Monday, June 30, 2008
Marxism 2008 posted by Richard SeymourCome along to Marxism, why not? It's starting this Thursday and spreads out lavishly over the weekend like a louche Waugh-esque bohemian. I will be speaking on 'Liberal Imperialism: from the Boers to Basra' which, as you might expect, covers some of the material in my fabulous upcoming book. As the book takes a strongly historical approach to the topic, I will be adding much more commentary on recent topics such as Darfur etc, updating the material on Iraq, and explaining why Christopher Hitchens drinks enough alcohol to strip the paint off the White House on a daily basis. I also intend to leave out the best stuff from the book, so you still have to buy it. Blogging comrade Hossam el-Hamalawy will also be speaking, both on the opening platform and on the strike wave in Egypt. Tariq Ali, Nick Davies, Gary Younge, Paul Gilroy, Moazzam Begg, John Bellamy Foster, Tony Benn, Steve Bell, Larry Elliott of the Guardian, David Hilliard of the Black Panthers, and others will also be there. If you want to get hardcore argument on the recession, the environment, Labour, the trade unions, racism and the 'war on terror', Marxism is the place to be. And don't give me that "I'm doing other stuff/I'm in hospital/I'm in another country" bollocks. Be there, or I shall have to use the rubber truncheon.
Brown and the unions posted by Richard Seymour
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Tim Mason has described how the Hitler regime, even once it had physically liquidated its trade unionist and socialist opponents during the first half of 1933, was not capable of simply overriding the interests of the working class. It had instruments of terror, such as the politically committed 'soldiers' of the SA, who would happily apprise intransigent workers of the new spirit of national community if they failed to accept wage cuts and degraded working conditions. And it could rely on the existence of a vast reserve army of labour created by the depression to coerce workers into accepting a more subordinate status. Yet the Nazi regime had to engage the working class and try to s[t]imulate their support. The working class was sufficiently important to the Nazi self-image and propaganda that the Nazi Party's records tended to overstate the extent of working class membership drastically, sometimes doubling the real levels. In truth, at least according to Richard Evans, workers were often those quickest to leave the Nazi Party having joined it, and the real means by which the Nazis expanded beyond their traditional lower middle class backbone was by integrating segments of the upper middle and ruling classes.
The spectre of the working class constantly hovered over the Nazi regime. This is hardly because workers were serenely insusceptible to Nazi ideology. Many workers bought Goebbels' propaganda wholesale, and were quite convinced by the idea of restoring the colonial programme in order to overcome the depression. Those who had not been immersed in traditions of socialist activity were the most vulnerable. Even in conservative Bavaria, however, where repression and depression atomised and disoriented the working class most thoroughly, the evidence suggests that workers were severely hostile to the new regime. When the Nazis created the 'Council of Trust' to consolidate its rule in the factories, early elections showed large numbers of workers, sometimes as many as three-fifths, rejecting the Nazi candidate. Such hostility was felt and expressed most vociferously as wage cuts, longer working hours, and terrible shortages compounded the unpopularity of the regime between 1933 and 1936, with oppositional groups gaining ground in the factories. If the working class no longer expressed its demands in explicit slogans or in the language of Marxism (quite apart from Nazi repression, the disarray of German Marxists in the face of the Nazis' rise to power had pretty well discredited them and angered their supporters), they explicitly expressed a class antagonism which could become the basis for a powerful movement against a highly fractious state. Throughout the Reich, working class self-organisation and collective action was increasingly in evidence in the later 1930s. Though it was rarely understood as directly political resistance to the Nazi state, the regime had to take it seriously and find ways to counteract it.
While the social Darwinist doctrines which the Nazi leadership embraced strongly militated against welfarism, minimum wages or other such anti-competitive practises, the Nazis were nominally a 'workers' party', and had spent a great deal of the pre-1933 era wooing the socialist working class. They were committed to the creation of a 'national community', and such - it was imagined - would eventually be generated through war, in the mythical spirit of 1914. But in the meantime something had to be done about the workers besides the wave of repression and surveillance that was immediately introduced. The Labour Front, though it was a coercive organisation which posed no threat to the German capitalist class (which duly joined the organisation) was one attempt to produce such a feeling of community, and various legal forms were introduced to permit workers to petition their bosses or seek the intervention of the Trustee of Labour, who was to enforce codes of industrial chivalry, in which the role of the employer was now that of a carer as well as a leader. The Nazis had abolished genuine democratic restrictions on employers as well as every gain made since the fall of Bismarck. But the Labour Front, despite the formal restrictions on its scope of operation, eventually became a means by which employers - usually smaller employers - could be disciplined into accepting some concession or other.
It is important to be clear about one thing: to the extent that Nazi institutions pressured employers to assimilate to the imaginary new social order this did not, ever, mean that the Nazis were siding with the workers in a class dispute. One result of Nazi terror was that real wages sank even below the miserable levels that had persisted under Hindenburg and von Papen for the first few years of Nazi rule, (the recovery in later years was a side-effect of the armaments boom). The overwhelming impact of Nazi rule was to disarm the working class, demolish its political parties, drive down its wages, and place a repressive police state at the service of the employers. The conservative-romantic propaganda about a national community that the business class had been disseminating throughout the 1920s became part of the official ideology of a state with an unprecedented grip on the production of ideas. In the long-term, the decimation of working class self-organisation with the resulting retreat to the private sphere and the individualisation of economic struggle arguably laid the ground for a much less politicised working class and a much more stable capitalism in the postwar era. Yet, while that was an admirable record from the point of view of employers, the Nazi Party didn't intend to be simply an anti-communist dictatorship. It intended to turn ordinary Germans into racial warriors.
It was a crucial goal of the Nazis to convert workers to the 'national socialist' doctrine, since these workers would be the footsoldiers of a total war - to colonise Eastern Europe and enslave Russia, having helped conquer Spain and invaded Belgium and France. They had, somehow, to produce a social concert without fundamentally transforming relations of production. (Despite all the talk of a 'planned economy', the Nazi regime didn't in fact obtain real state control of the economy until mid-way through the war, instead tending to rely on close alliances with major corporations such as IG Farben.) The Nazis therefore tended to settle on aesthetic solutions, emphasising the Beauty of Work, the inherent value of artisanal labour, the necessity for 'happiness' to pervade the working environment. This was met with sullen forms of resistance, including defacement of redecorated work premisses and 'anti-social' behaviour.
When it finally came to total war, however, it was necessary to do something very different. Only a politically committed minority could experience a war to the finish between Nazi Germany and its geopolitical rivals as a great adventure and a noble exertion of a restless race. 'Strength Through Joy' was a slogan even less persuasive in the battlefield than in the workplace. So, it was necessary to redistribute wealth in a new way. Götz Aly has shown (in his recent book, Hitler's Beneficiaries) that the Nazis, so far from relying on Germans of any class paying for the war, actively sought to transfer most of the economic burden of the war from German taxpayers to the citizens of conquerered territory. The reason for this was that, the so-called 'Augusterlebnis', the conservative fantasy of Spirit of 1914, could not be duplicated in September 1939. On the contrary, it was obvious that years of Nazi indoctrination, relentless propaganda, repression, the destruction of political opponents, the cranking up of antisemitism, had not created the indicated 'national community'. It is true that this was in part because Hitler had been driven by a national economic crisis to launch his war of expansion far more quickly than he had intended, and thus hadn't adequately prepared the ground for war fever. But Hitler was supposedly an adored national leader. Yet, while Churchill could expect British workers to pay for a war with severely restricted consumption and the purchase of war bonds, Hitler was unable to expect the same of German workers. Instead, the regime bolstered welfare provisions with state subsidies to welfare provisions rising from 640.4 million Reichsmarks in 1938 to 1,119.2 million Reichsmarks in 1943. Meanwhile, invading Nazi soldiers brandished Reich Credit Bank certificates with exchange values set at such levels that they could buy local produce very cheaply. Such measures were paid for with plunder and extortion, in which the Nazis imposed enormous levies for the 'services' supplied by occupying troops and received payment in labour, resources and in several cases, goldbricks.
