Monday, December 24, 2012

Lenin's Tomb vermin of the week posted by Richard Seymour

So get this. James Knight is a dentist in Fort Dodge, Iowa. For about ten years, he employed a female assistant named Melissa Nelson. Then he fired her for being too irresistibly attractive.

No one denies that she did her job with utmost professionalism and competence. Indeed, she coped with a great deal more than the job itself ought to have demanded, as Knight was a persistent lech. He bombarded her with lewd suggestions, once remarking that for someone with her body not to have lots of sex was like someone owning a Lamborghini and never driving it. He commented that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know she was dressing inappropriately. He would routinely complain that her clothing was too tight or provocative. He texted her at one point to ask how often she experienced orgasm.

She was not interested in an affair. She was married, as was he. She had a son. His wife, who also worked at the surgery, found out about an exchange of texts between the pair. And she insisted that he fire her. After receiving advice from his pastor, who urged him to go ahead and fire his assistant, he did so on the grounds that by being so attractive, she was a threat to his marriage. He would, he admitted to her husband, try to initiate an affair if he kept her in his employ.

Wait a second, there's more. Melissa Nelson sued her employer for sex discrimination. The all-male panel of seven judges in the Iowa district court heard the matter recently, and ruled in favour of the employer. You can read the judgment here. Their rationale for concluding that the sacking in no way contravened the Iowa Civil Rights Act outlawing sex discrimination was that the employer was motivated by emotions and feelings, his commitment to his marriage, and not gender prejudice. The judgment noted that the dentist had always hired female assistants, and had replaced Nelson with a female assistant. "Ms. Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight," the judgment says. Judge Mansfield asserted that to allow Nelson's law suit would be to stretch the definition of discrimination. So, the Iowa district court asserts that employers can sack employees for being too irresistibly attractive.

This judgment places the full arsenal of capitalist patriarchy - political, legal, cultural, moral - behind sexist employers. The assumptions and the nature of the inferences made all reinforce patriarchy in its dominant 'family values' register. The court's reasoning identifies the blameless employee as the problem, the threat to the holy sacrament of marriage. In doing so, it alludes to complaints from Knight's wife to the effect that Nelson flirted with Knight. Now this allegation is not strictly relevant, but it's worth notiing that all concrete evidence cited in the judgment indicates that Nelson put up with, rather than instigating or encouraging, flirting. The judgment notes that Nelson did not tell her boss that she was offended by his texts and that their texting was mutually consensual. Rather than considering the power relationships condensed in such exchanges, then, the court tacitly identifies the woman as the temptress, seductress, and prick-tease.

Very importantly, the court cites the precedents for the law buttressing capitalist patriarchy:

"Several cases, including a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, have found that an employer does not engage in unlawful gender discrimination by discharging a female employee who is involved in a consensual relationship that has triggered personal jealousy. This is true even though the relationship and the resulting jealousy presumably would not have existed if the employee had been male."

So, although the court acknowledges that the situation as such can only occur in a relationship between male employers and female employees, that gender does indeed occupy the key determining place, they refuse to 'stretch the definition of discrimination' that far. Essentially, even if an employee is at no fault, as long as she is female this is just one of the burdens she has to bear. The responsibility is on her, not her male employer, to safeguard against eroticism, to ensure that her boss doesn't want to fuck her.

At each step, Knight, his pastor, to an extent his wife, and certainly the Iowa district court fell back on and fortified a particular knot or intersection of power (business, family, and church) that I have called capitalist patriarchy. That's why they are Lenin's Tomb's vermin of the week.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Squeezing the workers posted by Richard Seymour

My latest from the Guardian on Osborne's plans to increase the rate of exploitation in order to restore the 'competitiveness' of British capitalism:

As of next year, the government will make it much easier for you to be sacked. From April 2013, employers will only need a 45-day consultation period before embarking on mass redundancies, as opposed to 90 days. Workers will be charged a fee for bringing unfair dismissal claims to employment tribunals and the compensation for unfair dismissal is to be cut.

This follows George Osborne's bizarre "shares-for-rights" scheme, derived from proposals made by the venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft. Beecroft's rationale for proposing a whole series of changes weakening employment protection was the assertion, offered without evidence, that workers use their exiguous protections to get away with working below capacity. Taking these protections away would supposedly boost productivity.

On the face of it, any proposal to squeeze workers harder is unlikely to be popular. But Osborne's scheme took the measures a step further, attempting to articulate them as part of a wider hegemonic Tory agenda. By offering cash, in the form of shares in exchange for rights, he hoped to conscript popular support for an attack on the remnants of social democracy. The idea was that hordes of workers, anxious about their low income and accepting the new realism of depression Britain, would happily see their rights turned into commodities. After all, if desperate people will take prized possessions to the pawnbrokers, or borrow from payday loan sharks, who wouldn't exchange flexible working or redundancy pay for a few grand worth of shares? Why shouldn't everything be for sale? At length, why not allow workers to sell all of their rights for a determinate period? Indentured labour could be an idea whose time has come again...

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

UAF statement on Greek antifascist action posted by Richard Seymour

Recently, Golden Dawn members engaged in yet another assault on a left politician, this time a SYRIZA member. Yesterday, Athens city council voted to support the 19th February day of action. This statement from Unite Against Fascism is being circulated, in the hope of raising awareness about and support for the stand of Greek antifascists against the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Visit the UAF website to add your name to the statement.


The rise of the fascist right, racism and xenophobia across Europe is frightening. Nowhere more so than in Greece.

