Thursday, December 29, 2011

The problem of racial populism in Cold War America posted by Richard Seymour

In Southern US political traditions, populism has many valences.  Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was a brief moment where populist political forces throughout the South seemed to be converging into an anticapitalist coalition.  Underlying this movement was the transition to capitalism in the Southern countryside.  Charles Post argues in his prize-winning history of The American Road to Capitalism that the US economy prior to the Civil War was an articulation of three modes of production: mercantile capital, petty commodity production, and slavery.  In this articulation, capitalism was the dominant mode of production, its imperatives shaping and determining the forms that the rival modes of production took; the relations between these modes of production also determined the forms of regional competition leading up to the Civil War.  Following the success of northeastern and midwestern industrial interests in the Civil War, the political power of capital was such that no restoration of pre-capitalist modes was possible.  Joseph Reidy's history of the cotton plantations describes how the Depression of the 1870s forced Southern planters to convert themselves into an agrarian capitalist class.

The populist movements arose when they did to a large extent over the defence of customary rights under assault from the capitalist transformation of the Southern countryside.  Over time, they developed into something considerably more than a reflux against capitalist modernity, connecting the Southern Farmers' Alliance, the Colored Farmers' Alliance and the Knights of Labor in a coordinated leftist upsurge.  I will not go into detail as to the reasons for the failure of this populist moment.  Judging from Steven Hahn's work on the subject, I gather that among the key reasons were the segregated nature of the movement, the conservative influence of white property owners, and the co-opting of many populist thematics by the losing Democratic presidential candidate in 1900.  This is related to the story of the Anti-Imperialist League, by the way, a subject I'll come back to.  At any rate, the defeat of Southern populism allowed the planters to force through the capitalist transformation of the countryside by means of terror, and to completely colonise the local state formations where they did not simply create them.  As they were unable to wholly subsume the labour process under capitalist control, they resorted to extra-economic coercion - the Jim Crow system answered this requirement. This involved a dual movement of suppression and incorporation.  On the one hand, the exclusion of African Americans and many poor whites from the polity permitted the introduction of segregated controls on their movements and conduct which limited their ability to organise in their own interests. As a contemporary protagonist put it: "If the Negro is permitted to engage in politics, his usefulness as a labourer is at an end."  On the other hand, the obverse of such controls was the incorporation of white workers through paternalistic means, most evident in the plantations and the mill towns which emerged from the cotton industry.  This involved more extensive intrusion into the daily life of white workers, despite their greater liberty and access to public goods.  It involved white workers being addressed as part of a folkish Anglo-Saxon cultural and political community.  So, racial populism could become a recurring form of Southern politics thanks in part to the defeat and co-optation of turn-of-the-century Southern multiracial populism.

Before turning to the specific period of the Cold War, 1945-65, what I consider the 'classical period' of US anticommunism, I will make some attempt to specify what I mean by populism.  In a previous post, I gestured toward Ernesto Laclau's writing on populism in his pre-post-marxist writing.  While acknowledging some problems with the argument, I thought that one advantage of his interpretation was that it was neither purely descriptive nor is simply historicist, confining the interpretation of populism to a certain conjuncture or political space, but rather specified a conceptual core that could help make sense of the variety of movements and ideologies deemed populist.  I think this is a quality that any account of populism would need to make the concept workable.  The gist of Laclau's account is that while class 'interpellations' (or, if you prefer, identifications) relate to the antagonism between the ruling class and the proletariat, populist 'interpellations' relate to the antagonism between the 'power bloc' and the 'people'.*  Populism is thus an anti-status quo discourse that divides the political space into a simple dichotomy of 'the people' vs its other.  The 'people' is defined as sovereign yet powerless; the true owners of a polity that has been appropriated by an other.  The 'other' must in this sense be somehow an elite or bound up with elites.  Thus, racial populism might 'other' a 'Jewish elite', or a 'liberal multicultural elite', or a 'Federal elite' that was seen as 'soft' on racial others, 'loving' the other (rather than the people), or bound up with one-world conspiracies etc.  This step is decisive: the process of othering is what determines the positive content of 'the people'.  It is what simplifies the political terrain, uniting an array of class actors in (Laclau-speak) a 'chain of equivalents'.  Populism is not, then, a form of politics like socialism or liberalism, but rather a form of political identification which is tendentially versatile (Laclau would say 'tendentially empty'), and one which tends to arise when the social order and the system of identities that helps sustain it is in flux.  (There is an argument for treating populism in an historicist manner, as a transitional form of politics rooted in the absorption of previously resistant regions and populaces into capitalist markets.  We certainly see this with the populist movements in the South of the late 19th Century, where the strongest sources of populist support came from areas least integrated into the national or global markets.  Nonetheless, its recurrence in a variety of circumstances seems to weigh against this treatment, and so I think it's most sensible to see it as a kind of crisis politics.)

