Saturday, April 30, 2016

Where the twain meet. posted by Richard Seymour

There is, I think I've been clear, a witch-hunt, predicated on a moral panic. But one of the worst things about a moral panic is that it brings out the worst in everyone.

Those wielding the accusations may be utterly dishonest or unhinged, but others caught up in the panic then become defensive and cling to simplistic certainties, or at worst (as we have seen) start to defend the indefensible. It would be better, and more strategically sensible, to use the occasion to improve our arguments. So, for example, it is true but insufficient to say that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same thing. They are not, of course - but sometimes they are.

That is, sometimes people are antisemitic in an anti-Zionist way, and sometimes people are anti-Zionist in an antisemitic way. (This BBC article is a non-awful, albeit fudging and tortuous, attempt to traverse this terrain.) Beyond that, sometimes people are anti-Zionist in a way that doesn't have to be taken in an antisemitic way, but is far too uncomfortably open to such a reading. And, of course, sometimes people are calculatedly antisemitic by allusion, by insinuation - as Harold Abrahams said of English antisemitism in Chariots of Fire, you "catch it on the edge of a remark". So there is a need to make a far more subtle series of distinctions than we usually get to work with.

To think this through is to think about how language works. Often, people who have been accused of racism will say that they have been 'misinterpreted'. "That's not what I meant," they will say, and often in good faith. And sometimes the accusation is itself tenuous at best. But if the 'good intentions' of the speaker were all that mattered, we would not have any grounds for criticising, for example, the Tory race-baiting of Sadiq Khan. After all, how can we prove that they 'mean' to be racist? How can we prove that our interpretation is not a 'misinterpretation'? Likewise, everyone who enjoys their golliwog dolls professes the most innocent of intentions. Why 'misinterpret' them?

All interpretation is underinterpretation, Freud suggested. This is because language is so richly overdetermined, so freighted with multiple meanings and associations. The analysand who says "my father always stood behind me" could be referencing any number of potentially unwelcome and 'unintended' ideas - emotional support, a stab in the back, anal sex, lagging behind, louring over, and so on.

This is just a property of language, and it goes without saying that it is not susceptible to our unilateral control. Somehow only dictators manage to enforce a complete change in the meaning of a word, and even they can only do it piecemeal. The dictator of Turkmenistan changed the word for bread to the name of his mother, for example, and made a few other signal adjustments - but this still left the majority of his spoken language intact.

The fantasy that we get to control language through our 'intentions' always proves to be just that - a fantasy. Language somehow outruns our control, and the things we say exceed what we 'meant' or thought we meant. And, because of that, a statement can be racist even if we don't mean it to be. A statement is racist, where it is, because of its contexts - social, historical, ideological. It is racist because, in those contexts, it contributes to oppression. That one didn't 'mean' it to be racist is merely a sign that one may have misjudged it, not that it isn't racist. And even though we don't get to control language, we are still responsible for how we use it and the effects it has.

The difficulty arises in the grey area - and there is always a grey area when someone starts speaking. Most words are polysemic, and it's hard to think of a sentence that couldn't be interpreted in two or three ways. And because language includes connotation as well as denotation, because it can allude to things that are not outright said, statements which are not explicitly racist can yield to racist interpretations. For example?

The term 'Zionist' has a non-controversial meaning established through long usage, to refer to someone who is politically and ideologically committed to the idea of a Jewish national state and, more concretely, to the defence of the state of Israel. Given what that concretely means - viz. the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and subsequent years of occupation and racist oppression - it is a term that usually has negative connotations. There is nothing inherently problematic about discussing 'Zionists' in the most disapprobating terms.

And yet, of course, the term also has another set of meanings established by reactionary conspiracy cultures. It can refer, in this racist discourse, to "Jews", or "Jewish oligarchs" who are supposed to enjoy considerable political power, or "Jewish bankers", or "Jewish media". And so on. This is not to say that one should never use terms like 'Zionism' or 'Zionist', it is just to indicate that it is a perilously overdetermined word, and one should use it with care. To use it in such a way that implies a cohesive political agency at the centre of political power, pulling the strings and so on, is an exaggeration that is clearly segueing into antisemitism. Or, take another example, to speak of 'Zionist media' as a way of explaining the pro-Israel bias of newspapers is to advert to the classically antisemitic stereotype of Jews running the media. Even if you don't 'mean' it that way, and stridently insist that most of the 'Zionists' are not Jewish, the connotation is there whether you like it or not.

But there's another aspect of racist language that we should think about. Often what is racist about a statement is not that it mobilises a specific trope, but the way it codes a threat or an aggression. When Arsenal fans used to chant at Spurs fans that "Hitler was a gooner", they weren't drawing on a specific trope about Jews (other than that Spurs fans are disproportionately Jewish). They just wanted to remind the Spurs fans of Adolf Hitler and what he did to people 'like them'. They just wanted to make them frightened and angry. Or, to put it another way, that is what such a chant objectively did, irrespective of the 'intentions' of the Arsenal fans - who, of course, would have claimed they were just having a lark.

This is where we could also make space for another grey area, where a statement can be perfectly valid in itself, but can also yield to an antisemitic interpretation and where it should be avoided. I don't mean to devalue this issue when I say it's partly about etiquette - I think we should take political etiquette very seriously. For example, there are many ways in which you can start off talking about Jews and end up by talking about Adolf Hitler, many of them completely innocuous. But, suppose you start by trying to rebut accusations of antisemitism, and end up talking about the Havaara agreement between the Zionist movement and the Nazi regime. What might that connote?

