Friday, June 24, 2016
EU referendum vote posted by Richard SeymourThe racists have successfully articulated a broad antiestablishment sentiment - originating in class injuries, regional decline, postindustrial devastation, generational anxieties, etc. - along bigoted, national chauvinist lines. The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism - but that is the primary way in which it has been organised and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced. That this was achieved so soon after the fascist murder of a centre-left, pro-immigrant MP, is stunning in a way. It says something about the truculence of some of the chauvinism on display. It says something about the profound sense of loss which a reasserted 'Britishness' is supposed to compensate for.
There is a lot of finger-wagging on Twitter and elsewhere about how the exit voters have just triggered economic self-destruction. House prices will fall, savings will be diminished, the pound will weaken, jobs will dry up. Well, that's all true. Except. Not everyone benefits from the insane property market. Not everyone has savings. Not everyone benefits, as the City does, from a strong pound. Manufacturing has suffered from that priority. Large parts of the country have been haemorrhaging jobs for years. 'The economy' is not a neutral terrain experienced by everyone in exactly the same way. And some of the votes, coming in core Labour areas, not necessarily strongly racist areas at first glance, indicate that. So people have voted against an economy that wasn't working to their benefit. (That doesn't mean the practical alternative will not be worse. I suspect it will be a great deal worse.)
Corbyn did the best he could in this scenario, offering a conditional, critical defence of Remain. Had he joined in the ra-ra cheerleading for the EU, had he not prefaced his support with some serious criticisms, Labour would be looking at a bleak scenario in these mid-to-north England areas which have gone Brexit. By at least sounding critical, and above all keeping his distance from the Tories, he has probably avoided a Scottish outcome for the party in these areas.
But Corbyn was also not the dynamic factor in this referendum. The racists were. The chauvinists were. And the culture wars now afoot were signalled by Nigel Farage, who greeted the victory with what can only have been a calculated dog-whistle: "we've done it without a single bullet being fired."
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
In praise of hate posted by Richard SeymourIn this time of universal pleas for civility and respect - god help us all, and save us from those two domesticating constraints - I would like to push gently at first, and then rather roughly, against the wrong lessons that are being drawn from the murder, allegedly by a fascist, of Jo Cox MP.
There is, of course, a 'there' there. In the tropes of 'hate' - 'the well of hatred', and so on. When that became the synecdoche for everything that was fucked up in the sick hunting and grisly killing (one might say, in view of the brutality of the murder, the methods used, and the insistent repetition of their use, 'over-killing') of a centre-left MP, it seemed to be about more than fascism and racism. It was as if the killing reminded us how we feel about the vicious sewer-sluice of bigotry and bullying on social media, the id-stream of unutterable nastiness, particularly toward women, in politics but also more generally. As if it could be made to stand for the particular toxic misogyny aimed at women who gain success, and perhaps at a stretch the coldness and brutality of everyday life. As if it reminded us how much grief we might be carrying around for the wounds inflicted by this society, for its victims.
All of that is arguably what is going on under the rubric of 'hate'. And why not? It is a shame that some who, for reasons of habitus or something else, cannot empathise with the widespread sense of alienation from the political class and media, have taken this to mean that there is too much hatred of politicians. As if to say, this murder might not have happened if people were more respectful of John Bercow. As if politicians had nothing to do with cultivating the backlash against multiculturalism and the Islamophobic panic that is fuelling the reactionary surge. As if they have played no role in visiting on people the social misery and pain from which 'hate' might arise. As if there were not several multiple shades between hating something and murdering someone on account of it. But let that stand for a moment, and think about it another way. Start with where we are. Europe.
The EU referendum debate is structured around two poles that have barely shifted in the last couple of years. It is all about immigration vs the economy. And if we find those two issues poised counter to one another, that is because of the curious way in which each issue is separately constructed. 'The economy' is characteristically spoken of as a politically neutral terrain, a zone of technocratic governance, of growth, trade and inflation, where all supposedly agree on the main objectives. Obviously, no such consensus exists, or could exist. Soaring house prices are good for Daily Mail readers, terrible for young people. Full employment is the traditional priority of the labour movement, counter-inflation and a strong pound that of the City. Nonetheless, whenever 'the economy' is invoked, we are all supposed to think that we all agree on what it is, and what it's for.
Immigration is something else entirely. One can try, as lesser mortals like Nick Clegg have before us, to sanitise it and depoliticise it and stop it from being a 'political football'. No one buys it. It has long been treated by most people as a matter of 'fairness'. Somehow, though, the Right have been the only ones politicising the issue. They have spoken in a moral language about immigration. It may make us a bit more wealthy, they say, but it's not fair. It undercuts wages. It replaces good jobs with bad jobs. It makes the poorest workers more precarious. I will not, here at least, try to disprove these claims, though they are arrant nonsense, based on 'common sense' simplifications about how the economy works. It's sufficient to note the incredible attractiveness of these propositions when the language of 'fairness' is annexed almost exclusively by the Right. And in this debate, bizarre though it may be, immigration has become the only stable index of 'fairness': a constant sleight, a constant offence to people who were, after all, born here (and thus should come first).
This discourse of 'fairness' thus lies somewhere at the intersection of individual and nation. It's where the neoliberal ontology of 'enterprise' in eternal struggle for self-maximisation, meets the nationalist ontology of 'people' in eternal struggle against the Other. If competition is to be the law of all social life, if there are to be winners and losers, if we are to scorn and diminish losers, if we need an 'underclass', a lower-down onto whom to pile the humiliations that are visited on us - well, then, at least let Britain come first. And if we are going to be punished for all our minor transgressions during the boom, for having a little bit of debt, for not saving enough, for not buying enough, for not having a better job, for not working harder, then at least punish them more.
