Monday, June 30, 2014

What to do with $2 trillion posted by Richard Seymour

The latest Economist says US corporations are sitting on $2 trillion, the cash remaining uninvested due to a dearth of profitable investment opportunities.

In the same article it points out that US government investment in infrastructure is among the lowest in the world, and reels off a litany of dysfunctions arising from this.

The Economist, which is forever Saving Private Capitalism, suggests that this is "a good time to bring in private money to make up for the lack of public investment".  It calls, in short, for public-private partnerships.

This is how neoliberal mystification works.  It simply doesn't occur to The Economist to think that there might be a connection between the a surfeit of cash in private hands, and a shortfall in public investment.  Or, to put it another way, between growth strategies predicated on low corporation taxes, and public sector funding shortfalls.

And this is a ubiquitous ideological move.  Whenever something in the public sector needs to be funded, be it hospitals or higher education, neoliberals simply declare as a common sense that it cannot be funded out of taxation.  (Because, you know, taxes are bad.)  Thus, either pricing mechanisms must be introduced or, as is increasingly common, private sector enterprises have to be encouraged to invest on extortionate terms.

As we have seen with private finance initiatives and public-private partnerships, this only results in further fiscal crises.  Worse than that, it often results in hideous failures, as gargantuan capitalist consortiums extract ever higher fees for schemes that either don't get finished, or are eventually built with less capacity.

This solution is, however, typical of the fusion between state and capital that is particular to neoliberalism.  Deployed in this context, it amounts to the US government opening up the public sector to profit-making opportunities for private capital, to help absorb spare capacity and overcome infrastructure dysfunctions on terms amenable to capital.  It is a very neoliberal mode of crisis management.

A simpler solution, more cost-efficient and more likely to actually generate the desired infrastructure, would be to just appropriate the money in taxes, and invest it through the public sector.  This isn't a radical idea - it is normal capitalist state behaviour.  It is just that, for some reason, even the relatively sophisticated public discourse of neoliberalism cannot acknowledge this option.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Twitter warning posted by Richard Seymour

About 'Jacobingate'/'Jacobinghazi' as such, there is little to add.  This storify, and this blog post, identify its basic lineaments.  The core of it is a smear.  Whatever criticisms there are of Jacobin, the allegation that a woman was mocked by a Jacobin writer for receiving rape threats is manifestly untrue.

Yet, despite its manifest untruth, the claim was not only repeated ad nauseum by people who both could and should have been able to inform themselves, but lavishly embellished with even more outlandish claims.  'Did you know that Jacobin writers sent rape threats to...?  Did you know that they were encouraging people to send rape threats to...?  Omg, do you know who's a rape apologist now...?'  

If you know Twitter well enough, you'll know exactly what happened next.  Some people, in their futile way, offered corrections and rebuttals of the emerging myths.  Almost as soon as their 140 characters were conceived, typed out and submitted, they too were relentlessly monstered and baited, and further monstered and baited for objecting to being monstered and baited.  All of this, obviously, has nothing to do with good gender politics, or anything of the kind.  Yet it materially hurt Jacobin, which lost one of its star writers as a result.  And this sort of bullshit happens all the time.

There has thus far been no evidence that, during such contrived scandals, it is possible to cite any piece of proof that would convince the Twitstormers that they might be wrong.  Or indeed that they should take a look at the facts, or that the truth of the matter has any relevance.

And this is, I think, a fact that demands explanation.  For what I am discussing is not exactly the same type of thing as racist and sexist bullies, those sending rape and death threats on a daily basis, or otherwise harassing or trying to destroy targets in whom they are clearly libidinally invested.  Those sorts of bullies are easy to understand, and we know why they find Twitter so convivial.  They thrive not just on their own distance and anonymity, but on its psychic immediacy for their targets.  But the sort of scandal-mongering of which I write, while it partakes of similar dynamics, and while it often amounts to a feeding frenzy, is not secret, sordid, or guilty.  It is public, and ostentatious.  It is a behaviour that is exhibited by intelligent people being what they think is their conscientious best.

There are issues at stake here concerning how languages of liberation politics are used or misused, which this piece by a trans* activist usefully explores.  Otherwise, I shall spare you my thoughts on that topic.  There's also a political economy, insofar as these Twitstorms often involve leftists behaving stupidly.  I think this stupidity is symptomatic of internalised defeat, demoralisation and irrelevance, as a consequence of which there is a "floating bitterness" (as I've seen it described) which quickly becomes attached to prominent figures and institutions who for one reason or another have supposedly disappointed.  If there was more life on the Left, more sign of a popular movement, this sort of thing would be less common, or make less difference.  But forget that too, for the moment.

Isn't it long past time to say "there's just something about Twitter?"  And perhaps social media in general, but especially Twitter?  Please don't take this the wrong way.  I don't want rid of Twitter.  I understand that Twitter has uses apart from viciously bullying people whom we would rarely have the courage to confront IRL.  I understand that we need Twitter to keep tabs on Frankie Boyle's latest one-liners, to ensure that others are as enraged by #bbcqt as we are, and - apparently, so one hears  - to use anonymous accounts to source porn or post naked selfies.

Twitter is the id stream of the internet, and suppressing it will only make it worse.  I'm just saying, maybe there are certain aspects of the materiality of Twitter which contribute to these appalling recurrences.

First, clearly, 140 characters makes a difference.  It's supposed to.  The concision demanded by this form lends itself to, among other better things, the formulation of statements in the form of sentiments and platitudes.  It is not a format best suited to rigorous argument, but to the emphatic reiteration of dogma and sentimentality.

Second, Twitter is a marketing platform, which is designed to foster short-term buzz and hype.  It would be absurd for me to be pious about this aspect of Twitter, since I depend upon it to circulate my writing, and advertise upcoming events.  Still, this has effects.  The whole point of Twitter is that to fully participate in it, one has to get carried away with passing frenzies.