It's not that such a discussion is antisemitic. It is not that the Zionist movement should be awarded some special protection from this uncomfortable aspect of its record. It is not that there should be a special prohibition on talking about this. These things should be talked about,. The fact that Lenni Brenner's work on the matter is now being travestied and smeared in the national press, as if he was the only one to have written about this.  And I don't agree with those who supported Livingstone's suspension for referring to it - in truth, I'm surprised by some of those who jumped on that bandwagon. But the "a-ha!" posts on social media pointing out that Livingstone alluded to an historical fact (in a not-totally-accurate way it has to be said) miss something important here. That episode is a somewhat recondite fact. Most people know nothing about it and would find it a provocative thing to raise at the best of times. If you're going to refer to it on air in most circumstances, it will require precision, finesse, a lot of context, and the most extraordinary care. Throwing Hitler into a discussion of antisemitism like a rhetorical hand-grenade involved no precision, finesse, context or care. It is not surprising that it was taken as gratuitous, as an insult.

It is not sufficient, therefore, to raise the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism as a totem of safety in these discussions. It is vital to be sensitive to the usages of anti-Zionism which dissolve or destabilise the distinction, and to the areas where it is necessary to fight for the distinction.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Pitch forks at the ready posted by Richard Seymour

Let’s get the context established quickly. This is, as I have said, a moral panic. It is not the case that the Labour Party has gone all antisemitic because of the lefties. That is a baseless claim, being extrapolated - completely unjustifiably - from a handful of cases. Anyone trying to claim otherwise has a responsibility to justify that claim with something more than verbal prestidigitation. 

Further, in a number of these cases, the allegation of antisemitism confuses criticism of Israel and Zionist politics with racism toward Jews. For example, Tony Greenstein is not an antisemite by any stretch of the imagination. He is a Jewish pro-Palestine activist who has spent a lot of time working to keep antisemitism out of the movement. I remember conversing with him about that during the period in which the SWP was hosting the antisemitic jazz player, Gilad Atzmon. Yet he has been suspended from the Labour Party on account of his propensity to criticise Zionist politics. Malia Bouattia is not a member of the Labour Party, but she has been fiercely and ruthlessly vilified in the national media as an antisemite on the basis of her criticisms of Zionist politics. 

Even where there are cases of antisemitism, the way in which this is criticised in the media often tends to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism. For example, Naz Shah MP, who replaced George Galloway in Bradford West, was certainly being antisemitic when she said of an online poll back in 2014 (before her candidacy) that “the Jews are rallying”. “The Jews” don’t act in corporate unity, and don’t speak with one voice, and the idea that they do is simply and straightforwardly racist. But the first issue on which she was accused of antisemitism was a frankly trite Facebook meme, which she shared, satirically suggesting that Israel be re-located to the United States. Shah joked that she would tweet the idea to Obama, adding that it would save the US $3bn a year. Our pundits, with a marvellous cynicism matched only by a matchless poker-face, have claimed that this amounted to an ‘endorsement’ of ‘forced transfer’, or something like ethnic cleansing. Given who has actually been subject to ‘forced transfer’ in Israel/Palestine, it must take a lot to keep a straight face while claiming that. 

Or, to take another example, Shah was accused of antisemitic provocation for having, in the context of criticising '#ApartheidIsrael', shared a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., which said: "We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was 'legal'." The full quote goes on: "and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal.' It was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany". In other words, King's statement was a defence of civil disobedience. When the media report this without context along the lines of, "she talked about how everything Hitler did was legal," this makes it sound as though she was endorsing Hitlerian attitudes and actions toward the Jews, rather than Palestinian civil disobedience. In other words, it is a malicious slur.

So this debate, with its rapid-fire denunciations and ex-communications, is already structured in such a way as to inculpate criticism of Israel or of Zionist politics. It is already saturated with mendacity on the part of those wielding the accusations. It is in danger of creating a new situation, wherein all but the most tame of criticisms of Israel are considered unspeakable. And, of course, it is wildly hypocritical. Boris Johnson is mayor of London and a leading member of the Conservative Party after years of racism against black people and Muslims. The Tories are openly using racism against Sadiq Khan, without any visible sign of embarrassment. Repeated Islamophobic provocations from New Labour frontbenchers and backbenchers never resulted in any setbacks in terms of career or party membership. This is not a country in which racism usually bears significant political costs. One case in which it did bear a cost was when Phil Woolas’s crude Islamophobic campaign to keep his parliamentary seat in 2010 went so far that it broke election law and forced a new election - and even then, it was more because he lied about his opponent than because he slandered Muslims.

To reiterate, dishonesty, hypocrisy and malice are structured into this discussion, which is more redolent of a McCarthyite inquisition than a real debate. So, what did Ken Livingstone’s intervention do in this context? It’s obvious what has been done to him, and I will come back to that, but what did he try to do? He, in short, set out to defend Naz Shah MP, and to disentangle antisemitism from critique of Israel. Unfortunately, in attempting the former, he achieved the opposite of the latter. That is, by rationalising and explaining away Shah’s comments - including the indefensible remark about "the Jews" - he ended up saying some stupid things which backfired horribly.

