Tuesday, November 25, 2014
'The short answer is, they offer us a spectacle. And a spectacle, as Guy Debord argued, is not just a collection of images. It is a social relationship mediated by images. Those who participate in the spectacle get to experience this social relationship in a special way by consuming the images.
'The spectacle of Band Aid — a “charity supergroup” responsible for the 1984 festival Live Aid and its hit single, “Do They Know Its Christmas,” and subsequent events including the 2005 debt campaign Live 8 — is rooted in a colonial relationship to Africa in which, as the political scientist Graham Harrison has shown, “Britishness” is traditionally constructed through campaigns to “save” the continent from blights and disasters. The “feel good” factor derives from the spectacle-positioning of Britain as “doing good” in the world.' - Niamh Hayes and Richard Seymour, 'Philanthropic Poverty', Jacobin, 25/11/14
Getting away with murder posted by Richard Seymour
Sunday, November 23, 2014
The colophon of castration posted by Richard Seymour
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Let's talk about the 'white working class'. For more than a decade, a twin discourse about class has been building up.
'Two souls' of the working class
On the one hand, there is this melancholic representation of a forgotten, disenfranchised 'white working class'. There were documentaries, articles, tea towel memoirs, focus groups, policy documents. This 'white working class' was never discussed in terms of what made it (part of) a class, but always in terms of its supposed cultural tics. I still remember, with cringing embarrassment, the spectacle of Matthew Taylor - then the head of the IPPR - patronising some skinheaded East End codger about pie n mash, and jellied eels, in the context of a documentary about multiculturalism. This is the working class we have supposedly lost, gone with the empire, and all those manufacturing jobs: an industrious, clean, virtuous, jolly, culturally vibrant working class. It is important to stress just how much this is a mythical mobilisation of affect. Historically, in certain contexts, it has been possible to speak of a 'white working class' in a meaningful sense, as something that was historically and politically produced through practices like segregation. There is no equivalent experience in the UK today.
On the other hand, there is the vicious, punitive demonisation of a section of the working class whom both the Thatcherites and Third Way politicos referred to as 'the underclass' or, in politically correct New Labour terminology, the 'socially excluded'. Later, the idea was popularised through the meme of chavs. These were people identified by their failure to integrate into societal norms, their 'dependency culture', their crass consumption patterns, their mobbishness, their unfamiliar speech patterns, and their moral degeneracy. They represented the decay of 'British values'. This was linked to racial anxiety in obvious ways, which became explicit during and after the England riots: "the whites have become black". Even today's rioters aren't like rioters in the good old days.
This discourse began to develop only a few years after Tony Blair had declared the class war over. It very visibly wasn't over. However, this was because the symptoms of class were visible rather than because there was a well-organised labour movement putting class on the agenda. And the symptoms of class life under neoliberalism did not have to be explained in a leftist idiom.
Three changes in class life
The entrenchment of neoliberalism in everyday life, with the destruction of collective organisation and the removal of social protections and provision, ensured that more and more of ordinary experience was characterised by vicious competition. The more that competition was accepted and valorised, the more hierarchy was worshipped, and those lower down the chain treated simultaneously as potential competitors, losers who should be spat upon, and dangerous elements who needed to be controlled. Thus, the resentments deriving from class injuries could be effectively canalised into competition and aggression toward others of the same class.
Also important was the growing stratification of the working class based on working patterns, education and lifestyle. It had never been the case that factory workers made up the majority of the working class. However, their experiences were sufficiently like those of other workers, that they were able to 'stand in' for the class, figuratively. Their degree of organisation commanded respect, as did the cultural salience they had achieved in post-war Britain. There is no such easy metonym for the working class today. It is far easier to speak of the class in terms of cultural cliches: the estuary accent, poor education, social conservatism and traditionalism. Skinheads, white vans, England flags, and sports tops, became synecdoches for class. And two small businessmen, Tommy Robinson and now Daniel Ware, were able to 'stand in' for the 'white working class'.
Finally, just as important was the transformation of social democracy and its adaptation to Thatcherism. If capitalism creates its own gravediggers, you could argue, so does the working class. When New Labour took office, it was not sufficient for them to administer neoliberal capitalism and police its breakdowns. They had to discipline their own working class base, and react to breakdowns as challenges to their project of transforming Labour into New Labour. These sporadic strikes, protests, civil disobedience and occasional political defections were manifestations of backward-looking tendencies within the working class which had held back Labour's necessary modernisation. This resort to non-market solutions was linked to the cultural pathologies producing 'social exclusion' and trapping people in poverty. Hence, the variety of authoritarian panaceas, from the demand that British Asians 'integrate', to Asbos, to Blair's proposal to monitor potential problem children from before birth - all intended to adjust working class people to life in neoliberal Britain.
