Tuesday, June 21, 2016
In praise of hate posted by Richard SeymourIn this time of universal pleas for civility and respect - god help us all, and save us from those two domesticating constraints - I would like to push gently at first, and then rather roughly, against the wrong lessons that are being drawn from the murder, allegedly by a fascist, of Jo Cox MP.
There is, of course, a 'there' there. In the tropes of 'hate' - 'the well of hatred', and so on. When that became the synecdoche for everything that was fucked up in the sick hunting and grisly killing (one might say, in view of the brutality of the murder, the methods used, and the insistent repetition of their use, 'over-killing') of a centre-left MP, it seemed to be about more than fascism and racism. It was as if the killing reminded us how we feel about the vicious sewer-sluice of bigotry and bullying on social media, the id-stream of unutterable nastiness, particularly toward women, in politics but also more generally. As if it could be made to stand for the particular toxic misogyny aimed at women who gain success, and perhaps at a stretch the coldness and brutality of everyday life. As if it reminded us how much grief we might be carrying around for the wounds inflicted by this society, for its victims.
All of that is arguably what is going on under the rubric of 'hate'. And why not? It is a shame that some who, for reasons of habitus or something else, cannot empathise with the widespread sense of alienation from the political class and media, have taken this to mean that there is too much hatred of politicians. As if to say, this murder might not have happened if people were more respectful of John Bercow. As if politicians had nothing to do with cultivating the backlash against multiculturalism and the Islamophobic panic that is fuelling the reactionary surge. As if they have played no role in visiting on people the social misery and pain from which 'hate' might arise. As if there were not several multiple shades between hating something and murdering someone on account of it. But let that stand for a moment, and think about it another way. Start with where we are. Europe.
The EU referendum debate is structured around two poles that have barely shifted in the last couple of years. It is all about immigration vs the economy. And if we find those two issues poised counter to one another, that is because of the curious way in which each issue is separately constructed. 'The economy' is characteristically spoken of as a politically neutral terrain, a zone of technocratic governance, of growth, trade and inflation, where all supposedly agree on the main objectives. Obviously, no such consensus exists, or could exist. Soaring house prices are good for Daily Mail readers, terrible for young people. Full employment is the traditional priority of the labour movement, counter-inflation and a strong pound that of the City. Nonetheless, whenever 'the economy' is invoked, we are all supposed to think that we all agree on what it is, and what it's for.
Immigration is something else entirely. One can try, as lesser mortals like Nick Clegg have before us, to sanitise it and depoliticise it and stop it from being a 'political football'. No one buys it. It has long been treated by most people as a matter of 'fairness'. Somehow, though, the Right have been the only ones politicising the issue. They have spoken in a moral language about immigration. It may make us a bit more wealthy, they say, but it's not fair. It undercuts wages. It replaces good jobs with bad jobs. It makes the poorest workers more precarious. I will not, here at least, try to disprove these claims, though they are arrant nonsense, based on 'common sense' simplifications about how the economy works. It's sufficient to note the incredible attractiveness of these propositions when the language of 'fairness' is annexed almost exclusively by the Right. And in this debate, bizarre though it may be, immigration has become the only stable index of 'fairness': a constant sleight, a constant offence to people who were, after all, born here (and thus should come first).
This discourse of 'fairness' thus lies somewhere at the intersection of individual and nation. It's where the neoliberal ontology of 'enterprise' in eternal struggle for self-maximisation, meets the nationalist ontology of 'people' in eternal struggle against the Other. If competition is to be the law of all social life, if there are to be winners and losers, if we are to scorn and diminish losers, if we need an 'underclass', a lower-down onto whom to pile the humiliations that are visited on us - well, then, at least let Britain come first. And if we are going to be punished for all our minor transgressions during the boom, for having a little bit of debt, for not saving enough, for not buying enough, for not having a better job, for not working harder, then at least punish them more.
This is where we have to make the appropriate space for social sadism - lavishly, opulently, beautifully theorised by China Miéville here. It is, ironically, people at their most (in a sense) utopian who are most inclined to need to be sadistic, to need to diminish others. It makes their loss and vulnerability, the failure of the world to live up to their expectations (whether realistic or not), meaningful. It's also worth mentioning the fury that derives from being forcibly reminded that we are not who we would like to think we are - or the fury that disposes of the conflict that this realisation gives rise to. If we as a nation are inclined to tell ourselves that we are tolerant, open-minded, confident and reasonable, we hate no one as much as those who remind us of the ways in which we aren't that. Those whose presence forcibly represents the ways in which we have become narrow-minded, and melancholic, through the loss of our fantasies of colonial omnipotence.
But here is my point. We, those of us broadly on the progressive side of this argument, shouldn't be so quick to disown all that. It is as impossible to conceive of justice without punishment as it is perverse sexuality (most sexuality) without that idea lurking somewhere. Justice requires sanction. And the idea of a pristine, bloodless ritual of punishment, safeguarded by a division of functions, is a modern illusion. Its result is ironically that we punish more, with less satisfaction: we always feel short-changed. To disavow our aggressive impulses, our desire to punish, our rage, is to engage in a dubious operation of externalisation. There are at least two ways in which we can externalise 'evil' in this sense. We can, as Fanon suggested, project our aggression onto a racial Other, finding in them all that is bestial and barbaric in our own behaviour and desires. That is Farage and the faraginous hordes behind him. Or, we can project it onto those who we believe to be the racist hordes (whether they are or not doesn't necessarily affect the degree of projection).
To put it like this: we can no more live without hate than we can live without an idea of justice. We can no more live outside of resentment than we can live outside of pain, and blame, and unrealistic ideals. There is something deeply suspect about any politics, or any person, that professes to be free of it, that has nothing to despise. Show me a person without a hateful fibre in their being, and I will show you the collection of feet in their attic. The idea, one would think, is to find something creative to do with our hates, our rages. As to Europe, of course, we came far too late to the party to make any but the slightest difference to the debate.
But there is this. The reactionary wedge in this country, is not its future. The nationalist reflux is dangerous because it is the despairing backlash of something that is dying. The young are moving in a very different direction. So, here is a moment. Here is a unique chance to bury that Britain, that authoritarian, conservative rat-hole, that worshipper of the idols of Seventies light entertainment, that incubator of child rape scandals and football violence, that forelock-tugging Britain that adulates power and kicks the poor, and marches us inexorably toward something that is not so much pre-fascist as pre-apocalypse. Here is a chance to assemble the social forces who hate fascism and are terrified by the racist Right, to begin a frontal assault on their fortresses and bulwarks. A task whose success will, I submit, not be expedited by giving ground to the demand for the parliamentary gentrification of political life.