In trying to contextualise Shah’s comments about 'relocating' Israel, he brought up the Haavara agreement between the Third Reich and the Zionist Federation of Germany, which enjoined the Nazis to support the ‘transfer’ of Jews to Palestine. The point being, I suppose, that Zionist politics is not historically innocent of ‘relocation’. This, he added, was before Hitler “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. Later, in trying to defend the space for legitimate criticism of Israel, he referred to the ‘Israel lobby’, a concept popularised about a decade ago by Mearsheimer and Waltz. Well, in itself, there’s nothing wrong with raising the real, historical collusion between Zionist and antisemitic politics, which continues to this day with the Christian Right. It's not quite correct to say that Hitler was "supporting Zionism," of course: the alliance was a temporary expedience for Hitler, who was more interested in achieving a frictionless ethnic cleansing. But this is crude phrasing, not antisemitism. Likewise, the stuff about Hitler 'going mad' repeats a banal cliche about the Nazi holocaust being an outburst of insanity, and is inaccurate, but it isn't antisemitism. Nor is the concept of the ‘Israel lobby’ antisemitic (it can be in some usages, no doubt). Moreover, given how often Livingstone has been falsely and maliciously accused of being antisemitic, he has a right to be suspicious of how Israel’s apologists work. And if this was all that Livingstone had said — and it is this for which he has been vilified in the media, and denounced by the meathead John Mann MP as a “Nazi apologist” — then at worst he made a clumsy attempt to say something that is true.

He then went on to suggest in passing, though - and this may have been a slip, as it appears to be a non-sequitur in the context of the transcript and isn’t followed up on (but if so, what an interesting slip) - that antisemitism and racism are not quite the same thing. Such a distinction would be at best scholastic, and it’s not clear what purpose it would be intended to serve. He never elaborated on it, so we’re none-the-wiser. Let’s say that it opens the door for some very uncharitable interpretations - some people no doubt think that Livingstone meant to reduce the severity of antisemitism, to minimise its seriousness by treating it as something separate from racism. 

Then, in the context of somehow trying to rationalise Shah’s comment about “the Jews,” he said that a true antisemite is not someone who just hates Israeli Jews, but someone who hates all Jews. Well, that’s crap. First of all, because antisemites don't have to hate 'all' Jews, and often profess to love certain Jews. Racism is not about 'hate', and the idea that it is about 'hate' is one of the stupidities of the dominant ideology. Second, because even if it were true, there would still be something to say about 'hating' all Israeli Jews - whether one calls it antisemitism or not, it doesn't seem to me that you'd want to defend that. It's not clear that Livingstone was trying to 'defend that', of course, but the point is that it sounded as though he could be doing so, or at least minimising it, and anyone who wanted to impugn him for antisemitism would leap on something like that. In toto, Livingstone’s comments look like a series of accumulating hostages to fortune.

Now, many of the accusations against Livingstone are ill-informed or tendentious. It appears that, like John Mann MP, many pundits think Livingstone was making it up as he went along when he referred to Nazi collusion with the Zionist movement. Others are content to engage in eyebrow-raising, along the lines of: “ah, so you think Hitler wasn’t mad before the judeocide? Apologist!” Which is pathetic. But Livingstone’s attempts to define antisemitism in order to separate it from anti-Zionism are also preposterous and ill-considered. They achieve the exact opposite of what he set out to do. So, his intervention today was a blunder — with predictably awful consequences. And it would still be a good thing for him to ‘clarify’ his comments.

Still, while I can sympathise to an extent with some of those on the Left who were cringing about Livingstone’s comments, and have been exasperated with his ‘loose cannon’ tendencies, it is a grave mistake for anyone to either quietly condone the suspension out of a misguided sense of realpolitik (he’s strategically unsound, better off without him, etc) or vocally support the suspension in the vain hope that throwing one more carcass into the ravening maw of the right-wing mob will placate it. The mob will not be placated. If you rebuke someone, they’ll demand suspension; if you suspend them, they’ll demand expulsion; if you expel them, they’ll wonder why it took you so long to get round to expelling antisemites and why they seem so drawn to your party in the first place.

You cannot win by obeying this logic. And the logic which has been used to condemn Livingstone — which, to stress, includes not just legitimate criticism but also pointedly ignorant and malicious mischaracterisation — will soon enough be turned on others. Corbyn, for example. If Greenstein can be suspended for criticising Zionists, if Bouattia can be vilified for the same, and if Livingstone can be monstered as a “Nazi apologist” for referencing actual historical facts, then how long before another round of demonisation of Corbyn on the basis of his supposed ‘connections’ to extremists, or his purported love for the dear old comrades in Hamas etc etc? Pusillanimity in the face of this kind of inquisition is its own kind of liability.

The more you concede, the more you are obliged to concede. And they’re going all the way if they can, right to the top. Alan Johnson, doyen of the 'antitotalitarian left' (a few dozen academics and journalists) as well as a senior research fellow at the pro-Israel lobby, BICOM, has stated the case very clearly: “Save your pitch fork for Corbyn”.

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The 'antisemitism' panic posted by Richard Seymour

It's an interesting political moment. With the Hillsborough finding, the junior doctors' strike, the ongoing reverberations from the Panama Papers, a backlash among Tory backbenchers against forced academisation and even a loss of face for the government over child refugees, the government is reeling. It is not that Corbyn looks strong, although he does have the initiative for now: Labour even has a small lead in a series of YouGov polls. It is rather that the Tories are surprisingly weak, cutting against the grain of popular 'common sense', and being forced into a series of graceless retreats. So what is the relationship between that fact, and the current ideological offensive against Labour's left-wing, under the rubric of uncovering antisemitism? And why is this offensive assuming some of the characteristics, if not the proportions, of a moral panic?

There is happily no need for me to revisit the specific allegations that have been made, since Jamie Stern-Weiner has already judiciously dealt with them in a characteristically forensic demolition job on the whole panic. There isn't much one can say about them - they are so small in number that it is impossible to extrapolate any wider conclusion. They are just a series of individual cases, nowhere near large enough to constitute a pattern. Can anyone seriously, without recourse to impressionism and hand-waving, demonstrate otherwise?

