I’ve suffered from depression intermittently since I was a teenager. Some of these episodes have been highly debilitating – resulting in self-harm, withdrawal (where I would spend months on end in my own room, only venturing out to sign-on or to buy the minimal amounts of food I was consuming), and time spent on psychiatric wards. I wouldn’t say I’ve recovered from the condition, but I’m pleased to say that both the incidences and the severity of depressive episodes have greatly lessened in recent years. Partly, that is a consequence of changes in my life situation, but it’s also to do with coming to a different understanding of my depression and what caused it. I offer up my own experiences of mental distress not because I think there’s anything special or unique about them, but in support of the claim that many forms of depression are best understood – and best combatted – through frames that are impersonal and political rather than individual and ‘psychological’. (More...)
"This new interdisciplinary network – launched in 2013 – gathers together researchers at northern universities who work in the field of critical and cultural theory. It will promote new collaborative research in critical theory via a range of initiatives including annual symposia, workshops, reading groups and other events MORE..."
Work is the latest book from CrimethInc.:
After so much technological progress, why do we have to work more than ever before? How is it that the harder we work, the poorer we end up compared to our bosses? When the economy crashes, why do people focus on protecting their jobs when no one likes working in the first place? Can capitalism survive another century of crises?
Our newest book, entitled Work, addresses these questions and a great many more. To answer them, we had to revisit our previous analysis of employment and develop a more nuanced understanding of the economy. We spent months studying obscure history and comparing notes about how we experience exploitation in our daily lives, slowly hammering out a grand unified theory of contemporary capitalism.
In addition to distilling our findings in this book, we’ve also prepared a poster to diagram the system it describes. The poster is based on the classic illustration of the pyramid of the capitalist system published in the Industrial Worker in 1911. With the assistance of Packard Jennings, we’ve created a new version, much more detailed than the original and updated to account for all the transformations of the past one hundred years.
In combination, the book and poster explore the positions we occupy within this pyramid and the mechanics that maintain it. From the industrial revolution to the internet, from the colonization of the Americas to the explosion of the service sector and the stock market, from the 2008 financial crisis to the upheavals taking place right now across the globe, Work offers an overview of how capitalism functions in the 21st century and what we can do to get beyond it.
Expect Anything Fear Nothing "is the first English-language presentation of the Scandinavian Situationists and their role in the Situationist movement...."
The Situationist movement was an international movement of artists, writers and thinkers that in the 1950s and 1960s tried to revolutionize the world through rejecting bourgeois art and critiquing the post-World War Two capitalist consumer society.
The book contains articles, conversations and statements by former members of the Situationists’ organisations as well as contemporary artists, activists, scholars and writers. While previous publications about the Situationist movement almost exclusively have focused on the contribution of the French section and in particular on the role of the Guy Debord this book aims to shed light on the activities of the Situationists active in places like Denmark, Sweden and Holland. The themes and stories chronicled include: The anarchist undertakings of the Drakabygget movement led by the rebel artists Jørgen Nash, Hardy Strid and Jens Jørgen Thorsen, the exhibition by the Situationist International “Destruction of RSG-6” in 1963 in Odense organised by the painter J.V. Martin in collaboration with Guy Debord, the journal The Situationist Times edited by Jacqueline de Jong, Asger Jorn's political critique of natural science and the films of the Drakabygget movement.
Some excellent heterodox marxism – much from the pen of the recently deceased Robert Kurz – can be found on exit-online.org (that link to some of the work in English translation). Worth a read.
But how did Agamben get here, to this radicalized nihilism, where he swims delighting in the fact he has overcome (or concluded) Heidegger’s project? He has come across a long journey that is articulated in two directions: one a truly political-judicial critique, the other an archeological one (a theological-political dig). Carl Schmitt is at the center of this journey: he guides the two directions, the one that leads to qualifying power as exception and therefore as force and destiny, an absolute instrumentation without any technical quality and the sadism of finality; on the other hand, one that leads to the qualification of potency as theological illusion, i.e. impotency, in the sense of the impossibility of relying on its effectiveness. Therefore, he incites unproductiveness, thus denouncing the necessary frustration of will, of the masochism of duty. The two go together. It is nearly impossible, recovering the actuality of the Schmittian concepts of the “state of exception” and the “theological-political”, to understand if they represent the biggest danger or instead if they are simply an opening to their truth. Metaphysics and political diagnostics surrender to indistinctness. But that would be irrelevant if this indistinctness didn’t drown any possible resistance. Let’s go back to the two identified lines: the whole journey that follows Homo Sacer develops on this double track. The second track is summarized in The Kingdom and the Glory...
The sacred dilemma of inoperosity. On Giorgio Agamben’s Opus Dei by Antonio Negri.
Slavoj Žižek in Conversation with Jonathan Derbyshire at Central Saint Martins (I've seen Žižek a few times 'live' now – and this is him at his best, at his most philosophical, I think.)
Looking forward to this: Liam Sprod's Nuclear Futurism: The work of art in the age of remainderless destruction (out end of September):
Starting from the end of history, the end of art and the failure of the future set out by such ends, Nuclear Futurism reinvigorates art, literature and philosophy through the unlikely alliance of hauntology and the Italian futurists. Tracing the paradoxes of the possibilities of total nuclear destruction reveals the terminal condition of culture in the time of ends, where the logic of the apocalyptic without apocalypse holds sway. These paradoxes also open the path for a new vision of the future in the form of experimental art and literature. By re-examining the thought of both Derrida and Heidegger with regards to the history of art, the art of history and their responses to the most dangerous technology of nuclear weapons the future is exposed as a progressive event, rather than the atrophied and apocalyptic to-come of the present world. It is happening now, opening up through the force of art and literature and charting a new path for a futural philosophy.
