Monday, May 31, 2010

Saddam's WMD found aboard Gaza Freedom flotilla posted by Richard Seymour

Or not:

This is either: awesomely, epically, tragicomically pathetic; or, it is a huge middle digit proudly erected and waved before the entire world.

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Gaza Freedom Protest pictures posted by Richard Seymour

Some pictures from today's protest, which - given that people only have this morning to organise over it - was extraordinarily large, and raucous. There weren't very many coppers about, which is probably more due to its being a bank holiday than to the ConDem government's concern for civil liberties. I have to apologise for having failed to get a picture of the only Liberal Democrat I saw at the protest, that being Craig Murray. But he did deliver an incredible speech, second only to Lowkey in the reception he received from the crowd.

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Footage of IDF siege posted by Richard Seymour

This Al Jazeera footage of the IDF's seige includes English-language commentary, confirming that the ship didn't even enter Israel's exclusion zone, that it was in international water, and that the IDF deliberately targeted civilians:

This report from the Sydney Morning Herald confirms that the ship was in international water when Israel intercepted.

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The reason for the slaughter of the Free Gaza activists posted by Richard Seymour

The Israeli government and media has been vilifying the Free Gaza movement in a rabid build-up for weeks, but who would have anticipated this bloody culmination? Who would have expected this act of high seas piracy? Israeli claims that they were fired at, or even attacked with "knives" and "other cold weapons" when they illegally boarded the flotilla, before going on to stalk the sleeping and the innocent can surely be dismissed as vulgar propaganda. From the people who gave us the fastest re-definition of the term 'civilian' of any belligerent state in recent history, such talk is emetic. The idea that there was a "fight", any kind of meaningful combat, between unarmed peace activists and trained killers is just absurd. But let's note a few things. For a start, it is Israel's official contention that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that their murderous blockade has no severe consequences for the people of Gaza, even at the same time as their official spokespersons speak of Gaza explicitly in the language of genocide. This after the Goldstone report and a mountain of evidence compiled by relief agencies and NGOs documenting the effects of Israel's blockade. It is, of course, absurd and despicable, but it should remind us what kind of state we're dealing with, what kind of logical somersaults it is capable of performing while maintaing perfect equanimity.

Now recall that for weeks the Israeli state has been declaring that the aid flotilla constitutes a violent attack on Israeli sovereignty, though Israel has no sovereign right to police the borders of Gaza. They claimed that the convoy was bringing assistance to terrorists, and warned that it was being funded by the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood. They claim that such aid vessels help keep Hamas in power and Gilad Shalit (who he?) locked up. They claim that the convoy, rather than the blockade itself, constitutes a violation of international law. Israel's ability to exhale falsehoods and absurdities seamlessly, poker-faced, and then to suddenly and without missing a beat alter its story when it becomes clear that not even its loyalist drones are gullible enough to believe it, is not unique but it has a unique pedigree. For the Israeli state is singular in its self-righteousness. This is built in to official doctrine and practise, entrenched in its forms of governmentality. It is always the victim, no matter what it's doing today - whether slaughtering refugees in Sabra and Shatilla, or murdering sleeping families in Dahiya, from Nakba to Cast Lead - it is always on the precipice of being exterminated by a new wave of Arab Nazis. Given this, any effort to undermine its 'defensive' actions is an attack not only on its expansive notions of sovereignty, but on the 'Jewish state'.

By the logic of Israel, any abridgment of its right to murder Palestinians constitutes an act of antisemitism, an existential attack on the Jewish people, whom they represent by proxy. Its job, then, is to do whatever it deems fit in discouraging and punishing said 'antisemites' while aggressively retailing whatever they do to an increasingly hostile world which, at any rate, they insist is driven by exterminationist antisemitism anyway. If the two ends - the violent preservation of Israeli supremacy in the Middle East, and the global PR - increasingly come into conflict, this is only because of a 'new antisemitism', not because of anything Israel actually does.

In other words, by the twisted logic of Zionism: Israel can impose a blockade on Gaza that systematically starves civilians, leaves them to die without medicine, destroys their sewage and power systems, leaves them utterly dependent on international aid delivery which it imposes the most grotesque restrictions on; then it can demonise and assault an aid flotilla intended to break the blockade, fire on the residents, murder people in their sleep, the better to deter anyone from attempting to violate its supremacy in Palestine again; then it can manufacture whatever story it requires to force a hostile world to accept its actions, muddy the waters, juggle narratives, befuddle and confuse people, following up one bit of legerdemain with yet another and another, etc; and it can do all this while remaining the perpetual victim (remember Sderot!), while doing nothing more than defending itself, defending its famed "right to exist", and by proxy the right of the Jewish people to exist. That, the logic of Zionism upon which the Israeli state is founded, alone explains the insane combination of thuggishness, deceit, secrecy and sanctimony that has always characterised Israel's conduct.

Meanwhile, the British government is rapidly moving to fulfil its promise to make it possible for Israeli war criminals to visit the UK without being disturbed by Inspector Knacker.

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Israel attacks Gaza flotilla, kills "at least 16" people posted by Richard Seymour

An open attack on unarmed civilians, and the Telegraph's curious description:

Fighting broke out between the activists and the masked Israeli troops, who rappelled on to deck from helicopters before dawn.

A spokesman for the flotilla, Greta Berlin, said she had been told that ten people had been killed and dozens wounded, accusing Israeli troops of indiscriminately shooting at "unarmed civilians". But an Israeli radio station said that between 14 and 16 were dead in a continuing operation. [emphasis added]

A call to action from Caoimhe Butterly of the Free Gaza Movement:

Protesters storm the Israeli embassy in Turkey over this:

Al Jazeera report (also weirdly speaks of "deadly battle"):

If you're in the UK, protest today outside Downing Street at 2pm.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tomorrow belongs to them posted by Richard Seymour

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Friday, May 28, 2010

The age of austerity posted by Richard Seymour

David Harvey:

"One of the basic pragmatic principles that emerged in the 1980s, for example, was that state power should protect financial institutions at all costs. This principle, which flew in the face of the non-interventionism that neoliberal theory prescribed, emerged from the New York City fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. It was then extended internationally to Mexico in the debt crisis that shook the country to the core in 1982. Put crudely, the policy was: privatise profits and socialise risks; save the banks and put the screws on the people (in Mexico, for example, the standard of living of the population dropped by about a quarter in the four years after the financial bailout of 1982). The result is what is known as systemic 'moral hazard'. Banks behave badly because they do not have to be responsible for the negative consequences of high-risk behaviour. The current bailout is this same old story, only bigger and this time centred in the United States." (David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital And the Crises of Capitalism, Profile Books, 2010, pp. 10-11)

And from Paul Mason:

"As the price of the bailout, the industrial giants of northern Europe want rigid rules on tax, spending and borrowing enforced.

Northern Europe has seized control of southern Europe - and for me, this completes a process of risk-transfer that's been under way since Lehman collapsed.

In the autumn of 2008 all the risk was in the banking system.

Then, states all over the world took on that risk and for a year they contained it.

Now the risk is passing from small states to big states. And it's passing to somewhere else - to the streets.

Those narrow streets around Exarchia Square are world-notorious for radicalism and bohemianism. But you will find the same social mix in the 1,000-year-old streets of Oviedo to Perugia to Bratislava.

A generation of adult workers who will now see their wages and pensions slashed. A young generation of college leavers who can see no future.

For them austerity, even if it saves the euro, may never bring back the lifestyle they were promised. And the risk is they might reject austerity." (Paul Mason, 'Will Europeans accept a generation of austerity?', BBC News, 27 May 2010)

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

C B Macpherson on Burke posted by Richard Seymour

If you want to understand the relationship between conservatism and capitalist modernity, you could do worse than consult the Canadian marxist C B Macpherson and his brief guide to Edmund Burke. The apparent paradox of Burke is that he is a defender of aristocracy, of tradition and hierarchy, a scourge of liberal revolutionaries, a natural law conservative, at the same time as being a bourgeois liberal, a pro-market Whig and a vehement opponent of British imperialism. It is true that conservatism gradually integrated aspects of liberalism throughout the 19th Century so that, in its dominant Angl0-American variant, it eventually became a more ardent defender of classical liberalism than the liberals of the 20th Century. But Burke was there at the beginning, as it were - along with Joseph de Maistre, a founder of modern conservative thought, such that his paradoxical embrace of aspects of liberalism can not be treated as merely part of that adaptive process. His liberalism, and his modernism, were always-already constitutive of his conservatism.

