as a “damnably subversive” work, but one that was “extraordinarily real”. Cautiously, Richards issued the novel in a very abridged form and the uncensored version was not published until it was issued by Lawrence and Wishart, the publishing house of the Communist Party of Great Britain, in 1955.  George Orwell, reviewing a new edition of the still-abridged work in 1946 (the novel had by now been reissued thirty-two times since its original publication), praised its realism but also criticized what he regarded as its political naivety.  Its relevance, he insisted, lay in the descriptive power of its compelling exploration of the proletariat’s bleak and – for middle class readers, at least – unimaginable working conditions.  Its importance, he believed, lay in its documentation of the “unhonoured” or forgotten radicals whose efforts finally crystallized in the popular British socialism of the 1940s.

The Colonial Context

Born Robert Croker in Dublin in 1870, Robert Tressell adopted his mother’s surname, Noonan.  He became a transnational migrant in his teens, leaving Ireland for Liverpool, which he left after serving six months’ imprisonment for theft in 1890.  Emigrating to South Africa, he learned his trade as a decorator, rising to foreman in Johannesburg.  Here he became involved in trade unionism, writing political pamphlets and joining the International Independent Labour Party in 1899.  His socialist beliefs were aligned to his anticolonial politics and, as an Irish republican, he served on the Transvaal Executive of the Centennial of 1798 Committee, a front organization of the clandestine and revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).  This body linked the Boers directly to militant Irish anti-imperialism and Noonan sat on its committee alongside the future president of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, and the chemist and mineral assessor, John MacBride, who would be executed for his part in leading the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.  Upon the outbreak of the Boer War, the Transvaal 1798 Committee organized the Irish Transvaal Brigade, which Mac Bride led into battle against the British army.

Noonan left the organisation after hostilities commenced and returned to England, but his literary writing remained framed by this experience of imperialism. Living in Hastings from 1902, he joined the Social Democratic Federation, writing pamphlets and election literature for his local branch, but his daughter, Kathleen, recalled his increasing frustration with the conservatism of English workers.  Five years later, in 1907, amid acute unemployment and deprivation in the city, he began writing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in response to the Liberal government’s application of conservative social policies.  The novel was completed in 1910, when his already ailing health quickly deteriorated and, in February 1911, three years before the publication of his novel, Robert Noonan died in Liverpool from tuberculosis while preparing to emigrate, once more, to Canada.


Informed by a combination of socialist and anticolonial ideas, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists conveys the suffering endured by the marginalized working poor of England.  Upon its publication, it articulated experiences that, as Orwell noted, were ignored in mainstream English fiction, explaining to its readers how, in Britain, “the wolves (i.e., capitalists) have an easy prey.” Conveying the real, material consequences of life under capitalism, it portrays working class experience of modernity as a prolonged encounter with endless cycles of economic crisis and stagnation. In doing so the novel fulfils Raymond Williams’ categorization of progressive art as that which reflects contemporary society’s “structure of feeling”.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, we find an expression of anticolonial politics in combination with militant, revolutionary socialism.  Through this radical narrative, Tressell, or Noonan, counters bourgeois “normality” and its assertion that such suffering, injustices and violence are normal, natural or inevitable phenomena. Rather than drawing on the leisured experiences of the inhabitants of Pimlico or Regent’s Park that qualified as Bloomsbury modernism.  In his presentation of the chaotic and traumatic experiences of working class life, Tressell concentrates on the resistant consciousness of his protagonist, the alienated decorator and radical socialist, Frank Owen.  Refusing to comply with the violence that surrounds him and his fellow workers, Owen will not acquiesce in the dehumanizing structures and practices of power.  The novel’s structural disjointedness and lack of pattern, therefore, are not aesthetic insufficiencies, but crucial reflections of the chaos of working-class experience.  Through these interruptions, Tressell worked the structural violence of capitalism into a disordered but realistic and aesthetically productive fiction.  Its directness draws from its repetitiveness, which Grant Allen excised from the original edition, yet it is precisely this fragmentary aesthetic that repeats the author’s (and his characters’) frustration, anger and despair.

The novel opens with Owen explaining to his fellow-decorators that the denial of pleasure is key to the normalisation of repression:

“What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilization; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”

Key to the containment of the proletariat is capitalism’s refusal to allow the working class any access to leisure and culture.  The prevention of these enjoyments produces the constant tension upon which the novel hinges, ensuring that “the system which produces luxury, refinement and culture for a few… condemns the majority to a lifelong struggle with adversity, and many thousands to hunger and rags”.  This reality for the majority, Tressell repeats throughout the novel, “has made the world into a hell” and the challenge that he saw facing the left was its responsibility to radicalize the working-class and convince it of the artificiality of capitalism’s “fair outward appearance”. This problem is directly confronted in his documentation of life in Mugsborough, the fictional town modelled on Hastings, in which the novel is set.  Its very revealing name nods to the establishment’s duping of the working class, a feat that is achieved with the help of the media, which circulates newspapers entitled, tellingly, The Obscurer and the Daily Chloroform.

A self-reflexive work of political fiction, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists relays the experience of poverty, desperation, deprivation and hunger – realities that these publications deny and conceal.  It explains the material consequences of the operation of the capitalist system and its effects upon those who are on the receiving end of the bourgeoisie’s “great money trick.”  Countering the liberal calls for a gradualist version of socialism voiced by Tressell’s contemporaries, the Fabian socialists, with a series of grimly descriptive episodes, the novel documented the direct violence of capitalism and the intensity of the misery that it instils in its victims –  a form of structural violence from which, as Tressell reveals on many occasions throughout this story, not even children are spared.

In the novel’s preface, Tressell explained why he decided to use fiction as a means of conveying the realities of poverty, suffering and class violence in early twentieth-century England:

“I designed to show the conditions relating from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely ­– Socialism. I intended to explain what Socialists understand by the word ‘poverty’: to define the Socialist theory of the causes of poverty, and to explain how Socialists propose to abolish poverty.”

A unique text, a key example of radical, working-class writing and a profoundly important work of insurgent literature, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists still amplifies socialism’s revolutionary tendencies today.  It successfully popularized socialist doctrine by documenting capitalism’s harmful practices, its prolongation of injustice and the violent ways in which it denies human potential.  The novel’s intensive, class-focussed realism is key to how it has conveyed these problems to generations of readers, and the conditions of working class poverty and desperation that it describes continue to remain strikingly familiar.  This novel still speaks to the exploited, to the unemployed and to people working on zero-hour contracts.  Its relevance is undiminished in a world in which the monopolization of resources and their concentration in the hands of wealthy and powerful élites intensifies without pause.  Now that imperialist governments have, since 2003, revived the practice of direct military occupation, it also speaks to the colonized and to those who have been dispossessed and exiled by neoliberal capitalism, like the immigrants and economic refugees whom Tressell defended in his novel.  It speaks to the many people in this country today who are forced like those who died in the Grenfell fire, to live in unregulated and hazardously dangerous conditions in rented properties that mirror the dilapidated housing in which many of the novel’s scenes are set.  For these reasons, in our age of austerity, inequality, imperial occupations, seemingly endless economic recession and ongoing economic exploitation, Robert Tressell’s tale remains as relevant to readers today as it did to those who encountered it upon its first publication in 1914.  As he concluded, people who are organized, even in what may appear to be hopeless situations, can work together in solidarity to establish a new and better world.  This, Tressell shows us in the final lines of his novel, can be accomplished by establishing what he described as “the glorious fabric of the Co-operative Commonwealth,” where “brotherhood, goodwill and joy” will replace misery, greed and despair – the keynote realities of modern capitalism.


