Archive for October, 2010

Do candidates count?

October 28, 2010 1 comment

I’m reading Paul Richards ‘Labour’s Revival: A Moderniser’s Manifesto’’, as background for my own book writing exploits

I’ll reserve judgement on the whole tome for another time, but this amused me……

Paul explains why he didn’t manage to win a very winnable seat in 1997, but came close:

It would be nice to think they were voting for me but of course they weren’t.  Individual candidates make only a marginal difference in elections, unless they’ve done something bad (p. xxiv).

Perhaps Paul did something bad, because he’s clear on why some Labour candidates held their seats in 2010 against the odds:

The clear lesson from the campaigns that where local candidates were supported by active community-based campaigns, built on years of incumbency, with local issues to the fore, they stood a much better chance of winning (p.48).

 ps. I much prefer Don Paskini’s analysis of how to win elections.

pps.  I also know a thing or two about winning elections through local efforts.  Candidates do count.

The Tea Party’s love of our Cam

He won’t tell me any details, but apparently Paul – yes, you know him, the one who writes on this blog – spoke to none other than Phillip Blond at the Labour Party conference, supposedly – and among other things – about me and my utilisation of the term “epistemic closure” to designate a good portion of the electorate who support the Conservative Party, despite being theoretically very removed from actual conservatism.

Paul has written some blog posts opposing my use of this term, so I can only imagine it was a critical conversation, but at least I got those two fogey’s talking.

Not one to blow my own, it turns out I’m not alone in thinking there is some parity in the Conservative Party and those for whom the charge “epistemically closed” had originally been levelled at by Julian Sanchez – those dreaded Tea Party folk in the US.

Four days ago, Patrick J. Buchanan of The American Conservative magazine – yes my favourite too – labelled Cameron the ‘Tea Party Tory’. (h/t Freddy Gray of the Speccie).

In fact, he goes further than I do. In my writings, I said Cameron is probably a limp-wristed leftie Tory who is able to sleep at night under the pretence he cares for the poor, but in order to be electable in his party, needs to appeal to a certain section of the party, what I call the epistemically closed section.

Buchanan, in fact, says that Cameron’s party’s cuts reflect exactly the ethos of the tea party – small government at a drastic scale.

No doubt as the money talks, Cameron’s soft social Toryism will be piss in the wind compared to the damage wielded by his cust agenda. Perhaps I didn’t go far enough in calling Cameron out for the epistemic closure inside his party.


Background articles:

The epistemic closure of the Conservative Party

Cameron will fail in reviving Conservatism

David Cameron and the Conservative identity crisis


0.8% growth Q3 still needs to be viewed with caution

October 26, 2010 18 comments

Unfortunately, today’s growth figures act as a Rorschach test; the coalition government and its supporters see growth at 0.8% in the third quarter of 2010, and growth for the last six months at 2%. What the opposition will see is a drop of 0.4% when between April and June growth was positioned at 1.2%.

Since growth was forecasted far lower than expected, many – such as Vince Cable, who was said to have a big smile on his face this morning, possibly after finding out the data – are probably just pleased to see a higher figure, not because it is necessarily a good sign for the economy, but simply because it will make for easy smoke and mirrors. Look we can cut and grow, it’s easy.

Others may note that the worst of the cuts have not been factored into the figures yet. It’s important to note that cuts will have been factored in already; the squeeze for many councils started a while ago, redundancies are a reality now, and small and medium businesses (SMEs) are already checking their books with a grimace.

Construction was the real winner with contributions of 4% (p. 3), compared with an increase of 9.5% in the previous quarter, and 11% since Q3 2009 and Q3 2010.

Read in a certain way, today’s figures will prove politically opportune for the Tory/Lib Dem government, which may set back Labour’s current lead in the polls. But it is not mere politicking to point out that the severity of the cuts, spelt out in the CSR last week, have not been entirely factored in, and that growth really needs to be sustained and sustainable.

There is even tension within the government about the road to growth. Vince Cable has recently slammed David Cameron’s optimism, saying that the “sunlit uplands” strategy will not necessarily be the case. If he has any sense about him, Cable’s supposed smile this morning will be matched by caution.

In Cameron’s “new economic dynaims” vision, he wants to “make sure we have a banking sector that is really focused on small business lending … rather than the banks thinking how [they] can become bigger and bigger investment banks.”