Macpherson intriguingly suggests in his introduction that the key to resolving this conundrum is Burke's support for capitalism:

"There is no doubt that in everything he wrote and did, he venerated the traditional order. But his traditional order was already a capitalist order. He saw that it was so, and wished it to be more freely so. He had no romantic yearning for a bygone feudal order and no respect for such remnants of it as still survived, notably in the royal household ... He lived in the present, and made it his business to study the economic consequences of actual and projected state policies. As MP for Bristol (1775-80) he could scarcely have done otherwise, for Bristol was then one of the greatest commercial ports in England. But his interest in economic affairs had, as we shall see in some detail, begun earlier and lasted longer than his connection with Bristol..." (C B Macpherson, Burke, Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 5).

In chapter five, he draws this out further, but it is necessary to further elaborate on his market liberalism, as well as his hierarchical conservatism. The former manifested itself earlier in his career, the latter after the French revolution. From his earliest undergraduate polemics on political economy in Dublin, Burke's position on the rights of property was impeccably bourgeois, as befitted a member of the Ascendancy. He was no leveller, but he believed that the owners had a duty to "improve" their property, to augment their own wealth and thereby increase the wealth of all classes. For this reason, he was to find himself far more at home in England, where most landowners were commercial proprietors, than in Ireland, where absentee landlordism was still rife. He was taken up by literary London, joining the 'Club', among whose luminaries was Adam Smith, and taking up residence in Grub Street (though, in a rather more august capacity as a writer than the street is notorious for). His entry into politics was equally facilitated by a superior taking him under his wing, when William Gerald Hamilton MP asked him to be his private secretary. As a bourgeois, he owed much of his career to patronage, and later to the accomodating abundance of 'rotten boroughs' that enabled him to be 'elected' as MP for Wendover by grace of Lord Wendover.

It was Burke's career as an MP that marked him out as a moderate Whig, a reformer, and an opponent of colonial abuses. His liberalism was as opposed to a priori reasoning as was his later conservatism. Rejecting abstract accounts of liberty, as he had earlier rejected Rousseau, he denied that freedom bore "any resemblance to those propositions in geometry and metaphysicks, which admit no medium". Liberty in real social life was "variously mixed and modified, enjoyed in different degrees ... according to the temper and circumstances of every community". This anti-theoretical approach informed his response to the American revolution, in which he urged the British government not to see the abstract virtues of liberty, but the concrete virtues of a peace obtained by tolerating liberty in some degree. Consistently, against inductions from general principles, he posed complex empirical reality, the frailty and imperfection of human beings, and the hard reality of "human nature" about which he held bourgeois assumptions. His assumptions about human nature provided the foundation for his principled attack on Irish penal laws, for he maintained that the law was of necessity grounded on two aspects of the human condition: equality of original condition, and rationality. The law must therefore apply equally to everyone within a given polity, and must be of use to the whole of society.

If the law was to apply equally, and be of use to the whole of society, this had some ramifications for Burke's views on property. For the law must protect property, the better to further industry for the benefit of he commonwealth. Any law that abridged the rights of property, in just that proportion also curtailed the propensity toward industry. But if private acquisitiveness benefited society by stimulating industry, and if Burke was happy to defend the rights of property no matter how it was originally acquired, he was not content with property-holders who lacked industry. His attack on the Duke of Bedford, provoked by the latter's attempt to deprive him of a pension in his retirement, displayed bourgeois resentment of lazy aristos in gloriously contemptuous prose. His pension, he noted, was a reward for "merit", while the Duke's holdings were his despite his "few and idle years", and his inability to "know anything of public industry in its exertions".

So, from the ground of "human nature" to the lofty principles of law, economics and justice, he was a thorough bourgeois. But the bourgeois revolution in France produced, apparently, quite a different Burke, the Burke that is most familiar today from his Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. The latter part of the title is of course crucial - it was that the French revolution was being held up as a model for Britain to emulate which inspired Burke to produce his conservative manifesto. The revolution, the "plague", must be quarantined - and if this quarantine eventually called for an all out war by 1796, on an ideological level it entailed detailed elaborations on the nature of society, and government. The sacrosanct position of property, and of inheritance, was above all what he sought to conserve. He did so by citing, or rather inventing, a tradition grounded in transcendent principles. He noted that in English law, liberty was itself "an entailed inheritance, derived to us from our forefathers", in contrast to the French revolutionary assertion of liberty from natural right. Liberty, along with privilege, peerage, the crown, property, franchises, etc., were all heritable goods, and all goods worth conserving. Such principles did not exclude gradual improvement, but they did exclude radical innovation which was likely to be motivated by a selfish spirit. Institutions of longevity having demonstrated their worth, their utility for the whole of society, ought not to be overthrown in a fit of revolutionary pique, by the fiat of revolutionary pick-axes. If the sentiment is clear, Macpherson claims, the logic is not: a prolonged sequence of momentary choices is not logically superior to a single momentary choice. The distinction between small changes, of which Burke approves, and large, qualitative changes against which he sets himself is not clear. Burke's argument amounts to a case for prejudice in favour of tradition.

But that tradition is that of the Leviathan state, the subjection of all to the rule of the sovereign, the constitutional impediment to natural passions that human beings enter into by tactic acquiescence. The "real" rights of man are those which he derives from having submitted to that rule, most particularly the right to property, to the fruits of the labour mixed with his property, and to the inherited accumulations of that property. All men, he agrees, have "equal rights", but "not to equal things" - a man with five shillings on his person has as much right to that as a man with five hundred pounds. And "as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of men in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil social man, and no other. It is a thing to be settled by convention." Convention, then, has proved the unequal rights of man to property and to say in government. It has produced a "natural aristocracy", a leisured and cultured class whose entitlement to privilege, and whose usefulness for society as a whole has been proven over generations. Moreover, it has established a set of rights, differing for each man according to his concrete specificity, which it would be irresponsible to deny to future generations through some radical overthrow of the old order.

What is continuous, then, what unites the market liberal with the hierarchical conservative, is capitalism. Burke was a bourgeois political economist about whom Adam Smith is said to have claimed that he was the one man to have thought exactly the same way as Smith himself without having conversed with him. It was as a bourgeois economists that he sought to defend his property, his estate of some six hundred acres, against the possibility of non-market-based payments to labourers. In neighbouring Berkshire, the Justice of the Peace in Speenhamland had introduced a system of supplementary payments for workers depending on the size of their families to alleviate the distress caused by the market - it was payment according to need rather than industry. Scandalised, and afraid that the government might nationalise such a policy, Burke argued that such policies by arbitrarily curtailing the rights of property would undermine enterprise, thus ultimately leaving workers worse off. It would, in a word, create a culture of dependency. By contrast, free markets were ultimately the most efficient and equitable means of distributing the social product. Burke did not defend a feudal system of small producers selling surplus product on the market, but specifically a capitalist economy with the drive for accumulation as its motor. He held that it reflected the natural propensities of humans, and that it was thus an inevitable expression of human aspiration. He was happy for capitalists to accumulate surplus since this would compel them to be interested in the welfare of their workers, and to reinvest the surplus in further production for the good of all. He was equally insistent that the able-bodied must all not merely work, but work as wage labourers, since this alone would provide the surplus that would drive on further accumulation and improvement. That labour should be a "commodity like any other" whose price fell and rose according to demand was "in the nature of things".

Burke, it should be said, was fully aware of how much bourgeois society had to answer for. He was aware of the great social misery that it produced, since he documented it in some detail. But to all this, he insisted that it would be "pernicious" to follow his own instinct to "rescue [the labouring poor] from their miserable industry", since it would disturb the "natural course of things" and inhibit "the great wheel of circulation". That wheel of circulation was divinely ordained, every bit as much as the right of monarchs to rule - in a formula mirroring Smith's "invisible hand", he insisted that: "the benign and wise Disposer of all things ... obliges men, whether they will or not, in pursuing their own selfish interests, to connect the general good with their own individual success". The free contract between employer and labour was also a customary status, a convention deriving from natural law, an expression of divine will, and thus of necessity providential and tending toward social harmony. For, in such a contract, he maintained, there was no possibility of conflicting interests - it was in the interest of the farmer "that his work should be done with effect and celerity", which would only be assured of his labourer was well-fed, clothed, healthy, etc. This did not merely imply, but vociferated, an attititude of subjection toward the worker. The relationship between the labourer and his employer was analogous to that between the beast and the labourer, or the tool and the labourer. In each case, the latter stands as the executive, reasoning authority, that directs his subordinate man, beast or tool to his higher ends. To "break this chain of subordination in any part" was "absurd".