The full PDF of Constructing Connections: Fiction, Art and Life, is available here:

Constructing Connections: Fiction, Art and Life


Neoliberal Cinema and the Cultural Politics of The Last Jedi

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers about The Last Jedi, but given that this film has already spoiled Star Wars for me, these spoilers probably won’t really spoil anything for you.

In December I took my children to see The Last Jedi, the most recent instalment in the Star Wars franchise, which was directed by Rian Johnson. What unfolded before our eyes was, simply, one of the worst films I have had the displeasure of watching, and, without doubt, the source of the greatest sense of deflation I have experienced since John Major and Albert Reynolds issued the Downing Street Declaration in 1993. What connects the cultural logic of this film to the boring content of that meaningless document is their shared wallowing in blandness, shored up all the more thoroughly by pre-release marketing in which static, vacant nothings are promoted as imminent, exciting somethings. Within the closely linked cultural and political fields, both film and statement are revealing exercises in the imposition of blank and empty voids upon the map of human agency. These sterile artefacts, one cinematic and the other political, are products of the same insincerity and paucity of vision that characterise the permanent state of disappointment that we now identify with neoliberalism. While they are formally distinct and have been released decades apart, they are also, in their common emptiness, rather similar articulations of the strange and disenchanting barrenness of late capitalism and dreary iterations of its most basic strategy: the endless stalling tactic.

Like my optimistic teenage self, who missed a morning at school in 1993 to behold the spectacle of two prime ministers saying nothing in particular, I once more became a victim of thwarted idealism. I should have seen this coming, of course, and I really ought to have corrected my deluded belief that, despite the incorporation of Star Wars into Walt the Strike Breaker’s evil empire, some good might have come out of Disney’s investment in my favourite science fantasy series. What could go wrong, I wondered, with their appropriation of wholesome adventure narratives predicated on a long-running and desperate galactic anti-imperialist insurgency, in which brave heroes participate against all odds? It isn’t for nothing that the villains in Star Wars have always been ruling class Brits, after all – something that I and my childhood pals always identified with. However, with this instalment, an acute sense of let-down took hold from the get-go, as essential pacing and valuable minutes were sacrificed in one ill-conceived plot sequence after another, beginning with the woeful spectacle of the latest rebellion’s best pilot, Poe Dameron, putting a First Order dreadnought battleship “on hold” while he pretended to dial up Princess Leia. Yes. That’s right: that’s exactly what he did.

The bullshit scanner on my imaginary R2 unit was already flashing loud and clear by now because I had been here before in the summer of 1989 during my first exposure to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which an until-then peerless adventure franchise became subordinated to the telling of bad jokes and abysmal slapstick. Fake humour and its depletion of narrative always draws simulated laughs from audiences who are now very well-conditioned to obey the prompts of humourless script panels. Poor comedy doesn’t need the artificial canned laughter of fake audiences anymore because consumers, sorry, audiences, pay good money to go along to the cinema and provide it.

Bad as the film’s opening scenes were, they didn’t even approach the grating abrasiveness of what followed. The film’s basic dullness could be gauged from its many desublimations of the Force, all of which were particularly irritating. These began with the preposterous image of Carrie Fisher using her abilities to float through the freezing vacuum of outer space while everybody else who had been blown out of her ship had, presumably, been turned inside out by the rigours of decompression. The spectacle of Princess Leia flying to her ship after the fashion of Mary Poppins was a truly appalling thing to behold. Rey’s chastising of Kylo Ren for not wearing a shirt during one of their telepathic skype chats also stands out as a signally impoverished moment among so many more. Yet these violations didn’t even approach the very dull finale’s concluding cop-out, centring on Luke Skywalker’s spectral projection of himself from a distant planet – something that I (and, doubtless, many others) were already on to from the second he appeared at the besieged rebel base. Worse, still, was his luring of Kylo Ren away from his forces for a lightsaber duel because a sea anemone could have identified the Jedi’s fake appearance as a spectral delaying tactic, especially after the villains vaporised the spot where Luke was standing with their heavy space artillery without inflicting any harm on him. Even I, without the benefit of Rey’s approximately nine-or-so hours of Jedi training on Ahch-To, saw that one coming.

Burning the Archive and Denying the Past
However, what I could never have anticipated was Master Yoda’s dismal cameo, in which he shows up on Luke’s hideout to set fire the last of the ancient, sacred texts that had survived from the founding days of the Jedi order and were carefully preserved over millennia. On one level, this might be read as a kind of self-reflexive exposition by a director who is new to the series (and, unfortunately, one who has been granted control of more episodes), declaring his promise to tear up the foundational cinematic myths of the series. This he already did with the plethora of witless japes to which we had been exposed by this point in the film, but Yoda’s incineration of these rare manuscripts was, really, a disturbing indication of the film’s ideological position and trajectory: a direction of travel in which culture and the heritages that it has accumulated are presented as a hindrance to the unstructured and chaotic nature of capitalist destruction; when “all that is solid”, as Marx put it so memorably, “melts into air”. For metacommentary to work it must possess some degree of sophistication, and the spectacle of Yoda summoning lightning from clouds was painfully inadequate to the task.

Turning to the Dark Side
The very deliberate damage done to Star Wars by Rian Johnson and his masters among the dark lords of the Disney Corporation has an important ideological objective that was identified by the cultural critic, Mark Fisher, who very perceptively warned us about the deadening tendencies of neoliberalism (1). These, he argued, are committed to the removal of pleasure from everything. For Fisher, this explains the acceleration in the homogenization of popular culture since the mid-1990s and its role in the erosion of the popular imagination (for example, he cites how impossible it is to distinguish pop music recorded in 1996 from that recorded in 2013) (2). The Last Jedi is illustrative of this intensification of blandness because producers, directors and writers had to conspire very hard to come up with an effort as poor as this. Doing so was, from a certain point of view, quite an accomplishment, too, given that the previous instalment in the series, The Force Awakens, for all of its derivativeness, was actually entertaining. While George Lucas’s prequel series from the early 2000s was chronically flawed due to its subordination to cartoon-quality CGI and some rather desperately written dialogue, this latest episode was following on from a decent enough effort written and directed by J.J. Abrams, the man who made Star Trek movies watchable, and a suitable follow-up was promised and expected, but never delivered.

The Last Jedi was, by any standard, very badly written. This is without doubt the consequence of the script itself having been farmed out to panels and, I suspect, as with any “blockbuster” these days, also an outcome of shooting multiple scenarios and scenes that can be endlessly switched, modified and realigned in conformity with corporate and marketing audits. (3)  The simple fact is that no single human being capable of remembering how to breathe or use language could have come up with such consistently relentless dross as this film contains. The offspring of unimaginative corporate drones, The Last Jedi’s storyline was completely disjointed, and their efforts resulted in a static and thoroughly careless outcome by the measure of any cinematic standard. The film contains even more corny, plot-freezing jokes than the third and fourth Indiana Jones movies combined, and it genuinely felt like the kind of film that the clumsily destructive and inarticulate Jar Jar Binks would have come up with if Disney had offered him the director’s role. Even a child could have seen this, as did my daughter, who adores the original trilogy. She kept asking me from less than an hour into the film, “when’s it going to be over, Dad?”

