Friday, February 27, 2009

Bill Hicks posted by Richard Seymour

I stopped watching/listening to Hicks' performances a while ago, as it had become too familiar. And anyway, some of my worst writing was inspired by failed attempts to imitate his sardonic mien. But with all the 15th anniversary celebrations in the media, I had a chance to review. I had forgotten how funny he was.

Dara Ó Briain wisely counsels against making an icon of Hicks. True, Dara would be funnier if he had a fraction of the commitment that Hicks had. Still, he is right. It is only reasonable to add, then, that if Hicks' talent was extraordinary, so were his flaws. The vast majority of culture is racist, misogynistic, gay-bashing, classist and so on, and Hicks didn't always make an exception of himself. His humour was occasionally homophobic. His hatred for stupidity and bigotry led him to use the sort of condescending language about rednecks and trailer-parks that American liberals are so apt to fall back on. And he was sometimes horribly misogynistic, and altogether too fond of the penis. Worst of all was his sentimental streak. Sentimentality is invariably used to gloss over ones flaws. I once read an article by David Baddiel arguing that Sam Kinison's misogyny was actually not that bad because, as Kinison put it, a man doesn't break your heart the way a woman does. Baddiel actually admired this hateful drivel, but sentimentality is almost always an alibi for stupidity and bigotry, and this was certainly true in Hicks' case. The convention is that I should say something that redeems these flaws at this point. But I have already said that he was funny, and he was also politically left-wing for the most part - what more do you need?

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The wrong target posted by Richard Seymour

There was an incredible, heated argument over the 'British jobs for British workers' strikes. This largely centred on how much that slogan really characterized the strike, and how much that was a media myth. When the strike was resolved, I suggested that given that the basis of the strike was the idea that British and Italian workers were in competition, and given that trade unionists than promised to target other refineries employing 'foreign workers', starting with Staythorpe in Newark, the Left shouldn't complacently claim a victory. Well, look at this:

Workers marching in Staythorpe, with a prominent chant being: "What do we want? Foreigners Out!" This is poison for the labour movement. To their credit, both Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, and Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, have signed a statement opposing the British jobs for British workers slogan. Not all union leaders are being so principled. In this next video, Derek Simpson addresses the workers and - partly because he has been so useless to his members for so much of the time - has a rough time. But he still defends the slogan 'British jobs for British workers' while pretending that this in no way implies an attack on 'foreign workers':

Simpson might think that by pandering to the government on the one hand and to nationalist arguments on the other, he will get some improvement in labour rights. But that isn't what is happening here. Once more, instead of demanding more employment, the union is demanding that Polish and Spanish workers are replaced by British workers. How can this strategy not end terribly? How is it not a grubby disgrace to the working class movement?

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Fame posted by Richard Seymour

It seems I have made headlines in Denmark. Sort of. "Når 'de gode' går ind for krig". It's just that the picture they have of me, isn't me. That's another man with another name, and he has been deceased since 1997. Would someone please send them this picture instead?

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

In the gulag for reading satire posted by Richard Seymour

Binyam Mohamed was kidnapped, tortured, mutilated and locked up in Kabul, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay for almost seven years because he read a satirical article on the internet.

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Colonial Urbanism posted by Richard Seymour

This is a few loosely connected thoughts and observations, prompted by the sudden, intense sensation, while on the DLR to Greenwich last week, of travelling through occupied territory. The Xanadu-like compound that is Canary Wharf was the topic of an earlier post, and here I just revisit some of its themes.

Today's imperial frontiers are characterised by lavish 'reconstruction' efforts. The waste and fraudulence of these projects has been anatomised, if not necessarily in great detail, and it is hard to miss the gaping chasm between the effort put into creating appropriately opulent surroundings for the occupiers and that put into creating liveable conditions anywhere outside the administrative hubs. In downtown Kabul, you can sip a Starbucks coffee while browsing teh internets, but beyond, in the vast rural hinterlands, the best technology you see will probably be whizzing toward your house courtesy of an American jet. In Baghdad, American advisers, technocrats, military officials, spinners, aid workers and others can secrete themselves within a gargantuan alien compound, attended by imported serfs, if not outright slave labour. Beyond those confines, lucky are those who get electricity for 12 hours a day, and have drinkable water, or can get medicine when they need it, or find the tortured corpse of a recently kidnapped relation. This is the utopianism of Manifest Destiny.

But green-zoning, as elaborate and other-wordly as it seems, is hardly new. The Third World was built on the basis of such topographical entities, informed by bodies of racial knowledge. The outposts of formal empire replicated European town structures, the better both to provide settlers with a familiar environ and to exclude 'natives'. Both states and companies accumulated considerable expertise in this practise, just as in general they were adept in devising the appropriate geographies for managing labour. Although this was often part of a genocidal process (in Australia and North America), colonists in 19th and 20th Century Africa usually practised segregation the better to super-exploit the locals, either tacitly or explicitly. This was particularly the case in those urban areas which the colonists made their headquarters. As Ambe J. Njoh describes it ("The segregated city in British and French colonial Africa", Race and Class, 2008; 49; 87), colonial town planners sought to develop spaces environments that were fit for capital accumulation and which reflected the perceived cultural superiority of the colonists. The very fact that the colonisers and the indigenous lived in such different conditions was then ascribed to an insurmountable cultural gulf, as well as to pathological factors (as when British planners in South Africa or Sierra Leone denigrated the native population as vectors for deadly diseases). Urban African dwellers were maintained in carefully charted segments of the urban environment where they could be kept under surveillance. Such segregation was not only racial, of course: it also maintained the white proletariat in separate, inferior living quarters.

Segregation was also a norm when the American state (in the Panama Canal Zone, for example) and American companies (Fordlandia in Brazil, the working environments for oil companies in Dhahran, the Niger Delta, Jakarta and so on) set about devising new urban environments appropriate to its mode of imperial dominance. Congruent with the paternalism of the 'Progressive' era and beyond, these Arcadian developments in the Canal Zone reproduced islets of suburbia for a white labour aristocracy (those on the 'Gold Roll'). A complex of townships and military installations asserted America's colonial possession. Every asset was owned by the state, and white American workers - in contrast to the enormous West Indian and African American labour stratum - were provided with every amenity, including free housing and healthcare, and superior schools, for which they paid no taxes. West Indian and African American workers, of course, received none of these perks, being on the 'Silver Roll'. All urban facilities were organised along racial lines, much as they were in the Jim Crow south. The same was true of the banana producing enclaves in Central America, where white Americans resided in airy bungalows secluded from the local workforce, whose wooden shanties often had mud floors.

Robert Vitalis, writing on the global oil frontier, notes that American companies such as Texaco, Chevron, Exxon and Mobil, the major partners in Aramco and thus central to America's 'special relationship' with the House of Saud, had accumulated decades of experience in developed segregated practises in the Jim Crow south and applied precisely the same techniques of segregation, wage differentials, and race management wherever they went. In these cases, white workers comprised the more skilled, managerial and privileged sectors of the workforce, and were provided with modern housing and facilities. Arab labour was put up in huts, and remunerated poorly. As Vitalis also notes, when Aramco had to eventually abandon its explicit segregationist policies, under pressure both from Arab labour struggles and from liberal capital represented by Nelson Rockefeller, it sought to bury its racism, and redescribe its differential treatment in market terms. But the means by which segregation was effected and rationalised were frequently market-based, enforced through 'racially-laden' policies rather than openly exclusionary directives. Thus, for example, it was possible to retard indigenous development by legislating that the best land be developed exclusively with imported European materials, driving up the market price. Similarly, segregated labour in turn-of-the-century south Africa was initially based on the migrant labour system. Having created the conditions by which certain segments of labour are subordinated, it is always possible to reproduce these effects through market transactions. Indeed, barring massive intervention into the labour market, the rule is that they will be. And much the same geographies will persist, as they do in post-apartheid south Africa.

