Monday, October 05, 2015

The Meaning of the Precariat posted by Richard Seymour

My early-morning talk at the Subversive Festival, in Zagreb.

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Thursday, October 01, 2015

The culture of genocide posted by Richard Seymour

Jeremy Corbyn is opposed, under any circumstances, to the use of weapons of mass destruction.  He is opposed to weapons whose use is inherently genocidal.  There is no circumstance under which it is conceivable that the military use of nuclear weapons would be anything short of insane, and Corbyn is opposed to that.  He would not push the button.  And our political and media class finds this to be outrageous.

The pundits are noisy and truculent.  But behind their noisy rationalisations, there is this symptomatic aporia.  They will not say it.  Not a single one of them can or will say under what circumstances they would consider the use of nuclear weapons.  Instead, we get mysteriously complacent bluster along the lines that "it would be lovely to live in Corbyn's world of magical elves and fairies, faw faw faw, where no one is ever unkind, faw faw faw, but this is the real world, faw faw faw, what would he do if the Islamic State threatened Britain with a dirty bomb, faw faw faw...".

The Westminster consensus is monstrous.  It couldn't be clearer that for its adherents, Britain's role in the world, and all of the immense material gains that businesses and investors derive from this dominance, depends upon the continued implied threat of nuclear genocide - and they're ultimately very comfortable with that.

It is better that we know this than that we don't.  We have endured years of histrionics over weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.  The 'Iran deal', about which there is some misplaced triumphalism, followed years of belligerent falsehoods and tub-thumping for war, because someone might break Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region.  And the very same state elites and a media claques that would not hesitate to 'push the button', and for whom the idea of not ever doing that is something absurd and drippy, to be scoffed at, are the ones who raised the alarm.  It is, as I say, good to know.

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The two faces of Labourism posted by Richard Seymour

This is a party political broadcast for the Scottish Labour Party broadcast today.

The children in the advertisement are not just annoyingly obsequious in the questions they are given to ask: they are all white, and code as middle class in how they are dressed,  how they are groomed and in how they deliver their lines. That reeks of 'aspiration'. So, I would suggest that the pitch is not to the working class voters who have gone over to the SNP as an alternative party of reform, but to middle class voters who don't like the SNP but could never vote Tory. The phrase 'Red Tories' isn't so much an insult as the self-conscious electoral positioning of Scottish Labour.

And there is something else.  The broadcast has the look and feel of a 1997 re-enactment promotion.  It presses all the right buttons: the children are our future, meritocracy, opportunity, fairness, education, education, education.  These thematics entirely omit, of course, the huge and central questions facing Scottish voters.  Such as the future of the nation, austerity, Trident, and other related matters.  They are self-consciously oriented toward some other era, when progressive-sounding themes could be articulated within an aggressively pro-business ideology.

How can you, in the age of austerity, claim that the children will have a better future, if you are supporting austerity?  How can you, post-credit crunch, claim to support a meritocracy when the social basis of your growth strategy is a reviled financial oligarchy?  And how, in the name of Hades, can you tell Scottish voters about education when your party introduced tuition fees?  No amount of soft-focus camerawork, and no number of human children can make this look like anything other than a flight into the past.

This is Jeremy Corbyn's first Labour Party conference speech as leader.

It spells out a synthetic 'vision' of what a left-reformist government could do for the majority.  It spells out a range of policies, such as building council houses and supporting the self-employed, all of them directly related to facets of experience in contemporary British capitalism.  It also links these policies to a wider discourse on 'values'.  The speech is, of course, unapologetically left-wing.  But what distinguishes it for me, and what really deserves special credit, is one particularly good presentational turn: the utterly ruthless and maliciously witty appropriation of Blairite language. 

It was as if Corbyn had approached the glittering generalities of the old triangulations (endless invocations of "values" and "the many not the few" being salient) and thought to himself, "what would be good for a laugh would be if we were to actually imbue some of this shit with substance". Much of the denouement of the speech was taken from something written by Richard Heller some years ago and offered to Ed Miliband.  It is not difficult to see why Miliband turned it down, as it's far too rebellious.  The recurring refrain, "you don't have to take what you're given", is so general that it could touch on various, polyvalent discontents, but it was also very specifically linked in the speech to class antagonism.  In context, it was an exhortation to dare.

