The End of an Arc

The Combination began in December 2016, and we have decided to bring it to a conclusion of sorts, four years on. In the final three posts, below, Tanya Jones, Stephen Baker and I set out our reflections on these last four years.

The Twitter account (@Combination_ni) will remain active, the films will remain available on YouTube, and we may upload occasional posts in the future; but until further notice, we will no longer be posting regularly on this site.

Thank you for your company, and best wishes from everyone at The Combination.

Maurice Macartney

26 December 2020

The Joys of Combination

In the last post of the four year arc of The Combination, Tanya Jones debunks some ‘toxic and manipulative myths’ of ‘human badness’, and champions the ‘experience of working with others, for a common goal and the common good’.

As we end this particular combination of ideas and perspectives, words, images and sounds, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which people voluntarily combine for mutual and common good.  That includes, of course, the unions referenced by Maurice in our very first post, against whom the Combination Acts were deployed, but also campaigns against inequality, poverty, war and environmental destruction, as well as cooperatives, reconciliation groups, arts initiatives, citizens’ assemblies and the mutual aid responses to this year’s pandemic.  I’d like to suggest that, as well as the specific objectives of these groups, they also serve to combat three toxic and manipulative myths.  These myths, interrelated and shifting, are used, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, to stifle truth-telling voices and to stymie precious opportunities for change.

The first tells us that human beings are essentially bad.  This conjures up, of course, and especially for anyone who has lived in Northern Ireland, the specific Christian doctrine of original sin.  But both Catholic and Protestant iterations of that pernicious claim present potential solutions, however inhuman.  The secular version presents no hope. 

It co-opts the construct of the Anthropocene, which makes sense in purely scientific terms, to argue that climate catastrophe is the collective moral fault of humanity, which therefore deserves its impending doom.  Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital forensically dismantles this claim, showing how the hydrocarbon economy resulted from specific capitalist decisions, which were neither inevitable nor uncontested.  Nevertheless, the narratives persist, even intensify with the worsening crisis: this is our fault, whether we are minority world consumers or majority world parents, our greed and profligacy has brought us here, and only corporate technofixes can save our worthless skins. 

Similar stories are told about inequality and injustice, that they are the natural consequences of our fallen (or never elevated) nature.  If humans are incapable of more than racing to accumulate the most stuff and status, then, as the sententious Tories like to tell us, there will of course be ‘winners and losers’.  So the logic of meritocracy, ‘to he who has, more shall be given’, is as good as anything else, and a lot less trouble.

But the experience of working with others, for a common goal and the common good, shows this to be untrue.  No, we’re not perfect, and neither are our comrades, but we see reflected in others, along with our anxiety and mistakes, our real worth and agency.  There are conflicts within groups, of course, a choice of paths to the envisioned outcome, but rarely malevolence.  When we are let down, then we feel betrayed, yes, but that very feeling is evidence that we expected something better. 

The second myth, connected to the first, is that we can’t expect much of those with power, wealth or authority.  There are two versions of this: the patrician, that the rulers are doing a good job which the rest of us are too ignorant to recognise; and the populist, that politicians and experts are all corrupt anyway, so we might as well let the most egregious liar run the shop.  Again, experience of actual campaigning, on specific issues, gives us the tools to challenge these claims, and to interrogate those with power about the details of how they exercise it.  Many, maybe most, fall short of what we ideally want, but it is certainly not the case that they are all the same.  Our electoral systems need urgent reform, but it is a dangerous illusion to think that dismantling them altogether would in itself reduce the influence of fossil capital or monopolistic media.

And the third myth is that the general badness of humanity is concentrated in particular groups.  We know all too much about this one.  But again, the best remedy is actual experience, either directly, if the combination is inclusive enough, or through relationships of solidarity between different campaigns.  It is in these connections that we recognise both our own privilege and the fact that human rights and justice are not a zero sum game.

In their focus on the specific, on particular and achievable reforms, voluntary groups and campaigns give us invaluable tools and measures, enabling us honestly to assess ourselves and our representatives. In order to keep our activism alive, through hard and harder times, we need to reiterate generosity and kindness, towards our own human fragility, our group dynamic, and the peopled world beyond. More than this, we need constantly to challenge our susceptibility to the myths of human badness.  Our small campaigns, our shared initiatives, may be more important than we realise, giving us opportunities not only to strive for a better world, but to model it in miniature, and to assert the reality of original virtue. 

We need our combinations, and not only on winter nights.

Tanya Jones

26 December 2020

Cheer up! The class struggle goes on.

Stephen Baker reflects on the four years of The Combination, and looks ahead to a renewed struggle to bring about a just transition to a more democratic, equitable and sustainable political economy.

It’s hard to know where to start or what to remember. Was there a long 19th century and a short 20th century? Were the 80s brought to a close by the fall of Margaret Thatcher or the election of Tony Blair? What defines an epoch or an era? What marks a generational shift? Are we at the end of something or the beginning, or in the midst? When the Conservatives were returned to power in December last year, I was inconsolable. I’d worked out, in these pages, that I’d lived most of my life under a Tory government, and I couldn’t see any end in sight. Fortunately, I was snapped out of my despair by a friend – a communist – who told me in no uncertain terms to “Cheer the fuck up! It’s the struggle. It never ends.”

Anyone involved in the working class movement and the struggle for socialism expects defeats and setbacks. For me, in my lifetime, there is little that compares to the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1985. Workers striking to defend their jobs, family lives and communities, were demonised by the Prime Minister as ‘the enemy within’. They were beaten by the police in front of the media that for its part acted as the establishment’s slobbering mouthpiece. They were let down by a Labour leadership that vacillated as the government broke the back of Labour’s working class constituencies. The end of the strike left the way clear for the continued and dreadful transformation of the UK under Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. For sure, the forces of neoliberalism that Thatcher spearhead in Britain have been deployed with much more murderous intent in other parts of the world. Still, the miners’ return to work was a serious blow to the labour and trade union movement, and we’ve all lived with its bitter consequences ever since. Another world is always possible, but you can draw a line, or set a course, from the miner’s strike to Brexit, along which lies the steady erosion of social solidarity, and the rise of free market zealotry, post-imperial melancholia and nationalist hubris.