This is where we have to make the appropriate space for social sadism - lavishly, opulently, beautifully theorised by China Miéville here. It is, ironically, people at their most (in a sense) utopian who are most inclined to need to be sadistic, to need to diminish others. It makes their loss and vulnerability, the failure of the world to live up to their expectations (whether realistic or not), meaningful. It's also worth mentioning the fury that derives from being forcibly reminded that we are not who we would like to think we are - or the fury that disposes of the conflict that this realisation gives rise to. If we as a nation are inclined to tell ourselves that we are tolerant, open-minded, confident and reasonable, we hate no one as much as those who remind us of the ways in which we aren't that. Those whose presence forcibly represents the ways in which we have become narrow-minded, and melancholic, through the loss of our fantasies of colonial omnipotence.
But here is my point. We, those of us broadly on the progressive side of this argument, shouldn't be so quick to disown all that. It is as impossible to conceive of justice without punishment as it is perverse sexuality (most sexuality) without that idea lurking somewhere. Justice requires sanction. And the idea of a pristine, bloodless ritual of punishment, safeguarded by a division of functions, is a modern illusion. Its result is ironically that we punish more, with less satisfaction: we always feel short-changed. To disavow our aggressive impulses, our desire to punish, our rage, is to engage in a dubious operation of externalisation. There are at least two ways in which we can externalise 'evil' in this sense. We can, as Fanon suggested, project our aggression onto a racial Other, finding in them all that is bestial and barbaric in our own behaviour and desires. That is Farage and the faraginous hordes behind him. Or, we can project it onto those who we believe to be the racist hordes (whether they are or not doesn't necessarily affect the degree of projection).
To put it like this: we can no more live without hate than we can live without an idea of justice. We can no more live outside of resentment than we can live outside of pain, and blame, and unrealistic ideals. There is something deeply suspect about any politics, or any person, that professes to be free of it, that has nothing to despise. Show me a person without a hateful fibre in their being, and I will show you the collection of feet in their attic. The idea, one would think, is to find something creative to do with our hates, our rages. As to Europe, of course, we came far too late to the party to make any but the slightest difference to the debate.
But there is this. The reactionary wedge in this country, is not its future. The nationalist reflux is dangerous because it is the despairing backlash of something that is dying. The young are moving in a very different direction. So, here is a moment. Here is a unique chance to bury that Britain, that authoritarian, conservative rat-hole, that worshipper of the idols of Seventies light entertainment, that incubator of child rape scandals and football violence, that forelock-tugging Britain that adulates power and kicks the poor, and marches us inexorably toward something that is not so much pre-fascist as pre-apocalypse. Here is a chance to assemble the social forces who hate fascism and are terrified by the racist Right, to begin a frontal assault on their fortresses and bulwarks. A task whose success will, I submit, not be expedited by giving ground to the demand for the parliamentary gentrification of political life.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Murder in America. posted by Richard SeymourI would like to say that the ordinary, quotidian nature of the killer was matched by the extraordinary nature of his actions. I would like to say that.
If Omar Mateen is, indeed, the latest Elliott Rodger, or Dylann Roof. If it is in fact the case that the mere sight of two men kissing incited him to this premeditated hunting of gays. If he is indeed the wife-beater who worked as a screw in a juvenile detention centre before perpetrating his act, then he obviously isn't unique.
And nor are his actions. Some time after Roof's armed assault on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Washington Post revealed that the US had seen a mass shooting once a day, every day, that year. And the evidence is that these gun massacres are becoming more and more common.
It's easy to blame the availability of guns, and easy to agree that Americans of all people should be disarmed. And there is something terribly skewed in large parts of the US economy - the 'gun belt' stretching from the north-east to the south-west - being dependent on weapons manufacture. That is a legacy of the Cold War, and the decision of US state bureaucracies to use military production to modernise and industrialise the southern and western states.
However, comparative international research suggests that guns alone can't be held responsible for the trend. And it would be obtuse to ignore the documented role of inequality and social competition in providing the affective and experiential fuel for these massacres. But even talking at this level risks dissolving the specificity of such actions into a broad, almost apolitical context.
What I think is missing, and would be helpful, would be a granulation and analysis of the social character of the mass shootings. For if we knew how many were 'going postal' in the workplace, how many were school shootings, how many were aimed at Muslims, black people, women, gay or trans people, how many were 'anti-government', and so on, our rage would be less helpless, our answers less reducible to moralism. We would also perhaps be spared the less-than-inspiring discussions pivoting on whether or not the killer was mentally ill, as if that was the all-important context which could render others moot.
Because 'inequality' and 'social competition' are abstractions, unless we talk about the recent struggles over the legal and political rights of migrants, women, LGBT and black and Latino people, and unless we talk about the class struggles over the allocation of resources and costs in the long aftermath of the credit crunch. We could probably situate at least some of the upward surge in mass shootings in a hardening of the cultural backlash on the Right against these social changes. A hardening that began to be visible among the noose-bearing, Muslim-baiting, gun-brandishing, anti-Obama McCain supporters in 2008, returned with a bang under the rubric of the Tea Party, and has since been re-energised by the Trump campaign and its open flirtation with violence and white-supremacists.
If those social forces dictate the course of politics in the next few years - and by this, I don't just mean being the dynamic force in the presidential election, perhaps even to the point where they decide who the president is - then they will be filled with peril for all those whose slow, incremental gains of recent years threaten the traditional, provincial middle classes. And the more empowered and confident the armed reactionaries are, the less likely it will be that such mass shootings will be left to motivated, enterprising individuals.
In Orlando, Florida, the worst mass shooting thus far has just been visited on gay Latinx. But the trend, to repeat, is for mass shootings to increase year-on-year. And there are already rather a lot of them.
