Friday, December 26, 2014

Missouri, goddam posted by Richard Seymour

Since September, I have been recording 'Media Review' segments as part of Tariq Ali's series, The World Today with Tariq Ali, on Telesur English.  The latest is a review of the media's performance on Ferguson.  You might wish to consider some of this while digesting the media's coverage of Antonio Martin or Tamir Rice.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Working class women take property investors to the cleaners posted by Richard Seymour

This is outstanding. 'Market value' will not prevail in the New Era estate.  A poor people's movement, a movement led by working class women, has beaten the rich, beaten them hands down, taken them to the fucking cleaners.  Or, as the FT wittily put it, 'US private equity beaten by Russell Brand'.

Westbrook Partners, an investment company that has been buying up billions of pounds worth of property in the US and UK, had bought the New Era estate in Hackney with the intention of driving rents up to 'market value' - trebling the cost for the residents.  A two bedroom flat that already costs £800 per month to rent, because London is insane, would cost £2400 per month.  

This is obviously not an isolated instance.  It is part of a wider process that is driving up rents, forcing poor households out of London, and gradually converting the city into a playground for the rich and newly affluent.  This gentrification/ghettoisation is built in to neoliberalism, and the forces favouring it are so much more powerful than those resisting.  So, this win is not a small thing.  And the campaign should be studied and learned from as a case study in poor people's power: you can be certain the speculators will learn from it.

The success, though, does have some limits which should be soberly confronted.  It is a defensive victory that was possible in part because the existence of neoliberal third sector institutions like Dolphin Square, whose very existence as a charitable foundation owes itself to Westminster council properties being flogged to a bunch of investors known as Westbrook Partners. The function of such institutions seems to be as a stopgap - maintaining housing in the private, commercial rented sector while keeping costs at a politically manageable level.  Such stopgaps are not an alternative in the long-term, and they aren't supposed to be.

Part of the problem is that we are stuck in a model of capitalism where people's future incomes are tied directly to stock market values and property values - especially if they have pensions.  That's what is happening with Westbrook Partners.  The money they invest is money that comes from the pensions of American public sector employees, just as the money invested by UK property developers, speculators, traders and so on is often money from British public sector workers pensions.  If you want to have a half-decent retirement, you need the system to boom.  So it isn't just the power of the City of London that keeps things this way - there are strata the population who are better off and more politically mobilised, and who have internalised the social aspirations and priorities of investors as its aspirations and priorities. As much as people may want to imaginatively murder the bankers, there's a strong counter-tendency which is to want the system to boom again, and be prepared to make any sacrifice to the gods of finance, of any number of poor people, so that this can happen.

New Era is what happens when the poor become mobilised. But we need a thousand New Era campaigns, connected and demanding a public housing system, linked to a public utility banking system and a public pensions system. Otherwise these victories, as salient as they are, will be crushed in the long-run.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

An open letter to Russell Brand posted by Richard Seymour

I am writing an open letter to Russell Brand. It is about his open letter to the person who wrote an open letter to him. It goes as follows:

"Dear so-called Russell Brand - if that is your real name - if you *really* believed that parliamentary democracy is a sham meant to keep all us sheeple from realising the truth about corporate tyranny, you would stand for parliament. The fact that you don't proves that you are nothing but a hypocrite. You bang on and on about inequality. If you *really* cared about inequality, you would invest your multi-millions in tranches of ordinary people's debt packaged in credit default swaps. The fact that you don't proves that you care nothing about ordinary people's debt and are nothing but an elitist. 
What makes it worse is that when people call you out on this, you resort to the most puerile insults. Why don't you go back to being a comedian, you dirty smelly hippy, where at least we'll be laughing at you, not with you. You claim to want to enlighten people, but you promote juvenile conspiracy theories just like all your elitist friends in the liberal, multicultural media who have taken over this country and filled it with immigrants and fixed it so that ordinary joes like me can't make a fortune on the stock market any more. You keep blabbering on and on about housing for the poor. Your mum owns a house, you hypocrite. 
Ultimately, Russell, which is a name that should only ever be given to small yappy dogs, I think this is all just a publicity stunt for you and your ego. That's why you want people like me to be silenced, so that we aren't filling the papers with your name and coupon every fucking day. Well you can't silence me, Brand. Rich bastards like you can't tell me, an ordinary person, what to think. There are loads of rich bastards to tell me what to think, and you're not even in the top ten. 
I was just having a normal day at work, putting anthrax in my mates' work lunch so that I could stamp all over their wheezing bodies on my way to the top - because I believe in MERITOCRACY, you rat-faced fucking vegan homeopathist tea cosy dweller - when you came along for your big 'oooh look at me, I'm cheeky chappy Brand with the wide-angle chin and I hate success' gig. Well I'll tell you what, mate. I'm an ordinary geezer and I for one welcome our alien incubi brain slug overlords. 
So just shut your face now, go away and don't ever darken my tunnel vision ever again.
Yours etc., 
ps: please don't ever go away, I couldn't live a second without you."

