Thursday, September 30, 2004

Blair on hostage-takers. posted by Richard Seymour

This is too easy. Here is the Prime Minister on the principle behind hostage-taking and negotiations:

"If you take a situation here in this country, if a hostage is taken and the police turn up, they will talk to the people who are holding the hostage.

"They are not going to give in to the hostage takers' demands, that's a different matter all together, that would be completely wrong."
Give in, they may not. Negotiate they do, to minimise loss of life. As Leroy Thompson, an author on such matters relates :

"The good negotiator is absolutely essential in dealing with virtually any hostage incident.

"He or she may be able to defuse the situation and talk the hostage-takers out without violence."
Follow my logic here:

1) The Prime Minister and government spokespeople said initially that they do not negotiate with terrorists. Except when they do.

2) They then tried saying that actually what they meant was they don't negotiate with hostage-takers (almost exactly the shift Straw made on the news this morning).

3) Now that communication is being made with this group, Blair has acknowledged that you can "talk" to terrorists. Fine. He gives as his example the way the police handle hostage crises in this country. Anyone with half an education knows that the police do not say "well, it's all in the hostage takers' hands, and I'd like to commend the dignity of the family..."

Negotiation doesn't involve "giving in", but it does avoid the stupid posturing of weak and nasty politicians, desperate to look tough. For a lawyer, the Prime Minister is pretty fucking shit at selecting his sophisms.

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In General Terms. posted by Richard Seymour

The Guardian ran an article yesterday written by Charles Arthur on the situation in Haiti. The article drew some attention from those who watch Haiti, particularly because it contained a glaring and apparently malicious inaccuracy. It referred to the deposed Aristide as a "General" when he has never been a general and fought all his life against the Haitian army.

Well, apparently word got to him, because the author has reacted with fury. The word "General" is not his, but was apparently added by sub-editors. Further, several passages were chopped from the original article. He has written to John Vidal of The Guardian who apparently solicited the piece:

Dear John,
Re: yesterday's 'Squalid excuses' article on Haiti

I can live with the fact that the two paragraphs about the peasants' own proposals to solve the rural sector's problems were deleted. Even though this part was, for me, crucial because I do not believe Haiti's problems will be solved merely by a better allocation of international aid, I understand that the sub-editor was under instructions to cut the text, and the importance of the existence of a grassroots response escaped him/her.

But I cannot forgive the decision to insert the description 'General' in front of the name, Aristide. He was not a general, was never in the Army, and in fact spent most of his career struggling against the Army which has done so
much to impede democracy in Haiti. In 1995 he even demobilised the entire Army!

This ridiculous titling of Aristide as a 'General' makes me look like a fool!

Please admonish the sub-editor and print a prominent correction.

Thank you,

Charles Arthur

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The Last Straw. posted by Richard Seymour

Here is Jack Straw's latest hallucinatory bit of sophistry, as announced at the Labour conference today :

"There is no occupation. The US, the UK and other countries' forces can only be in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government. It is their call. If they ask us to leave, we leave."

Does anyone remember who installed the "Iraqi government"? If so, please forward the answer to Jack Straw, preferrably on the end of a speeding bullet. No, I didn't say what I just said. Forget that. Think of fluffy clouds and pink sheep. All is calm. And there is no occupation.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Socialism and Religion: shut up and give me my opium. posted by Richard Seymour

Bruthas and sistas, we are gathered here tonight to remember that religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

That said, let us shoot up. While we are enjoying our alienated bliss, let's have a track of Lenin in the background:

Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.

That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in our Program; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating themselves with our Party. We shall always preach the scientific world-outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various "Christians". But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development.

Everywhere the reactionary bourgeoisie has concerned itself, and is now beginning to concern itself in Russia, with the fomenting of religious strife -- in order thereby to divert the attention of the masses from the really important and fundamental economic and political problems, now being solved in practice by the all-Russian proletariat uniting in revolutionary struggle. This reactionary policy of splitting up the proletarian forces, which today manifests itself mainly in Black-Hundred pogroms, may tomorrow conceive some more subtle forms. We, at any rate, shall oppose it by calmly, consistently and patiently preaching proletarian solidarity and the scientific world-outlook -- a preaching alien to any stirring up of secondary differences.

The revolutionary proletariat will succeed in making religion a really private affair, so far as the state is concerned. And in this political system, cleansed of medieval mildew, the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.

You can talk to me about social justice and fighting the revolution, but don't dare take my opium away because I'll fuck you up. And if you didn't understand what I just said, let me put it in saner terms. It is never particularly persuasive to address believers as if they are idiots in need of education. It is not even that important to persuade them. If they want to fight for the things that we socialists fight for, then let them chill with Allah, Yahweh or Ahura Mahzda, the Wise Lord. The oppressed still need socialism whether they are god-botherers or not.

This has been a party political broadcast for the Respect Coalition .

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Never trust a hippy. posted by Richard Seymour

Slavoj Zizek is given to extemporising on the way in which cultural diversity, difference, even rebellion is already inscribed into the global capitalist order. He gives as his main example the fate of Hindus in India who discovered that McDonalds were frying their chips in cow fat. There were huge protests, an enormous uproar, and McDonalds quickly allowed their fries and palm oil to be tested and proved that they did not use animal fat in India. They admitted to using it in the States, where the noble bovine is held in less regard, but they rejected the ruling BJP's accusations that they had used it in India.

Thenceforth, the Hindus happily went back to munching the fries.

It is precisely this sort of insistence on cultural difference and diversity that capitalism thrives on. It creates new markets, and doesn't really threaten the coordinates in which capital reproduces itself. There is a market for everything. There is a market for pet psychologists, riverdancing, shit fetish videos, nipple rings, coffin beds, Che Guevara t-shirts. And is anyone surprised that a multinational corporation can adapt to a market that only demands that chips are fried in vegetable oil?

Now, a new book has come out to challenge what is (unfairly) called the Naomi Klein camp:

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter -- full-time academics and part-time writers -- seek to shake up the complacent left. For too long, too many have confused a lifestyle of, say, organic foods and regular spiritual retreats to India with actually making a difference in, say, the giant gap between rich and poor. "Counterculture has almost completely replaced socialism as the basis of radical political thought," they write. "So if counterculture is a myth, then it is one that has misled an enormous number of people, with untold political consequences." The main problem the writers have with what they call "the counterculture" is that "the hipster, cooling his heels in a jazz club, comes to be seen as a more profound critic of modern society than the civil-rights activist . . . or the feminist politician campaigning for a constitutional amendment."


Pretend rebellion energizes capitalism, which depends on the notion of counterculture to peddle new styles to the many who seek a veneer of cool as they go about their quotidian lives.
Back to the McDonalds case. Is it not the perfect example of local culture defending itself from the "monoculture" of capitalism? And yet, it was stirred up in part by a ruling government that was at least as pro-market as it was racist. The conventional wisdom has been that when Indians cast votes, they vote castes. Well, not last time round, but its coming to something when the collusion between elitism and populism means that the government can tell you what to protest about. Ersatz rebellion is not merely inadequate, but also an abrogation of the duty to engage in the total situation that we are in. Clinging to cultural specificities can be a source of strength when you are under attack precisely on account of what you are (Jew, Muslim, herbivore), but when your cause is championed by the government and McDonalds can affirm that they accept your unique cultural claim, then you aren't really challenging oppression. You're blowing in the wind.

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"It's quite difficult to sort them out". posted by Richard Seymour

BBC Radio 4's Today programme aired an interview with Sir David Gore Booth, a prominent British ambassador, today at 7.44 am. The interview, conducted by James Naughtie, produced the following splendid racist idiocy from the mind and mouth of Sir Gore Booth on the topic of Jack Straw's hand-shake with Robert Mugabe:

"There are a lot of people and quite a lot of them are black and it's quite difficult to sort them out"
Apparently, they all look the same.

Listen here .

Suffice to say, the presenter didn't challenge him in the slightest.

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Sunday, September 26, 2004

Sorry Blair? No, we're sorry... posted by Richard Seymour

According to The Observer, "Sorrowful Blair urges unity in face of Iraq terror threat" . We'll discuss that later, but what's this?

In his first public comments since the harrowing tape was broadcast of Bigley pleading for the Prime Minister to save him, Blair warned of the kidnappers' ability to 'manipulate the modern media', which he admitted left politicians in a difficult position.

Motherfucker, that's not an admission that's an excuse! You admit to something that's your fault, not to something someone else does to you. Still, Blair is in a difficult position, and we had better not forget his story amid all this sympathy for that - what's his name? - Bigley fellow.

