Thursday, June 29, 2017

Labour and immigration posted by Richard Seymour

I.  Labour's policy on immigration is as yet unclear. 
Corbyn has said that, though Labour is not 'wedded' to 'free movement', he refuses to set reducing immigration as a goal, or set any targets. 
The Labour manifesto committed Labour to a "fair" system of managing immigration, without it being clear what that meant. There were some inclusive, humane signals such as a promise to review Britain's diabolical asylum system, and end income thresholds for residency. But what does 'fairness' look like when it comes to migrant labour? Is it even possible?
A Labour policy paper leaked during the general election indicated that the party would favour adapting the current five-tiered visa system, "including the currently unused tier applicable to those seeking low-skilled, unskilled or seasonal work".
This would imply that, rather than using the Schengenian 'free movement' system, Labour would operate a US-style 'green card' system. In such a system, those migrating at the bottom tier might have a shorter visa stay than those higher up. This might potentially change the composition of labour migration -- indeed, Nigel Farage might get exactly what he claimed to want, with more migrants coming from other parts of the world like India. But it need not necessarily reduce the total number of migrants, since Labour has made it clear that reducing net totals is not a priority. What it would do, unarguably, is significantly expand border controls.  

II. Schengenian 'free movement' is a liberal institution that is also racist in principle. Free movement, so far as it goes, is desirable, and something is lost by ending even this limited form. The answer to Schengen racism is not Little Britain racism. However, it is analytical dereliction not to grapple with what 'free movement' actually means.
The Schengen Agreement is one of the laws of the European Union, originally developed in 1985. Incorporated into the EU legal structure with the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, this law allows for the free movement of people within the Union. 
It is one of the famous "four freedoms" in the Union, the others being freedoms for capital. Free movement of people was a logical extension of the plans to create a single market: in effect, to treat the members of the Union as parts of one interlocked capitalist economy.
But freedom within meant raising walls and razor-wire to the outside. Coterminously, therefore, there was a tightening of border controls around Europe, and new systems such as FRONTEX were created to help prevent what it called, and continues to call, illegal migration
The majority of 'illegal' migrants arrive with passport and visa by plane, and work in the jobs they were hired to work in. But that is not what the labelling was getting at. If states, is it were, 'state', one of the ways they do so is by creating social classifications and giving them normative and juridical force. Any naming in this sense is performative. To call a particular group of immigrants illegal if you are a state is, in a way, to make them so. Certainly, insofar as the states of the European Union preemptively deemed the vast majority of asylum seekers to be 'illegal', it treated them as such, and developed expanding systems of surveillance and monitoring to arrange speedy deporttations.
The Dublin Agreement, struck in 2004, stated that refugees had to place their asylum claim in the first country they arrived at. In practice, since refugees travel overland or by sea, often the first country they arrive at will be Greece or Italy, so that countries of north-western Europe like Germany aren’t bothered. Their fingerprints are taken where they land, and fed into a database so that they can be tracked.
Since 2009, the unelected executive of the EU, the European Commission, has been developing new protocols under the rubric of the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, tightening up frontier controls and mandating deportation of all ‘illegals’ in all member states. These changes were informed by the increasingly securitarian and Islamophobic drift of many member states, especially France which then held the EU presidency, in the aftermath of the ‘war on terror’.
And, of course, the system is currently supported not only by FRONTEX raids on refugee boats, resulting in a spike in mediterranean drownings, but also by the biggest of all illegal pushbacks, consecrated in the deal between Merkel and Erdogan.
If you take the approach of Domenico Losurdo, there is nothing particularly paradoxical in a fundamentally liberal institution, free movement, having this fundamentally racist obverse. Liberalism has always been distinguished by its logic of exclusions; there is always someone for whom the universal doesn't apply.

III.  There has, since the 1990s, been a significant increase in labour migration in the United Kingdom, the great majority of it coming from within the European Union. The percentage of foreign-born workers in the UK increased from 3 million (7.2% of the total labour force) in 1993 to 7 million (16.7%) in 2015.
About a third of these live and work in London, on the pattern of 'global cities'. The low-paid among them, the majority, have become a racialised 'reserve army of labour' in the classic marxian pattern. This has been accompanied, not by the thinning out of the middle expected by 'global cities' literature, but by professionalisation of occupations in the London labour market, with a growing number of managers and professionals. Nonetheless, there was some occupational polarisation with an absolute increase in top jobs, and a complementary absolute increase in the number of low-wage jobs at the bottom.
Why has this happened? There is a marxist political economy, rooted in the study of migrant economies in apartheid South Africa, which can explain some of it. In particular, the costs of reproducing migrant labour in a 'free movement' zone are much lower than the costs of reproducing domestic labour. The price of labour is suppressed by a number of factors, including the fact that for short-term migrants, the inputs are determined in part by prices in Warsaw or Bucharest -- so, if you have a family to send money back to, a little extra money made in London counts for a lot more back home. There are also the collective conditions of housing and transport for many workers, which reduces costs even more.
But, of course, 'the economy' is never free-standing, never exists apart from its political and legal constitution. The impact of welfare policies, labour market laws, and 'managed migration' collectively help constitute hierarchies in work. Successive British governments since the Thatcher-era have made a competitive advantage out of low wage labour, relying on supply-side improvements to reduce the 'natural' level of unemployment. They have rolled back state protections and wage bargaining, imposed competition in local services, and relied on markets to discipline the bottom end of the labour market and impose flexibility. Changes to the welfare system, hailed as 'workfare', have been designed to promote this flexibility and low-wage culture. This means that where labour markets are tight, and shortages need to be filled, it is less likely that they will be filled by raising wages: that is not what is meant by 'making work pay'. 
It is within this broadly neoliberal growth formula that it makes sense for employers to turn to low-wage, insecure migrant labour. The Work Foundation, a think-tank initially set up under Will Hutton's leadership, elucidates some of the assumptions behind this. In short, it argues that given the government's macroeconomic commitments, the choice was between turning to migrant labour, or using high interest rates to deflate wage pressures arising from tighter labour markets at the bottom.
In other words, this racialised form of labour market segregation is not just a product of economic processes, but is a result of a whole orientation of statecraft -- what David Harvey somewhere called a "spatio-temporal fix" for capitalist dysfunction.