Aly is far too committed to the implausible idea that the Nazis practised a kind of racially exclusive egalitarianism ("Nazi socialism", as he calls it). In showing how much the Nazi state came to rely on the proceeds of brutal extraction and slave labour to sustain popular acquiescence, he by no means demonstrates that German workers actually benefited from Hitler's war as his title implies. Rather, welfare programmes ameliorated a situation of severe hardship created by war. Similarly, while (according to Aly) most of the increase in taxation within Germany was paid by those with the means - the capitalist class - the overwhelming bulk of profits from the war also went to this class. War was a highly profitable investment on their part, as it often is for businesses, for whom warfare is one of the few activities that will induce them to part with a chunk of their profits. The main force of Aly's argument, however, is that German workers were not 'willing executioners' but largely bought off by a regime anxious to forestall resistance. That of course demands a further interrogation as to the state of a people so available for purchase in this way. And there is no doubt that most ordinary Germans acquiesced in the war, while millions either had knowledge of or complicity in its most barbaric expressions, from slave labour to genocide. But then it is no part of this argument that the German working class remained in a state of pristine opposition to Nazism, splendidly unaffected by its barbaric cadences, secretly in a state of permanent opposition. Rather, it is just that structurally the working class proved impossible to integrate into the Nazi dream of a racial-national community of solidarity - far more so than middle class sectionalism, for example - precisely because of the elitism that characterised Nazi ideology and practise.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Various Artists III posted by Richard SeymourAnother Friday night gig at the Tomb. Here's the irrepressibly stylish David McAlmont singing 'Yes':
David McAlmont can be found singing old jazzy love songs these days, and very nice it is too.
And this is, my friends, is filthy and gorgeous:
This one is liable to give you a dirty mind:
The last one is only available to listen to here. But it's well worth it.
Labels: various artists
The flight of the cassowary. posted by Richard SeymourPigs are winging through the atmosphere as I write. The Tories are not only back from the dead, not only headed to Downing Street, not only in the lead, but absolutely annihilating the once deadly New Labour electoral machine. For its part, New Labour is heading for a life-threatening crash in the ballots come the next general election. 20% behind in the latest polls and in fifth place in the Henley bye-election, Labour not only failed to keep its deposit last night, but was beaten by the Greens and the fascist BNP. Coming after a national meltdown and a humiliating loss in the heartland seat of Crewe and Nantwich, which miserably nasty campaign saw Labour swing to the right of the Tories, this result on a reasonably high turnout cannot be seen as anything but a sign of voters' determination to hammer Labour. The government is idiotically pretending otherwise, but the raucous laughter in Millbank is audible from where I am sitting.
A lot of the blame for this is being laid on Gordon Brown's beefy shoulders, and as Roobin pointed out, polling for Unison suggests that about half of voters are less likely to vote Labour because of the performance since Brown took over. There is no question that Brown has seemed to flummox at every opportunity, from the 'early election' saga to the Northern Rock fiasco. He has talked tough on the ten pence tax rate only to retreat somewhat under pressure, but even the retreat was inadequate and left people dissatisfied. He backed down rather swiftly under pressure from truckers over fuel prices, but has produced nothing to anyone's general satisfaction. They tried to talk about class in Crewe and Nantwich, but it was in the context of a risibly racist and authoritarian campaign, and it looked hypocritical coming from a party that has constantly assured us that the 'old divisions' are gone. There appears to be no sense of timing either: they have been consistently too late to recognise public outrage, too quick to dismiss opposition, hesitant and reluctant in their concessions. Brown's administration, since October last year, has seemed increasingly distant from the real world. But even when the 'Brown bounce' (RIP) was with us, the discordant notes were already sounding, as when the sepulchral successor promised 'British jobs for British workers' in front of an audience of determinedly chipper conference-goers, who cheered. And Brown's adoption of neoconservative shibboleths was one of his more bizarre introductions to the electorate. By and large, such ideas are extremely unpopular, even among a good chunk of Tories. And even the neocons in the Conservative Party aren't being lippy about it - the big theme on the Tory website today, just above the celebration of the Henley result, is not patriotism, or war, or asylum seekers, or Muslims, or even clubbing the unions. It is celebrating the 60th birthday of the NHS.
The reasoning guiding Brown's series of misfires, however, is impeccably New Labour (except for the 'early election' business, which was classical Brownite procrastination). The government has always been at pains to seem tough, but it has always been as weak as it is nasty. For example, taking a million pounds from Bernie Ecclestone then giving it back and still letting him have the policy he wanted is precisely the sort of thing that was allowed to slide in the early Blair years because voters still expected some decent policies. It would be death to Brown today. Blair did much to court the right, successfully, in his early years. His meeting with Thatcher might have even seemed bold to them, a big two fingers to trade unionists and lefties. Brown's meeting with Thatcher and his referencing of Gertrude Himmelfarb would have done little to woo a right that is convinced he is a taxaholic, red-tape wielding, red-flag hugging bureaucrat with secret socialist leanings, and it certainly came at a time when Labour voters were no longer biting their tongues and hoping for the worst to pass. The first years of Blairism were characterised by real-terms public spending cuts and 'restraint' in excess of what even the Tories would have opted for, but people forgave it because it was expected that compensatory policies of enhanced trade union rights, a minimum wage, slightly more local democracy and a big boost in public spending later on would make up for it. Today's restraint targets the poorest just when they are suffering most, just when Labour appears to have no further palliation up its sleeves, and just when the erosion of the electoral base that began under Blair has come to seem career-threatening to Labour MPs. The abolition of the ten pence tax rate comes just as child poverty is rising again, pensioner poverty is rising, inequality soars to record levels, and the cost of core goods is soaring. That was not really new: Brown had previously abolished the winter fuel allowance, which hits harder when fuel costs so much more than it did when the allowance was introduced. And the strategy of cutting taxes for those slightly better off and raising them for the poor, in the hope that the former would reward the party with votes and the latter find nowhere else to go, was straight out of the school of 'triangulation' that the government has been practising since well before it was elected. It just happened to coincide with all the accumulated ills of previous years bearing fruit. What the Lebanon crisis was to Blair, the ten pence tax rate is to Brown (albeit Brown is not likely to be forced to resign just yet).