Cameron hopes to get those banks which the government has a stakeholder share of, to start lending again and fuelling a private sector revolution.

According to a recent NEF report entitled Where did our money go? the 2009 budget noted that RBS needed to lend an additional £25bn (£9bn – mortgage / £16bn – business); Lloyds an additional £14bn (£3bn – mortgage / £11bn – business); Northern Rock an additional £5bn in 2009 / £3-9bn from 2010 onwards.

After the bailout, there was disappointment that the banks were increasing the bonus pot without actually kickstarting small businesses with money. In an ongoing discussion I had with an acquaintance, I was reminded that the bailout was paid in order to cover liabilities at the time, but the reason behind doing so, and not allowing them to fail, was so they could start lending again – for this is the reason why those banks are too big to fail.

The EDL and the poppy trade

October 25, 2010 2 comments

No hyperlinks to racist thug organisations here, but if you google your way to the (a?) English Defence League site via words like ‘casuals’ ‘united’ and ‘poppies’, you’ll find that the EDL are selling customised poppies in advance of Remembrance Day.

Most graciously, they say they’ll be giving ‘a percentage’ of their profits to the British Legion, who are generally recognised to have a monopoly on the poppy selling trade at this time of year.  

That”s one trade monopoly people haven’t been to bothered about challenging.

At least until now.

I wonder what the British Legion think of this ‘support’ they’re getting from the EDL, and what they think of the EDL using ‘contacts’ within the British Legion to pass on their contribution.

Boycott the 35

October 25, 2010 12 comments

This is a cross post from my local blog for local people.  Yup, it’s another boycott.  Getting a bit hard to keep track.

What’s the difference between 35 and 33?  We all wanted the 33 to get out of the hole they’d helped dig.

As for the 35 ‘business leaders’ (being 34 men, one woman) who signed the Daily Telegraph letter in support of the Tories’ socially savage and economically incoherent cuts?  I’m joining the boycott of their businesses, announced today at the Liberal Conspiracy website, and encouraging others to do the same.

This follows on from an article I wrote for that site setting out the hypocrisy of business leaders calling for public sector cuts when they’ve either just signed of big public sector contracts or stand to gain directly from these cuts.

So you won’t find me going into Carphone Warehouse, or Boots, or ASDA, or any of the other retail outlets set out in this list.

Now, I don’t think the bosses of these firms are going to be quaking in their business shoes at my stance.  I generally go to ALDI anyway, and I’m not even sure what Harvey Nicholls sells.

Nor am I making any great claim that my actions will get at all the 35; I’m not in the market for an aircraft carrier at the moment.

But the thing about consumer boycotts is that they can and do sometimes just catch on, especially when powerful new social network tools do their thing.

 It may just come to pass that the shareholders of some of these firms start to ask questions, when they see their quarterly results, about why their Chairs and Chief Executives decided to make such a statement, especially when there is very good evidence that their principle claim – that public spending cuts of this magnitude will lead to private growth – is utterly wrong (so wrong, in fact, that one of the 35 firms actually says it’s wrong in an internal email).

If the 35 want to glory in their own status at the expense of millions (including their own employees), they need to know there may be consequences.

Of course, the common argument against boycotts is that you simply harm people who did not cause the offence in the first place.  The right argued that about South Africa for years.  So I should make it clear that the boycott I’m doing my best to promote here, in my own small way, is not an attack on all the people in West Lancashire and beyond who have to make their living in Boots and ASDA and Carphone Warehouse and Marks and Spencers et al. 

It is an attack on their bosses, who seem quite happy for their employees to be facing massive reductions in vital public services and much-needed tax and welfare benefits, of the type that these very bosses do not need.

Will you, loyal readers of the Bickerstaffe Record, join me?  It might just work.

(Note: while Kate at Liberal Conspiracy says she’ll never ‘darken the doors’ of the firms she lists again, I think that’s over the top.  I won’t darken their doors till their bosses have offered a public apology, or been fired by their boards for their recklessness in putting their own status interests ahead of the interests of their firm).

Are the Tories anti-investment and anti-social?

October 23, 2010 1 comment

I’ve just been re-reading the Compass’ think-report entitled In Place of Cuts: Tax reform to build a fairer society. It postulates some very heavy hitting criticisms of two of the three major parties (formerly known as both major parties) on the level at which tax will be important in reducing the deficit until 2014-15.