That the evil paradises of yesteryear were explicitly racialised, and that today they are not, hardly means that the effects of that ascriptive hierarchy are no longer discernible in the geography of capital accumulation, as a quick perusal of Mike Davis' Planet of Slums would suggest. It is no accident, though, that the residents of gentrified (class-upgraded) zones across the world resemble a colonial elite themselves. In the cities of advanced capitalist societies the rich, having 'discovered' groovy niches in the metropolitan landscape, convert them into colonies of the upper bourgeoisie, drive up mortgage costs and rents, and send working class residents fleeing to other densely populated locales that have not yet had the misfortune to arouse the desire of hipster capitalists. Either that, or they get pushed out into overspill areas. In the cities of the very Third World that was created by colonialism, as well as in formerly Second World countries, the presence of Western (or Westernised) social elites generates its palatial green zones, carefully secluded and robustly secured from the slums that provide the labour force. These lifeworlds seem 'natural' to us when we grow up in them. They become alien, and alienating, when such colonial restructuring makes it obvious just how much intelligence has gone into creating them, and just how much they seem designed to keep us in our place.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Badiou on Le Petit Nicolas posted by Richard Seymour

Alain Badiou doesn't mess around. As an advocate of direct action, contre "capitalo-parliamentarism", he has pledged to reward his nastier critics (largely idiots like BHL) with a slap whenever he sees them. These opponents, with their accusations of antisemitism and fascism, were responding to the publication of his book 'Polemics' (in French, 'Circonstances 3') and the more recent 'The Meaning of Sarkozy' ('De quoi Sarkozy, est-il nom?'). The latter is less about the "fidgety mayor of Neuilly", or "the Rat Man", than about what Sarkozy's ascendancy says of the vacuity of the electoral process. Sarkozy himself is important only inasmuch as he embodies the spirit of reaction, even if it is a dwarfish embodiment compared to the Thermidoreans, the Orléanists, the Versaillais, Pétain and even d'Estaing. The book is a curious mixture of political philosophy and acuminated satire. I had never thought of Badiou as an especially funny man before, but - as is so often the case - it is because he is so serious that his satire is so lethal. Through a series of essays and lectures, he takes the occasion of Sarkozy's election victory and subsequent travailles to subject parliamentary democracy to an acerbic critique - and behind all of this witty and indomitable polemicising lurks the shade of communism.

According to Badiou, the French Left (and by extension, the Left as such) has practised a reactive politics based on fear of the right, which in turn is essentially mobilised by the fear of the leftist challenge. At the same time, the politicians of the reformist left flaunt their impotence, their inability to transform affairs, and cling to it. All they can do is keep the right out of office and limit the reaction. Then Sarkozy wins, and Socialists - many from the generation of the nouveau philosophes - flock to join his administration, or be part of the clique. Sarkozy expresses his 'openness' to the left, the better to coopt its luminaries for the creation of a technocratic single-party state (this is what the language of bipartisanship always boils down to) and form what Badiou calls a Union for Presidential Unanimity (a pun on the name of Sarkozy's party, the Union for a Popular Movement). This is the state that neoliberal capitalism has reduced politics to. As Badiou says, quoting Zizek, those who used to oppose parliamentary democracy to Stalinism missed the point that Stalinism was the future of parliamentary democracy. Indeed, "the technological means for controlling the population are already such that Stalin, with his endless handwritten files, his mass executions, his spies with hats, his gigantic lice-ridden camps and bestial tortures, appears like an amateur from another age".

And how many times have you heard pundits boasting about the big turnout for a particular election? Boast they must, because it is happening with less and less frequency these days. But what does this say about voting, as an act? What matters, apparently is that people participate, and thus give the system a democratic imprimatur. Badiou's conclusion is different. Observing the heralds of Sarkozysme ratify the new administration with its engorged turnout, he retorts: "If numbers alone are a cause for celebration, then this means that democracy is strictly indifferent to any content". If people vote for a mediocre clerk, then "all glory to them! By their stupid number, they brought the triumph of democracy". The bards of parliamentarism are "more 'respectful' than I am of the 'popular will', even when they see it as idiotic and dangerous. Bow down before the numbers!"

Beyond which caustic banter lies the humane purpose of defending migrant workers, upholding the hippocratic principle, supporting creative art, putting emancipatory politics before managerial necessitarianism, and ultimately restoring the 'communist hypothesis' to its proper place. Said hypothesis, which is that the system of classes can be overthrown, is a "real point" to hold onto against the alternative hypothesis of parliamentarist impotence. Those who reject the communist hypothesis are bound to market economics and parliamentary democracy, and therefore to the very logic that leads to the Rat Man. You could wish that Badiou would not say 'democracy' when he means 'parliamentary democracy', or that he would not say 'left' when he means something much more ambiguous (is Ségolène Royal really in any meaningful sense on the Left? Or Bernard Kouchner for that matter?). But the provocative, ludic manner of the collection is part of its charm. It is because Badiou doesn't respect the rules of the 'capitalo-parliamentarist' game that even his ultra-left tendencies - an overhang from his wild Maoist days - become the basis for important insights.

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Obama's props posted by Richard Seymour

The rave reviews from Amreekan liberals of Obama's speech to Congress compelled me to watch it, or as much of it as I could without sinking into a grinning stupor. You don't have to waste your time, as you can read the transcript here. Was it really "electrifying"? Well, of course it was. It was supposed to be. But was it Obama who was electrifying? Wasn't it just the atmosphere whipped up by lapdogs in Congress who insisted upon raising up on their hind legs and slapping their paws together at the blandest incitement to do so? Obama did what he was expected to do: he conversed as if he might be the father you never had, was courteous to his opponents, smiled charmingly, spoke in coy yet apparently effusive language, and denounced the past (the past is very unpopular among American politicians, especially concerning "the stale ideas of", "the failed solutions of", "the broken promises of" etc). And he had very carefully phrased, and timed, moments in his speech that clearly instructed his supporters to holler and rave. And that was what was electrifying.

Trying to extract content from the speech, on the other hand, was like trying suck blood from a stone (where, in all likelihood, the only blood you taste will be your own). And even Obama's performance, though obviously well-rehearsed, contained a few slips. Not that Obama lacks a sense of dramatic irony. Promising to have his stimulus/bailout package sternly overseen by the vainglorious waffler Joe Biden, he flourished: "because nobody messes with Joe". Joe, the banking industry's favourite gopher, giggled with delight, as red in cheek as he was white in mane and fangs. If Congress got the joke, that didn't stop them from giving it up once more. In a parallel fashion, when he promised that the banks would really be very roughly scrutinised indeed, he remarked: "this time, they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer. This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet." Another ungovernable ovation. This cassandra was driving the chorus to delirium. But was Obama ever a cassandra? Did he not, in fact, put his popularity at the service of Wall Street and Hanky Panky Paulson in helping push through the last bail-out? You know, the one that enabled CEOs everywhere to replace their dreary old drapes with lush new ones made of crushed velvet or, worse, velour? Where were his forebodings about the fucking executive curtains?

And again, when it came to reforming healthcare, he subtly juxtaposed it with a coded reference to social security privatization. The administration has just had to back down from plans to create a task force looking at ways to address the supposed solvency problems of the fund. In fact, Obama is lying when he complains of the 'growing costs' of social security. The number of over-65s in 2000 was slightly less than what it was projected it would be by the Roosevelt administration in 1934. Notwithstanding that, Alan Greenspan's ominous warnings about baby-boomers flooding the social security rolls come the new millenium did result in a series of reforms in the 1970s that increased the payroll tax. The system has a surplus, and will continue to have a surplus for decades. There is no solvency crisis. Obama is, to repeat for emphasis, lying. It is unfortunate for him that these fibs were trashed by liberals in 2005 when Bush first tried to push through privatization. On the other hand, if his progressive supporters continue to gush and drool as they are now doing, he could probably hand over the Treasury to Wall Street and no one would hold it against him.

Perhaps Obama's biggest challenge in this speech was to determine the correct quantum of patriotic blood-letting. Most Americans oppose both the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of Democratic voters are in opposition. Obama, for his part, indicated that he was working on a plan to get US troops out and leave Iraqis to their own devices, which would be encouraging except that reports intimate his intention to leave tens of thousands of troops in there. And as for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the war counsel is evidently that the US must escalate to "defeat Al Qaeda and combat extremism". Unfortunately for him, Pakistan isn't playing ball, having cut a deal with the Taliban. And, as we know, Karzai and most of the population of Afghanistan would like to pursue a similar policy. Hardly perfect, I'm sure, but then you don't necessarily "combat extremism" by practising it from 20,000 feet, even if you sell it as "carnage you can believe in". Still, Obama had more than one audience to please, and on this question he has consistently chosen to place his presidential charisma at the service of the war party. And, though he has thankfully ordered the closure of that Guantanamo hellhole, the fact that he insists it is a humane institution should cast some doubt on his statement that "the United States of America does not torture". This is being treated as a promise, but it sounds like denial. In fact, it is the exact wording Bush used in his denials, while the US was in fact torturing prodigiously. And given that renditions will continue, and that most of the secret prisons are being maintained, there is no reason to believe that the global gulag will stop mutilating genitals, much less waterboarding.

