Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Month: October, 2009

Obama Peace (Read ‘War’) Prize

Here are five reasons why Obama might not have been the ideal winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. These are five of many others, but I have little time.

Obama has:

  • Exerted political pressure to prevent the prosecution of Israel for war crimes committed during the 23-day illegal invasion of Gaza, in which 1,400 Palestinians were massacred, of which 900 were civilians, including 300 children and 115 women.
  • Continued the imperial occupation of Afghanistan, supporting regular air raids which have killed thousands of innocent civilians (including many children), the result of which has been to radicalise previously peaceful men and women into supporting Islamic militancy, some of which is along the lines of Al-Qaeda. The net effect of these actions has made the threat of terrorist attacks against America more likely than prior to the invasion.
  • Continued the Bush policy of allowing US troops to bomb ‘suspected terrorists’ indiscriminately within the borders of Pakistan. If one considers that the imperial presence and actions of the US in Afghanistan has already destabilised the region, and then adds to this the fact that Afghanistan shares a porous border with Pakistan (the local Pashtun tribes who have lived there for hundreds of years do not even recognise the border), plus the bombings within Pakistan itself, then it paints a rather bleak prospect for future peace. Not to mention that Pakistan suffers from profound internal strife and houses a nuclear arsenal, causing experts on the region to label it the most dangerous country in the world.
  • Opened new military bases in Colombia, the official reason for which is ‘the war on narcotics trafficking’. Several studies have shown (though common sense is equally reliable) that such ‘wars’ on drug-trafficking are ineffective, that the US government knows this, and that it continues to use them as a front for other more insidious activities. Senior Colombian intelligence officials have informed Associated Press that in fact these military bases are nothing to do with narcotics, but will be used as hubs for Pentagon activity in the area. Historically what this has meant for Latin America is CIA-led overthrows of democratically elected governments and the installation of dictatorships. Not to mention that Colombia’s human rights record is abominable but that they receive enormous military aid from the US.
  • Put in charge of the economic crisis in the US two men who played a significant role in creating it in the first place. Dean Baker, a respected US economist, likened the casting of Robert Rubin and Larry Summers into the roles of economy-overseers to ‘selecting Osama Bin Laden to run the war on terror.’ The bailout they orchestrated has been described by Naomi Klein as ‘a robbery in progress, the greatest heist in monetary history.’

Reflections on David Cameron’s Speech

Today, David Cameron gave his final speech of the Conservative Party Conference 2009. Perhaps unlike many fellow socialists, I happen to agree with many things he says. His main theme is that Britain has become a ‘broken society’, and that in order to fix it we need to resurrect a sense of civil society. The means for doing this won’t be the ‘big state’, as under Labour, but rather Cameron’s big three watch-words: Family, Community, and Country.

Superficially, I agree with Cameron that Britain is a ‘broken society’, for reasons too numerous to explain here. Unfortunately, he’s going to implement policies which are antithetical to everything he says he believes in and which will, in all likelihood, aggravate the current woes. I have the time and the space to write about only two of them. Let’s take the most boring-sounding one first: cutting inheritance tax. In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, one of the ten general suggestions for the foundation of a fair society is the abolition of all right to inheritance. This is not because Marx has some pathological aversion to family heirlooms; it’s because when the minority of excessively wealthy people die, they simply hand on their wealth to their children. It is in the interests of rich people that society stay exactly the same as it is now, because if their children were banned by the state from inheriting that wealth, then the rich would have to be proactive in bringing about a better society for their children to grow up in. Cameron says that it is precisely this better society he wants to bring about. Unfortunately, he wants to do this by cutting inheritance tax, thereby making it easier for the small number of rich people to pass on their accumulated wealth to a small number of rich children, and consequently giving them no incentive to change the nature of the current exploitative system. This then increases the poverty of the majority of normal people and plunges them into exactly the kind of social circumstances which create the ‘broken society’ he wants to fix. It’s a bit like saying you want to make a boat less leaky and then drilling a series of twenty-inch holes in it.

The second policy I’d like to consider is that to do with Afghanistan. He assures us that the reason why our troops are there is to ‘stop the re-establishment of terrorist training camps’. The problem is that while the Afghanis are no fans of the Taliban, nor are they keen on having their families and children massacred by coalition forces (usually in air raids) – troops, let’s not forget, who are effectively imperial occupiers. (Imagine how we would react if Iran sent over an enormous army to Britain, carried out air raids on our homes in Birmingham and Chelsea, murdering our toddlers and destroying our livelihoods, all in the name of preventing another US-British terrorist crusade in Iraq). What poll after poll has shown is twofold. Firstly, the vast majority of the Afghani population want us to leave their country immediately (but of course they’re only the local population, so they don’t count). Secondly, our soldiers have wreaked such havoc on their lives that those who were originally against the Taliban and against networks such as Al-Qaeda are now fleeing to join them either to take revenge or simply because they have nothing left. Ultimately, our aggressive militarism, which was designed to eliminate the roots of terrorism, has succeeded – as experts on the region predicted prior to the invasion – in creating the conditions for the radicalising of a new generation of terrorists. So what does Cameron propose to do about this? Respect the grieving locals and withdraw the occupiers? Create conditions of material prosperity for the dispossessed of the Middle East (i.e. the main economic category from which jihadis emerge)? Of course not! He wants to send more troops! The man for whom the Family, the Community, and the Country are ruling values wants to send more of your sons and daughters to slaughter Afghani sons and daughters, only to be slaughtered in their turn, radicalising more potential slaughterers who will – imitating our Western logic – arrive in our Communities and our Country and slaughter us.

So when David Cameron, in those oh-so-self-assured, oh-so-dulcet tones of his, tries to convince you to vote for him at the next election, please be aware that he – like those in power before him – is a maniac.