There is of course the matter of Brown being knifed repeatedly by the ultra-Blairites who have not lost their killer instinct, (while Brown never really had one). But then, that was happening when Brown was in Number 11, and if he suffers a Caesarian death it will be because he had neither the ability nor the nous to change course. Tied to the political and fiscal strategies that he has embraced for more than a decade, he is also part of a party machine that is more or less impervious to the 'grassroots'. Just because New Labour's electoral coalition is finished doesn't mean Brown or anyone around him knows how to build an alternative coalition. Instead, heading to the polls in horrible financial state and with nothing but bad news for the electorate, they're going to spend their time trying to square that old circle of flattering businessmen and keeping the unions on board, just at the point when this seems a more distant goal than ever. New Labour is not dead, but everything that touches it is. No radical idea or movement in its orbit will survive the coming massacre. The lessons is, if you're on the Left and you want to weather this storm, stay the hell away from the Labour Party.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Cost of living (up again) posted by Richard SeymourI don't know what your weekly food bill is, but it's gone up quite dramatically over the last year:
A basic basket of a dozen essential items has soared by an average of 23 percent in the past year. For example, 12 eggs, which cost £2 last May, are now £2.92 – a 46 percent leap. The price of a bag of rice has increased by 93 percent.
A chicken costs £1.50 more than 12 months ago and bread is up 28 percent, butter 30 percent and milk 17 percent.
Food prices across the board have risen by 6.6 percent in the last year, with the cost of staple foods soaring even faster.
A typical family’s annual shopping bill has gone up by about £1,000 in the past year – that’s an extra £2.70 every day.
A thousand pounds per year is approximately £20 extra per week. For most people, myself included, that is a lot of money in a weekly budget. At the same time, the government's drive to push down workers' wages is not restricted to the public sector. What they always say is that wages drive up inflation, and so they are calling for 'restraint', the burden of which overwhelmingly falls on workers especially low paid workers. This is one reason why it is so essential that public sector workers not only strike, but strike to win. Dave Prentiss is saying the right things, but it's going to come down to the initiative of trade unionists as to whether decisive action is taken, or whether it is confined to symbolic action with the goal of slightly improving bargaining power with the government.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Morbid Symptoms posted by Adam Marks
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
A quote from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks: he applied it to Italy in the 1930s. I think it sheds some light on our situation today.
“Ideology” is a dirty word in mainstream politics. Loosely defined it is a collection of ideas. More precisely it is a particular point of view. Our society is dominated by class; it is a large determining factor in ideology. That’s not the beginning, middle and end, of course. There are a number of ways people are defined, by race, gender, sexuality… and so on. The point is these are the building blocs of ideology.
Ideology became dirtied for one half of mainstream politics between 1983 and 1992. A progressive series of defeats for the left and the unions in Britain were compounded by illusions in Actually Existing Socialism in the east. The collection of ideas around the Labour Party were seen to have failed. Senior Labour members took this lesson on board and adjusted. What mattered from now on was not “ideology” but “best practice”… what “works”.
What happened was the Labour Party could no longer build the alliance it thought it needed for its project, based around elections and the British state. It went off to build a wider coalition to the right of its considered natural constituency. Based on the theory of triangulation, its leaders considered traditional supporters would have nowhere else to go and so follow them. As far as they wouldn’t follow the party to the right, the leaders came up with some interesting (and deeply ideological) justifications for what they were doing. All sorts of things became “socialist”, from PFI to the Iraq war to (in one case) copyright law etc, etc...
But, after having proven themselves capable of running a neo-liberal government the Labour Party has found itself in a quandary. Neo-liberalism is a busted flush as far as the public goes. This is the case right across the world. Politicians have to build movements of consent for their policies. But, with the public so opposed to public policy this is a bit difficult. Wherever you look, in the eyes of politicians, the people have become an obstacle to get over, be it their organised refusal to work or their organised refusal to vote for certain treaties, or just their unwillingness to dignify the whole process with their vote, they keep throwing a spanner in the works.
The government is in a difficult position, so is the opposition. The Tory party’s natural ground is on the right. It pioneered neo-liberalism in Britain, and to some extent the world. It cannot build an alliance on an open neo-liberal platform. It has to head left. The Tories paint themselves green, they defend tax breaks for the poor, talk up ‘civil liberties’, they make eyes at the co-operative movement (such as it is), and so on.
Collections of ideas, points of view, have become muddled or abandoned altogether. In this situation politics becomes unstable. It is difficult for Labour to hold a hard right agenda and vice versa for the Tories. It's difficult to orient yourself when left-Labour MPs vote for internment while hard-right Tories make it a resignation matter.
Take one example, a recent poll commissioned by Unison, a union whose leadership has invested a great deal in supporting the Labour Party. It finds, due to the current government’s performance, a small majority of traditional Labour supporters are less likely to vote Labour at the next election.
On the breakdown of issues, generally speaking things are as they tend to be; with the exception of education, where the Tories fare slightly better (Note the baseline here: between 18-24% of people cannot say which party has the best policy on any issue). The Tories do well on civil liberties issues, indicating Labour is generally seen as authoritarian, enough that the Tories own authoritarian tendencies get overlooked.
With the Labour supporters considering switching at the next election the Tories figures improve sharply. They beat the Labour Party on everything except housing. They even tie on public sector pay, such has been the effect of the government’s pay deals.
Perhaps this means a shift to the right, but scroll down further. There is rising support for the proposition that public need should come before private profit.
“In principle, public services should be run by government or local authorities, rather than by private companies”: in 2000, 27% strongly agree, 2001 45% strongly agree and 2008 50% strongly agree. Taken with the people ‘tending’ to agree (29%) that makes just shy of 4/5ths of the population agreeing with the notion. Pretty much the same percentage agrees people providing public services should be employed by government or local authorities.
Add to that a near majority (49%) who regard health, welfare and education as the most important issues and there you have it, Labour supporters breaking with Labour regarding naturally left-wing issues as important and so giving their support to a right-wing party. Take that on board with all the relevant discussions about the neo-liberalism, the new imperialism and so on, you have a recipe for unstable politics. Neither the Labour Party nor the Tories will build long-term coalitions, at least not based on this snapshot. Neo-liberalism has no popular basis anymore but no large-scale, organised alternative has arisen. Without tectonic change we will have stalemate.
Gramsci's morbid symptoms rear up as populist movements (say, the movement against NHS cuts), breakaway or rebel parties such as UKIP or Respect (RIP). Be it new left or new right, they are only partial solutions to the crisis, defensive reactions rather than positive movements. The symptoms generally manifest themselves as disengagement from mainstream politics, cynicism, the rise of technocracy and corruption.
If we have trouble orienting ourselves then we need to keep open the debate about the times we are living through, where our society is headed. Considering the gap between needs and means, the solution to the crisis and the means we have at our disposal at this moment, a re-examination of the united front might be of order (I am aware this is an openended proposition).
This decade has been called an age of mass movements. Although revolutionaries have a different perspective (self-activity is liberating, movements of people are infectious and cause generalisation) the basic pact of the movement was to try to shift public opinion from underneath power, deny it democratic legitimacy and thus undermine ruling class movements (such as the drive to war in Iraq). The effect of 30 years of neo-liberalism/neo-conservatism has been to hollow out democracy. It is a deadletter, an appendix to the modern ruling class.
So future movements of people will have to have much more direct, painful economic effect. Who wouldn't agree with that, especially when there's a potentially devastating economic crisis that could mean fight or die for millions across the world? The fight against the pay freeze means a lot to trade unionists, especially in the public sector. How can we make it meaningful for the other 3/4 of the workforce not in unions?
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The ladder of fundamentalism posted by Richard SeymourI have often puzzled over the chain of connections that leads liberal Islamophobes to treat the hijab/niqab/burqa/'veil' as the first step in a sequence of associations whose culmination is terrorism. Whether it is an Observer scribe making, shall we say, inferential leaps concerning the relationship between such a garment and suicide attacks, or an open reactionary who supposes that the Human Rights Act is the first step toward Islamic law, there appears to be a set of unstated assumptions that urgently need to be explained. I have finally, I believe, hit on the answer. First of all, observe this educational slide show. The narration is supplied by Richard Burton, but as it is a silent presentation, you will just have to use your imagination.