Racecraft and neoliberal dysfunction
Race, as became evident after the northern riots and the Cantle report into them, is a convenient ready-made strategy for policing the dysfunctions arising from neoliberal politics. These riots - like almost all riots - were not about one simple issue. Hundreds of young people became spontaneously embroiled in open combat with the police, as well as gangs of fascist bovver boys, over a range of issues. The immediate issue was fascist provocation and police brutality. The longer-range issues were local government under-funding, de facto segregation in local housing and service provision, and the tendency for racist local police forces to criminalise Asian youths.
The almost instinctive, learned response of the British media, the government and the Labour leadership both in Westminster and in local councils, was to boil all this down to 'race riots'. Long before an official report was produced, local politicians and police chiefs, as well as Labour MPs, were describing a failure of multiculturalism. It was a lack of integration, the failure of locals to internalise British values, self-segregation, and so on, which had made local whites resentful, kept the communities divided and fostered distrust of the police.
Such claims only made sense as a malevolent twist a particularly toothless kind of liberal multicultural discourse according to which racism is not about hierarchies and oppression, but rather about different groups needing to tolerate one another, get along, respect one another's right to narrate, and so on. The malevolent twist took the form of an insidious white nationalism in which British Asians were assumed to be essentially outsiders rather than citizens, and troublemaking outsiders at that. Thus, the problem was that British Asians had failed to tolerate whites, to respect their diversity, and to acknowledge their right to narrate. This was when New Labour and its allied intelligentsia adopted in fully the neo-Powellite idiom that was to become its disgrace note on questions of race, nationality and immigration. The 'war on terror' merely accelerated the trend, and ushered in the spectacle of the melancholic 'white working class', marginalised and forgotten, undermined by a new multicultural 'underclass' filled with 'feral youths' and brooding would-be terrorists.
The fertile terrain of reaction
At the early stages, this class discourse was simply one element in a complex set of racial representations that centred on culture, and particularly on Islam as the folk devil menacing British values. It helped create fertile territory for the far right. The BNP was the first beneficiary, increasing its votes between 2000 and 2009 by over 1000%. Often its successes derived from effectively manipulating the language already popularised by New Labour. For example, when the government made it a priority to 'crack down' on asylum seekers, with a range of measures from voucher schemes to detention camps, the BNP leader Nick Griffin expressed his gratitude: "The asylum seeker issue has been great for us. It legitimates us." And: "If Blunkett deports one asylum seeker, we can deport all of them". Likewise, it was Gordon Brown who legitimised the "British jobs for British workers" slogan by uttering it as Prime Minister to a Labour conference.
However, it seems likely that it was the credit crunch and ensuing recession that decisively shifted the focus of racist politics. Islam was replaced by immigration as the most salient enemy. Were it not for the economy still being rather parlous, polls suggest that immigration would have been the number one issue in the 2010 election. This was when the discourse of the 'white working class' began to assume the prominence that it has today. And just as the BNP began to collapse - the new post-crunch climate imposing challenges that the schismatic organisation failed to handle with aplomb - the EDL had arrived with its strategy of street violence. Partly, this very spectacle was linked to a media strategy in which Tommy Robinson, evidently hamming up his educational handicap, moved in on the cultural space marked 'abandoned white working class'. And when the EDL fell apart, it was not long before Britain First had half a million 'likes' on Facebook and was doing its bomber jacket and cloth cap routine.
Now UKIP is using the BNP's strategy in hollowed out Labour 'heartlands', talking up racialised local issues - to be precise, issues which local Labour elites have often assiduously racialised - and strongly suggesting that Labour has stopped caring about white working class people because it's too busy being politically correct and sucking up to immigrants and the EU. And if UKIP were to fall apart, which seems incredibly unlikely, a new organisation would spring up in its place.
This is the meaning of 'fertile ground': however organisationally fractious the far right are, however much they are projecting influence insanely above their social weight, they are able to do so because the terrain has been produced over a long period. What is more, because of the prolonged social and political crisis unleashed by the credit crunch, they have the initiative. The dominant parties are locked in their own dynamics of stalemate and decline. Any semblance of representative democracy is paralysed by the Westminster consensus on all essential matters. The unions are too busy conserving whatever remains of the union premium to take the lead on anything. And the left is shattered. So what we get instead of a broad popular mobilisation is a kind of ersatz resistance led by a dissident tributary of the Tories; instead of class struggle, this bitterly melancholic politics of whiteness and class authenticity.
