Saturday, April 30, 2011
Volosinov and ideology posted by Richard Seymour
"The psyche enjoys extraterritorial status in the organism. It is a social entity that penetrates inside the organism of the individual person. Everything ideological is likewise extraterritorial in the socioeconomic sphere, since the ideological sign, whose locus is outside the organism, must enter the inner world in order to implement its meaning as sign."
The psyche, that inner world of signs through which you are experiencing and understanding this text, which is most intimately you, is also radically alien, something penetrating the organ from without. It is the territorial avenue through which the social enters the individual - the biological individual, as opposed to the socioideological individual. From this, we gather that the psyche is an objective fact, a social fact, susceptible to understanding and interpretation. Not, mind you, a simple fact, availing itself of easy intelligibility - but nonetheless, as Volosinov says elsewhere, "it is in the capacity of consciousness" to "find verbal access" to inner signs of whatever order, and thus these inner signs can, through introspection, become "outer signs". Thus, proceeding from individual to social, from psyche to society, we learn that the psyche, is "a social-ideological fact" which, if deprived of its "semiotic, ideological content" would "have absolutely nothing left".
To put it another way, "without signs, there is no ideology." In fact: "consciousness itself can arise and become a viable fact only in the material embodiment of signs. The understanding of a sign is, after all, an act of reference between the sign apprehended and other, already known signs; in other words, understanding is a response to a sign with signs." And again: "The individual consciousness is a social-ideological fact." Thus: "If we deprive consciousness of its semiotic, ideological content, it would have absolutely nothing left."
II. Signs, and the word as the semiotic material of inner life. But what is a sign? A sign is whatever has semiotic content, has meaning, refers to something outside of itself. It can be anything, because anything can acquire a semiotic content. Aside from words and images, here are some of the examples Volosinov gives of 'inner signs': "breathing, blood circulation, movements of the body, articulation, inner speech, mimetic motions, reaction to external stimuli ... and so forth". Yet the word is "the purest, most indicatory sign", a "neutral sign", not specialised for any particular field of ideological creativity. Because it is not so circumscribed in its uses, it can be "the medium of consciousness", "the semiotic material of inner life". The word, in the form of inner speech, is the indispensable sign as far as the understanding of all other signs is concerned. "No cultural sign, once taken in and given meaning, remains in isolation: it becomes part of the unity of the verbally constituted consciousness. It is in the capacity of the consciousness to find verbal access to it."
III. Signs and the word as a register of social processes. Moreover, because of the ubiquity of the word, it is "the most sensitive index of social changes" including "changes still in the process of growth, still without definitive shape and not as yet accommodated into already regularized and fully defined ideological systems". The emergence of a new use of language, a neologism or a coined phrase, is an early symptom of a changing social environment, because "the forms of signs are conditioned above all by the social organization of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interaction". "In order for any item, from whatever domain of reality it may come, to enter the social purview of the group and elicit ideological semiotic reaction, it must be associated with the vital socioeconomic prerequisites of the particular group’s existence; it must somehow, even if only obliquely, make contact with the bases of the group’s material life. ... only that which has acquired social value can enter the world of ideology, take shape, and establish itself there ... all ideological accents are social accents, ones with claim to social recognition".
IV. "Social multi-accentuality" - the sign as a vector of struggle. "Existence reflected in sign is not merely reflected by refracted. How is this refraction of existence in the ideological sign determined? By an intersecting of differently oriented social interests within one and the same sign community, i.e. by the class struggle. ... differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign. Sign becomes an arena of the class struggle". To the class struggle, of course, we can add any number of social antagonisms. This means that signs tend to have a "social multi-accentuality". The discussion of 'British values' can be understood in this light: a sign like 'family' will have multiple social accents, because it touches differently on different groups' material lives; the same goes for 'the troops', 'free markets', 'militancy', etc.. To understand a sign in a given conjuncture is to analyse its "specific variability", to pin down the ways in which it can be made to change both within and between discrete social purviews. This tells us how the same sign can work to create distinct and opposing conceptions of the "we". In normal circumstances, the articulation of these signs within a stable, dominant ideology means that a 'common sense' conception prevails. During a crisis of authority, the flux allows for these signs to be re-encoded in a new chain of equivalences. Take 'the nation' as an example. In the post-war era, 'the nation' was linked in a chain of equivalences to a corporatist state, welfarism, the 'war for democracy', and (therefore) formal 'colour-blindness' on race. In the crisis of the late Sixties, Powellism linked 'the nation' to a different chain of equivalences, centred on the restoration of public authority, national competitiveness, and white cultural cohesiveness and dominance. Of course, Powellism would have been as short-lived as Powell's national prominence if these social accents had not then become part of a new hegemonic constellation of forces allying big business and finance capital with the middle class right. Outside of crisis, however, these different social accents and their antagonistic relationship with one another are less immediately obvious. The study of ideology, the study of signs, is not merely the study of individual psychology. Rather, it is the study of social antagonisms and their appearance in daily discourse. It is also, obviously, the study of hegemony, and of counter-hegemonic political struggles.
Friday, April 29, 2011
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
“Qualities of creativity built on tolerance, openness and adaptability, work and self improvement, strong communities and families and fair play, rights and responsibilities and an outward looking approach to the world that all flow from our unique island geography and history.”
It would be tempting, but mistaken, to characterise this rhetorical soufflé as meaninglessly pneumatic. It is easy to point out that ‘tolerance, openness and adaptability’ are complex attributes that don’t attach themselves to nation-states much less to just one nation-state, while ideas of ‘work and fair play’ mean different things to a postal worker, Jamie Oliver, a GP, Prince Charles, a call centre worker or a self-employed plumber. This is not the point. Blair’s tribute is a meaningful construction, but its meaning works through allusion and condensation. It indirectly mentions the material modes of existence of polyglot social layers, retaining its ability to do so precisely through its indirectness. It thus universalises (within its parochial national purview) experiences which have a particular social origin.
For example, the appeal to “strong communities and families” most directly touches on the experiences and aspirations of those inhabiting small towns, villages, and enclosed urban spaces. There, the very compactness of social organisation, the miniature scale of societies contained therein, and the spatial allotments of wealth and status within them, create highly localised identities – this street, that estate, our household. In the posh, prim looking terraces populated by small families, often with both parents in full-time, ‘skilled’ employment, and Neighbourhood Watch schemes on the go, the strong community and family is a by-word for the social facts – interpreted as cultural, behavioural qualities – which seem to set them apart from the sink estates. ‘Race’ penetrates this psychic terrain in complex ways, inasmuch as the social facts adduced above can be seen by some as traits of a possessive ‘whiteness’, so that this respectable looking little street with its white families and smug lower middle class conservatism, can be opposed to that dirty little conurbation at the other end of town where Asian or black citizens live with disproportionately high levels of unemployment, poverty and crime. Such social facts give the appeal to ‘strong communities and families’ a charge that it lacks in the flux of big metropolitan areas where people are as likely to live alone, communally, or with lodgers or friends, as they are to inhabit a traditional nuclear family unit, and where the delineations of race, ethnicity and culture constantly give way to hybridity.
And yet, few who have grown up in nurturing families would object to the idea of ‘strong families’. Even with all their usual patriarchal tyrannies and exploitation (there will be parents reading this who treat their kids as a source of bonded labour – their punishment awaits in the maelstrom of adolescent rebellion), functional families seem to be a source of security, love, mutual care and, not insignificantly, economies-of-scale. It is not strictly relevant here whether this perception is even accurate. The point is that it resonates with widespread experience. Similarly, the community is just that loose company of friends, acquaintances, busybodies, and helpful, moronic or batty individuals that one has known on one’s estate, terrace or flat block. Few would reject the idea that such communities are a ‘good thing’, needing strengthening. As the BBC frequently reminds us, “everybody needs good neighbours”. Strong communities and strong families can be claimed as ‘British values’ not because the UK is distinguished by such aspirations, but because only a minority are likely to object to them.
Politically, New Labour mobilised such ideas in support of a variety of objectives – providing tax credits to working families, coercing single mothers to seek waged labour, imposing curfews and ASBOs on working class children, installing CCTV on estates, boosting two-parent families, and so on. This brew of modest social democracy and strident social authoritarianism is hardly unobjectionable, or lacking in opponents. But it is embedded in a hegemonic language whose ideologemes, originating largely in the experiences of the lower middle class, were universalised and could thus provide a normative basis for such policies. Yet, this is no explanation in itself as to why such affirmations should be drafted in support of a notion like ‘British values’, or why politicians felt compelled at the turn of the millennium to assert the existence of this elusive creature, even as the irresistible winds of ‘globalization’ were supposedly laying waste to passé conceits such as nations.