When, at the fag-end of 2016, Tanya Jones, Jenny Muir, Maurice Macartney and I met in a Newtownards café, we must have cut disconsolate figures, ruminating on Brexit and Trump. The Combination grew out of that meeting. We had grand plans then, but regular commentary is hard to sustain, and I think it’s fair to say that Maurice’s contribution has been the most substantial. His conception of ‘the crank’ – a politics and economics that elevates the rich by exerting enormous pressure down onto the many beneath its heel – is one that he pursued on this site: writing about it, and talking about it, and making a number of wonderful short films. The crank is a perfect metaphor for our current system. Not only does it crush people, it elevates the rich up, up and away, to a height were the devastation beneath them is always receding into insignificance. It’s a legacy of Thatcher and her neoliberal crusaders, and they’ve been turning the crank handle in one direction for decades now. Even when the system crashed in 2008, the crank’s terrible pressure never let up. It got worse – and so a reaction was always due.

Austerity hastened the Scots to the polls for an independence referendum in 2014, and although 55 percent voted to remain in the UK, it still feels like the tide is going out on the union. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a mild mannered but nonconforming Labour back-bencher won the party’s leadership election. He only just made it onto the ballot paper, reaching the required 35 nominations with two minutes to spare before the deadline. He was helped by parliamentary colleagues who never dreamed of voting for him and didn’t believe he had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Corbyn’s inclusion in the contest was to patronise the Left and give the public appearance of a vibrant internal debate. His victory and the popularity of his anti-austerity message surprised New Labour’s panjandrums, so much so that they demanded a rematch, which Corbyn won again the following year, with even more of the popular vote. When Labour came close to winning the 2017 election, the British establishment, spooked, employed their darkest arts to break Corbyn. Some within Labour even tried to sabotage the party’s chances of winning the election, scandalously preferring Boris Johnson to their own leader.

Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party wasn’t the only vote greeted with amazement. What brought Maurice, Jenny, Tanya and I around a café table in December 2016 wasn’t just the result of the EU referendum in June, it was also the election of Donald J Trump that December. I can’t speak for my three comrades, but neither Brexit nor Trump came as a huge surprise. Shocking, yes, but not incredible. Neither were departures of any sort, nor where they mere aberrations, but rather a working out of things that had gone before. Trump’s election, for instance, was in many ways a product of ‘the swamp’ he proposed to drain. His belligerent ignorance and braggadocio made him perfect for an age of rolling 24 hour news and social media. Certainly, the news channels and press couldn’t take their eyes of him, and awaited his every proclamation on Twitter like starving dogs anticipate red meat. Trump was pure Regeneron to financially ailing news organisations, and in turn they gave him a spotlight. A star was born… or born again because, after all, Trump was already a celebrity. His bombastic, brusque television personality transferred easily from light entertainment into the political sphere. Who was it said, “Politics is show-biz for ugly people”? The election of Trump dragged into the daylight something that had been true for a long time but few cared to mention; that liberal democracy – always limited – has gradually been emptied of political substance and reduced to light entertainment.

Brexit, on the other hand, had no celebrity stardust. As becomes an uprising of petit English nationalism, its mouthpiece, Nigel Farage, had the demeanour of a pub bore, and he could be found regularly propping up the bar on the BBC’s Question Time, playing to its patrons, drunk on self-pity and injured national pride. His shtick was relatively simple: Britain was being prevented from fulfilling its historic, glorious destiny. Greatness in all perpetuity was being denied, and someone or something had to be to blame. Blame couldn’t possibly lie within, at the UK’s undemocratic core, so it had to have something to do with invading immigrants, slippery foreigners and historic European enemies. Britannia was bound in chains that had been fashioned in Brussels. If such imperious concerns could be hitched to common discontent that would be a potent political force.

And, indeed, the rabid-right have also been attuned to the dull thrum of public disgruntlement. It’s that you can hear if you put your ear to the ground beyond the salons of Westminster. It’s the sound that comes from people sick of national humiliation in prolonged theatres of war. Sick of the lies that had ignited these conflagrations. Sick of the political class that had perpetuated these lies. Sick of the media that spread them uncritically. And sick of a system that rewarded and rescued incompetent and corrupt financiers, while allowing the economies that sustained ordinary people to whither.

Now our sickness is literal. When the COVID pandemic struck, an emaciated health service was at grave risk of being overwhelmed. Welfare provision that had been to cut the bone and made punitive left workers facing penury. Anti-trade union legislation (never repealed) exposed employees to dangerous working environments, leaving them vulnerable to infection. On top of all of this, the UK and the US lacked the intellectual wherewithal to cope with a challenge that required co-ordinated, collective action. Ideologically committed to aggressive individualism, the instinct of those in power was to go for herd immunity, which meant, quite literally, the survival of the fittest. That particular free-market fantasy was quickly punctured by the dawning realisation that the economy wouldn’t be immune to a public health crisis of this size. For in truth, there simply is no such thing as a free-market. The so-called free market imprisons and immiserates, while at the same time it needs to be enforced and periodically rescued. On this occasion, government was always behind the pandemic curve it proposed to flatten, with interventions that were too little, too late. There have been, to date, over 70,000 COVID deaths in the UK, and over 330,000 in the US. We could say that all the wrong people were in charge at precisely the wrong time. But can you imagine an era that our current political leaders would be equal to? The blithering and bellicose men that appeared like purulent sores across the globe are symptoms not physicians.

