Monday, October 28, 2013

Grangemouth: defeat from the jaws of defeat. posted by Richard Seymour

The workers filing back into the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, Ineos, had a look of victory, and relief.  The BBC was triumphant; Alex Salmond was triumphant; the local Unite rep was triumphant; the company was triumphant.  Everyone had won.  

It was the most serious defeat of the British labour movement in years, and there was barely a shot fired.  

Not a single concession from the owners; the union concedes everything from pay freezes, an end to final salary pensions, the end of full-time union convenors on site, and no strikes for three years.  Employers across the country will be looking admiringly and enviously at what the boss of Ineos, the billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, has achieved, and looking to emulate it.

In principle, this plant was a bastion of union power.  The company was at the heart of Scotland’s infrastructure, in a sensitive market position, with chains of suppliers and businesses dependent on its ongoing functioning.  Unite workers were well-organised, and knew how to use their disruptive power.  They tended to win their strikes.  In 2008, they shut down Ratcliffe’s attack on their final salary pension scheme.  Tanker drivers saw off an attack on their pay and conditions in March.  There was no reason for Unite to think they couldn’t deal with this.

The problem was, the strike wasn’t about what they thought it was about.  The provocation behind the strike was the victimisation of Unite rep Stephen Deans.  The occasion for the attack on Deans was allegations about his role in the Falkirk selection controversy.  

The Falkirk episode will merit further scrutiny in the coming weeks and months.  Ed Miliband called in the cops on the basis of claims of vote-rigging.  Implicated was not just the Unite-backed candidate, Karie Murphy, but the local constituency chairman and Unite member Stephen Deans.  By early September, Labour was admitting ‘no wrongdoing’ on the part of Murphy and Deans.  The police had declined to take any action.  And Labour ended its internal investigation.  By the account given in BBC Radio 4’s documentary, it was a candy floss controversy: mouth-watering but ultimately fuzzy, indistinct and lacking in substance.

But Miliband had used the panic to make an ultra-Blairite, union-baiting speech on ‘reforming’ the relationship with trade unions.  Tony Blair and his allies in the party and the press were grossly, deliriously happy.  Len McCluskey backed his proposed reforms, putting a left gloss on them.  You might argue that McCluskey’s attitude was predictable, that he always says something approving every time Miliband makes a right-wing speech.  You might argue, as I did, that Miliband’s reforms might weaken the Labour-link in one sense, but they strengthen the potential financial clout of the union bureaucracy on a clientelist basis.  But I’m not totally sure that this is the end of the story.

At any rate, this was the context in which the company decided to suspend Stephen Deans, provoking the ballot for industrial action and strike action that would ultimately lead to the present debacle.  I think the company management smelled weakness.  They heard that many of the people signed up to the Labour Party in the weeks before the selection had actually been workers at Ineos.  They wondered if Deans had not been using company time to engage in suspicious, potentially culpable behaviour.  They launched an investigation.  Initially, Unite maintains, the company cleared Deans and reinstated him.  If that’s the case, however, they clearly quickly re-calculated.

Unite didn’t seem to panic.  They held the ballot for a strike, within the usual ponderous procedures and time-frame of industrial action ballots in the UK.  An overwhelming 81.4% voted to take action.  They began with action short of striking, including work to rule, and an overtime ban.  If it was about victimisation, they would stand solid and win.  

However, Jim Ratcliffe had already started to leak a different narrative to the press.  It was no longer about one union member.  The company was ‘at a crossroads’.  It was losing money, in dire financial straits.  Something had to give.  The strike that Unite was fighting as a victimisation case was increasingly a pretext for a far more serious fight.

By mid-October, management had struck hard.  The company and the union went through a negotiations process with ACAS, lasting until Tuesday 15th October.  Unite alleges that they were on the verge of a deal, before Ineos walked out.  This would certainly be in character.  At any rate, Unite responded to this by calling off proposed strike action, and the company responded with a further offensive.

On Wednesday 16th, the company locked out the workers whose strike had just been called off.  They demanded that the workers agree to redundancies, reduced wages for new starters, cuts to holidays and redundancy pay, and an end to the final salary pensions scheme.  They said the company was losing £10m a month, and couldn’t go on without union acquiescence to a ‘survival plan’.  (Unite says that its research shows the company’s figures to be fanciful.)  They were threatening to literally close the plant unless they got what they wanted.  This was “union-busting and industrial blackmail”.

But the company did not neglect to include a material inducement in their threats, in the form of one-off compensation payments in exchange for the concessions. They addressed this proposal to workers individually, not via their union.  This was smart.  They were both dramatically displaying the irrelevance of the union for workers’ future living standards, and appealing to people’s short-term economic need, their worries about the near future in austerity Britain.  Unite rightly urged members to turn it down, about half of whom did.  But if half the workers were ready to accept this kind of deal, perhaps people were not as confident as they had been when the dispute began.  With the employers on an offensive that gave no quarter, that only seemed to intensify, and with the union ineffectually trying to bargain even while it talked a good fight, perhaps the calculation was changing for many workers.  It does not sound, at any rate, like a workforce ready to embark on a wave of occupations and flying pickets.  And I would guess that the company bosses, noses ever attuned to prey, scented the weakness.

Still, it is profoundly strange that Unite caved to the extent that they did, in the way that they did, at the time that they did.  It’s quite possible that Ratcliffe was ready to walk, but right then?  True, past investments are no reason to hang around: capitalists know what the term ’sunk investment’ means.  But if Unite had any faith in its own figures, they must have believed Ineos had a profitable future that a capitalist could not just walk away from.  And would the Scottish government have let Grangemouth sink and devastate a chunk of Scottish industry?  It’s possible that Salmond and Swinney told McCluskey that the only buyers they would consider would be anti-union buyers.  It’s possible they said that they would be more than justified, if the plant was abandoned, in selling it off to the lowest bidder and allowing them to shred the workforce under the guise of ‘Saving Grangemouth’.  It is possible they said that Unite was being irresponsible with Scotland’s future, and that Ratcliffe’s deal was the best they were going to get, and the union had better learn the reality of the modern world - who has final salary pensions these days?  Maybe Labour’s leadership doubled down on this, and added more.  It’s possible there was all sorts of pressure, all sorts of threats.  But such threats must have been extremely acute, and mortally threatening to the Unite bureaucracy, to force it to conduct such a swift, comprehensive and humiliating reversal, and accept a defeat of historic proportions.

For there was, let us be clear, a real potential for political solidarity in this strike.  As it went on, even front-bench Labour MSPs felt compelled to demonstrate support, instigating squeals of disgust from the party’s Blairites who demanded that Johann Lamont stamp her authority on the rogue MSPs.  The workers themselves were not unpopular in Scotland, and Unite has never really suffered from any stigma that actually sticks in the public mind - unlike, say, the RMT.  

Ratcliffe, by contrast, rules Ineos from a £6m estate in Hampshire.  He has wealth that most people cannot fathom.  He is a tax dodger, who has moved his company’s headquarters to Switzerland to avoid paying taxes, a move prompted by the refusal of the UK government to allow him a one-year delay in payment of a VAT bill.  He is litigious.  Ineos has threatened defamation action “with the abandon of the powerful who wish to silence those less powerful”.  He was insolent enough to demand a personal apology from the unions for one of their alleged defamatory remarks as a ‘deal-breaker’.  He is the clear, unyielding aggressor in this fight.  His rhetoric is cold and ruthless.  He is what people mean by the term ‘ruling class’.  He is what people mean when they contemptuously spit, ‘the rich’.

