Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Category: Politics

Nonstop You

The BBC reports that a combination of CCTV, facial recognition technology and radio frequency identification are paving the way for real-time individualised adverts. Based on our online activity, our physical appearances and so on, we will be presented in public with adverts which cater to our unique personal tastes. This is worrying on many levels, but the one I want to focus on is how it might affect our subjectivity.

The first result will be to urge us into an unchanging, eternal present of ourselves (an extension of a process already well underway). By accessing data on what I like, on what I’ve already bought and so on, it will simply present me with more of the same. In no matter how subtle a manner, it will urge me to continue along this one particular path of taste (within the general cycles of fashion). It will recycle my affect, and in doing so it is effectively designed to prevent the advent of novelty. For if all I am ever confronted with is an extension of a previous version of myself, I am partially stripped of my capacity to be other than I was.

The second result will be an objective narcissism. I say “objective” because here the narcissism is literally inscribed in (what was once) public space itself. As Žižek has observed,Even in a public space, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with other people”. And if I am everywhere surrounded by my inner private world, incapable of experiencing the objective limits of my own desires and introspections, then I cannot fully live. For surely any life worth living is one in which I am able to learn and accept my limits via my interactions with other people and the natural world – with that which is subjectively and materially other than myself. It is no wonder that death has no place in such a society, since it is the ultimate limit on all egomaniacal projects. Likewise, it should make us stop and think when the German airline, Lufthansa, has as its slogan a theological definition of hell: “Nonstop you”.

The political upshot of such subjective dispositions is yet more erosion of our in-built capacity for solidarity. For if I live constantly in the shadow of my own mollycoddled self, a subject who is seriously other than me – one who makes demands on me – can only strike me as at best an obstacle, at worst a monster. So it is, then, that seemingly innocent advances in advertising have quite direct political effects.

In Utopia, of course, this technology will be used for far different purposes. One day, as I’m brushing my teeth, an image of my rotting corpse will suddenly flash up on the mirror in front of me, surrounded by my children – old themselves now ­– and friends. Or as I’m walking to the forum to take part in the collective centenary movie of the saviour of earth from the Anthropocene, I will see an image of another world suddenly appear on the side of the workers’ theatre, a world where everything is different, like a fairy tale in which we are all invited to honour our past selves but not to be shackled by them, to dare to dream in the bosom of the space we have made together.

Starkey, Delingpole and “Culture”

It’s not just young black people being demonised by David Starkey and James Delingpole: it’s the whole working class

In his influential 1948 publication, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot famously stated that “Culture…includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.” In other words, as Raymond Williams wryly noted in his Culture and Society: 1780-1950, it includes “sport, food, and a little art – a characteristic observation of English leisure”. (He suggested adding “steelmaking, touring motor-cars, mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining, and London Transport”). Eliot had craftily conflated two senses of the word “culture”: firstly, that of the general body of arts and learning (which, during the long industrial revolution and the struggle for the franchise, came to be practically separated from everyday social judgment and associated with a privileged ‘cultured’ elite) and, secondly, culture as a whole way of life. Eliot’s “whole way of life”, however, looked suspiciously like that of the upper echelons of British class society.

I was reminded of this passage in Eliot when I read an article by James Delingpole, in which he defends the dangerous and offensive remarks made by David Starkey on Friday’s edition of Newsnight. Having listed the ways in which, as Starkey argued, the “whites” have become “black” – essentially, “they” don’t speak RP and “they” wear their underpants too high – he goes on to make the following point: “Is anyone seriously going to try to make the case that this isn’t black culture in excelsis? Or does anyone, perhaps, want to persuade me that this is but one tiny and much-exaggerated facet of a broader black culture dominated by opera and madrigal singing and crochet and sonnet-construction and lawn bowls and Shakespeare and new translations of Ovid?” Look at that list of characteristic “white” activities: Eliot himself could have written it. And this should alert us to an important aspect of such ill-considered and offensive discourses. The opposition Starkey and Delingpole construct between a mythical, homogenous “white culture” and a mythical, homogeneous “black culture” is a rerun of the traditional opposition between “culture” and “common”. It is an opposition based on class.

Which is not to say that the white-black opposition is identical to the one which Williams exposed. Rather, as we have seen, each is now mediated by the other. Class prejudice informs racial prejudice which feeds back into class prejudice in a quite literally vicious circle. Thus, David Starkey’s ridiculous and malicious imitation of what he called “a language which is wholly false, which is a Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded in England” combines a patrician disdain for common speech with a reduction of the rich patchwork of intercultural London accents and dialects to a homogenous “black culture”; this is then equated with “violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture”, as if a lack of “Standard English” itself had caused the riots.