... as soon as soon as you have a conversation if there’s a diagnosis in pregnancy for Down syndrome, you see that metaphor, you don’t see the person. That’s the problem – it’s always a dehumanising exercise when you’re perceived as something else. Otherness and stigmatism mean that you’re not seen as human. And that’s where it starts to have real effects on people (more...)
In his stunning, controversial recent article for the New York Times, author China Mieville describes the London Docklands, the definitive Thatcherite regenerated playground of the rich as “a thuggish and hideous middle-finger-flipped glass-and-steel at the poor of the East End, every night a Moloch's urinal dripping sallow light on the Isle of Dogs”. London is a city being overbuilt for the advantage of someone, but that someone doesn't appear to be the people who make London breathe. As Mieville writes, “Everyone knows there's a catastrophe unfolding, that few can afford to live in their own city.”
In his recent review for Eye Magazine, it is within this population that Rick Poynor locates the author of Savage Messiah, Laura Oldfield Ford. "She tells East Enders sick of being 'pogrommed' out of their estates by yuppies that the solution lies in their own hands: Wreck it! Loot it! Burn it!" he writes: "Embedded at ground level, Ford exposes a dispossessed, deeply disaffected alternative London to which out-of-touch political masters should have paid more heed."
Via the Verso blog.
But it is not all. We have the novel. In his diaries from his time in prison, published at the same time as The Unseen, Antonio Negri cites Kundera’s fear that ‘our prison records will be the only things left of us.’ They are not. What is hopeful is not the conclusion of Balestrini’s novel, but the existence of the novel itself. Its protagonists have not been reduced simply to their records, but come to us in a living and pungent voice. It is unstintingly real, and poses devastating questions, questions which are ever more important to answer today: how to survive in a way that’s worth surviving? (More...)
The starting point is a George Eliot quote from Middlemarch, a sentiment is expressed of a jadedness with art that lies outside life and doesn't improve the world and favouring instead a view in which everyone's life should be made beautiful. This directly relates to the question what art is for. It reminds us not to obviate the question of what art is for. And what is art for? This is answered by Murphy: To keep us all in good order. p4 How is this to be understood? Murphy describes an instance of protest, by Brian Haw, in 2001, against the war in Iraq. This protest was dismantled later. by the police. An artist called Wallinger reconstructed this protest which was then not dismantled by the police (more...)
It’s a hard book to review, though, because it’s doing several irreducibly different things at once (which I’ll try to lay out in as logical a fashion as I can manage). Despite the singularity of its title, Debt is more like James Frazer’s Golden Bough than one of those books on How Cod Explains History or whatever; it’s a dazzlingly syncretic, coherent, and multi-faceted effort to re-narrate virtually the entirety of human history, by starting from a concept and opening outward to include everything else. But it’s actually not even that big in an absolute sense; if you strip away the one hundred pages of endnotes (which actually tend to put it on the too-short side) you’re left with just shy of 400 pages, a book that almost feels short and constrained as a result, since Graeber weaves together texts as apparently distinct as ancient Vedic scriptures and Sumerian temples with Nixon’s decision to float the dollar and urban legends about vaults of gold buried under the World Trade. If anything, the limitation of this big book is actually that it’s not big enough, that it gestures towards — without fully including – so very much that is within the ken of its ambition. But the short version of this review, simply, is this: I can’t really picture a better book than this one with those ambitions. You should read this book, if you like reading books of this kind. It’s a really fucking good book (more...)
Got Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere on Monday. Read it in two sittings. Very good indeed: compelling journalism, good basic economic analysis. Essentially, a book-length expansion of his blog post Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere which went viral a year ago. Strong recommendation...
Incisive grassroots account of the new global revolutions by acclaimed BBC journalist and author of Meltdown...
The world is facing a wave of uprisings, protests and revolutions: Arab dictators swept away, public spaces occupied, slum-dwellers in revolt, cyberspace buzzing with utopian dreams. Events we were told were consigned to history—democratic revolt and social revolution—are being lived by millions of people.
In this compelling new book, Paul Mason explores the causes and consequences of this great unrest. From Cairo to Athens, Wall Street and Westminster to Manila, Mason goes in search of the changes in society, technology and human behaviour that have propelled a generation onto the streets in search of social justice. In a narrative that blends historical insight with first-person reportage, Mason shines a light on these new forms of activism, from the vast, agile networks of cyberprotest to the culture wars and tent camps of the #occupy movement. The events, says Mason, reflect the expanding power of the individual and call for new political alternatives to elite rule and global poverty.
Speaking of autonomism, and as an example of what post-populist media can achieve ... here's Federico Campagna giving an absolutely enthralling history of Italian workerism/ autonomism on Resonance FM, and here's a grab-bag of autonomist-related resources and links produced by the ever-excellent DSG.
Wikipedians spend thousands of hours every week working tirelessly in reviewing and removing infringing content. Wikipedia talk pages show tremendous care about protecting copyright and sophisticated study on the many nuances of what constitutes infringement as opposed to legitimate speech. Wikipedia is based on a model of free licenses. Every Wikipedian is a rights owner, licensing their work under free licenses. Infringement harms our mission; free licenses do not work with infringement. Wikipedia has a mission of sharing knowledge around the world, and that is not possible when the knowledge is tainted with infringement. So, yes, Wikipedians care deeply about protecting the rights of others and ensuring against infringement.
