Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Miliband strikes posted by Richard Seymour
What a day for the androids! Miliband half comes out as a leadership challenger, then backs down under pressure from Downing Street, but then it is noticed that he wouldn't explicitly rule out a leadership challenge. On the basis of this hopeless placard, Labour's demoralised members have nothing - neither policies nor charisma nor added common sense - to hope for in a Miliband leadership. As a pronunciamento from a plotting putschist it lacks everything, including novelty. "Labour needs to change and change now" is how The Guardian summarises Miliband's intervention. In fact, the argument is that Labour must not change under any circumstances, but must defend everything it has done, and insist that the only flaw is that it didn't do it faster and better. Even the language must remain the same, the better to reinforce a stifling orthodoxy - "the many, not the few", "change" this, "radical" that, "modernisation" the other... Whoever wrote this drivel for Miliband has the mind of a small child, and he better give it back.
It was mentioned in the papers the other day that if the swing at Glasgow East were repeated in Labour's remaining heartlands (how hollow that term is beginning to seem), there would only be a dozen Labour MPs left after the next general election. The Tories have a clear plurality in every sector of the electorate, whether you stratify them by gender, region, age, or 'social class' (see poll [pdf]). From leading by 10% this time last year, Labour is now behind 19% (poll [pdf]). Recent polling evidence [pdf] suggests that the government's core policies of pay restraint in the public sector and tax breaks for corporations and the rich are deeply unpopular. Unsurprisingly, a party that assures us there is no such thing as class and then goes on to take the side of the ruling class in every key policy area or battle is making itself look a bit ridiculous and contemptible. Because of the government's commitment to privatization (what Miliband somnolently calls 'NHS reform'), New Labour is now even less trusted on the NHS than the Tories. That is a colossal reversal, and it shows that while people did support massive public investment, you can't disaggregate that investment from what is done with it. If you plough billions into colossally wasteful PFI projects, which everyone knows are wasteful and reduce the quality of care provided, you don't get brownie points. If you ram through a raft of market-driven measures and internal competition, which is the reverse of what Labour promised to do, you don't improve people's experience of the health service. Naturally, people are turning against the governing party on what was once its biggest strength. I don't think I need to keep underlining the point: New Labour is in meltdown on all fronts, and the cause of it is policy. The Miliband clarion call for 'change' actually maintains that all will be well if you only explain to the voters that New Labour was right all along, and that everything is going fabulously well.
This is not just a foolish political logic, but part of a dangerous epoch we are in. When people are suffering, stressed, in pain, they will look for solutions, not soothing bromides. And if real solutions aren't in evidence, the pseudo-solutions of the far right may gain a bigger foothold. Look at what's happened just today: British Gas put up prices by 35%. What can Gordon Brown say about this? He wouldn't dream of nationalising the energy giants. He is unlikely to even consider a tax on energy profits and a mandatory cut in fuel bills. He surely isn't going to ask us to 'stop wasting energy', is he? So, the recession is going to kick in, alongside soaring food and energy prices, and the government can only insist on belt-tightening from its constituents and obedience from its supporters. The trade unions got precious little for their supposedly militant demands in Warwick Two, and there is a reason for this: because they fundamentally accept the system that is crashing and burning, they have to accept that it needs to be rescued with wage restraint and public sector spending curbs. And they are subject to intense pressure to reinforce the government's line on 'belt-tightening' with their membership. Only a powerful, countervailing pressure from the rank and file could possibly stiffen their spines. Without working class militancy of the kind we have seen in Germany and, recently, Poland, we are going to see the politics of despair and reaction thrive.
As for Miliband, one last question: where did this idea that he is some kind of a rising star come from? I gather that the papers like him, but who else does? Is he even remotely electable? Transplanted into one of the safest Labour seats in the country, where his predecessor had a 56.8% majority (Miliband has helped chisel that down to 40.8%, and probably much lower still come 2010), has he ever really been tested? Both Blair and Brown had years of political streetfighting in them before they got to power, but Miliband has always been essentially a Blairite mini-me for as long as he has been in politics. The man is a suit-stuffer, probably set to go down as the Portillo of the 2010 election. So, again, enlighten me: who said he was a star?
The religion of the masses posted by Roobin
In 1938 Albert Hoffman developed the most important drug of the 20th century. I am speaking of LSD-25.
LSD is a twentieth century drug. Invented, perfected and propagated in the twentieth century. It reached the height of social significance during a period of upheaval and challenge. People placed great significance on it. Its various advocates saw it as a cure for alcoholism, a lever for psychiatry, a chemical weapon, a sacrament and the agency of revolution.
The period of upheaval is, of course, the nineteen sixties. The fallout from the sixties helped create the stasis of the 80s, 90s and 21st century. It helped make us who we are today and for that reason its worth looking at. It’s also worth noting that acid a social phenomenon will probably never come again.
Why the focus on mind altering substances? More or less for the observation Hunter S Thompson made at the end of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: consciousness expansion went out with the sixties. Looking back in 1971 he recalls:
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour... booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turnoff to take when I got to the other end... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: no doubt at all about that...
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...
The sixties were a culmination of a slow awakening from the war nightmare (by the way, what a wonderful passage that is!). The war babies had become post war adults. Scarcity and violence had been abolished. The world of virtue and delayed pleasure, the world their parents inhabited, made no sense. What’s rational is actual. The world was ripe for overturning. What do we want? When do we want it?
The extent to which the world fought back to a greater degree determined the political level of youth culture. In America there was the obvious clash with the Vietnam war draft and Jim Crow. I don’t want to dwell on it, but it’s easy to imagine Sgt Pepper in America as an uptight bureaucrat or politician instead of a charming bandleader.
The sixties were made for uppers, consciousness expansion. Unlimited horizons draw people on, trying to reach vanishing point. Take the spiritual dimension of LSD. Religion in the west taught delayed pleasure and humble worship through powerful institutions (catholic faith has to travel through a middle man, the priest, there is no other way). The youth movement did look to eastern religion for inspiration and a spiritual centre, varieties of Buddhism and Hinduism. But you still have the problem, why wait for pleasure and enlightenment when you can get it all for 3 bucks a hit?
Historians and HST fans know the next line:
So now, less than five years later, you can up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave broke and rolled back.
Their energy didn’t simply prevail. The kids didn’t break on through to the other side. Youth/drug culture of the seventies was locked in a “survival trip”. Downers became the vogue: “whatever Fucks You Up – whatever short circuits your brain and grounds it out for as long as possible”.
It’s a neat illustration of social change as viewed through drug consumption.
As long as people have had minds they’ve had minds to alter. There is the Terrence McKenna theory of the legend of the fall of man (the tree of knowledge held an ergot infected fruit, which first galvanised our ancestor’s minds). An example: the Chinese were the first people reckoned to have cultivated cannabis, around 2,600 BC. Herodotus, meanwhile, was the first western historian to have recorded its use as drug (in Scythia people used to throw seeds on hot stones, inhale the vapour and “howl with joy”).
But we can already see the interaction of drug and society is more complicated than good times/bad times. Return to the spiritual theme: one of the most famous proselytisers of LSD was Timothy Leary. He promoted LSD as both a force for revolution and the foundation of a new religion (originally predicted by Aldous Huxley).
What he was driving at was the parallel between (in particular) Buddhist concepts of death and reincarnation and familiar psychedelic experiences (ego-loss, oceanic consciousness, “I know what it’s like to be dead” etc). He tried to reconcile these different experiences, to this end he wrote The Psychedelic Experience, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was written to be whispered to the dying as they passed between incarnations.
On this basis he was able to sell LSD as a sacrament to an affluent but alienated generation. By the sixties, western Christianity had long been in decline, its basis worn away by numerous scientific and social discoveries. Perhaps its sole appeal remained as a communal focal point, the ritual being an end in itself (best described, and critiqued in the bleak lyric of Eleanor Rigby: perhaps the Beatles most blunt social commentary).
This had very little appeal for a generation that felt it didn’t have to wait for the afterlife when it knew it could have heaven on earth. But why wasn’t there heaven on earth? Now we get onto the first part of Leary’s prescription.
We've talked a lot about the rise of the military/industrial complex in WW2 and the determining effect it had. While the permanent arms economy was able to deliver a long boom and keep the working class sated it thoroughly smothered all life and vibrancy.
Leary was a renegade Harvard psychologist. His philosophy has been described as a blend of “post-Freudian psychology, zen and New Left utopianism”. When regarding society he drew on the model of the Id, Ego and Superego. The id is unbridled desire: I want, I need. The superego is the conscience: I should, I ought. Where these two meet the ego, the outward personality is formed. What people feel they should or ought to do is determined by society.
In Leary’s (and our) age this is industrial capitalism. If people were so intensely atomised, moulded and reorganised by the capitalist system, introducing a powerful hallucinogenic drug such as LSD, with its sense enhancing, ego-shattering power, could easily catalyse social revolution.
