Saturday, July 31, 2004

Respect Success. posted by Richard Seymour

Oliur Rahman has won the St Dunstan's and Stepney Green ward by-election with the following votes:

Oliur Rahman, Respect - 878
Jalal Uddin, Liberal Democrats - 754
Shah Habibur Rahman, Labour - 578
Alexander Patrick Story, Conservative - 445
Lynda Miller, National Front - 172

Poor old NF. If I don't miss my guess, that Lynda Miller is the same repulsive bag of shit that was once in the Ku Klux Klan. She has never received any particularly impressive votes, probably on account of having a personality as radiant and attractive as road-kill, a mind as stable as the Argentinian peso, and murderous politics to boot.

Good on Respect for fronting the anti-war, anti-racist, radical left vote.

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Thursday, July 29, 2004

John Kerry: Killing Them Softly. posted by Richard Seymour

Boredom as Policy

Nothing could more adequately sum up the cowardice and opportunism of contemporary American politics than the ruminations of Kirsty Wark on BBC Newsnight last night. She noted that although polls showed that 95% of Democrat conventioneers were opposed to the war, Kerry could probably not endorse such a stance even if he were inclined to because South Dakota voters (for that, read the maligned "Mid-West") supported the President as a matter of instinct, principle and pride. Tom Carver even conducted several interviews appearing to confirm this assessment. America's "heartland" (the goddamned "Mid-West" again) would never accept a political message that was so darned impolite about the President.

Now, recent polls indicate that most voters would prefer troops based in Iraq to come home sooner rather than later. 40% believe that they should return in less than one year; 30% within 1-2 years. So I think we can put the myth that Americans would not be receptive to withdrawing troops from Iraq straight to bed with no supper. But why is that the only consideration? Presumably there is such a thing as political leadership - granted, as the Prime Minister will tell you, that will only take you so far. But if this were an election based on differences of principle, and not merely of comportment, then one would expect the Democrats to nominate a candidate that represents their foreign policy goals, and let the right-wingers have their war-mongering fruit-basket. Why give them the option of a more sensible war-monger? Failing that, if they cannot nominate a principled candidate whose policies they actually agree with and would like to see implemented, how about choosing another party or another candidate? Ralph Nader would be an excellent choice, and he could definitely use the support. The Anyone-But-Bush movement is based on the one consistent reflex of Democrat party activists - cowardly submission. Terrified to do anything that might in fact make a difference "because then the Right will react against us", they would sooner spend an evening listening to a windy fatso like Clinton pretending he didn't piss on every decent principle and dream of the Left while in office.

And it isn't as if trying to cream off the support of other parties (while desperately slandering more radical opponents) has proven a worthwhile strategy in the past. It didn't exactly work in 2000, it didn't work in the California recall, it didn't work in 2002, and it won't work now. By concentrating on the slender and ever-diminishing 'middle-ground', one sort of forgets the base. Two examples. First :

"So far, all we have heard from you are politically-calibrated platitudes about staying the course" in Iraq, actors Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, both long-time Democrats, and the group United for Peace and Justice wrote to Kerry.

"Tell the people of this country the war was wrong, the occupation is a disaster, and that we can have no future as a colonial power," they wrote. "Speak up for what's right, right now."

And :

"Kerry has one other hurdle with vets: Some are fervently antiwar, and they're ticked off that Kerry refuses to withdraw the troops from Iraq on a timetable. They're trying not to hassle Kerry about that, because the buzz phrase at this confab is that Democrats are united. But occasionally they're boiling over. Consider, for example, vet Frank Corchran, a teacher who lives in Lansdowne, the Philadelphia suburb: 'Kerry voted yes to send those kids off to die, and he won't talk about pulling them out? There are times when I despise the man, and a lot of other antiwar vets here are saying, 'We can't vote for him, we feel betrayed.' But I'll try to get a grip, because when I look at Bush and Cheney – well, those guys are just dangerous.'"

Republicans have always known how to energise their base, while Democrats only seem to know how to put theirs to sleep.

"Change in Style"

So, back to Newsnight. Kirsty Wark asks Gary Hart to explain to British viewers what makes Kerry different from Bush? Will there be a withdrawal from Iraq? Will he attack the President's war record? Good heavens, no! That would be dashed unsporting. It isn't the way one behaves and, certainly, Republicans haven't been known to criticise a sitting President just because he's a Democrat. The difference will be in that Kerry will dispense with all this talk of pre-emption. He will restore America's traditional foreign policy of seeking to implicate others in America's crimes, so that the blame can be spread around. Unfortunately, the good former Senator was talking jive. Kerry is still for pre-emption , opposing only its more extreme manifestations. Hart was himself against the war in his time, so one can only assume that he has succumbed to Anyone But Bush fever himself.

Much talk as there has been over the "charismatic" Southern populist John Edwards, I have yet to note any genuine charisma (he's handsome and that's with botox and surgery), much less any authentic populism. Further, as Stephen Zunes notes, he is even more hardline on foreign affairs than Kerry. Edwards was a fervent cheerleader for the war, going out of his way to defend Bush when the sceptical voices were elevating in number and volume. He and Kerry both support Ariel Sharon's annexations of parts of the West Bank, defended Israel when it faced criticism for directing military operations in civilian areas and even criticised President Bush when he called for Israel to desist from some of its operations in the West Bank.

Kerry's foreign policy page promises to continue apace in Iraq while Latin America enjoys the honour of having a North American Security Perimeter "to coordinate customs, immigration and law enforcement policies to better protect the region from terrorist threats". He claims in the same piece that he will "lift-up Hispanic families", presumably by making sure they never have to live with the likelihood of seeing any of their relatives from back home in the near future. As Johann Hari notes in his Indie column from a few days back, Kerry's other policies toward Latin America are less than savoury:

[M]any of us imagine that the day after Kerry's inauguration, the world will be able to lean back, release a long sigh, and dismiss the Bush years as a one-term, one-moron nightmare.

We are deluding ourselves. When it comes to one of the most poisonous planks of US foreign policy today - the destabilisation of developing countries and the attack on poor farmers, all in the name of the "War on Drugs" - Kerry may, incredibly, be even worse than Bush.

Kerry made his name as a Drug War hawk. He dedicated an entire senatorial inquiry in 1989 to denouncing the Reagan administration's softness on international drug suppliers. His principal advisor on the subject today - and the man tipped by some commentators to become his Secretary of State - is Rand Beers, who defected last year from his role as Bush's counter-terrorism advisor. Throughout the 1990s, Beers was the primary architect of the US policy of "taking the fight to the drug-growers" - launching massive chemical attacks on farmers in foreign countries in an attempt to prevent their crops ever reaching America's shores.


Sean Donohue, a US journalist who works with the Colombia Support Network, has documented the human cost. "In January 2001, I visited a government-funded yucca co-operative that was intended to help farmers find an alternative to growing coca," he explains. "The co-operative had been fumigated and the entire yucca crop [which is, of course, totally legal] had been destroyed. One woman explained she had invested everything she had in the co-op and now had no way to feed her children."

A study by Ecuador's Pontificia University discovered that people living near the sprayed areas have shown symptoms of chronic poisoning and temporary blindness since the aerial poisoning began. "There have been cases of babies born with deformities... The impact of glyphosate will be lasting, because not all of its effects are seen one day to the next," it found.

So What's New?

The one thing that will change as a result of an election, you can be sure, is that millions of deluded but well-meaning people will find deplorable US policies that much more tolerable - as they did when Clinton was in power. Robin Cook's performance on Newsnight certainly invites such a conclusion. Indeed, the real issue of this election is one's manner, one's inclusiveness, one's willingness to bend somewhat to the rest of the world's "concerns" while essentially staying the course. This message could not have been more open, or more obvious. Kerry will communicate with European powers without Bush's condescending smirk; he will reject Kyoto/ICC etc firmly but politely, but additionally seek to win over his "European allies" with some sweet talk.

But hold on a minute! Isn't this exactly what neoconservatives were calling for not so long ago? Didn't Robert Kagan write an article for Foreign Policy bemoaning the President's image, and the unnecessary way in which he pissed off allies? Didn't Oliver Kamm, the liberal imperialist for Axa investments, announce this is his only dissatisfaction with Bush? Kerry is the neocon dream. Pro-war, pro-Israel, pro-Plan Colombia. And also, not to miss the finer points, loaded.

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Exam Results. posted by Richard Seymour

After bragging so forcefully upon completion of my exams, I suppose I'm duty bound to back it up with something, however nugatory. Hence, for the two units I took last year, my results:

Magic, Science and Religion: Conceptions of Rationality: 75%

Introduction to Philosophy: 67%

Nothing supererogatory about such a performance, and I'm sorry to disabuse anyone who had justly reached the conclusion that I was some sort of genius-wizard. But they'll do. For now. Just one more step on the road to World Domination!

"I Haff Out-Vitted You All!"