Oh, I readily admit that I may not here have mastered the political morphology involved, but we can at least discern the missing contours of what until now has been an casually enthymematic body of, er, 'thought'. It seems that the 'veil' (in truth any garment that can be identified as specifically Muslim) contains a diabolical magic that converts nice liberal Western women into furiously repressed, militantly submissive maniacs. However, I thought a more general overview of the connections tacitly posited may be useful, so I threw this piece of shit together:
This is a road map to hell. Whichever route you take, you find yourself on the side of evil. This is, I might add, a pared down version of chart. I have excluded the route to Jimmy Saville's house, for instance. But you get the picture: arrows, squiggly lines, text boxes, and a big feckin circle, all add up to anti-Western naughtiness. Study it, learn it, and for heavens' sake stay resolute.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Pay strikes posted by Richard SeymourCouncil workers have voted by a substantial majority for pay strikes this summer, following up from successful strike action by teachers and civil servants in April. 800,000 workers will be on strike, but there's no word yet as to what kind of action is going to be proposed by the national executive. I hope it's dawning on them that one day actions aren't enough - but Prentis et al are Labour men as far as I know, and are likely to face serious pressure from the government to scale it back a bit. Chancellor Alistair Darling is worried at any rate. He is quoted by the Telegraph as saying: "I certainly hope there won't be a series of strikes. Strikes very rarely achieve their goals". As if his concern here was that the unions might not succeed against his government. And the Tories are calling for an "extremely tough" stance, reinforcing the suspicion that once in office they are going to go after the big unions in a major way.
Agent Provocateur posted by bat020
"This chap wasn't really the sort you'd expect to see shouting abuse at police officers at an anti-war demo. He was, after all, a policeman himself."
George Carlin, RIP posted by Richard SeymourGeorge Carlin has died of heart failure.
Labels: george carlin
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Beat Primer posted by Adam Marks
Shortly before midnight on September 4th 1957 Jack Kerouac and his partner Joyce Johnson were waiting on a street corner for delivery of the following day’s New York Times. In it was a review of Jack’s second published book On The Road, which hailed its publication as “an historic occasion”.
Kerouac’s life was changed forever by the review. He’d go to sleep that night and wake up famous. Yet, as Johnson noted in her autobiography Minor Characters, “he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t happier than he was”.
Part of the reason was the six-year gap between the novel’s genesis and its eventual publication, during which it was edited down from its original 120-foot long manuscript. He came to regret compromising his vision for publication.
But Kerouac and the Beats have touched virtually all modern culture. Seriously. Some immediate examples:
Pop music: prime Bob Dylan, stream of consciousness lyrics with long breath lines or David Bowie’s persistent sci-fi fascination and adoption of Beat language (listen to Ziggy Stardust... and think Beat Generation). Literature: JG Ballard, William Gibson, The Liverpool Poets, Irvine Walsh, Charles Bukowski, Douglas Coupland, Hunter S Thompson to name but a few.
Method: cut and paste, recontextualising old material, dead phrases, to create something new. Add nihilism and/or anarchism a la Burroughs, what do you get? Punk. The terms “rap” and “riff”, central to popular culture today, were crucially developed by the Beats. Before the Beat Generation the riff was the obligatory part of a song. After the Beats it meant to improvise and generally build on a foundation. The Beats would meet and “rap” long, improvised, semi-poetic monologues. A fine, recorded example is Jack Kerouac’s narration to the film Pull My Daisy or Lenny Bruce’s stand up (virtually all stand up comedy comes from Bruce).
Random names and references: The Soft Machine, Steely Dan, The Subterraneans, Interzone, The Subliminal Kid, Exterminator (XTRMNTR), Howl of the Unappreciated by Lisa Simpson (the line "I saw the best minds of my generation..." has been recycled so many times), The Dharma Bums, Pretty Girls Make Graves, and, never forget, The BEATles.
I could go on.
Of the principle Beat writers Kerouac had the longest pedigree, claiming to have written his first novel aged eleven. There is still a large portion of unpublished writing from his early days. However, Kerouac didn’t make his breakthrough until he abandoned proper fiction for “spontaneous prose”. He was an excellent typist and would write continuously, sometimes for days on end, allowing his thoughts to flow directly onto the page.
Kerouac would justify this approach in mystical terms. Born into a Catholic family and spent many years exploring the grey-area between Christianity and Buddhism. He saw a link between the beatific (hence “beat”) vision and the Buddhist concept of revelation, or satori. To him writing was holy.
Mysticism was the root of Jack’s later conservatism. He saw self-emancipation as an inner journey (perhaps also a habit borne from living under the military/industrial project). When later generations took up the Beat credo of free expression, giving it a political twist, he reacted and headed rightward.
But was it that the kids were picking up on? Why did J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, list the three main threats to the American way of life as “communists, eggheads and beatniks”? It was what Kerouac wrote about.
On The Road is about a studious young man called Sal Paradise and his adventures in America’s underground, a self-sustaining network of junkies and jazz fanatics, homosexuals and career criminals… people pushed to the margins.
The hero of the novel is Dean Moriarty, a bisexual car thief. Like many an angelheaded hipster he’s not exactly reliable, but he’s full of life, a zest he transmits to everyone around him. Moriarty was based on Neal Cassady, an icon of two generations of counterculture, who drove Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in bus around America, handing out free LSD and performing “acid tests”. Cassady was also the inspiration behind One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest hero McMurphy.
Before On The Road polite America only heard about this world through pulp fiction and films like Reefer Madness (Burroughs’ first book, Junky, was first sold as a pulp novel, called “Confessions of an Unredeemed Junkie”). Not only were these people not deluded or depraved, to Kerouac they were modern-day saints. For a country still to go through the shock therapy of the sixties, when McCarthyism was a fresh memory, this was strong stuff.
It’s worth dwelling on McCarthyism and the Cold War in general. There is a wonderful, short passage about an encounter between Sal’s “battered boat” and a military parade headed through Washington DC. “There were B-29s, PT boats, artillery, all kinds of war material that looked murderous in the snowy grass…” The contrast is almost comic. The powerful, sleek hardware of death parading past a tiny group of raggedy, sarcastic youngsters. We see the inhuman, invulnerable machine up against fragile humanity. Luckily, humanity wins out. Last in line of the parade is a pitiful little boat. That must be Harry (Truman’s) boat, says Dean.
The end of World War Two saw the rise of two military superpowers. Despite the hope of 1945, civil society had lapsed under the military/industrial complex. As Jack and his friends were whizzing around America in cars a dying George Orwell was writing 1984, where repressive power was so overwhelming it bent truth to its will (2+2=5). Liberals (in the broadest sense) feared secrecy and repression. But, with repression for some, there was repressive tolerance for others.
The post war boom meant stabilisation, a decline in the bloody purges of the CPSU as well as the paramilitary class war in America. Social movements were quelled. The triumphant momentum of 1945 subsided. There was no longer an urgent need to exile or murder rebels. They could be picked off. Individuals who refused or were unable to find a place within the system, accept the prevailing ideology, could be safely pushed to the margins (with a degree of psychologising and pathologising). In the case of Russia, dissidents were often sectioned as insane.
