Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Meme logic posted by Richard Seymour

Memes are an interesting way in which people appropriate mass culture seemingly for their own ends - pictures taken from movie stills, stolen photographs, domestic cat pictures, or crude sketches, fixed to a slogan that is either cute, snarky, ironical, or emetically sentimental.  The ways in which these work politically are complex, but particularly where sentiment is involved, a simple Barthesian analysis, with all its limitations, can be sufficient to indicate the dominant tendency.  This is a particularly irritating example:

The logic of this image is profoundly ideological (Islamophobic, imperialist, chauvinist, etc), but in what way?  It isn't obvious, but nor is it concealed.  There is no smoke screen.  The ideology works by chains of connotation. 

In and of itself, this image depicts a well-known 'ex-Muslim' neoconservative, who has participated in racist reaction in the Netherlands before joining the US right, next to a particularly banal sentiment that one assumes she has uttered at some point. Putting it more kindly, and in the light it is intended to be seen in, it shows a woman who has been raised as a Muslim and described her suffering due to a particular type of religious dogma, articulating a lapidary defence of secular liberal virtues.  She has a dignified comportment and dress, a handsome face (yes, it shouldn't matter, but...) and an intelligent expression.  That's the literal signification, or denotation.

The connotative signification goes something like this: 

"Muslims are violently intolerant, a threat to liberal values of religious toleration going back to Locke. To refuse to acknowledge this and take the appropriate measures (kulturkampf), or to dispute it in any serious way, is to defer to a politically correct consensus that denies reality in the name of polite anti-racism. And what better answer to the politically correct brigade than this black woman who has experienced the worst practices of Muslims, who was raised Muslim and knows the threat that Islam poses in detail? Surely she is the one defending Western values, while their historical champions, liberal intellectuals, capitulate to obscurantism and reaction!" 

As I say, nothing is concealed - everything is there in the open. The image works, rather, by establishing a myth, and naturalising the ideology it articulates.  That is, if the signification of the image is accepted by its intended myth-consumer, it establishes an apparently natural link between the literal signification and the connotative signification. If read critically, the connotations begin to dissolve: one notices that tolerance is not an obvious, but a contested term; that Hirsi Ali's idea of waging cultural war against Islam (banning Muslim schools, going to war, etc) has at the very least a dubious claim to tolerance; that the Islam she remonstrates and mobilises against is a static, essentialised, literalised, homogeneous bloc which by no means coincides with the complex, contested families of meanings and practices that one actually encounters as Islam; that the political forces she has allied herself with and supported aren't even allies of liberal virtue, or Enlightnment in its real, historical sense; that the 'West' itself is every bit as dubious a concept as 'the white race', onto which it largely maps; and so on.

But the ideal consumer doesn't read critically.  S/he absorbes the whole mythological chain of meanings attached to the image, and thus absorbes a racist, belligerent ideology in pseudo-progressive get-up.  It is exactly like an advertisement in its logic.  One looks at Kate Moss advertising eye mascara; her indifferent, made-up visage, gazing at the consumer against a backdrop of swirling blacks and reds.  The image connotes rebelliousness, power, sexuality, self-control and presence, both in terms of the colour scheme and fonts and the well-known back story of the 'troubled' model.  There is no concealment of the advertisement's meaning.  The literal meaning (here is a beautiful model who is advertising her line of make-up) is as explicit as the mythical meaning (possessing this make-up gives one the presence, social power and independence of Kate Moss!).  The connection between the two is naturalised, as are a chain of profoundly ideological, contested ideas - like 'beauty' for example, or like the idea that a woman's worthiness for attention and power are contingent on her identifying at a symbolic level with the male gaze.  Memes in this sense, and of this type, are advertisements for a usually dominant ideology, circulated voluntarily through social media, as unpaid labour.

There are a host of other examples I could have picked; one sees dozens daily.  Earlier today, I saw a popular one: an image of a 'poppy' represented as a stainless steel lapel pin, with a banner slogan on it - "try burning this".  It was obviously a defiant, ironical retort to those Islamist desperadoes who (treason! infamy!) reportedly burned poppies a couple of years ago.  And I believe the chain of connotations attached to this image are just as obvious, as is the reactionary ideology that the image reinforces.  There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of images like this colonizing the internet.  One senses that in the rise of memes, the dissident, subversive possibilities are more than compensated for by their potential role as a new technique of governmentality made possible by social media.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Extradite me, I'm British posted by Richard Seymour

After the decision to extradite Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmed, the success of Gary Mackinnon in resisting extradition is welcome.  But it highlights the obviously racist way in which the law is being interpreted by the government. This is quite a useful report on the similarities in the cases:

More at The Real News

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The ruling class assault on pensions posted by Richard Seymour

My latest for The Guardian:

Retired people should work for their pensions, says Lord Bichard. The fact that pensioners already have worked for their pension, by definition, doesn't detain him. Pensioners are a "negative burden" on the state, who need to be "incentivised" into doing jobs that young people could do for a wage.
The interesting thing about Bichard is that he isn't some rabid Tory. He is a cross-bench peer, a technocratic former senior civil servant who worked closely with the last Labour government. His suggestion was raised in the context of discussions between politicians, bureaucrats and Bank of England experts on the state's response to demographic change.
And while his specific proposals may have been off-centre, they point to a consensus among policy-making elites. In general, the consensus is that British capitalism will find its way out of crisis and restore global competitiveness by squeezing more work out of the labour force. In terms of pensions, the consensus is that people will have to work longer, for less.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mass protest against the cuts posted by Richard Seymour

