Friday, March 30, 2012

Galloway wins posted by Richard Seymour

I won't pretend.  I never believed for a second that George Galloway would win the Bradford West bye-election for the Respect Party, much less that he would win with more than 50% of the vote and a majority of more than 10,000 votes, that the coalition vote would simultaneously collapse (the Liberals lost their deposit) and that all this would happen on a turnout of over 50% (very high for a bye-election).  

For me it opens up many strategic questions for the Left.  Because Galloway seemingly didn't have a huge amount in his favour.  He didn't have a lot of money or a powerful local machine.  He didn't have a sympathetic media establishment.  He didn't have the support of the mosques in Muslim areas, who overwhelmingly backed Labour.  The Respect Party for which he stood is not a well-oiled national organization, able to mobilise activists at short notice.  One thing he did have in his favour was his renown, but that has obvious drawbacks, and there were many, many Labour big-hitters flooding the constituency - including the Labour leader himself.  So, this result is extraordinary and demands explanation.  Both Labour and Tory pundits have colluded in a set of bilious talking points: here comes George Galloway 'stirring up tensions' again, he's going to divide the left vote and let the Conservative in, Big Brother cat impersonator, vain cigar-chomper, doesn't care about the real issues that affect this community, meow, go back to Talksport, indefatigability, fundamentalism, demagogue, Armani suit-wearing attention-scrounger, oil-dealing reprobate, hilarious, sinister, Pat Mustard, etc etc. Even Patrick Wintour of The Guardian participated in some of the worst of this, in a frazzled early morning report which repellently suggested that Galloway won by mobilising the "Muslim immigrant" population around a "fundamentalist call" to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and fight job losses.  I gather that the offending statements were removed from the article this morning.

We can dispense with these morality tales at once.  Anyone trivial enough to be obsessed with them can find many blogs that cater to that particular fancy.  There are even blogs who supported the Labour candidate who will have the cheek to talk about 'communalism', which (if you accept this highly problematic terminology) is arguably one of the things that was defeated in Bradford yesterday.  We can also do without the liberal lament ("how-dare-George-Galloway-win-an-election", and "he's-ruining-it!").  The most laughable retort came from a Labour politician who suggested that Galloway had won because of his Big Brother celebrity.  If he'd lost, that hardly luminous moment in his career would probably have been cited as a cause.  We can drop that stupidity as well.  Nor do I want to argue the toss with those on the Left who have allowed otherwise sensible disagreements with Galloway to obscure what is most important about this campaign - which is that its victory is a step forward for the Left, and particularly for the working class constituencies in Bradford West affected by racism, unemployment and cuts.  I simply take it as read that anyone on the Left with a sense of proportion will welcome this result, and move on.

The major strategic question that the result raises is how the Left relates to Labour in this period.  If it was wrong to underestimate the ability of social democracy to revive itself in opposition, it is evidently just as mistaken to underestimate the real weakness of Labour.  The fact that Ed Miliband has been aware of the secular degeneration of Labour's base, and seemed to have some vague idea of addressing the problem, doesn't mean that that he has been empowered to do anything.  Nor does it mean that his solutions have been anything but feeble.  Miliband's solutions appear to be predicated on the idea that Labour's problems in its previously formidable working class strongholds are mainly organizational.  That is, they can be resolved by incorporating a passive membership base, further reducing union influence and somehow 'reconnecting' with the 'grassroots'.  Either that, or they require better 'communication'.  Ideologically, his leadership is weak and prevaricating.  The thematic of the 'squeezed middle' interests few and excites no one, while the moronic Blue Labour guff turned out to be deeply damaging.  Politically, his leadership has worked to dampen and contain resistance to the cuts within the labour movement.  This is in some ways just the classic mediating function of social democracy - don't struggle, just vote for us and we will bargain a better deal for you.  But when this mediating function is captive to the logic of neoliberalism, the practical difference that Labour can offer is woefully inadequate.

Harriet Harman, who is far from the worst in Labour's leadership, showed the paucity of Labour's analysis when she insisted that 1) this result in Bradford a purely regional phenomenon, with no wider ramifications, and 2) this has nothing to do with Labour's failure to oppose, since "We've had a completely different argument from the Tories, arguing that they are cutting too far, too fast."  The latter, of course, is not "a completely different argument".  It is an argument which accepts the principle of austerity; which is to say, it is an argument which accepts that working class people have to put up with a generation being lost to joblessness, with tuition fees, privatization, service cuts, benefit cuts, and the evisceration of local infrastructure.  The real problem is that Labour has no sense of how to oppose the coalition, because it has preemptively conceded most of the territory.  This is because Labour's leadership knows that if the party wins a general election, they have no intention whatever of adopting a fundamentally different course or of significantly reversing anything the Tories now implement.

And of course, it isn't just Bradford West.  There were regionally specific factors assisting Galloway's victory, above all the local hatred for the managerial, machine politics of the Labour establishment.  But that machine has been in place for a long time.  Nor is it just a question of Muslim voters being disaffected with Labour.  The fact that some of the poorest and most oppressed workers in the UK have also been most willing to vote for left-wing candidates shouldn't even raise an eyebrow.  It is obvious, or at least it should be to marxists.  If it was only Muslims who could be reached on such an agenda, that might be a cause for concern, but Galloway gained more than 50% of the vote by mobilising a multiracial coalition.  This was a working class vote for a left-wing mandate.  It reflects not just polarization over austerity, a generational transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich, but also Labour's thus far hapless response.  The landslide for the SNP and Scottish Labour's ongoing problems, particularly in Glasgow, discloses essentially the same dynamic.  It has yet to be tested, but I think Plaid Cymru's new left-wing leadership could seriously strain Labour's presence in Wales.  And the Greens' Brighton victory in 2010 shows that wherever there is a serious left-of-Labour challenger, Labour has something to worry about.  Galloway had it right in his victory speech: Labour "must stop imagining that working people and poor people have no option but to support them if they hate the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition partners."  

Of course this opens a space, no more than that, for some sort of left-of-Labour formation.  We should not be thinking purely or even mainly in electoral terms.  Labour's crisis is part of an organic crisis which is engulfing all the parties, and which is changing the relationship between those parties and their social base.  It is not just a question of masses fleeing from old banners and flocking under new banners.  Those parties which temporarily gain from social democracy's paralysis and breakdown only to emulate the social democrats in their basic mode of organization, often find themselves implicated in the same processes of breakdown.  What this crisis is doing is raising the question of new modes of organization, new ways in which masses relate to parties.  We know, for example, that there are going to be intense social struggles in the next few years, and orienting properly to those is even more important than exploiting electoral openings.  A formation of the militant, anti-cuts left is surely a reasonable goal in these circumstances.  

There's another reason why it is important to recognise and act on this opportunity now.  The question of austerity was never going to be resolved solely at the level of industrial conflict.  The lesson of austerity is precisely that it is at the level of politics that "that the contradictions of the economy are concentrated and that their ultimate resolution is decided."  In fact, even industrial struggles aren't won or lost purely at the level of industrial conflict.  Their success is partially contingent on the political 'line' that is won in those struggles, which depends on having a wider network of militants and activists plugged into every form of resistance, drawing and sharing lessons across the different fields of struggle, helping to overcome weakness and unevenness and resist the tendency of the union bureaucracy, particularly its Labour-affiliated right-wing, to retreat.  That requires a degree of coordination and unity on the militant left that has thus far been lacking.  More generally, the struggle against the cuts requires some degree of coordination between different levels and types of activity, and some form of organization that can negotiate a shift from one locus of struggle to another, as events progress.  We have already seen that things can look very bleak in the trade unions, then a student protest comes along and changes the whole calculus.  Likewise, a string of occupations can be winding down, only for a mass TUC-led anti-cuts protest to re-ignite the whole question.  Or, the situation can suddenly be radically re-polarized by a series of riots, and the presence or absence of a left with some weight can make all the difference.  And so on, and so on.  The fact is that 'austerity' is so comprehensive in its targets that its effects are likely to appear in aleatory and unpredictable ways at various points of antagonism.  Negotiating between and unifying these struggles is a strategic imperative, which is why I previously argued that the competing anti-cuts vessels of the Left should merge into a single flotilla.  I would now say there is space for a political organization which is more cohesive and ambitious in its objective; not a re-make of past models, nor a revamp of existing ones, but a new formation which quite deliberately sets out to organize and reconstitute those segments of the working class that are now well to the left of official Labourism.