Not only that, but Ineos had shut down the refinery, impacting on a big sector of the economy that was dependent on the plant.  This was a huge deal.  The biggest economic impact of this dispute was caused not by the workers’ strike, but by the employers’ strike.  And in Scotland, at this time, when the debate about independence rages, to have an English capitalist clearly holding an essential part of the infrastructure to ransom - well, if that doesn’t induce a yearning for Brumaire, Year I, what would?  

And this would have helped keep pressure on the union leadership not to relent in the tempo of its counter-attacks, and not to wilt under pressure from management.

In this vein, there were some laudable sentiments.  The unions called for the Scottish government to take Ineos into public ownership if Ratcliffe ran off with his billions.  Some on the Left concurred, and the idea seemed to resonate.  This was really prime material for a 'Save Grangemouth - Nationalise Now’ campaign.  I think it still might be.  Who says Grangemouth is safe in Ratcliffe’s sticky little fingers?  But there does not appear to have been a campaign to capitalise on it.  It was treated very much as an industrial dispute, with at best a passive, cheerleading role for supporters.  Who saw it coming?  Hardly anyone.  The bosses played a blinder.

As a coda to its successful attack on the union, the company has decided to leak the emails which they had collected from Deans account to the Murdoch press. The Sunday Times has published a story based on some of them today.  And if the leak has its intended effect, the Falkirk inquiry will be re-opened.  Perhaps if that happens it will shed more light on this dispute and its conclusion.  There seems to have been a curious constellation of forces producing and shaping this defeat from the beginning - right-wing Labourism, tabloid red-baiting, ruling class union-busting in a general climate of austerity, and somewhere in it all a complicitous Scottish nationalism.  About this, I suspect, we don’t know half the truth yet.

Ratcliffe is lying flat on his back on his yacht, Hampshire II, in the south of France.  Ineos, as everyone has quickly learned to say, has a bright future ahead of it.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

From the EDL to what? On anti-racism strategy. posted by Richard Seymour

This is a document I submitted for the bulletin of the last IS Network conference.  It is partially based on a post I wrote a few months ago.

I. The EDL may be finished, its method of street demonstrations having run out of steam according to its former orange eminence, Tommy Robinson.  The scattered forces of the far right may be declining - if still resourceful, still too numerous, still dangerous.  However sanguine our assumptions on this point may be, though, the wider situation is as toxic as it has ever been, fertile ground for a more effective populist-racist formation.  The strong performance of UKIP demonstrates this potential.  This new organisation Robinson intends to form with his wooden double act, Kevin Carroll, backed by his comprador allies, the state-sponsored ex-Islamist Qilliam Foundation, will surely seek to plough the same terrain.


II.  The EDL was formed in 2009, fusing a number of heterogeneous energies.  In one sense, it was a belated expression of a certain type of ‘war on terror’ politics, defending good old British boys against Anjem Choudary’s coffin-botherers.  In another, it represented a perverse reanimation of Ulster Loyalism in the English context - the slogan ‘no surrender’ being taken straight from the death squads of the dear six counties.  But it also represented the failure of New Labour’s ‘Britishness’ project.  Having English, Scottish and Welsh defence leagues was not merely a function of basing the organisation on football casuals and thus deferring to the national division of teams.  It underlined just how the axis of xenophobic nationalism had shifted.  It also very effectively drew upon and organised the popular mytheme of ‘the white working class’ - supposedly ignored by liberal elites, abused by multicultural politicians, and oppressed by political correctness.  This ideology initially began to be articulated under New Labour, and represented a right-ward shift within the Blairite section of the ideological-state apparatuses.  But as with so much material that begins life as part of a neoliberal triangulation strategy, it was far more potent in the hands of bovver boys.  At the core of it, of course, is the EDL’s contention that Islam is ‘extremist’, that it wages a genocidal war on all Christians, and as such represents an enemy within ‘Christian’ or ‘Western civilisation’.  The spread of this style of thinking, conspiracism, is linked to the rise of political paranoia in an increasingly competitive, dog-eat-dog social world.  At any rate, this interpellation of ‘culture’ - or a racialised conception of culture - into the political terrain of post-credit crunch Britain achieved one very salient effect.  It articulated the concrete experiences of decline - relative national, imperialist decline; economic decline; the declining living standards of workers and a section of the middle class - within a single narrative of resentment structured by Islamophobia.  The EDL’s narrative obliquely ‘mentioned’ real social facts, and provided a schema through which supporters could live their relationship to those facts.  And of course, it mobilised those supporters to address the ostensible ‘cause’ of those facts in what was at first a highly effective strategy of street mobilisations with football casuals at their core.


III.  This immediately posed a unique kind of challenge to traditional anti-fascist strategy in the UK, as the pivot on which a wider anti-racist politics turned.  The logic went something like this: fascists are both the most dangerous spearhead of racist reaction and potentially its weakest point.  We can and should mobilise the broadest possible unity against the far right; in doing so we have to challenge their racism and we can force our allies in this fight to adopt a more consistently anti-racist position.  Of course, even where we do not succeed in this wider objective, a conjunctural defeat for fascism is no small thing.  However, the EDL, for all that it knowingly drew in significant strata of the old far right, never became a fascist organisation.  This is why the formulations from the SWP and UAF were, some slips notwithstanding, generally very careful: for example, the EDL was “a racist organisation with Nazis at its core”.  It resembled a fascist organisation in some respects.  For example, its emphasis on control of the streets.  Or, its forms of alcohol-greased, macho solidarity, its rabble-paramilitarism.  Or, its focus on visual communication and symbolism invoking a cod national mythology (the crusades).  Or, finally, the fitful tendencies of the EDL leadership to try to broaden its range of targets (to include students, for example) so that its counter-subversive activities begin to vaguely resemble traditional fascist anticommunism.  Yet, it did not become a fascist organisation dedicated to the overthrow of parliamentary democracy and the smashing of workers organisations.  In its overall make-up, its strategy, its ideological orientation, it was closer to Geert Wilders, a populist-rightist on the far right of liberal democracy, than to Nick Griffin.  And the existence of such an ambiguous, ‘contradictory’, hybrid formation posed, as I say, a challenge to the anti-fascist strategy.  The tactical response of antifascists, sensible in its way, was to treat the EDL as a kind of fascism-in-becoming.  Since fascism was its telos, it had to be dealt with as would any fascist organisation operating in the same way: broad antifascist coalitions harnessed, where possible, to a strategy of militant confrontation led by the radical wing of the antifascist movement.  This usefully limited the EDL’s physical advances, in part by forcing the police to adopt different containment strategies, and among other factors it helped prevent their demonstrations from acquiring a certain critical mass.  However, this was only ever useful as a holding response.  The underlying problem was that the EDL were building on ideologies that were profoundly mainstream.  This is why the media, and certain politicians, can often be found treating the EDL as if they were merely misguided and pursuing counterproductive strategies.  And a strategy of harassing the EDL without also doing work on the underlying political and ideological ground could only ever yield short term results.


