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Uncompromising

December 30, 2008 4 comments

Harold PinterOn Christmas Day, I sat amongst friends and family and together we observed the headlines of Harold Pinter’s death. Almost unanimously around the room there was an expression of unconcern, indeed a few jibes were made about the old man. I suppose it’s true that plenty can be found to poke, such as the petition Pinter signed in support of the freedom and fair trial of Slobodan Milosevic. However, there was a lot to admire also, I think.

One incident in Pinter’s life caught my attention. As part of the International PEN society, Pinter and Arthur Miller went to Turkey to protest human rights abuses. At a dinner given at the US Embassy there, thrown in honour of Miller, Pinter confronted the American Ambassador. When indications were given for Pinter to exit, Miller left with him, preferring to leave with his friend than allow Pinter to be subjected to an indignity on his own, over a few political comments.

I share that tendency with Pinter, and I respect it. I don’t wish to preach, though it may come across like that, but if there is one thing I cannot stand it is hypocrisy. When you add American foreign policy to domestic rhetoric, what you have is almost pure hypocrisy. Regardless of how diplomatic it was to raise the subject, Pinter was right to do so. He didn’t do it because it would be reported by the media; it wasn’t due to ego – it was due to his own personal conscience.

Susan and Paul have recently made reference to the generation gap in politics, but actually this is one of those things which crosses generational lines. Pinter was a great playwright who belonged to the generation before mine, and the generation before that, but the sheer rudeness of his confrontation with the American Ambassador to Turkey is something for the ages. It will always be considered rude to raise Left-wing politics in the circles of high society.

Such circles are much more comfortable with some amusing homophobia, or a little mild racism or anti-semitism. Right-wing humour is the meat and vegetables to the dinner conversation of such circles. To go against the grain in that respect is considered the height of bad form – but we certainly must get used to it. It’s this moral compass, and our almost innate compulsion to follow it which Susan references. Susan also raises a great fear of mine.

Having children has been on my mind for the last few months, and one of my greatest fears is that they will grow up to be completely apolitical. Perhaps one could like this to a homosexual child being born to fundamentalist Christian parents, but I think to be apolitical or vigorously religious would be the most cardinal of sins in my eyes. I have trouble not locking horns with my right-wing or religious friends; how would I be able to control myself with my children?

My ‘moral compass’ points me towards attempting the creation of a genuinely egalitarian project that will tear up capitalism by the roots and rebalance the world. This is why I get up in the morning; it goes beyond relationships, friendships and family – what on earth would I do if none of Harold Pinter’s irreverent spirit was shared by my own children? When I was younger, it seemed like it was little enough shared by my generation and as a result of my rage at this, I got into an inordinate amount of trouble.

And yet, I can’t bring myself to be melancholy about the prospects for our movement and our world. We face challenges from a newly emergent capitalist consensus, that will in time make a bid to gain the allegiance of popular Left-wing consciousness. We face challenges from our own Left flank, the post-Marxists and their Hegelian monism. If my children won’t take Pinter’s words to heart, to inscribe them as motto, maybe yours will:

“I can’t stop reacting to what is done in our name, and what is being done in the name of freedom and democracy is disgusting.”
– Harold Pinter, 1930-2008.

Categories: General Politics, Obituary

Why is George Monbiot such a horse’s arse?

December 30, 2008 14 comments

Research has been keeping me busy recently; I’m researching the Gramscian concept of hegemony (and its subsequent evolutions) while at the same time trying to write a rather more limited critique of the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. In the meantime however, I stumbled across the following article by George Monbiot and I really have to ask; is this man deranged?

The thesis of his most recent offering is that Wales, blessed Cymru, is being held down by the bloody English. The English extracted all the natural resources and sold them on, they constructed a railway system to suit this exploitation, they drowned a small village to supply Liverpool with clean water – oh and the English are more grasping, less liberal and more socially stratified than Wales.

I recently defended John Pilger’s comments regarding Obama’s potential for being an Uncle Tom; whilst I disagreed with Pilger’s lazy characterization, I recognize that Obama will not be what many black people hope he will be. Now, here this sort of thing comes up again: Monbiot is indulging in yet more lazy characterization – not to mention drawing rather silly conclusions from his own laziness. There is no defence for this.

If we look at a railway map of the mainland United Kingdom, it’s fairly easy to see that all railways are ‘extractive'; they are purpose built to carry men and materials where men and materials needed to go. Ports and the nation’s capital fit pretty high up on that bill. It is not just Wales – it is the whole country: whether to ports in Liverpool, London or Southampton, or from outlying areas to centres of industry where people can find jobs, to be extractive is the whole point of a railway.

The railways are not a bloody insult to the Welsh. More importantly, living for two years in Wales doesn’t make you Welsh, Mr Monbiot, anymore than my living in England makes me English. I am Irish, though a citizen of the United Kingdom, and I’d support the Republic’s football team over that of England in a heartbeat – not through any misplaced sense of nationalism but simply because I won’t have to listen to the Irish media crowing about it. If you support the Welsh team, ask yourself why.

If it is a reason similar to mine, then that’s fair enough. Frankly I’d support Germany over England for the simple reason that German footballers don’t seem to be quite such drunken, arrogant primadonnas. If the reason is different, tending towards a love of surroundings, then I suggest to you that your anti-nationalism is not rationally predicated and is in danger of being subverted towards an equally nationalist counter-nationalism.