It also makes some keen observations, very relevant today; namely, private investment’s dependency on aggregate demand from public investment and public consumption. Rightly the report notes that balancing the budget in the way the coalition is – in break neck speed – will shrink aggregate demand.

The report also puts forward some tax proposals that only few “orthodox” economists are pushing for today: they include a 50% tax rate for earnings of £100,000 – securing, to their estimates, a minimum of £4.7bn (compared to the saving made, introducing the same tax rate for those earnings at £150,000, which they estimate would be at a mere £2.3bn).

The report recommends a change of the definition “tax residence” and a tax on all financial transactions at 0.1% which would secure £4.2bn, among other measures set at achieving a total of £47bn – this revenue reducing the burden on cutting at the public sector.

As it is, cuts to the public sector mean 490,000 jobs will be cleared – just like that – and as many as that will shift in the private sector, for as Compass suggests, much of the demand comes from public investment and public consumption; take these away and the private sector suffers its own shrinkage.

Furthermore, take this many people out of taxation, then you reduce the amount of revenue drawn from that pot – not to mention the welfare payments that’ll have to be dished out as a consequence.

Most of this has already been spoken about, and indeed most people know this already. But what has been less spoken about is the severity of tax revenue being lost. As it stands, over the next four years the government intends to cut in the public sector and rely on taxation at a ratio of 80:20. But seemingly, that 20 will reduce in value as more jobs are lost, and, as is inevitable, the private sector becomes totally incapable of replacing them.

How long will it be before even 80:20 is no longer affordable on the grounds that the 20 is not drawing enough revenue? What’s more, when we cut at jobs and demand too hard, we fail to invest and grow – that’s obvious.

The context of Labour’s spending throughout its three terms was a previous Tory government who left behind a historically low level of spending and long term under-investment. With plans as they are, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition seems intent on doing the same thing to investment as it is cutting without growing (or only hoping, against ALL odds that growth will appear through magic).

At what point, really, do we just accept the Tories are anti-investment and anti-social?

I’m sure stranger, less logical, things have happened, but if we do invest and grow in the next five years, it will be a magical fluke. What’s for sure is there is no imagineable plan for growth that is anywhere near orthodox in its economic strategy – the mind truly boggles.

The IMF: The Intentional Macro-economic Fallacy

October 22, 2010 13 comments

In circles where this kind of thing matters, there’s been a lot of attention paid to the most recent World Economic Outlook report from the IMF, and more particularly the findings in Chapter 3.   I’ll let David Osler take up the story, as he puts it succinctly:

IMF analysts looked at all known instances of fiscal adjustment in OECD countries.They found only two episodes in which economies expanded as deficits were cut: Denmark in 1983 and Ireland in 1987.

‘All known instances’ isn’t entirely accurate; in fact one of the purposes of the study is methodological – to show that you get different results depending on whether you study swings in the ‘standard’  ‘Cyclically Adjusted Primary Budget Balances’ or whether, as the authors do in this study, they study ‘action-based’ fiscal adjustments. 

It’s technical stuff, worthy of the appendices afforded it, but it’s important stuff, in that it really challenges the dominant view, on its own grounds, that cutting spending in the way the Tories, and other European countries (under differing levels of duress) can stimulate the economy through, for example, improvements in household and business confidence.

Nevertheless, the point is well made by Dave (and Martin Wolf does it in more detail in the FT): when you get down to it there really isn’t much evidence at all that what the Tories are now selling as their ‘no alternative’, ‘common sense’ measures.

This dominance of the ‘common sense’ idea is the type so loved by the largely economics-free zone that is the BBC, who recently devoted a whole week of prime-time radio programming to touring the country, hawking around the key idea that cutting £x in spending would lead to exactly the same level of reduction in the deficit.

Simply to equate spending cuts with deficit cuts is, we now know even more surely from this IMF paper, a total fallacy, but a sadly widespread fallacy, courtesy of  a largely compliant media and government more intent on serving its own narrow class interests than on the actual economic health of the country.

Now, we might be tempted to excuse the BBC for this apparently rank stupidity, seeing it more as an act of survival – toadying up to the government to save itself from being killed of completely.  