Oh, by all means, have the Obama jerk-along. He's a sweet enough guy and if you had to do it with a US president, he'd be the pick of the litter. Better, at any rate, than fishing around under Bill Clinton's flabby mid-riff for a mouth organ. But when it comes to politics? When it comes to your interests, I would urge a more dispassionate approach.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The more things change, the more New Labour stays the same posted by Richard Seymour

The government, you will be heartened to learn, has something else on its mind aside from prominently displaying its mean streak toward the disabled and single mothers. The cabinet has been sick with worry about your welfare in this recession. For this reason, the nationalised bank Northern Rock, having slashed jobs and shed mortgages from its books for months on end, is now offering some first-time buyers mortgages on 10% deposits. And the government has also persuaded Lloyds to expand its lending to consumers and small businesses, on pain of full nationalisation. Wonderful. Orgasmically peachy. The trouble is that in the current climate, no one wants to borrow, given the real knowledge that they won't be able to pay it back. Who would be a first-time buyer today, when 1.2m households are in negative equity? Who would borrow money for an expensive consumer item that didn't have to? As for small businesses, forget it. Business investment has shrunk by 7.7% across the economy over the last year. Demand is plummetting, there is tons of spare capacity, and businesses are more likely to sell assets and cut jobs than borrow more to invest more.

But before you go drawing the conclusion that senior ministers think in terms of amusing demographoids such as ‘Vauxhall Man’ and ‘Bognor Regis Woman’, and designs policies on the basis of flattering said specimens’ alleged ‘aspirational’ propensities, please consider the stimulus. Because, after all, a giant middle finger aimed in your direction can be quite stimulating. Aside from the fact that the supposed spending increases comprise cash that was already in the pipeline, brought forward a couple of years, don't forget that the Chancellor is still intending to cut public spending by £5bn this year. Schools and hospitals, the latter already suffering from the burden of soaring PFI costs, are expected to fare the worst. There’s your stimulus – do you feel that? So, with unemployment expected to reach 3 million next year, and with the government pushing through cuts in public services and welfare, where are these millions of confident, spendy consumers going to come from to bail out the economy and get investment flowing again? It seems that the government is essentially committed to restoring the City of London and the housing market to their prior importance after the recession. They still think they can rely on the financial sector to generate jobs, and a strong housing market to give people collateral to borrow against. This is the only explanation that I can think of as to why they are still committed to keeping even the worst banks alive as profitable enterprises while refusing to do anything substantial about the massive housing crisis that the country faces.

And even as the government rushes to repeatedly inject billions into the financial system and (temporarily) nationalises failing banks, the rush to privatise existing (and comparatively well-functioning) public services continues. 30% of Royal Mail is to be sold off, following up on the pre-Xmas orders of the latte-moustached Secretary of State for Business Peter Mandelson. This is ostensibly to help recoup sufficient funds to make up for the pensions deficit and introduce modernising measures. The trouble is, the government has already pledged to fund the deficit, and all it is doing is handing over a profitable part of the enterprise to a private company. Taxpayer still gets milked, private capital gets the cream. It has absolutely nothing to do with pensions. This is a move that the government is by no means obliged to undertake. It is not politically popular, it will split the Labour Party, and it has galvanised serious opposition even among ordinarily spineless backbenchers. 125 Labour MPs have signed motions against the policy, and even that former left cheek of Blairism John Prescott is opposed to the plans. The government will have to rely on Tory votes to push the policy through. So, the government's slogan come election 2010 will be: "If you value it, vote for it; then we'll smash it up and sell the parts."

Still, at least you can rely on the government, having alienated voters on the left, to pander to voters on the right who are going to vote Tory anyway. Thus, even as the flow of migrant workers decreases sharply under the impact of recession, the Home Secretary still wants to ban thousands of them. That 'British jobs for British workers' bollocks has a lot to answer for. Meanwhile, Hazel Blears, having been taken to pieces by George Monbiot, is preparing her comeback as an archnemesis of political-correctness-gone-mad, in a madcap re-enactment of Margaret Hodge's campaign to give half of her constituency over to the BNP. When this bizarre mix of haughtiness, arrogance, elitism and pseudo-populism leads to electoral annihilation, Blears will be the first one to blame it on the government's refusal to use her purloined Jimmy Carr jokes in the campaign.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Streets of Rage posted by Richard Seymour

So, you recall this business about a "police state"? And you know how the government is drawing up new guidelines to help identify "extremism"? Well, what sort of measures do you suppose the police might consider to tackle violent "extremism" on our streets? Theoretically, I mean, what sort of solutions might occur to a police force anticipating such unrest (apparently from a motley band of environmentalists, Nazis, lefties, middle class bruschetta munchers, dole bludgers, G20 protesters, etc)?

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Swans review of Liberal Defence posted by Richard Seymour

A flattering review of 'Liberal Defence' from Louis Proyect.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Make it go away posted by Richard Seymour

One of the points that Critical Race Theory makes, regarding the 'colour-blindness' of the law, is that it has functioned to conserve existing hierarchies. By expressing them as equality before the law, such 'colour-blindness' gives the impression that the pronounced racial inequalities that structure labour markets, educational access, legal entitlements, state behaviour, etc., are meritocratic. Attempts to ameliorate those inequalities constituted 'reverse discrimination'. The most intensely debated example is that of 'affirmative action'. The conservative backlash in the 1970s against Great Society programmes included attempts to legally neuter a supposedly cumbersome bureaucracy. For example in 1978, following a suit by Alan Bakke who had been denied a place at the University of California, the Supreme Court ruled against universities using quotas to recruit minority candidates to their student body. Subsequent local rulings reinforced that verdict. The argument was that quotas protected minorities from the rigours of competition, thus promoting undeserving candidates while stigmatising those minorities as in some sense needing protection. This re-coded inequality in the language of free markets, notwithstanding the fact that the existing testing systems are coachable and reward those of higher socioeconomic status. By a simple ideological sleight-of-hand, fields of production that had been nakedly structured by race were de-raced.

In an analogous fashion, international relations has been the subject of an energetic white-washing. As a discipline, and as a discourse that frames policymakers' decisions, the problems central to IR have been always been Eurocentric. After all, the obsession with strategies for maintaining an equilibrium between sovereign states, coupled with a tautological reading of the character of such states as 'power-maximisers', has its origins in the writings of David Hume, whose original contribution was to universalise the interests and behaviours of emerging European states. Maintaining that states were sui generis institutions, essentially the same from the Greek city-state to the modern nation-state, and that sovereign states had ontological primacy in world affairs, his narrative rendered invisible that majority of humanity which he, in other writings, racially denigrated.

Imperialism was similarly not among the predicaments of IR when the discipline was launched in 1919, that year of Wilsonian 'national self-determination' (after which colonialism continued to expand, reaching its apogee by 1947). This was not because the institution of race was disavowed. Quite the contrary: global jurisprudence in 1919 was explicitly imperial, colonial and racially-laden. The dichotomy in positivist jurisprudence between civilized and non-civilized states asserted that law did not apply outside the small family of existing sovereign states. The emerging institutions of liberal order were also underwritten by explicit codes of racial solidarity. Woodrow Wilson's remarks on the launching of the League of Nations at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference are worth excerpting:

"We, Anglo-Saxons, have our peculiar contribution to make towards the good of humanity in accordance with our special talents. The League of Nations will, I confidently hope, be dominated by us Anglo-Saxons; it will be for the unquestionable benefit of the world. The discharge of our duties in the maintenance of peace and as a just mediatory in international disputes will redound to our lasting prestige. But it is of paramount importance that we Anglo-Saxons succeed in keeping in step with one another." (Quoted in Naoko Shimazu, Japan, Race, and Equality: The Racial Equality Proposal of 1919, Routledge, 1998, p155.)

This was crucial to Wilson's rationale for rejecting the proposed 'racial equality' clause. Parenthetically, it is only fair to state that any interest Wilson ever had in the idea was circumscribed by his own devoutly held belief in racial inequality, expressed in his support for Jim Crow in Washington, his paternalistic arguments for empire in the Philippines, and his writings on governance and statehood. So, if race and empire were not officially recognised as problems in international relations, it was more because they were taken for granted than because it was necessary to cleanse the territory of such incriminating associations.