Thursday, June 09, 2016
Corbyn reading Corbyn posted by Richard Seymour“Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is the fullest and fairest account of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise released to date. In avoiding much of the rhetoric espoused in similar accounts focusing on Corbyn’s early career this book provides a frank account of how the unlikely leader took charge of the Labour party. It is a very readable account too. Richard Seymour writes plainly but effectively and his writing is both accessible and incredibly informative.” – Liam Young, New Statesman.
“Laser-sharp analysis of British 'Labourism' and its contradictions... This book is terrifically astute” – Jamie Maxwell, The National.
“Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is the first serious analysis of Jeremy Corbyn's unexpected ascent.” – Yohann Koshy, Vice.
"Not enough about manhole covers." – Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader.
Six thoughts on teaching. posted by Richard Seymour
The Hillary conundrum posted by Richard SeymourNow that the Democratic Party has chosen a patriarch as its presidential candidate, what will become of women's rights in the US?
Obviously, Clinton's Republican opponent is a great deal worse, an outright Berlusconi-style swaggering misogynist, as well as a patriarch in a decidedly Oedipal sense. (But, believe me, a great patriarch, the best, he has the best patriarchy, you wouldn't believe - and cheap, too, because Mexico will pay.) However, the depressing reality is that the presidential contest will now be fought between two candidates with an anti-feminist record. Sanders is nominally taking the fight to the Convention, but we all know he doesn't expect to win. He has shifted gears to bargaining for influence. At most, he will cause a bit of a ruckus at an event that is usually a cheerleading rally.
And so, the Democrats are left with a candidate who harmed women, especially poor women and women of colour, through her involvement in welfare reform; who has a poisonous record of defending that most patriarchal of institutions, 'traditional' heterosexual marriage, against the gays - and invoking her 'traditional' wounded distaff role in doing so; with a penchant for the hypertrophically masculinist, militaristic culture of the US empire; and with at best a conditional defence of Roe v Wade, a stance she has qualified repeatedly by suggesting that she will compromise, by leading campaigns against teen pregnancy, and by declining to do anything substantial about the years and years of demolition of the abortion clinic infrastructure. (Although, in fairness, Planned Parenthood might be just about the only campaign constituency that the Clintons have not systematically shafted.) Then, of course, there is the small matter of her firing on all cylinders to protect a probable rapist from being held accountable for his actions - the probable rapist in question being her husband and political confederate, Bill Clinton.
But these arguments are well-known by now, and Liza Featherstone has done a lot to popularise them. The point of adumbrating Clinton's anti-feminist record is not to confound her defenders who will simply retort, with a naivety not seen since Seventies pornography, that she has had a change of heart. Rather, it is symptomatic. The one progressive sell for Clinton throughout the campaign has been gender, and her policies on this front should worry women - particularly women who don't care to be called 'soccer moms'.
Now, I realise that the fact of Clinton's gender is itself not merely incidental. She will be the first female leader of the United States, a country that finds itself lagging behind all of these other countries in this respect, and this has a symbolic significance. That significance is hard to disaggregate from the politics of the candidate - most feminists did not celebrate the election of Margaret Thatcher, for instance. Nonetheless, one can make allowance for the fact that, to win, Clinton will have to defeat the kind of sexist culture that could support a candidate like Trump - just as she has no doubt had to outflank, neutralise or (more frequently) make alliance with sexists in order to advance in her career. The defeat of a far right misogynist by a middle-of-the-road patriarch will have some significance. Yet, and this is the point of the post, she might not defeat Trump. She should defeat Trump, and she is still the favourite - but it may be precisely her centrist politics, which her supporters believe is an electoral advantage, that hands it to Trump.
To explain. Clinton is one of the sharpest, most ruthless, and most tactically ingenious bourgeois politicians in the United States. Many lesser politicians would have frozen in the face of the email scandal. Even if her Democratic opponent gave her a free pass on it, it was still something that could have finished her. Lesser politicians would have found it far more difficult to explain away a record jarringly at odds with her campaigning themes, but Clinton brazened it out without a bead of sweat. Yet her campaign, barring exceptions such as her very subtle way of ducking the Black Lives Matter punch early in the race, has been abysmal.
Consider. She told stupid, pointless, self-gratifying lies - lies that only Trump would top - such as the now infamous series of fibs about her heroism in Bosnia, each doubling down on the last. Challenged about her support for the Honduran coup, she first claimed to have supported democracy, then claimed that the coup was perfectly legal. She patronised young voters backing Sanders with barely sublimated aggression, and then condescended to them by wagging her finger and saying: "even if they are not supporting me, I support them". If this was a professional wrestling programme, Clinton would have just turned heel: that was a Bob Backlund move, and she didn't even know it. And her advisors didn't know it. She tried to represent herself as 'your abuela' in an awful social media campaign, only to provoke a classic social media backlash hashtagged #notmyabuela for her disgraceful record on immigration rights. When she was finally challenged by a Black Lives Matter protester, a young girl, she looked sour and had security bundle the girl off. And when asked why she has trust issues, why no one believes a word she says, the best her campaign can do is offer that she's been the target of media calumny - as if anyone has been more protected by the media than Hillary Goddamn Clinton.
Considering the advantages that Clinton started out with, everyone expected a coronation. It was 'her turn' as far as she and the Democratic Leadership Council was concerned. Bernie was a charming Larry David character with 3% in the national polls, a distraction. But just to make sure things stayed that way, the Democrats ensured that party debates were kept off prime-time, so that only one candidate would have name recognition in local hustings and on the ballot paper. Super-delegates, meanwhile, that undemocratic mass of corporate donors and party elites who wield so much power in the selection process on the basis of pure patronage, let it be known that they were behind Clinton, thus skewing the terrain heavily in her favour from the start. I won't waste time recapitulating all the irregularities and gimcrack trickery culminating in the extraordinary stitch-up in Nevada, to the foam-flecked disbelief of Democratic Party operators. The point is that Clinton had the big machinery, the big media, the big donors, the big super-PACS, every possibly advantage on her side. And she almost didn't defeat Bernie Sanders.