Whilst none of us can afford to turn a blind eye towards the wrongs of the English government in its provincial territories, nor should that be our only or even our main focus. Much of what was done to Wales was done in the name of private industry – and the function of the British government in that regard was simply the function of any capitalist state. The problem is capitalism, not the English.

It may or may not be the case that Wales feels less socially stratified, or less grasping or more liberal but this is not simply because they are Welsh! Scotland and Wales by virtue of their subsidiary positions could not develop the same weight of Shires-and-Dales middle class as sustains the Tory base in England to such a degree. Indeed, both enjoyed higher levels of unionisation – on a par with one of the industrial centres like Liverpool.

Labour’s strongholds (and the few places where Communists got elected to Parliament) weren’t simply built in Scotland and Wales because of the more liberal nature of the Scottish and Welsh national character – but they were built off the back of vicious class struggle, which compelled ever greater and more conscious acts of working class solidarity. And you, Mr Monbiot, mention none of this.

Your lazy characterization must stop.

Categories: General Politics

Left New Media and internet censorship

December 29, 2008 2 comments

Andy BurnhamAn excellent article by Frank Fisher dissects some of Andy Burnham’s comments on the need to restrict access to certain parts of the web. In the resultant detritus, Fisher notes with alarm a prevailing ethos amongst Labour that disrespects individual freedoms. Fisher warns of impending censorship, such as plans to beef up the current IWF/Cleanfeed model and to make bloggers easier to sue, should they post libellous material.

Burnham suggested that ‘there is content that should just not be available to be viewed.’ Fisher, along with half the internet, reacted indignantly to such a suggestion. Although I agree by and large with the sentiments expressed – and particularly with the worry that the logic of the market will allow Google to continue censoring the internet access of whole nations – I also find them to be incomplete criticisms.

Firstly, on the subject of censorship, we need to put that in context. Censorship over British media has always existed – from D-notices to the more ‘cultural’ side which compelled Filmation to put morals at the end of every He-Man story, lest children be influenced by one cartoon character beating up another. It is just one more ideological battleground, certainly not the only ideological battleground.

Yet this is how many self-proclaimed libertarians tend to treat it.

Secondly, when considering British libel laws and their applications to bloggers (not to mention the mainstream media), we need to consider just how dangerous the very concept of unfettered speech is. Whilst I am more than happy for different political viewpoints to be heard, I am not happy to have individuals or groups write, print or speak outright lies in the furtherance of political ends.

We can do nothing to deal with the endless non-stories published by the mainstream media, but we can try to tidy up their endless hypocrisy. The Daily Mail is famous for targeting women, immigrants, homosexuals and other groups by fitting them into a preconceived narrative (regardless of the facts). Why shouldn’t we give teeth to the PCC to go after editors who approve stories despite full knowledge of facts that would radically alter the narrative of the story?

Dealing with the blogosphere is substantially more difficult – but equally, why should any author be permitted to publish ridiculous distortions of fact? Truth is not to be toyed with; when we know the facts, we should state them, and when we don’t, we should be prepared to admit as much but also to speculate on the basis of educated guess what those facts might be – provided when we do find out, we return to the subject if corrections are needed.

The political blogosphere should attempt to follow journalistic ethics – and not the atrophied kind beloved of Mr. Dacre and his motley crew – but the type that mean we are devoted to publication of truth. Our own ideologies can interpret the facts, but the mark of an honest writer is to make special mention of those facts which may contradict his own view – and to attempt to grapple with those facts.

Of course, this is not what the government seeks, judging by the comments of Andy Burnham, of Bridget Prentice (see the link to Iain Dale) or of Hazel Blears. However, it should be – and no doubt one method of enforcing it will be by re-writing the archaic British libel laws. Not necessarily to increase the grounds for litigation, but to modernise them and make it easier for those of lesser means to do so.

Facts are not in all cases provable, thus meaning that the establishment of truth becomes a social struggle. We should also be aware of the inherent bias in favour of the wealthy (not to mention the mainstream media) in getting away with whatever they like. In both cases, the wealth exists to back up extreme litigiousness, whereas for individuals no such wealth exists – and no legal aid exists for defamation cases.

We cannot merely rely on the willingness of a defamed individual or group to sue, of course. We need a more pro-active answer to this wealth bias, on which basis we can disseminate information rapidly and to a wide audience, to counterbalance prevailing narrative. Yet like any good General, we should not deny ourselves an extra weapon, but we should be able to show judgment as to its deployment.

This may not avoid unfortunate situations where one individual is trigger-happy, such as the lawsuits brought by Johanna Kaschke against Dave’s Part and Socialist Unity. On the whole, however, it may make bloggers more careful about what they write, making them more honest – and if while we’re at it, we can do the same for the mainstream media, then we’ll have scored a victory for free speech indeed.

Categories: General Politics, Law

A cavalier approach to decentralization

December 28, 2008 Leave a comment

Over any holiday, online reading material tends to accumulate. Christmas 2008 has been no exception even though no few blogs are on vacation. One that I really wanted to challenge was the post over at Mil’s place entitled, “The Petri Dish Philosophy of Politics“. Mil makes the argument that we should import regional minimum wages into the UK, allowing say Birmingham or Manchester to experiment with a higher minimum wage.

The problem with the analogy inherent in the title is that, as often as not, what we grow in a Petri dish is harmful.