In America the common caricature of the Beat was the Beatnik (a portmanteau of Beat and Sputnik). The Beatnik was a workshy coward, unfit for the factory, office or army. Nothing could have been more opposed to the average Beat. For example, the three main Beats: both Ginsberg and Kerouac served in numerous manual jobs (Kerouac once listed them in the intro to the Lonesome Traveller collection, he also served in the Merchant Navy during WW2). Although Burroughs had a trust fund he was also, at one point, a farmer.
That’s all good, but why care about On The Road, Kerouac and the Beats today? Although secrecy and surveillance dog our society we also face a contradictory but connected problem. Orwell thought we’d be suppressed by a distortion of truth and lack of information. In his Brave New World, Aldous Huxley thought we’d be swamped with information, desensitised and unable to sort trivia from significance. Revolutions in culture, technology and communication have greatly accelerated our society, bringing Huxley’s vision partway to life. One place where these two ideas meet is in political management, in spin (“it’s a good day to bury bad news”).
Society has never been more ‘democratic’ or ‘meritocratic’. We have never had greater access to information, government or power. However, the connection between people and their rulers is more carefully controlled than ever before.
We read On The Road with a different eye and ear to Kerouac’s contemporaries. On The Road is a defining moment in the birth of modern youth culture, as well as the end of literary culture. We read it for great historical flavour, as part of why we are who we are.
When police raided his flat they found a terrifying arsenal of weapons, including four nail bombs hidden under his bed, bullets and an assortment of bladed weapons including swords, knives and a machete, Leeds Crown Court heard. They also discovered DIY bomb manuals, a guide to how to make your own sub-machine gun and internet instructions on "how to assassinate people and get away with it by using poison".
Strange to relate, however, we have not been treated to Batman and Robin style alarms from the Home Secretary and his protégé over the urgent threat to British lives. No rolling coverage from the Beeb, no queues of 'expert' witnesses apprising viewers of what they already know, not even much attention. Yet, such plots are, unlike the imaginary ricin plot, or the filthy plan to raze the Manchester United football stadium, quite serious, and ominous. I suspect that as the far right gain respectability in the polls, their would-be paramilitary brethren will take heart and try to stimulate 'race war' with calculated atrocities that will surely outdo anything David Copeland accomplished. Cottage and his confederate had, if I remember, the largest cache of weaponisable chemicals ever hauled in the UK. We will be hearing from fascism soon enough.
McEwan's Bitter posted by Richard SeymourIs it possible to survey Britain's most celebrated littérateurs and not find them repulsive? Take Ian McEwan, for example. Today, he is standing up for his friend Martin Amis. By his lights, Amis is maligned because of his opinions about something called 'Islamism'. "It should be possible," McEwan avouches, "to say, 'I find some ideas in Islam questionable' without being called a racist." But say so and "immediately someone on the left leaps to his feet and claims that because the majority of Muslims are dark-skinned, he who criticises it is racist." Whatever else McEwan can be accused of, he can be acquitted of any precision in his thought, right away. 'Islamism', Islam, medieval this, intolerance that, and so on and on - McEwan accessing a chain of associations in such a way as to make it obvious that he hasn't a clue what each term actually refers to. We can also dismiss any charge that he has an active imagination (as opposed to an active fantasy life), since he didn't actually think any of this up for himself - every trope was contrived for him by imperial ideologists, beginning at least 200 years ago with the emergence of doctrines of Aryanism.
But McEwan is certainly devious, or at least disingenuous. As I recall it, what Amis said was: "There’s a definite urge - don’t you have it? - to say… the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not let them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children." He also added a good many ruminations about the "rank and file Muslim male" (lacking intellectual curiosity), the different strands of Islam (Shi'ism romantic and dreamy, Sunnism orthodox and strict), the Muslim population (they're rutting incessantly and gaining on us), and a great deal else besides. "We are hearing from Islam", he averred. This is only a critique of 'Islamism' if, as I suspect is the case, both Amis and McEwan think 'Islamism' is nothing other than the political mode of an Islam that is univocally reactionary, intolerant, medieval...
Fittingly, McEwan also waxes sentimental about "Englishness" - as in, "this is the country of Shakespeare, of Milton, Newton, Darwin...". Don't you hear the echoes of John Major and Andrew Rosindell MP? Romantic nationalism of this variety never alights on other treasures of the past. This is also the country of Clive, and Wellington, and Castlereagh. It is the country of lithium-popping colonists in fancy dress, butchering 'coolies' and kicking their servants and wives to death. It is the country whose ruling class almost unanimously adored Hitler until he trod on their toes. It is the country of serfdom and Enclosure Acts, of state terror and slavery, the country whose noble inventions include the concentration camp and the machine gun. It is the country with more experience than any other in dehumanising the "dark-skinned", the better to brutally slaughter them. But that is the trouble. You can't descend into a senescent fantasy about "Englishness" for long before some lefty "leaps to his feet" and declares it a senescent fantasy. And if these censorious politically correct thugs succeed in their intellectual terrorism? Why then, no one will ever be able to say "this is the country of Amis, of McEwan...".
Update: McEwan's silence.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Anti-BNP Protest posted by Richard SeymourThousands already present at the anti-BNP protest due to kick-off soon. However, the police have been quite aggressive. A number of individuals spotted at the Bush protest have been arrested. More to come later.
Update: It has turned into a really lively event with thousands thronging the streets. The police are taking pictures of the protesters but the DJ simply advised the crowd to "stick your middle figure up to that camera right there".
Pictures and video footage will come soon.
Well, that was better than I thought it would be. Initially the turnout didn't look great, but it seems to have picked up once we got started. Lots of trade union banners, gay pride people, Muslims, a very mixed crowd and precisely the kind of microcosm of London that one would have hoped for. Whatever pressure was coming from the police at the start seems to have died down as it got underway, unless I missed something. I had to leave before the speeches and performances at the end, so anyone who stayed on can fill me in. Anyway, here's your first batch of pics. The protest started at Tooley Street near the GLA building and marched to Trafalgar Square, with music, speeches and performances going on throughout.
And here's some of the performers who played on the floats:
Here's more of the protest as it proceeded:
And it arrives in Trafalgar Square:
The manual directly advocates training paramilitaries, pervasive surveillance, censorship, press control and restrictions on labor unions & political parties. It directly advocates warrantless searches, detainment without charge and (under varying circumstances) the suspension of habeas corpus. It directly advocates employing terrorists or prosecuting individuals for terrorism who are not terrorists, running false flag operations and concealing human rights abuses from journalists. And it repeatedly advocates the use of subterfuge and "psychological operations" (propaganda) to make these and other "population & resource control" measures more palatable.
Friday, June 20, 2008
Hey, hey! posted by Richard SeymourI've noticed that in my long periods of absence during exams, the number of visitors to the site declined quite dramatically, and it's really about time we put this in order. So...
The poor, conventionally defined as those with less than 60% of median earnings, have to get by on less than £217 a week. But included with them should be the 1.5m people whose household incomes are no more than £10 above that, and constantly afflicted by insecurity.
Next come the largest class, those around the median income in Britain today of £23,600 (or £454 a week).
Ah, let me stop you right there, Michael: you're talking bollocks. Of 30.27m taxpayers in the UK, 18.5m (56%) earn below £20,000 a year (pre-tax). There are 6m taxpayers (18.2%) living on between £20-30,000 a year. So, this idea that there is a vast middling group living on 'around' £23,000 a year is flatly false. (Data usefully summarised at wiki).