IV.  Does this mean, then, that UK-born workers are in some sense being undercut by migrant workers? Not so fast.
First of all, remember that many of the new low-wage jobs which have been created simply couldn't be filled by workers born and permanently residing in the UK, given the costs of reproducing their labour. The jobs market is not, in that sense, a zero-sum game. Migration allowed for a significant expansion in total employment, some of which otherwise would not have happened.
Second, insofar as there is increased competition in the labour market, there is very little evidence for any generalised wage-depressant effect. Research suggests that there is no net negative impact from migration on wages. Many studies, for example by the centre-left IPPR think-tank, suggest a moderate net increase in wages, as does a similar study by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CRAM) at UCL. 
Third, there is, however, plenty of evidence that migrant labour itself is exploited by this system, and that insofar as there are wage-depressant effects at the bottom, migrant workers are the ones to suffer. This is indicated by LSE research, which finds that "the only sizeable effect of increased immigration is on the wages of those immigrants who are already here."
The CRAM analysis suggests that in fact the moderate overall growth of wages is concentrated at the top of the wage structure, and that one possible explanation for this is that as migrant workers are being paid less than the market value of their labour in the UK, there is an additional surplus that is redistributed up the chain.
On top of this, some of the redistribution is worked out through the social wage. The net fiscal impact of immigration was estimated by the Migration Observatory at Oxford to be small but positive. And the OBR estimates that higher rates of migration, by increasing the working age population relative to the dependent population, reduces the pressure on government borrowing. This doesn't mean migration in certain areas didn't increase the load on local services; it just means that there was no reason why the government couldn't have more than covered any additional outlay necessary.
In the last analysis, in marxist terms, all state expenditures are a deduction from profits. Even if they're funded by consumption taxes, that merely tends to push up the price of labour. Of course, things in the real world are never as pure as in the last analysis, since raising consumption taxes can be one moment in a wider process of ruling class struggle intended to cut working-class consumption overall. That is, after all, what austerity is all about. And it is quite possible that concretely, in the actual rhythm of political struggle, an increase in revenues to the Treasury would have helped offset the pressure to cut expenditures. But, from the point of view of this last analysis, we would have to say that the net contribution of migrant labour to British coffers is a net saving to profits.
However, all of these effects are minor relative to the total labour market and to total state expenditures. What I am describing is a situation in which a combination of 'workfare', 'flexibility', privatisation, competition, 'free movement' in some areas, and 'managed migration' in others, increased the rate of exploitation of migrant workers to the benefit of the capitalist class. But it is also a truism that labour market segregation harms the bargaining power of those supposedly in the 'privileged' position in it.

V.  All of these claims and measurements are, of course, relative to a set of prevailing macroeconomic assumptions. If you make a different set of assumptions about how economies work, then different conclusions are entailed.
What I mean is this. The debate about migrant labour is structured around the red herring of whether 'free movement' undercuts UK-born workers in terms of employment and wages. Even if there were significant evidence of it doing so, it would be a red herring, since the grammar of the question is wrong. There is no abstract 'free movement', only the freedom of movement within a given economic and policy context. You can have free movement on a neoliberal and racist-exclusionary basis -- which, indeed, is part of a system which does disadvantage UK-born workers as well as migrant workers -- or you can have free movement on a socialist, or at least social-democratic, basis.
For example, suppose a Labour government were to reverse decades of neoliberal orthodoxy. Suppose that, in place of counter-inflation it privileged full employment and high wages as its main economic policy priority. Suppose its goal was to create competitive advantages through state investment, rather than eke out competitive advantages from low-wage labour. Suppose it rolled back anti-union legislation, so that the long decline of union representation was reversed. Suppose it reorganised the welfare state, abolishing workfare and sanctions and all the forms of coercion designed to make people more available for low-wage work. Suppose it rolled back privatisation and competition measures, and introduced collective bargaining where possible.
Setting aside the difficulties in actually achieving this against entrenched opposition from the business class, such an approach would have to imply an attack on labour market segregation. If anyone is tempted to say this means ending free movement, let me say they've missed the point entirely. Creating new legal restrictions on migrant labour simply increases its precarity and vulnerability. 
By expanding the remit of the border men, and intensifying surveillance, one wouldn't even necessarily reduce the total amount of migration -- and Labour has said this isn't a priority -- but it would help drive migrant workers further into the shadows where they are more susceptible to violence and hyper-exploitation. They would end up with less pay, with more immiserated existence, living in even worse death-trap accommodation. It would create more "illegal" migrants, and thus more misery. That doesn't suppress wage-competition. It might give it a new, more segregated structure, with a sharpened, racialised set of advantages and disadvantages -- but that would in aggregate intensify labour market competition and strengthen the bargaining position of employers, particularly the cut-throat poverty employers.
Rather, for a leftist growth model to work, one would need to give up completely on the idea of squeezing a competitive advantage out of a bargain basement economy. One would need, if anything, a far more egalitarian labour market policy. One would need to proactively suppress labour market segregation on all axes. One would need various measures to ban exploitation along gender and racial axes. One would need all workers, regardless of origin, to have equal pay for the same work, equal access to the state, equal protection under law, equal access to housing and welfare, equal access to union representation, and so on. 
Breaking with neoliberalism means breaking, not with free movement as a goal and principle, but with a racially segregated labour system. This isn't uncomplicated. Suppressing competition through state intervention reduces the 'pull' factors for migrants. From a certain point of view, it reduces their opportunities. But it does so, precisely by levelling up, by attacking labour market segregation as a principle.