Of these allegations, one can say that some of them do genuinely constitute obnoxious anti-Jewish racism, while others fall into the category of criticism of Israel, or of Zionism. What is more, anyone remotely experienced on the Left can see the difference right away - it is not subtle. The only people who don't see the difference are antisemites, Israel's apologists, and those whose political strategy rests on not seeing a difference.

With those points in mind, there is a rather obvious gap between the scope of the allegations, hyped beyond all reason, and the scope of the claims extrapolated from them. These claims can be distilled to the argument that because of the victory of Jeremy Corbyn, and the change in the composition of the Labour Party's membership that made this possible, Labour is now institutionally antisemitic.

This, clearly, is a gross travesty, indefensible from any point of view. But it doesn't need to pass any test of intellectual probity. Like other moral panics, the power of claims made in the context of this panic derives from something other than their truth value. Like what? Well, for one thing, the fact that they resonate with a series of existing ideological representations. After all, this meme is not new. The 'new antisemitism' thesis is as old as the hills now. Right-wing newspapers have been using this sort of thing to bait the left for years now. And the attacks on Corbyn on this axis began before he was elected.

For another, there is a diverse coalition of people for whom believe in such a claim serves a purpose, or helps to encode a particular fear - that, for example, Labour has gone to the 'loony left', that the political establishment has lost control, that a black Muslim woman now leads the NUS, that Israel no longer commands near unanimous sympathy in the UK, that you can't support bombing a country any more without people calling you a warmonger, and so on. The idea, utterly absurd in itself, that Labour is now institutionally antisemitic because of the Left, is in this context an extremely useful modulation on standard red-baiting. It tells a seemingly coherent story, drawing on the tropes of 'antitotalitarianism', about how the centre disintegrated, and to what effect. And it restores the taint once associated with being a Red, by means of the association with antisemitism.

And finally, of course, the opposition to such claims is cowed and weak. Corbyn and McDonnell are understandably desperate to shut this issue down, rather than enter into a difficult and - from a public relations point of view - potentially toxic series of arguments about the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. They will undoubtedly feel a tremendous burden of responsibility - just yesterday they were marching with the junior doctors on strike, going for the Tories in a way that no previous Labour leadership would have done. How, they will reason, can they afford to blow all that momentum on a series of arguments they can't possibly win?

Understandable as that may be, this also puts the Labour Left in a particular bind. The leadership is keen to kill the issue stone dead, and doing so with as much economy of energy as possible. So what will Labour activists say and do? What will Momentum and like-minded groups say and do? They will presumably feel under pressure to "defend Jeremy" and not embarrass him by raising difficult, complex discussions that are likely to blow back in everyone's faces when some snippet of some conversation in a pub somewhere becomes a Daily Mail headline. And perhaps they will not want to polarise Labour on issues like Israel-Palestine, especially since 'everyone' seems to agree on the principle of Palestinian statehood. Maybe just let it lie for now. Maybe prioritise, focus on the things that matter. Sit tight, weather the storm, and get back to the real issues.

The problem, if they are tempted by this option, is that it doesn't actually exist. Not every ideological battle can be won on the ground of short-term media cycles. This argument itself is going to keep coming back. Why? Because it has just been demonstrated that it works. It is very effective, not least because those targeted by such tactics feel compelled to cave in almost immediately. And it won't be difficult to repeat. Why? Because if you want to find examples of antisemitism in a racist society, you only have to be patient and wait: antisemitism exists and, as a matter of sheer probability, some of it must exist among some Labour members. And if you expand the definition of antisemitism to include any and all expression of anti-Zionist politics, then you will assuredly find some examples of that. And maybe, if direct expressions of anti-Zionism are deemed antisemitic now, perhaps in the future other forms of pro-Palestine politics - BDS, for example - can be subjected to the same calumny. Soon, perhaps, they can return to Corbyn's 'connections' to Hamas, or the 'abuse' allegedly received by Louise Ellman MP supposedly at the instigation of Momentum, and so on. The more you give ground to this type of campaign, the more ground you are compelled to give.

So the de facto coalition between the Labour Right, the Conservatives, and most of the media, initially launched during the 'Project Fear' campaign against Corbyn, will certainly find other occasions to converge on this line of attack. The only question is whether this attack is consistently countered by an informed, confident rebuttal, or met with lamb-like docility.

ps: note the list of Labour right-wingers queuing up to demand Ken Livingstone's suspension for referring to an 'Israel lobby'. So let us, please, have one extended interview with one of these people where they are forced to rigorously, in detail, lay out exactly what they are claiming is antisemitic. I want them to be compelled to give specifics. I want them to be forced to defend their logic. Because otherwise it comes across as a clamorous, opportunistic attempt to silence debate. I mean, it's almost like they're a 'lobby' or something.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics posted by Richard Seymour

This is going to be awesome. You can buy it here or here.

How could an inveterate Bennite like Corbyn win the Labour leadership election, when Bennism is deader than Hulkamania? How did he get the nominations he needed from MPs, constituency branches and unions, none of whom have a recent record of radicalism? How did he more-than-double the size of the Labour Party's membership, when the party-form was supposedly undergoing a prolonged decline? How did the media get it so badly wrong, when they never get anything wrong? How did the wonks end up floating sideways in their think-tanks? Was it all because of Trot infiltrators, party-constitutional changes, Blairite meltdown, austerity, or the hoi polloi getting ideas above their station? 