Post-war Realism in IR was different. Not by accident or design, but as a consequence of its function, Realism coded imperial pursuits in the language of power-balancing, maintaining an equilibrium between the US and the USSR. Just as anticommunism was the official ideology behind America's attempts to variously manage, curtail, and coopt decolonizing movements, so the sacred Balance of Power was its strategic rationale. If the US sought to repress national liberation movements through the proliferation of right-wing dictatorships, this apparent conflict with the objectives of liberal internationalism could be rationalized as a necessary balance to Soviet assertiveness in supporting Kim Il-Sung, Castro, the Viet Minh, etc. To the extent that decolonization was important at all to Realism, it was only in the sense that European sovereignty was apparently being extended to what is still called the Third World. And once formerly non-sovereign peoples were assimilated to the order/anarchy of sovereign states, their susceptibility to external intervention, exploitation and so on was just one more vista onto the Hobbesian tragedy of world affairs. The dominant ideas concerning order, the sovereign, the international, and so on, were thus gradually expunged of their racial content. The fact that decolonization did not ultimately end relations of dependence or the imposing inequalities of power and resources that were generated by the colonial system could be delicately effaced in the language of development and modernization theory. The fact that a caste of formerly colonial powers still determine under what conditions the sovereignty of a state outside that caste is abridgable, has equally been interpreted as the right of 'democracies' over their 'totalitarian' opposites.

The norm has thus been established that it is bad form to notice how world affairs continue to be conspicuously structured by race. The failure to notice, though, is so laboured, and so arduous, as to demand attention and explanation. There is a whole genre of literature waiting to be written here.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Philippe Sands critiques Liberal Defence posted by Richard Seymour

"The generality of Seymour's conclusion, the broad sweep of his argument and the passion of his attack are overstated, dissipating their force. More nuance and context could have made this potentially important book compelling. It is a shame, as buried in these pages and their footnotes is a great deal of damning material on the apologists of recent illegalities."

I find little to complain about here - not because I agree with Sands, but because I can't object to someone with his views reaching the conclusions that he does. In general, Sands would like more "nuance" and less generality. In specific, he would have liked to see some discussion of international law and its centrality to justifying war. I don't see this as being particularly damaging to my case, since the book is about the ideas, rather than the legal institutions, that have helped justify imperialism - apparently a word that is absent from Sands' lexicon. Perhaps, however, it would have been worth stating a position on international law, however briefly, if only to outline the view that law is an expression of force and will, not morality. Thus, while Sands contends in several lucid and highly readable dispatches that that the problem with the Bush administration is its subversion of international law, I maintain that the rule of law in international affairs is itself barbaric. The post hoc legalisation of the occupation of Iraq is a condign example, both of law being the product of violence and of the barbarism in its application. Still, I realise that this is a controversial position, that Sands would not be receptive to such an argument and that, in fact, he wishes I had written a different book.

Otherwise, Sands would have preferred to have some acknowledgement that some "use of force", sometimes, can be justified. This is what I take the plea for "nuance" to mean. As he puts it, "it seems all force is wrong, so that any liberal support may be treated as liberal justification for murder". I do not, for the record, say that "all force is wrong". Sands seems to have confused anti-imperialism with pacifism. I do, however, go to some lengths to detail several interventions, over several centuries, that were strenuously moralised on humanitarian terms, from the Boer War to Operation Allied Force, and I do find the humanitarian case wanting. Clearly, such a gauche lack of subtlety on my part does not merit any particular leniency. However, as the critique does not address the substance of the argument, it is at best a missed opportunity.

Sands says that Liberal Defence "glosses over vastly important issues" such as: "Was the post-second world war human rights project intended to create new conditions of colonial domination? Has it contributed to circumstances in which there will be more oppression and misery, rather than less? Have the economic rules promoting globalisation engendered war?" It is easy to concede the point, but equally difficult to see its relevance. Again, he seems to have wanted a book about something else. Similarly, when he says that "the real critique of those who supported the latest Iraq war is that they killed off any hope, for now at least, of garnering support to use force where massive violations of fundamental human rights are taking place", I have a feeling that he and I have a different outlook on life entirely. The "real critique" is that they helped facilitate the very "massive violations of fundamental human rights" that Sands opposes, with the outstanding result of perhaps over a million excess deaths. Therefore, if one side-effect of the slaughter we have seen for the last five or six years is that people are less willing to exhort the United States to deploy its awesome machinery of violence, this ought to be welcomed. I do, in the conclusion, engage with those who see US imperialism as a potential guarantor of human rights and last resort terminator of genocide, but if Sands has read this, he shows no sign of having done so.

There is one part of the review that seems entirely out of place, jarring to the point of inducing nausea. Sands says: "those who are on the receiving end of what Seymour perceives as US excess have, through the acts of their own governments, or their failure to object, contributed to their own oppression." I confess I don't understand what this means - or, perhaps, I would rather not understand what this means. Perhaps it is best to leave this one to the readers' judgement.

Update: I've had a rather interesting exchange with Philippe Sands, and - just to set the record straight on the last paragraph of this post - I am, with his permission, reproducing his comment clarifying his remarks:

"The only point I was making is that a number of the conflicts you refer to were supported by Security Council action (even unanimous in some cases). To my mind, that takes the sting out of your critique, in the sense that not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the US or those on the left who may have supported the actions. In various cases many governments and many peoples supported a conflict, whether directly or indirectly. That raises issue of their own responsibilities, although it cannot in any way justify the illegalities and excesses once the conflict is underway, or the terrible suffering of innocents caught up in broader geopolitical nightmares."

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Friday, February 20, 2009

The road to a "police state". posted by Richard Seymour

So, the former head of MI5 says that we are cruising toward a "police state" because of the unwieldy apparatus of surveillance and repression introduced during the 'war on terror'. What would a police state look like? How would it behave toward its citizens? I think it was Neal Ascherson who warned that we should always pay attention to how the state treats refugees, because that is eventually how they will treat us. Well, then.

Consider the fate of Binyam Mohammed. A refugee who had been living in Britain since 1994, kidnapped in 2002, deposited at various CIA 'ghost prisons', tortured with British complicity, subject to genital mutilation, eventually detained at Guantanamo under brutal conditions with no recourse to judicial review. Now, he may - under a deal negotiated between Washington and London - be returned to the UK. He might not be allowed to stay, however, as David Miliband has said that his status will be determined by 'security' tests applied to all foreign nationals. Take another example. In December 2001, about a dozen foreign nationals living in the UK as refugees were rounded up, taken to Belmarsh prison, and kept in indefinite detention, with no right to trial. They were never interviewed by a police officer or any security official prior to their arrest. They spent several years in these conditions, locked for much of the day in isolation cells. It was only when the House of Lords, in one of those 'awkward' moments that so annoyed the Blair administration, ruled that such internment was illegal in December 2004 that the men were released - and even then they were kept under control orders, whose provisions were laid out in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. They were arrested again after 7 July 2005 attacks, and the British government sought to deport the refugees. They have never been apprised of any evidence against them.

Now take the case of Mohamed Othman, aka Abu Qatada. He is a refugee born in the West Bank when it was under Jordanian control, who sought asylum in the UK in 1993. Like the other examples, he has never been charged with any crime. Like the others, he has been detained without trial. Like the others, the British would like to expel him, in this case to Jordan, where he will certainly be tortured. Of course, unlike the others, he has a public persona: he is what is commonly referred to as a 'radical cleric'. His fatwas and writings are supposedly read and appreciated by those 'combat fundamentalists' who, without such intellectual sustenance, would be smoking weed and indulging experimental sex in the Bay Area. With little evidence, it has also been asserted that he is involved in terrorist plots, is bin Laden's "right-hand man" in Europe, etc. The strength of those allegations can perhaps be judged by the fact that they have never resulted in a prosecution. If the Crown Prosecution Service declines to try Qatada for such serious crimes, how strong can the evidence be? Now, if you go away from this post thinking 'that boy lenin loves Abu Qatada and all his works', you'll be wrong. The point I wish to make in citing such an unpopular rogue is that the mystique generated about him in the media is being used to justify attacks on the very limited and basic civil liberties that we all claim. If the precedent is established that people may be subject to harrassment and unlawful detention, as well as vilified in the media, even with there being no crime prosecutable under law, then we have lost something important.

Surely, it cannot be long before such repressive legislation is turned toward internal dissidents. In fact, to be clear, it already has been. We have already had the arrests of antiwar protesters on ludicrous terrorism charges. Anti-terrorist legislation has been used against such harmless people as cyclists and photographers. The Viva Palestina convoy has already been subject to police harrassment on bogus suspicions of 'terrorism'. In the current global inferno, one can see it being used against strikers, anticapitalist protesters, student occupiers, and any other dissident groups that the police are charged with attacking.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bookmarks launch posted by Richard Seymour

So, that went well. Bookmarks was pretty filled up with people, and we seemed to enjoy one another's company for the most part.

I can't remember what I said, but I did deliver on the off-colour jokes and there was, as I promised there would be, booze. I also blackened the names of my critics, who can all consider themselves officially pwned. Boo, as they say in America, yah.