VI.  It would be completely unrealistic to expect Labour to embrace an open borders policy. The balance of forces in Labour, let alone the wider country, simply wouldn't let that happen. I'm not even sure who would be able to organise around such a demand, or what the political effects of doing so would be. "Momentum for Open Borders"? I can't see it.
However, that doesn't mean progress cannot be made, and reaction resisted. To an extent, it already has been. In the New Labour era, we had what proved to be a toxic combination; a 'free movement' system organised along segregated patterns supported by labour market and workfare policy; and a set of political triangulations in which every other week a minister would expound on the need to control immigration and enforce integration, especially of those troublesome Muslims. Taken alongside the breakdown of large, unionised workforces as Labour allowed manufacturing to go bust, and the concomitant growth of racial segregation among UK-born workers in the labour market, this contributed to gains made by the far right.
The last general election abruptly changed the dynamic. Labour didn't win, but it surged to a degree without precedent post-1945. And it did so, despite (or because of) the fact that Corbyn was widely depicted as someone who wanted an immigration free-for-all. Despite (or because of) the fact that he was attacked day in and day out as an alibi of foreign terrorists. Despite (or because of) the fact that he systematically repudiated the very right-wing arguments on immigration to which all previous Labour leaderships have grovellingly deferred. Despite (or because of) the fact that he refused to set a target for reducing immigration levels.

Yes, Labour's official position was ambiguous, and yes that may have softened the attitude of some of the 'red' Ukippers, and defused some of the attacks. But in retrospect, and in future, I don't think it can be taken for granted that a broadly pro-immigrant stance is an electoral liability. I think, with the electorate changing, it is possible over the medium term to a) win the argument for maintaining such free movement as we currently have, b) win the argument for de-stigmatising refugees, abolishing the detention centres and ending the appalling conditions in Calais; and c) addressing the decades-long, systematic, racist exclusions aimed at citizens of what used to be called the 'New Commonwealth'.
At the very least, the election showed that provided it has a radical agenda that excites its supporters, Labour doesn't have to be scared of the Crosby smear-and-dog-whistle machine, of tabloid poison, or even of Ukip. The Left can be confident, rather than cowed, in its arguments. It doesn't have to accept either a defensive posture of uncritically crawling to the EU and its version of free movement, or an even more defensive posture of demanding an end to free movement. 

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

You are living in a death cult. posted by Richard Seymour

I.  Why was there only five days between the Grenfell blaze, killing dozens of working class and racially oppressed people, and the Finsbury Park mosque attack? And what connects the two?

Why should it be that after years since 2005, in which there were few successful attacks, the Woolwich killing being the most significant, there were five outrages in sequence over the last year beginning with the killing of Jo Cox MP? Why should the "lone wolf," the entrepreneurial form of fascist and jihadist killing, be the main form this has taken?

Why, in the aftermath of a terrifying disaster, should there be earnest discussions about whether the "illegal" migrants who survived ought to be given amnesty? As if the alternative, deportation, is remotely acceptable? Why would some of the residents of Kensington Row prefer a kind of socio-ethnic cleansing, with residents bussed to the north or lined up for deportation, to the most minimal gesture toward justice?

Why did Ken Clarke say in parliament yesterday, in defending the EU's 'free movement' principle, that the "real problem" was "illegal immigrants" from outside the Schengen zone -- as, he said, was illustrated by the Grenfell disaster?

Why was a major issue of contention in the general election the question of whether Jeremy Corbyn would "push the button"? What practical problem could possibly be solved by a willingness to obliterate entire populations? To what question is nuclear genocide an answer? To what questions are the murders perpetrated by both agonists and antagonists of 'Britain', short-cut answers?

What is happening in Britain today? What has erupted? What has been boiling away like lava under the surface these last years, until now?

II.  Borders fail. They must.

Borders are not perimeters, outlines, but grids of sorting and sifting, filters which govern the whole population. The border is everywhere, increasingly integral to the governance of race. Ever larger numbers of people in various institutions, from universities to hospitals, are being unofficially converted into border officials. Border men suddenly appear -- rather like The Breach in China Miéville's novel, The City and The City -- in the streets, or kicking down your door, and withdraw from sight just as quickly.

The border is a race-making apparatus in the guise of race-suppression. The language of legality, and integration, is supposed to guarantee that all citizens are treated equally. It is supposed to guarantee, in other words, that race -- a violent hierarchy -- will not exist. And by keeping out the displaced of imperialist wars, the refugees of the 'war on terror', it is supposed to externalise the violence of a global racial order.

But what it does, precisely through its orchestrations of varying shades of legality, is produce race. What it does, through its criminalisation and brutalisation of refugees and migrants, those penned in and tear-gassed in Calais, those confined in detention centres, those separated from their families and deported, is bring the violence of empire closer to home.

The border is a race-maker.

But borders must fail insofar as, while producing race, they also attempt to manage, suppress and externalise it. Race will not be mapped onto place, and it will not stay in its place. There are always the displaced. There are always the depaysements of empire, always the ghosts of everyday racial capitalism.

The harder you try to filter out the Other qua Otherness, the stronger is its recurrence. The harsher the repression, the more stunning its return; like an ambush, or something worse. Even without the racial Other physically represented, its ghosts would still appear in dreams, fantasies and jokes, and still haunt relations between 'whites'.

This may partly help to explain why it is not in the societies, cities, towns or regions with the highest degree of migration that are most palpably menaced by migration.

III.  Race is a metaphor in the guise of a literalism.

It constitutes the racialised subject through the displacement and condensation of the (usually undesirable) features, characteristics, desires, and behaviours of those perpetrating the racialisation.

The racial Other metaphorises the antagonisms and dysfunctions and undesirable desires of a society. It is they who, variously, carry the can for sexism, crime, rape, child abuse, fanaticism, violence, nihilism, exploitation, robbery and even, by what could be called a kind of 'white magic', for racism.

