Thursday, June 25, 2015

The case for flag-burning. posted by Richard Seymour

Just a quick note on the Confederate flag and this vexed problem of 'whiteness'.

Every thick white Southern person they interview on television about this stupid flag says something thick about, it's about our heritage, it's not about slavery. It's about the South defending itself, it's not about slavery. It's about states rights, it's not about slavery.

If this was just ignorance, then the ideological function of 'ignorance' would be self-evident and need no elaboration. But we have to remember that ignorance is an active, not a passive factor; people choose ignorance in order to protect the enjoyment they derive from a particular ideological position. So here's where 'whiteness' comes in.

Fundamentally, 'whiteness' is unconscious. The signifier, 'whiteness', is linked to, and holds in place, an unconscious fantasy of a well-ordered racial hierarchy without antagonism, in which the only stirrers are outside agitators, and in which the only agents are white, and in which the only issue is white freedom.  This fantasy stages a desire for the impossible: total, limitless enjoyment of black lives, total domination over black lives, total mastery of black lives, and total being in whiteness without boundaries.  Obviously, such fantasies can't be expressed or even admitted, any more than the desire which they stage. They're totally unacceptable to the contemporary political superego. But it is a little kernel of enjoyment at the core of contemporary white-supremacist discourse, and my impression is that this fantasy manifests itself all the time in the totally obvious slips and lapses of white Americans.*

So when someone perversely literalises these fantasies by engaging in white-supremacist terror, sincerely trying to put black Americans 'back in their place', it has an interesting series of effects. In the public discourse, there's suddenly an anxiety about whiteness, which the right-wing media try to deflect - like the moronic journalist who questioned whether Roof was even white. But under the surface, people are doing something else: they're buying Confederate flags in record numbers.

The rationalisations for this, we know: it's not about slavery, it's not about slavery, it's not about slavery. "I'm just buying this because the liberal media is about to go on the attack against Southern people, and I want to show that we're a proud, big-hearted people" etc etc. But there's no getting away from the fact that buying this flag constitutes at a basic level an unconscious symbolic identification with the killer, who was seen brandishing it. It's the unary trait through which they establish their equivalence to him.

It's an extremely good idea to burn that flag. You're fucking with the enjoyment of white-supremacy. There can be moments at which desecrating a symbol just reinforces the enjoyment in it, but this is not one of them. Burn the flag.

*I am not letting the white British off the hook here, but our miserable, grotty, grotesque little fantasies are structured differently, around making up for the loss of total omnipotence by creating a small fortified island of whiteness. It's different.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tragicomic posted by Richard Seymour

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the day the Beautiful Soul entered Russell Brand.  It began to slowly cannibalise his innards, metabolising them into an oddly potent type of spiritual ordure.

At first, he seemed to welcome it, and the ecstasy of its sweet ministry.  How could he resist?  The oneness of all living things, upon which it staked its colonising zeal, appeared to be the most perfectly sublimated narcissism.  The sheer monstrosity of the thing was not yet plain to view.  Not until it had metabolised almost every bit of him.  Even his previously versatile voice, which slipped effortlessly between Kenneth Williams camp and Joe Pasquale red coat cheer, was gradually usurped by a wheedling undertone.

By the end, he was just a shape of skin; its form preserved, like that of a rubber glove, by that which occupied it.  The parasite within gazed out of blank, dark eyes, looking for more bodies to consume.

One day, his cavernous lantern mouth cranked open, and it spoke through him.  "Wotcher kids," it offered in a hollow mockery of the host's estuary accent, "the cops are avin a reeeaally hard time, right?  It seems like all they see is hate and conflict, yeah?  And ah fink, right, what we as a community need to do right is give em a right big ol hug, yeah? What we desperately need is more love in this greed-driven, fear-addled society, so please..."

And as it spoke, mesmerised bodies huddled before their screens and began to hashtag frantically to social media contacts, ‪#‎lovethepigs‬ and ‪#‎giveanofficerarimjobtoday‬. And as they did, it passed into each of them, guzzling and regurgitating them all into a perpetually enlarging, pulsing sac of sanctimonious hippy shit.

The final, terrifying denouement: it shed the carcass, a flimsy paper thin greased exterior by this point, and emerged triumphant and terrible, singing its holy glory across the land in a Latin skewed by unintelligible diphthongs.

That was when I knew it had Charlotte Church in its sights.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

We all had a lovely time. posted by Richard Seymour

What a success; what a win.  70,000.  100,000.  250,000, say Counterfire’s curates of the power of positive thinking.  There is no point in haggling; it was a huge demonstration by anyone’s standards, and it has helped shape the national conversation.

Let no one say that the atmosphere was other than joyous.  Comrades couldn’t keep the grins off their faces.  This is the sort of thing that makes the troops happy.  All the sects and groupuscules were out, distributing printed material as they always do on a Saturday afternoon - but this time, there were tens of thousands of activists, confident and hopeful, to take it.

