Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Can Corbyn build a 'social movement'? posted by Richard Seymour

There is an awful lot of fashionable talk about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. And while I understand the thrust of this to be moving in the right direction, I think it's a conception of which we have to be slightly critical and interrogative. In fact, surely we already have reason to be sceptical given the way the term 'social movement' is tossed around so lightly to describe what turn out to be normal electoral campaigns (Obamamania, Sandernismo) or just average party political activity (Luke Akehurst's facile claim that New Labour was a 'social movement'). If we don't want to keep talking loosely and in a way that gives opportunities to our political opponents, we need to problematise what I will call "social movement talk".

This is in part because no one really knows what a social movement is, or agrees on its defining characteristics. It is one of those terms, like 'terrorism,' that we sometimes have to use because there isn't a widely current alternative, but which is nonetheless troublingly vague. The idea of a 'social movement' has its origins, in part, in an attempt to overcome the limitations of an older sociological conceit, which is that mass movements are driven by irrational mob passions. Social movement studies tends to stress the constructive, civic role of such movements, and their rational, computational element. There is an obvious benefit from such an approach.

The focus of social movement studies, however, as well as its explicit formulations, has often tended to imply a number of unsustainable ideas. The first is the easiest to disprove: that social movements are clearly located on the political left, and are about promoting social change. The history of right-wing social movements from interwar Europe to the Tea Party, which aim to actively suppress social change, really doesn't permit that conclusion. The second is that social movements exist in opposition to, and autonomously from, public authorities. The state, in this perspective, is usually straightforwardly an opponent of such movements. But even the archetypally successful social movement, Civil Rights, depended in significant degree on mobilising state capacities and forming alliances within the field of the state state, as well as beyond it. Obviously its Massive Resistance nemesis was also very well articulated with localised sites of state power. The third is particular to 'new social movement' approaches, which is that the 'social movement' constitute a novel type of political organisation, moving beyond narrow 'materialist' and class-based approaches. This isn't really sustainable, and involves a questionable dichotomy between the 'material' and 'post-material' (as if to say that gay rights, or nuclear weapons, aren't obviously material interests for millions of people).

Obviously, social movements scholars have responded to this problem by loosening the definition of a social movement. In broad strokes, then, we could define a social movement as: i.) a sustained, organised public effort involving some non- or extra-institutional action making a claim upon public authorities, ii.) using a particular repertoire of contentious tactics, iii.) to promote or oppose social change. We could then add various other characteristics such as the fact that a social movement usually consists of dense informal networks, forges a distinctive collective identity, and so on. The problem here is that the definition operates at a purely empirical and descriptive level, and depends upon theoretical generalisations that are so indeterminate as to be of questionable utility. What does it mean to say that something is 'sustained', for example? In what sense does any form of political organisation define itself without either promoting or opposing social change? What form of political organisation doesn't make claims on public authorities? Or doesn't form a distinctive collective identity or involve dense informal networks? What is the difference between a campaign and a social movement in this context? What organisations count as 'institutions'?

I don't want to make too much of these questions. Some degree of indeterminacy in the social sciences is inevitable. And, for example, 'sustained' can be defined in relative historical terms - social movements historically emerged at the point where the concentrated centralisation of state power ensured that sudden local riots and mob violence were no longer effective - without being precise. But I suggest that we've tended to take the category of 'social movement' for granted, but once you try to pin it down with reference to any of its supposedly determinate characteristics, it becomes incredibly slippery. What has happened here is that a series of social outcomes have been taken to constitute a unitary empirical object, given the label 'social movement', and then presumed to explain the phenomena in question rather than being something that demands explanation. This is what is known as reification.

One of the most interesting theories of reification came from Gaston Bachelard who, in his Psychoanalysis of Fire, proposed that there sometimes exist "epistemological obstacles" built into the phenomena themselves, which can make it difficult to apprehend them properly and which permit an unscientific or incorrect apprehension of them to shape the experience of them. Fire was such a phenomenon, inasmuch as its materiality inclines one to view it as a substance or, perhaps, as some sort of spirit. The palpable experience of fire as an 'object' includes of course the appearance and the physical sensations it gives rise to when 'touched'. And once these qualities have been fixed by a certain symbolisation, once we've said that fire is in fact a definite thing - a substance, or an animistic entity - these sensations are experienced as palpable confirmations of the symbolisation. And so it might be with the concept of 'social movements'. The palpable experience of the social movement, then - the familiar displays of 'worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment' above all - can appear as confirmations of the category, so that there only remains the task of working out what essence, historical subjectivity or functional relation coheres all of the various and contradictory manifestations that are attributable to social movements.