The main obstacle to achieving something here is not the tenacity of Labourism so much as the weakness of the organized left at this stage.  But unlike the former, we can do something about the latter.  We can certainly solve any problems of organization that have dogged us in the past, provided we acknowledge them.  That's why the ostrich-like response of the monomaniacs who can only see Galloway's flaws, and only see the result as a victory for a vanity campaign, is particularly irresponsible.  It is a moralistic abdication of the duty to engage in a concrete analysis of concrete situations, to think through the strategic possibilities, to calculate the relative gains and risks of the courses that are now open to us.   As I see it, the onus is on the Left to act on this opportunity.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The sinister magic of Boris Johnson posted by Richard Seymour

My article for Open Democracy on Boris Johnson and London's mayoral contest:

In 2008, the outer ring of rich suburbs in the capital turned out en masse to elect Boris Johnson as their mayor. These suburbs, ripe in the spring air with the whiff of barbecues and bigotry, knew what they wanted. A mayor who would cut all the trendy programmes, put the frighteners on young thugs, sock it to the unions and practice a suitable ambiguity toward London’s unsettling multiculture...

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A short history of privatization in the UK posted by Richard Seymour

My latest in The Guardian explains the course of privatization over the last thirty years or so:

Royal Mail is being auctioned, and not necessarily to the highest bidder (and stamp prices are going up). The London fire brigade is outsourcing 999 calls to a firm called Capita, at the behest of the oleaginous chair of the capital's fire authority, Brian Coleman. Multinationals are circling hungrily around NHS hospitals. Schools are already beginning to turn a profit. In the technocratic nomenclature of the IMF, this would be called a "structural adjustment programme", but that doesn't really capture the sweeping scale of the transformation. We can see this through a potted history of privatisation in the UK...

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European meltdown posted by Richard Seymour

My article for Overland on the Eurozone meltdown is now available online:

Like ‘sex’ and ‘violence’, the words ‘Europe’ and ‘crisis’ seem to have a near permanent affinity these days. This constant conjunction tells us that the nature of the crisis is no transient thing. It is what Gramsci would have called an ‘organic crisis’, one that condenses multiple chronic problems at various levels of the system in a single, epochal spasm. Growth rates across the Eurozone are close to zero, unemployment is over 10 per cent on average – a figure masking extremes of joblessness in Greece and Spain. But it is not just an economic crisis. The Eurozone is a political creation, and it is at the level of politics that the strains are manifested at their highest level. Repeated sovereign debt crises threaten debt default, the withdrawal of economies from the euro currency and the ultimate collapse of that currency. The material basis for the European Union (EU) to continue to exist in its present form is endangered, and the solutions only seem to exacerbate the problem.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The late Christopher Hitchens posted by Richard Seymour

My autopsy of the late Hitchens, in the form of a review of Hitch-22, is now available on the ISJ website:

The strength of Hitch-22 is that it makes a serious effort to recall how it felt to be a different kind of person, to feel otherwise about the world, without trying to repudiate it. The weakness of Hitch-22 is that where it does attempt to resolve the amassing contradictions of Hitchens’s persona, it is largely through solipsistic devices of the kind “I would have suspected myself more if…” and “I wasn’t about to be told…”. The resulting memoir is an alternately riveting and sickening tribute to the late author’s narcissism...

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the history of lynching posted by Richard Seymour

What is lynching?  In its prevalent forms in American history, it appears as the administration of racial formations through terror.  The mutilation, shaming and degrading of black bodies, and also the corpses being retrieved and displayed as trophies, was intended to maintain the symbolic subjection of black people to, in bell hooks' formulation, "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy".  I stress the symbolic as a material element in racial oppression, because the problem of etiquette, of racial manners, was invariably central to such violence.  Night-riders and lynch mobs were the enforcers of this etiquette.  We know it's a peculiar problem in Jim Crow, the thousand and one rules and codes that crowded the field of sociality, exchange, transport, production and so on. 

As Howard Winant explains, black people were expected to "remove their hats in the presence of whites, to step off the sidewalk (where one existed) into the muddy street at the passage of a white, and to wait in such shops as would serve blacks until all whites had been served, no matter who had arrived first".  One finds this everywhere.  Not just in the segregated public accomodations, but in the sites of production, the factories, the textile mills, where black labour was menial and expected to be deferential.  If there is a white woman walking down a corridor, you step out of it until she passes.  You don't speak to a white person unless they address you.  If you need the toilet, you walk out of the building and several hundred yards to the facility marked "colored".  So much, we all know.  And what does it tell us about the social order?  The South's theologians, ideologists and apologists hailed the region as a sort of classical, Athenian structure, a gentle, stable and aristocratic community. Yet the first infringement of one of the region's rituals could result in an explosion of violence, as if the antagonisms pervading the whole formation were suddenly displaced onto one symbolic crux.

But this doesn't capture the whole problem.  For the organization of political violence in American history is unusual in some respects, in that the whole history of countersubversive (anti-radical, anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-black) violence is one in which the state's monopoly on legitimate violence is deputised to sections of the citizenry.  The invocation of the 'right to bear arms' has almost always been made in this sort of context, as during the trials of Klansmen in the Reconstruction period.  And it is in this sort of area of political violence, where citizens were de facto deputised by states according to illicit hierarchies and instructions, whether it was Klan, minute men, FBI mobs, or Pinkertons, that parapolitics has a peculiar role in American history and politics.  Occasionally, the logic has been subverted, as when Black Panthers invoked this right to defend themselves against police criminality - one of the few such invocations of the 'right to bear arms' where the state's monopoly of the legitimate use of force has genuinely been challenged.  But this violence was precisely not legitimized, whereas lynchings, employer violence, the 'disappearing' of militants, and so on, often has been legitimized.  In the shift from Jim Crow to the penal administration of race, which required that the black criminality be identified through increasingly sophisticated classifications, codes and statutes, the 'right to bear arms' has most often been raised in the context of white self-defence.  Citizens have often been allowed to wield punitive or capital violence when certain social norms or classifications were tested and defied; their violence has been legitimized because at the very least they have not been sanctioned.

But there is one other facet of this, which is the spatial re-ordering of American cities and towns.  The racial aspect of this is familiar enough that I don't need to rehearse it here: the construction of 'the ghetto', 'white flight', the displacement of segregation from county to neighbourhood level.  But of course this spatial re-organization is also way of structuring class power, as well as of preserving certain (patriarchal, conservative) social forms.  The emergence of 'private towns' signals another twist in the delegation of state power sanctioned by the doctrine of property rights.  In a previous post, I mentioned 'Leisure World' of Arizona, where constitutional protections are seemingly suspended, where the board of directors censors published material at will, precisely as one might in one's own household, or one's own company. In these zones, Mexicans and other people of colour may work, but in total silence. If they say anything to the whites who live there, they're out. The so-called 'gated community' is a related phenomenon, not quite as extreme in the internal controls available to its owners, but obviously protected with civilian violence - security guards, neighbourhood watch, armed citizen vigilantes, all do their share.  It is in the context of territorial property rights, concerning households especially, but certainly gated communities and private towns, that stand-your-ground laws allowing for killing in 'self-defence' have been most available to legitimize this kind of violence.

Trayvon Martin was murdered while walking through a gated community in Miami known as Twin Lakes.  His killer, George Zimmerman, has not been arrested.  In fact, judging from witness statements, the police have taken quite extraordinary steps to avoid arresting him.  Zimmerman had a long-standing relationship with local police, inasmuch as he was constantly in contact with them to report disturbances, suspicious sightings, windows left open and so on.  It seems likely that they knew who he was, and what a vigilant citizen he was.  Indeed, it seems probable that they shared many of his concerns, as their officers were known to have worries about black vagrancy and criminality.  Neighbourhood Watch knew Zimmerman well, knew that he was always alert to the possibility of young black men who may be outsiders coming into the gated community.  The security guards who defend local properties have displayed similar concerns, in one case shooting a black man while he was in his vehicle.  They cited self-defence, claiming that he was driving toward them and about to run them over, although autopsy reports show that he was shot in the back.  The judge threw out the case for lack of evidence.  Of course, we have abundant examples, of which the execution of Troy Davis is just one, of just how racialised the question of evidence is.  