I will post some commentary on the demonstration later today, but for now I have some pictures. I will say the turnout was very big, and probably much larger than expected. There was also clearly a tremendous amount of support for the general strike call, as Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow and Len McCluskey discovered. I like to think I'm not susceptible to false optimism these days, but this gave me a sense that there is a basis for mass industrial action to happen if only the trade unions are willing to support it. Here are some images:

Disabled protesters block the road near Marble Arch - a strategically well-chosen juncture since it resulted in a huge traffic blockage all around nearby roads:


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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The worst has yet to come posted by Richard Seymour

I wrote this for Jacobin:

Recently, I proposed a few points about the conjuncture in Britain.  None of these were offered in the spirit of hard and fast conclusions, but the aim was to begin to explain the stability and longevity of the coalition government in the face of quite serious social resistance despite its obvious weaknesses.  One factor that certainly needs to be added to this list is the delayed, protracted nature of the crisis facing the British working class.
It is often said that this government forgot the lesson that the Thatcherites learned: the need to salami slice one’s opponents, taking on weaker quarries first and only moving on to larger prey after a few demonstrative kills.  This government seems to be taking on everyone at once.  Its attacks on the public sector have at times seemed to be reckless, its negotiating stances absurdly hubristic, the sweep of its offensive indiscriminate.  Yet the two parties of government still have a plurality between them; they aren’t attacking everyone at once, they are attacking certain definite social constituencies, which are traditionally core Labour constituencies.  Of course, in the context of the wider capitalist offensive, this means that the vast majority of the working class, and a significant section of the middle class, suffers.  But they are doing so in a staged, multilayered fashion, and that has made a difference...

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Imperialist austerity posted by Richard Seymour

You'll remember Dov Weisglass's 'quip' about putting the Palestinians on a diet.  As he put it:

“It’s like a meeting with a dietitian. We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death.”

Now the cold calculus of Israeli near-starvation policy has been exposed in detail:

After a three-and-a-half-year legal battle waged by the Gisha human rights organization, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories has finally released a 2008 document that detailed its "red lines" for "food consumption in the Gaza Strip."

The document calculates the minimum number of calories necessary, in COGAT's view, to keep Gaza residents from malnutrition at a time when Israel was tightening its restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of the Strip, including food products and raw materials. The document states that Health Ministry officials were involved in drafting it, and the calculations were based on "a model formulated by the Ministry of Health ... according to average Israeli consumption," though the figures were then "adjusted to culture and experience" in Gaza.


In September 2007, the cabinet, then headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, decided to tighten restrictions on the movement of people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip. The "red lines" document was written about four months afterward.

The cabinet decision stated that "the movement of goods into the Gaza Strip will be restricted; the supply of gas and electricity will be reduced; and restrictions will be imposed on the movement of people from the Strip and to it." In addition, exports from Gaza would be forbidden entirely. However, the resolution added, the restrictions should be tailored to avoid a "humanitarian crisis."

The "red lines" document calculates the minimum number of calories needed by every age and gender group in Gaza, then uses this to determine the quantity of staple foods that must be allowed into the Strip every day, as well as the number of trucks needed to carry this quantity. On average, the minimum worked out to 2,279 calories per person per day, which could be supplied by 1,836 grams of food, or 2,575.5 tons of food for the entire population of Gaza.

Bringing this quantity into the Strip would require 170.4 truckloads per day, five days a week.

From this quantity, the document's authors then deducted 68.6 truckloads to account for the food produced locally in Gaza ­ mainly vegetables, fruit, milk and meat. The documents note that the Health Ministry's data about various products includes the weight of the package (about 1 to 5 percent of the total weight) and that "The total amount of food takes into consideration 'sampling' by toddlers under the age of 2 (adds 34 tons per day to the general population)."

From this total, 13 truckloads were deducted to adjust for the "culture and experience" of food consumption in Gaza, though the document does not explain how this deduction was calculated.

While this adjustment actually led to a higher figure for sugar (five truckloads, compared to only 2.6 under the Health Ministry's original model),
it reduced the quantity of fruits and vegetables (18 truckloads, compared to 28.5), milk (12 truckloads instead of 21.1), and meat and poultry (14 instead of 17.2).

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Friday, October 12, 2012

The anticapitalist transition in Europe posted by Richard Seymour

  This post will look at the anticapitalist transition from three perspectives: first, the basis for European anticapitalist politics in real dilemmas posed by the breakdown of the social structure; second, the forms of resistant politics generated by the current phase of crisis; and third, the ‘utopian moment’ in the development of these forms, and how they can be articulated to a practical process of transition. 
  This analysis is axed on the problem of self-government.  We are tired of not owning our lives, of our waking hours being given over to employers, to the state, to cramped and uncomfortable transit, and to forms of consumption that do not meet our needs.  We are tired of not having a say.  We do not trust that those who presently rule can solve the epochal crises of global depression and eco-catastrophe, and if they do so it will not be in our interest.  We do not need utopian blueprints; what we need are the signposts on the road toward real self-government.