And it is not just a marketing platform for businesses.  The set-up is that every user account is an 'enterprise' cultivating a specific market.  This aggravates a tendency that Christopher Lasch had already identified back in the 1970s.  Lasch pointed out that 'the individual' was being extolled and celebrated and fetishised at just the point when selves were being relentlessly fragmented and redivided.  This lent itself to a particular kind of narcissism in which people, increasingly deprived of real agency, sought validation as 'individuals' in the mirror of society.  Twitter, while partaking of the fragmentation of the self into many enterprises, also functions as such a mirror.  Again, I'm too well ensconced in this glass house to start lobbing stones about narcissism (have you seen my instagram account yet?), but there's a particular form of online narcissistic behaviour which I think is especially contemptible, and that consists of soliciting approval and recognition as a Good Person for demonstrating worthy opinions, attitudes and affect.  Most deplorable of all in this vein is a low imitation of humanitarian intervention - the patronising pseudo-deference to whoever is deemed a worthwhile victim, on whose behalf one claims a right to a great deal of viciousness and for whose sake rigour and scruple can be jettisoned.

Finally, this is linked to a sort of panopticon effect, in that everyone is in principle potentially witnessed by, or drawn to the attention of, everyone else on Twitter.  One always wants to be 'retweeted' as much as possible, of course, but that attention can suddenly become toxic if one deviates from the norms of one's Twitter lifeworld.  So there is tremendous pressure - especially for those who basically live on Twitter - to constantly project a self consistent with one's ego-ideal.  But it's absolutely no mystery that this sort of strenuous high-mindedness should go hand-in-hand with a punitive, bullying streak - particularly if there's a chance of, through belabouring the scapegoat of the moment, establishing one's innocence before the invisible tribunal of one's peers.

This, then, is my thumbnail account of why Twitter is such an unutterable fucking mess.  Please RT widely.

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'Shi'ite militias' posted by Richard Seymour

There is an interesting report in today's Observer about the convergence of former enemies in the struggle against ISIS in Iraq.  However, there is one aspect of it of which I am dubious.    The problem is roughly as follows:

1) The report claims that previously anti-US Shi’ite militias are now tacitly siding with the US against ISIS.  This is to be expected.  When 'Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers' or whatever the fuck it called itself was despoiling the anti-occupation fight, it was resistance groups that undertook efforts to police them.  ISIS is a 

2) It says nothing to identify these militias, other than that they were directed by Qassem Suleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards: 

"Suleimani was well-known to the US officials who arrived in Baghdad's green zone earlier in the week for meetings with Maliki. For more than five years, between 2005 and 2011, he had been their chief antagonist in Iraq, with militias he directed responsible, according to Washington, for more than a quarter of all US battle casualties. This time though, the foes paid each other no heed."

3) Iran’s closest allies in Iraq, with direct ties to the Revolutionary Guards and the state in Tehran, were the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq).  It was originally formed in Tehran in 1982, considering its mission to be the export of the Islamic Revolution.  Its leaders spoke Farsi, had families in Tehran, and was generally firmly ensconced in the Iranian political class.   They, and particularly their Badr Corps militias, were not fighting the US but were fully incorporated into the patrimonial state they built.  The pro-occupation death squads, known as Special Police Commandos - and particularly the notorious 'Wolves Brigade' - trained up and deployed by General Petraeus, were filled with SIIC cadres.  Presumably, the report does not mean to identify these as the 'militias' in question.  The other major pro-Iranian force in Iraqi politics, of course, is the Dawa party of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  

4) The major Shi’ite militias fighting US troops in the period mentioned, 2005-11, were the Sadrists. Presumably these are the militias referred to in the piece.  It is quite believable that the Sadrists inflicted above 25% of all US battle casualties.  However, the claim that Suleimani 'directed' them, or that he was America's 'chief antagonist in Iraq' is at best a huge inflation of the known facts.  The Sadrists, it should be noted, constantly belaboured the ‘Iranians’ (meaning SIIC etc) and attempted to align themselves with Iraqi nationalism. One of Sadr’s first public gestures was to demand that the ‘Iranians’ leave the country. The US certainly tried to depict Sadr as an 'Iranian puppet' from his first appearance as a major opponent in 2003.  This puppet story has no credibility.  At most, there are plausible reports that from 2005 Iranian intelligence began to infiltrate the Sadrists, who notoriously lacked coherence or centralised control.  But frankly, whatever Iranian intelligence did, it didn't show in any greater military sophistication, or in any of the reasonably advanced weaponry that, for example, Hezbollah used to smash the IDF in 2006.  Iran's closest allies, who were quite well accoutred, were used to break the Sadrists in Najaf, Basra and Baghdad.  Iran's ambassador to Iraq publicly praised the Iraqi government's big incursion into Basra in 2008 to eliminate the Sadrists.  In fact, the major role played by Suleimani during the occupation was a very public one, and that was to mediate between the Sadrists and the Iraqi government which they supported.

5) It certainly makes sense for the US to perpetuate the idea that militant opposition to their occupation of Iraq was really the work of external powers.  It is not just good propaganda, but enjoys a neat fit with the state-centric discourses of international relations in which the empire's elites are trained.  However, this is merely to underline a point which should occur to journalists far more often than it does: since when was 'according to Washington' not the fastest way to undermine the integrity of any sentence in print?

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

American judge pushes country into bankruptcy posted by Richard Seymour

This deserves a lot more scrutiny and thought than I can give it now:

A US judge has blocked a $500m (£290m) payment by Argentina to creditors due on Monday, pushing South America's second largest economy closer to a second massive default in 13 years.
New York district judge Thomas Griesa said after a quickly convened court hearing that Argentina was in breach of his decision that US vulture funds, which have pressed for full repayment of their loans, were entitled to bypass a longstanding debt restructuring deal.
The ruling, which enforces an earlier decision in favour of vulture funds seeking a $1.6bn payout, means that $539m of Argentina's scheduled debt repayments were stuck in Bank of New York Mellon, which as trustee was due to disburse the payments under the previous debt deal.
A spokesman for the vulture funds called Argentina's attempt to pay rival creditors holding restructured bonds a "brazen step" that had forced them back to court. Robert Cohen, a lawyer for NML Capital, the lead hedge fund pursuing Argentina, had asked Griesa to hold the country in contempt of court.
Argentina has claimed it will default if the US courts insist the vulture fund bondholders – many of which bought their bonds at a steep discount – are repaid in full.