'I feel immensely sorry for his family as well as for him,' Blair said. 'His family I think have been extraordinarily stoical and very dignified throughout.' As for the impact on himself, he said colleagues were rallying round: 'I've just had John Prescott on the phone saying, "It must be tough for you, and how's the family?"'

Look, can I just make an appeal to the Bigley family? When you're done being stoical and dignified about the likely slaughter of your own, can you just give the Prime Minister a call? Apparently, he's feeling bad about posturing and refusing to try to help Kenneth, and now that the MCB has stepped up to do what he couldn't and he's been obliged to support it, he feels a bit fucking stupid.

Blair called on those divided over the war to rally behind a fresh battle for the control of Iraq: 'I can understand why people still have a powerful disagreement about the original decision to go to war. But whatever that disagreement, surely it is absolutely clear we have to stay and see it through. Because the consequence of not doing so is that global terrorism will get a tremendous boost.'

Look, international terrorism has reached a 21 year high . If your strategy was working, the trend would be in the other direction, you idle-minded motherfucker. Ah, but! Blair has an answer for this:

Asked if the war on terrorism had really delivered a safer world, Blair suggested things were often darkest before dawn: 'There was more bloodshed in 1941 than in 1938.' The intensity of the insurgency showed, he said, how much was at stake.

Genius. This would, of course, be a totally bogus answer if and only if the 'war on terror' was nothing like World War Two. And if it were bogus, it would at least have the virtue of being a single, transferrable excuse for every year that the number of terrorist actions increased. Still, why should that be a surprise? Our ruling class relies on our forgetfulness and ignorance, but I remember the government propping up state terror in East Timor, giving the Indonesian dictatorship weapons to kill dissidents and bomb cities. I remember them contributing to Turkey's murder of Kurds in the south of the country, sending mercenaries into Sierra Leone to prop up the government. I see they're still sending money to the Colombian government and covering up for them in the press, still smoothing over the rough edges of Putin's murder of so many Chechens that a generation of babies is growing up missing a father, a limb, an eye, raised by a mother tired of being raped by Russian troops. I see they have a murderer named Negroponte making all the real decisions in Iraq. And no, they didn't video beheadings in El Salvador or Nicaragua when he was running things there, they just fucking raped, murdered, then burned the bodies by the roadside. They didn't stop at cutting heads off either. They sliced tits off, cut throats and pulled the tongues out.

If I had a video link showing this, I'd post it every time the Prime Minister piously commends the mission in Iraq, every time we hear about "standing firm" against terror, every time Bush reminds us of the struggles of the oppressed. Instead, you can have a look at this: "Aw, dude!" .

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Friday, September 24, 2004

Friday. posted by Richard Seymour

Ordinarily, I spend my Friday nights hi-jacking cop cars, then speeding toward the Thames in them with the windows down and NWA's "Fuck the Police" blasting at top volume until I plunge into the icy underwater graveyard, swim to the surface and clamber out to take a piss in the water.

Tonight, however, I'll just draw your attention to one or two things. First, my favourite academic Mark Kaplan has added another blog to his roster, this one a Critical Dictionary excerpting informative texts to explain apparently difficult concepts in continental philosophy. It's big and clever.

Et Alia , who studies reveal is a schizoid, schizotypal, borderline, dependent obsessive-compulsive, has a fireside chat about John Rawls' Theory of Justice.

Many of my readers will need to consult the Axis of Logic on How to Avoid Becoming an Anti-American .

I myself am busying myself lapping up the encomiums and flattery of Marc Mullholland like a porn star gobbling semen. I hope the process is as good for him as it is for me. In particular:

"Lenin is as clever as Dickens, has excellent attack skills, and sports the finest line in funny profanity to be found on the web. It is my experience that Ulster produces the most able cussers in these islands. Lenin is an ornament of the tradition: his mum must be proud."

It's almost worth coming from that shithole to have something like that written about you.

Finally, you absolutely must buy or steal a copy of Immortal Technique's glorious album, Revolutionary (Volume II). A rapper who dices, peels and slices the Bush administration with incomparable invective and actual learning is one thing. Add to that a hit of revolutionary socialism in the mainline, and you have a class act. Seriously. This guy feels at home talking about Latin American history just as much as he does about Israel, the drug industry, the music business, terrorism etc., and he does it with murderous rhymes full of satiric cuts and verbal bullets aimed at the rich and powerful.

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"It's political correctness gone sad". posted by Richard Seymour

Stockbrokers, shareholders, drug-dealers and dabblers in venality! I give you Vicefund , courtesy of the Bat Cave . Here is how Vicefund advertise themselves to Joe Sixpack:

“It is the Advisor's philosophy that although often considered politically incorrect, these and similar industries and products...will continue to experience significant capital appreciation during good and bad markets. The Advisor considers these industries to be nearly ‘recession-proof.’” - Vice Fund Prospectus, July 30, 2004, page 1, column 2.

People will always want to fuck, hook, rape, torture and kill one another, so as long as this turns a profit and doesn't interfere with our liberties - why the hell not?

In fact, the justifications they offer for investing in various "politically incorrect" industries are straightforward bourgeois opinion. Take this sermon on the merits of investing in defense industries:

Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea. Those should be reason enough to believe in Defense Stocks. Homeland Security and anti-terrorism have become large, profitable industries. So called "Socially Responsible Investors" would claim that you shouldn't own stocks that have anything to do with defense or weapons. That means that all of the Aerospace and Defense Industries are to be avoided. Maybe in a perfect world these industries wouldn't need to exist, but until that perfect world does exist, we want to own these stocks.

But wait, here comes the best bit:

Are these good stocks to own? The new Bush budget calls for increased defense spending, and defense stocks have performed historically well following conflict. As an example, look at any public information on stocks like Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics since the 1970's. You'll see that they outperformed the S&P 500 Index by wide margins over the past 30+ years

Capital moves in mysterious ways.

What I hate most about political-correctness is how it sanctifies the alleged 'transgression' of some banal, uninteresting right-wing view. If someone says to me today, "yeah, women'll always break yer heart, they'll always fuck you up, 'cos they ain't never satisfied", I tend to think - so would I if I had the chance, you scheming little bastard. It isn't their views I find offensive - I'm quite jaded - it is the fact that they think they're breaking some kayfabe, some taboo in expressing such unimaginative, thoughtless drivel. It seems to such thoughtless cretins, so I imagine, that they are upsetting the status quo with their outrageous views - analogous in many ways to how Hitchens believes he is upsetting the 'status quo' by supporting the neoconservatives.

Anyway, since Hitchens stands in revolutionary defense of the tobacco leaf, imperialism and booze, he really ought to consider investing in this this , this and this . I shall take personal offense if he does not. I wouldn't mind bit of a bum-chafing either if he has time on his hands, but...

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Thursday, September 23, 2004

"Terrible Dilemma" posted by Richard Seymour

There are times when one is genuinely in a dilemma, in that one both should and should not do something. This is how the BBC characterises the current hostage situation in Iraq. The government insists that it cannot bargain with terrorists, although it has. The Tory frontbench insist the same, even though they did. In fact, there seems to be no end of imperatives, directives and instructions about what we must never do.

The family of Mr Bigley, by contrast, assert that something can be done, but that any hope of a release has been "sabotaged" by the United States, who seem to have moved to prevent the release of a female prisoner in their custody. They also allege that the Foreign Office instructed them to keep quiet about the kidnapping.

Paul Bigley told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there had been "a shadow of light in a big, long, dark, damp, filthy, cold tunnel" when it appeared Dr Taha would be freed.

"Now this has been sabotaged," he said.

"The fact on the table now is that nobody has to negotiate with anybody about anything," he said.

"All the powers have to do now is allow the Iraqis to conduct their own internal affairs the way they should be doing."

Let a "sovereign" country conduct its own internal affairs? What has this man been ingesting? However, since there seems to be some uncertainty out there as to what can be done, allow me to settle the matter once and for all. There are two choices for the government in the current situation:

1) Try to stop the murder. Open up lines of communication through local religious leaders. It is they who, so I have been told, allow or refuse to allow a particular kidnapping. Make all possible efforts to secure the release of Mr Bigley, up to and including fulfilling what seems to be a rather feeble and cost-free demand.

