Tuesday, August 31, 2004
The Language of Condemnation. posted by Richard SeymourThe moderate Jewish peace advocate Rabbi Michael lerner has written a thoroughly sensible article for Tikkun magazine, and which MediaLens have posted for the benefit of regular readers. "Unequivocally Condemn Palestinian Terror" it says, in reference to the attacks on two buses in Israel which left an estimated 16 dead. None of the 16, to my knowledge, had directly or intentionally participated in the oppression of Palestinians.
"Unequivocally Condemn Palestinian Terror". There's an invitation that is as warm as it is exhortative. Do your duty, otherwise you will not be a member of the community of goodness!
No sale. I will oppose it, but I will not condemn it. It is a small matter of not being coopted into the Israeli government's programme. If one can "condemn" the actions of the resistance, why not support measures to effectively put an end to those acts, such as building a 'peace wall', raiding Palestinian cities etc.? Opposing it, on the other hand, entails nothing more than refusing it as a strategy that has failed both strategically and morally - the latter, in part, because of the former.
I refuse to engage in abstract denunciations of bad things qua bad things. This would take me some rather dubious places - condemning the quite justified resistance of the Kikuyu when it got out of hand, or the more extreme actions of the NLF or indeed the FLN. No. I say we should stand firm with the Palestinian people, say we support them unequivocally, but do not support such actions as will at best result in rebarbative consequences for innocents on the other side, and at worst (most likely) result in greater repression, narrowing the scope for resistance, diminishing the number of one's allies. In other words, I should speak to the Palestinians as an ally and not a bearer of virtuous platitudes.
Hey, I'm not trying to win any popularity contests.
By the way, BBC News tonight announced that the attacks had interrupted "six months of relative calm". I wonder what planet they have been on ?
More: The International Herald Tribune on the 'Ghandi option'.
Impeach Blair. posted by Richard SeymourIs Tony Blair a liar, or merely a mass murderer? Well, according Impeach Blair.org , he's given to distortion and gimcrack illusioneering. Using information gathered by Glen Rangwala and Dan Plesch, Adam Price MP has launched an initiative to have Blair impeached under parliamentary precedent. The Duke of Buckingham, it seems, was impeached in 1628 following a series of disastrous errors or ineptitudes, so Adam Price thought... Possibly, malingering in the back-forests of his mind was the thought of what happened a few years later. At any rate, the evidence seems compelling. The Prime Minister stands accused of:
1) Wilful exaggeration. He claimed in early 2002 that Saddam Hussein had "stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons", while the assessment of the Joint Intelligence Committee was that Saddam "may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons.
2) Distortion. He claimed the UN "proved" that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons because of unaccounted for capacity. The assessment of UNMOVIC head Hans Blix at the time was that "one must not jump to the conclusion that they [unaccounted for weapons] exist".
3) Lying his ass off. He claimed after the invasion that "our intelligence" had proven that those two alleged mobile weapons laboratories were part of a larger network of such facilities - even though intelligence had yet to examine the sites and later found them to be unconnected to any potential weapons facilities.
4) Withholding key evidence. He didn't mention to the public the assessment of British intelligence that Iraq would be unlikely to use any weapons in its possession unless struck first.
5) Lying his ass off and plunging the world into considerable danger. This time he claimed that if "we" didn't act now, it would only be a matter of time before "terrorism and weapons of mass destruction come together". The assessment of intelligence was at variance with the PM's. The government later admitted that "the JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, and that the Prime Minister was aware of this." Was he now?
Those are just some examples of the impressive and slightly nerdy array of information dug up by Plesch and Rangwala.
Although, of course, Blair would thoroughly deserve to have someone kick his balls up into his mouth and force him to chew them, I wonder what the impeachment proceedings will achieve. In all likelihood, they will fail before they even hear the word "go". The press will sigh, then return to euphemising the situation in Iraq. And it is the latter to which we ought to direct ourselves. The most important thing to do now is to stop British soldiers from killing Iraqis by getting them out of there. By remarkable coincidence, this will stop British soldiers from being killed - two birds with one stone. It will also allow Iraqis to develop a state of normality and build their own democracy. And, not to miss the finer points, its achievement would be so many bullets thudding into the already cadaverish body politic and the mutant parasites thriving in it.
If you want to end Blair, end the occupation.
Monday, August 30, 2004
Stuck in neutral. posted by Richard SeymourBalance. Objectivity. Neutrality. It is axiomatic that the BBC is 'neutral' in political debate. It merely reports what the politicians say, and you may decide with the assistance of the lovely Andrew Marr. The fact that this apparent truism is coming under attack from Greg Philo and his band of academic subversives hasn't altered the general perception. But the limits of neutrality are conveyed to me, as if by a bat in the night, while reading Dave Renton's Fascism: Theory and Practise (1999). Discussing the historian's role, he says:
What is the meaning of objectivity when writing about a political system that plunged the world into a war in which at least 40 million died? How can the historian provide a neutral account of a system of politics which turned the continent of Europe into one gigantic prison camp? One cannot be balanced when writing about fascism, there is nothing positive to be said of it. (Page 18).
Unspectacular prose, admittedly, but there is something profound in that. The very spectre of 'neutrality' only persists so far as nothing scarier emerges. That is, if the very coordinates of liberal democracy are challenged, then objectivity becomes a point of view. Imagine the BBC reporting on the World Trade Centre attacks by having an Al Qaeda "military expert" phone in to the studio. Now change the words "World Trade Centre attacks" and "Al Qaeda" to "Gulf War" and "British army". Its an obvious point, I suppose, but one worth remembering. Neutrality is for the dead.
It should therefore be no surprise that he has had his visa to work in the United States revoked :
State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon cited the Immigration and Nationality Act, part of which deals with aliens who have used a "position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity." Another section bars aliens whose entry may have "potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States."
Both sections were amended under the USA Patriot Act, passed after the September 11 attacks.
Shannon did not immediately say whether either section applied to Ramadan's case.
"We don't know a reason why either of those should apply to Tariq Ramadan," said Matt Storin, a Notre Dame spokesman. "He's a distinguished scholar. He's a voice for moderation in the Muslim world."
Now, Daniel Pipes certainly has the dirt on Ramadan. Ramadan is suspected of various Islamist assocations by the CIA. His dad studied with bin Laden. He once praised Hassan al Turabi's activities in Sudan (although he has since recanted, which Daniel Pipes does not mention). He may have studied with someone who was involved in the attacks on the American embassies. He even suggests that there isn't any certain proof that bin Laden carried out the attacks on 9/11. Pipes also suggests that Ramadan "publicly refers to the Islamist atrocities of 9/11, Bali, and Madrid as "interventions," minimizing them to the point of near-endorsement", although in that statement Ramadan is discussing the reasons why one can support the Palestinian resistance and oppose bin Laden. There's more, and you should certainly pursue the link. Most of it is speculation, connotation, second-hand accusations.
Moreover, as Crooked Timber notes, "if there’s real reason to suspect this scholar will engage in felonies while teaching at Notre Dame, why would the State Department invite Ramadan to reapply for another kind of visa ?"
Sadr's Sharia Shame? posted by Richard SeymourAlthough I have suggested on countless occasions that supporting the anti-occupation forces does not entail support for the specific political purview of those doing the fighting, I must admit that the following, from Crooked Timber , made me pause:
Bad news from some newspapers; there are suggestions coming through that Sadr was whiling away the time in Najaf by running a sharia court, complete with executions and mutilations.
The specific allegations about the 20 bodies in Najaf are not what I would call established fact - the bodies might simply be casualties of the fighting, and the fact that the allegations are being made by the Iraqi government undercuts their credibility somewhat given the number of fibs they’ve told about Najaf over the last few weeks - but the general historical sweep is likely to be accurate. When and if Sadr and Sistani are brought into the political process, it is very likely indeed that one of their main priorities will be to introduce sharia courts, and sharia courts execute and mutilate people.
While I recoil somewhat from the implicit suggestion that all sharia courts engage in these practises (its a matter of contex; the sharia courts soon to be made available to Canadian Muslims will presumably not be a source of torture), I think it is self-evident that this is what any theocratic or quasi-theocratic style government in Iraq would do. However, there are a couple of points that need to be made. While most Iraqis support al-Sadr's war against the occupiers, only 2% have expressed an interest in seeing him elected President. Presumably, however, the longer the occupiers stay and the more oppressive the Iraqi interim government becomes, the greater the support will be at elections for religious parties.
As Sami Zubaida has argued :
[T]he same formations are best placed to mobilise votes and intimidate dissidents, while political parties and civil associations have not had the chance to build up constituencies.
