What’s Auto/Biography (and history and society) Got To Do With It? | TURN LEFT and Make June the End of May

May 2, 2017

By Gayle Letherby

In his hugely influential, and still relevant, book – The Sociological Imagination (published in 1959) – the America Sociologist Charles Wright Mills argued: ‘neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both’.  So Mills was interested in the interconnection between (auto)biography, time (history) and place (society). He encouraged sociologists to look at the familiar and to see it afresh; to rethink the ‘things we take for granted’; ‘the things that everybody knows’. Part of this included a focus on the relationship between ‘personal problems’ and ‘public and political issues’ in that what is often presented as a personal responsibility or ‘failing’ is in fact of public and political concern. Just one example from Mills’ analysis:

[C]onsider unemployment. When, in a city of 100,000, only one man (sic*) is unemployed, that is his personal trouble and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed … the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals. (* forgive the sexist language Mills was writing 58 years ago).

For unemployment we might substitute homelessness, poverty, mental distress and so on. . . . Mills was clear that sociologists had a political responsibility to understand the social world and to try to make it better. In recent years, some within the discipline have attempted to work with Mills’ ideas and vision through a further focus on the relationship between autobiography and biography (Auto/Biography) to further explore people’s life experience. Through research and critical autobiographical reflection this work highlights the relationship between the self (as in I, myself) and the other (those close to us and others less so) whilst at the same time thinking about the auto/biographical with reference to (history) and place (society). The academic (and political) equivalent then of ‘no (wo)man is an island’.

On Saturday the 29th April 2017 Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech that made me reflect on Mills’ writing and on my own auto/biographical sociological imagination. Amongst other things the Leader of the Opposition spoke of his own history within politics and the history of British politics more generally and of past and present inequalities and injustices. Near the beginning of his speech he said (NB this speech in red throughout):

… something hangs in the air. It typically goes unspoken.

It’s the unheard story of why so many of us are scaling back our hopes and dreams in favour of just getting by.

It’s the reason why this country is unable to unleash its potential.

Because as families, communities – entire regions – we are all being held back….

Being held back means we can’t provide the life that we want for ourselves and those closest to us.

And it hurts. It makes people angry and worst of all resigned to the idea that nothing can be done about it. We end up blaming ourselves or each other.

This is life in modern Conservative Britain.

Making reference to his own motivation and history is unusual for Corbyn. As he said: And now for a sentence I’ve yet to utter in my political life. Enough about you, what about me’. Adding:

In the 34-years since I became a MP, I have been attacked for what I believe in. But it has not changed my core values – and sadly many of the problems we faced then are still with us.

In 1983, I stood up in Parliament for the first time and used my maiden speech to condemn deeply damaging cuts in public services and the NHS.

It’s a tragedy that I could make a very similar speech today and it would once again hold true… .

I appreciate Corbyn’s concern to focus on policies and plans but I know I was not the only one (see below for an example) to welcome this inclusion of the personal for it helps to make sense of his vision and puts the record straight with regard to at least a couple of myths. Corbyn who has, and continues to be, the brunt of so much criticism and personal abuse it’s a wonder to many how he manages to stay standing, let alone continue to work tirelessly for others, spoke of the need to challenge leadership. He referred to his willingness to being criticised, when the case is reasoned. Lack of challenge, he suggested, can lead to poor decision making and to arrogance. Thus:

Barely nine months into Theresa May’s premiership, there are clear warning signs that she and her closest advisers are slipping into that presidential bunker mentality.

Which is supported by the increasing evidence that Theresa May (and other members of the Conservative Party) are avoiding, as much as possible, any real engagement with voters:

‘She won’t take part in TV debates and she won’t talk to voters,’ Corbyn said. ‘Refusing to debate Labour in this election isn’t a sign of strength, it’s a sign of weakness. What is she afraid of? Voters deserve to know what political parties are offering.  In response a Conservative source said:  ‘The MP has visited cities, large and small and today she visited a rural community‘… ‘She has been in the three nations of Great Britain since the start of the campaign. In contrast Corbyn today ventured all of two miles from his own house to give a speech about himself. ‘https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/apr/29/theresa-may-campaign-event-in-scottish-forest-prompts-new-claims-she-is-hiding

(See also a short piece I wrote earlier today for more evidence of May’s reluctance to meet the public: http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/elections-taking-it-personally-prequel.html). I feel sure I’m not the only one surprised this spokesperson didn’t choke on their words: given Corbyn’s historical focus on ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘you’; the current focus by him and his team on policy in trips also across England, Scotland and Wales, not to mention that each and every speech and interview which May speaks is dominated with references to ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘I’  In response to the, I would suggest, uncritical self-promotion by May, Corbyn responds thus:

Whereas insecure leaders want to feel stronger by asking you to give them more power.