Now, John Harris was complaining in The Guardian yesterday that the 'visionaries' of Marxism Today had been left behind and misunderstood.  The article is interesting if slightly revisionist as to the full depth of Marxism Today's implication in the Blairite project.  However, I want to suggest that Harris has missed the point.  Insofar as that group of intellectuals diagnosed some real problems and reacted against real backwardness on the left, the lessons have long since been learned, if not by everyone.  In fact, if you want to see a thoroughly Gramscian job of appropriation of the existing ideological detritus for a left project; if you want to see an articulation the 'national-popular' where the emphasis is on the popular rather than the national; if you want to see a form of left-reformism that is relevant, modern, diverse, and technophilic, then Corbyn's speech had it, all of it, in abundance.

The point is this.  Corbyn's critics in the media, upon hearing a speech that they barely understood, rehashed the predictable line that it was aimed at the party not the public.  This rests on the questionable premise that journalists are the public, or at least a reliable cipher for the public.  They are mistaken.  Corbyn's speech was incredibly contemporary, and he can say with some plausibility that the agenda he now articulates is the only truly modernist current in Labourism.  His scepticism toward markets and profits, his pro-immigrant discourse, his support for student grants, even his resistance to a macho, patriarchal form of politics, are all operating on the most progressive ideological developments in Britain, and those most associated with the young.  Blairism was always justified as a form of modernism, a tendency whose currency was its ability to fight and win on a terrain shaped by globalisation and related developments.  But now the major discourses of the Labour Right, from Blairism to Blue Labour, resemble nothing so much as a longing look backwards.

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Our feral, lying, good for nothing media posted by Richard Seymour

You don't see the consensus in all of its suffocating conformity until someone challenges it.

If you want to know what the consensus is made of, just look at what the media considers a gaffe.  Corbyn, a republican, doesn't sing the royalist national anthem.  Gaffe.  Corbyn, a socialist, appointed a hard-left socialist as shadow chancellor.  Gaffe.  Corbyn refused to answer journalists' questions.  Ultra-gaffe.  That's just rude.  From the Guardian to the Express, from the New Statesman's craven toeing of the Blairite line to the lies in supposedly neutral dailies like the Metro, from The Sun's made-up 'exclusives' to the queue of Labour MPs and liberal pundits lining up to spew bile for the Daily Mail, from Tory attack ads to the Telegraph screaming for Corbyn's head, the media and the political class have near total unanimity in their ferocious anti-socialism.  I know we call them 'the bourgeois media', but not even the most crass, petty-minded Stalinist apparatchik could have produced a caricature as venomous and despicable as our lot.

In that vein, let me draw your attention to a story that has appeared in The Independent, with these words in the headline: "Jeremy Corbyn 'loses a fifth of Labour voters'".  Understand, this headline is a complete lie.  The first warning is those scare quotes.  Before the authors even get to the story, they're distancing themselves from its major argument.  The next is the fact that the article opens, not - as would be logical - with a quick summary of the point of the story, but with some entirely other statistics.  The third is that, when they actually do refer to the main point of the story in the second paragraph, it is already watering the story down, saying that one in five people who previously voted Labour are "more likely to vote Conservative next time".  That is already not the same as Corbyn 'losing' a fifth of Labour voters.  Unsurprisingly, even this claim is given no elaboration.  Instead, the juice of the story is presented in a series of charts, which represent the results of the study.  What the figures actually show is as follows:

63% of Labour voters say they are more likely to vote Labour in the next election with Corbyn as leader, as opposed to 20% of those voters who say they are more likely to vote Conservative.  There are similarly polarised responses among other voters.  So, for example, over a third of SNP voters, approximately a third of Lib Dems, about one fifth of UKIP voters and 8% of Tories are more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as Labour leader.  By the same token, four fifths of Tory voters are more determined to vote for their own party, just under a fifth of SNP voters would be more likely to vote Tory, while a third of Liberals and a whopping 40% of Ukipers would be more likely to vote Conservative.  Corbyn has not lost a fifth of Labour voters.  What he has done is polarised the voters.  And polarisation, in this context, is a good thing.  It shows that there's something in the fight, for once, and that people are being motivated.

