Sunday, February 19, 2017

Jokes and politics. posted by Richard Seymour

Purely by accident, I posted a satirical linkbait article to my Facebook feed, claiming that vegetarians are unhealthy and 'mentally disturbed'. (Obviously, my unconscious thought it was an important subject that I should raise). In the ensuing cackles, and amid the odd groan and some very angry responses, there emerged an interesting argument, not so much about vegetarianism as about the way in which this sort of joke works, starting with the (correct) assumption that jokes are never 'just' jokes, and that they usually define a group who is included, as opposed to those who are being made fun of. The political valences of this are worth arguing about, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts here.

If you read the linked piece, it seems to me that there is a sense in which the author of the piece might feel a certain moral inferiority in relation to vegetarians and vegans, against which the joke is a defence. There is also a sense in which, though the allegation that vegetarians are 'mad' is not meant literally, it does have a psychological meaning. Maybe there's a lingering idea that people who do things differently are mad, and maybe there's a stereotype (founded in some degree of reality) that vegetarians are fanatical about their subject, such that it monopolises all the attention and conversation whenever they're around. And yet, the joke also depends on the understanding that vegetarians are not really 'mad' -- although the sub-header, 'I knew it,' shows that it's a belief that the author would really passionately like to entertain. There may also be a sense of melancholia in the joke, centred on a feeling of helplessness, both in the face of a problem seemingly too huge to solve and yet consequential, and in the face of one's own consumption habits -- one's addictions. This would indicate that there's another belief the author would passionately like to entertain, which is that we could somehow stop the organised industrial cruelty toward animals by willing it.

This is just an elaborate way of illustrating the claim that the joke is a compromise formation, negotiating between different levels of knowledge, belief and desire. I suspect that many of the jokes which target leftists or activists of various kinds, people who are seemingly able to confront problems that most people feel intimidated by, are organised like this. Even the stale old 'Monty Python' jokes about the sectarian left have a whiff of repressed desire, and sadness.

And what I'm suggesting is that, rather than be dominated by indignation or irritation regarding this kind of reactionary humour (and most humour, let's face it, does tend in reactionary directions), we could tactically respond to them 'as if' they were in fact something else. As if they were acknowledgements of our concerns, a tacit admission of the power of our argument, an expression of the ambivalence that they arouse (since the changes we propose sometimes threaten the tiny little pittances of enjoyment that people get in life), an opportunity to open up the conversation, and unravel the guilt and intimidation surrounding it, and a way to make an emotional connection with people's ambivalence. The point is not so much to pander, to find funny things which one doesn't, but to move things on beyond the deadlock of indignation.

That is to say, while not every tiresome Richard Littlejohn jibe needs to be taken at that level, there are times at which a reactionary joke can be an opportunity, a way to engage with the deflected, or repressed desire coded in it.

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The case against 'exposing' fascists. posted by Richard Seymour

It is heart-breaking to live in the era of the Huffington Post "fact check" on Milo Yiannopoulos. I understand that the US media, having already elevated Trump to power (before vaingloriously styling itself as "the resistance"), has made it necessary to take this dim-witted sociopath seriously. At least until he achieves his goal of becoming the Caesar Flickerman to Trump's charity-shop Snow.

But, as with Trump, Bannon, Spicer, Conway, Miller, and the whole gruesome lot of them, a fact-check is increasingly beside the point. The point of their use of language is to exercise power. It is conative, not constative. To say, "trans people have a psychiatric disorder" is not a descriptive statement, a truth-claim, but a speech-act. It is an incendiary device thrown into the conversation to send fists flying, at trans people mostly. It may be necessary, as part of any retort, to clarify the 'facts', whatever they may be. But, much as the Daily Show 'destroying' Yiannopoulos would only arouse a piteous sigh, it is plainly inadequate. And it is worth thinking about what predicates could make it seem adequate.

The problem is, in part, that operating liberal political theories about 'speech' -- the theories that, whether we 'believe' them are not, tend to be the ones that predominantly guide people's actions and responses -- are centuries behind the state of knowledge about how language works. It is still assumed that language is basically a neutral conduit, transferring meaning from one to the other, rather than something which is done to you. Meaning itself is treated as something contained in the language, which we may decide to unpack and digest, rather than as a form of intending, something which acts on us, by means of the very materiality of language and what it activates in us. If language does things to us, if we find that disagreeing is somehow just not adequate as a response, if it makes us want to throw a punch, or a brick, it must be because we're triggered snowflakes who can't deal with the argument.

The advantage that fascists have on this terrain is that they do not behave as though they are having a conversation. They are aware that they are throwing verbal bricks, and that in good time, in circumstances of their choosing, they'll throw literal bricks or bullets. In the meantime, they are taking advantage of the protocols of mainstream media communication to amplify their voice without in any serious way engaging with their opponents. The Trump administration's apologists and spokespeople are not necessarily the best examples of this, because they are undisciplined and incompetent. There are fascists among them, but there is little fascist organisation. Marine Le Pen and her Front national are a better guide. They eschew print journalism, and their security agents beat up journalists, because the final edit is always controlled by someone else. But they take every advantage of broadcast media, especially live media. Then, rather than conversing with their interlocutors, proceed calmly bulldoze over every discursive object put in their path.