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Marxism and the Philosophy of Science. posted by Richard Seymour

Credulous Where It's Due

Orwell quotes George Bernard Shaw as saying (in the Preface to Saint Joan) that citizens of the 20th Century are the most credulous creatures ever to have existed. He exaggerated somewhat, but Orwell was aptly able to demonstrate its essential truth. Simply trying to explain why one believes the world was round proves to be a difficult task for a non-scientist and most of our common explanations are quite unavailing against counter-explanations, unless we really know our cosmology. Imagine, Orwell said, attempting to explain why one accepted an even more complicated 'fact' of nature. Indeed, most of us would be poorly situated to explain why it is that we think there is a hole in the o-zone layer, GM crops are dangerous or the human genome is a load of twaddle. Science seems somehow to have got too big for us. We still believe what we believe nonetheless.

During and following the scientific revolution, there was great popular enthusiasm for science and the new scientific methods. Boyle's new experimental equipment (most of it invented by Robert Hooke) was manufactured and sold relatively cheaply to a comparatively large number of people. Newton's more difficult texts were distilled to their essentials and popularised in pamphlets and lecture tours by senior scientists from the Royal Academy. In the 21st Century, we still read popularising books and watch documentaries - but are none the wiser in many ways. For example, who could pick up a scientific paper and pull apart its conclusions, deconstruct its methodology, even understand what the bloody hell it is on about?

The Missing Red Ink

This is of considerable importance. Shaw's remark on the gullibility of the modern citizen, although similar to Chesteron's complacent remark on belief in the absence of God, at least had the virtue of satirical acuity. The fact that he would later fall on his own sword by naively espousing Lysenkoism is testament to that. We need, desperately, a way to make science comprehensible without making accounts of it so simplistic that we gain nothing by it. The obvious way to achieve this is to increase the importance of science in education. Another way is to theorise science properly, so that we can have some idea when we are being conned, misled or simply misinformed. And this is where Marxism has been a theoretical failure. I don't mean to imply that Marxism has contributed nothing to the understanding of science - certainly JD Bernal's The Social Function of Science is a classic in the literature, disfigured though it is by his sympathy toward the Soviet Union. However, Bernal's science was more influenced by De Rerum Naturae than Anti-Duhring, which is just as well. (Yes, Bernal drew valuable sustenance from Engels' overall outlook in formulating his view of what science did, in what context it operated, but I fail to see how it helped him formulate his scientific conclusions). And it seems to me that the best Marxist work on science has been written by non-Marxists. One of my most pointlessly revered possessions is a book from Christopher Hill's library called Science and Social Welfare in the Age of Newton by Sir G N Clark - as a rebuke to Boris Hessen's strident economic determinism, it is a rewarding book for any Marxist interested in science, granting an autonomy to ideology and the intellect while not denying the centrality of production and social context. Between Cold War idealists like Koyre, Hall and Kuhn and Cold War determinists like Hessen, Clark proved in spite of himself that suppleness of theory, rigour of analysis and carefully weighed conclusions were compatible with Marxism. I B Cohen is another example - a historian of scientist without any detectible political yearnings, he leaned toward the materialistic without being deterministic. The same goes for R Hooykas, Joseph Ben David and countless others.

It doesn't do to generalise so crudely without offering some countervailing examples. Benjamin Farrington's account of ancient science is a perfectly respectable Marxist intervention; ditto George Novack's On the Origins of Materialism; Stephen Jay Gould was a fine leftist author on science who was influenced by Marxism; Richard Lewtontin and Steven Rose have written innumerable fine books on science which places the activity in its institutional and social context; Edgar Zilsel was a fine theorist in his field; J B S Haldane and Joseph Needham contributed a great deal; even Hessen's work was not without merit, at least emphasising factors in the development of scientific thought that are usually ignored by sociologists and historians of science who tend, like Robert Merton, to emphasise the intellectual, as if the only parent of ideas were other ideas. Nevertheless, I maintain that the philosophy of science has thus far proven infertile ground for Marxists, while idealism and Weberian sociological tendencies have predominated. We have to confront this as a problem.

Anticapitalism, Marxism and Science

Marxism should provide vital insights into the modern practise of science - "Big Science" as Bernal called it. The issues around biotechnology, the human genome, GM crops, environmental degradation and perhaps even animal testing are obviously of some urgency for the future of the human race and the planet. A synthesizing, explanatory work is called for; something which will help readers to understand the institutional and social framework within which society is conducted. It goes without saying that the current university-corporate complex merits analysis. And the nature of scientific authority, the peer reviews and government reports which tell us what kind of science is trustworthy today and which is not need critical scrutiny. Finally, what kind of science is being practised that produces such execrable unnatural phenomena as the 'terminator gene'? Why should it be that a US firm called RiceTech may be allowed to sue Indian farmers over an intellectual property right the former claim to have over a kind of basmati rice grown in India for centuries? That last thought returns me to my original - perhaps we really are living in the most credulous age since before the Renaissance. While most of the world is objecting to biopiracy , intellectual property rights invoked to justify spurious claims which wreak havoc in agrarian economies, most of Britain has been discussing genetic modification of plants in terms of consumer safety, responsible production etc. What mugs.

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Cheap as chips! posted by Richard Seymour

The Early Days of "Bargain Hunt". Trotsky's Hat Goes for £20.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

War and Resistance. posted by Richard Seymour

Iraq is a disaster area again today, and I'd like to thank those who made it all possible. After all, this obviously means that the situation can clearly get no worse and we're bound to see some of the fruits of 'humanitarian intervention' soon. As per usual, when acts of extreme and disturbing violence are wreaked, the tendency is to foreclose thought and seek out the condemnation stick. Not that I don't condemn these wicked attacks on civilian lives (yes, yes, I know, they're aimed at police stations and such, but it isn't as if noone ever walks past a cop shop is it?), it's just that the rush away from analysis typically enjoined by extreme moral outrage is either dangerous or futile. I therefore offer you a couple of links to pursue if you feel like stepping back from the fire.

Daniel Brett has an excellent post on Sudan which I urge everyone to read. As per usual, the media tropes are mercilessly torn asunder; Brett carefully inserts what has been reduced to simply a stark humanitarian situation (which, of course, it is) back into its context of local political rivalries, imperial pretensions and interlocking interests:

What I find most galling is the attitude of the West. The Darfur insurgency has been going on for over a year now, but few Westerners had bothered to notice it until now. The issue has been recently adopted by Christian missionaries and the media has adopted their agenda without questioning it. The history of the Darfur conflict is thus bleached to reflect a Christian colour. It is now simply portrayed as Arab Muslims oppressing innocent black Africans and Darfur is a cause celebre for the Christian Right, a conflict with good and evil.

The fact that Chad's President Idriss Deby has been manipulating and arming the ethnic Zaghawa in Sudan, which has helped destablise Darfur, is not mentioned. Deby is a Zaghawa, a tribe which inhabits Darfur and eastern Chad. The Zaghawa of Sudan gave him sanctuary during his Libyan-backed insurgency against the regime of Hissein Habre in the late 1980s. He relies on the support of this ethnic group to maintain his hold on power and to balance the power of the northern oligarchs of the Gorane tribe and repress political opposition - since 1990, his regime has been responsible for the killing of 25,000. According to the US State Department's human rights report on Chad, Deby has established a "culture of impunity for a ruling minority". The SLA is part of his power play to defeat rival tribes, consolidate his hold over Chad and diminish the influence of the Gorane tribe.

The American Christian right-wing - which represents the majority of Americans - is advocating military intervention in Darfur, similar to the "humanitarian" invasion of Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has followd this line, with reports that he has drawn up plans to use the army to "protect" refugee camps in Chad and creating "safe zones" inside Sudan.

Unilateralism will make matters worse

The proposals are reminiscent of the NATO invasion of the Serbian province of Kosovo. Such an intervention would require Deby's support, which risks upsetting Sudan's Al-Bashir regime. Any action that does not have the explicit consent of both Chad and Sudan would plunge the US and its allies into a complex and violent conflict that will sink them financially and politically.

If such an armed venture was carried out, the White Nile would run red with Sudanese blood. It would be reminiscent of the Congo, with a tribal and religious conflict spreading beyond Sudan's borders into Chad and other countries in the ecologically precarious Sahel region.

Even a modest number of Western troops stationed in the border areas where refugees are located would upset the delicate situation in the region, prompting violent clash between an emboldened Zaghawa-dominated government and the well-armed Gorane. This might threaten the stability of the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), where in March 2003 a Chad-backed military coup removed the elected but widely discredited government of Ange-Felix Patasse. Instability in northern CAR could quickly spread to other parts of the country in the event of shifting regional alliances and power dynamics and an influx of refugees.

Sudan's peace process would collapse, with the SPLA taking advantage of the Khartoum government's weakening control. It could possibly gain the support of Uganda, the rebel group's traditional ally, to break the country up along confessional and tribal lines. North-eastern Sudan would witness Eritrean and Ethiopian opportunism and military adventurism as both countries vye for territorial influence and control. In Chad itself, the tensions between an emboldened and American-backed Zaghawa tribe and the Gorane oligarchs would explode into civil war.