IV. The fight against racism is a long-term fight that has to be conducted on many different levels.  It is not just a question of winning immediate political battles - a glorious victory in Walthamstow or whatever.  The tempo of political struggles is extremely rapid, and the half-life of a particular struggle can be very brief indeed.  But these struggles are fought on a terrain formed by years of cultural and ideological work, between forces shaped by that same work over a long duration.  The tempo of cultural and ideological battles is, compared to political fights, glacial.  But just because there are no immediate successes in these fronts doesn't mean they are of no value - they are absolutely central.  The intense racist backlash around the English riots, or that following the Woolwich killing, was not inevitable.  Such episodes take place on the basis of efforts by diverse forces to elaborate new racist ideologies over a long period.


V. We cannot fight the EDL without also combatting the other major forces of racism in society.  The EDL would be nothing without the tabloids, the police, the neoliberal parties in parliament, and so on.  The ideologies which legitimise the EDL's actions or at least render them as explicable reactions to extreme provocation, originate in Whitehall, the BBC, the press, parliament and the business funders of reaction.  And to defeat those forces we need a different range of tactics.  The EDL is primarily based on street violence, so the onus is on counter-mobilisation and self-defence.  The same tactics could not be deployed against UKIP, the Murdoch press, or the Home Office.  I don't propose a smorgasbord of alternative tactics here; I merely highlight the need for something more than counter-mobilisations.


VI. There is no future in attempting to collapse anti-racism into anti-austerity struggles.  Such attempts represent a strain of workerism, and have emerged from some surprising quarters - including Alexis Tsipras.  Racism does not simply emerge as a displaced form of despair over deprivation or insecurity.  Its development and spread may be accelerated by profound political crisis, the breakdown of authority, crises of overproduction, financial collapses, and so on.  As I have suggested, one of the things that EDL racism organises is the experience of certain social classes in the context of crisis and decline.  And certainly, as a consequence, the struggles over the capitalist crisis and its resolution have a relationship to the struggle against racism: this means that initiatives such as Left Unity and the People's Assembly should take anti-racism seriously as a semi-autonomous component of their broader strategy.  But to understand the relationship between racism, economic crisis and emerging political subjectivities requires an analysis light years ahead of the lingering 'capitalist crisis = hard times = racism' model.


VII.  There can likewise be no attempt to collapse anti-racism into the antiwar movement, such as it is.  That is no less reductive.  For example, the analyses of the Woolwich killing that attempt to ascribe it to the 'war on terror', and therefore to orient analysis primarily toward antiwar activism, strike me as unconvincing.  Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale certainly seem to have responded to the context of the 'war on terror', and to have explained their actions in that context.  But the processes through which they decided to join the most marginal and militant of Islamist sects in the first place are likely to be rooted in the daily processes of British capitalism.  We need to fight and win that argument: that Britain is a profoundly racist and unjust society in which black people are humiliated and deprived in all sorts of highly visible ways.  More generally, the forces of racist reaction in our society are not monomaniacally obsessed with the categories of the ‘war on terror’.  UKIP, for example, is Islamophopic, but just as importantly it is anti-immigrant and xenophobically anti-European.  There is a rich brew of bigotries fusing together in provincial, parochial England, and their specific relationship to the daily workings of capitalism must be grasped as well as their imbrication with imperialist violence.


VIII. It's been obvious for a while, and it is more obvious now.  One cannot segment off different types of racism as if they are completely separate; they are mutually reinforcing.  The rise in Islamophobia, as we saw during the riots, and as is becoming clear from the intriguing raciologies arising from the Woolwich killing - the EDL speaker in Newcastle urged his audience to "send the black cunts back" - is not exclusive of a long-term regeneration of other types of racism.  Indeed, Islamophobia's role as the dominant form of culturalist racism permits the rehabilitation of the discredited elements of racial essentialism, while at the same time articulating them in a new form. What this means is not simply that Islamophobia is simply a cover for 'traditional' types of racism.  It used to be argued that it was merely a way of being racist toward Pakistanis.  No, current forms of racism do not simply reanimate older forms. As Stuart Hall put it, "Racism is always historically specific. Though it may draw on the cultural traces deposited by previous historical phases, it always takes on specific forms. It arises out of present - not past - conditions, its effects are specific to the present organisation of society, to the present unfolding of its dynamic political and cultural processes - not simply to its repressed past."  The current forms of racism refer to and organise current antagonisms, expressed in complex political struggles, from the 2001 riots to the 2012 riots.  And there is something very specific about Islamophobia and its content - the obsession with religious identities, with the amateurish hermeneutics of the Quran, and so on - something very current.  The point is not that Islamophobia is a cover, but rather that there is a convergence in the techniques of racialisation, the political forces involved, and the ideational content involved in the types of racism in Britain today.  I think this means that it would a political mistake to try to identify one type of racism as the 'respectable racism' and simply campaign against that - the tendency is for racism in general to be made 'more respectable', and therefore we need a multi-pronged assault on racism in general.


Richard Seymour



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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Theses on austerity and how to fight it posted by Richard Seymour

This was submitted as a ‘perspective’ document for the bulletin of the last IS Network conference.


Theses on austerity, and how to fight it



I. Austerity is a class strategy for installing (or conserving) a capitalist growth strategy under the dominance of finance capital.  Whether it has been implemented in New York City in 1975, or in Greece in 2013, it is the financial institutions and their materially connected state apparatuses (treasuries, central banks, finance ministries, etc) which have been at the forefront of driving this policy.  


II.  Austerity is a crisis response.  Gramsci warned that in any situation of structural crisis, “the traditional ruling class” was at a considerable advantage over opponents because of its control over the dominant institutions, its loyal cadres of supporters in the ideological apparatuses, and its overwhelming economic and political strength.  Its ideological interpretations of the crises would prevail, and it was in a better position to impose its preferred solutions.  Austerity was first floated immediately around the time of the bank ‘bail-outs‘.  The Right began to blame government over-spending for the accumulating deficits, and treated these as the major political element of the capitalist crisis.  In so doing, they engaged in an adept prophylactic move against the Left.  Knowing that there could be a powerful political and cultural reaction against neoliberalism and the banks, and a popular demand for nationalisations, they began to displace anger onto the government.  A ‘common sense‘ developed according to which there was just not enough money, and the government was going to have to begin tightening its belt just like everyone else.


III.  Austerity does not just mean ‘cuts’.  Nor is it a deficit-repayment strategy.  Many of the measures implemented as part of austerity - tax cuts for corporations, privatizations, creating business opportunities in public utilities - are either of no use to reducing deficits, or they make it worse by sapping revenue or inflating costs.  There are rational reasons why capitalist states want to minimise deficits, not least of which is the disciplinary effect such goals exert on public spending and thus on democratic demands.  But in the case of austerity programmes, deficits are a pretext for far more fundamental transformations.  The complex of policies labelled ‘austerity’ add up to a seismic shift in the political economy, the class structure and the culture of the capitalist states implementing such policies.  The end results will be: a) a more polarised class system, with greater stratification within classes, a weaker working class, and the greater dependency of all classes on financial systems; b) a further penetration of capital, particularly but not exclusively financial capital, into the state, and the weakening of democratic institutions; c) the further spread of competitive, ‘entrepreneurial’ values, and the further mediation of human relations by markets. 