Regional minimum wages exist in the US, where there is a federal, a state-by-state and in a few cases a city-based minimum wage. The San Francisco Chronicle carries an article about how the SF minimum wage is about to climb to $9.79 per hour, against the wishes of local employers, but much to the appreciation of SF workers. Economists on the other hand think it helps keep the unskilled unemployed.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, bearing in mind the racist argument that immigrants are ‘coming over here and taking our jobs'; if skilled indigenous people are chosen over immigrants, then we’re left with the reality that we should have programmes in place to train such people rather than allowing employers to exert pressure to lower wages by employing those who are the most vulnerable in the UK.

It isn’t the issue however; the issue is whether or not we should give such power to local governments in the hope that the closer legislative power is to the people, the more they will take an interest. Certainly businesses will take a big interest – and not just by funding local Conservative Associations. Regional minimum wages might pressure companies to move to where they find the cheapest labour, turning regions against one another in competition for ‘investment’.

Nor is that all. Regional minimum wages are great in that they determine the least someone might earn, they don’t determine what someone could otherwise earn. The concept of the minimum wage demotivates people in the struggle for higher wages – a struggle which, agreeing as we do that the minimum wage sucks, they should wage (aha) with alacrity. The system of the minimum wage replaces the method of collective bargaining.

This is why Sweden doesn’t have a minimum wage. Collective bargaining also avoids the nasty problem of politicians complaining about how a minimum wage makes people unemployed – unions can take specific account of layoffs when they are mobilising workers in readiness for the collective bargaining agreements. Consider the words of the Supreme Court of Canada on the subject:

  • The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work.
  • Collective bargaining is not simply an instrument for pursuing external ends…rather [it] is intrinsically valuable as an experience in self-government.
  • Collective bargaining permits workers to achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace. Workers gain a voice to influence the establishment of rules that control a major aspect of their lives.

(Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Assn. v. British Columbia, [2007] 2 S.C.R. 391, 2007 SCC 27)

This is a cavalier approach to decentralization, bearing in mind that decentralization will replicate most of the problems extant at a central level. The only cases in which it won’t are those where the decentralized authorities exist in areas more progressive than the rest of the nation; it will make it worse for everywhere else. This is one more reason why the ‘progressive’ argument for Scottish independence is simply closet nationalism.

Categories: General Politics

Happy Christmas? Zavvi, the IMF and terroristic capitalism

December 24, 2008 9 comments

Another major high street retailer has bitten the dust: Zavvi has gone into administration barely a year after a management team bought it from Richard Branson. Teas and coffees company Whittard has been sold to a private equity firm. All down the line, the reorganisation of capital proceeds apace, with little thought for the human cost of the procedure.

Subprime in ClevelandDavid Harvey in his recent lecture “A Financial Katrina” discusses this human cost. In fact he presents the clearest and most cogent Marxist analysis I’ve heard yet. Repossessions and job losses represent a war on the working class. An excess of liquidity drove investment in areas such as the subprime market but the people who will suffer most from the inevitable crash of that market (which is cyclical) are the working classes.

This is why the ideologues of free market capitalism have been arguing, a la Melanie Phillips, that the problem is with the working class people who chose to opt for home ownership on terms they couldn’t sustain. So not the fault of those pushing home ownership as the centrepiece of a consumerist ideology? Or those whose ethical guidelines are restricted to “Make a profit. That’s all.”

Black areas in ClevelandHarvey goes on to illustrate how it is the black neighbourhoods of the United States who are bearing the brunt of the punishment (though even by Harvey’s own data, white working class areas are still suffering, so we shouldn’t overemphasize the racial aspect).

A recent pronouncement by the IMF Chief Economist, Olivier Blanchard, seems to bear out some of Harvey’s contentions. Britain’s VAT cut is no good, he says; Britain needs to increase spending, but also Britain’s borrowing is going to cause problems. It seems that between the lines, the IMF wants Britain to hike taxes on the workers rather than create new business taxes or reduce regressive taxes.

Indeed this notion is reinforced by Blanchard’s support (surprise surprise) for Sarkozy’s plan to loan money to people to buy cars. If there is one symbol of unnecessary consumption, it is the car, yet the IMF Chief Economist wants people to be spending their money on such things. We might as well cut out the middle man and give the auto-giants their direct subsidy. At least it would mean less pollution and less personal debt.

In the United States, that is precisely what is happening, the Republicans are using the opportunity to squeeze out every last concession from the autoworkers’ unions, who have effectively rolled over. This is the bluntest end of the weapons arrayed against the working class; the direct assault on wages and terms and conditions, in order to allow a higher profit and to allow such newly accumulated capital to be refocused elsewhere.

It is clear that an opportunity is being lost. Surely now is the time to be investing in new patters of consumption? Such as the creation of vast networks of public transportation, which dovetails cutting carbon emissions and government stimulus packages. It’s not like the auto-companies wouldn’t have a part of the affair – especially if we nationalise them and retool them specifically for that purpose.

We should be under no illusions that the gloves have come off our capitalist overlords – indeed it is reflected in the increasingly sharp rhetoric from people like George Osborne. “Labour is bankrupting Britain again,” he says, and it is the ‘again’ part which has the sting in the tail. As Osborne surely sees, Labour expenditure now has nothing of the Left overtones of Labour expenditure in the 1940’s, 1960’s or 1970’s.

Yet Osborne is quite content to scaremonger that Labour’s class warrior spirit has returned. As Labour activists, we know better, more is the pity. Our response must be just as unyielding as the Republican Senators pushing to destroy the UAW, or Osborne trying to frighten the middle-classes with the spectre of a resurgent socialism. We must demand much, much more than we are getting from Labour.