And now that he holds a leadership post - permanently encircled by resentfully plotting backbenchers, foes in the cabinet, a virulent media, and a centre-seeking Tory party - what chance does Corbyn have of success? And what might success mean in this context? If it means winning elections, is his chance of success greater than sub-zero? What else might it mean? What about the heteroclite constituencies that have been unified around Corbyn's distinctly self-effacing leadership? Can they change the Labour Party, and what can they realistically expect to change it into? What else might they be doing if they weren't doing that? And who is a greater threat to the Corbyn leadership - the noisy back bench belligerati, or those who have gone eerily quiet?

This is not run-of-the-mill journalism. Of course I spent a lot of time talking to Labour activists, organisers, advisors and intellectuals, and mining the punditry, think-pieces, panicked post-mortems, jubilant post-festums, bilious biographies, and potted histories. The only stone left unturned was the 'Edstone,' which should indeed be left where it is to mark the terminus of a preposterous campaign. But I didn't want to just 'tell a story', however cheerfully vitriolic. You can get 'stories' in abundance, and most of them are trite or misleading. What we need is a deeper level of explanation, one which I propose should be rooted in the history of the Labour Party, its decline, and the crisis of British parliamentary democracy. What we need is strategic thinking about the future, which isn't obsessed with one or two cliches - be it 'swing voters' or 'social movements'.

Let's be clear: no one will be entirely comfortable with this book. It's about Corbyn and in a way, it's for Corbyn, but this is not cheerleading. It is written about Labour, but by someone with no particular loyalty to Labour. It is a serious book, not just polemic, but it seeks no plaudits from the usual arbiters of political seriousness (who, after all, haven't bedazzled with their acumen of late). Yet precisely because it contains something to discomfit everyone, everyone can get something from it. And, merely by virtue of not being written by a couple of unimaginative Tory hacks, it's way funnier than 'Corbyn: the Musical' when it chooses to be. Buy it. Not tomorrow, not when your pay comes in, not when you've finished writing a story for Literotica - now

And if you don't buy it. If you don't buy it. By Christ. I hate you, I hate your haircut, I hate your compromising parents, I hate your filthy, stinking family, I hate your socially repellent sexual partners, I hate anyone who associates with you or looks like you. And I will hunt you down and beat you mercilessly until your insides look like apple sauce. I'll leave you bloodier than a Blairite in a leadership election.

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Monday, April 18, 2016

'Erratic marxism' in its limits. posted by Richard Seymour

He may be unflappable, and reputedly of interest to a whole queueing phalanx of inflamed loins across Europe and beyond, but Varoufakis couldn't face down the masters of Europe, and he can't sell a progressive 'in' campaign on these premises. (A progressive 'out' campaign seems to be an even more difficult prospect, but that is of less pressing concern, since the vast majority of leftists who are doing anything about the referendum are campaigning for 'in'.) Watch the video for yourself, and note the logic very carefully, because it elides a number of registers of analysis without acknowledging that this is happening.