Now, on top of this, we see that her commanding lead over Trump in the polls is not all that commanding. Having seen double digit leads, she now has a 2 percent spread. Trump has pulled ahead of her a few times. Even a rare recent poll that gave Clinton a ten percent lead over Trump among likely voters, suggested that over 20 percent of likely voters would refuse to vote for either candidate. Where the hell are those voters going? Clinton should be cleaning up here. She has the support of business and most major media outlets, and she is far more unanimously and enthusiastically backed by her party machine than Trump is by his. If the normal forms of political control obtained, the Democrats would be efficiently corralling their base into the Clinton camp and this would be showing up in the polls - as a result of which, the latter's supporters could afford to feign magnanimity toward the elder social democrat Sanders rather than scapegoating him for her weakness.
Clinton's strategy in all this, it has been advertised for some time - although poor Matthew Yglesias really seems to think he has a scoop here - is to go after Republican 'moderates'. There aren't actually that many 'moderates'. Presumably, we are talking about people who backed Rubio and Kasich, neither of whom even rise to the level of Bush II conservatism, let alone Eisenhower conservatism. The Republican base, even those who detest Trump, are pretty reactionary - and most of them detest Hillary Clinton even more. So while Clinton goes out of her way to demoralise and demobilise Democrat voters, pulling to the Right in order to win over the non-Trump Republicans, Trump will be exciting his voters and getting them to turn out. What's more, with the truce drawn up by the GOP establishment, who perhaps think Il Donald can be temporarily useful to them, he will be burnishing his 'anti-establishment' credentials while still getting the donations and without drawing friendly fire. And he has a lot of material to work with in attacking Clinton as a 'crooked' scion of the establishment, and he is adept at dragging the debate into subterranean levels from whence the gutter looks holy and august.
The fact that Sanders generally polled better against Trump and all other Republican candidates than Hillary Clinton did is not an accident. In the context of a general crisis of politics germinating over several decades and brought to a climax by a post-credit crunch decline in living standards, the old political centre is falling apart. That is what has brought the GOP to this life-threatening denouement, and it is what is consuming the Democrats more slowly. The fact that the Democrats not only chose the loathed establishment candidate, but that the process by which they did so was one so openly marked by obvious manipulation and contempt for the unwashed, means that they are more committed to the defence of the status quo than they are to little things like electability. At any rate, and not for the first time, one senses that the centre would rather lose to the Right than to the Left.
So it is in this context that Clinton and her political machine has adapted incredibly poorly. She was cut out for politics of a different age, when she wouldn't have to apologise for calling black people 'super-predators' (Sanders's last campaign ad was a condign response to that racism), when she wouldn't have to pretend to dislike her Wall Street friends, when she wouldn't have to worry about being criticised for homophobic policies, when she could get away with styling herself as an 'economic populist' without hollow laughter resounding. She was made for the era of triangulation, that high point in American democracy wherein Dick Morris called the shots and 'everyone was happy'. She was custom-designed for the days when you could demoralise the base and no one cared, because there was enough affluent liberalism about. She should have been president when her husband and business partner was. In this situation, that of the breakdown of the representative link and the rise of populisms, she isn't the natural player she once was. One apprehends that she can calculate the rough sequence of moves she is supposed to make, but there's nothing intuitive about it; she has no feel for it. And we will know more definitively quite soon, but I suspect she hasn't got the measure of Trump either.
Clinton should win, in the ordinary run of things. It should be an easy ride. The GOP has been crashing and burning, the Democratic establishment has been hugging itself gleefully, and all that Clinton had to do was see off one previously marginal politician from Vermont. But it just isn't working out that way. That's the Hillary conundrum. Go ahead and blame it on the Bern. Blame it on ungrateful voters. Blame it on the boogie, if it helps. But Clinton is a bad candidate running for the wrong era, and that's the bottom line.
Del Boy falls through the bar posted by Richard Seymour
This is a profound cultural truth about melancholic Britain.
I remember the sadness and despair in my parents' eyes as they watched, over and over again, Saturday afternoon episodes of Only Fools and Horses, Dad's Army, Are You Being Served, Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp, and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, followed by Jim Davidson's Big Break.
It was with the forced laughter of a totalitarian regime that they chuckled at every over-familiar scene and every over-familiar catchphrase over the over-familiar smell of burning fishfingers. The communal lie, the compulsory lie, was that Britain was a jolly, inclusive, well-mannered, eccentric, humorous place, a land of fair play and common decency. As the human carnage piled up, someone always turned up the volume so that the canned laughter could drown out the horror.
Thank god for the Internet.
Thursday, June 02, 2016
Corbyn reviews, events, etc. posted by Richard SeymourCorbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics has been doing quite well, probably better than any of my previous books thus far. It's currently an Amazon bestseller, out-performing Boris Johnson's reinvention of Churchill - the second legendary defeat for the blond bombshell in as many months. It seems that, despite the fact that the current discussions (and thus the bookshop displays) are primarily focused on the question of Brexit, there is a yearning for any serious discussion of Corbyn that doesn't come with a trademarked media sneer. Obviously, there are plenty of people who will hate the book, and indeed are supposed to, and I look forward to their input. So, for what it's worth, here's a quick round-up.