Trump’s eviction from the White House and the UK’s departure from the EU brings nothing of any great significance to a conclusion. So, while The Combination may be calling it a day, there is still no end in sight. “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” It’s never very fashionable to mention it, but the class struggle goes on, except now it’s also a struggle for a just transition from a fossil fuel economy to green new deal, and a struggle to defeat the white supremacists that can be counted among the system’s most doughty defenders. But it’s also a struggle to build democracies, societies and political organisations that can deliver that transformation. The ones we have at the moment are not fit for purpose. If there is one thing that I have concluded in the four years of The Combination, it is that political parties that assume the centre-left have neither the will nor capacity to transform anything. More than this, they actually prohibit transformation. The UK Labour party’s dalliance with radical politics is over. It prefers respectable opposition to principled struggle. The Irish Greens averted change in Ireland to facilitate a coalition of the old firm. Its reward will be not a just transition but cycle lanes. To borrow from Ralph Miliband, these parties “play a major role in the management of discontent.” They curtail and channel dissent away from anything genuinely transformative, especially at the very moment when it’s most needed and desired. They effectively save the system that their political fortunes and lives depend upon.

It’s not as if we lack the ideas or resources to implement a just transition. What stands in our way is the ruling class that has always considered the lives of its subordinates as superfluous – mere collateral damage in the remorseless accumulation of private wealth. It is the class that regards working people as infinitely malleable and mobile. The class that colonised, cleared and enclosed the land, and today gentrifies cities, dispossessing working class residents in the process. The class that during the Irish famine preferred the preservation of laissez-faire principles to feeding the starving, and latterly contemplated herd immunity in the face of a pandemic. The class that built workhouses and gave us Universal Credit, and stands by as people freeze to death on the streets at Christmas for want of a home. The class that looks for a business opportunity in every catastrophe. The class that is so spectacularly elevated by the crank economy it has lost all sight of the Earth that it is burning beneath it.

This is how things stand. This is where we start. This is what we need to remember. Once more: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Let’s act accordingly.

Stephen Baker

26 December 2020

The Arc of the Combination bends towards…a conclusion

Maurice reflects on the four years of The Combination, and begins to bring things to a conclusion.

The first blog-post on the Combination site was posted on Christmas Day 2016, and the first video, largely shot with my pocket camera between sessions of a two-day training course in Brussels, was posted on 31 December of that fateful year.

Fateful, of course, because, as I said in that film, Brussels was still recovering from the terrorist attacks that killed over 30 people earlier in the year; it was the year of the Brexit vote; and it was the year Donald Trump ascended to the US Presidency.

Four years on, the Brexit process is now stumbling to its uncertain conclusion, and the chaotic tenure of Mr Trump, deny it as bombastically as he likes, is now coming to its tragi-comic end. It seems an appropriate time to look back and reflect on the ideas we have published on this site, and to bring it, too, to a sort of conclusion.

One of the reasons we started the site in the first place was that there seemed to be a pressing need for a space to think through what the rise of Trump and the appeal of the Brexiteers meant. That is, we set out not to follow the ins and outs of the Brexit process, or to think about Trump himself as such, but to think about the causes of Trump, and of the upwelling of a strong current of xenophobic politics that produced calls to ‘take back control’, ‘reclaim our sovereignty’, or ‘make America great again’.

The Combination was envisaged as a space where we could think these things through from a Green, left-of-centre, social justice perspective (a combination we came to call the Red, the Green and the Rainbow in, for example, After this, the Great Revaluation), and from the perspective of our corner of the world – Northern Ireland, or the north of Ireland, or…whatever you prefer.

There is, today, no shortage of such spaces for thought across the island of Ireland. Trademark in Belfast have hit a new and productive phase with their ‘Workers Guide to Everything’ podcasts, and a range of others from across the island are now digging deep into ‘red’ and ‘green’ issues – for example, with podcasts such as the ABCs of Green Politics; the Echo Chamber; and the Week at Work team. The Greens in Ireland, north and south, can now look to the Just Transition Greens for a blend of red and green, and there has been an upsurge in interest in issues like community wealth building and the cooperative movement over the last few years.  And of course, in the wake of the global pandemic, innumerable organisations are thinking about how to ‘build back better’, rather than go back to a ‘normal’ that caused the problems in the first place.

So, some 80,000 words later (to say nothing of the videos and podcasts) this seems as good a time as any to bring the arc of The Combination to ground.

My Combination colleagues Stephen Baker and Tanya Jones will have their own last reflections, but I think it is fitting that my last contribution to this phase of The Combination (other than this post) is The Spirit Cellarman, my most personal film yet, shot on a slightly better camera, and even using a tripod and lapel mic this time.

Fitting not just because it is personal, but also because of the subject matter. When I went to Skye in September, it was primarily to look into the history of one branch of my family, something I knew very little about until a year or so ago, when we began to look into the records. But in doing so, I also began to learn about the context – specifically, the context that might help explain why a lad born to Gaelic-speaking crofters of two acres in a remote village on the Isle of Skye might go on to raise a family in Belfast.

Not that he went to Belfast directly: Neil Lamont, my Great Great Grandfather, left Skye in the 1870s to move to Glasgow, where he would learn his trade as a distillery storekeeper (or ‘Spirit Cellarman’ as it is given on his marriage documents), and where he would marry another Skye emigrant, Mary McLeod, and start a family. It is not until 1890 that we can definitely place them in Belfast.

This was not the first example of migration in the family: both Neil’s Grandfather and his Father in turn had been born in the Parish of Bracadale on Skye, the former, John, in 1769, the latter, Donald, in 1814. But by the time Donald gets married to Mary MacKinnon in the 1840s, the family has moved to Lorgill on the west coast of the Duirnish peninsula; and by the time Neil first appears in the records, in the 1850s, they have moved again, to Unish, at the northernmost end of the Waternish peninsula.