The familiar yet inspiring kaleidoscope of the Left was out in full technicolour.  From brass bands parping out The Red Flag to the notorious neon ‘Fuck the Fucking Fuckers’ placard, from union banners to pointlessly large balloons.  The relief was palpable.

It was, indeed, a joyous occasion.  The people thronged into streets barely big enough to contain them, and chanted and sang in notes of cheerful defiance.  Those who claim that such events are ‘boring’ are wrong in point of fact, and give the impression of political thrill-seeking.  We all had a lovely time.  And this was precisely the problem.

A minimum condition for sentience on the left is an awareness that this protest is itself evidence of at least five years of catastrophic failure.  There is something powerfully and stunningly incongruous in the subjectivity of a left marching as if in recreation, when we know we are also mourning for the casualties and the dead.  It suggests that we don’t really mean business.  It suggests that, rather than wanting to shake the walls and pillars to the earth, we want to grab some ice cream and go home.

What is a demonstration of 70,000, 100,000 or - give delusion its due - 250,000 people actually for?  What is it that we wish to demonstrate?  Are we out to demonstrate worthiness and plausibility for the spectacle?  Or are we out to demonstrate a threat?  

Are we out to indulge the left’s peculiar and subcultural forms of entertainment?  Sing our anthems, spot our left celebrities, and enjoy the festival atmosphere?  To ‘send a message’ that ‘austerity isn’t necessary’, as one speaker said?  Or are we out to say, as every serious and successful movement before us has said, that with these numbers we mean to turn the country upside down?

Because so much of this - the pleasant amble, the burned placards, the anarcho antics, the singing, the half-hearted fists, the pseudo-rock concert denouement - is gimmickry.  This is the left buying the world a Coke.  It is, at worst, a feel-good simulation of struggle.  Unless it goes somewhere new.

There has been much sneering about A to B demonstrations, but when did we ever get to B?  To go from A to B implies a step forward, and we show no sign of even knowing what step B would look like.

The point is not to criticise the march for happening, for even positioning ourselves at point A, against austerity, but to say that we have been here before, and we need to reflect critically on how we got back to the same spot as we enter the sixth year of Tory rule.  We have sent enough messages.  We have pleaded and proved our case for long enough.  We have patiently waited.  We have watched, demoralised, as the institutions of labourism tumbled headlong into their historical abyss.  And we waited for Ed Miliband, of all people, to deliver us from the Tory nightmare; by, of all means, triangulating Nigel Farage.

Now, finally, we have endured enough.  But it is no good to go from somnolent passivity back to the same pointless, upbeat-but-vacuous activism that led to the original demoralisation - unless we want to be defeated.  It is no good waking up, only to become like a canary flapping in a cage, showing much motion but little progress.  The counter-productive burn-out of soi-disant 'Leninist’ party-building is hardly improved upon by the burn-out of another cycle of marches.

This is life or death for the left.  Our mode of struggle, and our militancy, has to be adequate to the challenge.  If we have no justification for existing, no relevance to the workfared and socially cleansed, the race-baited and brutalised, the exploited and oppressed, then we may well not exist.  We need to go out solemnly, furiously, with rage in our hearts and tears in our eyes, and fists clamped shut with death-dealing hatred, knowing that this is life or death and that the stalemate of the Big Day Out means death.  We need to mean business.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Yes you can hate the rich. posted by Richard Seymour

I am tempted to offer Jeremy Corbyn the same advice I offered the Greens: you need to hate more.

You're not called upon to be a nice guy, to be reasonable, to play the boring parliamentary game of civilised politics.  You are called upon to preach.  Yours is an evangelical mission, to change the political and ideological culture in this stupid, backward, cretinous country.  We need fire.  We need serious, fire and brimstone exhortation. 

When they, the ubiquitous they, the ten-a-penny bourgeois journalists and hacks, say to you, "so you want to raise taxes to the levels of the bad old days?", tell them you want to hammer the rich until they piss blood.  Tell them the bankers who have wrecked millions of peoples lives need to be taxed into the ground, the full six feet under.  Tell them, and tell the people, that under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership the rich would be squeezed like a sponge to water the gardens of the poor.

Yes you can, Jeremy. Yes. You. Can.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

The casualties of Fortress Europe. posted by Richard Seymour

Given today's damning Amnesty report on the 'neglect' by 'world leaders' of refugees, I just want to put something in perspective.  

In the case of the EU, it is not so much a 'conspiracy of neglect', as Amnesty calls it, as a range of policies - 'illegal pushback', detention camps, Operation Triton - which are supposedly intended to fortify the frontiers of Fortress Europe.  The drastic increase in deaths at sea in the Mediterranean can be traced largely to the tightening of such policies.  And remember the EU's response to the deaths at sea: they wanted to bomb somewhere.  

Yet, given that the effects of this relative to the scale of immigration to Europe are actually negligible - since most migrants arrive by air, with a visa, to work - these restrictions can't be interpreted as being, in any direct sense, about 'controlling numbers'.  In Farageite terms, I would suggest that this is about 'quality not quantity'.  