The 'white van' working class
So here we are. The Labour leader is so utterly petrified of alienating this quasi-mythical figure, 'white van man', lest it turns out that he speaks for the whole 'white working class', that he fires a shadow cabinet member for even obliquely possibly offending them.
The government are so desperate to get in on this game that they have Michael Gove telling us that prejudice toward 'white van man' is as abhorrent as prejudice to an ethnic minority. And Ed Miliband, absurdly, is probably kicking himself not to have thought of that line.
This is the UKIPisation of English politics. It has been a long time in the making.
Friday, November 21, 2014
#Respectthevan posted by Richard SeymourDo you see this? This is a white van. Not a purple van. Not a green van. Not a vermilion van. Not a van with little blue and pink dots on a yellow background van. It's a white van. And you will respect this van. Do you understand? Do I make myself clear? RESPECT THE VAN.
I saw a van once and only felt ennui. But that's because it was grey. Another van, this one time, gave me a funny feeling 'down there'. That's because it was a carmine colour. Then this one time, there was like a cordovan van with French raspberry stripes, and that made me snigger like a teenager that's just been shown a word that looks like 'cock'. White vans, which are by no means the vehicle of choice of racists and predators, are not to be giggled at. They are not funny. I certainly do not have that view of these vans. RESPECT THE VAN.
There was another van that made me feel immensely sad. That's because it was a Royal Mail van, and it had just been sold off to a private competitor which had sellotaped a bit of paper with the word 'Direct2U' crudely scratched on in green biro over the venerable logo. It's a different world we live in today. Not like the one we had yesterday, which was perpendicular. But the white van is not a solemn van. It is a respectable van. RESPECT THE VAN.
The only van that I have ever thoroughly disrespected was Van Rompuy, because he is a Brussels bureaucrat who goes round feeling up fruit to see if it complies with his crazy rules. He probably hates all others vans who are not him, because he is probably like a strict dean of an American university who is uptight and repressed and growls "Cooooreeeeey" whenever something bad happens. I hate him. But you know what, Van Rompuy? Your intolerant eurocrat ways are not welcome here. RESPECT THE VAN.
A lot of ethnic minorities might not like it. The politically correct might not like it. The socially conscience stricken liberals might scream "waaah" every time one of them offends their delicate senses with its gentle hum and little toot of carbon monoxide. But this van is a British institution, like the Queen and war and declining living standards and letting child rapists do whatever they want as long as they're in the cabinet. RESPECT THE VAN.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Miliband's weakness posted by Richard Seymour
Monday, November 10, 2014
It's not even original. posted by Richard SeymourI've been watching people pussyfoot around this issue. I can barely believe what I'm reading.
If I may summarise. There is a writer and actress in the US called Lena Dunham. She recently published her memoirs. Among the things she describes in her memoirs is, as a seven year old girl, looking at her one year old sister's vagina. And then, presumably a bit older, wanking in bed next to her sister, and bribing her with sweets for kisses. I know, right? Pretty normal childhood.
Dunham jokingly refers to mimicking the techniques of a 'sexual predator', but obviously no one is going to read this and think that a little girl could be a sexual predator. Right?
No one, that is, apart from the perverts, creeps, patriarchs and lunatics of the American Right. And, somehow inevitably, a bunch of feminists too. The National Review kicked off a controversy by claiming that Dunham had confessed to paedophilia and child sexual abuse. Soon enough, there were some well-meaning progressive activists who worried that Dunham, if not actually a predator, had disclosed something 'problematic', 'inappropriate' and so on. They were 'weirded out'. It was, like, omg, creepy. Which makes me wonder if these guys have read any Samuel Delany.
Now, Dunham is a white woman. If the paradigm of 'privilege' is useful, then she certainly has racial and class privilege. And as a cultural producer, she is accused of perpetuating white supremacy in her output. Many feminists have had a problem with Dunham's particular way of representing women. In Girls - which is otherwise not a total piece of crap - black women rarely feature, and are either caricatured or hostile when they do.
So, a number of articles and tweets and statuses - dozens, scores, hundreds of them - began to make a connection between Dunham's privilege and its manifestations in her work, and this latest controversy. They argued that, as a beneficiary of racial privilege, Dunham had 'got away with' something. They were not entirely sure what she had got away with. Some openly claimed she was a sexual abuser. For others, it was more that her behaviour was 'inappropriate'. Or, that she shouldn't have published her memory of this. One way or another, talking about white privilege would make the absurd accusation of child molestation - or being inappropriate, or gross, or omg creepy, or something - coherent and progressive.