Although it is tempting to rush troops into Sudan and Chad to stop the ethnic cleansing and hunger, the impact of an intervention in Sudan is full of dangerous uncertainties. Is it worth taking these risks? Will resorting to unilateral military action really solve the humanitarian crisis in Darfur or create a regional war and famine on an unprecedented scale?

And while I'm at it, you could be persuaded to have a look at Scott Ritter's latest , in which he argues that the Iraqi Resistance will win - indeed, has already done so:

Regardless of the number of troops the United States puts on the ground or how long they stay there, Allawi's government is doomed to fail. The more it fails, the more it will have to rely on the United States to prop it up. The more the United States props up Allawi, the more discredited he will become in the eyes of the Iraqi people - all of which creates yet more opportunities for the Iraqi resistance to exploit.

We will suffer a decade-long nightmare that will lead to the deaths of thousands more Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. We will witness the creation of a viable and dangerous anti-American movement in Iraq that will one day watch as American troops unilaterally withdraw from Iraq every bit as ignominiously as Israel did from Lebanon.

The calculus is quite simple: the sooner we bring our forces home, the weaker this movement will be. And, of course, the obverse is true: the longer we stay, the stronger and more enduring this byproduct of Bush's elective war on Iraq will be.

There is no elegant solution to our Iraqi debacle. It is no longer a question of winning but rather of mitigating defeat.

Finally, and amazingly, Johann Hari has yet another excellent article in the Independent today. I assume it will soon be available on his website , but if you're eager you could always click on the Indie link and pay their exorbitant log-in charges. Incidentally, Hari's website contains two acts of his new and apparently well-received play (at least, I think there are more acts to come). Looks kind of modern and New Labour to me, but you might like it.

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Hilarious. posted by Richard Seymour

Let it be known that the National Centre for Public Policy Research is concerned:

The National Center for Public Policy Research has posted online an e-mail received from a soldier, Spc. Joe Roche of the 1st Armored Division, who says Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 is "making the rounds" among soldiers at U.S. military bases overseas and is "shocking and crushing soldiers, making them feel ashamed" of their service in Iraq. The letter has been published online by The National Center without abridgment ... Some excerpts:

"Michael Moore's film, Fahrenheit 9/11, is making the rounds here at U.S. bases in Kuwait. Some soldiers have received it already and are passing is around. The impact is devastating. Here we are, soldiers of the 1st Armored Division, just days from finally returning home after over a year serving in Iraq, and Moore's film is shocking and crushing soldiers, making them feel ashamed. Moore has abused the First Amendment and is hurting us worse than the enemy has. There are the young and impressionable soldiers, like those who joined the Army right out of high school. They aren't familiar w/ the college-type political debate environment, and they haven't been schooled in the full range of issues involved. They are vulnerable to being hurt by a vicious film like Moore's."

"Specialist Janecek, who is feeling depressed because a close family member is nearing the end of her life, just saw the film today. I saw him in the DFAC. He is devastated. 'I feel shitty, ashamed, like this was all a lie.' Not only is he looking at going straight to a funeral when he returns home, but now whatever pride he felt for serving here has been crushed by Moore's film. Specialist Everett earlier after seeing the film: 'You'll be mad at shit for ever having come here.' And there are others. Mostly the comments are absolute shock at the close connections Moore makes between the Bush family and the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia. 'Bush looks really really REALLY corrupt in this film. I just don't know what to think anymore,' is a common comment to hear. Some of these soldiers are darn right ashamed tonight to be American soldiers, to have been apart of this whole mission in Iraq, and are angry over all that Moore has presented in his film."

"Right now, just days away from what should be a proud and happy return from 15 months of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom, your U.S. soldiers are coming back ashamed and hurt because of Moore's work."

"I sometimes want to be mad at my fellow soldiers for being susceptible to Moore's distortions, but I can't really blame them. These are good Americans, who have volunteered to serve our country. Nothing says they all have to be experts in Middle Eastern issues and history and politics to serve. That would be silly. ...But this is, of course, the vulnerability that Moore has exploited."

"I wonder how damaging and shocking a Moore project would have been in the 1940s making such a video of Franklin Roosevelt."

So, US soldiers are surrounded by death and chaos every day, face Iraqis as a hostile enemy, can't leave the base without some serious firepower, as a result of which some of them are prone to abuse of prisoners, cowboy tactics, fatal shootings etc ... and it requires a film by Michael Moore to shake them up? That's testament to the unique genius of the film itself, surely?

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Intellectuals? You Should Give a Shit! posted by Richard Seymour

Charlotte Street is onto something with his latest post. Following up on this post on Lenin:

"The intellectuals, the lackeys of capital, who think they're the brains of the nation. In fact they're not its brains, they're its shit."

(Lenin, Letter to Gorky, Sptember 15th, 1919.)

Just to be clear, I do regard Lenin's comment as having intellectual - and not merely scatalogical - content. The point, presumably, is that intellectuals entertain the illusion that they are in the engine room of society (and that ideas precede and determine social organisation). The truth is that they are (more often) a kind of inessential by-product, spontaneously secreted, as it were, by the social machinery, but misrecognising themselves as the very fuel by which it runs.

Charlotte Street adds some new ruminations on the nature of commofity fetishism, and suggests that

When, for example, some investment banker writes a verbose blog rationalizing the profit system he is, in a very precise sense, talking shit.

Who could he be referring to?

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Poetic Justice posted by Richard Seymour

Within a few days of Tony Cliff's death, Julie Burchill had proclaimed him a self-hating Jew. Paul Foot appeared to have got off scot-free until the calumnious Mr Kamm decided to puncture the warmth with his customary vitriol. I suggested some days ago that Paul was appreciative of the interface between politics and culture, between poetry and revolution , insisting, like Christopher Hill or even Christopher Hitchens (see particularly his brilliant collection of essays, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere ), on the transformative power of the written word. It is precisely this aspect of Paul's output, among others, that comes under scrutiny from the Kammster. I shall be concerned mostly with these, since anyone unfamiliar either with Paul Foot, or the romantic poets he so loved, could be led astray by Kamm's tendentious adumbrations.

Wordsworth vs Oliver Letwin

I want first of all to note that before today's obituary, (just published in time for the funeral, with perhaps the hope of burying the reputation with the body), Kamm had taken issue with a column by Paul Foot in The Guardian, accusing him of "affectations" for having used a verse from Wordsworth's Prelude to make a point against Oliver Letwin's illiberal asylum policy. Here is the relevent passage from Foot:

[Oliver Letwin's] fatuous speech about schools coincided with his call to dump asylum seekers on a faraway island, he knows not where. Where did he get that idea? It is unlikely that a hypocritical snob such as Mr Letwin has read any Wordsworth, so, in an attempt to bring him down to earth, I offer this valuable advice from Wordsworth's poem on the French Revolution:

Not in utopia -

subterranean fields -

Or some secreted island,

heaven knows where!

But in the very world,

which is the world

Of all of us -

the place where in the end

We find our happiness -

or not at all.

Kamm smells the blood of a Trotskyist. He hunts. And comes up with this:

The lines Foot quotes (which are from The Prelude) are not 'on the French Revolution', but on 'The French Revolution - As It Appeared To Enthusiasts At Its Commencement' (emphasis added). The difference is important both poetically and historically. Wordsworth, having been an early supporter of the French Revolution reverted quickly to the Burkean critique of it. He even gives in The Prelude (in the 1850, not the 1805, edition) an urgent and remarkably accurate account of Burke's philosophy of society:

"I see him – old, but vigorous in age,
Stand like an oak
While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
Against all systems built on abstract rights,
Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
Of institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;
Declares the vital power of social ties
Endeared by custom; and with high disdain,
Exploding upstart Theory, insists
Upon the allegiance to which men are born…."

If Foot – the author of a worthless tract on Shelley - knows this, then he's distorting the historical record in his appropriation of Wordsworth's lines for his own ideological ends. If doesn't know it, then he doesn't know Wordsworth - and he thus might aptly be termed a hypocritical snob.
Might he indeed? The only way that Kamm's rebuke could be convincing would be if Foot were intending to imply that Wordsworth had never resiled from his revolutionary ideals. Failing that elementary condition, all other considerations are moot. On the other hand, there is the possibility that the lines were to be taken not literally, but as ironic reflections on the naivete of his earlier beliefs. That would certainly seem to be implied by the title of the poem. Yet, Wordsworth's political transformation was a prolonged and contradictory affair, and is generally described as spanning the decade 1800-10, whereupon he evinced the staunchest conservatism. The poem, later to be included in Book XI of The Prelude was written in 1804. It was written two years after his visit to France (to see the woman he had earlier knocked up) in which he evoked the sterile misery of Napoleonic France, yet affirmed hope:

And now, sole register that these things were,
Two solitary greetings have I heard,
"Good-morrow, Citizen!" a hollow word,
As if a dead man spake it! Yet despair
Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare. (COMPOSED NEAR CALAIS, ON THE ROAD LEADING TO ARDRES, AUGUST 7, 1802)
Like his friend Coleridge, Wordsworth kept the faith for as long as he could, but soon grew disillusioned with the French revolution, and with revolution in general. The poem including Foot's cited lines reflect a certain amount of longing for the early enthusiasm of revolution, and are illumined with the authentic hope of a not-yet-spurned radicalism. In this sense, the poem's tension lives in Wordsworth's broken, radical heart. It is shot through with pathos; it nurtures a yearning for a fate devoutly to be wished. To reduce it to a simple repudiation of one's past allegiances, is hack criticism at its worst. I mean to say, in the clearest possible terms, that Kamm has both misconceived his point and misconstrued Wordsworth's lines.