What is more, these results give us a clue as to how evaluate the responses to other questions.  In ORB and Yougov's polling, there have been questions asked which follow the agenda of the Conservatives and the anti-Corbyn media, inquiring as to exactly how much like a Prime Minister Corbyn looks, how much you'd trust him with this or that.  The results, of course, don't look good.  Corbyn is a new figure for most of the public, his policy ideas are new, and they are being brought up in a context of near total ideological monopoly of neoliberalism for over thirty years.  His first days as leader have been characterised by an intense campaign of character assassination.  I think it would be odd, in the best of circumstances, for a majority of people to suddenly find him utterly trustworthy on the economy and schools, and these are not the best of circumstances.  And yet, here you have evidence that far from being put off, a very considerable number of people are attracted to Corbyn's Labour.  The only electoral poll we've had since Corbyn's election as Labour leader thus far, has given Labour a small bounce, rather than registering some sort of collapse in the Labour vote.  To me, this is a good reminder of how carefully to handle such polls - the answers to polling question are as polysemic as the questions themselves.  If asked whether Corbyn looks Prime Ministerial, you could quite honestly answer 'no', given the way the image of Corbyn is mediated, and still think he's a huge improvement on everyone else thus far.

Understand this.  The ferocity of the British media in this instance has nothing whatever to do with Corbyn's media strategy, spin or lack thereof.  Certainly, they're offended at Corbyn's refusal to play their game.  Certainly, they would be kinder to a slick, amoral businessman bashing immigrants.  But the media will never coddle Corbyn in the way that it does Farage.  Not for him the complicit, stagey antagonism with which right-wing populists are greeted.  The difference is that the mass media in this country agrees with and defends and articulates the principles upon which Farage stakes his claims, but can barely understand let alone sympathise with the principles underlying the current Labour leadership's position.

You can't understand the reasons for this in simple commercial terms.  It isn't about securing advertising accounts, or selling copy.  Nor is it simply about the short-term interests of their proprietors.  It is primarily about their integration into the party-political machinery.  It is about their dependence on, and participation in, the exercise of state power. They are active participants in policy debates, the selection of political leaders, and the outcome of elections.  Apart from the schools, they are the major institutions through which the dominant ideology of the national state is reproduced.  They are, in short, "ideological state apparatuses".  And the reason they are going feral is because the traditional mode of their domination is under attack.  That, too, is a good thing.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump posted by Richard Seymour

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Pessimism After Corbyn posted by Richard Seymour

Salvage statement on the Corbyn bombshell:

Salvage cleaves to the necessity of a pessimism that is not a nostrum but a result of analysis, and urges others on the left to approach this battle with the same sober caution. Aspiring to such rigour is not merely a responsibility in these circumstances, it is energising. Salvage counsels a pessimism that has the humility to be surprised, to celebrate the shocks of our victories without surrendering the caution we – all – need. And we proceed in the utter and committed desire – theSehnsucht – to be proven wrong.

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Monday, September 14, 2015

The unsinkable Blairite rubber ducks. posted by Richard Seymour

James Randi invented the term "unsinkable rubber ducks" to refer to beliefs held by the superstitious and religious, which they were unable and unwilling to give up no matter the evidence.  No matter how many times you try to sink them, they keep bobbing back up to the surface.

It's a felicitous turn of phrase, given the relationship between ducks, canards and decoys.  And I like to think it could refer just as well to elements of spin and propaganda which, no matter how obviously false or easily rebutted, keep resurfacing.

What else could we call it?  Genderwashing?  "Cuntpolitik"?  Zillah Eisenstein gives us the concept of the sexual decoy.

The decoy is a symptom, a distraction, and a warning.  Take the example of Lyndie England, a woman who joined the US armed forces only to end up in an American prison, in Baghdad, torturing Iraqi men and visibly enjoying it.  Having helped mask the hypertrophied masculinism and women-hating of American militarism, she participated fully in it.  Take Laura Bush, who exhorted war on benighted Afghanistan, ostensibly to free the women from the Vice and Virtue squads.  Or consider Hillary Clinton, so often referred to as a "feminist" that some people actually believe it, regardless of her record.