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You do it to yourself. posted by Richard Seymour

My little stalking pony, frontiersman, supporter of Croatian nationalism and extoller of 'Operation Storm', Marko Attila Hoare, is back with what he describes as a "measured" 4,000 word review of pp 190-212 of my book, The Liberal Defence of Murder. As Hoare writes, these pages concern his "own area of special interest" as an historian and polemicist, namely the fate of the former Yugoslavia. In that sense, one would expect Hoare to find his objective, which is to undermine my arguments, relatively simple to accomplish. I will try to be as concise in my reply as he is prolix in his review.

Hoare begins by accusing me of a tautology: "Seymour is unable to provide any evidence that any of his liberal targets did, indeed, support ‘murder’" in the cases of Croatia and Bosnia, there being no notable instances of "bloodcurdling war cries", "unless simply being in favour of Western military intervention automatically makes one a supporter of ‘murder’". In fact, the argument in the book is that in misconstruing the situation in Yugoslavia, and by calling for intervention, pro-war liberals helped to justify political and military interventions that did indeed contribute to ‘murder’, and prepared the ideological ground for supporting future wars. I do not characterise everyone who (to my mind mistakenly) bought the 'humanitarian intervention' argument as a defender of 'murder'. And at no point do I argue that liberal imperialism is simply characterised by "bloodcurdling war-cries". The whole point of liberal imperialism as an ideology is that it doesn’t work that way. The accusation of "tautology" rebounds on the reviewer: it is his tautology, not mine.

I do not argue against military intervention on the grounds that "the Croatians and Bosnians were not worthy of being defended by Western military intervention, because their governments were just as bad as Milosevic’s - possibly worse - and were guilty of the same atrocities." I argue that liberals and leftists misconstrued the facts of the matter, demonised the Serbs and paid little or no attention to comparable crimes by Croatian and Bosnian forces. I do not argue that anyone is "not worthy" of "being defended". The reviewer just assumes that military intervention would, in fact, constitute 'defence'. In outlining the grotesque disinformation in the coverage of the conflict, he further assumes, I mean to imply that Croats and Bosnians were unworthy of a form of 'solidarity' that I might extend to others, suggesting that he has not read/understood the rest of the book. Nor do I say, or imply, that Croatian and Bosnian governments were "possibly worse" than "Milosevic's". This a tautology followed by a non-sequitur, crowned by an invention.

I do not argue that the proper response "to news and images of Serb ethnic-cleansing and atrocities (which Seymour does not deny took place) is not to demand action in defence of the victims, but to ensure that the perpetrators of this ethnic cleansing and these atrocities get a fair coverage and are not condemned in too strong terms". I argue that "action in defence of the victims" of any atrocity is not identical to calling for states to engage in military aggression, and that humanitarian solidarity is not to be confused with hysterical propaganda. It is because Hoare doesn't notice such distinctions that he is able to conclude that "what Seymour has written is a defence of the Milosevic regime and Serb ethnic-cleansing from their liberal critics". (Emphasis in original). If only I were as litigious as the Hoares. It would be far more realistic to say that much of Hoare's output constitutes a defence of the Tudjman regime and Croatian ethnic cleansing.

I would prefer to leave aside the matter of Hoare's taking umbrage on behalf of his mother, but Hoare's misrepresentations make it impossible. Firstly, interviewing former friends of those one wants to evaluate, even if in passing, is not the disreputable technique that he appears to think it is - it is normal practise. Secondly, Hoare claims that Branka Magas only supported Croatian secessionism in the same sense that Socialist Worker did. Magas supported secession, Socialist Worker supported the right to secede - a distinction that made all the difference when Magas denied the ‘systematic persecution’ of the Krajina Serbs, and husband Quentin Hoare defended Tudjman from claims that he was an antisemite and Holocaust-denier.

I reject the evocations of Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust with reference to the Serbian government. This is not because the Serbian government lacked for authoritarianism or because it was not interested in expanding its power – with brute violence when all else failed. It is because that system of allusions was the basis for propaganda that denied the atrocities of other powers and legitimised the highly destructive interventionism of the United States, including its diplomatic sabotage and its subcontracting of reactionary Wahabbi fighters. Serb camps were compared to Belsen, in a sense, so that one didn't have to mention camps run by the HDZ and BiH. In that context, I ironised about Finkielkraut’s deployment of the Nazi-Jew homology in the context of the Croatian war by pointing out that Tudjman was more apt to vocalise pro-Nazi sentiments than Slobodan Milosevic. It is true that I didn’t mention that a number of Bosnian Serb paramilitaries embraced the symbols of the far right, but that was because it not germane to an argument about the Croatian war. I will spare Hoare’s blushes by not meditating too long on the topic of the BNP’s Nazi proclivities, which he denies exist. I will merely say that if it was possible not to see the antisemite in Franjo Tudjman, it is possible to miss the Nazi in Nick Griffin.

Hoare is scandalised that I impute "political motives" to the International Court of Justice: the problem is that I don't. He is referring to page 204, which explicitly references the ICTY, a wholly different (and highly politicised) body. Hoare is also vexed by my claim that "Izetbegovic’s Bosnian regime was the party favoured by ‘Western imperialism’". My claim is actually that US imperialism backed Bosnia. I note that the French government of Mitterrand, for example, was sympathetic to the Serbian side. The reason for this distortion on Hoare's part is that he wants to establish a 'gotcha'. Thus, citing alleged 'false flag' operations by the Bosnian side in Markale, I note that the accusations originate from UN personnel. According to Hoare, this means that the "representatives of Western imperialism" were maligning Bosnians, blaming them for "their own suffering". Even if those UN witnesses were in an uncomplicated way the imperialist delegates that Hoare takes them to be, the point would be one of 'evidence against interest': if those UN witnesses were representatives of US power, they were undermining the narrative industriously promoted by their bosses. Further, the point about 'false flag' operations is precisely that those responsible for them are not the victims. The implication of such an operation would be that the Bosnian government was using the populace as a bargaining tool in its negotiations. Only by assuming that the Bosnian government was the bearer of the volksgeist, in a way that is congruent with his support for Croatian nationalism, could Hoare fail to understand this point.

What seems to annoy Hoare more than anything else is my habit of citing left-wing dissidents, especially those who are either sympathetic to Slobodan Milosevic or sceptical of the claims surrounding the Srebrenica massacre. I make no apology for doing so where they have something interesting to say, and they are more than outnumbered by the usual texbooks, scholarly articles, news reports and so on. But Hoare's undignified indignation leads him to yet another pratfall. Thus, belabouring me for citing Diana Johnstone on Izetbegovic’s deathbed confession, as related by Bernard Kouchner, he complains: "Kouchner’s French government was aiding and abetting Milosevic’s destruction of Bosnia, and maintaining an arms embargo against the Bosnians". And so, he wonders, why should we take his word at face value? Had he read the 22 pages he focuses on properly, he would have been aware that Kouchner was not a supporter of that policy, and worked to get it overturned (see p 199). This would be one more case of 'evidence against interest'.

Those extensive mis-readings and gaffes to one side, there are a number of criticisms where I think Hoare has a point. And it would be grossly unfair, given how much effort he put into his review, to ignore them, so I conclude with those. I cite a quotation from Tudjman that was reproduced in Michael Parenti's To Kill a Nation in which genocide is described as "permitted", and even "recommended". Hoare, who has read the original text from which the quote has been extruded, says that it is taken out of context. I am quite prepared to take his word for it barring better advice, and correct it in the paperback edition. Accusing me of mis-stating casualty figures, Hoare notes my claim that in the run up to the Srebrenica massacre, "a wave of terror, including rape, by Bosnian Muslim forces in surrounding areas had killed thousands of Serbs.’" This was based on a number of neglected news reports from the time, found on LexisNexis. His rejoinder is that statistics from the Research and Documentation Centre, whom I cite elsewhere, put the number of Serb civilians killed in the surrounding area at 879. I did say "Serbs" and not "Serb civilians", and the total number of Serbs killed in that area, according to Hoare's source, is 5573. He might have been more attentive to what he was reading. Still, let us concede that it would have been better to measure those news reports against the RDC’s stats and to make a clear distinction between the killing of military men and civilians in the UN-protected enclave and surrounding areas. There would have been no damage to the substantive point that forces loyal to General Naser Oric were using their numerical strength over the Serbs to harrass, rape, and kill locals, and that little attention was paid to these and other atrocities by Bosniak forces. And I will also give Hoare the point that having opposed the use of inflated figures for civilian casualties, my use of Kate Hudson’s maximal figure for the number of Serbs expelled during Operation Storm (which may well be the total number displaced during the whole of the war from 1991 to 1995) does not sit well – and at any rate wasn’t essential to the point that what Hoare refers to as "the liberation of Krajina" was a bloody and repressive operation.