This was a widely held model, from Kesey’s Merry Pranksters to Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies to the Situationists. Sensory disruption, the freak out, the acid test, became a standard tactic for political activists. The fact that any Russian populist could have told them the limits of the “propaganda of the deed” didn’t matter. The target was the head, the military/industrial complex, the rational machine that processed young people into crew cut drones fit for the factory, office or army. Acid would break people’s commitment and belief in that system.
Which is an irony as LSD was, if anything, the creation of the scientific (and military) establishment.
The hallucinogenic properties of LSD-25 were first discovered on April 19th 1943, 5 years after it was created, when Albert Hoffman experimented on himself in what’s now known as the Bicycle Day (Hoffman asked his assistant to escort him home on a bicycle after the effects began to kick in).
LSD was introduced into America in 1948 and was soon hailed as a cure-all for schizophrenia to criminality to alcoholism. In the 50s it was common to use the drug in psychiatry. Between 1950 and 1975 over 1,000 research papers were written into LSD and other hallucinogens. Many of them were connected with research conducted for the American government, who investigated its potential as a truth drug, a form of psychic torture and even a chemical weapon (there’s some wonderful footage still around of the effects of LSD on military discipline).
Thousands upon thousands of people participated in these tests, from Timothy Leary to Ken Kesey to the actor Cary Grant. It was out of military bases, hospitals and, in particular, university campuses that LSD made its way into wider circulation, becoming a recreational drug.
What of drugs and society today? LSD will probably never have the same importance it did forty-fifty years ago. The common reaction to alienation and exploitation over the past twenty-thirty years has been flight. Autonomism came out of Marxism. It was refined into a theory that proposed instead of promoting and organising social confrontation, radicals should aim for immediate, small-scale (but, presumably spreading) rebellion, creating an autonomous space free from capital.
An early example of this would be the flight of the New Left in southern California to agricultural communes in a “back to the land” movement. We might suggest that widely practiced autonomism would be just as unsuccessful as the communes of the sixties and seventies. Without a stable axis, New Left politics and in particular LSD culture, drifted from oceanic consciousness to introspection and finally to outright self-regard and avarice… just in time for the eighties!
The neo-liberal era drug of choice has been ecstasy. In Britain the Second Summer of Love, the anti-poll tax movement and the fall of Thatcher came hot on the heels and complimented each other. They were pivotal in creating modern Britain. MDMA is the running theme of that period.
We live in an age where people are fighting to recover class-consciousness, ideas such as solidarity and social well-being. The job is still at hand. While LSD has a great past Ecstasy could still have a momentous future.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Little evil me? posted by Richard SeymourI really am going to have to insist that Harry's Place stops with its cult of my personality. First they plugged my speech at Marxism, then they, er, 'celebrated' my graduation, and now this. The author, presumably in all seriousness, says that I "supported Serbian territorial expansion" in Croatia. Marko, dearest, I was thirteen when that shit started and wouldn't have known Serbia from a tennis shoe. What he means to say, perhaps, is that I would have supported such a procedure. His 'gotcha' consists of a retort in the comments box to someone brazenly supporting Operation Storm, in which hundreds of thousands of Serbs were ethnically cleansed. This is what I said:
So, you just accept the claims of Croatian nationalism, then? No negotiations, no border rectifications, no arrangements for the increasingly oppressed and demonised Serb minority, just take the land and tell the others to fuck off? Some socialist.
You’re stuck with your support for Croatian nationalism, then. It doesn’t occur to you for a second that there might be legitimate problems for an oppressed minority following an unnegotiated secession with no dialogue or border rectifications.
Hoare then goes on to offer his interpretation services to HP Sauce readers, who at this point would be snapping their crayons in puzzlement: "he’s saying that the proper solution to the Serb question in Croatia was for part of Croatia’s territory, where Serbs lived, to have been taken from it and annexed to Serbia, thereby creating a ‘Great Serbia’." His over-hasty prosecutorial zeal has led Hoare to neglect to ask the author of the quoted ripostes whether in fact he is indeed "saying" that, but I believe I have the advantage here. After all, I am not the one who [would have] supported the logic of secessionism in the first place, and therefore I would have no problem explaining why the construction of separate states based on ethnic exclusivity would be no solution. It is Hoare who, considering Croatia's secession legitimate and worthy of full-throated support, has to answer why the Krajina Serbs were not entitled to independence from Croatia (and political union with Serbia if they wished). This is particularly the case since the Serbs living in Krajina were, like other Serbs living throughout Croatia, genuinely victims of repression and ethnic hatred by a state whose early gestures included the rescuscitation of fascist symbolism. But if there is going to be secession, ought there not be negotiations as opposed to a unilateral military take-over of the territory? Might there not be a concession of territory by both parties, or are the borders of some states eternal and inviolable, like the Holy Mother's virginity? The logic of supporting ethnic nationalism in Croatia, an ultra-reactionary political project from its inception, is what has produced Hoare's hysterical twaddle. Anything that might appear as remotely sceptical about Croatia's inherent right to dispose of the territory (and the people living there) as it wishes must be taken as an affront.
Hoare also reminds readers that I don't agree with describing the camps run by Bosnian Serbs as 'concentration camps'. He of course redacts my description of said camps, and omits to mention that the main thrust was that there were similar camps with similar atrocities maintained by all the warring parties in Bosnia, with little attention paid by our vigilant press. He also says I am endorsing Living Marxism's claims, which have been 'disproved' in court. In fact, I endorsed the verdict of Phillip Knightley, citing him twice, not that of Thomas Deichmann, cited nowhere. The court did not 'disprove' the points that a) not all those present were emaciated like Fikret Alic, because people could be fed, and therefore the broadcast was wrong to give the impression that people were being forcibly starved; b) many people could come and go, and therefore not all were imprisoned; and c) those who were prisoners were not being held by barbed wire, but by armed guards, which point was obscured because it disrupted the symbolism of the concentration camp. Those were the points I cited. And at at any rate, I am not as content as Hoare evidently is to accept a court's verdict at a libel trial as the final word on a complex, multifaceted historical record. In another bid to establish my evil-doing propinquities, Hoare explains that "Seymour is on record as describing Milosevic’s dictatorship as ‘a state with an elected government, legal opposition parties, independent trade unions, and opposition demonstrations permitted’". It is enough to state the obvious to be indicted in Hoare's petty tribunal. And finally: "He responded to the International Court of Justice’s recognition of the Srebrenica genocide by continuing to deny that genocide had occurred: ‘the massacre of thousands of men of military age is an atrocity, but under no reasonable definition is it genocide’." This point is telling, but not in the way Hoare thinks it is. After all, it would not in itself matter whether such an unspeakable atrocity was genocide or 'merely' a massacre. The condemnation or otherwise of such conduct does not depend on defining it in this way. But for supporters of Croatian and then Bosnian nationalism, it has to be genocide because they know the word functions not in a literal way but in a propagandistic sense. Prophylactically, it isolates the Bosnian Serbs as uniquely malevolent in that conflict, and therefore provides the prior justification for the vicious ethnic nationalism and brutality of the HVO and BiH and their auxiliaries. It affirms a narrative elaborated since 1991, long before Srebrenica became a household name, in which the Serbian government was the Nazi threat refulgent (thus making fascist-loving Tudjman an anti-fascist resistance leader). That is why people like Hoare consider it monstrous to dispute the term - his absurd, whitewashing narrative of heroic Croatian nationalism depends on it.
The entirety of Hoare's infantile imposture is animated by this imperative. The histrionics about me having 'supported' something called 'Great Serbia', based on a couple of flimsily parsed comments box exchanges, truly befit someone who described Operation Storm as "the liberation of Krajina" and who spends much of his time trying to defend the insupportable proposition that the salient characteristics of Croatian nationalism in its militant phase - its reactionary anti-semitic leadership, its revival of fascist regalia, anti-Serb racism, repression, war crimes and ethnic cleansing - were merely incidental to a great liberation struggle.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Don't ban this filth posted by Richard Seymour
It is one thing to say that pornography should not be banned, that the state cannot intervene in such matters, not least because it would involve them in a necessarily authoritarian logic (in which they get to determine what might be a good, healthy representation of sex or nudity). And one should certainly contextualise pornography in terms of the sex industry as a whole, which entails looking at sex workers as active producers of their own conditions and not mere victims - that means supporting efforts at organising sex workers and resisting the very prurient/puritanical logic that justifies their repression and marginalisation. By all means let us also avoid prudishness, especially on this site. It is the farthest thing from my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable about their sexuality, or to interrupt anyone's fantasies with stern moralising. But Chomsky's argument has drawn an odd chorus of defensive boos on the internet and in the comments to the post below - how dare he draw attention to the material conditions, the fact that wage labour is not free labour, that choice is not liberty, that the symbolic violence against women is part of a war on women that isn't less bestial because it is eroticised? Where does he get off? Evidently not in the pages of Hustler, the abnormal bastard.