For, if the tempo and urgency of such attempted interpellations – ‘Britain needs YOU’ – escalated in the poisonous atmosphere of the ‘war on terror’, the ‘Britishness’ bug was doing the rounds in Westminster well before the évènement of 9/11 and its ensuing wars. To answer this question is to say something about the “unique island ... history” that Tony Blair adverted to, particularly the shift from colonial white world supremacy to a defensive white nationalism signposted by Powell and Thatcher, the breakdown of racial comity in some former industrial redoubts, the state of British social democracy in the wearied, cautious, conservative dog end of the twentieth century, and the caesarist mode of the British executive under Blair.
I shall restrict myself here to the following observations about that. National identity, as with other identities, is relational, dependent on its situation vis-a-vis Others. Britishness was historically defined first in its imperial capacity, as the union between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland in 1707 provided the consolidated strategic base from which two aggressive colonial powers could make an undivided bid for world power. Together, Perfidious Albion and Imperial Caledonia set out to create a new world order. Linda Colley makes the case that British identity was decisively formed through Britain’s imperialist extensions into the Americas, Africa and South Asia, and its encounters with various Others. Imperialism obviously does not represent itself as predation, but rather as a wider moral and social mission which should engage the whole of the society, direct its overall efforts, orient its sense of identity. So, performances of Britishness took place in relation to the Indian, the Chinese, the African, and the Arab. Britishness was also, for as long as Ireland was seen as a property of the British crown, bound up with Protestant chauvinism, which provided much of the working class base of support for imperialism and Toryism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Britishness was reproduced through constant, historically disembodied 'memory' of World War II. Yet as that cachet lost its persuasive power amid colonial retreat and relative decline, a newer sense of Britishness emerged through Powellism and the search for a culturally pure, white Britishness. Britishness thus shifted from its orientation toward a global white world supremacism to a defensive white nationalism.
In the Thatcher era, a brief festival of British revivalism harnessed the remaining energy behind this decaying idea on a series of spectacles from the royal wedding to the Falklands jubilee. These dramas of rebirth and tradition helped to congeal the policy mix of Thatcherism - White Brittania was defended through immigration controls, Ruled Brittania through intensified policing and public order crackdowns, Ruling Brittania through imperial reassertions and Atlanticist hyper-globalization. But by the end of the 1980s, the potency of this revival had been discharged. Partly, this was because the class alliance that made Thatcherism viable was breaking up under the weight of Thatcherism's social consequences. Partly it was because the world order was changing as the Cold War ended, and the Tory base divided over Britain's future global orientation - toward Europe, entrenched Atlanticism, or toward a garrisoned island-state? This was not something on which the manufacturers, financiers, and small traders who made up the Tory base could agree on. Obviously, 'Islam' comes into this, having played an important in British Aryan identity in the colonial era, both explaining anti-colonial revolts as 'native fanaticism' and justifying their suppression. For contemporary purposes, 'Islam' begins to become relevant to the formation of an anxious-aggressive 'Britishness' at the tail end of the 1980s, as 'black' political identities begin to break down into localised constituents and Thatcherite 'Britishness' is increasingly exhausted.
The British Labourist tradition had always incorporated the pro-empire Left, represented signally in the Fabians, and in the post-war period had developed a pronounced Atlanticist strain, which favoured managing imperial decline through the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. If Labour had a pacifist, internationalist tradition, it also boasted a monotonous parade of establishment sycophants, imperialists, race-baiters and opportunistic patriots. New Labour comprised in essence an alliance with Whiggish Liberals and social conservatives. Its turn of the millenium attempt to reflate and re-define 'Britishness' derived more from the managerial, Whiggish ideas dominating British social democracy at the depleted, dog end of the twentieth century than with major global antagonisms. The Blair administration attempted to pioneer a centre-left nationalism that would provide a basis for social cohesion (if necessary, helped along by social authoritarianism), a mobilising discourse for social reform, a competitive rationale for social democratic acquiescence to 'globalization' (Britain must punch above its weight), and a hegemonic doctrine underpinning Blair's autocratic executive style.
These ingredients were already evident in the 1997 election campaign, but Blair's caesarist moment came with the Kosovo war, through which he proved his mettle not as a daffy airhead 'Bambi' figure, but as a hardened ideological warrior, someone capable of whipping public opinion into line. Following this venture, which won him many ecstatic plaudits from journalists and the political establishment, he began to articulate more clearly his brochure for Britishness based on international competitiveness and military assertion. Following the riots in north-eastern towns and cities in 2001, New Labour ratcheted up those aspects of its Britishness agenda concerned with social cohesion, scapegoating Asian minorities for allegedly failing to integrate. Minorities were ordered to internalise a 'core of Britishness', which meant being politically compliant, quietist, lawful and generally effacing those culturally specific excesses that supposedly made them unacceptable to their white counterparts. But as of 9/11, Britishness was destined to have its run in with 'Islam'.
From the Rushdie affair onward, 'Islam' became an object of official ideological interrogation, as the media increasingly devoted attention to 'Islam' as a security threat, a source of political instability, and particularly a menace to the nation's values. In relation to the 'war on terror', Britishness was aggrandised through the constant belabouring, surveillance, harassment and outright repression of Muslims, even as the British state itself underwent dramatic changes, and its constituents loosened in centrifugal fashion. 'Islam' is seen as at one and the same time, too radical and too rooted; a source of instability and of exaggerated, embarrassing cohesion; revolutionary and reactionary; a politicised religion, or a pseudo-religious politics; a de-nationalised revolutionary creed, or a smug, conservative, violent upholder of 'family values' in their worst sense. Its very ability to be represented in such a shape-shifting manner makes it the ideal foe, the perfect foil for Britishness. This 'Islam' can accumulate enemies on the Left as well as the Right, among secular liberals as well as religious conservatives, among feminists as well as patriarchs. Through negative contrast, it gives 'Britishness' a force and attraction that it would otherwise lack. 'Britishness', thus defined through the encounter with 'Islam', has been routinely performed routinely by squaddies in Afghanistan, as well as by police squads, and belligerent journalists, for almost a decade now.
So, where do we stand today? The Cameron executive is, like its caricature in Steve Bell cartoons featuring the Prime Minister suited in a pink condom, slippery, soft-edged, and impossible to pin down. It lacks definition. Sitting at the apex of a weak, fractious neo-Thatcherite government, slowly pulling apart over the unlikely issue of AV, Number Ten seeks to re-deploy the elements of 'Britishness' through renewed imperial bloodletting, more tough talk about immigrants, and of course an incredible amount of bullshit and insincere sentimentality over the royal wedding. But, as polling data has more or less consistently shown, there's little enthusiasm for more war, and this one doesn't have a narrative capable of engaging 'British' sentiments even if the nation's imperial appetites hadn't been exhausted by the alliance with Bourbon Bush. And while the media, police and local councils will probably succeed in cutting out most expressions of republicanism on the day, the royal wedding is a topic of satire or bored indifference for most. Only the immigrant-baiting, which is a divisive issue for the coalition, actually seems capable of summoning the requisite temper, and even there the evidence is mixed. Yes, polls do show that the constant propaganda about immigrants and minorities has a pronounced effect on popular attitudes, and encourages a vicious minority to engage in racist violence. But on the other hand, there's no sign that talking a lot about immigration makes the Tories popular - far from it, in fact. There seems to be no doubt that a re-organised 'Britishness' could potentially provide a rightist counterpoint to social struggles against austerity, but the present signs are that 'British values' have lost touch with some of the material bases that gave them their peculiar charge and universal validity.
May 05, 2011
King’s College London,
Liberalism: Slavery, imperialism and exploitation
A panel discussion and book launch for Liberalism: A Counter-History with Domenico Losurdo, Robin Blackburn, Richard Seymour and chair Stathis Kouvelakis.
Hosted by the European Studies Department in association with Verso Books
In this definitive historical investigation of the formation of liberalism from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, Domenico Losurdo overturns complacent and self-congratulatory accounts by showing that, from its very origins, liberalism and its main thinkers—Locke, Burke, Tocqueville, Constant, Bentham, Sieyès and others—have been bound up with the defense of the thoroughly illiberal policies of slavery, colonialism, genocide, racism and elitism. Losurdo probes the inner contradictions of liberalism, also focusing on minority currents that moved to more radical positions, and provides an authoritative account of the relationship between the domestic and colonial spheres in the constitution of a liberal order.
The triumph of the liberal ideal of the self-government of civil society—waving the flag of freedom, fighting against despotism—at the same time feeds the development of the slave trade, digging an insurmountable and unprecedented gap between the different races.”—Domenico Losurdo
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Alfie Meadows is the student who was beaten so badly by police that he had to undergo serious brain surgery. He was also, reportedly, denied an ambulance by police for a considerable period of time. When he finally boarded an ambulance, police attempted to prevent the ambulance from delivering him to Charing Cross hospital on the grounds that the hospital was reserved for the treatment of injured rozzers, not their victims. This happened on the afternoon of 9th December, Day X 3, the day of the parliamentary vote on tuition fees when tens of thousands protested in Westminster and across the country. It was on that evening, you may recall, that police engaged in a particularly nasty, punitive 'kettle' of protesters on Westminster Bridge. Alfie Meadows was beaten across the skull by a policeman with a baton, but is being charged for an offence that carries a maximum sentence of five years.
