Standing at the left-wing of the possible: in honour of Rosemary Bechler

Rosemary Bechler was an editor for openDemocracy, specifically Can Europe Make It? and founder member of DiEM25. She also edited several books of essays for the British Council and coordinated the partnership network of the Convention on Modern Liberty. She was a dedicated pluralist, democrat and European. She died  in November 2012 after a five-year struggle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Neal Lawson was asked to give a lecture in her honour on Sunday 21st January at the Marylebone Theatre.  Here is the text of the lecture. 

This is a deep and profound honour to be able to speak at this event today. 

I didn’t know Rosemary well – but I knew her well enough. I knew her through the editing work she did Open Democracy, and I knew her through the work she did with Yanis Varoufakis at DiEM-25.  What I knew was that Rosemary was whip smart, fiercely forensic, tough and determined. If I’m honest, and I try to be, I’d say I was a little in awe of her and just a tiny bit scared. 

But what Rosemary gave me, and what many women of her age and political disposition gave me, and give me, is the most precious of political gifts – the gift of hope.  Through her steel and her determination Rosemary gave you confidence.  With her, and people like her, by your side and most usually ahead of you, you knew eventually it was all going to be OK.  

With a team of  Rosemary’s we can and we will conquer the earth, not to rule it but to set it free, not to be the architects of that freedom but to be the facilitators of the immense and profound ability of everyone to be the individual, and most importantly, the joint authors of their lives.  

Everyone, in their own way, can be a Rosemary. And as we remember her, those really lucky enough to have known her really well, or like me to have enjoyed and benefited from her company more fleetingly, as she forensically edited your weak first draft article, or planned an intervention around Brexit and the good Europe we all crave to be part of, it fills us with optimism.

So, when I think of Rosemary what I think of is confidence and hope. And I want to say just a few words about those themes – inspired by Rosemary but also hopefully timely to where we are now.

Look, it’s always the best of times and the worst. Shut one eye and peer out into the murky gloom of a world riddled by conflict, runaway climate change, poverty and polarisation. Just at a very human level, people everywhere are both exhausted and disenchanted.  Exhausted with making ends meet, with trains and doctor’s appointments that never come. Disenchanted with politics and an establishment that says ‘no hope is better than false hope’, and which systematically destroys the lives of people living in tower blocks or working behind post office counters.  

Look across Europe and indeed the globe, it’s hard to see a left-wing party in office that has any transformative potential.  At best they cling to office in defensive mode and delay with only a brief respite the advance of a more brutal populism.  Really, who wants to get out of bed? 

Well, Rosemary always did.  Rosemary would tell us to shut that eye and open the other one. And when we do we see a very different world. One that is cracking on and building a good society where and how it can, leading a good life where and how it can. Against the odds, despite the system, people, marvellous, beautiful, creative, determined people, just like Rosemary are working away not just in the margins or in the cracks but everywhere from to bottom of organisations and society – trying more than anything just to be human. To be as kind and thoughtful as they can to themselves, to each other and to the planet we owe our existence to. 

Hope doesn’t come from talks or speeches or lectures, especially this one.  Hope comes from within us and especially between us.  Without being naive I’m lucky enough to see hope in the eyes of a growing band of corporate leaders who know their duty is at least as much to the planet as it is to profit. They have sons and daughters; they know what will happen to them if they don’t use their resources and forces to act now.  

I see hope in burgeoning sectors such as the B Corp movement who base their whole existence on the balance between equally deserving stakeholders – including the planet.  Or look at the growth of companies passed into the hands of its employees, who boost not just productivity but through the new power of ownership and the  muscles of true citizenship as workers but then their democratic place in Society as councillors and school governors. 

Look at people like Faheem Khan  who set up Future Leaders running a year-long free, accredited and award-winning leadership programme for Year 12/13 students and touching the lives of thousands of young people and showing them what is possible. Look to the Croydon New School that doesn’t just teach kids to be citizens, it makes them practice it every day in the school. Look at the work of Clare Richmond and her fellow Scavengers who can make everything out of what others see as nothing, the way mutual aid got so many of us through COVID, the inspiring people who put their lives on the line for XR, workers standing up for the dignity of better pay and conditions.  From Mick Lynch to Alan Bates and Greta Thunberg, we are surrounded by stories of hope and change. 

Under every rock and round every corner hope springs eternal.  Our job, as Rosemary knew, is to create the political conditions in which these beautiful fireworks that light up the sky and show us what society and life can be like, don’t just as quickly return us to darkness and gloom. 

What we need is a new politics the turns these fireworks into floodlights – this is what Rosemary stood for. And I see hope here too. The way ideas like a four-day week, universal basic income and universal basic services move from the margins to the mainstream. And the penny is beginning to drop, that whatever it is you want; from stopping climate change to ending grotesque levels of inequality, from protecting human rights and civil liberties to building decent affordable homes for all – whatever it is you want – democracy is becoming a first order issue.  