2) Do nothing. Piously announce what we must never ever do, (except when we do). Sympathise with everyone. Assert your claim to the moral high ground and remind one and all that we may support terrorists (Colombia, for instance), carry out acts of terrorism (Libya, for one), outstrip in bloodiness and carnage any terrorist organisation you can find (take your pick), but we do not bargain with terrorists. Then watch the video of Mr Bigley having his head cut off.

The latter is inevitably the recommendation of those who solemnly tell us that we must not "negotiate with terrorists".

Having witnessed a fraction of the video in which an American hostage is beheaded by Zarqawi (apparently), I can give you a sneak preview. What they will do is read out a death sentence, intone a chant, then set upon the hostage from all sides. They will hold him down while someone with a camera records the proceedings from up close. A masked man will enter the frame, and begin to stab the neck. They don't chop - they saw. They saw away at the neck while flesh and blood spill upon the ground. If you can have sound, you will hear screams that will colour your worst nightmares.

That is, I hope, something the bulk of you would wish our government to make some efforts to stop.

Update: Blood and Treasure sums up the situation nicely:

There’s no evidence that taking either a hard line or a soft line will make any difference to Ken Bigley’s fate or to the level of kidnappings in Iraq generally. So the government are faced with a hcoice between making a good faith attempt to secure his freedom by releasing prisoners set for release anyway, or they can choose to “stand firm” – ie, they can use it as a posturing opportunity.

My guess is that Blair would prefer to see a pile of headless corpses rise to the height of Beachy Head rather than do anything that might lead any newspaper, anywhere to call him weak. That’s the kind of weak man he is.

And The Telegraph has discovered that Iraq is not really that sovereign after all . From the mouths of pea-brains comes wisdom.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2004

A Very, Very Short History of Negotiating with Terrorists. posted by Richard Seymour

Tonight on the BBC, viewers were informed that the government was in an "impossible position" over "negotiating with terrorists". They were informed that governments do not, will not and cannot negotiate with terrorists by figures no less noble than Andrew Marr, Tim Collins MP, Tony Blair, Professor Paul Wilkinson and other experts.

Here, then, is my very, very short history of negotiating with terrorists :

Philippine truck driver Angelo de la Cruz has been freed from captivity in Iraq after Manila complied with a demand to withdraw troops from Iraq.
Militants took Mr de la Cruz captive on 7 July, and threatened to behead him unless their demand was met.

President Gloria Arroyo has risked her strong ties with Washington by withdrawing the tiny Philippine contingent a month early.

Her decision has drawn sharp criticism from the US and its allies.

Mr de la Cruz was handed to the Philippine embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, after being dropped off outside the United Arab Emirates mission in the Iraqi capital.

"I am fine and relaxed. I am extremely happy and I can't say anything more than this," Mr de la Cruz told French news agency AFP.

Mr de la Cruz was held by a group which called itself Islamic Army, Khaled bin al-Waleed corps.

The sickening sanctimony of a government that has contributed to the slaughter of upward of 10,000 people in Iraq refusing to "negotiate with terrorists" as if it would offend their sense of their own purity can hardly be missed. Governments can and do "negotiate with terrorists" all the time. The choice not to is exactly that, and I suspect Mr Blair will be answerable for it in a way that noone will ever be able to hold al-Zarqawi accountable if he beheads another innocent human being.

On slightly worse form, however, was Jon Snow on Channel Four News who, speaking to Mr Bigley's younger brother, suggested in not so roundabout a way that he had really brought it on himself.

Jon Snow: In a way, um, he allowed himself to be where he was...

And finally, President Bush hit the neoconservative g-spot by lecturing the UN on how they could not find safety in "ignoring the struggles and oppression of others". The struggles and oppression of who, Mr President? Colombian peasants and trade unionists? Palestinians? Acehnese? Uzbeks? No - he means the American government.

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Monday, September 20, 2004

My Personality Disorders. posted by Richard Seymour

I have the following levels of personality disorder

Paranoid: Low
Schizoid: Low
Schizotypal: Low
Antisocial: Low
Borderline: Low
Histrionic: High
Narcissistic: Moderate
Avoidant: Low
Dependent: Low
Obsessive-Compulsive: Low

Take the test yourself .

Via Norman Geras, the obsessive-compulsive .

It seems that Sussuration began this meme, and is decidedly unimpressed that it hasn't increased his traffic flow. Here's my contribution .

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Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Battle of Seattle. posted by Richard Seymour

February 1919:

The city now stopped functioning, except for activities organised by the strikers to provide essential needs. Firemen agreed to stay on the job. Laundry workers handled only hospital laundry. Vehicles authorised to move carried signs "Exempted by the General Strike Committee". Thirty-five neighbourhood milk stations were set up. Every day, thirty thousand meals were prepared in large kitchens, then transported to halls all over the city and served cafeteria style, with strikers paying twenty-five cents a meal, the general public thirty-five cents. People were allowed to eat as much as they wanted of the beef stew, spaghetti, bread, and coffee.
A Labor War Veteran's Guard was organised to keep the peace. On the blackboard at one of its headquarters was written: "The purpose of this organisation is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only." During the strike, crime in the city decreased. The commander of the US army detachment sent into the area told the strikers' committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn't seen so quiet and orderly a city. A poem printed in the Seattle Union Record (a daily newspaper put out by labor people) by someone called Anise:

What scares them most is
They are ready
They have machine guns
And soldiers,
Is uncanny.
The business men
Don't understand
That sort of weapon...
It is your SMILE
Their reliance
On Artillery, brother!
It is the garbage wagons
That go along the street
It is the milk stations
That are getting better daily,
And three hundred
WAR Veterans of Labour
Handling the crowds
For these things speak
That they do not feel
At HOME in.


A statement by the mayor of Seattle suggests that the establishment feared not just the strike itself but what it symbolised. He said:

The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact. .... The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere. ... True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn't need violence. [Oh yes it does - lenin]. The general strike, as practised in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community ... That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt - no matter how achieved.
(Howard Zinn, A People's History of America: From 1492 to the Present, 1996, pp 368-71)

The shadow the future casts on the present.

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The Algebra of Human Freedom: A Reply to Norman Geras. posted by Richard Seymour

I promised that I would attempt an evaluation of Norman Geras' recent attempted overthrow of the Marxian non-state utopia. An insider coup attempt, Geras seeks to dispute the idea that the state will "wither away" on the basis of Marxian assumptions. This would seem to make it all the more urgent that I extirpate the heresy - although, as we shall see, I don't think the argument constitutes such a threat to classical Marxist thought on this issue.

Before going into the detail of Geras' argument, I want first to establish what Marxists generally mean by the state, and by its "withering away". And I shall do so, quite naturally, by consulting Lenin's The State and Revolution . Here is Lenin reading Engels:

Summing up his historical analysis, Engels says:

"The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it 'the reality of the ethical idea', 'the image and reality of reason', as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of 'order'; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state." (Pp.177-78, sixth edition)[1]

This expresses with perfect clarity the basic idea of Marxism with regard to the historical role and the meaning of the state. The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.

And again:

Engels gives a general summary of his views in the most popular of his works in the following words:

"The state, then, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies that did without it, that had no idea of the state and state power. At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the split of society into classes, the state became a necessity owing to this split. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production. They will fall as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them the state will inevitably fall. Society, which will reorganize production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into a museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe."

Ignore, if you will, the inevitabilitarian strain in Engels' writing - or at least put it down to wish-fulfillment. What is of particular interest for the purposes of this argument is that the state is conceived rather narrowly, although variously, as an instrument of oppression, or as the embodiment of class conflict, or as an organ alienated from society but accruing to itself the power of that society in order to quell antagonisms in it. The antagonisms are not those of a polyglot society, but are fundamental. They cannot be reconciled at any length, or by any means. Only the decisive victory of the working class can do away with these fundamental antagonisms for good, since the working class is the universal class which has no interest in allowing the persistence of oppression and exploitation and every need for a socially just order.

The kind of antagonisms that Geras is interested in are those of a society in which class has gone the way of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe. They are rooted in differences of value, of desire, of rationality. These antagonisms will not merely be benign, as in Trotsky's vision of different individuals and collectivities competing for this project, that idea etc. As Geras argues, any y- that is proscribed at the behest of a majority may indeed continue to be practised by a small number of people. And, supposing that y- is generally considered abominable, the majority will want to coerce the minority into not doing it. Suppose y- was the sacrafice of virgins by vampire cultists. Clearly, this is not a y- that is rooted in class oppression as such (although you could doubtless trace intricate connections between the leechery of capitalism and the lechery of Dracula-worshippers). Nor is it a y- that most people would want to tolerate. Why not this y-? Because socialists demand the maximum freedom for individuals commensurable with the freedom of all. Murder, knee-capping, ritualistic sexual abuse, robbery - in general, socialists would rather this sort of thing was not allowed.