Meacher doesn't do himself any favours either by focussing on currents of income rather than wealth, the kind which is highly heritable and brings income currents with it. As I've pointed out elsewhere, the bottom 50% of the population owns less than 6% of the wealth, and the bottom 75% of the population owns just over a quarter of the wealth. In other words, there is a clear majority who have precious little in terms of real property, a large minority who have enough property and privilege to be counted 'middle class', and the top 10% who own most of the wealth.
Perhaps this is too harsh. Meacher is certainly right about the extreme concentrations of wealth taking place at the very top, and I take his point to be that the government could credibly restore some of its standing by simply curtailing a few of the privileges of the uber-rich (such as tax holidays for non-doms), and that is fine as far as it goes. He is right that the majority of the population would clearly support such a policy, and even a few Tories might go along with it. It just isn't all that convincing an analysis from someone who is trying to position himself as a potential left-wing challenger to Brown, that's all.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Good hair day posted by Richard SeymourIslamophobia Watch draws attention to the victory of Bushra Noah in her discrimination case. The young woman was turned down for a job at hair salon because she wears a headscarf. Now, this is a boost for workers everywhere, particularly female workers who are often the target of sexist dress code policies that insist they wear a skirt and so forth. Previous challenges to such policies have been difficult to sustain, but this lays down a precedent. So, not just a victory against blatant employer Islamophobia, but also something that working people will find useful if they want to challenge their employers on discriminatory dress codes. However, the radical firebrands at HP Sauce have been moved to eructate as follows:
Why should a hairdressing salon carry even the risk of losing business because an irrational third party who as decided that showing hair is sinful and thus must be covered up at all times wants to work in the trade?
Surely the the person making bizarre lifestyle choices based on their irrational fears and superstitions should carry the consequent risks and inconveniences - and and not expect someone else to?
This is posed as a "moral question", no less. The tradition that this argument draws on is that embodied in the legal defense of segregation. Why should businesses have to run the risk of losing business by being forced to employ blacks? Why should they have to even allow them in the store if it'll drive away good white customers? Why can't they bar customers at their own discretion? The citation of the holy profit, of the inviolable rights of property owners, is precisely in that usage. (It is, of course, still the case that those who want to preserve the legacy of segregation in the labour market argue against affirmative action and similar legislation as a form of 'reverse discrimination' - thus implying that the prevailing inequality is meritocratic). The interesting thing about this is that such arguments were answered by civil rights legislators, who accepted the narrow terms of the discussion. They pointed out that public accomodations, shops and so forth, were not merely private property but of such a kind that they both were and had to be open to the public. This property is inserted into market relations, which is a sphere of social life that ought not to be restricted on the basis of race or any other irrelevant factor. The tormented souls at HP Sauce are appealing to a conception of property rights that has historically been tailored for the defense of white supremacy, and which would sit as comfortably in the literature of the BNP today.
Mia Farrow, the actress and activist, has asked Blackwater, the US private security company active in Iraq, for help in Darfur after becoming frustrated by the stalled deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force.
Ms Farrow said she had approached Erik Prince, founder and owner of Blackwater, to discuss whether a military role was either feasible or desirable.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Curious analogy posted by Richard SeymourMunira Mirza of the Sp!ked/RCP crowd, and co-author of the phoney Islam-bashing Policy Exchange report last year, defends Boris Johnson's decision to remove the anti-racist component of London's annual 'Rise' festival in the following terms: "We don't have anti-racist fireworks on New Year's Eve and we don't need to organise an anti-paedophile concert to prove our moral credentials on the issue." Let me get this straight. Over 5% of London voters selected a far right racist candidate for mayor. The BNP has councillors across the country, and has received well over 100,000 votes in local elections. In some areas it has received stupendous majorities. And it's not just the BNP. The National Front, more explicitly Nazi than the BNP, made five digit votes in London. This is all in the context of a rising arc of racist violence in the UK. If militant paedophiles had garnered this level of support in the context of a surge of child-molestation, would there be carnivals in the park with a subtle, non-too-explicit message against raping children? Dare I say there might have been even more than that?
The double squeeze posted by Richard SeymourWhen the economy tanks, prices are supposed to go down as demand slumps. The trouble is that prices are soaring, particularly in the commodities that people most need. I expect many people will, like me, have noticed the weekly food bill going up. Food prices have apparently risen 20%. Alongside food prices, the latest news is that energy prices are set to go up by 40% this winter. This compounds already existing rises in fuel prices, and it also comes at a time when New Labour has scrapped the winter fuel allowances for pensioners. At the same time, the Bank of England is determined the keep interest rates high and even considered raising them this month. The tight credit market drives up the real cost of borrowing as it is. One effect is to drive would-be home buyers off the market and force them to seek rented accomodation. That's driving up rent already, with an overall rise of 6% (a figure that conceals even sharper rises in particular locations). The Bank of England raises interest rates to curb inflation, but the theory is that such inflation results in normal circumstances from an overheating economy or 'excessive' wage demands. This inflation, however, is the result of speculators moving from riskier margins to blue chip stocks, as the subprime collapse undermines the allure of high-risk, high-profit investments. So, what the Bank is actually doing is knowingly restricting consumption when times are already tough. The signs are that they will drive interest rates up further. So, we're being hammered from every direction.
The only hope is the kind of collective resistance that will be displayed in the public sector pay strikes this summer. Note that the Shell fuel tanker workers won a 14% pay increase as a result of their strike, causing the CBI to worry that there will be a summer of discontent. In the last year alone, strikes in the public sector have risen by 25%. That's a trend that is likely to continue, although those calling for tougher militancy will face the argument from New Labour supporting union leaders that they have to scale back the action in order to do least harm to the government given the prospects of a Tory victory in 2010. The unions have got precious little from the government for previous acquiescence, and the Brown administration has moved far enough to the right to given an opening to its Left for David Davis of all people - he, who would restore the death penalty and isn't too hot on gay rights. What is more, when people feel helpless and desperate they can very easily swing further to the right - inaction on the part of organised labour may actually help hand the Tories a victory. Nonetheless, the argument will be made and heard, and the contest will then be between loyalty to Labour - eroding rapidly, but still quite strong among some - and the desperate need to pay the bills.
In the early 1990s, Somalia was a test-bed for 'humanitarian intervention'. This intervention did not involve overthrowing a dictatorship or stopping a genocide in motion. The early remit of Operation Restore Hope was, putatively, to overcome a famine which was attributed to political anarchy and state failure. The intervention notoriously ended in massive bloodshed, with US troops responsible for grave offenses against the citizens they were purportedly defending. In some popular accounts, (this is a representative sample), the reason for this is that the mission was turned over to the UN in 1993 and was broadened into a 'nation-building' exercise, which meant taking on General Aideed and other hostile forces in military combat. In another account, by Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst (the former was Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope) told Foreign Affairs readers that in fact the nation-building component was implicit from the beginning, and that it was forced on the UN as fait accompli by the United States government rather than forced on US troops by the idealistic UN (and at any rate, US troops were not under UN authority). Clarke and Herbst have it that the mission still "saved thousands of lives", regardless of the evident calamity of its later stages, and maintain that the real problem was the 'schizophrenia' of both Bush and Clinton administrations, who committed themselves to a humanitarian discourse without properly appraising the corollaries of such an enterprise. If this were the range of relevant debate - which seems to break down into the familiar dichotomy of 'realists' vs 'idealists' - we could just end the discussion here. But let's just look at what in fact transpired.