What’s more interesting, though, and perhaps more worrying, is that the IMF won’t even take any notice of their own findings.  As this paper from the US-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, analyzing the same World Economic Outlook report, says:

[T]he Fund has so far not given any consideration to central bank financing of additional stimulus, in spite of the WEO’s assessment of the fragility of the current recovery in the high-income economies. Instead, it has emphasized the need for fiscal consolidation in the high income countries– if not immediately as in the pro-cyclical policies described above, then beginning very soon: “fiscal adjustment needs to start in earnest in 2011. Specific plans to cut future budget deficits are urgently needed now to create new room for fiscal policy maneuver.”

Even so, if it was only the fact that the top policy guys at the IMF hadn’t read the papers by their researchers, then we might still be hopeful that soon, when they’ve had time to digest the important new research, they’ll adjust their views and start to talk enthusiastically to governments about them, and how budget cuts of the scale they’d been promoting might not actually be such a good idea after all.

But it’s worse than that.

The authors themselves of this important chapter decide that what they’ve found is not actually in keeping with what they are ‘supposed’ to find, and take steps to avoid the conclusions that come from it.

Because having gone to all the trouble of finding that ‘action-based’ fiscal contraction leads to lowered outputs and increased unemployment in 168 of the 170 cases studied, they then go on to say:

The discussion so far has focused on short-term effects. We now turn to the long term. Does fiscal consolidation generate long-term gains? And if so, how soon do the long-term gains arrive? This question is one that cannot be adequately addressed using the empirical framework used in the previous section, and so we again use model simulations…….

The simulations suggest that, over the long term, a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio is likely to raise output both in the G3 economies and in the rest of the world.

The problem is not that simulations are used for this part of the study, rather than the empirical data used for the study of shorter term effects of fiscal consolidation.  Fair enough, if there’s no data, there’s no data.

The problem is much more basic than that.

The problem is that they’ve  just proved, beyond what they themselves consider is reasonable doubt, that action-based fiscal contract does not in fact increase output or decrease unemployment, but then immediately go on to assume that it does, and that this then decreases ‘the debt-to-GDP ratio’, in order then to model how that reduced ratio leads to greater output.

In so doing, they make absolutely the same error as the simpletons at the BBC, and as the class-interested thugs in 10 and 11 Downing Street are happy to see peddled.

Fair enough, the data they analyse in the first half of the study, shows that on average a country’s output as a % of GDP is reduced at a slower rate than the rate of the fiscal ‘consolidation’ (0.5% compared with 1%), so in ‘average’ circumstances it might be argued that it is worth cutting, because you DO get a bit of a reduction in debt-to-GDP ratio, meaning that the second half of the study may have validity.

But these are not ‘average’ times, as the study also make abundantly clear.  Nominal interest rates are already near zero, so the traditional rate cutting exercise can’t help.  More importantly, the studies recognsises that at the moment, many countries are looking to consolidate at the same time:

Overall, these results illustrate that changes in both the interest rate and the exchange rate are important to the adjustment process. When countries cannot rely on the exchange rate channel to stimulate net exports, as in the case of the global consolidation, and cannot ease monetary policy to stimulate domestic demand, due to the zero interest rate floor, the output costs of fiscal consolidation are much larger. Thus, in the presence of the zero interest rate floor, there could be large output costs associated with front-loaded fiscal retrenchment implemented across all the large economies at the same time (my emphasis). (See also my earlier post on the way in which stimulus is more effective when it’s global?  Does the reverse happen with global consolidation?)

So what’s going on?  Why is this research, which could be so influential for the common good – and I hope parts of which may still be – being corrupted by its own authors, with conclusions and recommendations about fiscal consolidation that are out of keeping with their really very innovative findings? 

I think the simple answer may be that these IMG guys, brilliant though they may be, are just like most of us. They want to do what looks right to their bosses, rather than do the right thing. 

Hah-Jooh Chang, from the inside, is less charitable about his  colleagues in the profession:

Economists are not some innocent technicians who did a decent job in within the confines of their expertise until they were collectively wrong-footed by a once-in-a-century disaster that no one could have predicted…..[Economics has been worse than irrelevant. Economics, as it has been practised in the last three decades, has been positively harmful for most people (23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, pp.247-8, also featured in Duncan’s Weldon’s ‘Alan Johnson’s essential reading list‘).

