TW: This is an article about about the beliefs and ideologies which enabled the actions of a misogynist mass killer.
Already, the possibility that the misogynist killer Elliot Rodger was 'mentally ill' is being floated in the media as an explanation for his actions.
Mental illness seems highly plausible, and the absence of a decisive intervention on this axis may be an important element of the horror. However, as with the Breivik murders, the category of mental illness can perform a certain ideological function: that of quarantining an inescapably social and political outburst within the category of psychological deviance. The sickening logic of Rodger’s misogyny, the way it draws on ubiquitous cultural tropes, has been outstandingly assayed by Laurie Penny. But invoking mental illness has allowed some commentators to deny the centrality of misogyny to Rodger's actions.
This is why it is essential, though not sufficient, to listen to what Rodger says. The killer left a detailed life story, and many video diaries, and his obsessions with gender, class and race, his framework of privilege and entitlement, structure the entirety of his account. The hatred and resentment toward women in particular, and the masculinist fantasies of retribution and cleansing, provide the quilting point, through which he explains his issues to himself: everything can be resolved if only they can be made to pay. And there is no obvious reason why a mental illness should express itself in such a toxic fusion of gendered, classed and raced resentment and rage, leading to the premeditated "slaughter" of seven people (including himself), like “animals".
Before going any further, I would add that in explaining himself the killer clearly sought to aestheticise his actions, and courted precisely the wide audience for his own gargantuan melodrama that he regarded as befitting his proper status, and which he has now obtained. As he put it, "infamy is better than total obscurity". To talk about him, to review and punctuate his own words, is to be partially complicit in this. But there is one way in which to avoid being complicit, and that is to categorically reject the demonological approach and to notice the appallingly quotidian, commonplace nature of the ideologies informing this atrocity, and the equally too common systemic and individual violence against women that these ideologies are linked to. Because Rodger is not so unusual among twenty-something males. You've met men like him. His issues, his insecurities, the huge burden of resentment and shame, the ideology of violent women-hatred that he gives realisation to, are all too widespread. And this is what is most frightening, and what is missed by the rush to confine this case to a psychological black box.
The supreme gentleman
We could begin with Rodger relaxing in a comfortable BMW. He addresses the camera on his dashboard, ostentatiously taking a refreshing sip of a vanilla latte in a cardboard Starbucks cup. He savours the taste, and remarks on his beverage. He seems to be reaching for the air of a connoisseur, taking time to indulge the finer things in life.
Not long afterwards, he is expatiating on his own virtues. "I’m civilised. Intelligent. Sophisticated. I have a sense of style." In other video clips, he refers to himself repeatedly as "beautiful", "such a magnificent guy", "the supreme gentleman". This is a performance, but it is also real in the sense is that it is very much what he wants to believe, what he thinks is his due and appropriate status, denied him by others.
This sense of his proper worth is directly linked to his social class. His understanding of his place in the world and what it entitles him to is directly explored in the narrative history he gives of his family in his life story. His father hailed "from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes before they lost all of their fortune during the Great Depression." His grandfather was "...a renowned photojournalist who had taken very famous photographs during the Second World War, though he failed to reacquire the family's lost fortune." His mother “was born in Malaysia, and moved to England at a young age to work as a nurse on several film sets, where she became friends with very important individuals in the film industry, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. She even dated George Lucas for a short time.”
Later, when describing the "turning point" in his life, when contentment gives way to constant misery as he reaches puberty and is inducted into high school, he invokes the abject decline in his status consequent on his mother deciding to move to an apartment. "An apartment! I had never lived in an apartment before, and I always thought of apartments as being poor and low-class. I would be embarrassed to admit it to anyone." And then, as his despair escalates: "Father suffered through a deep financial setback ... Could things get any worse for me? As a result, my father abruptly cut off all of the child-support payments he was paying my mother. My mother was forced to find a better-paying job to make up for it, and she had to move out of her house to a condominium close by."
His concept of where women fit into this story of himself begins with his mother and grandmother, who each seem to have set aside their entire life, practically negating their own prior existence, in order to serve him as an infant. “My mother gave up her nursing career to stay at home and look after me. My grandma on my mother’s side, who I would call Ah Mah, moved in with us to help out my mother.”