Thus Burke the conservative, the propagandist of hierarchy and natural law, is nothing if not a modernist, a bourgeois, and a liberal. His 'tradition' is an invented one, I need hardly add. Capitalism was no more in the natural order of things than monarchs or pontiffs. But it was an invention convoked in his intellect by the challenge of the French revolution, and the egalitarian menace that it promised. Had he been, Macpherson suggests, a 19th Century historian with the benefit of hindsight, he might have moderated his position on the French revolution, seeing that it might expand the dominion of capital. But as it was, he saw only the immediate, urgent battle between the classes. Therefore, his foundation of modern conservatism, of reaction against liberal egalitarianism, is motivated by the desire to conserve the kernel of liberalism, capitalist social relations, against the rationalist dilations of liberty and equality that were infecting the salons of London, rousing the labouring poor, and threatening precisely the "absurd" disturbance of subordination in England, in the very countryside where he resided, that he so dreaded.

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The Meaning of David Cameron reviewed posted by Richard Seymour

Dominic Fox has a very generous review of my book here:

Richard Seymour’s The Meaning of David Cameron is a short and pungent apologia for the Marxist categories of class and class war, which declares early on its intention to grate against the sensibilities of readers accustomed to the euphemistic treatment of such topics. The “meaning” of David Cameron, it turns out, is much the same as the “meaning” of any party leader situated within the neo-liberal consensus that unites “left”, “right” and “centre” parliamentary persuasions; which is to say that he is a cipher performing an established function within the apparatus of ruling class power...

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The Meaning of David Cameron talk posted by Richard Seymour

(I was asked to post last night's talk online so that people who were not able to attend the Housmans event can read it. This is it, edited and brushed up, a rough summary of some of the arguments in the book which, for those of you who don't want to deal with Amazon, you can now order online from Bookmarks as well as the Book Depository).

I apologise for getting everyone here under false pretences, but the fact is I haven't actually written a book about David Cameron. That struck me as a bit boring, so I thought I'd write about politics instead. To get a grip on the meaning of Cameronism, it is necessary to understand the dilemma that we are all bound into, the dilemma that neoliberalism imposes on us.

Allow me to hit you with some numbers: approximately 70% of people own their house, almost 10 million households being tied into a mortgage; average household debt is almost £9,000 excluding mortgages; almost £60,000 including mortgages. Much of the private debt, moreover, is secured against home ownership. This means that most people are tied into an economy based on speculation and debt – household consumption depends upon property values as determined by the real estate market and the robustness of stock markets more generally, because the more your property is worth, the more you borrow against it. Future consumption is also tied into speculation. At present, the British State Pension is worth 15% of average earnings. When there was a direct link between the state pension and earnings, it was only a fifth of average earnings. This means that anyone not wanting to experience a sudden, drastic fall in income would have to prepare for retirement with a private or occupation pension scheme, whose value depends on the stock market rising every year. Most of us are tied into a debt/speculation economy, with the specific exclusion of a minority who own no house, no vehicle, and that fifth of households who have no one in employment. This, by the way, is the sociological reality underpinning talk of “social exclusion”.

People didn’t ask to be tied into a debt/speculation economy. Given the chance, the majority have consistently tried to vote against it. But, this state of affairs means that barring a fundamental paradigm shift, a deep change in the pattern of economic growth and accumulation in this society, most people will continue to depend on a robust financial sector to support consumption. On top of this, because of systematic underinvestment in manufacturing and export industries, Britain has maintained a consistent balance of payments deficit which is only made up for by the surplus drawn into the UK by the City – in a way, fulfilling its traditional imperial role. Successive governments have depended on the City to generate employment and growth, while then old manufacturing strongholds have been steadily eroded, along with the trade union-based communities that they sustained.

The current government is as committed as New Labour were to maintaining this state of affairs. The bail-out, and temporary nationalisations which they all supported, will be paid for with deep cuts in public spending – which the FT estimates will amount to 22% in all non-ringfenced spending. Thatcher, who merely managed to suppress spending in some departments, looks meek by comparison. Some people took the interventionist measures to signal a departure from neoliberalism. In fact, they consolidate neoliberalism, and specifically the hegemony of the financial sector. Keynesian stimulus measures were no more than crisis management, a prelude to an accelerated attack on social democratic aspects of the state, especially welfare and pensions, the consummation of a massive transfer of wealth and public resources to the rentiers. This, surely, will not pass without severe crisis, upheaval, rebellion and, inevitably, repression.

This being the case, it might seem inapposite for the government to come to power with irenic phrases suggestive of social peace and harmony. They pledge to commit themselves to progress, to fairer taxes, and to greater civil liberties. Rhetorically, in some ways, they would seem to position themselves to the left of New Labour. Cameron’s appeal to “liberal conservatism” would seem to have been concluded in an ideal political alignment with centrist liberals who enable him to sideline the reactionaries in his own party and ultimately realign parliamentary politics. But I have said that they mean war, and if they mean war, how can they talk peace?

I want to suggest that the grammar of progressive conservatism, so-called, can be understood proximately by understanding New Labour, and more distantly by understanding certain tendencies in conservative ideology itself. I approach this through three commonplace tropes: apathy, meritocracy, and progress, each of which I will now expand on.

1. Apathy. We are told today that people are basically apathetic about politics. To caricature the argument a little, they are too busy with lottery tickets and Lambert & Butler cigarettes to worry about such piffling issues as taxation, or the Private Finance Initiative. If they are roused at all, we hear, it is out of fear of some unwelcome outgroup, be they paedophiles or immigrants – or, to be more accurate, migrating terrorist welfare sponging house-price depressing paedophiles.

This is a scandalous slur, a conscious deflection from the real issue which is that increasingly, people feel unrepresented by parliament. The secular tendency is for voters to stop voting; disproportionately, these are working class voters, and Labour voters. The psephologists are not totally useless in this respect – studies by pollsters like John Curtice and Anthony King tell us that between 1992 and 1997, Labour lost 5% of its core working class vote, adjusting for depressed turnout (the lowest since WWII). Between 1997 and 2001, the party lost a further 3 million votes, especially in manufacturing centres of the north-east and the Midlands, as turnout reached an historic low of 59%. Another million were lost by 2005, when Labour scraped to victory with a worse vote than that which it lost with in 1992; and yet another million, approximately, cost it the election in 2010, although in this case it was working class voters who saved Labour from the devastating defeat that it had every reason to expect. Essentially, the problem is that New Labour, in assiduously courting middle class swing voters, and the support of big business, ceased to represent its core vote, offering only occasional, sometimes contemptuous and usually highly compromised reforms for their benefit – almost always hedged with moral authoritarianism toward those very voters.

Previously, non-voting was seen as an expression of political apathy, and it was not concentrated among working class voters – as, for example, it was in the US. But in the last two decades, a tendency has developed into a stark reality – abstainers are not only disproportionately working class but they now, in contrast to the past, give political reasons for refusing to vote. It’s an act of dissent, though not necessarily a good one.

To understand why this is, we have to ask what is the point of voting. A couple of economic historians working from MIT have looked into this. They noted that democratic reforms in Europe tended to be followed by a redistribution of wealth, with welfare systems, higher taxes on wealth, trade union rights etc. They wondered why the ruling classes would go along with such reforms, given all that they had to lose, and concluded – perhaps controversially, given the gentrified national histories that line our bookshops – that it was motivated by the threat of revolution. Now, the point is that the purpose of gaining political power was to wield economic power – or, in the Marxist idiom, class power. And in the United Kingdom, the promise of representative democracy, the state’s very reluctant and hard-won willingness to embrace the elective principle, was that it would be possible to achieve fundamental social transformation entirely by peaceable, legal means. Only moral persuasion was necessary to obtain reforms. The majority of the working class, for a considerable portion of the 20th Century, looked to the Labour Party to deliver first an unavailing reformist road to socialism, then a social democratic settlement, capitalism with a human face. Sadly, now, they offer only neoliberalism with a visage that, if it is recognisably human, closely resembles Thomas Gradgrind.