‘Three decades’, and counting.

Categories: General Politics

How low can they go

October 22, 2010 7 comments

I attended a debate last night on poverty and the spending review held by the Orwell Prize people. I had a lovely time. A highlight of the night was Louise (HarpyMarx) asking the panel how anyone could qualify use of the word “fair” or “fairness” when the spending review was anything but that.

In attempt to deflect the question put to him by Louise, panellist and Chief Economist at Reform, Patrick Nolan instead tried to put her on the spot with questions, answers to which he had in his hand. The point made by Louise was absolutely vital, but obviously not something Nolan had an adequate answer for, so he took to finger pointing.

Instead of leaving it there, Nolan has written an article on the Standpoint website. In it he describes his position again. But also, brings up Louise’s question, to try for the final time to point his finger. In the article he says:

I took the chance to ask an audience member whether she had seen the HMRC statistics on the tax gap (tax avoidance). She said yes. I then asked her to clarify which taxes were most prone to avoidance and who are the people who are most cheating the system. She couldn’t. I had the statistics with me and pointed out that the largest gap in the tax base relates to the VAT, that excise taxes like tobacco and alcohol are highly prone to avoidance (people importing these goods themselves) and that many small businesses engage in income-splitting to make multiple use of the personal income tax allowances.

I have left a strong message on the comments thread, which I also want to print here, defending my friend and co-bloggers comments.

I attended the debate last night, and on your point regarding your exchange with an audience member, she asked a question to the panel on why the word “fairness” has been used to describe the spending review when civil servants, the poor and the disabled are being hit disproportionately to those with the broadest shoulders – which relates to the point that families will be hit twice as hard as the banks.

Her question to you, if anything, was that as a public sector trade unionist herself, whether you could explain to her why civil servants were being punished more than the top deciles – including the top 1% of super-rich who have come off almost undamaged.

The honest answer – and even Osborne himself recognises this, albeit without too much worry – is that the assumption of the working class is that they remain static while government is taking advantage of them, while “capital flight” might hold government stranded to do anything. It’s a false dichotomy, but it’s the honest answer; the honest answer is certainly not that it’s fair – which is the one being pushed by yourself last night.

Instead of answering the question put to you, instead you asked of the audience member a question you had previously sought the answer for, in attempt to deflect responsibility as a speaker to answer, and not ask, questions, but also to try and make the participant look stupid.

After your ticking off by the moderator, and your childish refusal to talk any further, saying, and I quote “what’s the point”, it was you, and not the audience member, who came out looking rather stupid. This is ultimately confirmed in your attempt to point fun at last night’s participant in this article. But your readers should know that your cowardice was proven in your inability to admit that Osborne’s measures are not fair, they demonstrate political blackmail at the myth that the rich cannot be punished because they will all leave, making it incumbent upon the government to overburden an innocent public sector workforce/those at the lower end of the economic scale.

Categories: General Politics

Kafka is for days like these

October 21, 2010 1 comment

Days like these

I’m not up to blogging about the Comprehensive Spending Review today. I’m not sure I’ve anything useful to add to what others are saying about it, and about its perpetrators.

To be honest, I’m just a little bit numb still.

So instead, I’ll do that political influences meme passed on to me and the TCF team by Phil at A Very Public Sociologist and Bob from Brockley.

The earliest and still strongest political influence on me is not a politician, or a political philosopher, but a writer, Franz Kafka. Here’s why he’s important to me, and why I think his work matters to the Left in general

Kafka as pscyhcoanalyst

There are about as many ‘interpretations’ of Kafka’s work as numbers of doors I’ve knocked on and asked people if they wouldn’t mind voting Labour this time around.  And that’s well more than 10.  

There are some I don’t buy – it’s all just a straight condemnation of early 20thcentury bureaucracy because he had to work hard in a dull office, for example, This does nothing to explain Amerika (otherwise called The Stoker or The Lost One etc. in English as well but I’ll stick with the title in still the most common translation, and the one I’ve got to hand)? 

And at least until recently, I wasn’t convinced by wholly ‘pyschoanalytic’ explanations, though it was fairly obvious that Kafka had a grasp of Freudian concepts of the ego/id.

The more I read though, the more I’m convinced by Kafka-as-Freudian.  Certainly, the text is littered with what we might now call Freudian slips, where the unconscious (or ‘id’) peeps through the surface of the page. 