What, in any case, does it mean to “apply the shari’a”? We have seen how doubtful it is in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In relation to public law and functions, the shari’a’s indeterminacy makes it a means of arbitrary rule. Its only clear hallmarks (though even these are much disputed) are in the spheres of family and women and of aspects of public morality. These become the fields of display of religious authority.
Although I remain sceptical of those whose stance has always been to support the war and the occupation (pretending, as if they didn't know better, that the Americans intended democracy), especially when they denounce "Islamo-fascists", I fear that if the occupation does not end and democratic elections are not obtained, we on the left will be having to denounce a regime that is almost as brutal as Saddam's - either because Allawi has promulgated martial law, or because Sistani/Sadr have promulgated shari'a law. And, in the background, US troops will be marauding around areas which continue to show any sign of defiance. (The recent assault on Najaf may have taken as many as 1,000 lives . The raids on Fallujah took 600. How long before Basra, Kufa or Sadr City are added to that list of atrocities?)
Those who simply wish to see the resistance crushed fail to understand the reasons for it. As Zubaida puts it:
"One year after the occupation and the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime the great majority of Iraqis are worse off."
Further, those worst off are precisely those most likely to support the Mahdi Army :
Reports indicate that the Sadrist support among the Shi’a resides in the poor slums of Baghdad, especially among the young in Sadr City. This location has always been the centre for radical agitation. It was built, with strong leftist support, in the late 1950s and early 1960s as Madinat al-Thawra or Revolution City by General Abd-al-Karim Qasim, who overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. It became a stronghold of the Iraqi Communist Party, and was one of the main centres of resistance to the Ba’thist putsch of 1963, occasioning a massacre. Saddam made the area his own as Saddam City, and in 2003 it was re-named Sadr City, after the martyr father Muhammd Sadiq al-Sadr (killed by Saddam in 1999).
There isn't, at the moment, any particular electoral support for al-Sadr. I guess most Iraqis see him as mooching off of his father's reputation (which he is) and attempting to illegitimately collect dues in the dead mujtahid's name (which, again, he is). Even as Iraqis sympathise with the rebellion against a corrupt and autocratic occupation, only his hard-core supporters regard him as a potential political leader. As Milan Rai reports, support for an religious state in Iraq is low , while most thirst for authentic democracy.
He also notes, however, that "Iraq is hungry for democracy. The US has little appetite for such dangerous fare.":
‘[T]he past year has shown that Iraq’s vision of democracy and the projection of American power do not necessarily coexist. The most glaring illustration is in Iraq itself, where the US has been resisting early elections out of fear that radicals, whether Shia or Sunni, would make gains.’ (Roula Khalaf, FT, 23 Mar., p. 21)
Withdraw the troops; free elections now; Iraq for the Iraqis.
Update: Tex links to a story about the same accusations in which it seems that they are likely to be a confection of the Iraqi police. I regret that my cynicism may have temporarily fucked off to the pub.
Sunday, August 29, 2004
Sting of the Bumblebee posted by Richard SeymourI check out technorati from time to time, just to see who has been kind enough to advertise my thoughts. I find, this time, that I have the attention of someone who describes him/herself as a "bumblebee" . He/she works in the banking industry, and would appear to be embittered by the experience if the following post on Suicides in the City of London is any guide:
Passengers [on the tube] have become increasingly accustomed to hearing the announcement that there are delays on the Central Line due to " a passenger under the train". It is rush-hour, you are desperate to go home, change your clothes, have a pee and relax, but you are now left standing there on the platform, waiting in vain for a train that will not be turning up for quite some time, as someone has chosen to end their existence by throwing themselves under it instead of in it. The selfish bastards!
Could there be a clue in the fact that all these incidents have occured within the world's most important financial district, a bastion of power, money and ruthless, steel-like intention? And if there is a clue in that fact, then what does it mean? Does the City merely inspire people to top themselves? If so it clearly doesn't inspire enough.
Ouch! Move over Emile Durkheim.
I wonder, however, if these city workers aren't simply following the advice of Bill Hicks:
"If you're in advertising or marketing: Kill yourself."
Surely not? By the way, if you are, do.
Foreign Affairs carries this interesting review article on globalisation. The article pays particular attention to refuting the arguments of "protectionists":
To those who complain that increased openness to trade during the 1980s and 1990s has failed to deliver faster growth, Wolf points to the contrary experiences of China and India. Both countries witnessed significant jumps in their growth rates as they opened up their economies to international trade and foreign investment. As Wolf points out, "Never before have so many people-or so large a proportion of the world's population-enjoyed such large rises in their standards of living."
The above is so perpendicular to reality that it can only be deliberate obfuscation. To explain:
The experience of China and India - along with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in earlier times - shows that countries do not have to adopt, first and foremost, liberal trade and/or capital policies in order to benefit from enhanced trade, to grow faster, and to develop an industrial infrastructure able to produce an increasing proportion of national consumption. All these countries, as Robert Wade has recently argued, have experienced relatively fast growth behind protective barriers, growth which fuelled rapid trade expansion focused on capital and intermediate goods. As each of these countries have become richer, it has tended to liberalise its trade policy ... these countries developed relatively quickly behind protective barriers, before they liberalised their trade. (David Held, Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus, Polity Press, 2004, pp. 49-51).
This House notes... posted by Richard SeymourAstonishingly, the Bill Hicks web-page now advertises the following posthumous endorsement:
"That this house notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks,
on February 26th 1994, at the age of 33; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers."
- Stephen Pound MP; Parliamentary House of Commons
Did you hear that correctly? Stephen fucking Pound. Although Bill was an Anglophile, I can't imagine a better way to torture him in his grave than to lay on him the approbation of the House of Commons. Still, its nice to know he has a sense of humour.
Saturday, August 28, 2004
Extracts posted today, seen in advance by the Guardian, reveal her worrying over forgeting to eat while campaigning and struggling to concoct meals for her children, and having to buy suits to look presentable. "The worst thing about byelections is that you need to look smart, and it's worse being a woman," Ms Dunn, 35, writes.
"You can't just wear one suit every day and change your shirt for the occasion ... Court dress consists entirely of black and grey suits, and I refuse to spend two months being photographed wearing nothing but dull colours."
Obviously an issues person, then. But since when was it such a pressing issue for voters? Ann Widdecombe looks like a jumble sale model, and she's fared passably well at the polls. And has she ever seen the Blair 'babes' ?
Still, there's no reason to despair, as her blog reports:
Noted with some satisfaction that all the delivering has resulted in a weight loss of half a stone. Good news. But the real question for me today was what was going to happen to my court case. It was listed for five days. If it went ahead that would leave almost no time for campaigning all week. In the event however, the case was adjourned so I was free by three o'clock, and told my clerk not to put in any extra work for the rest of the week.
There is, occasionally, some politics on her blog (such as when she claims that Labour have issued a press-release calling her a single-mother; "lies", says she). Mostly, however, it is a prolonged effort in retailing dull tales from a dull campaign. And if I want to know what illiberal codswallop the Labour party strategists are purveying at the moment, I need only check out Tom Watson's blog . Watson, although he is given to insanely reactionary outbursts (like "why won't the Lib Dems lock up asylum-seeking single mums who smoke crack, and their kids who join teen gangs?"), does at least make an effort to talk about politics.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat Richard Allan MP writes with about as much energy and conviction as a stuffed turkey. A quick perusal of his blog will tell you that he was excited about the Hodge Hill by-election, has been mistaken for a Labour MP, was very excited to catch a glimpse of Bill Clinton and is vexing himself over the question of copyright laws. Riveting.
Hardly surprising, therefore, that the Hansard Society report on "political blogging" reaches damning conclusions . My advice is, if you don't have any literary flair or combustible political views, or even an insurmountably huge ego like me, don't bother blogging.
Anyone interested in keeping up with that roller-coaster campaign in Hartlepool should check out Guacamoleville . Unlike most of the tiresome cretins discussed above, Guacamoleville is funny, informative and hearteningly contemptuous of the main three parties.
Friday, August 27, 2004
The 'F' Word. posted by Richard SeymourMy parodist has me screaming the word "Fascist" a lot, rehearsing Rik Mayall's schtick in The Young Ones, so I'd better allow life to imitate 'art' (if I may speak loosely).
I agree with Norman Geras that John Pilger is far too willing to use the term 'fascism' in inappopriate contexts. America is obviously not a country on the verge of fascist rule, notwithstanding the quips of certain cigar-loving Generals. (Although, if you follow the link you will see that I have conflated 'fascism' with authoritarian rule, which brings to mind Slavoj Zizek's point that we lack a concept to adequately capture such styles of governance, with terms like "proto-Fascist" and "crypto-Fascist" supplying a kind of stop-gap). Pilger still nails the essential truth about the upcoming US elections and I don't think that one can read anything essential about the state of the Left into such usage, as Geras seems to, because I don't think it is ubiquitous on the Left.