But this does not mean Wikipedians are willing to trample on free expression like SOPA and PIPA. The proposed legislation seeks to take down sites entirely, because courts and others simply don't have time to worry about the nuances of copyright law and free expression. That is what is troubling. When the remedies are bludgeons, when entire sites are taken down, when everyone assumes that all content is infringing because some is, we lose something important. We lose the nuances of copyright about which our community cares, we lose our values based on protecting free speech, we lose what we represent. The Internet cannot turn into a world where free expression is ignored to accomodate overly simple solutions that gratify powerful rightowners who spend lots of money to promote the regulation of expression. There are better ways, like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to find the right approach to legitimate copyright enforcement without trampling on free expression. SOPA and PIPA don't represent these values, and for that reason we ask you to oppose these bills (read more...)
Debt is the most effective way to take a relation of violent subordination and make the victims feel that it’s their fault. Colonial regimes did this all the time; they would charge people for the cost of their own conquest, via taxes. However, using debt in this way also has a notorious tendency to rebound, because the subtle thing about debt relations is that, on a certain level, they are premised on equality—we are both equal parties to a contract. This both makes the sting of inequality worse, because it implies you should be equal to your creditor but you somehow messed up, but also, makes it possible to start saying ‘wait a minute, who owes what to who here?’ But of course once you do that, you have accepted the idea that debt really is the essence of morality. You’ve accepted the masters’ language.Nice interview with David Graeber (who I interviewed on RSB back in 2007) over on the impressive website of The White Review.
Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, goes back to his native Stockport to talk to Stuart Jeffries, and some local people, about the word 'chav' and what it means to them...
“Since there are so many people who are depressed – and I maintain that the cause for much of this depression is social and political – then converting that depression into a political anger is an urgent political project....Anti-depressants and therapy are the opium of the masses now.” Mark Fisher
Interview with writer, theorist, and teacher Mark Fisher about his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?
Useful chunky and descriptive review by Tony Mckenna of S.S. Prawer's Karl Marx and World Literature (long a favourite of mine, so great to see Verso bring this back into print recently) over on Marx & Philosophy Review of Books:
Prawer’s book, Karl Marx and World Literature – a reprint of the publication which first appeared in 1976 – represents a significant undertaking. This book endeavours to chart the vast array of literary works which most profoundly influenced Marx, and to show how these were channelled through the prism of his political philosophy as it developed over time.
The difficulty of such a project cannot be overstated. Marx was a polymath; a voracious reader who moved easily and swiftly between philosophy and economics, politics and natural science, while his tastes in fiction and poetry were no less diverse. To try to map such movements across the panorama of his life and to exhibit their necessary but often invisible interconnection makes for a daunting task. Nevertheless it is one Professor Prawer has approached with the tenacity of a bloodhound, aided by his own encyclopaedic knowledge of literature and an indigenous familiarity with the German literary milieu...
Prawer’s incisive descriptions and connections of Marx’s reading of Shakespeare stand out. It is not unknown that Marx had a fondness for Shakespeare; and yet part of the beauty of this book, written in the 1970s, shows in detail just how Marx registered in Shakespeare an intuitive, mystified understanding of the nature of the society which was coming into being at the time of his writing, and which Marx would later relate to the nineteenth century providing a more forensic diagnosis – Timon of Athens would describe gold as making ‘Wrong, right; base, noble; old young; coward, Valiant’ – and so Prawer draws attention to a similar passage in Marx only one which springs from his scientific methodology – ‘I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful woman … I am a wicked, dishonest, unscrupulous, dull-witted man, but money is honoured and so is its possesor’. (77) There is not a causal connection between the two, as Prawer is sometimes liable to suggest, but rather it is the culmination of classical German philosophy applied to British political economy by Marx, which allows him to perceive, and quite correctly so, those elements in literature which anticipate the true nature of a society underwritten by the commodity form...
Lynsey Hansley reviews Owen Jones's "indignant, well-argued debut" Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class which, she writes, "begins with a joke: 'It's sad that Woolworth's is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?' This was uttered by the host of a dinner party attended by the author in "a gentrified part of east London", at which liberal views are taken as a given and, though everyone present has a professional job, not everyone is white, male or straight."
Jones, who is in his late 20s and has worked both as a trade-union lobbyist and as a parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP, doesn't say how he reacted to this mindless put-down at the time. Did he refuse to eat the blackcurrant cheesecake that was being "carefully sliced" as his host sought to fill an awkward silence? Did he storm out and call time on their friendship? Whatever he did on the night, its casual malice led him, indirectly, to write this book, which argues that class hatred is the last acceptable prejudice.
Chavs is persuasively argued, and packed full of good reporting and useful information. Jones singles out for opprobrium middle-class contempt towards working-class people, those regarded by rightwing commentators such as Simon Heffer as the "feral underclass". In this caricature, peddled by spittle-flecked websites such as chavscum.co.uk and tacitly endorsed by the mass media, "chav" means "underclass", which means working-class people who don't keep their noses clean or behave impeccably. The word's etymology is contested: some accounts associate its origin with chavi, a Romany word for "child" or "youth", which developed into "charva" – meaning scallywag – used for a long time in the northeast. Others treat it as an acronym for "Council Housed and Violent". Its wider use took off about 10 years ago. In early 2004 I worked briefly for a tabloid newspaper whose offices rang with its daily use (along with its bedmate, "pikey"), directed not towards the paper's readers, but towards those it was assumed would be too "thick" to read any newspaper at all. Chavs, Jones writes, are unremittingly portrayed as "Thick. Violent. Criminal." Travel brochures still apparently promise "Chav-Free Activity Holidays", while the London fitness chain Gymbox has felt free to advertise classes in "Chav Fighting" (more...)