Eleven people have been charged with various offenses under the Public Order Act by the 'Operation Malone' unit of the Metropolitan Police. The unit in question was set up with 80 officers solely to investigate the student protests, and as such represents a massive outlay just to arrest people who are either innocent of any crime, or at most guilty of very minor ones. The inclusion of Alfie Meadows on the charge sheet is clearly politicised, bearing in mind the IPCC's ongoing investigation into the case. One also has to take into account the recent High Court decision that the kettling of G20 protesters was illegal, which could and should result in thousands suing the police. But it's also typical of the police's way of handling cases where they may be vulnerable. You might recall the example of Jake Smith, who was arrested after the Gaza protests in 2009. The case collapsed when it was disclosed that the footage showed, not Jake Smith engaging in 'violent disorder', but rather the police engaging in a violent attack on Jake Smith.
Of course, everything that is done by the state with reference to the student protests has a wider social mission, which is to preemptively criminalise the coming social struggles and validate the police's pre-meditated violence. Take the case of Edward Woolard, the 18 year old who dropped a fire extinguisher from the roof of Tory HQ. He was disgracefully given a sentence of 32 months. This was longer than the sentence handed out to some rapists, though no one was harmed. The judge's homily explained that the court was "sending out a very clear message to anyone minded to behave in this way that an offence of this seriousness will not be tolerated". Of course, sending out 'messages', or rather heavily moralised threats, is what the criminal justice system does by nature. And we get the message alright.
Yes, they beat someone's skull in. Yes, this was part of a series of violent tactics deployed by police, which included assaults on young boys, and teenaged girls. Yes, if the protests had continued, and the police had continued with their tactics, they probably would have killed someone just as they killed Ian Tomlinson. We'll be lucky if, in the next few years, they don't kill another protester. And their very clear message is that whatever happens, just as they did with Jean Charles de Menezes and the Koyair brothers, they will always find a way to blame the victim, exonerate or protect the guilty, and continue as before.
Monday, April 25, 2011
Return AV to its makers posted by Richard SeymourI'd like to dedicate this one to Harry's Place:
The campaign for electoral reform stands on a simple fact: the absurdity of first past the post, suited to a "two horse race" in an era when the major parties are breaking down. The case for reform, thanks to a "miserable little compromise" between the coalition partners, is now channelled through a referendum over the introduction of the alternative vote system...
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Of course, Glasman does not mean to target the EDL and its thousands of supporters with this intervention. He means to mobilise the ideologeme of 'the white working class' as a sort of puppet boxer with which to belabour the left in the party. As he complains: "working-class men can't really speak at Labour party meetings about what causes them grief, concerns about their family, concerns about immigration, love of country, without being falsely stereotyped as sexist, racist, nationalist". As you will see if you peruse that link, Glasman uses 'working class' to describe any silly idea that he likes the sound of, particularly if - as will usually be the case - it is a right-wing idea. Don Paskini rightly points out that this latest is a libel on the working class, the vast majority of whom detest the EDL. But that's almost to miss the point. Of course Glasman is mobilising a (deeply patronising) image of "working class men" to hammer the anti-racists and feminists in the Labour Party. But V N Volosinov argued that the word is the most sensitive index of social change, and we should be very attentive to the changes that such terminological nuances advert to. There's something very important going on when the Labour Right, which worked so hard to end the class war, are anxious to be seen and heard evoking class.
Recently, there was a very useful analysis of the BNP and the 'white working class' by James Rhodes in the Sociology journal. It took issue with the idea, circulated by politicians and journalists alike, that the BNP's support comes from the most deprived among whites. In this respect, he points out that while the BNP have made real inroads into working class areas, there is no natural affinity between the BNP and white workers, and nor is it the poorest they appeal to. The two class fractions most likely to be represented among BNP supporters are 'skilled workers', and the lower middle class. The journalistic accounts are led astray by the 'ecological fallacy' - that is, if BNP voters can be found in a known industrial heartland, then they must be the traditional supporters of Labourism. In fact, Rhodes points out, the BNP support is typically found in the poshest areas of these towns and cities, a fact that has a huge impact on far right politics. BNP supporters and members tend to articulate their sense of class location indirectly, by reference to locality. Their scale is extremely small, as they tend to focus on this street, that area, etc. They are "rooted" and small town, rather than metropolitan; parochial rather than urbane. So, interviews with fascist voters and activists disclose that struggles over resources and entitlements are refracted through particular geographical references - ie, that street is filled with poor people who behave like animals, and the council throws all the money at them; while this street is respectable and well-maintained but gets nothing. Through such spatial distinctions, they carve out a moral and cultural economy, based on authenticity and respectability.
Authenticity merely consists in 'being from here', not merely being British and white, but being of this particular small community. Try leafleting in a BNP target area and one of the challenges that fascist sympathisers are likely to throw at you (assuming they aren't numerous enough to kick your head in) is that you're not from the area. Respectability consists of two intersecting aspects: employment, in which one can be said to be contributing something to the pot deserving of entitlement to services and funding; and conformity to certain social mores, in which one can be said to be integrated. The fascists and their supporters view the poorest of the working class with utter horror and disdain, as being almost as bad as immigrants. For them, 'welfare dependency' is an utter scandal, allowing people to be lazy and parasitic without ever contributing to society. They do not favour more money being spent on poorer areas, even if they do happen to be 'white', and in general don't support big state expenditure. They believe that only a sturdy police intervention can stop poor whites "from behaving how they've always behaved" and compel them to integrate and contribute, while "Asians" and "Muslims" can never be integrated as they aren't authentically "from here".
Of course, those BNP supporters who are themselves dependent on benefits must have their own way of asserting their respectability, and thus entitlement, within the context of fascist ideology. And they stake their claim principally on the fact of their being British and white: "locals first" as they are wont to say. But this merely defers an antagonism within the fascist constituencies - between, if you like, the petty bourgeois and lumpenproletarian elements - over entitlement to resources. And moreover, it's an antagonism where the latter are at a decided disadvantage, since fascist ideology, as is made abundantly plain in the newspapers, magazines and pamphlets of fascists, does hold the unemployed, the poor and the disabled in particularly low regard. Indeed, far from channelling the latent fears and resentments of the 'white working class', it's clear that the far right trade on a language very different from that of class, and mobilise an unstable alliance of localised constituencies often on the basis of hostility to much of the working class. Recall that Nick Griffin dubbed the people of the East End "stupid" and "decadent". This is because they comprise just those sectors of the working class - who are representative of the majority - who are either poor, 'unskilled', black, gay, leftist, culturally liberal, or in some other way not the right side of 'whiteness', of 'Britishness'. One thing James Rhodes' article doesn't discuss is the fascists' relationship to trade unionism. Perhaps this is because it's too obvious, but it's worth just saying that the BNP's long history of hostility to working class militancy has included their participation in major scabbing operations during the Miners' Strike, during which epic battle they called for the army to be deployed against striking workers.
If it is striking just how closely the apparition of 'working class' authenticity invoked by the Labour Right resembles the notion of 'white' respectability circulated by fascists, this is because there are elements of the petty bourgeois weltanschauung which have resonate with other social experiences, and which the Thatcherites in both the Conservative and Labour parties worked so hard to univeralise. The fact that some in the Labour Right want to go farther in this direction, trying to construct an electoral bloc by pandering to the most backward elements in society, who would never vote Labour anyway, is not the issue here. Rather, it is the fact that they have felt the need to do so using the language of class in a racialised way. They could just stick with standard Poujadist talk about 'ordinary decent people', 'the little man in the street' and so on, but they feel compelled to phrase it in 'class' terms that the far right are actually less comfortable with using, even if 'class' is heavily racialised.
It could be argued that this is a hegemonic operation within Labourism. The evisceration of several of Labour's working class 'heartlands' throughout the 2000s as a result of New Labour's commitment to warmongering, privatization and aggressive social authoritarianism has cost the party 5 million mainly working class votes. The pseudo-explanation, the way this can be incorporated without anything too significant having to change, is that the 'white working class' became fed up with immigration and in a world of increasing insecurity, become ever more committed to the security blankets of nation and ethnic identity, which politicians did not sufficiently articulate. This manouevering has been going on since Blair went and it became clear that Brown would not stay on for long. As the bye-election losses piled up, the Right leaked to the papers that Harriet Harman was responsible, the weasely line being that "we've got a problem with white working class males, and Harriet Harman wants to pass a Bill to help the gays, blacks and women!" But the losses still came, even harder when Labour tacked to the right on immigration and criminal justice. Labour voters didn't respond well to this sort of campaigning and boycotted the election. But it didn't matter, just as it doesn't matter now that Blue Labour or whatever it is called tomorrow won't actually win back all of those lost voters - they already know this perfectly well. Revulsion against the Tories will, they are betting, throw an election victory their way soon. The 'Blue Labour' stuff will, if anything, lessen the scale of any comeback. But the narrative provides a seemingly compelling reason why the Left, who would naturally be expected to make some small advances in the case of a big social struggle against austerity, must be kept out of the way, disenfranchised and neutralised at all costs. This also explains the tendency among the Labour Right (and centre) to favour reforms which either demote the trade unions within Labour, or give votes to largely passive groups outwith the party. But the language of class also provides a raiment of insurgency to what is actually a continuity exercise, a matey populist facade for an elitist politics. By adding the word 'white', moreover, the 'working class' becomes de-odorised, neutralised, cleansed of menacing cadences of militancy and leftism. It becomes an object of pathos and melancholia, inherently reactionary, and typified by the middle aged white male emoting about family and country, and probably organising one of the mythical millions of street parties to erupt in spontaneous planned celebration over the royal wedding next week. This sort of 'working class' is tame, dull, conformist, and deferential, but also vicious, sadistic, and vindictive. It is in this, and so many other ways, the ideal alibi for the Blairites. The actual working class will be a more fissile, combustible and less manageable matter in the coming months and years.