It is surely no mystery that a New York court would find in favour of a narrow section of finance capital based in Wall Street.  This, I would imagine, builds on a tradition of juridical practices favouring financial 'property rights' and so on.  

However, I cannot imagine that allowing Argentina to go bankrupt would be a good strategy for US imperialism in Latin America, or more importantly that the administration would think that it is.  Particularly not when the US economy has just started tanking again, China's growth is slowing and global GDP is starting to stagnate again.  Bad time for a bankruptcy, surely.  

The fissiparousness of the state in its hierarchy of apparatuses thus seems, in this instance, to match the divisions among capitals and fractions of capital.  One expects the executive to intervene somehow and impose a solution in the 'general' interests of US capitalism, as determined by the hegemonic capitalist fractions occupying the executive branch.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Giving it a name posted by Richard Seymour

Men's Rights Activists.  Move that phrase around in your mouth for a while.  Or, if you like, suck on the abbreviation, MRA.  Now it sounds, as it should, like something you might get vaccinated against.  In one respect, we can be grateful the MRAs exist - even if only as a lumpen backlash against fourth-wave feminism.  For they have:

a) allowed a collective term to be assigned to commonplace beliefs and practices (cf. 'MRA ideology' etc),
b) given it an explicitly political valence (so it can't be said, 'why are you making this a political issue, I just said I'm sick of being friendzoned that's all, gawd', because everyone knows it's political now), and
c) associated these beliefs and practices with something so utterly sad and repugnant that any reasonably far-sighted male will take pains not to be associated.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sisi's blood levy posted by Richard Seymour

"When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, / And when he cried the little children died in the streets." - W H Auden.

In the justified outrage at the Egyptian courts' suppression of journalism, with the sentencing of several Al Jazeera reporters on supposed 'terrorism' offences, it should not be forgotten that this is one well-publicised instance of a general crackdown by the dictatorship.

The slow wheels of the regime's judicial massacre of Muslim Brothers supporters grind on.  Having murdered hundreds in the streets as part of the army's coup d'etat, the police rounded up hundreds more Muslim Brothers, including the current leader of the Ikhwan.  They were charged with a range of offences including, predictably enough, terrorism.  The courts, understanding their role well enough, convicted them in their hundreds, in single rulings, and mandated the death penalty.  On Saturday, the courts upheld 183 of the convictions from April.  These men are all to be hanged.

'Massacre' doesn't even seem an adequate adjective, even when qualified by the term 'premeditated'.  This is a human sacrifice: a condign blood tribute to the new order and, they hope, a terminal punctuation mark ending three years of upheaval.

Let no one deny that General Al-Sisi has a degree of popular support in doing this.  He has 96% of the popular vote.  Grant that this is on the basis of a turnout of less than half the electorate, despite all manner of inducements and threats - a public holiday declared on the second day of voting, public transport fares cancelled, and a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds applied to anyone who didn't turn out.  Also, allow for the fact that the only other permitted candidate hardly differed from Sisi on essentials.  The bloc supporting Sisi is huge.

The army did not merely exploit real discontent with Morsi (whose authoritarianism and betrayals of his base should not be whitewashed), divisions in the revolutionary camp, and the open preference of some 'secular' forces for the military over the Islamists.  It came to power with the passive support of a large popular, conservative bloc including sections of the rural poor and downwardly mobile middle classes.  The huge crowds in Tahrir Square on the occasion of Sisi's pomp-bedraggled inauguration are a tedious reminder that there are such things as reactionary masses.

With that backing, the regime has gone to war against all opposition, secular and Islamist, leftist and liberal.  They're putting a stop to all this nonsense once and for all.

What is it for?  Well, undoubtedly the traditional state bureaucracies and security apparatuses ranged behind Al-Sisi's dictatorship have their own agenda, which is not simply identical to that of the US government.  Nonetheless, if we are to parse Tony Blair's claim that Egypt's ruling elite is 'open' and enlightened, shall we say that it has something to do with the pronounced anti-Palestinian politics of the Sisi camp, and the reassurances that his regime has offered to business elites and regional Gulf powers that he will implement the neoliberal shock therapy that Morsi was unable to?  Of course, Blair is as mad as Rasputin, but he often usefully says things that are impolitic from the point of view of his grubby ruling class sodality.

According to Amnesty International, 1,247 Morsi supporters have been given the death sentence since January this year.  Thus far, 247 death sentences have been upheld.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fiercely Proud posted by Richard Seymour

This is an interesting example of Brzezinski-ite realpolitik, which alights - as a central element of its strategic thinking - on a classic racist trope of empire:

A​ir strikes in favor of the "Iraqi government" are strikes in favor of Maliki's Iranian retainers, which the scholar Phillip Smyth calls"overlooked, growing, well-organized and highly militarily capable". To counter Iran's increasing shadow power, the United States should court the Peshmerga, a fiercely proud, seasoned fighting force dedicated to the independent state of Kurdistan. 

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Living Under Austerity: debate speech posted by Richard Seymour

I debated Cllr Harry Phibbs, something of a character in the Boris Johnson mode, at a launch event for the internet upstart company, PositionDial.  This is the audio file of my opening statement, with Phibbs' statement and subsequent discussion included.  This is the transcript of my talk:

First of all, do you want to remember the excuses given for austerity?