Stunned by its mediocrity, I left the cinema wondering whether the film’s producers, J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, might have approved the script after sniffing fuel emissions leaking from a fractured hyperdrive. Anybody in their right mind, I thought, must have seen this spectacle for the head-on speeder crash it was bound to become, and long before it ever reached the production phase. Then, after some fresh air on the short walk home, my own reason returned and I remembered that, from the perspective of any empire, right-mindedness, care for structure and attention to outcomes beyond any project’s immediate profit margins are all regarded as signals of weakness – signs that can’t be tolerated in the hive mind of the corporate anti-imagination at Disney Corps. Ultimately, the Hollywood entertainment complex articulates the values of the political system that it speaks for, mediates and represents, and the most basic illustration of this fact can be found in the promotional posters for countless American films featuring handsome, beautiful and always successful people wielding firearms.

Interchangeable Blandness
Hollywood has always produced terrible films but in what passes for the bulk of popular cinema today, random interchangeability is the key structural rule. Scenes, characters and dialogue can easily be switched from one production to the next without any real sense of difference or modification to the raft of static and meaningless plots being churned out. This deliberate lack of originality is striking in The Last Jedi and its methodical imitation of the drab Battlestar Galactica tv series (2004-9), which it so blatantly plagiarises. Almost every single scene in that show was filmed inside, outside, beside or on top of a shipping container, and the ones that weren’t were largely filmed in corrugated storage facilities stacked with even more shipping containers. This bland warehouse aesthetic is assimilated by The Last Jedi, in which built sets are about as visually stimulating as a visit to your local industrial estate.

Disney and Hegemony
Overwhelmingly positive reviews of the film point to the extent of collusion between Disney and the corporate press – a conspiracy of depth and power that should never be underestimated. This complicity drives the endless production of unwatchable films that has dominated mainstream American cinema since the tedious The Matrix franchise was launched in the late 1990s. It has persisted with the relentlessly dingy cycle of Lord of the Rings films and continues with the repetitive monotony of X Men, Batman and Marvel films (like Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan has been very influential in perpetuating the lifespan of this leaden genre). When circulated often and widely enough, this praise for bad films wears down audience judgment and emboldens directors like Rian Johnson to describe criticism of his own film as “violent”. (4)  This is because another key objective of neoliberal mass cinema is the erosion of the viewer’s capacity to criticise, reflect and assess – something with which it has been very successful so far.

The erasure of judgment is accompanied by the discursive framing of those who disagree with the practices and products of neoliberal entertainment as extremists and fanatics, as illustrated by Vanity Fair’s rather vicious distortion of the many expressions of disappointment that have contradicted the mainstream press’s hyperbolic praise for what is, clearly, a substandard film. Setting up a negative image of a “very specific” type of “fandom” (for that’s what, they tell us, dissenting and disappointed cinemagoers really are), the magazine identified their annoyance with The Last Jedi as an expression of a “reactionary”, “malicious” and “ticked off splinter” motivated by the “overblown hatred” that has been articulated in “hysteria-tinged” responses to the film. (5)

Unlike everybody else, who, the corporate media insists, are happy members of Disney’s Coalition of the Willingly Duped, critical viewers are, simply, what neoliberalism’s military wings term as “hostiles”: people to be feared, isolated and marginalised. Pronounced in the grimly manichean language of the War on Terror, the cultural imaginary being deployed by these publications is very telling. Their demonization of criticism is intended to frame those who object to the low standards of the mass entertainment industry as uncompromising militants – mirror-images of the kind of politically oppositional people who are neatly and silently disposed of every day with drones. While Vanity Fair certainly isn’t blowing people up from a distance, it is doing its best to vaporise unorthodox opinions like a fully-armed and operational Death Star of the mind. Portrayed, too, in the British press as “angry” and “die hard” subversives, (6)rebellious objectors are being held up on our side of the Atlantic as menacing others to the satisfied, obedient and conformist consumers who make Disney as powerful as it wants to be. Accused of circulating a collectively composed “false narrative” (7) targeting the film’s wretchedness, their criticism of its sagging and immobile plot has been portrayed in these neoliberal sources as the concerted effort of a dark international network of science fiction-following fundamentalists. And if this sounds far-fetched, bear in mind how Hollywood screenwriters and producers were recruited by the Pentagon to dream up, publicise and normalise counterinsurgency strategies within a few weeks of the September 11th attacks. (8)


The shaming of those who might raise an objection even before they do so is a very powerful technique of intellectual and cultural control. Predictive totalitarianism and anticipatory thought control are practices that are as old as tyranny itself, and modern hegemonizing formations like Disney Corps would get nowhere without them. “If you don’t like our products,” the argument goes, “you’re a hardcore fan, you’re violent, you’re a diehard, a splitter, a hate-driven fanatic, a cultural terrorist!” and so on. Johnson’s analogization of criticism with violence is a very clear indication of the political links connecting Hollywood discourse and Disney-speak, bound as they are to the language of coercion and the broader atmosphere of political intimidation. If this seems implausible, then we only have to remember Disney’s long-running practice of blacklisting critical journalists, reviewers and even entire news outlets. This was most recently manifested in the corporation’s retaliatory barring of the Los Angeles Times from press screenings last year after the newspaper reported on its fleecing of the city of Anaheim, where the Disneyland theme park is situated, through subsidies, tax breaks and other business “incentives”. (9)
This is brainwashing in one of its softest but most insidiously effective forms, because it isn’t delivered in a torture chamber. Instead, it is channelled through the form of relentlessly bad films, corporate spokespeople and their apologists in the entertainment press. However, given that a trip to the cinema often feels like a feat of endurance these days, the subtle connections between the hard compulsion of old-fashioned sensory deprivation techniques and the gentler but no less corrosively mind-weakening methods of Wonder Woman, Batman Versus Superman or The Last Jedi become a little more apparent, fitting within the broader, consciousness-distorting patterns of the neoliberal political-entertainment complex. The categorization of those who don’t like this film as unhinged members of a disobedient and radicalized “fandom”, (10) with collective, inexplicable and pre-formed agendas of their own, as distinct from the bovine consumers who happily claim to have loved it even though they really didn’t, indicates how the subjugating discourse and its media are aimed at isolating the critical imagination.

Without Plot or Purpose
This time around, there was no repetition of the destruction of galactic super weapons showcased in previous Star Wars films. Instead, what audiences endured was a re-run of the Hindenburg disaster as something that with a degree of care and imaginative investment could have been a pleasurable spectacle started to fail before their eyes as quickly as a flaming zeppelin. Whereas the Hindenburg tragedy ended within just a couple of minutes, this painful catastrophe was drawn out for over two and a half hours. In a normal society, an evening at the cinema shouldn’t feel like a 24-hour stint in solitary confinement but we do live in an abnormal moment, and the elasticization of time by the cinema of disappointment, in which seconds stretch into minutes, and minutes into hours, would have impressed Einstein himself.

It’s now obvious why there were no plot leaks exposing even the slightest hint about the film’s storyline during the run-up to its release: there was, simply, no storyline for anyone to reveal, even if they had wanted to. To his credit, Mark Hamill warned the public months ago that The Last Jedi was an inferior effort before being forced into making a retraction by the dark forces of the Disney empire. (11)  Given this red alert, we really should have seen the calamity that was heading our way. If I had all listened to him, this bland Mickey Mouse effort would never have had a chance of depositing its neoliberal staleness into my own popcorn cup, at least. Contrived, boring and forgettable, it will be viewed with horror by cinema-goers possessing minds of their own and a basic grasp of the importance of narrative – the people who Rian Johnson regards as “violent”.