Slavoj Žižek on the meaning of the recent UK riots:
Repetition, according to Hegel, plays a crucial role in history: when something happens just once, it may be dismissed as an accident, something that might have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event repeats itself, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is unfolding. When Napoleon lost at Leipzig in 1813, it looked like bad luck; when he lost again at Waterloo, it was clear that his time was over. The same holds for the continuing financial crisis. In September 2008, it was presented by some as an anomaly that could be corrected through better regulations etc; now that signs of a repeated financial meltdown are gathering it is clear that we are dealing with a structural phenomenon (more...)
Love this: Totality for Kids – excellent website by McKenzie Wark author of The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International.
Riots have their own logic. Both those who celebrate and decry them tend to think of riots as irrational outbursts, which can be channeled back towards order either by offering a few concessions or by sending in more police. There is invariably some moralizing that goes along with all this, none of it terribly helpful for understanding why riots are a constant of modern urban life rather than some inexplicable exception (more...)
The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr asks a man on the street, 'What is a chav?'. He answers, “A chav is someone who wears a tracksuit, has an earring, and a haircut which is grade zero on the sides, grade three on the top.”
This contrasts with Owen Jones's argument in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Arguing that the chav figure is a caricature that encourages the ridicule and hatred of working-class people, Jones states, “The 1980s saw a dramatic assault on all aspects of working class life, on unions, and council houses, and communities, and with it working class pride. It's been replaced by middle class pride, and the working classes have come to be seen as something to escape from.” Calder discusses the media's role in caricaturing working-class people in this way Britain's TV:
To find what used to be termed “the respectable working class” you need to drive 10 miles from Brentwood, and travel back 30 years in time, to the other side of the county, and the other side of Thatcherism: to the Dagenham of Made in Dagenham... It's only here, in the past, that you'll find a world of proud and happy working class folk; people who are empowered by trade unions... who are diligent and law-abiding and happy to call themselves working class.
In 2011, Jones says, hardly anyone does. When I ask Tony Benn why that is he says: “It's because there's this idea that somehow you've failed if you're poor.” The idea of chavs as a semi-feral underclass has emerged, he suggests, because “the media are very hostile to these people. What they're doing is suggesting that if they're sacked it's in some way their fault. And if you blame unemployment on the victims, you are ignoring the logic of what has actually happened.”
From The Demonization of the Working Class over on the Verso blog.
Lukács first published the Hungarian version of Soul and Form in 1910, so this is its centennial. In the hundred years since the first edition, consider how vastly the world has changed; even Lukács’s own thinking went though profound transformation after penning these essays. Yet the essays still speak to us powerfully: of the difficulty of meaningful communication and the forms though which it can be achieved, of the need to criticize forms of authority without taking on the mantle of authoritarianism, of the sort of suffering that characterizes human alienation and of its honest assessment. In other words, these essays engage ideas that continue to trouble and encourage us, not merely as topics in aesthetic or political theory, but as matters of binding human concern. In a way, one wants to insist that these essays are searching, evocative, and often downright beautiful, simply in themselves. Yet Lukács also addresses a diverse set of thinkers, including his favorite author-heroes, among them Plato, Novalis, Kierkegaard, and Stephan George. And as he does, Lukács inaugurates a unique approach to aesthetics and literary criticism. From the perspective of our distance from that inauguration, we can appreciate where the thought presented here indicates a serious challenge to well-known readings of Lukács as well as to common approaches of our contemporary literary criticism. So, for us personally, when we began rereading these essays we were struck by the perspective they allowed on Lukács’s thinking and on subsequent developments in criticism as well as by their contemporary relevance...
Disobedience seems constitutively imbricated in a relation to law and authority that is grossly hierarchical, unequal, and infantilizing. The disobedience of the child and sinner appears in the context of a supposition of a preference for obedience; obedience is the field that is disturbed and in need of restoration. In some instances, the child’s disobedience invites, perhaps unconsciously, authority’s reassertion. The same may hold for the sinner. For example, Nietzsche’s account of the role of the priests in making man an interesting animal reminds us of the benefits of giving meaning to particular acts; at least God is interested. What might have been a simple expression of strength takes on a signifying power—it means something; there is a difference between the hawk devouring the lamb and the strong devouring the weak. As sin, acts become violations that give presence to, that manifest, law in the sense of divine commands. Invoking disobedience politically, then, initially seemed to me to construe politics in terms of childish petulance, resistance, and misbehavior or, worst, in terms of the sinful acts of the fallen...
Ernst Bloch is most famous for some standard phrases which have gone into the German language but which are very rarely, if at all, attributed to him. Der aufrechte Gang (the upright gait), die konkrete Utopie (concrete utopia), das Prinzip Hoffnung (the Principle of Hope - also the title of his three volume magnum opus, published in the 1950s) are just three of the concepts which demonstrate his commitment to rescuing political, historical and philosophical change back from the dogmatists of stasis and to putting individual human concerns and rights back at the centre of philosophical considerations. Behind all of his work is a both a documentation of, but also a contribution to the optimistic drive forward into new philosophical territories. From his early Nietzschean and expressionist work Geist der Utopie (spirit of utopia), via his studies of the relationship between Religion and History (Atheismus im Christentum) through to his analysis of human dignity and natural law (Naturrecht und menschliche Würde - written after his experience of having lived under Stalinist rule in the GDR), his constant concern was with demonstrating that we are not human beings but human becomings. His thoughts on these issues have been decisive inspirations for many writers and thinkers in the past decades and, in particular, his ideas about the role of religion in society are becoming increasingly pertinent in the post-secular age...
From the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies homepage.
In Berger's kitchen is an etching of the angel announcing to the shepherds the birth of Christ, which he made when he was a teenage militant left-wing activist. He says he has never practised any religion but over the years has had close friendships with many people who do, including the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's brother, who was a monk in a nearby monastery in France. "And from about the age of 14 two things have coexisted within me. On the one hand a kind of materialism, which includes the Marxist view of history. On the other a sense of the sacred, the religious if you like. This duality never felt contradictory to me, but most other people thought it was. It is beautifully resolved by Spinoza, who shows that it is not a duality, but in fact an essential unity."