Cultural Christianity?

December 23, 2008 9 comments

Richard DawkinsSue Blackmore comments on a debate from last year over whether or not it is consistent for non-Christians, especially Atheists, to attend things like Christmas Carol services. The rumpus was caused by Richard Dawkins admission that he was going to go Carol singing, and the protestations of Christians against the notorious atheists doing so. She asks her readership what she should do; to sing or not to sing?

Dr. Blackmore wonders about differing perceptions of carols, from the innocent and relatively irreligious “Holly and the Ivy” to the ramifications of singing of Jesus “no crying he makes”. Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade but I would rather choke than listen to “Away in a manger”. I love Christmas carols; I have CDs of Christmas carols from some of the finest choirs in Western Europe – but please, no more of that song!

Perhaps Sue should refrain from attending simply on the basis of taste.

On the wider issue, I sympathise with the notion of cultural Christianity. So many of us were brought up, baptised, confirmed and communed (?) in one of the Christian denominations. We may have no faith in them, regarding them as quaint fairy stories or vulgar, dangerous hypocritical centres for extraordinarily reactionary politics – but there are some aspects which cause us nostalgia.

Christmas carols are one such: I hated going to mass, which was just one series of obsequies after another, but many fine pieces of music are Christmas carols. It is not hypocritical in the slightest to enjoy them.

Albert Mohler comments that, “The thought of Richard Dawkins singing any carols with explicit Christian content is difficult to hold — unless the Oxford professor intends to sing of a faith he does not profess.” I have to ask, why wouldn’t we sing about a faith we don’t profess? It’s no different from reading Tolkien because the writing is masterful, or watching fantasy or sci-fi films or singing certain nursery rhymes to our children.

Singing a song doesn’t require one’s heartfelt belief in every aspect of what the author is trying to celebrate. We might sing along to modern pop songs and consider the lyrics to be meaningless trash (which they are, in the case of most modern dance, enunciated by vaguely mechanic Germanic women). I think it’s utterly silly to have any hang-ups about singing Christmas carols.

The cultural aspect to Christianity is independent of Christianity itself, and if you removed Christianity entirely, something similar would continue to exist: a celebration where people get together and go out singing. Indeed the ‘carol’ was a type of popular music long before it has the established religious connections of today, so why not go out and sing along? The lyrics don’t mean anything.

As that advert said, “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and go enjoy your life.”

(Incidentally, I have to publish the following link, to claim my blog at Technorati, so pay no notice: Technorati Profile)

Categories: General Politics, Religion

Restraining truisms

December 20, 2008 Leave a comment

How can we best explain the genre of the political book? I like to place the components of this genre on a sliding scale that takes no account of ideology. On the one side you have some of the greatest books of the 20th Century.Karl Popper On the other, you have the bargain basement punditry, sold god knows how and soon found in second-hand bookshops all over the country, often several copies to a shelf.

In the first category, I would list books such as Karl Popper’s Open Society, Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty or Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. I vehemently disagree with vast chunks of all of these books, but no one can doubt that they are profound works that have contributed much to our understanding of the political issues which confront us today. Nor are all three purely theoretical, though they lean that way.

Moving towards the second category, you begin to notice a change between the theoretical and the un-theoretical. Obama’s Audacity of Hope was one; it was a manifesto rather than a political treatise. McCain’s Faith of my Fathers was another, designed to endear him to the Republican base without actually grappling with the key political questions of his time. These books are thoroughly political, but they aren’t theoretical at all.

At the very bottom of this scale, you have journalists like Guy Sorman. Sorman has published around twenty books on ‘contemporary politics’ ranging from discussions on socialism, to the ‘happiness’ of the USA to human rights in China. Sorman was a professor at a university in Paris, but his journalistic traits are very much evident in his written works, for example here.

I have used words like ‘un-theoretical’ and ‘journalistic’ to describe these works which I hold in less esteem, though they are still bound together by the genre of political books. This illustrates my key problem with them; when not fully and openly engaged with the ideological contentions of their opponents and their own, they are compelled to fall back on the commonplace, the truism - and that is dangerous.

To illustrate my point, let me utilize Monsieur Guy’s latest oeuvre, linked to above.

European socialists have failed to address the crisis cogently because of their internal divisions. Born anti-capitalist, these parties all (to greater and lesser degrees) came to accept the free market as the foundation of the economy. Moreover, since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet system, the left has lacked a clear model with which to oppose capitalism.

The truism is that all Left parties adapted to observe the free market as an unbreakable law of capitalist economics. The danger is that this truism informs several bald assertions that simply do not stand scrutiny, firstly that the Left lacks a clear model with which to oppose capitalism and secondly that ‘European socialists’ have failed to address the crisis in a coherently fashion because of internal divisions.

However the truism ignores that actually, it was the leadership of the Left parties which adopted wholesale the free market. By the admission of factions, Sorman’s other contentions are thrown into difficulty. First of all, no group of political factions ever address any issue in exactly the same way, so the cogency of the Left response is nothing to do with factions. Secondly, there has never been a universal model with which to supplant capitalism.

In fact, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the potential alternatives multiplied many times – whether they’re all workable or not is irrelevant, but their basic feature is workers’ control. It is unlikely to convince professional economists, but then those same economists have spent their lives working on exceptionally ideological premises that are simply bypassed by changing the means of capital accumulation.

Let’s try another.