Within the terms outlined above, Joseph Lowndes treats George Wallace as a pioneer of racial anti-statist populism, emerging in the crisis of the Sixties as the 'New Deal' coalition fragmented over the issue of civil rights.  In fact, I think the crisis of the Southern system really began after World War II.  Manning Marable's account of the era in Race, Reform and Rebellion demonstrates that by this time, the economic basis for the collapse of Jim Crow had arrived.  He does not focus on the effective subsumption of labour in the South through new mechanisation processes, and the arrival of a 'New South' bourgeoisie for whom Jim Crow was desirable but not essential to their reproduction.  Rather, he shows that the beginnings of African American empowerment were in place by the end of the war (evident in FDR's de-segregation of the military, which appalled Southern politicians because of the implicit threat to white supremacy posed by a seeming capitulation to threats of black civil disobedience).  Politicians of neither party could afford to ignore black electors after the war, and many of the important Supreme Court decisions had been made by the early 1950s.  In the south, black political participation was gradually increasing - this is what the wave of lynchings was intended to stop.  Meanwhile, the colonial system was already disintegrating so that the 'colour line' was everywhere in peril.  Only the political practices bracketed under Cold War anticommunism prevented the crisis of Jim Crow from becoming collapse much earlier than it did.

So, I want to suggest that it is in the years between 1948 and 1964, the peak years of the Cold War, that Southern racial populism was developed and refined.  It began with the States Rights Party, which was the basis for the White Citizens' Council and the John Birch Society.  These groups were organised around a southern tradition of countersubversion, which has precedent in the terrorist campaigns by Ku Klux Klan and associated organisations following the US Civil War aimed at restoring white supremacy under Democratic rule.  Countersubversion is an ensemble of political practices, of which counterrevolution is a subset.  It has an especially long pedigree in the United States, where the presumed conspiracies of Freemasons, Catholics, Mormons, African Americans, the ‘yellow peril’, and of course ‘Reds’ have serially aroused movements in defence of Americanism. In addition to its racial and national connotations, countersubversion is intimately bound up with patriarchal practices and the masculinist ‘regeneration through violence’. The dominant form of countersubversion in US politics at the time of Jim Crow's greatest peril, however, was anticommunism.

Anticommunist countersubversion, specifically, is an ensemble of class practices whose product is the conservation of extant relations of dominance primarily, but not exclusively, on the axis of class. It is involved in the suppression of insurgent classes and fractions for this purpose.  In treating anticommunism primarily as a set of political practices rather than an ideology, what I am most interested in is the line of political demarcation rather than identifying a specific ideological operation shared by liberal anticommunists, white supremacist anticommunists, Fabian anticommunists, fascist anticommunists, and so on.  This line of political demarcation is between those who have at least a nominal anticapitalist commitment (communists, their allies and their anticapitalist critics) and those who are committed to defending capitalism.  But importantly, this line bissects a political scene unfolding within a concrete social formation, meaning that the defence of capitalism is not organised around a set of abstractions (the mode of production), but rather around concrete political blocs, local state forms, modes of rule, etc. which are not immediately reducible to capitalist imperatives.  This means that such struggles are contextual, and contested: whether white supremacy, 'free unionism', 'pragmatic segregation', or other policies or structures are considered essential to capitalism's efficient reproduction will vary.

The regional variations in US capitalism at the time of Jim Crow's crisis are quite clear.  In the north and west, Fordist production dominated, with workers incorporated by means of productivity agreements and wage rises (the material substratum of hegemony) and disciplined by anticommunism (loyalty oaths, the war against communism and the left in trade unions, etc).  In the South, the planters and the textile industry dominated.  The textile firms were small and poorly unionised.  Employers and state officials worked to isolate union activists as 'communists', beating or 'disappearing' them rather than trying to incorporate them in a class compromise.  Local state forces in the South had a long tradition of arresting large numbers of workers, especially African American workers, to bolster the cheap prison labour force for local employers - a practice which was incentivised by payments per arrest made, and which continued on a widespread basis well into the 1940s.  All of this class repression had a parapolitical, vigilante aspect to it, not dissimilar to the way the Klan operated in alliance with police to terrorise blacks and civil rights workers, or to the way the FBI organised illegal raids on suspected radicals' premises.  The murky boundaries of the capitalist state in this context should remind us that it is not an object, or an instrument, or an institution: rather, it is a set of strategic relations which facilitates the organisation of the dominant classes and fractions, and the disorganisation of the dominated classes and fractions.

At any rate, if rising wages and productivity agreements worked to incorporate labour in the north and west, as part of the wider offensive against communism and the radical left, the South depended on different mechanisms of incorporation.  Here, the material substratum of hegemony was the relative advantage enjoyed by white labour over black labour: it was this which made white workers so resistant to unionisation, fearing that it would erode their racial position.  I hesitate to call this 'white privilege', because the system did not improve the wages of white workers in aggregate.  White workers had more access to skilled and supervisorial jobs as a result of segregation.  Their wages tended to be better than those of black workers. However, the overall effect was actually to reduce the bargaining power of both black and white labour, and to magnify income inequalities among whites - or, to put it another way, to increase the rate of exploitation of white workers.