Liberalism: Slavery, imperialism and exploitation – panel discussion with Domenico Losurdo, Robin Blackburn and Richard Seymour. Tonight, May 5th 2011, at King’s College London. Hosted by the European Studies Department in association with Verso Books.
In this definitive historical investigation of the formation of liberalism from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, Domenico Losurdo overturns complacent and self-congratulatory accounts by showing that, from its very origins, liberalism and its main thinkers—Locke, Burke, Tocqueville, Constant, Bentham, Sieyès and others—have been bound up with the defense of the thoroughly illiberal policies of slavery, colonialism, genocide, racism and elitism. Losurdo probes the inner contradictions of liberalism, also focusing on minority currents that moved to more radical positions, and provides an authoritative account of the relationship between the domestic and colonial spheres in the constitution of a liberal order.
The triumph of the liberal ideal of the self-government of civil society—waving the flag of freedom, fighting against despotism—at the same time feeds the development of the slave trade, digging an insurmountable and unprecedented gap between the different races. Domenico Losurdo
Domenico Losurdo is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Urbino, Italy and the author of many books, most recently Liberalism: A Counter-History.
What are grey vampires and how do they retard the insurrectionary potential of digital discourse? How does Derrida’s notion of hauntology contribute to an understanding of dubstep artist Burial? Is Basic Instinct 2, routinely derided as a cine-atrocity, a Lacanian reworking of Ballard, Baudrillard and Bataille in service of the creation of a “phantasmatic, cybergothic London”? What is interpassivity and in what ways has it come to define the corporatized incarceration of modern academia?2 Talks by Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism
RSB interviewee Dan Hind was a publisher for more than ten years, working for, among others, Penguin and Random House. In 2009 he left the industry to develop a program of media reform. In The Return of the Public he argued for the democratisation of the media is a prerequisite for self-determinaton and rational political change. As he explained in an interview with New Left Project, “if we want to have an account of the world that is broadly accurate, and that can therefore provide a basis for rational decision-making, we need to create mechanisms in which each citizen has some commissioning power and some publishing power”.
US military spending now nearly rivals the rest of the world combined. Proof once more that austerity measures are politically-motivated, not economically driven. World military expenditure is estimated to have been $1630 billion in 2010, an increase of 1.3 per cent in real terms:
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has a new report out highlighting global military expenditures... the U.S. retains a healthy lead.
Regionally, defense spending in Europe has fallen 2.8 percent while spending in South America has risen by 5.8 percent and in Africa by 5.2 percent. Brazil drove a lot of the South American growth. Asia rose only a modest 1.4 percent, which the Institute said was slower than previous years. Overall, global military expenditures ticked up slightly at 1.3 percent, the slowest growth rate since 2001 (via realclearworld.com)
Not in so many words, but effectively. Here is what [Bank of England Governor Mervyn King] says: the City is responsible for the crash, and the ensuing bank bailouts; these, between them are responsible for the recession and the parlous government finances; these mainly effect people who had nothing to do with what caused them; he is surprised there isn’t more anger about this.
How could this be? That hoary old Marxist nugget, false consciousness, basically seems about the only workable solution as to why the anaesthetized population of Britain refuses to adequately express anger at what amounts to a massive screwing over by the wealthy on everyone else...
The only other factor might be trends noted by the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Zygmunt Bauman. Bourdieu introduced the idea of precarization, the making precarious of people’s positions as a means of social control, expressed perhaps most perfectly in the shifting of power within labour relations in favour of capital. Bauman extends and expands this in his idea of liquid modernity, a place where relations of all kinds lose their fixity and become mobile...
Where labour remains tied to location, capital has become innately mobile, and uses the constant threat of withdrawal as a means of control, shattering the symmetry and destroying the necessary accord, and so stacking the cards entirely in its favour such that it can do as it pleases. The locationally grounded is trumped by the locationally loosed. Bauman was writing this in about 2000; what is incredible is quite how naked this process has become. It is the constant explicit threat: if you don’t like we what we are doing, or make any steps against us, we will leave. The divorce between the locationally tied masses and the elite mobility of capital is quite openly outlined, the gun of tax haven decamping is an ever present one held hard against the head of the populace. This is contemporary capitalism.
From Michael Bhaskar's 10 Membranes blog, written on the 3rd of March.
Worth quoting, I think, because even though the 26th March demonstration showed that people are angry, the continuing cuts programme show that we are not nearly angry enough...
It's as if the bloodbaths of Iraq and Afghanistan had been a bad dream. The liberal interventionists are back. As insurrection and repression has split Libya in two and the death toll has mounted, the old Bush-and-Blair battle-cries have returned to haunt us.
The same western leaders who happily armed and did business with the Gaddafi regime until a fortnight ago have now slapped sanctions on the discarded autocrat and blithely referred him to the international criminal court the United States won't recognise.
While American and British politicians have ramped up talk of a no-fly zone, US warships have been sent to the Mediterranean, a stockpile of chemical weapons has been duly discovered, special forces have been in action, Italy has ditched a non-aggression treaty with Tripoli and a full-scale western military intervention in yet another Arab country is suddenly a serious prospect.
Egged on by his neoconservative lieutenants, David Cameron went furthest. Fresh from his tour selling arms to Gulf despots, the British prime minister talked excitedly about arming Libyan rebels, and only staged a hasty retreat when he found himself running ahead of the US administration...
Seamus Milne in the Guardian pointing out both the lunacy and the hypocrisy of the interventionist position on Libya.