Pure linkbait. Send me money.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Murder in Peshawar posted by Richard Seymour

On a scale of Islamist slaughter, this depraved massacre of school children in Peshawar is akin to the massacres carried out by Chechen jihadists about a decade ago.  And, rather like those killings, I think this constitutes a death rattle of the group responsible.  This is a hastily written outline explaining why.

The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) are reactionary and their tactics filthy, but they have in the past been well-rooted enough to recruit thousands for a losing war with the state.  They have enjoyed significant levels of support for their attacks, rising to 20% among Pashtuns. This is in part due to their ability to exert effective political authority over territories - 'law and order' and so on, and in part due to Pashtun ethno-nationalism. But the biggest source of support is Pakistani military attacks and US drone strikes.

The Pakistani military and political elites had been trying in recent years to come to a new alliance with the TTP, claiming that they were really "our brothers" who had been "misled", and so on. This was an organisation which, despite a series of defeats inflicted by the Pakistani military, still had some potential clout.  And it was being lobbied by other Islamist groups such as the ISI-linked Haqqani network to make peace with the Pakistani state - and presumably focus on working with the ISI to conquer Afghanistan again.

In recent years, the TTP lost a great deal of the support it did have due to the brutality of its methods. Suicide attacks on army facilities were one thing. Bombings at mosques, funerals and other public locations were quite another. High profile beheadings also didn't help.

This kind of atrocity, in this context, lacks all strategic logic.  It's the sign of an organisation that has incinerated its popular base and fully embraced the 'takfiri' logic of some other Islamist groups - the attacks on Barelvi Muslims being a case in point.  Its recent expeditions to Syria also suggest that it has shifted from its nationalist focus toward an emphasis on 'global jihad' - and this shift seems to be concurrent with a series of hard military defeats at the hands of the Pakistani army. 

The latest atrocity can only isolate it further and allow it to be broken up relatively quickly.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture works posted by Richard Seymour

A brief guide for the perplexed.

Torture works. The Senate's report on the CIA's use of torture concludes that it is 'ineffective'.  This repeats earlier Congressional criticism of cultural products such as 24, Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, and so on, often made with the collusion of intelligence agencies.  Hence, the CIA's use of forced anal ingestion of water, stress positions, beatings, hypothermia and other forms of physical and mental torture are understood as a kind of grotesque political error or self-indulgence.

This will not do as a critique.  Torture works.  And it works in the following ways:

i) It procures an evidentiary basis for convictions and supports dominant narratives about a global conspiracy against civilization. A case in point would be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his remarkable, extravagant confession, extracted under torture.

ii) It supplies a flow of information justifying bureaucratic practices. Of course most of the information is bullshit, and none of it leads to the disruption of major 'plots'.  The Republicans are hugely inconvenienced by the discovery of this fact.  However, bullshit information can be 'actionable intelligence' if it allows the state to perpetuate policies the ruling class supports.  Fielding and monopolising information to produce the discourses of statecraft is exactly what states do. In that sense, bullshit may be exactly what the torturers were looking for.  If Abu Zubaydah did not provide information about real plots, he nonetheless provided information that state agencies could use.

iii) It intimidates and punishes enemies of the state. This does not necessarily break resistance movements. The IRA, for example, understood torture as part of their national struggle, and prepared for it and symbolised it as such. However, it's an open question how much this demoralises potential supporters, as opposed to inciting further resistance. Obama's critique of such methods upon taking the White House was that it merely provided further incitement. But given that he has allowed torture to continue, that is necessarily a provisional judgment about a certain kind of very public, spectacular form of torture.

iv) It identifies social inferiors. This is a sociological commonplace. In ancient Rome, the torture of slaves was justified on the basis that slaves were not rational creatures like citizens. Truth could only be induced from them not through discourse but by tormenting their bodies. In modern states, 'terrorists' and communists and various racial others are those from whom no truthful statement can be elicited except through torture. As such, a de facto caste system is produced in juridical practice wherein a certain special case of people can be rendered, interned, tortured and only released at the pleasure of captors.  Their status as inferiors is inscribed on their bodies, as well as in the technical discourses of the state.