Since George W Bush showed the way towards bank nationalisation, vast public spending, industrial bailouts, and budget deficits, the socialists have been left without wiggle room. French president Nicolas Sarkozy tries to rekindle growth through the protectionist defence of “national industries” and huge investments in public infrastructure, so what more can socialists ask for?

By this, Sorman attempts to establish that socialist = protectionist, Keynesian. For all his erudite mention of the new Left groupings coming into being, alliances of ‘Trotskyites, communists and anarchists’, evidently the chap has never been slipped a copy of the Transitional Programme, much less an Erfurt-style Maximum Programme. This self-important political hack would piss his pants.

In the UK, Sorman’s type of cliché is one deployed by New Labour regarding Old Labour; no going back to the days of tax and spend, boom and bust etc. Well, in New Labour’s case, it has become spend and spend, but that’s besides the point. Sorman and others who play this sort of game rely on this vague, generally accepted view of the Left to deploy concepts which aren’t just wrong, they are a catacomb of lies and misinformation.

Another:

These institutions [the EU], based on free trade, competition, limited budget deficits, and sound money, are fundamentally pro-market; there is little leeway within them for doctrinaire socialism. This is why the far left is anti-European.

That the far left is anti-European is axiomatic and it suits our political establishment to say that over and over again. It ignores the fact that while the Sarkozys and their like were fighting for King or Republic, the socialists were trying to construct pan-national endeavours that would put a stop to war. The far left isn’t anti-European, and to say so deprives it of its anti-capitalist, anti-bureaucratic critiques.

It is anti-EU.

Once again then:

European socialists are also finding it hard to distinguish themselves in foreign affairs. They used to be reflexively pro-human rights, much more so than conservative parties. But ever since Bush included these ideas as part of his democracy-promotion campaigns, European socialists have become more wary of them.

Moreover, without the Soviet Union, European socialists have few foreign causes to take to heart: few understand Putin’s Russia, and today’s totalitarian-capitalist China is too far and too strange. And, since Barack Obama’s election, anti-Americanism is no longer a viable way to garner support. The good old days when Trotskyites and socialists found common ground in bashing the United States are over.

Socialists hate America; socialists are now in bed with those who are anti-human rights; socialists were Soviet or PRC second campists. The number of clichés with which these paragraphs are riddled is stunning – but none of them make the underlying contentions any more accurate. Socialists have plenty to keep them busy on the international stage, beginning with the anti-war movement and moving to Venezuelan and other Latin American solidarity campaigns.

If that were dying out, surely we’d get some remittance from Harry’s Place?

Secondly, the fact that Bush has appropriated words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ for America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the War on Terror generally, has had no effect on the human rights stances of the Left. The anti-war movement was universally opposed to the war on the grounds that it would completely shaft the people it was ostensibly supposed to help. I’d call that a defence of human rights.

I would go so far to say that even beyond the traditional socialist activists, to the average punter who reads the Daily Mail or the middle class family chap with 2.4 kids, there was revulsion at Bush’s gung-ho attitude to the invasions. In no small part this was shaped by Bush’s bastardisation of language, his petty jingoism about ‘evil-doers’ in light of the crimes that the American military has committed elsewhere.

As for being ‘reflexively pro-human rights’, that very doctrine is empty of political content and so it can be picked up as a shield and used to cover the most heinous of purposes. Such as imperial aggrandizement – witness Russia versus Georgia. I’d be appalled by the thought that the Left has ever been reflexively pro-human rights. We are much more politically sophisticated than the four-legs good model implied by that statement.

The bottom line is that this chap Sorman is making things up as he goes along, and he doesn’t even have the wit to provide at least some empirical grounding to cover his assertions. They are sustained by truisms, things he expects everyone will simply take as read in order to follow him in building a pyramid of perception – the only problem being, the metaphorical cornerstones are missing from his construction.

There are plenty of journos and political types who get up to this, and don’t have the redeeming man-of-the-people comedy of that arsehole Jeremy Clarkson. Jonathan Freedland, Timothy Garton Ash, Nick Cohen…all of them sell books numbering in the thousands off the back of their media careers as talking heads. Yet none of them have ever produced insights to rival Berlin or Popper.

Instead they are to such great minds as the cheeky girls are to Mozart; ripped off, dumbed down and playing to the gallery, rather than interested in creative and intellectual endeavour. It is this truistic behaviour which we should root out from among the shelves of our bookstores and burn them in a giant pile, in the middle of town squares all across the country, with the cry:

“No more mediocrities!”

If Jon Cruddas is the future of the Left, we’re f*cked

December 19, 2008 40 comments

CruddasListening to Jon Cruddas being interviewed on the IPPR’s series of podcasts, I am utterly appalled by large chunks of what he has to say. I’m also quite surprised. First of all, everyone should listen to this podcast because quotes from it may be put on placards should the real Labour Left decide to organize an angry mob and picket Cruddas’ house.

Early in the interview, Cruddas recycles what seems to be the fairly traditional Keynesian line but things begin to go awry when he sticks his neck out on the issue of New Labour. Apparently to begin with, ‘it has been much traduced’ but was a ‘sophisticated political movement’ that only lost its texture after the 2003 war.

The 1997 manifesto, Cruddas has nothing but praise for; it was ‘liberal’ and ‘radical’ and a brilliant document. It’s only ‘New Labour mark II’, from the outbreak of war onwards, that made Cruddas uncomfortable as time went on. What about measures such as the 2001 anti-terrorism act. Or New Labour’s behaviour during the FBU strike?