On the other hand, certain members of the pro-war Left have been entirely too promiscuous in their use of the term, using it to allude to the Ba'athist regime and certain Islamist formations. Nick Cohen's ignorant claim that "Islamism can't create a sustainable or good society: it can only kill and oppress" comes to mind, along with a number of similar statements in which political Islam is portrayed as a singular, hermetically sealed ideology that is either 'fascist' or merely death-dealing, depending upon what mood Cohen is in. Oliver Kamm's chosen "definition" of Fascism is particularly inept , as Charlotte Street notes:
The great elephant that was Oliver Kamm’s discussion of ‘Fascism and the Left’ turns out to have been standing on nothing more substantial than the following fragile tortoise:
The definition of fascism I am working with is the one from Roger Eatwell that I quoted in the second post in this series: "a form of thought which preaches the need for social rebirth in order to forge a holistic-national [An utterly rebarbative hyphenation] radical Third Way."
The idea that Fascism is primarily a ‘form of thought’ [a form of thought??], i.e., that it is primarily a matter of ideas, is - to say the least - highly contentious/ culpably incomplete; the irony, of course, is that it is just this idea, a frankly idealist one, that a Left analysis would want to contest and, I would argue, it just this error that a left analysis is able to correct. Even in its own terms (which are false) it is dubious – if Fascism preached the need for ‘rebirth’ one surely needs to qualify this by pointing out that this typically took the rhetorical form of a ‘return to roots’, pseudo-atavistic appeals to ‘Blut und Boden’ and so on. (For some reason Shelley’s proto-fascist lines “the world’s great age begins anew, the golden years return” just popped into my head.)
Kamm continues: ‘The value of this definition lies in its stress on the radical character of fascism.’ And the redundancy of it is that it is unusably broad, yokes together inherently diverse phenomena and fails completely to address the historical specificity of fascism; perhaps worse, it makes fascism itself sound rather innocuous.
Kaplan, as ever, riots in understatement. However, he is right to refer to the specificity of Fascism as against Kamm's feeble generality. I ought to point out, by the way, that anyone who had read Eatwell's book (Fascism: A History, 1996) will be aware that the sentences excerpted don't attempt to define fascism, but refer to its "ideological core". He does not reduce fascism to a "form of thought" as Kamm does, but accepts that it is a modern form of revolutionary, mass politics in which a mythic period of national decline is to be overcome in a new post-liberal order. I don't think his definition is sufficient, and Eatwell is too eager to impute a submerged left-wing tradition to Fascism (which is belied by his own evidence, in fact).
Christopher Hitchens, at a debate hosted by the London Review of Books, was challenged on the way in which such terms were being abused in relation to Iraq, to which he protested: "I never characterised the Ba'athist regime in that way." A year later, he could be found in the Mirror declaring that "He [Saddam] is Hitler...". Hitchens' earlier protestations lead one to think he understands that scrupulousness about the use of such allusions is not an attempt to confect a distinction without a difference (as he might say). On the contrary, the use of such language by politicians is generally supposed to raise the spectre of "the good war", conferring on their own imperial subventions the same aura of necessary, common struggle as attends the memory of World War II. There may not be a morally significant difference between the ousted Ba'athist regime and regimes that have issued from fascist movements, but there is an important distinction to be had.
Now, here's my ABC of F. A more authoritative version of what follows can be found in volume one of Ian Kershaw's outstanding biography of Adolf Hitler, or indeed in Leon Trotsky's The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. Fascism is, most importantly, a movement. It is a modern, mass movement originating in the social distress and dislocation created by capitalist crisis. The social character of such movements is disproportionately petit-bourgeois and 'lumpenproletariat'. Their success has typically only been made possible, however, through their being appropriated by conservative elites. They are nationalist, anti-socialist, anti-Marxist and anti-liberal. The "rebirth" they seek is one of organic, national unity, preserved in a new authoritarian state. Das Volk feature only as the blind puppets of history, transfixed by charismatic leader. The ideological quality of this renewal is mythical, miraculous and religious. As George Steiner comments:
"This is what Luther has been calling for, in his waking of the German nation. The cry is there in Fichte's famous letters to the German nation, but this time there is a validation of the Lutheran belief that the state must be a religious phenomenon, in a very concrete sense, that is to say, a collectivity transcending individual motives..." (George Steiner, No Passion Spent: Essays, 1978-1996, 1996, p. 229).
But the important point is that this dystopian appeal emerges directly from the squalor of market failure, and as a counter-blast to the potential communist revolution. And it is this latter which makes Fascism an appealing option for the ruling class. In other words, in every convincing formulation of Fascism must be an acknowledgment that it is both a popular and elitist movement, 'radical' precisely in order to conserve, 'socialist' all the better to crush socialism, and 'workerist' so long as it shall have the chance to break the power of the working class. Charlotte Street quotes Walter Benjamin :
The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Fuhrer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.
The study of Fascism is reduced by the canards that seek to implicate all "extreme" political positions in it. Marxism is too Marxist to be reduced to a variant of some archetype or psychological disposition that includes Fascism. Political Islam is too varied, diffuse and internally contradictory to be simply equated with Fascism. And Ba'athism as a movement in the Arab world is more Stalinist than Hitlerite (notwithstanding the claim by Syrian Baathists that Hussein's regime was a deviation). Once again, fascism is not to be identified merely in ideological significations, or in certain "family resemblances" between what one ideology says and what fascists say; it should be understood as a movement, not simply as an idea.
To all those who casually disinter the putrid Cold War platitudes (extremists are bad, totalitarian etc.) to justify their present political stance, I simply say this: F off.
And Why Wasn't I Invited? posted by Richard SeymourBackword Dave brings news of a British Blogger bash , including such luminaries as Chris Brooke, Chris Bertram, and some woman called Josephine Crawley Quinn. Blogging seems to amplify the sexism of the daily world, since I have no idea who JCQ is.
Chris Brooke, on the other hand, vaguely resembles a young AC Grayling, while Chris Bertram could easily be a gimp. Ah, fuck you guys. I'm going to have my own party with this lager. Ah, sweet sweet lager... Mmmmm...
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
A Few Links. posted by Richard SeymourYes, yes, yes, I'm a cheap, lazy, pie-munching, lager-guzzling fat tart, but there it is. Once again, I'm reduced to linking to other people who have something to say for want of having the energy to say anything myself.
First, Blood and Treasure performs an excellent take-down on the new tag team of Nick Cohen and Oliver Kamm, particularly with regard to Cohen's fatuous claim that "For the crime of preferring feudal bureaucracy to bourgeois democracy he would have tied copies of Das Kapital around the necks of the SWP leaders and thrown them into the Thames." We don't, he wouldn't have, and such a stance would not be novel even if it were accurately imputed to us.
James at Dead Men Left has a good article on the Nader campaign, and also hurls his guts up over a list of the "funniest Britons" .
Finally, presumably in a bid to win back some of his ailing influence, Ayatollah al-Sistani is to lead a march to Najaf to demand American withdrawal from the city . Meanwhile, in the same story, a peaceful demonstration by al-Sadr supporters was fired upon, allegedly by members of the new Iraqi National Guard. Obviously modelling themselves on the American version, then.
Update: Daniel Brett has some answers for those baffled about the alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guineau. And Dead Men Left talks over the head of Oliver Kamm on the topic of political Islam. Kamm wouldn't know what the term 'political Islam' entailed if you impressed it on his brow with a brickbat, as is so amply demonstrated in this case. And, the lardy lout of Iraqi politics, Muqtada al-Sadr, gains in popularity even as Ayatollah Sistani returns to Iraq .
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
Many people want to say that criticism of Israeli activities doesn't amount to anti-Semitism. And right enough, sometimes it doesn't. But for the kind of reasons I've set out, the matter is more complicated. Criticism of Israel for activities which are excused in others; criticism of Israeli misdeeds when far worse ones, committed by others, are passed over silently; hostility towards Jewish nationalism when other forms of nationalism are tolerated or lauded, all run the risk of being unfair and/or irrational. At the very least, the onus is on the critic to show why the selective attention she is paying to Israel's failures is in some way appropriate.