Marxism 2011 posted by Richard Seymour
I will also be appearing at Marxisme 2011 in Amsterdam, discussing 'humanitarian intervention'. This will take place over the weekend of 21st and 22nd May, so I'll let you know the exact day and time when I have the details. Turn it into a holiday, why not?
Monday, April 18, 2011
After #26March posted by Richard SeymourMe in The Guardian on the coming coordinated strike action on 30th June:
"Imagine," said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, "what a difference it would make if we didn't only march together but took strike action together." The cheer that resounded from the crowd in Hyde Park spoke for itself. This was 26 March, the day that half a million workers from across Britain turned out for the most significant manifestation of trade union strength in decades – although you may remember it as the day when some windows were broken.
However inspiring 26 March was, though, leaving it at a march from A to B – just in time for local elections – would be a terrible waste. Some union leaders may feel that the best use of this energy is to vote Labour in the May elections. But Labour councils are also pushing through cuts, and it is obvious from local strike ballots that union members aren't putting up with this. The next logical step is, exactly as Serwotka says, co-ordinated strike action. So, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), National Union of Teachers (NUT), University and College Union (UCU) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) unions are moving towards balloting their members for a one-day national strike over pensions, job losses and wages.
What sticks out here is the participation of the ATL, which is a professional teaching union not given to militancy. Its last strike action was in 1979. Similarly, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) overwhelmingly passed a motion at its annual conference in Liverpool calling for an indicative ballot of members for national strike action. This is far from typical for the RCN, which, until a change in its policy in 1995, always ruled out industrial action. The "proletarianisation" of professionals in the public sector, with degraded conditions even for usually respected staff, is leading some of the traditionally conservative unions to be more militant than their larger counterparts.If the strike ballots are approved by the members, this could result in up to 800,000 people taking strike action. If other small unions join the strike, there could be over a million people taking industrial action on that day...
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Creep posted by Richard Seymour
Today, The Observer amplifies calls from "rebels" (in fact, one 'rebel leader') for the deployment NATO "troops on the ground". This is to happen urgently - "now, now, now" - to prevent another "massacre" as Libyan armed forces besiege Misrata. The luckless inhabitants would be in an even worse situation than they are now if left to the care and tending of US forces. So, it is fortunate for them that this invasion is, by all current indications, unlikely to happen. Robert Gates was presumably not kidding when he said: "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined'". Both Obama and Clinton have indicated that they're happy to proceed with the current situation, a manageable stalemate. Far more likely is some sort of settlement which excludes both Qadhafi and the majority of the social forces that were involved in the initial uprisings. Yet, the fact that successive operations seem to segue so plausibly from no-fly-zone to bombing, to special forces and CIA penetration and finally to demands for ground troops should be grounds for alarm.
Historical memory, even recent historical memory, is almost completely excluded from the arid terrain of 'humanitarian intervention'. If, as I've argued, its currency is urgency, its temporal and spatial focus is always narrowly 'here, now'. It cannot afford for us to look beyond this particular emergency and the clamorous demands for its containment through military force. We are expected to behave as if we don't remember that only a few weeks ago, we were all assured that ground invasion wasn't even on the agenda, as there would be no repeat of Iraq. Memory fails us in other ways too. The latest disclosure is that Qadhafi is using cluster bombs as part of his counterinsurgency war. Cluster bombs are a vile weapon, by nature indiscriminate. They are designed and thus intended to spread their lethal punishment over a wide area, and kill the maximum number of people in that radius, while also leaving colourful unexploded treats to be picked up by curious children. Yet that critique, a fairly modest one, would be instantly disdained by the same political alliances now supposedly operating on behalf of the Libyan rebellion. We need not ask, of course, what sort of weapons they prefer to use, unless we crave the unctuous assurances that they are 'precision' (ah), 'laser-guided' (gosh), and 'surgical' (oooh).
Unsurprisingly, the foreign policy 'Realists', such as Stephen Walt and Alan Kuperman, have been most critical of the humanitarian appeal in international relations. Kuperman draws attention to statistics provided by Human Rights Watch which, he says, undermine the claim that Qadhafi is deliberately massacring civilians. He points out that in Misrata, a city of 400,000, the total number of civilian and combatant deaths over the last two months is 257. The great majority of those who died, he vouches, are males, presumably adult males - though as an adult male, I would like to protest most vehemently that they too can be civilians. His wider point is that Qadhafi did not perpetrate an indiscriminate massacre in those cities re-captured by his forces, and was thus unlikely to perpetrate an indiscriminate massacre in Benghazi in the event of its capture. Rather, Qadhafi has been waging a classic counterinsurgency war with predictable 'collateral damage'.
There are a number of ways in which one can and should object to this argument. One should point out that HRW's statistics are unlikely to be comprehensive, their monitors cannot have gauged every last killing, and the tempo of repression seems to be increasing. One should also say that the use of the phrase 'collateral damage' is a grubby evasion. The whole point of counterinsurgency war is that the category of 'non-combatant' is eroded and finally deleted, because the population becomes the enemy. When one embarks on a counterinsurgency war one chooses that civilians will die. Qadhafi responded to a political rebellion by turning it into a military conflict, which he has ruthlessly pursued, and so can't hide behind 'collateral damage'. Yet, the coarseness of Kuperman's war talk aside, there appears to be no intelligent objection to the basic assertion that what Qadhafi has been doing falls far short of the 'genocide' that some have mooted. For example, it is really not at all obvious, as the Triple Alliance of Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy claim, that "tens of thousands of lives have been protected", whatever that means. Even the very large-scale massacre feared by some were unlikely, and smaller massacres were avoidable - if, and only if, Qadhafi was permitted to remain in political control of Libya.
And this is Kuperman's second point. The language of humanitarianism obscured the politics of this war. The issue was never simply one of stopping massacres. If it was about bloodshed, it could easily have been avoided or at least minimised by other means. The issue is 'regime change'. Or to be more precise, it is: should the popular forces in Libya be permitted to govern Libya? Qadhafi's incumbency depended on the answer being 'no'. In a different way, I would maintain, US regional hegemony also depends on the answer being 'no'. This is why the intervention seems to be gradually, though bloodily, cruising (or creeping?) toward some sort of imperial carve-up between regime elements, ex-regime elements, and émigrés retained by the CIA. The current negotiations, and the stance signposted in the Triple Alliance's 'pathway to peace' document, indicate that what is sought now is for Qadhafi himself to be forced out, leaving a conservative, pro-American regime in place. This will be Washington's glittering contribution to the great Middle East revolutions of 2011. And a watchful world will be left to chew on the fact that this is the US showing its better side, and that it could easily have been much worse.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Friday, April 08, 2011
Libya debate posted by Richard Seymour
But he was relatively innocuous compared to Sukant Chandan, whose breathtaking defence of the Qadhafi regime and insistence on hectoring Libyans present, including Hamid from the Libyan Youth Movement, left activists infuriated. I mean, literally fuming. Sukant's opening line was a cracker, to be sure. "Qadhafi never called me a p***. My beef is not with Qadhafi, it's with the Brits." The subsequent argument involved harnessing unexceptionable observations about imperialism to a less tenable argument that Qadhafi's regime represented some kind of advanced welfare state, and that his opponents are 'Contras'. He also argued that the uprising in Syria was an imperialist subvention, intended to undermine Hezbollah. Stunned gasps and disbelieving laughter from the Libyan activists in the audience.