There was a fiscal crisis, an unmanageable deficit: the state had overspent.  Labour had been too generous during the boom, and left us high and dry in the bust.

The only way to restore the confidence of investors and consumers was to get the state’s finances back in order.  Then would follow investment, growth, and a return to prosperity.

And, what is more, austerity would be socially just: everyone would tighten their belts, and everyone would take a share of the loss.

I want to ask you something: is there anyone you know who you could look in the eye and say that to?

Let’s just deal with the myths.

New Labour didn’t overspend; it was obsessed with ‘fiscal credibility’.  They cut the debt by a record amount, £34bn, in their first term.  Public spending shrank in the first term.  When the credit crunch struck, public spending was 41.1% of GDP - lower than under Major.

Only after the credit crunch and ensuing recession began did it rise to 47.5% for 2009-10, due to bailouts, stimulus spending, and the collapse of the tax base.  The relative size of the state grows like this during every recession.

Public spending wasn’t the cause of the crisis; the government are making it a casualty of the crisis.

And what of the recovery supposedly induced by ‘expansionary austerity’?

A few points.

First.  There is a global recovery.  It’s weak, and the World Bank has just cut its growth projections.  But it’s been happening.  Not everywhere.   It won’t happen in Australia, because Australia never had a recession.  Why?  Many institutional and market-specific factors, but one of them is certainly that it had a large fiscal stimulus and no austerity.  Still, we’re coming out of crisis, and this is good.

Second, this was the longest period of economic contraction and stagnation in the post-war period.  If you dodge the blame for economic stagnation, then you can’t claim the credit for economic recovery.

Third, in point of fact, when this government took office and began its austerity programme, the economy had actually returned to growth.

And for about a year, with the effects of stimulus still working, and austerity not yet implemented, it continued to grow.  It then plunged back into stagnation.  According to the Office for National Statistics’ most recent figures, we actually got the double dip recession.

Finally.  There was no doubt that there would be a recovery - unless capitalism is finished.  It was always a question of when, under what conditions and how strong.

The scholarship demonstrates that austerity suppresses growth.

That is exactly what happened in the UK economy, as anticipated by the government’s own Office of Budgetary Responsibility.

Why was the government’s argument wrong?

We are told that the public sector cannot be productive, that it is only ever parasitic on private sector dynamism.  Free the private sector, and business will boom.

Mariana Mazuccato’s research shows this not to be the case - the public sector is at the centre of innovation, new technologies, new markets.  It invests where business is too timid to.  Think of Apple technology, impossible without public sector dynamism.  Globalization: also impossible without a big public sector.

Because, there is no such thing as a ‘free market’, or the ‘hands off’ state.  The state is always involved: it’s a question of how, and for whom.

But if the private sector is as good as all that, there’s no reason why businesses have been sitting on billions in cash!  If they’re as efficient as everyone says, ministers shouldn’t have to be skulking around the country begging businessmen to invest.

But no.  Bank of England data shows that the bank deposits of non-financial corporations rose from £76bn at the end of 2008 to £419bn by July 2013.  That’s masses of potentially productive capital, not in use.

Because that’s what you get if you leave investment up to those who only care about a profit.

Remember also that the deficit, blamed on public spending, did not fall when spending was cut; it rose.  George Osborne’s response?  More of the same ‘failed policy’.

But was it a ‘failed policy’?  People say austerity is ‘ideological’.  Insofar as any policy must be ideological, I suppose that’s true.  But what people mean is that it’s strategically unintelligent.

However, there is no socially neutral way to resolve a crisis; no solution that doesn’t bear its cost more heavily down on one class, and distribute gains more lavishly to another.

Austerity may suppress growth now, but by weakening labour, driving down wage costs, cutting taxes on business and - this is important - opening the public sector to private profit, it gives them a lot to look forward to in the future.

And when the governor of the Bank of England says, we must rebalance the economy away from consumption toward investment, this is what he means.

So the government aren’t stupid.  And the rich aren’t stupid.  If they were, they wouldn’t have all the money.

The brings me to the last myth I want to talk about: social justice.

Many Tories, Harry included, trumpeted their party’s progressive credentials before the last election.

But mark the sequel.

A record drop in living standards.

Wages have fallen year-on-year since the first three months of 2010 according to the Office for National Statistics - the longest drop for fifty years.

Child poverty is set to rise to 5m by 2020 on current trends according to Save the Children.

Housing Benefits cuts are causing a sharp rise in homelessness - a 32% rise in 2012-13 according to Crisis.

This led to the ‘man bites dog’ story of the year, when the OECD pointed out that cutting the welfare state would hurt the poorest most, because the poor need the welfare state more.


But some people benefited.  The income of the richest shot up, and the share of income going to profits shot up.  In 2009-10, 89% of all new income went to profits.  Oxfam reported earlier this year that the richest five families have more income than the poorest fifth of the population.

And buried in these gross figures are the human stories.

There was the woman in Scotland in her early fifties, maybe not much older than Harry - who killed herself after her benefits were cut because she didn’t pass an Atos work capability test.

There was Tim Salter, a 53 year old agoraphobe who committed suicide after his benefits were cut, leaving him penniless.

There was the 28 year old David Barr, who threw himself off a bridge after his benefits were stopped.

These are not standalone cases.  A survey by the Scottish Association of Mental Health found that mental health workers are inundated with people on the brink of suicide, because of benefits cuts.  David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, both academics in the field of medicine, have mined the data across all the countries affected by austerity and documented an excess of 10,000 suicides, a million cases of depression, and a devastating blitz on public health on a whole series of indices.

And do you notice something?  With all this social misery - I have hardly scratched the surface - they don’t talk very much about the Big Society any more.

Remember the talk of mutuals and compassion?  Remember a third way between big government and markets?

I wouldn’t blame you if you’d forgotten - they have, why shouldn’t you?  But it was good enough for you, ‘the suckers’, to be sold this before the election.  They think you’ll buy anything.