1.See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Alresford: Zero Books, 2009) and Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Alresford: Zero Books, 2014).
2.Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, p.1o.
3.This filtering and watering down of the script by committee has also been recognised by the Australian film critic, Luke Buckmaster. See Luke Buckmaster, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Originality Strictly Forbidden in Directed-by-Committee Blockbuster”, Daily Review, December 15th 2017, accessed 21/12/17
4.Julia Alexander, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi director addresses Twitter backlash, understands fans’ anger” Polygon, accessed 20/12/17
5.Joana Robinson, “Just How Seriously Should We Take This Star Wars: The Last Jedi Backlash?”, Vanity Fair, accessed 20/12/17
6.Stefan Kyriazis, “Star Wars 8 fan BACKLASH: ‘The Last Jedi AWFUL’ trending on Twitter”, Express, December 16th, 2017,, accessed 20/12/17
7.Joana Robinson, ibid.
8.See Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), pp.15-16.
9.Daniel Miller,“Is Disney Paying its Share in Anaheim?” Los Angeles Times, September 24th, 2017,, accessed 12/1/2018. See also Sydney Ember and Brooks Barnes, “Disney Ends Ban on Los Angeles Times Amid Fierce Backlash”, The New York Times, November 7th, 2017,, accessed 12/1/2018
10.Robinson, ibid.
11.Dirk Libbey, ”What Mark Hamill Really Meant When He Criticized Luke Skywalker’s Direction”, Cinemablend,, accessed 20/12/2017.



The Crisis in Republicanism

Irish republicanism is in a profound state of crisis and is rapidly decaying almost by the week. Scandals such as the expulsion of political prisoners from what are supposed to be republican prison wings while heroin dealers and thugs from the Sinn Féin militia are accepted with open arms are only recent examples of this longstanding atrophy. We are all familiar with the catalogue of unexplained “mistakes”, “errors” and – this excuse is my own personal favourite – “strategic decisions” that have transformed Irish republicanism into the risible and badly deformed phenomenon that it has become. Unfortunately, these patterns are now so well established and familiar to us that they could be described as long-term phenomena due to their manifestation over the two decades that have passed since the reimposition of Stormont

The persistent problems that have become so established now that they appear like permanent hindrances to progress include the manipulation of republicanism by those who want to make a living from it, including collaboration with criminals towards this end. We also have the never-ending factional rushes for numbers with which everybody is familiar. Varying with regional and national intensity, they always conclude with the disturbing appearance of very malign and dangerous people at republican events and platforms as if they had never threatened or attacked republicans in the first place. There is also the admission of proven criminals, along with the politically suspect, because, nowadays, it really isn’t a problem if somebody sells heroin, fences stolen property, burgles houses, tortures people who owed them money, or called for people to give information to the police when they were in Sinn Féin. Apparently, these are essential skill sets for some organisations.

Egos, Spectacles and Inconsistency
More than once, the mindlessness of self-appointed leaders has culminated in a number of dreadfully embarrassing and, frankly, sinister spectacles. These include the acceptance of Sinn Féin murder gang members onto prison wings, the already-mentioned collusion with criminals and the provision of political send-offs for people killed in drug feuds (because some people really would do anything to be seen pinning a Tricolour on a coffin, no matter whose remains lie within). The sinking of reality under the weight of lies and distortion has also seen the diversion of supporters’ attentions toward the simulation of radicalism that was Dublin’s profit-driven “war on dealers”, itself a wholly disproven fantasy that now has its sequel in the ongoing, inhumane attacks on young people in the six counties for which there is little genuine support. These are all reflections of how those who want to be in control inhabit a permanent, unmoving present moment that is centred on satisfying their desire for power and servicing them with financial gratification, and of their doing so without thought for the future before us or for the lessons of the past.

On a more theoretical but equally opportunistic level, we also have the temporary abandonment of abstentionism at election time by people who then, suddenly, oppose partitionist assemblies all over again when they can’t get into them. This was neatly illustrated in 2016 by the rush of “independent” councillors and their hangers-on in Derry to secure a seat in Stormont, a prize that would have come along with privately longed-for bonuses, such as the lucrative advisory positions, salaried support roles and generous expenses payments that are draining public finances. Accompanying this duplicity we have the fake community groups and phoney “mediation” fronts that are all bidding for profitable slices of counter insurgency funding.

The all-too familiar spectacle of the deliberate collapsing and “rebooting” (as it has been described by one group) of various political campaigns has also become a permanent fixture of the republican experience. From the Free Tony Taylor campaign, to the IRPWA and the sabotaging of popular efforts to free the Craigavon Two, prisoners must look on as their campaigns limp from one control bid to the next. The evidence of this consists of the ill-conceived and often badly written statements that blight social media (the most recent one was, simply, unreadable), trying to tell people what they can’t do, what they can’t think about, what they can’t say and who they must exclusively obey. These sad expressions of assumed authority are released whenever it is believed that enthusiastic campaigners capable of making a difference must be subordinated to the interests of a particular faction (the unaligned are always deemed to be particularly threatening and untrustworthy). They also appear when people are perceived as being too independent in the eyes of cliques more interested in controlling and even hindering objectives than in achieving them. Profoundly disastrous events in themselves, these attempts at control are further, very clear symptoms of the political rot that is eroding interest in and support for republicanism.

Established Patterns of Chaos
But is all of this as chaotic as it appears? Or are there deeper patterns at work, influences that, strangely, have consistent and specific logics, dynamics and energies of their own? Even a cursory examination of these examples will reveal the truth to anybody who really wants to know why things are going wrong. Of course, some will remain in denial and it can be difficult to persuade someone who wants to deny reality about the material facts that influence our place in history. The resulting, heavy cost paid for wilful failure is a price that is too often met in full by others. When the thoughtless acceptance of such impositions keeps people in prison, facilitates the application of state-driven coercion, silences debate and makes Irish republicans look as obedient and thoughtless as your average neoliberal consumer, then affairs have well and truly reached a spectacular peak of self-inflicted political failure.

All of these groups have inherited the old doublethink that has ravaged the minds of Sinn Féiners, and they now mimic and perpetuate the familiar practice of saying one thing publicly while doing the complete opposite in private. Then, within very short periods, they often announce a completely polar stance all over again – advocating taking seats in Stormont, for example, and then calling for it to be burned down as soon as an election has been lost, as happened in Derry. This is because inconsistency is fundamental for those who serve themselves rather than an ideal: deluded egos thrive on forcing the acceptance of their own inconsistencies, while parties and campaign groups are worn down or depopulated until they exist in name only. This is more than straightforward lying and from a structurally-focussed position it is easy to see how harmful such mendacity is, because political self-destruction can never be reversed by pressing imaginary organisational “reboot” buttons. Instead, what remains is the wreckage of intentionally disabled groups through the rejection of the successful and popular efforts of motivated and initiative-driven activists and people capable of creative and constructive thought.