Many of the responses so far (see the comments box below) have focused on the extent to which this or that aspect of human venality could be done away with or minimised in a post-capitalist state. Attention is rightly drawn to the connection between certain kinds of deviant behaviour and social injustice, economic disadvantage, womens' oppression etc. I certainly agree that by eliminating the factors that contribute to such behaviour, it can be minimised - and perhaps the incidence of murder and rape etc. will dwindle away into such a minimal number as for each instance to be actually shocking. But noone has so far argued that the worst aspects of human behaviour will simply absent themselves. Marxists haven't thought this, or argued for it, and it is completely absent from Engels' or Lenin's conception of the "withering away" of the state.

Evidently, arrangements will have to be made. Coercion will be entailed for both the sane and the apparently insane. Quite how this should work, I leave to your imagination, although I hope noone is chuckling over private visions of vast grey prison complexes surrounded by barbed-wire fences, searchlights and snarling dobermans. But, mark how Engels' conceives of the "withering away" of the state in Anti-Duhring:

As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection, as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon the present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from this struggle, are removed, nothing more remains to be held in subjection — nothing necessitating a special coercive force, a state. The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — is also its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies down of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not 'abolished'. It withers away. This gives the measure of the value of the phrase 'a free people's state', both as to its justifiable use for a long time from an agitational point of view, and as to its ultimate scientific insufficiency; and also of the so-called anarchists' demand that the state be abolished overnight."

The dynamic movement away from state interference in social relations does not, as Geras acknowledges, necessarily imply that there will finally result a harmonious social order in which no coercion is applied. But Geras does believe that the expectation that one can replace coercion in the interests of a dominant class with "the administration of things" involves

an assumption that in the projected utopia everyone will voluntarily accept the rulings and decisions of the authoritative body (or bodies - since what has always been envisaged in the tradition of Marxist utopian thinking was a modern, complex and differentiated, type of society) without that compliance having to be secured through coercion or the threat of punitive sanctions. Hence, on some definitions of what a state is, there would still be a state in a Marxist-style utopia. There would still be a public institutional complex ruling authoritatively on the common affairs of the community. There would be a polity. But it would not be a state in the Marxian sense of a class-coercive body.

He goes on:

Of course, even thus clarified against the presumption of a spontaneous universal harmony (based on a putative uniformity of interests and beliefs), this vision leaves plenty for those who are sceptical towards the idea of a Marxist-style utopia to be sceptical about. If spontaneous general harmony is a very tall order, so will the always peaceable resolution of initial differences, with no need at all for legal compulsion or threat, be seen by many as being more than tall enough when viewed from anywhere humankind has ever previously stood.

And it is precisely the weight of historical evidence, the availability of human beings for involvement in all kinds of venality and horror ranging from petty theft to genocide, that raises Geras' sceptical eyebrow. Do Marxists really suppose that human beings, as we know them, will simply become civilised, peaceful democrats without any propensity for malice, pettiness, gross indifference? From the above - no, we don't.

Yet, from Lenin :

So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.

To which the response is "freedom to what?" We have already suggested that freedom to y- is right out. We aren't having any of that. I might add that freedom to a-, b- and c- is also a non-starter since, in this instance, they signify a) setting up a capitalist enterprise, b) forming a paramilitary organisation dedicated to promulgating facism and c) selling children into domestic slavery. Fortunately, people are still free to f-, perhaps even more often and with more p-ing. Indeed, such unfreedom is precisely part of the freedom envisaged by socialists, because I am only free insofar as I don't impinge on your freedom.

Does this necessitate a kind of coercion or not? Geras thinks that it does, and further suggests that Marxists who believe otherwise are evading something about human nature:

Marxism has drawn attention to the impulses there are within human beings to seize advantage over others and enjoy such advantage, and to a readiness to defend it brutally when it is challenged. Marxism has drawn attention, as well, to the mental skills humans are able to develop for disguising from themselves, in ways helpful to their own interests, facts about the lives and needs and sufferings of others that might be inconvenient to their own peace of mind. Marxists, in sum, are in as good a position as anyone to be familiar with the more negative characteristics and potentialities in the make-up of human beings.

At the same time, in so far as Marxists have tended to treat a future utopia as somehow beyond all these negative traits, the weight and significance of the latter as at least partly human-natural - partly due, that is, to inherent features of the human species - have generally been minimized, and sometimes even denied. They have been treated as if the social and political conditions which facilitate or encourage the expression of the negative human traits just wholly produced them; produced them, as it were, out of nothing.

This bears on an argument that Geras has made elsewhere in an essay entitled "Socialist Hope in the Shadow of Catastrophe", included in his book The Contract of Mutual Indifference. It is simply that, although human beings are conditioned by social circumstances into behaving in atrocious ways, those circumstances must have something to operate on. There must be a propensity - no more - in human beings for this kind of behaviour, otherwise it would not be so ubiquitous. Further, as long as this is the case, human beings can be expected to manifest these propensities even where there are no institutional enablements if there are no institutional constraints.

That syllogism is undone if you happen to subscribe to a different view of human nature, or even to the view that the born human is a blank slate. For my part, I think that there is no human nature that isn't human biology - and there is nothing inherently regressive or progressive in the fact that we are of material substance, have a freak ability to communicate by producing morphemes have certain needs, desires and capacities. We can be angels or devils without, it seems, a drastic re-working of our psychological wires: hence, Weimar Germany into Auschwitz. Human beings are quite as flexible in our propensities as we are in our desires.

But there is no need to delay ourselves too long in such matters, and not much point either - we don't know anywhere near enough to make judgements that are other than provisional. Suffice to say that it is conceivable (not inevitable), so long as you don't think human beings are essentially benign, that people will attempt to do y-, and perhaps also a-, b- and c-.

I noted, above, that even Lenin's most wildly anarchist fantasy excluded a great deal of human behaviour which is now particularly common. Indeed, he reaches for a new kind of person in the construction of the Higher Phase of Communism:

From the bourgeois point of view, it is easy to declare that such a social order is "sheer utopia" and to sneer at the socialists for promising everyone the right to receive from society, without any control over the labor of the individual citizen, any quantity of truffles, cars, pianos, etc. Even to this day, most bourgeois "savants" confine themselves to sneering in this way, thereby betraying both their ignorance and their selfish defence of capitalism.

Ignorance--for it has never entered the head of any socialist to "promise" that the higher phase of the development of communism will arrive; as for the greatest socialists' forecast that it will arrive, it presupposes not the present ordinary run of people, who, like the seminary students in Pomyalovsky's stories,[2] are capable of damaging the stocks of public wealth "just for fun", and of demanding the impossible.

But I think Geras' mistake is in imagining that the "stateless utopia" simply involves no coercion. In fact, the very grounding of that society is an unspoken coercion, as Lenin himself advertises it:

For when all have learned to administer and actually to independently administer social production, independently keep accounts and exercise control over the parasites, the sons of the wealthy, the swindlers and other "guardians of capitalist traditions", the escape from this popular accounting and control will inevitably become so incredibly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such swift and severe punishment (for the armed workers are practical men and not sentimental intellectuals, and they scarcely allow anyone to trifle with them), that the necessity of observing the simple, fundamental rules of the community will very soon become a habit.

Then the door will be thrown wide open for the transition from the first phase of communist society to its higher phase, and with it to the complete withering away of the state.

This is crucial. Coercion is precisely what is entailed, in fact, by freedom. It is entailed by direct democracy itself, which is not merely the natural way in which human beings may exert control over their own lives, but is also the way that the common abuses of exploitation and oppression are to be overcome by day to day coercion. It is in the democratisation of coercion that Marxists have traditionally seen the "withering away" of the state. And here, I would guard this suggestion by adding that just as setting up a capitalist enterprise would be excluded from the many things that a democratic body might decide to get up to, so would even worse things such as ethnic cleansing, racial oppression, laws banning homosexuals from pubs etc.

Geras at one point suggests that I may be free to do something, and that this freedom is preserved in the confidence that I will not do it. Say, it is generally agreed that we mustn't y- and, although there isn't a law against it, I choose to comply with this agreed and approved but not enforced proscription. I could therefore be said to be free to y-, because there is no penalty against it. This is an abstraction. I am not free to do anything if the condition of my freedom is the certainty that I won't do it because, as soon as I fail those expectations and attempt to y- I will discover that I am actually unfree to do it.