But the fundamentalism of race necessitates a belief in its literal existence, somatic or cultural. The pseudo-scientific, ahistorical basis for this belief is neither here nor there. The true believer makes an investment in it, puts his or her being on the line for it, confident that its truth will be revealed. The bad faith believer either pretends to have no investment in it, no desire other than a technical problem-solving one; or even to have no personal belief in race whatever. Still, they put up their stake.

But since it is a metaphor, it is worth thinking about how the border is orchestrating a metaphorical response to a range of problems. Problems, certainly, of labour-supply and labour-process, of education and training, of scarcity in public services, of policing, and so on. But, also, in the context of a crisis of the Union, problems of hegemony.

Hegemony is achieved when the ruling class doesn't simply dominate, but leads. It presents the society with an historic mission, a purpose to which the nation (barring an excluded and repressed remainder) can attach itself. The hegemonic project of the neoliberal era had reached, as certain posters vividly suggested through their own racial metaphors, "Breaking Point".

For the Right, Brexit was to be the organising principle of revival, giving Britain -- a Union forged for colonialism -- a new purpose. By "taking back control" of the borders, the people-nation would also have taken back control of the polity, and embarked on a thrilling new mission of global expansion. Our former colonial friends, the Commonwealth, surely grateful to hear from us once more, and perhaps keen to repay old debts, would be anxious to be our trading partners -- once we'd deported every single one of their errant citizens back to them.

Unmoored, unbound to a decaying Euro-bureaucracy, Britain would embark like the ship on the frontispiece of Francis Bacon's Instauratio Magna, to see a world made new again. New World, New Britain.

IV.  The fantastical element of this hard-right hegemonic project was inescapable, and given away precisely by its small-time, miserly defensiveness about immigration.

For all the colonial nostalgia, for all that there is an unprocessed clutter of colonial nonsense sedimented into national unconscious, throwing up ghosts, repetitions and deferred actions, even the most bullish of 'global traders' must have a sense of playing for time.

The language of "border controls" simply did not have the resonance during the colonial era that it does now. Insofar as borders mattered, it was chiefly because of Europe's internal Others, Jewish refugees from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Such was the rationale, supplied in abundance by the gutter press -- a press now, happily, dying in the gutter -- for the Aliens Act of 1905.

But until 1962, there remained a considerable degree of freedom of movement for people within the British Commonwealth both to and from the colonies. Subjects of the Commonwealth were considered subjects of the British monarch and in legislation passed in 1948 confirmed as citizens of the “UK and Colonies”.

Not that British governments, including the post-war Labour government, regarded their presence as unproblematic. In remedying labour shortfalls, they preferred people of "good stock," white labourers from Ireland or Poland whom they had more confidence could merge into the general population. Nonetheless, migration from the New Commonwealth was an integral part of post-war social democracy: no migrants, no NHS, no national reconstruction, no postwar boom.

Those migrants would have faced racism in the Britain of that day, whatever happened to the colonies, but it is fair to say that the fact of Britain's loss of colonial elan, the fact of India achieving independence, of bloody counterinsurgencies in Malaya and Kenya failing, altered the dynamic somewhat.

Britain imposed its first restrictions with the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, six years before it withdrew from east-of-Suez imperial commitments and left management of those 'Free World' sectors to the Americans. These restrictions, compounded in a 1965 White Paper and then in subsequent acts in 1968 and 1971, did not at first seek to reduce the number of migrants, since quotas could be adjusted to fit the needs of employers, but to reduce their status and rights.

But the early death-pangs of the post-war compromise, the breakdown of the Bretton-Woods system, the slump in manufacturing profitability, and the decay of social-democracy, that expedited the ascendance of a populist-racist New Right, pioneered by the vanishing mediator Enoch Powell and carried on by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher. And with the National Front on the rise too, the whole political spectrum was yanked sharply to the right on the axis of immigration. Labour MPs, like Bob Mellish, could be just as racist as their Tory opposites on the issue. By the time of Thatcher's British Nationality Act of 1981, which decisively ended any right to citizenship on the part of New Commonwealth subjects, primary immigration was virtually at a stand-still.

This shift tracked a transition from a global, aggressive white-supremacism to a defensive white-nationalism. The phases of anti-immigrant reaction since then can be seen as desperate attempts to preserve what is left of imperial whiteness, like a dusty, cob-webbed shrine to a long lost lover. Unsurprisingly, it comes with a fondness for bunting and military regalia, with 'Rule Brittania' anthems, and a fascination with the armed forces as the embodiments of British heroism and power.

But there is no going back; there is only either the freeze-frame of a fantasy, with its frozen-in-time unreality, or letting go.

V.  It is in this sense that the politics of "border controls" is a fantasy politics. Fantasy covers up a lack, something lost or missing.

It is not, of course, that borders are unreal. Any more than the state is unreal. But they are not physical objects and they are not persons. From one point of view, a state is the political organisation of a set of social relationships. From another point of view, a state is a cultural formation.

What states do, in this sense, is produce a normal order, a moral order. They produce, incentivise and police set of social classifications which, in the words of Corrigan and Sayer, render "natural, taken for granted, in a word 'obvious', what are in fact ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order".

It is "obvious," in the sense of being "taken for granted," that immigrants are a problem to be solved, and illegal immigrants the most pressing problem. And, of course, this logic extends backward temporally and generationally. If "they" are a problem now, then those migrants who arrived earlier, and their children, and children's children, start to become a problem as well. Their 'integration' becomes a question, even though it is precisely their integration that is not really desired.

The logic is never fully spelled out or, if it is, is disavowed as "going too far". But the logic of the border, the way it sifts through loyal and disloyal, real and bogus, good character and bad character, necessarily produces this fantasy of finally expelling the undesirable non-white elements.