But let's depart from the world of work for a second and stick with the symbolism. Andrea Dworkin, (boo hiss), once noted the curious propensity for all of the ordinarily repellent evils of capitalist society to somehow be magically transformed in the wonderland of pornography. Somehow, what would be obviously disgusting and offensive in ordinary discourse is defensible if there is a heavy libidinal investment in it. Aside from the clearly violent acts (slapping around, hair-pulling, name-calling, face-drenching, all of it framed by an established relationship of male dominance), there are the transparently racist tropes that sustain a lot of pornographic production, the myths about slovenly working class women, the use of subordinates (maids, secretaries, pupils) for sex, etc etc. Isn't it reasonable to suppose that there is a relationship between the crude and direct expression of misogynistic ideology in 90% of pornography, as well as in its gross overvaluation of the numinous penis, and the way in which women are rewarded and punished in capitalist society according to certain paradigms of behaviour? I don't mean that pornography causes these things, or that - as one famous formulation has it - "pornography is rape". I mean that the aspects of pornography that some argue are dispensable, incidental, unfortunate and so on are integral to it. The conventions that predominate and constitute the vast majority of pornographic productions are not accidental, any more than is the fact that they are seamlessly imported into other areas of ideological production such as advertising, lads mags, teledrama, Hollywood and so on.
Side-stepping all this is especially implausible you want to stop the state from outlawing something called 'extreme pornography'. In defense of the right of people to possess and distribute images appearing to depict violent sex, for example, it would make no sense to say that 'normal pornography' is just fine and dandy, perfectly serene, only incidentally imbalanced by some nastier elements. That merely gives the state carte blanche to determine that some ordinary sexist pornography is acceptable and the 'extreme' (sometimes not remotely sexist) manifestations of it are not. If you want the libertarian argument to work, you can't avoid a radical critique of pornography even at the risk of a temporary psychosomatic deflation.
Noam Chomsky on Pornography posted by Richard Seymour
I am particularly impressed with the way he just trashes the free market arguments of the pornographic industry (as in, 'she chose to do it').
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Back to Trnopolje posted by Richard Seymour
Ed Vulliamy is not going to tell you anything different. Of course it was a "concentration camp", only slightly less "satanic" than Omarska and other such institutions. Of course the emaciated Fikret Alic, "behind the barbed wire", "embodied the violence unleashed on Bosnia's Muslim civilians at the orders of Radovan Karadzic". And, as we recall, it was necessary to establish the facts of the matter, and what one might say about them, by prosecuting a tiny sectarian publication and driving it out of business. (Never mind what became of said sectarians - the principle established is that it was proper for the state to determine what amounts to truth in the public domain, and what may be censured.) The trouble is that, as Phillip Knightley wrote at the time, the imagery that Ed Vulliamy is citing as evidence in itself for what the newspapers dubbed "Belsen 92", is a deception. Knightley pointed out to The Guardian in 1997 that the key symbols in the image, the ones that Vulliamy evokes here - the barbed wire and the emaciated condition - were inaccurate because a) the other prisoners were clearly not starved, and food could be brought to the prisoners by villagers (Alic's own account of his condition appears to be that he was both poorly nourished and suffering from an untreated illness), and b) while Alic and others clearly were in fact imprisoned (others were not), what was imprisoning Alic was not barbed wire but armed guards. It was, in short, an image settled on to convey what could not be said openly - that these were Nazi-style concentration camps. Former ITN producer Bruce Whitehead wrote, in a trenchant review of ITN's conduct, that "the report that aired gave the clear impression that these men were being forcibly starved behind barbed wire". This was part of a context in which Roy Gutman won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Serbian "death camps" with metal cages in which thousands of prisoners were being killed and their bodies cremated for animal feed (evidence for which is scarce). The French organisation Medicins Du Monde, set up by Bernard Kouchner as a split from Medicins Sans Frontieres in 1980, launched a mass campaign advertising death camps, comparing Milosevic with Hitler, inviting audiences to believe that the Nazi holocaust was taking place all over again.
To linger with the obvious for a moment, there was in fact a system of camps intended as prisons for those deemed suspect by forces deputised by the Republika Srpska. They also functioned as deportation camps for those being driven out by those forces, as places where Bosnian men could be drafted to fight on the side of Republika Srpska, and as the basis for 'prisoner transfers' between the hostile forces. Many were closed down in 1992, with thousands of prisoners transferred to UN control. Trnopolje was a transit camp for detainees, although as Phillip Knightley elsewhere wrote (see below), it was also a place where refugees could go. These camps were promulgated in the context of a brutal, ethnicised civil war, which included the deliberate terrorising of civilian victims, and indiscriminate murders by all sides in the conflict. In those camps, murders, beatings and gang rapes took place. It is worth noting that, as Vulliamy points out, he and his journalistic confederates were able to report about these camps because Karadzic had enough bravado to challenge them to find atrocities during a bus-tour of the camps arranged by himself. Bosnian and Croatian forces were not so stupid as to invite journalists to inspect their detention camps, and I bet that most readers couldn't even name one. You know of Omarska, Trnopolje and at a stretch Manjača. The camp at Bugojno run by the Bosnian army is hard to find details about, and while there are extensive wikipedia articles and press discussions of those run by the Republika Srpska, there is nothing on wikipedia about this camp. Try finding out about the Orašac Camp, also run by the Bosnian army. One or two individuals have been brought before the ICTY in connection with acts committed in those camps, but I don't think a single journalist ever thought to try to visit them, much less tell the world that they were death camps. A Lexis Nexis search discloses less than a dozen news stories specifically about the Orašac Camp, all from Croatian news sources. These pertain to investigations into the ritual beheadings, beatings and torture of Serb and Croatian detainees, among other things. Only a few sources outside Croatia can be found mentioning the Bugojno camp, belatedly, even though the area in which the detention camp was sited was frequently reported on during and after hostilities. No one cared, it seems. Journalists had effectively become co-belligerents with the Bosnian army and the their mujahideen auxiliaries, and anything that didn't fit the script contrived by PR companies such as Ruder Finn, which was employed by both Croatian and Bosnian governments, or that of Washington and its allies, was out of the picture.
At any rate, here is a passage from Knightley's evidence intended for the ITN/LM trial:
The most likely explanation is that Trnopolje was both a refugee camp and a detention camp--there were at least two different groups of people there--and that this is what has confused the issue. Refugees had come there of their own free will and could leave at any time. But there were also Bosnian Muslims like Fikret Alic who had been transferred there from other camps, who were awaiting identification and processing, and who were not free to leave.
But even this group was not confined by barbed wire. The out-takes show them in the main camp, outside the agricultural compound, and the main camp was not surrounded with barbed wire, as the War Crimes Tribunal agrees, but by a low chain-mail fence to keep schoolchildren off the road. As well, the barbed wire fence was no deterrent to anyone determined to escape because it was poorly constructed with wide gaps. What confined the Bosnians at Trnopolje, the War Crimes Tribunal says, was the presence of armed Serbian guards. So ITN was right in that the men in the film were detained in Trnopolje, but the image used to illustrate that was misleading because it implied that they were detained by the barbed wire. The barbed wire turns out to be only symbolic.
Were all the inmates starving? No. Fikret Alic was an exception. Even in Marshall's report other men, apparently well-fed, can be seen, and the out-takes reveal at least one man with a paunch hanging over his belt. Phil Davison, a highly-respected correspondent who covered the war from both sides for The Independent says, "Things had gone slightly quiet. Suddenly there were these death camps/concentration camps stories. They were an exaggeration. I'm not excusing the Serbs but don't forget that there was a blockade on Serbia at the time and there not a lot of food around for anyone, Serbs included."
It is a peculiar irony that just when reporters are most integrated into state propaganda (which is usually the case during a war), that is when they become the most arrogantly assured of their absolute, uncompromising integrity and intrepidity. The very fact of their presence at the scene of the crime, their ability to bear witness, even where their attention has been very carefully directed and framed in advance by assumptions elaborated by intelligence and PR agencies, is enough to make them think they are changing the course of history, humanitarian agents enacting la justice de Dieu. (Sometimes the reputation might be warranted. Apparently, the photographer and reporter Janet Schneider, who liked to stare down the "corridor of death" and coolly stated that she had endured rape "more than once" in the course of securing a story, was directly involved in assisting Fikret Alic after his escape from Trnopolje). The sheer irrational fury unleashed when their role is challenged is indicative of the intense narcissism that has been channelled into the enterprise. So, here we are, back to Trnopolje, the barbed wire, the body eaten by hunger and disease, and the spectre of Belsen. And though the montage is a crude specimen of revisionism in itself, it is of course those who do not assent to such vulgar redactions that are labelled revisionists.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
Unequal before the law posted by Richard SeymourBerlusconi has won legislation that will force illegal immigrants charged with crimes to serve sentences a third longer than Italians. Oh, and they're also going to let soldiers patrol the streets alongside the police. And next year, I'm sure, the camicie nere will be permitted to join them to the soundtrack of Giovinezza.