Significantly, the post-war social democratic compromise has acquired a normativity that is not justified by the history of capitalism – in fact, it was highly aberrant. And though its achievements are not in doubt – the socialisation and partial democratisation of some of industry, the welfare state, and most especially the NHS – it is a period which demands a more critical scrutiny from the Left. Indeed, the collapse of that consensus was preceded not at first by the rise of a New Right, but by a New Left, exemplified by people like Ralph Miliband and Alasdair Macintyre, who pointed out that such nationalisations as did occur were basically socialising economic failure; that public services were delivered in a high-handed imperial fashion modelled on the Indian Civil Service, with undemocratic worker-management relations retained; that the corporatist state was used as much to repress the working class, suppress pay claims and break strikes as to accommodate working class demands; and that all of this came with a vicious imperial streak, from the suppression of anti-colonial rebellion in Malaya to the secretive embrace of nuclear weapons.

But that critique was not matched by powerful enough social forces to displace the hegemony of the Labour Party as the main vehicle through which workers could attain their goals. This meant that while, in response to the growing economic crisis and wave of union militancy, Labour moved left, in government it found its radical reforms foundering against the hostility of the capitalist state, particularly senior civil servants, and the obduracy of its right-wing. It ended up embracing monetarism and fiscal austerity, and spent its last miserable years in office battling the unions and trying to form a pact with the Liberal Party. Meanwhile, the critique of the post-war settlement fell to the New Right, the Thatcherites. Their political philosophy was neoliberalism, which has its roots in the thought of Friedrich Hayek. Hayek, an Austrian economist influenced by Ludwig von Mises, was horrified by the encroachments in the post-war era of the social democratic state. Like his mentor Mises, he had argued that the Great Depression was not caused by free markets, but by the excessive bargaining power of the trade unions, and by state intervention. Mises had applauded fascism for having saved European civilization – he did not think that fascism a viable form of state, but he saw in it a form of emergency rule which would protect the vital kernel of liberal social relations (that’s capitalism) from the encroachments of socialists and communists. He had supported the Dollfuss dictatorship in Austria, particularly in its battles with organised labour.

Another influence on Hayek was the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, from whom he derived a significant portion of his ideas about the role of the liberal state, and particularly his critique of pluralist party-political state, and of welfarism and social democracy which he believed bound up the state in a network of special interests that undermined its autonomy and sovereignty. This mimicked the later critique of public choice economists who, basing their argument on market-driven conceptions of human behaviour, argued that the welfare state and high public spending just created a network of special interests whom state leaders would end up serving – thus, it was necessary to cap public spending, privatise where possible, and introduce market-based mechanisms for service delivery such as internal competition.

Ultimately, Hayek was only a fair weather friend of liberal democracy, believing that it would be better to take fundamental legislative decisions out of the hands of regularly elected parliaments, who should merely be entrusted with technocratic resource allocation and decision-making. The fundamental decisions should be made by an upper chamber that was elected only once every fifteen years, and then only by an electorate composed of people of a certain age who would vote only once. The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek’s key text, grudgingly conceded that liberal democracy was better on balance than dictatorship but only on the provisional grounds that it would facilitate gradual change and the education of the public against socialist ideas.

Hayek was sympathetic to Pinochet as was Thatcher, who only noted that it would be inappropriate to import the dictator’s methods into the British setting. Instead, the neoliberals set out to reform relations between labour, capital and the state – collective bargaining was over, trade unions were to be broken up, Keynesian demand management and full employment was no longer a goal of policy – instead, counter-inflation was the emphasis. This is a class issue, since according to the doctrine of NAIRU, high levels of employment tend to strengthen the bargaining power of labour, thus driving up wage claims, and producing inflation. Service delivery would be re-modelled on market lines, welfare would be reduced as far as possible since that created a special interest known as “welfare dependency”. A new model of statecraft was introduced, in which growing areas of the state would be operated along market lines, preferably by experts from the private sector, and – of late –using private finance.

The long-term effect is to hollow out the state’s public, representative capacity, since such democratic aspects are held to corrupt the autonomy of the state. And of course, last but not least, as the manufacturing sector was attacked as a base for labour-intensive unionised industry, recalcitrant and hostile to neoliberalism; and as wages stagnated relative to profits, or fell, the financial sector was unleashed, and consumption was increasingly supported by debt and speculation. This is then political-economic model that New Labour embraced, not out of psephological necessity, but out of a recognition, as one strike was defeated by another, that the organised working class was not a viable electoral base and any programme they wanted to introduce would have to be approved both by the middle classes whose income was supplemented by speculation and debt, and by capital.

2. Meritocracy - This is a language of class rule. We are told that, barring some social exclusion, and some hangovers from the old school tie networks, we are a meritocracy. People succeed and fail by dint of their native abilities, and their efforts. Once, meritocracy was a revolutionary ideal – careers open to the talents, was the French revolutionary cry; an aristocracy of talent, was Benjamin Franklin’s summary of the outcome of the American revolution. No longer would rewards follow simply from birthright, but from striving and accomplishment. But today, it has become a commonplace of conservative ideology. We hear a lot about “excellence” in conservative tracts. The ideology of excellence, holds that there is a contradiction between quality and equality. From Burke to Nozick, embracing everyone from Nietzsche to Rand in between, conservative political philosophy has been concerned above all with protecting the idea of privilege as a natural corollary of innate differences between human beings – indeed, as the valid expression of human diversity. Their great fear, if egalitarianism prevails, is that there will be stagnation, as the rewards necessary to stimulate excellence, and the resources needed to create a cultural elite, are redistributed among a populace most of whom would make less of it. Sociologically, the political Karl Mannheim suggests, this is an idea that would be most appealing to those whose class position leads them to think that their achievements are the result not of long-term cooperative effort, but of sudden, discontinuous moments of inspiration and genius – who would undoubtedly be the petit-bourgeois and nouveau riches who provided the bedrock of Thatcher’s support in the 1980s.

And Thatcher, above all, was a ‘meritocrat’. In a major speech in 1975, she insisted that the Butskellite post-war consensus, married to some vague idea of equality, was a failure. “What’s more desirable and more practicable than the pursuit of equality,” she said, “is the pursuit of equality of opportunity”. “Let our children grow tall, and some taller than others if they have the ability to do so.” This, she argued, was the only appropriate social order if a society was to enable people to reach their full potential, rather than repressing that potential. I won’t argue that Thatcher ever created a meritocracy – it’s a chimeric idea – but it certainly moralised the ostentatious opulence of the rich, as well as the accelerating rates of poverty since, implicitly, withdrawing the excesses of the welfare state and breaking the trade unions had ensured that people would only be rewarded according to their merit, rather than their ability to extract rent from the state or form special interest groups.

Ironically, New Labour took the ideal of meritocracy far more seriously than Thatcher ever had. The Commission on Social Justice commissioned by the party, and which formed the basis of New Labour’s approach to social justice in office, argued that equality was a bad ideal, that people really did deserve their talents and therefore any rewards that might accrue from those talents, and that the task was to ensure that no one was excluded from the opportunities and access that other had – specifically to tackle that fifth of households that had no one in employment, and to work to skill up the workforce, improve their productivity, and thereby lower the NAIRU, thus increasing employment. But it meant that they had to accept what Blair boasted were the toughest restrictions on unions in the Western world – BA workers know all about that. It meant that such assistance as the poor did receive came with a tremendous amount of social authoritarianism, with ASBOS, street curfews, the proliferation of CCTV, sanctions for parents whose children bunked off school, etc. Essentially, this was because a large part of what they took to constitute social exclusion amounted to self-exclusion, whether that be in the form of feckless parents improperly raising their children, or workshy and crime-prone individuals needing to be surveilled and coerced, or bad neighbours bringing down the morale in communities. It also entailed a revised conception of class, in which – dixit Prescott – “we are all middle class now”. By the government’s lights, this was sixty:forty society, in which there was a middle class sixty percent majority who were doing okay, a poor underclass – that 20% of households with no one in employment – and a privilege elite, some of whom benefited from unfair exclusions, the old school tie, etc.

But in general, if such exclusions could be removed, Britain would be classless meritocracy, and New Labour happily be a party that was, in the words of Peter Mandelson, extraordinarily relaxed about people getting filthy rich. More than relaxed, in fact, their meritocratic ideology inclined them to be lavishly sycophantic toward the rich – holding them up as models, giving their companies tax breaks, giving them policies, knighthoods, lordships, ministerial posts, extolling the virtues of these magnificent wealth creators to anyone who would listen. After all, they were very special people, whose achievements derived solely from the exercise of their unique abilities. The rich in turn grew so complacent and self-satisfied that a modest increase in employer national insurance contributions, in the context of a recession and a deficit, led them to flounce off to the Tories in a mega-huff, as if they had been violated. Their attitude to the poor becomes ever more Victorian, as when Lord Digby Jones, formerly of the CBI and former New Labour minister, urged the government to starve people back into work, saying that anyone on benefits who turned down three job offers should be forced to live in a hostel on subsistence rations. And New Labour, having encouraged all this, having overseen the highest rates of inequality since record began, having pandered to the rich, and enjoyed their relationships with executives like five year olds on a sugar high, suddenly decided in 2010 that you should vote for them on the grounds that their opponents were in the pockets of the rich!