This is where racial populism comes in.    From the late 1940s, as I say, the system of Jim Crow was endangered.  Washington's global empire-building was partially responsible for this, as it entailed a set of strategic orientations at odds with those of the South.  First of all, obviously, Washington needed to construct multi-racial alliances against communism - necessarily, given that most of the world was not white, and would no longer be ruled by whites.  The US could deploy considerable violence against opponents, but could not have ruled through force alone.  So, it was under constant pressure to address or mitigate white supremacy - a matter it took up reluctantly, because Washington politicians mostly believed in some form of white supremacy, and the South was a politically powerful and reliable component of the domestic anticommunist coalition.  Nonetheless, segregationists would have cause to complain that troops were being used against white Americans in Little Rock rather than communists in Peking.  Secondly, the international system that Washington set about creating was crafted under the influence of New Dealers, whereas the bulk of Southern capital was against the New Deal and particularly opposed to anything (Marshall Aid etc) that smacked of 'socialism'.  They had come to terms with the New Deal in the first place largely by ensuring that its provisions were 'racially laden' - e.g., containing exclusion clauses that omitted most African Americans in the South from wage and employee protection.  This dramatically accelerated the divergence in living standards between white and black workers.  So, the further entrenchment and global expansion of New Deal ideas could not but be perceived as a threat in the South. 

The states rights movement beginning in the 1940s founded its activities on the proposition that federal civil rights legislation was the culmination of global communist conspiracy.  This grammar of anticommunist countersubversion was one advanced first in Washington DC, of course.  The specific charges used by Southern bodies to attack human rights, civil rights and political organisations originated from HUAC, or the Justice Department, or the Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee (SISS).  HUAC under the Texas senator Martin Dies had always protected the South as far as possible.  But in the South, such countersubversion acquired a populist element during the Cold War in that this conspiracy was treated as one that involved elites - not just the federal government, but financiers, celebrities etc. - in a united effort with the riff-raff (criminals, protesters, blacks, militants) to undermine the people.  Civil rights legislation would merely undermine a fragile concord between racial and minority groups, spread misunderstanding and distrust, and hand agitators a weapon to divide the American people and soften them up for tyranny.  The States Rights Party warned of a "police state, in totalitarian, centralised, bureaucratic government" arising from Truman's civil rights legislation.  In general, the view was that foreign-controlled conspirators had infiltrated the federal government to promote an egalitarian agenda at odds with the venerable 'way of life' of the South, which was itself the most pure version of the American 'way of life'.  Strom Thurmond's major thematic in 1948 was the threat posed by "collectivism" to "economic opportunity" for Americans.  Echoing claims that were current in Washington DC, he asserted that spies and infiltrators were at the top of major strategic industries, as well as the political establishment, and that the Fair Employment Practices Commission had been introduced to "sabotage America".  Seeking the votes of a "racial minority", he said, the national parties had all adopted a programme that would "open the doors to eventual communistic control of this Republic".

Yet it was really following Brown vs the Board of Education and the censure of McCarthy that the articulation of racism and anticommunism in a populist inflection emerged in its most energetic form.  McCarthy had never gained as much support in the South as his authoritarian anticommunist politics would lead one to expect.  In fact, southerners were the least likely to back McCarthy despite their increasing propensity to back Republicans in national contexts.  This was perhaps, as Wayne Addison Clark argues, because McCarthy's basic orientation was toward creating a local power base and maintaining conformity on issues relating to foreign policy rather than defending a racial caste system.  Nonetheless, he used his power to disseminate ideas - communist infiltration of government, industry and Hollywood, a lack of sufficient vigilance against communism by American leaders - that the defenders of white supremacy would find very useful.  He also had personal influence in a number of political fights against supposed crypto-communists in southern states such as Texas, where he forged alliances with oil plutocrats.  Following his personal political demise, the ideas of McCarthyism took on a new life in the South, among the Southern rich as well as small businesses, journalists and 'patriotic' organisations such as the American Legion, Minute Men and so on.  Senator James Eastland was the South's McCarthy in many respects, expressing a hatred for the New Deal, liberalism, and concessions to labour that southern Democrats shared with conservative Republicans, in a distinctly Southern idiom.  Eastland worked through SISS to gather and disseminate (dis)information about civil rights organisations and to organise the harrassment of white supremacy's opponents, as well as organised labour and the left in general.  Similarly, the publications of the White Citizens' Council were remarkably similar in tone and content to those of HUAC, albeit with the emphasis falling on race and identity.

Wallace represented a defiant last stand, as it were, in respect of this form of racial populism.  His early background had marked him as a critic of the most egregious forms of white supremacy but, having lost the primary in the 1958 gubernatorial contest to a candidated backed by the KKK, he vowed not to be "out-n****red" again.  By 1962, he had become and out-and-out Dixiecrat, using populist identifications to establish himself as a defender of the white southern people against the seemingly unstoppable egalitarian tyranny.  "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth," he said on being sworn in as governor of Alabama, "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."  This speech, written by a former Klan member, invoked the shades of the Confederacy.  Though promising 'the greatest people' (the superior southern white) protection from the clanking chains of tyranny, from a regime that reviled them, despised them, and trod on them, he also staked the South's claim to true Americanism.  "You are Southerners too", he told the whites of New England, the Mid-West and the far west.  However, like many of his predecessors, Wallace preferred not to focus his discourse chiefly on race.  And when he did address race, he often addressed it through codes and a richly symbolic language often tapping the region's strongly Protestant religious traditions.  But it was through race that he could unite the suburban white middle classes with urban white workers: to the middle classes, he could arouse fear of the threat to property rights posed by civil rights legislation; to workers, he could cite a putative threat to job security.  It was through the same language that he could speak to Polish northerners as much as 'Anglo-Saxon' southerners.  It was a spurious white racial victimhood that could fuse these disparate class, religious and ethnic groups into a 'people' in opposition to an elitist tyranny.