That is, EU states are engaged in a loosely coordinated range of policies designed to brutalise migrants, not to significantly reduce the flow of migration, but to maintain and entrench the existing pattern whereby European employers are serviced with the labour they require but Europe is not burdened by the wretched of the earth.

More detail in the embedded video.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

As long as you think you're white, there's no hope for you. posted by Richard Seymour

There is no point in me joining in the endless attacks on Rachel Dolezal.  I'm tempted to say that I have no moral basis for criticising her when, like millions of people worldwide, I have been fronting as a white man all these years.  The accent, the hairstyle, the appalling diet, the sumptuary choices, the music, the terrible, terrible clothing.  I've bought into every racial stereotype of back-woods Northern Irish redneck scum you could possibly invent.  You wouldn't believe the lengths that some people will go to in order to uphold some specious 'identity'.

And actually, what's striking about Dolezal is precisely how powerfully invested she is in the logic of race.  The 'hot takes', the Buzzfeed disses, and so on all take due note of her stories about her genealogy, and the lengths to which she went to get the hair right - even presenting lectures on the history of African American hair.  She is alleged to have excluded a Hispanic student from class activities on the grounds that he appeared 'too white'.  And reportedly, she even invented racist attacks on her person in order to sustain the decoy.  Even allowing for some embellished and sensationalist reporting, and allowing that many complexities are being omitted, it seems fair enough to say that her whole strategy for being 'black' depended upon investing in, and to a degree reinforcing and policing, the colour line.  But there are two very peculiar reactions to this story.

The first is that of critics who are perhaps even more invested in race than Dolezal herself.  She is white.  She is whitewhitewhite.  Her parents, look, they're white.  She is, what, Czech, German, Swedish, and that all adds up to white with a capital white.  With all this expertise on pedigree, it's like listening to a dog breeder describe his mutt.  Without trying to decide whether Rachel Dolezal is white or black - trust me, you don't want me to be the authority on this, because I am a massive stirrer (she's both, she's neither, it's undecidable, Schroedinger's cat race theory, ahahahaha) - the introduction of a genealogical logic, the logic of racial pedigree, displays incredible fidelity to what we had hoped were antiquated and discredited notions of race.  Anyway, how do we know this logic wouldn't fail according to the 'one drop of blood' creed?  White people get DNA checks which reveal black ancestry all the time (and Christ, they never shut up about it).  Maybe she even has some Cherokee Indian heritage, like no white American ever: wouldn't that be something?  (Answer: no, it wouldn't.  It doesn't matter.  We shouldn't be investing in these specious notions of heritage.)  

Likewise, the deference to visible cues as self-evident markers of race - look, she had pale, freckled skin, and light, straight hair, how much more white do you want? - cannot help but corroborate the logic according to which someone with slightly darker skin and curlier hair would be automatically turned down for a loan, followed around an upmarket shop, or harassed by the police.

The second is that of defenders, who have discovered that 'race is a social construct'.  Well, thank god for that.  And it is true, race is a social construct.  And they add, identities are fictive, there's an element of fantasy in all of them, they're fluid and open-ended.  And that too is correct.  And they go on, why try to police the boundaries of an ossified logic of race?  This is almost irresistible.  And yet, even if it wasn't the case that Dolezal herself bought heavily into the petrified logic of race, and preached it and practiced it every day as seems to be the case, there seems to be something that is not being thought through here.

What do people mean when they say 'race is a social construction'?  What sort of materials is it constructed from, and how robust is the construction?  I think race is oppression, and nothing else.  It has no essential biological or cultural truth outside of the social relationship which constitutes it.  It is power, all the way down.  From the stratification of slave labour following the Bacon Rebellion to the 'whitening' of the Irish, the whole point of race is that it situates you in a particular social location.  And it is the product of collective action - hence the 'social' part of 'social construction'.  As to undoing race, there is the example of Dessalines conferring the status of 'Black' on Polish Legionnaires who had defected to the side of the Haitian revolution.  In the Haitian context, 'Black' was no longer raced - to be 'Black' was just to be a citizen.  Of course, those soldiers had a choice in the matter: they could have returned to Europe, where they would be 'white'.  In the global context, 'Black' still functioned as a racial designation; and given Haiti's situation and the attacks it would weather, identifying as 'Black' meant joining the racially oppressed in an insurgency against race.

So the interesting question is, why is race so resilient despite being so malleable, and despite having no fundamental reality outside of power?  Why are examples of 'undoing' so rare?  Why does it take such giant collective efforts to even change the racial status of a particular group?  It would seem to warn against the tendency to collapse race into identity.  It is primarily, like class, a social relationship.  Identifications will form around that relationship, and signifiers like 'black' or 'bourgeois' can accrue all sorts of differently accented cultural meanings.  But, just as a factory owner does not necessarily become working class by dropping aitches, wearing scruffy clothes, reading the Sunday Sport and calling himself a proper working class diamond geezer, so it would seem that - unless we do want to collapse race into identity - one does not become black by styling one's hair in a particular way, acquiring a new accent and family history, and declaring oneself black.