These goals are, of course, only rational within a certain strategic framework, wherein (often racialised) military power is preeminent: war, colonialism, or dictatorship. There is therefore, in principle, a basis for a liberal capitalist opposition to such measures, and to the illiberal, Schmittian discourses justifying them.  But in an empire, effective opposition in the legislature or executive is likely only ever to be partial and contingent.

It is also important to say that the above diagram on the rationality of torture is not the whole story.  These 'secret' functions of torture will form part of the archive of historical experiences that inform any state action.  Yet, to speak of the functions of torture is not to subscribe to a functionalist account of torture.  States are almost always dysfunctional.  A state is not a well-oiled machine, but an ensemble of relations traversed by struggle and subject to competing political pressures.

It would be prudent to assume that the functions of torture would have been understood in some ideological form by most leading state personnel who authorised, legalised and implemented the CIA's 'detention and interrogation' programme. But bureaucrats also operate under a variety of conflicting political pressures, within a particular occupational culture, within institutional constraints, and in a strategic context where the goals are not all straightforward or mutually compatible.  Yes, they wanted to disrupt actual 'plots', catch actual 'terrorists', and so on.  But they also wanted other things, such as wars of conquest, expanded state capacities, larger budgets.  Yes, they have a certain bureaucratic rationality, but they are also subject to official, racist, securitarian ideologies which are often laughably inept.  Dysfunction is built in to what they do.  And of course, there was dissent even within the CIA concerning the use of torture, so these things are always subject to struggle and contestation.

The point of focusing on the rational 'moment' of torture is to point out that it is not pathological from the point of view of imperialist states.  The critique that torture is 'ineffective' implies that the military leaderships, intelligence agencies, local regimes and so on are basically incompetent people who are incapable of learning from centuries of ruling class praxis.  Allow for dysfunction and incompetence: we know that the CIA embodies an immense wealth of monopolised knowledge about how torture works.  We know that it proactively learns and adapts.  Its deployment of methods such as sexual humiliation has been learned in interrogation centres in Israel and Egypt.  Its evolution of methods such as the stress position that leave no clear physical mark, and can thus be classified as 'enhanced interrogation' rather than torture, clearly learns from certain police techniques.  The employment of psychologists who helped to devise new torture techniques for $81 million is indicative of the professional virtuosity of those devising torture programmes.

Allowing for strategic mishaps, blunders, conflicting goals, official antagonism, and so on, the general picture one gets is that the techniques are developed through experience and expertise and the results are such that, even if counterproductive to some ends, nonetheless are both beneficial to other goals, and exactly the sorts of results that the state tends to select in favour of.

From this perspective, it is the critique, not torture, that is ineffectual.

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

A grand jury watched a police officer murder a black person and refused to see a crime posted by Richard Seymour

There is an important lesson here.  

The coroner in the case of Eric Garner ruled that his death was a result of homicide.  That murder, effected with the use of a chokehold banned by the NYPD two decades ago, can be seen by everyone on video.  The barbarous excuses about the officer being frightened for his life can't possibly be applied here.  To put it plainly: a grand jury watched a police officer murder a black person and refused to see a crime.

And we can't just blame the prosecutors for stitching this up.  Because: a Staten Island grand jury watched Daniel Pantaleo choke the life out of Eric Garner and refused to see a crime.  This is not just police racism, it is not just state racism: this is popular racism.  This is about the people who refuse to 'see' a crime, even one that is recorded, if it is committed by a police officer against a black person.  

Obama talks about 'bodycams' as an answer to police misconduct.  Allow me to re-emphasise: a grand jury watched a police officer murder a black person and refused to see a crime.  Against this almighty ideological armoury, a 'bodycam' is about as much use as a lucky heather.