The Golden Dawn Party is unashamedly anti-Semitic. It is directly involved in attacks on immigrants and the Muslim community, which are happening daily. Critical journalists and oppositional politicians have also been targeted.

Golden Dawn doesn’t seek to hide its neo-Nazi credentials or regalia. Yet it is in the Greek parliament and third in the polls despite one of its leaders physically assaulting two women MPs on television before polling day.

Golden Dawn has grown since entering parliament. It is organising paramilitary gangs and it has infiltrated sections of the police.

Neither conceding to their bigotry nor hoping the storm will pass have ever stopped fascist storm troopers. And Greece, in a 1930s-style economic meltdown is facing the real threat of fascism.

The very word democracy comes to us from Greek. Now in a country that has recent memories of military coup, democracy is again imperilled.

We stand with the suffering Greek people, in their majority, against the most serious threat of fascism any where in Europe in our lifetime.

We support the call for an international day of action to highlight the threat of fascism in Greece. We stand with the civil society organisations and intellectuals who are rallying on 19 January under the banner: Athens – Anti-fascist city. We will gather outside the Greek embassy on that day in London.

It is neither too alarmist nor to late to take this threat seriously. if not now, when?

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Gove's war on teaching unions posted by Richard Seymour

Forgot to post up my last piece from the Guardian, which was about the government's latest attacks on teaching unions:

If the education secretary didn't exist, how would we invent him? With a compound of arrogance, spite, Thatcherite zeal and incompetence. Days after the government hit teachers with the abolition of their collective bargaining rights, Michael Gove has written to headteachers urging them to dock teachers' pay as punishment for participating in a "work-to-rule" action.

Very much adopting the tone of a school snitch, Gove eggs headteachers on, assuring them that both law and ethics are on their side, and that it will protect "the pupils, parents, teachers and headteachers who would otherwise suffer".

It's worth examining this claim. In September, the NUT and NASUWT agreed to embark on action short of strikes to resist threats to their members' conditions. They said that strikes were held in reserve where management either did not accept the action or attempted to victimise teachers but, as yet, strike action has not taken place. The action involves refusing certain bureaucratic tasks such as lesson observations or mock Ofsted inspections. Instead, they focus on their professional role as teachers. This may be a minor inconvenience for certain headteachers, but the idea that pupils or (heaven forfend) their parents suffer from such action is hardly credible.

Gove's office says that he is responding to an appeal from a headteacher for advice. He may be referring to the head of Stratford Academy, who in October threatened to cut teachers' pay for participating in action short of a strike to oppose attacks on teaching conditions. As the wary response from the National Association of Head Teachers suggests, headteachers are as a rule not interested in such a strategy. Not only that, but they have been sceptical to hostile regarding the government's proposed changes. Thus, Gove's intervention can be seen as an attempt to use the government's authority to back up a belligerent, union-busting minority among headteachers...

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Monday, December 10, 2012

When the drug policies work posted by Richard Seymour

This is a placeholder, an observation that might segue into a more sustained analysis.  I just want to draw your attention to this news item on the Prime Minister's refusal to entertain a drugs commission.  

One could read this in a number of ways.  Certainly, there is a realpolitik.  Cameron might even think that a commission would be a rational step, but he is a leader of the Conservative Party who is presently trying to win a battle with the rednecks over gay marriage.  (This isn't because he is a progressive; it is because he knows which way the demographic wind is blowing.  There just isn't the electoral basis for a hard right project any more.  Indeed, once Cameron's salesman charm has been completely expended and he has been ousted, I would predict that the only person who could possibly cobble together a Tory election victory under any plausible circumstance would be Boris Johnson - someone who is capable of presenting a centre-left face when occasion demands it.)  Such a fight is, for the Tories, bad enough when they already have to see off UKIP.  The last thing Cameron is going to do, whether he agrees with it or not, is adopt a rational policy on drugs.  

But the other way to read it is that Cameron does indeed mean what he says when he claims "We have a policy which actually is working in Britain."  I think may be one point on which Cameron may be both completely honest and completely accurate.  The policies are working.  They are doing what they are supposed to do.  

It is a truism of the history of drugs wars that the British empire was a late convert to the cause.  The real proselytiser was the American empire, which had decided from its experience in occupying the Philippines that operating a strict prohibition policy was an essential component of any good biopolitics (if the anachronism be forgiven).  Partly this was driven by Christian temperance politics, but it was also seen as the cutting edge of social and political science - in the US, the emergence of these disciplines was unmistakeably 'bound up' with empire.  The ends sought included the regulation and disciplining of bodies, the reproduction of labour power, the maintenance of social order, and so on.  I would guess there was probably a concern with fertility as well.  The idea was genuinely, then, to reduce the intake of drugs and thus avoid a set of undesirable side-effects for the system.  

But it can't be assumed that the drugs wars as they continue today carry out the same functions as they were believed to in 1912.  The drugs wars have acquired another set of functions.  With respect to imperialism, it helps organise and distribute illicit funding and arms flows.  With respect to policing and criminality, it provides a 'frame' through which the state can surveille, serialise, detain and incarcerate the 'dangerous classes'.  Politically, it has worked alongside other thematics such as race to help organise viable reactionary-popular blocs - drugs providing both a pseudo-explanation for social breakdown and its necessarily harsh policing, and a rationale for continuing the policies of social breakdown.  It is no good bemoaning the irrationality and brutality of the system, which is not borne by its authors. The drugs policies work.  The objective of abolitionists has to be to attack the forms of political control which the drugs wars are aimed at supporting.

Anyway, I'll come back to this at another time.