But criticism of Israel, even unfair criticism, is not anti-semitism. It is often a vehicle for anti-semites, but that does not amount to the same thing. Unfair or selective criticism applied to Muslims is diffuse and general, and usually involves a kind of racism. Unfair or selective criticism applied to Israel is specific and does not necessarily surreptitiously allude to the majority of Jews who choose not to live in Israel, or even to the minority who do. What is usually meant by criticism of Israel is criticism of the state's policies. That is to say, Garrard makes an entirely illegitimate comparison between hostility to a body of people who cannot be accused of being oppressive, tout court, and hostility to a state which definitely can.
The point about hostility to Jewish nationalism is answered, I think, partly by what I have written below. To summarise, nationalism in any form is an insufficient basis for liberatory or democratic politics. In itself, it merely involves the supposition that there is some shared experience rooted in language, history etc. That this supposition is usually false does not make it necessarily malign. The only grounds on which nationalism can be justified is when the self-determination of peoples is a necessary means to achieving the self-determination of people. I don't accept that Israel fulfills this criterion because a) most Jewish people have been able to live in relative security and comfort elsewhere in the world, and b) the condition for the formation of a Jewish state was the ethnic cleansing of approximately 750,000 Palestinian Arabs.
"Moreover, unfair prejudice against Israel, even when not motivated by anti-Semitism, can be as dangerous and damaging to a large sector of the Jewish population as anti-Semitism itself, especially where it takes the form of calls for the forcible destruction of the Jewish state."
Suppose calling for the forcible destruction of the Jewish state, either from without or within, can be considered entirely fair under a certain purview? And further suppose that this view does not entail anti-semitism, but that the call for the destruction of the Jewish state is made on the same grounds as one should oppose anti-semitism? The fact that there is a tenuous connection between the fate of Jews and the fate of Israel (in that some groups use hostility to Israel as a reason to attack Jews) would not make the persistence of the Jewish state necessarily just; therefore calling for it to be dismantled, altered or revolutionised would not necessarily be unjust. What we would then be left with is a very pertinent warning to express such views with diligence and care, to ensure they are indeed free of anti-semitism and to make them known in such a way as to avoid anti-semitism being read into them.
This is a fair warning, and even critics of Israel who resent being made to pass some "anti-semitism" test by its supporters nevertheless need to be on their guard. Anti-Zionism cannot thrive as a reputable position if it connotes anti-semitism, even though it is not in any way an anti-semitic position to hold in itself.
"[A] type of thinking ... capable of grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously, within a single thought, and without attenuating the force of either judgement. We are, somehow, to lift our minds to point where it is possible to understand that capitalism is at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race, and the worst." (Quoted, Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique, Polity Press, 1989).
It seems we have had to pursue a similar understanding of nationalism, neither accepting it as a sufficient ground for political action, nor ignoring its emancipatory potential. Nationalism, in the 18th Century and early 19th Century, was a revolutionary movement, often associated with liberal ideals rather than reactionary ones. Hence Garibaldi, L'Ouverture and Kolokotronis. In the 20th Century, it assumed the dimensions of extreme right and left. Given the overwhelming socialist rejection of nationalism, with the assessment (correct, in my view) that there no specific shared material interest between people living in a defined land-mass speaking the same language, it has often been a point of controversy about just what stance to take on, say, Arab nationalism, Irish nationalism etc. It has not been so difficult to know what to say about Russian, German and Eastern European nationalism.
According to Benedict Anderson, nationalisms are rooted in "imagined communities", in which people who have never had any contact with one another are assumed to have a shared experience. What made this possible initially was the development of the printing press, the standardisation of language and the emergence of vernacular literatures. (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, 1991). The growing interest in philology, and the languages spoken by other cultures, was an indication of this - Edward Said's Orientalism documents the considerable interest displayed by Orientalists in Sanskrit, and interest which was not always or merely patronising, but did involve the assumption that there was some unbroken bond between the civilisation of yester-year and the subjugated peoples of the time.
But, as Terry Eagleton argues, nationalism was and is "a piece of romantic mystification". He goes on:
There is nothing in the fact of being Irish or Tibetan which entails that you have a right to political self-determination precisely as Irish or Tibetan, other than that to be Irish or Tibetan is to be human, and so to enjoy a right to self-determination on those grounds. The Irish qua Irish have no more title to self-determination than have the freckled, red-haired or bow-legged. (Terry Eagleton, "Nationalism and the Case of Ireland", New Left Review 234, series 1, p 44).
Acknowledging this, however, one can always make the case - as in fact Eagleton does - that the Irish being entitled to self-determination as human beings can entail them being entitled to self-determination as the Irish. That is, it is not possible to create the conditions for the real autonomy and self-determination of individuals living in Ireland without first having created a united statehood independent of the British, who have denied such autonomy. This, broadly, is how I view Iraq.
And I'll slip now from this discursive mode and discuss what this means in practise, particularly concering the uprising in Najaf, the position of the coalition and their inability thus far to break the resistance. First of all, the situation as I write is that coalition troops and their Iraqi recruits are closing in on the Imam Ali shrine, apparently 400 metres away from the beehive of resistance activity. That sounds a lot closer than effectively it is, because the surrounding area is a labyrinth of alleys and blind-spots. I would not be surprised, however, to see al-Sadr killed and the bulk of his men either killed or arrested. This would not terminate the resistance (even as this happens, another outfit has detonated a car-bomb in Kadisea in southern Baghdad), but it would be a substantial defeat.
Why are we here? William Pfaff , who has himself authored an impressive study of nationalism (The Wrath of Nations, Touchstone, 1993) sees it as a failure of politics, in which the Marines have been allowed to act too ruthlessly:
After the several U.S. private security operatives in the city were murdered and their corpses mutilated, the Marines mounted an assault to search for and arrest the unidentified murderers.
The attack provoking armed uprisings against the American occupation elsewhere in Iraq. This did attract attention in Washington, and American forces were eventually ordered to make a thinly disguised handover of Falluja to some of the same people they had just been fighting. Most of Falluja has since been no-go territory for Americans.
In Najaf, in early August, commanders of another newly arrived Marine force decided on their own to end a four-month defiance of American and Iraqi governmental authority by Moktada al-Sadr and his so-called Mahdi Army of radicalized young Shiites.
The Marines violated the agreed "exclusion zone" around the Imam Ali Mosque, Shiite Islam's holiest shrine, setting off an eight-day battle. The Marines had to be reinforced by U.S. Army and untested Iraqi forces. Truces followed but failed to hold, and at the time of writing the confrontation remains unresolved.
Who is in charge in Iraq, if military initiatives of the highest political sensitivity are being left to gung-ho Marine commanders, with a career interest in demonstrating how much tougher the Marines are than the army units they replace?
Why then is Ambassador John Negroponte in Iraq? He is now building up what is to become a 3,000-person U.S. mission to a nominally sovereign Iraq, whose new interim government is supposed to be taking political control of the country.
It is reported that when the shooting started between the Marines and the Mahdi army, and Negroponte was informed that Sadr was summoning help, he "decided to pursue the case" - apparently meaning that he backed what the Marines had started, leading to the present stand-off in Najaf.
The human cost of this recklessness has been under-reported and considerable. It is not even a matter of debate that Sadr would be a marginal figure if it weren't for his resistance against the Americans. 81% of Iraqis have reported an improved opinion of Sadr, while 64% said that his acts of insurgency made Iraq more unified. At the same time, only 2% wanted him to be President. (In the same poll, the coalition gained the approbation of 2% of Iraqis.) In previous polls , 67% supported Sadr while 57% wanted the Americans to "leave immediately". The theme that will not disappear from Iraqi politics, besides the desire for security, is the intensifying opposition to the occupation and the increasing willingness to support anyone, whatever they think of their politics, who will stand up to the 'coalition'.
Similarly, even those Iraqis who have joined the new army have expressed considerable reservations about attacking fellow countrymen, according to Knight Ridder :
At the station last week, several recruits stood outside Majeed's office, debating their predicament. Some said they don't consider al-Sadr's militiamen true Shiites and have no problem facing them. Most, however, said they would turn in their guns rather than fire at familiar faces.
"The Mahdi Army is, after all, Iraqi," said Sgt. 1st Class Emad Ali, 26, who comes from Sadr City. "These are my cousins, my uncles, my brothers. This is not an enemy. This is family."
This is not an army of conviction, which is why the coalition are being forced to consider increasing pay as recruits leave in droves . What is more, if any of them needed persuasion from their co-religionists, they now have a clerical edict to contend with that states, "It is forbidden for any Muslim to cooperate with the occupation forces and killing their own brothers and fellow citizens". This religious element compounds the nationalism, indeed is part of it. Not only must they not kill their "own brothers" (other Muslims), but they must also refrain from killing their "fellow citizens" (other Iraqis). This is analogous to the way Shi'ism was used to sustain Iranian nationalism after the 1979 revolution. (See Sami Zubaida, "Is Iran an Islamic State?", in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork eds, Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report, 1997).