The sexual decoy has a thousand and one uses, but one of its recurring uses is in the politics of triangulation.  Neoliberals alighted on the formula some time ago.  If you want to implement policies attacking black people, see if you can find a black politician to take responsibility for it, and sell it as black empowerment.  If you want to implement policies attacking women, find a female politician to take the flak, and sell it as feminism.

For example, one of Labour's former acting leader Harriet Harman's first jobs in government was to cut benefits for single mothers.  Her job was to deflect criticism, as a woman, for a gratuitous, disgusting attack on women.  Note that such policies are often articulated and defended in terms of some specious notion of female empowerment.  When Tony Blair, at the peak of his power, was planning further cuts to benefits specifically enjoyed by women, it was justified as feminism.  Likewise, when Harriet Harman as acting leader of the Labour Party refused to oppose Tory welfare cuts which disproportionately harm women, 48 backbenchers rebelled.  The Guardian published an article seriously inquiring whether such a rebellion would have happened to a male leader, suggesting both a dismally tokenistic appreciation of feminist politics, and a memory shorter than a goldfish.

Now, with Corbyn's victory in the Labour leadership election, and the appointment of the hard-left socialist John McDonnell to the role of shadow chancellor, the situation has in some ways been reversed.  Labour now seems set to adopt policies that aren't viciously woman-hating.  Corbyn's policy document, 'Working With Women', drafted by the left-wing Kate Osamor MP, includes a range of measures such as universal free childcare, reversing cuts to the social wage, anti-sexist education in schools, fully funded services for victims of domestic violence, and forcing companies to publish equal pay audits.  Also included in this agenda was a commitment to fifty percent representation for women in the shadow cabinet (already exceeded, making Corbyn's shadow cabinet the first to achieve majority women representation), and pushing toward fifty percent representation for women among Labour MPs.  This is not a radical attack on patriarchy, but it is a vast improvement on the "pink bus + welfare cuts" policy practiced by his predecessor.  And that is why Corbyn overwhelmingly won the female vote, with 61% of women voters saying they would vote for him.

However, one of the sub-threads of the anti-Corbyn campaign has always been an attempt to mobilise some form of ripped off anti-oppression politics, from Suzanne Moore's pathetic, opportunistic invocation of the term "brocialism" to attack enemies to her left to the New Statesman's article headlined 'Labour chooses white man as leader'.  And now look at this.  Cathy Newman, whose journalistic career ought to be in tatters after she fabricated an incident of sexist exclusion at a mosque, also charges the Corbynites with "brocialism".  It is argued that the traditionally top cabinet jobs went to men, shadow foreign secretary and shadow home secretary being by convention - not by dint of pay, perks, or power as far as I can tell - more important than shadow health secretary, or shadow education secretary.

This is simply an underwhelming line of attack.  Even if Corbyn's team hadn't declared their intention to refuse that conventional hierarchy, what does the critique amount to?  Corbyn's leadership is more gender-egalitarian on all fronts than previous Labour leaderships, and should absolutely aspire to promote women to the highest positions - including shadow chancellor, which has scandalously never been held by a woman.  Not particularly damning, is it?  Just as there are those who blame "identity politics" for these cheap attack jobs, some on the left are going to get hung up on the term "brocialism" - one of those clumsily snarky social media neologisms, referring to male socialists who don't prioritise gender politics - persuading themselves that it is somehow pre-structured in favour of such appropriations.  I seriously doubt it, and I decline to worry about it.  The key issue here is that in this context it is an appropriation and a slur.

If, on supposedly feminist grounds of supporting female leadership, you have supported Yvette Cooper for leader, knowing her austerian policies will hurt women, then you have no higher ground from which to berate Corbyn's gender politics.  The invocation of gender there is every bit as superficial as Moore's ersatz invocation of class politics while pandering to a far right violent street gang (and indeed, note in the same article the pseudo-feminist apologia for a bunch of big bovver boys in big boots kicking Muslim heads in).  It is a decoy.  By the same token, if you are so opportunistic in your use of feminist thematics that you will fake an incident at a mosque in order to incite racist outrage and bolster your media career, you have no higher ground from which to berate Corbyn's gender politics.  Once again, it is a decoy.  At best, concern trolling.  These people have nothing to teach the left about gender politics.  