What will they sell you at the next election?

The notion of a fiscal crisis driven by public spending was always a myth.

But a convenient one.

If you interpret the crisis as primarily one of spending, if you scapegoat the poor, you avert discussing something more troubling: the crisis of capitalism.

Who knows where that discussion could lead to?  At a minimum, perhaps, controls on capital flows, new taxes on wealth, new forms of public ownership beginning with the banks.  Unthinkable for business, unthinkable for the parties of business, and unthinkable for the business-owned media.

I think I’ve described to you a pattern here.

Austerity, sold under the rubric of growth and prosperity and fairness, brings us only stagnation, declining living standards and injustice.

Profits grow, but little else does apart from squalor and misery.

And while George Osborne and his allies cry ‘success’, for millions of people hope dies.

And this is what it is to live under austerity.

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In which I am trolled IRL posted by Richard Seymour

I'm doing this event with Dawn Foster tomorrow.  Foster has let it be known that she intends to "just tell him to shut up, repeatedly".  I advise you to come to this.  This is the alternative to your futile World Cup dreams:

Location: Pages of Hackney Bookshop, 70 Lower Clapton Road, London E5 0RN

Five years into capitalism’s deepest crisis, which has led to cuts and economic pain across the world, Against Austerity addresses a puzzling aspect of the current conjuncture: why are the rich still getting away with it? Why is protest so ephemeral? Why does the left appear to be marginal to political life?
In an analysis which challenges our understanding of capitalism, class and ideology, Richard Seymour shows how ‘austerity’ is just one part of a wider elite plan to radically re-engineer society and everyday life in the interests of profit, consumerism and speculative finance.
But Against Austerity is not a gospel of despair. Seymour argues that once we turn to face the headwinds of this new reality, dispensing with reassuring dogmas, we can forge new collective resistance and alternatives to the current system. Following Brecht, Against Austerity argues that the good old things are over, it’s time to confront the bad new ones.
Richard will be in conversation with journlist Dawn Foster about his latest book.
Pages of Hackney offers a series of readings, discussions, debates, screenings, art exhibitions, performances and parties. These events are well-attended so do pop into the shop or pay by PayPal in advance to guarantee a place. We can only hold reserved tickets until 6pm on the night of the event. You can contact us on or 02085251452.

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Liberal imperialism against democracy posted by Richard Seymour

I wrote for The Guardian today on Blair's imperial idiom, particularly the appeal to liberalism against democracy in the Middle East:

"It was Blair who, when the dictator Mubarak was first threatened by Egypt's revolution, described the threatened despot as "immensely courageous and a force for good". It was he who, as the democratic crowds surged in Tahrir Square, warned that Egypt was characteristic of a problem in the Middle East where an "elite ... has an open-minded attitude" whereas "popular opinion" entertains "the wrong idea and a closed idea". He argued against aligning with the revolution, saying: "The danger is if you open up a vacuum, anything can happen." Blair's other favoured enlightened dictatorships included Colonel Gaddafi and the Saudi regime. About the latter he said, when challenged about its penchant for beheadings and limb amputations: "They have their culture, their way of life."
"Blair is only the most strident advocate of this perspective. The US vice-president, Joe Biden, rallied to Mubarak's defence when his rule was threatened, denied that he was a dictator, and stressed that he was "an ally of ours". And the list of those who cosied up to Gaddafi is long. This is merely to scratch the surface of such complicity, which evinces not democratic messianism, but cultural condescension of the sort that has always characterised both liberal internationalism and the neoconservatism with which it shares a vocabulary. Blair and his ilk are not democrats, but liberals. For the people of the Middle East, they only favour democracy if it can help legitimise liberal capitalist regimes. But, like Friedrich Hayek when asked about his support for Pinochet, they prefer a dictatorship to a democracy lacking liberalism."

I have the advantage here of being able to quote liberal statesmen in their substantive elaborations, as opposed to their sloganistic exhortations.  But could they have put the point more starkly than Paddy Ashdown?  This is him in The Guardian during the height of the occupation:

"To succeed in Iraq we will have to do deals with some distasteful people ... The US very publicly went into Iraq to bring democracy to the region. The Western World [sic] may support that. But none of Iraq’s neighbours do. We may have to subordinate the rhetoric of democracy for the Middle East to the need to find a regional solution for Iraq."

A frank statement of the facts.  Democracy, self-government, is legitimising rhetoric.  A liberal world order not only does not need it, but would find it more convenient if people could live without it.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Empire nostalgia posted by Richard Seymour

I see it's time to get back into Iraq. It's been a while and, let's be honest, we've all felt the absence of imperial omnipotence registered in daily beheadings deeply. Last time, the US promoted some Iranian clients, installed them into a new patrimonial state, trained up their death squads - and then complained like fuck when Iran seemed to make some strategic gains in the situation.

Now I see in the news that the US are teaming up with Iran to take on ISIS, which is probably a smart move on their part because Iran's proxies will fuck ISIS up (this is sober analysis). But, aside from the inevitable gruesome repeat of 2006 - execution scenes from the news today already remind one of old times - doesn't that necessarily also entail an implicit tilt back toward Assad?

This, apparently, is what it is to have an empire.

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A 'Trojan Horse' for tinpot racists posted by Richard Seymour

I think, readers, that you may be familiar with the concept of a forged document being used to promote a conspiracy theory about a demonised minority, the better to incite moral panic against them.

The facts of the forgery in this case, are these.  The Times recently published excerpts from a letter purportedly written by 'Islamic extremists' describing a plot - 'Operation Trojan Horse' - to 'take over' a number of Birmingham schools and run them on "strict Islamic principles".  Media reports, initially credulous, eventually began to acknowledge that the credibility of the document was weak.  However, the same reports have claimed that the forgery addressed 'real concerns'.  