He describes those early years as "blissful". Indeed, they might have continued to be blissful but for the arrival of a sister just before his fifth birthday. He experienced illness the night of her birth: "a bad omen", he remarks. The arrival of a sister means he is no longer able to monopolise attention. It means that his sister gets to choose sometimes. It means that he has to compete. Because he is "by nature ... a very jealous person". And he first experiences this aspect of himself in a strong way at the age of nine, when he finds that family friends prefer to play with his sister rather than him. He cries bitterly. Already, a girl is stealing his enjoyment, but it's just the beginning. "Jealousy and envy… those are two feelings [sic] that would dominate my entire life and bring me immense pain. The feelings of jealousy I felt at nine-years-old were frustrating, but they were nothing compared to how I would feel once I hit puberty and have to watch girls choosing other boys over me". It is at this point, and no other, that he begins to discover that the world is not a meritocracy. And it is this outrage, this "insult", this "injustice", that must be retributed, "punished", visited with destruction.
This classed, gendered sense of his proper place in the world is, in fact, nothing more than an expression of privilege. He has been socialised to understand that his masculinity and his social class entitle him to everything, that no one should have more than he does. He constantly evokes his privilege as obvious reasons why a "girl" should want him and not someone else. "I’ve travelled all over the world, I’ve so much to talk about," he explains. In his manifesto, he records how as a four year old he was "already a world-traveler", having visited "six countries" already. "Who else could say that?" "I’m sophisticated," he says in a video diary. "I have a nice car, a BMW. … These sunglasses here. They’re $300. Giorgio Armani. I’ll put ‘em on. See? … Look at how fabulous I look." Rodger has much to say about this, and about the symbolic violence constantly visited on him by "girls", and to a lesser degree by the "losers" and "slobs" who have unjustly monopolised their affection and attention.
Prestigious. Renowned. Important. Poor. Low Class. Losers.
But his sense of place is also raced. This is only subtly alluded to in his video entries. The women - "girls" - he demands attention from are "blonde". Repeatedly, he utters the phrase "beautiful blonde girls", often followed by a reference to the "absolute stupid, obnoxious-looking douchebags" they're with.
What matters here is what "blonde" means to him. It seems to mean that to have a "blonde" girlfriend would 'reflect' well on him, on his ego-ideal. It seems to mean that the girl would make up for his lack of blondness. He expresses, in his 'manifesto', unease about his own 'mixed-race' background, his mother being from Malaysia. This made him "different from the normal fully-white kids". It was part of his being "uncool" and unpopular from an early age, and later part of the narcissistic injury which he describes as the "turning point" in his life, and which is never staunched. His "first act" upon discovering that he was "uncool" was to "ask my parents to allow me to bleach my hair blonde. I always envied and admired blonde-haired people, they always seemed so much more beautiful."
His disdain for non-white people is evident - recorded, for instance, in his displeasure at, aged 20, discovering that his new apartment mates were "of the Hispanic race" (and also "rowdy, low-class types"). Or his rage at seeing "this Asian guy" "talking to a white girl". "I always felt as if white girls thought less of me because I was half-Asian, but then I see this white girl at the party talking to a full-blooded Asian. I never had that kind of attention from a white girl! And white girls are the only girls I’m attracted to, especially the blondes. How could an ugly Asian attract the attention of a white girl, while a beautiful Eurasian like myself never had any attention from them?"
This is internalised racism. “As I begin to recognise that the Negro is the symbol of sin,” Fanon wrote, “I catch myself hating the Negro”. Rodger hates the “Asian” in him. He hates himself for not being "normal" and “fully-white”. A notable recollection of a high school bullying incident no doubt alludes to this fascination with blondness. A "tall", "blonde" boy bullies him and the "pretty girls" with him side with the "evil bastard". Women and girls, he infers "flock to these men". He hates "the girls even more than the bullies because of this". His automatic, socialised reaction is to hate the women who don't bully him more than the men who do.
He may well have thought that this tall, blond-haired bully was "beautiful". But in his video diaries, he insists that it is he who is "beautiful", and turns the "loser" label back on the men whom "girls" and "women" "flock to". It is these men who are "unworthy" "slobs". "I see this disgusting looking loser. Well, he’s a loser in my opinion. And he walks in with these two beautiful blonde women by his side. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so… insulted by that, because I should be the one with the girls."