Herein lies the necessary authoritarianism of "taking back control" -- or, indeed, "building that wall". Obsessed as it is with racial separation as a kind of social hygiene, its biggest fear is the racial mishmash, the undifferentiated pulpy mass in which the principle of whiteness is lost. In a previous essay, I wrote of the overlap between David Starkey, Geoffrey Cronje, and Thomas Mair around this fantasy.

In a way, however, the danger is that they will be forced to reckon with the extent to which it has already been lost. In the colonial unconscious, Britain still reigns over a quarter of the world, the Union flag still commands terror, and working class men from Glasgow, Liverpool and London are still pushing around their racial 'inferiors'. The anger of the colonised is still 'native fanaticism,' their demands for dignity and equality still 'ingratitude'.

The existence of Britain's multicultures, is a permanent reminder that imperial whiteness is dead: and thus, that whiteness as such has no certain future.

VI.  "Nihilistic death-cult? You’re living in it." -- Salvage, November 2015.

Colonial ideology has always maintained that the Empire brought law, language and liberty, and trained its subjects in habits of work, and how to sublimate their pleasures in exchange for civilisation.

The colonial archives, on the other hand, are filled with genocidal fantasies and acts, massive rapacity and theft: a lawless jouissance. French colonial travelers were fascinated and repulsed by what they thought of as the 'cannibal' qualities of the natives, but distinctly untroubled by the Malagasy genocide.

In the same way, 'war on terror' ideology has always held that 'our' wars are responsible, proportionate, unavoidable, law-bound and geared toward democratic outcomes, while 'their' violence is limitless, shameless and nihilistic.

And in the same way, the archives of the 'war on terror' are filled with soldiers raping teenagers, shooting families at checkpoint, torturing and sexually assaulting prisoners, gunning down civilian gatherings from a great height, bombing hospitals and schools, destroying mosques, all while officials run around with suitcases filled with cash, building sectarian-mercenary armies, skimming off profits, building extravagant and luxurious 'Green Zone' compounds.

And we are used to, in some quarters, fascination with the death-dealing jouissance of terrorists, and comparable indifference to the slaughters perpetrated under the Union flag.

It is quite normal for pundits to be paid for the opinion that 'they,' whomever they may be, love death as much as we love life. Life is cheap to them.

With varying degrees of racism, this is said of Daesh, or of terrorists, or of Muslims, or of Palestinians. The border, in that sense, is presented as a kind of life-preserving machine, identifying death and keeping it out of the social body.

This is classic colonial projection. Even where, as in the case of Daesh, there is an element of truth in the claim, it is projection. If, per Fanon, the image of the Other is an imago onto which can be projected the death-drives of Europe, that continues to be true even if Daesh, like Satanism and Hitler-worship, offers a perfect screen for the projection.

The fact that the Daily Mail is so luridly fascinated with the diabolical jouissance of torturers and murderers, beheaders and enslavers, that it treats their daily exploits with the loving textured detail of the reports in its "sidebar of shame," and with the same giddy editorial voice, is a testament to cross-cultural communication: the Mail has recognised in Daesh something of itself.

But this is also another reason why borders fail: the death is always within us. Think of the many examples where young men have been hassled by border men, cops and immigration officials, because someone saw them with a Quran or a rucksack on the train. Think of the people bundled off airplanes because other passengers thought they 'looked like terrorists'.

Think of the process involved. You see something, a racial cue, something that summons terror. You start sweating and hyperventilating, imagining, fantasising, running through the possible ecstatic ends to which you could come, in your mind. Any minute now, the cry, the explosion. The racist horror story unfolding and replaying itself over and over within a few seconds. And you call on the border to crush the danger. Well, of course, that only disposes of its immediate external target of your projections; the danger is still unknown, still within, still setting off alarms.

Think of nihilists, think of death-cults, and you should at least be able to think of the shark-eyed yuppies and speculators for whom only the accumulation of money and property is worth the burden of existence.

Or those who, presented with the desolated, raging, wronged survivors of Grenfell, see only a threat to property markets.

Or the climate-deniers who, whether they acknowledge it or not, are sacrificing futures not even dreamed of yet, generations not yet conceived, for the sake of a satisfactory rate of return on capital.

Or those for whom the savage ecstasy of nuclear annihilation has to be in every potential statesman's purview, and the cynics who egg them on.

The thousands upon thousands of people turned back by land and harassed at sea by Frontex operations called (with jaw-dropping cynicism) 'search and rescue' missions, until their drenched, drowned bodies turn up on Mediterranean shores, for nothing more noble than a trading bloc.

And the thousands trapped in Calais, tear-gassed, harassed, isolated, deprived of aid, for no better principle than that of protecting a fantasy of whiteness.

You're living in a nihilistic death-cult; and the impossible promises of the border are its mantra and manifesto.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

O, Jeremy Corbyn posted by Richard Seymour

A brief round up of my writings about the general election outcome -- the result of which, as bantering-left social media knows, is that Jeremy Corbyn is actually, really, the Prime Minister.

My first reaction piece was for Novara, in which I pronounced with a certain awe that we now live "in a different country -- one which we didn't know existed". In a longer react piece, I reflected in more detail on the changes and on the limitations facing the Left even as it has taken a giant leap forward.

For TLS, I wrote about how Corbyn had, as some wag put it, smashed the Overton window, totally changing our sense of the possibilities. Such that, frankly, we're looking at the chance of a big popular sweep, a left-wing Labour government elected on the back of broad radicalisation, 1945-style.

For Prospect, I wrote of the challenges that would face a Labour government without an organised and critical activist movement behind it.

There were also a couple of things on my Patreon. Here, I look with stunned delight at the meme wherein young people at clubs, discos and sporting events are chanting, "Oh, Jeremy Corbyn" to the tune of 'Seven Nation Army' by The White Stripes. Here, I revisit my previous view that the national question would be decisive in reshaping the electoral terrain, something on which I was decisively (gladly) wrong.