As to those 'real concerns', a number of former teachers, governors, and head teachers in some schools have alleged bullying and marginalisation, and the imposition of a narrowly conservative religious agenda in Birmingham schools.  The education chief of Birmingham city council suggested that there have been 'hundreds' of allegations of takeover plots, some going back twenty years, and also suggested that there might be some substance behind the letter.  I'll come back to this.

These allegations fall under the remit of Michael Gove, the education secretary.  Gove is a neoconservative, a member of the Henry Jackson Society and the author of Celsius 7/7 - a testerical screed which alleges that 'Islamic extremism' is a threat to 'Western civilisation' on a par with the Third Reich.  His text supports the 'Londonistan' narrative of Melanie Phillips insofar as it alleges that the UK has become a soft touch for 'extremists' to embed themselves, indoctrinate potential recruits and prepare 'terrorist' actions.  

It was logical, therefore, that Gove should interpret these allegations in terms of 'terrorism' and appoint a former 'counterterrorism' apparatchik, Peter Clarke from the Metropolitan Police, to head the council's investigation into the claims.  It was also logical that Ofsted should be sent into these schools using the same frame of reference, the same 'war on terror' ideology.  This is a big moment for Gove.  His core ideology and political virtuosity are being tested here.  He has acted audaciously, even to the extent of incurring criticism from the leadership of West Midlands Police, which has launched its own investigation.

Clarke has not yet returned with his report.  Ofsted, however, has.  Its findings can be condensed into a number of categories: mishandling of budgets, with money spent on meals in restaurants; bullying; the 'inadequate' teaching of 'citizenship' and the dangers of 'extremism'; undue influence on some schools by some governors, insufficient governance in other schools; gender segregation in religious and personal development classes in one school; some head teachers claim they have been forced out of their jobs.  For now, I would just note that none of this appears to add up confirmation of a plot or anything of the kind.

A result of all this is that a number of schools that less than a year ago were ranked outstanding successes are now deemed to be failing.  A number of teachers have been arrested on at best tangentially related fraud charges.  Several schools have had 'special measures' applied to them.  Already, elements in the media and political classes are cheerfully claiming vindication of the conspiracy theory and extending its lesson more broadly.  Jim Fitzpatrick MP has now claimed that Tower Hamlets has been the target of a 'Trojan Horse'-like operation.  Fitzpatrick is the key pugilist behind the local Labour establishment's attempts to oust the popular, moderately progressive mayor Lutfur Rahman.

Behind the bombast and paranoia are two key issues.

Let's start with something that the news reports never begin with: the problems faced by Muslim schoolchildren.  Indisputably, state schools have been failing Muslim children.  This is a problem created by institutional racism, a national curriculum that doesn't speak to Muslim children of whatever background, low expectations and a lack of support for parents.  It's also related to wider social factors such as the higher risk of child poverty linked to the lower average earnings, lower occupational status, and lower educational status of Muslim parents.  The increasingly punitive state, the tendency toward mass incarceration, and the specific penal focus on Muslims in the last decade has also registered an important effect in terms of the higher number of Muslim children who have a relative in prison.  

Of course, it is not only Muslim children who have been failed by state schools.  The problems mentioned above are often an acute form of problems already faced by other poor, working class pupils.  It is within the spaces of discontent with the school system that the government has been able to build a degree of support for a top-down neoliberal restructuring of the schools system, sold as 'choice' and 'freedom'.  The Academies Act (2010) allowed for all schools to become academies, giving them substantial autonomy from the Local Education Authority, the right to diverge from the national curriculum, to determine admissions, adjust the length of the school day, and set wages independently of national bargaining.  This is concurrent with the creation of 'free schools', similar to American 'charter schools', wherein charities, voluntary groups, businesses, groups of parents and teachers, can set up schools with central state funding but which are otherwise autonomous.

Academies and 'free schools' can seem to offer a way out of the failings of state schools.  By 'freeing professionals' - above all, head teachers - to 'be creative' and offering parents a choice between schools of different flavours, it is hoped that the ensuing competition between schools will 'drive up standards'.  Parents can select schools, or help found schools, that offer an education more attuned to their specific values, more resonant with their specific class and ethnic experiences.  What is more, the selection and exclusion procedures allow for a degree of social engineering in the schools, which is especially a gift to middle class parents who don't want their kids mixing with common sorts.  Gove and Ofsted's imperious interventions now give the lie to the promise of 'freedom'.  The schools have been taken out of local democratic oversight, but they are still subject to authoritarian - and frankly capricious - control from the top.  That's the neoliberal state for you.  Nonetheless, the offer of 'freedom' was obviously attractive for several civil society layers, and the fact that segments of Muslim civil society in Birmingham chose to make the best of this offer is an important part of the story.

The second, related issue is the position of Muslims in Birmingham.  They have been made to feel like a suspect community, largely because they are suspect in the eyes of the state.  Consider the treatment of Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza, the use of police spy cameras under the rubric of Project Champion, the use of control orders against people like Cerie Bullivant who turn out to be entirely innocent.  Or take the recent case of Birmingham Metropolitan College which, citing 'security concerns', fought to ban the niqab in its grounds.  These are all local manifestations of the national state crackdown on Muslims, linked to a generalised moral panic about Muslims and Islam propagated through media, think-tanks, academia and government departments.  These are race-making practices.

For those subject to Islamophobia, it has therefore become a strategic imperative not just to embrace Islam - howsoever that is construed - and to fight for its validity in British culture, but also at the very minimum to ensure that Muslim children are validated in their identity whenever they are educated.  That can mean a wide range of things.  There is no doubt that, for some Muslim parents and teachers, it does include gender segregation.  That is insupportable.  But it is neither peculiar to Muslim parents, nor somehow a generic Muslim demand - much less proof of a 'plot'.  For others, it may be more important to enable their kids to learn a language such as Arabic, or acquire some historical knowledge of Islam.  Or it may be a bigger priority to limit the damaging effects of the Department of Education's 'counter-extremism' mandate.  For the state's demand for education on 'the dangers of extremism' is exclusively aimed at Muslim schoolchildren, who are seen to be 'at risk'.  The language, and I will say more about this in a moment, communicates that there is something genetic in Muslim culture and identity that leads to 'extremism'.  It says that Muslims must surveil themselves for such tendencies, internalising the state's suspicion of Islam and its watchful eye - truly rooting out "the evil within".  If I were a Muslim parent, I would lobby any school governor, any teacher, any head teacher, to rein this stuff in: compulsory self-hatred is never a good basis for learning.