This is facilitated by his regular use of the literary device of ‘erlebte Rede (‘experienced speech’) or indirect free speech, which collapses first and third person narrative; and indeed I note in my internet wanderings to here that Kafka was studious in the way he edited his work  to create this effect. 

The notion that central to Kafka’s work is the tension between the ego and the id (in modern society), and that alienation, despair and death comes from the suppression of the id at the expense of the ego, is straightforward enough to sustain.  We can just look at the way Kafka’s characters die for that evidence. K (The Trial) dies ‘as though the shame were meant to outlive him’ because he never accepts his guilt – he never accepts that he is guilty of the suppression of his unconscious desires.

Gregor (Metamorphosis), on the other hand, dies happy (and his family goes out into the light for the first time in months) because he becomes accepting of the animal he is.  When does Gregor being to move towards a happy death? When his sister plays the violin – music transcends – and when he starts to accept that he is an animal (his id) rather than struggle against it.  

K (The Trial) goes the opposite way – creating rational argument to seek to win out over what must remain irrational because it is of the subconscious. Why does the officer in the penal colony willingly choose death through what to the explorer seems like (pre-modern) savagery, and yet still not get  ‘redemption’ on his face as he dies? Well to be honest it’s years since I read it so I’ve forgotten how I used to think of that one.  Anyway, it’s bound to be because he refuses to ‘de-rationalise’ experience, just trust me on that one. 

And of course The Castle ends with death in defeat, but reconcilation with defeat by what-is-irrational. But that is not all there is to Kafka, not by a country doctor’s mile. 

While Kafka’s work is ‘timeless’ in the way set out – a message about needing to be true to yourself – such a relatively straightfoward interpretation risks leaving out from it a load of the words he actually wrote, especially about women. 

To deal with this we need to set his work back into its  historic context of a new modernity/bureacuracy which was, for Kafka, JUST THEN heightening that level of alienation,  through the rise of an early capitalist consumerist society. 

Ultimately, Kafka does not just, I suggest, question how people’s minds work within a social context, but also how ‘real’ that social context is in the first place. 

In this respect he presages (indeed is still ahead of) much of postmodern philosophical thought, and is the reason he is relevant to the Left and even to the modern Labour party. Indeed I would argue that he is more relevant in the early 21st century than when leading thinkers in the left – notably Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin –  sought to claim him as one of our own some fifty years ago. 

A useful starting for that interpretative journey, from an interpretation of Kafka as writer that just ‘messes with your head’ to one of Kafka as sooneone who has profoundly important things to say to us about a  century later is (I am recently persuaded) Jacques Lacan’s Marxian re-interpretation of Freud, who (as we have seen) may have been at least an indirect influence on Kafka. 

Now Lacanian psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult to understand – indeed there are those who suggest that Lacan wrote impenetrably because he was, in the end, talking pure bollocks, whether or not in a knowingly ironic manner. 

I don’t side with this argument (at least until I actually try to read his stuff properly), but I am happy to acknowledge that his primary texts are simply too hard for me and my small-size brain to handle, and I need to turn to intermediaries to get what he’s on about. 

Fortunately, when there’s Slajov Zizek around to write a ‘How to Read’ book on Jacques Lacan, you’re in pretty safe hands, especially as it’s free on the internet as well.

So, what happens if you take a Lacanian-as-understood-by-Zizek approach to the text of The Trial, for example?

What happens is that, suddenly, the apparent irrationality of the Law  starts to reflect the inherent irrationality of the ‘desiring agency’ of Lacanian psychoanalysis.  That is to say, the law is all-that-is-desire, and in Lacanian terms the Marxian dialectic of structure and agency, the essential incompatibility of which creates the alienation of the individual, is collapsed into a permanence of alienation, because ‘the law’ controls both K’s desire and that which is desired. 

This ties into later elaborations in Lacan, in which he expands upon the Marxist concept of surplus value to include what he terms ‘jouissance’ (or enjoyment). Similar to the notion of surplus value, Lacan holds that any social enjoyment we get through work, leisure, consumption, sex etc.  comes a at cost, and is mediated through some bureaucratic agency, and intensified through the subject’s own compulsion to enjoy. This enjoyment can never be fully realised because it is mediated through these agencies,  which ‘skim’ off ever greater surpluses, leaving only enough enjoyment to engender further (obsessive) compulsions, to further consume and enjoy.   