IV.  Austerity is not simply stupid and ineffectual, as Keynesian critics argue.  Of course, they are right to say that cutting state spending at a time of economic weakness will reduce aggregate demand and thus weaken growth further.  But this is an intended effect.  It was exactly the predictable effect of implementing austerity in Britain from 1979-82, and it was the predictable effect of the ‘Volcker shock’ in the United States.  It not only disciplined labour but it helped institutionalise economic priorities that fit the needs of the leading sectors of capital: militant counterinflation, balanced budgets and strict market discipline for everyone except the banks.  That it succeeded owes much to the discovery of new vectors of growth in south-east Asia, permitted a global economic recovery to begin in 1982.  This allowed the austerity discipline to be relaxed, allowed the austerians to claim victory, and ensured future electoral successes for neoliberal governments in the US and UK.  And indeed, some form of sustained recovery for the global economy in the next few years cannot be ruled out.  It is far from impossible that George Osborne will be able to go into the 2015 general election claiming some sort of victory - he is already bragging about green shoots of recovery, and promising a further sustained attack on welfare.  And if the Tories can prove to their voters that they can implement austerity against all political opponents, and cruise to a general election on the back of growth, they will have at least temporarily rebuilt their base, which was in decline.  Austerity is, far from being stupid, a form of intelligent ruling class praxis, which applies lessons from past class struggles and previous crises to resolve this crisis of capitalism in ways that are in the interests of the dominant sectors of capital.


V.  Austerity does not involve the withdrawal of the state from the economy, as per the ‘free market’ myth, but rather the further penetration of capital into the state, and the re-organisation of state apparatuses to better accommodate the accumulation imperatives of specific sectors of capital, above all finance.  In general, the state supplies not just the social reproduction necessary for capitalist growth, but also, as Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated, the primary investments that make capitalist enterprise work from start-up capital to research and development.  The state is integral to the production process and will continue to be so.  But its current reorganisation is about bringing capital more and more into the material spaces of the state itself, on terms which leave capital’s autonomy intact.  The way this works can be seen in the ‘bail-outs’.  The government created a public company, UKFI, to organise the ‘bail-outs‘ at arms length from any government control, such that state funding was pumped into the banks in exchange for no public influence over the banks‘ decisions, even on something as basic as interest rates.  In theory, the government owned large chunks of these banks.  In practice, this was a partial privatization of the Treasury.  We see a similar pattern in the UK with policies like ‘free schools’ and with the de facto privatization of the NHS, where public services are re-organised to resemble ‘markets’, with competitive structures built in, and opportunities for private sector investment.  The idea in the case of ‘free schools’ is that businesses will take over and run state-funded private schools that will compete against state schools.  All of these processes undermine Britain’s already weak democratic institutions, from parliament to local authorities, and they particularly limit the extent to which popular, working class interests can assert themselves.  They register within the materiality of the state the changing balance of class forces in society.


VI.  Austerity is not necessarily unpopular.  Ideology is incomplete and ‘contradictory’, and therefore no government could expect to achieve total acquiescence in its goals.  But it is a matter of what underlying precepts are accepted, what people think is the dominant issue at stake.  In the UK, almost all austerity measures aimed at the poorest have proven to be popular in opinion polls.  Even more contentious measures such as ‘free schools’ have gained majority approval in some polls.  It is worth examining why this is.  Ipsos Mori’s ‘Generations’ poll provides some of the answers.  There is been a long-term, generational collapse in support for the welfare state.  Ironically, the voting demographic most supportive of welfare are otherwise most likely to be right-wing - the elderly population.  Why should this be?  Two factors are likely to be key.  The first is that more and more of the welfare state is experienced not as a collective provision but either as a bureaucratic nightmare (the job centre), or as a vicious competition for scarce resources (this is how even state school placements are treated).  The second is that while Thatcher was only able to exploit those antagonisms to a degree, inserting neoliberal ideas where social democracy had retreated, New Labour was able to actively sell neoliberal ideas about welfare to its working class base.  It was notably in the New Labour period that social resentment against ‘chavs’, ‘feral children’, ‘nightmare neighbours’, and ‘ASBO kids’ was effectively aroused and channelled into an authoritarian anti-welfare politics.  Or take the case of ‘free schools’.  Of course, state schools and the national curriculum bore kids to tears.  They are often lamentably under-funded and the pupils over-tested.  So, ‘free schools’ offer a chance for some parents, generally middle class parents, to free their kids from the national curriculum and gain a bit of control over their education.  Underpinning this, ironically, is one of the same ideological thematics that makes tuition fees and the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance so unpopular: meritocracy.  Insofar as people believe in meritocracy and competition, they buy the ‘free schools’ idea; but they also find it scandalous that ‘opportunity’ is denied so many young people once they turn sixteen.  The basic problem is that much of the ideological ground-work for neoliberalism has already been done over almost forty years and, despite the resilience of certain collectivist values such as support for the NHS, and despite a sizeable minority contesting even the more popular elements of austerity, the Left is at a clear disadvantage in the ideological terrain.


VII.  Thus far, there have been three basic responses to austerity, together forming what the sociologist Charles Tilly would have called a ‘repertoire of contention’: a) trade union action ranging from strikes to national demonstrations; b) radical left party agitation, generally emerging from long-term splits in the social democratic parties; and c) Occupy and ‘indignado’ style direct democracy, movements based on taking over key public spaces in protest against cuts and financial dominance.  None of these tactics has been adequate in itself, and in the UK they have been retarded in their development:


a) Trade union struggle in Britain has been too limited and narrow in its goals.  For all the ‘red hot autumns’, ‘boiling summers of rage’, ‘winters of discontent’ and even ‘UK springs’ that were predicted, 2011 witnessed a temporary spike in strike activity produced by two large one day actions.  The total number of working days lost to strike action then was 1.4m.  In comparison, the number of days lost to strike action in the actual winter of discontent was 39m, for two years running.  In 2012, the days lost to strike action fell to 250,000, an historic low.  Moreover, the way the strikes had been resolved indicated that the union leadership was far more interested in conserving some of the relative advantages enjoyed by their members than leading any kind of broader fightback against austerity.  But this dispiriting conclusion wasn’t just the result of a ‘betrayal’ by the bureaucracy.  Rather, workers accepted and voted for a bad deal for a number of reasons: accumulated political defeats for the unions, declining density, withering grassroots organisation and bureaucratisation, and the long-term political de-radicalisation of the working class.  The majority of the working class is unorganised, and union membership is undergoing a long-term decline.  Worst of all, it seems the union leaderships have no strategy for rebuilding their organisations.