As long as we persist in complex societies with even more complex technologies available to us, human beings will need to regulate our dealings with each other. We will need to assert rights, negotiate and proscribe. It seems sensible to assume that, for a while at any rate, this will involve the persistence of bodies whose role is to prevent or penalise certain kinds of behaviour. But they will be democratised, subjected to society and not superimposed on it; and, as we democratise more and more areas of life, bringing them under collective rational control, we can hope to dispense with just those aspects of law. Here is Alex Callinicos on this theme:

Lenin explicitly rejects the idea that the withering away of the state under communism is equivalent to "the advent of a system of society in which the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed". Marx draws a similar distinction when he predicts that under communism "the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another." Classical Marxism thus distinguishes between the state, which is a phenomenon of class society, and the 'public power' which exists even under communism, where it is governed by majority principle. The rationale for this contrast is provided by Marx's and Lenin's conception of the state as a specialized apparatus of coercion which is both a consequence of, and serves to perpetuate the existence of class antagonisms. Hence the significance of the emergence of forms of workers' power, beginning with the Commune, which, as Engels had put it, 'ceased to be a state in the true sense of the term'. Socialist democracy, a form of state involving, as we have seen, the systematic participation of the labouring majority in self-government, points toward a society in which no specialized apparatus of coercion is any longer necessary. ... It does not follow that mechanisms for resolving conflicts, and taking and enforcing decisions that are based on the democratic procedures developed during the long struggles for emancipation...". (Callinicos, The Revenge of History: Marxism and the Eastern European Revolutions, 1991, pp 130-1).

It seems to me that there isn't a good reason to rule out the possibility of a wholly peacable society in which coercion remains unspoken and in which human beings are able, out of habit, to resolve disagreement without recourse to force. True, we may never see such a state of affairs, may always be saddled with at least a minimal kernel of law. The truth is, we don't have enough to go on. Like it or not, there has not been a single instance of a post-capitalist society which has persisted for long enough to overcome the problems of transition to even the 'Lower Phase of Communism'. And, if human beings are as malleable as I happen to think they are, it is just possible - no more than that - that coercion and violence may be dispensed with for good. I suggest we see this ideal as the guiding point which we may never quite reach but which it is as well to aim for. Civilisation, to borrow an idea from Norbert Elias, is a process that is always "under way".

In summary, I think Geras is right that as long as it is reasonable to expect atrocious behaviour from human beings, there will need to be means of coercion. And he is wrong to believe - as I think he does - that it is ruled out by the classical Marxist vision of the Higher Phase of Communism. Finally, I disagree with his conception of human nature, inasmuch as I don't believe the baleful features of human life that he refers to are "inherent features" of human nature. The fact that they reflect human capacities doesn't obviate the conclusion that a society without them is impossible. I put this aspect of Geras' argument down to a reasonable pessimism generated by a sober assessment of human history, but don't accept it as a conclusion with compulsory force, because it is not unreasonable to hope for the kind of society in which people will no longer wish to or feel compelled to a-, b-, c- or y-. Call it my ABCY of socialist utopia.

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Saturday, September 18, 2004

Marxism and International Law. posted by Richard Seymour

It is axiomatic that neither the Prime Minister of Britain or the President of the United States will face trial for war crimes committed by their armies in Iraq. Henry Kissinger will probably see the inside of a coffin before he sees the inside of a jail. Ditto General Pinochet. On the other hand, Slobodan Milosevic and countless other petty thugs from the former Yugoslavia know all there is to know about the trying game. Saddam Hussein will eventually face trial for his crimes against the Iraqi people and Kuwait.

The standard left-liberal criticism of this state of affairs is that a double-standard is maintained by the refusal of, say, the United States to allow any of its citizens to be detained by the institutions of international legal sanction to which it is otherwise happy to turn to ensure the trial and imprisonment of its chosen enemies. The more radical critique asserts that there is no double-standard, since the only standard by which states act is that of self-interest. All well and good. However, if I may essay in a little Marxist theory, it seems to me that these criticisms miss something crucial about why international legal insitutions fail in their task.

I have previously advanced a brutally cropped verson of the unpublished thesis of China Mieville that, since law is indeterminate and international legal institutions are not endowed with the kind of force which would enable them to impose a determinacy on it, the interpretation of power always wins. Law is founded on violence, on force - it is, in fact, the expression of force. Although the radical rightists currently running the US government would prefer to continually renegotiate the law, they understand that they need to regulate their interactions with other states and so would probably be unwilling to dispense with it. Law is a process, rather than an institution. It is a continual argument between different actors of varying military and economic strength and, as Marx almost said, between two competing legal claims, force wins.

I wanted to add to those adumbrations a few observations drawn from Kirsten Sellars' The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, (2002). Sellars' book has the unusual virtue of taking the idea of human rights seriously, and of being wonderfully unimpressed by the pretense of Western states to embody that idea. Here, she discusses the Hague war crimes tribunal:

The tribunal is mandated to prosecute serious crimes in the Balkans, but its focus has been selective. For example, would it put Western military leaders on trial if they were accused of committing war crimes in the region? This matter came to a head in December 1999, when Canadian lawyers and Russian parliamentarians raised the issue of Nato's military actions against Serbia. The Swiss chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, initially responded that she would investigate anyone who violated the Geneva Conventions. Then, under pressure from Washington, she issued a sudden retraction, stating that "Nato is not under investigation by the Office of the Prosecutor." ... "Facts and Law! No political motivations! Just facts and law!" she declared. But the facts and law in her report raised more questions than they answered - such as why prosecutors had indicted Milan Martic for shooting cluster-headed rockets at Zagreb in May 1995; but not Nato for dropping cluster bombs on Nis in May 1999. (p 182)

And here, she quotes the impressive Jamie O'Shea on why Nato leaders would be unlikely to face charges at the Hague:

"I believe that when Justice Arbour starts her investigation, she will because we allow her to. It's not Milosevic that has allowed Justice Arbour her visa to go to Kosovo to carry out investigations. If her court, as we want, is to be allowed access, it will be because of Nato. ... Nato is a friend of the Tribunal, Nato are the people who have been detaining indicted war criminals for the Tribunal in Bosnia ... Nato countries are those that have provided the finance to set up the Tribunal, we are amongst the majority financiers ... we and the Tribunal are all one on this, we want to see war criminals brought to justice and I am certain that when Justice Arbour goes to Kosovo and looks at the facts she will be indicting people of Yugoslav nationality and I don't anticipate any others at this stage." (p 184)

Well, there you have it. We are behind the Tribunal, and we expect its agenda to be ours. However, Sellars is not simply contemptuous of the idea of human rights, and Marxists should not be either - not least because most of the achievements which would count as classic human rights concerns were driven by the radical Left. Rather, it is a question of seeing how the inherent limits in the desire and ability of international organisations to defend those ideals open the space for radicals to hegemonise the field. Slavoj Zizek's concise formulation was: "Try Kissinger or shut up!"

Norman Geras raised the issue of the distinction between a class-state and a non-class-state in his attempt to overthrow the Marxian ideal of a stateless utopia. In doing so, he defined the Marxist conception of the state as: "a body coercively imposing law and policy in the interests of a dominant class upon those who might otherwise be less than fully willing to comply with such law and policy". International institutions, by logical extension, could be seen as bodies negotiating between the dominant classes of each nation represented in them. They reach conclusions, legislate and hope, with the goodwill of members, to promulgate policy. The mistake would be to see the UN, say, as simply the fig-leaf of the larger states. It is not; rather it embodies contradictions (or conflicts if you prefer) between states. True, the US was behind the formation of the UN ; true, it is the modern form of imperialism rather than its replacement; but in its form it advances an ideal of international legal obligation, universal rights and so on that it cannot possibly fulfil.

In a postcapitalist universe, one would hope to supplant the vicissitudes of power politics expressed in law with the growing democratisation of as much of human life as possible - this is what is so subversive in George Monbiot's recent The Age of Consent. In taking the professed ideals of the UN seriously, and by making proposals designed to achieve these ideals, he makes the inadequacy of the present global situation poignantly apparent. The consequences for strategy of accepting the above analysis is clear. Since the law is a contested space rather than a defined set of imperatives superimposed upon day to day power relations, we can meet the cries in UN Headquarters in New York for the bombing of Iran or Syria with another concise formulation: "Bomb Washington or Shut up!"