The only way to interrupt this cycle is for the Left universally to condemn such dangerous simplifications and to expose the complex interrelation of racial stereotyping and economic exploitation. Political temperatures are soaring in Britain, and it is imperative that the Left come together to battle the right-wing media onslaught. In the words of Raymond Williams: “There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognizing these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future.”

Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and Utopia

It seems to me that the source of many people’s pleasure when watching 24 or any one of the Bourne Trilogy films lies not where they think it lies. Ask them what it is they like so much about these films/ shows, and they tend to say that it’s a mixture of the extreme suspense (especially in 24, a show in which all time is compressed into an unbearably concentrated present, such that the constantly repeated time-frame of “15 minutes” starts to assume an almost mythical temporality) and of the constant action: fighting, car chases, guns, explosions. On one level, of course, this is undeniable. But I suspect that there’s a deeper source of pleasure at work.

In The Bourne Identity, there is a scene in a café-diner in which Jason, who at this point has no idea who he is or why he can do all these extraordinary things, explains his ‘powers’ to Marie:

I come in here — instinctively — first thing I do — I’m looking for the exit — I’m catching the sightlines – I know I can’t sit with my back to the door –[…] I can tell you the license plate numbers of all three cars out front. I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself.  I know that the best, first place to look for a gun is the cab of that grey truck outside.  I know that at this altitude I can run flat out for half a mile before I lose my edge .

I think this speech contains the secret to our delight. The dreary, mundane everyday world over which I have no control and to which I submit myself on a daily basis simply to get by – all those streets I walk down, not even looking up from my feet, all those cars, roads, bags, shoes, the top halves of buildings that may as well not even exist since I never look at them, the empty spaces that sink into the grey horizon of habit – suddenly, all of this is electrified by a lightning-bolt of subjectivity. The world which only a moment before was a mere object, ‘out there’, whilst I, ‘in here’, went about my day, has become a field of potentiality. Man and environment speak to one another and work with each other: the world becomes active and controllable. It tells me all the myriad ways in which it resists me, the better that I can team up with it to overcome them.

It is in this sense that, no matter how ‘ideological’ the Bourne Trilogy and 24 might be in other respects, they contain the seeds of Utopia. It is that place of reconciliation between subject and object, where structures are recognized as human structures, the life-world produced by and for man. To borrow the terminology of a young Lukács, the soul finds its home in the world.

In a more extreme setting, this is what the Arab Spring has been demonstrating to us. All those rigid and repressive institutions which confronted the people as menacing objects have now been transformed into potentialities. The world itself has become once more a field of human possibilities to be fought over rather than a crushing wall to be submitted to.

BBC Breakfast; or, the Manufacturing of Ruthlessness

This morning BBC Breakfast ran a story on a study that has been carried out which shows that British youngsters lack the ambition and ruthlessness of their European counterparts (because, of course, Britain isn’t in Europe). After a video report shot at a posh international school down south, in which these findings were unsurprisingly ratified, a ‘discussion’ (for which read ‘mutual appreciation and united front against a common enemy’) was held with the head of OFSTED and an ex-‘businesswoman of the year’. At no point in this discussion was the glorification of ambition and ruthlessness ever put into question: the presupposition of the entire report was that ruthlessness is a positive human attribute and should be aspired to. That British youngsters apparently do not was seen as a grave disappointment. Indeed, it was the trigger for an all-out and decidedly spiteful attack on the ‘youth of today’ and their namby-pamby, mollycoddled upbringing. Schools that do not hold competitive sports days or which demonstrate in any way whatsoever that competition and ruthlessness are not virtuous ends-in-themselves were mocked and ridiculed. At one point, the businesswoman went so far as to suggest that because children are not physically hungry and because they enjoy themselves too much (both of which she associated with the ‘nanny state’), they lack the requisite ambition. The implication was that enforced starvation and a ban on state-provided services would be good for them and ‘Britain’.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. Firstly, the BBC is a key ideological apparatus in the manufacturing of an inhuman way of life: a moral and political disgrace. Secondly, genuine compassionate humanity can find no place in the current state of affairs: if you desire a life worthy of a fully human being, you are condemned to fighting the status quo. Thirdly, if the nineteenth century had have had TV, it would have looked like that.