It is impossible to say precisely why they moved twice within a couple of decades, but it is perhaps significant that Bracadale was cleared of its tenants in the 1820s, and that Lorgill is also known to have been cleared a little later. This, after all, was the era of the Clearances in the Highlands and islands; a period in which those who owned little or nothing – the crofters and cottars who paid rent to the landowners – were moved, sometimes forcibly, off the land they had tended sometimes for generations, in order to make way for more economically efficient sheep farms, and other more commercially viable uses.

You can watch the film here, but I’d like to draw out three elements to bring this phase of the Combination towards a conclusion.

1. The Bridge to Scotland

The idea of building a bridge to Scotland, perhaps from Larne in County Antrim, perhaps from Donaghadee in County Down, has been kicking around for some time, and seemed to pick up steam around the beginning of 2020. If the Government do find the tens of billions necessary to build it, and can overcome the considerable technical difficulties, they might just finish it in time to bridge the gap between Northern Ireland – or the north of Ireland – and the Scottish Republic, or whatever an independent Scotland chooses to call itself. Perhaps not quite what some Unionists, who support the plan as a way to consolidate the Union, might have in mind.

But the connection to Scotland I have in mind is not that of a (literal) bridge. Rather, the thread I draw from what I have learned in and around my trip to Skye is that the connection between the two areas is more complex, and rather richer, than the reductive binaries that dominate our politics allow. Richer, for instance, than the vision of ex-Councillor Jolene Bunting, who recently fundraised for a trailer to be towed around Carrickfergus proclaiming ‘Ulster Scots For Trump’ (and also Ulster Scots against the Black Lives Matter movement and ‘Climate and Covid Alarmism’, not coincidentally).

It’s one of the most extreme examples I can think of, but it’s not the only attempt to bind ‘Ulster Scots’ to a particular, exclusive, politics. It is not particularly controversial to note that the ‘Ulster Scots community’ tends to be associated with the ‘Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist (PUL) community’, in rather the same way that the Irish language tends to be associated with Irish nationalism or Republicanism.

For me, the discovery even within my own family history of bilingual children of Gaelic speaking crofters (themselves given as ‘Gaelic’ in the 1881 census) who came as economic migrants to live in the Connswater area of East Belfast, rather complicates the idea of the ‘Ulster Scots’ – or should that be the Scots-Irish? – as anything like a monolithic, homogenous ‘community’, let alone one with anti-migrant politics.

Could we explore the possibilities opened by those complexities now, in a way that does not get squeezed out into essentially one of an opposing pair of pre-existing, conceptual shapes by the binary reduction machine that still dominates our political discourse? Could we begin to expand and explore the sense of the complex weave of our common heritage, towards which we may all be set at different angles, but which is nevertheless a common plane upon which we could all stand?

This may be particularly urgent given that the binary reduction machine will be working overtime in this coming year, marking, as it does, the centenary of Northern Ireland, or the partition of Ireland, again, as you will. It’s a safe prediction, by the way, that you will be able to tune in and hear the gears of that machine grind, live, on the Nolan show on the BBC.

Just as significantly, a metaphorical bridge to a perhaps newly independent Scotland, among other places, may help us learn to adjust to and rise to the challenges of life beyond the era of Empire and of the 19th Century Nation State, to find new ways of relating to our neighbours – wherever those neighbours happen to be, geographically, in the world.

 That is one thread I would like to tease out.

A second has to do with the concept of the Clearances, or clearance itself.

2. Clearance as key mechanism of the crank economy

Throughout the four years of the Combination, I have returned again and again to the concept of the ‘crank economy’. This is an image intended to sum up all the cogs and mechanisms operating on the dynamic flows of the global political-economy such that power and wealth tends to be cranked vertically upwards, to a relatively small number of people at the top, getting purchase to do so by putting pressure downwards, both on the people with the least wealth, and on the living planet itself.

 Learning about the Clearances while looking into the history of the Highlands and Islands, I could not help but conclude that ‘clearance’ is a fundamental mechanism of the crank.

It’s not just about moving the people bodily off this or that stretch of land – though politics is always, in the end, about bodies. It is also that along with (and as a bid for justification of) the bodily clearance goes a conceptual clearance, a shift from a relation between clan chef and clan, along with the land to which they all belong, to the relation of property owner to disposable property; from relating to my neighbour as a neighbour – one whom I ‘bide near’ – to relating as landlord to tenant, one to whom I owe no obligations beyond those inscribed in the contract.

Once you have established those relations in your mind, it is not all that hard to countenance turning your land over to sheep instead of people, or to creating a deer shooting range, conveniently free of crofters, to which you can invite people of your own class for purposes of recreation.

3. Democratic Dùthchas

 That said, the clan system that was largely cleared out of the way, overturned by the processes of modernisation and commercialisation cranking up throughout the 19th Century, was nothing to romanticise. It would have been a pretty tough existence, wintering out in the hills and valleys of Skye, for a start; and moreover, the clans were forever fighting each other, claiming and ceding territory like small-scale empires.

But there was something about the way, within each clan at any rate, the people related to each other and to the land that I think has rich lessons for us today. The Scottish Gaelic concept of dùthchas is said to be untranslatable, but as I understand it, this term for the way people were set towards each other speaks of a sense of belonging and of mutual obligation. A belonging together, and to the land; a set of bonds that are distinctly different from – to use Angela Carter’s evocative phrase – the cold white meat of contract. ‘Belonging’ and ‘property’ are two very different modes of relating to things.

Thinking about all these threads, I can see that they stretch right back through the films and posts of The Combination, like ligaments through a body. Perhaps appropriately: after all, we have been talking all along about bonds and binding, ways of tying ourselves to each other – religion, obligation, allegiance. In short, ways to combine.