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Friday, September 17, 2004

Killer Fox posted by Richard Seymour

Harry Hutton, who now appears to have changed sites , has composed a superb letter to the times on the matter of fox-hunting:

The threat posed to human life by foxes is minimal. These days you are more likely to be crapped on by a parrot than you are to be eaten by a fox. Kind of puts it into perspective, doesn't it?

But if I were on my own in a lonely place and a tribe of slavering foxes came to bite my family and eat my chickens I would shoot first, and ask questions later. And d*** and f*** the communists to whom foxes are more important than the family unit and happy chickens. They are c***s sir, they are c***s.

He goes on to add: "I am not very good with words, but what I am trying to say here is that you can't have family values and foxes. There is a trade-off. So what's it going to be, Mr Blair? Foxes, or your delightful family unit? Everyone is human, even communists and foxes. But will there still be wars in the future? Let us pray."

Now, if he'd written that letter to the Telegraph and styled himself as a retired colonel, he'd probably have had that printed at the top of the page.

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Universal Challenge posted by Richard Seymour

A week or so ago, I suggested that nationalism was likely to be the horizon of political discourse in the near future and noted how it was already framing the assumptions of commentators of both left and right.

According to Fred Halliday , the "war on terror" is effectively a contract of mutual particularism, in which the United States (or its political leadership at any rate) has reverted to pre-universal normative sources ("American values" etc), and Al Qaeda are leading the charge of Islamic nationalism, but an aggressively sectarian kind that torments its Shia brothers as well as targeting the decadent liberal West:

This ideological shift was underway before 9/11. It was given intellectual support by the spread of a vapid relativism, sometimes termed “postmodernism”, that had – in response to the collapse of forms of rigid political rationalism – gained considerable influence across the developed world in the 1980s and 1990s.

But 9/11 compounded this process – in the generalised and pervasive fear that those events caused, and in the superficial and ranting responses it occasioned in much of the west. There is another reaction not to be underestimated among many people in America and Europe: a retreat from engagement with the political world and of international events – even if this lacked a clear public expression by dint of its very private and socially atomised character.


Numerous other elites, what may be termed the “crackdown states”, have taken advantage of US appeals for solidarity in the fight against terrorism, to impose more authoritarian control over their own societies, and particularly over those calling for great recognition of minority rights: Uzbekistan, Russia, China, Egypt, Israel. Two important US allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are themselves the sites of significant anti-western and pro-al-Qaida feeling. The US has for its part openly vaunted its military power and increased its defence budget to $400 billion.


[T]he response of the United States of America to the attack on its territory has made any serious, effective and considered course of action even more difficult. The world is being dragged towards disaster by two arrogant, militarised, leaderships. We must do all we can to persuade people to shift the world in the other direction, the better to address the issues that predated 9/11 – issues that remain very much alive and pressing, and which, if left unresolved, will lead to more spectacular and ghastly confrontations.

I know it seems a bit much to blame postmodernism for the rise of Al Qaeda and this aggressive phase in US imperialism, but Halliday surely has a point inasmuch as the overemphasis on cultural specificity as well as the assumption that we are principally defined by our cultural differences impacted on the general political culture. Similarly, according to Anatol Lieven , the Bush administration has tapped into a latent American nationalism which was briefly aroused after 9/11. While urbane intellectuals in the foreign policy establishment happily discuss American imperial power in its own terms, most Americans understand US military actions through the prism of nationalism. They do not consider America an imperialist power, on the whole. Indeed, when President Bush sold his imperial policies to the nation, he did so with two noteworthy gestures: 1) he presented it as an effort at spreading democracy and "American values", and 2) he presented it is a concerted effort at defending the American nation.

I think this is all perfectly coherent analysis and worth saying, but one question imposes itself: why should it be that this new nationalism in US foreign policy dovetails so nicely with a certain kind of liberal universalism? Isn't it precisely the case that US particularism is the universal ideology at the moment, inasmuch as few bat an eyelid when values like democracy and liberalism are claimed as "American values"? Isn't it that, given the refusal of universal validity by much of the left, given its retreats, given the fact that the working class has not seemed to have serious international muscle, given the collapse of the institutional "big battallions" of the global Left - "American values" are precisely what have come to fill that empty universal?

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The 'X' Factor. posted by Richard Seymour

The infiltrations of parliament and Buckingham Palace by Fathers 4 Justice, as well as the storming of the Commons by a parcel of fuckwits in favour of fox-hunting this week have raised an interesting ideological spectre. Yesterday morning's acerbic report from Simon Hoggart on the intrusion by pro-hunt protesters noted that, when confronted with Labour front-bench ministers, they breathlessly uttered a serious of garbled, resentful statements that doubtless had some meaning before the cross-over between brain and mouth. One of them said "This government. You've mucked up pensions. You've mucked up everything." After which he succumbed to his inner maggots and exploded into a shower of carrion - or something, I didn't read the rest.

I can understand that, however. Imagine confronting the actual person behind it all, the one responsible for all your ills! What do you say, when you discover the unimpressive and slightly alarmed figure behind all the carefully crafted demonisations? You'd just pour your heart out, wouldn't you, in precisely that incoherent way. "Ah, you bastards, you've let that Harold Shipman kill all them old people, you've done away with the pound, er..." What else is there to do?

But isn't it strange how protest seems to have involved a lot of penetrating this enclosed space, this theatre of power-struggle that is represented to us on the news but never disclosed in the flesh. Even if you want to see it in real time from the gallery, you have to go through an intensive search, give up all items from your pockets, surrender your coat etc. And you must agree not to make a noise, pick your nose, make any rude hand gestures etc. (I went there myself once, and had the pleasure of being eyed suspiciously by Brian Mawhinney MP). However, to get into that phantasmatic space, irupt into its core - you'd actually think you were busting right into the centre of power. The hidden assumption is that power has some final stopping point, some person or persons at the end of a chain of command whom one can demand to see and shoot if necessary.

But even in terms of private companies, this is no longer the case. Ownership is usually diffuse, managers are responsible to shareholders, and power is delegated down and out in increasingly specialised ways. It isn't that there is a capitalist who controls the levers and dispenses orders. Similarly, there is no chain of power leading up to parliament, and no hidden 'X' of authority once you get there. Far from encountering the human face of power etc., you discover the human faces of over-worked, cynical, seasoned politicians with only a limited and minor say in how the country is actually run. It is a failure in cognitive mapping, an inability to see power as anything but an open or concealed conspiracy, a direct organisation of people into structures and roles. Hence, the pathos of the spectacle in which angry, militant furry-bangers can only scamper around the chambers for a few seconds before realising that there's nothing going on there, and the real problem they face is in the wider society.

It is for that reason doubly pathetic that the Countryside Alliance and its allies continue with the stupid disavowal of the fact that they have virtually no support in the population at large, that they are a privileged clique of campaigners with some knack for tapping the concerns of the rural poor. Since they cannot acknowledge that it is society as a whole that they have to contend with, the continue to pretend to themselves that it was "this government" or the police or "the Blair State" that boned them. Power, for these shite-specked flabby potato-sacks, cannot be represented as anything but a cabal, a secret meeting, a closed committee, a con, a work, a fix. What they miss, inevitably, is structure.

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Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Shoah and the Nakba. posted by Richard Seymour

It is Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashonah, and David Himmelstein has taken the trouble to remember Count Folke Bernadotte , a hero during the Nazi holocaust who provided assistance to thousands of Jews, and later a defender of the Palestinians before he was assassinated:

Meanwhile, in this period of spiritual penitence and cleansing, I will grieve the loss of Folke Bernadotte, equal-opportunity rescuer, and will continue to believe that his kind of generic conscience represents the only hope for civilization (though maybe quotation marks should be placed around that word nowadays).

I will imagine the world Jewish community being seized by the same kind of self-critical group introspection being touted so widely for the world Muslim community--beginning with acknowledgment of the nature and history of the current Israeli prime minister, and reflection on what his legacy bodes for the future.

And I will pray for a ripple of Jewish awakening to the fact that Palestinians will remember the Nakba as long as Jews remember the Shoah.

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Harry and Norm posted by Richard Seymour

Much as I hate to bore you with my latest wince of disgust, I have to say a word or two about this from Harry's Place , cited approvingly at Normblog :

Well done to animal rights campaigners. Now you can sleep easily at night knowing that foxes can only be shot dead by farmers. Now no longer will dogs allowed to finish them off. Lets hope that all the farmers are a good shot though.