During the famous Remembrance Sunday interview, Le Pen manhandled her host, Andrew Marr, because she knew she wasn't having a conversation with him. Le Pen would regard Marr and his ilk as of the enemy camp, people to work around, not dialogue with. Her job was to use her voice, expression and physical bearing to embody her passion for what she was saying, to sidestep obvious traps, and to convey the points as memorably as possible. When Le Pen says "anglo-Saxons are waking up," this is not a descriptive statement with which one can have a debate, or fact-check. One may as well fact-check an advertisement. It is a performative statement, which identifies a friend/enemy distinction. Le Pen was there to interpellate her audience, to hail some, seduce waverers and symbolically crush the rest. That's what she did.

Now, I don't need to be reminded that Marr is about as heavyweight as a windsock. Maybe another interviewer would have known what he was talking about, or been more concerned with fascism than the potential threat to "Western security" or European institutions. And it's true that the format of such programmes is geared toward getting the candidates to speak about their views, so that you can't argue too much, or be too confrontational: if the fascist raises her voice and starts aggressively steamrolling over everything you say, you can't rejoin in kind. Another format might conceivably be more conducive to 'exposing' fascism. But the basic idea that 'exposing' fascists is bad for them, that 'exposure' is something that they want to avoid, depends on the totally erroneous idea that they are there to free associate about their ideas, to converse, to logically defend various truth claims. If they were worried about being 'exposed' in that way, they wouldn't come on your television show, or go out of their way to court publicity. The 'fact check', and the oh-so-witty 'annihilation', ultimately depends on the same logic.

Opposition, not exposition, is the priority. I am not advocating tactical narrowness. There may be circumstances in which it makes sense to 'debate' a fascist. There may be circumstances in which not debating them would be the worst option. But there is no conversation to be had here, and the taunt that slimy alt-right trolls offer, that their opponents will not debate them, is part of the troll.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

On Forgetting Yourself posted by Richard Seymour

“I had forgot myself; am I not king?” – Shakespeare, Richard II

I.
There are some things (or somethings) that matter more than happiness. Forgetting oneself is one of them.

To remember that one is king – as in, His Majesty the Baby, the primary narcissistic representation at the very start of life – is also to be constantly apprised that one is living under a tyranny, even if it is one’s own.

To value oneself too highly is to live under a one-person dictatorship, with an underground torture chamber for the dissenting remainder. There is death in this. The death-drive, on the other hand, is a regicide plot: and, to that extent, is on the side of living.

It is an irony that when we disappear from the picture, when the self seems to die for a moment, that is when we feel most alive. When we play, as children, we get to forget who we are for a while. Once we are assumed to be adults, we have to find acceptable substitutes for childhood play – the thrilling abandonment of oneself through love, sex, creativity, adventure, or even just the joy of surrendering to a novel and cancelling everything else.

It is a cliché of certain ‘self-help’ literature that we should learn to forget ourselves more often, although they don’t exactly put it like this. Winnifred Gallagher recommends a state of being ‘rapt’, a ‘focused life’ for the sake of thriving. Cal Newport extols ‘deep work’, the state of disappearing into serious work for long periods, detaching from the distracting ‘shallow work’ of answering email and managing social media, in order to be more productive. Usually, this literature has buried in it the idea that you will be happier if you pursue this course. The promise of self-help literature seems to be inherently geared toward the happy-ever-after: self-help books are stories of secular redemption.

Whether or not this has anything to do with happiness seems almost to be beside the point. Indeed, that might precisely be its status: it is adjacent to the purpose, potentially a contiguous by-product, not the goal itself. If we live as though happiness is the goal, we’ll have a greatly impoverished life, forgetting everything else that we live for, including unhappiness. Indeed, having happiness as a goal might be a source of depression. But even if the proposed solution of self-help does make us happy, or at least not unhappy – a self-made anti-depressant, one weird trick, a life-hack – it still isn’t obvious what it is about being absorbed, wrapped up in some great work, going deep, that is so satisfying.

To answer that you get a chance to forget yourself only invites the question, what’s so good about that?

***

"By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it's all very well for psychologists' consulting rooms. But isn't being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake - for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait - a stupid and burdensome fiction? The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life." -- Frederic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking, Verso, 2016, pp. 6-7.

II.
The term ‘rambling’ partly derives from the Middle Dutch word, ‘rammelen’, referring to the night-time meanderings of animals on heat. It later became a metaphor for incoherent, wandering, nocturnal speech or writing. As if the thoughts were just wandering around looking for others to bump into, and copulate with. The coherence of the self that we present to others precludes such amorous digression, such free association, in normal conversations. We usually have to go to analysis, where it is the rule to fall apart, to have these sorts of excursions.

To ramble now is to walk aimlessly, not so much to copulate as to see what in ourselves we might bump into: to encounter our thoughts like strangers. Writing and walking are connected by a language, and an experience. We set out, initially wary, leaving behind a certain comfort, focused on how unpromising the terrain is and how long there is to go. As we get deeper, and the blood warms up, and thoughts start moving, we start to get an obscure satisfaction. If you’ve done it many times, you’ll recognise this as the early echo of a kind of mild euphoria that you will encounter mid-way through, just after you’ve snacked, when you happen upon something that surprises you with its simple beauty. By this point, you’ve gone so deep that you’ve forgotten the comfort you left behind.

Comfort, it turns out, was nothing other than habit. One of the worst things you can do to something that is truly, ravishingly sublime is to make it into a cliché. That is to destroy it or, more precisely, to destroy your pleasure in it. The creature of habit, who builds a life around a ritualisation of what was once sublime and is now clichéd, is engaged in an unconscious war against pleasure. And the self is nothing other than the organisation of certain habits, “the etcetera of the subject,” as Lacan once put it. By their repetitions shall you know them. Walking and writing, at best, are two ways of digressing from habit, hopefully on heat. We trace out, through the marks we make, not patterns of habit, but routes of desire and its deflections.

Solitude is essential to both. Hunger amid plenty ruins the pleasure in moderation; loneliness amid many ruins the pleasure in solitude. Deprivation makes you want more than you can take pleasure in. But get far enough out of the way, and you begin to recalibrate your sense of plenty. There is something paradoxical about this. For many people, one of the worst things that can happen is that they might be left alone with their thoughts. Any displacement activity, from a worry to a row, is better. A distracted life, overcrowded with stress and hyper-business, is their way of forgetting. But whatever it is they’re forgetting, it isn’t the self: the self is always there as the official business representative.

The capacity for solitude, Winnicott observed, is a sort of power. A child who is never left alone, never finds out about her personal life, or what she might do with independence. Without solitude, she never develops the power not to respond to stimulation, to withhold or delay a response according to her preferences. She never gets the opportunity to cultivate fantasy. And she never finds out that – as Anthony Storr suggested, using the analogy of prayer and mystic states – isolation can be reparative, even a source of revealed truth.

This implies that self is something we need to be occasionally alienated from, in order to think and be creative: as if the observing ego was a kind of terrifyingly efficient system of surveillance and preventive censorship. Logically enough, nowhere is this self more mandatory, and yet more fragile, fragmented and transient, than in that peculiar form of writing we call social media.


***

“The model of ownership, in a society organized round mass consumption, is addiction.” – Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism.

III.
Everything we do on Facebook and Twitter is about, in part, cultivating, tending and refreshing daily, a self-portrait that we can take pleasure in. Far from escaping from the self, we would be horrified to find ourselves digressing too much on these platforms: too many people are watching.

It’s easy to criticise online narcissism, but that is not the problem, as such. However, the kind of narcissism that is encouraged by the ecology of likes, shares, retweets and so on, is the fragile narcissism of the mirror. You find out what you’re like by constantly evaluating the coded and quantified reactions of others.

This form of narcissism was anatomised by Christopher Lasch back in the anti-radical reflux of the Seventies. Lasch was interested in the individualist, consumerist solutions that ex-radicals found to their existential anguish. Building on tendencies already present in counterculture, they individualised and medicalised their problems, looking to est, gestalt, hypnotism, tai chi, and health food, much as your average post-millennium hippy looks to The Secret.

Losing interest in political change, they retreated to the self, just as – so Lasch thought – the traditional bourgeois self was being hammered. The self of mass consumption, (and what are the hippy solutions but variants of ‘one weird trick’ snake oil?), was necessarily ever more fragmented and ever more frail.

This had to do with the experience of being a consumer. Capitalism produces the demand for an object. The demand appears to have something to do with desire, but the two operate at a different level: desire is always more elusive and strange than the formal demand to which it is tied. You might say “I’m hungry” when in fact you’re unloved. So, the object is usually advertised in such a way as to make totally irrelevant links between object and satisfaction through fantasy: so that it is offered as a solution to problems it can’t possibly solve. It is never the object we were looking for, and it can never satisfy us for long. The perception of time therefore contracts: there is only this moment, then the next; this satisfaction, then the next.

Since capitalism says your desire need never be frustrated as long as you have at least a little money, because there is a limitless choice of things even at the bottom of the market, you can be constantly satisfied for extremely short bursts of time. The form of narcissism that began to take root in the Seventies, according to Lasch, was structured by this transience. The ex-radicals imagined that, in their political retreat, they had found a source of wised-up resilience. But their cynicism had in fact deprived them of any project by which they could have any real engagement with the world or hope to change it. Instead, engendered in a war of all against all by capitalism, they became far more dependent on the approbation of peers and authorities, and far more invested in their reflection in the media – the short burst of satisfaction even here was recognised in the idea of fifteen minutes of fame – and in grandiose fantasies of omnipotence. By a strange dialectic, the supposedly weakened self had become more imperative, better at monopolising all the attention, all the energy.

Social media operates on a similar logic. You can, with a small investment of labour, 140 well-chosen characters, generate a predictable flow of satisfactions for a period of time. The exchange is that in so doing, you produce content that will attract eyeball attention for advertisers, who comprise 85 per cent of Twitter revenue. Rather than being paid to write, as you would be if your content was published in traditional media formats, you are offered gratifications of the self.

Of course, the difference between the satisfactions offered by most firms, and the ones you negotiate on social media, is that rather than endlessly flattering you, the latter very often turns into what The Thick of It called ‘the shit room’. Far from being validated, you are execrated. This is something that Twitter CEOs are worried about, although I’m not sure they need to: up to a certain point, it probably feeds the addiction.

***

“The Great Work Begins.” – Tony Kushner, Angels in America

IV.
You create a carefully curated self in the form of an online avatar, with its regularly updated photographs and bio lines, and feed it as regularly as possible: and you get your hits. This might be why so-called ‘identity politics’ has taken on new valences on social media. Often, anti-‘identity politics’ is a kind of straw-manning, a way of belittling anti-racist and anti-sexist struggle as forms of particularism. This is obviously true of the alt-right, and there is a crude ‘alt-left’ whose economism tends in this direction. But supposing ‘identity politics’ came to mean, not political identifications around specific forms of oppression and the lived experience thereof, but a politics of the self and its munification?

Only in this context could alt-right taunting about ‘virtue-signalling’ have any meaning – and even then, of course, it would be entirely hypocritical. It is never going to be straightforward to work out how much this is a real tendency, in part because there is a performative dimension to any form of political speech. And self-aggrandisement has many ruses: violent self-hate can be a particularly obnoxious form of self-love; self-punishment can be self-fortification. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that whatever your social media politics, it is all harnessed to roughly the same sets of dynamics, within the same profit model. To deny that this has effects which we cannot simply opt out of, would indeed be to retreat into grandiose fantasies of omnipotence.

Above all, social media engages the self as a permanent and ongoing response to stimuli. One is never really able to withhold or delay a response; everything has to happen in this timeline right now, before it is forgotten. To inhabit social media is to be in a state of permanent distractedness, permanent junky fixation on keeping in touch with it, knowing where it is, and how to get it. But it is also to loop the observing ego into an elaborate panopticon so that self-surveillance is redoubled many times over.
  

-->
The politics of forgetting oneself would be a form of ‘anti-identity’ politics. It would be a politics of resistance to trends which force one to spend too much time on the self (which, in fact, would include not just the monopolisation of one’s attention by social media, but far more saliently all the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and other kinds of ascriptive oppression that necessitate exhaustive work to redefine the self). It would begin with deliberately cultivating solitude and forgetting. It would acknowledge that all labour spent on the self is potentially displacement activity, wasted energy. And that, with that effort conserved, some sort of great work could be done.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Brexit, Labour voters and the working class. posted by Richard Seymour

There's a curious article in today's Guardian, written by a senior YouGov person -- the guy who runs UK Polling Report -- about the relationship between Labour voters and Brexit. On the face of it, it is a defence of Corbyn's position on Brexit. But it's a defence that seems to get the data very badly wrong, in a way that I can't make sense of.

Let me just make a few points.


Traditional working class
First of all, the article acknowledges that 65% of Labour voters supported Remain, as Corbyn asked them to do. But it then asserts that the 35% who didn't represent more closely "the traditional working-class Labour voters the party is struggling to keep hold of". If you go and look at the early post-referendum data being cited here, it's clear enough what he means: disproportionately, those who backed Leave are from social grades C2 and DE. ABC1 voters, described as the "professional classes", backed Remain. Thus, some sort of commitment to some sort of Brexit is needed to placate 'real' Labour voters.

Leaving aside the practical conclusion for a moment, the analysis should be rejected. We should stop putting up with outdated social grading systems, developed purely for the non-social scientific purpose of flogging stuff to people, as proxies for class. Most C1 voters are not middle class professionals. When I worked in market research, the list of occupations ranked as C1 were mostly menial, low-skill, low-level, low-wage, but considered 'white collar' because you didn't have to get your hands dirty. Call centre workers, the epitome of the exploited, precarious worker in this day and age, are C1. Most of the so-called middle class professionals in the Labour base who backed Remain will just be workers. And that means that the working class was split -- a split that was partly right-left and partly regional.

This isn't just a wonkish detail: polling results and their representation play a critical part in the cultural battles of our age, which attempts to reduce the working class to one of its sectors (those workers stuck in the most declining, provincial, isolated parts of the country, and those who tend to skew to the political right), while overstating the size and relative progressiveness of the middle class. This leads to the kinds of toxic politics wherein some middle class progressives, with a tragedian sniff, accept the need to go along with racist, anti-immigrant politics to keep the poor white workers on board.


Lost Leave Voters
Secondly, the article asserts that:
"Among 2015 Labour voters who backed remain, 60% have remained loyal to Labour, and would vote for them tomorrow. When it comes to leave voters who backed them in the last general election, only 45% would vote for the party now."


The data cited doesn't show anything like this, and it is bewildering to claim that it does. What it says is that among 2015 Labour voters who backed Remain, 74% would vote Labour tomorrow, and among those who backed Leave, 63% would vote Labour tomorrow. The claim that Labour has "lost the majority of its leave voters" is simply not true. Labour has, in large part as a consequence of the coup which triggered a precipitous collapse in its share of the vote, lost a minority of both Remain and Leave voters. There is a gap between how many Leave voters and how many Remain voters have abandoned Labour, but it is nowhere near as polarised or as catastrophic as the article suggests.


Stay or Go
Thirdly, the article identifies a divide between Labour Leavers and Remainers over what Corbyn should do about Brexit:

"Remainers predictably go for opposition to Brexit. Some 50% of people who voted Labour and remain want Labour to have a policy that is anti-Brexit (23% are for total opposition and 27% want a second referendum) and 30% want a policy that is in favour of Brexit.
Labour Leave voters are just as predictable – 69% want Labour to have a policy that is pro-Brexit, and either seek a purely trading relationship with the EU (46%) or a close relationship outside the EU (23%).
Can Labour find a policy that doesn’t wholly alienate one half of its support?"

First of all, as YouGov's data shows, it is not a relationship of two halves. Leave voters comprise a minority, one third, of 2015 Labour voters. The reason why this matters is that when YouGov tests various solutions with its respondents, the article concludes that Labour campaigning for Remain would be the "most divisive policy", while supporting soft-Brexit would be the policy most likely to reconcile the party. But this depends on treating Remain and Leave constituencies among Labour voters as equivalent, which they aren't. If you review the data for yourself, you'll see that in fact, a Remain campaign gets the support or acceptance of 54% of 2015 Labour voters overall, while 24% would be angry or disappointed with such a stance. Soft-Brexit would have more support overall (57%), but for some reason it would also make more people (31%) angry. The option that gets least support or acceptance (48%) is hard-Brexit, with 35% clearly opposed. But interestingly, the option that really annoys the most people (37%) is a second referendum, which nonetheless gets the support or acceptance of 53%. Just looking at explicitly positive answers, 45% are outright positively for Remain, 42% for a second referendum, 36% for soft-Brexit and 28% for hard-Brexit.

As always, the opinion presented here is just a snapshot of raw material. There are a lot of "don't knows" and people wavering in the middle, so the field is open and malleable -- how Labour voters feel in 2020 depends a lot on how Labour's leadership campaigns here and now. There is also the question of which voters Labour wants to win over by 2020, to expand on the 2015 vote (supposing that's possible). To build in Scotland, you might fish for Remain voters. To build in provincial England, you might look for Leavers. It's a much more indeterminate and murky situation than pollsters and some pundits would have you believe, and all options have their own hazards. None are particularly good. The interesting thing is that what pisses off most voters, more than anything, is seeming indecision -- being asked to vote again on a referendum question they've already answered, or being sold a soft-Brexit that looks like a fudge. One of May's advantages is precisely to appear decisive on this question, even if her decisiveness is brutal.

And, to be clear, while it's obvious that Labour's 2015 voters skew toward Remain, the difference in the overall balance for each of these options is not massive. So, there are choices. What overall strategy Labour now decides to adopt is not primarily an issue of how to reconcile a divided base, because there are different ways to do that badly. If it opts for soft-Brexit, as it is doing, that is because it is in a purely defensive position. It is unable to advocate Remain given the result, and has no viable economic programme for any kind of left-Brexit, and none of the political or cultural resources to sustain support for such a programme.

The narrative according to which Labour's proper working class supporters are Brexiteers, and thus that Corbyn's job is to win them over, is basically one variant of the "white working class" thesis, which explains reactionary politics in terms of workers being 'left behind' by globalisation, and as such it should be rejected.

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Monday, February 06, 2017

Stoke posted by Richard Seymour

Clive Lewis, with perhaps one eye auspiciously assaying the Labour leadership, claims that UKIP are dangerously close to taking Stoke Central from Labour. Ironically, in saying this as a shadow cabinet minister, he is contributing to a general media buzz that is giving UKIP far better chances than it would otherwise have. Still, I think even the multiplying villainies of hype and nonsense will not turn Stoke UKIP. 
A few points to this effect.
The bookies who are predicting a UKIP victory are terribly unreliable, and there is no reliable polling about Stoke Central. The basis upon which betting shops favour UKIP is that Stoke is a Leave constituency. The trend since Brexit has indeed been for a certain realignment, but not one largely benefiting UKIP. 'Remain' Tories have tended to swing behind the Liberals, without 'Leave' Tories swinging behind UKIP. UKIP's results since 2015 have not been good. In 2015, UKIP scored 22.5% of the vote in Stoke Central, and I would expect many of these voters to go back to the Tories. To fixate on UKIP, after all, is to overlook the extraordinary efforts by Theresa May to make the Conservative Party a welcoming place for racist voters, and even to borrow some of the right-wing class politics by which UKIP have sought to cut into the working class vote.
Labour has the biggest organisation, and the biggest single bloc of votes, in Stoke. The organisation has grown under Corbyn. The candidate is no longer a posh Blairite celebrity, but is a local politician, broadly of the left. Why do we imagine, then, that urban Labour voters will do for UKIP what right-wing Tories haven't? The "white working class" has not yet proved the univocal beast of nationalist reaction that pundits have hoped for it to be -- no, not even in Oldham West, which turned out to be as much a Leave constituency as Stoke Central. Of course, there have been two major changes since Oldham West: the Brexit vote, and the Labour coup, the last following hard upon the first. We don't yet know what difference that has made. But thus far, where UKIP has made gains in northern Labour constituencies, it has primarily been by assembling a coalition of existing right-wing voters rather than by shaking loose chunks of the Labour base.
Paul Nuttall is no Nigel Farage, having neither the charisma nor the game. He is far more openly doctrinaire, far less versatile in his use of language. Yet, we are supposed to believe that he can do for UKIP in Stoke, what Nigel Farage could not in Thanet. Setting aside the kind of tactical carelessness which resulted in him being subject to a police investigation for false reporting, his strategy is implausible. He says that Richmond was won by the Liberals, because they made the bye-election a referendum on the referendum; thus, if UKIP can do the same in Stoke, then they, as the Brexitiest party, win. Richmond, a Liberal-Tory swing constituency, was about far more than that -- not least Zac Goldsmith's disgraceful mayoral campaign. The Labour vote in Stoke Central dropped from over fifty percent to under forty percent when Tristram Hunt was helicoptered in, but still it has been a Labour constituency for some decades. For it to go UKIP would require far deeper changes than anything we saw in Richmond.
However. All prediction is a defence against the future which, by definition, contains the unpredictable. IF Lewis is, by some unfortunate coincidence, right, then all calculations have to immediately change. The realignment that would imply, would signal a tectonic shift. Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party would be at the stake, and the Left would have to gird itself for crushing defeats. Fascism would be far closer than we had realised. Racist nationalism would have won far more completely than anyone knew, trumping all. In which case, mollifying the monster for immediate gain, trying to bargain with racism, would be like trying to tame the Furies by stroking their bloody jaws. There would no faster way to be brutally disarmed.

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Sunday, February 05, 2017

"Hard arguments" posted by Richard Seymour

I.
A boycott is just a tactic, like any other.

There was a fairly large protest against Trump in London yesterday, part of the ongoing wave of protests which is galvanising an otherwise despondent Left and giving it some purpose and direction. It's a good, hopeful sign that this is happening.

The catch? The protest was organised by a number of groups including, 'Stand Up to Racism', which is dominated by the SWP. And on that ground, some people sought to organise a boycott of the event. This post is about that tactic. Not the decision of individuals not to attend the protest, but the proposition that everyone should boycott it as a matter of policy, the context for it, and how that debate is handled.


II.
You remember the SWP. The SWP leadership worked to cover up rape and sexual abuse allegations. Not only did they try to cover them up but, in the process, by way of rationalisation, they began to spout utterly barbarous things. They mobilised a creaking party apparatus and an army of 'living dead' members whose sole purpose in the organisation seemed to be to defend the existing leadership by the usual amusing expedient of packing out meetings. Individuals, especially women and younger members, who stood up to this were frequently bullied. The women who made the complaints against 'Comrade Delta' were bullied, and the most extraordinary, unbelievable bureaucratic manoeuvres pulled against them.

There ensued a nasty, poisonous fight. Lifelong friendships were torn up, relationships ended, some people were threatened, others suffered serious mental and (concomitantly) physical illness, many people gave up politics, and there were two major splits, with toxic spillover. Speaking for myself, I became physically ill, and began to fall apart right in front of those who knew me -- but I was one of many. All of this very British carnage was wrought for the sake of one man who represented something that the leadership valued over almost everything else, above all the rights of female comrades not to be sexually assaulted. What that something is, is hard to express in a few words without simplifying, but it could be put as their perceived right, justified by accretions of dogma and delusion, and a certain idea of revolutionary realpolitik, to preserve ownership of the organisation by whatever means necessary.

Those of us who left the party were simultaneously dazed by the experience, and left desperately trying to work through what it all meant. That this could happen, surely said so much. We had to go back to first principles, review our entire political tradition, rethink our attitude to feminism, read up, form new alliances, and digest all the emerging ideas about 'intersectionality' and 'privilege' politics. Above all, we tried to begin the process of rebuilding. The SWP was surely dead as a viable organisation, we reasoned, and so it should be. Something else -- more democratic, more intellectually open, more honest, more feminist, less bureaucratic, less defensive, less dogmatic -- would have to emerge. Why? Because the field of the British left, at that point, was not exactly crowded with effective, democratic organisation. And without something like that, the rump SWP, with its funds and discipline, would continue to dominate the terrain, even if not to the same extent. Some of us thought it was our responsibility to try to assemble the most forward-thinking parts of the left in a new organisation.

To that end, I was one of the founders of a small splinter organisation with (for me, at least) grand ideas about realigning the left. In that false spring, many many good people approached us, wanting to work with us, and maybe even be part of anything we might set up. There was an exuberant moment of 'unity' and hope. But despite our early bouyancy, we underestimated just how fucking traumatised we all were by the shock, and how difficult what we were trying to achieve was, how small the window of opportunity and how large the obstacles. And all we did for months afterwards was tear each other to pieces, often over imaginary or overblown offences and perceived political dangers. We had been united only by our common fight against the unacceptable: rape cover-up and the sexist apologetics propagated in its defence. Beyond that, we were pulling in radically different directions and we were shocked to discover how much we hated each other. And bitterly depressed to harvest nothing but ashes for our trouble. Some time after I left that splinter, I found out that it had its own rape cover-up.


III.
I sketch out the rudiments of that experience and its afterlives, so that you understand the context for the current argument about a boycott, and also to illustrate two things very vividly.

First, not a one of us, to my knowledge, has any desire to revive the SWP. Some of us are more gung-ho about it than others. And we've often argued with what seemed to be bad tactics, especially the sort of ineffectual machismo that leads to people overturning SWP tables and so on. But no one is eager to give any new life to the zombie party, and most wouldn't go near one of the party's meetings or conferences. Speaking for myself, I take the issue of violent sexual assault very personally, and if this party has turned out to be less dead than undead, I consider that a defeat -- a byproduct of our failure to build a viable alternative. Second, experience illustrates that you can only get so far through exhortation, and being on the right side of the argument. Being right is no guarantee of success. That being the case, people who agree on a principle, have to be able to disagree on the tactic.

To return to yesterday's protest, as I said, the SWP played a leading role in organising it. And on that basis, there seems to have been a current of opinion formed around the idea of boycotting it. This would be, I think, the first time that a protest, rather than a meeting, has been targeted for a boycott for SWP involvement. I'm sceptical. Not hostile, but sceptical. Having for the last few years begged people not to speak at SWP events -- yes, effectively to boycott them, in the spirit of SWP delenda est -- I am hardly suggesting that we should cuddle up to the party. But there are a number of reasons why I think this particular kind of approach was never going to work.

I take it as read that there will always be public protests, strikes, occupations, and so on, where SWP members will be unavoidably present and sometimes even prominently involved, which we would be foolish to boycott. Even the Stop Trump march in two weeks time, preferred by today's boycotters, will have SWP members very visibly present. The issue in this case is not so much that SWP members will be there, but that the SWP has played a role in the organisation of this protest, and will try to claim as much credit for it as they can. There is also a worry about the SWP recruiting people who might then find themselves in an organisation that is not safe because it has committed itself institutionally to ideas and practices that effectively legitimise rape.

So who could argue with that? Well, the problem is that boycotting this protest wasn't going to stop people turning up. Some of us have spent a long time trying to persuade trade unionists, intellectuals and activists not to speak at SWP events or front events -- not always successfully, even with all the front page headlines and the stigma. But trying to persuade tens of thousands of random people -- who are itching to protest now, not in two weeks times, yesterday if possible -- not to show up to a public space because one of the organisers of the event is an SWP-dominated front organisation, seems inherently quixotic.

This is not because of the SWP's overweening strength. They have money, a disciplined cadre, and relationships with some leftwing politicians, trade unionists and intellectuals. However, even at the height of the SWP's influence in Stop the War, when it had far more clout and many more members than today, it didn't grow as a result. It stagnated, and declined. It went into crisis. I don't think the SWP is more powerful, attractive and dynamic today than it was back in 2003. Far from it, it is a degenerating organisation, whose ability to reproduce itself through the usual means of student and public sector recruitment is increasingly in question. It might be noisy and visible at protests, but I doubt it is recruiting very many people, and its tactics are by now stale and routinised. It is not capable of attracting the kinds of new members capable of making it an attractive organisation, even if one didn't know about its history. So, it's not the power of the SWP, but the weakness of the tactic, that indicated it would fail. Most people likely to attend just wouldn't be reached by a disorganised boycott taking shape on social media by left-wing Twitter celebrities or, if they were, persuaded not to go purely on that account.

You would thus be boycotting, not primarily the SWP, but a whole range of forces whom you probably want to work with. Of all the axes on which to try to isolate the SWP, this was surely one of the least precise, and least effective.

In the end, predictably, the protest involved far more diverse and numerous forces than the SWP. (Had it just been the SWP there, it would have involved a few hundred people.) Those who went, did so not to defend rape or cosy up to the SWP, but to volunteer for the fight against global Trumpism. And we should be glad that they want to protest: it's hardly their fault that the SWP made a cult of itself, and that we failed to replace it. And what did boycotting the protest achieve? It didn't separate the SWP from thousands of activists; it separated some of the SWP's notable critics from thousands of activists. It didn't stop anyone from joining the SWP, and indeed some of the people who might have argued with activists not to join, boycotted. And the SWP still got to say they organised a successful protest. Now people have every right to decide not to attend a protest without justifying themselves. But anything that is represented as a policy that others should support, has to be susceptible to critical scrutiny: so who won, and who lost, from that?

As I say, I'm sceptical of this tactic; I can't see how declaring a boycott in this case was ever going to work. I suspect that if we want to isolate the SWP, we're just going to have to do the hard work of building the alternative organisation and persuading people that it's better.


IV.
Note the sequel. Having mulled this subject over for a few days, and asked comrades about it, and watched the debate on social media, and been asked about it several times, I tried to sketch out this view on Twitter. I finally said that I thought people should probably go on the protest, ignore the SWP, and refuse to take their placards or literature. I said that I understood more than most why people would find the SWP problematic, but that this protest would be much bigger than the SWP, and I didn't think this boycott would work.

Trying to explain any point of view on Twitter is a perilous undertaking. Concision isn't kind to detailed arguments. There is always creative misunderstanding, people a little too quick on their high horse. There are the aggressively moronsplaining -- those who earnestly explain what you already know, without having any idea what they sound like. There are those who steamroller discussion with oblivious, unearned sanctimony, eyes closed, mouth open, without caring what they sound like. And there are those who are forever building vampire's castles in the sky.

But even bearing that in mind, the unseemly haste with which some people, who appeared to know next to nothing about it, started to issue ex cathedra denunciations was extraordinary. The gist of it was that I was supposedly saying: "ignore these silly women and their silly divisive issues, chaps, there are bigger fish to fry". In any other case, this would just be standard, high-handed, disingenuous, snarky Twitter bullshit. In context, it is jaw-droppingly oblivious.

But the symptomatically interesting thing was that many people, smart people, didn't want to admit that this was a tactical debate. In effect, they were saying, if you disagree with us on the tactic, you disagree with us on the principle. If you think this is a tactical mistake, you must not think the issue of rape apology matters. There is, by implication, no intelligent, non-sexist, non-oppressive way to disagree with the tactic of boycotting this protest -- notwithstanding that it predictably didn't work.

That is obviously not a position that can be engaged with, but it has a clearly defensive function: it says that it is disagreement with the tactic, not the tactic itself, that has to be justified. That reverses the usual situation, and it's a deflection that I've seen many times on the left. (In the argot of Trotskyist dialectics, I could never work out whether principles determined tactics, or tactics were independent from principles. It was definitely one or the other, depending on what ineffective tactic had to be defended -- by means of what was euphemistically called "hard arguments".)

And I think that's a position you get into when you're not entirely convinced of the tactic yourself, but don't really know what else to do.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Against omniscience posted by Richard Seymour

I.
There is a style of political reasoning which the Trump moment lends itself to, which can be called conspiracism.

The Trump base is itself galvanised by some quite outre conspiracy theories -- Obama the secret Muslim, covert socialism in the highest reaches of government, cosmopolitan elites screwing over American workers to fund the rising Asian middle class, and so on. And at times of crisis, this paranoid style can seep into all political tendencies.

Is this because, during a crisis of politics, all tendencies undergo a crisis in their forms of reproduction, and in their modes of representation? What happens, after all, when the old ways of doing things, and saying things, no longer work? We struggle for coherence, try to reassemble the pieces to make sense, to orient ourselves in action. This struggle lends itself to abbreviation. We move too quickly to totalisation, to forcing events into a coherent framework. We lose sight of the necessary openness, indeterminacy and opacity of political situations. We forget that there is always an element of chance in everything that happens, and that not everything that goes on is legible.