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Kouvelakis on Greek struggle posted by Richard Seymour

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

Appeal update posted by Richard Seymour

Normal service to be resumed shortly.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

The more you ignore me, the closer I get posted by Richard Seymour

"When you sleep, I will creep into your thoughts like a bad debt that you can't pay."  You know what this is: the annual shakedown.  It's been roughly a year since the last Lenin's Tomb appeal.  I left you alone for that long.  Now I'm back and I'm turning the guilt up to eleven.

To be fair, I had a lot more success last time in persuading a small number of you to 'subscribe'.  In fact, some people were far too generous - although I like to think they were subsidising the other readers.  But, as I say, it's been a year.  And over that time, necessarily, subscriptions are either cancelled or reduced or just get indefinitely suspended: maybe because people's situations have changed, or because they feel they've given enough (quite reasonably), or because their evaluation of the blog has changed (*sputter*).  Individual donations, though always welcome, are very rare.  Anyway, as a result of this gradual diminution of blogging income, I've already shot the puppy.  Yes, I shot his big fuzzy head off.  And it's all your faultThis kitteh is next, if my usual list of threats, incitements and cajoling doesn't result in at least some new subscriptions or a wave of unreasonably large donations.

Before going any further, a résumé.  By this summer, I will have been at this for a decade, by which time I will probably have had something approaching seven million unique visits, most of them in the last few years.  In the last year, this blog had more than a million unique visits.  Probably most of those were from trolls, Googlebots, spammers and stalkers.  But let's pretend they weren't.  I would estimate, based on my followers and friends on social media and the hit count on this blog, that there are a few thousand regular and occasional readers of this blog.  If all my Twitter followers read the blog links that I post in their feeds, which of course they don't, that would be about six and a half thousand semi-regular readers.  So let's pretend they all do.  Adding Facebookers might push it up another two and a half thousand.  You could add some from other sources, bump the total up another thousand or so, but the point is that there are quite a lot of people to guilt-trip here.

Now, you people know that you pay cash money to read the capitalist press.  I know you do.  I've seen you at conferences and protests with your broadsheets and scowls.  I've been through your bins.  Don't even pretend.  But, somehow, Lenin's Tomb is less deserving than the FT?  Well, let me ask you this: does your broadsheet swear at you?  No.  Does it bewilder you with random, scattergun theoretical polemics with misused 'big words'?  No.  What about lengthy posts about dead marxist theorists where the comments thread is filled with violent, sectarian abuse?  Never.  Has it ever attempted an amateur psychoanalysis of the state of Israel?  I think not.  Does your broadsheet give you long series of articles obsessing about the nature of the police, or the Syrian revolution, or Kony 2012, or Syriza, or racism, and then threaten to kill a small animal?  Manifestly, no.  So what do they have that I don't?

Anyway, if you are planning your Christmas presents for this year, why not give the old fellow a subscription to Lenin's Tomb?  It'll be utterly useless to him, but it'll also be fun to see the expression on his face.  What's Christmas for if you can't disappoint someone you love?

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Alienation, subject and structure posted by Richard Seymour

A curious factoid.  The frequency with which the term 'alienation' is used in the English language has fluctuated considerably, but from about the beginning of Marx's oeuvre to the mid-point of the twentieth century, it actually declined in useage (from about 5 uses per million words to 2 uses per million).  After the 1950s, however, its use suddenly and dramatically increased to almost 12 per million.  

The occasion for this, of course, must be the 'recovery' of Marx's earlier works, such as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (pub. 1927), The German Ideology (1932), and even the later manuscripts of the Grundrisse (1939).  All of these seminal texts became the basis for a New Left critique of Stalinism after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU and the suppression of the Hungarian workers' uprising, predicated on 'socialist humanism'.  And amid the ensuing intellectual glasnost, humanistic concerns with consciousness and alienation became hugely influential on the Left and in the academia.  That tide may have receded somewhat, but the concept has now been firmly established, surviving the anti-marxist reaction in the academia.

So, then, what is the concept?  What are its objects and what relation between those objects does it show?  I let slip in a previous post that I had my doubts about the concept  of 'alienation', especially if it was based on the concept of 'human nature'.  Someone asked me, though - so what is your conception of alienation then?  Do I need one?, I retorted.  No, but there isn't just one notion of alienation in Marx.  That is, to reject the problematic of the theoretical human being (species-being) is not necessarily to reject all uses of alienation in Marx.  Indeed, it is a truism about Marx's works that for all his extraordinary rigour he often used concepts in quite different and inconsistent ways, some highly speculative and others more concrete, leaving readers to sort out the diverse usages.

As far as I can make out, two major concepts of alienation emerge in Marx's works.  First, in the early work, there is the separation of humanity from its species-being, from its essence as a labouring being.  This is Marx at his most essentialist.  Humanity is alienated, ie divided in itself; workers are separated from their own nature, but also from the nature of the other workers.  Second, in the later work, there is the alienation of humanity's collective labour and its products in the capitalist mode of production, and their reappearance as a set of reified, objective forces.  This is a historically specific conception of alienation, and relies on no general philosophy of human nature.  One way of coping with this inconsistent useage is to assert that there is no contradiction between the two; the former implies the latter.  This may be true in a sense, though it is by no means clear that the latter conception, emerging from a critique of the political economy of capitalism, implies the former, emerging from a critique of speculative philosophy.