Jamie Maxwell reviewed Corbyn for The National here, describing it as a: “Laser-sharp analysis of British 'Labourism' and its contradictions... This book is terrifically astute”. Liam Young was similarly positive in the New Statesman here, saying: “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is the fullest and fairest account of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise released to date. In avoiding much of the rhetoric espoused in similar accounts focusing on Corbyn’s early career this book provides a frank account of how the unlikely leader took charge of the Labour party. It is a very readable account too. Richard Seymour writes plainly but effectively and his writing is both accessible and incredibly informative.” [NB: this is the first reviewer ever to consider that I write plainly, but I'll take it.] I wrote a piece about Corbyn, based on the book's arguments, to accompany a major behind-the-scenes Vice documentary here. I was interviewed about the Corbyn book by BBC Radio here [23 mins], and by the editor of the Morning Star here.
In terms of events, the major upcoming book launch is to take place at Waterstones Piccadilly, on 9th June at 7pm. I will be joined by the outstanding Tory journalist Peter Oborne - a contrast that should work extremely well, as neither he nor I have much time for the political establishment. Those who have attended early events that have already taken place in Nottingham and Dulwich went away happy, and this one will be huge. Aside from that, I'll be appearing at Housman's on 18th June, and a number of local events in Middlesbrough (6th June), Hastings (tbc), Durham (probably 15th July, tbc), Cardiff (29th June), Thanet (19th July), and probably a few shows in Scotland. I've also agreed to speak at this debate at the Southbank Centre on 26th June at 1pm, alongside Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Mariana Mazzucato, and Owen Jones. If you want me to appear at anything else, please drop my agent Susie Nicklin of the Marsh Agency a line.
There will undoubtedly be more to come. For those who want to be kept in the loop about this sort of thing, you have the option of either following me on Twitter, or 'liking' my Facebook page, where I will post news and updates quite regularly.
Friday, May 13, 2016
Laura Kuenssberg posted by Richard Seymour
Allow me to explain. Many people think that the BBC's chief political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, is partisan. That is to say, not just perceptibly biased as every journalist is and must be, but actively using the journalistic platform to pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda. I think that's improbable, but it's worth saying that a recent petition on 38degrees, which achieved 35,000 signatures before it was taken down, suggests that the impression is not totally marginal. And in my experience, whatever people make of Kuenssberg herself, it's just a common sense right across the Left that the BBC is remorselessly biased against the current Labour leadership.
Of course, the BBC is frequently criticised on the Left, and for good reason. Whether it is its coverage of war, where it is more biased toward the state than any other broadcaster, or its coverage of Israel-Palestine, Scottish independence, and all Corbyn-related matters, the BBC acts as though it were part of the political establishment that it reports on. Its political editors are usually a particular source of irritation. For example, people constantly criticised Nick Robinson for his right-wing bias, and even called for him to be sacked. There is a reason for this. The BBC's political editors speak with the voice of authority: the authority of the Corporation. When they editorialise, they declare 'the facts', and there is no opposition. That is, their inevitable bias is not acknowledged as such. In a media outlet that admits no partisanship, that is more than usually aggravating.
For example, in April 2003, the New Labour loyalist Andrew Marr stood outside Downing Street on the day that Saddam Hussein fell, he said:
"Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren't going to thank him - because they're only human - for being right when they've been wrong. ... He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result."
This was what you might call 'peak Marr', as it expressed in concentrated form all the tendencies that were already apparent in his editorial stance. But he was not alone. It would not be difficult to find examples of other occasions on which correspondents have stated as fact grossly partisan political judgments. Just off the top of my head, I can recall Justin Webb reporting on Schroeder's welfare cuts, in which he asserted that 'Germans knew' that the big welfare state was unsustainable and would have to be pared down. You could probably come up with your own. These instances would have been a great deal less offensive had they been acknowledged as partisan interventions in a political field, as opinion commentaries which could then be contested within the programme. That they are offered as fact means that there is a degree of agenda-setting going on, because it takes them out of the realm of being open for debate. It would actually be possible for BBC journalists to be more objective if they were able to acknowledge partisanship, rather than pretend or strive toward impartiality.
When I say that the BBC acts as though it were part of the political establishment, then, I suppose I may as well come out and say it: it, and every other major news organisation, is exactly that. They are not just reporting on policy, they are part of the policymaking process. They do not just reflect on state power, state power circulates through them. They do not just represent what takes place in the political system, they regulate it and discipline it through the particular kinds of scrutiny they give it, the consensus they safeguard, the things they attack, the policy objectives they foreground, the debates they allow to be had, and the way they structure those debates. The 'non-partisanship' they esteem tends to be, particularly in the case of the BBC, a bias toward the governing centre, toward authority, and toward a default nationalism. This, to be clear, is not all that is happening in the media. It is not a homogenous entity, and there are spaces for contesting viewpoints which can expand or contract. And of course the media has to be in some sense susceptible to the views of its audience, no matter how much it may try to shape and manipulate those views. Nonetheless, if you assume that the major broadcasters and newspapers operate within the field of state power, have a mutually dependent relationship with other actors in that field, and contribute to its overall performance and reproduction, I think it makes their behaviour a lot easier to understand.
So, Laura Kuenssberg is the latest person to inhabit that authoritative editorial voice, the voice of the BBC, the voice of objective and impartial journalism. She is also, and this will become important to the story, the first woman to hold this post - a reflection of the BBC's institutional sexism. And, of course, she is no more impartial than she is immortal. That comes across in the very texture of her reporting. For example, I think there was something terribly snide and deliberate about the way in which the sacking of Pat McFadden during the reshuffle was represented as if it was because of McFadden's opposition to ISIS. That sort of thing, snide and insinuating, would leave any uninformed viewer alarmed that the leadership of the Labour Party has developed a crush on Daesh, which of course feeds into existing PR themes developed by the Conservatives and Tory-aligned media. But is she any worse in this than anyone else? Is she, as many people think, displaying a pro-Cameron bias? I don't think so. Her interviews with Tory figures have the same sort of performative aggression, the same zealous determination to catch the minister or whomever in a slip, however trivial or nonsensical. Whether or not she is personally Tory, her reporting doesn't evince a pro-Conservative bias. It does, though, bear the hallmarks of a generalised and institutionalised hostility to the left, a diffuse phenomenon of which Kuenssberg partakes.