Our 1997 manifesto was radical? The same manifesto that promised not to increase income tax? The manifesto which saw a solution to juvenile crime in getting them up in front of the magistrate faster? The ‘integrated transport policy’ which saw deaths on the railways and the embarrassing bankruptcy of a major rail company?

I haven’t even begun to talk about what New Labour have done for internal Labour Party democracy. The sham of One Member One Vote. The driving off of an army of trade unionist supporters through disaffiliation. I fear I am bludgeoning home my point (when I would prefer to bludgeon Cruddas’ head) so I shall move on.

Cruddas moves on to attack the ‘Old Left’ (a question on which is served up as a softball by the interviewer). He hails the SPD and their grand coalition, and their response to the emergence of Die Linke. Die Linke and the far left generally, Cruddas describes as having “very reductive” and “economically reductive” views of class.

When I heard that, I had trouble not throwing my computer across the room. Is he fucking kidding me? Does he even live on the same political planet as the rest of us, who are labouring long and hard to undermine this rainbow coloured bullshit of people like Nicos Poulantzas who suggest that Late Capitalism has undermined ‘economically reductive’ class and that actually the material superstructure doesn’t matter anymore?

And he’s so glib about it. He passes over it like it doesn’t even merit debate. I have read, written and debated for years on this topic alone – class – and one hack politician suddenly declares that my interpretation is economically reductive. I’m going to beat the shitbag to death with a copy of Ellen Woods’ Retreat from Class.

From there Cruddas goes on to describe the Convention of the Left as an ‘embryonic new party’, a development which he considers to be ‘dangerous’. ‘Where John McDonnell is going’ is nowhere, according to Susan Press, despite Cruddas’ bald assertions, designed to smear his political rival. That’s not even the point, though it shows up Cruddas’ argument as completely tendentious.

My point is this: why is working towards a new party a bad thing? Cruddas categorically fails to engage with the issue of internal democracy, or to lay out how he thinks all the issues of the Left will be resolved. Without that, he effectively has no argument with which to counter the contention that, if we cannot serve our ideals within Labour, we should leave.

I genuinely don’t believe these ideals are really what Cruddas is concerned with. Essentially Cruddas lives in the same world of triangulation as New Labour.

The ‘deliberative, pluralist, centre-left’ that Cruddas vaunts hasn’t appeared yet. Indeed I don’t actually know what that means, bearing in mind a large number of New Labourites would call themselves centre-left. Cruddas doesn’t even mention how he expects that, following a far left split that would deprive Labour of its most ardent supporters and activists, this ‘centre-left’ will go from being a pipe dream to controlling the organs of the Party.

It won’t. Not that Cruddas cares. I suspect Cruddas has in mind the old maxim, “socialism is what Labour does” – regardless of what Labour does, it is socialism. Similarly, for Cruddas, I imagine that ‘centre-left’ is what Cruddas does. This sort of rhetorical vacuity is exactly what we saw in the young Tony Blair – with his protestations of Christian socialism and so forth.

Cruddas evades the issue of a ‘new Third way’ masterfully; he claims that the state-market relationship has changed, undermining the credibility of people like Mandelson, but while talking about a ‘Social Democratic moment’ he has no answer when it is posed to him that actually the electorate is currently shifting to the right.

Instead of challenging the very idea that the electorate is moving to the right, he goes on to say that Labour must simply change its articulation of its goals to match people’s aspirations. This is the sort of disingenuous analysis we’ve been getting from New Labourites for years – and now it turns out Cruddas is a NuLab in sheep’s clothing.

On the abolition of Trident and defence spending, Cruddas hits the Left g-spot, but so what? This is exactly what Blair and Robin Cook were saying after 1994. Rolling back the database state is mentioned, tentatively, but again, none of this challenges the very underlying economic basis of exploitation, the undemocratic bastion of conservative strength: organised Capital.

Cruddas’ complete capitulation is evident in answering questions on how to unite middle England and working class England, asked (I think) by Rupa Huq. Apparently precision bombing messages to small cohorts of voters is part of political life; his only argument is that the message we’re giving out should be different – ‘especially on immigration’.

This betrays both a practical naivety and a theoretical weakness which Cruddas tries to cover with his use of the word ‘semiotic’, a favourite of post-industrial political economist wannabes. New Labour had accepted the inevitable logic that, if your efforts are to be electoral, then you must try and bring on board campaigning machines like the Daily Mail.

With capital in control of the mass media, not to mention having access to the vast PR machine that can crank up ‘expert opinion’, opinion polls, astroturf groups (called such because they can be created overnight) and mock events to promote their issues, it’s no wonder New Labour tried to woo them – but this had repercussions for their policies.

Cruddas tries to explain away the New Labour project as the product merely of human agency; they made choices and held views with which he disagrees – and had Cruddas been in charge, the implication is, the ‘semiotic game’ would have been played differently, displacing the debate towards the Left rather than the Right.

For a student of political economy, the vulnerability of such a situation should be startlingly obvious. It completely ignores the effect of the structure of society upon what he refers to as a law of politics, which he says he is not trying to abolish. Cruddas essentially is a New Labourite – and I would say that if ever a Cruddasite government was established, it would remodel the early Tony Blair years easily.

If the Left is genuinely going to put its trust into this man and his accolytes then once again we’re simply going to be the Left Behind.