And, of course, I contributed to the Salvage editorial qualifying our hard-won pessimism for the first time, courtesy of the Absolute Boy.

I have to say that over the last year, my guesses have been confounded more often than they have been confirmed. I expected the Front national to come close to winning in France; Le Pen got far too big a vote, but lower than polls expected. I did not expect Brexit to win, and when it won, I expected it to play a big role in any general election, which it simply didn't. At first, I expected Corbyn's Labour to push only slightly above Miliband's polling, at best; at my most optimistic, I privately allowed the possibility of a win, but would only chance a guess at 36-7% with a loss of seats in public. That necessarily calls for a re-evaluation of some of my assumptions.

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Notes on the EU and privatisation posted by Richard Seymour

There is a default assumption on the centre-left that the EU is, if not an outright progressive institution, not fundamentally problematic either.

Obviously, I think this is wrong. Given the reactionary nature of the Brexit campaign, and the ensuing fall-out, it was hardly the most pressing error. Nor was the enthusiasm of 'Lexiters' any better grounded. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, the Left's position was mostly a defensive one, of trying to limit the damage and prevent it from sinking the first ever left-wing leadership of the Labour Party.

Clearly, we're no longer on a purely defensive footing. There is a lot that can go wrong, and Britain feels like it's on a knife-edge, but for the moment the Left has the advantage. There is now a chance to fight more aggressively for a left-wing interpretation of Brexit, rather than just limiting the damage of a reactionary Brexit. The difficulty is, what would that mean?

Corbyn has indicated that he means to fight for "tariff-free access" to the single market. Does this mean membership? Or does it mean, almost tariff-free access, as near as can be arranged with a bit of give-and-take? And how likely is the EU negotiating team to offer anything like this?

Given that approximately half of UK trade is with the EU, solving this problem is not only important in itself, but also vital to Corbyn's ability to collect enough taxes to pay for his manifesto commitments. Yet at the same time, the single market represents another type of problem for some of his manifesto commitments.

I hope it's not too controversial to agree with Nick Clegg on one thing. The single market is a Thatcherite achievement. That's right: as the old, forgotten campaign slogan goes, "I Agree With Nick". The terrible reality of the Brexit campaign is that it attacked the only really attractive aspect of this institution, which is the free movement of people.

But, just as the EU is more concerned with the organisation of investors' rights than 'trade' narrowly speaking, the "four freedoms" institutionalised by the single market are chiefly concerned with property rights, not human rights.

What I want to do is spell out the possible implications of single market membership for Corbyn's manifesto, focusing on his commitments to nationalisation of mail, rail, energy and water.

The trend in EU law is to liberalise across economic sectors, and to harmonise whatever provisions facilitate that. The core EU institution, stipulated by Article 26 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU), is the single market. The single market entails the free movement of goods, capital and services, which are investors rights, further strengthened by the EU’s Services Directive in 2006.

What does that mean in practice? As in all jurisprudence, there is sufficient indeterminacy in the law to potentially allow a variety of outcomes. For example, Article 345 of TFEU states that nothing in the law shall prejudice the right of member states to manage their own system of property ownership.

This could be taken to mean that member states have a right to nationalise or privatise whatever they want. But that can only be determined by seeing how the European Court of Justice, which applies the law, has determined its scope in specific cases. Most recently, the Essent case has been an important test case, although one with an ambiguous result.

The Essent case involved energy companies taking the Dutch government to court over laws absolutely prohibiting energy privatisation. The Dutch supreme court referred the case to the ECJ. The government's position was that it shouldn't be a matter for the ECJ, because of Article 345. The ECJ agreed to the extent that, indeed, the government had a right to manage its own system of property ownership. But it said that this right was not unrestricted, and that therefore it did fall under the Court's scope.

In particular, the ECJ insisted, the fundamental provision in the TFEU of free movement of capital had to be taken into account. Restricting the rights of private investors to acquire shares in an undertaking was an abridgement of free movement. This could be tolerated only in a narrow range of exceptional situations. Specifically, the member state in question would have to demonstrate that there was an overriding reason of public interest, and that it must accord with the proportionality principle.

The ECJ, having laid out this reasoning, referred the case back to the Dutch supreme court. So what constitutes "proportionality"? In what circumstances is it permissible for a member state to abridge the free movement of capital? That has to be inferred from other rulings.

For example, take the Société nationale Elf-Aquitaine, the French oil company. The French government used a ‘golden share' in the privatised company to ensure that the state had decisive influence. The minister for economy had to approve the acquisition of shares and voting rights by any individual above a certain threshold. The European Commission objected that these regulations were anti-competitive, and the ECJ agreed.

On the other hand, in the case of the Belgian Société de distribution du gaz SA, the government invoked a principle of public security as a justification for holding a strategic stake in the energy industry. The principle in question involved the state's ability to maintain a continuity of energy supply in the case of attack.

The ECJ has cleaved to a restrictive definition of proportionality, permitting exceptions where a concern is implicated in the exercise of authority. In the French case, it was deemed that no satisfactory principle had been offered to justify curtailing free movement of capital and goods, and that state intervention was in excess of what would be required to secure energy in the case of emergency.

The decisions of the ECJ, which have primacy over the national law of member states, have generally supported the preferences of the European Commission and the extension of liberalisation -- meaning, market competition and privatisation -- in a range of domains, from energy to telecommunications.

In the run up to the Brexit campaign, a lot of 'Lexit' polemic focused on desiderata such as the renationalisation of the railways. Kate Hoey probably doesn't count as a Lexiter, because she's not particularly left-wing, but her argument was typical in claiming that EU membership made renationalisation impossible. That overstatement ruined a perfectly good argument.

The "fourth railway package" seeks to extend the logic of the internal market to rail. As per Article 345, it does not specify a public or private property regime. It would be quite compatible with either a Railtrack or a Network Rail running the rail network. It does not specify that specific service providers must be private operators.