Introduction: the pro-capitalist transition and buried traditions
  Europe traversed the pro-capitalist transition many times, first from feudalism to capitalism, then from ‘communism’ to the ‘free market’.  In Russia and the former Warsaw Pact states, the work of transition was undertaken by neoliberal technocrats working with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.  On the assumption that there was only one possible terminus for societies breaking out of the Stalinist integument, they imposed neoliberal ‘shock therapy’. 
  ‘Shock therapy’, under the orchestration of its eminence grise Jeffrey Sachs, was social engineering with a vengeance.  It was not simply an economic project: it was a multi-layered series of drastic reforms of property relations, political institutions, currency regulations, trade and labour laws.  The rise of the new Russian oligarchs was not just a predictable consequence of this process, but an intended consequence.  If Russia was to become a modern centre of private capitalist accumulation, it had to have the appropriate civil society basis; not just a workforce but also a bourgeoisie.  The liberal-conservative journalist Timothy Garton Ash, observing this process sceptically, commented: “There is real truth in the Marxist label for liberal democracy: ‘bourgeois democracy’”.
  There were, of course, alternative paths.  Anti-Stalinist rebellions in Hungary, and Czechoslovakia had involved workers developing organs of grassroots democracy, revolutionary factory committees and other organs not dissimilar to the soviets which had been the basis for the Bolshevik revolution in the first place.  The famous ‘Kuron-Modzelewski Letter’ that signalled the birth of a new Polish Left, called for real socialism predicated on workers control and mass democracy.   Polish workers had traditions of syndicalism and self-organization, manifest in the strikes and struggles organised under the banner of Solidarność.  But by 1989, the social engineers of neoliberalism had the upper hand, and they had no interest in permitting a Millian process of experimentation.
  Ten years later, the project for an anticapitalist Europe was resumed by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across Europe, initially united only by their shared opponent and their sense of buoyant optimism.  Now, hardened by the experience of setbacks, divisions, bitter repression and a global depression, activists from Oakland to Oslo, are working out the political and institutional forms that can advance their struggle.  They are working out practical solutions through trial and error, not always aware of the buried traditions of generations who have been on this road before them. 

Europe’s crises and the search for alternatives
  The history of Europe is a record of its turmoil.  As the historical core of the world system, it has been racked by multiple, epochal emergencies, from the depressions of the 1870s and 1880s to the inferno of the ‘Thirty Years War’ (1914-45), the stagnation of the Seventies and the current wave of sovereign debt crises.  Each time, the continent has witnessed the upsurge of a new Left, often accompanied by a resurgence of the labour movement.  Each time, the same questions have arisen.  What alternative is there? What is the strategy for getting there?  Where is the agency capable of realising it? 
  No search for an alternative on a serious scale arises ex nihilo.  It rather emerges in the folds of antagonism, dysfunction and crisis.  The planners and policy makers behind the European project understood this, and sought to suppress the perpetual crisis-proneness of capitalism.  In the post-WWII era, it was thought that fundamental social antagonism could be contained through a combination of Keynesian state management of the economy, and corporatist bargaining mechanisms.  The old rivalries between European powers would be suppressed by the development of a common market dominated by France and West Germany.  The Europe they envisioned was a business-oriented, anti-socialist bloc, with an autonomous role in the world system.  But toward the end of the Sixties, this model began to enter crisis.  Profit rates began to fall and labour conflicts soared; anticolonial rebellions dismantled overseas empires; the expansion of higher education to accommodate the demand for a skilled workforce drew in a boisterous, rebellious working class element.  From the jacqueries of Paris 1968, the hot autumn of Italy in 1969, the strike-deadlocked British summer of 1972, to the crisis of the dictatorships in Greece, Portugal and Spain, there were signs everywhere that European capitalism was decomposing. 
  The debate about alternatives was not just driven by intellectual curiosity, but by the practical experience of student strikes, occupations, and factory and workplace councils.  Workers’ control of industry was on the agenda of not just the revolutionary left, but even reformist socialists.  A challenge to traditional modes of pedagogy based on the authority of the teacher was posed by students and pupils.  In Portugal, the radicalisation after the overthrow of the Estado Novo led to a division in the armed forces and raised the question of popular control of the military.  However, this ferment subsided.  In Paris, the regime waited out the students and workers, and began a process of reform from above.  Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ kicked off a decade-long class war, but the radical challenge was ultimately crushed, terminated by a miserable 'historic compromise' in which the Italian Communist Party adapted itself to the conjunctural needs of Italy's bourgoisie and provided a left cover for austerity.  In Britain, the Labour Party channelled the radical energies into a platform for reform but performed a monetarist volte face, slashed public spending budgets and co-opted unions into a ‘social contract’ that severely reduced wages.  In Portugal, the fear of a new Chile helped discipline the mass movement and it was eventually contained.   
  Europe’s planners had two answers to the crisis, which had exerted a centrifugal tug on its constituents.  The first was to accelerate toward fuller economic and monetary union, with a pooling of sovereignty to accompany it.  The second was to impose an austerity programme based on low public spending and low wages, modelled on the West German experience.  The European project expanded, and after the Cold War added a belt of former ‘communist’ states.  But this system was predicated on a pattern of uneven and combined development which meant that ‘peripheral’ states lost competitiveness, and became export markets for the goods of core states.  They accumulated debt, and relied on financial mechanisms and housing bubbles to generate growth.  The core states, meanwhile, benefited from being able to suppress wages (since they did not need to cultivate a domestic consumer market), and export production facilities to low wage countries in the newly incorporated east.  This unevenness left Europe precariously exposed when the ‘credit crunch’ struck.  