Althusser rejected the notion of alienation strictly in its former sense, because he rejected a philosophy of history grounded in a human subject undergoing self-realisation.  He was in this sense a theoretical anti-humanist.  This did not entail a blanket refutation of ideological humanisms, certainly not those which animated workers rebellions against the Stalinist machinery, for example.  It was not a refutation of the centrality of human liberation to the communist project.  It was not a denial of human agency.  It simply stated that the concept of 'humanity', or 'man' in the old sexist idiom, played no theoretical role in historical materialism.  That is, that any references to 'humanity' in the context of marxist theoretical analysis are either rhetorically external to its object, and thus could be dispensed with without altering the theoretical product, or result in a distortion of marxist theory. 

The démarche of marxism, the 'epistemological break', was to found a science of history, historical materialism, on something other than a philosophy of human essence, species-being and so on: classes and class struggle, modes of production, forces and relations of production, capital as a social relation, infrastructure and superstructure, are the theoretical objects of historical materialism.  To understand the mode of production and its various relations, one need have no resource to the human being as a theoretical object: social relations occur not between human beings (qua some general species essence) but between agents (capitalists, workers, etc., all endowed with quite distinct capacities, interests etc).  Certainly, 'men' make history, but not as its subjects in the old philosophical sense (I know, this covers a multitude of sins).  Rather, they make history "under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past", that is as historically constituted agents, bearers of a structure.  In this sense, theoretical humanism and its concern with alienation is seen as a pre-marxist position.

One strategy of opposing this argument is to insist on the resistant realities of human flesh, its capacities and needs - to eat, drink, orgasm, etc.  Surely, the whole business of modes of production, social formations, classes, infrastructures and superstructures, presupposes a human essence?  But unimaginative retorts of this kind really miss the point.  There is no 'unalienated' way to eat, drink or orgasm in the sense that social relations necessarily 'intervene', shape, regiment, serialize and organise these activities in a particular way.  It is on the basis of social relations and the technologies of power that are developed to facilitate their reproduction that such needs, drives and capacities are convoked into the form of subjectivity.  We are most of us capable of sustaining an orgasm, but there is no essential orgasm that is ontologically prior to sexual subject-formation.

If one must have a conception of alienation, and if this concept must explain something about subjectivity, then I think we're back to attempts to fuse Marxism and psychoanalysis (or rather to conscript psychoanlysis into Marxism as a regional theory governed by the general theory of historical materialism).  Because, of course, the fundamental insight of psychoanalysis is that human subjects are constitutively divided.  The unconscious 'speaks' through a subject that experiences it as an utterly alien presence.  Its thoughts are disruptive, subversive and totally at odds with the self-image and ideals of the subject.  So there is no myth of human wholeness for psychoanalysis.  Indeed, the whole point for psychoanalysis is that subjectivity comes into being after a fundamental 'loss' or negation.  For the normal/neurotic subject, it is the loss of jouissance - eg, the baby is weaned from its mother's breast and subject to symbolic law instated by the father - it thus becomes a subject on the basis of a 'loss' or 'castration'.  But this 'loss' is imaginary in the sense that the child 'loses' an imaginary relationship with the mother, as an extension of the mother's body - only becoming a differentiated subject after the violent inscription of the symbolic order says 'you are different from your mother' etc.  So subjectivity in psychoanalysis emerges on the basis of the loss of what one never had.

In a homologous way, you might say that the working class only comes into existence on the basis of a fundamental experience of 'estrangement', being separated from the means of production.  Yet, of course, the working class never had control of the means of production. That is what disinguishes it as a class from, say, the peasantry.  So, this 'loss' is exactly what is constitutive of working class subjectivity - the loss of what it never had.  And in a manner of speaking which is not completely parodic, you could say that this constitutive separation becomes the central alienation around which other alienations (from control over one's labour power, from the products of one's labour power, from other workers, etc) are articulated.  It is less important how far one pushes this homology than the approach it is supposed to illustrate.  It is just a way of tackling the problem of alienation in a historically delimited way, in a way that comprehends both its structural-relational and subjective effects, without collapsing into speculative idealism (humanity, separated from its essence), or vulgar psychologism (oh, look at me, oh I'm ever so fractured and incomplete and alienated from my fellow human beings, oh help, help, help*). 

*This is why I blog, you know.  I'll never be taken seriously in the academia.

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What is it about the BBC? posted by Richard Seymour

We will probably have a lot more to say about Leveson and the fallout. But I really have to approach a subject I've been circling around in my mind for some time, even if this only yields a provisional answer. For when the Leveson furore fizzles away and the lineaments of the new situation, whatever it happens to be, become clear, we will have to reckon with one of the scandal's sideshows: the BBC. Or rather, to be precise, the BBC's news and current affairs division. (I have to say this, otherwise everyone who thought a BBC4 documentary or a Radio 3 music programme was just the best thing ever will inevitably mount their Defend the BBC hobby horse, and thus miss the point completely).


I. While the BBC is not yet a Murdoch-owned broadcaster, you sometimes get the impression from its news and current affairs product that it really wants to be, that it is trying very hard to be worthy. Could I persuade you to read that sentence again? And to think about how much more probable this is than the suggestion that the BBC is a leftist, politically correct, public sector monolith?

Take, for example, the BBC's performance over the recent Israeli assault on Gaza which was not only appalling, but predictably appalling. The corporation's reliance on the hardline Zionist Jonathan Sacerdoti for what it offered as 'neutral' commentary on the Middle East was just one instance of its incredible bias. And this powerful predisposition toward the powerful is one that extends across the whole range of issues. And I don't think this is just a matter of their natural caution in the face of government attack or powerful lobbying. I think it is, if you'll forgive the term, 'instinctive'. It's a reflex that comes from the BBC's institutional make up, which is congenitally hostile to the Left, to protesters, to strikes and to anything that disturbs the status quo.