The category of 'social movement' describes a series of outcomes, so it would be useful to think about the processes of which they are outcomes. Only in that way can we break with the reification, and then realistically think about the conditions for both effective mobilisation and success. So I would propose the following as premises:

i. The most basic social unit is not the individual, which is merely a politico-juridical effect of power relations, but the relation. Nothing social happens until there is a relationship (be it political, ideological or economic) between at least two types of agent.
ii. These relations are organised within a particular mode of production, which assigns agents within them particular capacities and powers, depending on their dominance or subjugation.
iii. The dominant relations in a given mode of production, insofar as it is characterised by exploitation, are antagonistic, thus leaving the social field cross-sected by struggles.
iv. The mode of production is never fully 'realised'. It is always only realised to an extent within an open, complex and generative structure-in-difference, or social formation. It is the social formation in a given conjuncture, not the mode of production, that is the terrain of action of social forces.
v. For relations to persist, they must be reproduced, and thus the manner of their reproduction, as well as the productive forces available to them to continue doing so, is decisive.

These premises stress a processual perspective, and it in that perspective that we can start to locate the social movement. First of all, we can say that a condition for the emergence of a social movement is that the reproduction of a given social relationship has been put into question. Thus, a movement will be concerned with the conservation, disruption, reform, abolition or expanded reproduction of a set of social relations. That allows us to broadly comprehend the character of social movements (as reactionary, conservative, reformist, revolutionary, etc). A second condition for the emergence of a social movement is that social groups who are in an antagonistic relationship with one another come into direct (though overdetermined) conflict. 

In addition, and given that the reproduction of a social relation is necessarily a political issue, a third condition is that the emerging combatants must have some reference to political power - that is the state - the nature of which is structured by the differential access of classes and social groups to the state and the opportunities for mobilisation it provides. A fourth is that, given the overdetermination of political struggles, the participants in the conflict extend beyond those directly involved in the antagonistic relationship in question, and draws into movement those who have heterogeneous interests and ideologies. This necessitates what Gramsci termed a 'system of alliances' governed by a shared structure of meaning (sometimes called 'framing') which may extend well beyond the specific politicality of the movement and even involve a richly complex 'way of life' or several (like cooperativism, unionism, membership of military clubs, 'Klankraft', etc). 

The specific social capacities arising from social relations whose reproduction has been put into question must be activated in that conflict - this is the fifth condition. These can be class capacities, endowed by one's place in the relations of production (capitalists enjoy control of markets, workers enjoy collective strength, etc) but one can also speak more generally (following Piven and Cloward) of 'disruptive capacities' which follow from one's ability to withdraw one's contribution to the reproduction of society. Since these capacities are distributed unevenly, and formed in relation to different identities and ways of life, the specific organisation of these capacities is subordinate to the political and ideological aspects of coalition forming.

Finally, these social capacities can only be convoked in particular spatial contexts (say, big urban settings) in which economic, political and ideological relations are concentrated. As Manuel Castells wrote, the segmentation of social and political space is a way of organising production relations, consumption patterns, sociality, social reproduction, and so on. That is to say, there is necessarily a territoriality to the action of social movements, which structures their options and prospects. They make a claim to the 'national' space, but they operate only within definite enclaves. If you think about this in relation to the most famous social movement, Civil Rights, it was very much a movement of big cities, whereas Massive Resistance was a movement of small towns and the rural Delta. Given that white-supremacy was organised primarily on the basis of the 'internal frontier', mapping race to place, the social-demographic shifts of African Americans to urban areas provided unique opportunities to break the old authority structures and produce new forms of collectivity. Arguably, Massive Resistance was limited by its rootedness in most places (not Arkansas, for interesting reasons) in the declining rural terrain.

So, looking at it like this, we could say that a social movement occurs where the reproduction of a social relation has been put into question; the antagonism between social groups has been forced into outright conflict; and the conflict has drawn in combatants from beyond those directly affected and given rise to a complex system of alliances between people with heterogeneous interests, ideologies and social capacities. Its chances of success depend a great deal on how those capacities are distributed and spatially assembled, and also on how the combatants are politically and ideologically unified despite great variations.

This obviously poses a number of problems for "social movement talk". This kind of talk almost always implies a kind of voluntarism, as if one can just summon a political movement into existence, or as if it's just a matter of the correct techniques. In a way, when you read a lot of social movement literature, it almost does appear as if it's just a political technology, since the outcomes it embodies have been subtracted from the social processes they emerged from. One can emulate the aesthetic and methods of movement-building, participate in movements, and support the development of movements, but one can't make a social movement come into existence any more than one can force a crisis in the relations of production.

And the conflation of social movements with normal electioneering or party activity may be a by-product of the reification, which produces definitions so vague that the mere appearance of a series of big crowd waving signs, or even the existence of a large group of people organised somewhere, somehow, is taken as a 'social movement'. But an election campaign has only one goal, and that is to elect the candidate, and while movement-like phenomena can arise in the context of such a campaign, if it shuts down the second the campaign is over then it wasn't a social movement. 