Historical Materialism Conference

The journal, Historical Materialism, will be holding its annual conference this week in London, from 11th-14th November. This year’s conference is entitled ‘Crisis and Critique’. Here’s the overview:

Notwithstanding repeated invocations of the ‘green shoots of recovery’, the effects of the economic crisis that began in 2008 continue to be felt around the world. While some central tenets of the neoliberal project have been called into question, bank bailouts, cuts to public services and attacks on working people’s lives demonstrate that the ruling order remains capable of imposing its agenda. Many significant Marxist analyses have already been produced of the origins, forms and prospects of the crisis, and we look forward to furthering these debates at HM 2010. We also aim to encourage dialogue between the critique of political economy and other modes of criticism – ideological, political, aesthetic, philosophical – central to the Marxist tradition.

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht projected a journal to be called Crisis and Critique. In very different times, but in a similar spirit, HM 2010 aims to serve as a forum for dialogue, interaction and debate between different strands of critical Marxist theory. Whether their focus is the study of the capitalist mode of production’s theoretical and practical foundations, the unmasking of its ideological forms of legitimation or its political negation, we are convinced that a renewed and politically effective Marxism will need to rely on all the resources of critique in the years ahead. Crises produce periods of ideological and political uncertainty. They are moments that put into question established cognitive and disciplinary compartmentalisations, and require a recomposition at the level of both theory and practice. HM 2010 hopes to contribute to a broader dialogue on the Left aimed at such a recomposition, one of whose prerequisites remains the young Marx’s call for the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’.

You can register here, but you must do so in the next 24 hours! I myself shall be giving a paper on Thursday, entitled ‘Totality in Lukács’s Literary Theory’. The line-up looks fantastic: Alberto Toscano, Peter Thomas (whose book on Gramsci, as I’ve said before, is fantastic), Alex Callinicos, John Holloway, Sara Farris (a Weber scholar, who is currently translating Roland Boer’s Criticism of Heaven into Italian), Johan Hartle (a Lukács specialist, who has also recently published an important essay on the aesthetics of urban warfare)…the list goes on. Come along!


Eric Hobsbawm: How to Change the World

I’ve just come across the cover of Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, to be published in January 2011. This is going to be an absolute treat – worth celebrating the new year already.

The Condition of Mediocrity: Part II

The condition of mediocrity is not a material tragedy (or, rather, tragic-comedy), it’s a spiritual one. To a certain extent, it goes hand in hand with the class which gave rise to it: the bourgeoisie. Effectively, it entails the vast majority of the world’s population slaving away in absolute misery to provide a privileged few with enough free time to develop neuroses.

Now, as I’ve written before on this blog, part of the problem today is the demise in the West of the two great communal traditions: the Church and Communism. Not only did these institutions provide structures of meaning through which one could actively make sense of one’s life within a given community, but they also provided transformative outlets for mediocrity. Of course, they produced their share of Bonhoeffers and Barths, of Lenins and Gramscis – the outstanding individuals – but they also made being average redeemable. To be mediocre in the Church is something less of a burden when God himself instructs the world that those who are first are last. Likewise, those unheroic, everyday tasks of political organisation are somehow ennobled within the context of realistically bringing about social revolution.

The downfall of these pillars of communal activity, however, did not necessarily result in the withering away of the desires they created. The condition of mediocrity, such as I described it in yesterday’s post, might be said to be the effect of the ghost of Community wandering lost through the tended gardens and the (obsessive-compulsively) shiny cars of suburbia. The danger of such a condition is that the lack of outlets, the lack of redemption for one’s middling contributions to the world, might begin to warp the more honourable desires into an egotistical lust for ‘greatness’ at all costs (hence the dubious tone of yesterday’s post). This then generates those middle-class ‘radicals’ who are radical only in the sense that they long to be the centre of a dramatic revolutionary scene (Romanticisers of the Barricades, we should perhaps call them). It also generates snobs, since snobbery in this context is a sort of internal yanking of the soul such that it can hoist itself above the mire of mundanity.

Those who need meaningful communal life but who are trapped in rows of identical detached houses and work in separate offices; those who long to overthrow the capitalist system in all its brutality (whilst maintaining its benefits) but who live in positively reactionary times; those who want to commit to everyday life, but not to compromise themselves by a life of occasional dinner parties, admiring friends’ new kitchens, discussing decor, idolizing one’s children, relying on alcohol, indulging in a ‘little sport’ and so on: this, too, is the middle-class condition of mediocrity.

Perhaps the only radical response is to keep on keeping on.