Hamid offered only a qualified and very reluctant defence of the NATO intervention. "We did not want NATO to come, but what alternatives did we have? No one helped us, no one armed us. We know what the West is about, we know what NATO is - but if someone tells us what the alternative is, I will be happy to hear it." I don't agree with this, for reasons you know well enough, and I admit I rolled my eyes impatiently when he claimed that Libya had carried out Lockerbie. But he ended up spending far more of his time attempting to defend the reputation of the revolution from its calumniator, and to this extent I found I had far more in common with him than I had with the Son of Malcolm. At one point, as Sukant repeatedly barracked Hamid, demanding that he stipulate his opposition to Africom setting up a base in Libya and confirm that Palestine is the number one issue for Middle Eastern freedom - yes, literally, demanded - an Egyptian woman stood up and begged him to "drop it". "This is why people are pissed off with you. It's not about imperialism, we agree with you on all of that, it's that you're so arrogant!" After a few more mouthfuls of frustrated anger, she walked out. And there was more where that came from. As the crowd dwindled, people walking out or just drifting away, and the heckling and back and forth with audience members became more chaotic, the only people who backed Sukant up were a small amen corner, who nodded along at his most obvious pronouncements.
My own arguments will be familiar to you by now, so I won't rehearse them here. Yes, I think I persuaded a few people, or at least gave them reason to pause. In the end, I think this turns out to be a sort of parable about a very unproductive and divisive kind of Third Worldism. Sukant wants to unite the people of the global south against imperialism, but succeeded largely in uniting people against himself. He's tragically stuck repeating the slogans of a bygone era, defending its ostensible 'gains' amid a revolutionary process that, of its nature, will unsettle all the coordinates that we're used to working with. We have to learn to think on our feet, adapt, learn from these struggles, and listen to those waging them. Otherwise we may just find that the ideas that were revolutionary yesterday end up fortifying the forces of conservatism and reaction today.
The question raised by Ham's testimony is whether NATO powers, first and foremost the United States, are willing to invest the necessary military resources to break the stalemate and topple the regime. Ham acknowledged that it would probably require the insertion of foreign ground forces to decisively turn the tide right now -- the rebels have proven no match for Gaddafi's forces, who have them largely pegged back in their eastern strongholds. He said the U.S. would have to consider whether to send in troops.
But escalating Western direct involvement in Libya remains unlikely, at best, for a number of reasons:
- It's patently clear, by now, that Libya is in the throes of a civil war -- even if the majority of Libyans detest Col. Gaddafi, it's patently clear that a sizable minority is passionately committed to his regime and willing to fight for it. The strength of the regime on the ground has been underestimated, and the power of the rebellion overestimated. There's no quick and easy military solution, here.
- The U.S. has until now made clear that it sees limited national interests at stake in Libya, envisaging its role as that of supporting a European-led intervention. But the Europeans appear ill-equipped to escalate the air war, much less launch a ground war to topple Gaddafi.
- The "pottery barn rule" still applies: If it took a Western ground invasion to topple Gaddafi, the Western powers would be forced to own the outcome, which could be extremely messy. The dynamics among and between the various armed groups that would survive a regime collapse -- from pro Gaddafi militias, tribal formations, and various factions of a rebel army that is anything but coherent -- are barely understood, and there's no real state left with institutions that could absorb and reconcile these groups. It may have been recognized by Italy, France, Qatar and Kuwait as the sole legitimate government of Libya, but the Transitional National Council based in Benghazi does not even pretend to be a truly representative national body. Knocking out the regime now through the application of Western military force would create a vacuum that would very likely suck in foreign troops to maintain order and oversee the building of a new Libyan state from scratch. Sure, President Obama would take some licks domestically if he fails to decisively topple Gaddafi, but he hardly wants to run for reelection having committed U.S. troops to a third nation-building mission in the Muslim world.
- UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which provides the legal authority for foreign militaries to protect Libyan civilians, can't be translated into a regime-change operation without jeopardizing the alliance. Key NATO members such as Germany and Turkey oppose escalation, and Ankara is pressing hard for a cease-fire that would require Gaddafi forces to withdraw from besieged cities. Stretching the permissions afforded by Resolution 1973 would also jeopardize future international cooperation on humanitarian interventions. (Russia and China may not have voted for this, but they enabled it by refraining from wielding their veto power at the Security Council; if they believe NATO used the authorization as a pretext to pursue regime-change, they may not easily be persuaded to allow future humanitarian interventions.)
- Whatever Arab support exists for the current operations is likely to rapidly erode if it involved sending in foreign troops -- remember, even the rebels themselves loudly opposed that idea in the early days of the rebellion.
Tuesday, April 05, 2011
Friday, April 8 · 7:00pm - 9:00pm
'The Venue', University of London Union, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HY [nearest tube - Russell Square]
We would like to welcome you to the fourth meeting of The Equality Movement, 'Libya; humanitarian intervention or imperial adventure?'
Chaired By Logic.
Hip-hop artist and co-founder of The Peoples Army.
Panel discussion with:
Writer, activist and author of 'Lenin's Tomb' blog.
World Medical Camp for Libya.
Blogger for the Independent.
CEO of Basic Human Rights.
Political commentator, film-maker and author of 'Sons of Malcolm' blog.
Written statement from Hamid, a Libyan citizen from Tripioli, who came to study in the UK a week before demonstrations in Libya began.
Followed by questions from the floor and discussion.
THIS IS A FREE EVENT AND ALL AGES ARE WELCOME!!
Please note: all organisations are welcome to give out free literature, but no merchandise for sale please.
Monday, April 04, 2011
Springtime for NATO in Libya posted by Richard Seymour
Can I just risk a modest proposition? NATO, the CIA and the special forces belonging to the world's imperialist states are not forces of progress in this world. Does anyone disagree with that? If not, then it follows as surely as night follows day that the successful cooptation of the Libyan revolution by NATO, the CIA and special forces is a victory for reaction. It's no good hoping that the small, poorly armed, poorly trained militias of the east of Libya, who are now utterly dependent on external support, will somehow shake themselves free of such constraints once - if - they take power. Even if they eventually get some of the Libyan money that has been frozen by international banks, as UN Resolution 1973 promises, it will have come all too late to have been decisive.
I can well see how conservatives and liberals would see no loss at all in such a situation, nothing indeed but a net gain. It means after all that even if Qadhafi were to be overthrown at this point, it would not have been by a popular revolution. It would not have been because the revolution broadened its base and spread into Tripoli or Sirte. It would not have been under circumstances in which the panoply of social and political forces in Libya were fused into a victorious revolutionary bloc - e pluribus unum and all that. And it would not have seen Qadhafi's regime replaced by a popular one serving popular needs. Were Qadhafi to fall tomorrow, he would fall to a network of former regime elements and their external backers. The regime that replaced Qadhafi may well be more liberal, the sort that young Saif was to be entrusted to deliver at one point, but it would not be a popular or democratic one. The migration deals with the EU, the oil deals with multinationals, and the arms deals to ensure the suppression of more radical political forces (under the rubric of containing 'Al Qaeda', that ubiquitous, shapeshifting enemy of the free world) would all be central planks of a post-bellum regime.
The liberal argument, which is to the fore, is strikingly apolitical - and narcissistic. Only rarely do its advocates relate it to the shapeshifting revolutionary process currently underway in the Middle East. Rarer still is anything that could pass for analysis of Libya's internal dynamics. On the contrary, its preferred starting point is the solitary, decontextualised crisis point in which the 'West' can redeem itself through military action. There is in this the echo of colonial discourse: the missionaries, the deserving victims, the empire as protector of the meek and virtuous. It's very important for the defenders of 'humanitarian intervention', 'Responsibility 2 Protect' and so on (the clutter of inelegant jargon that accompanies such doctrines is a sure sign of their incoherence) that there should be an opportunity to use firepower, to moralise the means of violence. This is one reason, incidentally, why it never even occurred to them to wonder how it is that - unlike in Iraq, which war they castigate as irresponsible - there was never even the pretence of diplomacy. I am no pacifist, but I don't like to be told that there are no alternatives to air-borne death when the alternatives haven't even been tried.
If the issue was the minimisation of bloodshed, then a logical solution would have been to allow Turkey and others to facilitate negotiations. Yes, I know. A negotiated settlement would be a step back from outright victory for the rebels. But that is an increasingly improbable outcome anyway, and I thought we were trying to save lives here? And as it happens, a diplomatic solution seems to be exactly what is on the cards now. The transitional council leadership in Benghazi has acknowledged as much. Qadhafi is sending ambassadors to talk to interested parties about a ceasefire settlement. If this is how the situation is going to be resolved, then it would have been better that it had been resolved this way several weeks ago. If the aerial bombardment was supposed to stop massacres, it doesn't seem to have done so. From 'Save Sarajevo' to 'Save Benghazi', however, the liberal imperialists are in their glory when on the warpath, and as facile with rationalisations and false consolations as they are contemptuous of the same when deployed by the right.