The political background is the breakdown of the Siad Barre regime which, though it had built up great popular momentum in anti-famine campaigns through the 1970s, had become straightforwardly a corrupt and authoritarian one by the time it lost the war against Ethiopia in 1978. Having previously aligned to the USSR, it sought the tutelage of the US, abandoned any nominal commitment to socialism and national unity, relied on clan affiliation as the base of its support, and was utterly ruthless in decimating the opposition. Given the divide-and-rule tactics of the Barre administration, the insurgency that developed was also organised along clan lines. International humanitarian aid sharpened the conflict, as the government was able to distribute it selectively to its allies in the combat. By 1991, Barre was overthrown, but several dynamics had already been set in motion by the war. For example, the agriculturally rich riverine areas, inhabited by historically oppressed and poorly armed minorities, had attracted warring parties who could sustain themselves by looting. So, there was a war economy in place. Those who overthrew Barre maintained equivalent power relations, so there were grounds for continuing war. And the minority clans were last to receive official aid. As those from 'ruling' clans such as the Darod fled in anticipation of reprisals and purges, the refugee population soared and villages found themselves inundated by populations they could not support. So, there were food shortages, and already a great deal of resentment and distrust of international aid agencies. And some social layers came to rely on the plunder that had developed in the war, so banditry became a prominent form of subsistence. Former government forces continued to counter the new ruling forces, divided between General Aideed and 'Interim President' Ali Mahdi Mohamed, and sometimes unleashed vicious 'vengeance' against 'disloyal' areas, which included campaigns of rape and murder. It is a cliche, but a roughly accurate one in this case, to say that no side in the war was virtuous. In fact, the depredations of 'both sides' contributed to the famine that struck for 18 months during 1991 and 1992.
Somalis did not wait passively for American or UN forces to arrive. They responded to the overthrow of Barre by setting up independent organisations to express their interests and manage relief. One such was the Somali Red Crescent Society which, together with the Red Cross, engaged in a massive aid effort. That aid was delivered to approximately 2 million people at the height of the effort. A huge portion of the aid was of course looted, and those delivering it were at risk of being attacked by armed forces. Aside from looting, rent extraction was rife as hauliers and others involved in the delivery process extracted high prices for their services. Notably, during the worst period of the famine, the UN declined to invest much aid in the country, and generally remained aloof from political efforts to negotiate a united government of some variety. When it did deliver aid, it tended to cut out or ignore Somali staff. As Alex de Waal points out in Famine Crimes, this tendency to simply overlook Somalis in operations supposedly designed to help them carried over from the food distribution efforts to the military occupation of the country by the US, who never expected General Aideed's war against the US to get the level of support that it did.
By December 1992, the UN had estimated half a million deaths from famine in Somalia, with 4.5 million people in desperate need. This state of affairs provided the backdrop for an experimental post-Cold War intervention by the first Bush administration, and it was in the last month of 1992 that the first of 25,000 US troops began to arrive. Among Americans, it was initially a popular intervention by an increasingly unpopular presidency, since it seen as a simple relief effort.
In truth, as Alex de Waal has written, the operation was launched as the famine was concluding. The main cause of death was increasingly disease, particularly malaria, but the occupiers turned up without any anti-malaria programme. The UN Special Envoy, Mohamed Sahnoun, wrote that the actual aid programme that the UN disbursed was so limited and delayed that it actually became counterproductive. The intervention had far more to do with testing out the emerging doctrine of 'humanitarian intervention' than relieving needful Somalis. This should be understood in the context of the US managing 'transitional' societies in the former USSR and of course its attempt to reshape the former Yugoslavia, which was taking place at the same time.
In a way, the aid operation - supposedly the purpose of the US dropping in - swiftly became auxiliary to the military one, in which rebels were attacked and Somalis disarmed by US forces on the streets. Similarly, the UN began in early 1992 to try and negotiate a political settlement, which resulted in a plan for a Transitional National Council (TNC) on 27 March 1993 - although if Clarke's testimony is accurate, this was all driven by Washington. The previous day, the US had pushed through UN Security Council Resolution 814, which gave the new UN authority extraordinarily wide-ranging powers and remit, without actually saddling the occupying forces with the status of occupation armies (which would burden them with the legal responsibilities of occupation, including building infrastructure and protecting civilians). The United Task Force (UNITAF), effectively a US occupation force with tiny contingents from supporting countries, ran the operation from December 1992 until May 1993, when authority was handed over to the UN mission, UNOSOM. When UNOSOM took control, all US forces aside from the logistical ones, were independent of the UN's command structure.
The US authorities had spent the first few months of their involvement siding with General Aideed, and even attacked his rivals on several occasions. They did allow General Morgan, a rival of Aideed, to attack and occupy the port city of Kismayo, which in fact led many to conclude that the US was supporting Morgan. When Somalis protested against the UN, by contrast, they were shot at and several killed. However, the US had changed tack by May, deciding to marginalise Aideed rather than rely on him as an ally, he was quickly the leading figure in an anti-occupation insurgency. As the UNOSOM mission came into increasing combat with Aideed and the Sudanese National Army that he represented, Aideed used Radio Mogadishu to broadcast against the UN. In June 1993, the UN raided the station, claiming that the place was a weapons depository, which resulted in 17 Pakistani soldiers being ambushed and killed. The response was a search-and-destroy operation by the United States, beginning in August with the arrival of Delta Force and Army Rangers. There followed three months of intense urban warfare by no means characterised by a humanitarian impulse. This culminated in a notorious battle near the Olympic Hotel in October 1993, in which the US lost severely - the topic of 'Black Hawk Down'. What is not usually discussed in the films and hit books is the fact that the occupation armies had been treating the civilian population with contempt. African Rights published reports of Belgian troops murdering and torturing civilians, which allegations were dismissed until soldiers started to issue blunt confessions. In fact almost every component of the patchwork UNOSOM force was implicated in such crimes. These were different in character from the war crimes of the US, however: the former were not planned or part of a military strategy, while the latter were. Among them were a US-led mission to attack a hospital where it was supposed General Aideed might be, which resulted in patients being slaughtered as helicopter missiles rained down. Another was an attack on a civilian meeting of Aideed's political movement, which resulted in 54 deaths. In fact, US helicopters regularly opened fire on crowds, not as a result of the intrinsic evil of the pilots or even their superiors, but as a necessary dynamic of a war in which the US found itself increasingly opposed to the majority of the Somali population. As de Waal writes:
One thing that the us and un never appreciated was that, as they escalated the level of murder and mayhem, they increased the determination of Somalis to resist and fight back. By the time of the 3 October battle, literally every inhabitant of large areas of Mogadishu considered the un and us as enemies, and were ready to take up arms against them. People who ten months before had welcomed the us Marines with open arms were now ready to risk death to drive them out.