His insecurities prevail. He describes himself in his life story as being "shy by nature", wanting to be friends with the cool kids, but terrified that they will think him "weird". He withdraws from everyone rather than risk a slight. He says: “I want to feel that sense of being worthy of a girl’s love”. And though he grandiosely affirms that he is, it seems obvious that the whole world is telling him, and he believes, that he is not. His class and gender should assure his dominance - this would be "fair", "good and pure", this would be meritocratic - but his not-quite-white racial status deprives him of it. Because women and girls flock to the evil, beautiful blond boys and men - or worse, to men even less racially "normal" than he. This complaint, that 'women dig jerks', is the cri ce coeur of so many men socialised to believe that female attention is theirs as a birthright.
Normal. Cool. Uncool. Weird.
Narcissistic injury, rage and retribution
The original narcissistic injury driving Rodger, incurred upon being admitted to high school, thus seems to have pivoted upon his evident racial self-hatred, sense of class decline and above all his feeling of thwarted gender entitlement. The ensuing narcissistic rage spirals, terrifyingly and wrenchingly, in each recorded segment. The offence to his status, to his entitlement, to who he is, and what his place is in the world, is limitless. "Every single day I have to be insulted". "It's such an injustice." He laments how "sad and unfair my life has been, all because girls haven't been attracted to me". He blames "girls" for stealing his enjoyment in life. "You girls have starved me of sex and enjoyment and pleasure for my entire youth." "You’ve taken eight years away from my life. Eight years I’ll never get back. D’you know how much misery you’ve caused me? I’m such a nice guy, why won’t you give me a chance?"
At last, he hands down judgment. His abandonment by females is "the supreme crime". "If I can’t have you," he warns women, "I will destroy you." They will get "what you deserve: utter annihilation." And he will "slaughter" not just women, but also those
beautiful blond slob loser men who have persecuted him. He will be "a god", and they will be "animals".
This desire to annihilate women is already signalled at some length in his life story. He writes, in the manner of a comic book villain, that it's time to "abolish sex" by abolishing women. They must be "quarantined like the plague they are", sent to "concentration camps" and deliberately "starved to death" while a new despotic ruler exerts total control "over every aspect of society" to "direct it towards a good and pure place". He envisions himself as the ruler in question, the man of steel. He aspires to the immortality of the machine.
This is a common masculinist fantasy, iterated in a thousand science fiction scenarios. "The most urgent task of the man of steel," Klaus Theweleit argued in Male Fantasies, "is to pursue, to dam in, and to subdue any force that threatens to transform him back into the horribly disorganized jumble of flesh, hair, skin, bones, intestines and feelings that calls itself human." Since, in this fantasy, women represent everything that is degenerative (Rodger has much to say about degeneracy and its connection to the sexual act), it is they who must be subdued. Rodger’s gendered snuff dreams are the stock of so many male internet trolls. Indeed he evinces the classic psychology of the troll in his 'manifesto': "It felt horrible to be teased and bullied … but at the same time I got a kick out of getting so much attention." The difference is that he then enacts the fantasies that make below-the-line comments cesspits.
The element of performance, articulating the baseline ideology of the internet misogynist in the idiom of pulp fiction, continued to the horrifying end. In the final video before the massacre, his assumed persona, always unconvincing, became a caricature. The words caught in his mouth, the syllables drawn out or garbled. His cold sneer became a gurn, and his educated patter gave way to incoherence. He exhaled so much genuine abject misery and hate, and yet the heel mannerisms, the forced 'evil laugh', the 'triumphant' words of revenge, were more stagey and hammed up than ever. He impersonated the "godlike" power that, in a sense, he always believed himself entitled to. Except that, it wasn't just an act. It really was heartstoppingly terrifying. He really did mean to kill.
So, on 23 May, Rodger embarked on his "slaughter". His first three kills could have been achieved far more easily with a gun, but he chose a method that required proximity and exertion. He began, seemingly armed with machetes, a hammer and a knife, by repeatedly stabbing three men to death in his apartment building. For these, his inaugural murders, he chose 'Asian' victims. Having done this, he set out to stalk the streets around the sorority houses where those "beautiful blonde girls" lived, this time using an assault weapon to "destroy" the women he could not have. He killed six people, and wounded thirteen. Then he killed himself.
Elliot Rodger was not so unusual.
What is there to say about Modi that isn't widely known by now? The man is arguably a fascist. He doesn't run a fascist regime, nor lead a fascist party. He has not overthrown parliamentary democracy. But he is a longstanding member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which Chetan Bhatt describes as
"a secretive, militaristic, masculine cult; a distinct Indian form of fascism that was directly inspired by Italian Fascist youth movements ... Its founders greatly admired Hitler and Mussolini".