But the point to make here is that while Zimmerman acted alone, he did not act in isolation, at odds with the expectations of police, or with the social norms current in the gated community.  He saw a young black man walking around the gated community.  To him, as to any officer, or security guard, or citizen vigilante, this was 'suspicious'.  His presence was not in keeping with racial etiquette.  His behaviour, walking slowly and looking at the houses of the well-off in the rain, suggested a deranged, drugged mind - because it is not done.  Not in this neighbourhood, not in this community, and not in this town.  Zimmerman acted expeditiously to suppress this symbolic infringement.  Perhaps he spoke to Trayvon Martin, perhaps he challenged him about his behaviour, queried his motive for being there, instructed him to move along with more haste.  But, whether because cooperation was not forthcoming, or because it was too late for the infringement to be remedied, he resolved the problem finally by putting an end to Martin's life, blasting his chest open.  

Geraldo Rivera thinks the murder happened because Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie, and thus sending out a signal that he was a gangster.  However morally cretinous this suggestion is, give Rivera credit for having some intuition about the politics of racial symbolism.  He means that the murder victim is partly to blame for his death, because this symbolic action, wearing a hoodie, identifies one as someone who should be killed.  He cannot help partially sharing the point of view of the killer, understanding the anxiety and horror that such sassing, such brazen boldness, such reckless wearing, walking and looking, provokes.  He partially shares the point of view of the killer and that's why gets it: hey, if you don't want to get shot, don't go out looking like a punk.  If you don't want to get shot, don't loiter, stand up straight, dress properly, show some manners.  For there are points in the administration of America's increasingly jittery racial class system, where it seems that everything rides on this symbolic order and its maintenance.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Marxism and the rule of law posted by Richard Seymour

"Hobbes has said that laws without the sword are but bits of parchment ... but without the laws the sword is but a piece of Iron."  - Coleridge, quoted in Derek Sayer & Philip Corrigan, 'The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution'.

What is the law?  We are all obliged to know it; ignorance is no excuse.  Yet, we are never taught anything about it at school.  Only a professional minority, of solicitors, state administrators, judges, police and so on, actually know what is involved.  Protesters, campaigners, occupiers and strikers are often obliged to undertake a crash course in specialized fields of the law in order to fight on its terms.

What we understand about law is overwhelmingly derived from popular culture, which is to say that our understanding of law is intensely ideological.  We learn that law is the insurance against violence, the antithesis of terror.  The rule of law is opposed to both the unrestrained 'mob' and the unrestrained state.  This claim, dichotomising law and violence as it does, is central to the law's legitimacy, and thus to the legitimacy of the capitalist state. As such, it disarms those who in the course of their struggles must account for the state, understand it, and contend with it.

What follows, then, is one attempt to navigate beyond this impasse.  I hasten to say that this is intended as the beginning of an argument, since I can't claim to have resolved every tension or lacuna in my position.  I will also say upfront that it tries to solve the problem in a largely formal way with only incidental references, by way of examples, to the kinds of historical data that will stand up the argument presented here.  That is mainly to keep the argument under some sort of control.  Doing the subject historical and historiographical justice would require a book, and I don't know how to write one of those.

The 'rule of law' as congealed violence
There are those on the Left who adopt a version the law-violence dichotomy.   E P Thompson, as I mentioned in a previous post, was one of those.  In a concluding discussion in his book, Whigs and Hunters: Origin of the Black Act, Thompson acknowledges the structural selectivity of law, asserting not merely that it has been used as an 'instrument' by the ruling class, but that its very form has been such that it tends to produce outcomes favourable to the reproduction of class domination.  Nonetheless, he reaches this striking conclusion in defence of the 'rule of law':   

"I am not starry-eyed about this at all. This has not been a star-struck book. I am insisting only upon the obvious point, which some modern Marxists have overlooked, that there is a difference between arbitrary power and the rule of law. We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath this law. But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions upon power and the defence of the citizen from power's all-intrusive claims, seems to me to be an unqualified human good. To deny or belittle this good is, in this dangerous century when the resources and pretentious of power continue to enlarge, a desperate error of intellectual abstraction. More than this, it is a self-fulfilling error, which encourages us to give up the struggle against bad laws and class-bound procedures, and to disarm ourselves before power. It is to throw away a whole inheritance of struggle about law, and within the forms of law, whose continuity can never be fractured without bringing men and women into immediate danger."  [Emphasis added]

In assessing this, I think we have to take into account the related contexts of Thompson's theoretical commitments and his politics of socialist humanism.  In his famed attack on Althusser, The Poverty of Theory, one of the points he made was that law did not politely keep to one level, but could be found busily constituting and mediating conflicts at every level of society.  He thus rejected the base-superstructure metaphor, and particularly the althusserian version which held that the different levels of this structure were 'relatively autonomous'.  The same argument can be found in Whigs and Hunters, which draws out what is intended to be an implication of this: law is not merely a superstructural imposition 'from above', but a medium through which the oppressed and exploited conducted their struggles.  Thus the ideology of the 'freeborn Englishman' could be estimated an excellent one, the 'notion' of the rule of law and its supposed equity an unqualified human good.  The challenge was to compel the law to live up to its promise, and the ultimate condition for its fulfilment was the abolition of the class systems which perverted and distorted the law.

Politically, this commitment was related to Thompson's rejection of Stalinism.  It requires no great stretch of the imagination to see why a certain radical English liberalism would be a comfort in the face of 'totalitarian' Eastern tyranny: the gap between 'arbitrary power' and 'the rule of law' seems quite obvious when separated by an iron curtain.  (I don't suggest that Stalinism was actually characterised by an absence of the 'rule of law', but I think that's implicit in Thompson's view, just as it is explicit in many marxist accounts of Nazi rule).  Of at least equal import, though, is his political disappointment, his retirement from activism by the late 1960s, and his complete befuddlement and hostility in the face of the second New Left.  Thompson's weary impatience with young marxists bemoaning 'the fuzz' is of a piece with his disdain for May 1968 as "a rich kid's revolutionary farce", his wariness about Third World revolution, trendy Parisian philosophers and all of the concerns of the New Left which struck him as either modish or politically immature.  To this extent, 'Stalinism' could function as a polemical convenience, enfolding within its compass a range of political and theoretical positions which were disagreeable to the English idiom and romantic moralism that he unapologetically deployed.  In this sense, I think Thompson bears out Althusser's claim that the post-1956 turn to humanism among formerly Stalinized marxists represented a 'right-wing' de-Stalinization; the introduction of feeble bourgeois ideologies of 'liberty' and 'humanity' into marxism was but the mood music for a rapprochement with liberalism.  Still, there are stronger grounds on which one might criticise Thompson's account here, chief among which is that his anti-theoreticist and empiricist tendencies, leave him without the theoretical means to fully break with the 'instrumentalist' account of the law that he is criticising.  I'll come back to this.

Another example of a leftist defence of the law, from a left-reformist perspective, would be Ian Taylor's arguments which were influential on the Labour Left in the early 1980s.  In his article 'Against Crime and For Socialism', Taylor sought to define a leftist defence of law in the context of growing social turmoil and dislocation arising from capitalist crisis and Thatcherite austerity.  The idea was that the left had failed to produce a convincing answer to popular anxieties about crime, largely because it was stuck in two irrelevant analytical modes: either revolutionary anti-statism, or social democratic authoritarianism.  Any analysis which began with a monolithic view of the state, as an instrument for class domination or an uncontested terrain dominated by a single class interest, was intellectually simplistic and strategically barren.  Taylor's argument suggested that law and the state were contested terrains, and he championed the 'community' response to crime favoured by the Bennite Left, organizing local campaigns while imposing democratic and accountable structures on the police so far as possible.  The obverse of this 'community' based politics was a reproach to criminality as anti-social behaviour.  Crime, he argued, was an ideological category which worked on real social material to produce the phenomenon of 'underclass' or 'lower class' criminality.  Thus, the left had to challenge the ideology by displacing the real content from its rightist-populist articulations.  The argument that criminality derived from despair, worklessness, inequality and poverty would not do.  Rather, criminal behaviour was really a kind of self-interested enterprise, distributed across classes in different ways, and a product largely of capitalist individualism.  Among the 'lower class' elements, crime arose from the breakdown of solidaristic communities, or from layers that had never been part of a cohesive, 'respectable' working class.  Social order was worth defending against this sort of predation; policing was an absolute necessity; but it had to be conducted on a popular socialist basis which simultaneously deployed policies to rebuild and stabilise afflicted communities.