By the same token, a political party is both broader and narrower than a social movement. A party doesn't restrict its purview to the reproduction (or not) of one problematic social relation, but has a programme for the whole extended reproduction (or not) of the social formation and its entire future direction. It is necessarily less ideologically heterogeneous on this account than a social movement.  And it is necessarily routinised, bureaucratised and hierarchically arranged, especially to the extent that it is integrated into the state, in a way that would be far less exhaustively true of the social movement, which exceeds both its politicality and its formal organisation. A party can therefore be 'powered' by a social movement - you can have "people powered politics" provided there are actually people in movement - but it can't be the movement. 

One could go on. At best, "social movement talk" is a way of metaphorically addressing the urgent need to remedy the lack of democracy in our political structures, the need to reverse the effective exclusion of millions of people from politics in the neoliberal era, and the need for any party aspiring to social change to ground itself in the organisation and mobilisation of heterogeneous masses. It's a way of saying that there is more - much more - to social power than just getting the right team elected to office. And there's nothing wrong with that. But we shouldn't be hypnotised by the apparent phenomena of social movements, the "palpable confirmations", the appearance of committed and unified people in numbers, as if that was the movement. And we shouldn't lose sight of how beholden any authentic social movement strategy is to factors and contexts that lie beyond anyone's control, and how vainglorious it potentially is to decide in advance that we are a social movement.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Decline of the nuclear sovereign. posted by Richard Seymour

Corbyn's critics do have a point, at least. It is not in Labour's tradition, as a governing party, to oppose nuclear weapons. And until now, its governing caste could have relied upon the party membership and unions to support it in its pro-nuclear stance.

One of those inconvenient aspects of the Spirit of 1945 that we tend not to talk about is the Attlee administration's decision to lead Britain into the nuclear part of the special relationship with the United States. This followed logically ineluctably from the decision of the first majority Labour government to continue the foreign policy of the wartime coalition government. Attlee himself had already said in a 1943 cabinet meeting that any government he headed would not preside over the dissolution of the empire. During the Potsdam negotiations, Secretary of State James Byrne was terribly pleased to note that "Britain's stance on the issues ... was not altered in the slightest". And so it was that the Labour government, the most radical in history, signed the UK up to participation in a nuclear weapons system without consulting parliament. That part of its gift to the world is what is now likely to be challenged by a majority of Labour Party members.

It should be stressed the extent to which the nuclear alliance is part of the relationship with the United States, and the orientation of power to which a declining colonial power gave all of its weight in the aftermath of the Second World War. Ever since the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement, the UK has leased its nuclear weapons systems from the United States. It purchases access to, but doesn't own, a pool of nuclear weapons produced by Lockheed Martin. It purchases 'off the shelf' components that it doesn't have the capacity to produce. It cooperates with US nuclear research laboratories, bases its nuclear deterrence programme on the strategic logic of NATO membership, and takes its targeting strategy from US deterrence doctrine.

So what is Britain's participation in the nuclear weapons programme supposed to be good for? We are often told that the weapons would be used purely in self-defence, and that there would be 'no first use'. Many commentators have pointed out the absurdity of irradiating an urban population centre as a response to the nuclear annihilation of a part of the United Kingdom. Now this automatically conscripts all of us into a war that we did not ask for, and haven't really been informed about. All we are allowed to know is that our defence posture is that we are potentially, at any moment, in a nuclear war with another country, that we are all in the fucking trenches, and that our only solaces should we or loved ones be exterminated are: 1) the brain stem will be destroyed before we feel any pain; and 2) any surviving military infrastructure will immediately be mobilised to inflict the same devastation on other unwitting conscripts.

But it is actually worse than you think. The 'no first strike' policy has never been the position of the United States or the United Kingdom. The nuclear defence posture is based upon the credible threat that it could deliver a first strike, including "the launch of one or a limited number of missiles against an adversary as a means of conveying a political message, warning or demonstration of resolve". Trident must be able to deliver a first strike, as an essential part of the rationale for possessing it. It is important to bear this in mind when politicians are asked whether they would push the button and answer, effusively, "yes".

We are also given to believe that the use of nuclear weapons necessarily constitutes a special case, that we would not be looking at their wider use, and that effectively they would act as a kind of security blanket: a reassurance to the world that the British state could, if seriously screwed with, deliver an insanely disproportionate mass murder and that it would stand vindicated before its citizens with its justifying doctrines intact. This isn't necessarily the case; it depends on US policy.