And he is most certainly, which seems like a tautology, a racist murderer. Modi has direct, hands-on expertise
in organising the communal massacre of Muslims
. This massacre was characterised not just by slaughter but by the most gruesome sexual violence, undertaken by the parties of the Hindu Right with - according to dozens of independent reports - the collusion of the state of Gujarat and its chief minister, Modi. And the 2002 pogroms don't exhaust the grim reality of Modi's period in charge of Gujarat. As soon as the Hindu nationalist BJP took control of the state of Gujarat in 1998, they embarked on a systematic attempt to purge the state apparatus of Muslims - particularly its repressive apparatuses - and to marginalise and exclude them as far as possible. And the iron fist doesn't stop at bashing Muslims. Bhatt writes
Modi has treated legal and democratic institutions in Gujarat with contempt. He has acted with tenacious vindictiveness against journalists, human rights activists and police officers who have crossed him. Modi’s choice of close aides— Maya Kodnani, Amit Shah, among others— are not examples of poor political judgment but egregious moral failures that are visible internationally. There remain the unsolved murders of BJP MLA Haren Pandya and environmental activist Amit Jethwa. With Modi in power, which investigations are likely to be sabotaged? Which human rights activists and lawyers are going to be targeted further?
In addition to attacks on minorities, we see an emboldened Hindutva assault on other basic freedoms and liberties in civil society that are a source of international concern— from the policing of women and romantic love on streets and campuses by self-appointed Hindutva mutaween to the attacks on university curricula, the pulping of books, and attacks on artists, filmmakers, journalists and writers.
So, let's say it. "The world's largest democracy" has elected a fascist. He took it with a 14% swing in favour of the BJP, giving him a 12% lead over the Congress candidate. The National Democratic alliance, of which the BJP is the leading coalition partner, now totally dominates parliament.
There is no mystery
about how this happened. The Congress party was running on empty, corrupt, presiding over a steep rise in inequality. The Left was complicit in this - particularly the Left Front in West Bengal, which has been imposing neoliberal accumulation-by-dispossession in a brutal way
, lost badly in the recent elections.
And Modi, who has already spent years building his own base and leaving no doubt as to his Hindu nationalist credentials, reached a broader audience by deploying some fairly classic populist interpellations on the theme of Congress corruption. He attacked the traditionally dominant party of Indian capitalism as a party of corrupt elites that was responsible for the injustices and inequalities visited on the country's poorest. He said that this corruption was holding back Indian development. If the country's capitalist base could be expanded and deepened without being beholden to Congress and its cronies, the people would prosper. And although Modi's BJP machine is every bit as tightly imbricated with favoured businesses as the Congress machine, this worked.
Of course, Modi organises his support base around a fanatical personality cult - during the recent elections, he 'appeared' in dozens of towns and villages by projecting a 3d hologram of himself
. This isn't because he has personal charisma but because he effectively markets himself as a hard bastard who can 'get things done'. This ideologeme of the 'Gujarat model'
of capitalist development, which is entirely bullshit and hype as far as any claim to commanding growth goes, is very much linked to his reputation as a hard man. For example, the boss of India's biggest business conglomerate, the Tata group, reports glowingly
on how Modi facilitated the transfer of a car plant to the state of Gujarat within days. He gives the impression of being a technocrat able to suppress and transcend the quarrelsome arguments and grasping hands of the parliamentary political machine, in order to 'get things done'. So much the worse for troublesome minorities if he has to be a bit rough with them in the process.
And that seems to be why much of the business press admires him.
So what if the reasons they so admire him are inextricable from the reasons for his hitherto pariahdom?
This is the bourgeoisie we're talking about: they aren't known for being sentimental about mass murder. That is why the rush to normalise and redeem him is on. Mark The Economist
ganting for Modi's open door to capital. 'He's a strongman, he'll knock some heads together, he'll get the country open for business again.' Hark at Fareed Zakaria
gushing about India's "inspiring" election, creaming his pants for the alliance with American business. Look at American politicians enthusing about his 'economic reforms'
. Witness Obama
signalling the end of Modi's global pariah status by inviting him to the US despite the visa ban.