Organic crisis
  Although the latest emergency did not originate, in its proximate causes, in the Eurozone, today it is the European system – economic and monetary union – that is most directly endangered.  The crisis should be seen in Gramscian terms as an ‘organic crisis’, a simultaneous, multi-layered breakdown of different aspects of the system, from production to politics.  Now European leaders are embarked on a process of fundamentally re-organising the continental system with a politics of ‘austerity’.  This means drastically scaling back public expenditures in order to reduce the burden of taxation on the productive base of the economy.  It also involves fundamentally weakening organised labour, and suppressing wage costs, so that profitability can be restored to industry and investors will be induced to invest. 
  At the political level this crisis has involved a decisive emaciation of parliamentary democracy and a tendency toward what Gramsci termed ‘Caesarism’.  A 'Caesar' is not necessarily a great personality: rather, it is a political power that acquires a degree of autonomy from social classes in order to carry through a major structural transformation.  “Every coalition government,” the Sardinian Marxist observed, “is a first stage of Caesarism”.  In Italy and Greece, we have seen the imposition of unelected ‘technocratic’ coalitions representing the ‘national interest’, imposing austerity measures in a ‘responsible’ manner.  This is linked to another process, which Gramsci identified as ‘passive revolution’, a process of molecular, structural reform affected ‘from above’. 
  There have thus far been three main discernible lines of popular response to this project of top-down structural adjustment.  First, there have been a variety of sectional responses, based on industrial action or student strikes.  There have been tendencies in these cases to try and generalise their action, and for groups to link up to one another, but they have only been partially successful in this, and the leaderships of both labour and student unions have remained stuck in a narrow sectional approach.  Second, there have been the ‘movements of the squares’ and related Occupy phenomena.  These have worked variously as a type of direct action and direct democracy; a protest and a pedagogical space; and a temporary tactical base from which to plan actions of solidarity and disruption.  But they have been limited by the fact that the spaces they have taken are, while visible, strategically marginal, by the fact that those involved wield little potential disruptive power, and by the fact that their actions were eventually outmanoeuvred by state power.  Thirdly, there has been support for radical ‘third party’ movements, pivoted on the idea of taking governmental power.  This poses some old dilemmas, as leftist forces have often found themselves neutralised and then destroyed by office.  The recent experience of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy is a case in point, as the party’s entry into coalition with the centre-left led to it sharing responsibility for neoliberal policies and war.  It is now a greatly diminished rump.
  In and of themselves, each of these manifestations is only a base element in a resistant politics.  Together, they could be coordinated into a strategy for transition, but rather than define such a strategy in detail, I will here seek to identify the ‘utopian moment’ in which these forms of resistance converge and disclose a pathway to anticapitalist transition.

From the social democratic strategy to the anticapitalist transition
  In the traditional social democratic purview, the strike and the ballot box are a complementary set of tactics, each a separate but contiguous part of the forward march of labour.  But social democracy is moribund, and that old relationship between means and ends, that old division of labour, is no longer viable.  There is no policing the strict division between politics (understood as parliamentarism) and economics (understood as wage and conditions disputes) any longer when the austerity agenda is so politicised, when the constitution of a new economy at the expense of labour demands the extensive involvement and re-tooling of the state, and when parliaments are so insulated from the popular will.  It is time to think about a new relationship between these tactics, one appropriate to the task of transition.
  Gramsci suggested that the workers’ strike was most effective when it broke out of the ‘economic-corporate’ tactic of fighting for the narrow material interests of sectional groups of workers, and instead articulated a wider agenda of social transformation that could attract the support of the greater portion of the popular classes.  This would have to be a political strategy in the widest possible sense.  This expansive unity, he called hegemony.  It is clear that today’s trade union leaderships are far from being in a position to adopt such a strategy, even if they wanted to.  An extreme, if functionally equivalent, variant of economic-corporatism is the idea of reducing student organising to a type of lobbying.  This is the strategy currently pursued by the leadership of the British National Union of Students.  It demands nothing of students but passivity until such time as they are marched into a limited tactical action by the leadership.  Of course, such an approach is geared toward achieving the mildest form of palliation – or perhaps it would be better to say mitigation. 
  It is partly because of an historic weakness on the part of labour and student movements that one of the popular responses to the crisis has been to look for new parties.  The rise of the radical left parties is a tactical issue specific to this conjuncture in Europe.  The breakdown of social democracy has created the possibility of a long-term political realignment of working class and subaltern groups.  The left-wing of the old reformist parties has broken away in country after country, realigning itself with Communist parties and revolutionary leftists.  Now, amid Europe’s organic crisis, they are lightning rods for sudden voltaic bursts of popular energy.  What was a small party yesterday can suddenly project a mass electoral presence today.  Yet the question is how these new parties convoke and organise their base.  If the social democratic strategy is not to be simply replicated in a new guise, these parties needs to find a way beyond parliamentary electoralism.  It would be to place touching faith in a programme to hope that the dominant ideology of the party in question would settle this.  The decisive factor, both in the case of unions and of parties, is the extent of the self-organization of their base.
  And this is where the Indignados and Occupy movements have come in.  Among many young people and students, distrust of both unions and parties has led them to look to social movement politics for the answers.  Politically, they are often the most radicalised, and most willing to think beyond capitalism.  And they have hit upon an organizational model, which I will call the commune strategy, that might just be key.