Throughout the period from 1945-65, Southern elites sought to protect white supremacist capitalism by forging a populist alliance against communist conspiracy.  Their efforts were not merely repressive, but actively sought to alert and mobilise popular forces to the threat to their racial advantages. They were not simply conservative, but actively sought to direct an oppositional force against the Washington power bloc - not to overthrow it but to recompose it in the interests of Southern white supremacy.

* The 'power bloc' is a concept from Poulantzas, who argues that such a bloc arises as a logical form of class dominance under capitalism because the ruling class and its allied classes are "constitutively divided into fractions" such as rentier, finance, commerce, industry, etc. A power bloc comprises the "coexistence of several classes, and most importantly of fractions of classes" in a "contradictory unity".  The 'power bloc' is thus an alliance of dominant classes and fractions under the hegemonic direction of the leading class or fraction.  It is not important for this argument, but it is worth saying, that the power bloc is unified by the capitalist state in this account, because the bourgeoisie and its fractions are held to be incapable of either unifying themselves or assembling a coherent system of class alliances - so wrapped up are they in competition.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Not mourning Vaclav Havel posted by Richard Seymour

Dear Alex,
As a good and loyal friend, I can't overlook this chance to suggest to you a marvelous way to discredit yourself completely and lose the last minimal shreds of respectability that still raise lingering questions about your integrity. I have in mind what I think is one of the most illuminating examples of the total and complete intellectual and moral corruption of Western culture, namely, the awed response to Vaclav Havel's embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon in Congress the other day. We may put aside the intellectual level of the comments (and the response) -- for example, the profound and startlingly original idea that people should be moral agents. More interesting are the phrases that really captured the imagination and aroused the passions of Congress, editorial writers, and columnists -- and, doubtless, soon the commentators in the weeklies and monthlies: that we should assume responsibility not only for ourselves, our families, and our nations, but for others who are suffering and persecuted. This remarkable and novel insight was followed by the key phrase of the speech: the cold war, now thankfully put to rest, was a conflict between two superpowers: one, a nightmare, the other, the defender of freedom (great applause).
Reading it brought to mind a number of past experiences in Southeast Asia, Central America, the West Bank, and even a kibbutz in Israel where I lived in 1953 -- Mapam, super-Stalinist even to the extent of justifying the anti-Semitic doctor's plot, still under the impact of the image of the USSR as the leader of the anti-Nazi resistance struggle. I recall remarks by a Fatherland Front leader in a remote village in Vietnam, Palestinian organizers, etc., describing the USSR as the hope for the oppressed and the US government as the brutal oppressor of the human race. If these people had made it to the Supreme Soviet they doubtless would have been greeted with great applause as they delivered this message, and probably some hack in Pravda would have swallowed his disgust and written a ritual ode.
I don't mean to equate a Vietnamese villager to Vaclav Havel. For one thing, I doubt that the former would have had the supreme hypocrisy and audacity to clothe his praise for the defenders of freedom with gushing about responsibility for the human race. It's also unnecessary to point out to the half a dozen or so sane people who remain that in comparison to the conditions imposed by US tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise. Furthermore, one can easily understand why an oppressed Third World victim would have little access to any information (or would care little about anything) beyond the narrow struggle for survival against a terrorist superpower and its clients. And the Pravda hack, unlike his US clones, would have faced a harsh response if he told the obvious truths. So by every conceivable standard, the performance of Havel, Congress, the media, and (we may safely predict, without what will soon appear) the Western intellectual community at large are on a moral and intellectual level that is vastly below that of Third World peasants and Stalinist hacks -- not an unusual discovery.
Of course, it could be argued in Havel's defense that this shameful performance was all tongue in cheek, just a way to extort money from the American taxpayer for his (relatively rich) country. I doubt it, however; he doesn't look like that good an actor.
So, here's the perfect swan song. It's all absolutely true, even truistic. Writing something that true and significant would also have a predictable effect. The sign of a truly totalitarian culture is that important truths simply lack cognitive meaning and are interpretable only at the level of 'Fuck You', so they can then elicit a perfectly predictable torrent of abuse in response. We've long ago reached that level -- to take a personal example, consider the statement: 'We ought to tell the truth about Cambodia and Timor.' Or imagine a columnist writing: 'I think the Sandinistas ought to win.' I suspect that this case is even clearer. It's easy to predict the reaction to any truthful and honest comments about this episode, which is so revealing about the easy acceptance of (and even praise for) the most monstrous savagery, as long as it is perpetrated by Us against Them -- a stance adopted quite mindlessly by Havel, who plainly shares the utter contempt for the lower orders that is the hallmark of Western intellectuals, so at least he's 'one of us' in that respect.
Anyway, don't say I never gave you a useful suggestion.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Military Wives and the sickening sentimentality of the serial killer posted by Richard Seymour