This was a very common argument on sections of the Left, especially in the context of E P Thompson's intervention.  Stripped of its more radical prescriptions, the basic analysis of crime as anti-social individualism became the basis for a new authoritarianism within the Labour Party, eventually grounding Tony Blair's 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' campaign and New Labour's punitive campaigns against anti-social behaviour.  Of course, this idea of crime as a form of self-interested enterprise was also offered as an explanation for last summer's riots.  It is vapid: capitalist individualism is everywhere, but crime is not.  Nor is crime necessarily conducted on the basis of 'rational self-interest'.  For all the frankly idiotic commentary freaking out about the theft of consumer goods during the riots, one thing that stood out was the frequency with which those involved acted without reference to material self-aggrandisement, often placing themselves in harm's way in order to conduct sometimes successful but ultimately futile fights with the law.  Altruism, group solidarity and a desire for collective adventure and liberation were salient features of the riots.  Part of the problem here is polysemy: that is, it can mean so many things to say, as Taylor does, that law is ideology.  Quite what that means in practice depends on your conception of ideology and its scope.  I would argue that Taylor, influenced by certain Gramscian motifs, treated 'crime' as an ideological category only inasmuch as it was manipulated by the Right, not inasmuch as it was produced by the ideological action of the law itself.  But again, this I will return to.
What I want to stress is that these kinds of arguments, correctly attempting to oppose a simple theory of law as an expression of class domination, miss what is central to law.  It isn't adequate to say that law mediates the actions of the powerful, and that such mediation is an improvement on unmediated power.  There is no such thing as unmediated power: no way that power could not be materialized in a particular medium.  And what is the medium here?  What accounts for the 'lawness' of law?  Wherein resides the specific aspect that makes legality what it is?  I will develop an argument about this, but the first clue is the constant presence of violence.  If law is a scene of contestation, what decides is violence.  If law has an imperative character, what gives it compulsory force is violence.  To the extent that law is operative at all, it is nothing other than "congealed violence".  Law is, in this aspect, nothing other than a particular organization of violence.

An example from history.  In a previous post, I discussed the 'Massive Resistance' mounted by Southern states in the wake of Brown vs. the Board of Education.  A series of Supreme Court rulings, from Smith vs. Allwright to Brown vs. the Board of Education, and then subsequent fast-track endorsement of the federal government's right to impose Voting Rights, challenged the white supremacist system in various of its aspects.  There was no claim here that the Court was interested in immediate reform.  The approach was to phrase such decisions in such a way as to grant maximum leverage to Southern states in the timing, scale and manner in which they de-segregated.

Importantly, much of the relevant scholarship is explicit in stating that the outcome of these arguments was determined less by the juridical arguments, deduction-from-precedent and so on, than by politics. It was the more centralized, 'interventionist' state arising from the 'New Deal', and a judiciary reconfigured by FDR, that made the difference in a very short space of time between a pro-segregation Supreme Court and one that was imposing reform. Later, the Truman administration's amicus curiae on the international ramifications of segregation made all the difference in Brown vs. the Board of Education. Putting a marxist gloss on this, I argued that underlying this development was i) the rise of monopoly capital and inter-regional firms requiring a further centralization and rationalization of the state of a kind that had begun in the 1910s, and having a different relationship to racial formations than plantation or textile capital, ii) the strategic shift in the Democratic Party's base in response to the emergence of an immigrant working class vote in the North, union insurgency and the growth of the African American vote outside of the South, and iii) the delayed emergence of a civil rights movement effectively deploying disruptive power to force the question and lever open divisions within the ruling class.

At any rate, this process - a Second Reconstruction by many accounts - necessitated the re-organization of state violence in the constitution of class relations. This was manifested quite literally in the federalization of national guards, the use of 101st Airborne, and so on, to physically coerce local state authorities into complying and dropping the various city ordinances, state laws, policing and parapolitical operations comprising 'Massive Resistance'. Between the state of Kentucky and the central state, force (not 'sovereignty', 'states' rights', the constitution, etc.) decided.  Law revealed itself to be, in a sense, nothing but congealed violence.

Between Unequal Rights: against the heuristic of formal equality vs. inequitable content
'Equality before the law' is a cardinal principle of liberal-democratic ideology, and it is one that historians like E P Thompson, and sympathetic theorists, have taken very seriously.  Thompson's critique of the inequities of law, of unjust law, took as its standard the principle of legal equity itself: of the civil and political rights of the 'freeborn Englishman'.  A certain type of marxist critique of this notion holds that it is a purely formal equality which conceals or conveys a content of inequality.  Such, as we will see, is the position of Evgeny Pashukanis.  This is not to say that such a critique must deny the efficacy of formal equality - on the contrary, Pashukanis' work is an attempt to comprehend this formal equality as part of the fundamental, cellular structure of law.  But it involves a different emphasis.  It is not that the law poses a standard of equality which it doesn't realise in practice, but rather that the legal relationship between abstract, formally equal individuals is just the form that class domination takes in a capitalist society characterised by generalised commodity exchange.

Against both interpretations, which actually converge in some of their fundamental assumptions, I want to suggest that the law does not give us formal equality.  Agents are assigned a bundle of rights and obligations depending on their location within the relations of production, such that their formal legal position with respect to one another, irrespective of how these rights and obligations are realised or elaborated in the process of jurisprudence, is not one of equality.  At the most simple level, a capitalist is not equal with a worker, even at the 'formal' legal level.  It will surely be objected that this refers to the substantive content of law, not its form.  Such a reproach is related to schools which treat the legal form as a foundational grammar of abstract legal subjects derived from certain aspects of the capitalist mode of production - most notably, as mentioned, the Pashukanis school which treats the legal form as a derivative of or homologous with the commodity form.  But I don't think the 'form' of law is restricted to its most abstract expression, even if one accepts the grammar of the commodity-law homology.  There are different levels of abstraction at which 'form' makes itself known.  Putting it like this entails that, if the form-content dichotomy is to be useful, it must be revised.  In its current articulation, it seems as if form is something settled at the highest level of abstraction, and content is settled at the highest level of concreteness.  Arguably, however, one finds 'form' and a corresponding 'content' from the first abstraction to the last concrete-in-thought.

As importantly, I am inclined to doubt that the commodity form theory explains what it is supposed to.  Let me reiterate the problem briefly.  The question of the 'legalness' of law comes up for a number of reasons.  First, because in order to truly understand the iniquitous 'content' of law it must be stated why that 'content' - class power, racism, patriarchy, etc - takes the 'form' that it does.  Second, because it is not possible to understand what law does in capitalism specifically, and in particular social formations, without understanding what makes it law in the first place.  That is, what is definitive of law across historical epochs and modes of production, and what is specific to this mode of production.  The Pashukanisian argument is that the legal form is the commodity form; that legal relations first appear in the exchange of commodities between formally free and equal subjects. The commodity relation depends on the items for sale being exchanged between formally equal subjects, who each enter the transaction as voluntary participants, as bearers of rights, particularly property rights.  And it is through this relationship that the legal form is "congealed violence".  For in such transactions, inescapably, there is the potential for one party to alienate the property of the other without consent, which must not happen if it is to be a true commodity relationship.  In the real process of such transactions, of course, coercion almost always intervenes in some way and at some level.  Either it structures the contract of exchange itself, or it calls into question the interpretation of the contract, thus producing a process of legal argument that can ultimately only be terminated through superior violence.  So it is that the grammar of abstract, formally equal legal subjects 'congeals' violence and domination, and the main forms of violence are of course class violence.  It is not that law's promise of equality simply can't be realised in the capitalist mode of production, but rather that this formal equality is the language that class domination under capitalism must speak in.