The point is this.  If the schools are a key apparatus through which society in its normal state is reproduced, there is always going to be a series of overlapping struggles within them over what exactly is being reproduced.  It is not necessary to explain these struggles with reference to a racial conspiracy just because it happens that Muslims are involved.

The plot claims, stimulated by a forgery, have not been borne out.  But as I have said elsewhere, some things have to be believed in order to be seen.  

Take the local MP, Khalid Mahmood.  He is, like Gove, a member of the Henry Jackson Society.  He has been the most forthright advocate of Gove's narrative.  He has long advocated intrusive, authoritarian measures overwhelmingly rejected by locals, such as spy cameras in Muslim areas to help catch 'terrorists'.  In this case, he has referred on national television to a "culture of grooming" in Birmingham schools.  Mahmood will be aware of the toxic connotations of that phrase, in a context of a series of panics about Asian 'grooming gangs'.  His substantive claim, though, is that the schools are being turned into training grounds of 'extremism' leading to 'terrorism'.  In short, he claims vindication for the conspiracy theory.  When challenged by Salma Yaqoob over the actual findings of Ofsted's report, Mahmood replied that she was missing 'the big picture'.  

In a sense, Mahmood has a point.  Facts never 'speak for themselves'.  It is the implied theoretical relation between them which 'makes them speak'.  Two Muslim women walk into a college classroom, each wearing a niqab.  In and of itself this does not make a 'security threat'.  It is 'the big picture', the way in which those facts are seen as being connected to a wider set of facts, that counts.  In this case, it is the conspiracy-theoretical relation insinuated between a set of apparently quite distinct and contingently related facts which should be studied more closely.

For, although Yaqoob was right to point to the paucity in Ofsted's findings, the really scandalous thing is the way in which the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Willshaw, linked his findings into the conspiracy theory through the framework of counterinsurgency ideology.  This was the most pointedly politicised, headline-grabbing aspect of his report.  (This is to say nothing of the manner of the Ofsted inspections, or the veracity or otherwise of the report's substantive claims, which are presently being contested.)  He spoke, like Gove, in terms of 'radicalisation' and 'extremism', situating problems as diverse as budget management, obtrusive governance, too-much-Islamness, alleged bullying, and so on on the terrain of 'counterterrorism'.  He did not need to go further and verify the existence of a 'plot', since that is Clarke's remit.  

The basic motif here is that of the conveyor belt.  One begins with Muslims who are showing signs of being more identified with their religion, more critical or 'rejectionist' of 'Western values'.  They are exposed to a 'radicalising' influence, such as a sermon or a video propaganda message; they are radicalised.  They progress along the conveyor belt, through a succession of such influences, to 'extremism'.  And, as we all know, an 'extremist' is but a 'terrorist' in chrysalis, and it all ends in 7/7.

The counterinsurgency framework of the 'war on terror' required that the political violence of certain groups be i) decoupled from its geopolitical context (imperialism, war), ii) thus decoupled, explained instead in a reductionist way from Islam, and iii) linked to a wider conspiracy 'against civilisation' or 'against the West'.  (For those who want the long version of this story, I have written extensively about this in a textbook chapter which you can read here.)  That is why the language cited above is so very useful.  The language of 'extremism' is invaluable to governments precisely because, like 'terrorism', it doesn't actually mean very much.  No one can agree on a definition, so it can be deployed with great versatility.  It also usefully implies the existence of a 'norm', viz. 'British values' or 'Western values' which can only ever be defined negatively and in response to a manifestation of 'extremism'.  

As for 'radicalisation', it has never been demonstrated that such a thing actually exists.  It works as an animating mythology, justifying a series of repressive measures designed to hunt out and extirpate 'radicalising' influences.  But the idea that the conveyor belt course described above is what actually happens does not appear to be borne out in practice.  (Again, for the long version of the critique, listen to Mark Sedgwick here, or read the chapter on 'The Myth of Radicalisation' in Arun Kundnani's book, The Muslims Are Coming.)

However, it is this view which mandates the current political focus on 'Britishness' and the teaching of 'British values'.  Gove has already insisted that this will be a major political fruit of the plot investigations, although a result of his tiresome interventions had already been the exclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum on the grounds that its author was not British.

What might 'British values' turn out to be?  It will undoubtedly occur to someone to say that they are about tolerance, open-mindedness, pluralism, freedom of choice, because that is the sort of thing we're supposed to believe in.  But it's like those 'welcome' signs at Heathrow.  They're nice until you get to passport control and customs, whereupon the dismally authoritarian, exclusionary face of the state becomes apparent.  Jack Straw has suggested that Muslims have to be made to accept the 'Christian values' underpinning Britishness.  This, of course, defines 'British values' in such a way as to problematise British Muslims in advance.  It is to insinuate that the 'British Muslim' is some sort of weird paradox, and that the quality of Britishness is only present to the extent that the Islam is 'moderated'.  It is not a huge step from this position to that of right-wing Tories such as Philip Hollobone MP, who has been attempting to pass legislation banning the wearing of Muslim headdress on the grounds that this is 'not an Islamic country'.  (It is not, as far as I know, a dictatorship yet either - but I digress.)  The response of the political establishment to this entirely bogus plot panic, therefore, is to double down on the systematic othering and encircling of British Muslims.