All history is the history of combinations of one sort or another. The trick is to work out what it is that binds people together in this way rather than that way – into mutually hostile clans, say, or any other form of mutually exclusive denomination, rather than as people who, for all their differences, can more or less nonviolently share the same place, living on the same plane as one another, or even working together towards a common goal.

What prevents people from combining in common?

One answer we have already touched on: denominations whether of clan or creed, which like vertical blades come down to cut ties, severing the horizontal bonds between us – you and I.

Because a ‘denomination’, or a nation, or a race, or a civilisation, or any other apparently natural, simply given group ‘identity’ is produced by processes of identification, by processes of denomination which project ‘a denomination’ (a collective ‘identity’ as if it were already there, and as if you already simply either belonged to it or not, were either one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’, and as if the question of allegiance had therefore already been decided. You simply are one of ‘us’, so you owe this (your denomination) your allegiance. Any act we, the community representatives, perceive to be against the community will be treated as an act of betrayal.

Policing the borders of such a purportedly self-identical group always takes a lot of work. A lot of signs, a lot of flags, a lot of graffiti perhaps, a lot of reiteration, and a lot of implied or explicit threats of violence against outsiders or (worse) traitors.

All that work is only necessary, however, because it is in fact possible to form bonds of allegiance in other ways. You don’t need to share an identity with someone to form a bond with them. In fact, it is only because the two (or more) of you are different that you can come together as a combination in the first place – otherwise you’d just be a collection (it’s tempting to say troupe) of clones, with nothing to say to each other you didn’t already know.

Let’s go back to the Highlands and islands.

Interestingly, it was not this clan or that clan that was cleared from the land, nor even clans as such who were cleared: it was the commoners, whatever their clan, the crofters and cottars; and it was the common from which they were cleared.

It is possible, I would argue, to conceive of a democratic dùthchas, one which restores the bonds that had to be severed to produce the disposability of disposable property, by learning to see at last, in the face of a global environmental and inequality crisis, that we are all commoners, and on the one common.

To conceive of it is, of course, just the first step. After that comes the hard work of building it.

That’s at least one possible starting point for an answer to the question that has shaped my reflections, at any rate, throughout the four years of this site:

How do we best learn to live together, for all our differences, as nonviolently as possible on this our one and only planet, and in this our corner of it?

There are other possible starting points, and other paths, but as we bring this period of The Combination to a close, I intend to take that path and see where it leads me, in an attempt to bring all these thoughts together in a longer format.

The Combination won’t go away. It will still be here as a repository; I’ll still be posting on Twitter; and we may even pop up from time to time to publish an occasional blogpost if the need arises.  But we won’t be posting regularly or frequently.

I hope that at some point next year I will have collected my thoughts sufficiently to set them all out at length, and in some semblance of order – so there will at least be a post about that.

But this, finally, is the ante-penultimate Combination blogpost as such, to use a bit of a Sir Humphreyism. My Combination colleagues Stephen Baker and Tanya Jones also have some last words to add, and I’ll post those shortly to bring things to a close.

For now, though, I hope you have a great Christmas; I hope that 2021 is a distinct improvement on its predecessor; and I thank you for your company.


Maurice Macartney

22 December 2020

The Spirit Cellarman

In his most personal film to date, Maurice looks at ‘clans, clearances and commoners’ while on a visit to Skye in search of family connections.

Maurice Macartney

14 December 2020

An act of imagining

Tribeca’s banal vision of Belfast, says Stephen Baker, should rouse us to imagine something better.

Screenshot from a slick promo website

The news that Belfast City Council’s planning committee has approved Castlebrooke Investments’ proposals to develop ten acres of the city between Royal Avenue and the Cathedral Quarter has been greeted with dismay by campaigners who argue that the plans are a disaster for the city centre.

The objections of opponents to the so-called Tribeca development are on the grounds that it will damage the architectural heritage of the city; it lacks provision for much needed social housing; and it will lead to a loss of public space. Indeed, the project’s mix of offices, retail space and residential schemes – all proposed in a pre-COVID world – assume ‘business as usual’ in the future.

The Save CQ campaign, described the Tribeca proposal as “fundamentally flawed” and went on: “We raised a number of planning policy violations and misrepresentations of key information in planning reports in our deputation to the committee, but it seems that higher political priorities were at work here.

“The current scheme relies heavily on Grade A offices and one bedroomed residential accommodation – the former which is likely to go the same way as the retail sector and the latter which is unsustainable if we want to create a resilient city.”

In short, the city is being sold from beneath the people who live and work there, and shaped in ways they have little say in.

Proponents of the Castlebrooke’s plans argue that the £500m investment will create 600 jobs during construction and a further 1,600 when it is finished. But this is speculative, and dependent upon a move back into the city on the part of workers and their employers, who may decide post-COVID that supporting coffee chains and bistros is not a good enough reason to concentrate their operations in urban centres with high rents and health risks.

But Tribeca was always a dubious proposal, part of a process of urban privatisation and gentrification that claims space for affluent users. Its very name is an attempt to establish a positive association with the Tribeca area in New York, a place once associated with industrial buildings and labour, now transformed into one of hip loft-living, trendy boutiques and restaurants. The Castlebrooke film, shared on social media, promoting the Tribeca proposals gives the game away. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth looking at.

Constructed as a sort of ‘day in the life if a city’, the film is a montage of dynamic urban images that stand for thriving, contemporary lifestyles, associated with residential living, working and leisure. Its overarching theme is the convergence of the global and the local, communicated in the concluding line of the voice-over – ‘You are international heart: you are Belfast soul’, a line delivered by northern Irish-born actor Jamie Dornan, as an international celebrity, emblematic of Belfast’s global reach. On the surface it’s a vibrant and attractive vision of a future city. But look closer, because the devil is in the detail, and what lies there is the imagining of an explicit set of class relations – cheerful locals whose job it is to service an affluent, global professional class; and an urban milieu in which that class can work, play and live, seemingly spared bland globalisation by the provision of local ‘colour’.