New Model Commune
  It is no surprise that the most politicised of Europe’s subalterns look to Egypt.  From the Puerta del Sol to Syntagma Square, they attempt to emulate Tahrir Square.  But the precise status of Tahrir as a resistant form is still unresolved.  It is clear that the capture of Tahrir by a cross-class coalition permitted the construction of a mini-metropolis, a city within a city, inhabited by up to two million people.  Alongside petty commerce, this urban space was the basis for a certain rudimentary communism.  The protesters put together a network of tents for people to sleep in.  There were toilet arrangements - no small logistical matter when hundreds of thousands of people routinely occupied the capital's main intersection. They rigged up street lamps to provide electricity.  They set up garbage collection, medical stops, and occupied a well-known fast food outlet into a hospital for people assaulted and shot.
  However, as the foregoing would suggest, Tahrir was no autonomist wet dream.  It was not about carving out autonomous, liberated spaces from which to build a libertarian communism.  It was a direct challenge to the authority of the regime, by a coalition consisting of Islamists, liberals and Nasserists.  The participants, in their millions, understood that the Mubarak regime was exceptionally brittle.  Its social basis was so narrow that it must suppress open signs of rebellion, pour encourager les autres.  The protesters did not want to be bludgeoned and shot at, but they found that rather than return to an impossible status quo they would rather face the charge of armed police battalions.  So, aside from the lighting, accommodation, sewage, garbage disposal and the distribution of medicine, food and water, they built a security infrastructure to see off wave after wave of assault.  They set up committees to keep watch for government forces. They set up barricades, and routine ID checks for everyone attempting to enter the square.  To prevent sectarian depredations, they set up Muslim protection for Christians while they prayed, and Christian protection for Muslims while they worshipped.
  Moreover, Tahrir was neither the means nor the end in itself: rather, it represented the visible concentration of all the tendencies in Egypt’s revolution.  It was coterminous with the self-organisation of widening strata and classes across Egypt, from the mobilization of middle class activists to an organised labour movement shutting down the major industries and government infrastructure.  When police formally withdrew from communities, neighbourhoods formed their own watches to prevent assaults and theft.  Guerillas in Sinai preoccupied government forces with an armed insurgency.  Protests spread from city to city.  Had there been nothing else taking place but the hybrid commune in the capital city, it would likely have been encircled and defeated.
  Thus, there were always limits in attempting to emulate this situation out of context.  The Occupy movements, wherever they were not complemented and nourished by wider social and industrial insurgency, reached these limits quite quickly.  They found that their disruptive impact was far less, and the government far quicker to encircle them.  Nonetheless, despite these limits, the utopian moment in Tahrir Square taught us one very important thing: with opportunity comes competence.  We can, if given the chance, quickly learn and apply the techniques of cooperation, solidarity and self-government.  We can build an infrastructure, and we can organise in our interests and self-defence.
  But why should this be organised primarily in the strategically marginal spaces of Europe, by marginal youths, students and others with little social power?  The vital axes for the reproduction of Europe’s strained social order are the workplace, the school and university, the state apparatus.  And there is no reason why these cannot be sites of self-government.  Indeed, despite the attempts by managers and bureaucrats to monopolise knowledge pertinent to this process of social reproduction, those involved as producers, students, civil servants, service providers, etc., rapidly acquire an expertise in their area of work, so that if they were to coordinate their shared knowledge it would enable them to manage enterprises, departments and apparatuses in the popular interests.
  If there are to be new model communes, let them be built at these strategic pivots.  Let them challenge the authority of capital and state directly, and let them do so as if they had a right to run things.  It would not be the first time.  The past waves of militancy I have mentioned have seen these forms experimented with, from the factory committees in Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ to the workers councils in Portugal’s Carnation Revolution.  More generally, they have appeared in the form of cordones in Chile, syndicates and councils in Poland’s Solidarity movement, and shorahs in the Iranian revolution.  Wherever the existing order is called into question, some form of these new model communes is experimented with.  Let us rebuild them, as the key to our self-government.  And once established, let these communes associate freely in a national assembly, to which delegates can be elected.  Let them come into their own not just as a pragmatic agency through which the social means of popular classes can be achieved, but as a public authority in and of themselves. 
  Shifting the commune strategy to the workplace provides a basis for reorganising the relationship between this and the other tactical responses we have discussed.  First, if strikes do take place, they can be plugged into a wider political strategy which is responsive to the needs of all subaltern social groups, including those not in the union, or not covered by a particular strike issue.  Second, political organisation need not then be fixated on parliamentary elections, but can rather sustain a social and institutional basis in a popular form of self-government.  Third, insofar as the commune strategy is both pedagogical and practical, this shift attaches the form to real social power, real leverage.  They are a pragmatic nexus linking concrete present-day struggles for immediate needs to an open-ended, experimental process of transition.

Conclusion: so what about the transition?
    In the study of transitions, be it in Warsaw or Cairo, Lisbon or Damascus, one looks for, and generally finds, the following coordinates: 1) the disunity and disintegration of the state, with apparatuses either incapacitated or locked in dispute; 2) the loss of initiative on the part of the rulers, who no longer command the tempo of events; 3) the rise of a counter-power, an alternative centre of legitimate authority that creates a situation of dual power for the state; 4) the marginalization of those seeking to cut a deal with the old regime, and 5) the raising of antagonisms between power and counter-power until the point of insurrection. 
  We have seen these features in Europe in living memory, for example in Portugal, 1974-5.  Now we have seen them across the Mediterranean, in Egypt and Tunisia.   We see them in Syria where the state has been jarred by dysfunction and splits, lashing out and undermining its own weakened social basis, and where local coordinating committees have taken on some of the functions of the state.  But these general features cannot conceal significant differences in the type, range, maturity, politics, dominant ideology and social density of the forms of self-government that have been developed.
  What these examples have shown us repeatedly therefore is that any attempt to elaborate alternative, popular models of self-government is not an impractical or simple utopian scheme.  On the contrary, it is a difficult, pragmatic labour whose process is severely conditioned and constrained by the nature of the social relations and crises in which the question of popular self-government is posed, by the resources of the old regime to resist any rising new authority, by the strength and legitimacy of existing representative institutions, and by the concrete problems that these institutions are trying to solve.  This is why there can be no abstract blueprint.  The task is to work out forms of organization appropriate to their context, and thereby provide the basis for the practical resolution of dilemmas and impediments on the road to self-government.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A comment on Greece and Syriza posted by Richard Seymour