Neoliberalism in Miniature

Aligned with all of this are the very explicit imitations of late capitalism in miniaturised but no less harmful forms by all of these organisations. Their assimilation of capitalist practice mirrors neoliberalism’s infliction of the very same strategies on entire populations in order to hobble popular political will and erode the individual’s grasp of his or her own consciousness, situation and potential. The objective behind this is purely destructive, and little of any use remains when discourse, policy and practice cease to make sense. However, once people’s ability to reason is sufficiently corroded, rendering them permanently compliant, they become very useful to manipulative organisations and their apparatuses. The problem for those who sit on these silent cliques is that their own weak-mindedness is very infectious, something that we see so very often in the thoughtless and carelessly composed control statements mentioned above – bad thinking is, after all, very contagious among the egocentric. It is also symptomatic the old-fashioned totalitarian moulding of thought and diminishment of language that George Orwell identified in his essay, “Politics and the English Language”, updated for the corporate-totalitarian, technically fascistic environment that pertains today.

There is no doubt that some people won’t want to accept or even acknowledge that these problems exist. For them, it’s probably too late, anyway. But if people trust their own judgment and believe in themselves and not in the flawed, Orwellian positions of those who want to think and speak on their behalf, then they will remain capable of recognising the problems that have eroded these organisations from within. Only when enough people start to think for themselves can a new, genuine and reality-focussed republican politics be developed, as distinct from the fraudulent simulations of it that are now so widespread.

Derry’s New Secret Police Force

In the second such attack to have occurred in Derry within the past two months, a teenage boy was beaten up last week in the city by a gang of masked men armed with iron bars and a gun (in the previous one, a teenager suffered two broken legs and a broken arm). Nobody knows who did this, or why these two attacks took place, of course. That’s because this is how secret policing works – it occurs very discreetly, almost invisibly, insidiously reminding us that, below the surface of society and always after night falls, a secret police force is active. Violent secret policing can be so clandestine that, when it does take place, it can feel at first almost as if it hasn’t happened, unless, of course, you are one of the people on the receiving end of it. Although it feels unreal to many among the wider community, its repeated occurrence burrows into the public mind where its corruption, though often overlooked, is impossible to conceal.

This secret police force is so obscure that nobody knows who or what is behind it, other than someone’s profound desire to control people. In the absence of identifiable organisational responsibility (those involved are so secretive that nobody knows who they are) we could also describe this very Secret Police Force as Sinn Féin Mark 2. Indeed, they resemble Sinn Féin’s party militia so much that the people of Derry could be forgiven for thinking that those who are behind these attacks might have been, at some stage, apostates who were driven from that organisation. In any case, the new Secret Police have assumed all the characteristics of their old role models.


Old Tactics in New Clothing
Derry’s secret policing structures aren’t new or unique. They have been seen before, and resemble very closely what might be termed “the McGuinness pattern”. Organised and directed by people who want to establish themselves as unofficial figures of authority in the city, they operate according to a very familiar design. This has always served those who believe that they should be revered but ultimately feared by their own as far, at least, as limb-smashing can be interpreted as the good work of defending the community from its wayward youth. So, once again, we are being confronted with the work of false radicals and mock liberators. They know that beating people up with iron bars appeals to a very special kind of imagination, and this is where the secrecy of Derry’s Secret Police might be of benefit to everyone. Who would want to know whether a friend, neighbour or even a relative was involved in this kind of policing? This type of best-kept secret is best kept, well… very secret, indeed.

Despite what the Secret Police want you to think, they are not a manifestation of what happens “in the absence of acceptable policing” because that lazy, self-serving cliché died of exhaustion a very long time ago when it was last uttered by Sinn Féin. Anyone capable of independent thought knows that there are always alternatives to battering young people with iron bars unless, that is, they are the very rare kind of person who is addicted to doing, ordering or beholding it (a dependency for which all kinds of medical and psychiatric treatments are available). The simple fact is that broken teenage limbs are not the organic products of a supposedly measured or reasonable process that concludes with community-sanctioned violence. This brutality, along with the desire for authority and validation that it represents, is an artificial imposition that follows a logic that is as brutal for the entire community as it is for the young person who has been accused of, somehow, “offending”. The entire process is deliberately engineered to appear vague and its indeterminate quality is intended to cultivate a collective response along the lines of “Well, he must have done something”.


The Silent Terror
We can assume that an allegation of some kind of offence has been levelled by the Secret Police during its thoroughly concealed process of judgment – even secret tribunals, after all, have to justify their existences to themselves. The accusation circulates only within this bubble, away from public scrutiny where, undisclosed, the infraction is proven by faceless judges before a Secret Police squad is mobilised, armed, and then deployed. The “offending” young person is beaten up and in the subsequent public discussion about the mystery (“What did he get it for, anyway?”) the perceived problem evaporates, like reason under a dictatorship. Nobody says anything; everybody moves along like they’re told to and supposed to because there’s nothing to see here, nothing at all. So, the reality principle sinks while the self-perpetuating myth of the enforcer, so reliant upon the damnation and isolation of broken-limbed teenagers, endures.

With its methodically-planned politics of erasure and dedicated to the erosion of truth, this organised and highly structured violence is reinforced by the ripple-effect that it causes across the wider community.  All of this benefits those who direct it and carry it out in a number of ways. Firstly, it reinforces the perception that those in command of the Derry Secret Police have of themselves as a source of authority: “people will fear us now”, they think, “we’ll have more respect”, “all we’ll ever have to do is glare at somebody and they’ll get the message”, and so on. Secondly, the people who carry these attacks out on their behalf have, in their own turn, become blooded. Assimilated within the circuitry of this local, unofficial and unspoken power and embedded in it, they now have status, belonging, a role and a meaning greater than anything that they have ever experienced or amounted to before. In their own eyes and, they believe, in the view of the broader community, they will finally matter. Imbued with this new sense of purpose and superiority, they’ll genuinely feel important and, from this moment onward, they’ll exist under the impression that they, too, are now to be feared.


Political Fear and the Closure of Consciousness
No group has claimed these attacks, and none will, because silence is the currency of terror. Fear travels along the ruined and collapsed channels of reason because it depends upon the closure of imagination. Once thinking is checked, it transmits rapidly from one consciousness to the next via these now-quiet paths. In doing so, it seals mouths and closes minds, extinguishes thought and tightens its grip over the popular imagination where it is internalised, amplified and projected further inward with ever greater intensity following each attack. In this way, fear reproduces itself, by generating wider acceptance of organised thuggery and condemns entire communities to long-running cycles of quiet, uncommunicated dread. At the back of the mind of every parent will be the final, awful question: “Could this happen to my child?”

Questions now need to be asked about those who benefit from secret policing, and answers should be demanded as to which local hierarchies and dynasties are being served and facilitated by the Secret Police. The people of Derry have a right to demand what qualifies someone for a role in this clandestine force, to know who gets to make secret policing decisions and on what authority these decisions are being taken. Given that this organisation operates according to a programme of its own, people also have the right to know who writes the rules of secret policing and why. We have the right to know what gets said when secret policing matters are discussed: who, for example, discusses whom during these meetings? We have the right to know what qualifies anything or anyone for inclusion in these secret discussions, and we have the right to know what will happen if the Secret Police come up with more secret “offenses” that they believe will need to be policed with even more severity.

The deepest wounds caused by secret policing and its unofficial violence are always inflicted on the psyche of a people. The worst damage of all is caused by the silences that inhibit thought, restrict free speech and threaten to crush open criticism. If allowed to take hold, these restrictions will dominate the material, political and cultural prospects of the people of Derry, along with their psychological wellbeing.  If they are not resisted another generation will be forced to endure the authority of cabals and militias, while the prospects of young people will be permanently hindered by the shadow of this unofficial violence.