b) In the UK, no radical-left party has emerged to enjoy the same sort of success as the Left Bloc, Syriza, or Die Linke.  This is not just because of the SWP’s crashing the Respect project once it could no longer control it.  It is more fundamentally because there is neither a significant remaining ‘communist’ tradition, as there is in Portugal, Greece or France, and no split in social democracy, as there was in Germany and France.  In the continent, the acquiescence of social democracy in neoliberal politics was often a shock to the supporters of these parties, and produced a rebellion in their left-wing.  This was the basis for splits led by significant figures of the ‘ilk’ of Jean-Luc Melenchon and Oskar Lafontaine.  In the UK, however, the hard defeats of the unions, the militant Left, and even ‘municipal socialism’, meant that Labour could begin swerving to the Right a lot farther, faster.  Blair’s neoliberal revolution within the Labour Party was completed before he took office, and those remaining knew what to expect.  And while individual policies such as the Private Finance Initiative disappointed and shocked supporters, there was neither an infrastructure nor an underlying ideological basis for a weak Labour Left to split.  The closest Britain came to such an experience was as a result of the Iraq war, and even there George Galloway MP had to be pushed out of Labour: he did not want to leave.  Left Unity is a positive and necessary initiative.  We should support it.  But we have to recognise that in doing so we are starting much later than continental equivalents, and with much sparser materials.

c) Just as the anticapitalist movement was far less developed in Britain than in Italy or France, so its Occupy movement was relatively small compared to the US or Spain - notable mainly for its innovative tactics, its experimentation with direct democracy, and its publicity successes.  This is not to underestimate the numbers of people, especially young people, available for action against austerity.  We have seen Millbank, Sussex, the Lewisham hospital campaign, and mass demonstrations against austerity as well as smaller targeted campaigns such as UK Uncut.  But of course, the big struggles have been driven by specific issues and grievances.  There are many people who are unhappy with the Tories; but there just aren’t that many anticapitalists.  (Indeed, in light of the SWP crisis, we have to estimate that a significant number of UK anticapitalists will have retired from political activity altogether.)  Ideally, the small minority of anticapitalists and militants who do exist would be able to coordinate their forces and act within a wider social movement which federated the diverse struggles that are happening.  But the problem is that no such social movement presently exists, and until recently all attempts at forming some sort of ‘united front’ as an institutional focus through which such a movement might be galvanised have been sectarian failures - from the National Shop Stewards Network, to Coalition of Resistance, to Unite the Resistance.  Currently, the People’s Assembly is an attempt to fill that gap and, insofar as it does so, is a positive development.  But it is also problematic in the top-down way in which it is organised.  For instance, the national People’s Assembly at the Central Hall in Westminster in June was clearly a large and enthusiastic gathering.  It assembled exactly the sort of motley forces that are needed for a fightback.  Thanks to a degree of pressure from would-be participants, it was not simply a day of being magnificently bellowed at by lionised leaders: there was a degree of participation and discussion.  But it was all organised around a declaration, a ‘draft statement’, that represented ‘the views of all those who initially called for the People’s Assembly’ as to what the organisation should be doing.  No other statements were accepted or invited, and no amendments will be discussed until the next national People’s Assembly in 2014.  Either this means nothing happens between now and then, or actions are taken on the basis of an agenda agreed by a small, enlightened minority.  This sort of top-down approach will necessarily impact on the ability of the People’s Assembly to draw in wider forces and make the kind of impact it needs to.


  In hitherto the only case of an outstanding success against austerity, Quebec students used a combination of these tactics to great effect: combining forms of direct democracy on campuses with militancy on the streets, direct actions in support of striking workers, and tactical support for the left party Quebec solidaire in the federal elections.  Notably they did so without deference to bureaucracy, or to ‘law and order‘, or to what the bourgeois media would say, or to parliamentarism.  They opted for a militant, class-based strategy, and won.  Yet the material basis for all this was a tradition of social democratic left-nationalism in Quebec, combined with patterns of grassroots student organising inherited from the ‘Quiet Revolution’ of the Sixties.  In the UK, we do not have those advantages.  We are starting from a much more backward position, and our strategy as socialists must recognise this.


VIII.  As revolutionary socialists, we would like to ‘smash the state’ and say ‘all power to the soviets’.  Alas, there are no soviets and the state is more likely to smash us than us it.  But we can identify some intelligent mediations:


a)  We can be absolutely sure that there will be outbreaks of struggle.  These are not necessarily going to appear mainly in the public sector where the labour movement is concentrated.  Rather, it is the unorganised, the unemployed, the marginal and the precarious who are experiencing the worst attacks under austerity.  People are often experiencing the attacks less in their capacity as workers than as consumers of local services, as tenants, as welfare claimants, and as taxpayers.  They are experiencing them disproportionately as black people and women.  As a result, the struggles that emerge will be utterly heterogeneous, organised around a variety of political identities, and linked to a range of political issues not directly to do with austerity.  Those fighting these struggles are stronger if they are united in a common cause, but it has to be a complex unity: a ‘unity in difference’.  We need to help create ‘systems of alliances’, as Gramsci put it, that can connect ‘the 99%’ in their diverse social movements, whether trade unionist, feminist, gay, anti-racist, disabled people’s action, anti-Bedroom Tax campaigners, or anything else.  Given the forces currently available to us, we need to argue for the People’s Assembly to be the forum where that unity can be forged - but that can only be done on the basis of authentic grassroots democracy.  We should call for People’s Assemblies to be fully democratic, participatory events where policy is worked on and decided by those who are actually engaged in various struggles; rather than events at which nice people sit quietly and get spoken at for an hour and a half.  We should call for statements and strategies to be accepted for debate at a national People’s Assembly at the earliest convenience.  We should call for groups such as Sussex ‘pop-up‘ unionists, Lewisham hospital campaigners, student activists and others to be represented in any steering committee or leadership body.  And within that work, we as socialists need to find and try to cohere the most militant forces who are able to argue for a strategy that is not parliamentarist, not based on deference to leadership, and not bound by ‘law and order’.  Of course, those forces will be small and will probably lose most of the time.  But the stronger they are, the harder the position of the wider anti-austerity movement can be.

b)  We are not parliamentarist, but nor do we dismiss capitalist democracy.  Capitalist democracy is a ‘contradictory’ formation, but it is not a fraud.  The democratic bodies which exist, from council chambers upward, are feeble at best, but their erosion under neoliberalism does not help our side.  This is why, for example, part of our struggle is a defensive one to defend local authority control over education against privatization.  But if the analysis above as to the importance of long-term ideological and political ground-work is correct, then electoral work is necessary.  It might be different if social democracy was not experiencing a secular decline.  If we could always defer to Labourism at the ballot box, if there was a Labour Left that we could work with while casually insulting their reformism, things would be easier.  But there isn’t much of a Labour Left (no offence to Owen Jones, but there isn’t).  Whatever short-term adaptations Ed Miliband makes - reducing union power here, sidelining some Blairites there - Labourism is ineluctably mutating in an ever more rightward direction, its base is fragmenting, and the major beneficiaries thus far have been the Right.  We have to learn from the European Left.  The radical left parties of Europe are significant because they maintain a space for anti-neoliberal politics, and even some currents of anticapitalist politics.  They give confidence to workers where they are successful, and they occupy a space that other forces, such as the far right, would be quite happy to colonise in their absence.  Moreover, they break significant layers of workers away from social democracy to the left, in an era where it is more common for workers to break either to the right or to nothing.  Finally, they provide a nourishing milieu in which radicals and revolutionaries inter-mingle, learn from one another, and join one another in new struggles.  In the UK, given the balance of forces, we would be fortunate to assemble a radical formation with a broadly ‘left reformist’ politics that was nonetheless hospitable to a significant anticapitalist minority.  It could usefully deploy some simple demands that would gain widespread support and threaten significant institutional bases of ruling class power: ‘nationalise the banks’, for example.  We ought to be directly involved in helping to build that.  Recognising the true state of play, moreover, we would be utterly foolish to try to artificially impose a de facto revolutionary programme, of the sort advocated by the Socialist Platform, on such a formation without the real balance of forces having shifted in that direction.