The Condition of Mediocrity

To be clear-sighted even through the mist of tears – even then to have to understand, to study, to observe and ironically discard what one has seen – even at moments when hands clasp and lips touch and eyes fail, blinded by emotion – it’s infamous…it’s contemptible and outrageous.

These words come from Thomas Mann’s ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1903). The story is about the impossible task of being both fully human and fully artist (not to mention being a bourgeois artist). For Kröger, contrary to the Romantics, the artist is inhuman, someone inflicted with the bane of an irremediable, calculating distance, a constant rationalising gaze. Even in the midst of great emotional upheaval, he cannot ever let himself go, he is always weighing up how to form the vital, chaotic formlessness of life. An artist is the living dead, incapable of giving himself over to the superficiality of life’s joyousness; he is a social outcast, even while surrounded by his fellow men:

And with the torment and the pride of such insight came loneliness; for he could not feel at ease among the innocent, among the light of heart and dark of understanding, and they shrank from the sign on his brow.

And yet, how he longs for life! How he longs to be just like those ‘dark of understanding’ who sense his secret alien nature! Indeed, a man has no right even to call himself an artist ‘if his heart knows no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth…the bliss of the commonplace!’ On the one hand, then, Kröger loathes the bourgeoisie for their superficiality, their philistinism and their mediocrity; but, on the other hand, he has no time for bohemian cultural elitists with their cold-hearted disdain for good old, down-to-earth bourgeois life. It is only at the end of the story that a precarious, just-about-liveable balance is struck: ‘my deepest and most secret love belongs to…the happy, the charming, the ordinary…In it there is longing, and sad envy, and just a touch of contempt, and a whole world of innocent delight.’

Sculpture by Jane McAdam Freud

The agonies of Tonio Kröger are profound, Mann’s presentation of them masterly. But now imagine this: Tonio Kröger never was and never will be a great artist. He develops this delicate balance, continues his life feeling like a marked man who can never truly fraternize with his fellows, he subdues his alienation long enough to write a novel, but this novel is average at best and he knows it. Imagine, in other words, if the crises of Tonio Kröger’s inner life could not be redeemed by artistic greatness. Would this not be an even greater agony, a far more ignoble condition?

This is the condition of mediocrity. And artistic mediocrity is only its mildest form. To share the essential loneliness of the great modern writer, the absolute alienation from all mankind, but never to sublimate this desolation into the glory of a great work of art: this is a terrible fate. But there is a worse one. Imagine the selfsame loneliness, the same alienation, the same desire for artistic glory, but add to that a desire for critical greatness. (Greatness, by the way, being that for which only the inhuman strain). Not only do you desire renown in Hades, but before you even get there you want to beckon the great shades, to dazzle them with the light of critical intensity in the hope of transforming the aesthetic into truth. But your voice falters, your gaze drops away into despondency, because the call to the shades must be knowing and deep and sure, and you are ignorant and shallow and doubting: you have all the desire of the giant with none of its capacity. The tombs of the glorious dead remain closed to mediocrity.

Edvard Munch, Melancolia

And now the inner circle: radical mediocrity. You will never be a great writer, you will never be a great critic (again, you know that greatness should not even be desirable!), and you will never be a revolutionary. You have the passion of a communist but you live in a suburb; you defend the tenets of Marx with only the vaguest of historical knowledge; you write average Marxist theory in the shadow of better men than you. And still you plod on.

And it is not even tragic! It cannot, by definition, quit the realm of the comical, because it is too mediocre! In a constant trail of self-deprecating caveats and deflationary anti-rhetoric, the Sisyphean daily toil trundles on! It is unstoppable, it is pathological and it is trivial, painfully trivial. To read and write (obsessively) about the most communal of human activities, and to be all the while stricken by non-illusions of grandeur which render you an outcast.

The way to life blocked by a fear of finally, wilfully succumbing to the very mediocrity which is nonetheless your fate; the way to art, philosophy and revolution blocked by averageness, reading too little too slowly and – ultimately – by history itself.

‘Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

Authority and State Terror

Ronnie Lee Gardner

On Friday the state of Utah murdered the convicted killer, Ronnie Lee Gardner. Gardner, having lived by the gun, chose to die by it – by firing squad. When I first read about this I had an image in mind of Gardner stood against some sort of pole in a yard with a lone gunman-executioner positioned before him, face-to-face. I imagined maybe a single point-blank shot to the head.