More Than Just a Museum


On Friday, 2nd June, a protest was held at the so-called “Museum of Free Derry” in opposition to its memorialization of British forces killed in Derry during the early 1970s. I refer to this institution as the “so-called Museum of Free Derry” because, with its commemoration of the British state’s highly paid, heavily armed and judicially-protected professional murderers – agents of state violence whose brutality peaked (but did not end) with the massacre of 14 Civil Rights demonstrators on January 31st, 1972 – it has distanced itself irrevocably from the concept and philosophy of liberation that Free Derry stands for in the popular imagination. As one protestor suggested, we should rename it “The Museum of Unfree Derry”; I would add that the title, “The Crown Forces Museum of Unfree Derry”, will reflect even more accurately the ideology that this institution serves and promotes.

Free Derry was the part of Derry City, comprising the Bogside, Brandywell and Creggan districts, that had been liberated from police control following the decisive defeat of heavily-armed RUC, B-Special and Orange Order attackers by an unarmed popular insurgency, known as the Battle of the Bogside, that took place in August, 1969. Notwithstanding the efforts of Paddy Doherty to have barricades dismantled and the RUC redeployed in the Bogside, Free Derry persisted until the entire city was overrun by British troops during Operation Motorman in July, 1972. During this three-year period, Free Derry became recognized globally as a site of intense resistance to British political, military and police control.

Last week’s protest was called because the museum, which many people regard as a Sinn Féin-controlled front organization, has installed an exhibit recording the names of British troops and police killed in Derry. This has outraged a broad spectrum of people who have confronted the issue because they recognize it as contributing to the wider, decades-long policy of “normalization”: the policy whereby the aberration that is the British presence in Ireland is represented as normal, even natural. A fundamental policy of modern imperialism, normalization (also referred to during the 1970s and 1980s as “Ulsterization”) was also the key strategy behind the 2003 Iraq invasion and occupation, where it became known as “Iraqi-isation”. (1)

Power and Its Discourses: From Burke to Kitson
These ideas and policies can be traced back to Edmund Burke’s conservative political theories, as outlined in his 1790 book, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Here, Burke described the authority of kings as “the natural order of things”, and claimed that the subjugation of people by imperial and monarchical authority was an organic, and therefore just, phenomenon. (2)  In his earlier work, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Burke also argued that the natural human response to displays of power should be one of surrender because power and terror, the basic currencies of political authority, were inseparable from one another.

While these ideas have influenced British imperialism and guided its coercionist policies since the late eighteenth century, they were very significantly modernized by the British army brigadier, Frank Kitson. Having participated in and directed counter-insurgency efforts in Kenya, Malaya, Oman and Cyprus, Kitson updated the sublime object and function of imperial power by urging the state to facilitate its flow through every circuit of military, police and civilian organisation in a thoroughly integrated pattern of oppression and violence.  The key to controlling entire populations, Kitson urged in his 1971 book, Low Intensity Operations, was to ensure that the interests served by state violence should become so normalized as to be obscure, untraceable, unidentifiable, even invisible.

In doing so, he brought Burke’s theory of the invisibility of power into the modern imperialist age: “To make anything very terrible,” Burke advised, “obscurity seems in general to be necessary”, (3) and state violence is no exception to this very basic rule. Whereas, for Burke, power was best administered from the Olympian position of the aristocracy, Kitson, by 1971, saw the need to co-opt local organizations directly into its grid and to create compliant front-groups (he called these “pseudo-groups”) that were loyal to the deep state. As we have seen since the ceasefire of 1994, these state-funded front organizations have spawned very rapidly, although study of their boards and memberships reveals very familiar patterns and networks of interest.


2017: A New Start for Counter-Insurgency
Kitson’s policy eventually succeeded with the total integration of Sinn Féin and its party militia into the British establishment, and this is most apparent (for those who look beyond the obscuring veil of Stormont power) in the fusion of their pro-British terror tactics with official policing. However, while this objective has been achieved, total control remains the final objective and, as every reader of Orwell knows, controlling the present depends very heavily on exercising dominion over the past: this is what every colonial power pursues through means of coercion, violence, manipulation and co-option. Through various fronts disguised as “community groups” controlled by Sinn Féin, which is itself controlled by MI5, this policy has been intensively pursued since the mid-1990s on political, economic and cultural fronts. Those who remember the various “peace groups” that emerged to serve British interests during the 1970s and 1980s, many of which were directed by the Officials and their political front, the Workers’ Party, will recognize an emerging pattern here.

The Crown Forces Museum of Unfree Derry is the latest addition to this long line of front organizations working in the service of British state power. Its inclusion of British military and police personnel in its exhibitions is a significant move towards normalizing the brutality and violence unleashed on the people of Derry from the late 1960s (and, indeed, since the inception of the state in 1922), and their present activity should be considered against this longer history of normalization.

Indeed, the museum’s spokesman, Robin Percival, has a long record of service to Sinn Féin front organizations since he first joined the party. Since then, he has been appointed to prominent roles within the Pat Finucane Centre, The Bogside Residents Group (from which he graduated onto the Parades Commission), the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum, the Gasyard Centre, Cunamh and the Bloody Sunday Trust, as well as this museum. His close friend and colleague at the Pat Finucane Centre, Paul O’Connor, participates in Sinn Féin electoral videos, exposing that organization’s very close ties to the party. During last week’s protest, Percival took photographs of those who had come to voice their opposition to the memorial, and it can only be assumed that these images will be shared with his friends in Sinn Féin (these associations can be seen by checking the organizations’ boards and memberships on the Companies House website).

In a letter sent to the Pensive Quill website in 2014, Percival responded to criticism of the museum’s earlier but unsuccessful plan to build a garden that would commemorate crown forces personnel. He stated: “there never was a plan to construct a memorial garden to include British soldiers in the Bogside…. Nor are there any plans to construct a memorial to include British soldiers now or in the future. The focus of the Bloody Sunday Trust (which manages the museum) is about civilians killed by the state.” Percival publicly announced that he had “no plan to construct a memorial… to include British soldiers in the Bogside.” (4)  However, things can change very rapidly in the world of colonial doublethink, and now he is defending the projection of the names of British personnel on his museum’s walls.


The Long Line of Cooperators
Frank Kitson argued that co-option and cooperation are the basic requirements of colonial political control. Percival is among a long line of cooperators, ranging from Paddy Doherty and Brendan Duddy to the present class of professional, managerial “community representatives” and mysteriously-appointed “spokespeople”. While these figures have, largely, been involved in the political and economic management of the people of Derry on behalf of Sinn Féin, Stormont and the British establishment in London, what is novel about this museum it is dedicated to controlling the present through its representation of the past.