This is not to deny that 'passing' can have certain retroactive effects.  For example, Dolezal supposedly fabricated racist attacks that happened to her.  Paradoxically, however, by ensuring that she was widely accepted and acknowledged as 'black', she probably did undergo a degree of racialisation, and probably did suffer actual racist aggression as a result.  But the axis on which this question is decided appears to be, not a particular agent's political identifications, but the socially accepted protocols of race.  Since she has been 'exposed' as white, any racialisation achieved through decoy may now be reversed, because the protocols of race, backed up with all the big arsenals of power, say that if you were born white, you stay white; and, likewise, if you were born black, you stay in your place.  

I don't think we should have any loyalty to this state of affairs.  We should, if anything, be in staunch opposition to it.  We shouldn't invest in the categories of white and black as anything more than hierarchical social locations, and as ones which we intend to abolish.  But it is a state of affairs that is not superseded by an individual's will or say-so.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

You love it. posted by Richard Seymour

You know that if you visit a shrink and say, "I want to get better", the analyst ought to be very sceptical right away that this is actually your demand.  Most likely, they will interpret your demand as something like: "please get my symptom working again, so that I can go back to doing exactly what I did before, regardless of how dysfunctional".

And that is what we have paid the banks for.  We gave them everything, so that they would get the symptoms of financial capitalism working again.  Even with all its precarities.  We paid them billions.  Trillions.  We gave them unprecedented access to political power.  We didn’t nationalise the banks as we like to think  - we semi-privatised the Treasury!  We turned the worst crisis of capitalism in generations into an opportunity to raid the welfare state.  And for what?  To keep making us more precarious, to keep the housing market spiralling out of control, to drive up unemployment, to push as much of the money as possible into the hands of billionaires.

I know.  I know.  I know perfectly well what you're thinking.  You're thinking, if you have any sense, "who is this 'we', honky?"  Of course, of course, of course, 'we' didn't do anything.  It was the government and their ruling class allies.  'We' just sat on our plump arses and fearfully waited for an 'honest broker', for that nice Nick Clegg, to cut us a deal that wouldn't leave us all dead.  Fucking idiots that 'we' are.  Yes, I know.  It's more complicated than that.  But let's look at it from another angle.

'Free schools' are unambiguously, categorically, without reservation, hesitation or deviation, a disaster and a clusterfuck from the first zero hours contract to the last gleam on Toby Young's forehead.  The main contribution of 'free schools' is not just capitalist spivs circling the children like fucking vultures, not just greater inequality of access, but lower overall achievement.  'Standards', the cri de coeur of neoliberal attack dogs and reactionaries alike, took a worse dive than [insert name of some fucking sporting celebrity].  And still the 'free schools' persist, and will go on forever, yeah, until the Lord returns and finds out he's been double-parked all these years.

We've had this before, with the Private Finance Initiative.  On every index, PFI went badly wrong.  Every PFI hospital was had at massively inflated cost, contributing to a terrible fiscal crisis in the NHS.  Beds were lost.  Staff were lost.  Outsourced cleaning gave us MRSA.  Nothing worked.  There was overwhelming public opposition.  The government kept going.  More PFI.  And now we have 'free schools'.  And just like the Private Finance Initiative, this policy disaster is a bipartisan gift to the nation.  Yes, they're all the same.  If you want to live in a multiparty democracy, go back to Russia - circa 1917.

And of course, there is a peculiar state-capitalist nexus which drives these projects on, in the service of a combination of ideological, political and class interests.  But still, there is something else at stake, and we shouldn't overlook the satisfactions that are invested in these moronic schemes.

With free schools, the dysfunctions are all structured around social cleavage.  And that's the yield.  That's what we pay for.  That's why they persist.

To concretise this 'we', let's focus on the middle class and those 'aspiring' workers that Labour wants to talk to for some reason - you know, working class Tories who would rather sell their children to mine-sweeps than vote Labour.  The middle class is probably shrinking in this phase of capitalist development.  It is threatened in some areas with proletarianisation.  It is experiencing precarity more than ever before.  It is more dependent on financial insecurity, to keep house values rising and supply a steady stream of new income.  For this class, new hierarchies established through the schools system could be just the thing they're looking for.

The education system has always been their means to self-reproduction.  Their belief in meritocracy, while not necessarily hollow, is imbricated with this role of schools in reproducing and naturalising social hierarchy. The same goes for the well-known middle class obsession with 'standards'. Objectively, educational achievements can go through the roof. Even by the narrow standard of exams and testing, results can rise and rise and rise. That isn't what they want. They don't want achievement spread too broadly throughout the population and if it is, they'll assume that 'standards' are falling.  The ideology of 'excellence' is an ideology of elitism, of achievement for the few.

So, however costly and ineffectual and stupid free schools turn out to be, as long as they protect and perpetuate inequality, they will persist.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

All I am saying, is give death a chance posted by Richard Seymour

"Does life have anything to do with death?  Can one say that the relationship to death supports or subtends, as the string does the bow, the curve of the rise and fall of life?" - Lacan, Seminar, Book VII.