Last will and testament posted by Richard SeymourIt has been said that 'Orwell's Victory' was the late Christopher Hitchens' last decent book before he went fully over to the dark side. It does a decent enough job of defending Orwell from some unfair critics, defends Orwell's anti-imperialism (albeit he doesn't linger on the support for the Palestinians, almost unique among European left-wingers at the time), shows that his insight into 'totalitarianism' in part derived from his experience of the colonial labyrinth, and contains some judicious criticisms of Orwell's prose where necessary. It also has an embarrassingly poor section, seeking to defend Orwell's notion of linguistic transparency against the 'postmodernists', in which he barely sets a foot right (apparently, postmodernism is 'in essence' the proposition that nothing will ever happen again for the first time). There is a dubious defense of a conception of Englishness and bourgeois values such as 'decency'. But what is worse than embarrassing and actually a little sickening is the psychologising about the urge to dominate and be dominated. At the end of chapter 8, Hitchens has this to say:
With a part of themselves, humans relish cruelty and war and absolute capricious authority, are bored by civilized and humane pursuits and understand only too well the latent connection between sexual repression and orgiastic vicarious collectivised release. Some regimes have been popular not in spite of their irrationality and cruelty, but because of it. There will always be Trotskys and Goldsteins and even Winston Smiths, but it must be clearly understood that the odds are overwhelmingly against them, and that as with Camus's rebel, the crowd will yell with joy to see them dragged to the scaffold. This long and steady look into the void was Orwell's apotheosis of 'the power of facing'. (pp 169-70)
I raise this passage because it concentrates in a few sentences a number of themes prized by 'antitotalitarians'. (Hitchens places Orwell alongside that bunch, including Koestler and Silone, which would actually seem vaguely insulting, since Silone was a police informer and Koestler a supporter of Zionist terror, who jokingly referred to himself as a 'colonial'). From the BHLs to the Kanan Makiyas, this posited instinct for cruelty and evil is a mainstay of 'liberal antitotalitarianism'. Nick Cohen's inchoate attempt to 'explain' what he insists is inexplicable (said 'totalitarianism') rests on a mish-mash of pseudo-psychoanalytical motifs - the will to obey, group solidarity, etc. The Cold War psychology of Maslow and the pre-Cold War psychologisms of John Spargo are drawn from the same well. And, of course, the fear of the masses, and the exaltation of Camus and his lone rebel, is commonplace with this crowd. It's a pleasing, self-serving fiction for the soi-disant contrarian, but one already dismantled by Alistair Macintyre. All of which is just to indicate that this flight from serious left-wing politics to individualised moralising about 'integrity' and so on was already much in evidence before the fat Englishman had his meltdown post-9/11.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Stick a fork in him posted by Richard Seymour
Brown is finished. Let me say that again: Brown is finished. One more time: Brown is finished. I had an inkling this was coming when I saw Margaret Curran's election message for Labour on the BBC - discoursing grimly on the unacceptable inequalities that made Glasgow East so poor, she insisted that the correct response was to ensure everyone had access to sports and ate healthily. Seriously, however, I doubt Curran had much to do with it. And she has every reason to feel disappointed. Labour was ahead in the polls, and there was a jumbo majority that the SNP had a tiny margin of time to erode. But the rate at which New Labour heartlands have been evaporating, turning over to any opposition that runs a half-decent campaign, has been nothing short of astonishing. And look, this turnout may have been down on the general election, but it's actually quite decent for a bye-election. It looks like, alongside glum Labour voters sitting on their hands, there were quite a few motivated voters determined to smack the government.
And let's look at what the Brown administration did to, er, assist its candidate in Glasgow East. They gave in to the City and the rich on tax evasion, declared a freeze on public spending, advertised for bids on the privatised delivery of welfare, and announced a 'revolutionary' shake-up of benefits for the unemployed and incapacitated that will treat both like criminals. Everybody knows by now that Glasgow East is an overwhelmingly working class constituency, with life expectancy in some areas lower than in Gaza. Unemployment is well above the national average: 10% for men over 25, 25% for women. It contains Shettleston, the most deprived area in Britain according to the UN. This is a place where even the Tory candidate was a trade union branch secretary. This is Labour turf, has been for generations, and it has stuck with Labour during the worst of the Blair years, through gritted teeth. A little bit of imagination should tell you something about the combination of fury and heartbreak that produced a 23% swing to an SNP candidate with no profile, no charisma and not much in the way of policy. Not only does the government have no solution for those squeezed by soaring food and fuel prices but to scrap the winter fuel allowance and abolish the 10p tax rate, they decide to go after those on benefits while allowing criminal companies to engage in tax evasion.
Commentators marvel at the government's apparent determination to make itself unelectable. It was once the Tories doing that, with a succession of bland right-wing leaders talking 'tough' on crime or asylum. Let me tell you something - I'm reluctant to link to the Tories, but they are actually running a petition against Brown's NHS cuts. They frame it in terms of inefficiency, of course, but in every other respect it looks like the kind of campaign one would see on a trade union website. The Tory strategy is unmistakeably to pitch for the slightly-left-of-New-Labour vote, and it may have some success. Now the government, aside from constantly attacking its own electoral base, frequently indulges in the right-wing populism that made the Tories look hateful and unelectable to many centre-right voters. (Not least of which, on Labour's part, is the surreptitious Islamophobic poison about the liberal blogger Osama Saeed, the SNP's candidate in Glasgow Central at the next election - a naked attempt to smear all SNP candidates by association with an "Islamic fundamentalist"). The story of the next election will probably be a continuation of the same: New Labour heartlands tumbling one after the others, as working class voters vent their fury about - well, take your pick from Post Office closures, privatisation, benefit cuts, public sector pay, tax breaks for the rich, the abolition of the ten pence tax rate, the abolition of the winter fuel allowance, soaring inequality, tuition fees, etc etc. So, the columnists wonder whether New Labour's head has disappeared up Brown's crack - surely, cabinet ministers with sense can see what's being done? Surely, the backbenchers can understand that their careers are at risk? Why isn't there a revolt? Well, there may be a revolt, but I suspect it would be a Blairite one aimed at removing an elephantine social misfit from a post that they would rather trust to Charles Clarke or Alan Milburn. There will not be a change of course. And the reason is simple: they are committed to this, they like doing what they're doing, they think it's sound economics and good politics. The Labour Party has spent twenty years talking itself into this happy little rut, and it no longer has the means to think that it might be good to get out.
All of which raises the question: what is to be done? My favourite kind of question as it happens. The left has to have a strategy for coping with the collapse of Labourism that doesn't threaten to drag it down with the irreparable hulk. That can neither take the form of sectarian disengagement with Labour supporters, nor can it take the form of some 'progressive alliance' uniting the various fragments of the radical left, since a) it would not necessarily be more than the sum of its parts, b) it is not going to happen anyway, and c) even if it did, it would in practise be tied to the Labour Party. Both of the above solutions are tempting short-cuts, to be sure, especially when there appears to be a paucity of alternatives. But an alternative to Labourism cannot be built from above by a loose association of 'ecosocialists' and Eurocommunists who flee under the Labour umbrella when there is the slightest of sign of precipitation. It has to come from below, and to that extent it has to come from the ongoing revival of trade union militancy, particularly from the fightback against Brown's government by the very working class who can no longer stand to vote for that shower. As these strike waves become more frequent and longer, as they are sure to do, the question that has dogged previous trade union conferences - why are we funding these bastards? - will return with force. The hardcore of Labour left hangers-on will have to look increasingly outward, toward alignments beyond the party that it is kicking them. Of course, no alternative that could conceivably be built would be a 'pure' working class movement, or from the old left. It would embrace all the diverse campaigns that the Left has thrown itself into, including defending council housing, defending asylum seekers, fighting the BNP, resisting the war, and so on.