And so it in The Trial. It’s as if the Law operates both as the site/structure of obscene enjoyment (the magistrates’ books are full of porn, the couple have sex at the back of the examination room), and as the agency compelling K to enjoy while also forcing its prohibitions (the student working for the court carries off the washer woman whom K was trying to seduce).  

The relationship of women to K and to the Law is central to the key concept of this book. The Law is a wholly unknowable entity, from which things emerge/disappear but no answers can be given.  K receives no answer from the Law as it has none to give him.

What, then, does desire (the Law?) want? It wants K to keep on desiring, which is why the Law in the book permits an unlimited postponement maintaining desire until death, and even beyond as the shame of (unfulifilled) desire goes with K to the grave.  In short, Kafka expresses, in poetic form, a post-Marxist analysis of what it is to be alienated’, which only rears its head in philosophy some 50 years later.  And he’s easier to understand. 

(In passing, I think there’s a parallel here with Milan  Kundera’s ‘treatment’ of women in the Unbearable Lightness of Being, where  the skimming of the surplus value related to sexual enjoyment actually declines as the main protagonist Tomáš strives towards some form of revolutionary consciousness).

But this is not where it stops – if Kafka were simply a very early Freudian-Lacanian psychoanlayst, it would be impressive, and Kakfa’s work would still be captivating,  but hardly something for the Left to hold on to now, as an important influence (and consoltation) for the hard times that are a-coming. 

Kafka as leftie

For me, the pinnacle of Kafka’s intellectual outpouring is NOT the Trial, though it may be the most perfect work in terms of how it entwines form and meaning (though I’d argue that Metamorphosis and The Castle are both up there).  

For me, the pinnacle is the last (unfinished) novel, Amerika

Amerika is the oft overlooked third big novel, ‘the lighthearted one’ which doesn’t really fit with the other two.  What Amerika is, though, is a step forward in Kafka’s ‘postmodern’ vision, and one which takes us beyond Lacan to the at once harder edged, but ultimately more liberating social theory of Baudrillard (at least in his last work, The Intelligence of Evil: The Lucidity Pact). 

Baudrillard is of course most famous (and mostly pilloried) for his concept of a late capitalist society which has become a totalising ‘virtual reality’ (‘The Gulf war did not take place’), a world in which consumer overload means there is no longer even any potential for the kind of ’alienation’ that the left has hitherto set out as an inevitablity of the surplus value-based system of capitalism. This is because the concept of alienation in itself proposes some form of residual reality, however unattainable, or in Marxist terms, however far from the consciousness of the proletariat..   

It is possible to conceive of the Trial, and The Castle, as just such ‘realities’, from which only knowledge in death can release us (and I’m sure David Bowie had been reading Kafka rather than early Baudrillard when he penned Quicksand on Hunky Dory). 

But Amerika provides the resolution to the philosophical impasse, just as The Lucidity Pact does so about a century later.  Essentially, the setting of Amerika IS a virtual reality.  It is no longer the near but never totalising (consciousness-excluding)  universes of The Trial or The Castle, where desire is unfulfilled and the end must be death and/or shame, depending on the level of guilt acceptance; instead it is a complete world,  where things seem as they are because what is written of them is based on photographic representations and travel guides  – the early 20th century equivalent of the television travel programme, in which you enjoy a virtual holiday without having to leave your armchair). But, as with Baudrillard’s Lucidity Pact, there is a liberation even within the acknoweldgment that there is no escape. 

It is no coincidence that Rossmann, the central character, joins a theatre – the epitome of artificial representation – and that this seems to be the key to his ultimate happiness (albeit in an unfinished novel).

Moreover, it is no coincidence that, at the end of the novel, he chooses to take a technical position (notably returning to a childhood daydream) instead of an acting position in the theatre.  He is at once accommodating himself to the fact that the theatre is the best place for him, and taking satisfaction that he is able to see it at one (small) step’s remove.    Importantly for the process of reclaiming Kafka for the Left, it is through engagement and solidarity with his fellow workers (how different to K, who seeks to dominate) – workers who are a disparate bunch but who get on fine, despite different language backgrounds  – that Rossmann nears contentment.   