Performative and Propositional

Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton

Something increasingly clear to me is the importance of the relation between the propositional content of an ideology and its performative content. It initially became apparent to me when I read an interview with Terry Eagleton in which he accuses Richard Dawkins of having a far too ‘propositional’ notion of Christianity. What he means by this is that Dawkins takes propositional statements (e.g. ‘Love your enemy’, ‘God exists’) and judges them out of all context of their ritual performance. In other words, a propositional critique of religion deals only with abstract statements and ignores the lived texture of reality in which they are performed. When pushed on this point with a useful question by the interviewer (‘how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?’) Eagleton replies with the following:

“All performatives imply propositions.  There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on.  The performative and the propositional work into each other.  But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance.  Somebody who didn’t grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted.  These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.”

Although Eagleton doesn’t use these terms, one of the problems with positivistic analyses of social phenomena (unlike, say, scientific phenomena) is that the analyst thinks of herself as inhabiting a dominant, neutral territory, a position of truth. There is a certain Olympian, condescending gaze inherent to this kind of thinking, and it is this which means that the analyst is not prepared to put herself on the line: in short – and at the extreme – she is not capable of sacrificing herself to something, be this her surroundings or an idea.

Of course, the obvious response to this is ‘Well, why should she sacrifice herself to something which isn’t true?’ And here, like Eagleton, we can only respond by emphasising the dialectical interplay of proposition and performance. Moreover, we can point out that the ‘neutral’ observer is already unwittingly performing in ways which are deeply inscribed with certain ideologies (in this case, positivism – one of the many upshots of the quantitative mindsets generated by an economic system numb to qualities) and whose propositional tenets, if laid out like those of the ideology (say, Christianity) she is critiquing, might bring down upon them a similar ridicule.

Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams

One of the consequences of an approach towards Christianity which focuses on the performative aspects of the creed would be to consider what it means for a believer to live out his beliefs on a day-to-day basis, or how it feels to do so. These are obviously no guarantees to discerning a classically positivist truth or falsity, in which veracity is cold and unlived. But it would surely make the debate between Christians and non-Christians far less polarised. They could at least begin to speak the same language.

But what really interests me about this debate is not its effects on understanding ‘religion’. Rather, it is the far more important issue of politics. I’ll cut to the chase: I, as a suburban petit bourgeois, have never encountered socialism as a lived reality. My first experience of it was as a set of propositions which appealed to my intellectual outlook and to my practical reason. This is a far cry from someone like Raymond Williams, born in 1921 and raised in a family of socialists, with a father who was a signalman and who took part in the General Strike of 1926. For Raymond Williams, socialism was a way of life; for me, it is a sensible set of propositions which, when judged on the basis of my unsocialist lived reality and my overall moral temperament, rings true.

My personal experience is far from universal, but it is also far from rare. The aim of this blog post is to invite discussion on the following questions:

  • What are the consequences of the fact (if it is true) that many young people in the West encounter socialism as a set of propositions – or at least as reported past events – rather than as a way of life?
  • What can we do to rekindle the lived reality of socialism – of communal networks, of fraternity, of popular education, of communal demands for justice, of class-struggle – in a historical time which is amnesia and a historical place which is a(n) (sub)urban desert?

Don’t blame the bankers!

For months now we have been inundated by articles and opinion pieces which condemn greedy bankers. Even such Establishment stalwarts as The Times, The Telegraph, and The Financial Times have been forced to concede that the Old Boys may have gone too far this time. Not a day goes by when someone somewhere isn’t calling for a banker’s head to roll (usually in The Guardian).

Now, on the surface, this seems sensible. Those in charge of a bloated financial system fuelled by high-risk short-term profit, rather than low-risk long-term investment, have indeed been greedy and have indeed done wrong. I don’t think anyone can doubt the validity of this moral argument.

The problem is that the capitalist system is neither moral nor immoral: it is amoral. To condemn a greedy banker is to assume that the nature of the capitalist system is a subjective lust for profit. But this is precisely what it is not. As Marx reminds us time and again,[1] the objective basis of capitalism is the circulation ‘M-C-M’ (money-commodities-money), which is the expansion of value. Now, on the one hand, we can imagine what we might call a ‘needs-based economy’ (C-M-C) in which the aim would be to produce and sell certain commodities (C-M) so as to buy other commodities (C) which meet particular needs – in other words, the simple circulation of commodities would be unrelated to circulation itself, but would rather attempt to satisfy wants. On the other hand, there is our capitalist economy (M-C-M), in which the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself, and it is only within this ceaseless movement that the expansion of value can be achieved. The former could be described as ‘selling in order to buy’; the latter – ours – as ‘buying in order to sell’, and thereby to expand value.

Marx’s gloss on this is ingenious (though I’m no doubt travestying the true complexity of his argument by greatly simplifying it). The capitalist (read ‘banker’) acts of his own will and volition to make more and more profit in the abstract; he is subjectively greedy. But the truth of his acts lies at the objective level of capital: his greed is merely the subjective obverse of the expansion of value, which is the objective basis of the circulation M-C-M. On one level, a banker is indeed being voluntarily greedy, but what he is really doing is acting as a wilful, conscious automaton of the circulation of capital.

If people are serious about overcoming such financial crises, it is not only the moral vices of bankers which must be transformed: it is the nature of the entire economic system on which our society is founded. There is a name for such a transformation, and workers for hundreds of years have called it ‘revolution’.


[1] For this article I’ve drawn on the following: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch04.htm and http://www.marxists.org/archive/dunayevskaya/works/1979/outline-capital/ch04.htm Before economists start writing angry replies, I may as well admit my almost absolute ignorance of economics. In my defence, this part of the argument seems fairly obvious.

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