This is not an accident. There is a generalised tilt toward authoritarianism in the neoliberal era, which is based on an attempt to rescue capitalist state authority from the overload of demands that postwar democracy was placing upon it and allow it to pursue optimal neoliberal accumulation strategies. This is linked to new sources of legitimacy in class democracies (racist, nationalist, ethnic, patriarchal, etc), and punctuated repeatedly by periods of technocratic despotism. So in a period of protracted global crises and stagnation, the elective affinity between business-minded authoritarianism and violent exclusionary ethnic absolutisms is hardly unexpected.
And yet, so brazen about it. So cheerfully contemptuous of the survivors, refugees, advocates, and human rights bodies. So blasé about the mutilated and deceased. These are capitalism's liberal advocates and apologists - this is how they speak in public. They dare to talk openly like this now.
illustrates so well why the parliamentary political establishment cannot stop UKIP. The consistently excellent James O'Brien has just handed any UKIP opponent Nigel Farage's head on a platter, nicely bisected the better to expose the cuckoo within. And yet there is a consensus across parties, from Eric Pickles to Ed Miliband, that Farage and UKIP are Not Racists. And if you can't call Farage and UKIP out as racists, then you can't defeat them.
To be perfectly honest, it's not even clear how much they want to defeat UKIP. Obviously the petty bourgeois reactionaries could be problematic if they really start to threaten Britain's membership of the EU, but for now they are pulling British politics to the Right and decanting elements of popular discontent into something which - for the dominant parties - is preferable to a movement of the left.
Still, let's assume for the sake of argument that UKIP are a nuisance that "the political class and their mates in the media" (dixit Farage) would like to neutralise. The major strategy of Labour and the Liberal Democrats at least is to call Farage out for 'demagoguery' and misrepresentation. Clegg's dismal performance in debate with an extremely assured Farage centred on his attempts to 'expose' UKIP's lies. Danny Alexander's recent crowing about the immigration figures was similarly based on an attempt to show UKIP up as fearmongering liars.
This is a stupid strategy. So what if you prove that there are actually fewer Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants in the UK than previously thought? If you make that the basis of your argument, you accept that 'they' are a problem to be minimised: the fewer the better. Moreover, the point of free movement of labour is that the numbers will fluctuate and sometimes there will be sharp increases in the migration of specific groups. If you've already conceded, explicitly or implicitly, that 'they' are a problem, then such spikes provide easy points of intervention for UKIP and its allies.
Further as I've already said, the numbers game is strictly secondary, in the service of a moral argument. Remember what I said? Remember?
"UKIP are good at the numbers game, precisely because they understand that it is a purely rhetorical exercise. The right figure is that which a) efficiently demonstrates a point, b) tells people what they expect to hear and confirms their 'worst fears' (even if they derive an obscure pleasure from it), and yet which is c) time- and effort-consuming to track down and rebut. The right figure is just an element of a morality fable."
Called it. The figures are part of a moral argument, and as long as their moral premises are accepted or left unchallenged, what does it matter if one or two of their figures are wrong?
Now here's the problem. Nigel Farage is very good, usually, at respecting the terms of the media spectacle. He knows that he doesn't have to explicitly articulate many of the racist propositions that galvanise UKIP supporters. His base already knows what he stands for, and he doesn't have to remind them every day. He's one of them, after all. And as regards bigotry toward immigrants, the populist-right media thoughtfully ploughs that ideological terrain every day, so that an aspiring politician need only gently, tactfully allude to such themes and everyone who is supposed to get what he means will get what he means.
Farage's tactic is to speak allusively, and keep the waters muddied. For example, he has often suggested that there is a problem with the 'quality' of immigrants coming to the UK now. This condenses both the crude economic argument about foreign workers undercutting British workers, and cultural stereotypes about south-eastern Europeans which can be found in the newspapers every day. But he doesn't actually have to say what it means. And having said this, he will typically throw in a positive comment about migrants from India, as if to say "how could I be racist when I actually prefer immigrants with darker skins?"
So, when Farage lets the mask slip and tactlessly suggests that Romanians are more likely to be criminals, this is precisely the point at which to hit them over their 'big picture' argument.
Of course he isn't saying anything that the Express and even right-wing Tory MPs haven't already said. But he's fucked up. UKIP's leader needed, due to the reputation his party has, to be cleaner than clean, particularly if the aim is to add to the party's existing base. And he isn't. He's just brutally exposed what he means by the 'quality' of immigration.