After all, this situation is unprecedented. Corbyn is a radical socialist leading the main party of opposition, in a country where radical socialists have never been anywhere near executive office. The majority of parliamentarians, civil servants, media professionals, businessmen, think-tankers, pollsters, party professionals and others in that milieu, are used to the common sense that socialism is and will always be marginal (and amen to that, they add). Their sense of the political possibilities has, moreover, been radically reduced by decades in which Labour has rarely done anything but move to the Right. When Kuenssberg's reports were first singled out for scorn and satire, shortly after Corbyn was elected as Labour leader, there was a panic and derangement across the whole media, the like of which one usually does not see. Now, journalism is a cliquey profession in some ways, and the 'Westminster bubble' encloses media professionals as much as it does politicians. To some extent, if everyone else is reporting things in this way, and talking about things in this way, that sets the parameters of discussion for any journalist aspiring to be seen as non-partisan. To deviate from the established or emerging consensus is what would look like bias from the point of view of the journalistic profession. And if the parliamentary reaction is overwhelmingly the same, a sort of flutter and cry that the fox has got into the chicken coop, then that compounds the emerging consensus.
What about the Stephen Doughty resignation which, with BBC orchestration, took place live on air? It seems quite likely to me that in that case, several things are simultaneously true. First, no journalist in today's media would even consider turning down a story like that. Second, the pursuit of this story very probably overlapped with a contempt for Corbyn and his politics shared by most on the Labour Right and most at the BBC. Third, Doughty's desire to inflict damage on the Labour leadership, no doubt on the road to greatness, was congruent with Kuenssberg's desire to ensure that something that she reported was talked about for the next few days, in parliament and in other news channels.
To elaborate a little. Careers in journalism are hard-won, often by people who've hoked through the bins or hacked the emails or voicemails of private citizens, so on what possible ethical precept would they consider rejecting this story? Kuenssberg's determination to draw blood in political interviews and to get scoops that rock the tiny Westminster world to its tiny foundations, is an example of a tough journalist excelling at her job by the standards of most journalists. It may be trivialising, it may be obsessed with process and personalities, it may contribute to a general bafflement about and detachment from politics because of the way it treats politics as a series of racy stories without really giving any account of how real power really works. But that, by the standards of the capitalist media, is actually 'adversarial journalism' at its best.
Supporters of Corbyn found the story obnoxious because Kuenssberg seemed to be gloating about it and relishing the sense of crisis, which to them was artificial. The reshuffle martyrs - the Doughtys and McFaddens and Dughers, all metaphorically cruciform and wailing for the humanity, all undoubtedly destined for greatness were it not for Corbyn's vindictiveness - were attempting to represent an exceptionally minor change to the composition of the cabinet as a fucking Stalinist purge. They were being lionised for the most inane comments. And here was the BBC eagerly working to give one of them as much profile and impact as possible. It doesn't matter that it was a 'legitimate story', it felt like a stitch-up - and, what is more, just a particularly repugnant example of the BBC's palpable contempt for Corbyn. But, to reiterate, journalists don't see anything problematic in what Kuenssberg and her colleagues did in this case. The NUJ defends Kuenssberg and repudiates the petition against her. The New Statesman's 'media mole' probably reflects the view of many in the profession when querying whether we can remember when "the left believed in employment rights". Of course, that's a red herring. There is nothing in the idea of employment rights that says anyone is immune from the sack. But media professionals don't see a struggle over politics and representation - the criticisms may as well be coming from outer space as far as they're concerned - they see an attack on their profession.
Given this, it makes a certain amount of sense to look for ulterior motives. Since Laura Kuenssberg is the first women to become political editor of BBC News, sexism would be a logical motive to look for. That can be pitched on a number of registers. Either you can say that Kuenssberg is being targeted more for criticism than her male predecessors. I think that would be difficult to sustain, given Robinson and Marr. Or you can say that there is a certain unconscious sexism in the particular libidinised ferocity of the criticism. That's a tougher case to evaluate but we could make room for there being an element of that. Or you can say that most, or at least a sigificant minority, of the criticisms of Kuenssberg amount directly to sexist abuse. Well, the fact that there is outright sexist abuse of Kuenssberg, with some Twitter comments referring to her as a 'bitch' and a 'slag', exposes a nasty undercurrent of popular culture that was probably not as visible before social media. But is there any ground for thinking that the campaign against Kuenssberg is in any sense predominantly or even significantly sexist? Is the petition framed in a sexist way? What about the comments on the petition page (via)? Is there a preponderance of sexist spite or presumption or overt or covert male privilege in those comments? The evidence seems to suggest that the answer is no. And yet that has not been the conclusion of any media outlet, from the Guardian to those notable bastions of feminist thought and action, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. There is, and we are not seeing this for the first time, a serious disconnect between conception, evidence and conclusion.