So, Varoufakis argues a number of points in connection with Brexit: i. in the event of Brexit, the UK will probably end up with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and negotiate a more rapid entry to TTIP; ii. given the rise of fascism, and the risk of the EU "disintegrating" and thus producing new nationalist reflux, the left has to learn the lessons of 1929, form a popular front "with other democrats" and stop the meltdown; iii. a retreat to the nation-state can "never benefit the left".  To his credit, Varoufakis doesn't attempt to claim that the EU is in any sense a progressive force, much less a democratic one - but then he'd look rather odd if he did. He doesn't say, as some Bremainers do, that the problem is exclusively right-wing governments rather than the EU itself. However, he doesn't seriously engage with the problems of the EU either - which he suggests can be democratised over time, beginning with such minute measures as live-streaming official meetings - and the argument still leaves a lot to be desired.
First of all, "retreat to the nation state" can mean a number of things depending on the context. To oppose, not just TTIP but the whole apparatus of neoliberal trade and regulatory agreements which usurp democratic powers, could be characterised as a "retreat to the nation state". To insist on the right of national states to impose capital controls, nationalise industries, shut down tax havens, prosecute corporate criminals, or any one or all of these things, is a "retreat to the nation state". Whether it can "benefit the left" is a question of context and strategy. And given that national states even today are still more democratically accountable than any of the international governing institutions that they have willingly ceded power to, there is no case for this a priori claim on Varoufakis's part. And what is more, this assumption on his part, and that of his political confederates, cannot be said to have benefited the left in practice.
A coalition with "other democrats" to stop fascism can mean many things, but the idea that it has to mean the left aligning with the pro-EU centre is strangely oblivious of the last forty years or so. If the recent past demonstrates anything to us, it is that the left aligning with the centre is utterly useless at preventing the rise of fascism, because it means allowing the centre to perpetuate precisely the policies which give ground to fascism, while confirming the irrelevance of the left as an oppositional pole. After all, the rise of the far right in France, Greece, Hungary and elsewhere is hardly unconnected to the politics of the pro-EU centre which simultaneously work to progressively erode parliamentary democracy while also perpetuating moral panic about migrants, national security, and Islam, upon which the far right feasts. Fortress Europe permits a relative free movement of labour within it, but has now signed a pact with Turkey, sealed with Kurdish blood, to illegally pushback refugees. It is not unforeseeable that in some circumstances one would have to align in practice with the centrist political forces doing all this, but doing so now to 'stop fascism' of all things, seems perverse. 
More importantly, Varoufakis should have learned his lesson: Syriza went into office thinking it would find all sorts of beneficial alliances with 'other democrats' across Europe, to defend Greek national sovereignty and hold back the austerity juggernaut. They thought that an Hollande, or a Renzi, would take their part. Those hopes turned out to be founded on delusion. What is more, the rise of the neo-Nazi formation, Golden Dawn, took place in part thanks to the record of the broad pro-European centre in power, and what it did to the Greek population under the rubric of serving its debts to European banks. If Golden Dawn isn't marching to power now, that is not because of any alliance between the left and the centre. Far from it, the centre - including centrist politicians and the press - coddled the fascists until they overstepped the mark. It is because the left maintained a consistently independent antifascist opposition. The fascists, happily enough, then got into a fight with the Greek state over who wielded effective authority on the streets a little too soon, long before they had any chance of forcing an outcome in their favour. Had that dynamic of neo-Nazi ascent not been broken, who knows what would have been the result of Syriza's collapse into the pro-austerity centre?
Still, at least the fascist threat is a real one, and genuinely frightening. I'm less rattled by the claim that "Boris Johnson will be your Prime Minister" and "TTIP will be signed faster". Absent other context, that doesn't seem to be very different to what we have. Putting the case at its most forceful (and setting aside the stuff about TTIP, which is going to be signed either in Brussels or London), the argument would be that the beneficiaries of Brexit would be the most hyper-Atlanticist, hard right wing of the Tory party, who would then be able to claim the Tory leadership and win back all the lost Ukip support. Johnson, as leader, would depend on the hard right and feel compelled to give them red meat. In the new polarisation of politics, post-Brexit, a more right-wing Tory party would once again win the election and the protections and rights in British law, conforming to EU regulations, would be rolled back. And thus would descend a long reign of reaction. 
Well, that's one way of calculating the possibilities, and it's a real risk. But it isn't the only way to think through the prospects, and these aren't the only considerations. We don't know that the Tories wouldn't split down the middle after a Brexit. We don't know that Corbyn wouldn't find the 2020 election much easier. We don't know that, deprived of their key mobilising issue, the radical right might not begin to run out of steam. I am not claiming that all of these outcomes are likely, merely that there is a degree of indeterminacy. On the other hand, we don't need to speculate too much about what staying in means - it means Maastricht, Lisbon, the fiscal pact, competition laws, etc., along with the free movement of labour within the Union. It means privatisation and competition in the public sector. It means neoliberal limits on borrowing and spending. It means for sure that the further centralisation of power in the hands of its unelected institutions will continue apace. It means that the iron cage of the bureaucracy, codifying the interests and demands of the European Business Roundtable, will continue to tighten around the representative institutions. Whether you like it or not, the European Union represents an immense obstacle to the achievement of left-wing ends. It is not the only such obstacle, but we do not have to behave as if it isn't an obstacle. This is why the vast majority of large corporations in the UK are in favour of staying in. And what is more, within that context, the radical right would also certainly continue to gain ground - because the undemocratic nature of the EU, its neoliberal constitution and its crisis-ridden nature, are all likely to breed the sorts of discontents and dysfunctions on which the radical right thrive.
If, as Varoufakis fears, a Brexit were to lead to the disintegration of the European Union, the only absolute certainty is that this framework and the laws which national governments have passed to conform to it, would be up for re-negotiation. It would all have to be fought over again. Ironically, the very forces of the European radical left that now support the EU with a 'warts and all' clause - Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn - could potentially find themselves with a much freer hand to achieve radical ends if elected. And even if the radical left were not able to gain some wiggle room in the short term, there is no accounting for the possibilities that this weakening of the political power of the European business class would open up in the long term. So there is the question of the immediate balance of forces, and the likely short-term beneficiaries of Brexit, and the long-term consequences for a mode of class rule that would have to be re-negotiated, struggled over again, and linked to a profitable formula for growth. In the short run, one wing of the right will be the victor whatever the outcome of the referendum, because the left is absent. In the long run, business can not be confident that in the subsequent struggle to reorganise and re-institutionalise its class dominance, it wouldn't suffer significant losses.
All of this is not to say that there's a clean, socialist road to Brexit. Far from it. The point is that while staying in is a relatively known quantity, leaving is not. It would be messy and murky, and in that murk there would be the forces of the petty-bourgeois, nationalist right. But being a Brexit-sceptic doesn't mean you have to soft-sell the EU as an opponent either. It is easy to avoid dealing with this problem by putting all the emphasis on the need to combat the nationalist right, but this is just shirking responsibility for the logical consequences of one's stance. If there is to be a progressive 'in' campaign, let it fully admit and take ownership of its choice. Let it acknowledge that all the options are bad, that staying in is bad, that leaving is bad, but that the unpleasant certainties of staying in are better than the uncertain difficulties of leaving. Because it would be a grave mistake to win a referendum on the basis of downplaying the EU as an opponent, only to find a new crisis on our hands, a new Greece being made an example of, a new Lampedusa where immigrants are savagely tormented, a new government being told what to do on pain of fiscal strangulation. Don't let the nationalist right be the only ones talking about the brutal and undemocratic nature of the EU.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Unforbidden Politics posted by Richard Seymour

Adam Phillips, in his latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, quotes Oscar Wilde to the effect that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. This quip reminds us, he says, "that there may always be things that we care more about than the things we care most about".