II. Nor is this just bias. I detect a specific pattern in the BBC's behaviour, which perhaps you will also have discerned. For the majority of the time, the BBC is happy to maintain what appears to be a standard tolerant, relaxed, inclusive facade. It maintains the sort of 'balance' that is typical of regulated private sector broadcasters, organising its news coverage around 'debates' that important and powerful people happen to be having, while occasionally allowing dissident opinion to be heard within the confines of those debates. That context permits some good reporting, and some informative debate. There are, of course, routine sociological sermons, such as the vicious hit job on Shanene Thorpe, which reflect the debates being had among the ruling class. But for much of the time, this is no more offensive than ITV, Channel Five or Sky News.

Yet as soon as there is an emergent issue, one in which the stakes are abnormally high either for the government or for the ruling class more generally (usually both), the facade folds. In recent years, the BBC has been by far the worst broadcaster at several key junctures, where the main issue was war, Palestine, strikes, riots, police violence, the far right, or protests. That the BBC's record is actually worse than other broadcasters on such matters has been consistently demonstrated. Andrew Marr's laudatio for Prime Minister Blair on the conclusion of the invasion of Iraq, has entered into lore as one of the corporation's most stunningly propagandistic moments. But it was only a coup de grace, a finishing touch on what had been a consistent clangor of jingoism throughout the invasion and preliminary pacification of Iraq.

To a certain extent, moreover, I think the BBC can act as a sort of whip, conveying a discipline to the other broadcasters. We saw this with the BBC's mainstreaming of fascism, which made it harder to pressure the commercial broadcasters to exclude the fascists. Similar effects might have resulted from the BBC's refusal to broadcast the Gaza emergency appeal were it not for the extent of the backlash. It still seems strange, does it not, that we actually had to march against the BBC over that issue, as if it was an arm of the government. In a sense, of course, it is just that. The BBC does play an important role not only in the formulation of policy arguments, but in the orchestration of those nodal points in which decisive measures have to be taken, internal foes defeated, matters put to bed. Even more so than most other broadcasters and major news providers, it is a part of the government of the country.


III. This is where it seems that the 'propaganda model' of Chomsky and Herman reaches some of its limits. Despite its lethal accuracy about the mainstream corporate press in the US, the model is less predictive of trends in more diverse European media structures, and particularly in public service broadcasting. Its two primary 'filters' (ownership and advertising) assume a commercial model. The other filters - sourcing, flak, and ideological constraints (not just anticommunism) - still apply, but are probably less important. So it would be hard-pressed to explain the behaviour of the BBC and its specific patterns of 'bias', if that euphemism be permitted.

There are all sorts of simple explanations offered as to how the BBC is what it is. It is a state broadcaster. Its board of governors is appointed by the state. Its political editors are filtered by MI5. It depends on the government providing revenues, and thus forges a close relationship with any executive in Number Ten. The BBC Trust is appointed by the Queen as 'advised' by the government. And so on. But while these provide certain 'causal mechanisms' that could help contextualise what the BBC does, I don't think you can get more out of this than a 'descriptive theory'. Many of these factors could be altered and yet the BBC would remain more or less the same. MI5 could keep its nose out, the funding structure could be reorganised, and the board of governors could be appointed by an 'independent' trust or committee, and it would remain the same. These facts are not the explanation we need; they are what need to be explained in terms of a deeper theoretical relation.


IV. The sense in which the above observations might provide a 'descriptive theory' is that in which they all point to the central problem, the fact that the BBC is a state broadcaster. Certainly, it isn't under the direct control of the executive or government of the day. But nor is it just within the field of the state in the same sense that all major media are. It is very explicitly organised as an apparatus of the state.

What this entails is that the analysis of the BBC must start from the analysis of the British capitalist state, and its specific role in reproducing British capitalist social relations. It is not a study of an institutional format or history that is required as such - as I've said, many of the historical and institutional details could be very different, and yet the BBC would remain more or less the same type of organisation producing more or less the same type of product. Rather, what is needed is the study of the BBC's function within an ensemble of state functions in a complex social formation. Of course, I don't mean to embark on this sort of survey in this post - we are unwell, if you must know - merely to identify these methodological points.

V. But the fact that the BBC is a state apparatus doesn't necessarily settle its specific role. I think, as I said in a previous post, that Althusser's concept of ideological-state apparatuses (ISAs) gives us an opening into this question. The concept is interesting in that it includes more than just the public core of the state - the legal system, the education system and so on. It includes the culture industry, communications, families, trade unions, and parliamentary parties. These bodies are unified by their necessary function in the reproduction of the dominant ideology. So in what sense are they state apparatuses? As Althusser suggested, citing Gramsci, the public/private binary is one that is internal to bourgeois law, and valid in the domains in which the law is authoritative. The state constitutes this binary through its action, and includes certain of its core apparatuses within the public domain, while excluding others that are nonetheless well within its strategic field and critical to the reproduction of its political-ideological authority.

So, the BBC would not be unique among news providers and broadcasters in being identified as an ISA according to this approach. But it does matter that as an ISA it operates very much on the 'public' side of the 'public-private' dichotomy. As a public sector, state broadcaster, it is much more closely linked to the legitimacy of the nation-state than a private, regulated broadcaster. It sees its job as being to 'lead a conversation with the nation', or to 'represent all four nations of the UK and its regions' both at home and abroad, and other equally vapid-yet-ideological mission points. Representative, dialogic, loyal to the people-nation - this just is the discourse of the capitalist state in its legitimising mode. So, the ISA concept helps begin to situate the BBC in the necessary reproduction of the dominant ideology, and the necessary role of the state in organising this. It thus helps explain why the BBC is, even more than other broadcasters, a part of the government of the nation. It helps explain the peculiar rhythms of its conduct, its lockstep with the government at certain critical moments even to the detriment of its usually consensual facade.