Therefore, from the outside, the furore in the media denouncing not only the individual comments or the culture they represent, but also the 38degrees petition itself and the whole critique of Kuenssberg as sexist, looks really appalling. It looks like it is instrumentalising feminism in a tawdry and opportunistic way. Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism makes the obvious point that you can't just dismiss sexist abuse as a distraction when it occurs. Absolutely right, but I would turn this point around. It is not a 'distraction', it is a real issue: therefore do not use it as a distraction. Talk about it, but do not pretend that is all there is to talk about. Do not pretend that this gives you a license to wave away the criticism of the BBC and its political editor. As Stavvers puts it, "There is misogyny going on. It is just that the misogyny is levelled as a distraction from issues they don’t want you talking about. ... Using misogynistic language does not change the important discussion about bias from a public broadcaster, it merely deflects away from what we ought to be talking about." Those who deserve to be criticised for trivialising and dismissing the issue of sexism are those who utilise it in that way, leveraging it - as if we wouldn't notice! - to illegitimately rebuff the entire critique. A critique that, agree with it or not, threatens the flattering self-image of media professionals. The Guardian, whose renaissance under Katherine Viner is not quite as advertised, even went to the extent in its leader column of bundling together the Strauss-Khan rape allegations with the sexist comments about Kuenssberg on Twitter, under the category of 'sex abuse' - a term that in common usage, if you care to google it, refers to rape. That conflation is, someone please tell them, not just crazy but actually disgusting.
But matters get worse. After a sustained media campaign, both the petitioner and the petition's hosts decided to take it down. David Babbs of 38degrees explains that the petition had to be taken down as a gesture of principle, because: "A small number of people signing the petition were using it as a launch pad for sexist hate speech towards her on other platforms such as Twitter." I find it hard to blame Babbs for buckling under this pressure, but he did in fact buckle under pressure. By this standard, I swear, 38degrees will have to stop hosting petitions altogether. Because there will never be a time when one of their petitions doesn't generate 'a small number' of signatories who go on to say something trashy and bigoted on another forum. The attempt to implement this practice consistently would result in a generalised moratorium on all written material. That, of course, will not be necessary, because this standard would be applied in no other circumstances. But the press, again almost uniformly, has been bullish. They have also been joined by politicians, above all David Cameron. Fresh from addressing the fantastically corrupt practices of Nigeria, he's here to address the nation on sexism. And next, he'll be lecturing the farmers on how to avoid inter-species coition.
Now, if you're a journalist, ask yourself how this looks. We live in a society where, like it or not, the breakdown of the representative link is coextensive with a general decline in trust in the media. People do not feel represented by the government, and they do not feel represented in the media. The mirror of democracy has cracked and warped, and that means that people are more and more critical of what they see and hear in the media, and more inclined to see the media as an extension of the 'political class'. And what have you got here? A complete failure to understand the criticisms let alone take them seriously. A generalised smarmy smugness among the punditry, snorting at the silly little people and their silly little conspiracy theories. (There are conspiracy theories, but I don't think we need any lectures about that from the people who gave us the story of Labour's remarkable takeover by antisemites.) And finally, a crescendo, an undignified, hectoring campaign to shut them up, denounce them as sexist, get the petition taken down. A chorus extending from the Tory front benches to the Labour back benches, and right across the media, exultant and graceless in victory. Do you have any idea what you look like? No. Of course you don't.
Tuesday, May 03, 2016
Yes, it is a witch-hunt. posted by Richard SeymourBy now, I think, it is being quietly acknowledged in most sensible quarters that Labour doesn't have an 'antisemitism problem'. This doesn't mean there are no examples of antisemitism. There are. It just means they are a handful of cases, that they are mixed in with cases that are not antisemitic, examples that are tendentiously misrepresented, instances that are wildly exaggerated, and that they by no means justify the absurd claims of institutional antisemitism in the Labour Party. It is. Just. Absurd.
But how does this relate to the argument that what is taking place in the Labour Party, with the apparatus of inquiry and suspensions, is a witch-hunt? After all, aren't many of these cases genuinely problematic? Didn't Naz Shah reference "the Jews"? Isn't there another councillor who referred to "Zionist Jews" when criticising Israel? Didn't Ken Livingstone's clumsy attempt to redefine antisemitism at least push in a dangerous direction? And so on. So what if a few "innocent people" get caught up in the understandable haste to expunge the taint?
This is worth clarifying. A witch-hunt is not usually aimed exclusively or even largely at 'innocent' people. To take the classic example, McCarthyite terror was not aimed at 'innocent' people. (It will, of course, be controversial to compare party suspensions and inquiries to a state-led crackdown that ruined people's lives, but the point of the historical detour will become obvious.) According to Ellen Schrecker's histories of the era, the majority of those targeted by investigations, prosecutions, censure, blacklisting, purges, and so on - at least in the 'classical' age of McCarthyism (from 1947 to 1954) - were not 'innocent' of being either Communists or 'fellow-travellers'. That is to say, they were not 'innocent' of glorifying an atrocious, repressive regime. They were not 'innocent' of defending the show trials, supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact, or justifying Russian expansionism in eastern Europe at the end of the war. They were not 'innocent', from the point of view of African American civil rights struggles, of opposing the March on Washington during their 'anti-imperialist' phase (because it would encourage war), and of opportunistically anathematising organisations to their right. They were not 'innocent', from the point of view of the labour movement and the Left, of supporting repressive measures against workers and other leftists during the war - including, in a horrible irony, the invocation of the Smith Act which was later used to hammer the Communist Party during the Cold War. They were wrong in so many ways and, if you care to see things in this way, had a lot of explaining to do.
The point of this kind of witch-hunt was not that it invented accusations out of whole cloth, though it sometimes did that. And it was not that 'innocent' people got sucked into it, although that certainly happened - particularly during the civil rights era, when anticommunist countersubversion was directly utilised by Southern states in a battle to preserve Jim Crow. It is, rather, that real political problems were instrumentalised, exaggerated, and entangled with a great many non-problems, inventions and distortions, the better to create a narrative which could help organise political repression. It armed the state with the means to hammer the most powerful sector of the Popular Front Left and accelerate a realignment of many of these forces toward the 'Vital Centre'. It anchored the ideological mainstream in an anti-leftist articulation, and ensured that the dissidence of even moderate liberals was timid and well-policed.