This seems to answer a number of problems.  First of all, it offers an apparently smooth transition between the determinant structure, the commodity form, and the resulting superstructure, law.  Second, it seems to allow us to pinpoint both the historical continuity of law and its discontinuity: the commodity form may explain the legal form in general, but it is only with the generalization of commodity circulation under capitalism that law expands from localised instances of contract to a universal structure.  Third, it seems to show the precise moment at which violence and consent are mutually articulated in the legal form.  It is so elegant a solution, and absolutely consistent with certain lines of Marx's thought.  But still, I don't think it does quite what it seems to.  First, the smoothness of the transition here is only apparent - unless the homology is reduced to sheer coincidence, unless the legal form just is the commodity form.  The latter is, I think, China Mieville's position.  In what appears to be a deft theoretical innovation, he argues that the law is split between the legal form, which is the commodity form and is proper to the base, and the practice of law, which is a superstructural phenomenon.  Thus, the legal form is but a particular juridical iteration of the commodity form, which is activated and materialized at a different (superstructural, political-ideological) level. 

Again, this is an attractive solution, but I will stick to my position.  I think this conception is inseparable from a set of positions on the base-superstructure controversy which are perfectly arguable but which I suggest we reject. First, China, following Pashukanis, rejects the analysis of law as ideology on the grounds that it reduces law to a set of ideas in people's heads.  Yes, there are all sorts of ideological aspects to, and ramifications of, the law; but, per Pashukanis, we must seek the "objective reality" of law "in the outside world", as opposed to merely the "subjective reality".  This desire to find the specific materiality of the law is part of the reason why Pashukanis tries to trace the legal form to the base, into which he subsumes commodity circulation.  As I will argue in a moment, however, this rests on an unnecessarily reductive conception of ideology.  In fact, it is an idealist conception of ideology which is at fault here, not the suggestion that law is ideology.  Althusser's argument that ideology consists of  "material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals" strikes me as the beginning of a superior approach.

Second, relatedly, the argument seems to me to rest on the idea that the superstructure stands in a purely external relationship to the base.  Thus, if the legal form just is the commodity form in a juridical iteration, it must belong to the base, forming part of the foundational structure that will then give rise to a superstructure in which the class-determined 'content' of law will be elaborated.  If, however, you don't assume this relationship of exteriority, it makes sense to see the different levels of the structure as being imbricated, mutually articulated.  Ideology, politics, law, etc., are constantly iterating different aspects of productive relations in their own idiom, constantly intervening, constantly constituting and being constituted by those relations.  And I would say that the fact that there is a juridical iteration indicates that it is already a superstructural phenomenon.  In itself, accepting this way of looking at it doesn't have to pose a problem for the Pashukanis school.  It is quite possible for this juridical iteration of the commodity form to be a superstructural form and still comprise the cellular structure of law.  However, this does allow us to displace the problem.  With Pashukanis, we're trying to locate the materiality of the law in a property of the infrastructure.  Instead, we can now think about ways in which the mutual articulation of infrastructural and superstructural levels determines both the form and content of law.  And that means, we can allow that the form of law is determined by more than one property of the infrastructure, by more than commodity circulation - we can introduce, at different levels of abstraction, productive relations, the social and technical division of labour, the geo-economic unity of a social formation, class struggle and so on.

Moreover, it enables us to think the continuity and discontinuity of law in a far more specific way.  In the Pashukanisian scheme, the emergence and persistence of law is coterminous with the emergence and persistence of markets and commodity trade.  What persists is the basic legal form. Similarly, the change taking place between pre-capitalist and capitalist legality is seen mainly at a quantitative level: ie, in a shift from localised instantiations of the legal form to its universalization.  I think something more than a quantitative shift takes place.  Even at the level of the commodity form itself, there is a qualitative transformation.  In precapitalist, 'simple' circulation, the relationship of commodities to the social division of labour, and thus the commodity relation itself, is completely different.  Many of the inputs of existing commodities have not themselves been commodified; labour has not been generally waged.  The transaction is much more directly determined by political force, or rather by traditional rules, by notions of a 'fair price' arising from religious and political intervention appropriate to feudal social relations, and so it is not necessarily an exchange of equivalents.  In fact, unequal exchange in buying and selling must be considered the norm in pre-capitalist commodity circulation.  The relation of equivalency only seems to operate where the law of value operates; that is, where exchange value understood as the amount of socially necessary labour time embodied in a commodity, is operative.  That is, the commodity form only assumes the form of the exchange of equivalents, requiring the abstract legal subjects which we are invited to see as the universal grammar of law, under capitalism.  It is not that certain formal aspects of the exchange - the act of production for exchange, the use of an exchange medium, the juridical iteration of the exchange relationship - don't stay the same.  It is that the formal aspect which is supposed to ground the legal form changes entirely.

This makes it, I maintain, the wrong axis of continuity.  I maintain instead that we must have an account of law that can incorporate pre-capitalist legal forms: theological jurisprudence such as Shari'a, law that is derivative of religious ritual such as Roman law, different forms of customary law, the Hammurabi Code, etc etc.  That is, an account of law that can comprehend forms which are not predicated on an abstract formally equal legal subjects, whose subjects are explicitly hierarchically differentiated, and which are associated with imposition (thesmos) as much as contract (nomos).  It must allow us to encompass the dense networks of legal relations which in precapitalist as in capitalist societies extend well beyond the sphere of commodity circulation and are decidely not equitable relations.  Such an approach will of necessity not permit the conclusion that bourgeois standards of equality are embedded in the legal form itself at its most abstract level, in its 'timeless structures'.  The legal relation is only infrequently in history one between equal subjects or between equal rights, and then only in a certain abstract manner relating to certain social classifications (citizenship).  Far more pervasively, it is a relation between unequal subjects - not just unequal individuals but corporate subjects, states, and so on - unequally endowed with rights and obligations. 

Law as ideology
The solution as I see it is to return to the concept of law as ideology; that is, as a particular element in a mode of production that is proper to the ideological superstructure.  Since the different levels and elements are always-already mutually articulated, their specific form and content (including the appearance of the 'relative independence', as per Franz Neumann, of the legal order) will depend on their articulation in a mode of production and the site of its realization, the social formation.  But that still leaves wide open the question of what kind of ideology it is, and why it takes form it does.  I have cited Althusser's claim that ideology comprises "material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals".  If one thinks of the actions of the police officer, the practices of the police bureaucracy, the rituals of the justice system (naturally, my mind gravitates toward HUAC, SISS, and other instances of ritualised repression, but arguably ritual governs the whole field), the action of the law does seem to conform to this characterization.  Of course, for Althusser, the materiality of ideology was inseparably coextensive with the materiality of the state: hence, ideological-state apparatuses.  So, it would seem appropriate to talk about the state.  To be frank, we cannot talk about law any longer without somehow referring it back to the state's constitutive action.

There is a misplaced concreteness that is invested in the state (including by Pashukanis), in which its materiality inheres in a machinery or instrument of domination.  But this spurious institutional determinacy, based on the 'public' kernel of prisons, armed men, etc., will not hold. The state spreads itself over a much wider field than this, and constitutes areas of life that are supposedly 'private' (in part through the very public-private binary that it sustains). The materiality of the state resides in the relations of forces that it condenses in its institutional sites of power and, through its practices, its action at various levels of the social formation.  Part of this action takes the form of symbolic production, moral regulation, the production of social classifications and, as a corollary, the punishment of symbolic and moral trespass, the disruption of its classifications, etc.  This means that violence is immanent to its action, whether or not violence is immediately deployed.  And it is in this sense that I argue that law occupies the position of an ideological relation within the state's strategic field.  It is in this sense that legality appears as both at one and the same time the dominant mode of legitimacy, of consensus, and the mode in which terror and repression is constantly brought to bear in shaping the social body.   

This brings me to my first attempt to say something definitive about law: Law is the dominant form of the dominant ideology concretized in practices which are permanently inscribed with political violence.  In saying this, I do not mean that the dominant ideology or the legitimacy of the law is simply uncontested.  Nor do I mean that the dominant ideology is just the ideology of a single class, and that therefore law is nothing but the execution of the 'will' or interests of that class.  Rather, it is through contestation and class struggle that the dominant ideology reproduces itself, not as a homogenous ideal substance but as a necessarily heterogenous formation comprising elements of popular ideology which have been absorbed and their oppositional character neutralised.  Poulantzas, strongly influenced by Gramsci, incorporated this into his theoretical architecture more successfully than Althusser.  To this extent, following Poulantzas, we can say that law is a juridical condensation of the relations of forces in the social formation that it rules.