There has been, it is fair to say, the beginnings of a shift in US defence doctrine, such that the military establishment increasingly regards nuclear weapons as a liability rather than as an asset. That is in part because the strength of nuclear weapons depends upon a form of sovereign power that is increasingly displaced. Assymetrical warfare, with different scales of kinetic force used by networked agents linked on a capillary basis rather than through state hierarchies, has been changing the game - slowly, but tangibly. You could use nuclear weapons in a world war, to hasten the demise of a rival. You could dangle it over a non-nuclear state to ensure its acquiescence, provided you were prepared to use it. You could conceivably nuke every single member of Daesh if your scope was wide enough. But in the latter case, that would probably guarantee their replication on a grander and more vicious and millenarian scale. And any such mutation might well get hold of some sort of nuclear capacity. What is more, when imperial power depends more and more on the political dominance of the US Treasury and Wall Street, with military power there as a permanent enforcer rather than as the foremost principle of international order, it is questionable what use nuclear weapons are. Obama's high-profile anti-nuclear speeches reflected this, and he introduced a number of policy shifts intended to scale back US stockpiling.

Of course, far more effort was put into frustrating the development of notional non-US nuclear weapons - the Iran deal - and while the existing US stockpile has been marginally reduced (and at the same rate as it had been diminishing already), $1tn has been committed to a significant upgrade. Now, one of the legacies of the Bush administration was to begin the process of eroding the distinction between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons. The idea was that as the nuclear weapons system was upgraded, the arsenal should be diversified to endow the US with the capacity to inflict varying grades of nuclear-armed destruction on rivals, which would increase the chances that weapons with a thermonuclear payload could be used. And the fact is that the development of new variations and destabilising types of nuclear weapon have continued to be developed under the Obama administration. And Obama's final gesture as President was to throw money at everything the Pentagon wanted in nuclear terms.

So what we're talking about here is a system that is designed for first use, and increasingly liable to be re-calibrated so that it can potentially be used in more 'conventional' warfare. There is, of course, some hypocrisy in all this, and everyone can see it. Part of the global stratification of the states system, its constituents 'formally equal' and all that, takes place on the axis of entitlement to nuclear weapons. Those states which are allowed to be thermonuclear states, also happen to be the ones entitled to sanction, diplomatically belabour and sabre-rattle against those which are not. Of course, the right to this kind of violence is still to some extent organised and structured by a colonial world order that no longer obtains. The predominant states in the thermonuclear caste are the legatees of colonial power.

But the world moves, over the longue duree, away from those antiquated forms of sovereignty. Empire progressively adopts a different format, though clearly not the 'decentred' kind imagined by Hardt/Negri.  The technological monopolies shaping and distributing access to this form of death-dealing potency are breaking down. The forward-thinking elements of the US and British military establishments are beginning to regard nuclear weapons as a dangerous and expensive anachronism. Therefore, while Corbyn's principled opposition to nuclear genocide is certainly out of kilter with the parliamentary mainstream, and so at odds with the practical history of the Labour Party's governing practice, it might just be that the "yes" men and women are political dinosaurs. It might just be that they are busting every sinew to support a defence capacity, an industry and a global production system that increasingly its supposed beneficiaries are not sure they want.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Brexit: the Monkey's Paw edition posted by Richard Seymour

This is the Brexit that none of those who supported it, rallied for it, campaigned for it, voted for it, really wanted.

I am not here referring to the so-called 'Bregrets' (please stop this) expressed by about 7% of those who voted to Leave. Those regrets are clearly not enough to get people to support a new referendum, which is very strongly opposed in polls. (Also, please don't try to get around this difficulty by talking about how 'we are a parliamentary sovereignty' for god's sake.) I am talking about the fact that the number one issue, by far, among Leave voters, was the fear of immigration. It was the question of the free movement of labour within the European Union that harnessed the energies of the Leave.

It was, you will recall, a question of quality not just quantity. All those Romanians. All those Bulgarians. All those Poles. All those Turks looming over the horizon. NHS under threat. 'Breaking point'. Not that most of those who voted Leave had much experience of migration - the areas with the highest numbers of EU nationals living in them were also those with the strongest Remain votes. But that is how it usually works with race politics in the UK.

And yet, strange to relate, it now appears that the majority of British voters want EU nationals to stay.  Leading Brexiters like Douglas Carswell have now openly campaigned for their rights to stay on. And even Nigel Farage has joined those condemning Theresa May for refusing to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK to stay here. So, to be absolutely clear: you don't want the Poles to be 'sent back'? You don't want the Bulgarians to be 'sent back'? You don't want the Romanians to be 'sent back'? You don't think we're at 'breaking point'?

And as for the free movement of labour, even so far right a Brexiter as Daniel Hannan admits that a free movement system is necessary if you want access to the common market. He is not wrong about this, of course. He is absolutely correct, and the EU has signalled this in the strongest possible terms. And of course Britain is going to seek access to the common market as a bare minimum in the coming years, because there is simply no ready alternative to the UK's extensive trade within the common market. Practically every serious commentator knew before the referendum that if there was a Brexit outcome, there would be an immediate negotiation toward a partial re-entry.