I myself prefer Bertrand Russel on Wordsworth's political progress: "In his youth Wordsworth sympathized with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a natural daughter. At this period he was called a 'bad' man. Then he became 'good', abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry."

Red Shelley, Gold Star

The meat of the matter, however, is the treatment given Foot's Red Shelley. For I wish to suggest here, as adamantly as it can be suggested, that Kamm has not read the book. True, he may have skimmed through a few pages while in the University library some decades ago, but he hasn't read it. Mark his first strike:

Red Shelley may rank as the worst book published on a literary subject since the war. There is a tradition of the man of letters illuminating our understanding of literature through exposition of his own insights (think of Chesterton on Browning and Dickens). Foot's work belongs instead to the tradition of the dilettante determined to wrench his literary enthusiasms to his own image. It emulates the misplaced ingenuity of Churchill's minister Duff Cooper in writing Sergeant Shakespeare, an attempt to prove from internal evidence that Shakespeare must have had extensive military experience. Foot's Shelley is "a man with revolutionary ideas" that by a remarkable coincidence turn out to be Paul Foot's ideas.
It may be "the worst book published on a literary subject since the war", but until Kamm has read every book on a literary subject since the war (why that date?) he won't know, and neither will anyone else. One thing I am fairly certain of, however, is that Kamm doesn't know Foot from shinola. Paul Foot never imputed to Shelley the ideas of revolutionary socialism, much less the Marxist theory of exploitation and the Leninist theory of imperialism. His mission, as he had it, was to rescue Shelley's radicalism, his rootedness in the legacy of the French revolution, from the editors and editrices who produced Works of Shelley which did not include Queen Mab, The Mask of Anarchy or The Revolt of Islam. So, why does Kamm think that Foot is recruiting Shelley for the SWP (we have enough dead people in the party already I would have thought)? Here is the excerpt on which Kamm bases his judgement:

Shelley wanted the truth about repression and exploitation to go ringing through each heart and brain, so that each heart and brain would unite in action to end that repression and exploitation. So, particulanly in his later poems, he concentrated all his mastery of language, all his genius with rhyme and rhythm into translating the ideas of the revolution to the masses.
After 160 years he survives for us not as a lyric poet but as one of the most eloquent agitators of all time. That is why we must read him, learn him, teach him to our children. He will help us to communicate our contempt for the corporate despotism under which we live and our faith in the revolutionary potential of the multitude.
Note first of all that this excerpt is not from Red Shelley, but from a 1975 article on Shelley. Not a single quotation from Red Shelley appears in the whole of Kamm's argument. Now, let's hear Kamm's refutation:

To say this is a misreading of Shelly is to understate the case. Foot's wider incomprehension is of poetry itself. In his political prose, Shelly explicitly rejected Foot's "ideas of the revolution". He believed in social reform by peaceful means. In his Declaration of Rights he wrote:

No man has a right to disturb the public peace by personally resisting the execution of a law, however bad. He ought to acquiesce, using at the same time the utmost powers of his reason to promote its repeal.
The "revolution" of which Paul speaks is, of course, not the socialist revolution but the French revolution. The "ideas of the revolution" are those of equality, liberty and human solidarity. They are the ideas of one who hated oppression and exploitation. On the specific question of the rights and wrongs of revolutionary violence, it is peculiar that Kamm should hang his argument this particular stipulation, since Shelley had other thoughts on the merits of revolution - discussed by Foot in Red Shelley, but oddly undiscussed by Kamm. Indeed, in these very passages, Paul Foot notes precisely the contradiction between Shelley's reformism and his increasingly revolutionary conclusions. I quote:

In the way of all the appeals for reform, all the demands for caution, there remained one insurmountable obstacle: the refusal of the people with power and property to give them up - and their willingness, if necessary, to defend them by force. Shelley describes this obstacle in one graphic sentence: "for so dear is power that the tyrants themselves neither then, nor now, nor ever, left or leave a path to freedom but through their own blood." Or, from the other point of view: "the labouring classes, when they cannot get good for their labour, are impelled to take it by force". (Foot, Red Shelly, p 190)
In this resides the contradiction. Shelley understood the danger of revolution, but also the omnipresent obstacles in the way of reform. Later, in Fragments on Reform, Shelley is inclined to blur the edges between the two:

"Call it reform or revolution, as you will, a change must take place; one of the consequences of which will be, the wresting of political power from those who are at present the depositories of it." (Quoted, Ibid, p 194).
Foot devotes several chapters to illuminating this tension at the heart of Shelley's poetics and politics, in fact, and it is hard to see how it could have escaped Kamm's scrutiny. But he continues, anyway:

Prometheus Unbound and The Revolt of Islam both stress a moral revolution in concert with a change in the temporal order. Prometheus Unbound expresses a liberal politics of forgiveness, not revolution, and an awareness of the destructiveness of revolt. With these words Prometheus repents of the curse that he had called down on Jupiter:

It doth repent me: words are quick and vain;/ Grief for a while is blind, and so was mine./ I wish no living thing to suffer pain.

Foot's exposition of Shelley's poetical worth is as philistine in its way as the right-wing populism that decries experimental art. The value of poetry lies not in "translating ideas to the masses" but in creating worlds of imaginative experience for the reader and allowing him to explore them. Certainly poetry and other forms of literature have the power to shape our external world and influence our ideas of how that world should be ordered. But literature makes us at home in the world by explicating how things feel - the life of the mind and the emotions - as well as by explaining how the world is.
Socialists of all kinds will be grateful to Kamm for having explained the real virtue of poetry. That has nothing to do with Foot, of course, since Foot never denies it. His interest in the role of culture in creating political hegemony, or at least in irrupting the consensus, is not incompatible with a view of art as essentially to do with creating an imaginary, an alternative experience and, sometimes, simply diversion. Literature, after all, must first revolutionise consciousness before it can revolutionise society.

Nevertheless, although Foot is acutely aware of the reformist inclinations which temper the revolutionary passions of The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound, there is at least the potential that what Kamm has written of the latter is a response to Foot's argument. I don't know if it is, because he makes no reference to it. Foot argues that it is in Prometheus Unbound that Shelley resolves the contradiction in his consciousness between his desire for peace and his desire for revolutionary change.

I'll outline the general argument for curious readers. Demogorgon, the "mighty darkness" ensconced in his throne, hidden in a cave, is the seat of power. Asia and Panthea have sought him out with the aim of rescuing Prometheus, who is tied to a stone, starved and defeated. Demogorgon (literally, "people-monster") may owe its name to the kind of political literature Shelley took in. One paper was called Gorgon, while another was called Medusa, and it is the former which his Tory friend Thomas Peacock may have sent Shelley from England while he was writing Prometheus Unbound. At any rate, it is the people-monster which Asia provokes into action through her cunning and impassioned argument. He explodes, the cave - deep within a mountain - erupts in volcanic fury. Two chariots emerge from the "cloven rocks", one representing violence, civil war, and the possibility of renewed tyranny; the other, democracy, security and peace. Demogorgon races off in the first to confront Jupiter. Jupiter, seeing that he isn't about to win this fight, begs to be judged by an unchained Prometheus. But there is no mercy - Jupiter is doomed, and it isn't because Demogorgon turned up bearing petitions and protest songs. In Act III, Jupiter descends into the void, dragging Demogorgon with him:

Detested prodigy!
Even thus beneath the deep Titanian prisons
I trample thee! Thou lingerest?
Mercy! mercy!
No pity, no release, no respite! Oh,
That thou wouldst make mine enemy my judge,
Even where he hangs, seared by my long revenge,
On Caucasus! he would not doom me thus.
Gentle, and just, and dreadless, is he not
The monarch of the world? What then art thou?
No refuge! no appeal!
Sink with me then,
We two will sink on the wide waves of ruin,
Even as a vulture and a snake outspent
Drop, twisted in inextricable fight,
Into a shoreless sea! Let hell unlock
Its mounded oceans of tempestuous fire,
And whelm on them into the bottomless void
This desolated world, and thee, and me,
The conqueror and the conquered, and the wreck
Of that for which they combated!
Ai, Ai!
The elements obey me not. I sink
Dizzily down, ever, forever, down.
And, like a cloud, mine enemy above
Darkens my fall with victory! Ai, Ai!
What remains is peace, security, freedom. The second chariot.