I still haven't got round to reading Vivek Chibber's critique of postcolonial theory.  A few encounters I've had with the concrete politics of some on the postcolonial left have resulted in me wishing I had read it.  Not because I expect to agree with the broad tow of it, but because even I run out of good put-downs every once in a while.  Chibber, I am led to believe, has a treasury of unkind quips in his book - the only academic troll that Political Marxism has ever produced.  Have I been misinformed?

Anyway, I am resisting reading the book, because I have read this, and it - being the theoretical core of the entire critique as far as I can tell - strikes me as totally unsustainable in its attempt to ground universalism in a needs-based rationality.  And, frankly, I am unconvinced that Chibber needs to take this step.  Class interests, I think, are properties of a social relationship, viz. the antagonistic relationship between the producer and appropriator of surplus.  These interests, assigned by class location, determined within a horizon of possible actions limited by the conjuncture, seem to me be already satisfactorily grounded in the analysis of modes of production and social formations, without the need to bring the unpleasant human being into things.

The core of the argument is this.  Postcolonial theorists, in their struggle against the parochial 'universalism' of empire, end up dismissing universalism as such.  In refusing to accept that there are certain universal needs from which shared interests can form, they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and what we're left with is an extreme form of cultural relativism which is anti-marxist.  The argument is that there are "certain basic needs", "universal basic needs", which provides the ground on which universal, cross-cultural interests can be formed.  As such, Chibber's intervention amounts to an attempted defence of a universal, emancipatory project in an academic context where, so one is told, such commitments are not common.

Phrases such as "basic needs", "human needs", "basic human needs", "universal needs and interests", punctuate the text in an almost importunate way.  Appropriately enough, they are accompanied by a dozen repetitions of the phrase "human nature".  Given the centrality of such concepts in the text, the relative absence of positive substantiation, the extreme tentativeness of formulations intended to put flesh on the stick figure representation, can be treated as symptomatic.  We are told that they include "regard to ... physical well-being", "concern for well-being", "food, shelter, safety, etc".  How much work is being done by that 'etcetera' will be seen momentarily.  In addition to "basic needs" are "other components to human nature" such as "the need for autonomy or freedom from coercion, for creative expression, for respect".  These more exalted needs can be said aside for now, however, as Chibber effectively parenthesises them in favour of an argument about "basic human needs".

Since Chibber's depiction is so scratchy, it is necessary to elongate the lines and fill in the elements of his thumbnail, and ask: what is the etcetera of universal human need?  The question is not how to complete the series (one could add hydration, orgasm, sleep... I cite these in no particular order), so much as, what is the principle organising the sequence?  It is not that each term represents a discrete need linked to a specific biological capacity - something as specific as nutrition does not have the same relationship to organicity as something as nebulous as 'safety'.  The organising principle, though, is survival.  All of these "basic needs" come down to the survival of the organism.  And it is true: if you don't eat or drink, you will die.  A great deal of political power rests on this very simple fact.  The most important point, however, is that you will die anyway.  The question is when, how, and by what infirmities or injuries.  So the question is, how long do you really want to hang around for?  And for what?  Who says that survival is the priority anyway?  The mean, recursive ritual of getting food in order to get more food tomorrow?  This is our telos: the glory of living for fish fingers and Ribena?  Give death a chance.

This is not an abstract question.  It is one that people grapple with every day.  They choose enjoyment over survival, regularly.  They choose meaning over survival.  They will take drugs (proscribed or not) and slowly kill themselves, or go to war and do it a bit faster.  Often we agree to political decisions that we know will result in more death, but which we assume will add to our enjoyment, like extensive road-building, or war.  The calculus of political power is often one of how many probable deaths here, how many there, for an extra 0.0001% of growth - these decisions are taken 'behind closed curtains', out of public sight, but we know there is an exchange of death and enjoyment, and sometimes it might be our lives at risk.  Who wants to live forever anyway?

If 'safety' is a "universal basic need", then one would almost think, based on widespread behaviour, that so is danger and the proximity to death.  This is what led Freud to offer the 'death drive' as an explanation.  Lacan suggested as an alternative that all drives are death drives; that there is something inherently excessive, relative to the almost utilitarian 'pleasure principle', in enjoyment.  We find satisfaction in things that torment us, stress us, cause pain: from the petty pleasures of 'hot' food which activates pain receptors to the far more august lulz of being bummed with a traffic cone while cracked out of your head, the drive will be satisfied no matter how stupidly, and no matter how much it hurts.  This is to say nothing of contradiction at the level of desire and affect - a normal situation acknowledged by psychoanalysis, albeit rather weakly as 'ambivalence'.

The problem here is that Chibber wants to balance the entire future of historical materialism on the thin reed of a minimum 'human nature' as conceived by Norman Geras.  This 'human nature' is just a pet name for what is supposed to be biologically given, antecedent to and determinant of language and history.  As Chibber makes clear in his essay, for example, that the development of modes of production depends upon and driven by the regard that agents have for their own physical well-being.  Thus is the old historicism, with the human being, the species-essence, the soul, as the subject of history and its expressive cause, reiterated.