I suppose it's about time I mentioned the People Before Profit charter, which has got the support of Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn MP, John Pilger and others. The purpose of the charter is to formulate a set of demands and signposts for the way forward. It expresses some basic requirements that the left can agree on - no wage increases below the rate of inflation, tax businesses and the rich to fund welfare and public services (particularly impose a windfall tax on energy companies), repeal anti-union laws etc. It also commits to support for various essential campaigns such as Stop the War, Unite Against Fascism, Keep Our NHS Public, and so on. You can read it in full here [pdf], although I believe a separate website is being developed for this. And you can sign it by e-mailing your name and details to: email@example.com.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
What are the odds? posted by Richard Seymour
At last, the truth will emerge. With Radovan Karadzic's capture and imminent trial, by a US-sponsored junket known as the ICTY, we will get to know the full facts about mass rape and genocide. Or will we? Forget for a moment the effrontery of a 'court' that effectively acts on behalf of the occupiers of Iraq dispensing wisdom on war crimes. And let's leave aside the fact that - whether or not Karadzic is guilty, as I think he is, of war crimes - trials of this nature are farcical and tend not to disclose much in the way of official responsibility. The more obvious point is that the verdict was reached, so far as official liberal opinion was concerned, some time ago. And that verdict has it that the Bosnian war was purely the result of a Serb nationalist pact of aggression against the remaining components of Yugoslavia, and that Radovan Karadzic, as a 'mastermind' of the war, strove to exterminate Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
Vulliamy's article puts it like this:
After 13 years on the run, Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, is on his way to The Hague to face charges of genocide and masterminding the bloodiest carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich. ... And that man looking like Santa Claus was him, Karadzic! The man who arranged the mass murder of 100,000 people and the enforced deportation of two million? All those incinerated homes, the mass rape camps, the mass deportations at gunpoint.
This, to be frank, crazed nonsense is unlikely to be met with as much derision as it deserves to be, if any at all. Let me enumerate the falsehoods: Karadzic is certainly likely to be charged with genocide, now that the ICTY has ruled that Srebrenica was a genocide and Karadzic is believed to have ordered that attack, but he is not going to be charged with 'masterminding' the war; Karadzic may be accused of 'arranging' the mass murder of 8,000 Muslim males, but I know of no serious source that holds him responsible for 'arranging' the mass killing of 100,000 people, which is on current estimates close to the total number who died in the war on all sides, civilian and military; at the end of the war, a total of 2.2 million Bosnians of all kinds were displaced, one million of those internally, but it is absolutely not the case that Karadzic 'arranged' the 'enforced deportation' of two million people. These are just matters of fact about which Vulliamy is either deceived, or dissembling. How is it even possible to have a sensible discussion about this if the facts are so obscured by propaganda that - and I bet you this is true - hardly any Guardian reader will notice that the prize-winning senior foreign correspondent Ed Vulliamy is just ranting out of his blowhole? How is it possible that anything that did emerge from a trial would be weighed, if not dispassionately, then at least with an attempt at honesty?
I raise all this not because Karadzic is entitled to any defense from me (I am sure he is more than adequately protected by his amulets). So much is obvious. And I don't raise it because even my reasonably well-grounded suspicions about his culpability are not enough to persuade me that the facts should be settled by a lawless court which refuses to investigate the crimes of its sponsors. I raise it because, well, here we are in the middle of an epic and ongoing war crime with death rates, torture chambers, and mass rapes that are certainly much worse in their totality than anything that happened in Bosnia. All of this is the direct responsibility of the American state, which unarguably launched a war of aggression without any provocation whatsoever. And, somehow, the volume is decidedly muffled. While there are great independent journalists exposing much that is going on, the field is not exactly crowded. The liberal journalists and opinionators who were so vocal in advocating for Izetbegovic, so eager to bear witness, are hardly visible. And where they have not just enthusiastically backed the enterprise, they are at the very least circumspect on the matter of the evident criminality of the war's planners and prosecutors. Even those who are not backers of the war in Iraq constantly apologise for the United States government (usually referred to by the abstraction, 'America'), constantly seek consolation amid its crimes, and assert repeatedly that it still does some good in the world. Well, forgive me, but if that's the trend, shouldn't you be ashamed to talk about Bosnian war criminals? If you find yourself struck by a curious aphasia on the matter of trying to prosecute not only American officials but British ones too, what right have you got to exult about the capture of one lowly thug by the agents of the world's biggest thugs? If you can't match with honest reporting the level of hysteria and propaganda that you generated over Bosnia and then Kosovo, is there no point at which abashment sets in? I ask merely for information.
"Failed by the system" posted by Richard SeymourOne of the ways the tabloids exhibit their basic indifference to the real problems around knife crime is in their indifference to its victims. When Leon Francis was stabbed to death at the age of 24, newspapers like The Sun chose to focus on his conviction for armed robbery, and to treat his murder as a matter of gang warfare. What they didn't care to know was that Leon Francis, having emerged from prison, had been trying to change his life around, and was frustrated by those supposedly there to help. Socialist Worker did what the big newspapers ought to have done. They spoke to his mother, Jackie Ranger, and found out about how the system failed him. Read on...
Monday, July 21, 2008
Another assault on Fallujah? posted by Richard SeymourU.S. and Iraqi forces are preparing another siege of Fallujah under the pretext of combating "terror", residents and officials say.
Located 69 km west of Baghdad, the city that suffered two devastating U.S. attacks in 2004 has watched security degrade over recent months.
"Ruling powers in the city fighting to gain full control seem willing to use the security collapse to accuse each other of either conspiracy (in lawlessness) or incapability of control," Sufian Ahmed, a lawyer and human rights activist in Fallujah told IPS.
"They suddenly changed their tone from saying that the city was the safest in Iraq to claiming that al-Qaeda is a serious threat. Fallujah residents know their so-called leaders are using security threats to terrify them for their own political interests."
The first thing to notice about this is that, as with the rollbacks of pension entitlements, all three major parties are backing this policy. The Tories have embraced it as one of their own. The consensus in favour of systematically dismantling protections for the poor, the old and the sick is rock solid in our political elite. The second is that, with wearisome predictability, some supporters of New Labour are working desperately hard to give this process a left gloss. Johann Hari argues that we cannot defend the current system in which millions of people are left to rot on the dole. True enough, but a) that is not a function of the welfare state, but of the capitalist economy which requires and produces a reserve army of labour; and b) what Johann is defending is the most authoritarian version of supply-side economics, which is quackery of a kind that Enlightenment-fetishists ought to be seriously worried about. Hari argues that people should be forced to do menial, generally pointless, labour in order to qualify for miserable benefits. He has an inertia-ridden, spliff-smoking friend named 'Andy' whom he thinks would benefit from cleaning graffiti or picking up litter. It would reconnect him with the world of work, force him to exercise his talents, and so on. Otherwise, he will remain listless and idle. And anyway, so the argument goes, if Labour doesn't do it, the Tories will in a much nastier way.
I am not going to waste time arguing over anecdotes. Let's start with the real world. As far as incapacity benefits are concerned, as I have pointed out before, there is no serious prospect of meeting the government's reduction targets even with the most punitive measures. This is because the best research indicates that: a) the recipients are largely genuinely incapacitated, contrary to the claims made by David Freud who has asserted that only a third of recipients are genuine; b) they live in areas where work is scarce and are the component of the labour force that is least attractive to employers, even if they can do a limited range of tasks, so the jobs for them largely don't exist; c) the theoretical commitment, ie the belief that an added supply of labour will create its own demand in accord with neoclassical economics, is barmy and unsupportable. Now, let's talk about jobseekers. How many jobseekers are there at any one time, and how many jobs exist for them? At the moment, the ILO estimate of unemployment for the UK is just over 1.6m (and growing). The number of jobs available in the UK economy is just over 650,000 (and contracting). (See the most recent ONS stats here [pdf]). So, even under the best conditions, with vacancies closely matching local skill distributions and educational levels, and with employers willing to accept local populations, there would still be a vast pool of people unemployed through no fault on their own part. And they should be compelled to carry out petty, punitive labour just so that they don't lose sight of what work really means? This is reactionary drivel.
Why doesn't Johann call for massive state investment in job creation? Why not offer people dignified, meaningful, public service work, with decent wages? Rather than what turns out to be a coercive system designed to make the receipt of benefits as unpleasant as possible for those concerned? After all, if litter really needs cleaning up and graffiti really needs dealing with, why don't we have the council services to take care of it? Could it be that councils, particularly in working class areas, have been run down for years and forced to rely increasingly on local levies that can't make up the shortfall, even as the government obliges them to get involved in extremely costly PFI programmes? If we're not down with public works programmes and job creation, why not simply make the system more redistributive? In other words, rather than capitulating to the hysteria about slackers on our taxes, why not simply say that those who have benefited most from an economy that keeps millions in unemployment should be obliged to pay the most to secure a decent livelihood for them in the interim of their incapacity or lack of paid employment. As they can hardly be relied upon to do so voluntarily, they will be expected to pay higher taxes on their salaries, bonuses, investments and profits. The poorest, meanwhile, the majority earning less than the mean income, could either have taxes reduced or abolished.
