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.

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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.


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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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