I recognise strong leadership as equipping you with more power….

We are a party that wants to bring together people and ideas, and harness the thirst for real and lasting change. Watch the speech – It’s Time to Step Up For Britain – in full here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0Cr8CVkdMs

SO as Jeremy Corbyn says: Step up. Register to vote. Claim your future. https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

There has been much positive response to Corbyn’s speech on Saturday. Many were moved and inspired by it. This is an extract from Jeff Goulding’s Blog:

In an epic journey from Trade Union organiser to Labour Councillor and from the backbenches of Parliament to leader of a movement of more than half a million people and growing. Today he finds himself in a position he didn’t ask for and few, himself included, thought he could ever secure.

His rise to prominence and passionate defence of the weak and the disadvantaged has seen him vilified and abused, both personally and politically. In all that he has never wavered not even for a moment. His principles and values remain as strong today as they were forty years ago. Is this not the definition of strong and stable leadership? . . . .

As I write this I am conscious that it is laden with emotion. I have deleted and then retyped sentences, striving to be more analytical, objective and unbiased. But why should I be. I have tears in my eyes as I pen this, precisely because I am moved by the vision set out today by Jeremy Corbyn for the country and for the style of leadership he offers us.

Two years ago today, the humble man from Islington’s epic journey took an unexpected turn. Like all hero’s journey’s there has been adventure and intrigue along the way. He has stumbled, but never fallen and he has always had his eyes fixed squarely on the goal of a more just and equal society.https://jeffgoulding.com/2017/04/29/forged-in-the-fire-of-protest-a-prime-minister-for-the-many/

Hear, Hear.

As a brief reminder of some of the differences between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in terms of their own beliefs and their concerns for others within society take a look at this list of their voting behaviour (see @LabourEoin for this and more such information).

On Sunday 30th April in answer to Andrew Marr’s (BBC1) the Prime Minister had to be reminded that 3 million people are due to be hit by in-work benefit cuts after she insisted that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’. Then in response to Marr’s:  ‘We have nurses going to foodbanks that must be wrong’ May gave, this already  infamous answer: ‘There are many complex reasons why people go to foodbanks.’  A detailed account of the scale of food insecurity is available here: http://taxpayersagainstpoverty.org.uk/news/food-bank-britain-amid
The Prime Minister attempts to persuade us that the 2017 General Election is all about Brexit. IT IS NOT. And indeed in terms of this issue, as in all others, another five years of the Tories is a frightening prospect. If reports of a recent meeting between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker is anything to go by:
For more detail read this: https://www.forbes.com/sites/francescoppola/2017/04/30/the-uk-government-is-completely-deluded-about-brexit/#50a64a84f046  OR watch this analysis of just how unsafe we are with Theresa May as PM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3i529NnS0MI (Professor Michael Dougan, Liverpool University).  To end, just a few more examples of Corbyn and Labour versus May and the Tories; historically and to date:  ‘Jeremy Corbyn has been on the right side of history for 30 years. That’s real leadership’ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/16/jeremy-corbyn-leadership-david-cameron-libya-labour ‘Labour proffer up our only chance to end the ‘rigged economy”  http://www.thelondoneconomic.com/tle-pick/labour-proffer-chance-end-rigged-economy/01/05/  ‘Theresa May is ahead of Trump in undermining the refugee system’ https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/30/us-travel-ban-may-is-ahead-of-trump-in-undermining-refugee-protection-system ‘Don’t worry about Brexit – worry about the Great Repeal Bill that comes after it’ http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-great-repeal-bill-eu-rights-and-protections-bill-you-should-be-worried-a7705286.html And what of my own life experience? I don’t intend to write much about my own experience in this Blog entry although I have previously and will again. But, just to say I don’t consider myself to be part of a cult. Neither do I think that I am deluded or stupid or any of the other things I and similar others have been called in recent months. What I do passionately believe, with reference to my own life experience to date –  as a sometime carer and as someone who has needed professional (as patient) and personal (as daughter, wife, friend) care from others, as a student, a teacher, a researcher, a volunteer, a women and a citizen  – is that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is our best hope, our only hope of a decent future for all.  As Chris Williamson who is standing for Labour in Derby North in the General Election (after losing his seat in Parliament by 41 votes in 2015 to a Conservative) wrote today:  This is a high stakes campaign. It is literally life or death. Not in terms of the careers of   politicians but in terms of our country’s public services, our most vulnerable citizens and in terms of Britain’s foreign policy and our shameful legacy of vain and dubious wars.

 You can follow Gayle on twitter at @GayleLetherby or at her webpage Arwenack Creatives | Gayle Letherby’s Blog  

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