Now, the relevance of the lines Oliver cites (from Act I) is precisely that such an attitude would not have done away with Jupiter, nor have freed Prometheus from his rock. The conclusion of the poem is that the people-monster brings swift, merciless justice to the oppressor, topples him and thus frees Prometheus. In the process, of course, the people-monster ceases to exist - and that is more or less as it should be. As media campaigns have consistently demonstrated, there is indeed a Gorgon, a monster without being a myth, which is rather unfair. The alternative explanation for Demogorgon - that he represents necessity, and that necessity finally does for the tyranny and liberates the oppressed - will not rescue Oliver either. Such a reading invites complacent determinism, not liberal tolerance. And the end of it all is still that the people-monster had to rise up: there could be no reform without revolution.

I hope I haven't been obtuse about this. Kamm hasn't read a great deal of Foot's work, least of all that which he is most dismissive of. The rest of his criticisms are shallow, and rely on exegesis of intellectually reputable authors rather than arguments of his own. One could waste a lot of time quibbling about Kamm's judgement of Foot's political writings (which expends even less energy in the way of research than his clumsy and ill-informed poetical meditations), but only the converts are likely to be persuaded by his ruminations. The truth is, Kamm's literary failure is a political failure. It is because he doesn't understand the inconsistencies, the wavering, the undercurrents of Shelley's political outlook that he fails as a literary critic. And it is because he doesn't understand Foot's book, hasn't even read it, that his criticisms so dismally backfire.

And those are inferences and not insults. Foot's reputation remains intact; Kamm's is drenched in blood from head to foot. May it never recover.

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Sunday, July 25, 2004

Daniel Brett posted by Richard Seymour

A few years ago, I had a prolonged and often furious row with the young journalist and political activist, Daniel Brett . Conducted over e-mail, our debate was 'regulated but not constituted' by our polar views on the viability of a two-state solution in Israel. It ended with him politely asking to excuse himself from the debate - quite rightly too, as there was no possibility of agreement or of narrowing the scope of disagreement.

Since then, his fantastic website has evolved to include an articulate and informed weblog. Well-travelled, he is a Third World adept, a crack internationalist exploding the myths by which the West sustains its contradictory and incoherent policies in the world. His reporting is humane and intelligent. It will surprise and educate. I strongly recommend you go have a look see .

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"Give Up The Luxury of Criticism". posted by Richard Seymour

The Prime Minister misjudges the national mood, and surely also the mood within his own party. His speech to the 'party faithful' (carefully selected apparatchiks with known clapping and sucking skills) was apparently full of confidence, triumphalism even. And, as is becoming increasingly common, it hammered just about every false note you could think of. Here he is, explaining why its New Labour or No Labour:

I know that just occasionally we all wish it didn’t have to be like this. That we could have won as we were, that we could have governed without so many tough choices, that we could win again in a more confined and safe way. Unfortunately it is not true.

This exercise in vagary and vaguery is apparently trying to communicate some deep political reality, with which the Prime Minister regularly communes. Somewhere between the lines, I think there is a message that runs something like, "Hey, I'm on your side, I'd love to redistribute wealth and stuff, but y'know, noone's gonna vote for it, so..." The interesting thing about this persistent canard is that only Labour really believes it.

Every credible piece of social and psephological research shows that the vast majority of the public strongly favour higher taxation and higher overall spending. Even a distinct majority of Tory voters believe the income gap is too large. On the specific issue of redistribution, more people say that wealth should be redistributed from the rich to the poor than say it shouldn't - but approximately a quarter of the population have not formed a view. This would suggest that a) as no major political party actually advocates such policies at the moment, a large number of people are left wondering what it would precisely entail ("would that raise my taxes or lard me with benefits?") and b) there is scope for expanding the plurality of support for redistributive measures with serious political leadership. But that is not likely to happen under a government and a leadership whose most obvious hallmark is the deepest conservatism. (See this IPPR document for a summary of the findings of the British Social Attitudes Surveys up to 2002 - interestingly, support for redistributive measures peaked in 1994, receding coterminously with Labour's sudden disinclination to argue for such policies). Those who argue that people wouldn't vote for it are missing a rather huge point - more people voted for redistribution of wealth in the 1980s than voted for Margaret Thatcher. The peculiarities of a first-past-the-post elecoral system are an important part of what made the New Right seem so monolithic, (the other aspect being, of course, that the Left was on its knees).

Now, any Labour MP of socialist or even social-democratic principle could make a persuasive argument for undertaking such policies. Labour members could work flat out on policy proposals, amendments and discussion points. But they would get nowhere, not just because Blair stridently and persistently declaims that it is not possible, unrealistic etc., but principally because he and Brown no longer believe such policies would be desirable.

Let it not be said, however, that stridency is somehow unimportant to the Blair Project. Here is his warning to the Left:

"We have to give up the luxury of criticism for the obligation of decision."

Got that? This flat-footed nonsense was adequately trashed by an anonymous Labour MP (now why, I wonder, has he remained anonymous?):

"Stalin could have said that. Who the hell does Blair think he is?"

Whoever you are, brave soul, you may well have already answered your own question.

And Blair invites mockery with his claim that he is not a closet Tory:

Because we've run the economy well, worked with business, are tough on law and order and believe in supporting our armed forces, then I must be a Tory in disguise: i.e., if you believe in economic efficiency and taking action on crime, you must be a Tory. It was never really true, of course.

Deconstructing the PM's lazy euphemisms would be an exercise in futility, but we should recall his attempt to ironically disarm his leftist critics shortly after his election (to the effect of 'we poured cash into the health service, invested in education, reduced child poverty, and still we are accused of betraying socialism'). As Slavoj Zizek argued, this "Life of Brian" tactic should be reversed, so that "yes, we practise Thatcherite economics, cut taxes for business, do deals with Murdoch, attack asylum seekers, join up with reactionaries in pursuit of imperialist wars, and still we are socialists". We no longer have to, because the Prime Minister has done this for us, to infinitely better comic effect.

The final, fatal wound is self-inflicted when Blair announces his historical significance. He will win a third term, he salivates, which is something that "generations of this party have only ever dreamed of". A Populus poll published today and cited by the Sunday Herald shows that only 5% of British people believe he will go down as a great Prime Minister. A couple of voices you would have expected to be supportive also weigh in with criticism:

Professor Bernard Crick, of Edinburgh University, a former adviser to Neil Kinnock, told the Sunday Herald: "I think he’s blown it. The best hope was he could get back on course, tackle the inequities of the tax system [and] carry on in the tradition of moderate Labour rather than virtually abandon the poor and try to woo floating voters and what he cheerfully calls Middle England. I imagine historians will write about his time as Prime Minister in the sense of wasted opportunity."

Novelist Robert Harris, a Blair friend, said: "He hasn’t done much more than continue the policies of Thatcher."

Are these rats fleeing a sinking ship? I think so. When false notes pour from a political leader with such speed and create such a jarring racket, you know he has lost it. And the Prime Minister, for all his reputed skill is misfiring every time. When he aims for the heart, he unfailingly hits one in the stomach. When he aims for the head, he shoots his own foot.

For that, at least, he should lose the next election.

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Cohen on Foot. posted by Richard Seymour

Believe me - the last thing I expected to see in The Observer today was an article by Nick Cohen that I really wanted to read. I get a certain twinge of the heart when this happens, rather like when Christopher Hitchens betrays something of his old scepticism, fondness for darkly elegant one-liners and penchant for telling political ironies. Cohen has written an elegant homage to Paul Foot, and you can read it here . I know Foot would not have appreciated being labelled Saint Paul, but greatness is one of those things that he both achieved and had thrust upon him.

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Anti-fascist and anti-anti-semitic posted by Richard Seymour

Oliver Kamm has embarked on one of his periodic tirades against the SWP. Frankly, I'm not interested in his ill-conceived theoretical treatment (he tried his hand at undermining the theory of "state capitalism in Russia" a while back, which was embarrassing, and his latest attempt at understanding democratic centralism is no less so). But he has, as usual, scented blood in a particularly unfortunate interview with Gilad Atzmon in Socialist Worker. Atzmon's views are disgraceful, incoherent and completely at odds with what the SWP stands for.  He did not recite any of his more offensive ideas for the SW interview, but he does have plenty of stomach-churning bullshit on his web-site. It makes me sick to recite, but here's a taster or two:

Zionists complain that Jews continue to be associated with a conspiracy to rule the world via political lobbies, media and money. Is the suggestion of conspiracy really an empty accusation? The following list is presented with pride in several Jewish American websites.


Let me assure you, in Clinton's administration the situation was even worse. Even though the Jews only make up 2.9 per cent of the country's population, an astounding 56 per cent of Clinton's appointees were Jews. A coincidence? I don't think so.
We have to ask ourselves what motivates American Jews to gain such political power. Is it a genuine care for American interests? Soon, following the growing number of American casualties in Iraq, American people will start to ask themselves this very question.
Since America currently enjoys the status of the world's only super power and since all the Jews listed above declare themselves as devoted Zionists, we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously.