It does specify markets and competition. It does mandate separating infrastructure and service operators. It does mandate the opening up of domestic public rail contracts to competition by 2019.

In principle, the government could take all the existing rail networks into public ownership as their contracts expire. A publicly owned firm, separate from Network Rail, could take over all the service operators. However, should the government try to prevent a private investor from acquiring shares in a service operator, or should it prevent private investors for bidding for the franchise, that would fall under ECJ remit. The Commission could make a complaint, and it probably would, and the government would then have to answer to the "proportionality principle" which, as we have seen, is applied quite narrowly. It would be unable to maintain a state monopoly.

Being a member of the single market would entail accepting the "four freedoms" and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Now, what if the ECJ ruled against a Corbyn government? What if it instructed Corbyn to immediately open up publicly owned carriage provision to competition from private providers, say to Virgin or Southern Rail? Could Corbyn simply refuse to comply? If he was prepared to accept steep fines for every day of non-compliance, yes. If he was prepared to be at the epicentre of a barrage of condemnation and vilification, yes. On the other hand, could he just forget about renationalising these goods, in the interests of trying to keep the economy growing? If he was prepared to take a major defeat on a major plank of his platform, at the risk of demoralising his supporters and strengthening the reactionary Right, yes. If he was prepared to forget about any left-wing challenge to the established growth formula, yes.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the Commission or a private provider would take Corbyn to court, or that the ECJ would find against him. In part, it depends on the political climate. And it may not be necessary to be negotiate full membership of the single market in order to get its benefits (although frankly, economic logic aside, I don't know why the EU negotiators would concede that). This is just an example of something that applies more generally, in terms of the relationship between an elected left-wing government, and powerful, non-democratic institutions.

The last time there was a Labour government, it was immediately and enthusiastically working with the grain of global, post-democratic institutions, from the EU to the emerging World Trade Organisation. It produced reports describing its progress with privatisation, private finance initiatives, and public-private partnerships. It recapitulated orthodox 'free market' arguments for proceeding in this direction, above all the efficiency of competition and private provision. That 'efficiency' was pure ideology, but it was an ideology congruent with the smooth circulation of power. Labour at that time could stride the world stage as a major player in the construction of a liberal world system, while also putting the iron fist of war behind the velvet glove of trade.

A Corbyn government would immediately have to wrestle with these institutions, and they include the EU with whom they would have to negotiate. Corbyn is quite rational in stating "full, tariff-free access" to the single market as a basis for negotiating. But whatever he can get from Guy Verhofstadt and colleagues won't come cheap.

Cross-posted from my Patreon. If you like this post, please consider pledging a small monthly sum to support my writing.

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Thursday, June 08, 2017

Bring on the flood posted by Richard Seymour

A freshet is a river flood, brought on by the melting of snow. We need a freshet in this election, brought on by a great political thawing, a sort of glasnost of neoliberalism. We need, in short, those frozen over blocs of non-voters, those who have been disempowered and excluded, those who haven't been represented, those who just gave up voting -- most of whom would have been Labour voters if it in any way represented them -- to be fired up and put into motion.

In this election, it is not surprising that there has been a huge controversy about turnout. Jeremy Corbyn's leadership pitch was, from the start, that he would bring back lost voters, people who have given up and felt alienated from the system. He said, from the start, that Labour needed to win over people who had stopped voting. Part of the surge in Labour's support during this campaign has been driven by groups of voters who ordinarily don't vote, or who haven't voted before. That, to an extent, reflects success on Corbyn's part. But it is one thing for people to be politically won over by Corbyn; it is another thing for them to be persuaded they must vote.

There is always the risk that the bubbles of political life, encouraged by social media -- what they call the "pluralization of life-worlds" -- has created a false sense among some of us of just how widespread and how deep the excitement is. That risk is tempered by the very obvious successes of Labour's campaign, by the tremendous reception Corbyn gets in diverse settings, by his surprisingly strong media performances, and by the sheer calamity that is the Tory campaign. Nonetheless, I think we all -- all of us who will campaign for Labour tomorrow -- worry that we're missing some hidden structural resources of conservatism, or confusing wish-fulfilment for analysis. Even when we try to check our biases, passionate longing has a way of making one dream.

And we are dreaming, and not just that Labour will do well. Let's be honest, we want there to be a Spring surprise, a shock Labour win, a rupture, something that radically confounds received wisdom. We want the entire set of assumptions by which neoliberalism rules, above all the internalised defeat that goes under the mantra 'There Is No Alternative' to be irradiated. We want the cultural predicates, by which everything should have a market price, and by which refugees and those on benefits are sadistically punished, while banks and large corporations endlessly get away with it, to be overturned. We want, on Friday morning, to wake up to a different country.

That, though we all know the odds against it, though we all know how much power is mobilised to stop precisely this from happening, exerts a gravitational pull on all our analysis. And we have to be endlessly careful not to give in to it.

In this election, because of the unusual degree of volatility and uncertainty, polls have been wildly divergent in their assumptions. Some polling companies have consistently predicted a Labour share of the vote around 33-35%. Those would include ICM, Opinium, ComRes, Panelbase and (until tonight) TNS. YouGov (until tonight), Survation and ORB have shown much higher Labour shares, in the region of 38-40%. The ironic role reversal tonight was that it was TNS which put Labour up 5 points to 38%, and YouGov which, with some methodological adjustments, brought Labour down three points to 35%.

Choosing between these is impossible, and reflects a mix of desire and gut instinct. One of the problems with polling, one of the reasons why it can get things wrong, and why weighting is such an issue, is that its method of inquiry starts from the assumption -- which then has to be corrected, post-hoc -- that political action is based on individualised units of opinion, in which every opinion is of equal weight and competency. In fact, ideologies are usually formed in collective, group contexts, based on shared experiences: your class, your race, your gender, your locality, your religion, your nationality, your street, your occupation, and so on.