To change society we have to change the system. 

My own organisation Compass has been reaching out to diverse campaign organisations making this point and it’s heartening to see organisations like Tax Justice UK, the Equality Trust, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Green New Deal Rising and others backing the campaign for deeper democracy. Just as the vast majority of Labour Party members and unions now do – a sea change is happening. Rosemary would be pleased. 

People everywhere know the system isn’t working and can’t work for them. Brexit and the still undiminished demand for Scottish independence, the desire to devolve power to the region and towns of England – all and more are manifestations of people wanting agency over their lives.

But our politics has to change. 

I was struck by a comment David Runicman recounted from a centre-left political gathering:  

‘Do you know why British politics is so acrimonious?’ he heard one man in a dark blue suit and pale blue open-necked shirt say to another, dressed just the same. ‘Because the stakes are so low.’ 

So, let’s raise them. Maybe there is some hope? In a rare bout of new year cheer, Sir Keir promised: “A realistic hope, a frank hope, a hope that levels with you about the hard road ahead.” 

So, let’s hold him to that.  

How can a new politics orientate us, galvanise us and energise us in the search for a good society, which by definition is one that knows it’s not yet good enough? That is the question of the day and for which I scramble for answers.

I’m haunted by Karl Marx’s line “that we make history, but not in conditions of our choosing”. 

The conditions that we have not chosen look increasingly to be chaotic. We live in a poly-crisis moment of climate change, fierce geo-political conflict, tech revolutions and polarising societies.

Neoliberalism, the creed that is brought so much of this on, stands guilty, both morally and evidentially. It can’t go on. Some big shift is going to happen. 

If ever we were at the point of Gramsci’s fabled interregnum, where the old is not yet dead and the new cannot yet be born, it is now. The future will either be imposed on us, or it will be negotiated by all of us. Strong leaders who tell us who to hate, or a stronger democracy that lets us decide our collective fate.  What is it to be? It is the poignancy of that looming choice that keeps me going and would have kept Rosemary going too. Because only by accepting the very real prospects of populist brutalism do we summon up the courage and audacity to head it off at the pass.

James Baldwin writes that “One discovers the light in darkness – that is what darkness is for”. And this from my greatest source of intellectual inspiration Zygmunt Bauman: 

“Like the phoenix, socialism is reborn from every pile of ashes left day in, day out, by the burned-out human dreams and charred hopes. It will keep on being resurrected as long as the dreams are burnt and the hopes charred, as long as human life remains short of the dignity it deserves and the nobility it would be able, given a chance, to muster”. 

So, what do we do – when in the words of Hans Magnus Enzensberger “Short term hopes are futile, but long-term resignation is suicidal”. 

Well, to echo and develop Marx but via Milton Friedman from a different political standpoint, we must recognise that “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

The crises are coming and we need to be ready. 

And to be ready we must practice what I would call a radical pragmatism – one that rejects simply the dictatorship of the proletariat or of parliament. That refuses the short cuts of just reform or revolution and builds strategically over the long term – putting the intellectual and organisational foundations, block by blocks in place, so that step by step we get stronger and bolder. 

In this we know three things: 

First, that we must confront capitalism – because, left to itself, it refuses to be humanised. 

Second, that this confrontation demands countervailing forces, yes in parliament but in the workplace, in civil society, in the media, academia and culture.  We must aspire to a hegemonic project in a War of Position that take us in, against and beyond our opponents. 

And third, that the only tool we have at our disposal in this struggle is democracy and the instrumental and intrinsic value it has – to lead to better outcomes and bring us fully alive as flourishing human beings. Like Rosemary, I locate myself at that pivotal point: at the left wing of the possible.  

In all this we must turn fear into hope. We see it all the time. I love the scene in Monsters Inc where Sully and Mike find out a child’s laughter creates more energy than its screams, that in Aesop’s fable it is the warmth of the Sun that wins out against the brutality of the wind.  Hope can triumph over fear. And people everywhere are trying to make it so. 

I think more than I should about the scenes in Close Encounters where they are all making the same mountain-like shape, all inspired by the same vision across the globe. We are all trying make out the contours of a good society and a good life by turning fear into hope.

And Bauman again: 

“If an optimist is someone who believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist is someone who suspects that the optimist may be right, the left places itself in the third camp: that of hope.” 

Rosemary stood for hope. 

I’ll end here by quoting Raymond Williams: “The test of true radical is to make hope possible – not despair convincing”

Rosemary Bechler was a true radical – may she be resting in peace and continue to inspire our thoughts and our deeds and give us that most precious of gifts – the gift of hope. 

Thank you for listening.  

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