No doubt, and soon, we will hear the feminist case for keeping Trident, the feminist case for tougher immigration controls (I think Joan Smith has already been working on that), the feminist case for Anschluss, and at long last the feminist case for nutting people right in the fucking face, square go.  Because apparently there is no atrocity that you can't justify by sticking the label feminist in front of it, and brazening it out.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Blairite tears are not enough; we need heads on spikes. posted by Richard Seymour

I think we all need time to digest this.

The Labour Party has, for the first time ever [or, okay, since George Lansbury], a leader who is both a socialist and, critically, an activist.  I don't think this can be said of any other Labour leader [since 1935], not even the overrated Michael Foot.  (You will never see Corbyn draping himself in the Union Jack and cheerleading war in the way that Foot did.)  Not only that, but he won by 59.5% in the first round.  The ultra-Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, got a mere 4.5% of the vote.  This is far better than anything we could have legitimately anticipated.  In Corbyn's first speech as leader, he has hit all the left notes.  He welcomed new members, welcomed back old members driven away by Blairism.  He bashed the Tories anti-union laws, stood up for welfare, attacked the Murdoch empire, and said his first act as leader will be to join the big pro-refugees rally in central London, where the atmosphere will no doubt be ecstatic.

For now, much of the response will consist of a fully justified guzzling of #blairitetears.  All of the bullying and the moral blackmail and the condescension couldn't hide their fear, and couldn't dissuade a membership energised by a unique, unexpected opportunity, and sick to death of being spoken down to by the undemocratic, managerial rabble at the top of Labour.  This is the time to celebrate.  This is our Oxi.  Oxi to austerity, Oxi to Blairism, Oxi to managed politics, Oxi to a media that went into Project Fear mode the second Corbyn had a chance, Oxi to racism and the politicians who make it respectable, Oxi to the neoliberal consensus.

However.  As overwhelming as this result is, supported by mass, enthusiastic meetings up and down the country, including in real backwaters (you know where I mean, the kind of place you grew up in and fled), there remains something very fragile about this.  We have to be extremely careful not to lose sight of what's coming.  The Blairites have been sufficiently hammered by this result that they can't simply mount a constitutional coup immediately.  The party machinery will want stability and legitimacy in the process.  Nor will the Blairites be so self-defeating as to leave.  They will take their time, nurse their wounds, and patiently wait for the chance to stick the knife in.  So there is time, not much, for Corbyn's supporters to position themselves for the coming trench warfare.  There is time for them to get their supporters nominated to leading bodies in the party and start pushing for democratic change.  There may be time for them to get a few parliamentary and local candidates selected.

But we should be clear that there will be a war in the Labour Party, and that the right-wing will have the backing of the media, the spooks, the civil service, and a good chunk of the membership.  Project Fear was just a panicked, clearly ineffectual start.  There is also another line of attack which is more subtle.  That is to pressure Corbyn to abandon key commitments, to the point where he drains away his support and is decisively weakened.  Of course, he will have to compromise on aspects of his agenda.  The parliamentary Labour Party will work against him, overwhelming mandate or not.  Already, for example, there's a question mark over what Labour will do about Trident - Corbyn has a mandate to oppose it, but he may not be able to force MPs to back his position, especially since Labour went into the last election (the one it lost miserably) on a pro-Trident ticket.  The shadow health minister's resignation from the front bench is no great loss in itself - has anyone actually heard of Jamie Reed MP? - but it specifically mentions nuclear policy as a point of contention.  As in the Scottish independence referendum, one gets the impression that loyalty to nation and empire are more important to the Labour Right than anything else.  As for Rachel Reeves MP, a mobile disaster whose pandering to the Tory tabloids helped Labour to glorious defeat, no one will miss seeing her on the front benches.  But Corbyn doesn't just have to represent the balance of forces in the Labour Party, he has to work with the balance of forces in the parliamentary party, which is far more powerful.

Corbyn has said that his campaign is about turning the Labour Party into a social movement.  That, it seems to me, is the only chance he and his supporters have.  It's the only possible counterweight to the entrenched, institutional power of the right.

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