The Military Wives Choir is concentrated evil.  It is vicious, stupid and banal.  It is the worst form of sentimentality.  Their husbands murder Afghans for queen and country, and they murder music for the same righteous cause.  Wherever you are, soldier boy, know that the love of your counterpart is so strong, so thoroughly adequate, that it is apt to suddenly materialise into a substance able to "keep you safe" from the foreigners you are busy subduing in the rough hinterlands.  Yet at the very same time, this love is so elevated, so ethereal, so much above the humdrum and quotidian, that it is almost as if her heart will, as it were, "build a bridge of light across both time and space".  Oh, but there is more, cherished mercenary, much more to say on this love.  For its cosmic ordering is capable of reducing the distance between Nottingham and Helmand by various simple expedients.  Your hearts will "beat as one", for one.  This while your amour holds you in her dreams each night "until your task is done", O "prince of peace".

Comrades and friends, you will forgive me if I end the assay there.  There is only so much a man can wear his spleen on his sleeve.  But lest I seem to fall into a crusty disdain for the cheesier tropes of the pop-tastic, and particularly the romantic ballad, allow me just to say that I have exactly the same weaknesses in this regard as every single one of you.  For example, I cried when watching some piece of shit film whose name I forget.  (Fuck you, that's what it was called.)  And I emoted in a similar fashion over that song that everyone bought one Christmas, and I wasn't tipsy on mulled wine when I did.  These cultural technologies produce many of the same reactions in all of us because they are intended to do just that, because they operate on basically identical raw material.  But this imperial doggerel is a sick, chauvinist parody of love.  If you like this song, you don't have love; you don't even have taste: what you have is a military-industrial infestation. 

To illustrate.  Jonathan Freedland's tribute notably fails to mention except obliquely the motivating context for this song, the "task" - of bombing, strafing, torturing, disappearing, poisoning, assassinating, subjugating - that is responsible for its sole element of genuine pathos.  As such, he can't acknowledge the ethnocentric bases for his appreciation of the song, the mixture of patriotic and narcissistic affect that is mobilised within its construction of a community of harmonious vocalists.  He is perhaps unwitting in his cliche when he describes the solidarity achieved through common struggle without the expense of losers, or of the sadism that usually comes with television pop spectaculars.  But the idea that a national community forged in war suddenly discovers its manners, its civic virtues, its solidarity and mutualism, is a shopworn antique.  And were Freedland aware of the pedigree of this old cynosure of reaction, he would also be aware that the cruelty and malice whose absence he celebrates is, in such cases, merely displaced.  That is, the usual (class, racial, sexual) antagonisms that suppurate resentment and cruelty in the culture - which are so expertly manipulated by Endemol, Zodiak, RTL, the BBC and the producers of all that property porn and eugenic fetishism - have simply been externalised.  They are still there, in the form of an absence.  Behind the woefully lyricised sentiments of the gals in the 'queen and country' t-shirts, something is occluded.  That is the emotional, intellectual, religious and social life of those designated by the euphemism, 'task'.  Naturally, their love, their pathos, is a matter of indifference and barely submerged contempt, which one delicately builds bridges around and over.

I do not know what motivated BBC2 and Gareth Malone to turn The Choir into a special on 'Military Wives'.  Possibly, it's an opaque satire intended to illustrate the Frankfurt school's analysis of popular culture, which in this day and age looks blithely over-optimistic.  More plausibly, I suspect that the Ministry of Defence may have had a hand in this monster.  Even if they did not, the aptitude of this sort of format for such appropriation and re-territorialisation is a reminder of an important aspect of our conjuncture.  Ideologically, the ruling class is weak.  Its legitimacy is fragile.  Politically, it is disunited (though it doesn't do to underestimate what a cohering factor class struggle can be).  Yet, its technologies of ideological rule are vastly more sophisticated than they have been in the past.  The surprising 'visibility' of the military-industrial-entertainment complex during the 'war on terror' merely allowed us to see the tip of a cultural iceberg, one formed by the concentration and centralisation of cultural capital and its fusion with the state.  The 'Military Wives' song that is presently #1 in the UK charts is a small tribute to its power, its ability to infantilise and temporarily stupefy audiences with artistic cliche and spectacle. 

Far be it from me to suggest that a few more hit songs like this will have us marching cheerfully into Tehran - no such thing - but this does have long range effects, even if these aren't computable according to any simple calculus of stimulus-response.  We cannot afford to be complacent about such ordure.  We have to destroy it, instantly, utterly.  It won't do to simply buy a few Nirvana singles to get them to the top of the charts instead of Military Wives.  That won't even work at this point.  We have to start confronting this military fetishism wherever it insinuates itself in daily life.  The 'help for heroes' boondoggle should be noisily boycotted; anyone collecting money for military causes in a bear outfit should be mercilessly ridiculed; young air, navy and army cadets sent out to pack bags at Marks and Spencer should be told exactly how and where to get a life; the poppies should be burned - not just a few, in a symbolic Islam4UK-style action, but all of them in a mass cremation of postcolonial bunting; and any family members who actually sign up to wear a uniform of the armed forces in Afghanistan or anywhere else should be shunned, not loved.  That's a map of our kulturkampf for 2012.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