This is obvious in the conspicuous references to Guinness, Belfast baps, Ulster fries and the craic. On the other hand, conspicuous by their absence, there are no children or elderly people – for they serve no economic purpose.

Indeed, any notion of dependency and infirmity would require the inclusion of public services or civic amenities, such as health care, education or welfare, but none of this fits into the corporate vision of servile locals, bustling commercial life and middle class affluence and mobility.

It is a corporate fantasy version of Belfast cleansed of its history, culture and politics, or as Harcourt Developments, the company behind the Titanic Quarter put it, Belfast is ‘a pleasingly blank canvas’ for redevelopment. It is a dire way to conceive of any place in which generations have lived, worked, loved and fought over. Effectively, Belfast City Council has outsourced the job of imagining the city to greedy, grasping corporate interests.

The question, then, is whether collectively we can see our way to a better Belfast; an alternative to the corporate craving to reduce us all to the most culturally banal, politically anodyne and atomised versions of ourselves. Can we conceive of a city built on class solidarity; on reciprocity; cooperativeness; social and environmental sustainability; open and generous in its temper; as politically passionate as it is principled?

This is, first of all, an act of imagining. But that’s how we make a start.

Stephen Baker

4 September 2020

Interdependence Day

August?!?…tomorrow’s the 4th of July!

These words, as you know, are taken from the response of Mayor Vaughn of Amity, in the film Jaws, to police Chief Martin Brody, who had advised him to close the beaches, just before the biggest celebration in the American calendar.

Here’s the full exchange:

Chief Brody: Larry, Larry, if we make an effort today, we might be able to save August.

Mayor Vaughn: August?!? For Christ sake, tomorrow’s the 4th of July and we will be open for business. It’s gonna be one of the best summers we’ve ever had. Now, if you fellas are concerned about the beaches, you do whatever you have to, to make them safe. But those beaches will be open for this weekend.

This scene, depicting, as it does, a tussle between the desire to protect people from a deadly natural threat and the drive to get businesses back open (now why does that sound familiar?), is 45 years old this year.

That the exchange takes just before Independence Day makes it all the more pointed.

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate their “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”, as it says in the Declaration of Independence, and I suppose the tussle set out above illustrates that, well, you can’t have much liberty or pursue much happiness if you don’t have, you know, the first one.

But there’s another bit of the Declaration – which, remember, goes back a good two centuries even before Jaws – which strikes a curious note in the contemporary context: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

Who is the ‘we’ that speaks here? All men? All men?

In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement surely the only ‘self-evident’ truth is that America has never – never ­– lived up to its own inaugural promise, has defaulted on its promissory note, as Martin Luther King put it. So really tomorrow ought to be a moment of self-reflection. But it’s hard to imagine the MAGA crowd, whose demigod even tonight is moving his slow thighs towards Mount Rushmore, doubtless scrutinising the rock face for a suitable niche – hard to imagine them in a self-reflective mood.

And it’s the same over here.  When people talk about their national heritage, it gets turned into a partisan issue, the binary reduction machine gets cranked up, and before you know it all self-reflection is self-defenestrated.

But it’s curious how people’s identification with their ‘nation’ (or a projected, carefully cropped image of it, at any rate) is not only partisan, but partial in another sense.

People tend to identify with, even taking a share of the credit for, the ‘good’ parts of the nation’s history. The heroic parts.  The shameful bits are either ignored or externalised: ‘that was not really us, but some outside agitators…’; or it’s turned on its head, and anyone who merely reminds people of the shameful bits (how dare they!) is accused of being a traitor – or an outside agitator.

This is closely related to the urge to purge, the Farageist, Stephen Yaxley Lennon school of nationalism by exclusion. To go back to Independence Day – the film this time – Farageists tend to identify with (or see themselves as sidekicks to) the heroic President who personally leads troops in a defence of ‘freedom’ against alien invaders, thus uniting the nation behind him.

It’s not that they, the Farageists, the MAGA hats, cleave only to the positive in the nation with which they identify, it is that only a certain set of actions are permitted to be viewed as positive, and thus appropriated as ‘our’ actions. It’s all a bit male, it’s all a bit…violent.

And even when it’s not violent it’s selective: for instance, as David Olusoga notes in his outstanding Black and British, many in the UK are proud of Britain’s role in abolishing the slave trade; few are as keen to advertise that the same country enslaved more Africans than anybody else, all the way up to that point.

But it’s not just that people don’t like admitting the shameful parts along with the good. It’s a matter of emphasis too.

For instance, there’s a difference between those who, referring to the 2nd world war, think Britain fought against Nazism and those who think ‘we beat the Germans‘. Not that ‘we’ did anything, you and I – at least I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t born until over 20 years after the war, and one year after ‘the’ World Cup, for that matter.

And another thing: if it’s about celebrating great national achievements, it seems strange that the Farageists don’t embrace, say, the gathering of some thirty or forty thousand Chartists on Kennington Common in 1848, to demand democratic reform; or those who before them were struck down at Peterloo; or the cooperative pioneers in Rochdale, or the Suffragettes, or those who combined to create the international trade union movement. Strange omissions, if national pride is really your thing.

So many exclusions. But then, that may be exactly the point of the Farageist, MAGA movement: it’s more about excluding others than combining with them in solidarity. After all, you can’t admit any kind of dependence on others if you are to be a proudly independent (male) member of a proudly independent nation, after all.