The reason Johann Hari can talk like this is because he accepts a moral fairy tale: benefits are some sort of charity in which nice middle class people part with a portion of their income to support the poor. That much is patently obvious from his opening shot. But the welfare state is not a charity. It is a modestly redistributive model to which everyone in work contributes. Most of those receiving benefits will have paid taxes at some point, or will at some point in the future. They do not need to be ordered around and demeaned by forced labour when at some point in their life they fall on hard times. Even those who have never paid taxes and, for the sake of argument, are conscientious layabouts who avoid the labour market (and who can blame them, given that most people cannot expect the relative security, dignity, fame and financial rewards that a newspaper columnist will receive?), don't need to be penalised in this way. First of all, even if it could work, it would require a nightmare scenario to do so. To really get to grips with the supposed recalcitrant spliff-heads and daytime-telly addicts (my stock of cliche is rapidly running out), you would have to construct a state bureaucracy so intrusive, and so arrogant and overbearing, that it would inevitably bring large swathes of even the 'deserving poor' under its surveillance and constant harrassment. People who have spent their lives contributing to the society would find themselves battered with 'work-oriented interviews', phone calls, demands for information, allocations for miserable 'community service' work. Constant testing and grading, and in the case of the incapacitated, inspection by GPs pressured with reward-focused targets, would be the motif if such a pointless exercise. Even if you could single out the tiny minority of putative couch potatoes, which of course you cannot, it would save the taxpayer next to nothing and produce no overall benefit. The politicians who are devising these schemes have every reason to know all this. They are not targeting the 'Andys' of this world, even if Andy is unfortunate enough to exist and to have a priggish moralist like Hari as a friend. The intention is to, as fully as possible, role back the welfare state - not to replace it with a version that people like Johann Hari can defend in good conscience, but to reduce it to a shell. That requires, as with the attack on the US social security system (scheduled to resume under Obama, I bet you), the contrivance of 'crises'. Suddenly, we lack the money for all this luxury, suddenly there is a financial gap, a shortfall, and there are all these millions of people using the system when they should be in paid work...
I suspect what really motivates Johann Hari's defense of the government is the concluding argument, which is that the Tories would impose a much worse scheme. It may indeed be so, but that is no defense of the government's policy. Of course, there is a great pressure on supporters of New Labour to find a way to defend the government or shut up, so as not to give any quarter to the resurgent Tories. But the idea that one can neutralise certain pressures by giving into them, attempting to co-opt and tame them, is nonsensical. It has never worked, not when the issue is immigrants, asylum seekers, Islam, wheelchair layabouts, crime, or any other hot button topic you can think of. The appetite of big business and investors for lower corporation taxes, more privatisation, more and more opportunities for accumulation with less of what they consider an unconscionable burden, is unquenchable. There is nothing you can give them that will stop them coming back in their media and their lobby groups for much, much more. Moreover, once you tell people that the David Freuds of this world are right, and that there is indeed a problem roughly as they describe it with solutions roughly as they prescribe them, you shift the argument away from social justice and the obvious way in which people are victimised by this economy, and the crying need to reverse the policies of the Thatcher years and shift power and wealth back to working people. You then get an argument about just how authoritarian the government should be, how much benefits should be cut, and under what circumstances, who should be targeted and how, etc etc. And you find yourself complicit in a process that targets and cheats the poorest, while assuring everyone that it is the progressive thing to do.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Dunbar says that I claim "that the jihadis and ex-Baathists in Iraq are a ‘grassroots guerilla movement, one that has arisen because of the brutality of the occupation’", and that my "sources for this statement are the CIA (!) and a bunch of antiwar websites similar to his own." In fact, the antiwar websites mentioned just provide graphics of data gathered by the Multinational Forces in Iraq and supplied by the US Department of Defense, which I have cited directly elsewhere (Dunbar could have asked me, or he might have checked the dossier in the sidebar). The statistics speak for themselves: the vast majority of attacks by insurgents are directed against occupation troops, not against civilians or even America's local auxiliaries. The exclamation mark beside 'CIA' is also unwarranted. In this case they provided 'evidence against interest'. In other words a branch of the American state supplied information about the nature of the military opposition to the occupation that directly contradicted a case being produced and disseminated energetically by that state.
Dunbar accuses me of "believing that the murder of young working-class Americans is somehow understandable". I don't. I think the killing of occupation soldiers (which is presumably who he means) is more than understandable - it is an absolute necessity. I am not persuaded, as Dunbar appears to be, that one should not defend oneself against an armed occupation soldier because he may be working class. He adds that I "perceive the killing of trade unionists and aid workers and the bombing of mosques and UN buildings as mere collateral damage." Not only did I not say this in the article, but I don't think I've ever said it. It isn't even implied, so far as I can tell. That exhausts Dunbar's engagement with the article in question, but there is one other thing. He mentions, before he gets to discussing my piece, that I run an "unreadable" weblog. On this evidence, it would be more accurate to say that he finds it unreadable, because he is demonstrably incapable of properly reading what he purports to be criticising.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Nonetheless, this being the topic du jour, and quite a serious one, what is the cause of it? One hears from pundits that young black men in particular are prone to violence because they exist in a survivalist subculture that values macho behaviour and endorses violence (blame Fifty Cent again). One also hears that they often come from 'broken homes' (those 'deadbeat dads' and 'absent black fathers') and thus don't form a strong identification with social norms. Various associated explanations - drugs, 'gang culture' etc - are posited with equal gravity. I simply take it as obvious that these kinds of explanations, more often than not, are about scapegoating population groups deemed in the ruling culture to be somehow 'alien' and a problem in and of themselves. Moreover, these explanations are incoherent. There are those who have listened to the So Solid Crew without blasting someone's head off. There are those who have bought and even sold drugs without knifing someone to death. And some people from single parent families are perfectly average human beings who don't carry knives with them. Again, the fact that these explanations neither explain nor cohere is not strictly relevant, since their purpose is to create an overriding impression of menace and disorder. A problem whose boundaries are not defined by race is given a racist twist in such analyses. It is the 'New Barbarism' thesis transplanted into New Cross and Stockwell. Even where it isn't explicitly racist, it is doggedly reactionary, as when commentators recycle Blair's old speeches on 'respect' and its putative breakdown. Can't we just go back to the 1930s, when everyone knew their place and the kids could get a clip round the ear from a disgruntled bobby if they misbehaved?
The scholarly research points to alternative conclusions, with radical policy implications. For example, one recent study by Fajnzylber et al on the causes of violent crime took a trans-national analysis of various trends and found one outstanding factor: income inequality raises violent crime rates dramatically. This is backed up by earlier research. Related factors such as educational inequality, and 'ethnic polarisation' (racism in the society) contribute as well, while the rate of such crimes fluctuates with the economic cycle (much of violent crime being property-related). The dry statistics point to a reality that is palpable for anyone who lives in London, where all of these social ills co-exist, and where inequality of all kinds is glaringly apparent. It is not so surprising that there are a relatively small number of extremely damaged individuals who, as Yuri Prasad argues, "see little value in human life – neither theirs, nor anyone else's".
What about drugs? Andrew Resignato at Florida State University has summed up a wealth of literature on this topic, and concludes that there is in fact scarce data to support the thesis of a positive correlation between drug use and violent crime. On the contrary, there is a much stronger correlation between the enforcement of drug laws and violent crime. Drug users who do have to support the cost of their habit (inflated by dint of its control by criminal cartels) through crime tend to opt for non-violent means. On the other hand, the more investment in policing to control the sumptuary habits of the poor, the more likely there is to be violent crime. This is unsurprising. Create an illicit capitalist economy in the hands of extra-legal cartels embroiled in competition with one another, with that competition delegated down to those lowest in the hierarchy, and you get a great deal of violence in the process. I strongly suspect that states which impose drug laws are well aware of this, and that their function is to facilitate a strongly interventionist police force with ready-made pretexts for detaining and imprisoning people considered dysfunctional to the society's requirements. It keeps 'problem' populations, generally the urban poor, under tight surveillance. It criminalises them before they have necessarily even broken the law.
If talking tough and ratcheting up repression, with heavily policed schools and widely used stop-and-search applied in a racist fashion, worked, then American cities would be the safest in the world. Yet this is exactly what New Labour, and the Tories after them, will continue to do. Can we even take them seriously when they claim to want to deal with the problem? Is it not obvious that the periodic episodes of hysteria on what are chronic problems are opportunistic attempts to expand the state's repressive capacities? Isn't this just what we have seen in other fields, such as 'anti-terror' legislation, whose dystopian precepts were being driven through parliament by New Labour well before 9/11 or 7/7? We now have a criminal justice system with an extraordinary scope for control, with such disgraceful policies as curfews and ASBOs, in which non-criminal behaviour becomes the subject of sanction. Given that crime rates are not soaring, given that the risks that people face of encountering violence have not substantially altered, the most likely explanation is that as the neoliberal era enters its most decadent phase, states are attempting to manage the adverse social by-products of the descent with an iron fist.
And next year, when they've got round to blunt object crime, the newspapers and politicians will pretend that it's all new again, that we've never been here before, and that whatever repression is in place isn't enough.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Graduated posted by Richard SeymourBA in Politics, Philosophy and History, first class with honours. One step closer to world domination.