Farage is a racist: just say it. Even The Sun is saying it (and let's face it, they should know). If you don't say it, you miss a vital tactical opportunity, and actually help remove the stigma from such statements and normalise them.
I can understand Eric Pickles hesitating to call Farage a racist. He knows very well that many of his colleagues have said similar things. In all likelihood, he thinks similar things. Moreover, the Tories will have a direct interest in carefully re-appropriating the themes of nationalist racism in order to take votes back from UKIP. Their line cannot be one of straightforward repudiation.
But Ed Miliband is in a different situation. Whatever Labour's temptation to cave in to the Right, its base doesn't actually respond well to racism. And yet. And yet. This is Ed Miliband we're talking about here. And it's not just that he personally has the killer instinct of a stunned goldfish. It's that he is the effect of a structure, a political machine that is built around the internalised defeats and Stockholm Syndrome of the British labour movement. A machinery based on a politics so degraded that it can't even effectively challenge a racist spiv like Farage, never mind break with the post-Thatcherite consensus. This is neither tragedy nor farce; it is simply grim.
So I give up. Literally. Forget it. We're fucked
. If anyone wants me, I shall be licking hammers
It was not only predictable but predicted - by me, on all manner of social media - that this government would start to rebuild its base and Labour's fragile poll lead would collapse, in the year before the general election. This is now happening
. Labour's support has fallen six percentage points, and the Tories have a lead for the first time in ages.
Why? Hasn't the Labour Party issued a number of popular statements, from fuel freezes to rent controls
? Isn't this government implementing profoundly unpopular policies such as the de facto privatisation of the NHS? Isn't austerity - or at least this government's version of it - unpopular with most voters? And if Ed Miliband is uninspiring, wasn't he just as uninspiring when he had a seemingly commanding poll lead? And where has this government's Belgrano moment been? It was prevented from joining any war in Syria in a humiliating Commons vote in which Labour, for once, opposed the government.
The first clue to an answer might just be in the Belgrano reference. Mrs Thatcher swept back to power with a strong mandate in 1983, having presided over the most unpopular administration in the postwar era, having overseen a harsh austerity budget which actually aggravated a recession and resulted in rioting on the streets of London and Liverpool, and having suffered severe internal divisions arising from its determined pursuit of neoliberalism. Much of the Left at the time blamed the Falklands and the revival of empire kitsch - the anthem 'Rule Britannia' rang from the terraces - for consolidating Thatcher's popular support. In fact, while the Falklands war helped define the administration ideologically, consolidate Thatcher's position in her own cabinet, and mortify and weaken the opposition, it doesn't seem to have had a sustained impact on the Tories' poll ratings. The really significant factor was the revival in the global economy in 1982, linked to the expansion of capitalism in south-east Asia. This, coupled with the government relaxing fiscal constraints, created a sufficient coalition of class elements which experienced a material 'benefit' from Tory rule, enough to make up a decent electoral plurality. And that may be what we're seeing here. The economic recovery
, weak though it is, is not a mere statistical artifice. It isn't a recovery for everyone - just for enough people to give the Tories a slight lead and blunt the edge of discontent. And the fiscal straitjacket? Loosened
, a bit - for certain people.
Second, and this is by far the more obvious point, the politics of opposition under this administration have been dire. Remember 2011, when it actually looked as though popular movements, from unions to students to Occupy, might fuse into a broad front against the government? Remember the euphoria when the Tories looked genuinely vulnerable? Good, I want you to remember that, and think about how easy it is to piss it away. We know to expect nothing from Labour. Oh, it has had momentary bouts of opposition to some of the harsher and swifter of the government's austerity measures, but it has always reverted to whatever the 'common sense' among civil servants, businesses and the dominant media institutions happens to be. British social democracy in the 21st century is a dedicated partner in austerity, and only the activation of its base by forces extraneous to Labour would alter that.
The unions resistance has been pitiful not merely because of bad leadership, and not merely because they have been narrow and sectional in approach, more interested in limiting the immediate damage and preserving the bargaining mechanisms that limited their militancy in exchange for some influence than in leading a broad offensive against austerity. As important has been the politics of the union base, the grassroots. It's not just that there is no 'rank and file' to speak of, no movement 'from below' capable of driving the unions into confrontation with the government. It's not just that unions are more bureaucratised, more dependent on their leaderships than ever for initiative in such matters as industrial action and political campaigns. It is that the space for organised radical politics has declined in the union movement in proportion as it has elsewhere.