I wrote this brief comment piece in response to Alex Callinicos's analysis of the European terrain, specifically the Greek situation, in last month's International Socialism. Panos Garganos of ANTARSYA has also written a piece on the aftermath of the Greek elections, which I think includes some response to my comments.

The “strategic perplexity” of the left confronted with the gravest crisis of capitalism in generations has been hard to miss.1 Social democracy continues down the road of social liberalism. The far left has struggled to take advantage of ruling class disarray. Radical left formations have tended to stagnate at best. Two exceptions to this pattern are the Front de Gauche in France and Syriza in Greece. While the Front de Gauche did not do as well as many hoped, it did channel a large vote for the radical left in the presidential elections won by Hollande. Meanwhile, Syriza is potentially a governing party in waiting...



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Monday, October 08, 2012

Venezuela in the 21st Century posted by Richard Seymour

Chavez lives.  He has survived cancer, thus far, and will most likely survive the presidential election with a comfortable majority.  (Update: yep.)  And what if he did not?  Would not Venezuela still have a popular mass socialist party, a thriving democracy, an expanding union movement, a politically emasculated ruling class, a greatly enhanced welfare state which incorporates elements of grassroots participation, and probably one of the few societies in the world today where it's almost impossible to impose a vicious austerity project?  Jealous much?

Complacent.  A defeat for Chavez would be a serious political defeat for the popular movements.  It would hand the initiative to the bourgeoisie and their right-wing allies.  The media climate would be horrific.  The assault the right-wing forces would mount would be brutal.  Every advance on their part has been accompanied by violence, and the revenge against the left would be vicious.  Right-wing regional governments have already been implicated in the killings of trade unionists.  The confidence they would gain would allow them to start tearing up the welfare state, the missions, the literacy and health programmes.  So, it matters if Chavez's rival is within an inch of taking power, as some of our media allege, or if the popular base will turn out once more for the Bolivarian Revolution.  But it's still not clear what the ultimate stakes are.  Is this a process of socialist transformation, anti-imperialist realignment, social democratic reform, or what?

I think we on the international left have struggled to really comprehend what is going on in Venezuela.  It's not a question of us being particularly dim, or not me anyway (you can look after yourselves): it just defies all our expectations.  Who would have thought that a politician elected on a 'Third Way' ticket with a degree of ruling class support would turn into the mortal enemy of US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling class?  Who could have anticipated that an agenda of constitutional change, none of it terribly radical on the surface, would become a kind of political manifesto, a programme of action in the hands of mobilised masses aiming to make good its promise of equality, participatory democracy and human rights, to realise them in the fullest sense?  Who would have expected that the ruling class would be so brittle that they would lash out in an ill-judged coup, thus losing a tremendously important political battle, causing a crisis in the state and proving to the Chavez government that had to be a 'class struggle' government to a degree, mobilising its popular support against the elite?  Now, importantly, who would have thought the radical left government would still be in power, still going strong, still not hitting a brick wall in terms of delivering reforms?

We have heard every possible explanation.  On the one hand, we used to hear that Chavez is just some populist caudillo, or a left-Bonapartist taking advantage of the stalemate between classes.  Some stalemate which is characterised by an upward surge of popular organisation, and continual victories for the left.  Some Bonapartism where the initiative of the popular classes is so important.  Perhaps we've heard the end of that argument, on the left at any rate.  It has also been suggested that Chavez is at best a well-meaning social democrat, radicalised by popular mobilisation and his bruising conflict with the ruling class, yet essentially creating a reformed capitalist state.  This seems plausible, but it always runs into this problem: if the people are mobilised for a real social revolution, a challenge to capitalism, a move to socialism in the 21st Century that Chavez pledges but has no strategy for delivering, why has their faith in Chavez barely ebbed?  Why no crisis of expectatons?  Why has the Bolivarian Revolution not differentiated in a serious way?  Is it plausible that millions of active Venezuelan socialists are simply deceived?

On the other hand, the idea that there is literally a transtion to socialism underway, taking place through a democratic rupture in the state itself combined with mass extra-parliamentary mobilisation and popular assemblies, is very popular in some European left parties.  But the trends in Venezuela don't seem to support such a view.  Setting aside some of Chavez's disappointing foreign policy stances, which seem to go beyond radical realpolitik, the fact is that for all the advances made by oppressed groups and by workers, the position of the popular classes and particularly the working class is still fundamentally subordinate and doesn't look like changing soon.

One can resort to formulations such as that of Marta Harnecker, that the pace of change matters less than the general direction in which the government is proceeding.  But this is of limited use, especially if the direction, the endpoint, is gauged from the broad and sometimes ambiguous statements of the president.  The pace of change is all too often indicative of the ambiguities and antagonisms inherent in the project.