From the clutches of (partial) victory posted by Richard Seymour

It can't be that often that a Tory minister, anxious to look smart, does something stupid.  Can it?  I have watched this government with some perplexity, wondering if I have underestimated its cunning, or if they really do think they can arouse the whole labour movement and organised left in unified opposition, and trounce them in a jiffy.  Their complacency as they embarked on a structural adjustment programme more extreme in its intended effects than anything accomplished by Thatcher, whether the blowback comes in the form of student protests, riots or strikes, seems extraordinary.  Seemingly convinced that they need not offer any material substratum to secure the consent of a viable social bloc for their agenda, they simply turn to harsher policing.  Apparently unable to imagine the riff-raff posing a real threat to them and their superior class allies, they forget the old salami-slicing praxis and just revel in the reluctance of their opponents to fight, pushing them around, taking their provocations to indulgent, extravagant new levels.  

And just when it seemed that the government had finally revisited the old techniques of divide-and-rule, offering just enough concessions to win tacit acquiescence from Unison and GMB leaders while attacking and isolating the PCS, Pickles goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid that destroys it.  For sure, the deal announced between the government and (some) unions over pensions was awful, so awful that it was a real question whether rank and file workers could be made to swallow it.  The government conceded nothing in terms of its bargaining totals, nor the principle issues over which the two sides were in negotiation.  Even a moderate, media-friendly Labourite like Sally Bercow was denouncing the agreement as a sell out yesterday.  The idea that those who hit the pickets and streets on 30th November were more likely to take such a deal is dubious.  But evidently the union bureaucracies who have been most reluctant to fight are now the most eager to call of hostilities and negotiate the terms of surrender.  Without the support of union leaders in the big Labour-affiliated unions, getting strike action back on the agenda for the New Year is that bit harder.  So, it is only reasonable to infer that Pickles just blew a tactical victory for the government.

The problem now is that the government and the union leaders will be back around the table to patch this up quickly, rush the deal through and make it a fait accompli as soon as possible.  Trade unionists are now planning an emergency lobby of the TUC over this, to go with the emergency meeting (you should go) and emergency statement (I invite you to sign).  This is a pivotal moment in the struggle against austerity.  So much hangs on whether the organised labour movement will even put up a fight.  That will make all the different between the vindication of Tory arrogance, and its humiliating reproof.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

The late Christopher Hitchens posted by Richard Seymour

Don't take this the wrong way, but the glowing tributes to Christopher Hitchens are both tasteless and incorrect.  Have some decency.  The boring wisdom has it that Hitchens broke the mould intellectually.  He did not.  For all the unique saleability of the Hitchensian idiolect (or intertext), he was a very conventional thinker, in addition to being a provincial.  He also had a reputation for being a fierce defender of universalism, but in fact his was the provincial universalism of empire.  One might, in the same speech, catch him defending the right of others to disagree with him, then find him denying that right to Iraqis, insisting that they be coerced at gunpoint into vouchsafing his opinion.  He had a reputation for possessing a powerful intellect.  He was certainly an intellectual, and a powerful speaker and writer, a polemicist who out-classed many of his opponents.  Yet, by insisting on the difference between being an intellectual and having an intellect, I don't merely mean to be scurrilous. His difficulty in handling complex ideas was as notorious among his peers as his facility with emotionally potent oversimplifications.

Hitchens was a sensitive literary critic, but in a way this underlines his tendency to think viscerally.  He grasped instinctively the 'John Bullshit' that, for example, made Larkin tick.  Indeed, he grasped it with precision because it was a part of his own political personality, manifest in his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, his support for the Falklands War, and the blimpish outbursts redolent of the character of the 'Commander' in his memoir, Hitch-22.  Yet when he had to deal with literary theory or applications of it (see Orwell's Victory), I think he tended to flounder.  It is for a similar reason that he wasn't especially good as an atheist.  Convinced as he was that there was no intelligent way to be religious, and no need to grasp theology in any theoretical depth, he tended to rely on demotic arguments demonstrating the implausibility of religion along the lines of: "so God made the universe billions of years ago; created the life forms that would over millions of years give rise to the only species capable of worshipping him; allowed them to suffer for millenia; and only then decided to make himself known by means of human sacrifice (and at that in an illiterate society) banking on the certainty that Emperor Constantine would turn to Christianity as an official state ideology of the Roman Empire...".  This is to say nothing of the vulgar anti-Muslim rants and ugly blood-lust that he ventilated without care, and which sentiments formed a transparent motive for his turn to hypertrophic theophobia after the occupation of Iraq began to fail badly.  And what of the crude sociobiological reductionism that he pinned his mast to?  At this point, it is arguably more pernicious in its effects than even the encyclicals of the Catholic Church, or the opinions of Muslim scholars.

What he lacked in theory, he could make up for in empirical work.  Hitchens could write decent biographical and historical essays.  Blood, Class and Nostaglia as well as Hostage to History form extended historical essays in their different ways on Anglophone imperial succession.  Richly contemptuous of the abuses of empire's subjects, these books arguably expressed a liberal humanist critique of imperial malpractice rather than a marxist critique.  Perhaps there is also evidence of a decline in his standards.  His book on Thomas Paine's Rights of Man seems to have been plagiarised, riddled with factual errors and cliched to boot: what Hitchens might call a "triple crown howler".  Yet it was in his favoured role as a polemicist, that his limits were most clearly visible.  For all the efficiency with which he despatched opponents, tore up or mended reputations, exposed official crimes (or colluded in them), he was clearly obsessed with personnel.  The structures of imperialism and capital accumulation were never objects of his inquiry, even at his best.