In fact it wasn’t like that at all. Gardner was strapped to a chair inside a small room – designed one imagines by family-loving, God-fearin’ architects – a target was placed over his heart by a doctor, and five gunmen shot him from behind a wall with two slots in, just large enough for the rifles to shoot through. Gardner could not see his murderers, and their identities were not revealed to the public for ‘fear of reprisals.’

A further detail of note is this from The Guardian:

Four of the rifles were loaded with a single live bullet. The fifth contained an “ineffective” round – which unlike a blank gives the same recoil as a live round; that way none of the five executioners know whether they delivered the fatal shot, thus lessening their psychological burden.

I want to say two very simple things about this event. The first is that those who accuse this method of being ‘barbaric’ are somewhat missing the point: it is simultaneously the most barbaric and the most civilized of punishments. What do I mean by this? Firstly, the reason five men were chosen to kill Gardner is not for the simple pragmatic reason that if one or two miss the target then the other two might hit it. It is because the authority of the state cannot be seen to reside in one man alone. It must remain multiple, so as to avoid any personalising lex talonis. If capital punishment is part of the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ logic, then the state, at least, should be the final communal mutilator of the offending eye, beyond which the cycle of revenge can move no further. Secondly, the men remain anonymous because state authority has to appear anonymous. State authority cannot appear to favour any single person or faction or class. When the media broadcast images of the wall from behind which the men shot Gardner, they were effectively broadcasting the anonymity that power in a ‘civilized’ world requires to function and to reproduce itself.

The second point refers to the ‘ineffective’ fifth bullet. If ever there were an example that might suggest to hardcore pragmatic-empiricist social observers (i.e. those for whom theory or psychoanalysis or any other vaguely abstract method of ratiocination is airy-fairy bullshit) that there is more to social reality than immediately observable data, then this is it. If society functioned via pragmatism alone, then one man would have been given a gun, he would have stood in front of Gardner, and blown his head off. Pragmatism does not result in the building of a wall with two slots in it to mask five gunmen, one of whom – but no one knows whom exactly – will fire a blank. The official reason for this practice is ‘to lessen the burden of guilt’. This might hold water, if it weren’t for the fact that the gunmen volunteered to execute Gardner. It is unlikely that a policeman, trained to kill, who chooses to murder a criminal will suddenly be ravaged by a guilty conscience having done so.

The only convincing way the fifth bullet can be explained is via some form of the psychoanalytic Big Other. I don’t know enough Lacan to go into this in detail, but it strikes me as fairly obvious that the purpose of the fifth bullet is to transport the execution from the empirical realm of individuals to the pseudo-transcendent, transindividual realm of the Other. It makes the cause of death strictly indiscernible and therefore irreducible to the actions of specific humans. The gunmen themselves do not know who killed Gardner, and precisely in their ignorance is located Authority. It is the same Authority embedded in the white-washed, anonymous walls.

It is this terrifying Authority – terrifying because not residing in specific, challengeable human beings – that must be defied at all costs so long as it constitutes the life-blood of state terror.

Fredric Jameson on Marx’s Capital

Fredric Jameson is to publish a book on Marx’s Das Kapital, entitled Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One. It is to be released in February 2011.

For a foretaste, here is a lecture (audio only) Jameson gave at the 2009 Historical Materialism annual conference in London. A useful critique of Jameson’s lecture is given by the up-and-coming Gramsci scholar, Peter Thomas, here. Thomas’s book, The Gramscian Moment, is certainly one to look out for.

Against Satire and For Personality Cults

The Shitter

Embarrassingly, one of my first breakthroughs on the road to taking Marxism seriously was when, as a young boy, someone explained to me that the queen must piss and shit like anyone else. It came as quite a revelation to the embodiment of sheltered suburban decency that I then was (and, depressingly, still more or less am).  That she was somehow ‘human’ like the rest of us was almost unthinkable, the discrepancy between regal appearance and faecal truth too much to grasp.

But the saddest thing is that most current political satire hasn’t really moved beyond this infantile act of revelation: in public, politicians are virtuous statesmen, whilst behind closed doors they’re fallible, vindictive, power-hungry maniacs. In public they are eloquent spokesman, in private they shit all over themselves and all over us. The problem is that everybody already knows this, and hence there is no revelatory or liberatory potential in such comedy. ‘Cameron’s a good, immigrant-loving man, nudge nudge, wink wink!’ is not exactly explosive stuff.