But of course, you are – dependent on others, I mean. From the moment you throw off your cotton* sheets, and tip sugar* in your coffee* to the moment you unbutton your shirt* for bed, your life and the lives of others are intimately interwoven.

*Think of the history of all these goods; think of the conditions of those who produce them today.

So, I propose that today, the day before Independence Day, we pause, reflect, think about the failure to live up to the promise of equality whichever side of the Atlantic you come from, and declare 3rd July Interdependence Day.

Maurice Macartney

3 July 2020

UPDATE: 4 July 2020

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe when I open the news websites this morning, I’ll find Donald Trump will have given a speech as generous and inclusive as the moment demands at his Mount Rushmore event last night, acknowledging the oppression and violence of the past and calling everyone to work together, shoulder to shoulder, as equals in the task of bending the arc of history towards justice…

Oh, wait. “Trump Uses Mount Rushmore Speech to Deliver Divisive Culture War Message”, says the New York Times.

Turns out he positioned himself as strong defender of ‘the nation’s heritage’, saying:

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children…Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”

No mention, then, of the systemic racism and police violence that called forth the biggest wave of social justice action to sweep America since the hey-day of the Civil Rights movement.

Those campaigners are ‘angry mobs’ trying to wipe out our history, erase our values.

‘Our’ history? ‘Our’ values?

Who are ‘we’?

Maurice Macartney

4 July 2020

Cooperative mo(ve)ment

A message from Maurice about the cooperative movement.

The Mondragon cooperative HQ in the Basque Country

To mark Cooperatives Fortnight (22 June – 5 July 2020) we have released a podcast interview with Tiziana O’Hara of Cooperative Alternatives, and Ellie Perrin, who is writing a PhD thesis on the cooperative movement in Northern Ireland. Search for The CombOver podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or the other platforms, and subscribe to hear this and the rest of the series.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone to hear that The Combination is supportive of the cooperative movement – not least those of you who watched our short film about the history of coops, ‘The Zirimiri’. So it was a pleasure to talk to two well informed activists about workers’ cooperatives in Northern Ireland – and when lockdown ends, I intend to get out and make a film on the subject.

But recently, I came across another cooperative, this one farther from home, at least geographically speaking – though are those who make the very clothes on your back really all that remote?

Oporajeo is a worker-owned cooperative in the garment sector in Bangladesh, launched by survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster of April 24, 2013, to create good jobs in safe conditions in an otherwise precarious industry. They have continued to work ever since, ensuring the members get a decent wage and receive an equal share in any profits generated.

Their UK partners, and a key outlet for Oporajeo’s products, are No Sweat, a London-based organisation dedicated to combatting the use of sweat-shops. Visit their website here to find out more about them. And visit the page about their partners to find out more about Oporajeo, here.

It is an inspiring example of the sort of democratically owned companies we could help build if we had the political will to do so. But Oporajeo, like so many in this industry across the global south, are facing terrible headwinds in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Clean Clothes Campaign have documented cases of corporations, many of whom have their key outlets on our high streets here in Ireland and the UK, or in Europe and America, cancelling orders, in some cases even after production has commenced. The garment industry in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guatemala and elsewhere has been hit hard, with many workers being sent home without pay – and this in countries where there is little or no support from the public purse, and where there are a growing number of Covid-29 cases, and little testing.

Oporajeo, I understand, has cautiously reopened its factory after a period of lockdown during which they managed, somehow, not only to survive, but to make PPE for local health workers, and distribute thousands of meals to families in their neighbourhood.

The No Sweat team are hoping they will be able to pick up orders again soon. What can we do? Keep an eye out for developments on their website; follow them on social media (@No_Sweat), buy some T-Shirts if you can.

And learn about, and spread the word about, these sorts of people-powered, democratic alternatives to the dominance of the crank economy. We have to keep talking about these initiatives, telling each other about them, passing on details, reminding people that coops exist, that they work – think of Mondragon, with its tens of thousands of owner-workers and decades of success. Contrary to what we’ve repeatedly been told, there is an alternative.

So tell us more. Have you any other examples like Oporajeo? Or like any of the workers’ coops listed by Cooperative Alternatives or TradeMark here closer to home? Tell us, tell me. Tell a neighbour, a friend. If we keep doing that, then it’s just possible that eventually, like the fine rain of the Basque country – the Zirimiri – we will, all of a sudden, discover the idea of the democratic economy has soaked right in.

Maurice Macartney

27 June 2020

The smallest stream

A Tweet from Matha Raddatz showing the militarised occupation at the Lincoln Memorial, 3 June 2020

It has become a cliché to talk about the unprecedented times in which we live, but even by that standard this past fortnight has been staggering.

The anger that erupted after police officers killed George Floyd swept America, and then the world. President Trump’s response has compounded the outrage.

The President, who had just finished a Memorial Day weekend filled with golfing and insulting women when Floyd was killed, seized on destructive elements of the protests to declare some of the demonstrators ‘domestic terrorists’, claiming further that he would declare Antifa (which is not an organisation) a ‘terrorist organisation’ (which he cannot legally do).

It makes a telling contrast to his attitude to the heavily armed right wing militia group who occupied Michigan’s state capitol building earlier in May. They, apparently, were ‘good people’ – presumably much like the ‘very fine people’ who marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017.

The President went on to harangue state governors, telling them to crack down and ‘dominate’ the protests or he would send in the US military. His Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, urged them to ‘dominate the battlespace’.

He used his hand-picked, willing judicial henchman, Attorney General William Barr, without legal or constitutional authority, to order armed police, using clubs, pepper balls and smoke canisters to beat hundreds of peacefully demonstrating citizens – and reporters – off the streets in Lafayette Park, violating their First Amendment rights, just so that Trump, surrounded by the unqualified family members he has elevated to positions of high authority, could lumber to a church he clearly cares nothing about (members of the church were among those cleared out), for a publicity stunt with a Bible he has clearly never read.