Yadda yadda yadda, Jews trying to control the world, where have I heard that one before? The trouble is, of course, that Atzmon was booked to speak at a Marxism meeting on Palestine with Ghada Karmi. Karmi is one of the most distinguished and eloquent voices for Palestine, so it is a real shame she ended up sharing a platform with this crank. Now, Kamm would like his readers to believe that the SWP therefore advocates, encourages, or at least is willing to tolerate anti-Semitism.

Having been involved in the SWP for eight years, having protested against anti-Semites being allowed to visit Britain and having been involved in mobilisations against fascist marches through local working class areas, I find such assertions counter-intuitive (to riot in understatement). Even Harry's Place , commenting on the noise, couldn't quite advocate such a view. Well, turn to James' account at Dead Men Left :

His incoherent statements about politics were by all accounts dire. Meetings at Marxism are generally taped, so I invite Kamm to listen to the contributions to his meeting and hear Atzmon clearly criticised by SWP member after SWP member - prominent members, too, like John Rose.

Once more, an explicit attack by the SWP on a particular view is ignored. Personally, I think it was a mistake to invite Atzmon to speak, simple as that, but I am glad that once there he was given a rough ride.

I share those thoughts entirely. If there is one thing that I have always been proud of about the SWP, it is its uncompromising hostility to racism in every form, even the deceptively 'respectable' kinds that masquerade as liberal critique of religion. The SWP does not tolerate anti-Semitism, never has, and never will. It was a mistake to invite Atzmon to speak at Marxism, and it is a relief to hear that he was roundly denounced and derided for offering such views.

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Sudan. posted by Richard Seymour

This blog about Sudan insists that the individual has the power to help resist the 'genocide' that is taking place in Darfur. Well, that constantly mis-used expression may not be apt, but you'll find a lot of useful information there to help you form your views - particularly if Sudanese troops withdraw and allow a loose 'coalition' to enter and try to 'pacify' the situation.

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Friday, July 23, 2004

Tariq Ali on Latin America. posted by Richard Seymour

Slavoj Zizek has long argued that the Left should cease to be obsessed with keeping its hands clean and start to be in favour of victory. To get such a victory, says Tariq Ali , you have to take power - and Venezuela proves it:

Without adequately addressing state power, what alternative to neoliberalism is the Global Social Justice movement offering?

No, they have no alternative! They think that it is an advantage not to have an alternative. But, in my view that’s a sign of political bankruptcy. If you have no alternative, what do you say to the people you mobilize? The MST in Brazil has an alternative, they say "take the land and give it to the poor peasants, let them work it." But the Holloway thesis of the Zapatistas, it’s — if you like — a virtual thesis, it’s a thesis for cyber space: let’s imagine. But we live in the real world, and in the real world this thesis isn’t going to work. Therefore, the model for me of the MST in Brazil is much much more interesting than the model of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Much more interesting.

And furthermore:

The Global Justice Movement is wary of Chávez’ populism, his military background, and what they fear may become a top-down ‘revolution’ that excludes the grassroots. How do you think the GJM and Chávez can be reconciled?

As long as the poor in Venezuela support this government it will survive, when they withdraw their support it will fall. But I think it will be useful if the Global Justice movement—and there are many different strands in it—came and saw what’s going on here. What’s the problem? Go into the shantytowns, see what the lives of the people are, see what their lives were before this regime came into power. And don’t go on the basis of stereotypes. You cannot change the world without taking power, that is the example of Venezuela. Chávez is improving the lives of ordinary people, and that’s why it’s difficult to topple him—otherwise he would be toppled. So it’s something that people in the Global Justice movement have to understand, this is serious politics. It’s pointless just chanting slogans, because for the ordinary people on whose behalf you claim to be fighting getting an education, free medicine, cheap food is much much more important than all the slogans put together.

What do you think of the Venezuelan example of participatory democracy?

I think it needs to be strengthened. I think it’s weak, I think the movement here needs to institutionalize on every level—the level of small pueblos, the level of the towns, the level of different quarters—organizations, which can be very broad: Bolivarian Circles, whatever you want to call them, which meet regularly, which talk with each other, which discuss their problems, which aren’t simply a response to calls from above. It’s very very important, because you know, Chávez is an unusual guy in Latin America—very special—and he is young and long may he live, but he has to create institutions which outlast him for the future of this country.

What is at stake in Venezuela? Whose interests? And can Venezuela survive alone? What does Venezuela mean to the US?

Venezuela is an example which the Americans wish to wipe out. Because if this example exists, and gets stronger and stronger and stronger, then people in Brazil, in Argentina, in Ecuador, in Chile, in Bolivia will say ‘if Venezuelans can do it, we can do it.’ So Venezuela, from that point of view, is a very important example. That’s why they’re so worked up. That’s why the Americans pour in millions of dollars to help this stupid opposition in this counry; an opposition which is incapable of offering any real alternative to the people, except what used to exist before: a corrupt, a servile oligarchy. That’s what Venezuela means, and I think that one weakness, till recently, of the Bolivarian revolution has been that it has not done more towards the rest of Latin America, because it’s been under siege at home. But I think, once Chávez wins the referendum, and then the local elections I hope, and the mayoralty of Caracas in September, I hope then a big offensive is made for the rest of Latin America too. From that point of view, the model of the Cuban doctors is a very good one. I mean, a Venezuelan doctor—in five years Venezuelans will come back [from Cuba] as doctors, they can help both their own country, and they can go to other countries to work in the shantytowns. They are small things, but in the world in which we live they are very big things. Fifty years ago they would have been small, today they are very big. And that’s why we have to preserve and nurture them.

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Darfur Again. posted by Richard Seymour

The liberal press are getting a touch excited by the noises coming from the government that they may just bomb or sent troops to Sudan.  I've already outlined my own view on the wrongs of such a venture, but I just wanted to recap:

One of the reasons why there are so many refugees and displaced people in Darfur and neighbouring Chad is that the Sudanese government is bombing from a great height. Why should it be any better if 'we' do it? (Yes, yes, yes, our planes are so much more accurate than theirs - that's why thousands were killed in even the relatively limited and brief air campaign against Serbia). Prefer a ground invasion? That'll be even more dead bodies, thank you! Tank shells and village to village combat won't make Darfur a liveable place for refugees and victims currently frightened out of their lives. There are other consequences too. Western intervention, particularly into Muslim countries, has tended to inflate support for radical Islamist forces and therefore places 'us' in greater danger.

There are preferable courses of action, and silence is absolutely not an option. Here is one reason why :

"Five to six men would rape us, one after the other, for hours during six days, every night. My husband could not forgive me after this, he disowned me." (Sudanese refugee woman being interviewed by Amnesty International)

Now, the UK has enormous leverage in this situation as does the US. Until recently, with pressure coming from NGOs, the governments of these two countries have been extremely reluctant even to use such leverage and apply any serious pressure at all. Yes, they want the situation stabilised so that the Greater Nile Oil Project is not endangered. But the press coverage and public pressure has produced a change in the tone of government rhetoric. From congratulating the Sudanese government for signing a deal with rebels, it is now accusing it of being "in denial" about what is being done by the janjawids - although it does not accuse the Sudanese regime of complicity with what is now being incorrectly labelled "genocide".

At the same time, the Sudanese government has offered to withdraw from Darfur if the UK think they can stabilise the area - but have warned that Britain could face "another Iraq" if they do go in. And the signals from Blair suggest to me that Britain is not really ready to commit troops to Sudan. Firstly, because Blair distanced himself from reports suggesting he was going to send troops in, saying they were "premature" and secondly because he said that there was no point in intervening unless he had clear support in the region - which is quite different from what was said about Iraq.

The truth is, although liberal imperialists may kid themselves otherwise, British foreign policy-makers consider the Sudanese government a friendly regime. Such troops as did enter Darfur would probably side against the rebels, and would face attacks (especially if the rebels saw them as proxies of Khartoum). One needn't look as far afield as Iraq, simply take a look at what happened in Somalia. Troops are not very good at "keeping the peace" - they are trained to kill. So my estimation is that a) there will be no military intervention and b) that is probably for the better.

I suggest, instead of war, genuine humanitarian intervention. As I put it before:

Therefore, if we wanted to pressure our government into acting in moral ways, we should take the Hippocratic oath. First, do no harm. Second, do the precise maximum that you can to ameliorate the situation. A few simple enough recommendations for a hypothetically moral British government. 'We' should immediately dispatch tonnes of food and medicine to those regions in need of it, negotiate full and uninhibited access for those who would provide it, provide funds for returning refugees who need to rebuild their homes, and refuse to allow any trade, or privileges to Sudan if it continues to abuse its citizens. British based companies should be told to extricate themselves from any involvement in Sudan as long as the regime continues its present course. We should provide expertise and aid on water. Locals should coordinate these activities themselves, insofar as they are not involved in human rights abuses. That would have an enormous, beneficial impact on the situation in Darfur, it would cost a fraction of what the Iraq war cost, and guess what - no violence is required.