Meritocracy is, in short, a language of class rule – it says that hierarchy is positive in principle, that in practise such hierarchies as do exist reflect the natural expression of superior talent and effort, and that one can and should only remedy one’s social problems by individual means, by scaling the meritocratic ladder rather than pursuing collective solutions. To be bound into such collective solutions, conservative ideology maintains, is precisely to get stuck in a know-your-place class system, in an unaspiring rut that leaves you to stagnate among people who may in fact be your natural inferiors.

3. Progress – The last portion of the book deals with antinomies of progress. It is tempting to dismiss David Cameron’s claim to progressive politics as just legerdemain, a cover for his reactionary, Thatcherite agenda. But actually, there is a story here, and one that casts interesting light on our contemporary political discourse. First of all, conservatism is often treated as a political philosophy of tradition. This is the image related by conservative ideologues from Burke to Disraeli to Oakeshott: it is a preference for the familiar, for gradual change, for institutions of longevity with accumulated wisdom. Now, Ted Honderich points out that such a conception would appear to defame conservatism, implying that they can’t tell the difference between that which is familiar and good, and that which is familiar and bad, and moreover that they are prepared to approve of something which just some short time ago they despised simply because it has become familiar. Karl Mannheim argues, by contrast, that traditionalism is not necessarily politically conservative, and that the nature of conservative action with respect to traditions, is always dependent on “a concrete set of circumstances”.

Corey Robin, a political theorist based in CUNY, argues that in practise, conservatism has always been from its inception adventurist, opportunistic, rabble-rousing opponents of tradition. Conservatism as an ideology of reaction – whether against abolitionism, democracy, socialism, communism, the Sixties, the abortionists, etc – is not fundamentally about tradition, but about conserving hierarchy and domination. And whether you read Burke or Maistre, what you find is complete contempt for the ancient regime, because its obvious inadequacy in the face of revolution, and their willingness to incorporate and appropriate the lessons of the revolutionaries – that social orders are manmade, that inequality and domination is manmade, that the “willed imposition of the intellect” upon reality is more efficacious than any cosmic guarantee. Their outlook from the start is modernist. Moreover, if you look at twentieth century conservatism, there are strains that are highly modernist and anti-traditional. The neoliberals certainly fit that bill – look at Hayek’s key text, The Road to Serfdom, in which the only alternative to free market capitalism is one variant or other of a pre-modern social form. Indeed, there is a tendency among capitalists, warmonger, polluters, etc to depict their opponents as reactionaries, as devotees of an unsustainable status quo.

So, the concept of progressive conservatism is not at all as odd as it may seem – it just depends on a peculiar conception of progress which, again, New Labour has championed. When the USSR collapsed, Third Way intellectuals such as Anthony Giddens argued that socialism was dead. The parliamentary road to socialism had never succeeded, and even its modest achievements such as the welfare state were giving way to globalisation, as the authority of national states diminished, and capital acquired greater offshore mobility. The revolutionary road to socialism had proven both utopian and dystopian, an unobtainable ideal and unliveable reality. In these circumstances, the Left had become conservative, forced to defend traditions of welfarism and trade unionism, while the conservatives had become the radicals, allied to the forces of neoliberalism that were destructive of national and ancient traditions, etc. This conception of progress is obviously susceptible to the critique that I’ve just outlined – conservatism is not about tradition, and progress is not about the overthrow of tradition, it is about equality vs inequality; domination vs liberty.

But it was a conception that New Labour was open to. Its founders, Blair and Brown, had been sent on junkets by Kinnock to study Third Way ideas in action in Australia and particularly in the US, where a group of Democratic strategists known as the DLC were organising the most conservative and neoliberal factions in the party to take control of its machinery and acquire hegemony. Their experiences were fairly similar to those of New Labour. The radical left represented by Jesse Jackson, and the old New Deal centre represented by people like Gary Hart, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, had easily been ground under the Reaganite heel. The DLC maintained that white working class voters were attracted to social authoritarianism, racist dog-whistling, and anti-welfare policies. They maintained that middle class voters wanted market-driven policies and a booming stock market to support their consumption. And they maintained that African Americans and the poor had no other political options. Thus, backing their horse Bill Clinton, they got a presidency that was committed to ending welfare, and replacing it with workfare, to more privatization, to more imprisonment, and of course to imperial extensions and the assertion of hegemony in Russia, eastern Europe, and central Asia. Even Bill Clinton’s mildly reformist inclinations were thrown out before he took office when he was instructed by a claque of neoliberal economists that if he didn’t reassure bonds traders by cutting the public deficit, his presidency would be ruined and he would be out of office come the next election.

By the time New Labour was launched and on the electoral market, that lesson had already been learned. Fiscal stability, prudence, no sudden rises in taxes on income or property, a flexible labour market and sober deregulation were the bases of New Labour policy. No serious policy initiative would be floated if it didn’t gain the approval of the City or the CBI or the corporate press, especially Murdoch. Blair explained the basis of the new dispensation. The class war was over; there was no longer a battle between socialism and capitalism, but between progress and the “forces of conservatism”, the latter including not just the xenophobic right, but especially the shattered forces of the Labour Left, and the unions whom he would characterise as “wreckers” when they opposed his privatization agenda. Progress meant adapting to the realities of globalisation, not attempting to halt or reverse it. It meant more privatization, the down-sizing and rationalising of the state, the introduction of market mechanisms into new areas of government, the encouragement of speculation and financial success, including the use of finance to raise capital for public service delivery. It meant using its dynamics to create the wealth that would assist with combating social exclusion. Most forcefully, however, progress meant a liberal international order, an interventionism in foreign policy that would be guided by the enlightened self-interest of Western states, who would contain threats and where necessary overthrow old regimes and replace them with liberal institutions. This won over a sizeable section of the Left until it became clear that progress of this kind meant embracing secret detention, kidnapping, mass aerial bombing, high casualties and forms of torture outlawed by the Enlightened despots of the 18th Century. And when Iraq divided Europe, Blair’s automatic and instinctive alignment with the American right in the name of progress, also led him to aligning with the European right in the person of Berlusconi and Sarkozy.

These forms of progress have fed into the tapestry of Cameronism. For if you look at their manifesto commitments offered under the rubric of the ‘Big Society’ vs the overbearing ‘Big Government’, they are both carbon copy replicas of previous Tory policies and incursions on New Labour territory. When they speak of efficiency savings by abolishing hundreds of thousands of civil service jobs; when they speak of devolving authority to the frontline in service delivery through market-based mechanisms; and when they speak of reducing the welfare state and relying on social entrepreneurs to recreate community cohesion, they are talking absolute fluent Blairese.

Much attention has been paid in this respect to the amiable crank Philip Blond, a conservative Anglican thinker influenced by Catholic social thought, and associated with a current known as Radical Orthodoxy – a theological current that abhors modernity and seeks a return to medieval and patristic roots. His conception of ‘Red Toryism’ has been used as the peg upon which to hang Cameronite ‘progressivism’. He argues that both market and state have failed, and that communities should be empowered to take on the functions of markets and states through mutuals, cooperative enterprises and voluntary associations. He wishes to disaggregate the global economy, break up the big banks and multinationals, redistribute wealth the better to recapitalise the poor and working class communities, and generally downscale enterprises to individual or family-sized units. He isn’t exactly open about his intellectual antecedents, though it is clear that he draws extensively on a stream of thought pioneered by Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton in the early 20th Century, a pseudo-medieval ideology known as ‘distributism’ that seeks to oppose both socialism and monopoly capitalism by restoring an older social order, a sort of antique social structure resembling that of the High Middle Ages. These thinkers were sympathetic to the far right – Belloc was an admirer of fascism – but that is not perhaps as embarrassing as the fact that Blond’s aspirations are hopelessly unrealistic. He is relying upon a Conservative Party elite, most of whom are embedded in the large process of multinational manufacture, service delivery and high finance – most of them are millionaires - to liquidate the very forms of industry and global trade that give them their class privileges, to use the capitalist state which is deeply interpenetrated with industry and finance to do so, and then he expects these same agents having expropriated themselves, their friends and the people who paid to get them elected, to dismantle the state apparatus through which they accomplished such expropriation. It’s an extraordinary fantasy.