But what strikes me about all this is that there seems to be a very clear guilt reflex on the Right. The Boris Johnson panic and meltdown, George Osborne relinquishing his emergency austerian budget and giving up on the 'fiscal rule', the confessions from leading Brexiters that they had no plan for the outcome, the sudden rush to prevent a lapse into barbarism on the question of migration and in the treatment of existing EU nationals, all has the feel of a kind of dismal morning-after mopping up operation. As if, at each stew of vomit, at each alcoholic stain or piece of tumbled furniture, a fresh memory returns with sudden painful clarity, and they're thinking, "oh god... I didn't... I didn't...". Well, yes you did.

And look at what might now happen. Austerity could be a busted flush, as Osborne gives up on eradicating the deficit (which, of course, was never really a plausible outcome or even the objective), May pragmatically concedes the point, and Crabb promises massive deficit-financing of public investment. Scotland is likely to secede from the Union, and re-join the EU, thus finally drawing Britain to an appropriate anticlimax. Free movement of labour, with some reforms or restrictions, might actually be consecrated, as part of a consensus ranging from John McDonnell to Daniel Hannan, designed to avoid total clusterfucking disaster. And with property markets nosediving, house prices no longer able to subsidise incomes for the vaguely affluent and housed, there will likely be far more pressure to actually address the housing crisis and stop the whole system from being run on the basis of enforced scarcity. What then will become of the property-owning democracy underpinning the Conservative vote? What will become of England?

Obviously, this is slightly glossing things to annoy Tories and right-Brexiters. In reality, the coming period will be one of painful, difficult and contested transitions. It will be one in which triumphant reaction will seek to exact the maximum cost in human flesh. It will be one in which bitter struggle over a diminished social product will be fought out in the most unexpected, unpredictable ways. The financial crises and the loss of economic growth will be paid for by the poorest, as such things always are, until they decide they're tired of it and rebel. There is nothing to be chipper about here. But the point is that we are in terra incognita. The stable fixtures of Tory Britain, having been in decline for some time, are now looking more fragile than ever. This Brexit, vile though its victory has been, risks inflicting worse damage to the Conservative Party in the long term than Black Wednesday. This Brexit is the monkey's paw of Brexits, a cursed charm, whose appalling consequences might overwhelm their supposed beneficiaries.

And look. Don't lose sight of the danger. Don't forget who loses most from this situation. But, if he can hold on. If double, double toil and trouble doesn't consume him. Something Corbyn this way comes.

Addendum: Remember when I said years ago that Cameron's 'promise' to cut immigration by a certain amount was dangerous and deceitful bullshit? Remember when I said it would probably contribute to ending his career and propelling a new, right-wing leadership to power? Why didn't he listen to me? Why does no one ever listen to me? Why am I howling into a void?

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This is not 1981, and an SDP Mark II will not work. posted by Richard Seymour

In Corbyn... I point out that the media and political classes are obsessed with the idea that Corbynism is a repetition of the 1980s, and that therefore they can reprise the tactics, repertoires of countersubversion, and ideological formations, that they deployed back then. Roy Hattersley was the most egregious offender, indulging in a lachrymose recapitulation of his glory days as a Cold Warrior against the Militant Tendency and the Bennites.

Now, as we see elements of the Labour Right tacitly threatening a split, the spectre of the 1980s looms over us once more. The threat is that, once more, they can force a change in the electoral landscape, hand several victories to the Conservatives, and wait for the demoralised Labour Party to come to heel. I think the Labour Right are delusional in this pursuit of a 1980s re-enactment. I think it's a bad miscalculation on their part. And if the Labour Left doesn't lose its head, and start panicking, it can call their bluff. Here are a number of reasons why.

1.) Corbynism is not Bennism, and everyone can see this. While Jeremy Corbyn, the bearded socialist, is a Bennite in ideology, Corbynism as a political formation steers toward the historic centre of Labourism. Nothing that Corbyn proposes, bar his opposition to Trident, should in principle be disagreeable to old right-wing social democrats. For all that Labour MPs and pundits think they're staring at the abyss of Marxist-Leninism, or crypto-Trotskyism, anyone not trapped in those self-serving illusions can see that Corbyn is taking Labour gently and moderately toward a form of retooled social democracy. His support base, moreover, while including networks of the radical Left, is largely built upon a coalition of people for whom those old struggles are completely opaque.

2.) There isn't a generalised anti-socialist climate in the UK at the moment. There are plenty of morbid symptoms, and many trajectories toward reaction, but there is no 'winter of discontent' upon which a New Right can build a founding myth, no overweening union strength against which to define a reactionary agenda, and no recent history of left-wing militancy. The urgency of the Labour Right, in the early Eighties, and its ability to draw allies toward itself from the soft Left, owed itself to the perception that these truculent forces were destroying Labour, and that their backward cultural and political habits had to be broken. Today, all their urgency is about a presumed right to rule Labour, regardless of the outcome of elections conducted under a system that they actually fought for. Given this, the tendency has been for the soft Left to support Corbyn (with some fraying now, to be sure, but mostly not in a way that leads to a fusion with the party's right-wing).