For the sake of elaboration, those who are interested in this history may wish to have a look at what happened to the NAACP during the Cold War era. The NAACP was, as now, a mainstream, liberal civil rights organisation. It had close ties to the State Department, and some history of antagonism with the Communist Party going back to the Scottsboro Boys. But it, like all other such organisations, was put under tremendous pressure to 'root out' the Communist menace in its ranks. This included not only the expulsion of W E B Du Bois, who was faulted above all for his role in the We Charge Genocide petition, but the adoption of an anticommunist resolution supporting the purging of Communist influence in the organisation. As Walter White, then leading the association, put it, they vowed to be "utterly ruthless in clean[ing] out the NAACP, and, making sue that the Communists were not running it". There was, of course, precious little evidence of Communist membership, or 'infiltration', of the NAACP, much less of any Communist attempt to "run" the organisation. Illegitimate claims of infiltration were sometimes used to justify battles against individuals in local chapters who were, for one reason or another, considered problematic. But if there were no mass purges, that is because there was no one to purge.
So what was the function of anticommunist paranoia in this context? If there were no 'witches', what was the witch-hunt about? One end that it definitely served was to keep the NAACP loyal to the US government, so that leading figures whitewashed the realities of American racism in order to rebut "Soviet propaganda". A key example of this would be Channing Tobias downplaying the murder by a local Sheriff of four African Americans falsely imprisoned on rape charges, despite the victims being NAACP clients. It would, of course, be tendentious to claim that this sort of thing is exhaustive of the NAACP's record in this period. Of course it is not. And Cold War paranoia was not the only factor contributing to the moderation of middle class-led black civil rights organisations. But that is, in a way, the point: a witch-hunt works on the basis of existing materials, exacerbating, accelerating and re-directing existing tendencies. It codes these processes differently, giving them a seemingly coherent and compelling rationale, and putting their critics and opponents on the defensive.
A similar pattern is at work with Labour. The character of Labour's crisis does not have to do with antisemitism. It is a deep, secular crisis rooted in the changing social bases of Labourism, the crises of its traditional modes of party management, the depletion of its core vote, its inability to manage and respond to the problems with its traditional Unionism, and so on. Currently, as a consequence of the comprehensive collapse of the Blairite Right, it is taking the form of a battle led by the Old Labour Right to weaken and finally bring down a leadership of Bennite vintage (though not one that is able to advance Bennite policies). Long before the antisemitism accusations took off, there was an effort on the part of local notables, constituency chairs, councillors and others who detest Corbyn to find excuses to purge party members. The justification cited has usually been that they support policies or parties that are at odds with the "aims and values" of Labour, a suitably nebulous accusation. What the furore about antisemitism does, with all its grotesque disproportions, its slanders and distortions, is re-code those processes that were already at work. It draws on some combination of reality and bullshit to give new meaning to an old struggle, creating a panic situation which derails all of the careful groundwork that has been laid by Corbyn and his supporters over the last few months, and shatters the growing impression of a steady stream of modest but real successes. In the days before a series of elections, it has an obvious tactical purpose, but its goal is strategic: to bring forward the day when Corbyn, his allies, and his supporters can be effectively and irreversibly driven out of the Labour leadership. And even with the best will in the world, the current suspensions and the promised inquiry play into that.
How should the Left respond to this? Obviously not by denying that anyone has ever said anything problematic. That would be silly. We should defend people against false accusations, and point out when problems are exaggerated or distorted. But we should also point out that the relationship between the alleged problem and the supposed solution is not an intuitive one. For example, the latest instance of suspension involves councillors who, among other things, shared the famous satirical meme calling for Israel to be 'relocated' to the United States (which is not problematic), referred to "Zionist Jews" (which is in most cases problematic), and implicated Israel in regional conspiracies and intrigue (which is bombastic nonsense). And they've been suspended for this?
If someone, a Labour Party member or anyone else, used the phrase "Zionist Jews" in my company, I would politely point out that this phrase is dodgy and worth avoiding. If someone proposed a conspiracy theory about Israel, I would point out the ways in which the argument didn't make sense. If possible, I would do it without embarrassing them or being a dick about it. What I would not do is rush to call them antisemites. What I would not do is call the compliance unit and demand their suspension pending investigation and expulsion. It is the mark of a deeply unpleasant, authoritarian streak in anyone to think that the discomfort raised by statements about "Zionist Jews" is best dealt with by means of ex-communication. Any party would want to have recourse to means to exclude people where other means fail, and certainly where someone is consistently and unrepentantly racist, but I'm not sure even the most hard-assed 'Leninists' whom I have met would rigorously defend suspensions pending investigation and possibly expulsion for saying something stupid on Facebook.
This brings me back to my main point. There are very few 'innocent' people, and hopefully none in politics. There is no one who has not - whether out of bad politics, inexperience, frustration, whimsy, or any variant of these - said something stupid. And sometimes, you may even have said something sexist, or homophobic, or ableist, or racist, or at least bordering on it, at least pushing dangerously in that direction. I certainly have, and I can recall moments that make me cringe. And I can also remember moments in the past where individuals have made arguments that sounded ever-so-tough and realpolitik, but which in retrospect would embarrass them. People learn, people change, provided someone is willing to argue with them. And hopefully, when they do change, they don't become self-righteous about it out of some overdetermined guilt reflex. But the point is that no one is 'innocent', all of us have been politically impure. So the existence of real problems, where they exist, may provide the occasion or raw material for a witch-hunt, but it is not its point, and it is not a justification.