Even many of those who wanted to arrest the tidal wave of bullshit felt the need to hedge a little bit. Roxane Gay, for example, makes a substantively correct argument about the controversy, but even she confesses to finding something 'disturbing' in what Dunham wrote - even while making the absolutely correct point that what she describes is well within the normal range of stuff kids do. I think Roxane Gay is fibbing a little bit. I don't think she finds normal behaviour - or the description of normal behaviour - disturbing at all.
The Right's accusations are absurd. Children are not paedophiles, categorically, by definition. The power relationship between an older and younger sister is in no way identical to the power relationship between an adult abuser and a child victim. And, although this is not strictly germane since Dunham's childhood behaviour is not problematic, children are also not responsible for their behaviour in the same way that adults are. The accusation is just. downright. absurd.
The sexual politics behind the accusation are reactionary, authoritarian and patriarchal. They would encourage parents to pathologise manifestations of child sexual curiosity, and to treat their kids as abusers - if not heathen sinners, or possessed by Satan.
The invocation of privilege politics in this context is an unfortunate attempt to obscure the presence of patriarchal ideology in sections of the feminist movement.
Monday, November 03, 2014
Whitewashing sexism. posted by Richard SeymourThe feminist organisation Hollaback collaborated with a marketing agency recently to make a viral video. It showed a woman walking through New York streets over a period of ten hours and being repeatedly harassed and in one case actually stalked for five minutes. She does not interact with anyone, respond to anyone, even look at anyone. Nothing she does could possibly be construed except by a sexist as an invitation to holler at her. Even though the women is being secretly filmed and thus has some potential protection, at times she looks genuinely frightened. And that doesn't seem to discourage anyone. So, the behaviour ranges from rude and creepy to downright sinister - and it's real, and it has to be stopped.
Within a short while, some people started to notice the racial valences of the video. The actress was white, whereas almost all the harassment came from black or Latino men. Asked about this, the marketing agency stated that they had edited out harassment from white men because it was "said in passing, or off-camera". But it has also been argued that there was a certain amount of social editing in the making of the clip, inasmuch as most of the shots appear to be from certain areas of New York like Harlem. These editorial decisions are not neutral. The semiotics of such a highly compressed message are incredibly important.
Hollaback are a liberal feminist organisation with anti-racist politics. In an article they produced for Huffington Post earlier this year, two leaders of the organisation cited their own research to demonstrate that sexist harassment is not particular to working class or black men. They decried the dangerous myths about black male sexuality which, they suggest, go back to Birth of a Nation and the Scottsboro Boys. So they are not unaware of the issues now being raised by their critics. To the extent that they authorised the editorial decisions made by the Rob Bliss marketing agency, therefore, they made an ideologically informed choice to racialise this issue - knowing how problematic this is.
The film-makers would be aware, as all advertisers are, of the affect aroused by racial coding. They would know that blackness attracts more hostility, more hate, and more agitation in audiences - particularly white audiences with money and clout. Class coding works in a similar way, with poor, 'low class' people more likely to excite contempt, and thus interest. If the film had been edited to show purely white middle class male harassment, the libidinal economy would have been very different and it is less likely that the video would have gone viral. It also seems likely that the decision to racialise the issue added a certain resonance to Hollaback's campaign for a more forceful policing response to harassment.
It is not of interest whether Hollaback 'intended' any of these effects. Their liberalism may be so 'colour-blind' that they didn't even notice what the marketing agency had done with the video. The effects are what matter, and these are not difficult to decipher.
The problem with this approach, however, is not just that it panders to white middle class racism in order to highlight a real problem. It is that, precisely because in doing so, it works to the advantage of white sexists. Take this guy, Steve Santiagi, one of these fuck-wit 'dating experts' and guides to masculine 'empowerment'. You know the type: if you're a damaged or shy or awkward or gullible male, he will offer you the option of 'manning up' and reclaiming the jouissance which women have stolen. He argues on CNN that the video merely proved that this type of catcalling was the reserve of 'low class' men of a particular 'culture', and used this to defend the majority of decent, classy, upstanding white, middle class sexists who merely want to compliment pretty women, etc.
There is a pattern here. The colour-coding of sexism always works to the advantage of sexists. When people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher attack feminists, they usually claim that feminists focus too much on small, negligible examples of sexism in civilised Western societies and should turn their attention to the barbarians in the East. In so doing, of course, they 'whitewash' the majority of sexist harassment and violence. And I think the video does the same.