Of course, Cameron has no intention of pursuing this, which is why his government is attacking the public sector, looking to impose record cuts, and strengthening the position of finance, albeit within a revised regulatory framework. Blond is merely a soundbite machine for the Cameron machine. Moreover, as far as foreign policy is concerned, the Tories will imitate Blair very closely. Cameron and Hague have worked out a policy of what they call “liberal interventionism”, but have struggled to substantially differentiate that from Blairite policy. Cameron’s cabinet is stuffed with neoconservatives many of whom, like Gove, nurtured a deep affection for Tony Blair. Cameron himself could not help but be awed with Blair’s performance over Iraq, admiring his “masterful” handling of the issue. They all, with some notable exceptions such as Ken Clarke notwithstanding, subscribe a language of ‘progress’ in the terrain of foreign policy in which belligerent American expansionism, by securing liberal institutions – both economically and politically, through the WTO as much as through NATO – becomes the international bulwark of progress.

This, then, is your progressive conservatism, your Red Toryism, your liberal conservative coalition. This is Cameron, the progressive, the meritocrat, someone who promises to restore trust in politics and re-engage voters in the democratic process, who invites them to participate in the government of the United Kingdom. In all, he represents the culmination of a period of reaction, a period of entrenched class rule, and a period in which the democratic aspects of the state have been increasingly impoverished. The very processes by which Cameron proposes to mend these ills, are precisely those neoliberal processes that created the deadlock in the first place. If we want to resist Cameronism, we have to work not merely for the restoration of some social democratic golden age, not merely for Keynesian intervention and welfare spending, but for a radically new political paradigm. But we have to start by building up and revitalising the social forces that have been depleted by the processes of neoliberalism and by the accumulated outcomes of previous class struggles. The appropriate way to do that, for a start, is to form a united front against the spending cuts in the here and now.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The night I sold out posted by Richard Seymour

The Housmans meeting was packed out tonight, a spectacular success, and those of you who weren't there should have been. And those of you who spurned me for the meeting with Tony Benn can just die, okay, just die. The book shop sold out on my book, and I had to break out four of my 'presentation' copies to sell - so I made a bit of money out of thing. Some people asked for the talk to be posted online, so I'll bung up an edited transcript tomorrow. Meanwhile, don't be left out - be one of the cool kids and get your copy of The Meaning of David Cameron.

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Schmitt and Hayek posted by Richard Seymour

One of the themes I briefly touch on in The Meaning of David Cameron is the influence of undemocratic radical right-wing political theory on neoliberalism. I wish, then, that I'd had a copy of William Scheuerman's Carl Schmitt: the end of law handy when I was writing. Here are some extracts from the essay 'The Unholy Alliance of Carl Schmitt and Friedrich A Hayek'. Having established that Schmitt used Weimar Germany's liberal legal principles to help defeat the left's agenda of redistribution and melioration, Scheuerman stress that Schmitt's intervention on behalf of liberalism was entirely strategic:

Throughout the Weimar period, Schmitt was on principle a critic of liberal jurisprudence. Indeed, his recourse here to elements of the liberal rule of law is purely strategic. At many junctures in the 1926 study, it indeed becomes clear that Schmitt merely means to suggest that as long as the Weimar constitutional system is committed to legal liberalism, it must endorse a traditional model of the rule of law and, by necessity, conflict with the left's attempt to undertake individual legal measures against royal property.5 By no means should we read Schmitt's employment of traditional strands of liberal legalism as an expression of a genuine sympathy for the liberal rule of law. As was shown in part 1, Schmitt deconstructed that ideal well before publication of his 1926 pamphlet. Schmitt in 1926 merely speaks as a constitutional lawyer intent on informing his countrymen that if they aspire to take the liberal features of the Weimar Constitution seriously, they necessarily must oppose left-wing legal acts as inconsistent with the idea of general law ... Schmitt cleverly transforms the traditional ideals of liberal legalism into a weapon against Germany's first attempt to secure a stable liberal democracy. In chapter 3, I note that Schmitt occasionally relies on traditionalist legal liberal ideals in order to subvert legal liberalism. This is precisely the strategy taken here in his reflections on the rule of law and the welfare state.

Any form of particular or specialised act of social regulation, expropriation or redistribution - the case galvanising Schmitt's intervention was an effort by socialist and communist legislators to expropriate the property of the overthrown Kaiser - is, claims Schmitt, in principle a violent and revolutionary act that is incompatible with legal liberalism. Specifically, the 'generality of the law' means that its principles must apply equally to all - any act of regulation or redistribution that targets one class or social group to the benefit of another is contrary to this generality. Suffice to note that this relies on an obscurantist reading of liberalism, but it gave Schmitt the tools with which to oppose the democratic welfare state.

As we discused in chapter 4, Schmitt argues that powerful organized interest groups colonize the Weimar governmental apparatus to such an extent that the German regime is no longer capable of standing above and beyond antagonistic, organized political and social constituencies and resolving conflicts among them. In Schmitt's at times downright apocalyptic account, the emerging welfare state entangles government in a multitude of social and economic spheres. But this entanglement simply results in a crippling of the state's autonomous decision-making capacities; the welfare state no longer allows government to serve as an effective arbitrator among competing interest groups. The "pluralist party state" fails to "distinguish between friend and foe."10 The emergence of the democratic interventionist state threatens to plunge contemporary politics into a potentially explosive political crisis in which an ''ethics of civil war" may be needed to guide political action. The integrity and coherence of the governmental decision-making apparatus are undermined so drastically that constitutionalism in the modern welfare state increasingly amounts to little but an attempt to reach a fragile "peace treaty" among hostile agglomerations of social and political power.11

This is a high octane, radical rightist version of the critique of welfarism that 'public choice' economists would later develop. They essentially maintained that the welfare state entangled the government in various "special interests", undermining its capacity to act as an independent arbiter and efficient administrator. The best state was a minimal state, and one organised on the model of the market.

Although Schmitt repeatedly blames social democrats and their jurist friends for having brought Germany to the brink of political collapse, his Judicial Independence, Equality Before the Law, and the Protection of Private Property According to the Weimar Constitution still leaves open the possibility that the abandonment of liberal general law may be justified amid a serious political crisis. Even in 1926, Schmitt conceded that a crisis could require an emergency dictatorship ready to abandon so-called normativistic liberal law in favor of individual measures and commands.14 In the face of the left's attempt to construct the democratic welfare state as we have seen, for Schmitt this trend constitutes an implicit revolutionary threat just such an emergency regime is what Schmitt now proposes. With the emergence of executive-based quasi-authoritarian regimes (under Heinrich Brüning and then Franz von Papen) in Germany in 1930,15 Schmitt outlines a disturbing defense of a plebiscitary dictatorial system guided by precisely those individual measures and commands whose dangers he had seemed to warn his German readers about just a few years earlier. By means of an idiosyncratic reworking of the classical liberal democratic aspiration to distinguish general (parliamentary) laws from individual (executive) decrees, Schmitt provides a justification for a discretionary emergency dictatorship, in his view absolutely necessary if the inept, inefficient and politically perilous "pluralist party state" is to be replaced by a system superior to it. As Peter Gowan has similarly noted, Schmitt hoped to jettison the democratic Weimar welfare state for an authoritarian alternative, a new type of interventionist state that would succeed in divesting itself of burdensome "welfare obligations, [and] commitments to protecting [the] social rights" of subordinate social constituencies. 16 According to Schmitt, the "quantitative total state" a weak, social-democratic inspired interventionist state should be replaced by a ''qualitative total state" an alternative brand of interventionism, but one that guarantees authentic state sovereignty while simultaneously managing to provide substantial autonomy to owners of private capital.17

Indeed, the view that an emergency dictatorship may be necessary to conserve the kernel of liberal social relations against democratic intervention is shared by many neoliberals and their intellectual antecedents, from Mises' apologia for fascism and alliance with the Dollfuss dictatorship, to Hayek's sympathy for Pinochet.