The foil for Chibber's argument is a caricature, an opponent for whom the body, in its biological capacities, has no role whatsoever in the determination of needs.  The opponent for whom needs are exclusively discursive.  Symptomatic in this respect is a rather flagrant misrepresentation of Arturo Escobar's constructivist argument, who is described as cleaving to the view that agents are "entirely produced" and "entirely constituted" by discourse and culture.  In fact, Escobar's piece strikes a fairly typical mediating position between two bad positions, cultural determinism and biological determinism.  It allows there is a body which is not entirely the product of culture, but it also suggests that the very dichotomies of nature and culture, body and discourse, are discursively produced, and that a great deal more of what we classify as nature is discursively constructed than is generally recognised.  In a way, this is just a statement of the obvious.  Every bodily experience, from the taste of wine to the orgasm, is in some way affected by language, by classificatory schemata, by the symbolic order.  The body is always-already, even before birth, over-written by signifiers - of sex, nationality, class, etc.

This does not mean biological processes disappear.  To speak of linguistic creatures capable of being involved in a symbolic order, is to speak of bodies capable of being affected by language; of metabolic and libidinal processes which are susceptible to the intervention of the signifier. A chance conjunction of signifiers, some sort of sing-song nonsense, lalangue, finds its way into the unconscious, and as a result you find yourself with a powerful nose fetish. With your libido thus cathected, you now have a definite need for a cute, shiny button nose in order to splooge. An equally absurd deposit in the unconscious leaves you with a terror of rats, or a cramped hand, or a burning desire to be a criminal.  This is nothing less than biological, and yet it's hardly innocent of language.  The body turns out to be the site where biological processes and symbolisations are always-already mutually articulated.  It cannot be a case of a "biologically given" need which is then modified within given cultural and linguistic frameworks; rather, the symbolisation is one of the conditions of possibility for a need to be formulated.  As such, needs are always relative to a given state of historical development and a given relation of class forces.  The lonely hour of the biologically given never arrives.

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Labour is not finished as a party. It is finished as a party of labour. posted by Richard Seymour

Harriet Harman is a pitiable figure.  Seen, rather risibly, as a figure of the 'left' by the press, she usually positions herself to the right of whatever the middle ground of the Liberal Democrats is saying.  For her entire period in office, she was a hostage to New Labour with a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome.  

The subjective bad faith inherent in such a position can perhaps best be illustrated by Harman's willingness to take responsibility, as Secretary for Social Security and Minister for Women, for the in-coming Blair government's cuts to single mother benefits.  There was no justification for this cut.  Even in narrow fiscal terms, the money it saved was trivial.  It was a pure sop to the welfare-bashing, misogynist right-wing.  Harman knew this, just as her bosses did.  But single mothers - being then generally reviled as sluts, leeches and layabouts without even the energy necessary to hold onto a man - were made into a ritual sacrifice to prove New Labour's fidelity to the post-Thatcherite orthodoxy.  A tragic necessity in the struggle to triangulate a failing Conservative Party, control the middle ground, fondle the Murdoch press and defang the middle market tabloids.

And so it goes on.  Today, in her position as acting leader, she swings hard behind the Blairites, arguing that Labour lost not due to its having accepted Tory premisses on austerity and the Union, and Ukip premisses on immigration, but because of its opposition to zero hour contracts and because it was seen as a party of welfare-sucking parasites.  The same bad faith presents itself in Harman's discourse: we have to face up to the harsh reality, it's very nice being principled but we need to move out of our comfort zone, no good being right if we have the wrong message, we need a leader who will reconnect with people rather than telling members what they want to hear.  And so on and so on.

The implication is that Labour would like to be better but, well, needs must when the devil drives...  And that, of course, is a classic way of abdicating responsibility.  As if Labour, with its ingrained conservatism, its managerial middle class leadership, its institutional linkages to the continuist state bureaucracies, its alliances with business and the right-wing press, its authoritarian moralism, its contempt for the left, is in anything other than its comfort zone when it is - as Caroline Flint recently put it - 'kicking the spongers' and toadying to the 'wealth creators' whom Andy Burnham extols as 'heroes'.  

This is a strategic choice made long ago; or rather, the culmination of many strategic choices made long ago.  They're good with it.  They like things like this.  And they know what their choice means.  It means that Labour survives only to the extent that Labourism dies.

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Sunday, June 07, 2015

After the first sentence, I was hooked. By the end, you'll smell like a butcher's hangover breath. posted by Richard Seymour

Inspiring and mesmerising.  These are two words that have never been used about this blog.  Why?  Shut up, that's why.  Furthermore, cram it.

Look, I need your help.  This may well be the last annual Lenin's Tomb appeal.  I have two months to finish my PhD.  If I want to get it done, I simply cannot take on any additional employment, paid or not.  I will work like an automaton for 18 hours a day until the great work is done.  So I need you to subsidise me.