But there is a peculiar characteristic of law as ideology, which is its imperative, axiological-deductive character.  Whether the law's application is 'deduced' from a civil code, a constitution, or from a body of 'common law', it takes the form of a chain of juridical logic, the unfolding of a set of determinations from a body of axioms and norms.  This is nothing other than a rationalized, predictable structure of domination and decision-making within the field of the state.  This rationalization is something that emerges from the double freeing of workers from the means of production, the social division of labour arising from this and the operation of the law of value as a homogenizing dynamic.  Its imperative aspect is accounted for by the immanence of political violence to its actualization.  Law in this sense is a mode of disciplinary power, an articulation of the dominant ideology (within a capitalist mode of production) with the political violence which secures its dominance

This brings me back to the question of formal equality.  I have said that law is usually not a relation between equal rights.  But the appearance of formal equality is not a bagatelle, not an optical illusion.  Rather, it does appear at different times in the sphere of legality, in certain forms of legal subjectivity.  Citizens are formally equal, even if capitalists and workers are not.  But it seems to me that this arises from the action of the political first and the legal second.  In terms of the formal equality prevalent in bourgeois democracy, it arises from a type of individualization created by the capitalist state.  The Pashukanis school argues that formal equality between empirically different individuals is strictly homologous with the formal equivalence between qualitatively different commodities.  In effect, (meaning, tendentiously put), the formal equality of individuals in law is a kind of exchange value of the subject.  But I think this takes for granted the individualization that it describes, and which forms the basis for the legal relation.

Either one must assume that the individuals thus mentioned are understood as 'biological' individuals (which I certainly think is implicit in Pashukanis, but is problematic because the existence of such individuals can in no way be just assumed), or the process of individualization must be assumed to have taken place through the commodity relationship itself (which I think is problematic because the relation between traders doesn't have to be a relation between individuals), or it must be something that emerges from the freeing of productive agents from territorial-personal bonds and the rupturing of the chains of signification cementing agents within that bondage. If it is the latter, as Poulantzas argues (I think convincingly), then this crucial link in the grammar of law is established by means of an effect of isolation which has roots in the atomization of productive agents in the capitalist division of labour, and is iterated at a juridico-political level by the capitalist state.  Thus, a capitalist type of individuality is produced.  And in the sense that individual subjects thus produced, juridico-political citizens, are all equally subject to the rule of law, formal equality prevails.  This is also simultaneously a totalising mechanism, inasmuch as these are subjects to the extent that they are incorporated within a national body, within the rule of law as such.

With this capitalist division of labour, the double freeing of labour from means of production, the replacement of tribute with the homogenisation of labour processes into abstract labour-time, comes a simultaneous granulation of social space into an imperfectly homogenised grid of locations (sites of production and consumption, as well as extended reproduction) in contrast with land-as-sovereign-body. The organization of production for surplus value entails rationalization, the bureaucratic standardization of units of space-time, the individualization and isolation of agents as competitive producers, the administration of production relations and thus of class antagonisms along scientific-rational and predictable lines. It entails the organization of political violence according to a system of rationalized axioms.  I think this accounts for the main chracteristics of law in its capitalist form.

This brings me back to the arguments from Thompson and Taylor which I was disputing at the start.  For they both correctly argue that the law is not just an instrument, but is also a field of contestation.  Yet they conclude from this that the law has a legitimate function which is the mediation of power, the suppression of violence, the containment of anti-social actions and so on.  What this misses is that law has this role only inasmuch as it is a mode of class domination: it only mediates class power inasmuch as it reproduces class power through its action; it only suppresses violence inasmuch as it is the organization of violence monopolized by the capitalist state; it only contains anti-social action in as much as the state defines, through the law, what is anti-social.  I said Thompson and Taylor don't fully break with the instrumentalist account of law and the state that they seem to reject, and this is true to the extent that their evaluations imply that the same apparatus can be inhabited and put to use by one or other class in support of any political objective; that any seeming structural selectivity is due to a misuse of the instrument which can be put right by proper use.  They also both greatly over-estimate and misunderstand the role of formal equity in the law.  It is not a promise that law makes, but which goes unrealised due to the distorting role of class power.  Rather, it is a juridico-political form which really does exist and is realised within the capitalist mode of production precisely as a mode in which the political and ideological dominance of the ruling class is secured.  That it is also the form in which this domination is provisionally and partially contested does not change this fundamental relationship.  To do away with class power is not to free law from its shackles and distortions, but to do away with law as such.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Standing replies on the 'precariat' posted by Richard Seymour

Following my recent article for the New Left Project on the 'precariat' and its misuses, which used Guy Standing's book on the subject as a foil for its polemical thrust, Standing has taken up a right to reply on the website.  In his piece, he attempts to defend not just the concept of the 'precariat' as he has defined it, but more importantly the body of research behind it and the strategic orientations arising from it.  I will be frank: I don't think the reply does Standing any good at all.  I hear his call for cool, dispassionate but thorough engagement, but must bluntly say that he has singularly failed to display this in his retort. Perhaps understandably, given the caustic tone of some of my comments, he is so angered by what I have said that he spends a great deal of time contriving 'gotchas', attempting to catch me in a gauche error or inconsistency.  This undermines the substantive case which he tries to make, which in itself would merit serious reflection.  So, I will begin by disposing of the 'gotchas', answer Standing's claim that I have misrepresented some crucial aspects of his work, and then try to say something useful about his broader theoretical and empirical arguments.

To begin with, Standing asserts that I attribute to him ideas that he doesn't hold. So, for example, he says that I misattribute to him the term "class-in-becoming". I don't specifically attribute that term to him, but even if I did, he does use the term "class-in-the-making", which is so close to identical as to make the objection petty. The same applies to Standing's complaint that he does not use the term 'proficiat': he uses the almost identical term 'proficians' to describe a class of professionals and technicians. In a similar gesture, Standing cheaply suggests that he could not have rejected Blue Labour when the book went to press. But he knows perfectly well that the reference is not to the book, but to his article in The Guardian dealing precisely with the subject of Blue Labour.

Standing goes on to represent my own position as unequivocally hostile to the notion of the 'precariat'. So, for example, he says that I reject the notion of the precariat as a "totally unsatisfactory concept", but then contradict myself by deploying the same concept. In fact, I say that "at present" it is unsatisfactory. I do not say that I "straightforwardly reject the term". I impute this position to many working within a marxist purview, and moreover go on to explicitly oppose such outright rejection. I say that the critics are wrong, that the concept "cannot be dismissed", that a "defensive cleaving to orthodoxy" will not suffice. The whole thrust of the article is an attempt to dis-embed the concept from its current articulation, which I think is problematic, and conceive of it in a wholly different light. This isn't so much "a matter of logic" as one of satisfactory engagement with opposing arguments. Standing alleges that in regard to the impact of neoliberalism on labour markets, I say that "nothing is 'new'". In fact, I say no such thing. Having identified several novel effects of neoliberalism, I say: "It is not the case that ‘precarity’ is a nonsense, therefore, nor even that there is nothing inherently novel about its present forms. Precarity is built into neoliberal capitalism". Further, "it would be mistaken to simply deny the changes that are taking place". And so on. Similarly, Standing attributes to me the claim that "job stability has not declined". In fact, he has taken this statement from a summary of a particular position which I explicitly reject. And when he complains that I attribute to him the claim that the precariat is analogous to the old lumpenproletariat, he misses the fact that a) I don't attribute an explicit claim of this kind to him, b) I am referring solely to its prognosticated role as a "monster", a "dangerous class", apt to play a leading role in a future fascist revival.

Matters are not improved much when Standing tries to find fault with my marxism. Thus, he finds an 'irony' in the fact that I cite Poulantzas, and that Poulantzas was (for a period) a 'disciple' of Althusser, who in turn was subject to a 'withering' (in fact, consistently bitter and ill-informed) critique by E P Thompson. All that Standing has done here is indicate that he is aware of some of the general intellectual context of these theoretical arguments, which is good for him but doesn't advance the debate one iota. Similarly, he maintains that I use "un-Marxian notions", and that my invocation of the "professional middle class" implies that there must be four classes in my schema. In fact, I am simply distinguishing between strata within the middle class: if the traditional petty bourgeoisie tended to comprise lone traders, small businessmen, artisans, and professionals operating independently, those I am describing as members of the "professional middle class" are those professionals who, rather than trading independently, are affiliated to the public sector and large corporations, (tending to comprise part of a global disciplinary apparatus), and thus have different patterns of autonomy and social power. I'm quite happy for this distinction to be reproved and argued with, whether on marxist or other grounds, but it would be better if this were done on the basis of what it is, rather than what it is not.