Hayek was sympathetic to Schmitt's paradoxical stance - supporting an illiberal, interventionist state as a means to restore liberal non-interventionism. He noted that Schmitt was highly sympathetic to the early era of undemocratic liberalism, but did not believe that it would be possible in the modern era to replicate it. There would have to be interventionism, but not of a kind that would threaten or abridge the rule of capital. Hayek himself had viewed such abridgments in 'New Deal' America and social democratic Europe with horror. In his best-selling polemic, The Road to Serfdom, he appropriated some of Schmitt's arguments:

Addressed "to the socialists of all parties," Hayek's The Road to Serfdom dramatically argues that the emerging democratic welfare state is destined to undermine the rule of law and the legal predictability and certainty guaranteed by it.21 For those familiar with Weimar-era legal debates, much of Hayek's account is surprisingly unoriginal. His own intellectual socialization, as he seems to concede on several occasions, took place in the shadow of the Weimar debates.

Inadequately sensitive to the fundamentally instrumental character of Schmitt's occasional recourse to legal liberalism, Hayek seems to parallel Schmitt's analysis in a number of respects. 22 First, Hayek relies on a dramatic contrast between general law and individual commands or measures, and his definition of general law is exceedingly open-ended: reminiscent of Schmitt, Hayek states that the rule of law requires that statutes not refer to the "wants and needs of particular people."23 Although Hayek claims to derive this view from classical liberal political thought, he provides little real textual support for this view in The Road to Serfdom; as a matter of fact, classical concepts of general law are more complicated than Hayek suggests.24 Second, Hayek argues that the growth of state intervention in the economy culminates in a "total state." Of course, Schmitt had introduced this term into German political thought in 1930 when describing the same phenomenon, in which the classical liberal state/society distinction allegedly loses any real significance, and Hayek expressly cites Schmitt's statement in The Guardian of the Constitution that the "neutral state of the liberal nineteenth century [is being transformed into] the total state in which state and society are identical."25 Most importantly, Hayek seems to endorse Schmitt's central thesis. For Hayek, as for Schmitt, the emerging welfare state necessitates arbitrary forms of situation-oriented legal action, and it inevitably cripples parliamentary authority. The mere fusion of state and society, manifested most unambiguously in the contemporary democratic welfare state, unavoidably generates arbitrary government. Hayek shares Schmitt's view that the logic of the interventionist state corresponds most closely to a plebiscitary dictatorship, in "which the head of government is from time to time confirmed in his position by popular vote, but where he has all the powers at his command to make certain that the vote will go in the direction he desires."26 In Schmitt's categories, the interventionist state is decisionist to the core, and a mass-based plebiscitary dictatorship is best suited to the imperatives of a legal universe destined to take on increasingly decisionist characteristics.

Hayek was a classical liberal, not a fascist. He pitched his case in terms of a desire to avoid any fascist emergency, and in general he preferred liberal democracy - not in principle but as a means toward the education of the public and the containment of pressures for socialist measures. But his paleoliberal case for neoliberalism, if you like, mirrors Schmitt's fascist strategies in important ways:

Thus, Hayek opts for a radical curtailing of the welfare state and a return to the "neutral state of the liberal nineteenth century." Allegedly, we can avoid the "road to serfdom," by taking the road back to that historical period when the purported fusion of state and society had yet to occur.

Although The Road to Serfdom refers to Schmitt on a number of occasions, Hayek's comments there are misleading. He criticizes Schmitt's Nazi-era polemics, while conveniently ignoring the extent to which his own account of legal decay in the administrative state parallels the idiosyncrasies of Schmitt's argumentation. In subsequent years, however, Hayek is far less reticent about acknowledging his debts to Schmitt. In The Constitution of Liberty (1960), which builds on the basic argument of The Road to Serfdom, Hayek introduces his definition of general law which Hayek, like Schmitt, considers the centerpiece not only of the rule of law-ideal, but also of liberalism itself 28 by citing Schmitt's major Weimar-era studies and commenting that "the conduct of Carl Schmitt under the Hitler regime does not alter the fact that, of the modern German writings on the subject, his are still among the most learned and perceptive."29 Though Hayek refers to a number of additional sources for his definition of law, he seems to attribute a special place to Schmitt, whom he considers the most impressive opponent of Weimar legal positivism and its disastrous quest (for Hayek, as for Schmitt) to blur the distinction between general law and individual commands and measures. Indeed, Hayek's 1960 study can be interpreted as an attempt to struggle with the limits of Schmitt's problematic definition of the generality of law. At many junctures, Hayek seems to follow Schmitt in suggesting that legal generality is incompatible with any form of legal differentiation or specification whatsoever.30 But in The Constitution of Liberty he appears to recognize the limits of the extreme character of this view. Now he admits that general law is consistent with legal specialization, as long as no individual person or object is explicitly named, and a particular legal category is acceptable both to those who fall under it and those who fall outside it.31 Soon Hayek appears to throw his hands into the air in desperation: he admits that "no entirely satisfactory criterion has been found that would always tell us what kind of classification" is compatible with the ideal of general law.32 This concession is truly astonishing, given the centrality of the concept of general law to his entire project. Even scholars sympathetic to Hayek's political agenda have emphasized the ambiguity of his definition of general law, and some have even gone so far as to deem it incoherent.33 But such commentators ignore the manner in which Hayek's open-ended definition of general law allows him, in a man ner once again similar to the twists and turns of Schmitt's analysis of legal decay in the welfare state, to rely on what initially seems to be a constant in his theory (the centrality of general law) so as to accord with the immediate imperatives of the political struggle against defenders of the welfare state. Hayek undoubtedly remains hostile to the interventionist welfare state throughout his intellectual career; this is inevitable given his view of the decisionist character of legal action when state and society have fused and the welfare state begins to emerge. But the intensity of this hostility clearly shifts. In his 1976 Preface to The Road to Serfdom, Hayek himself admits that he had not freed himself adequately in 1944 from "interventionist superstitions," 34 and his final study, the three-volume Law, Legislation, and Liberty (written in the 1970s, amidst immense dissatisfaction with the welfare state and growing neoconservative political strength) is far more belligerent in its antiwelfare state polemics than The Road to Serfdom, which was written at a moment of broad sympathy for traditional left-wing economic policies. Because some versions of Hayek's definition of general law suggest that virtually any form of state intervention is incompatible with general law, whereas others provide at least some room for welfare state-type activities, this ambiguity is probably inevitable. Hayek's reliance on Schmitt generates a number of strikingly "decisionistic" elements within the core of his own project.

Moreover, in the later stages of Hayek's career, when his doctrines were taken up by an aggressive New Right that was overseeing the blood-spattered laboratory experiment in Chile, Hayek began to more explicitly align himself with Schmitt's attack on the "plurality party state":

[H]e is quite honest about this: because the tendency toward legal decay in the interventionist state "has been most explicitly seen" by Schmitt, Hayek writes in Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, he believes that he can use Schmitt's detailed analysis of the democratic welfare state in order to criticize it.36 Although Schmitt "regularly came down on what to me appears both morally and intellectually the wrong side," Hayek notes subsequently in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, the flawed character of the contemporary democratic welfare state "was very clearly seen by the extraordinary German student of politics, Carl Schmitt, who in the 1920s probably understood the character of the developing form of [interventionist] government better than most people." 37 Hayek's 1970s restatement of Schmitt's critique of the Weimar welfare state culminates in a series of institutional proposals having rather disturbing and even authoritarian implications.

...He argues that the disintegration of general law generates a situation in which governmental authority is handed over to competing organized interests. When general law is abandoned, traditional liberal democratic institutions undergo a dramatic functional transformation. Open debate and political exchange within parliament are replaced by bargaining among bureaucratic parties more concerned with having their narrow interests represented than with engaging in liberal dialogue with their political opponents. Parties become amalgams of special interests aiming to have their (particularistic) desires achieved by particular or individual laws. Legislatures are so busy providing special favors to interest groups, and their activity is no longer distinct enough from that of administrators, that they no longer have time even for meaningful political deliberation.38

When government is permitted to issue measures and commands, it makes sense for legislators to appeal to privileged, particularistic interest blocs; allegedly, this danger is reduced when legislators are allowed only to issue general rules and, thus, commit themselves solely to policies embodying the common good. Because contemporary liberal democracy has betrayed the traditional concept of general law, a "para-government has grown up, consisting of trade associations, trade unions and professional associations, designed primarily to divert as much as possible of the stream of governmental favour to their members."39 Since the legislature is no longer limited by the requirements of legal generality, it is nominally omnipotent. But in fact it "becomes as a result of unlimited powers exceedingly weak, the playball of all the separate interests it has to satisfy." 40 The overall account of the contemporary welfare state here is very much like Schmitt's: supporters of the welfare state and their legal positivist allies ignore the virtues of legal generality, thus paving the way for the fusion of state and society and a "quantitative total state" that intervenes in a multitude of social spheres and seems all-powerful, but in fact is robbed of any real decision-making authority.