Labels: world domination
Much as one may wish that strike actions were not so brief and the period between them so long, there is evidently something bigger percolating away here. The rate at which public sector workers are opting to fight the government is not just a manifestation of reviving industrial militancy in the most unionised sectors of the economy. It is poison for the government's electoral chances, who are now positioning themselves as the class enemy of some of their key constituents. Yet New Labour is so wedded to this policy that it is trying to defend a heartland Glasgow seat with a mountainous but threatened majority with a candidate who will not say a single word of criticism about the policy, preferring to rely on contrived prolier-than-thou credentials. Clearly, the SNP would have to fight a serious battle to take the seat, but the difficulty for New Labour is that its voters won't turn out to match their standing in the polls. The union leadership is evidently still hoping to force a change of policy with this rank-and-file pressure as an added bargaining lever. They know the governing party is short of cash and will be tapping them for it, just as surely as they know they will provide it unless the members force a decisive break with Labour. Despite the calamitous state of would-be alternatives for the time being, the scale of the government's attack on workers is likely to intensify moves in that direction. Absent a viable national alternative, funding may well tend to be distributed in a more fragmented fashion with some even going to the Liberals (yech, can you imagine?).
The opposition, despite its venomous hostility to trade unions, is keeping relatively quiet about this. In fact, it is bigging itself up as the party of the poor. Not only that, but when David Cameron made his lousy statement about absentee black fathers, he got the backing of a selection of 'community leaders' (how I hate that phrase and everything it implies), who said that the Tories were more progressive on social investment than Labour. This probably doesn't forebode an upsurge of working class conservatism as in 1979. After all, the Tories are concealing their agenda, not aggressively propounding it as the way forward. But with every passing day and every new action by the government, which has never seen a bungled attempt at right-wing 'populism' that it didn't like, it becomes more and more obvious that Labour voters are going to stay at home in droves, repelled by the government and unafraid of the Tories. New Labour is about to discover the true meaning of the phrase 'things can only get better'.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Idea for a play posted by Richard SeymourGenoa, 2001: a haphazardly dressed 'maniac' penetrates police headquarters in the Bolzaneto district, shortly after a mysterious incident in which hundreds of international anticapitalist protesters are ferociously beaten to injury and near-death. With no clues, no leads, and no suspects except the victims themselves, the police are anxiously attempting to secure the arrest of old ladies with cracked skulls. The 'maniac', adopting a variety of disguises, induces the police to leap through the hoops of their own illogical explanations for what took place: they weren't really injured, or if they were, the injuries were old; they attacked the police first; they were fighting among themselves; they were Black Bloc... Gradually, one by one, he provokes the officers to admit the sinister truth - that under the guidance of the neo-fascist deputy Prime Minister, and with assurances of impunity, the police systematically attacked, beat, tortured, humiliated and threatened with rape hundreds of people they knew to be innocent of any crime, for the purpose of terrorising them and the movement they represented. The police officers pour out their hatred for the dirty queers and communists and environmentalists and gypsies who pollute the otherwise pristine body of beautiful Italy. They reminisce about fascists - Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet, all great men. They sing the old fascist songs, and laugh about how easy it is to con the bourgeois press into swallowing any lies, any contortions, any manifest absurdities. But just as the play reaches its finale, the 'maniac' is exposed as a fraud and a penetrator - one of those filthy communists, no less. They prepare to defenestrate him. But, just as they have him by the ankles, his bag of disguises begins to tick noisily. Inside it, they find a bomb, but it's too late. The play ends with a bang.
What? What do you mean you've heard this before?
Beat Primer, part 2: Burroughs posted by Roobin
Who monopolised immortality?
Who monopolised cosmic consciousness?
Who monopolised Love Sex and Dream? …
Who took from you what is yours?
Now will they give it back?
Did they ever give anything away for nothing?
Did they ever give any more than they had to give?
Did they not always take back what they gave when possible and it always was?
The purpose of writing on this blog is to expose and arrest the Nova Criminals… We show who they are and what they are doing and what they’ll do if they are not arrested. Minutes to go. Souls rotten from their orgasm drugs, flesh shuddering from their nova ovens, prisoners of the earth to come out. With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly.
Burroughs is an idiosyncratic but politically committed writer. He is the most modern of the key Beats. If Kerouac is hipness was then we make Ginsberg into hipness is and Burroughs, in his most utopian moments, hipness to be.
Burroughs was an exceptionally consistent writer, true to who he was. In life and in work he was the perfect declassed bourgeois anarchist, as likely to appear on the left or right wing spectrum. He could hold very advanced views on personal liberty as well as be a vile misogynist. He was bitterly opposed to bureaucracy and coercion but scornful of anything beyond individual organisation. He could work up a stinging satire on militarism on one page and denounce the welfare state on the next. Despite being, arguably, more sophisticated than his contemporaries he was never active in social movements, unlike, say, Allen Ginsberg.
Personal and Political Bio
Despite the dazzling narrative and linguistic devices, Burroughs content is personal. In this respect he is like the other Beats. So what well was he drawing from?
Burroughs was older than the rest of the Beat Generation. He was born in 1914 into a well to do family. The family fortune was built on grandpa Burroughs patented refinement of the adding machine, the early computer. The Burroughs became idle rich. William was due to inherit part of the wealth.
By most accounts, including his early autobiography, Burroughs was a strange child. He describes his earliest memories being coloured by fear of nightmares. He was conscious of his sexuality, a key form of difference, from an early age. He was acutely but passively aware of his alienation. Alienation is felt keenly by wageworkers, but they aren’t the only ones touched by it.
When the bourgeoisie was the middle-class, young, pioneering and revolutionary, it had a life-affirming link with the world. Its members were industrialists and merchants, its advocates lawyers, doctors and journalists. The average bourgeois was seen in the thick of the workplace, anxiously directing the work going, pouring over facts and figures, profit and loss.
With the arrival of modern capitalism, the capitalist retreated from active life. Capital grew and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Capitalists could no longer marshal their empires. They delegated to a new class of managers, executives, foremen and so on. They became, as Rosa Luxemburg once described, “coupon clippers”.
Young Burroughs lived an essentially pointless life. He went to university, graduated in 1936 with a degree in English literature and a $150 a month trust. At the height of the depression he didn’t need to get a job. He drifted around Europe for a while, with enough money to “buy a good percentage of the inhabitants… male or female”. He came back to America, diddled around with graduate courses and eventually fell into drug use.
The questions, of course, could be asked: why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction… Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience.
We don’t have to take his word about addiction but his early life does confirm the archetype of the poor little rich boy. In the prison notebooks Antonio Gramsci, at one point, compares typical attitudes of American and Italian wealth. In America there is the legend of the pioneer, the bootstrap capitalist who builds an empire from dust and, importantly dedicates his life to hard work. In Italy, by comparison, it was considered bad form for a wealthy family to keep working.
This led Gramsci to draw conclusions about the quality of bourgeois life and politics. If the bourgeoisie play no active role in public life they will surely lose the knack for rule, the generations that scrapped for power will be replaced by decadent dullards.
There is a degree of truth in that observation. Gramsci wrote his notes in Mussolini’s prison. Mussolini was a fascist, the leader of a lumpen middle class movement of students and ex soldiers, which rose to power, in part, on the incapability of the Italian bourgeoisie to rule.
There is also a degree to which the observation is false. Capitalism is still here. There are many great leaders of politics, industry and commerce left. While the modern bourgeoisie may have Paris Hilton and Pixie Geldof they also have Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch.
Back to Burroughs: his encounter with heroin was the start of his downward spiral (for one thing, it meant he had to take up manual labour). It was also became a focal point for his literature.
On cue, here come the appetisers!
We’ve already had a couple of snippets from his early work. It’s time to introduce some of his books. Meet Junky and Queer.
In many ways they are his only two novels. Two short books about his overriding preoccupations: sex and drugs. You can read them and understand most of what he was driving at.
Their fate as books tells us something about contemporary politics and taste, particularly in publishing. Junky was first published as “Junkie: confessions of an unredeemed drug addict”, by a pulp novel publisher. Pulp novels were (and still are) cheap and sensationalist fare, designed to excite. Yet Junky is flat and matter of fact about its subject and, as the original title suggests, the subject pays no regard to traditional moral positions on narcotics. Junky was paired with another tale, a balancing story about a narcotics agent, in a super-cheap 2 for 1 deal. Queer was originally part of the same manuscript, but the material about homosexuality was hived off and allowed to gather dust until 1985.
Part of the reason for the strange, dead tone was (at least for Burroughs) his ongoing opiate addiction. Burroughs made many interesting extrapolations from drug addiction, the trade, and the nature of narcotics generally. One of the first, and clearest, was his distinction between front and back brain drugs, stimulants and depressants.