3.) As several columnists favourable to the Labour Right have pointed out, there simply isn't the public appetite for a new centre party today. This is John Rentoul, The Independent's resident Blairite polemicist, on the subject: "The conditions for a new centre-left party are less favourable than they were when the Social Democratic Party was launched in 1981 - then, the Conservatives had moved to the right while the London liberal middle class and the media were all for a new party." I don't see much of that today. So who is actually going to split? Who has the appetite for that? They can't even bring themselves to challenge Corbyn in a democratic election contest. According to the magazine, Labour Insider, Corbynites estimate that the total number of MPs currently favouring a split, is about twenty. Twenty is not a small number of MPs, and we could allow for any prospective split being larger than that. Nonetheless, two dozen seems to be in the right ball park. How many trade unions would go with them? Probably none - why should they leave their party, the party they founded? How many councillors? Maybe a proportion of the hundreds who want Corbyn to resign. How many members? Rather few, I suspect. And how many Labour voters would be grateful to such a split? How many would cheerfully defect, just because these people couldn't put up with the members imposing a leadership they didn't like?

4.) The Tories are not on the ascendancy, hovering somewhere around the low Thirties at the moment. They have been undergoing their own secular decline, partly pivoted on the issue of Europe, but more basically having to do with a schism between a centre-seeking, pro-business establishment and the traditionally hard-right base. The irony is that with Ukip on the rise, the Right has been doing quite well overall, but it is electorally split in such a way that a first-past-the-post system will work against it. It is frankly absurd, given that even the SDP Mark I didn't have this effect, to claim that a split by the Labour Right today would result in "decades" of Tory rule. I'm not even terribly confident that the Conservatives will exist in their current form for decades. The reality is that "under this electoral system," the Tories don't have an advantage because their side is on the decline. As such, a right-wing split could not bank on cultural and politically regnant Toryism to terrorise the Labour Party into submission.

None of this means that a split, should it come, is something anyone in the Labour Party should welcome. It would be unspeakably selfish and venal, conducted for the most narrow, short-sighted and base of motives. And the mere fact that it would be intended to trash Labour, to hurt it so badly that it returns to obedience, should inspire rage and contempt. But it does mean that those who are making the prospect of a split their red line, as it were, are entirely wrong in their focus. The coup plotters have started this process, in a pre-meditated way, and don't have a roadmap out of the situation they have created. The responsibility is on them to negotiate their retreat, to make peace with their defeat, and to work with whichever leadership the party members wish to elect. If a small number of those MPs, having gained careers and power on the back of the labour movement, and on the back of the Labour Party, are prepared to try to wreck it when they don't get their way - well, then, to hell with them. Let them go, and see how far they get. They will lose.

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Monday, July 04, 2016

The Resistible Rise of Nigel Farage. posted by Richard Seymour

"The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don't rejoice too soon at your escape -
The womb he crawled from is still going strong."
― Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Nigel Farage has resigned. He has been, undeniably, the best leader that Ukip is ever likely to have. Imagine, if you can, Paul Nuttall or Godfrey Bloom pulling off his showmanship. As for Douglas Carswell, there is a Sherlock Holmes lookalike contest with his name on it - but he is too fundamentally principled to be an effective demagogue. And with its primary political objective achieved - a break with the European Union followed by a shift to the Atlanticist hard-right in the Conservative Party - the party is likely to begin a slow diminuendo.

This heteroclite assortment of racists, conspiracy theorists, eco-denialists, eugenicists, homophobes and closeted fascists has been the most dynamic force in British politics since 2013. It was the major force shaping the 2015 general election, pulling the agenda to the Right so that Cameron didn't have to. Farage did the job of any good outrider, by driving immigration up the agenda so as to keep the Labour leadership on the defensive. And even if he was condemned for campaigning against "foreigners with HIV" in the last weeks of the campaign, doing so helped harden up* his support base, and he gained 4 million votes for his trouble, or 12.6 per cent of the total.

Because many of those votes came from former Tories, BNPers and English Democrats in Labour heartlands - Ukip effectively becoming the official opposition in these areas - the geographical spread of its support prevented it from gaining much representation. However, it came second in 120 constituencies, and a proportional system would have awarded it some 83 seats.  What Farage calls the Ukip "people's army," a coalition between the batshit, the blue-rinse, the bomber-jackets and the bores, was subsequently integral to winning the EU referendum campaign.