Well done to our liberal media for making a strong defence of parliament and the principles of democracy. Glad to see that this time there is no need to understand the 'desperation that some people are driven to'. No need to concern ourselves with the 'context' or wonder if such a reaction has been 'provoked'. Oh and no need for the government to listen to a 'significent minority' either. Parliament has voted and we all know that when parliament votes that is democracy in action isn't it?

I'm not that bothered about Harry's position on fox-hunting - frankly, if you can support the bombing of Iraqis, I fail to see how tearing up a bit of fox ass is going to move you to tears. However, the obvious reference here is to Chechnya and Beslan (just take my word for it that it is). The Guardian, it seems, was not morally stringent enough in its response to the atrocity in Beslan, because it managed to suggest that there was such a thing as context and that there may indeed have been provocation from the Russian state. None of that relativism when it comes to those bloody toffs, eh?

Hmmm. It is nice to know that Harry places the fox-hunters in the same league of oppression as the Chechens, but he will notice that none of the newspapers to my knowledge has used the words "sick", "hideous" , "depraved" , "horror" , "horrifying" or "atrocity" in relation to the storming of parliament by a few country turnips. Nor has any columnist in The Guardian or elsewhere saw fit to describe it as "an international crying shame" . This isn't a particular defense of The Guardian, whose editorial policy I have many issues with, but it is a rebuke to a particularly stupid point made by a rather dull ex-Stalinist blogger who seems to deal in party-lines, petty-bourgeois deviations and traitors as fervently as he ever did.

Harry has recently shut down the comments boxes on his post (as has a certain banausic, irrelevant gnat ), and one sees why. He seems to get particularly agitated when someone mentions the fact that Russia is murdering the Chechens and that - well, cause and effect and all - this might be in some way connected to the loathsome actions in Beslan. Responding to a bit of teasing from me when he was trolling the MediaLens message board, he announced that "you in particular can stuff your fist right up your filthy arse! It's all a big fucking joke to you!" Suffice to say, that cracked me up for fucking days.

Oh, by the way, in case anyone thinks that understanding that Russian oppression is a causal factor in atrocities by certain Chechen groups somehow implies forgiveness or justification or an attenuation of disgust and outrage and shame at those atrocities - it doesn't. "But, what about...?" No. "But surely...?" Nope.

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The Ministry and the Mandarin. posted by Richard Seymour

Review of John Dickie, The New Mandarins: How British Foreign Policy Works, I B Tauris, 2004.

On the front cover of this book is a recommendation from Lord Geoffrey Howe, the Dead Sheep of Aberavon, describing the contents as "fascinating and well-focused ... sharp as ever." The full sentence from which these words are taken is helpfully supplied on the back. Warned by so many ugly little herpes sores, you might have I thought I'd drop this bloody book like a weekend habit. No chance. For as it turns out, it contains a great deal of useful information. It has the suave and inclusive style of an outsider as well as the imperious and slightly evasive tone of the insider. The revealing anecdotes capture, like no picture, the absurdities of power. The grave and dutiful mandarins obliged to work with egomaniacal and sometimes drunk politicians are never short of irony - whether intended or not. In short, this is a book that cries out to be digested, pumped, squeezed for every item of nutriment in it, then slickly deposited in a public library. By which I mean to suggest, this is really a trawl through a venerable establishment account, seeking information and angles that may be of use to political radicals. Treat it with the customary raised eyebrow and knowing smirk.

Much of the first part of the book is devoted to exploring the author's thesis that a new generation of mandarins has emerged that is sweeping aside old protocols and making foreign policy more responsive to human rights concerns. These 'Young Turks', as he calls them, have been multiplying in the cupboards and wardrobes for some years, only to find their champion in Robin Cook. In 1997, Cook kicked off his time as Foreign Secretary by heralding an 'ethical dimension' to foreign policy, promising to refuse trade with Burma and arms sales to Indonesia. He visited Israel and, instead of taking the usual trip to Yad Vashem, actually laid a wreath at Deir Yassin in memory of the 1948 massacre of Palestinians in that town, which occurred as part of a programme of ethnic cleansing by the founding fathers of Israel.

Regarded as something of a bitch in the manger by diplomats and Foreign Office officials, Cook addressed them all in the Locarno Room and informed them that there would be a decisive shake-up in the way the FO ran its affairs, a meritocratic revolution. He charged the young buck Matthew Gould with setting up a reform group of young officials to modernise the Foreign Office - help it meet the challenges ahead with "the best of the British". If you think this is boring, imagine how bored I feel typing the damned stuff. And so, this reform group set about innovating a series of technical changes which would begin to blast the hierarchy to Hades. The Foresight Report, published in 2000, crystallised these aspirations. Under-performers would be swept out, the Office would learn from its mistakes, equal opportunities would exist for every race and all three genders. Result? Well, it remains the case that the vast majority of place-fillers in the Foreign Office establishment are white men supplied by Oxbridge.

Career Opportunities

This is one of the persistent themes of the book. Mandarins strike one as consistently able, zealous and discrete guardians of the "nation's interest", usually of aristocratic pedigree. Indeed, until 1907, all FO mandarins had to be personally chosen by the Foreign Secretary, have been recommended by a well-placed relative, have a personal income of not less than £400 a year and speak with an accent redolent of the King. Women were prohibited right until after the Second World War. The first married woman to become an Ambassador was Veronica Sutherland, in 1987. And only in very recent years have a substantial number of diplomatic operations been headed by women. Homosexuals were not allowed into the Diplomatic Service until after the Cold War ended (presumably because one might be buggered by a Russian sailor with a spy-chip on the end of his priapus), and it is still considered a disadvantage to those seeking promotion. Similarly, the number of serving officers from ethnic minorities is a mere 5.3%, "unacceptably low" according to the FO.

Now, Dickie has some interview advice for those who wish to become career servants in the FO, especially given that out of about one and a half thousand applicants for a given set of positions, only a tiny number will succeed. For one thing, hopefuls are going to be probed for intellectual background and motivation, and Dickie notes:

"Nowadays, when the interviewer explores the candidate's attitudes, there is a tendency for a smart-Aleck or smart-Alexandra to assume that points can be scored by the intensity of references made to humanitarian issues such as HIV/AIDS, Heavily Indebted Poor Countries and the IMF, and environmental pollution. In fact, a balanced concern and an awareness of the complexities of demands upon national resources are more likely to impress examiners." (pp 31-2).

Or, as the FO might like to put it, "don't take our propaganda too seriously". Indeed, what they are after, as Dickie puts it, is "judgement rather than expertise".

British interests in the world...

The Foreign Office also seeks to hire trained economists, preferrably those with a (neo-liberal) macro-economics background to work for the Diplomatic Service Economists Scheme. A recruit can expect to work from London or the EU, then move on to work in places of hot political interest like the Middle East, where they will convey the wisdom from London to the economists of the government in question. If working in London, they will liaise with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for International Development. And once established, they may go on to become Ambassadors. One of the ways in which power and ideology reproduce themselves in the upper echelons of the state.

Now, officially, 38% of the Diplomatic Service's activity is commercial work. According to Sir Patrick Wright, however, it is closer to 90%. In recent years, ambassadors have been obliged to share crucial information with businesses considering an investment in the country in which they work. As knowledgable adepts in Arabic and Farsi, for instance, they are in an excellent position to understand nuances that hard-nosed businessmen may not. There are passages in this book that are redolent of a favourite theme of Mark Curtis - namely, the primacy placed on maximising trade advantages and business opportunities through foreign policy institutions including the MoD, FO and the Department for International Development.