Meanwhile, Sami Ramadani reports in The Guardian that Sadr is increasingly out-shining Ayatollah Ali Sistani:
Grand Ayatollah Sistani was being listened to attentively after the invasion. The number of his portraits on display was rising with every defiant statement. During the past few weeks, however, those portraits were fast disappearing to be replaced by Sadr's, and those of his father, his uncle, Ayatollah Khomeini, and those of another very potent and very popular junior, Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Again, we may assume that this is because of his willingness to challenge the occupiers in contrast to Sistani's pacific appeals. The consequence of all this is that it will be impossible, as long as the United States shall seek to exert its control over Iraq's destiny, for Iraq to obtain the much-desired stability, never mind self-determination. The movement which persists in Iraq is not, as President Bush claims, a few Ba'athist stragglers hoping to re-take the government. If they were that, they could have done so already by participating in the Iraqi National Conference and by collaborating with the occupation. But, as the conservative commentator Andrew Bacevich reports:
A year ago, when he assumed charge of United States Central Command and acknowledged that Operation Iraqi Freedom had given way to what he candidly called a “classical guerrilla war,” Gen. John Abizaid assessed the total number of insurgents to be 5,000. But according to a recent Associated Press dispatch all but ignored by major media outlets, official estimates of the enemy’s strength have risen to 20,000—this despite the fact that over the past year American forces have killed or imprisoned several thousand Iraqis and so-called “foreign fighters.” In short, enemy recruitment is easily outpacing our efforts to reduce his numbers.
There is a sense in which this hardly comes as a surprise. Despite periodic ebbs and flows, the fighting in Iraq over the past year has progressively intensified. Overall security has deteriorated. Bush administration efforts to portray the resistance as a last-ditch effort by a handful of Saddam loyalists have long since lost all credibility. The truth is that our adversary is shrewd, resourceful, and highly motivated. By and large, we find ourselves dancing to his tune: he blows up an oil pipeline, detonates a bomb in downtown Baghdad, or assassinates an Iraqi official—and we react after the fact.
The sympathy of Iraqis for Muqtada al-Sadr's fighters will continue to fuel the growth of an old-fashioned nationalist movement made even more combustible by a distinct religious element. This is not, obviously enough, without its dangers. it is possible that the unity now emerging could descend into factional rivalry the second US troops have been removed. It is possible that one or other demagogue may take control of the situation. It is also possible that Iraqis, having suffered enough to see Hussein overthrown and the coalition evicted, will be unwilling to accept anything but authentic democracy with real participation and the minimum of compulsion be it religious or secular. One must hope it will be the latter.
Republican Congressman Tom Coburn:
"We've got to figure out what we believe in our country. Do we believe in capitalism and money or do we believe in human rights?" (Washington Post, May 15th, 1998).
Coburn, a staunch advocate of the former, nevertheless does believe that some sordid business interests should be curtailed. Sweated labour? Diamond mining involving children? Nope, the target of the good Congressman's ire is the sinful condom.
Access to food is not a human right. At a World Food Summit in Rome (1996), organised by the United Nations, one country stood out from the pack in objecting to an affirmation of the "right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food". The fear was that it could be interpreted in such a way as to allow poor countries to sue for special aid and trade provisions. Just to be sure, that country drafted a series of "interpretive statements" designed to minimise such risks. As Rolf Harris once famously quipped, can you guess who it is yet? (Washington Post, November 18th, 1996.) Congressman Coburn, all your questions have been answered.
Monday, August 23, 2004
Piece of Meat posted by Richard SeymourAn auld acquaintance of mine has started blogging . It should prove interesting if you want to know what its like teaching English in South Korea and living near the future site of World War IV. As he explains:
I am now living in a foreign land, full of foreign people, full of exotic, spicy, shit-inducing food, and is this not worth some public reflection? Is this not worth putting my thoughts out for all to digest, for the furtherment of understanding of nations, the bonding of international brotherhood, working people's solidarity, and world peace? Horseshit, I know, but if you've made it this far, you've already clicked on the link, so I better stop waffling and get to it.
He is (was?) a member of a comedy theatre outfit called Piece of Meat , which originated in Seattle, but then sold out and moved to LA. There it won a substantial fan base and critical acclaim . So what the fuck he's doing in South Korea is mysterious to me. At any rate, he's too funny for his own good and when the revolution comes (as it must) he will probably be shot. Of course, coming from Seattle, he may actually prefer to do the job himself...
Check him out.
I should point out, for those who haven't yet clicked on the link, that the headline of Ha'aretz's story, "Report: Radical Muslim group behind arson of Jewish center", actually concerns only two very short paragraphs at the beginning of a story that is 25 paragraphs long (although they later mention that the wave of anti-semitic attacks in France is possibly related to the course of the Arab-Israeli "peace process"). You also need to know that Army Radio in Israel is owned by the Israeli Defense Ministry. It was created by David Ben-Gurion to help mobilise reserve troops and preserve cohesion among soldiers, but has since come to be regarded as vaguely anti-establishment (unlike its elder twin, Israel Radio). It is run by soldiers and civilian army employees, and is apparently widely listened to. It has been sourced by hundreds of news organisations across the world from Fox News to The Guardian. Reuters also carry a similar story, suggesting that a group known as Jamaat Ansar al-Jihad al-Islamiya accepted responsibility for the attack, although it is not clear whether their source is Army Radio. For my part, I can find no mention of this group anywhere else. If there is a website in Paris containing a statement from such a purported group, I can't find it. (Methods ranged from various word combinations in search engines to rummaging round Muslim websites based in France).
That's the set-up. Where am I going with this? Well, the argument from Israel its Prime Minister has been that the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe is the result of its growing Muslim population. According to The Guardian:
The Israeli Forum to Coordinate the Struggle Against Anti-semitism - a group of Israeli intelligence and foreign ministry officials - defines anti-semitism in three forms: classic, new and Muslim.
The forum asserts that the most dangerous strand has its roots in Islam and that the rising number of Muslims in Europe is responsible for fuelling terror attacks, street violence and general harassment of Jews.
Muslims are also blamed for the spread of anti-semitism to countries such as Denmark, previously renowned for its efforts to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Mr Sharon described the growing Muslim population in Europe as "endangering the life of Jewish people."
"Of course the sheer fact that there are a huge amount of Muslims, approximately 17 million in the EU, this issue has also turned into a political matter. I would say, in my opinion, EU governments are not doing enough to tackle anti-semitism," he said.
There is an almost automatic ideological response which is inclined to see anti-semitism as somehow imported into a recently civilised Europe by Muslims. Usually, this is seen as having somehow been accomodated by the Left and their public hostility to Israel. Recently a flutter of books have been published in America which advance different variations of this thesis. Of course it is perfectly true that many recent anti-semitic attacks have been carried out by Muslims. It is probably true that some of this is motivated by hostility to Israel and its behaviour in the occupied territories. But let's be clear on one thing - anti-semitism in Europe is largely the territory of the far right, which usually doesn't get on very well with Muslims either.
A report issued this year by the European Monitoring Commission on Racism and Xenophobia identified those responsible as "young, disaffected white Europeans" ... followed by North African or Asian Muslims. Indeed, while a large percentage of anti-semitic attacks in France have been attributed to Muslims, it is also a country in which the Islamophobic, anti-Semitic politician Jean Marie Le-Pen can get almost 20% of the vote. Eastern European countries are experiencing a rise nationalist, anti-semitic sentiment, with hard right politicians accusing the Jews of having been the cause of Bolshevism etc. On the other hand, Portugal has a reasonable Muslim population, (about 36,000, far larger than the number of Jewish citizens) but has showed no particular signs of increased anti-semitism. Belgium has 410,350 Muslims living in it, but again there has not been the increase in anti-semitic attacks reported in France. Germany has 2,840,228 Muslims, almost double the number of France, but there is little evidence of growing anti-semitism there. As The Economist notes, there has been increasing criticism of Israel within the mainstream, but "though far-right violence has risen in the past few years (and dropped a bit last year), it is mainly directed against Muslims from North Africa and Turkey, not against Jews."
There is no clear correlation between the numbers of Muslims in European countries and the subsistence of anti-semitism there. Anti-semitism is certainly a growing problem in France, but anti-semitic attitudes seem to be spreading universally (although are still vastly stronger on the far right than anywhere else).