Most activists will recognise the dilemma. Anyone with an experience in revolutionary politics, in particular, can call to mind the brutal slog of windswept Saturday afternoons, freezing early morning appointments outside factory gates and tube stations, long walkabouts with a couple of dozen demonstrators, door-to-door campaigning for no-hope electoral projects, and terrified, adrenaline-fuelled vigils against parading neo-Nazis. Is it a particular disappointment if much of that energy (not all of it, but a lot of it) was wasted? Is it so terrible that most of these rituals of activism (not all, but most) for most of the time had long since ceased to be an effective use of energy and resources, to the extent that they ever were? Do we really need to mourn the hours wasted on activities that were mainly, from an organisational perspective, about sustaining party identity and discipline? Not necessarily. There is something to be gained from that kind of discipline, at least for a while. There is something to be accumulated from regularly trying to interact with members of the public, and forge a rapport on the basis of the most limited contact, be it self-confidence, patience, or a certain knowhow.

The trouble is that it does tend to make politics more forbidding than it needs to be. Socialism will always take up too many evenings, even without the bullshit. And in the context of revolutionary politics, it usually segues into a punitive moralism, the currency of which is how 'active' you are. In the first sect to which I belonged, great stress was placed on being 'active'. If someone fell out of favour and became a subject of gossip, the worst thing that could be said about them was that they had become 'very inactive' and thus, concomitantly, 'pessimistic'. People who broke with the party during one of its many crises could be cheaply explained away in these terms. People who were being difficult could be guilted about not being active enough - because, implicitly, no one is ever active enough, not even a full-timer. One can always sacrifice more of one's life. The more you give in to this logic, this revolutionary guilt, the stronger its grip becomes. You don't alleviate it by becoming 'more active,' but by reconsidering the ends of active politics.

In the second sect to which I belonged, of course, the axis of moralism often shifted to that of one's supposed or actual 'privilege'. Even today, one can find the now dispersed constituents of that sect either apologising for, or sneering at, 'privilege' construed in its broadest possible sense. If you have a one-bedroom flat, a job, access to an NHS hospital, a living wage, etc etc., you can be considered 'privileged'. And in a sense that is true: these are, relative to worse-off conditions, privileges. And I think that privilege is a category that we have to try to work with and apply rigorously, notwithstanding its difficulties. And if someone 'checks your privilege,' sometimes you have to stop and think about how privilege in some sense could be affecting your language or behaviour. The problem with the confessional mode of privilege politics, however, is that in the broad sense in which privilege is used, everyone is privileged relative to someone else. It becomes tedious and recursive to continually invoke this category either by way of explanation or critique. And if it becomes the basis of individual guilt-mongering and gossip, then in some ways it is actually worse than moralism about 'activism'. One can at least strive to be more active or make excuses for not doing so; the only way to deal with being 'privileged' is to confess it, continually, to preface everything one says with "I know I'm privileged, but...". At its worst, this becomes (quite logically) both self-pitying and masochistic: "I wish my privilege didn't impose such blinders on me, it's such a disability, it impedes my activism every day, I'm so unfortunate for being so fortunate, please, I need you all to call me out on my fuck-ups, thank you so much." You notice how the difference between self-indulgence and self-laceration collapses here, just as the gap between spiting others and spiting oneself tends to be lost.

If socialist politics is necessarily somewhat forbidding, then, the left has always found ingenious ways to make it more so, to intricate it with the logic of punishment, to convert passionate political commitment into a soul-deadening and exhausting ordeal, to turn comrades vicious, to sap humour and elan, and to turn neurotic self-immolation and guilt into a political principle. Feeding such a tyrannical political superego has little to do with being effective or successful, of course, but the lure of moralism is that it touches on something real. We all could be more active, and we all feel bad about that. We all recognise ways in which our life situation necessarily distorts and frames our perspectives. We all know that we are subjectively imbricated with structures of oppression, that class, race, gender, sexuality and other axes of injustice are also part of the substrate upon which our subjectivity is formed. And sometimes we do, in fact, fuck up. Even with the most thoroughgoing change in the economy of one's desire achieved by politicisation, purity is never on the cards. It is the left equivalent of original sin, a weakness or susceptibility that marks even the most experienced cadres. And it makes us strangely submissive, compliant, easy to order about or be silenced, ready to accept and internalise spite. And if not that, then overly dependent on dogma as a crutch, guaranteeing us a seemingly unassailable position from which to speak. And if not that, then thinly rebellious and contrarian in ways that are profoundly invested in the political superego that is being rebelled against. It doesn't bring out the best in anyone.

Notably, these tendencies are at their worst in periods of defeat and stasis, when nothing exciting seems to be happening and nothing engages the desire that brought one into political activity in the first place. The periods of excitement and tantalising possibility give us a brief sense of what an unforbidden politics might look like, and what we might do with ourselves if we weren't worshipping at the feet of a ridiculous political superego.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Aspiration is a loser's game. posted by Richard Seymour

The Times, the Blairite/Cameronite wing of the Murdoch press, brings us news that the Labour Right is descending into madness:

'Aspiration' is a richly polysemic term, and can mean many things - but pray god, let it not become a by-word for billionaires sluicing torrents of cash to central American tax havens. Let us not allow the Blairites to do that to our political language. Even Peter Mandelson didn't stretch it this far. Even he, who was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", added the stipulation: "as long as they pay their taxes".

The occasion for the latest controversy is the 11.5 million leaked documents from the offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca, which disclose some of the means used by billionaires, celebrities, political leaders and crooks to circumvent taxes, laws and regulations. We have barely seen a tithe of the revelations yet, and most of the material will not be released by the media firms holding onto it. However, even the limited revelations that we have seen have produced ideological shockwaves. The agenda-setting press, usually on the side of business and billionaires as far as they possibly can be, have tended to accept that this looks bad. The Times itself considers this "capitalism's great crisis". The Prime Minister of Iceland, exposed by the leaks, has been forced to resign, and he may not be the last.