Take, for example, the moves toward implementing some types of workers' power, which are serious and not to be dismissed.  Experiments in democratising nationalised industries with elements of workers' control haven't always been too successful.  Part of the reason for this is that the PSUV bureaucracy, at a certain level, distrusts working class self-organisation.  Though its dominant forces have an agenda of democratisation, this keeps bumping against certain reflexes.  Of course, there is a rational basis for the bureaucracy's worries, given that their perspective is governed by the need to keep a state-centred strategy for growth, redistribution and democratisation.  The constant fear is that workers from the opposition will take control and use the opportunity to wreck strategically important industries.  There are also real antagonisms between the PSUV wing of the state and the unions, particularly where industrial action is seen to threaten the government's wider strategy for growth.  

Finally, there's a dilemma for workers taking control of the means of production in this way.  They have to continue to produce with a certain respect for capitalist imperatives, maximising revenues, otherwise the experiment is deemed a failure.  Sometimes, forms of workers' control succeed, and revenues are expanded, and this fits well with the PSUV's overall strategy.  But to do so, they have to be good at exploiting labour power, even if it is their own labour power.  The successes, failures and antagonisms all seem to be structured around the ambiguity of a radical government trying to govern in the interests of the popular classes, trying to experiment with new forms of socialisation and participatory democracy, while running what is still a capitalist state predicated on capitalist production relations.

The pace of change is indicative of limitations in other ways too.  The government has found it very difficult to tackle corruption in the state, and even in its own ruling party, and can barely acknowledge the associated problems of patronage and clientelism.  It hasn't been abled to stop the repressive apparatuses from hurting leftist and industrial organisation, or prevent regional governments from murdering shop stewards.  It hasn't been able to substantially alter the position of the working class vis-a-vis private sector employers, at least inasmuch as precarious, temporary and short-term unemployment is still de rigeur.  Despite the ruling class's hatred for Chavez, they continue to get rich.

Even so, the very fact that the PSUV government has any strategy at all for seriously empowering the masses, for waging any kind of battle in government against the ruling class - even with all of its limits - is surely unique.  Chavez's speeches, the PSUV's organising drives, its real roots in the Venezuelan popular classes, especially in the working class heartlands, have all encouraged a degree of radicalisation, popular organisation and even a current favouring socialism based on workers' control.  Indeed, this agenda is gaining growing support across the continent.  And even the development of the welfare state, necessarily coming from above in terms of the initiative, has produced real democratising effects.  For example, the use of referenda, Community Councils (consejos comunales), Local Planning Councils, and so on, to devolve power represents a material reorganisation of aspects of the state, which defy simple categorisation.  There is a growing popular participation which can't be reduced to co-optation.  

There are real problems in these organisations.  Some of them are spatial, inasmuch as they are supposed to cover populations that they can't feasibly cover; some are financial, inasmuch as funding is not allocated relative to population but to district or area, meaning that richer, lower population areas get the same funding as bustling 2 million strong districts in downtown Caracas; decisively, some of the limits are to do with political authority, since the planning and community councils are ultimately subordinate to mayors and local governments, meaning in effect that the bourgeoisie remains politically dominant.  Ultimately, despite the chronic crisis in the state and the political paralysis of the bourgeoisie, there has been no real rupture with the capitalist state form.  Still, if one really is interested in 21st Century Socialism, some of these organisations have to be considered as part of a potential infrastructure for that new society.  And that is a unique, inimitable circumstance.  It's hard to imagine any other state where the government could perform such a role, where capitalist state power could be used as a lever to enable socialist working class organisation.

Jealous much?  Well, you should be.  But don't imagine you can copy the Venezuelan experience where you live.  It's strictly a one-off.

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Respect: why we resign posted by Richard Seymour

This is not usual Lenin's Tomb material.  But I was asked to post this up, and in the interests of permitting the discussion I am happy to oblige.

On Leaving Respect

Joining Respect
We joined Respect two days after George Galloway’s outstanding victory in Bradford, in March 2012. In our estimate, this by-election victory indicated both the support for a clear anti-cuts politics to the left of Labour, and the viability of Respect as a political party which could inhabit that political space. Respect’s election result, across all wards in Bradford, indicated the resonance of the party’s politics across the city’s diverse communities, transcending the wrongly perceived limits of Respect’s political appeal and re-establishing the party on the political map.
Having recently returned from a solidarity delegation to Greece, where Syriza was gaining political ground with a similar politics, we were convinced of the need to advance a left political and economic alternative at a time when social democratic parties have abandoned their redistributive credentials and continue to opt for the failed policies of neo-liberalism. We remain convinced of that need but find that we are no longer able to fight for that alternative through the Respect party.

The Manchester candidacy
In July, Kate accepted nomination as Respect Party parliamentary candidate for the Manchester Central by-election in November 2012.  Campaigning in Manchester over the subsequent weeks, it became clear that there was strong local support for a Respect candidacy based on opposing austerity, backing investment, fighting racism and working to end poverty in some of the most deprived wards in Britain. As a safe Labour seat, but with the lowest turnout of any constituency in the country, Manchester Central was a very clear example of how Labour no longer stands for the interests of the working class. Most people saw no point in voting at all. But the support on the doorstep for the Respect campaign demonstrated more clearly than any amount of theorising, that ordinary people want an alternative, that Respect’s political and economic platform provided a popular basis from which to build an electoral alternative. The campaign also demonstrated how political support from outside Respect could also be built for an anti-cuts candidacy and support for Kate’s campaign came from across a range of parties and political organisations which shared the values fought for within the campaign.