Don't fucking look at me like that.  Lenin's Tomb is the biggest bargain on the internet.  I ask you once a year to help with the bills, and most of you just pat your pockets guiltily and circle around me  while focusing intently on your smartphone, like I've just asked you to buy a copy of the Big Issue.  Do I complain?  Not to your face I don't.  I just sub-tweet about you to all and sundry, and you have no idea of it.  We all laugh at how terrible you are.  Because I'm classy like that.

So, here's the deal.

For every fifty pound you send me, I will send you a 29-piece set of steak knives with a total financial value of five thousand dongs.  Have you ever had five thousand dongs?  You wish.  You'll be lucky to get one dong in this lifetime.  Plus a free subscription to Lenin's Tomb.

For every twenty pound, I can offer you a charming 'Alexandra Kollontai' nailbrush.  Plus a free subscription to Lenin's Tomb.

Five pound will get you a phone card used by Russell Brand.  Plus a free subscription to Lenin's Tomb.

Comrades, as you can very clearly tell, I need help.  Be utterly wonderful and lovely and fluffy and treasurable and toe-suckingly fabulous and please donate.

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Saturday, June 06, 2015

Three stupid questions about the last general election posted by Richard Seymour

i.  Did the Conservative Party win?

The Tories didn't 'win' the election - they barely even ran a campaign, except for making 'woo scary' noises about the SNP - but the Right did.  And the dynamic force in 2015 was Ukip.  This is not because Ukip parked its tanks on Labour's lawn.  Like previously successful parties of the radical right, it has achieved some limited degree of cross-class, cross-party support, but the fable about Ukip being the party of the 'white working class' cheated by globalisation is not supported by the figures.  Ukip's base is overwhelmingly right-wing, disproportionately middle class, and its support includes a significant minority of the capitalist class.

Ukip succeeded because it recognised that the political centre was and is in crisis, that the power bloc's traditional means of maintaining its control of the political process was in some crisis, and that there was a chance for realignment.  Having taken the step of breaking organisationally from the Conservatives some time ago, it was well-placed to consolidate the entire right-of-Tory vote in a single electoral bloc.  It used classically populist articulations in doing so, bashing politicians and the media, and in the final run opted to polarise the debate in order to firm up its core vote, rather than reach out to more 'moderate' voters.

In the south of England, this meant that most centre votes were redistributed from the Liberals to the Tories, and hard-right votes accumulated by Ukip.  In the north of England, it meant that Ukip took over from the Tories, the BNP, and the English Democrats, hegemonising the right-of-centre vote and effectively becoming the local Tories.  This is typical in Labour-controlled constituencies - where a party of the far right emerges with some fight, it displaces a moribund and lifeless local Conservative Party.  Ukip was entirely ruthless about this.  It certainly had to be take into account a degree of moral blackmail about 'letting in Labour', but - the right not being as tribal, sentimental or timid as the left - it pursued its course single-mindedly and built a mass base as a result.

In the weeks after the election, Ukip leaders and Labour-supporting journalists alike repeated to anyone who would listen that Ukip had helped the Conservatives by tearing chunks out of the Labour Party in the postindustrial north.  This is not what happened.  But what did Ukip did do was to spare the Conservatives the difficult and unpleasant job of having to politicise the election and polarise the debate to the right.  The Tories had but one weapon to put Labour on the defensive, and that was the leftover apparatus from 'Project Fear'.  But ultimately, Scotland isn't that scary.  Ukip had the whole arsenal of anti-multicultural, anti-European, anti-PC, racist, nationalist chauvinism to batter a weak Labour Party with.  The Tories didn't win this; Ukip won it for them.

ii.  Did Labour lose for being 'too left-wing'?

Labour did 'lose' the election.  It lost badly.  The reason the polls didn't see this coming was because the polling companies' methodology did not foresee the extent of abstention on the part of Labour supporters.  Ipsos Mori referred to this process in the market-friendly terminology of 'lazy Labour', but this is to blame voters for the pollsters' psephological failure, and for Labour's political failure.  ComRes put it more soberly.  The voter turnout model was wrong, and they hadn't factored in the extent to which "less affluent" voters exaggerated their turnout likelihood.  This is also borne out in Ipsos Mori's post-election polls: the voters grouped as DE (unskilled and unemployed workers, the poorest by and large) in the 'social grades' used as a proxy for class by polling companies, were the most likely to support Labour and the least likely to actually vote.  Notably, the voters who abandoned Labour on the day were disproportionately young, from the 18-24 bracket, not the ageing white males who supposedly fled to Ukip.  This was the group among whom Labour had a big lead, but it was also about half as likely to vote as those aged 65+.  So much for the mobilising pull of 'Milibrand'.