VI. But of course, there are well-known shortcomings of Althusser's couplet of 'ideological-state apparatuses' and 'repressive state apparatuses' (RSAs). While Althusser acknowledged that there is no purely ideological or repressive apparatus, that there is only a greater emphasis on repression here, or on ideology there, he didn't go beyond the limited purview of the couplet itself. As Poulantzas was to point out, the state is also involved in organising material incentives (the better to disorganise the dominated classes). As he also pointed out, and as other state theorists have demonstrated at great length, the state also plays a crucial role in the constitution of the economy.

So it seems that, from another point of view, there are three types of role that a state body can perform: the organisation of political dominance (the civil service, police, army, border controls, etc), the organisation of ideological dominance (law, education, parliamentary parties and so on), and the political organisation of economic dominance (welfare, healthcare, subsidies, monetary and lending policy, wage supplements, etc). Obviously, this is far too schematic. In reality, these types of practice are usually articulated in a complex totality of practices. For example, it may well be - as Althusser argued - that schools are the key ideological-state apparatus under advanced capitalism. But they are also involved in organising economic dominance, partly as a material 'concession' to workers in the form of a social wage, partly as a functional necessity for a developing economy and partly - at least in higher education - as a public research and development facility for corporations. Likewise, parliamentary parties are involved in organising both political and ideological dominance. Even so, it is quite clear that, for example, public services represent a quite different type of domination than the armed forces. The emphasis is much more on incorporation through material incentive, or on ideological domination, than on projecting political violence.

Where would one situate the BBC in this rough schema? Certainly, I would be sceptical of any conception of the BBC as a 'public service' like welfare, or the NHS. There are spaces in the BBC for product that the commercial broadcasters would be uninterested in, and there is in the principle of public service broadcasting something potentially far better than the private sector broadcasters. Even so, it's hard to see the BBC as predominantly a 'material incentive', just as it isn't predominantly repressive. Clearly, its major function is in the organisation of ideological dominance. This is not to say that BBC product is ideologically simple or one-sided: the dominant ideology never is simple or one-sided; rather, the ideology of the ruling class becomes the dominant ideology to the extent that it continually absorbes, neutralises and rearticulates elements of popular ideology. Nor is it to say that the process of ideological reproduction is smooth, and machinic. It is not. Every site of domination is also a site of struggle. The BBC has a much higher rate of unionisation, for example, than other news broadcasters. Yet the limited nature of that struggle, which can be inferred from the overwhelmingly sectional or economic-corporate interests defended in struggles that do emerge, and from the fact that not a single visible rebellion has actually attacked the corporation's ideological agenda at any point, is indicative of how difficult it is to activate antagonisms within the media.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A quick point about Leveson posted by Richard Seymour

Please don't waste your time defending the 'independence' of the press, or a 'free press'.  The 'independence' of the press is an ideological conceit.  In liberal ideology, the state is here, civil society there - and never the twain shall meet, except on election day or on those unfortunate occasions when an officer of the law might visit.  In the sphere of civil society, the 'private' sphere for the purposes of this discourse, there are pubs, biscuit manufacturers, trade unions, peep shows, chess clubs, the brownies, car dealerships, families, nudism, and of course newspapers, magazines and other sorts of publications.  In the sphere of the state, the 'public' sphere, are courts, cop shops, parliament, the Ministry of Defence, Jobcentre Plus, the Queen and her entourage, the NHS, and probably the BBC.   

Well, that is the ideology as I say, the legal image of the state as a sort of 'night watchman' that must be prevented from going beyond its strictly designated limits.  The rational core of the conceit is the relative extrusion of political violence from exploitative relations under capitalism.  Whereas the feudal exploiter bears arms when collecting tribute, the capitalist exploiter works by contract, and rings the police if there's any trouble.  It thus appears that there's a sphere of 'civil society' organised on the basis of contract, in which the state's primary purpose is to uphold contracts - including the primordial contract between citizens and state which delegates sovereign power to the latter.  This trope can be useful, inasmuch as it mobilises opposition to the state in several areas where its oppressiveness can be most keenly felt.  It provides liberals with a philosophically grounded basis for saying 'don't censor him, don't lock her up arbitrarily, and don't obstruct our demonstration'.  

But you begin to see the limitations of such an approach when, as Leveson proposes a relatively mild form of regulation, the cries of Stalinist censorship are sent aloft - North Korea, Zimbabwe, in Britain tomorrow!  Woe for us!  The reality is that there is media regulation of different types in every capitalist formation, and this extends to the press which, among industries, is neither sacred nor unique.  There are limits to what may be published, or broadcast, or narrowcast, in every capitalist state in the world.  The state's presence in the constitution and regulation of every field of social production and reproduction should be taken as a truism.  It should also be a truism for the left that there can be no a priori opposition to state intervention: it depends on the circumstances.  