Notably, another Staten Island grand jury decided to indict Ramsey Orta, who filmed the murder, accusing him of being in possession of a firearm.  Orta argues, plausibly, that this is police revenge for his filming the murder.  He might have added that the police stand to gain from criminalising him in an obvious way: the NYPD cop union is already blustering that crooks like Orta stand to benefit from the demonisation of good police, and so on.  What is certain, though, is that the jury which decided to indict saw far less evidence of his alleged crime than everyone saw of Pantaleo's murder of Garner.  

To reiterate: a grand jury watched a police officer murder a black person and refused to see a crime; but they think the guy who made the film is guilty as sin.  This, to further underline the point, is about popular racism.  And it tells us something about the nature of race, and about the nature of the state.  

Racism does not just come top-down, from the state.  Race is nothing but a series of effects of social and political struggles.  These struggles are given a particular materialisation in the institutions of the state, in the forms of political domination, in the ideologies of crime, and in the apparatuses which enforce the ideological category of crime.

The politics of race in the United States are primarily struggled over and settled through the criminal justice system.  And that system depends not only on its articulation with other dominant institutions such as the mass media.  It also depends upon popular participation for its grids of surveillance, its authoritative verdicts, its ideological legitimacy: snitches, witnesses, jury members, 'citizen journalists' and other bottom-feeding internet warriors, neighbourhood watch, pro-cop demonstrators,  tea partiers, conservative activists, and so on.  

The criminalisation of Michael Brown was essential to Darren Wilson walking free.  One would be a holy fool to think that 'criminalisation' here just means fingering Brown as a prime suspect in the theft of cigars from a local store.  Even if Wilson had known of this, it doesn't carry a death penalty, any more than does walking in the middle of the road, which is what Wilson in fact stopped Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson about.  Several layers of criminalisation needed to be added to this to make murder acceptable.

And this was not just the work of Darren Wilson, through his interpretation of the black neighbourhood around Canfield Drive as ‘hostile’, and his fantasy of being grossly out-sized, menaced by a 'bulking up' black youth almost impervious to bullets - a genre of popular television and Hollywood myth-making.  It was not just the work of Ferguson Police Department, in its strategic leaks and dissembling about what had taken place, from the early claims that Brown had broken Wilson's eye socket to the release of autopsy details about Brown smoking pot.  It was not just the work of the mass media, from New York Times's "no angel" piece, in which rapping and growing up in a rough patch is adduced as evidence of sub-angelic status, to the obsessive pursuit in all outlets of "black-on-black crime".

The criminalisation of Michael Brown was also the work of a popular racist backlash.  This was evident in the mulch of racist social media memes, and the sewer of right-wing blogs and 'news' sites, asserting that Brown had flashed 'gang signs' (an obsession in the US), that his father was a 'Blood', and that his family was violent.  It was apparent in the pro-cop rallies with Klan members prominently involved, the polling data showing that most whites did not blame Wilson for Brown's death.

All of these criminalising discourses build on a racist 'common sense' regarding what 'everyone knows' about black people, black communities, and black families:  Their families are unstable, often fatherless.  There is a "culture of poverty".  Their communities are filled with crime and violence.  They rap, and throw gang signs.  Cops are courageous just to enter these neighbourhoods, and anyone who doesn't comply with an officer has it coming.  These, and similar ideological understandings, will determine how 'probable cause' is interpreted.  They will determine a juror's sense of the probabilities, their view of the likely dispositions of the cop and the civilian, their sense of what testimony is dependable and what is not, what the best interpretation of physical evidence is.  They will shape the perceptions of witnesses, as to whose behaviour is reasonable, as to who looks menacing, as to what a particular physical gesture might mean, as to what is staggering and what is charging.

The state can blitz a jury with expertise, images, footage, technical detail.  They can overwhelm juries with seemingly 'hard facts'.  But without the racist 'common sense' that fills in the narrative gaps in the police yarn, and makes a spurious sort of sense of these 'hard facts', a prosecution stitch-up would have been hard to achieve.  And in the case of Eric Garner, to reiterate: a grand jury watched a police officer choke a black man to death, and refused to see a crime.

There is an organic relationship between popular racist politics and the legal/police networks that enact racist terror.  The 'filaments of racist ideology' protruding from the material apparatuses of the state have both efferent and afferent conduits.  

Any movement against state racism is at one and the same time a struggle against popular racism.

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