All the rest, I am afraid, is just futile bluster on Hoare’s part.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This is Israel posted by Richard Seymour

This is a video of IDF soldiers, having invaded a Palestinian village in the West Bank, attacking local residents and internationals:

As the Angry Arab usually says of events like this, "this is Zionism".

Update: Ben White on the background.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

High priest of 'humanitarian intervention' raking it in off dictators posted by Richard Seymour

Or so it seems:

The possibility that French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner might have misused his public position in France to boost his profitable private business with prominent African dictators arises at a time when the local authorities are dealing with numerous corruption affairs.

The accusations against Kouchner are summarised in a new book 'Le Monde selon K.' (The world according to K.) by investigative journalist Pierre Péan.

In the book, Péan alleges that Kouchner, co-owner of IMEDIA and African Steps, obtained profitable contracts from the governments of Gabon and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) at a time when he was executive director of a public health cooperation agency in Paris. IMEDIA and African Steps are two political counselling companies.

The governments in Gabon and the Republic of Congo – both oil-rich countries – are notorious as two particularly corrupt dictatorships. Omar Bongo has ruled Gabon since 1968 and Denis Sassou Nguesso has been in power in Brazzaville since 1997 when his troops, supported by Angola, won a civil war against the then president Pascal Lissouba.

Bongo and Sassou Nguesso have family links: Bongo is married to Edith Lucie Sassou-Nguesso, Denis's daughter.

According to the claims by Péan, based on official documents from the respective African governments, the two companies were paid 4.6 million euros by the governments of Gabon and Congo Brazzaville, for advising their respective health departments.

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Orwell and clarity posted by Richard Seymour

"If we return now to 'Politics and the English language' we find that whereas the demolition work is done with gusto, Orwell is curiously weak and negative about what needs to be done to promote the right kind of political language. He offers six rules, of which five are negatives, and the sixth is an admonition to break all the rules 'rather than say anything outright barbarous'. In the same essay, Orwell also writes: 'The great enemy of clear language is insincerity', the implication being that sincerity will of itself produce clarity and that lack of clarity reflects back on the credibility of the belief that is sought to be articulated. The thrust of all this - clarity, fluency, the banishment of all that is rough and 'barbarous' - is obvious enough, and implies a kind of cultural centrality which the 1930s Orwell did not feel.

"Orwell's first novel, Burmese Days, also touches on the problem of language within an oppressive social order. It is a crucial part of that oppression that the thoughts one can think are, in this case, prescribed by 'the pukka sahib's code'. Orwell's novel as a whole is an attempt, in fact, to think about the colonial situation without submitting to the constraints of that code. Yet the novel is also ... a significant record of the difficulty of thinking subversively with any consistency, let alone fluency or clarity. Flory's distinctive quality is precisely that he is endowed, by Orwell, with 'secret thoughts that could not be uttered'. Flory could only attain to ease of utterance, to an uncluttered, unself-conscious flow, like the 'louts' at the Club, by sacrificing that which makes him worthy of attention.

"Given Orwell's sensitivity to language, his insight into its nature, he should have been able to see, what in his conception of Winston he was able to sense, that the ruling, 'hegemonic' conceptions and perceptions of a given social order, and the language in which they are articulated, are bound to appear 'natural' and unforced - but also that they are no more 'natural' than those others, gauche and awkward, clumsy and cumbersome, which seek to criticise that order. Unfortunately, however, Orwell acquired his linguistic insight during the time that he was, as I have argued, making his peace with his 'given' society. But for that, he might have had a little more sympathy with his victims, all left-wing in 'Poliics and the English language'; he might have felt for them a little of the sympathy which he himself evokes for Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four, struggling for speech against an oppressive order." (Alok Rai, Orwell and the Politics of Despair: A Critical Study of the Writings of George Orwell, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp 130-131).

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A rough guide to 'extremism'. posted by Richard Seymour

On the day that we learn of Whitehall's complicity in the torture of 'terror suspects', it is reported that the same chaps who felt it proper to render Binyam Mohammed to have his genitals mutilated are now preparing a policy on extremism. I thought this would be the usual blah about caliphate this and sharia that, the standard strictures from the co-purveyors of airborne death and mayhem. It turns out that the government has a more expansive definition in mind. The government "would widen the definition of extremists to those who hold views that clash with what the government defines as shared British values". For example, their definition of an extremist would include those who "believe in jihad, or armed resistance, anywhere in the world. This would include armed resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli military." And those who "fail to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan." Not even 'support', but fail to condemn! This raises some interesting questions: how observant would you have to be with the condemnations? Would it be adequate to issue a single generic condemnation, or would it need to be a daily ritual? Perhaps it is an oath to take before meals - but then, how would you keep your food down?

You will have gathered from all this that 'extremism' in the government's proposed definition is another word for sedition. It is about disloyalty to the state and its interests. There is, otherwise, no good reason why any right-minded person in the UK would not support some armed resistance movement somewhere, even one where Britain is arming and supporting its killers. There are plenty of oppressed people in the world, and plenty who lack pacific means to address their grievance, and unless one is a rigid pacifist there are good reasons why someone with an internationalist conscience would support armed insurgency somewhere.

There is equally no good reason for anyone who doesn't feel like it to condemn the killing of occupying troops of whatever nationality in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't. Even if, for some incomprehensible reason, you supported the war, then you still don't need to 'condemn' anything. Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt doesn't. In fact, you would be pretty stupid and hypocritical to support a war but condemn the other side for fighting back. If you march into another country with guns and tanks and start blowing up buildings and taking over the government, then you had better be ready for some action. If you don't want some insurgent's IED to pound molten steel up your jacksie, then take your caper elsewhere. What the British government is demanding is conformity and patriotism of a kind that makes Norman Tebbit's 'cricket test' look relatively harmless. He just wanted people to support the English side in some strange recreational activity originating in the 16th Century. These bastards want everyone to support an imperialist army that shares responsibility for, among other things, over a million deaths in Iraq. The language is such that they appear to be targeting Muslims in particular, but this is ultimately about leveraging patriotism and anti-Muslim racism the better to conscript public opinion in support of the government's wars, and discipline antiwar opposition. This is what the fantasy of 'British values' is all about.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Why don't unions resist these job cuts? posted by Richard Seymour

For all the 'British jobs' blather from union leaders and shop stewards in the past few weeks, there seem to be plenty of job losses that they aren't fighting, such as the sacking of hundreds of agency workers at Cowley, with barely an hour's notice.

Check out this video to see how angry the workers are (via Socialist Worker):

The workers are extremely angry with the union bureaucrats for lack of action. So where are the wildcat strikes? Why aren't the union leaders demanding action to defend jobs? What about nationalising this car plant? If the government can throw money at the banks, why can't they take the car factories into public ownership to defend jobs?

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Kadima website hacked posted by Richard Seymour

This probably won't last long:

Update: It's a hoax, apparently. The real Kadima website is at kadima dot org dot il. Bugger.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ye of bad faith posted by Richard Seymour

Max Dunbar is not a commentator I take all that seriously, but this kind of stupidity deserves to be pointed at. He says:

blogger Richard Seymour (currently valiantly struggling to contort his anti-imperialist narrative around the Obama era) declared faith ‘an enabling narrative for liberation struggles’ and atheism ‘an ideological accessory to empire’.

The first quote comes from this:

Religion can be used as a tool for control, but to reduce it to that function without qualification is both erroneous and, if it matters, profoundly anti-marxist. Religion is a work of labour, a performance by people working in different contexts, deriving meanings that appear to be apt for their circumstances. That means that, while it is open to highly reactionary, patriarchal and authoritarian readings - indeed, it may even have a sort of elective affinity with political authoritarianism - it is also open to democratising, emancipatory impulses. It can, even as it engages people in fictions, also furnish people with a means to obtaining lucid insights about human beings.

To avoid caricature, I should point out that I am not inviting anyone to believe in the scriptures or the Qu'ran or the Torah or the complete works of Deepak Chopra. Nor am I saying that there is no potential harm in religion. What I am saying is that far more important than what is written in religious texts - which are indeterminate - is the way in which people receive, interpret and operate on those texts. Religion does not, on the whole, drive war or exploitation or any of the major evils that the world is experiencing. At most, it is an enabling factor, just as it is also an enabling narrative for liberation struggles.