There is also this to say.  The state's presence in the media is not purely 'negative' in the sense of repressing it and limiting its output.  It actively produces certain types of media and certain types of content.  The close networks of collusion between Murdoch, the police, the Tories, leading Blairites and other businessmen and women, can be read as an abberation, a singular pathology of a very distinctive type of power.  But it can also be interpreted as a corollary of the structural, relational interdependence between the mass media and the state.  It literalises a structural fact, which is that the mass media is an active element in the formulation of policy, in the prosecution of criminal justice, in the dissemination of the dominant ideology.  It is not so much intruded on by the state as interlocked with it.  (Yes, this is the 'ideological-state apparatus' hypothesis, which certainly deserves renewed attention following Hackgate).  Journalists and pundits who routinely seek their information from Downing Street, or the White House press spokesperson, or a ministry PR sheet, or a policeman, judge or other figure of authority, must be very well aware of this imbrication, and their particular role.  The very notion, purveyed by shriller-than-thou polemicists and pundits across the spectrum, that a piddling regulatory body with a piddling 'dab of statute' would constitute an unprecedented abridgment of the free press is, forgive me, a so much horseshit.

This is emphatically not to say that complacency is a good response to state intervention, nor to say that the specific proposals of Leveson are such that we should cheerlead them.  The soft left, in whose ranks I should probably include Hacked Off, Liberty, most trade unionists and Labour members, are generally positive about the measures.  Liberty argues that a regulatory body that is independent of the press, underpinned by law and capable of imposing real penalties, would offer tabloid victims a low cost and plausible means of pursuing a grievance - away from the minatory ranks of lawyers, private detectives and bent cops.  In principle, I have a great deal of sympathy with this idea, and it's obvious why Murdoch and his allies would oppose it.  But there may be a sting in the tail. Certainly, this is the position Socialist Worker takes this week, arguing that the radical press could be seriously hurt by Leveson's proposals.  I merely raise this to indicate the possible dangers and the fact that there is and must be a debate about the concrete details rather than just the principle itself.

Nor is this to defend what Leveson has actually produced in his report - so far from it.  As far as I can gather, Leveson diverts the subject away from the underlying issue of press ownership with a perfunctory note about 'greater transparency' in mergers and monopolies.  He whitewashes the police and the main crooks, while (so I gather) wasting energy attacking Piers Morgan and other less relevant figures.  He leaves unexamined the forms of ruling class power that Murdoch's global media empire is involved in, and the networks of criminal conspiracy that it cultivated.  Most scandalously of all, he ignores the murder of Daniel Morgan.  

As I mentioned at the start of this process, Leveson was close to the Murdoch clan, or at least well within their social circles.  He was and is an establishment man, appointed for that reason.  He was never going to do anything other than cleanse and absolve the main culprits of the main crimes.  Not only that, but such public inquiries tend to have a constructive role as far as the ruling class is concerned.  They arise because there is a problem, a dysfunction, one that threatens the general interests of the ruling class, and one which needs to be resolved in the interests of that class, but also credibly as far as the population is concerned.  They take "the heat out of controversies, by slowing the pace of revelations to a manageable speed, and stifling it in parliamentary language."  Through this process, a great deal of important information may be gleaned.  Some rational prescriptions may emerge from the procedure.  Many journalists have expressed cheer at the 'conscience clause', for instance.  But the wider effort of gathering evidence, having hearings, questioning witnesses, deliberating, and all the usual rituals of the state, is governed by the overriding imperative of conservation.

Still, taking all this as read - could we really have expected much better? in truth, I expected even worse - there really is something quite precious, quite unbelievably self-cherishing, about those innumerable opinion pieces asserting that Leveson and his politically correct supporters have just hacked 'free speech' to death.  All that has happened thus far is that a conservative bureaucrat has recommended modestly adjusting the relationship of the state to the press, in such a way that the worst abuses of the worst newspapers might conceivably be limited.  And any critique of Leveson that starts from the myth of press 'independence' has already lost.

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Greece: resisting fascism posted by Richard Seymour

On 19th January, the Greek left is seeking to organise a broad, internationalist coalition against the threat of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, and thus implicitly the wider threat that fascism poses in this era of Depression and austerity.  On the day in question, the hope is to rally the widest possible coalition of forces opposed to fascism in Syntagma Square, while solidarity events are held outside Greek embassies. This will hopefully concentrate and amplify the social forces involved in regular antifascist work, and form a turning point in the struggle to break the fascist surge.  And this is a good time to do it because the Golden Dawn, despite their shocking growth, are still at a relatively primitive phase in their development.  They may be encouraged and supported by judges and cops, they may be terrorising immigrants and leftists, they may be indulged by mainstream journalists and politicians, but their roots in workplaces and streets, where fascists really build, are still tentative.

It's very clear what has happened.  The temptation to perceive this situation through the optic of the 1930s has to be resisted to an extent. The global architecture is profoundly different. The world of the 1930s had just experienced a series of crises of liberal capitalism - WWI, the Russian Revolution, and then the Depression. The capitalist states had successfully prevented the spread of the revolution across Europe, and encircled Russia, but there remained a state covering a sixth of the world's population that called itself a socialist state. The working classes of Europe were still expanding, and many of the old ruling classes and states had yet to reorganise and adapt to the new forms of politics emerging from the labour movement. There were still large pre-capitalist classes, peasants, artisans and landlords, aristocrats and royals, each of which was forced to adapt in their own ways to industrialisation, globalisation of a sort, and the developing power of the bourgeoisie. The traditional order was decaying even though capitalism seemed a lot more precarious than it does today. Colonial empires were predominant, race ideology in its most virulent biologistic sense was still ascendant, and popular cultures of militarism were both more popular and more militaristic than the embarrassing, kitschy rituals we see today.