In the long-term, we need a process of reconstruction-from-below: of unions, and of the left. 

c)  The labour movement is in parlous state and we are too small to make much difference to that; even if we weren’t, we’d need to make a difference sooner than would be likely.  In this sense, speaking of a ‘rank and file‘ strategy today can seem terribly unworldly.  There is no rank and file movement today, and the material basis for rank-and-fileism is non-existent.  But we have seen unusual forms of organising emerge in the context of austerity.  One such is the ‘pop-up union’.  In Sussex University, a rebellion by students and non-academic staff against cuts led to pressure for strike action.  The three unions on the campus dragged their feet.  In response, a ‘pop-up union‘ developed to fight the struggle, and quickly recruited more members than the three established unions combined.  It was both a rank and file initiative, and one that involved many previously unorganised workers.  The ISN has a perspective of trying to organise the unorganised, and learning and disseminating the skills which make that possible.  The ‘pop-up union‘ has shown a clear way in which this can be materialised where struggles kick off.  Clearly, it is not a satisfactory long-term alternative to rebuilding a union movement.  However, it does offer a means by which workers who are forced to fight and who have little to no experience of trade unions can legally and reasonably safely take industrial action.  It is a beginning of a pedagogic and organising process, and if we really expect struggles to break out in surprising ways among unorganised groups, we should try to prepare the ground for our members being able to join in such struggles.  The creation of a ‘pop-up’ union requires rank and file initiative, and that entails confidence and even expertise ‘on the ground’.  It needs, among other things: i) practical knowledge about union laws and procedures; ii) knowledge of employment law and recourses that workers have available against employers over matters such as pay, breaks and holidays; iii) a general understanding of the extant trade unions, how they work, how one can effectively operate in them, and what their limits are.  As a starting point, therefore we should coordinate with other groups - be they trade union militants, autonomists, wobblies or whomever - to host day schools in which this knowledge, and these skills, are shared with as many people as possible.  Our ‘rank and file’ perspective should be about contributing, in however small a way, to the long process of reconstruction of rank and file confidence and initiative.


Richard Seymour

China Mieville

Rosie Warren

Tom Walker


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Thursday, October 17, 2013

The soul of Wilde under anti-humanism posted by Richard Seymour

I wrote this a while ago for a collection or seminar, and I have no idea if it was ever used.  But as it's one of those pointless dates - Wilde's birthday yesterday, Morrissey's autobiography published today - I think I'll post it here.

  Wilde was as fond of English literalism as he was of bourgeois morality.  His primary weapon against such philistinism, usually posing as ‘common sense’, was the cutting paradox.  He confounded what were assumed to be facts, and even evinced a scandalously low regard for them.  He was cryptic, and contradictory.  He coded his desire for social and sexual freedom in euphemisms and allegories, yet in doing so placed it right under society’s nose.  Yet it would be a mistake to assume that this approach was merely ludic, merely the prerogative of an artist of considerable rhetorical power, provoking and bewildering fuckwitted aristocrats.  There was a real stringency to Wilde’s method, which bears on his approach in The Soul of Man.

  A distinction must be made between his approach to historical truth, and his approach to artistic truth.  As he insisted in his early essay, The Rise of Historical Criticism, the truth should not be sacrificed “for the sake of a paradox or an epigram”.  But ‘the facts’ were not the primary concern of the historical critic.  Rather, it was the general laws of history, the “higher truths” of which facts were at best samples.  The truth sought in history was the relationship between general laws and their local instantiation.  Artistic truth was different, its relationship to ‘facts’ more facile.  As Wilde put it in The Truth of Masks, “Truth is independent of facts always, inventing or selecting them at pleasure”.  The object here was subjective knowledge, which might require the subversion, obliteration or invention of facts.  “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth”, Wilde asserted.  In other words, a distortion of the truth could facilitate the emergence of a more profound truth.  

  So, then, which is The Soul of Man under Socialism – this essay which opens with paradox and proceeds with relentless ironic subversion?  Is it history, or art?  In a sense it is both.  It is an attempt to provide an historical basis for his aesthetic credo, and simultaneously an artistic reconstruction of his historical purview.  As the critic Terry Eagleton points out, there is a surprising collusion between the high Victorian scientism of The Rise of Historical Criticism and the anarchic individualism of Wilde in “his full immaturity”, particularly in The Soul of Man.  The former, a synthesis of idealism (Hegelian historicism) and materialism (evolutionary theory), deliquesced the laws of history into the laws of nature.  In so doing, it corroborated Wilde’s later assertion that evolution supplied the necessary guidance for the ethical and political organisation of human societies.  

  For Wilde, all evolution tended toward individualism.  “To ask whether Individualism is practical,” Soul of Man asserts, “is like asking whether Evolution is practical. Evolution is the law of life, and there is no evolution except towards Individualism. Where this tendency is not expressed, it is a case of artificially-arrested growth, or of disease, or of death.”  So it is that “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.”  Like other progressive Darwinists, such as Bakunin, Wilde took the view that human nature was fundamentally good, unselfish and cooperative.  Left alone, humanity would get along fine; even in its individualism it would associate freely and generously.  The trouble was that it was not left alone.

  It followed from this that no authoritarian socialism was possible.  There could be no compulsion, and everyone was to choose their own work – and by work Wilde meant “activity of any kind”, be it manufacture, sex, mode of dress, association, sumptuary indulgence, speech, and so on.  It should be noted right away that such a broad definition of work calls to mind the earlier nineteenth century view of the human as fundamentally a labouring being.  Compulsion in this sense, be it political or the dull compulsion of economic life, is rebuked for separating the human from her true nature, from what she really is.  Or, to again recall an earlier nineteenth century idiom, it is condemned for producing alienation.


  The basis for Wildean individualism then, was a Promethean humanism.  Humanity assumed, in Wilde’s vision the characteristics of God – but of God crucified, wounded, and thus not whole.  As his poem, Humanitad, concluded:  “Nay, nay, we are but crucified … Loosen the nails—we shall come down I know/Stanch the red wounds—we shall be whole again … That which is purely human, that is Godlike, that is God.”  The example of Christ naturally absorbed Wilde’s attention, and occupies a central position in The Soul of Man.

  “What a man really has,” says Soul of Man, “is what is in him.”  What is ‘in him’ is a personality that can be realised creatively.  The self-realisation is impeded by possessions, as much as by need and squalor.  This is why the figure of Christ as charismatic, as a fully realised personality, is so important to Wilde.  His messianic rejection of worldly riches was not intended to be a commendation of life in miserable poverty, claims Wilde.  “What Jesus meant, was this. He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. ... And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.’”  Not for the last time, Wilde re-fashioned Christ in his own image.