The second quote comes from this:

The 'war on terror' and the Israel-Palestine conflict are seen as being driven by 'religious extremism' in this purview. Naturally, when discussed in those terms, people like Sam Harris conclude that Islam is the worst religion, the most menacing kind that exists on the planet, mandating all sorts of extreme measures including torture and bombing. Naturally, Amis concludes that the 'extremists' (Muslim extremists, he means) have a 'monopoly on self-righteousness and violence' and produces all kinds of fulminations about Islam and Muslims to accompany this. This is the quite logical result of a culturalist reading of a dense mesh of geopolitical struggles. To this extent, the 'new atheism', where it is not just naive and bossy, is an ideological accessory to empire.

I think I can safely say that in both cases I have been misrepresented. And, weirdly, this is not the first time that comments of mine written for haloscan have been miscited by critics. Johann Hari and Marko Atilla Hoare are both guilty of this. One assumes that these people don't credit their audience with the desire or ability to check their references. As a subsidiary point, Dunbar goes on to cite the conspiracy theorist 'feminist' Caroline Fourest, who remarks that colonists "rarely modified the habits of the occupied countries". Now, this is not strictly germane to the argument that the 'new atheism' (not atheism in toto) operates as an ideological accessory to empire. After all, we are talking of this phase of empire, not any previous one. And secondly, the issue is how such doctrines mobilise opinion in the imperial 'metropole', not whether such doctrines are translated into practise in the 'periphery'. However, I would just like to point out that colonists did indeed go to great efforts to modify the habits of occupied countries. Need I really essay on the 'humanitarian' imperialism of the British in the Pacific, and the prolonged British missionary position? The tirades of Cardinal Lavigerie and the clerical colonialism of the French empire? The Christianising efforts of the Spanish in Latin America and the Philippines? (And while we're on the subject of religion in the Spanish empire, it would be remiss of me not to credit the religious humanism of Bartolomé de las Casas). I have hardly exhausted the list of available examples. Why do these people make it so easy? And why do they give the impression of sniffing around my bins, and listening in on conversations for 'evidence' to submit to imaginary tribunals?

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New Labour is not dead. It is punching itself. posted by Richard Seymour

The latest blowback for New Labour, amid its latest sordid attack on the poor, is the defection of former City investment banker David Freud to the Tories. Freud was hired by the right-wing Work and Pensions secretary James Purnell (who was, literally, born in the City of London) to help further privatise the welfare system. The big idea is to put companies in charge of the long-term unemployed, effectively handing over taxpayer money to them so that they can 'help' the unemployed find work. Recently, it was reported that the policy was nearing collapse because companies say there aren't enough vacancies, and they want more money up-front (as they always do). The objection that there aren't enough vacancies must have embarrassed Purnell, who had been bragging of the number of vacancies available at job centres, despite the fact that the number available was greatly reduced compared to previous years. However, Purnell must know perfectly well that for such vacancies to be filled, there need to be people of requisite skill and qualifications within commuting distance of where the post is. It is easy to point to vacancies, but much harder to match the job to a suitable person. Further, it is simply staggering that a policy supposedly intended to reduce unemployment by forcing the incapacitated to seek existing vacancies and paying private companies to 'help' them, was still being driven through government at a time when the labour market is manifestly collapsing, and unemployment soaring.

At any rate, Freud is being offered the job of shadow Work and Pensions secretary. If the Tories win the next election, as current polls predict they will, then this mountebank will be given a free hand to tear up the welfare system with the backing of an even more aggressive governing party. As it is almost never recounted in the newspaper hagiographies, I would remind you that David Freud is an accomplished shakedown artist, from the EuroDisney finance package to the exorbitant Eurotunnel deal, all of which chicanery left him millions of pounds in the black. And his proposed scheme is a massive shakedown. He has explained that companies could expect to gain "masses" of money from the deal. By his calculations, it would be economically rational to spend up to £62,000 on getting someone on incapacity benefit into work, and he believes that up to 1.4m could be forced into jobs. If his figures were right, that would give successful bidders at least £86.8bn.

Of course, there is no reason to believe that Freud has got his figures right, because he has demonstrated nothing but complete ignorance of his topic. Hence, he moans in the linked Telegraph interview that disability tests are "done by people’s own GPs", which is false - GPs are appointed by the Department of Work and Pensions (the one that Freud has been working for) and their findings can be overturned by the government on appeal. Elsewhere, he claimed that at least two thirds of those on incapacity benefit are not entitled to receive the benefit. As the Child Poverty Action Group charity pointed out, Freud's claims were ignorant rubbish, but they would imply handing over £167bn to private companies, which might just be the greatest privatisation heist in history. In fact, a coalition of charities, including the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the mental health charity MIND, the Disability Alliance and others, have all censured the government for procuring the services of such a complete know-nothing. Bear all this in mind when you read sentences containing the words, "Freud's expertise on the welfare system" (from The Guardian report in the first link).

The disabled are, of course, not the only ones targeted in New Labour's proposed legislation. Income Support is to be abolished, with all of its recipients forced onto Jobseekers' Allowance. In real terms, this allowance has been shrinking for years according to the Department for Work and Pensions. In 1987-88, it was worth approximately 16% of average earnings. In 2007-08, it was just over 10% of average incomes. At £60.50 per week, it is a pittance to live on. Workfare schemes of various kinds will also be piloted, and lone parents will be put on notice that when their children reach the age of eleven they will be expected to seek work. We also know that the government has it in mind to oblige those who remain on Jobseekers Allowance for more than a year to perform menial labour. Now that the government has lost its workhouse guru to the Tories, it has the opportunity to indefinitely delay, if not drop altogether, these proposals. After all, aside from these measures decimating the Labour voting base, proceeding with the same legislation now will hand the Tories a massive propaganda coup. They will have their 'inside man' touring the television stations, and press briefing rooms, explaining how the government was too chicken to do everything he suggested in the name of 'welfare reform'. I fear, however, that New Labour will learn nothing until it experiences a bruising electoral defeat. And even then, you can be sure that the Blairites will be all over the newspapers arguing that Labour lost because it 'lost touch with middle class swing voters' and failed to keep business onside. The only thing that could possibly change this miserable prospect would be the independent self-assertion of organised labour on the basis of some issue other than 'foreign workers'.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

It Ain't Half Shit, Mum. posted by Richard Seymour

I have been waiting for this to happen. Some of you might remember a post that I wrote, about human zoos at the Colonial Exhibitions, in 2006. Just as a quick reminder:

A human zoo today is unnecessary to the culture of imperialism: why have cages when you have video frames, IP telephony, and airbrushed photography, infinitely reproducible (and reproduced) with only the slightest expenditure of energy? Whatever the racist immortaliser of Empire wishes to depict, he can do so with a bank of Google images, or with the services of a photographer or by paying Associated Press, or by contracting a squadron of cartoonists. But if there was to be a human zoo floated from London to Milan to New York, it might consist of a few hundred Muslims, Arabs, Africans, South American Indians. One could imagine the diorama - Muslims in various exaggerated states of beardiness, brownness, sexual repression, seethingness, wild-eyed fanaticism; Africans as comical or demonic dictators, pock-faced starving subjects gratefully receiving Western alms, tribalist (or Islamic) fanatics; South American Indians as an excitable but amusing brown rabble, occasionally given to selecting leaders whose expression and demeanour, because insufficiently domesticated and Westernised, is construed as bestial...

It turns out that something like that zoo has been put together, and is currently on display at the south bank of the Thames. In it are featured "incestuous, pig-breeding, drunken Irishmen, snooty Frenchmen, farcical Jewish anarchists and the animated presence of a mad mullah ranting about how women must be subservient to men". The 'mad mullahs', it is reported, are the most vicious characterisation in the whole show. Nevertheless, audiences have apparently been thoroughly entertained by this malicious drivel, presumably filled with the joys of Carol Thatcher (and equally equipped with her brain-dead conviction that racism is nothing more than harmless fun). The show is, so one gathers, a sort of post-Y2K version of Mind Your Language, although the Evening Standard reviewer preferred to compare it to a Bernard Manning set. The idea, playwright Richard Bean explains, is to get uptight Britons to "talk" about immigration, because it is presently a terribly difficult issue to discuss. As he puts it: "The British don't know how to talk about it ... You go to a dinner party and raise the subject of immigration, and immediately you're the rightwing loony." I am always immediately suspicious of people who complain of being censured at some inauspicious crudité-based gathering of the middle classes, and then offer that observation as an incisive sociological insight. You would think, wouldn't you, that Bean doesn't read the newspapers, or watch television, or have the faintest clue what is going on around him. How else could one miss the noisy and belligerent 'talking' that is certainly taking place around the question of immigration? So you might conclude that anyone who could utter such a solipsistic ipse-dixitism is an ignorant tosspot, yet another puce-faced bigot posing as a free-speech martyr. Probably, such a person has spent too much time imbibing intemperate commentary from the gutter end of the 'quality' press. But surely that would be a grossly unfair inference to make? Apparently not:

"Bean describes himself as a 'liberal hawk'. 'I'm not really a political beast,' he says, before lamenting the lack of political diversity in the theatre. 'In journalism, you have people like Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Rod Liddle, who are democrats and liberals, who occasionally say things that are unpalatable but are in my opinion true. Among playwrights, you don't have that broad church.'"