It is important to register just how improbable all of this is. Ukip began as a small group of random Tory defectors led by Alan Sked of the Bruges Group and the British American Project. The doctrine of this group was essentially that articulated by Thatcher in her Bruges speech in September 1988, ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level’. The 'Anti-Federalist League,' as the new group was initially called, was clearly pinioned to the hard-right, leaning on support from Enoch Powell and rousing old nationalist themes about Blighty being under threat from a new Hitler. In this embryonic phase, the AFL certainly adverted to a growing schism within Conservatism, but it was by far its least important manifestation. Generally polling fewer votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party, it had to relaunch as the UK Independence Party in 1993.

The terrain was not promising. While euroscepticism was as common as anti-migrant attitudes, Europe was way down the list of popular priorities, as was immigration. The Tories were cracking up in the post-Cold War world, their old unity against the militant left, the IRA, the ANC and Moscow having given way to a major strategic divide over Europe - but the Tories (and Ukip) were the only ones obsessing about this. Ukip thus sought to broaden its agenda, linking opposition to the EU to a range of traditionally rightist concerns, such as immigration controls and the promotion of a nationalist education system.

But it is the emergence of Nigel Farage as a key player that begins to change everything for Ukip. Farage was a former Conservative activist and City trader, who had something more of a feel for politics than the academic dogmatist, Sked. Farage was shrewd, and energetic. He was the only Ukipper to keep his deposit in the 1997 election, in which Ukip performed badly. He came to lead party's group of MEPs. And having played a canny and leading role in ousting the Sked leadership, he was central to Ukip's nuptials with Sir James Goldsmith's vehicle, the Referendum Party, which resulted in there being only one significant eurosceptic party in the UK. They were able to attract more members, more voters, a leading Tory donor named Paul Sykes, and a former Tory minister Roger Knapman, who became the party's leader in 2002. They adapted well to the 'war on terror' climate, somehow simultaneously playing off Islamophobia while positioning themselves as a 'libertarian' opponent of excessive New Labour authoritarianism.

The next episode in which Farage would play a key role was when Ukip recruited the betangoed broadcaster and Islamophobic columnist Robert Kilroy-Silk - a sort of Trump avant la lettre. Kilroy, with all of his customary subtlety, embarked on an attempt to depose the Knapman leadership and argued that Ukip should stand against all Conservative MPs whether eurosceptic or not. At this point, this struck experienced Ukippers as reckless adventurism: the idea had always been to convert the Conservative Party to euroscepticism. Farage and his allies saw him as a loose cannon, crushed the attempted coup and forced Kilroy's resignation. The short-term loss of membership and donor funding was vindicated when Kilroy's new group, Veritas, cruised to an undignified and terminal splat in 2008.

Farage was rewarded for his loyalty and ability when he won the leadership in 2006. This came at an opportune moment, as the Tories had just bet everything on a centrist, media-friendly leadership, thus accelerating the alienation of the party's traditional hard-right. Farage's leadership saw the party's rightist agenda broaden, with a focus on climate denial, tax cuts and support for traditional grammar schools. He began to attract a new layer of Tory donors and businessmen such as Stuart Wheeler and Lord Young. And it was under his leadership that Ukip began to consolidate itself into a party challenging for power, rather than a pressure group.

And yet. Farage, for reasons which remain obscure, chose this moment to step down from the leadership - supposedly to focus on contesting the Buckingham seat of the liberal Tory John Bercow. Whatever the reason, he ducked a punch with uncanny precision. The 2010 general election was a terrible one for Ukip. All the movement in that election was to the centre. Even the BNP, which had been surging for years, saw its first signs of decline in that election. Meanwhile, Ukip's standard 'free market' pitch was unappealing in the era of the credit crunch. Lord Pearson, an old Etonian of the Cold War Right, and a bit of an anti-Muslim obsessive, was an unlikely populist. Moreover, his willingness to campaign for eurosceptic Tories brought him into conflict with a lot of the party faithful, and with the official slogan which invited voters to 'Sod the Lot'.

When Farage returned in August 2010, he couldn't have anticipated the explosions that would create such a convivial atmosphere for Ukip. Certainly, the disintegration of other far right parties, above all the BNP, suggested that there would be plenty of spare votes for Ukip. But it was the authoritarian racism unleashed by the England riots which really broke the stalemate of post-credit crunch politics and demonstrated that all the anxious, pent up energies would be canalised to the racist Right. Ukip thus pounced on a series of moral panics with alacrity - the Rotherham paedophile rings in 2012, the anti-Romanian and anti-Bulgarian scare stories in 2013, the 'Operation Trojan Horse' conspiracy theory in 2014, the halal meat food scare and the Scottish threat to Britishness the same year, and so on. All of the fears that had been incubated in the previous era, in part thanks to New Labour's own policy thematics, exploded in this one. Farage smelled out the angles with appalling keenness of perception and a sociopathic lack of restraint: child abuse, he said, was a result of Labour's "sacrificing the innocence of children" on "the altar of multiculturalism". There, he invoked the classic racial trope of white childhood sullied by dark-skinned savagery, without explicitly mentioning race. Through interventions such as these, Ukip became the effective official opposition across a series of northern cities.