The normalization policy outlined by Kitson and the principles that he first proposed in 1971 are very relevant today. The museum operates entirely into line with British policy and represents a watermark of what he termed “civil-military relations” – the conscious fusion of military and civilian interests through long-term “popular projects” serving the occupier’s “single effective policy” : “the necessity for close co-ordination between the civil and the operational effort is apparent to everyone”, wrote Kitson in 1971. It remains so today because it is through this “unity of effect” that oppression becomes normalized and authority internalized by the target population, and how a people’s sense of their own selfhood is softened and eroded. It is the latest manifestation of psychological operations (still abbreviated by militaries, police forces and governments as “psy-ops”): the use of psychological means to distort and undermine a population’s sense of its own place in the world and in history, and to subvert its own understanding of itself. (5)


Identifying with the Oppressor
The museum has a single purpose: encouraging people to identify psychologically with the British army and police, and with the colonial violence that has repressed them for centuries. The British army’s infamous Bloody Sunday Massacre of January 1972 was key to the wider counter-insurgency policy that began in August, 1969, and its impact can still be felt in Derry, over four decades later. The Crown Forces Museum of Unfree Derry is dedicated to convincing the people that they should see something of themselves in the very murderers who shot down children, women and men during this period of particularly brutal state violence. It symbolizes a false and misleading ideology of reconciliation based on the assumption that we have much in common with these professional agents of colonial violence and the structures that they serve.

Last week’s demonstration registered popular refusal to conform to this ongoing process of normalization. The philosophy and practice of liberation that was practiced and displayed four decades ago by the people of Free Derry showed the world that refusal is a very powerful weapon. This protest articulated and renewed that refusal by addressing the still current problem of state violence and the ideological coercion that accompanies it, exposing its acceptance by organizations such as this museum, all of which, ultimately, act in the interests of the state.

The fundamental strategy of any empire is invasion, and this requires a considerable degree of integration on a number of levels, particularly within the cultural, political and psychological spheres. Imperialists occupy the physical territory of the countries that they invade with their military and police forces but they also work hard to colonize the minds of those whose lands they occupy with the relentless propaganda and distortions of the past that are circulated by their local agents. In Derry, however, this is being resisted because there are plenty of minds and imaginations that still remain free.



1. See Paul Reynolds, “Rush to Iraqi-isation”, BBC News, 12th November, 2003 (, accessed 8/6/1017. See also “Letter (declassified): Rycroft to Baker”, 3rd June, 2003, The Iraq Inquiry (, accessed 8/6/2017.
2. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, The Works of Edmund Burke, Vol. 3 (London, John C. Nimmo: 1887), p.296.
3. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ibid, Vol. 1, pp.131-2.
4. Robin Percival, “No Plan to Construct a Memorial Garden to Include British Soldiers in the Bogside,” The Pensive Quill, Friday, 8th August, 2014 (, accessed 31st May, 2017).
5. Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping (London: Faber and Faber, 1971, reprinted 1991), pp.51-3, 71.





From Brexit to Britzkrieg

This week, people started looking out of their front windows to make sure that they weren’t living in a Jonathan Swift novel, a Rudyard Kipling poem, or some strange fusion of both. This was because, within days of the British government’s formal announcement of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, its defence secretary, Michael Fallon, egged on by Michael Howard, also announced his willingness to go to war.  For a short while, the Tories took a break from normalising their domestic war against the poor to propose another one, this time against Spain.  Howard even invoked the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, the not long-dead Iron Lady who, he believes, has been reincarnated in the body of Theresa May.   Thus the Conservatives addressed an imagined threat to British sovereignty that is being posed, in their minds, by a friendly neighbour, some of whose territory they seized and colonized in 1713, telling the world that Britain will do anything to protect its imperial interests in 2017.

The argument about the non-negotiability of Gibraltar’s Britishness is a familiar one to anyone who has had to endure the contradictions of partition: “We’re going to look after Gibraltar”, Fallon said. “Gibraltar is going to be protected all the way because the sovereignty cannot be changed without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar…”.   The colony’s puppet First Minister, Fabian Picardo, went even further by declaring that “the United Kingdom goes to war over the principle of consent all over the world.”  This is the political equivalent of last summer’s English football hooligans, and of the more frequent weekend spectacle of those steroid-addled morons who can’t have a drink without wanting to beat up passing teenagers for delivering perceived but non-existent insults.  By declaring their resolution to go “all the way” with a nation that has tolerated centuries of British military and strategic presence within its own national territory, the British establishment revealed what it really thinks about the principle of peace within Europe.

But it’s not all thuggery, to be fair.  The implication here is that, as with Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Brits don’t really want to be in Gibraltar anyway, and they never did want to be there, either.  They only want to start a war over it because they need to protect the democratic rights of the English people who live there, including the 96% of whom who voted to remain within the EU.  Manufactured colonial consent, with its distortion of mandates, is the same justification given for the permanent, if secret, war footing that they assume in Ireland (even though they don’t think that publicly announcing this instance of low-visibility violence would be as acceptable as sending a spectacular military “taskforce” to sort out their new “Spanish-speaking” enemies, as Michael Howard described them).   According to this long-standing imperial rationale, occupiers never want to occupy anywhere – they only want to help people, according to a very familiar, if rather worn-out, proposal that has been doing the rounds a lot lately, and especially since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The principle of false consent has always been built into the practice of colonial land-grabbing once, of course, the occupying power has planted enough consenters and then terrorised, imprisoned, dispossessed or expelled anybody else who disagrees with it.  What we are hearing now is the a minimally-adapted articulation of Britain’s geopolitical interest in Ireland, and the jingoization of Gibraltar expresses the equally self-contradictory claim that part of Spain is part of Britain, simply because they once planted enough colonists and troops there.  As with the occupation of Ireland, the British political and military presence in this part of Spain is central to the ideology and practice of the permanently-armed and forever war-ready imperial state.  Portraying their rush to belligerence as a quaint, harmless and even amusing manifestation of a deluded sense of self-importance, as some have done, misses the key point that the military grasp of colonial territory has a very practical resonance: every empire, ultimately, depends on the acquisition and possession of land, and this is achieved through force.  Occupation is power, and as Fallon keeps telling us, so too, in post-Brexit world, is a permanently poised, war-ready military complex.  In Gibraltar and in Ireland, British occupation today means British control in the future.

“This isn’t a bargaining process”, Fallon reminded viewers of the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, because “we happen to have the biggest defence budget in Europe, we have the biggest navy in Europe.”  He added that his government is sending 800 troops to Estonia, more to Poland and reminded the British public that they’ll be footing the bill for lacing Romania with heavily-armed Typhoon fighter planes, just in case they were curious about where the savings from all of those hospital ward closures, benefit cuts, student finance “savings” and bedroom taxes might be going (in 2016 alone, Britain spent £392 billion on weapons procurement).

The Gibraltarians will be sorely tested when they’re fenced in by the European border.  Perhaps they’ll be forced to leave en masse, but if that happens, it’s unlikely that the local British military garrison, or “permanent regional operating base”, as it’s officially known, will follow them.  In the meantime, like the Irish, they’ll have to get used to having an intensively policed boundary, all over again, and one that the vast majority of them voted against.  And with its imposition, they’ll be reacquainted with the experience of having their vehicles and persons searched whenever they want to go out for a drive.  As the Irish novelist, Eoin McNamee, recently warned, and as we’ve just seen this week on the Andrew Marr Show, there’s no such thing as a soft border.