As Žižek, following Peter Sloterdijk, has long been telling us, we live in an age whereby ideology functions through cynicism. Everbody knows that politicians are corrupt, that capitalism is unjust, that the poor are being screwed over, but we act as if we didn’t know. Ideology used to be conceived as ‘false consciousness’, which could be remedied by revealing to someone the truth of his or her situation. In other words, it was an epistemological affair. And this, we might argue, was when traditional satire was politically progressive. But now ideology is no longer ‘false consciousness’; it is that which we do despite knowing that what we’re doing is perpetuating a system we know to be destructive of humanity.

It is in this age of cynicism that satire becomes a reactionary force. What do shows like Have I Got News For You? or The Daily Show effectively do? They make us laugh at what we already know. They constitute a sort of balm, soothing the daily pain of knowing that I’m acting in a way contrary to almost all reasonable evaluations of the state of the world.  They create an atmosphere of entertaining resignation.

And here I’d like to move on to a related topic. Part of this whole age of cynicism, it seems to me, is that obsession with debunking the aura of greatness surrounding certain revered figures. If you want to make a film of Homer’s epics these days, you can’t present these figures as towering above their epoch; you have to drag them down into the nitty-gritty of the daily grind. If you want to make a TV program about Caesar, you have to show him shagging half the women of Ancient Rome. Even superheroes now have to have a ‘human’ side!

Back in the day, of course, this was progressive. If the Establishment told you that Dante was great, you went looking for the material historical circumstances that made Dante possible in the first place. But today I have the sneaking suspicion that this simply plays into the hands of the enemy.

And that is why I would like to suggest the benefits of the personality cult. Liberals shy away in horror from those massive icons of Stalin and Mao, symbols of dictatorial atrocity, but they forget their hidden powers. In Soviet or Chinese propaganda it was common to be told tales of superhuman heroics – Stalin takes on a whole battalion of the imperial army with his bare, crop-coarsened hands…and wins! – which no one could be expected to believe, and which no one did believe. The point, however, was that instead of dragging these figures down into the depths of bureaucratic mundanity, it swept gazes up and out, and into the impossible gyres of history! What we need now is not to engage in apathetic satire, posting re-runs of the ‘Ten Best Anti-Thatcher Gags’ so as to make us chuckle into our spreadsheets; we need to outsoar the easiness of cynicism and dare to be great, dare to be mocked, dare to be epic heroes in the age of Peep Show.

(The comic bathos of that last sentence should give you some idea of how difficult is our task).

The Sun, Tits and Tragedy

Doctored image of different headlines

The Sun is known for many things, but one of its now regular features which escapes immediate notice – understandable, really, behind the barrage of tits – is its use of the word ‘tragic’. Tragic is a word with a venerable tradition and a nigh-on infinite array of meanings. It spans the ancient days of sacrificial slaughter (‘tragos’ means ‘goat’ in Greek, and ‘aoidia’ means ‘song’ – hence a song sung whilst the animal was sacrificed) and the art-form that arose out of that ritual, giving us the likes of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, through its next high-point with Shakespeare all the way to the latest most rigorous attempt to get to grips with it as a concept: Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence. Along the way, ‘tragic’ can mean anything from ‘very sad’ to ‘the downfall of a great man thanks to an inherent fatal flaw’. It is a veritable cocktail of destiny, free will, suffering and obscure glory. It can also be a fairly humdrum affair: Hamlet was a prince, but the young working-class mother who dies prematurely of meningitis is no less deserving of the ‘accolade’, if one can be so perverse as to call it that.

What is novel about The Sun’s use of the word is that it becomes a personal attribute; ‘tragic’ is no longer an adjective ascribed to a certain situation, but something a person seems to be: ‘tragic Stephen Gately’, ‘tragic mum is knifed’, ‘eight tragic soldiers killed’, and so on. Now, what I certainly don’t want to suggest is that these people are not important enough to be associated with the high gravitas of tragedy. My problem with The Sun’s usage is that it is deeply ideological. By ascribing ‘tragic’ to an individual person rather than to the network of relations in which they are ensnared (causal, social, economic, political, familial, miltarial) it suggests that what happened was somehow destined and inevitable, it was ‘in their nature’. Whereas what is really tragic about many of these stories is that the people who suffer and die in them do so as a result of potentially avoidable systemic violence of which they are the victim. What is tragic about a British soldier being killed in Afghanistan is not something inherent in the soldier himself, but rather in the world economic and political system which has landed him there as an illegal occupier, paid him a shitty wage to be there, encouraged him that it is in his and our immediate interests to murder supposedly ‘evil’ enemies, and then – to top it all off – has got him massacred in the process. By attributing the tragic to the soldier himself, this larger narrative is kept nicely out of view.