The extra-Labour left has been nowhere, in total disarray, unsure of its strategy, unable to cohere its diverse strands much less pull together the scattered elements of resistance, unable to consistently mobilise opponents in numbers, and unable to actually disrupt very much (indeed, there are some on the Left for whom disruption is entirely beside the point). In the long, long diminuendo of organised left politics in the UK, the biggest organised left was the tiny far left which, even if it weren't for - you know - everything, was totally unequal to the historical responsibility placed upon it. The five years or so of crisis and austerity have transformed a sectarian left, with each grouplet placing its organisational interests before all else, into a fractal left, characterised by splits within splits, loudly achieving nothing. You know perfectly well why. The break up of the SWP obviously creates a space in which healthy elements can converge and rebuild. The flourishing of individual activists, of critical thinking, of strategic thinking, is real. However, it also liberates - without pointing any fingers - a horde of tinpot generals, smarmy amoral 'operators', cranks, blank-eyed dogmatists who may as well be in the Church of Scientology, vicious self-pitying moralists, bullies and sycophants, and parasites that feast on the decomposing flesh of larger organisms. On the healthier end, the People's Assembly and Left Unity are doing extremely useful and important work in sustaining some generalised form of opposition to austerity - although it's taken enough time and the support for each campaign doesn't overlap as much as it should, in part because of the influence of pathologies which I've alluded to. And it will take a long time, too long, to rebuild a liveable left, much less a successful one.
Now this brings us to an important conclusion. The Tories currently have 33% of the vote. Their electoral coalition has hardly expanded, if at all. Their long-term decline is not being reversed in a sustained way, and if a third of the vote gives them a simple plurality, that is because of the sheer enervation of the opposition on the Left. For the contrast with the Right could hardly be clearer. It is UKIP which has first cohered the reactionary malcontents, and then assembled a cross-class coalition of voters and potential voters with the agenda of shifting the terms of the ideological discussion and tilting the balance of power in the parliamentary Conservative Party. Positioning itself as a populist upsurge, it is a far more convincing opposition in many ways than the Labour Party - even if it opposes what is humane and reasonable, and defends what is indefensible.
Third, think of the ideological situation. The Tories are ideologically weak, I think. The Lib Dems are ideologically pointless now. But Labour. How to put this? All very well to put out a string of populist policy announcements - end the pasty tax, free dentures for the long-term unemployed, fuel allowances for cabbies, new tramlines in Maidenhead, whatever - but this is just noise until it's part of a resonant 'vision'. And Labour just doesn't have a clue what its 'vision' is. It congratulates itself on 'the squeezed middle', 'Blue Labour', 'One Nation Labour', and so on. Because not only does the Labour leadership love the smell of its own farts - so does the media chorus. Every time Miliband pops out another vaporous soundbite, the news - always desperate for novelty, fond of power, and particularly fond of right-wing Labour leaders - makes it sound as though he has written the Grundrisse. Now these thematics must be heavily focus-grouped and polled, yet I see no evidence that they catch the remotest echo in the popular imagination. And there's a reason for that. It's that they are utter, uninspiring, incoherent bollocks. It is not just that they do not represent any systematic alternative to the policies being pursued by the coalition. It is that, as with both 'Blue Labour' and 'One Nation Labour', these themes attempt to hybridise an extremely mild reformist language with a half-hearted co-optation of reactionary traditionalism, an ideological blend that neither pleases nor motivates anyone but politicos and pundits. There is only a weak articulation between concrete policy proposals, which even when popular are pretty unambitious if not even beside the point, and the general ideological 'line'. What are we supposed to think? "Let's have compulsory apprenticeship schemes because We Are One Nation"? Or "Cap fuel bills to save the squeezed middle"? Who the fuck would go out and vote on that basis, much less - I don't know - form a picket line or mount a barricade?
Of course Labour are going to lose the next election. They are hopeless, in a hopeless situation. They are an opposition which can barely bring itself to oppose. They cannot even act intelligently, because they are structurally compelled by their investment in neoliberal accumulation strategies, to be stupid. They even fuck up the fuck ups. The Tories don't have to actively win it. They just have to play their hand in a reasonably smart way, placate their base, and wait for Her Majesty's opposition to defenestrate itself.
Anyone with a political strategy based on Labour winning the next election would do well to start rethinking urgently.