If the liberal state had become a vehicle for struggle between the classes ('interest groups'), Hayek's response was to limit the ability of the classes to influence fundamental state decisions by delegating legislation to a new upper house that would be elected only every fifteen years, "so that they would not be concerned about being re-elected". Moreover, the electorate should be comprised of people of a particular (older) age, who would vote only once in their lives, thus encouraging maturity among the electorate and innoculating them from a tendency to vote on the basis of special interests. This upper house would determine the legislative framework within which the government would act, and the government's activities would be restricted to specific applications of the law, the allocation of resources to particular purposes, etc. Government would be a technocratic, not democratic, matter:

Two features of Hayek's curious institutional proposal are of special significance for us here. First, a real conceptual tension manifests itself in Hayek's political model, and it probably stems from his implicit dependence on Schmitt. Repeatedly, Hayek in Law, Legislation, and Liberty argues that "governmental" activities are unavoidably discretionary. This point is consistent with his endorsement of Schmitt's thesis that state intervention in social and economic affairs tends to require a decisionistic legal form. 44 But how then would it be possible to subordinate or regulate these activities in accordance with general legislative norms? If they are truly decisionistic and thus a profound threat to freedom it would seem that Hayek would probably have to exclude this possibility. By definition, decisionist state activity cannot be regulated in accordance with classical liberal legal norms. Hayek's dilemma looks something like this: either interventionist activities are genuinely decisionist and thus cannot be effectively subjected to "normativistic" general rules, or they may not be all that decisionist after all, and thus need not imply that the welfare state has already taken significant strides down the "road to serfdom." Unfortunately, Hayek sometimes wants to have it both ways. He wants to warn people of the inevitable perils of growing state activity and to claim, at least implicitly, that state activity may not be all that worrisome since it potentially could be regulated in accordance with general law.45

Second, one needs to ask whether Hayek's model deserves to be considered compatible with the basic ideals of modern liberal democracy. Liberal democracy has taken relatively distinct institutional forms in modern history. This fact should suggest that liberal democratic ideals are compatible with a rich diversity of institutional mechanisms. Could Hayek's proposals here pass some hypothetical test or standard that we might come up with for determining whether a particular set of institutions can still be deemed liberal democratic? To be sure, his model would result in a vast reduction in existing possibilities for democratic participation, and a sizable number even of the rather apathetic citizens found in contemporary liberal democracy would probably see them as constituting a substantial rollback of some of their most basic democratic rights. If we were to answer this question in the negative, it might further suggest that Hayek's reliance on Schmitt has proven rather costly. For then we could interpret Hayek's argument as an implicit concession to Schmitt's view that the "pluralist party state" ultimately can be transformed effectively only by authoritarian means. As noted above, Schmitt openly endorsed aspirations to free the interventionist state from social policy-based obligations to subordinate social groups, and he advocated a new form of interventionist politics, but one allegedly distinct from its Weimar predecessor in part because of its guarantees of autonomy to the owners of private capital.

If the neoliberal project is a restorationist one that consolidates the power of capital with respect to its opponents, it has accomplished this substantially by "hollowing out" the state, by depriving it of democratic and representative capacity, by treating governmentality as a technocratic issue, the efficacy of which can best be measured by its resemblance to market transactions in the private sector. The new rightist radicals, and their assault on the 'special interests' and 'old elites', amounted to an outright attack on democracy. It is to the success of this project above all that we must credit our current democratic impasse, the imperviousness of the state to pressures from below, and the growing disengagement of significant layers of the population from electoral politics.

Well, anyway, if this sort of stuff interests you, I'd like to talk about it with you at 7pm tonight at Housmans' bookshop, where I'm launching The Meaning of David Cameron. A combative discussion of our new Lib-Con masters, their spending cuts and downsizing, their claim to "progressive" politics, and their attempted simulation of democratic enfranchisement, is urgently required.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stathis Kouvelakis on Greek struggle posted by Richard Seymour

From MRZine:

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Right to work conference, the BA strike, and the protest against Willie Walsh posted by Richard Seymour

Guest post by The Bunk:

Some people might think that spending a gloriously sunny day sitting with hundreds of people in a huge, hot church hall would be madness, not to mention musty. But this Saturday’s emergency conference organised by Right to Work managed to draw around 600 activists and trade unionists from across the country to discuss how to build resistance to cuts and job losses.

It was an achievement to have pulled together so many people at relatively short notice—this conference had been built in less than half the time as was available for January’s. And it was clear from the off that support for Right to Work has broadened since January: the conference was addressed by Labour MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, deputy leader of the Green Party Adrian Ramsay, as well as representatives from NUJ, NUT, PCS, RMT, UCU and Unite and others.

The conference was also the place to be to hear first hand about inspirational struggles already under way. Tiana Andreou, a member of the Greek civil servants’ union, received a standing ovation when she told delegates that the best way to show solidarity was to make sure the BA strikers won, that we defended pensions and services here which could give confidence to workers elsewhere. A BA cabin crew worker received a similar reception.

Delegates divided into workshops at lunchtime to come up with concrete ideas for action that were then reported back to the final plenary—a full breakdown of the workshops and what they decided on will appear soon. I attended a session on “One Million Climate Jobs”, which called for a lobby of the energy and climate change ministry. The education session called for solidarity action with staff and students at Middlesex who have been suspended for occupying against departmental closure. What was striking was that plenary speakers got involved in the workshops—Jeremy Corbyn, for example, attended and contributed to the session on how we stop the cuts.

The two main resolutions put to conference were to organise protests on budget day on 22 June and to call a major demonstration at the Tory conference in Birmingham in October. The message coming out of the conference was to continue building up the networks of activists, trade unionists, students and pensioners who would be on the frontline of building resistance to the coalition of cuts.

And then we heard that Willie Walsh was down the road…

It’s important to clear up some of the misunderstandings that have cropped up—I get the impression that a lot of concerned comrades (and salivating sectarians) have suffered RSI from hammering their keyboards over the weekend. Obviously people were trying to piece together what had happened from the TV, overexcited participants and hearsay so it’s understandable that some wires have been crossed.

The first thing to say was that the protest had nothing to do with the Right to Work campaign. It wasn't called by Right to Work and it wasn’t voted on in the conference. Someone announced that Walsh was in the neighbourhood but there was no suggestion that the conference would call for a demo.

As the conference emptied, a number of SWP members got some people together in order to hold an impromptu lobby outside Euston Towers. Around 200 of us marched along Euston Road to the building to find no security, a lot of press and an unlocked door. So we decided to enter and hold our lobby in, well, the lobby.

Acas’s lobby was upstairs, so around 50 people went up in lifts. They stayed in the lobby and chanted support for the BA workers before spotting Walsh himself standing in the corridor beside the lobby. We moved around the corner to chant at him and stayed there for ten minutes or so before going back downstairs.

It’s important to keep things in perspective. There was no attempt to break up or storm the talks. This might make for a sensational headline or a convenient excuse, but it has no basis in reality. Nobody on the protest went anywhere near the room where the talks had been taking place. It was in no way an attempt to stop a deal being reached or to attack Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley. If Walsh hadn’t been stomping around on his mobile whingeing about Simpson’s tweeting, we’d never have locked eyes on any of them.

Some people have suggested this episode was an attempt to publicise the SWP, others that it was an act of substitutionism. In fact, it was a spontaneous act of solidarity: when we realised there was a lot of media there, we thought that it would be brilliant if strikers (and millions of other people) saw some action in support of the cabin crew.

As for the results—well, we have received a number of supportive emails from cabin crew, as well as a long and excited voicemail message from BA crew in Singapore saying how brilliant it was to see a show of support for them!

SWP members got a great reception on the picket lines today. Nobody tried to get us removed, or argued with us. They even let us use their toilets, a sure sign of fraternal bonhomie. One group of pickets gave comrades a round of applause for being part of the “Battle of Acas”, shaking hands with them enthusiastically.

But mostly, BA strikers wanted to talk about how much of a bullying creep Walsh is and how they want to beat him. It’s our job to do everything we can to help them achieve that.

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