Saturday, April 30, 2016
Where the twain meet. posted by Richard SeymourThere 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.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
Pitch forks at the ready posted by Richard Seymour
The 'antisemitism' panic posted by Richard SeymourIt'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.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
Monday, April 18, 2016
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Unforbidden Politics posted by Richard SeymourAdam 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.
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Aspiration is a loser's game. posted by Richard SeymourThe 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.
Thursday, April 07, 2016
Green Party grows down posted by Richard SeymourHey 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.
Monday, April 04, 2016