One could go on in this vein, but what is motivating this attempted debunking on Standing's part is disgruntlement with the way his work has been treated. He feels he has been misrepresented and, at that, in the most uncharitable ways. What he is most offended by is the sarcastic suggestion that he favours "the full commodification of pregnant women". Very well. It was a deliberately provocative claim, and only half in jest. But his response is not as reassuring as he perhaps imagines it to be. He says that the precariat should have the same entitlements as everyone else. So far, so unobjectionable. But he doesn't mention in his reply that in the book he actually means by this that maternity benefit should be abolished rather than reformed in a progressive direction, because such non-monetary benefits constitute a partial de-commodification of labour. The distinction he makes between supporting the full commodification of "labour" as an activity and the de-commodification of people as "labour power" will not hold. What Standing favours is the full marketization and commodification of jobs, and the job transaction involves the sale not of labour, but of labour power (ie, the ability to work for a period of so many hours in a week). Standing is quite explicit in that the commodification he favours involves abolishing non-monetary benefits such as maternity leave in favour of payment per hours. In short, the full commodification of pregnant women as labour power is, whether or not he likes the implication, exactly what he argues in favour of. And to this extent, despite the centre-left thrust of his politics and his support for mildly redistributive policies such as a modest minimum income guarantee, his attack on maternity benefits and support for a "free market" in labour is indistinguishable from the position of the Tory think-tank, the Social Market Foundation.

Standing also rejects the idea that he takes for granted Gorz's claim that the working class is finished. In fact, he says:

"The ‘working class’, ‘workers’ and the ‘proletariat’ were terms embedded in our culture for several centuries. People could describe themselves in class terms, and others would recognise them in those terms, by the way they dressed, spoke and conducted themselves. Today they are little more than evocative labels. Gorz (1982) wrote of ‘the end of the working class’ long ago."

Importantly, he leaves the argument at that, offering no reasons to think of it as correct - in other words, he takes Gorz's assessment 'for granted'.

On the substantive question of who the 'precariat' is, and how it is defined, Standing objects to my saying that his conception of the precariat involves a definition that is purely negative and critical in content. He argues that in saying so, I omit the radical, transformative aspects of precarious labour described in the book. This is a non-sequitur. I am not attributing to Standing a purely negative approach to precarious labour in a normative sense. I am saying that his definition contains no positive content, that the precariat is defined more by "what it is not than what it positively is". Nor will suffice to claim that Marx defined the proletariat in purely negative, critical terms. The 'two freedoms' are positive attributes: they do not merely distinguish the proletariat from the feudal peasantry, but stipulate specific relations between workers, the means of production, and other classes. The proletarian is free to sell her labour power to whomsoever she chooses, or not, and free from the means to do anything but sell her labour power. That is the meaning of the double freedom of the proletariat.

Yet, Standing insists that the precariat in his conception is also defined positively by reference to: "‘status dissonance’ ... “status frustration”, combined with unstable labour, systematic insecurity, a unique structure of social income ... and a high degree of work-for-labour". I take the point that he considers these to be positive attributes of the precariat, yet I find this rather thin as a definition. These are arguably effects of precarious labour, but they cannot form the basis for a positive definition of a class, since they say nothing about what makes the class what it is, what constitutes its relation to other classes, the principle of its reproduction as a class, and so on.

This is related to another point, where Standing, opposing "fanciful images of a united working class", insists that objective factors divide the old proletariat into new classes. In fact, this elides an important distinction. The unity of a class is something that is actively constructed and achieved at the level of politics, and cannot be assumed. The fact that classes are divided by numerous factors (fractionalised, segmented, and atomised), and at various levels of experience, is something that a class-based political strategy, including of the kind that Standing advocates, would certainly have to be aware of and counteract. But to argue that these divisions are such that the working class is split into new classes requires that one: a) clearly stipulate what defines the working class as such - ie what constitutes its relation to other classes, what is the principle of its formation as a class, by what means is it reproduced, etc.; and b) therefore explains what new principles of formation, reproduction and relationship to other classes defines the supposed new classes emerging from the division. Standing has at no point offered a satisfactory definition of the working class, resorting instead to a straw man 'labourism'. On this point, Standing also feels he has been misrepresented, stating that his critique of twentieth century 'labourism' is distinct from an attack on "traditional Labourism", and that by the former he means "the systematic equating of labour with work". In fact, he routinely uses the term 'labourism' to refer to something more than that: notably, the social democratic welfare state, full employment, corporatist bargaining, and so on. In the UK context, this just is "traditional Labourism", and it is this historical experience that he uses as his model of the working class against which to differentiate the 'precariat'. His definition of the precariat thus says nothing about what makes it a class. The factors of division that he adduces here (job security and occupational regulation) are not clearly explained as principles of class division. They could just as well work as axes of differentiation within classes.

Raising what would appear to be a fundamental problem of misinterpretation, Standing suggests that I miss the prognosis underpinning his book, making no distinction between labour and work, and thus not grasping the emancipatory potential in the recognition that labour is inherently 'alienating' and at odds with the humanistic conception of work. Here I will make two points. First, I didn't comment on this emancipatory ideology largely because it is secondary to the definition of the precariat as a class distinct from the proletariat. My argument, though it uses him as a foil, should not be confused with a review of Standing's book. Second, I have come to reject the problematic of alienation, as one founded on the superstition of 'human nature' upon which all humanisms must ultimately be based. I don't expect Standing to agree, but the point is that our terms are sufficiently incommensurate that any comment I would have made in this regard would have at least doubled the length of the original text and any ensuing exchange.

Methods and data
That Standing is a sociologist with a body of serious work and a research project extending back over decades is not in doubt. I say this because Standing has taken the trouble to point it out when it genuinely wasn't in question. So, one anticipates that when he raises methodological and statistical issues, he will do so in a rigorous and careful way. I will suggest that in this polemical context, he hasn't been as careful as he might have otherwise been.

First of all, he takes issue with my citation of the author Kevin Doogan. He is quite wrong to claim that I cite Doogan "without citing counter-arguments or evidence". In fact, I cite (in the context of the piece), a great deal of empirical data, only some of which is drawn from Doogan's book (other data was taken from the comparative sociologist Goran Therborn). Further, I do not simply second Doogan's conclusions. Doogan is cited as a theoretically and empirically robust critic of notions of precarious labour, but I specifically distance myself from the simple categorical rejection of such notions. Nor do I have any inherent objection to caveats regarding Doogan's use of statistics to make a case which, as I have made clear, I think tends to throw out the baby with the bathwater. However, Standing's rebuttal is problematic.

He complains that the ten tables supplied in chapter seven of Doogan's book specifically dealing with occupational change in OECD countries only cover a period up to 2002, suggesting that the data therefore doesn't cover a whole decade of change since then. It is true that "these were the only tables he provided" but these tables do not comprise the only relevant statistical data provided, much of which covers a period well after 2002. Nor is chapter seven the only relevant chapter of the book (most of my citations were drawn from chapter six, in which Standing's conception of employment security is briefly discussed). Not only that, but the period between 1983/1991 and 2002 covered by the tabulated data is relevant because it covers approx ten to twenty years during which neoliberalism was exerting its effects.

Nonetheless, should we be wary of this data? It doesn't show an average decline in the rates of long-term employment, but Standing argues that there is a factor concealed in all this, which is the ageing of the workforce during the period covered. This should have resulted in an increase in long-term employment, all other things being equal. Yet if the increase is only modest, then there must be a counter-acting trend away from long-term employment. This seems reasonable on the face of it, but there are a number of important factors that he doesn't mention. The first is that the periods covered were, on average, periods of employment expansion. This tends to means that the rate at which people are employed long-term relative to the total workforce will decline, as more new workers are incorporated into full-time work. I am not competent to say for certain which factor, ageing or employment expansion, exerts greater effects. I can only say that, based on the OECD data that Doogan supplies, the ageing of the workforce does not consistently result in an increase in the rate of long-term employment. Changing retirement patterns means that long-term employment declined among men aged 55-64. On balance, pending further research, I tend to think that if there is any underlying trend away from long-term employment, it is a very modest one counteracted by trends in the opposite direction.