It has become a media mainstay to claim that Ukip assembled mainly the votes of white workers and those 'left behind' by globalisation. This was Farage's greatest spin. By claiming that he was parking his tanks on Labour's lawn, and that Ukip was not about right and left, but "right and wrong," he tapped into the worst fears and the dumbest electoral cliches of social democracy. With Miliband and his allies desperate to rebuild Labour's working class vote, and altogether too confident in their belief that workers are fundamentally a bit racist, the Farage offensive ensured that Labour would waste their time trying to placate anti-immigrant racism rather than challenging it. This is not to say that Ukip didn't win over a lot of Labour voters; it is to say that this wasn't their main source of support. It is also to say that Ukip's support, according to most research, is far more spread across classes than that of most parties, and certainly isn't restricted to the 'left behinds' of globalisation. But for Ukip to position itself as an 'anti-establishment' party, rather than as just a particularly hard-right Tory party, it was necessary that it should persuade the media and other political parties to talk about it in that way.

Farage's greatest achievement as party leader was his media persona. Unlike just about every other conceivable spokesperson, bar Carswell, he has managed to articulate Ukip-style bigotry with a pat 'frankness', and without so obviously reeking of old school racist battiness as to put off potential converts. He has positioned himself as a constant presence in the media, as an oppositional advocate, someone who speaks up for the rights of provincials and suburbanites and seaside dwellers to enjoy their traditional British racism without the condescension of metropolitan elites. He has willingly toned down his pro-privatisation, pro-market views where necessary, and even been willing to appear to attack Labour from the left on issues like NHS charges. And of course, as I have repeatedly argued elsewhere, he has very effectively turned the issue of immigration into a morality tale, one which expresses exactly how it is that the governing elites have been captured by a cosmopolitan, liberal, internationalist bureaucracy, remote from the common sense of the 'British people'. Restoring Britishness, beginning with a withdrawal from Europe and 'sending them back', would allow the people to 'take back control'. The reptilian cunning with which Farage consistently hit the racist sweet spot without ever losing his ability to connect to broader audiences is a tribute to his political marksmanship.

Ukip has always had a certain inherent fragility. The feuding between Farage and Carswell factions merely expresses in its own ways the ambiguous nature of a project that tries to be both populist and free market, both anti-politically correct while formally within the bounds of acceptable liberal-democratic politics, both pro- and anti-big business, both Thatcherite and somehow beyond left and right. Farage's abilities as a politician enabled Ukip to navigate these contradictions more or less efficiently. I'm not convinced that anyone else could have done that job. And so, he is an object-lesson in how much individual leadership can matter, particularly when the entire political terrain is structured around the spectacle, and when the traditionally dominant forces are in decline.

At the end of my Socialist Register article about Ukip last year, I pointed out that Ukip's chances of success had a certain time limitation on them. "as a disproportionately ageing, white, male party, Ukip has the disadvantage of being associated with a generation and a bevy of values that are on the decline.  It also finds a natural opponent in a younger generation that is socially egalitarian. ... Whatever ‘Britishness’ means to them, it doesn’t mean cultural and demographic autarky." The EU referendum result was probably their last hurrah. There have been, since the outcome, numerous large and almost spontaneous protests against Brexit. At the base of this is a pro-immigrant, anti-racist, anti-Tory politics. Those carrying pro-EU signs, however much one may regret their enthusiasm for the institution, were not demonstrating for Angela Merkel and continent-wide austerity. And they are probably the Britain of ten years hence. It is not necessary to collapse into demographic determinism to understand how difficult it will be to sustain these forms of politics over a long period of time.

So in the short-term, Britain is likely to be an increasingly nasty and hateful place to live, thanks in no small part to Farage's accomplishments as a politician; in the long-term, Farage was very much a product of his moment, that spasm of backlash on the part of declining socio-demographic layers still steeped in a colonial culture, which is unlikely to be repeated. With Farage at its helm, Ukip operated adroitly on the accumulating dysfunctions and crises of British politics, finally convoking a popular bulwark that pulled Britain further to the right than it has been since the 1970s. And in the next few years, the reactionaries will seek to use their victory to achieve maximum damage, maximum reversal on all fronts. And there will be other sources of reaction in the coming decades. Yet, Farage's resignation signals the looming end of this end of the pier show. Even if Britain survives as such, this Britain is finished.

*polysemy intentional.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

EU referendum vote posted by Richard Seymour

The 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."

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

In praise of hate posted by Richard Seymour

In 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.

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Murder in America. posted by Richard Seymour

I 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.

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