Burroughs considered opiates to be depressants. They work on the back of the brain, suppressing the emotional and social centres of thought. This for him was part of the addiction. An addict does not need society, feels no love or hate. Once they get a habit they shift to junk time, their mind and body become regulated by their addiction. While their appetite is sated they can happily sit and stare at their shoe for eight hours.
What remains of brain function is rational and fact orientated. Junkies can absorb large amounts of information uncritically and without emotional response or diversion. A famous addict, John Lennon was an avid reader. Around the time of his heroin addiction he apparently developed the knack of reading piles of newspapers from top to bottom, front to back.
To return to Burroughs, And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks title came from Kerouac and Burroughs sitting in a bar listening to a report on a fire in a zoo. The newscaster was audibly distressed. What Burroughs latched onto was not the emotion in the voice but the striking phrase.
Here you can see the building blocks of his theory of control and domination. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.
When asked to define himself in print Burroughs wrote Junky and Queer. What’s so striking about them is they are honest but untroubled accounts of what were then (and to an extent still are) supposed to be painful subjects. The subculture Burroughs found himself in felt like home. He built on this conclusion, later expelling straights of all kinds from his pirate utopia, Interzone.
How are radicals made?
Radicals are made in response to radical situations. People make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Why did Burroughs become an individualist anarchist while others of his class and circumstances, say James Joyce or Charles Dickens (criteria: bourgeois fallen on hard times) turn to a different types of politics?
The society we live in creates determining pressures on individuals. People are developed and shaped so they can fulfil certain roles in the perpetuation of that society. People are defined in certain ways (we are common because of X: we are different because of Y). This lays the basis for common perspectives, points of view from which to view society.
Ideology is a collection of ideas based around a common point of view. Politics is a method through which those ideas can be realised. Class is a crucial defining factor in any society. In a democratic capitalist society ideology and politics are openly contested. The contest usually takes place along class lines, through parties, trade unions, chambers of commerce, newspapers and so on.
The vital classes in our society are the capitalists and the wageworkers. There are capitalist ideas and there are working class ideas, based around their perspective on society. Each class has different ways of advancing those ideas, different politics. Current capitalist politics is a competitive synthesis between neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. Working class politics is less well defined but still divided between those who want to fight for reform within the system and those who see struggle as a process leading beyond into a new society: reform versus revolution.
What about anarchism? Where does that fit in?
Anarchism is unlike other politics. It doesn’t struggle for power but against it in total. There have been many anarchist movements, but they’ve all suffered from the same problem. Social change doesn’t make sense without taking into account power (the history of all hitherto existing societies). Probably the greatest anarchist movement, the CNT union federation in Spain, at its crucial moment couldn’t ignore the question of power. It joined the republican government during the civil war.
It’s sometimes traditional to file anarchism under the label “petty bourgeois”. This tends to be a bit of dustbin for Marxists to chuck anomalous movements and social phenomena. A better description would be to say anarchism is a permanent fringe movement on mainstream politics.
There are two factors that can raise anarchism to prominence. The first is obvious, a dominant, all-pervasive state. The second is a lack of clear opposition politics, especially if the opposition is compromised or absorbed within the system.
Back to Burroughs
Before we go out further on a limb… The above scheme certainly applies to Burroughs political development. He left university and bummed around Europe, politics caught between the rise of Hitler and the decline of the two internationals. The labour movement in America in this time went through the popular front period followed by McCarthyism before it fell into endemic corruption.
The post-war period was characterised by witch-hunts and climb-downs. Two huge military-industrial complexes dominated the world, dominating politics and absorbing life. Given this background and his own personal history the limitations of his politics are understandable. Within this framework, however, he shows great insight.
The main course
1. Never give anything away for nothing.
2. Never give more than you have to give (always catch the buyer hungry and always make him wait)
3. Always take everything back if you possibly can.
These are Burroughs principles of monopoly (take them and apply them to the means of production, what do you have?). They are the premise of The Naked Lunch.
Naked Lunch is what Burroughs is most famous for. More than any other writer (except perhaps James Joyce) a page of Burroughs stands alone and obvious. He took the basic themes of Junky and Queer and began building on them.
He builds through a new method of ‘routines’. The Naked Lunch can be consumed in any order. The chapters do not lead into each other or explain each other. There is a hero (of sorts) but no moral or redeeming message.
Psychology and morality have been banished altogether. Instead there is a much broader picture arising from the general collage. Naked Lunch is in many ways post-literature. It is an attempt to come to terms with new visual media, such as film and television. Parts of the book are written in script form. There are graphic scene changes, fadeouts etc. Parts of the book flip between short, graphic sentences, creating strong images.
Another comparison might be with music. Rock and roll took the very precise terms of the folk/blues lyric (I woke up this morning… My baby done gone now… etc) and broadened it out. Instead of a quick-fire narrative you have a broad appeal to the senses and the emotions. You can’t say what “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop” literally means, you just know. This is what Naked Lunch tries to do.
What does Naked Lunch mean? It was a phrase coined by Jack Kerouac. It is the moment when you realise exactly what’s on the end of your fork. Put it another way. The French have a phrase, jamais vu, never seen. It means to regard a commonplace object with an unaccountably fresh eye.
In Naked Lunch Burroughs draws our eye toward the carefully hidden underbelly of modern capitalism. The true satire and obscenity is that madmen and perverts don’t just dine at the same table as the rich and powerful, like the pigs and men in Animal Farm, they are the one and the same: be they Doctor Benway, A.J or the County Clerk.
But Naked Lunch is more than just straight satire. It is set in a city called Interzone. It is a completely unaccountable pirate utopia where the people expelled by society as freaks gather and turn the tables (you know something is happening/but you don’t know what it is/do you/Mr Jones?). Interzone is a rich and ambivalent setting, suited to Naked Lunch’s cast of anti-heroes. It is based on the city of Tangier.
The prelude to World War One and climax of the imperial period was an incident in 1911 where Germany tried to assert its dominance over the Gibraltar straights. Part of the settlement was the division of influence in Morocco. Tangier was declared an international zone, officially (mis)administered by several European powers. For over forty years it effectively had no government. After the war it became a popular bohemian location. Many writers and artists (Mohamed Choukri, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet, Paul Bowles) made their way to Tangier: a little rough and tumble but cheap, laid back and with plenty of freely available keif.
Naked Lunch may never have reached print without help from his friends, Ginsberg, effectively his early agent, and Kerouac, who typed up the manuscript (which had spent months or even years scattered around Burroughs Tangier abode) at the cost of having vivid nightmares. It was published in 1959, in the face of outrage and obscenity trials. Naked Lunch is the literary revenge of the alienated and marginalized. Burroughs once described his writing as purposefully obscene, “shitting out” his Middle American background. The powers that be were right to fear Burroughs writing as it pointed out the ultimate nightmare was essential to the system itself.
Cheese and biscuits
Naked Lunch is a slim book drawn from a fat deposit of pages. The “word hoard” built up in Tangier, became the basis of his sixties output. He developed and sharpened the political thrust of Naked Lunch. Inspired by the artist Bryon Gysin, Burroughs attacks the sentence, very unit of meaning and communication through the cut-up method.
He severs and reassembles sentences, developing motifs (no bueno, c’lom Friday, minutes to go and so on) and even appropriating other authors’ works (TS Eliot’s The Wasteland is used heavily). His abiding metaphor became the word as virus.
Religion, politics or philosophy, human systems of power and control, are designed to win acceptance and reproduce themselves. They are all built on texts. Burroughs assault is deconstruction. Deconstruction has become debased in the hands of postmodernists, a deeply cynical tool (Burroughs wasn’t above cynicism). It’s easy to forget that people once saw it as a radical, emancipatory tool. In a way Burroughs anticipated the socialist/situationist outburst of May 68, the manic desire to raze stale, state philosophies to the ground.
Bureaucracy is built up from text (red tape); ever multiplying and self-justifying text. Into this mix he chucks Inspector Bill Lee of the Nova Police, in hot pursuit of the Nova Mob, a gang of protean criminals bent on hooking populations on the word (word as drug) as a means of control and eventually destruction (word as virus). In the motif of the “nova ovens” Burroughs brilliantly conveys the horror of the century, the nazi holocaust, and the potential final holocaust, nuclear war. The Nova Mob books were written during and after the Cuban missile crisis, adding an extra dimension to the criminal gang bent on destruction.
Inspector Lee’s programme is one of “apomorphine and silence”. Lee’s department is the only non-bureaucratic police force. It does not perpetuate crime. Like apomorphine (which Burroughs credited with helping him beat his addiction) it does its job and departs.
Will Inspector Lee succeed and catch the Nova Mob? In every sense its up to you.
Coffee and mints
I hope I have shown, in a not too round-a-bout way, that Burroughs is a modern and engaging writer.