I can quite see how someone whose influences are thus could give the impression of being a "rightwing loony". Sadly, however, there is a bigger problem here than just a sad chauvinist posing as an indomitable cultural provocateur. As Arun Kundnani has pointed out, this is the problem of liberals who are losing their anti-racism in the toxic atmosphere of the 'war on terror'. In its obsession with questions of identity, integration and 'Britishness', the 'centre-left' has for almost two decades adopted the agenda of the New Right on race relations. New Labour supporting liberals such as David Goodhart worry themselves sick over the impact of (Muslim) cultural difference on national cohesion. 'Britishness', they insist, must be counterposed to 'multiculturalism'. They agree with Melanie Phillips that said 'multiculturalism' leads to 'segregation' and division, whereas a new civic nationalism based on nebulous 'values' can restore lost cohesion. In accepting that there is, or ever could be, such a thing as 'national cohesion', that it is a necessary condition for a functioning society, and that it is threatened by Muslims who somehow fail to integrate, they have essentially adopted the racist purview of the hard right. Some of these individuals are people who previously went to great lengths to assail the racist myths about asylum seekers. Nick Cohen could once be relied on to do this in his regular sunday column. Yet, obsessively pursuing the Blairite axiom that the Muslim community must root out the 'evil within', he now wants to deport 'terror suspects' to be tortured, just on MI5 say-so. And he has recently lent his support to Anthony Browne's racist arguments about AIDS being spread by African immigrants. (Anything to expunge the nasty taste of the appeasing Qaradawi-loving Livingstone regime.) The reverse Midas touch of anti-Muslim racism has given previously anti-racist liberals the license to sound off like the Duke of Edinburgh, all the while protesting that they are the victims of politically correct calumny. The pitiful spectacle at the National Theatre just dramatises that corrupt tendency.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Launch of Liberal Defence at Bookmarks posted by Richard Seymour

I'll be doing a talk and Q&A for my book next Thursday 19th February, 6.30pm, at Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street. I will talk for about fifteen minutes, and the rest will be Q&A. The event is free and I think there'll be booze - which is as well, because you'll need something to distract you when I start telling off-colour jokes. However, if you want to come, you should call Bookmarks on 020 76371848 or e-mail events[at]bookmarks[dot]uk[dot]com, just to ensure there's space. According to the Bookmarks Appreciation Society, there are 30 confirmed guests via Facebook, so do get your booking in early.

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More class struggle at the Morning Star posted by Richard Seymour

From the NUJ:

Morning Star journalists set to strike

NUJ members at the Morning Star have called a strike over pay, with journalists set to walk out next Monday (23 February).

They've voted 11 to three for industrial action and last night called a one-day strike for Monday 23 February - followed by a week of strike action if management refuses to compromise.

NUJ Father of Chapel Steve Mather said: "We're not going to take any more of our bosses' broken promises."

Two years ago, management at the socialist daily averted strike action by pledging to boost pay as soon as money was available.

But, after a £600,000 investment from an "anonymous consortium", staff have been told that none of it will go on their wages. NUJ members have roundly rejected an offer close to 2008 inflation - effectively a pay freeze - alongside a one-off four per cent bonus, because it does nothing to address low pay at the title.

Steve explained: "We don't need one-off bribes, we need a step towards decent pay.

"We all work hard to bring out a decent paper against all the odds, yet our bosses won't even pay us £19,000 after the biggest investment in our history."

NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear backed the Morning Star chapel, saying: “Our members feel forced into this action by a management that is refusing to pay its staff a fair rate for their work. They don’t want to go out on strike but if that’s what it takes to win fair pay then they are clear that is what they’ll do."

Deputy Father of Chapel Carl Worswick added: "It's time for management to put its money where its mouth is. We write about workers fighting for fair pay all the time - now it's our turn."

The paper's management committee, which includes several leading trade union figures, has already unilaterally imposed an offer of three per cent on the journalists. The imposition of a pay deal has only served to intensify the dispute.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Weirdo nation posted by Richard Seymour

In this country, we do things differently. We have "show trials" without the requisite executions. We have a bailout with little real stimulus (notwithstanding Tory hysterics). We have the slow nationalization of the banks, even as the manic drive toward privatization and cuts in public services continues. We have a government supposedly determined to fight unemployment, while actively shedding jobs. We have a Prime Minister who apparently feels 'betrayed' by the bankers, but persists in giving them the greatest possible latitude because he is in awe of the rich. We have a Chancellor who thinks the economy is at a 60 year low, and a Treasury chief who thinks that we are faced with the worst recession in 100 years, and a government still basing policy on the preposterous idea that this will all be over by 2011 and that the people and policies that got us into this mess can get us out of it. We have the absurd fringe fetish of 'Red Toryism', which tries but fails to add a suggestion of principle to the constant vacillations of the Cameronites. We have polls showing that people don't believe a word Cameron says, think he's a lightweight, don't trust him with the economy, and yet 43% will give him their votes in 2010 because the alternative is Gordon fucking Brown. This is a weirdo nation.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Israel's far right ascendancy posted by Richard Seymour

Before I start, I thought you might like to see this picture taken as students at UCL flew the Palestinian flag from the building yesterday:

It seems that the spirit of 1968 is being awakened in the student body, and not before time. As John Rose points out in the Indy report, what is striking about this wave of radical activism is that the students are mainly winning. (More details here). Apparently, similar protests are also sweeping US universities. Trade unionists, from Belfast to Durban, are also continuing the solidarity actions.

Now, the Israeli elections have confirmed that the country has taken a radical shift to the right. Labour, the main part of the 'left', got its worst ever result, and was taken over by the explicitly racist Ysrael Beiteinu party. The 'centrist' Kadima got one more seat than Likud, but in terms of any future coalition, the right-wing will dominate and the hammer of the Israeli Arabs, Avigdor Lieberman, now has the role of kingmaker. Actually, if Kadima and Labour were prepared to govern alongside the Arab parties, they could form a coalition but - well, letting Arabs anywhere near the levers of power is taboo in Israel. Most Jewish Israelis don't even want to share a street with Arabs, and the main parties did all they could to stop the main Arab parties being allowed to stand. And at any rate, why would the Arab parties work with the butchers of Gaza? So, in all likelihood, it will be a Netanyahu government, with Zippy and Lieberman in coalition. The rapidly escalating colonization of the West Bank will now be an explicit policy of the government, since Netanyahu has openly stated that he intends to expand the existing settlements and make no territorial concessions to the Palestinians. It may mean war with Gaza again soon, since Netanyahu also stated that Operation Cast Lead ended too soon (and note that Israel's repeated provocations of late have prepared the ground for this). Bear in mind that Netanyahu was part of a rightist revolt against Sharon's government after the strategic 'withdrawal' from Gaza. If it were up to him, the prosperous Gush Katif settlements would still be peering down over on dirt poor Palestinian towns and villages. Who can say they won't be rebuilt in short order?

According to Juan Cole, this is the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. He maintains that there are now only three options: ethnic cleansing/genocide, apartheid, or one state. I don't know that Cole has ever taken such a position before and my feeling is that it signifies part of the ongoing change within the liberal-left in the United States. Glen Greenwald also thinks the election results make a two-state solution much less viable. Even the centrist Stephen Walt who - contrary to some of the things said about him - has always been relatively sympathetic to Israel's 'right to exist' as a Zionist state, has concluded that the two-state solution is dying in plain sight. If Walt, who is a respected and well-placed figure among US foreign policy elites, represents a significant strand of opinion among the political class, then another kind of change may be taking place as well.

Of course, I appear to be missing the most important story here, which is how dashed inconvenient these results are for Obama. But Obama can always shut off the money fawcet, or just threaten to do so. One thing Israel can't survive is a serious chilling in its relations with the United States. So, if Obama really wanted to stop the colonies, he could just defund them and tell the Israelis to play ball. Oh yes, the wretched Lobby would so something to him - like what? Say mean things in the papers? Bribe a few Congressmen? The only thing that would stop Obama from disciplining Israel, if he wanted to, would be his innately conservative disposition and his tendency to flatter and comfort existing power, even where he doesn't have to.

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