Standing down
The decision to stand down as candidate was not one taken lightly. But it was one which became impossible to avoid, after the deeply regrettable comments by George Galloway about the nature of rape, in the context of the attempts to extradite Assange. There is no doubt in our minds that there are attempts to extradite Assange to Sweden, outside of that country’s normal legal procedures, to facilitate his extradition to the US to face charges over Wikileaks. But opposing such practices does not require extemporisation by Respect’s MP on the nature of rape which at the very least exposed his lack of understanding with regard to the legal definition of that crime.
The condemnation of George Galloway’s comments by party leader Salma Yaqoob are well-known and went some way to redeeming the honour of Respect and we wholeheartedly supported them and welcomed Salma’s principled stance. However, the failure of George Galloway to retract his remarks on rape and apologise for them ultimately made it impossible for Kate to continue to stand for Respect in Manchester Central. As she stated at the time, “To continue as Respect Party candidate in this situation, no matter how much I object to and oppose his statements personally, would be in effect to condone what he has said. That is something I am not prepared to do.”
The identification of George Galloway with the Respect party is such that many perceive them to be synonymous. This meant that unless the party itself was prepared to state that it did not support George’s position on rape, and to ask him to retract his statements, it could reasonably be assumed by non-members that the party tolerated George’s position. Apart from Salma’s statement, and Kate’s public support for that, we are not aware of any condemnation by the party of George’s position. Indeed, Salma’s statement was not published on the party website, in spite of the fact that she was leader of the party, and Kate was initially asked by the National Secretary to remove Salma’s statement from her Manchester campaign Facebook page, which she refused to do.

Staying in Respect
Nevertheless, taking into account that we consider the politics of Respect to be essential in the struggle for a left alternative, and that we were aware of strong opposition to George’s position within Respect - even though it was not given expression by the party apparatus and media - we decided not to leave Respect. As Kate put it in her statement on standing down, “I will continue to work within the Respect Party to ensure that our values and principles with regard to women’s rights match up to the Party’s – and George Galloway’s – outstanding record in these other areas.”

Resignations from Respect
In the wake of the Galloway comments and his refusal to apologise, Salma Yaqoob decided to stand down as party leader and resigned from Respect. At the National Council in September, it was announced that a number of long-standing senior party figures had also resigned, including a majority of its national officers. However, we decided to stay in the party and its leadership to work for a party with a life of its own, properly expressing the policies so urgently needed.

Constitutional excuses
Unfortunately, to continue to work politically within Respect is no longer possible. Last week we discovered that we have both been removed from Respect’s National Council. We received no official notification of this, rather, we discovered this when Andrew attempted to post a request for a Respect delegate to the Coalition of Resistance Europe against Austerity Conference on the NC google group. The message bounced back. On enquiring of the Respect National Secretary, Andrew was informed that he had been removed from the NC because he had missed two consecutive meetings of the NC and under the constitution this meant that he would be removed and replaced by a co-opted member. In fact, no such provision exists in the copy of the constitution that we received at this year’s Respect party conference. We have not been supplied, despite Andrew’s repeated requests, with a copy that includes that provision. Subsequently Kate attempted to post on the NC google group and again it bounced back. Her enquiry to the National Secretary about her NC status has received no reply, and she has had to assume that she has also been removed from that body.

Being purged
There are numerous other National Council members who have missed two meetings and have not been removed from the NC. It is clear that we have been purged from the party leadership for political reasons: because we publicly condemned George’s rape comments and backed the position of our party leader, and because we refused to be silenced over the fall-out from the issue within the party. This is in spite of the fact that we have been amongst the party’s most active members over the last six months: we participated in the party’s annual conference in Bradford where we were elected as NC members, we organized a successful London Respect meeting in July involving representatives from Syriza and Front de Gauche, we revived the North London branch and helped to convene a meeting of the London Respect Committee – as well as committing to the Manchester Central candidacy.

Speaking out in Respect
As we have been excluded from the NC by the National Secretary, we have no way of knowing if other comrades are raising these issues too, or share our concerns about the lack of an independent political life on the part of the Respect party, as distinct from that of its MP. We have informed others of our concerns where we have contact details. The silence in the face of our struggle has been disconcerting. We hope that other comrades recognize that speaking out on matters of political principle must be a basic democratic right within any political party.

Looking ahead
At the moment there is no place for us in the Respect party. Those that control the party and its apparatus have seen fit to remove us from any possibility of active work because our political principles led us to speak out against a wrong position and wrong practice. We continue to support the political and economic alternative which the Respect party espouses but we will look for a framework within which to fight for it elsewhere.
The peoples of Europe – and beyond – are facing an unprecedented social, political and economic crisis. Here in Britain, our government is implementing the most savage spending cuts designed to destroy all the social gains of the postwar period. They are damaging the lives of millions.
Throughout Europe people are fighting back. Every day we hear of strikes, mass mobilizations and protest as people fight to defend their societies and reject the barbarism of austerity. The urgent need is for unity of the left, within Britain, and across Europe, to meet these challenges together, to maximize our forces and build a common solidarity that will enable the victory of ordinary people over the brutality of a failed economic system.
That is what we are committed to.    

Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson
8 October 2012

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