This entire controversy, following from the 'Halal Pizza' gyrations, is a moral panic in the classic sense.  We have a group of people identified by a specific cultural practice, who are preemptively defined against the interests and values of the wider national community.  It's agreed that they must be isolated, studied, circumscribed, controlled, neutralised, ghettoised.  And having ghettoised them culturally and politically with all of these techniques mentioned above - the media scare stories, the political invective, the police repression, the growing Muslim prison population - insult is then added to injury with the repine: "why won't they integrate?"

Welcome to 'British values'.

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Populists against the elites posted by Richard Seymour

The big question of 'the crisis' is, why has the Right benefited rather than the Left?  The same question might be repeated of the recent European elections.  Why should the smooth, gollum-eyed racist-whisperer Nigel Farage be the major beneficiary in the UK?  And worse, why must we witness, as part of this right-ward lurch, the growth of Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Swedish Democrats, the Dutch Freedom Party, and so on and so on?

The next big question, though - I'm not answering the first one - is why does the Left succeed where it does?  What makes them so special?  In terms of elections at least, there are a few patterns which I will take the liberty of spelling out, because I don't trust you to do it.

First, the Left seems to have benefited primarily in a number of debtor nations which have been particularly badly affected by austerity.  Greece and Spain are most notable examples.  However, even Ireland, where the United Left Alliance fell apart in the last year, showed surprisingly strong results for the radical left, although the major beneficiary of anti-austerity feeling was Sinn Fein despite its active implementation of austerity in the north.

Second, while some established left formations have done reasonably well, the real boost has been to the marginal forces who have suddenly been catapulted into a prominence quite out of proportion to their real social weight.  Podemos is the clearest example of this, although I think it is also true of Syriza, whose influence before the 2012 elections was smaller than the more moderate left party, Dimar.  This is, I've argued before, a feature of the conjuncture.  The decomposition of traditional working class parties is a long-term trend which has been accelerated dramatically in these countries owing to the complicity of these parties in implementing harsh austerity measures. This means that there is a large space in which small and fragile groups can achieve influence in unpredictable ways.

Third, in my opinion the nature of the breakthroughs being achieved is largely a populist one.  That is to say, it is when new formations manage to puncture the bubble of bipartisan niceties, with slogans that are both resonant and pit 'the people' against a 'power bloc' that is insulated from popular opinion, that they succeed.  These populist interpellations work best when both conservative and social democratic parties are colluding in the implementation of austerity, as in Greece and Spain.  The excellent blogger Splintered Sunrise reckons that there is a wider tendency toward oligarchic cartel politics which helps to create a space for populist ruptures of either the right or the left.  I think this is true, although the principle is less effective where social democracy has been able to adapt, articulate a milder form of austerity and include some populist measures in its agenda.  Still, looking at where there have been left breakthroughs in the UK - Tower Hamlets and Bradford - it does seem that the more entrenched the managerial, deal-brokering elites of Labourism are in a locality, the more chance there is for a backlash.

Fourth, the populist nature of these organisations is linked to their social base which is far more in social movements, which have little structure and no clear class-identity, than in the traditional structures of the labour movement.  Indeed, it is a characteristic of recent global protest movements - from indignados to occupiers, Tahrir to Taksim - that they have cut across class lines, incorporating wider layers of the middle class than has hitherto been evident.  This has to do with: i) the processes of class deformation long under way in the working class, which saw traditionally well-organised groups disorganised and the political coordination of the class in its specifically social democratic form depleted.  While the working class has entered the crisis in bad shape, the traditional solidarity of middle classes with the bourgeoisie has been severely tested by the recession and ensuing politics of austerity; and ii) the way in which the crisis impacted upon different class strata in the process of decline or ascent.  Those sectors of the working and middle classes which were already in decline (that is, in a process of deformation: losing their economic position and political influence) when the crisis struck were more likely to move to the Right and cleave to a racist nationalism.  Those which had been reproducing themselves in a relatively stable way or (and this is more the case outside of Europe) were on the rise, were more likely to react by moving to the Left.

Fifth, the major beneficiaries tend to be critical of the EU rather than overtly anti-EU.  This is true of Syriza, Podemos, and - since we're counting them as beneficiaries of the anti-austerity surge - Sinn Fein.  This is a limitation imposed by the relatively weak economic position of the debtor nations, where membership of the EU has been seen as a route out of underdevelopment.  There is a bitter irony in this, given the way the EU has consolidated and fastened in place the existing hierarchy of states rather than promoting convergence.  But it's a problem for the Left.  The EU is not melting down and, while political support for the EU has been tested, these results show that it is far from exhausted.  It has not resolved its problems, but they are far from calling into question the future of the eurozone as seemed to be the case a couple of years ago.  This does not rule out slogans which, though not formally calling for a break with the EU or even the eurozone, do nonetheless go well beyond the limits of what the EU can tolerate.  But it does make the strategic necessity of challenging the EU from the left much more difficult.

There is one final factor which, I think, is specific to the Podemos results, but from which general conclusions might be drawn.  That is the use of social networking sites and crowd-funding to build a name, momentum, organisation and an electoral base.  The debate about so-called 'Twitter revolutions' took a decisive turn after Gezi Park, when the centrality of Twitter in allowing groups to become informed and organised was far more significant than it had been in Egypt or Iran.  It suggested that the cyber-utopians, for all their bombast and obliviousness of the, er, 'dark side of the internet', had anticipated some real trends.  The ability of Podemos to use social media to connect to 'citizens' (its populist interpellation of choice), to develop and infrastructure through such means, signals another decisive turn in the debate.  This is where I think we have to turn to Paul Mason for guidance - the conjunction of a particular technology which encourages the formation of networks, and a particular patterns of class development (precarious workers, unemployed graduates, etc) - is potentially very powerful.  As much as I fucking hate Twitter and everyone on it ever (not you, obviously), this makes a powerful case for devoting energy and money to building up social media profiles.

That's enough of that.

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