Since it is always raised, it is worth addressing the argument that, at any rate, UNITAF was of some help in opening up supply lines and distributing food. Already, this is problematic because of the way aid interacted with the war dynamic, but even so the expectation created by the US at the time was that 2 million lives would be saved. In fact, the estimate of the US Refugee Council is that 25,000 lives at most were saved by the variety of food and medical aid that was actually delivered. A non-militarised aid operation working alongside, rather than against Somalis, drawing on their knowledge and relying on their leadership, would have achieved similar results - perhaps better results, and without the need for mass murder. It is certainly true that delivering food aid in a timely fashion and on the basis of local knowledge would reduce food prices and thus alleviate some of the problems contributing to the war. But any relief operation was always subordinate to ulterior concerns and ultimately thwarted by the chaos and brutality inflicted by the US on the country. The reason why Somalia is officially considered a failure is because the US did not succeed in creating a client-regime that would cheerfully implement IMF dispensations. The response to the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union, the first stable and relatively popular government Somalia had experienced in some time, has been to revive that attempt but this time without American troops in the line of fire, and with a narrative of civilizational contest rather than 'humanitarian intervention'. Instead of Belgian, Italian, Pakistani and Moroccan troops torturing and murdering and raping civilians under a US-led mandate, the Ethiopian Army has been charged with this vital task. Thousands have died already, and what was an improving situation has become a catastrophic one. That is what can be done to Somalia in relative invisibility, and in the high-octane racist climate of the 'war on terror'.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Fallujah's legacy posted by Richard Seymour
The media chorus is unmistakeable, and obscene. Iraq now looks more hopeful than ever, they crow. Iraq is back on its feet, and terrorists are finally being driven to the margins. One could go on at nauseating length. The vilest extreme of this tendency is the extollment of Fallujah as the supreme example of such victory: once crawling with evildoers, this new haven of civility and neighbourly conduct shows what can be accomplished with gravel in the guts. In fact, this sort of depraved propaganda began in 2006, at the height of the US-incited sectarian warfare in Iraq, when American military officials began to laud Fallujah as a safe haven for the embattled Sunni population (on whom the Badr Organisation had just been sicced).
Let me just recount the salient details of what was done to Fallujah. Prior to April 2004, there had been a growing military conflict between Fallujans and the occupation forces, particularly after a massacre of peaceful demonstrators outside occupation headquarters. That conflict culminated in the capture and public defilement of four mercenaries, all of whom were carrying out the functions of the army in a privatised form. These modern day imperial adventurers were rapidly defined as innocent civilians, when in fact they were defending US trucks and outposts. Mercenary operators are not well-behaved mothers' boys when they're in Iraq: we've seen enough footage of them to know that, and infer a great deal more. It is a telling sign of how hated the mercenaries are that a recent malarial infection that spread throughout Fallujah was named 'Blackwater' by residents. At any rate, the US subsequently planned a siege of the city, but - despite killing hundreds in a few days and committing serious war crimes, including the bombing of a hospital - they were unable to keep control, and eventually had to cut an ad hoc withdrawal deal, leaving effective authority in the hands of local notables. (We now know for that Bush and his cabinet were fully planning a complete blitz in April 2004. Bush's pep talk to his cabinet on 6 April is reported by Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez: "Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!'") They continued to carry out raids and bomb attacks, but it wasn't until after the November 2004 election victory that their blitzkrieg resumed. They decided to order out the civilian population and relentlessly bombed the city in order to 'encourage' the evacuation. They shut off the water and electricity and started to pound the place, with weapons including white phosphorus, until thousands were dead. With over 150,000 refugees living in tents outside the city, US troops overran the territory and shot at anything that moved. They considered any boy older than ten to be a potential insurgent. They destroyed half of the homes, at least.
Having blasted, fried or shredded thousands to death and thousands more to injury, having destroyed tends of thousands of homes and mosques and schools, they put the city under a strict curfew, with a biometric lockdown and forced labour. They set up Camp Mercury on the outskirts of the city and used it as a base for torturing prisoners - which procedure the Marines referred to as 'fucking' them. There is more to say on this, but for the moment, let's consider the strategy employed here. I summarised the findings of one extensive report on America's urban warfare strategy in Iraq here. To condense, the strategy appears to involve seven key points: encircle and close off the city; forcefully evacuate those who remain; cut off food, water and electricity; confine reporters and block media coverage; massive bombardment; conduct an urban assault, using sniper fire, and put survivors through violent searches; attack hospitals, ambulances and other medical facilities.
This kind of intense urban warfare was planned and meditated on for years in advance. In a piece for the journal Environment and Planning in November 2005, the geographer Stephen Graham recounts a glitzy event he was asked to attend in Haifa in 2001. It turned out to be stuffed full of IDF and Marine Corps figures, senior US military planners, RAND corporation clerks and such. He recalls:
We were sickened by the euphemistic and obfuscatory language where every discursive trick was employed not to call a killing `a killing'. We were amazed to discover that US, Israeli, and British `experts' in this emerging field of urban warfare were such close friends that they seemed to constitute a transnational social body, orchestrating the intense exchange of technology, experience, training, and experience between the three nations. We were nauseated at the bellicose technophiliac masculinities, where systematic repression and state killing were portrayed in glossy PowerPoint slides with a palpable sense of fascination, even excitement.
He goes on:
Strikingly, the tricks of the trade of such warfare have, since 2001, quickly morphed to once again become central platforms of state geopolitical power. Fueled by a paranoid sense that global urbanisation is somehow working to undermine the technoscientific, disciplinary, and killing abilities of imperial nation-states, military urban specialists, such as those who attended the Haifa event, are helping to rethink radically how the United States, the other Western powers, and Israel wage war. The symptoms and results of such a transformation are now all too clear. In fact, they are difficult to escape. There are the demonisation and the calls to annihilate cities that symbolise resistance to colonial power; the masking of atrocities through an all-encompassing `terrorist' discourse; and the Orientalist `Othering' of Arab urban places and their inhabitants. Then there are the assaults on dense cities with helicopter gunships, cluster bombs, and artillery; the `psychological operations' that involve the bombing and targeting of journalists who have the temerity to show the resulting carnage on the ground; and the voyeuristic consumption of city-killing for pleasure and entertainment in news, films, novels, and video games (some produced by the militaries themselves). Finally, there are the political calls to destroy, `cleanse', or `pacify' aberrant, dehumanised `terrorist nest' cities, the inhabitants of which, it is endlessly implied, might easily project unimaginable terror onto Western cities if not annihilated.
These combined techniques of repression and representation were unmistakeably deployed in Fallujah (as Graham goes on to show in his article), so what the media pundits are in fact celebrating is a masterpiece of grand urban terror and repression, the pre-meditated destruction of a city in which up to 100,000 civilians were still living.
The results of the attack are still emerging, incidentally. One side-effect has been a surge in birth deformities, probably resulting from the chemical weapons, including depleted uranium and white phosphorus, used by the US in the area. But the main effect of the seige was the intended one: the complete subordination of Fallujah's population to martial law. What is currently lauded as 'stability' is in fact a harsh despotism run by former Republican Guards who round up suspects arbitrarily, then beat and torture them. It is a city riddled with blast walls and checkpoints, and any imam who preaches against the occupation is ordered to shut down. It is a place where the mere suspicion of insurgency can result in your fingernails being pulled out as you are beaten up. A city in tatters, a "big jail" still under biometric lockdown, still without regular electricity or clean water (which one reason is why malaria is spreading). And you can do all this to a city and call it progress because of the success of the preparatory propaganda. Not only was the whole terrain suffused with evil (a 'terrorist nest'), but it was home to the supreme evil-doer himself, 'Satan', according to Colonel Gareth Brandl. It is telling that in the WaPo piece linked above, US military propaganda, which held that the city was under the control of 'Al Qaeda', is recited by the Awakening Council cretin in charge of the place. He knows perfectly well that it's nonsense, but also knows that American newspapers will believe anything unless its officially denied. Because that is what it takes for what is sure to be recorded as one of the crimes of the century, giving expression to a brutal doctrine of urban warfare, to become a success story.