The deepest economic crisis in eighty years prompted a shallow revival of Marxism. During the panicky period between the failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the official end of the American recession in the summer of 2009, several mainstream journals, displaying a less than sincere mixture of broadmindedness and chagrin, hailed Marx as a neglected seer of capitalist crisis. The trendspotting Foreign Policy led the way, with a cover story on Marx for its Next Big Thing issue, enticing readers with a promise of star treatment: ‘Lights. Camera. Action. Das Kapital. Now.’
Benjamin Kunkel reviews The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism and A Companion to Marx’s ‘Capital’ both by David Harvey in the LRB.
I'm not sure quite how I missed the existence of this one, but it was only when ambling around the LRB Bookshop t'other week that I came across Peter Linebaugh's The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Linebaugh, as I've doubtles said before, is the writer of one of my all time favourite history books, The London Hanged, as well as a fascinating history of piracy (The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, with RSB interviewee Marcus Rediker).
The publisher blurbs The Magna Carta Manifesto thusly:
This remarkable book shines a fierce light on the current state of liberty and shows how longstanding restraints against tyranny - and the rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and due process of law, and the prohibition of torture - are being abridged. In providing a sweeping history of Magna Carta, the source of these protections since 1215, this powerful book demonstrates how these ancient rights are repeatedly laid aside when the greed of privatization, the lust for power, and the ambition of empire seize a state. Peter Linebaugh draws on primary sources to construct a wholly original history of the Great Charter and its scarcely-known companion, the Charter of the Forest, which was created at the same time to protect the subsistence rights of the poor.
Blogger Jodi Dean (i cite) has a new book out: Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. It has just landed chez moi and looks provocative and insightful (no surprise if you've ever read Jodi's excellent blog):
Geert Lovink: "If Ballard invited the 20th century viewer to witness their own mass atrocity exhibition, we now have the update for the 21st century: Jodi Dean's demolition job of the Internet as we know it. With Blog Theory we can finally terminate the hype of blogging and seriously engage the deeply distracted condition of the networked present. The incestuous relationship between journalism and bloggers is exposed to make way for critical reflections on techniques of self-management for our all-too-fragile identities."
McKenzie Wark: "Blog Theory is refreshingly free of received ideas about the wonderful new world of media. Jodi Dean manages the difficult art of being critical of new media without becoming a cranky curmudgeon. She uses psychoanalytic concepts to produce a synoptic view of the decline of symbolic efficiency under communicative capitalism, and the way the blogosphere participates in this dissipation of the totems and tokens of what we once thought of as the public sphere. She clears the way for imagining the politics of media by other means."
Sean Cubitt: "What happens to politics when there is no one in charge? The answer Jodi Dean gives, in this coruscating, rock'n'roll ride through new political and media theory, is communicative capitalism--the obligation to communicate in a new world turned into a market for communications. Dean's radical call for a new media politics will challenge political scientists, communication theorists, and media activists to sever the ties, and create and unforeseeable, dramatically material future."
[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.” United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
Reading Paul Taylor's book Žižek and the Media reminded me of Donald Rumsfeld widely ridiculed comment about "known knowns" – and it reminded me that I never thought it was ridiculous! Don't get me wrong, Rumsfeld is a warmonger, and whatever comes out of his mouth should be treated exactly the same way as anything that comes out of the mouth of any politician, that is with extreme prejudice. But, in and of itself, Rumsfeld's "known knowns" address strikes me as perfectly cogent, if not surprisingly illuminating: we know stuff; we know we don't know other stuff; but there is some stuff that is so outside our ken that it cannot be factored into our thinking. The world surprises us. Plans will always be scuppered by the unforeseen – and that, itself, is worth factoring into one's planning.
Žižek, of course, gives it a further spin:
If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns,' that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the 'unknown knowns' - the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.
The danger for Žižek isn't the unforeseen, but the seen yet unacknowledged. Our plans suffer self-sabotage because we don't readily recognise how incoherent our selfhood actually is. It seems to me that here is where both Žižek and Rumsfeld have something unexpected to say about the novel.
Rumsfeld warns us against the limits of planning; Zizek that our planning is always already predicated on what shouldn't be unpredictable but is. It strikes me that these suggestions about the limits of knowledge, one from a realist's point of view and one from a psychoanalytical point of view, can be read as warnings to a writer: you don't know what you know, nor what you don't know, nor hardly even who you are, and it is only in the writing that you might find out.
Just an affirmative shout, if one were needed, for the LRB blog. Recent posts have included excellent articles on the Wellcome Collection’s High Society exhibition and Jeremy
Hardy Harding on human rights violations in Western Sahara, but I think my favourite, dating back to the end of November, was a piece by James Meek on the Irish bank bail out:
You could be forgiven for not noticing it, but the new British government has just been forced to do what the old British government was forced to do: bail out Britain’s banks. The bail-out of Ireland marks a new stage in the privatisation of government by the financial system. Two governments, the British and the Irish, have been effectively taken over by a venal banking network which, using ordinary savers and productive businesses as hostages, forces the state to cough up whatever sums are required to save it from the consequences of its own greed and idiocy.
Even before coming to power the dominant Conservative side of Britain’s governing coalition was making Gordon Brown the scapegoat for the UK being broke, maxed out, skint, and claiming that only by savage cuts in state spending could Britain hope to salvage some vestige of public services among the ruins. Why, then, is this same British government about to lend Ireland, a member of the Eurozone, some £7 billion to see it through its current financial difficulties? (More...)
You've probably read this, and it might be a week or so old, but this is an excellent piece from Johann Hari (who has considerably upped his game over the last year)...