I don't know whether the attack on a Jewish centre in Paris was carried out by Muslims or non-Muslims. There are good grounds for being sceptical about the story emanating from Israel Army Radio, but it could equally prove to be accurate. The point is to decouple the serious and necessary fight against anti-semitism, from whichever quarter, from the Islamophobic connotations that have often come with it. Clearly, certain extremist Islamist groups nurture a very old-fashioned kind of anti-semitism which is also leavened by hostility to Israel. But hostility to Israel is not anti-semitism, the presence of large numbers of Muslims does not guarantee that anti-semitism will persist, and the fight against Jew hatred, intimidation and violence has to be allied with another struggle that is of equal import and even more urgent - that against the gathering storm of anti-Muslim prejudice across Europe today.
Update: Jonathan Derbyshire draws my attention to a story in Le Monde which corroborates Ha'aretz's story. Noting that I also link to a Reuters piece that does the same, he wonders: "since, as you observe, the Ha'retz piece itself acknowledges that French investigators have cast doubt over the veracity of the Islamist link, why mention Ha'aretz and Army Radio at all?" The only honest answer is, it was an ill-conceived gesture based on little more than suspicion. I'm not above folly, and not beneath admitting to it. It has diverted from my point rather than adding to it, so although I note the vaguely hostile tone of Derbyshire's intervention, I am glad he gave me the opportunity to clear this up. A Google translation of Le Monde's story can be found here .
Bittersweet parody. posted by Richard SeymourSomeone who styles him or herself as 'Oliver' has been doing the rounds at MediaLens and Harry's Place, crying foul over an apparently malicious piss-take. Following the provided link, I discover this :
Banausic, Irrelevant Gnats.
It has come to my attention that a certain parodist is wasting bandwidth and precious time in therapy attempting to poke fun at my blog. I used to take a great deal of pleasure in destroying such foetus-brains, but my new wife has instructed me not to bother. So sayeth she, and so shall it be. I will just point out, however, that as attempted satire, it completely misses the mark. It is literally packed with feeble non-sequiturs, portentous gibbering, pretentious cultural references, grammatical sniping, surreptitious name-dropping, self-advertisement, some feeble take-downs on some rather feeble Liberal Democrats and rhetorical attacks on the late Soviet regime.
As Christopher Hitchens once told me over the phone, "the united front against bullshit can withstand even the tidal wave of it emanating from the cavities of the European elite if we just hold firm."
I adhere steadily to that view, and would advise all future parodists that they are as gnats beating against a polished windscreen. Incidentally, anyone using the comments boxes to make incendiary, libellous, racist or other remarks will find their comments deleted. No exceptions.
Hmmm. Well, whoever you are, brave soul, I know exactly how you feel .
The trouble is that Israel and its defenders constantly repeat with wearisome predictability that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Now, that isn't any trick provided you don't have to put up with occupation or CIA/MI6 sponsored coups. But it seems a little incongruent for a nation so concerned with its democratic credentials to refuse access to a journalist simply because she says the wrong things, and isn't likely to fall under a steam-roller any time soon. Then again, as Mordechai Vanunu can tell you, the Israeli government prefers to err on the side of secrecy.
Sunday, August 22, 2004
When the wind blows... posted by Richard SeymourMarc Blitzstein was a 1930s communist playwright who enjoyed the honour of having his play The Cradle Will Rock fucked up by Orson Welles, banned by the US government, then played at the disused Venice Theatre before an audience that had literally marched through the streets to see it by actors who had been banned by their union from performing it. This play, an exhiliating musical polemic in the style of Bertolt Brecht, had sold between 14,000 and 18,000 tickets in advance. It was centred on a strike at a steel plant in Steel Town, USA. There was the archetypal capitalist, Mister Mister, who ran most of big steel, owned the local press and was head of the anti-union Liberty Committee. The union organiser, Larry Foreman. The capitalist's wife, Mrs Mister. The good Reverend Salvation. And the pressman, Editor Daily. The 'cradle' in question is the cradle of power, in which the rich, corrupt and powerful are shaken and blasted from branch to trunk. This is not a work, then, of subtle characterisation and ambiguity. Shades of grey are deliberately eschewed for the sake of political urgency.
Blitzstein, performing his musical in the Venice Theatre on 59th Street.
The tumult of 1930s America is illustrated with unusual clarity in Howard Zinn's breath-taking work, A People's History of America. With unemployment soaring and the economy contracting, workers were becoming restless and bosses terrified. Strikes for higher wages and better working conditions abounded, US corporations were busily flogging steel, oil and rubber to Fascist Italy to keep those tanks and trucks moving, and radical ideas proliferated. Striking workers were attacked by paid strike-breakers and police - many were literally beaten to death on behalf of the state. Meanwhile, President Roosevelt certainly knew what to do:
One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment... ; If it doesn't turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.
It didn't turn out right. The New Deal economy became the permanent war economy, and gave Harry Truman the idea of a lifetime when he lodged his ass in the Oval Office ("say, fellahs, why not have us a National Security State?"). But one of the many reforms Roosevelt attempted in order to combat unemployment was the erection of state-sponsored projects like the Federal Theatre Project, chaired by Halle Flanagan. The project paid for theatre productions and kept professional actors, writers and theatre workers employed. It was under the rubric of the FTP that Marc was initially to have his play performed. Orson Welles, assigned to direct the play, imagined that what the play really needed was a wild cacophony of glass set-pieces including "illuminated glass wagons" . These sets invariably crashed and smashed in rehearsal.
Then, however, a House committee (the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American activities, forerunner of HUAC) was formed to investigate the existence of communism within the Federal Theatre Project. Martin Dies, a blow-hard Democrat, headed the team, which swiftly began to hoover up whatever bilious emissions certain very willing witnesses were able to produce. Some of these communists in the FTP talked about familial sex, relationships with Negroes, all that crazy left-wing stuff - then it turned out that Halle Flanagan had been to Russia. And what was that play she was overseeing, The Cradle Will Rock? That was getting an awful lot of attention for one play, which was particularly worrying as it appeared to preach class war. Isn't there something we can do to stop this sumbitch?
Blitzstein, himself the son of a wealthy socialist banker(!), could not join the Communist Party because he was a homosexual. In that golden age, pink and red flags were not publicly mixed. But he was a communist, and he did blatantly wish to polarise his audience. Richard Eyre, commenting on Brecht's style, said he wanted audiences to relax, smoke cigars, take sides and analyse as if they were at a boxing match. None of this bourgeois deference to the theatre and its sacred traditions. Blitzstein was much the same. So, with the Senate pressing for the closure of the FTP, the government cancelled all new productions and shed 20,000 Federal Theatre Project jobs. The Cradle Will Rock, therefore, could not be performed at the Maxine Elliot theatre as planned. Armed security guards were stationed outside the theatre just to make sure. And so Jack Houseman, the producer of the play and Orson's homosexual friend and colleague, made arrangements to find a new theatre. Meanwhile, the actors union informed the cast that if any of them partook of any performance of Blitzstein's play, they would be unceremoniously ex-communicated.
But Blitzstein's play was about revolution, about collective action, about the organised power of working people. They had been reading it, living it, breathing it for months. They revolted. Blitzstein, not a member of the actors' union, was initially planning to perform the play all by himself from the stage of the Venice Theatre. However, several leading cast members broke their silence, even while seated in the back rows of the theatre, to sing their part. Having marched to the theatre with a militant audience, and cheered wildly when a Fascist flag was ripped down by an audience member, they now defied the government and their union to perform this delirious play.
So, what was in this play that made it so frightening, so dangerous for those in power? It was not the only play by Blitzstein to be banned for political reasons, but it is the most notorious. Well, the finale's chorus, with unionised workers marching round the stage, singing a terrifying warning to Mister Mister cowering in the wings, should clear it up:
That's thunder, that's lightning,
And it's gonna surround you!
No wonder those storm-birds
Seem to circle around you!
Well, you can't climb down and you can't sit still
That's a storm that's gonna last until
The final wind blows...
And when the wind blows...
The cradle will rock!
Saturday, August 21, 2004
'I' is for 'Empty'... posted by Richard SeymourThe always excellent Charlotte Street has a fine post about 'individuality' in capitalist society today:
The increase in ideologies of ‘individuality’ and ‘individual expression’ is inversely proportional to the actual possibilities for such individuality within contemporary society. One might even say that the existence of the former is a symptom of the disappearance of the latter, that the emergence of the signifier (‘individuality’) is like an epitaph for its signified.
Not untypically, one’s ‘individuality’ mimics that of the commodity. The commodity must differentiate itself from other commodities by whatever means. Each must have its quirky tic, style, unique symbolic attachment etc in order to make it different. Its individuality is therefore the secondary effect of competition and bears no qualitative or expressive relation to the object itself. It ‘expresses’ nothing but the empty fact of differentiation.