  If this appears to rely on an essentialist conception of the ‘self’, at other times Wilde highlights the performative, constructive element in subjectivity.   Here it is protean, decentred in a way that would seem to be scandalous to the authentic humanist.  In ‘The Portrait of Mr W.H.’, a fictionalised essay about the obscure figure to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets are directed, Wilde’s hermeneutic focuses on the myriad personalities displayed by the boy actor, Willie Hughes, the object of Shakespeare’s fascination.  The actor, like any artist, gives form to every passing fancy, realizing each whim in imaginative creation.  In his later writings, Wilde jealously guarded the autonomy of language and symbol.  While action was “a blind thing dependent on external forces” (The Critic as Artist), only language separated humanity from the animals.  Only conscious creation provided humanity with the chance to transcend the brute laws of nature.

  This adverts to the necessary role of art in ushering forth the progress of civilization.  If life imitated art, it was the indispensable duty of artists, who had the advantage of enjoying a partial ‘Individualism’ under private property, to cultivate the personality of humanity.  This was not to be achieved through ethical or political protest – “an unpardonable mannerism of style” as the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray had it – but through fidelity to the abstract forms of art.  The past, Wilde averred, “is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be. The future is what artists are.”

  Yet even here, the construction of the self through imaginative performance was conceived as the realisation of what was already immanent – be it called personality, consciousness, or the soul.  


  There is a symptomatic aporia in the heart of Wilde’s doctrine.  According to Soul of Man, art was not only to foreswear ethical sympathies, but should also have no reference to the prospective audiences expectations.  “The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist”.  Here is a credo that, like many of Wilde’s epigrams, should be read laterally.  It is by no means straightforward.  Wilde, as an artist, could hardly claim to take no notice of what his audiences wanted.  He worked for money, to pay bills, to buy gifts, to procure sex, to live hedonistically.  He was an honest tradesman who supplied a demand.  His seditious literature and plays, moreover, bore all the hallmarks of possessing the ethical sympathies he derided.  If the model for Wilde’s new individualism was the artist engaged in self-realisation, the ideal was far from reality.

  The solution to this impasse is Wilde’s half-open, half-secret rebellion, about which we know much more thanks to Neil McKenna’s biography.  The artist, striving to realise what was in him, contributed as much to an underground gay subculture as to the bourgeois literary canon.  He brought references from one into the other.  If The Importance of Being Earnest was a witty, socialist attack on the rich, it was also laced with sexual innuendo.  It is in this context that Wilde’s rhetorical sleights of hand are comprehensible.  He would offer bold, libertarian doctrines, certain to provoke, before apparently withdrawing them and declaring that it had all been an artistic illusion, a ruse, or fancy on the part of the audience.  Similarly, Wilde’s rigorous evolutionism was an alibi against the censors and moralists.  As Gilbert argued in The Critic as Artist, “What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress.  Without it the world would stagnate, or grow old, or become colourless. By its curiosity Sin increases the experience of the race. Through its intensified assertion of individualism, it saves us from monotony of type.”  Repression, then, was just a futile protest against the future.  

  Above all, the doctrine of human self-realisation was at the heart of his semi-covert plea for sexual freedom.  What was in him, what bourgeois society called ‘sin’, was affection and joy.  If left alone, it would entail nothing but generosity and creativity.  It was wicked and stupid to repress it.  And it would be just as wicked and stupid for a socialist society to be conceived in such a way as to permit this repression to go on.  People had to be allowed to choose their own forms of association, because only freely chosen associations were truly fine.  

  Yet it must be admitted that the buttressing of this moral creed with humanism on the one hand, and a scientistic philosophy of history on the other, led to some quite improbable conclusions.  It was one thing to assert, in Soul of Man, that pain and self-abnegation could be a means to the more perfect realisation of one’s personality.    It was quite another when Wilde, borne aloft on a wave of hubris, ventured: “After all, even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled. He can be at peace.”  This was a folly that returned to mock him.

  The individualism of Wildean socialism was premised on a profoundly problematic humanism.  What was good for a person, Wilde claimed, did not reside outside herself; she had in the “treasury-house” of her “soul” all that was really worth having.  As Wilde might have discovered, this is a consolatory doctrine: souls aren’t worth as much as all that.  If there is no difference between the soul and the body, as he once said, then the soul is born prematurely and always lacking.   Everything that is worth having, everything that one needs, is by definition outside oneself – in the complex social relations that even artists, with their relative autonomy, are inescapably enmeshed in.  In this sense, the chief advantage that would result from socialism is that would relieve us of the need for an image of the soul.

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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Tommy Robinson runs away from the circus posted by Richard Seymour

I am just gobsmacked by this.  

Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll have resigned from the English Defence League in collusion with the Quilliam Foundation.  They cite concerns about 'far right extremism', about which even laughter seems redundant.  It is rumoured that up to twelve other leaders are walking off with them.  This is leaving some seriously bewildered EDL supporters scrabbling for explanations.  Whatever their confused answers, the hopes of some brain-sore members that Robinson's exit will clear the way for a more determined leadership seem utterly vain.  This is the beginning of the end for the EDL.

But the truth is, I don't have an easy explanation either.  Of course, the obvious leftist answer is 'the movement did it'.  Of course: let's give credit to the antifascist movement for its efforts to contain the EDL, limit it, harry it, obstruct its development.  Let's not exaggerate its successes though.  The EDL has been as much limited by its own schisms and inadequacies, as much by factors such as the growing predominance of recession/austerity politics which it was unable to successfully articulate, as by anything else.  At any rate, none of this can explain the specificity of this sudden lurch.  Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, both ex-BNPers, being coaxed out of the EDL by Quilliam?  Quilliam, the decidedly 'spooky', state-sponsored 'counter-extremist' lobby?  Quilliam, endorsing Robinson's new crusade against both 'Islamism' and 'neo-Nazi extremism'?  Yeah, the movement did that.

What I will say is this.  There's something about this that calls to mind those old stories on the wrestling, where the 'heel' would suddenly turn 'babyface' on a spurious pretext.  Within the course of a single night's event, the transition would be effected in its entirety.  It has that much plausibility.  It looks like, not the inevitable implosion of a group which had reached its limits - and I do think the EDL was hitting against its conjunctural limits - but rather a strategic shift on the far right.  My strongest inclination, bearing in mind that I haven't a fucking clue what's really behind this, is to expect some new populist-right venture to emerge out of this.  

And the interesting thing is the people who are waiting to accept a 'reformed' Tommy Robinson.  Listening to politicians like Rushanara Ali MP talk about, "well, let's see if he really fights against extremism and contributes to cohesion" and so on, one cannot help but wonder what he would have to do to permanently disqualify himself from such an honoured role.  Perhaps if he murdered a small child who turned out to be the offspring of a British soldier who had just 'freed' Helmand from native control.

In the meantime, we will have to start orienting toward the new situation.  The far right is splintering and re-dividing.  It doesn't look like its regroupment will lead to a stronger fascist current in the UK.  And yet, the basic configurations of racism and social resentment that allowed the EDL to mobilise in the first place, and which are driving support for UKIP, are still there, growing even.  And I suspect the more that austerity is successfully implemented, the worse this will get.  Unless we start the work of specifically preparing a broad, anti-racist offensive now.