Every one of us owes a debt to Julian Assange. Thanks to him, we now know that our governments are pursuing policies that place you and your family in considerably greater danger. It's only because of his leaks that we know the US government has secretly launched war on yet another Muslim country, sanctioned torture, kidnapped innocent people from the streets of free countries and intimidated the police into hushing it up, and covered up the killing of 15,000 civilians - five times the number killed on 9/11. Each one of these acts has increased the number of jihadis. We can only change these policies if we know about them - and Assange has given us the black-and-white proof (more...)
Novelist China Miéville's superb Letter to a progressive Liberal Democrat:
So it’s war. We knew it would be.
Obviously, you don’t ask the Tories how they can do this. They, streetfighters of long-standing, the current vogue for simpering head-boy bonhomie notwithstanding, are clear about their aims, interests and concomitant attacks.
Nor is this message addressed to Vince Cable or the wolf-eyed replicant Clegg. Whatever theatrics of choicelessness and discomfort the former occasionally insinuates, he, good Orange Booker, knows just what he’s up to. And the latter dispenses even with the mummery.
But you - you’re one of those Liberal Democrats who takes seriously a commitment to some kind of progressive agenda. You’re another thing. One doesn’t have to share all your politics to believe you sincere. So it has to be asked of you: WTF?
I'm interested in the way a whole stratum of the liberal literati (Rushdie, to some extent Ian McEwan, A C Grayling, obviously Amis and Hitchens) - the very people you'd have expected to be guardians of the liberal flame of tolerance and understanding - have, at the very first assault, rushed into these caricatured postures driven by panic. I'm very struck by how those who are making ugly, illiberal, supremacist noises about the superiority of the west are precisely the sort of literary and liberal characters from whom you'd expect more imagination, openness and sensitivity...
A question suggests itself -- and I'm certainly not the first to ask it: why in a book ostensibly about Karl Marx does Jacques Derrida divert himself, and us, at such considerable length, considering 'Hamlet'? If we choose not to accuse Derrida of bad faith or wilful obscurantism -- which, anyway, would only show our own bad faith, or an obscure lack of understanding concerning his project -- then we must take him absolutely at his word. We read Spectres of Marx and note that 'Hamlet' allows Derrida to think, and to think of Marx. 'Hamlet' supplies him with the metaphors that allow him to unpack Marx's own metaphors and allow us to see how these metaphors structure Marx, structure 'Hamlet' and could deconstruct (unstructure) our idea both of Marxism and the destructive reality of our capitalist present.
But is something more happening here? Should we ask: can the political only be thought about via/with fictional narrative and the metaphors it lends? Further, can we only think progressively about our collective present and other possible futures if the metaphors we use are deeply embedded in our collective life? Jacques Ranciere, in The Aesthetic Unconscious, problematises our understanding of Freud's use of the Oedipus myth. Did Freud use the Oedipus myth as a metaphor for the unconscious, or was the unconscious already shaped by Oedipus's story? Did Freud use the story or did the story use Freud? Bluntly, I don't think we can think without literature. I don't think we do think without literature. Further, I don't think we can possibly think ourselves out of our current impasse, and the impasse of our thinking, without it.
One of the very many obtuse things about David Shields' obtuse "manifesto" Reality Hunger -- an obtuse book which contains many wonderful quotes about literature and life and which could have been simply a very fine commonplace book -- is its obtuse and strident assertion that the line between the real and the fictive was in any way ever absolute and that the commingling of these two supposedly separate realms will save literature from redundancy.
Mark Fisher describes the foreclosing of (political) thought that could envision different (social) futures as Capitalist Realism. His short book is highly recommended: not least to someone like Shields who seems to think that reality is a given rather than a perpetually socially constructed fiction which we half-wittingly recreate each and every day of our lives.
If the recent banking crisis showed us anything it was that the make-believe is at the heart of what we tell ourselves is real -- and that fiction becomes fact when we have faith enough, or fear, in the (empty) lies that keep us in our places. Those who rule our world kill to maintain the presence of this absence every single day. Every day thousands starve or go cold, kids are bombarded in Iraq whilst neoliberal bloggers cheer, countless bore themselves stupid in offices -- all so that bankers in Saville Row suits are maintained and preserved, and maintain the fiction that thinking beyond a system predicated on their maintainance and preservation is an impossibility.
What is deconstruction? Or, perhaps, that better question from earlier: what was Derrida saying it was when he wrote a book about Marx that was actually much about 'Hamlet'? He was, surely, demonstrating -- more than that, he instantiated it in the very weft and warp of his argument -- that the political is structured by the fictive; is, indeed, always fictive, and needs to be read and understood like this to be undermined and disbelieved.
Things are ever not right here in the 'state of Denmark'. The palace stinks of corruption. The need for change haunts Elsinore; a ghost harrows the corridors and halls. And a spectre is haunting Europe, too: it is called fiction. It is reality's own bad faith. Pace Shields, there is no need to mash-up the fictive and the real to reinvigorate narrative, but there is certainly a need to read the real as always already fictional and thus detonate reality's murderous presumptions.
It has just come to my attention (first via Booksurfer) that the anarchist writer Colin Ward has died. Sad, sad news:
Colin's contribution to anarchism has been invaluable - he founded, edited and often wrote Anarchy magazine for over ten years. In Anarchy, and a whole series of books and hundreds of articles he wrote about the practical application of anarchist ideas to social organisation. and outlined anarchism as a sociological theory. He is probably best known for Anarchy in Action, but every book he wrote provided new insights into the revolutionary potential of the way ordinary people organise and live their lives in the face of enormous odds (more...)