I will be taking over Housmans book shop for one evening next week, to make the case against austerity and for a viable left strategy in opposition. This is to be the first in a series of talks culminating in something pretty awesome. You should come. I will rock.
Housmans bookshop. Wednesday 21st May, 7pm.
Henequin. Quadrumvirate. Heliotrope. Cumulostratus. Glochidiate. Cuspidal. Bicameral. Claudicant. Deoxyribonuclease. Orthopraxia. Balalaika. Cireperdue. Symposiarch. Desuetude. Amara--- I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Please, I couldn't... I was helpless to...
Please be assured I did everything in my power to not use these words, as I'm sitting here begging your forgiveness for the fact my efforts obviously weren't quite good enough, thank you.
You know how it is. You're in a socialist meeting, and someone makes one of those cliched speeches reciting examples of 'struggle', importing the need for 'action' over this or that issue, and generally Forget about 'action' and 'struggle' for a second. What we really need, at this point, is less 'action' and more philosophy.
I am, of course, being a little mischievous here. What could be better designed to incite accusations of idling inside the academic bubble (puh-leeeeze)? But I am also being serious. It is hardly controversial by now that a form of leftist hyper activism can act as a type of passivity, insofar as it prevents one from having to address a real problem. This is what I mean by 'action'. Likewise, I am invoking Gramsci's use of the term "philosophy". There is, in addition to the systematic philosophy of intellectuals, or the "philosophy of praxis" embodied in the mass socialist parties (remember those? no, me neither), the "spontaneous philosophy" of everyday life, the "common sense" through which people get on with things. And what I'm complaining about is the type of 'intervention' that doesn't take ideology, or "philosophy", seriously enough.
I've banged on enough, I think, about how neoliberals have been able, through a slow transformative process, to insinuate their precepts into everyday life. The way this works is that elements of real world experience are linked to ideological thematics so persistently that the connection becomes automatic. So, for example, the claim that markets are more efficient was given ballast by the notorious inefficiency of certain nationalised industries. The idea that public sector workers are just greedy bastards who need to be subject to some form of market discipline is supported by the really lavish incomes of certain politicians and senior civil servants, and also by the growing gap between the pay and conditions of public sector workers who remained unionised and private sector workers who largely did not. The idea that 'there is no alternative' is sustained by the historical collapse of all really existing alternatives. You get the point.
Once people are already 'living inside' an ideology, once it is taken for granted, once the connections it makes are automatic, it becomes much more difficult to contest and dislodge. More so if the apparent alternatives implode, surrender or otherwise vacate the terrain. What happens then is that the elements of discontent and the antagonisms around which 'struggles' arise become disarticulated from any underlying 'philosophy'. Now these antagonisms can't be simply incorporated into the dominant neoliberal ideology, and as such stand out as disruptive elements, dysfunctions which can only be explained away by means of various 'common sense' expedients. But absent an articulating 'philosophy' to which they are linked, these individual 'struggles' will remain just that and will be too easily encircled. The same problem actually applies to those national campaigns, those "systems of alliances", that seek to contest wider political problems such as austerity or fascism. They are necessary but, by themselves, likely to be ineffectual. For example, the collapse of confidence in any systemic alternative, and the absence of a socialist 'common sense', really undermines the struggle against austerity. Because for any critique to be effective, and mobilising, it needs to answer certain obvious questions such as what the alternative strategy is - and it needs to be able to answer those questions in a way that resonates with the "spontaneous philosophies" of heterogenous class layers. Part of what we need to be doing is reconstructing the baseline socialist 'common sense' within which 'struggles' become intelligible.
This is one of the many reasons I think there is an urgent need for Left Unity, as it seems to me the most likely vehicle through which such an enterprise can be initiated. You can't expect this of every local struggle, or they'd cease to be local struggles. You can't even expect it of the People's Assembly, because the more specific it becomes in its positive demands, the narrower it is, and thus the less useful it is as a campaigning tool. The job of Left Unity should in part be, through electoral and campaigning work, to rebuild a socialist 'common sense' - obviously not the same thing as developing a formally correct programme. This is a delicate task of negotiating a workable series of 'lines' between forces that are far to the left of where most potential supporters and recruits to Left Unity would be. But if the resulting policies and positions are broadly acceptable, then they can be used to popularise socialist ideas in a way that the pathologised, injured, or beshitted groupuscules of the far left are just presently not able to do by themselves. That includes you, RS21.