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Cybersexism posted by Richard Seymour

I finished reading this book recently.  It is a short, passionate epistolary tribute to the internet, to its many thriving life-worlds, to its heterotopic spaces, its libidinal intensities, its shy, its erotic fan fiction writers, its nerds and geeks and libertine communes.  The internet is real, the book insists.  It is not a game; it is not just words.  It is "a public space, a real space; it's increasingly where we interact socially, do our work, organise our lives and engage with politics".  "It's where we live and work and fight and fuck and make friends."*

And that is the book's secret, without which it might just have been a grimly sardonic display of filthy sexist execrations, rape threats and murder fantasies which are directed at women on the internet - including, of course, the book's author.  Without it, such a book could lend itself so easily to a misplaced drive to police the internet.  But, while dealing bracingly and contemptuously with the hypocrisy of phallocrats who cry 'censorship', the argument is too scrupulously feminist to really embrace official prohibitions.  One cannot "achieve radical ends by conservative means".  One cannot blame the "imperial fuckton of porn" available on the internet, and hope, through government prophylaxis, to quarantine the threat.  Censorship is not about protection, but about control.  And the people it controls disproportionately turn out to be female.

No, the substance of the book's appeal is simply this: the utopias of the internet, the adventure, the danger and the forbidden fruit of the internet, have to be open to women as well.  If women are dehumanised and denied "full, free access to the same channels men enjoy", then the network is simply not working.  It is "broken and needs to be updated".  The book appeals to those - geeks, primarily - with an interest in the internet being a genuinely free and egalitarian space.  It is a call to collective action.  

What sort of collective action?  Well, as the book notes, women have always been subject to the surveillance of their peers and elders; thanks to the internet, men are potentially subject to this too.  "Online vigilantism", wherein swarms of activists coalesce in exposing misogynistic trolls or stalkers, exploits this fact.  This has its potential dark side, of course - as all collective action does.  But the point is that the architecture of the internet is still being created.  "Systems can be rewritten.  Protocols updated.  The social architecture we're building online today will be the one the next generation grows up in, and if that looks too much like the one in which we did, for all our talk of futurism, we've fucked up."

The prose in this short book has been described as 'raw'; that isn't quite right.  It is as stylised as ever.  There is the witty, lapidary turn of phrase, the raised-eyebrow-of-snark, the quasi-ironical flag-flying (for, as I say, nerds and the nerdile, but also for online conversation, games and fucking).  These are the character traits of a Laurie Penny outing.  Still, there's something to the description.  The book is didactic, exhortatory even, and is less personal than one might have expected.  It exults in ideas.  Yet, it does feel somehow less mediated, and less constrained, and wears its bookishness a bit more lightly than, say, Meat Market.  And that works.  If this represents a new phase of Penny's writing, I welcome it.

*I can't prove this, but I think its probable that Penny drops the f-bomb in its literal sense more than any feminist since Andrea Dworkin.

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Monday, October 07, 2013

Tea Party reptiles. posted by Richard Seymour

This is one of the most interesting accounts of the Tea Party movement in the United States thus far.  Its main interpretive concept is that the Tea Party represents the rational defence of the interests of local "white notables", particularly in the South and West.  (Indeed, I blogged on the Southern origins of the New Right some years back).  But I just raise it because there are a few points prompted by the discussion.

1) Inter-capitalist competition, fractionalisation and stratification.  In my research for the Against Austerity book, I had a look into the Tea Party successes in the November 2010 mid-term elections, and particularly at what was behind Scott Walker's success.  It struck me that the sectors of capital backing him were not mostly these billionaire capitalist leaders like the Koch Brothers but largely small-to-medium sized healthcare professionals, and medium-to-large size enterprises in the FIRE sector - you know, real estate spivs, insurance companies and so on.  Of course, once the fight for Wisconsin was on, he did attract some more significant support, from Fox News, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (a traditionally right-wing business front).  But by and large, the support for Republican hit men came from local elites not from the dominant international corporations and not from the upper levels of finance capital which wield most influence in DC.  There is a sort of permanent 'austerity' built into the genetic code of neoliberalism, and this appears to be what the major banks and businesses want.  The shock-doctrine austerity of the Republican Right, the Tea Party, on the other hand, is something quite different and more likely to be rooted in the drive firms with tight profit margins to reduce tax burdens and open business opportunities within the state, while simultaneously resisting a series of 'threats' (such as Obamacare).  Of course, this can't be reduced to different fractions and strata of capital - America has a larger middle class than most capitalist formations, and a significant sector of its working class is amenable to racist politics.  But within the Tea Party coalition, it is these capitalist interests which are hegemonic.

2) Divisions within the state apparatuses.  Local elites are mobilising effectively to gain control of strategic state apparatuses.  They have little chance of claiming the executive, and would likely be encircled on all sides if they did; they aren't likely to claim the upper legislature, the Senate; they can gain a foothold in the lower legislature and make a lot of noise.  But their forces are most powerfully concentrated in local state apparatuses - governors, mayors, state senators, and so on.  This reminds us of the way political struggles are concentrated in the state.  'The state' is nothing in and of itself; nothing but a particular material condensation of the balance of class and political forces (the materials having been collected and condensed not just in one particular conjuncture but over epochs).  It is therefore fissiparous, divided as much as the dominant classes and fractions are divided; divided as much as the social formation itself is divided.  Poulantzas maintained that one could see a certain political order of dominance in the relations between state apparatuses, such that the locus of dominance at a particular moment - always partially malleable - would be the site at which the hegemonic fraction's power is most concentrated (the federal executive in this case), while subordinate fractions would be able to concentrate their forces within other subordinate apparatuses (the lower federal legislature, the local senates and governors etc).  To a great extent even these successes have come through the development of cleavages in the rival Obama coalition, which was essentially a pact between the working class and the upper levels of the bourgeoisie.  The Tea Party was able to occupy the spaces vacated as 'Obamamania' subsided, but did not hold them for 2012.  Outside of a far graver political crisis than at present - please don't start on that DC shutdown - it is difficulty to see these subordinate class forces displacing the hegemonic class forces within the state.

3) Ideology and rationality.  Lind's analysis insists, against liberal snobbery, that the Tea Party is not stupid or irrational.  Rather, whether it's filibustering, privatization or local disenfranchisement, he claims that Tea Partiers are acting rationally in defence of certain material interests.  I think this needs to be refined.  It is quite correct to reject the simple notion that austerity policies are thick.  But there is no pristine space outside of ideology, where interests are constituted apart from representational strategies, and where the horizons of possible action are not at least partially determined by the prevailing ideas, the balance of ideological forces.  For example, it may be questioned just how much of a threat Obamacare is to the 'white notables' of Texas. Certainly, some firms might stand to lose money, but this is mediated by ideology: that is, it is connotatively linked in a chain-of-equivalents to a whole series of issues from the bank bailouts to stimulus spending to unions etc.  These are all linked, somehow, to the threatened revival of a social coalition behind a moderate tax-and-spend liberalism which the Tea Partiers call, with perfect Hayekian inflection, 'socialism'.  To this extent, there is no way in which a pure self-interest is being defended when Ted Cruz filibusters against Obamacare: the process is necessarily saturated in ideology.  It's just that this is also true of the strategies opted for by the power bloc in DC, and it is an inescapable component of political action.  The mistake is to counterpose ideology and instrumental reasoning when it is clear that the American Right has never done this.

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