The Mandarin as Muse

One of the reasons it is so crucial that the state recruits from the correct layers is that those who rise to fill essential positions in the bureacracy have an enormous amount of power in determining what becomes policy. The permanent and private secretary (PPS) to the Foreign Secretary, for instance, determines to a large extent what papers the minister will get to see, decides what to highlight etc. The PPS "wields enormous power", deciding how good or bad particular conclusions are as they enter the minister's overnight box. Indeed, upon the arrival of a new Foreign Secretary, one of their mandated roles is to supply a child's summary of key foreign policy issues, as in "What you need to know about X". Their role is to guide the minister in his understanding of crucial issue. They will be unimpeachable, insurmountable, capable of dispensing invaluable wisdom at a second's notice - the mandarins are consummate in every way, and the ministers depend upon them. Even where the minister does not initially trust his PPS, he comes to rely upon and form a close bond with him. Dickie provides a number of anecdotes that illustrate these truths graphically. David Owen being passed notes by the invaluable Sir Nicholas Henderson for an impromptu dinner party speech is one example. Another is Murray MacLehose, George Brown's PPS, intervening in a dispute in which Brown - drunk and arrogant - was ordering the pilot of a plane he was on to land in Moscow, disregarding orders from Air Traffic Control. Brown insisted that as he was the minister, he was in charge of the plane and its trajectory and demanded that it land. MacLehose told the pilot he must take no notice of the Minister as his duty was to his own safety and that of the passengers. The pilot, for his part, pointed out that he had no intention of taking any notice of the minister at any rate. It is reassuring that the pilot won that particular power struggle and not MacLehose. The Prime Minister, for his part, relies to a large extent on the meditations of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Formed in 1936, its status was enhanced by Winston Churchill, so that its assessments were sent first and foremost to the Prime Minister and then only to the main cabinet ministers and the Queen. He also receives concise summaries of data from the Cabinet Office, drawn up by officials from MI5, MI6, the Foreign Office and other Whitehall departments. While much of this may seem minute and rather banal detail, the one thing that becomes clear in the book is the institutional dependency of elected leaders. They rely on the servants of the state to provide not merely information but also judgment; ministers rely on mandarins to such an extent that it is impossible to resist their judgements. The mandarins, obviously enough, favour a kind of continuity (they didn't seem to mind Thatcher's revolution too much, however). They reflect the institutional, social and economic circumstances in which they work and their effective role is ensuring that the nation remains a competent player on the global market.

We submit this bill to the house...

Another of Dickie's themes is the declining influence of parliament in Foreign Policy matters. Sir Geoffrey Howe established the Parliamentary Relations Unit in 1983 precisely to combat the distrust between parliament, press and the FO. He may as well have been a dead sheep for all the good it did. In this venue too, front-bench ministers rely heavily on their mandarins to provide written answers to parliamentary questions. For this purpose a stock of information is maintained by mandarins on those backbenchers who are likely to ask difficult questions on important matters of foreign policy, enabling quick responses to be provided by front-bench ministers. Debate is thus foreclosed in glib, prepared, often single-sentence replies that a trained front-bench speaker can issue as if from his own mammoth brain.

The means by which elected ministers may bring pressure to bear on foreign policy issues are "meagre". Question Time can allow issues to be raised, but little usually results from it. MPs may submit early-day motions, but can only speak on them for a maximum of ten minutes, and with little chance of their selected issue reaching debate. Select Committees are a slightly more effective means of scrutiny, but only one - the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges - can actually oblige a Member of Parliament to attend and face questions. The Foreign Affairs Committee represents "the greatest potential for parliamentary influence on foreign policy", but the government is entitled to dismiss its chairmen and members - as in the controversial decision to dismiss such firebrand left-wing mavericks as Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody. And, as a body, its role is to probe decisions already made rather than provide a parliamentary input into the formation of policy. It exists to examine the "expenditure, administration and policy" of the FO and associated bodies, not to instruct or proscribe. The information it eventually discovers is often damaging - for instance, its conclusion that the bombing of Serbia had in fact precipitated the ethnic cleansing of Kosovan Albanians; its discovery of "factually inaccurate" responses by Ministers on military export licenses to Zimbabwe; its damning conclusions on the Sandline Affair etc. However, present policy on selling arms to warring or repressive states in, say, Africa, indicate that little has changed. In fact, one of the frustrations of the FAC is the death-like speed of changes supposed to result from the Scott Report. And while it continues to issue stark challenges to the government's marriage of convenience to the Chinese dictatorship, the government blithely continues to do business with Zemin, the Diplomatic Service continues to unearth business opportunities for Britain in the developing coastal areas, and its economists continue to assist the regime on such matters as structural reform etc.

Whispering from the wings

Similarly, while bodies such as Oxfam and Amnesty International provide regular, informed criticisms of UK policy toward Saudi Arabia, for instance, NGOs are either coopted or ignored. By contrast, Dickie notes, certain establishment think-tanks exert considerable influence in the formation and presentation of government policy. The International Institute for Strategic Services, born in 1958 with the loving midwivery of the Rand Corporation, enjoys close relations both with the US State Department and Pentagon, and with the FO and MoD. The Royal United Services Institute, formed in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, is a beehive of establishment research and thinking, focused on issues surrounding Nato, international security and military procurement. Again, it has close ties with the FO and MoD, and has glowing commendations from our sainted PM: "As a facilitator of the exchange of ideas and information and as an educator of policy makers of the present and future the Institute is second to none". Bless. The Royal Institute of International Affairs has ties to the FO "sustained through corporate membership, which enables members of the Diplomatic Service to attend meetings, and through a grant of £50,000 for its research programmes". Three members of the RIIA council are "ex-ambassadiors - Sir John Appleyard, formerly in China, Sir John Birch, formerly in Hungary, and Richard Tallboys, formerly in Vietnam - and at the top as one of three presidents alongside Lord Robertson and Baroness Williams is the former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd. It has readily responded to Foreign Office suggestions that it host round-table discussions with experts from countries with which the government wishes to improve relations." High-flyers in the Foreign Office are often seconded to the RIIA for a year's research and study.

The Ditchley Foundation is less likely to crop up in news items as an impartial body, because it is not a research outfit, but a club for the promotion of close Anglo-American relations and the high-level exchange of ideas between decision-makers. Its chairman is John Major, while its Director is Sir Nigel Broomsfield, former British Ambassador to Germany. When, in 2000, it began to seriously promote the idea of a common European defense and security policy, "the conference was chaired by former mandarin Sir Michael Alexander with three eminent mandarins from Downing Street - Robert Cooper, William Ehrman and Emyr Jones Parry". Sir Crispin Tickell, former British Ambassador to the UN chaired, and Sir Jeremy Greenstock attended, their exciting conference on the future of the UN.

A rash of such institutions exist which provide excellent cross-fertilisation grounds, and which cement the mandarin's role in the development of ideas which ministers come to rely on in forming policy. The influence of the first two in particular could be felt on Iraq, as the IISS was moved to provide a 'dossier' on Saddam's alleged weapons programmes in 2002, while the RUSI provided excellent sound-bites for the BBC and other news organisations during that war. I don't begin to consider here the impositions and subventions of intelligence and covert operations, because Dickie hasn't much to say on the matter. We'll leave that Lobster magazine.

The backroom boys

Dickie's accounts of internal squabbling between departments, committees and intelligence have been neglected here, since they don't say anything fundamental about how UK foreign policy is formed - but they form a large part of his interest, so expect chunks of that if you manage to pick up this book. However, although this is an exemplary establishment account, its adumbrations of the structure of power and decision-making in Whitehall are of immense import for those seeking to radically change Britain's role in the world. Boiled down to the essentials, the antiwar movement is up against an edifice of undemocratic power, largely operating outside of public scrutiny, without much potential for being impacted by parliament and which defines the agenda, the goals and the framework within which policy is made. Not much can be hoped for from parliament and elected representatives - the only hope resides in the ability of ordinary people to organise and challenge the priorities of an establishment and system that produces such barbarities across the planet.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Fantastic. posted by Richard Seymour

Smashed by the state for defending their right to dress like prats and chase foxes.

An injured protester

A police officer and a member of the public face to face during a pro-hunting demonstration in Parliament Square

We should invite these country fucks down town more often.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The State Will Not Wither Away? posted by Richard Seymour

Norman Geras has been outlining an argument against the Marxist argument that the state can eventually be made irrelevant as a form of coercive authority. Read:

The Prologue ,
Chapter One ,
Chapter Two ,
Chapter Three and
Chapter Four .

I'll have some words to say about these arguments later, but I thought I'd float them for now and see what sort of reaction they got. Essentially, this argument seems (on cursory glance) to derive from Norman Geras' previously established arguments that a) there is such a thing as human nature and that this is a position commensurable with classical Marxism (Norman Geras, Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend, 1983), b) this nature can be malign as well as benign (Norman Geras, "Socialist Hope in the Shadow of Catastrophe" in The Contract of Mutual Indifference, 1998) and c) this necessitates the persistence of a coercive state (at least until such time as a) and b) prove to be wrong. On first glance it seems to me that the only approach that could undermine such logic is that of the hard-core deconstructionist. That is, "human nature" is a pure ideological construct with no real referent. There are, of course, biological capacities and needs, but these do not cohere into a persistent notion of 'human nature' in this view.

I am having a nudie wrestle with these ideas at the moment, and will let you know the instant a victor is declared.

The impossiblist has an early answer to Norm.

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