History from above

December 19, 2008 Leave a comment

Time: Harold WilsonPaul has a good article up this morning, detailing the (way, way) pre-emptive response of a Conservative MP in the Daily Mail to a potential Conservative election loss in February. Stephen Glover blames the electorate for their bad choice between Heath and Wilson in 1974 and suspects that, should Labour go to the country in February 2009, that it may see a similar ‘cowardly choice’.

I see Glover’s articles on three levels; firstly, the completely unsurprising selective interpretation of data. Secondly, the article strikes me as a ‘push’ article. I think the Conservatives win a February 2009 election. Thirdly, the selection mentioned above demonstrates with crystal clarity the dangers of ‘history from above’, also known as what we teach kids from ages eleven to twenty-one.

The only modern history I studied at university was in second year, when I chose a module on the British welfare history from 1900-1974. Glover’s article inspired me to look over the central textbook again, an enjoyable read called State and Society, by staple historian Martin Pugh, particularly the chapter on the Heath government, for obvious reasons.

Beginning with what Pugh saw as the changes which Heath brought in, his differences with Wilson, the underlying ‘sameness’ of Heath with other One Nation conservatives despite the rhetoric which introduced his premiership, the chapter unfailingly writes history from the point of view of the rulers of British state and society. Better still is when Pugh examines why Heath failed.

Central to Pugh’s argument is the failure of a traditional Tory tactic:

The tendency to make concessions [to unions] was increased by the irresponsible policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, who tried to thrust the economy into a growth phase by tax cuts and higher expenditure. This only boosted inflation, stoked up a consumer spending spree and drew imports into the country. In the past, Conservative Chancellors had repeatedly done this in order to cultivate a sense of wellbeing among voters before an election. This time the boom was mistimed: it merely fed the appetite of the trade unions,

How many interpretative problems can you spot in the above paragraph? The link between state actions and employer actions, the link between the boom and union ‘appetite’, the assumption that people voted Tory in previous elections due to ‘a sense of well-being’…the problem with all of these is of course how to establish causality – the relationship between cause and effect.

It’s the same problem that infects Glover’s article; Cameron has ‘decontaminated the brand’ but he hasn’t enunciated a clear economic alternative, which is why the Tories aren’t sailing ahead in opinion polls or likely to win an election. Of course Glover has not argued how this ‘economic alternative’ or lack of has influenced people. He has assumed it.

This is how all political commentary in the media works.

One of Paul Foot’s Letters to a Bennite details his view (emphasized for effect, I think) that no one is likely to be swayed by the media, but instead they are likely to be swayed by their concrete experience of class struggle. This ignores that the media reports the progress of the class struggle day and daily and that people’s perceptions of the same can be shaped by the media.

Struggle can be displaced from political-, social- and economically heirarchical relationships to those of race, culture or religion. This can be both a result of the objective position of class struggle (e.g. a proletarian movement which is not strong enough to provide a focus for working class loyalty and therefore unity) and the hegemonic discourses of any given period.

Yet still, Foot’s view represents an analytical alternative to that of Pugh or Glover. It disputes their method of looking at what the rulers are doing and then judging on the basis of subsequent popular response whether people approved, or on the basis of subsequent Trade Union response whether it did excite the unions to grasp for ever greater concessions.

From that perspective, the election in 1974, the cowardly choice of the electorate, wasn’t a cowardly choice. For some, it was a lack of faith in the Heath government to solve the problems with the unions – a declaration of despair, since the failure of the Heath government was the failure of capitalism to reconcile wholly opposed interests. In that sense, the vote was apolitical. It denoted a lack of understanding.

From another perspective, it was a conscious choosing of sides in an ever-present struggle that was finally polarizing the political parties. In that sense then, it was everything but cowardly. It was bold and decisive. Glover’s response to it is just sour grapes. It denotes Glover’s subjective position; the Tories were bravely resisting union blackmail – and their supporters were for the defence of national interest.

At this point, almost any second year undergrad can deconstruct Glover’s position. Yet it is this ideological position, this replacement of objective reality with an ideological construct, that sustains most political journalism and most political history books, even up to degree level. The policy of Barber was ‘irresponsible’ (said Pugh) but his reasoning is that it encouraged the trade unions.

Even the less overtly ideological statements, such as about how ‘people’ voted, lack differentiation according to clear analytical categories – and this is sustained by the core framework being that of the nation-state. The blunt instrument of history from above simply feeds the blunt instrument of Conservative prejudices and ideology. This is not, of course, the cutting edge of Tory sophistry in our universities – but it is what our students are being asked to read, with almost zero guidance.

I call that dangerous.

Criticizing Žižek

December 17, 2008 5 comments

ZizekA continual source of surprise to me is precisely how crude the analysis of those professing to be the “Third Way” turn out to be. Any number of New Labour apparatchiks have confessed to me how much superior they think Tories are to Trotskyists. Apparently the American versions, many of whom are to be found amongst the staff of The New Republic, don’t seem to be much more nuanced. One of them has been attacking Slavoj Žižek – and the terms of the criticism are telling.

So unsophisticated is Adam Kirsch’s understanding that he must resort to selective quotations and deliberate misinterpretation of much of what Žižek says. Consider the following example. Kirsch wants to attack Žižek for his base view of American culture.

What Zizek really believes about America and torture can be seen in his new book, Violence, when he discusses the notorious torture photos from Abu Ghraib: “Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people; in being submitted to humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture.” Torture, far from being a betrayal of American values actually offers “a direct insight into American values, into the very core of the obscene enjoyment that sustains the U.S. way of life.”