So, as I say, it is natural that the usual assortment of cynics, security wonks and liberal hawks should be content with this annexing, even if their arguments in its favour make little sense. No one who supported the revolution, however, can be as content without also being a little naive or descending into bad faith arguments of the type: "we don't trust the bourgeois cops, but a rape victim should still call the police." Say what you like about the police, but one generally doesn't to find them blowing up neighbourhoods. Their role, in a word, is the suppression of conflict. The role of imperialist states in the world system is, to put it mildly, not that. And they are, I will not say 'lawless', but not susceptible to any of the constraints that apply to even the most British of police officers. And I am not myself prepared to see the US, or any of its surrogates, as a global policeman just yet. Worse still are the wised up comments to the effect that "the world is a murky place, blah blah, which should not be seen in black and white terms, yawn yawn, and we can't force people to die for the sake of some purist anti-imperialism, etc etc". No, indeed, but it's hardly better to expect people to die for the sake a woolly platitude. The war's handful of leftist apologists are living off the waning hope that out of this process will come a people's revolution. Why do they think this likely? No reason. Just cos. Press them particularly hard, and they'll revert to the parable of the good policeman, stretching the analogy beyond the point of satire in the process.
We can live in hope, of course. The proletariat, introduced into these arguments as a deus ex machina that will guarantee against any sell-out, betrayal, shoddy deal or undemocratic imposition, is the repository of this hope. But the workers of the eastern coastal cities and towns, having shown considerable courage in fighting Qadhafi's forces, were unable to defeat them. And they have not been able to prevent the former regime elements from asserting control of the revolt, or from cutting a deal with NATO. The number of rebels who are actually armed and in control is numerically small. As of late March, there were only about 1,000 trained fighters among the rebels. There are estimated to be about 17,000 volunteers, but they are untrained, poorly armed, and themselves a minority of the populations in which they operate. The Libyan working class - set aside the fact that much of the actual working class resides in areas beyond rebel control - is not in control of this process. General Abdel Fatah Younis, the former interior minister, is not even in control of this process. The opposition leaders are now adjuncts to a NATO strategy which may not even have been disclosed to them. Let's at least give credit where it's due. This is NATO's war. And that means, this is Washington's war.
The critique of Stalinism was by no means new, and The Gulag Archipelago contained no revelations. The New Left had almost unanimously held the Soviet Union to be a part of the problem, either because it was depraved, or because it was decrepit, or both. Solzhenitsyn’s text rapidly became a much-hyped reference point for socialists moving to the right; but, as Michael Scott Christofferson writes, ‘the vast majority of French intellectuals of the non-communist Left were already acutely aware of the failures of Soviet socialism’. Although much of the French Left, fearing a fascist reflux, defended the communists during the period in which they were increasingly ostracized, the Algerian war of independence and the Hungarian Revolution produced a more critical engagement. There had been at any rate a revival of libertarian and democratic ideals during Liberation’s hangover, and a sustained effort was made to reconcile these with revolutionary principles.
In February 1948, left-wing intellectuals had founded the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (RDR) as a coalition of the non-communist left, but it had collapsed by late 1949 on account of divisions over American power. Further efforts at developing a new Left committed to neutrality in the Cold War, anti-colonialism, and political and economic democracy, also floundered for the time being. The testimony of Victor Kravchenko – a former Soviet official who had defected and was associated with the CIA – confirmed the existence of concentration camps in the Soviet Union in 1947, and produced a debate among French progressives. Although the episode was marred by Kravchenko’s stridency and his association with American propaganda efforts, even fellow-travelling intellectuals such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre accepted that the concentration camps did exist and were not, as the PCF tried to claim, merely re-educational work camps. So, as early as 1950, and certainly by 1956, most of the noncommunist Left was apprised of the internal repression in the USSR – and certainly the Trotskyist Left had been arguing that the revolution had been betrayed since the 1930s.
Still, The Gulag Archipelago provided the occasion for confession and conversion, and a host of former Maoist revolutionaries would later end up adopting hard-line anti-communist positions, and rejecting in particular the Third Worldism that had characterized much of the French Left. These included such luminaries as Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, Bernard Kouchner, Alain Finkielkraut and Pascal Bruckner. Bernard-Henri Lévy was never a Maoist militant, but he had been close to Louis Althusser, one of the chief theoreticians of a particular strand of normalien Maoism before May 1968. BHL had not been closely involved in the May 1968 uprising (although he claims it as a key moment for him, he was actually engaged in an affair at the time); but his first book, a journalistic account of the Bangladesh War, was written from a Marxist perspective. However, Lévy was so mortified by Solzhenitsyn’s exposé that he was moved to disparage his former Marxist commitments.
Or was he? While some have cast doubt on Lévy’s seriousness as a Marxist, as late as 1975 Lévy was still defending the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc against dissidents, and against Solzhenitsyn in particular. As the French Communist Party (PCF) went on the offensive against the Soviet novelist and his defenders, Lévy assured readers that Solzhenitsyn was ‘not a great writer’ but rather a ‘mythomaniac’, a ‘showbizman’ and a ‘gaffeur’ (meaning ‘blundering idiot’). He dismissed ‘the few clowns who arrive with us periodically, nineteenth- century novelists mislaid in the twentieth century, the Solzhenitsyn type…’ Regarding the dissidents, he maintained that they were hardly models of progressive thought themselves, and were ‘even sometimes of perfectly reactionary cloth’. All their testimony showed was that the USSR was ‘a country like any other’, ‘neither completely rosy nor completely black’. His preferred authority on the Soviet Union was Francis Cohen, whose chief distinction was that he had been the Moscow correspondent for the PCF’s newspaper L’Humanité. It is possibly that Lévy’s defence of the Soviet Union at this time was partly due to the influence of Louis Althusser who, while a critic of Stalinism, did not share the nostalgia for Tsarism that Solzhenitsyn exhibited. Another reason was the strength of the PCF and its weight in the organized Left.
By summer 1975, Lévy had concluded that the Soviet Union was not quite like any other state after all. The cause of its tyrannical nature lay in an ‘original sin’, not any corruption, ‘and the sin is Marx’. The Gulag Archipelago was ‘the finally blinding proof that terror in the USSR is everywhere’. Not only did it discredit the USSR, it proved that ‘terror is nothing more than the inside lining of sacrosanct socialism’ – although at this point Lévy did not deny the possibility of socialism outside the USSR.7 By the time he came to write La barbarie à visage humain, in 1977, he was convinced that the problem was not merely with the USSR, and not even only with overt Marxism, but with the whole paradigm of revolutionary thought issuing forth from May 1968 which, whether it knew it or not, was Marxist. Lévy’s method was as straightforward as his prose was convoluted: the Marxist conception of power involves a Master, or oppressor, a ‘lucid and diabolical anticonfessor’ who manipulates through ideology a ‘population of sleepwalkers’. Were this population to be awoken, and apprised of the ruses of capital and the modes of their exploitation, they would rebel. This paradigm was, he maintained, the reigning wisdom even among the anti-Marxists of the New Left. ‘There is a hidden impulse toward power, probably absolute power, whenever someone brandishes the slogan of total “liberation”’. The book affirmed a fundamental historical pessimism: progress was impossible, and every attempt at accomplishing it was a religious gesture, the ‘faith’ of ‘militants’ (Lévy’s book is replete with such metaphors – the litany of the Left, shepherds and flocks, prophets and devils. ‘Totalitarianism is confession without God, the inquisition plus the negation of the individual’ – and so on and on, straining for effect in that fashion, based on nothing more than the insipid anti-communist metaphor of The God That Failed). Far from being one of many responses to profound social iniquity, Marxism was ‘fanaticism’ a ‘ghostly “prophecy”’, and paradoxically a form of ‘counterrevolutionary thought’ dedicated to sustaining a given ‘end of history’. The frustration of the attempt to radically transform social conditions would necessarily lead to repression, and ultimately to the gulag. Written on the eve of the municipal election victory of the Union of the Left, uniting the Socialists and the PCF, Lévy explained that it was intended as a warning shot: the French Left was on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. And so: ‘There remains only the duty to protest against Marxism’ in all of its forms.
André Glucksmann had been, as noted in Chapter 3, both a Stalinist and a Maoist in his radical years. In 1956 he had been opposed both to the French ‘pacification’ of Algeria, and to the Soviet ‘pacification’ of Hungary. He had been a member of the violent Maoist group, Gauche prolétarienne, before that movement collapsed in the mid 1970s. In Le Maître penseurs, Glucksmann laid out the programmatic basis for his eschewal of Marxism: the master thinkers, including Hegel, Fichte, Nietzche and Marx, had systematically legitimized the dominative strategies of the modern state. The gulag was a result not only of ‘the logical application of Marxism’, but also of languages that ‘enable one to master everything’, admitting nothing outside themselves. Glucksmann’s self-congratulatory retelling has it that:
"I began with concrete and timely criticism of the French Communist Party and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Then I proceeded to a more extended critique of totalitarian thinking, in order not to be ensnared in a kind of intra-Marxist opposition – anti-Soviet but pro-Chinese, for example, or anti-Chinese but pro-Castro, and if not some form of sacred socialism, then the dear Third World … The next step was to fit this basic Marxist structure into a more general scheme, which I tracked to German philosophical thinking of the nineteenth century – a totalitarianoriented world view which could be expressed in rightist as well as leftist ideologies."