A final cliche which should at least be qualified is that Hitchens was a wit, and all round dissolute bad boy.  Well, he could be witty, but he could also be extraordinarily priggish, crass, or just boorish.  The effect of his little joke about child rape ('no child's behind left') was ruined by his later taking an extremely high-handed tone with a rabbi who joked about circumcision.  The humour in his 'heartless' bon mot about Louis Althusser applying for the Electric Chair in Philosophy was really purchased at the expense of Helene Althusser.  It was not funny when he called the Dixie Chicks 'fat sluts', no matter what the editor of his collected quotables believes.  Consider these remarks in the context of Hitchens' mildly hedonistic lifestyle, and they become no more sparkling.  Rather, they tend to communicate a meanness of spirit, a sniggering cruelty, that was increasingly evident in later years, and contrasted markedly with the personal warmth that many of his former colleagues describe.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shut it down posted by Richard Seymour

Obstructing the profit system:

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Fear of a red planet posted by Richard Seymour

“Whether it was a question of the right of petition or the tax on wine, freedom of the press or free trade, the clubs or the municipal charter, protection of personal liberty or regulation of the state budget, the watchword constantly recurs, the theme remains always the same, the verdict is ever ready and invariably reads: "Socialism!" Even bourgeois liberalism is declared socialistic, bourgeois enlightenment socialistic, bourgeois financial reform socialistic. It was socialistic to build a railway where a canal already existed, and it was socialistic to defend oneself with a cane when one was attacked with a rapier.

“This was not merely a figure of speech, fashion, or party tactics. The bourgeoisie had a true insight into the fact that all the weapons it had forged against feudalism turned their points against itself, that all the means of education it had produced rebelled against its own civilization, that all the gods it had created had fallen away from it. It understood that all the so-called bourgeois liberties and organs of progress attacked and menaced its class rule at its social foundation and its political summit simultaneously, and had therefore become "socialistic."” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

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Friday, December 09, 2011

The Unilever strike, pensions and structural adjustment posted by Richard Seymour

An article for The Guardian about the Unilever strike:

Unilever workers have embarked on the first national strike in the company's history, over the company's attempt to close the final salary pensions scheme, which will result in a 40% reduction in retirement income for many of its workers. The company, in a stunningly inept move, decided to punish the strike by cancelling Christmas parties and bonuses for the workers. Thus, Unilever, a blue chip company that takes pride in its philanthropic past and "responsible" industrial relations policy, found itself branded Scrooge.
Unilever is one of the companies to have weathered the global crisis in robust fashion. In February 2011, its profits were up 18% on the previous year, at some £5.2bn. Labour productivity has always been reasonably high, in part due to negotiated productivity deals with trade unions. Yet, the company is on the offensive against its workforce. Why is this?
Unilever will say that the current pension system is impossible to fund. This was the argument it used in 2008 for closing the scheme to all new entrants, only three years before closing it to existing members as well. The workers argue, though, that the pension fund is financially robust, and that the company itself admits there is no immediate financial imperative driving the cuts.
This is taking place in the context of a record number of firms shutting final salary schemes and replacing them with much less generous settlements. The GMB's negotiator argues that Unilever simply saw an opportunity to follow the trend. But there is probably more to it than that...

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Monday, December 05, 2011

For a people's inquiry into the summer riots posted by Richard Seymour

The Guardian and the LSE have published their findings on the summer riots. There is no doubt that this presents valuable data, which broadly supports the argument of those on the Left who said it was primarily a response to political injustice.  The analysis acknowledges that, for some, the riots presented an opportunity to obtain free goods.  But it does not support the claim that the riots were predominantly an outburst of criminality, or that gangs played a significant role.  The riots were mainly political.

It finds: just under half of those rioters interviewed were students, and a significant component of their anger came from the sense of injustice over the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the tripling of tuition fees, cutting off higher education and thus life chances for millions; of those who were not students, 59% were unemployed, in contrast to some misleading coverage claiming that a disproportionate number were in work or even middle class; gang members played at most a peripheral role; while there was a wider perception of social injustice motivating the involvement rioters, the issue of police injustice, horrificially underscored by the murder of Mark Duggan, was the most significant cause of the riots; 73% of those interviewed had been stopped and searched in the previous three months.  Now, the issue of the police was always marked by a strange silence in the accounts of those who said that it was primarily a matter of 'looting'.  Much of the rioting that took place centred on confrontations with the police rather than theft or vandalism.  Such theft as did take place was not always clearly pecuniary in motive - often it appeared to be targeted, as did some of the vandalism.  In fact, the main form of 'opportunism' that is apparent is where young people, often on the receiving end of police harrassment and violence, saw an opportunity in the breakdown of police control to exact revenge.  Because of this, many of the interviewees express pride, not remorse.  They say they felt empowered, and would do it again.  This is not new.  So, all this data is useful and should be scoured carefully, the findings reviewed in their full complexity.  Have a look at this video by Guardian journalist Paul Lewis:

However, as I understand it, this study is a limited review of one aspect of the story, that being the motivations and views of the rioters.  The other main reports come from the Metropolitan Police, and the government's 'independent panel'.  It is undoubtedly possible, through a reading of all of these reports, against the grain where necessary, to acquire a workable political understanding of what took place, and what is highly likely to take place again.  It's important that such an understanding should inform a broad political response.  The government, far from retreating on its agenda, is gearing up for major confrontations.  The police, far from facing justice, have recently been let off the hook over the death of 'Smiley Culture', and now have more weapons with which to threaten people - as student protesters menaced with the possibility of water cannon and rubber bullets can attest.  One would like to think that the dominant response will be in the form of social struggles, protests, strikes and occupations.  Indeed, that is more or less what one expects.  However, the most implausible scenario is that the riots will be a one off.  And that's something that we have to be ready for, especially given how insanely most people reacted.

So, here's a proposal - a bit late, but still worth thinking about.  We need a people's inquiry into the issues, the narrative, the outcomes and the appropriate response to the riots.  It should be funded by subscription or donations, and it would require the participation of people able to put in a lot of hours interviewing witnesses and reviewing evidence.  There is a model for this.  Recently, I was directed to a number of reports published in the 1980s concerning riots that had taken place.  These were unofficial people's inquiries, conducted in a judicious manner with the aim of establishing a full narrative which would disclose what public authorities were reluctant to acknowledge, and what was occluded in media coverage focused on vandalism and violence: police brutality, official racism, and so on. For example, in response to the events in Southall in April 1979, an Unofficial Committee of Enquiry was set up, chaired by Michael Dummett, to establish the narrative, the causes and failure on the part of the authorites. It heard evidence from eyewitnesses, participants, those directly or indirectly affected in Southall.  It collated and scrutinised data published by the authorities.  The final report was published by the National Council of Civil Liberties.  Among the Committee's members were Stuart Hall, who wrote much of the report, as well as Labour MPs such as Joan Lestor and Patricia Hewitt (uh huh), alongside trade unionists, clerics and a representative of the Asian Resources Centre in Birmingham.  This doesn't seem to be available online, but I got what I think is a rare copy from Amazon, and I shall be scanning it and making it publicly available as soon as I can.  The idea here isn't to retrospectively endorse every conclusion reached, or to say that we can simply mimic every principle of organisation adopted then.  Rather, it is to illustrate how a well-organised inquiry bringing together a relatively broad coalition of elements can form the basis for a political response.  Now, I don't know how one would begin to go about materially constructing the coalition necessary to get an inquiry up and running today.  I don't know what it would cost or who would supply the personnel.  But I bet some of the people reading this have a better idea than I do.  So, think about it.

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

That's a nice blog you have there. Shame if something were to happen to it. posted by Richard Seymour

You all know what this is. Christmas time, when you're allegedly in a more yielding, generous mood - so I'm shaking you down. Listen, I haven't been able to persuade more than one person to donate to this blog on a regular, monthly basis. That person knows who he is, and he should also know that he's the only one.  Feel good about yourselves?  Eh?  Eh?  Eh?  

Flattr didn't work out at all either.  Donations last month were in the euro cents.  So they've devised a system whereby people wanting to 'flattr' you can actually insult you with small change instead.  Now, listen.  I do understand.  Everyone has their hand in your pocket.  Prices are going up, wages are coming down.  Living standards are stagnant.  And besides, it's not like you pay for anything else on the internet.  

But it's because of this failure to generate a sustainable stream of income that I have to come back and subject you to a new round of moral blackmail.  And believe me, if you force me to, I'll ham it up so much you'll think you're watching a fucking NSPCC commercial.  Then I'll ban Christmas, again.  And then I'll shoot this wuvvwy puppy.  So, let's try to avoid all that, eh?  We're all civilized human beings here, apart from the ones whose comments are still being pre-moderated, and they're at least en route to civilization.  Here's the deal.  You can see I work hard on my material.  There is a lot of labour time congealed in this blog.  And that's time that most male bloggers spend stalking rivals, wanking and trolling (not necessarily separate activities).  And the time, I like to think, is reasonably well spent.  Evidently I'm on your reading list, because you keep coming back.  This blog has had over 5 million unique visits.  Now, if I had a pound for every time someone visited my blog... it would make no difference whatsoever, because I would still have spent it all on books.  But the point is, I'm not asking you to make me a millionaire, just to consider paying a small sum toward the reproduction of my labour power.  Regularly if you can, an unreasonably huge lump sum now if you cannot.  And if you don't, so help me, I will shoot this blog.  I will execute it.  I will take it out and shoot it in front of its family, as Clarkson is my witness.  So, please, let's not have any scenes.  Donate to the church of leninology, and have a Merry Xmas.

PS: Thanks to guidance from a number of readers, I have been able to set up a 'Subscribe' button. This means if you want to make a monthly donation, you can. I have to set specific subscription amounts, but if there is an amount that you feel you can donate that is not covered in the options, please let me know and I'll see if I can add it.

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