What Žižek is really saying is much less simple. First of all, the ‘obscene enjoyment’ which Žižek is referring to is the injunction of the super-ego. As a psychoanalyst in the Lacanian mould, Žižek believes that the appeal of consumerism – a culture of unrestrained enjoyment – is sustained by this super-ego. It is this super-ego underside to the visible which Žižek is trying to examine.

Žižek gives the example of homosexuality amongst soldiers; explicit homosexuality is attacked, but the underlying expression of this ethos is a succession of crude practices, gay innuendoes and in-jokes. Žižek’s attempt is to establish the dialectical underpinning to an expressed ideology of repression – and thus it is with the practices at Abu Ghraib that Žižek moves on to discuss.

He points out that the ritual humiliation conducted at Abu Ghraib – not simple brutal torture, as existed under Saddam’s regime – provides an echo of certain themes in American life. Torture in high art, perhaps, or the initiation ceremonies of the fraternities and secret societies of Ivy League universities, or even simply acts of bullying – though in all of these, it need not be limited to American society.

The Lacanian super-ego is the rebalancing between the ego-Ideal (our accommodation with social norms) and the law of desire, that which demands we carry out our desires. Žižek is positing that the social norms under which soldiers live create a pressure which must act out, and this ‘traumatic excess’ is the function of the super-ego.

Indeed, Žižek goes further. He suggests that the actions of the soldiers were sanctioned informally by the obscene underside to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, something like a ‘Code Red’ in the film A Few Good Men, a term based on real military slang; ‘blanket parties’ or ‘wolfpacks’ on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. From Žižek’s perspective, I think, this is the natural result of a contradiction between the speech-act of American military intervention and discipline, and its much harsher reality.

All of this can be found between pages 145 and 149 in Žižek’s book, Violence.

A soldier friend of mine has called this ‘hyper rationalisation’ and he may have a point – but agree or disagree with Žižek, my point is that it is extremely evident how little Adam Kirsch wished to engage with Žižek’s thesis. Most obviously Kirsch for several pages simply fails to even mention the psychoanalytical aspect to Žižek’s work, which is crucial to his epistemology and thus to his very conception of the real historical situations he sets out to engage with.

Indeed Kirsch prefers ad hominem attacks about Žižek’s personal style, which, I have to confess, is highly engaging if somewhat erratic. Similarly, it is much easier to brand Žižek with the slaughter of millions of people, the blood of whom obviously (in Adam Kirsch’s mind) stains Žižek’s hands because he sets out to discuss Lenin, Stalin, Robespierre, Mao etc with a tone that is academic, indeed sometimes playful, rather than the outraged and indignant attitude which Kirsch’s worldview clearly demands.

I do not necessarily agree with much of what Žižek says, but he is certainly an irreverent challenge to a Left which can be rather stodgy. One has to admit, a sense of humour as regards politics is hard to find on the Marxist (or post-Marxist, whatever the bugger that means) Left. If we are to challenge some of what Žižek says, and I believe we should, I think it should be framed as a rejection of the Lacanian accoutrements which Žižek seems to unnecessarily carry.

Were I to pick a few things that have recently been niggling at me, I should choose some of the following from ‘In Defence of Lost Causes‘. It seems to me that much of Žižek’s reasoning chains are too easily picked at. For example, on page 176, Žižek discusses how transposing Marx to a ‘universal’ application required doing violence to Marx’ own reasoning.

He says that, as a ‘universal’ Christianity required the betrayal of St Paul (presumably he is referring to the purity rites of the early Judeo-Christian communities), to displace Christianity from a specifically Jewish context, so Marxism required the ‘betrayal’ by Lenin to rip it from a mid-19th century German context. Žižek suggests that this is in the nature of universal ideas. He goes on to posit Mao’s ‘reinvention’ of Marxism as a second violent transposition.

The discussion of Paul’s appropriation of Jewish Christianity is accurate, so far as it goes, and it is borne out by the record of Acts of the Apostles. Yet the analogy is not sufficient for Marxism; first of all, even the works of Karl Marx himself are hardly a unitary whole. Marx posited a method of social analysis, but experimented and tinkered with that method til his death. Engels experimented with it after him. Lenin and Mao and Stalin also, though we might believe of at least Stalin that this was done for cynical reasons rather than in the spirit of genuine intellectual experimentation.

I would also suggest that the vaunted transformation of Marxism visited by Lenin was not so traumatic as Žižek suggests. The Soviets were based on the Paris Commune; “That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, gentlemen!” as Engels said. The much discussed ‘vanguard’ of Lenin was an adaptation forced upon the Bolsheviki by the concrete historical circumstances of Tsarist oppression, one they did not easily shake off even after the fall of the autocratic government.

On a more general note, I should rather like to dispute the epistemological foundations of the Lacanian Left, which Žižek wholly subscribes to – as his discussion on Robespierre shows (pp164ff). I do not believe that every ‘truth’ must be grounded by the discourse of the Master – that, as Žižek puts it, “It is so because I say it is so!” I much prefer the more mundane arguments of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio Criticism.

However, I am not yet ready and literate enough to mount my challenge and I will content myself with the original thesis: like him or loathe him, so far there are few or none who have engaged Žižek seriously, and this latest attempt falls far short, into the behaviour more worthy of an internet troll than of a literary reviewer. Another defence against this specific review can be read here, by Terry Glavin.

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