I said before that this is not a repeat of Rwanda. It is a needful situation, but it is not genocide. Humanitarian aid, the presence of monitors not allied to a specific government and more sustained pressure on the Khartoum regime to put an end to the actions of the janjawid militias would be a sufficient start for an 'ethical foreign policy'.

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Fahrenheit 9/11 Frightens Republicans posted by Richard Seymour

Looks like Michael Moore is kicking some psachyderm arse :

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Republicans initially dismissed "Fahrenheit 9/11" as a cinematic screed that would play mostly to inveterate Bush bashers. Four weeks and $94 million later, the film is still pulling in moviegoers at 2,000 theaters around the country, making Republicans nervous as it settles into the American mainstream.
"I'm not sure if it moves voters," GOP consultant Scott Reed said, "but if it moves 3 or 4 percent it's been a success."

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More "Honest Marxists". posted by Richard Seymour

Dead Men Left had an article the other week about Nick Cohen's beloved AWL.  I try to steer clear of all that banter on the Tomb, but one egregious bit of deception printed in the Weekly Worker , a publication of the CPGB, and repeated on Harry's Place ought to be addressed.

The following quote appears to be attributed to Antoine Boulange at a meeting on "Islam, Socialism and Secularism" at Marxism 2004:

"Socialists must keep their distance from secularism. Secularism is considered progressive, but it is not. The consequence of secularism is that muslim schools cannot be built. That is what secularism is all about."
The paper then asserts that "Wild applause followed this particular strange contribution from a young member of the SWP’s section in France."

The trouble with making assertions based on hastily scribbled notes and wishful thinking is that Marxism meetings are taped. I have listened to the tape of that meeting four times, and paid particular attention for this statement. Neither Boulange, nor any of the speakers from the platform or the floor made this statement. Nor was any wild applause directed at any such claim.

The WW also confects a quote from Esme Choonara, not repeated in Harry's Place:

"I do not accept that there is such a thing as islamic fundamentalism. Islam is not our enemy."

Now, the latter sentence resembles something Choonara said, but the former is pure invention. In fact, while Choonara noted objections to the language (because the term is a convenient cover for racists), she specifically referred to fundamentalists, particularly those who refused to march with the StWC at the February 15th 2003 demonstration, because they did not believe that Muslims and socialists should march together.

So not only have two quotes apparently been pulled from a black hole, they actually run counter to the tone and timbre of the debate. How could this be?

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Jeremy Seabrook on Islamophobia posted by Richard Seymour

The Respectable Racism

Jeremy Seabrook has an excellent article in today's Guardian, which I strongly commend to liberals and certain Marxists who have taken a profound atheistic turn these days:

The Islamophobia embraced by the BNP as a surrogate for its formally disavowed racism is by no means confined to the wasted landscapes of former working-class communities. It is deeply rooted and widespread, as was revealed by the success of Ukip (just listen to Robert Kilroy-Silk assert that "Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery").

Indeed, Islamophobia is the only form of prejudice to which the middle class can readily admit: a religion which is perceived as advocating repression of women and hatred of gays renders acceptable forms of prejudice that would be unthinkable if directed against any other social group.

Officially, all right-thinking people have forsworn racism, now believed to fester principally among the no-hopers on rough estates. But Islamophobia is the half-open door through which it makes its triumphal re-entry into respectable society. In recent articles in the Sunday Telegraph, Will Cummins has urged the Conservative party to espouse a more aggressive stand against Islam. "Do the Tories not sense the enormous popular groundswell against Islam? Charges of 'racism' would inevitably be made, but they would never stick. It is the black heart of Islam, not the black face, to which millions object."

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Mary Kenny's Right to Life. posted by Richard Seymour

Why The Easter Bunny Needs State-Sponsored Murder

Mary Kenny is the sort of fatuous, pious wench I would normally never read unless forced to do so in the manner of Alex in Clockwork Orange. But she's in The Guardian today, rattling a few liberal cages on the matter of the death penalty. The title of her article does not say "Let's Kill Kiddie Murderers", but that would have been preferrable to the chosen title, which is: "Death is the right price" . The notion of a price involves an exchange of equivalents, parity, equity - even justice. Unfortunately, even her 8 paragraphs of tortuous, enervating prose actually puts to rest that notion immediately.

This is not only because two bodies are not necessarily equal, or even because many murderers have more than one corpse under their belt. It is because the notion of an equal exchange involves two parties ending with more or less the same value as they began with - and that is not what is entailed by the death penalty. Here is Kenny:

Capital punishment is despised by many, and those who defend it are condemned as barbarians, but how else can we express, symbolically and metaphorically, as well as materially, the notion that it is a very great evil to brutally extinguish the lives of two 27-year-old sisters?
I am not sure, as things are, that people do always understand, any longer, just how terrible a deed such a murder is. It seems to me a lot of people never did get the point of Soham - I have even heard the public grief expressed over these deaths described as "moral panic".

Got that? If you thought there was something disproprotionate about the national grief expressed over the deaths of two little girls (while other, similiar, deaths remain outside public discourse) you just don't understand how terrible a deed such as murder is. Kenny's chide continues:

The point is not sufficiently taken that a killer is not only extinguishing a life - twin lives, here, which have also been linked with another double murder of an elderly couple - but the future of a family: the promise of continuity, happiness and fulfilment and, in the natural order of things, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I'm not sure I like that "natural order of things" since it precludes the possibility of no grandchildren due to one's lifestyle choice or sexuality. But you get the point - we just don't feel the weight of such murders any more. Again, Kenny deduces this by virtue of the fact that some people thought that other murders going on in the world were perhaps as important if not sometimes more so.

Kenny strikes a little truth in her next:

The role of the death penalty is not, inherently, its deterrent aspect: that has never been proved. Its more powerful role is its message. Here is something awesome, which dramatises and amplifies the idea that in some particularly heinous murders, only the forfeit of the killer's own life can pay the tariff for the crime.

I have often suspected that the role of punishment in most societies had more to do with satiating the deep vindictiveness of human beings rather than making the society more liveable, and Kenny makes this acutely apparent. But think about what is being suggested here - we are to collectively assume responsibility for killing in order to satisfy a symbolic "tariff", which has nothing to do with the well-being of victims or their families, or even of preventing such crimes from happening again. We are being asked to fulfill a spiritual mandate. What Kenny is calling for is human sacrafice.

Consider her brisk, and glib summary of the objections to the death penalty:

Yes, there are many good objections to capital punishment: that it is unacceptable for the state to take life (though the state does take life, and sometimes quite lightly, in war, as we have recently seen). And - more compellingly - that a mistake can be made, and an innocent person executed. In the last two most celebrated cases of the 1950s, that of the teenager Derek Bentley, hanged in 1953, and of Ruth Ellis, hanged in 1955, both were verdicts later judged too harsh. In a review of the Bentley case 50 years later, the judge, Lord Goddard, was described as "frankly prejudiced": Bentley had a mental age of 11. Ellis, as was widely argued at the time, would have walked free from a continental court, on the plea that hers was crime of passion. These cases were extremely influential in the campaigns for abolition, and understandably so: there was too much public disquiet about them. In both cases, the home secretary should have commuted the penalty to a custodial sentence.

Unfortunately, home secretaries often made such decisions on political grounds, rather than weighing the merits objectively. When I was researching the life of Lord Haw-Haw, William Joyce, I asked the late Roy Jenkins why the home secretary in 1945, James Chuter Ede, had not commuted the Joyce verdict, since it was even then controversial. Lord Jenkins told me that politicians often made such decisions according to whether they wanted to look tough and strong, or generous and liberal. That is, their own image was often more germane to the decision than objective justice. (There was also a draconian civil servant at the Home Office, Sir Frank Newsome, who cropped up in the Joyce and Ellis cases, guiding the minister not to show any weakness.)

Thus the case for the death penalty was weakened by bad judges and self-serving politicians. Individuals were executed who should not have been.

Mark that first twist of logic - the state's involvement in mass killing abroad is sufficient to allow some involvement in a light sprinkling of killing at home. But Kenny discusses the objections as if their sole relevance was that a few people made bad judgments at the time. But human justice is fallible (unlike God's), and it is just possible that innocent people could be put to death, simply by mistake. Misunderstanding of evidence, eagerness to get a verdict, the desire for swift justice... there are many, many failings that human beings are heir to. Kenny continues:

But there is a case, I still believe, for the death penalty: very conservatively exercised, very seldom used, and even, if you like, usually rescinded, at the steps of the gallows itself...

As Christopher Hitchens once noted:

"Lesson one in the application of the death penalty ... is that the more you impose it, the more you are obliged to impose it."