The Sun is a wonderfully inventive and funny newspaper. If it wasn’t the ideological handmaid of murder, hatred and mass exploitation, I’d be able to laugh at its jokes that little bit more easily.

BBC’s HARDtalk: Worlds that passed in the night

Stephen Sackur

There is a paradox involved in disagreeing with someone: in order to disagree with them, you first have to agree with them. You both have to have a shared set of fundamental assumptions which constitute the invisible background to the debate. A disagreement can only be said to occur within such a set of understandings. If the two interlocutors do not share such fundamental understandings – that is, when ‘worldview x’ is absolutely other than ‘worldview y’ – then a disagreement cannot be said to have taken place: the ‘zero-level’ of understanding which would have formed the basis of the dialogue is missing.

Recently, I’ve watched three episodes of HARDtalk (a BBC ‘current affairs’ programme in which an interviewer supposedly ‘grills’ some or other important public figure) during which I’ve felt acutely the lack of this ‘zero-level’ between interviewer and interviewee. The guests were Alain Badiou, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Žižek respectively (all episodes are available on YouTube). What happens in each interview is that two fundamentally different views of the world meet – and miss each other. The basic outlook of the interviewer (Stephen Sackur) is that of your average well-educated liberal: the world is basically fair as it is; if we just give it a few tweaks here and there then we’ll more or less have the best we can hope for within the limits of our eternal human frailties. Now, Badiou, Chomsky and Žižek hold radically different views from one another, but they share one or two basic assumptions which make it almost impossible for them to communicate with the interviewer: namely, the world is basically unfair because it’s structured by a global economic system which necessarily produces inequality and exploitation; change will require much more than ‘making a few tweaks here and there’ – it will require radical transformation, from the roots on up.

Now, given the enormous discrepancy which forms the basis of these conversations, can the ‘interviews’ really be said to take place? Sackur becomes exasperated as soon as someone suggests a view of the world in which injustice is fundamental, while the interviewees become exasperated when confronted with a naive, self-righteous toff. Such ‘(non-)interviews’ can never arrive at truth, but what they do achieve is precisely their propagandist function: to drown out ‘radical’ voices in liberal arias sung in homage to the status quo.

Against the Liberals

Another day, another reflection on my existential quandaries. This time it was inspired by the final phase of the British Humanist Association’s atheist bus campaign. The BHA has just released a batch of billboard posters which are the perfect encapsulation of liberal thinking in the West today. The slogan says it all: ‘Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself’. What could possibly sound more reasonable? Is this not the most enlightened civic virtue burning away those wishy-washy clouds of Christian and Muslim mystification? Does it not bring a metallic, positivist tear to one’s radiantly rational eye?

Before enumerating just why I loathe this poster, it might be worth making a caveat. Let’s not be fools: in extreme cases, where religion is clearly being used to suppress reasoned and critical reflection, to subject a human being to oppressive conditions – be that physically or mentally – then I’m all with the BHA. Another way of saying the same thing is that I’m all for adopting an anaemic liberal ideology over an uncritical and oppressively dogmatic religious ideology. (Though let’s not forget that dogmatism is not always and everywhere oppressive: one can hold dogmatically to one’s beliefs without going round thumping tables and brandishing one’s fists over them).

The main problem I have with this poster is that its principal ideological presupposition is almost theological: choice is sacred. It’s worth unpicking this a little bit. For the British Humanist Association (as for liberalism in general) a human being is an individual – a lonely monad -existing in the void: self-made, self-fashioned. Athena was born fully-grown from the head of Zeus; but the liberal individual is both Athena and Zeus in one, constantly giving birth to itself (‘it’ because it is disembodied and sexless) in the highest stratospheres of solitude. To its north, its south, its east and west there is nothing but nothingness: no history, no society, no God, no illness, no ideas, no needs – just pure nothingness. And within this void the individual chooses. It has no preconceptions, no presuppositions; it is a blank slate choosing in and from an infinity of blankness.

The freedom to choose is the capitalist freedom par excellence. Real freedom might entail making oneself the ground of other people’s freedom – even if that included self-sacrifice -, but capitalist freedom is the liberty to choose: choose a toothpaste, choose a car, choose a house – choose a religion. Religion for people like Dawkins is a set of theoretical propositions on a piece of paper which we can tick if they suit us and cross if they don’t. It is an abstract, unlived, immaterial phenomenon. It is, in other words, precisely not what most practitioners of a religion think they are doing. Religion is a way of life, of being-together, a communal giving and receiving, a shared taking-on of the burdens of finitude and mortality. Moreover, for Christians, this community even stretches to the dead. Because history exists: it is lived through and died in; it hurts and it lives on. Atheist humanism is almost always reason in the void, and it is almost always the perfect ideological accompaniment to a rampant capitalism which renders the lives of most people in the world a misery.