Posing the question in an individualised way sidesteps the collective way in which people form ideas and make decisions. And it has the effect of forcing people to rely on impressions gained from recent media campaigns. That renders polls particularly susceptible to media-driven buzz. Recall that before the 2015 problems which produced such reflection from pollsters, there was also the 2010 "Cleggasm". I don't remember too much panic about that, but polling companies seriously overstated the Liberal vote (with the effect of uncharacteristically understating the Labour vote) in that election year.

This is, of course, not to dismiss polling. It is a highly technically advanced way of gaining a snapshot of ideological forces in motion -- raw material which politicians and public relations professionals are able to work with, and work on very effectively. It is often wrong, but not usually that wrong. And with the huge differences among polling organisations, they all have a degree of rationality in their predictions, informed by past practice as well as (frankly) a degree of unconscious ideology manifesting as 'gut instinct'. They have a huge amount of future business riding on their predictions, so they have every interest in getting it right. YouGov probably has a mixture of professional concerns in adjusting its estimate and business concerns -- the costs of underestimating Labour are a lot lower than those of overestimating labour.

But it is to say that there is nothing authoritative about polling. It is always just raw material to act on. We read the polls looking for points of weakness in our opponents, moments of opportunity, areas where intervention can make a difference, ambiguities and ambivalences in what appears to be a consensus.

And as we approach polling day, we read them with only one answer. Let's get as many people out to vote as possible. Let's make all the pollsters wrong. Let's confound their expectations. And even if we can't, even if what we're doing now is building a basis for the future, even if we know that we were never going to turn Britain into a left-wing country within just two years, or just one election campaign, in the wake of Brexit and after years of reaction... Still, let's bring on the flood.

Cross-posted from my Patreon. If you like the post, please consider making a 'pledge'.

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Sunday, June 04, 2017

Let's drop the big one posted by Richard Seymour

"The individual would misconceive the nuclear peril if he tried to understand it primarily in terms of personal danger, or even in terms of danger to the people immediately known to him, for the nuclear peril threatens life, above all, not at the level of individuals, who already live under the sway of death, but at the level of everything that individuals hold in common. Death cuts off life; extinction cuts off birth . . . the meaning of extinction is therefore to be sought first not in what each person’s own life means to him but in what the world and the people in it mean to him." 
  —Jonathan Schell

"We died with the dying: 
See, they depart and we go with them. 
We are born with the dead; 
See, they return and bring us with them." 
  — T S Eliot

During the Korean War, when troops from the People's Republic of China entered North Korea to repel the US invasion, General MacArthur conducted a quick strategic re-thinking. Let's invade China, he said. Let's drop the big one. "Oriental psychology," he insisted, was such that it would only "respect and follow aggressive, resolute and dynamic leadership".

During the Vietnam War, the US government looked into the use of nuclear weapons to decisively finish off a determined, disciplined revolutionary nationalist movement that was actually in the course of decimating the US army.

During the Second Cold War, US weapons policy was informed by the most alarmist neoconservative prognoses about red danger, triggering a nuclear arms race. The United States president was a man who interpreted biblical prophesy to mean that the United States was destined for nuclear confrontation with the Communist antichrist. His Secretary of State wanted to bomb Cuba and "turn that island into a fucking parking lot". His Pentagon repeatedly war-gamed a nuclear war with the USSR, and readied the US military for a "protracted" nuclear war in which the US must prevail. It took a mass anti-nuclear movement to put a dampener on the nuclear arms race.

You can see these little moments, alongside the Cuban Missile Crisis, as a series of near-misses for the species. Millions of lives, perhaps all of human life, depended on those misses. After all, this is what definitional about what these extinction-level events, be it ecological collapse or nuclear war. It isn't just about ending a lot of lives in an unjust and tragic way. It is about ending the possibility of life. The one tiny spot in this vast, mostly lifeless universe -- as far as we know or have any right to guess -- where life has emerged. And we have come uncomfortably close, several times, to extinguishing it.

A lot hangs on that 'we'. Because after all, most of 'we' had little to do with it. These were decisions made by bureaucrats and military personnel acting within certain lines of strategic and jurisprudential logic. That logic is, as we can plainly see from the MacArthur case, not so much exempt from ideology as a concentrated form of ideology. We could even describe it as, since it impelled its bearers toward the brink of megadeath, a kind of fanaticism.

'We' are the hostages, the human shields, of a thermonuclear protection racket. There is no purpose to a nuclear weapon other than to annihilate major population centres. The weapons are pointed at us, by the rulers of the states in which we live. And they tell us that the gun pointed at our heads is for our protection, when it is the administration of death, of extinction.

And yet 'we', or some of us, a minority perhaps, are also eminently available for this transaction. Enthusiastic, sadomasochistic participants. The thermonuclear state probably doesn't have a huge popular constituency. But the other side of politics, usually working for the side of reaction, has nothing to do with the usual norms of enlightened self-interest, nothing to do with "rational choice". That other side works according to the logic of the unconscious.

A friend reminded me earlier of the Spanish fascist slogan, 'Viva La Muerte'. Which, translated, means 'Long Live Death'. Think about the logic of that slogan. It is completely contradictory, containing no sense of logic or sequence or temporality. It is a slogan that comes from a place outside of reality, defying the laws of physics: hence its peculiar poetic resonance. It wants life in death; death in life. Unconscious death-wishes often work that way.

And this is the world into which we are inducted when we hear from fellow citizens for whom, happiness is a gun pointed at your head. Citizens for whom, it is the job of a political leader to hold that gun there and be willing to pull the trigger. It is a world where death and supremacy rules. Where people don't mind dying in a nuclear blaze as long a migrant doesn't get to claim benefits.

This isn't a world half way around the planet. It isn't even a world half way down the block. It is the world we live in, dying.

Cross-posted from my Patreon -- if you liked this post, consider supporting my writing by making a pledge.

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