Similarly the ‘individual’ today must quickly assume some trick or style with which to signify his individuality in the contemporary bazaar of individualities. Again, this is no more than a surface effect which exists only through differentiation and beneath which true individuality is smothered.
At this point, however, I start to wonder what 'true individuality' is. Slavoj Zizek, making fun of bourgeois notions of human rights, noted how human worth was located in some secret essence, some objet petit a like the plastic toy in the Kinder Surprise egg (which, although worthless, is the real point of it, the thing that kids always hurry to get, ignoring the chocolate). Is that where individuality resides? In the excremental excess?
I'm just asking, and certainly not in an aggressive way because, as you'll have guessed, I'm becoming a big fan of Charlotte Street. In fact, if Kaplan wants, I can be his academic groupie.
Friday, August 20, 2004
Dilemma and the Just War. posted by Richard SeymourA certain impossibilist has been fantasising about slaughtering me. Not for some cranial movie to be replayed mid-masturbation, (although who truly knows?), but to make a point about the ideology of the just war. I suggest you read the post yourself if you wish to digest its slightly convoluted point, because I don't see a way of excerpting it without curtailing the process of discovery involved.
Basically, Bill's point is a variation on the theme of "if you had to kill one child in order to prevent an axe-murderer from killing a hundred, would you do it?" If you're an extreme utilitarian, you might just accept the calculation at face value and waste the little guy. If you're an ethicist, you might say 'not in my name' (which, as a slogan, stinks of narcissism and Beautiful Soul politics). If you're a moral consequentialist (influenced, perhaps by Marx and Aristotle*), you might say that although the consequences of such an action appear to be the lesser evil, the motives and likely behaviour of the axe-murderer are so inscrutable that it is really difficult to make such a choice and anything you do is really a gamble, a risky strategy with forces beyond your control. You might ponder on the wisdom of taking he axe-murderer at his word, and imagine what a berk you'd look on the ITV News if you killed the kid and then the axe-murderer just did what he wanted anyway. Then again, if you explained that you couldn't bring yourself to kill the child even though in the event it ensured the deaths of a hundred others because you didn't believe the murderer, had no good reason to trust him and could not in all conscience put one child to death on such tenuous grounds, few would fail to understand.
Whichever way our consequentialist acted, it would be with an understanding of considerable peril and the inevitability of tragedy. Now, I've weighted the argument in a particular direction, but it is just as possible to have a perfect dilemma. That is, in the philosopher Lemmon's terms, you could have a 'Sartrean dilemma' in which you both ought and ought not do something, each way for perfectly good reasons - but for reasons that are incommensurable. There is no way of choosing between them because they embody different values. To return to the theme of war, one ought to support the Palestinian resistance because every people has the right to resist oppression; similarly, one ought to oppose it because its tactics disgust one or because it is being waged much of the time by fanatical reactionaries who would do something terrible with their freedom if they ever got it. Or again, Britain ought to intervene in Darfur because it is an ex-colonial power, owes the country a debt, and should not stand by while atrocities occur; similarly, it ought not intervene precisely because it is an ex-colonial power, because it still has distorting interests in Africa, because its involvement has rarely done much but intensify the crisis, because there are better ways etc.
And, of course, the ethicist's value-judgments have totally different origins to those of the utilitarian. That said, I think that the grounding for such disputes is sufficient to make a reasonable choice between them. For instance, both the ethicist and the utilitarian would wish to minimise pain and misery; they differ over the wisdom and virtue of the means. Now it becomes possible to reintroduce the theme our moral consequentialist was mulling over: can I really trust this particular agent? Does it matter? Is motive really all that central?
I think it is, and I offer just one example: Vietnam. If the apologists for that war are correct, then Vietnam was a blunder (either because a well-meaning US misunderstood the reality of support for the NLF, or because they didn't bomb hard enough for long enough). In that view, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were defending some good, or thought they were. US imperialism therefore remains an inviolate ideal, and the only reasonable objection to further military incursions is that it may be unwise, may not obtain the stated goals or may bring adverse consequences on those conducting the intervention. If those who objected to that war are correct, Vietnam was a carefully planned assault on civilians with the aim of suppressing a national liberation movement. Cynical American planners described with cold precision the ways in which this movement had to be defeated, and were willing to accept a vast human cost because the ideals trumpeted by politicians were of little interest to them. (The latter view is correct. The Pentagon Papers demonstrate that US planners: were perfectly aware of the NLF's popular base as a national liberation movement first and as a communist organisation second; planned the bombing of civilians as part of strategy; and orchestrated the war with zero concern for the values espoused by successive Presidents. Similarly, Mark Curtis reports that his long trawl through declassified British planning documents have yielded not a single mention of or reference to such values as human rights, freedom etc.)
The consequence of the latter view is that the war was without question an exercise in extreme superpower malevolence, and any future war should be treated with scepticism. The consequence of the former view is that the war may well have been mistaken, but given the legitimate concerns of the time it was entirely justifiable, and future wars should be generally supported. That is not all, however. Harry at Harry's Place and Norman Geras have both expressed the view that in relation to Iraq, US motives are not of primary importance. For Harry, what is important is the intention, however motivated, to create a functioning democracy in Iraq. For Norm, objections based on an assessment of America's 'real' motives "loses the specific in the general", privileging suspicions about American hegemony over the immediate fate of Iraqis. A moral consequentialism that is not utilitarian, however, would have to weigh such factors. Consequences cannot be divorced from motives, and moral consequentialism, unlike utilitarianism, acknowledges that consequences extend farther into the future than our intelligence will allow us to calculate. All judgements about the justice of a war based on a view of consequences have to be leavened by an understanding of the actors involved and of alternatives. It would consider the possibility (discussed by Bill) of radically altering the conditions in which such choices have to be made.
Moral consequentialism exhorts us to choose between different modes of life as well as different choices within each mode. That is why I think Bill is wrong to consider himself an ethicist against 'just war'. He is a revolutionary against the system that can produce such awful concepts as the 'just war' and ought to be willing to get his hands bloody - so long as it is for a good cause.
*See Richard Miller's analysis of the relationship between Aristotelian ethics and Marxism. "Marx and Aristotle: A Kind of Consequentialism", in Alex Callinicos (ed), Marxist Theory, 1989, pp. 175-210.
The Allure of the Modern posted by Richard SeymourSlightly obscure cultural reference? I can do that.
The word 'modern' appeared first in English toward the end of the sixteenth century. To begin with it meant little more than the present time, but it slowly came to carry a sense of novelty. 'Modern' meant something that had never existed before. The idea was conceived that the future would be different from the past. (John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern, 2003).
Korsch cites Bacon, from the Novum Organum: "'Recte enim veritas temporis filia dictitur non auctoritas.' On that authority of all authorities, time, he had based the superiority of the new bourgeois empirical science over the dogmatic science of the Middle Ages." (Korsch, Karl Marx, cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 1927-1940).
Thursday, August 19, 2004
A Few Links. posted by Richard SeymourAdmittedly this is lazy blogging, but I'm sort of busy with, y'know, work...
So, here goes. Chris Lightfoot has a take-down of Oliver Kamm that includes the following recipe for a Kamm rant:
[S]lightly obscure cultural reference, portentous tone, grammatical sniping, the inevitable bitching about a Liberal Democrat, and a rhetorical attack on Soviet communism, only fifteen years too late.
Kamm has many detractors on the 'net, and a few emulators as well. I guess he's just so full of piping hot crap that the very mention of his name draws flies.
Chris Brooke offers reasons to be cheerful if you're on the Left, and also has a nice little dig at Johann Hari for his recent, very poorly conducted interview with Antonio Negri . On that subject, I would just note that I find it very unlikely that Negri was really as sad and vacuous as Hari made him out to be. He is a serious thinker, a turbo-charged intellectual. He was bound to have something interesting to say. Unfortunately, Hari is on precocious, obnoxious form, and it all turns into a foil for him to rail against the evils of communism. Now, a good interviewer knows how to get the best out of his/her subject - Hari just seems intent on making Negri look like a baffled old fool with some objectionable views.
Charlotte Street has some unkind words to say about the same, comparing it to Andrew Marr's stunningly inept interview with Noam Chomsky in which Marr was so uninformed and so unfamiliar with Chomsky's work that he managed to misfire every single time. At the end, Chomsky had made Marr look rather foolish, but Marr was completely oblivious.
Harry's Place carries a fine dissection of that shamefully bloated ego, "Dr" Gillian McKeith. An utter fraud, this slimy, sanctimonious bitch has been the bane of my fucking existence for the last few weeks. I've considered larding up just to piss her off. I can't wait 'til some fat family, sick of being patronised by this contemptible wax-figure of a human being, decides to gang up and eat her. That will crack me up for fucking days.