The way Kafka set out this contentment brings us full circle to Metamorphosis, as the final (unfinished) passage has the train with the theatre on board moving out into the vastness of the nature of America, similar to, but on a vaster scale, than the walk in the springtime that Gregor’s family take after his death in Metamorphosis.. Here, it seems, is a poetic resolution of how to live (even in the literal sense) with the fact that all is unreal, unknowable and alienating. 

Which is precisely what Baudrillard is up to in the Lucidity Pact: 

At bottom…..we are faced with an alternative: either we suppose a real that is entirely permeable to history (to meaning, to the idea, to interpretation, to decision) and we ideologize or, by contrast, we suppose a real that is ultimately impenetrable and irreducible and in that case we poetize. (p. 63). 

(I am indebted to Toodle Noodle, commenting at Dave’s Part, for this insight on this.)  

Baudrillard, then, seeks out – as an explicitly political project – a (poeticised?) ‘otherness’ of thinking, as a means to create a strained but workable compromise-with-virtuality by which we might live. 

Kafka, it seems to me, goes one stage further in his explicitly political ending to Amerika – it is is through communication and solidarity with other human beings that we actually manage to accommodate ourselves to this ‘otherness’. And here, strange though it may seem, I think both Kakfa and Baudrillard meet Jurgen Habermas and his chunky Theory of Communcative Action coming the other way. 

Habermas gets there by a completely different route – rejecting from the off what he considered to be the innate conservatism of poststructuralist/modernist relativity (especially and a tidgy bt unfairly, Foucault), in favour of an appeal to ‘ideal speech’ as the foundation for a new call to universal and interpersonal values.   

But in the end, it seems to me, there’s an agreement that, while the ‘soul searching’ of the past fifty years of postmodernist philosophical development may have been necessary and worthwhile, that it’s also been regressive in terms of commitment to action, and that it’s time to move on with a renewed commitment to a clarity of (political) communication – whether that be as a result of some filthy pact with devilish virtuality, or because  the values of the enlightenment has been rekindled. 

And what, ultimately, is communication in the context of universal values? 

It’s solidarity. 

The main difference between the poltical philosophy journeys of Baudrillard/Habermas and Kafka? 

Well Kafka travelled the road in a few short tuberculous-ridden years in the early 20th century, and used a lot less words to get there.  And for that reason alone, Kafka is worth reclaiming by the Left for what he is – not the Czech ‘enigma’, or the troubled genius, but a genius political philosopher a hundred years ahead of his time.  As I’ve noted, there have been plenty of  attempts to claim Kafka as one of our own (Adorno, Arendt), and more recently Michael Lowy has sought to identify Kafka’s ‘libertarian socialist’  leanings.  

Recently as well, Sinead Kennedy had a pretty good stab, albeit in a brief article, at it, analysing from ‘the hard left’ how he’d been given a pretty rough ride by Stalin and his not-very-good-at-philosophy-or-art mates, but how he makes a lot of sense to the left. 

I contend that Kafka makes more than a lot of sense. 

I contend that he should be regarded as a leading intellectual light of the Left, a key weapon in the intellectual armoury of the Left as it seeks to combat the thirty-year philosophical hegemony of the New Right. 

He should be ‘required reading’ for the Left. 


Categories: Book Reviews, Socialism

Feel the pain

October 19, 2010 6 comments

This, word for word, is a comment on my most recent piece for Liberal Conspiracy. 

It doesn’t need explanation.  Feel the betrayal.  Feel the pain:

Hello, I normally do not make many comments via the internet, but feel that I do need to at this time.
What I see in the UK is frightening as we all approach Christmas with dread as I will be made unemployed in March 2011 due to government cuts in the RAF.
What will I do to keep my home and my family asIi do not know anyone who wants to employ me due to the very nature of my specialist work for the RAF?
I will be joining demonstrations if I can as I now feel this nation is on the brink of an internal civil war and I am being put on the sacrificial alter of the Conservative party and the poodle Clegg.
Strange that I am now in this position but I know of some men who did not cope well, and I have seen family’s broken up and even some children going into care as they struggled to make ends meet, I hope I never get to that level as I will seek an early exit .
Take care of your family’s as I feel the wind of change will simply sweep many away in the name of ideology.

Categories: General Politics

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