They can put someone else’s religion on the line, but can they put themselves on the line? Dawkins and Grayling and their ilk are obsessed with choice. They did not choose the burden of their historical guilt – the guilt of the bourgeois – but they are guilty nonetheless. So am I. There are many productive ways of dealing with this historical sin – socialism being a prime contender – but celebrating choice is not one of them. It is simply an irresponsible reproduction of the dominant ideology. ‘Let me grow up and choose for myself’: let them grow up, indeed, but into reasonable people.

Learning from Sartre

In a recent post, I wrote of the difference between propositional and performative understandings of religion (more specifically, of Christianity). I explained that part of the problem facing most people today is that they are not born into a tradition of any kind. In the Western world, there used to be two great traditions of which the majority of people were an active member: Christianity and socialism. These were the days when ‘being’ a Christian and ‘being’ a socialist meant performing certain acts in tandem with holding certain beliefs. Creed was a material, practical affair. Today, on the contrary, these traditions no longer exist in the West in the same way in which they used to, and so the majority of people are condemned to confronting them in their abstract propositional form only. Whereas at one time being a socialist meant attending trade union meetings and organising worker education evenings, it now (more or less) means a student sat in halls of residence reading Marx. Put crudely, people used to do things and think things, but now they only think things.

Having never read much Sartre until recently, I was struck by his description of existentialism and its relation to the problem outlined above. By insisting that existence precedes essence – in other words, that we exist before we ourselves decide on what our essence as humans will be (Christian, atheist, agnostic, existentialist, Muslim etc.) – he’s effectively taking to its historical conclusion the fact of the severing of the performative from the propositional. Existential angst is what an honest suburban petit bourgeois who is trying to ‘become’ a Christian experiences almost every day, predominantly because for him Christianity is a choice. He has chosen to become a Christian. He existed, and then he himself founded his own essence, rather than his essence preceding him. Unless one is raised in a Christian family or a socialist family, it seems to me that to ignore this fact and the day-to-day consequences of it is to ignore the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

The repercussions of this for both Christianity and socialism are profound. When critics of Sartre point out that his worldview is merely a reflection of the grim social consequences of monopoly capitalism – a world of bourgeois monads confronting each other as potential competitors and strangers – they are correct. But just because Sartrean existentialism cannot be thought of as ahistorical is precisely not to say that it does not apply to our own epoch. If socialism and Christianity do not begin from this alienated present, then they are simply the nefarious ideologies which their enemies take them for.

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: and 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.

Che the Commodity

Many of us have at one time or another owned an image of Che Guevara. It might have been, like me, during the first year of university, bought from a poster sale at the student union and stuck proudly on the blank wall of an unsure self. Or perhaps it was in the form of a T-shirt, with a suave Che, sex symbol and revolutionary rolled into one, peering out across a Cuban dewy dawn. Either way, it’s likely that anyone with vague rebellious instincts has at some point used this icon to express to the world their anti-bourgeois dreams.

The laughable thing about this – and it is easy to laugh – is the by now obvious point that Che, the great opponent of the commodity form par excellence, has now become a commodity in his own right. T-shirts, posters, photos, calendars, screen-savers and so on, are sold in their thousands around the world on a daily basis, all sporting the image of this great man of the people, and in doing so lining the pockets of the very people he opposed. There is a certain delicious irony inherent to the suburban bourgeois who struts his modestly Marxist stuff in a Che shirt while his CEO father pays his tuition fees.

So what’s the solution? Do we simply indulge this safely commodified form of opposition, brushing it off as so many cases of juvenile angst? Or do we take the easy route of abandoning the image and mocking those who wear it, gleefully pointing out to them the hypocrisy of their actions? Or is there another way?

It seems to me that we should not abandon the icon. At the heart of that image, beneath the layers of commodification, personality cults, adolescent self-expression, there remains a pulse of revolutionary desire. We should not ditch Che because he is contaminated with an empty world; rather, we should organise ourselves and revolt against that empty world in order to make it the equal of his image. To destroy Che the Commodity, you must first destroy the commodity form itself.

%d bloggers like this: