Thursday, July 31, 2003

I'M SPARTACUS! NO, WAIT, I'M GORE VIDAL!! posted by Richard Seymour

Those who look at life unsentimentally usually have to conclude with Schopenhauer that it really isn't worth all the fuss and it would be better to be dead. And they might also agree with Sophocles that it was probably better not to be born. In case you were wondering, that is my case for abortion and euthanasia. President George W. Bush is, of course, simultaneously against both and the biggest advertisement for them. If only his mother had known. Come to that, if only old Barbara had been a lesbian and George senior had gone in for locker room fun.

That said, the two elder Illuminati WASPs must be terribly proud of their Boy Emperor. Not since Alexander the Great has someone so emotionally young flattered his parents' vanity by winning the world for them. Beats any school report card in the book. Not for nothing did Caesar weep when he saw the statue of Alexander and considered the latter's astonishing conquests in early life, while he in his forties had yet to distinguish himself. Pascal, reflecting on this, sighed that it was perfectly understandable that Alexander wanted to conquer the world because of his hot-blooded youth, but Caesar, being older should have known better. Well, perhaps the anecdote isn't true. We get most of our Roman history from snobs, aristocrats and vile hypocrites. Cicero was all three.

Doubtless future historians of the American Empire will have to conclude that in many ways, its biggest countervailing power and therefore biggest enemy, was not the Official Enemy of the Month, but that other "superpower", as the New York Times felicitously called it, world public opinion. They too will have to peruse the history of snobs, bigots and self-serving bullshit merchants. But they will also have the benefit of counter-history, the permanent register of popular opposition, should they care to examine it. For my part, I offer future historians (should they unearth my website from the strata of the internet, where it will hopefully not fossilise into a 404) a few leads.

In looking at the causes of the Iraq war, gentlemen (you will probably be gentlemen), do not start with Iraq. This war, prepare yourselves, has absolutely nothing to do with Iraq. US weapons experts are now returning home empty-handed, nothing to offer the Thieftan of the tribe other than the assurance that there was "certainly evidence of a programme" . Alas, "no 'smoking gun'". The largest imperial power on earth has taken over a country that George Bush assures us is the size of France (it is not) and still cannot situate a few planted weapons. This is Rome during the fall.

To investigate this war, you better start with the structure of US power. Since Franklin Roosevelt deliberately undermined the Japanese peace camp (represented by Prince Koyone, who was willing to meet with Roosevelt and offer a route away from their disagreements over Manchuria and the South Pacific) and consciously provoked war with Japan, America has been the largest imperial power in the world. Two world wars destroyed the old European empires and ushered in a new champion, the upstart US, which had first attempted to exercise imperial power in a serious way by provoking a war with Mexico, then occupying the Phillipines. Luckily for the Filipinos, only 3 million of them are said to have been killed. As America emerged triumphant, having allowed Russia to bear most of the military cost of fighting Germany, Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson got around the table and worked out a few plans.

First of all, no more New Deals. The New Deal had been tried and manifestly failed to save capitalism. All it did was allow the President to be slandered as a socialist and "that Jew, Rosenfeld" who had syphallus and practised Greek love. Harry Truman did go in for a little bit of rich-baiting in public, while making amends with them in private. To that end, he and Acheson realised that what HAD saved capitalism was the war. Yes, all that steel and rubber and oil and other stuff was being made productive again, because businesses were ready to socialise production, distribution and exchange in a situation of war. War was profitable - even more, it was a defense and enlargement of the American zone of profit. Measures which would have six months ago been denounced as movements toward communist tyranny were suddenly adopted with enormous relish the second Pearl Harbour was ingloriously struck. War production was good.

So, they institutionalised a permanent war economy, by making America a National Security state. NSC-68 transformed a "republic, not a democracy" as rightwingers used to say into an evolving empire. After the war, arms spending in America soared to great heights, varying for approximately 25 years between 11% and 16% of the total GDP. Before the war, arms production had composed 1% of the GDP. Don't take all this nonsense about Keynesian measures saving the US economy. The US economy started its long boom in 1940, and the first Keynesian measure introduced was the Kennedy-Johnson tax cut of 1964. It was simply a matter of creating jobs and injecting public money into industry in such a way that enabled America to be an aggressive world power and at the same time did not augment capital. In the short long run, this enabled a long period of nice, steady growth. By diverting such massive sums of productive investment into useless, unproductive weaponry, the US government ensured that their wonderful system of private enterprise wasn't digging itself into an early grave by becoming tumescent on productive capacity when there wasn't the public demand available. Returns on productive investment have a long term tendency to decline because while the initial investment is seen as a means to take a leap past the competition and win market share, when its advances have generalised across industry, the value of the investment falls. Goods have become cheaper to produce, because faster, because the machinery is better. But when that situation becomes the norm, the competitive advantage is lost and the goods are yielding lower returns. So, arms spending offset a fatal tendency of private enterprise.

In the long long run, the cost of arms spending acts as a drag, depriving industry of vital investment needed to win against international competitors. So, Japan, with a constitutional postwar requirement to spend no more than 1% of its GDP on military production was able to soar ahead of America with growth rates of 8%. It evolved a dynamic capitalist economy with heavy state investment and growth policies that favoured stability. It also sent Nemesis to Detroit in the form of rival car production. So, while the US was busy making fires in Vietnam, US industry was screaming for the war machine to be switched off, just for a little bit and for taxes on businesses to be cut. No more would they pay for wars that yielded so few returns. Nevertheless, while arms spending did decline after the 1973 recession and the "honourable withdrawal" (well, if that wasn't the phrase, it SHOULD have been) from Vietnam, it remained fairly high. In fact, in the 1980s, Reagan reflated it from approximately 5% of GDP to 7-8%, developing huge deficits but prompting short terms spurts in economic growth.

Economic restructuring and the hard won defeat of the labour movement ensured that America was able to emerge in the 1990s as a leaner capitalist power. Lower growth rates, but also low interest rates and low inflation. Wages were held down, thus facilitating the "goldilocks economy" - relatively high profit rates compared to the 1970s and 1980s, but without increasing consumer demand pushing up inflation. At the same time, the USSR disintegrated and gave up its empire with little resistance. Japan, in the mid-nineties, having survived the late eighties recession, went belly-up. All those years of splurging on productive capacity now caught up on the Japanese. They had a lot of machines, a lot of factories, but noone to make things for. The USA looked to be doing good. And so the myth of the "new economic paradigm" which had once been used by social democratic economists to account for the success of the Japanese economy was now subverted and used to explain the apparent American triumph. Free markets ruled, neoliberalism would break down all walls, Chinese walls included.

In 2000, Goldilocks left town and Little Orphan Annie became president. The economy experienced those jitters of old, and suddenly everyone realised that Alan Greenspan was not the Wizard of Oz. Bush made preparations to invade Afghanistan (long before 9/11 as we know thanks to a Pakistani minister). The military was to become a priority once more. Arms investment would increase. Following 9/11, the National Security state was given a new avatar in the form of the PATRIOT Act and the vast military budget, which has so far reached $359bn. As a result the economy has picked up a little . If this causes a major threat of terrorist attack to increase , who can complain. America is out of the closet. It is an Empire. And Empires know no tolerance, no boundaries, no accomodation but those which are imposed by countervailing force.

Historians in the future would do well to recall that the Roman Empire also fell because it went broke.

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Monday, July 28, 2003

HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND OFFEND PEOPLE. posted by Richard Seymour

Friends Reunited . Could there be any two more ominous words in the English language? The prospect of encountering some dozy shitehawk I once knew at school in the pullulating nets of the e-ther was always a vomitously suspect idea to me. What could they possibly want me for? Or I them? If not for a casual fuck just to establish once and for all who is the master, then what possible use could it have? Those, and suchlike, were my thoughts as I watched some congenitally mawkish drone explain to the preening presenter of London Today how the wonderful new website service, friendsreunited.com, worked.

Apparently, there were just millions of lonely, nostalgic little bunny rabbits aching to reconnect with their friends from school. Ulcerating away in the heavy-stress environs of industrial and domestic life, it would so soothe these suppurating little pussies if they could only connect.

Eager to test this latest wheeze, I logged onto their site, supplied details with long and gratuitously graphic notes in the hope of nailing a former friend, co-pupil etc who would be so intrigued they'd be obliged to reply. Six months later and not a single word outside of the vacant scribbles they compose to accompany their own geeky names on the "friends" board. And just take a sample:

"I've got a job in Ballymena now, so I'm doin alright."

"I've no kids except the hubby lol how are you all doin alright?"

"Get in touch. I've got married and moved to America and I'm now training to be a masseur."

Wow. It sure isn't their personalities we're missing. Warned by the tinkle of so many leper bells, I intend to remove my details from that nauseating site and warn others of the dangers. I'm sick of this inner child bullshit that every shit for brains keeps babbling about. As Bill Hicks said, "abort the inner child, grow up and learn to love the people that are already on the planet." Friends reunited? Retards well shot of, I say.

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Thursday, July 24, 2003

SUSTAINING AN ELECTION IN PUBLIC: THE LEFTIST SUSPENSION OF THE LAW. posted by Richard Seymour

The UN has returned to its role as an adjuvant to colonialism. As the soft-left's alternative to US imperialism, it has intervened in a crucial way to defend the latter. Kofi Annan told the world yesterday that the role of the UN was now to "assist the governing council" set up by the US and "confer legitemacy on the process". (Guardian, 22/07/03).
People who place their hopes in some version of international law will argue that there is nothing inevitable about this. The UN could or should be restructured. Its charter in some way negates the legality of such complicity. Countries should have the courage to stand up to the US in these arenas. The current neoconservative rejection of international law renders it vital for anti-imperialists to defend the UN.

However, law is always founded upon violence. The initial act of law is always an imposition, and it cannot by definition be legal. And the basis of legal systems is always force. If these simple declarative statements seem either too obvious or too unconvincing, let me slip into a more ponderous mode. Law isn't merely a neutral framework within which disputes can be regulated, criminals can be judged etc. Advocates are in work mostly because there is a job of interpretation to be done. Is this really illegal? Doesn't this instance of the law really compel my client to behave in this way? What about this principle, that prior case?

Within nation-states, there is a spurious determinacy to what could potentially be an infinite process of claim and counter-claim. The judge, backed up with a force of armed men called police, makes a decision one way or the other and in this way we have finality. Not so in the international arena. The UN is even weaker than the old League of Nations in that it does not have any kind of armed force. It can only mandate, sanction and 'confer legitemacy on' the armies of other nations. So, there is not the force of arms available to impose determinacy on the law.

Many of you will remember the arguments over the Balkans war, and the specific lack of involvement (at the early stages) of the UN. The UN's inclusion was as a result of a deal having to be struck with Milosevic. Many on the antiwar left argued that since the UN was not involved and since legal procedures had not been followed, the war was illegal. The Guardian, as well as much of the liberal press, derided opposition to the war based on such objections . The UN, the Guardian averred, was a "recipe for inaction" . Being liberals, of course, they tried to have it both ways and later claimed that the bombing of FRY represented the "growing up" of international law, moving beyond nation-states toward a general concern for humanity. Many well-respected lawyers working in the field of international law defended the action as a rigorous application of UN law rather than a negation of it.

As it happens, there is no way of reaching a final decision on this except to make your own mind up. The US is such an enormous power, noone is going to resist its interpretation of the law, and the law therefore becomes a function of power, as it has always been.

There is something else to bear in mind. The tantrums of Rumsfeld and Perle about the UN are not really a rejection of international law. The article cited from the Guardian finishes by reporting "a growing sense within the administration that the international consensus it eschewed when going into Iraq will have to be established if it is to get out in the foreseeable future". Quite. This is why soldiers are being brought in from the Latin American death-squad states. That is why the US is appealing for help from India, Pakistan and Nepal. That is why they now seek the UN's sanction and symbol. They've got the latter.

The US neoconservatives are not happy with the current structure of international law. But they recognise that they need to regulate their interactions with other states and that this system, whatever else it may be, is highly preferential to their interests. They would, naturally, prefer to seek a system that more adequately represented their "unipolarity" as Foreign Affairs put it. But the current structure is unlikely to change for some time.

Legality is the self-regulation of power, and the UN is the precise institutional representation of imperial power. Time, as Slavoj Zizek once said, for a "Leftist suspension of the law".

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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

THE LIBERAL BOMBSHELL. posted by Richard Seymour

Nick Cohen offers a defense of the liberal war agenda in the form of a spirited attack on Robin Cook this Sunday . I would not wish to waste any time on the red herrings, venomous spiels and casuistries that he bestows on naive readers, so I will restrict myself to the minute nut for which he constructs such an elaborate shell.

Let's take Cohen's central argument. Regardless of everything else, no matter what lies were told, we are invited to celebrate because "the British Army was the armed wing of Amnesty International, whether it knew it or not."

Leaving aside the tricky issue of Amnesty's actual opposition to this intervention, isn't this yet another example of a complex political situation being denuded of context and content and reduced to a simple humanitarian urgency. Noone has any interests, there are only bad people doing bad things to good people. And we have the capacity to intervene and sort it out.

Yes, Hussein was a shit. Yes, we are all glad he is gone. No, that doesn't entitle us to be blase about the circumstances under which he departed. For, apart from anything else, this wasn't a simple stark humanitarian situation. It was a premeditated aggression launched by a highly interested state into a country which itself was not simply composed of evil overlord and cowering subjects. Many Iraqis had been fighting - or trying to fight - Saddam for years, and they were damned if they were going to let the Americans come in and take their operation over. They did not trust the Americans or the British, did not want them there and do not want the occupation to continue.

The trickiest issue for supporters of the war who are allegedly asserting their stance on behalf of the poor oppressed Iraqi is precisely the resistance of the Iraqis to the US-led occupation. Colonists, in order to justify an intervention with humanitarian intent, need to be able to reckon their subjects little better than children in need of some good looking after. Hence the talk of taking Iraq's oil supply "into trust" as if Iraqis are incapable of determining their own fate, an attitude not unknown in past imperial interventions .

The Iraqis have not exactly proven themselves inclined toward being mollycoddled. Apart from anything else, the occupiers cannot mollycoddle anyone because they can't supple electricity or water for regular intervals. They do not even have to remnants of a state to work with. The Iraqis are taking fresh occupying corpses every day.

So now, the Americans are appealing for troops from India, Pakistan and Nepal. Doubtless the Indian army will be very happy to be shooting Muslims again. The Nepalese government have always assisted imperial adventures, but since half their country is under the control of Maoist rebels who could easily take the remainder, they may be a little trepidatious about this one. The US are bringing in Filipino workers to do their menial work for them, because they cannot trust ordinary Iraqis who are apparently so elated at their liberation.

So, where is all this liberal crap about "ending years of tyranny", "freeing an oppressed people", "an end to despotism"? How quickly these lapidary phrases are crumbling around their feet! How quickly the ungrateful Iraqi smacks their loose chops! With barely months gone, Iraq is now undergoing a dramatic cross-pollination between a variety of groups - the disbanded army, the southern Shi'ites, the communists, the trade unionists, the Sunnis, some disaffected Kurds. The liberal response, provided by one Labour MP in a debate handsomely won by the antiwar speaker, is that the Iraqis cannot now have democracy just for the moment. If they did, they might elect someone not congruent with American interests. Someone who was anti-American, inclined toward religious extremism, nationalistic, unwilling to liberalise the Iraqi market. Someone who would preserve the corrupt, nepotistic oligarchies under which the economy has suffered for far too long. Someone who would align with religious fanatics in Iran, just as the reformers are doing their best to fight the fundamentalists. Oh yes, there are many honourable reasons to deny a people their autonomy.

And these people fighting the Americans, don't you know they're nostalgic for Hussein, they're Ba'athists or fedayeen. They're religious extremists or anti-American maniacs. They don't represent the ordinary Iraqi. The ordinary Iraqi, as the non-Arab speaking Western commentators can assure you, is desperate to eat his first McDonald's, embrace the free market, suspend his struggle for freedom yet longer in the hope that the Americans will simply deliver it for the asking.

Apart from that, the country is ruined, the people are brutalised, the economy needs to be repaired. Only the Americans can do that. And, just like Bosnia and Kosovo, occupation becomes a moral duty, not just an extension of war. The people can't look after themselves, and there are so many fine reasons why they cannnot, so we may need to stay for several years and arrange things for them.

Our morality and their neediness. That is the liberal paradigm through which every political conflict is seen. It would be a good framework if slightly amended. Our government's utter lack of morality and the Iraqis' desperate need to be rid of us. Or, as I put it in an e-mail to Nick Cohen, to which he failed to reply for some curious reason:

"To proceed from the foreplay straight to the cigarette, here's the crucial point:
Anyone who can scan the history of US foreign policy up to the present day and
draw the conclusion that the Whitehouse has suddenly become the vanguard of a
democratic revolution in the Middle East is a pure sap.

Thanks."

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Wednesday, July 09, 2003

FREE SPEECH: OR, WHY EVERYONE SHOULD SHUT UP. posted by Richard Seymour

Stanley Fish tells us that there's no such thing as free speech, "and its a good thing too". All freedoms are, of course, in some sense relative. We relish our autonomy, but only insofar as this respects the autonomy of others. We leftists want the worker to be free from exploitation, which is obviously incommensurable with the capitalist freedom to exploit. We want women to be free to walk the streets at night which, even more obviously, is incompatible with the freedom to rape, rob or murder. And so it is, perhaps, that we have reached the stage where incitement to racial hatred is regarded as a crime under bourgeois law. The freedom of black people to live their lives without being harrassed and abused and their right to be free from fear and intimidation is of course impossible to square with the right of racists and fascists to bully and intimidate them.

So, freedoms are relative. But aside from being relative, they also have their determinacy. At some point, we prioritise the rights of one group over another. The right to live is more important than the right to murder - so much so that killing is the single most prevalent taboo in all human societies. Circumfluent issues such as abortion and the right to die obviously constitute some pretty horrendous grey areas, particularly for those who are obsessed with "the beginning of life and the very end of life" as the fictitious child of Sidney Poitier in Six Degrees of Seperation has it. He continues: "What about the eighty years we have to live between those two inexorable bookends?" Nevertheless, a sense of which freedoms to prioritise is easily intuited by most, presumably based on an understanding of our nature as aliens on this planet, the only creatures on it who are not only interactive, but also interdependent, not only changed by the world, but enforcing change on it.

The consequences of such a priori reasoning are as follows: 1) Freedom of speech is relative, not an absolute, 2) When two freedoms appear to conflict, it is not always possible to reconcile them. 3) The standard prescriptions from postmodern liberals on freedom of speech are therefore inadequate for the purpose of making the necessary distinction to prioritise one freedom over another.

The typical postmodern gesture is to say 'look, noone really knows what is going on, human beings are too fragile, our perceptions too fragmentary and our lives too short for anyone to say their view is decisively the best. The fundamental ability of the human being is to suffer, our fundamental right is to narrate that suffering. Therefore, must we not devise a neutral framework in which we you can tell your story, I can tell mine, the Jew and Nazi can tell theirs. . . ?" All narratives are equal under this view. And it is only a short step from this logic to the one which Slavoj Zizek narrates in his reaction to 9/11, "Welcome to the Desert of the Real!". He tells of a song sung in the popular animated series "Land Before Time" , a show in which all the little dinosaurs are bullied by the big dinosaurs and they sing songs about it "narrating their suffering". Among various excerpts from the songs, he includes (and I paraphrase from a hungover memory):

"It takes all sorts to make this world of ours,
Short sorts, tall sorts
Big sorts, small sorts
All sorts to fill this pretty world of ours with laughter" etc.

Other songs feature small dinosaurs saying of the big dinosaurs "they stamp around and make a noise, and make a bigger fuss, but deep inside each one of them, I think they are kids like us".

The significance of the latter quote is obviated by a consideration of the former. As Zizek says, "why stop at these differences? Why not oppressors and oppressed, rich and poor, torturer and victim etc etc." Our attitude to difference is often contiguous with our attitude to our rulers. Apologists, and postmodernists (if that is a distinction with any meaning) conflate horizontal differences with vertical differences. Not everyone's narrative has equal validity. The narrative of the torturer is not valid in the same way that the narrative of the victim is. (There are, of course, other forms of validity. The imprecations of a witch doctor, are not as scientifically valid as the results of your laboratory experiment with peptic acids and glycogen; comminutions are of a different order to comminations. But this has no obvious effect on our attitude to free speech).

If all of what I have said so far is obvious to you, I apologise. Call it my freedom to narrate. I've suffered for my hangover, now its your turn.

If it is obvious enough that some freedoms of speech could in principle be suspended for the sake of another's well-being, it isn't quite so clear where to draw the aclinic line. One might agree with the ACLU that it is permissible for someone to write revisionist accounts of the Nazi holocaust, but disagree with their defense of far right marches through black or Jewish areas. And this, perhaps, indicates some of the difficulty. Political speech is by its very nature conative. It is a call to action, or it is nothing. It says something about the world, and either calls for its defense or its overthrow, or its fundamental reform. To write a revisionist account of the Nazi holocaust might seem harmless enough, if disreputable and revolting. But I claim there is a limit to this logic. Would we, for instance, think it permissible for a television show to be openly racist in this day and age? We have not come so very far from the Seventies, where comedies depicted white people reacting with fear and loathing to the presence of a black person. The black and white minstrel show isn't so far back in our history. And Jim Davidson still gets stand-up jobs for the BBC even though he isn't really funny and can't do most of his obscene racist material because it would put the BBC in breach of the law. So, the question is by no means an academic one. Could we countenance an openly racist television show? Most of us find it contemptible enough that Hollywood produces torrents of subtly poisoned garbage for us to digest. Should the BBC transmit live broadcasts from Abu Hamza to counter-balance Songs on Sunday?

The answers to these questions will be framed by context, of course. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me from the preceeding that most of us under certain limited circumstances would be willing to perform certain abscissions on the body politic and curtail free speech. I would emphasise that this is not an argument for prohibitory laws or legally enforced censorship. In class societies, censorship laws (such as privacy laws for the media) are almost always used to advantage of the powerful, to protect them and provide the means to bludgeon their critics. Even a ban on far right groups whose organising principle is one of violence inflicted upon their opponents, while in my view entirely defensible, would be inadequate. For one thing because such groups would find their abreactively nurturing space in the criminal underground, but also because states which are enabled to proscribe certain organisations usually do so to the detriment of those resisting oppression - for example, why are the PKK banned in this country, but the National Front are not? Therefore, if we agree that some speech is not free, we should not count on the state to determine the cost. Organised resistance is the only democratic way to irrupt the speciously pristine philosophy of a soap-box for all. Those who pelt the Miss World organisers with eggs are a perfect example of such resistance. Those who wave yellow lollipop sticks outside Oldham town hall when the BNP pretend to represent the white working class are another.

For those of you eager to begin this populist censorship, I have one immediate and urgent project. We must get that bloody fool Blunkett off the air and prevent him from squeezing out any more nuggets on the matter of asylum seekers. If a New Labour minister lies to the public about asylum seekers shitting on shop doorways or acquiesces in the terror of 'bogus migrants', then I say its Fatwa time! Picket their press conferences, pelt them with fridge freezers, push squidgy things through their letter-boxes. Your freedom depends upon it.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2003

THE STRENUOUS CREDULOUSNESS OF THE CAPITAL. posted by Richard Seymour

The depressingly familiar journey from Trotskyist to neoconservative is not one we might have expected Christopher Hitchens to take. For one thing, it is cliched. For another, it is boring. And for another, it rather makes ones previous statements look foolish. Hitchens once avoided cliche, detested bores and would have plucked out his tongue with hot scissors before patronising his younger self, as he so avidly does these days.

Still. There were clues. And with a few raids on his past material, we might be able to locate them and in them an order of importance that is more than merely ordinal.

Hitchens is suspicious of what he calls "the strenuous capitalisation of the Abstract", so he tells us in Letters to a Young Contrarian. Yet, we find a similar tendency in his own writing, hidden seductively in a passage in which he argues the merits of "the decision to live at a slight acute angle to society".

Society here is a word used very much in its capitalised sense, as if it were a puressence, some undifferentiated unity. And although Hitchens is too good a debater to admit it, the advice he offers to this Young Contrarian (perhaps as "staunchly conservative" in the end as the Young Hegelians) actually implies an unreal homogenisation of Opinion which one can set oneself against. Thus, Hitchens rails against "the stupid liberal consensus" without pausing to wonder whether such a consensus actually exists beyond the pages of Harpers and the Nation. If Hitchens admits that society is a fractious, schismatic, internally militating affair, he might be asked to which tendency he is therefore living at a slight angle? ALL of them, presumably - and this is true for Hitchens in the sense that the totality of his public stances and opinions are unique to him, not so much tendentious as idiosyncratic. It is nevertheless noticeable that on specific issues, he finds himself aligned first with one tendency, then with another, and so on...

On the new US imperialism, he is an impeccable neoconservative; on the death penalty he is a liberal; on the Euro he is with the Tory wets and (some of) New Labour. The trouble with tortuously pursuing this elusive 'angle' is that it renders one susceptible to the "animating illusion" as one critic put it that to be in opposition is to be in the right. One designates the enemy Consensus, and then reacts against it. Hitchens' insults toward the antiwar movement reflect this. In the Observer, the house journal of Establishment liberalism, he tells readers that it is the antiwar movement that has become respectable. If Henry Kissinger opposes the war, then it must be so. Old European leaders, Brent Scowcroft, Gen. Anthony Zinni. Hitchens also suggested that Ariel Sharon too may be against it - a pure fantasy if not fabrication. He avers that the antiwar camp is obsessed with 'stability', so much so that it would rather see the preservation of the Middle Eastern autocracies than the spread of democracy. He is presumably aware that these allegations might more justly be made of the old Foreign Policy establishment, the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski et al. But it suits Hitchens ideologically to be in opposition. 'They' are "auxilliaries to dictatorship", sponsored by a clique of old hat imperialists, while of course Hitchens' own embattled position has to make do with the support of a few extremist revolutionaries like Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, the Pentagon, the State Department, Israel, Silvio Berlusconi... With underdogs like that, who needs the ruling class?

This argument resonates with one he made elsewhere about the 1980s, in which he suggested that it was the Right who had been truly revolutionary - they broke the post-war consensus. And so, Hitchens admits, that was why he did not vote Labour in that period. He wanted Thatcher, with her "moral courage" to shake up British society. Even if it left millions worse off, on the dole, in poverty, with fewer and poorer amenities. It is this attachment to what we might call "oppositionism" that explains Hitchens' dogged attachment to obvious phantasies that the war on Iraq was about "democracy", "liberation" and so forth. He has need of the normative justifications in order to avoid consciously experiencing his oppositionism as the tawdry and cynical opportunism it is. Unless one had fetishised the notion of "permanent opposition" to borrow an over-worked phrase from Trotsky, how could one regard the 'respectability' of a position as some kind of failure? And it isn't as if Hitchens isn't able to welcome other successes of past antiwar generations. The Vietnam War spawned a movement which Hitchens credits with advancing the cause of 'precision weaponry' and casting a pall of disrepute over the use of chemical and other weapons - it would have been unhelpful to add that its greatest achievement was the curtailment of the ability of the US to intervene in other countries.

Here we have an argument that is 'at a slight angle to society' and yet entirely confirming to the direction of opinion in the country in which he lives. It would seem that Hitchens does not mind respectable opinion, so long as one does not call it that.


In the above-mentioned Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens quotes Zola on the Dreyfus affiar, when France was engulfed in waves of antisemitic outrage:

"A shameful terror reigns, the bravest turn cowards, and noone else dare say what he thinks for fear of being denounced as a traitor and a bribe-taker. The few newspapers which at first stood out for justice are now crawling in the dust before their readers..."

America, post-9/11, has been host to the same "moral sickness". Actors who denounce the war have been threatened with losing their jobs, others accused of giving succour to the enemy, peace protesters accused of being "objectively" on the side of Osama bin Laden (nice to see a bit of Stalinist terminology revived). Hitchens, in his pursuit of the contrary, has been a distinct pattern of ad hominem abuse. He has accused the peace movement of being an "auxiliary to dictatorship", of "anti-Americanism" of a febrile PC hysteria which would rather have Muslims killing us than be killed by us. The antiwar movement was led by people who "in their heart of hearts" yearned for the "return of the one-party state". Doubtless, if asked, he would assent to the proposition that such critics were "traitors" and their accidental allies in the French government "bribe-takers". Such enormous condescension from, let us face it, an enormous man, is not new to Hitchens. But if he took his fine rhetoric about democracy, secularism and freedom of speech seriously, he would not descend to such arrogant bullying and would be revolted by, rather than party to, this "shameful terror".

Hitchens tells his Young Contrarian that he thinks the game of socialism is over. Doubtless, with the international working class no longer leading the revolution, we are left only with the 'defense of secular and civil society' led by enlightened Western states. While Hitchens' "contrarianism" is not nihilism, it is fetishism, a fetish that encases in amber the burning polemical zeal of a former radical, a soixant-huitard. In the wake of a detumescent revolutionary fervour, and with the associated political vision largely gone, we are left with an opportunistic polemicising in which no matter how much one's opinion alters, it remains permanently in opposition, permanently contrarian. And this delivers the hammering Hitchensesque irony in which the most consummately bourgeois opinion acquires the mould and fashion of resistance. Irony is dead. Long live irony.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2003

EYE-RAN: DON'T TALK ABOUT A PLACE UNTIL YOU CAN PRONOUNCE IT. posted by Richard Seymour

Iran is, of course, that funny place where all the Arabs live. You demur? Okay, its that funny place where all the non-Arab fundamentalists live. Still you persist? Alright, it's that place where some fundamentalists live who by no means represent the majority of the Iranian population. Obviously my stint writing for the Daily Express didn't prepare me for a tough audience like you.

Iran is also that place where the CIA overthrew the democratically elected President, Dr Mohammed Mossadegh . Aha! Gotcha there. Not the slightest whiff of dissent from any of you.

This is a matter of some import if we are to judge the words and actions of the West in relation to the present insurgency in Iran. And the evidence apparently points to a more complex story than we might generally receive. For one thing, it was not solely a CIA op. For another, it was not solely for the benefit of US imperialism. The last embers of Empire were still glowing in the hearth as the Iranians experience a democratic political awakening. In particular, the British oil hegemon - the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, later to become BP) - was, we all know, compromised in its operations by being ... well, nationalised. Britain's Ambassador in Tehran commented that 'it is so important to prevent the Persians from destroying their main source of revenue... by trying to run it themselves... The need for Persia is not to run the industry for herself (which she cannot do) but to profit from the technical ability of the West'. Iranians can't run their own oil supplies and neither can Iraqis these days.

The Iranians did offer the British compensation, but the Empire wanted either a new oil concession or compensation for all future profits likely to be made. 'In other words', according to Iranian scholar Homa Katouzian,'the Iranians would have had either to give up the spirit of the nationalisation or to compensate the AIOC not just for its investment but for all the oil which it would have produced in the next 40 years'. For some reason, the bloody Persians weren't having it: 'Persian public opinion', the British Ambassador commented, 'is unanimous in rejecting the [British] offer'.

I detect some yawning. "We know the Brits were involved, lenin, even the bloody BBC admits that!" Yes, but the scoop, according to our own favourite Mark Curtis is that "the planning record reveals not only that Britain was the prime mover in the initial project to overthrow the government but also that British resources contributed significantly to the eventual success of the operation."

He observes that they considered a number of options, prior to coup:

"First, the Chiefs of Staff observed that 'the simplest method of bringing the Persians to heel might well be simply to stop the production and export of oil'. This the AIOC subsequently did, depriving Iran of its main source of income until the 1953 coup, even though, as the Chiefs of Staff had noted, 'the effect might be to bankrupt Persia thus possibly leading to revolution'."

"The second dimension of British policy was to exert pressure, and begin covert planning, to install 'a more reasonable government', as Foreign Secretary Eden put it."

"The third option was direct military intervention. The military occupation and holding of the area around Abadan - the site of the world's largest oil refinery and the centre of AIOC's operations - 'would demonstrate once and for all to the Persians British determination not to allow the... AIOC to be evicted from Persia and might well result in the downfall of the Mussadiq regime and its replacement by more reasonable elements prepared to negotiate a settlement'. Also, 'it might be expected to produce a salutary effect throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, as evidence that United Kingdom interests could not be recklessly molested with impunity'." (The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy since 1945 (Zed Press, 1995). )

He concludes that the end result was a "joint MI6-CIA operation". "The go-ahead for the coup was finally given by the US in late June [1953] - Britain by then already having presented a 'complete plan' to the CIA - and Churchill's authorisation soon followed, the date being set for mid-August."

"When the coup scenario finally began, huge demonstrations proceeded in the streets of Tehran, funded by CIA and MI6 money, $1 million dollars of which was in a safe in the US embassy and £1.5 million which had been delivered by Britain to its agents in Iran, according to the MI6 officer responsible for delivering it."

"Mobs" were dispatched to the streets to stir up trouble, and MI6 took the trouble to portray them as supporters of the Tudeh (the Iranian Communists), thus helping to legitimise the coup as a reaction against possible communist takeover. " 'The purpose', Brian Lapping explains, 'was to frighten the majority of Iranians into believing that a victory for Mussadeq would be a victory for the Tudeh, the Soviet Union and irreligion'." (Ibid).

The result is well-known, and we need only linger to consider the crucial lesson from this. Neither the British nor the American governments could tolerate a democracy in the Middle East. What a disaster it would be if true democracy were to emerge in Saudi Arabia, and the Islamists were to form a devoutly anti-American government! What if the Iraqis allow themselves to be governed by Shi'ites who align with Iran or try to nationalise their oil supply? What if Iran's theocracy is kicked out only to be replaced by a leftist-nationalist government even more hostile to America (less willing to do those dodgy weapons deals with the Contras) and unwilling to privatise and liberalise their economy according to Dr IMF's prescriptions ?

When Bush crows about those Eye-rainians protesting for democracy, a figure from the darkness might whisper in his ear that democracy is a Greek word meaning literally the "rule" (Kratos) of the "people" (Demos), a concept that would put his minority Presidency in trouble and throw potential US interests in Iran into jeopardy for a few more decades at least.

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