David Cameron, himself hit by the revelations, has felt compelled to promise new anti-evasion legislation and publish his tax returns. His approval ratings have sank, and Corbyn has pulled ahead of him. Conservative MPs who try to defend or mitigate tax evasion suddenly look either shifty or mad. Newspapers everywhere across the country are running polls asking if the Prime Minister should resign - universally, even in the right-wing Express, readers are saying 'yes'. In the background to this are all the complex ideological arguments about austerity and living standards after the credit crunch. If the majority of people were persuaded of the need for 'belt-tightening', and even went along with the idea that those on welfare would have it tightened the most, they were sold on the basis that at least there would be some residual degree of equity in how the pain was distributed. We were, in a minimal sense, 'all in it together'. The agitation of UK Uncut around the issue of tax avoidance in 2010-11 raised the issue of corporate tax evasion as a major factor cutting revenues for public spending, and the created a series of public-relations crises for the firms implicated. At the time, Cameron even made headlines with repeated criticism of tax avoiding companies and individuals. His speech to the 2013 Davos conference made cracking down on tax evasion a central theme. His actions never matched his words, but the point is that something like an ideological consensus exists around tax evasion.

In short, the Panama Papers have produced a crisis of legitimacy for the government and for its austerity project. The story they tell is not about hard-working, aspiring individuals being clever and creative with their finances. It is about class, and about how the super-rich have for several decades been waging a successful war of tax resistance, depriving the treasury of tens of billions of pounds each year, and thus reducing the sum of funds available for schools and hospitals. In a way, it confirms and validates what everyone already knew; in another way, it forces the issue, making everyone think about and confront the cold, brutal facts. You can evade taxes for years and get a knighthood; or you can over claim a few pounds on welfare, and get locked up. Given the scale of the government's crisis, Corbyn would be derelict were he to do anything other than strike repeatedly and boldly. If he relented in the way that critics are now demanding, they would have every right to complain. He would not be doing his job.

Now, in this context, what is the logic of members of the shadow cabinet intervening anonymously to spare Tory blushes? Why should they try to push the ideological agenda to the right of where Cameron has stood for years, and to the right of where Mandelson once stood? There are a number of possibilities. One is that they have investments of their own to worry about. A second is that they are protecting Labour business donors, who might have to answer questions fairly soon. A third is that they are worried that Corbyn is going to do quite well out of this, and that Labour's concomitant gains in the polls will prolong the marginalisation of the party's right-wing. That would make sense: they have proven time and again that they don't want Labour to win. The fourth and final possibility is far more worrying: they truly believe, as a matter of strategy and principle, that beyond all the fuss this is not a big deal and that there is a fairly stoical bulwark of 'aspirational' voters out there who not only don't object to billionaire tax resistance, but aspire to be in the same position themselves one day.

Their intervention here is akin, in its rationale, to that of Labour MPs who lobbied Miliband not to go too hard on austerity since Labour would have to implement cuts of its own if it regained office, and not to be too critical of 'irresponsible capitalism', since Labour would need irresponsible capitalism once in government. The blistering zenith of this cunning strategy was: i.) Ed Balls saying, before the general election, that he agreed with every cut in George Osborne's budget; ii.) Ed Miliband saying, before the general election, that he wouldn't let the SNP wreck Tory cuts or stop Trident; and iii.) Harriet Harman insisting, after the general election, that Labour MPs should abstain on welfare cuts rather than be seen to against aspiration. It is not so much a strategy as a nosedive into oblivion. It is the formula for Pasokification distilled to its precise chemical components. And it is, of course, why they lost control of the leadership in the first place. It isn't just that they don't want Labour to win on any sort of left-wing agenda. It is that what they think constitutes success is exactly what will obviate the purpose of Labourism, and finish it off for good.

Aspiration, for Labour, is and always has been a loser's game.

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Green Party grows down posted by Richard Seymour

Hey gang! Aren't all these politicians silly? A buncha kids, that's what they are! Not like us, we're grown ups - aren't we, kids? This is the Green Party's pitch, in toto:

Anyone with a long enough memory can place the inspiration for this vomit-worthy atrocity more or less precisely. It's Liberal-SDP, circa 1987. The idea is to set up two untenable extremes, then define an imaginary, common-sense, middle-ground voter to cater to. But this is not just condescending, trivialising tripe, it is politically unintelligent.

The problem for the Greens, as they know very well but can't admit here, is that they agree with most of what Corbyn is doing. And for as long as Corbynism is on the ascent, and actually achieving something, they are going to have trouble defending their hard-won electoral niche. The smart play, and the genuinely adult thing to do, would be to declare this openly: "We agree with Jeremy when he opposes cuts, works against Trident, and denounces racism and war. The problem is that he's the captive of a party whose elite despises him, won't let him be effective and will one day try to get rid of him.  We will work to support Jeremy in parliament when he does the right thing, but if you want to see a progressive politics free of these sorts of games, then vote for the Green Party." That wouldn't stop them losing votes, but it would give them somewhere plausible to start from in the event that Corbynism does begin to degenerate.

The fact that the Greens can't openly admit that on most policy specifics, they agree with Corbyn, is itself the most infantile, tribal, yah-boo tedium, packaged as an appeal to #grownuppolitics. If the Greens want to openly become the new Liberal Democrats, that is their prerogative - but I don't see the electoral yield in that.

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Monday, April 04, 2016

Bernie Sanders in the media posted by Richard Seymour

My latest media review covers the misleading coverage of Bernie Sanders's campaign:

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