And the smoke had barely cleared before he was invoking the name of George Floyd in an almost unbelievably crass celebration of an uptick in the economy.

The spirit of the man who died in an act of racist police violence, Mr Trump claimed, would hopefully be “looking down and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. (It’s) a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody…This is a great, great day in terms of equality”.

This, remember, is the President of the United States.

But it is important – literally vital – not to let the crudity of Trump’s utterances distract from the dangerous substance of his actions.

While everyone outside the Republican Party is staring open mouthed at this Id with an Ego problem, he and the GOP continue to fire inconvenient inspectors, dismantle environmental protections (while the globe continues to heat – this May was the hottest on record), appoint hand-picked Judges to the courts and above all, ignore mounting evidence of systemic racism and police brutality across America, rather than quickly move to implement policies to end it.

True, the protests, though largely peaceful, have been in some places destructive, and due attention must be paid to restoring damage to local businesses; but to make this the focus of condemnation is, frankly, perverse. I suspect those shouting loudest against the destructive side of the protests (including some misusing the term ‘nonviolence’) were also among the loudest voices shouting ‘outrage!’ and calling for the firing of Colin Kaepernick for going down on one knee during the national anthem. If you tried to silence Kaepernick, you’re in no position to call for nonviolent protest now.

If you really want to live by the principle of nonviolence, dismantle the conditions and structures of violence. Instead of selectively picking violent incidents to bolster calls for a militarised approach to clearing the ‘battlespace’, join the call for reforms such as those set out by the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ campaign.

Of course, all of this is primarily for the people of the US to address, but what can we do, here, on the other side of the Atlantic? Well, educate ourselves on the issues – heed the voices of African Americans direct from source, by watching and listening to Black Lives Matter material, for example, and consider carefully what parallels there are over here.

And get involved in justice campaigns, to join the fight to eliminate racism, overt and structural. Across the UK and Ireland there are many organisations working in this area, but here in Northern Ireland you could follow the recently launched Migrant and Minority Ethnic Council, Northern Ireland on Facebook, for example, or ACSONI, to find out what is happening.

But as we have said before on this website, all the problems we have talked about – racism, inequality, massive spikes of wealth for a few amid poverty for many, violence, the destruction of the living planet – are interconnected, so we must join the dots and combine the campaigns, the red, the green and the rainbow, to bring about a transformation on all the issues.

What we at the Combination have called the Crank Economy is directly evolved out of the global system of Empire and enslavement, which worked, among other things, to keep those who did the bulk of the work from sharing in the power by dividing them by ethnicity, by gender, by sexual orientation, by denomination, and by whatever other means necessary, including brutal violence.

You may think you have little to bring to this global struggle. But let there be no mistake: the Trump Administration has turned the civic arena into ‘the battlespace’, and is furiously stoking division, precisely because, like the Empires before them, they know there is nothing people cannot achieve in combination.

The smallest stream contributes its share to the power of the river into which it flows. Find a river flowing in the right direction, and join in.

Maurice Macartney

6 June 2020

#GreatRevaluation: Justice all down the chain

Following our call for a great revaluation in the previous post, Maurice highlights one area where such action is urgently needed: clothing supply chains

We need to revalue the contribution of those currently risking everything to keep us safe and well in these precarious times. But it is worth remembering that, for some people upon whom we depend in order to enjoy our way of living, times have long been precarious.

I have written before about those who make our clothes, workers in the supply chains of shops here in our towns, people who have, literally, given us the shirts on our backs through their hard, often ill-paid and dangerous labour. See this piece on the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, for instance (the seventh anniversary of which is rapidly approaching, by the way).

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting them too. The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an alliance of labour unions and NGOs, has warned that a number of big UK and EU High Street brands are responding to the current crisis by cancelling orders placed with clothing producers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and other countries in the global South.

The organisation says the Arcadia Group, “which owns brands including Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge, is estimated to have cancelled in excess of £100m of existing clothing orders worldwide from suppliers in some of the world’s poorest countries as the global garment sector faces ruin”.

Many of these orders were placed before the COVID-19 crisis reached its peak. In some cases, companies are issuing cancellation threats even where production of the items was already under way – that is, after the manufacturers had made major investments in materials for the job – or even completed, but not yet shipped.

One CEO of a well-known store reminded suppliers that his company had the legal right to cancel contracts ‘at any stage’, and then demanded discounts of up to 30 percent on goods in transit since 17 March.  “If you do not wish to accept the proposal” he added, “the order will be cancelled.”

Garment workers in the global south, already hard pressed at the best of times, are now facing a potentially devastating loss of jobs and income.

The Indonesian government estimates that up to 4 million Indonesians could fall into poverty and about 5 million could become unemployed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, as Yang Sophron, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, has said, Cambodia’s garment factories, “with cramped and closed-air conditions and workers passing clothes down production lines, share all the conditions for the virus to spread”.

Faced with this crisis, some companies have already stopped wages. CCC reports that workers in Bangladesh have protested for days in the streets, “demanding payment of wages for March, and protesting termination and layoffs of workers.

The state minister for labour warned that stern legal action would be taken against the factory owners who fail to pay workers before 16 April (today). But some of the workers have already been out of work since February and have not received wages since then.

Moreover, threatening the factory owners in the global south with stern action is not much use unless our companies in the north pay for work already undertaken.

If corporate social responsibility is to mean anything more than an empty slogan, we need to insist that our companies uphold workers’ rights. And if we expect to enjoy rights here in the global north, we have a responsibility to ensure they extend all the way down the supply chain, without which we could not enjoy the goods upon which our way of life is based – such as the very clothes on our backs.

To find out more and support the campaign, visit, or follow them on social media, @cleanclothes

Maurice Macartney

16 April 2020