Why didn't the polls anticipate this?  My sense is that it's because they don't think historically.  The historic decline of Labourism, the decimation of the party's relationship to its base, is not something they would think about until it became visible as a statistical effect - i.e., after the fact.  The underlying dynamic was that Labour's support among working class voters had declined by about 5 million since 1997, and would continue to decline if nothing was done to reverse the trend.  Miliband overreached in promising not just to staunch the loss but to reverse it; he did not have the means or the politics to do so.  His entire strategic orientation was based on the idea of a new left-right synthesis, as a successor to New Labour.  The result was a pathetic, manishambling opposition followed by an omnishambling campaign that ended up triangulating Ukip more than the Tories.

Now to the stupid question: did Labour lose for being 'too left-wing'?  As phrased by the Daily Mail and Liz Kendall, this is indeed a stupid suggestion: but taking it seriously, it does not in fact have a straightforwardly objective answer.  It is a strategic question, the answer to which hinges on what kind of coalition you think it is important to build.  There is no evidence to suggest that the Labour supporters who didn't turn out were in any sense alienated by some moderate energy price capping policies, any more than they were scandalised by Ed Balls' loony left pledge to not cut spending as ferociously as the Tories.  In fact, from what I hear of the coming data, it will show that what social democratic policies Miliband dared to offer were actually fairly popular; and clearly, they were outflanked on this front by the SNP in Scotland.

But let's try to put the most charitable and intelligent possible gloss on the 'too left-wing' position.  Perhaps Labour could in principle be a lot more left-wing and win elections, even with a first-past-the-post system that places a disproportionate emphasis on middle class swing voters.  But it's not clear that this would be sustainable, because it's not clear that Labour would be able to deliver on an even moderately left-wing agenda.  Social democracy depends on capitalist growth, and there isn't much to go round.  Even if the old corporatist remedies to induce growth were availing, there isn't a viable institutional or class basis for them at the moment.  Any promises on austerity or spending might just end up being as historically discredited as Nick Clegg's 'tuition fees' pledge.  Better promise nothing and deliver it, than shred your credibility like that.  On top of that, being even a little more left-wing would probably necessitate trying to rebuild Labour's lost working class support, as Miliband tried to do.  But you could argue that this is political Quixote-ism.  You can't arrest the tectonic shifts of history.  Globalisation, changing class structures, new communications and fragmenting political identities, all mean that the old material basis for that kind of Labourism is finished.  Any sensible, modern, professional political party will become more middle class, and adopt a more distant, client-based relationship to a trade union movement that is evolving into a business lobby like any other.  Insofar as working class people vote, it will not be as a class-corporate block, but largely as individuals who want to get on in life and have some sort of stake in the system.

Given this view, any approach other than triangulating the right to monopolise the centre ground and take over the middle class vote is a waste of time.  And if we take AB voters as being a very broad proxy for the professional and managerial middle class, we see that the biggest thing that happened with them in 2015 is that they abandoned the Liberal Democrats.  In almost every election before 2015, a quarter of these voters supported the Liberals, with the share rising to almost 30% in 2005 and 2010.  In 2015, that fell to 12%: almost all of those votes seem to have gone to the Tories.  This is only fair, since the Conservatives had broadly governed from the centre and proved that they didn't need any help from Clegg to do so.  Clegg was there to be ritually fisted for a few years, before his exhausted, wan and aged body was thrown to the lions.  Labour's share of the AB vote, meanwhile, didn't move an inch.  If that, Labour's failure to take over the middle class vote, strikes you as a world-historic tragedy, then yes, in this sense Labour lost for being 'too left-wing'.  And give this argument its due: it is far more realistic than the idea that Labour will be 'reclaimed', or that Miliband ever had a ghostly fart's chance of winning.  The answer isn't to give up on reconstituting a working class left, of course; it is to give up entirely on the idea that this can be done through the Labour Party, and take the hard-nosed, unsentimental, necessary decision to break the spine of that party and move on.

iii.  What exactly did TUSC's campaign achieve?

Stupid question.  Their campaign was in each and every constituency a triumph.  Unfortunately, the results, squeezed by a close fight between the main parties, did not reflect the brilliant response they had on the ground.  Many people said they were pleased to see a genuine working class voice in an election dominated by big business.  But understandably, they felt the need to vote for one of the big business parties.  TUSC stood a record number of candidates, mounting the biggest challenge to the Labour Party since 1066, and achieved a firm basis for going forward.  This is early days.  This is the primitive accumulation of votes. Anyway, the real struggle is in the streets.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Socialist strategy: talk in Ljubljana posted by Richard Seymour

Look.  Look at me in Mladina.  Squee.  Oh, shut up, you're just jel.

There is no small irony in me being asked to speak about something as nebulous as 'socialist strategy' to a group of beautiful and sophisticated young Slovenian leftists who actually might win governmental power in the not-too-distant future, when all of my reflections on the subject arise from perplexity and defeat and constant brushing up against the limits of strategy.

I mean, to have a strategy you have to have some weapons, some possible moves, somewhere to go. Most of the time, we on the British left are waiting for something to happen. In Slovenia, as I say, they are far more advanced, and at the point of having to concretise these thoughts, and in some senses convert it into the language of policymaking. Still, I would never pass up the chance to explain our British impasse to a foreign crowd. Perhaps when they've taken power they can send help.


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