II.
I have written elsewhere about the logic of conspiracism, so I will only offer a précis of the argument here. To wit, conspiracism is a way of reading the tea leaves and devising patterns such that everything seamlessly fits together. And the problem with conspiracism is not that it involves 'conspiracy theories' -- everyone has their favourite conspiracy theory, and some of them are even well-founded -- but that it collapses politics into conspiracy. The networks of conspiracy do all the explanatory work, and the colossal, embedded, structuring role of social, economic, political and cultural systems are at best raw material for the conspiracy.

As such, conspiracism enacts a displacement and an externalisation, allowing us to explain complex processes, usually involving the breakdown of an old order, by reference to a simple scapegoat, which acts as a metaphor for all that has gone wrong. Unsurprisingly, this sort of thinking is classically situated in reaction -- the Spanish response to Dutch iconoclasm, Burke's response to the French revolution, endless antisemitic conspiracy theories about the Russian Revolution, Cold War paranoia about Russia, and so on. Yet, as I say, in worlds of breakdown and chaos, the tendency spreads.

We have already had, as one expression of this tendency, what Sam Kriss dubbed the "alt-centre". Unable to apprehend Trumpism by the usual expedients, many liberals adopted a Manchurian-style approach, attributing extraordinary powers to the intervention of Russia, an economic basket-case that is far weaker than the United States. Rather than bespeaking the fragility of the old political order and its complex fall-out, the weakness of the nascent Left and the exhaustion of managerialism, Trump's victory tokened a Russian coup -- a comical reiteration of Cold War paranoia. And there is a danger of "the resistance" to Trump forming an "alt-" wing.


III.
Here are two popular recent articles which, lucidly enough, ultimately boil down to this case: the Trump administration is playing us all for suckers. They expected these protests and the judicial opposition. They are testing the ground, seeking out their allies and smoking out enemies, exhausting public opposition, exaggerating their objectives in order to beat a safe retreat. We, pawns in their little game, are giving them what they want by demonstrating and raising as much vocal opposition as we can.

This style of reasoning is problematic for many reasons. Not the least of these is that it can be politically paralysing. Resistance is taken to be already seamlessly factored into the strategy of the Trump administration, and yet there is no obviously concomitant strategy for circumventing this. But that is a reason why the conclusions following from the argument are problematic, not an explanation of why the argument itself is flawed.

The more substantial problem with the argument is that it makes an assumption of omniscience. You may well claim that sizeable demonstrations and judicial and legislative opposition were a predictable response to hastily imposed executive orders, introduced without any consultation with state actors, and without even providing them with the information they needed to actually implement the policy effectively. However, no one anticipated that three to four million would protest during the inauguration weekend, nor that there would be protests (in many cases illegal) at airports all over the country. To have foreseen all this would indeed be to experience a kind of omniscience, accessing a total reading of all the tendencies, subjective and objective, unfolding at breakneck pace now, in a vast, intricate and unusually unpredictable social order.

It might be argued that I'm straw-manning here. That these pieces concede that the administration acted as it did precisely because it lacked important information, and has been engaging in an elaborate, carefully phased experiment with the American political system to get this insight. This seems more superficially plausible, but only until you ask how Bannon and the Trump inner circle were supposed to be able to calibrate everything such that the opposition would fall out exactly as they needed it to. This necessarily implies a degree of legibility in societies that cannot be assumed. It would be as if American (and therefore global) politics were basically an elaborate three-dimensional chess game, in which all the information needed to calculate is all there for those sharp enough to read it.


IV.
It is because we don't have omniscience that we need the guidance of theory. We need to have some criteria of interpretation, axioms against which to judge concrete situations. That is why we should pay close attention to the theories of the "alt-right".

Just to take one example, Bannon subscribes to a peculiar theory of American history according to which, for reasons which are unclear, it experiences a major crisis every eighty years or so, in which it is possible to radically remake the social order. The current crisis of politics, coming roughly eighty years since the New Deal era, is thus read as the proof of that theory. (Alarmingly enough, Bannon, now freshly ensconced in the National Security Council, takes this to mean a major global war, bigger than the last world war.) This is the basis for Bannon's confidence in action, but also his urgency -- since there is only a limited historical window in which to act before the initiative passes to someone else, or the crisis runs out of steam.

This makes Bannon, not a master manipulator, but a dangerous mystic and a gambler. He might as well base his actions on the idea that the crisis betokens Rapture. This is not to say that he is stupid. The obverse of conspiracy theory is the complacent view that the Trump team are straightforwardly incompetent. Their lack of professionalism by the usual standards of statecraft, from this perspective, allows one to think that they must not know what they are doing, and will destroy themselves with their own hubris. This misses the fact that all political intervention involves a roll of the dice somewhere, and the metapolitical assumptions guiding every wager are usually founded on a faith of some kind. The very fact that mass protest, acting on and exacerbating divisions in the ruling class and state elites (as occurs with all successful social movements), could not be anticipated means that it was not inevitable.

It is to say that any account of politics that does not make room for the aleatory, that is for the encounter between fortune and a politician's virtù, will either tend to collapse into fatalism or conspiracism, or some combination of the two. Either way, we will not see what tremendous risks the Trump administration is taking, or understand why they've raised the stakes so high, so early.

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