Today's crisis is very different. The global Depression has interrupted and thrown into crisis a wave of post-Cold War triumphalism - but the precepts of liberal capitalism are seriously challenged only at the margins of the system. Europe's independent centres of capital accumulation have been more or less stabilised, even in the 'transitional' east. Its class systems have been greatly simplified in at least one sense, as precapitalist classes have dwindled. The social bases of fascism would be very different today. No ruling class seriously fears a socialist revolution in the immediate future. The colonial systems are gone. The imperialist system that is dominated by the US today organises territory in a very different way. 'Lebensraum' today would almost be beside the point.  The way in which imperialisms and sub-imperialisms work is not by colonising a space but by exercising political and economic strength in a region (with violence always held 'in reserve') to maximise surplus extraction.  Greece, for example, is not a thwarted colonial power whose global and territorial aspirations have been broken in a punishing world war, leading to social revolution. It is a regional sub-imperialism, which spent about 7 billion euros on arms imports last year. Its position within the EU may be 'peripheral' and subordinate, but the Greek ruling class has benefited from this arrangement, and has tried to turn the country into a sort of local metropolis, attracting trade and investments from across the Mediterranean.  And in addition to its EU membership, Greece remains a NATO member with all the commitments and arguable advantages this implies for the country's bourgeoisie.

Still, fascism has been resurgent in the continent, and in Greece it has arisen in its most brutal, neo-Nazi form to become potentially the third party of Greek politics. And the broad outlines of the crisis resonate with some features of the past. First, of course, whatever the context, a capitalist crisis of this magnitude could not but have a shattering impact on living standards, particularly among the poorest and most precarious.  It is not the case that contemporary fascism arrived on the scene as a result of the crisis - it has been a more protracted and durable effect of neoliberal politics.  But the polarising effect of, not the crisis in its first appearance but actually the austerity remedy adopted by the European ruling classes, has created the momentum from which the Golden Dawn have been catapulted out of obscurity.  Second, while the colonial forms of race politics may be superseded to a large extent, contemporary forms of racism have been fertilised by the social dislocations and stresses of capitalism, as well as by various racial projects of neoliberal capitalism itself - anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism being the dominant registers of Fortress Europe today. 

Third, Greece may not be on the brink of revolution tomorrow, but it has undergone years of class struggle bordering at times on insurrection. The capacity and political authority of the state has been dramatically weakened, and its dominant apparatuses might have been suicidally deadlocked at several points in the administration of this crisis were it not for the intervention of the troika.  The more the crisis goes on, as it will go on as long as Greece is a member of the Eurozone, the weaker the political control of workers will be.  The counter-revolutionary thrust of the Golden Dawn, its promise to remedy the weakness of the national state and finally deal with the marxists and foreigners, 'reclaim the city', is a recognition of this.  

Fourth, while it would be wrong to draw too strict an analogy between the situation of Greece in crisis and under EU rule, and that of Germany under Versailles rule, it is certainly true that Fascism has always benefited from being able to articulate its nationalism in the language of 'liberation' from imperialist domination. Recall that Strasser evoked the liberation of Germany from 'international Finance Capital' as a precondition for the social liberation of German workers.  Or think of the self-pitying discourses about Italy the 'proletarian nation' during Mussolini's reign.  Even if Greece's situation is markedly different, it is nonetheless true that the demands imposed by the EU leadership have been so devastating for social classes across Greece, barring a tiny ruling minority who can expect to benefit, that the struggle has acquired a national dimension.  This is amenable to chauvinist and racist articulations even if that isn't the dominant tone.

Finally, what is the social basis of the Golden Dawn? Judging from the June poll results, the Nazis, aside from receiving the disproportionate support of the repressive apparatuses (police, mainly), have assembled a cross-class coalition of, for example, employers, self-employed professionals and farmers, middle managers, and employed workers - particularly 'unskilled', private sector workers. The stronger support of workers is one of the things that distinguishes the Golden Dawn from LAOS, the far right party which went into eclipse after its participation in an austerity government. In this respect, Golden Dawn has stronger similarities to historical Nazism than one might imagine.  The disproportionate support of employers and 'entrepreneurs' should not be taken to mean that the main Nazi bulwark in Greece is among big business - on the contrary, it is most likely that these are small business owners who, alongside the self-employed professionals and farmers, and middle managers, would form part of a petty bourgeois class.  This is quite typical.  It is also a notable feature of the Nazis' support in the working class that it was based among the least 'skilled' and poorest workers - typically those who had recently migrated from the countryside to the city, but by and large those who had least direct experience of class struggle.  I think in the current period, this would include many private sector workers who are less likely to be unionised and more likely to be precariously employed or on poor wages.  And this is in some ways the biggest danger.  The Nazis could never win with just the support of the lower middle class - no more could the Golden Dawn.  It is their popular base, their support among poor workers, however fragile, that makes them a threat.

This thumbnail sketch to one side, and apart from the factors I mentioned above, one outstanding difference between fascism in Europe in the 1930s, and fascism in Europe in the 2010s, is that the place where it is a most pressing threat is exactly the one place where the working class is at its most insurgent.  This obviously was not the case when Fascism took power in Italy or in Germany.  On the contrary, fascism followed from the defeat of the working class, their pacification, even as the crisis continued and even as the state broke down.  This, coupled with the abject political strategies of the dominant parties in the working class, accounted for the passivity with which Fascism was received.  Greece will not be the same.  The working class is still fighting, still militant.  The shift to the left is still the dominant trend.  It is in this context that a united front of Greece's radicals, militants and antifascists of all stripes, is forming around the single agenda of breaking the fascist threat.  On 19th January, this united front takes a big step forward.

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