Activists Aaron Bastani and James Butler are the brains – and voices – of the Novara Media operation: over the past few years Bastani’s radio show on Resonance FM has expanded on social media, and its offshoot Novara Wire now features written and video content alongside the popular podcast. Every week the Butler-Bastani double act lays on an hour of sharp debate, rigorous political analysis and much-needed thought experiments, such as, Why not put a compulsory purchase order on the Shard and make it social housing? As the sun beat down on Elephant and Castle, Lidija Haas talked to the pair making the left look like a good time again.
Lidija Haas I liked your call-out to anyone really rich who wants to shift UK media dramatically to the left, without having editorial input! Any luck there?
Aaron Bastani This is strange: the week after that I got some money, actually, in my account. I don’t want to say how much, it was a sizable sum. It could have just been a banking error, but it was a strange coincidence.
LH Where did the impetus for Novara come from?
AB There was the student stuff, the UCL occupation, UK Uncut. That was a huge contentious episode none of us had foreseen; it was massive. It was also incredibly short, and my thinking at the time was, we need to institutionalise some of that: none of us are interested in joining political parties, but we want to have these kinds of conversations. And I always thought of communication as a form of association; I didn’t see talking about things and doing things as mutually exclusive.
James Butler I got involved partly because of there being relatively little contact between people doing things on the ground and those undertaking theoretical work. And, you know, an hour of conversation on things that would be condensed to two soundbites on the Today show – that in itself is worthwhile. Thinking in public, particularly at that length, allows you to take provisional positions, explore them, push against where they start to seem wrong.
AB We want to create a pole of attraction. We’re not somehow going to get a bigger audience than the major print newspapers anytime this decade, but what we can do is allow certain arguments, criticisms, claims to diffuse within that broader media ecology. It’s an open-ended investigation into what anti-authoritarian radicalism is in the 21st century.
LH What about the mainstream – do you care who’s on Newsnight, for instance?
JB I didn’t use to, but it matters who does that kind of thing. You have to go into it thinking, “What can I use this for, what can I say in this space that will work?” Because what often goes horrendously awry is when people on Any Questions or something, go, “Mmm, well, if you read the third volume of Marx’s collected shopping lists, you’ll discover that actually the commodity form...”
AB There’s a huge thirst for these ideas, not just from the radical left – you’ve got anarcho-capitalists, lots of people want these debates about things like crypto currencies, forms of exchange beyond commodity production. And a lot of the identity politics so castigated by the organised left bridges groups you’d never expect.
JB One thing about Resonance, the listenership is really diverse; you have a bunch of strange people around London listening! Generally, it’s the reaction outside the left that’s most rewarding – the thinking’s original and inventive. It’s important to respect listeners or readers enough to construct an argument honestly, rather than rely on preconceptions or on making people look just ridiculous.
LH You’re quite self-questioning on the show too – dissecting what went wrong in 2010, what can be learned from it...
JB A lot of people who are now 23, 24, have the sense of having lost, and feel there is almost something personal about the revanchism of the British establishment, and I think that’s interesting. If that kind of trauma can be mobilised, suddenly you have a movement of people who are relatively clear-headed about the likelihood of failure, but who also feel they have relatively little to lose.
AB There’s a great scene in a film by Elio Petri, The Working Class Goes to Heaven. A worker is persuaded by these autonomia activists and students to begin a wildcat strike. His wife leaves with his kid; his family breaks down. So he goes back to these students who are occupying a faculty somewhere, and he says, “I’ve done this! What do I have to do next?” And they go, “You can sleep with the comrades in the room next door.” He’s like, “What the fuck, is that all you’ve got to offer me?” When people take these risks, we need to have resources to look after them: lawyers, money, favourable press coverage. And there’s nothing sexy about tragedy when it’s for low stakes.
LH I guess you don’t think much of activism that resists making specific demands?
AB Demands are what bridge groups. You need to talk about living wage, a fundamental right to housing, rent caps... Imagine if you said to people, you don’t have to pay more than 50 pence for a cup of coffee, nobody can charge more, and they’re still making a massive profit. Fucking brilliant idea, why don’t we do that? Yeah, it’s price controls; we had those until the 1960s. In the mid-19th century, some anonymous working-class person was asked, “What’s Chartism?” And he said: “Four-hour working day, five pints and a lamb supper.” And in his head that’s what Chartism meant. It wasn’t the People’s Charter, annual parliaments – that was very technocratic, he didn’t understand that.
JB One big thing I think is not talked about enough is the technological competence to reduce labour, superseding alienated work. That term “alienation” isn’t just what moody 18-year-olds in Zone-Four suburbs feel. There’s an amazing line from [Ernst] Bloch: “As I walk down the street, I see in everyone’s faces that they are living elsewhere, they’re thinking about something else, and that thing is money.” And that’s the experience of everyday life, right? The desire to overcome alienated labour is so fundamental and so common, it makes me wonder what we’re missing in not being able to build on it.
AB There’s this piety coming from a lot of the anti-authoritarian left. What about luxury for all? What is communism? It’s about the end of scarcity, abundance for everybody. The idea that it’s coterminous with suffering and angst and poverty and living this awful life! Nobody’s going to buy that shit, and they shouldn’t. You live once, you know, enjoy it.
LH Do you feel London’s political culture is changing significantly?
AB Well, London’s unique. There’s a great quote about London property being the Bitcoin of oligarchs, this peer-to-peer currency the rest of us can’t really touch. At the same time, in the European and council elections, Zones 1 and 2 were, on first and second preferences, red and green. It doesn’t take much for those people to go dramatically left. I have a lot of hope for London, but not until the next crisis, not until interest rates go up. But England outside London – I’m not a Londoner, I’m from Bournemouth – I haven’t got any hope for, basically.
JB You sense, on the one hand, the immovability of the entire edifice; at the same time, it looks more rickety and contingent than it has for a long time. One of the major axes of political confrontation, especially in London but also other urban centres, is police violence and police racism. There’s really worthwhile, strong stuff happening around that. I did grow up in London, and I remember, post-millennium, after the decline of anti-capitalist movements, there was this long period of enervation. But I think people this time around have been more able to sustain a structural critique of the police. Partly because it’s been precipitated by a global economic crisis rather than abstract anti-globalisation stuff, so it’s been easier to connect the pieces.
LH What’s the plan for Novara? What do you think will happen in the next few years?
AB Alright, I’ll start with the world economy.
LH Alright then!
AB New labour markets to make things on the cheap are diminishing, so the cost of commodities is going to go up. There’s no next China. That’s a big challenge to Western elites; it means the return of class struggle to the global north over the next couple of decades. I think we’ll see the end of Europe as a place where capital can find returns. Capitalism can survive in India for a century, I’m certain of that, but Europe really is fucked. The UK will see a massive increase in interest rates, and it’s going to become a majority-minority country by the middle of the century, which has longterm implications. So those are the opportunities, the possibilities, and they’re absolutely massive, and we’ve got to meet them. For myself, I think that doesn’t mean working in the academy, it means doing something like Novara. But we need to grow to do what we want to do. There’s a magazine in Spain, Mongolia, that does investigative journalism – that’s a direction I’d love Novara to go in. Look at Andy Coulson: David Cameron may or may not be implicated in some way, but you can be damn sure his staff knew things. With proper critical journalism, the gun would be fucking loaded, the knives would be sharpened. We haven’t got that. I see a big future for Novara, because there’s just nothing else like it in the UK. I wish there was, I wish there were dozens of us. Maybe there will be at some point. §