Hence Ricky Ray Rector - once the genie is out of the bottle, it is all too easy for obese, opportunistic politicians to make three wishes in the hope of getting elected. That is especially so if you use the death penalty as a kind of spiritual tax; if you today kill Ian Huntley, there are many human beings awaiting secret trials without jury and who have no idea what the charges are against them who will be in the gas chamber tomorrow. After all, who would support the death penalty for the Soham murderer and yet refuse it for a bunch of terrorists? Similarly, if the death penalty had still been in existence at the time of the Birmingham bombing, six innocent Irish men and women would have been put to death. We would probably not today know of police coercion, brutality, forced confessions and rigged trials. Because that is the trouble with a dead person - that person, innocent or not, can never fight to clear his or her name. Kenny concludes:

Yet the very existence of those gallows underlines an idea we must not allow to become "banalised": that murder, deliberately carried out, is a heinous crime.


There is also a spiritual case against capital punishment: Lord Longford befriended Myra Hindley right until the end, because he maintained "everyone can be redeemed". And yet perhaps a person might redeem his soul better by paying with his life for the life or lives he brutally extinguished - and, where the young are concerned, the futures he destroyed - in a ceremony that is terrifying in its symbolic power: that walk to the execution chamber.

This terrible, ominous fetishism is the nec plus ultra of religious fanaticism. It would almost be better to allow mob justice and lynchings than have the death penalty sanctified by the "symbolic power" of "that walk to the execution chamber". I don't much care what happens to anyone's soul, but I am interested in what kind of society we become. There are, possible, exceptional circumstances where the state might have to kill - but it should remain outside the law, precisely in order to retain the guilt and stigma about such wicked acts, not erected in law and public view as a "terrifying" testament to our austere morality.

Still, as Bill Hicks once argued, you can understand Christians supporting the death penalty, even if there is no footnote to "Thou Shalt Not Kill" - after all, "if it wasn't for the death penalty, there'd be no Easter. And that's a three day week-end where I come from, so fuck it! Let's fry these people up!"

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Thursday, July 22, 2004

Cops and Robbers. posted by Richard Seymour

Deeply concerned with the sumptuary proclivities of the British working class, the media has undertaken a campaign to bore us all into getting drunk.  How?  Endless, wall-to-wall stories about Binge Britain, drunken rage, youths vomiting on the street, policemen condescending pissed members of the public...  On top of this, guns and knives seem to be a real pull for newspapers, especially if it happens to be connected in some way to Yardies or asylum seekers.  The merest hint of a Muslim connection might also come in handy if the paper in question wanted to do a splash headline like "Al Qaeda Chief Claims Asylum, Benefits, and Kills Granny".

And since the government have been working to stoke all this shit up in what must be another of the Prime Minister's headline grabbing "initiatives" , I was planning on digging up all the dreary old facts which reveal the government's fervent crusades as the ineffectual, incoherent drivel that they have always been. Don't have to, though. The Independent has already done that for me. To summarise, since 1995 crime has dropped by 39%. Most of the drop is in property-related crime (burglaries, car theft etc), but there has also been a reported decline in muggings and other forms of violent crime. Now, the trouble with the Independent's article is that it relies on the British Crime Survey (henceforth, BCS). This has typically been regarded as being more reliable than recorded crime statistics, but there are some problems with it.

For one thing, it doesn't deal with murder - because its surveys are based on face to face interview, and you can't interview a dead guy without a ouija board. For another, it does not interview anyone below the age of 16 (common practise in surveys, opinion polls etc). Since there has been a large shift in violent crime toward young people (beating each other up, nicking mobile phones), this means that their statistics are wanting in that single area. Now, the recorded rate of violent crime has gone up year on year since 1991. This is not due to any particular change in the number of policemen on the beat (oddly, even David Davis was acknowledging this today), or to any alterations in punishment schemes. Britain did not become a more "permissive" society during the 1990s, certainly not as far as crime is concerned.

Every reputable study suggests that there is no established empirical connection between the number of policemen on the beat and crime levels. In Britain, for example, the number of policemen sharply rose during the Eighties, and crime rose coterminously. In the Nineties, crime dropped while police numbers dropped at the same time. If one were to infer an empirical connection from these statistics, one would have to conclude that the police are a bloody jinx. They are not, however - they just have no discernible impact on crime rates. It's just a populist measure that politicians can undertake without costing themselves too much in extra taxation. Looks good, makes no difference whatsoever. What does make a difference is targeted, sensible policies which undermine the causes of, and opportunities for, crime. For example, the continued decline in unemployment (however over-stated that may be) has undoubtedly been a key factor in reducing the level of economic crime. The trouble is, when recession hits it will flare up again. So, the first thing that is needed is a vigorous strategy for pursuing full employment and eliminating poverty. The government, accepting the monetarist orthodoxy that there is a natural rate of unemployment which one can only affect through certain supply-side measures aimed at boosting skills, does not have the intellectual resources or the moral courage to tackle this problem. Brown's back-handed, and relatively slight, boosts to low income families are insufficient to cope with this problem (although it has had the wonderful statistical effect of pushing a million kids from just below the poverty line to just above it). In the short run, a genuine social-democratic government could increase taxes on profits, investment and higher incomes, while reducing taxes on lower incomes. More money could be channeled into social benefits and pensions; the government could pledge to introduce a 35 hour working week to relieve an over-worked labour force and maximise employment opportunities for those on the dole; and where businesses fail local communities (by cutting and running when the market turns against them) the government could nationalise the business and keep people in employment. Those measures in themselves would be far from revolutionary, and yet would do a great deal more to reduce crime than any of the government's synthetic recycling of tough-sounding policies.

As for violent crime - since the bulk of the increase is due to the mass availability of mobile phones to young people, supposing they have the cash, and the even bigger demand for them, I suggest certain measures be taken to make it less easy to steal the fuckers. According to the Metropolitan Police, "As many as 10,000 mobile phones are stolen every month. Two thirds of the victims are aged between 13 and 16." 28% of all robberies in 200-01 were mobile phone thefts. The only way to reduce this is to make stolen phone useless. There is a national database being set up to help block phones which have been stolen, and if your mobile gets nicked you can now have it immobilised . And while I'm on the topic of crimes committed by the young on the young, it is worth noting that most young criminals are dabblers and not persistent offenders. They "commit just a few offences and then desist". There are only a small number of young repeat offenders, and most of this can be reduced by reducing motives and opportunities for crime (tackling poverty, making school a place worth going to, funding local amenities). I do not believe that locking up young people in secure units does anything but introduce petty criminals to potentially major criminals - it makes little bastards worse.

Finally, I come to other kinds of violent crime. Sex crimes are apparently down, which is lucky because I have no idea what can be done about this sort of thing, besides tagging rapists cocks. With bricks. There are obvious things you can do about paedophiles, such as not placing them in houses next to schools, and replacing funding for monitoring programmes which were able to reduce re-offending rates to 3%. Murder remains relatively low in the UK, and very little of it is carried out by strangers. The only way to curtail any rise in the murder rate is to keep a tight lid on the implements of slaughter - guns, machetes etc. Domestic violence is often concurrent with child abuse, because violent men hit both wives and kids. It is disproportionately younger women who suffer domestic violence. In this instance, it is only the combined action of a criminal justice system and a welfare system dedicated to tackling the problem seriously that can reduce the problem. Precedence is a good guide, since most people who abuse their wives and kids once go on to repeat the offense. Banning smacking would also be a good step. Finally, there is the marked rise in racially motivated violence. One thing the government could do to stop the rise in racism is to stop participating in it. Every inflammatory statement from that berk, Blunkett, validates another aspect of the BNP's propaganda - Nick Griffin boasted about this to The Guardian. There must be efforts to challenge racism within the police, as well as in local areas. In that regard, the actions of civil society - political parties, the Anti-Nazi League and United Against Fascism - are of far greater import than those of the government.

Remember when you feel yourself sink under the crime wave that the government are pretty useless and the police are almost never there to help.

(Note from the Fringe: Someone is accessing my site now from Cardiff University. Psychology department if I'm not mistaken. I also appear to have a visitor from France, and someone visiting my site from parliament via 4 Glengate. This power is going straight to my underpants.)

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Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Should Blair Resign? posted by Richard Seymour

I'd like to make a suggestion to contribute to the solution of a growing problem in the political class of this country.  That problem is trust.  The Guardian yesterday carried a report suggesting that Blair was widely distrusted by the electorate, and that most voters believe he lied over Iraq.

The poll also showed that voters now want Blair to quit his job earlier, while more people want him to resign immediately. In fact, there has been much speculation about whether the Prime Minister will vacate his office any time soon. Much of it has been froth, febrile spin and desperate headline-grabbing.

The trouble is, even if he does resign, it just won't be enough. I find the notion of him subsiding into semi-retirement, doing a few corporate speeches and then penning some awful, self-serving book full of platitudes and verbless drivel loathsome enough to make me vomit my own balls. Look, since the Prime Minister has suggested that he is ready to meet his maker over Iraq, wouldn't now be a good time for him to take that leap?

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