This is not quite accurate. Glucksmann, at this point, was still an opponent of the concept of ‘totalitarianism’. The standard presentation, he said, had ‘let the “non-totalitarian” regimes off the hook’, ignoring the ‘kinship’ and ‘filiation’ which linked the ‘harsh methods of domination employed in both the West and in the East’. He remembered that the British had developed concentration camps against the Boers before the Boers had thought of using them against black South Africans, and recalled enough of his anti–Vietnam War activity to point out the totalitarian resonances of the campaigns against ‘the Indians’, ‘the Vietnamese, the South Americans … or the inhabitants of Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki’. The ‘critique of totalitarianism shows a tiresome tendency to boil down always to a critique of totalitarianism elsewhere’.
This conception of a logical progress from anti-Stalinist critique to straightforward anti-communism is not simply a piece of self-serving revisionism by Glucksmann, however. It is a claim repeated by Julian Bourg in his account of the impact of May 1968 on French thought. As he puts it, ‘The Marxist tradition ironically provided the resources for overcoming Marxism … the passage from anti-Stalinism to anti- Marxism completed a logic.’ However, Bourg adds some heavy qualification to this somewhat glib observation. In the context of the death of Mao, the catastrophic rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the crises on the European Left, and the declining fortunes of the French Left, Bourg maintains that Solzhenitsyn’s text provided an orientation for those already prepared to escape Marxism. The idea that anti-Stalinist Marxism is logically already anti-communist is in fact one that supporters of the Soviet Union have always been prepared to brandish. Thus, Dolores Ibárruri (‘La Pasionaria’) argued during the Spanish Civil War that the attacks on the trotskysant POUM were justified because the Trotskyists were counter-revolutionaries. However, while it is true that the Maoists had a critique of the Soviet Union and of the politically timid PCF, they were of course completely uncritical of an equally authoritarian regime in China, which was regarded as the vanguard of anti-imperialist revolt. Indeed, as one internal document of the Maoist group Gauche Prolétarienne argued, ‘All error goes back to an incorrect interpretation of Mao.’ The cultish extolment of Mao as the philosopher and strategist of anti-imperialism did in many cases morph into a victimological approach to the Third World (the widely publicized fate of the Vietnamese Boat People providing a decisive moment for the ‘new philosophers’ and their co-ideologues). Equally, the ‘anti-authoritarian’ dynamic in the May 1968 generation could be re-interpreted as a critique of everything from the gulag to nationalization. It is, however, hard to see this as a strictly logical and coherent progression.
At any rate, Glucksmann’s 1977 thesis bears some resemblances to classical ‘totalitarianism’ theory, and Glucksmann was increasingly content to use the label. It is also, as Alain Badiou (once a Maoist confederate himself) argues, a profoundly pessimistic doctrine. The thrust of Glucksmann’s argument is that every ‘collective will to the Good creates Evil’. There can be no positive politics, nothing too radically transformative, only a liberal–conservative consensus created by an awareness of Evil, and the need to resist it. Glucksmann would go on to warn that the Union of the Left shared a programme with the ‘master thinkers’. Its left-Keynesian reform package, which was typical of the era, was seen as an attempt at maximizing state power. In an even more sinister fashion, the nationalization programme was, Glucksmann claimed, aimed at ‘the Jewish side of the “private sector” … not privilege or exploitation’.
Lévy and Glucksmann, known as the ‘New Philosophers’, became the stars of a new media product, and were followed by a raft of penitent Maoists and ex-Marxists. One of the means by which Lévy exerted his influence was as editor at the prestigious germanopratin publishing house, Grasset, where he could publish his friends among the nouveaux philosophes, notably Glucksmann. This crowd were quick to draw accusations of antisemitism, and critics were treated as germinal totalitarians. ‘You proceed like the police!’, Lévy told a critic. The nouveaux philosophes had been treated to ‘small Moscow trials’, while an ‘unavowed totalitarianism’ was brewing. Glucksmann worked himself up to splenetic issue at a talk by Julia Kristeva, at which Kristeva proclaimed Soviet dissidence as a model for Western intellectuals. When Kristeva declined to say who she would vote for, Glucksmann screamed from the floor: ‘We have finally got there! Control of party cards, of loyalty to the party. Here’s why we already need to be dissenting in France … the gulag has already begun.’ On that shrill note – which confirmed the nouveaux philosophes in their self-aggrandizing identification with the figure of the ‘dissident’, despite the fact that the context provided far more rewards than dangers to those claiming it – Paris entrenched itself, in Perry Anderson’s phrase, as ‘the capital of European intellectual reaction’.
This performance was received with some fanfare in the Anglo- American press. Time magazine, introducing the ‘new philosophers’ to its readership, borrowed the title of Jean-Marie Benoist’s 1970 book, declaring: ‘Marx Is Dead’. The Washington Post enthused about the ‘gorgeous’, ‘olive-toned and prominently boned’ Bernard-Henri Lévy. The Economist hailed ‘Those magnificent Marx-haters’. Ronald Reagan even paid tribute ‘the so-called new philosophers in France’ in his address to the UK parliament on promoting democracy, cherishing their ‘rejection of the arbitrary power of the state, [their] refusal to subordinate the rights of the individual to the superstate, [their] realization that collectivism stifles all the best human impulses.’
As Kristin Ross has argued, there was more in this movement than simply a rejection of any form of emancipatory politics beyond the confines of liberal democracy: it was also a reassertion of Eurocentrism against the Third Worldist sympathies that had helped to stimulate leftist revolt in the West at a time of relative economic stability. The ex-gauchiste, Pascal Bruckner, ridiculed Frantz Fanon’s ‘plea to “go beyond” Europe … It is impossible to “go beyond” democracy. If the peoples of the Third World are to become themselves, they must become more Western.’ Naturally, with this came a plea to abandon Western ‘guilt’, as if anti-imperialist critique was simply a form of self-flagellation. In his 1982 book Tears of the White Man, Bruckner affirmed: ‘Europe is our destiny, our lot. More than ever, we develop as individuals through the respect of its borders, its traditions, and its territorial integrity.’ Bernard-Henri Lévy argued that the ‘turning towards the Third World’ that French intellectuals experienced during the Algerian war involved intense ‘hatred of Europe’, something which could be divined by one’s support for the Black Panthers, for example. Israel, by contrast, had embodied ‘democracy and European values’ from its inception.
Ironies abound here: it could conceivably be argued that destroying a population, driving it from its territory by means of massacres, and engaging in continuous expansionist aggression in the name of creating an ethno-nationalist state is a fundamentally European value (one could call it ‘Herrenvolk democracy’); and there may indeed be something about the Black Panthers that grates against ‘European values’. But this hardly commends the ‘values’ that Lévy exhorts us to treasure. In an age of officially ‘socialist’ states proliferating across the world, following national liberation struggles, anti-communism could shade quite easily into anti–Third Worldism, as in Maurice Clavel’s 1976 evocation of the ‘yellow peril’: ‘with the elimination of the Cultural Revolution figures and the ongoing Sino-Soviet reconciliation, a billion robots are already resting their weight on the Elbe. Those two billion eyes blinking, or rather not blinking …’ Kristin Ross writes that the ‘accession to political subjectivity of “the wretched of the earth”’ had disrupted the master-narrative of the Cold War, in which liberalism was the sole appropriate alternative to the Soviet Union, and thus had to be revised.
One form of revisionism was to behave as if the committed anticolonial and anti-imperialist dimensions of the movement had never existed: thus, Bernard Kouchner, the current foreign minister of France, reduces his Maoist days to a period of ‘navel-gazing’ puerility. Only after his radicalism was aborted did he discover ‘the third world’ (even though he had himself travelled to Cuba in 1960 to interview Che Guevara). Another was to excise the agency of the Third World itself, as during the colonial epoch, subordinating it instead to a rights discourse. Kouchner is after all a pioneer in the business of ‘humanitarian intervention’, as a co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), formed in 1971 from a fusion between the Groupe d’Intervention Médicale et Chirurgicale en Urgence, and the Secours Médical Français. The organization was to extend the ethic of solidarity into the business of humanitarian aid.
However, Kouchner left MSF in 1979 to form a break-away organization called Médecins Du Monde. The occasion for this was a campaign to help rescue the ‘Boat People’ – a flood of refugees fleeing repression in Indochina – called ‘A Boat for Vietnam’. This boat would bring doctors to offer treatment to the sick or wounded, and a number of journalists to bear witness. If some considered this approach excessively media driven, it was only the accentuation of an already existing trend. Médecins Du Monde later developed the doctrine of the ‘right to intervene’, a doctrine which was outlined in 1987 by Kouchner and his associate Mario Betatti in front of the Socialist President Mitterrand and the conservative Prime Minister Chirac, thus gaining bipartisan support for it. To the argument that victims had a right to humanitarian assistance was added the stipulation that the state had an obligation to help provide it. With Kouchner in the cabinet from 1988 to 1993 – first as minister for humanitarian action, then as minister for health and humanitarian action – the consensus was sealed.