The second issue unmentioned by Standing is that trends in long-term employment vary considerably. Although there is an average tendency for long-term employment to increase, it varies by demographic and economic sector. For those aged 25-34, the rate is declining significantly; for women 35 and over, it is increasing dramatically. Any decline in the rate of long term employment is, meanwhile, detectible mainly in specific economic sectors such as agriculture. To this extent, the case presented by Doogan, not satisfactorily rebutted by Standing, is that industrial re-structuring under neoliberalism is creating highly uneven effects which depend on sector and demographic, and thus don't conform to the typical portrait of a secular shift toward short-term and temporary labour.

Similarly, Standing asserts that the low rate of rate of temporary employment in the UK cannot be taken as a typical example of the scale of temporary labour and explains that he gives reasons in his book. It is correct that he repudiates the statistics for the UK and US due to their putatively restrictive definition of what constitutes temporary labour. Granting this point, it doesn't seem to work as an adequate rebuttal. The empirical data I raised was for the whole of the OECD, representing the wide variations within it. The figure for the UK was mentioned, literally, parenthetically. The point being made here was that "the changes are neither as epochal as some theorists would have it, nor are they uniform in their conditions or effects". I am not persuaded that Standing has made the case that there is an overall trend in capitalism toward habituating the majority to precarious labour.

I stand by my argument, in the absence of a persuasive case against it, that the 'precariat' is not a class. The arguments in favour of the precariat's existence as a class are at present too impressionistic to be convincing, and the data doesn't support the idea that its supposed characteristics are distributed in a manner indicative of class formation. I also cleave strongly to the point that precarity in employment is not distributed in the way that would be anticipated by post-industrial theories such as that advanced in Standing's book. Most of it is concentrated outside of the core capitalist economies, where there continues to be a large peasantry and where industrialization is in a relatively early phase - India, China, sub-Saharan Africa. This is no doubt in part because the global re-structuring of capitalist relations in the neoliberal period has involved actively displacing precarity to the margins. The extent to which this can continue to take place is limited by the severity of the global crisis. But this still doesn't support the claim that precarious labour is becoming the situation of the majority of workers in the core capitalist economies, much less that those in precarious labour are forming a class.

There is one final issue I would raise, which appears in Loic Wacquant's discussion of the 'precariat'. For Wacquant, the 'precariat' comprises the "insecure fringes of the new proletariat" rather than a class in itself. Nonetheless, since Standing views the precariat as a 'class-in-the-making', which he calls on to become a 'class-for-itself', Wacquant's observation on this prospect is relevant. He says: "the precariat is a sort of still-born group, whose gestation is necessarily unfinished since one can work to consolidate it only to help its members flee from it, either by finding a haven in stable wage labour or by escaping from the world of work altogether (through social redistribution and state protection). Contrary to the proletariat in the Marxist vision of history, which is called upon to abolish itself in the long term by uniting and universalizing itself, the precariat can only make itself to immediately unmake itself." And there lies the rub. If one were to truly address the specific problems associated with precarious labour, the distinct social characteristics that Standing says make the 'precariat' a class would mainly disappear. Unlike other classes, which are reproduced through class struggle (unless and until classes as such are abolished), the precariat would abolish itself as soon as it struggled as a class.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stop them before they kill posted by Richard Seymour

My piece at ABC Australia on the Kony 2012 humbug:

There's a shady crew roaming around Uganda which must be stopped. It is a dangerous personality cult, it openly calls for violence, and it uses children in its campaigns.

Its leaders have been seen waving guns around. We must catch them, disrupt their organisation by any means necessary, stop at nothing. We don't have long to act. The deadline expires at the end of 2012, after which it will be too late. We must stop Invisible Children before they do more harm. And I'm going to tell you how to do it.

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Free speech martyr posted by Richard Seymour

Azhar Ahmed is the latest victim of a concerted effort to re-define racism as "anything that could conceivably offend white people". Ahmed is being prosecuted by police over a statement he made on Facebook.  The police say it is a "racially aggravated public order offence".  

Look at the statement.  There is not a hint of racism in it.  To make it racist, one would have to assume that the troops were not just exclusively white, but somehow the bearer of whiteness in its essence.  Maybe they are in this day and age; maybe it is through imperialist action and its effects both domestically and internationally that whiteness is produced.  But the second assumption one would have to make is that white people are the victims of racist oppression by black people, Muslims and so on.  We'll come back to this. 

A spokesperson for Yorkshire police said: "He didn't make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother."  So, the penalty for not making a point "very well" is prosecution and potentially a sentence of up to six months in prison.  The suggestion, though, is that aside from being "racially aggravated" this statement constitutes an incitement to disorder.  Of course, it is considerably more even tempered than some sentiments I have expressed myself in the past, though I won't suffer arrest or prosecution for it.  In addition, the internet - and Facebook in particular - contains an abundance of pages that really do exist to incite violence.  Yet a Muslim sassing our brave boys is too much for the state.  Either this suggests that Muslims are an excitable brown rabble, apt to start cutting white people up at the merest hint of block capitals and exclamation marks, or it implies that it is the feelings of offended white people that must be protected, lest they be the ones who are incited.  Unsurprisingly the EDL and Casuals United dirt (may I say that, or is it "racially aggravated"?) are delighted.  Muslims won't be allowed to sass our brave boys now that the bizzies are 'on our side'.  Hurrah for the filth!  (Is that okay, or...?)

What is really at stake here?  Why are the police behaving like this?  The blog of the Index on Censorship website suggests that suspicion of Muslims voicing opposition to the troops is rooted in fear and suspicion resulting from 7/7.  To be honest, I think this is lame.  The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are not acting out of paranoia.  But the blog also makes another suggestion which gets close to the truth in my opinion: "Unconditional support for soldiers is now expected, even as we become increasingly unsure of what they’re doing out there. From the most ardent supporter of the war to the most strident critic, everyone claims to be acting in the interest of Our Brave Boys. This is now not a matter of politics, but loyalty ... the “racially aggravated” charge doesn’t stick, unless one is willing to buy into the notion that Afghanistan is part of an ethno-religious war between “Islam” and “the West”."

This suggests that it is the state, through its action, which is racializing this issue.  We know that the state is involved in more than simply the bureaucratic and repressive organization of society.  Fundamentally what it does is a kind of moral regulation, ordering the symbolic world, constituting norms and social classifications.  Obviously the law, and the criminal justice system which executes the law, is critical to this constitutive action.  The state's re-classification of racist crime in such a way as to efface the axis of oppression, to make it such that "racism cuts both ways", was an important precondition for this sort of action.  But what is at stake now is an attempt to re-organize the social body behind a resurgent militarism.  We have seen the PR efforts aimed at cementing a new consensus that can support war indirectly, or at least neutralise opposition, on the basis of pro-troops sentiment.  I think the pukeworthy Military Wives, whatever the producers thought they were doing, was a masterpiece in this sort of propaganda.  But consent does not exist in separation from coercion.  Violence and, literally, terror is central to how consent is secured.  How the police act in producing consent has been dealt with here.

So we could see this prosecution as aberrant, the criminal justice system over-reacting, over-playing its hand, being too fastidious with incitement laws, or whatever.  No doubt some will attribute it to nanny-state authoritarianism, and the usual bores will say that the liberals who support anti-racist legislation caused this to happen.  I think it would make more sense to see it as a speculative manouevre in the application of an emerging discourse of treason.  For that is really the logic of this prosecution.  One has to see this question of 'incitement' in connection with the repressive and racialized response to the riots last Summer, and the generalized unease of the British state about the combustibility of the social order.  Those police actions extended the repertoire of repressive tactics already formed in relation to the student protests, G20, UK Uncut, the climate camp and so on.  As importantly, I think, it has to be seen in the context of the new doctrine of 'total policing', which is essentially about giving the police more of a free hand to intervene in aggressive ways to solve problems of social order, coded as problems of crime prevention.  A premium is being placed on preemptive action, literally - I repeat, literally - on terror.  In this case, it is disloyalty that is being punished, in a racialized way.  The action of the police and courts is about constituting a new field of punishable conduct.  And when disloyalty is punished, there really isn't much that can't be included under its canopy.

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