Finally, I have attracted a parodist . My initial reaction, on Harry's Place , who informed me of the fact, was that it was an honour. Having read it, though, it's just a bore. It has all the biting satire of a put-down from Socialism in an Age of Waiting ("ya wee wanker, fuck away off" etc), and exhibits no particular sense of having either read my blog or grasped my style. It's just a litany of rather poorly conceived insults. It's childish. I personally don't see the funny side at all, and frankly it's rather immature and blah blah blah...
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
"Viva Fascismo!" posted by Richard SeymourGene at Harry's Place is understandably upset that the opposition did not win the referendum in Venezuela. Harry's Place has existed to decry the anti-war left in hysterical terms as apologists for "Islamofascism" or just "fascism". I am delighted therefore to welcome Gene to the fold, for he has now aligned himself with the forces in Venezuela about whom the "F" word could no less promiscuously be used.
Still, as Gene Pool at Barry's Place says:
Never mind. They can always have a coup next year.
David Cross posted by Richard SeymourDavid Cross, an American comedian who has (justly) been compared to the late Bill Hicks, is performing at the Soho Theatre until August 28th. According to Jack Black,
If you miss a chance to see him perform, you're a total a-hole. I would crawl through glass to watch this guy take a shit.
Tsch, Hollywood! However, having got hold of his latest CD, I will definitely be attending and I recommend you do too. Why the comparisons with Bill Hicks? Because Cross's timing, attitude and material is very very similar to Bill's. Unlike certain other comedians who are still unfortunately very much alive, however, Cross didn't simply lift a load of Hicks' material, make a few minor alterations and call it his own. (I'm talking about you, Leary). Cross' material is original, cuts to the bone, and is in very poor taste. His take on bullshit pseudo-spiritual rock bands like Creed and Evanescence?
I would sooner listen to the death rattle of my only child than hear that fucking shit.
On Al Qaeda:
I don't think bin Laden sent those planes over to attack us because he hates freedom. I think he did it because of our support for Israel and our ties to the Saudi royal family, and all the military bases we have over there. You know why I think that? Because that's what he fucking said! What are we, a nation of six-year-olds? Answer, yes.
Which is as well because, like Bill Hicks, he is available for children's parties.
Monday, August 16, 2004
Viva Chavez! posted by Richard Seymour"Chavez claims victory" , says The Guardian. What they meant to say was that the Venezuelan electoral commission had pronounced him victor, but you can't fit that into a headline. Hugo Chavez looks to have won the referendum on his presidency, in the face of a vast, well-funded and well-organised campaign against him. Putschists and propagandists have descended on Venezuela like noone's business, some of them funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, which is basically a front-organisation for the CIA. They have not so far succeeded, and Chavez's proferred reason for this seems credible - there is too much grassroots democracy for a coup to succeed. Chavez has delivered enough for the poor to maintain the support of peasants and workers alike, and they are numerous enough and organised enough to prevent their gains from being quoshed.
Suffice to say, the British and American media can't believe it. Why, just last night the Independent was predicting a success for the opposition. Neither can the opposition accept the result, alleging fraud. Jimmy Carter, however, says the opposition lost and lost fairly. And he's a man who knows a lost cause when he sees it.
See Tariq Ali's op-ed for the Independent if you haven't already. And check out those letters ...
Open All Borders posted by Richard SeymourFrom today's Daily Express:
"Plot to Kill Blair: Asylum seekers with hi-tech equipment and maps caught half a mile from PM's home."
Like I've always said, we have so much to learn from other cultures...
Sunday, August 15, 2004
The Marching Dead!! posted by Richard SeymourIf Nick Cohen is right, then the Left is dead as a serious political project; but since he has rarely been right in the last year or so, I'm inclined to doubt it. I'm not here going to engage in yet another boring refutation of his argument, point by point - and this is at least in part due to the glib diluteness of his case. As Charlotte Street points out:
Resourcefully, the concept of this great world-historical shift has been cobbled together from a handful of current media events – reaction to Michael Moore’s latest film, the visit of an obnoxious Muslim cleric to the UK, and of course the morally insolvent decision of the Left (along with the majority of Europe) to oppose an imperialist (sorry ‘anti-Fascist’) war.
In the strange temporality of the media-world, great sea-changes in human consciousness, abrupt shifts in the Zeitgeist and epochal actions and speeches happen with alarming regularity, or can be telescoped through the lens of a few prepackaged headlines, before being inexplicably dispatched to oblivion by the ‘next big thing’.
I'd like to point a few things out about his article, however:
1) Noone besides Saddam Hussein himself pretended "that Saddam had no honourable opponents". It is just that the kind that Cohen opted to support (the jaw-dropping PUK) had no claim to honour of any kind. On the other hand, Cohen's output has often involved the suggestion that the war had no honourable opponents, which is a shame.
2) Iraqi communists did not, on the whole, support the war. Of the various communist parties only one has chosen to join the occupying forces (presenting it as a victory for themselves in the process, of course). Iraqi trade unionists who opposed the war have of course been working with British trade unionists and socialists, and one of their representatives made his case against the war and occupation at the Unison conference this year. When Cohen refers to "Kurdish socialists", he actually means Dr Barham Saleh of the PUK, so I will allow judgments to form themselves on that.
3) A small point, but the term "Marxism-Leninism" has a very specific meaning in political language, refering to the state-religion of the Stalinist regime. The SWP is both Marxist and Leninist, but it is not "Marxist-Leninist". He can claim if he likes that Marxism-Leninism died by putting its ideas into practise, but it is best to know what is meant by the terms he is using first.
4) The SWP may have "led" the Stop the War Coalition in some senses, but not in any sense that has morally significant consequences. The SWP did not impose its ideological preferences on the coalition (otherwise there would have been no coalition), and its performance in terms of gaining ideological hegemony, organisational strength and media coverage suggests that whatever the SWP did bring wasn't altogether bad. It just happens to be the case that when mass movements erupt, it is usually the far Left that takes a leading role. Organisation and debate is what revolutionary parties are good at (some would say that's the only thing they are good at).
5) Since when was Douglas Hurd revived "in liberal circles"? Does anyone know what he's talking about?
Now, all those points aside, I think I understand where Cohen is coming from when he mourns the demise of the "democratic left". With the end of the Cold War, it was expected that the disappearance of the communist Left would result in a renaissance of the other main tradition of socialism - that of social democracy. Instead, as Gregory Elliot points out, we have watched them sucked into the void with their embarrassing militant cousins. The reformist road to socialism was unavailing, but the reformist road to a more humane capitalism doesn't look much more hopeful.
Pursuing a strategy of accomodation with capitalism, rather than confrontation, parties of the centre-left and allegedly left-of-centre left (like the European Greens) have often done the job of the political right with greater alacrity than the right itself. The kind of anti-fascist Left that Cohen would like to see is that which sent volunteers to Spain in the 1930s; it is sad that the working class no longer appears to have that kind of international muscle*, but appealing to US military power as a surrogate is a profoundly mistaken approach. Given the record of the United States government, given its stated intentions (those embodied in important documents such as the National Security Strategy of 2002, and the literature of the Project for the New American Century), and given the peril involved in such a venture, it was entirely appropriate that people should have regarded the invasion and occupation with suspicion. And it was therefore entirely right that the Left should have taken a lead in this.
Because that tradition of the Left which Cohen supports has not fared well of late, he believes the Left is dead, (or maybe he is saying this to demoralise those who believe the Left has seen a modest but growing revival, who knows?). It would be more accurate to say that reformist socialism is giving way to its inner termites. That creates as many problems as it solves, but it does leave the decks cleared for a new Left oriented toward the new global situation. I believe that such a Left is emerging, conjoining a nascent, heterogenous anti-capitalism with full-blooded anti-imperialism. It is emerging thick and fast in Latin America and South Asia, trailed by growing numbers of supporters in Europe and North America. Trade unions are reviving their capacity for militant, grass-roots activity; street protest has never been so ubiquitous or so vibrant. Excellent grounds for hope if you have the stomach for it.
*This point needs to be qualified with one important consideration. The existence of large numbers of unemployed people, coterminous with the presence of an organised communist Left, made it easier to recruit people to go abroad and fight wars than today. There is perhaps an alarming sense in which subjectivity in late capitalism has become bourgeois, pacified, gentrified and less inclined to life-or-death struggle over such minor matters as principle. If that is so, I record it as a problem to be confronted rather than as a fatal truth to be stoically accepted.