- The Liberal Defence of Murder, Verso, 2008, pp. 166-72
Friday, April 01, 2011
Let's recall that the express motivations for the intervention were two-fold; one was humanitarian, to which we'll return; the other was securitarian, pivoting on the concern that Libya would if the rebellion continued become a 'failed state', ungovernable, ungoverned, and providing a gateway for immigration and 'jihadism' to Europe. In this sense, the intervention followed the logic both of the 'war on terror' and of its cousin, 'Fortress Europe'. This justification has always been dubious, and politically ambivalent in its effects. If the claim that 'jihadism' would find a friendly home in a free Libya was always alarmist, it has nonetheless been susceptible to criticisms from within the usually loyal press that the war is just encouraging 'Al Qaeda'.
And setting aside the political objections to such logic and the intellectual objections to concepts such as 'failed states', how were the indicated ends supposed to be accomplished? Through a land invasion and a process of 'state-building'? Not if the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had his way. By overthrowing Qadhafi and bringing the National Transitional Council to power? Not according to British military top brass. Well, then, a no-fly zone and a bombing campaign. And yet, what is the bombing campaign supposed to achieve in the long-term? No one argues that this of itself this will lead to Qadhafi's overthrow, or even his replacement with a stable, pro-'Western' regime. And, true enough, it has not. It has altered the balance of forces, but in such a way as to prolong the war rather than settle it. Qadhafi's recent recovery in some parts of the country may be reversed, but he is unlikely to lose the core western territories that he now commands. Is this the kind of stability that is sought? A constant war of attrition between two slightly better matched forces? What's the alternative, apart from a land invasion? Something like the Afghanistan campaign, involving special forces, and the arming and training of rebels? Well, think about that: the early 'victory' in Afghanistan was achieved because the Taliban fled, and the ground army used by the current occupiers was a reasonably long-standing, numerous, well-trained and politically disciplined outfit with some social base in the Uzbek north of Agfhanistan. The rebels in Libya are not that numerous - not the armed rebels - politically heterogenous, not subordinated to a centralised leadership, and mostly very recently acquainted with weapons. Qadhafi's forces are not going to melt away. And even if they did, remember how the Afghanistan campaign actually turned out? I'm not sure that even in the grammar of imperialism this intervention shows any sign of coherence. I can well imagine that if you're a state planner looking at this back-and-forth charade, you would start to question your sanity in having undertaken such an intervention in the first place.
What of the humanitarian remit? We shall skate lightly over civilian casualties that have been incurred by the bombing. Suffice to say that we are being exposed to the usual routines on that front. In one such routine, all claims of civilian deaths are attributed to the target regime, thus implying that they have no credibility. In another, they are caused by the regime using civilians as human shields, by refusing to camp out in a glow-in-the-dark tent in the middle of nowhere and thus make an easier target. In a third, slightly more baroque, Qadhafi is accused of digging up bodies and strategically arranging them to create the impression of a massacre. The truth is that we will not know, until some sort of retrospective excess mortality survey is carried out, what the human cost of the bombing is. And at any rate, one is reluctant to be drawn into the gruesome calculus of war - which, by implication, is that if 'they' kill more than 'we' do, then 'we' win the humanitarian argument.
I also think it the height of bad faith to ground an argument for intervention of this kind on the premise that a massacre in Benghazi was forthcoming and this was the only way to stop it. To begin with, if that was the case, and the massacre was stopped, why are the bombs still falling? I'm afraid the logic of this kind of intervention, of indeterminate duration, with indeterminate goals, extends well beyond the management of an immediate emergency, even assuming that the intervention was genuinely motivated by this and that it made all the difference in that respect. There has to be a longer term objective - but what is it? Is the humanitarian argument that Qadhafi should be overthrown, or that there should be a partition, or that Qadhafi's forces should just be prevented for now from finishing off the rebellion? Obviously, supporters of 'humanitarian intervention' would prefer the former, but as they've hitched their wagon to the NATO military coalition, they are trapped in the logic of military action: and they are largely not prepared to support the kinds of military action, such as invasion and heavy bombing, and subsequent occupation and 'state-building' that overthrow would entail. Quite rightly too - people learn, slowly. Partition is the next possibility.
As mentioned, the air strikes, are unlikely to overthow the Qadhafi regime. Absent a ground invasion, which would be catastrophic for all sorts of reasons which I hope I don't have to spell out, the most likely result was a stalemate, tending toward de facto partition, with an east loosely governed by a pro-US elite composed of former regime elements concentrated in the coastal towns and cities, and the rump dictatorship in the west being able to rally its forces under the banner of resisting imperialism. Given long-standing regional divisions in the country, such a result would not only be a terrible betrayal of the emancipatory impulse that produced the uprising in the first place, but also potentially catastrophic, prolonging not only the conflict itself but also NATO's aerial bombardment. I suppose it's worth elaborating on this point a little, as I had occasion recently to 'debate' the subject of intervention in Libya with someone who confessed to not being an expert about Libya - this was an understatement, and a peculiar one, as I think if you're going to support bombing a country you ought at least to know something about the people upon the bombs will be falling - yet insisted that it would be no bad thing if Libya was partitioned because it was an artificial, rather than an organic, state. Lest you, reader, were inclined to be as blasé, I would just remind you that all states are artifices, that the idea of an 'organic' state is itself a fanciful artefact of 19th Century blood-and-soil romanticism, and that the break up of such artifices - consider Yugoslavia - is usually no picnic, particularly if effected through civil war. The de facto partition of Libya may or may not happen, but it's increasingly recognised as a logical prospect given the continuation of air strikes, and the ongoing stalemate which the air strikes seem almost designed to produce.
The last option I mentioned, simply delaying the repression of the rebellion, is obviously ridiculous. By that I don't mean to say it's impossible. It's just that it would make a mockery of any humanitarian remit. Yet, if a ground invasion is ruled out, for good reasons, and partition is unappealing, for reasons which ought to be obvious, what does that leave? A negotiated settlement perhaps? You don't say! Oddly, such diplomacy - even if it's for show - usually precedes an extension of military force. You have to wonder, if the argument is humanitarian, and the end result sought a pacific one with as little bloodshed as possible, why such an option wasn't even entertained for a second before the air strikes began - despite the fact that there were several long weeks in which the powers hitherto allied to Qadhafi could have broached such possibilities. What? "We don't negotiate with terrorists"? Get real.
However, this just reminds us that the humanitarian argument presupposes the foreclosure of options that was built-in to the intervention in the first place. It's quite right that opponents of the war have pointed out that there were a number of alternatives to a bombing campaign from the start, if the motive was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Those being, as I review the antiwar blogs, columns and newspapers: the handing over Libya's frozen funds to the Transitional Council to enable them to arm themselves; a regional intervention building on extant support provided by Egypt; a diplomatic settlement, in the event that outright military victory on the part of the rebels was out of the question. But when people ask what your alternative to bombing is - "what would YOU do?" - they are asking us to hypothesize, to speculate, and to do so in a terrain in which most people, including the advocates of humanitarian intervention themselves, have no experience whatever. That is, they're asking for a speculation concerning military logic, in which most are not trained, as it might play out in a situation where do not have intelligence, or networks of associates or informers. And such hypotheses are necessarily less immediately compelling than the seeming obviousness and corporeal bluntness of imperialist solutions. The question, once addressed, should be reversed: the burden of justification is on those who are doing the bombing or supporting it. The option that needs to be interrogated is the one being pursued: bombing. And it won't do to justify it on the basis of abstract humanitarianism. Humanitarianism is a contested, political term, and arguments predicated on it can only be assessed and settled in the political sphere.
And the fact is that the political bases for such a war are hopelessly confused. It can't be justified on the ground of liberal internationalism, since we're not talking about spreading democracy or promoting a liberal world order - that idea has taken a serious knock in the last decade. But the Realist grounds for the war seem even more incoherent. This is hardly a power-balancing operation, and any 'security threat' that can be conjured up is both less than convincing and potentially liable to fly back in any scaremonger's face if the same 'threat' is imputed to the rebels themselves. As for any attempt to justify the bombing on leftist internationalist grounds, of supporting the revolution, that is perhaps the least convincing of all. The logic of this, if taken to its conclusion, is that should air strikes fail to result in Qadhafi's overthrow, then the US and its allies should invade and finish the job. Any ideas where that might lead to? The US has a long history of intervening in revolutionary situations: the Spanish-American War, the Mexican revolution, the Russian civil war, the Greek civil war, the Vietnamese revolution, indeed a whole series of anti-colonial and leftist revolutions in Latin America, Africa, South-East Asia and the Middle East. In not one of them has the United States military been a pro-revolutionary force. In this case, the US and its European allies have been consistently intervening in the region on the side of the counter-revolution. Expecting such forces to be part of any revolutionary transformation of the Middle East is frankly unworldly. In the last analysis, there seems to be no coherent, intelligent way to defend this war.