The Death of a Traitor

 To the memory of my mother, Martina Donnelly

The only unfortunate thing about Martin McGuinness’s death was that it came at a time when I was very busy with work and unable to respond sooner. I am not at all bothered about his slow and, apparently, very painful end because in 1998 the Sinn Féin militia, under his direct orders, attacked my family.  Armed with guns, nail-studded baseball bats (yes, you have read that correctly – they used baseball bats that had nails hammered into them), iron bars and mace gas, they attacked us.  They did so with a ferocity that cannot be imagined by those who have not witnessed such horror unless, perhaps, they have had it described to them in detail by someone who has experienced it.  My three little sisters, aged 11, ten and six years old, were all hospitalised with trauma wounds, including punctures on their arms, legs, backs and heads caused by those nails, and they also suffered poisoning from the mace gas.  My father’s leg and hand were broken and, along with his children’s injuries, his puncture wounds had to be treated for infections that were caused by the nails.  My mother was also very badly wounded, and suffered the worst of us all: as a result of the injuries that she endured that night, she developed the ovarian cancer that would take her life some years later.



Violence is a singular and totalising phenomenon, and it is never more so than when it is inflicted in the name of power against children. The violence that was inflicted on my family at 10pm on the night of Sunday, June 28th, 1998 (just days after the formalisation of the Pacification of Ireland Process with the re-opening of Stormont) was the latest incarnation of British colonial violence, camouflaged by its local deliverers: British proxies from the Sinn Féin militia who were posing as Irish republicans.  The British state attempted to disguise its presence in our home but immediately, in the hours, days and weeks that followed, and then during the years that have passed since, what was hatched on that night became so obviously apparent that it is now a matter of public (if unofficial) record, and is being spoken about openly.  Even in the darkest times of state terror and government violence – for this was government violence, committed in the name of Stormont, Westminster and the Blairite imperialism that would later on murder over a million people in Iraq – the truth has a strange way of coming to the surface.  It does not, of course, appear in the official discourses of the press and the establishment, but resides instead in the resistant consciousness of people who recognise colonial power and its agents, and who choose to speak out against it.


An Agent of Colonial Violence

Years before they established death squads in Iraq, New Labour acquired valuable practice in deploying them in Ireland with the help of their local puppets. In Derry and elsewhere, Martin McGuinness was a key agent of this power and, as its principal native avatar, he was the one to whom the British could always turn whenever spectacularly violent forms of pacification were needed.  He was the one who could activate the required force in all of its barbarity, and they were the ones who believed that they could use him to silence dissent and erase, with the application of this terror, the possibility of a United Ireland (I am referring here to the real possibility of Irish unification and not the empty simulation of it promoted by Sinn Féin, then and now).

Murder and brutalisation were sanctioned with the official and unofficial blessing of the state from its local to its highest levels, and what we have seen with the death of Martin McGuinness is the closure of a very significant node within its grid of power. To be sure, its light had been faltering for some time, and its value was rapidly diminishing before he was ever diagnosed with the amyloidosis that killed him.  For some time he could not walk the streets in Derry without being jeered at for being a traitor, and it was with the greatest irony but without, of course, any grasp of the concept, that he pressed charges against a young man who threw eggs at him in the Bogside.  That power, which circulates across all of its circuits, dominating them until they are burned out and extinguished, now no longer illuminates one of the most important contacts in the history of British intelligence and counterinsurgency.


The Question of Power

From the then-Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam (who, while expressing her “love” for McGuinness, insisted that such attacks were not ceasefire violations but the good and necessary work of “internal housekeeping”) to the judge who, reluctantly convicting Hugh Sheerin, one of the attackers who broke into our home and lauded him as a family man, to the police who arrived on the scene, minutes after my father had been stopped and questioned about his movements by them, under threat of immediate arrest under the Special Powers Act if he did not reveal where he was going and when (“to home”, he replied, “are you sure? Are you sure about that?” they kept demanding), this shared power percolated through the entire system, along with their shared violence.  That night, my father remarked to me about the strangeness of the police’s questions because, despite a lifetime of harassment at their hands, he had never experienced them being so determined to establish beyond any doubt the fact that he was going home, and precisely how soon, as they did just then when they stopped him while driving on a journey from a shop that took less than two minutes.  Just as he told me this, the gang burst through our front door, and this happened within less than another two minutes of his arrival: exactly as long as it took him to tell me about his strange questioning at the hands of the RUC.

When the police appeared, again only minutes after the Sinn Féin gang had left, their only expression of surprise at what had happened was over the fact that we had fought back and that so many of the attackers were themselves injured. We also witnessed the reality of official consternation at a plan gone wrong when they discovered that their proxies had left behind, along with a lot of their own blood (which, of course, was never converted into DNA evidence), a mace gas spray canister that my mother had knocked out of one of their hands.  “Who else saw this?  Who else knows about this?”  they kept shouting.  Of course, they made sure that nobody else would ever know about it or see any reference to in the official narrative of what happened that night: this piece of evidence was quickly disappeared for good when, in their words, “it was just lost in the Strand Road” – i.e., hidden by them in their local barracks.


In the Service of Colonial Power

This week, apologists for Martin McGuinness have been trying to explain what did on behalf of the British state as the result of a very dense political process, the very meaning of which is so complicated that it lies beyond the comprehension of ordinary people (they used to call it “the bigger picture” but now it’s just referred to as “the complexity of the process”). They are also claiming that their party is not wilfully serving the furtherance of British policy in Ireland, while telling their supporters that they must keep facilitating the mysterious, ever-shifting dynamic and rituals of a system and structure that is beyond their understanding.  The mystery, they insist, requires complete submission to the rules of power, forever demanding further demonstrations of their prostration in increasingly humiliating displays of obedience.  For the thoroughly unthinking, these proposals aren’t difficult to absorb – they’re just what you do when you’re told to, because “that’s politics”, and “the way things work”.  Orwellian doublethink of this kind has always had a profound hold over the weak-minded, and as Orwell warned, state terror is where official thought control always begins.

The final defilement, committed during a life that spiralled ever-downward into an abyss of degrading servility, was the moment at which McGuinness, with his trademark leer, posed for photographs with Elizabeth Windsor and clapped while physically stooping his body as a portrait of the English queen, for which he raised the funding, was unveiled in London. As images of this incident were circulated around the world, politically conscious people were asking, “What have the British got on him?”  It was, without doubt, the most revealing public incident during his parallel careers, both official and unofficial, in the service of British authority, and it will forever be his epitaph.  It reveals an individual who, entirely bound by his own practice of betrayal, desperately served the commands of his handlers.  Having become so immersed in the game of power, he really had no choice but to crawl along its corridors in Westminster and Chelsea, where he found his true home as a flatterer of the establishment.  There was no greater humiliation in the history of constitutional Irish nationalism and there certainly is not a lower depth to be plumbed than this.

All of this predates Orwell, and the doublethink that he identified has its origins in the colonisation of Ireland where, throughout history, we find that true subjugation begins and ends within the minds of the conquered. In 1914, James Connolly defined this as the practice of “ruling by fooling” and in Ireland colonial political control has been exercised through this means for centuries.  It was established through the system of “surrender and re-grant” during the sixteenth century, when chieftains bent to the English crown, and modernised in the coercion measures that were imposed throughout the 1800s and officially entitled “Peace Acts”.  Today, it is visible for those who choose to recognise it in the internment of Tony Taylor.  His illegal incarceration is now labelled “detention”, just as it was in 1971, because this is a more palatable noun with which the British government can promote coercion and a much less frightening concept for the public to grasp, just as it also was for the Apartheid régime in South Africa.

Today, the rest of us have a choice. We can choose to submit to such lies and believe those who, in praising Martin McGuinness as Bill Clinton and Alastair Campbell did, continue his work of distorting the past, controlling the present and condemning the future.  Or we can choose to challenge them and, in so doing, liberate ourselves.