This via the Five Leaves Blog:
The anarchist writer Colin Ward, who died on the night of 11th February, was indirectly responsible for the existence of Five Leaves. We’d met years before, and like several people I later met, I’d been vaguely collecting Colin’s Anarchy (first series), still the best anarchist magazine produced in this country. A small group of us in Nottingham, publishing as Old Hammond Press, brought out a couple of pamphlets by Colin, one on housing, one on William Morris’s ideas of work. But in 1994 I got so fed up waiting for Faber to bring out the paperback of The Allotment: its landscape and culture that I offered to buy the rights. Colin said that as long as his co-writer, David Crouch, was in agreement he’d be pleased if Faber were to hand them over, and if it helped, the co-authors would do without royalties as they were simply pleased to have the book available in paperback.
Well, thousands of copies later Colin never regretted his generosity, and as well being the first book published by Five Leaves (though initially, for the sake of any bibliographers reading, Mushroom Bookshop), for years The Allotment kept the press afloat. We went on to publish Colin’s Arcadia for All (co-written with Dennis Hardy), Talking Anarchy (with David Goodway) and Cotters and Squatters. Colin also wrote the introduction to our edition of The London Years by Rudolf Rocker, who of course he knew. Rocker in turn knew Peter Kropotkin, whose Mutual Aid had such an influence on Colin as a political thinker (more...)
An excellent post at Lenin's Tomb, on Channel 4's recent, dreadful commentary on the Royal Mail, and on the response of the pseudonymous postal worker Roy Mayall to the progamme. As Lenin points out, Mayall's book Dear Granny Smith is a wonderful read. It's a great companion piece to Capitalist Realism, in fact, and anyone who has enjoyed Capitalist Realism's account of the immiseration of public service labour will get a lot from Dear Granny Smith.
Actually, another dimension of capitalist realism came into focus after reading Roy Mayall's response to the Dispatches documentary, and his reply to the producer's defence of the documentary. This kind of "undercover filming"-style documentary is one version capitalist realism. It presents us with an apparently unmediated, ostensibly depoliticised "reality", our perception of which is in fact shaped by the (misleading) "context" provided by "experts" (more...)
Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Raoul Vaneigem over at Info Exchange:
HUO: Today, more than forty years after May ‘68, how do you feel life and society have evolved?
RV: We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968 (more...)
You may recall Luther Blissett's Q from four or five years back. Well, because the Luther Blissett "shared name" is dead, the Italian anarchists who wrote Q under that moniker now write as Wu Ming. They have a new book out, called Manituana, following their earlier 54. More details about this via the Manituana website.
Is socialism desirable? Is it even possible? In this concise book, one of the world's leading political philosophers presents with clarity and wit a compelling moral case for socialism and argues that the obstacles in its way are exaggerated.
There are times, G.A. Cohen notes, when we all behave like socialists. On a camping trip, for example, campers wouldn't dream of charging each other to use a soccer ball or for fish that they happened to catch. Campers do not give merely to get, but relate to each other in a spirit of equality and community. Would such socialist norms be desirable across society as a whole? Why not? Whole societies may differ from camping trips, but it is still attractive when people treat each other with the equal regard that such trips exhibit.
But, however desirable it may be, many claim that socialism is impossible. Cohen writes that the biggest obstacle to socialism isn't, as often argued, intractable human selfishness -- it's rather the lack of obvious means to harness the human generosity that is there. Lacking those means, we rely on the market. But there are many ways of confining the sway of the market: there are desirable changes that can move us toward a socialist society in which, to quote Albert Einstein, humanity has "overcome and advanced beyond the predatory stage of human development."
Interesting news via Booksurfer: "Cambridge University Library have launched a fund-raising campaign to acquire the archive of First world War poet Siegried Sassoon's personal papers. These include a draft of the controversial anti-war statement A Soldier's Declaration. The archive is comprised of seven boxes of material, among which are 'Sassoon's journals, pocket notebooks compiled on the Western Front, poetry books and photographs, love-letters to his wife Hester, and letters sent to Sassoon by writers and other distinguished figures'."
The Soldier's Declaration, made in July 1917 was "an act of wilful defiance of military authority. Sent to his commanding officer, it states his refusal to return to duty and his belief that the war, which he "entered as a war of defence and liberation", had become "a war of aggression and conquest" which was being "deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it."
The declaration was subsequently read in the House of Commons on July 30, and caused a storm which only abated after fellow officer Robert Graves persuaded the authorities to send Sassoon to Craiglockhart Hospital for the treatment of shell-shock.
The power of Sassoon's statement resonates as powerfully now as when first written:
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
In Iran [...] the reality is that the rise of political Islam and religious rule has caused a staggering anti-Islamic backlash, in both ideological and personal spheres. The emergence of political Islam in Iran has become the prelude to an anti-Islamic and anti-religious cultural revolution in people's minds, particularly amongst the young generation, which will stun the world with an immense explosion and will proclaim of the practical end of political Islam in the whole of Middle East...
In my opinion, the Islamic movement in the Middle East and internationally will run out of breath with the fall of the Islamic regime in Iran. The question is not that Islamic Iran will be a defeated model, which others can disassociate themselves from. The Islamic Republic's defeat will arise within the context of an immense mass secularist uprising in Iran, which will touch the foundations of reactionary Islamic thought and not only discredit but condemn it in world opinion. The defeat of the Islamic regime will be comparable to the fall of Nazi Germany. No fascist can easily hold on to their position by merely distancing themselves organisationally and ideologically from this fallen pole. The entire movement will face decades of stagnation. The defeat of political Islam in Iran is an anti-Islamist victory, which will not end within the confines of Iran. (More.)
Via the Booksurfer blog:
Jeff Klooger who runs the occasional Castoriadis blog has written a critical exploration of the "underpinnings and implications of Cornelius Castoriadis’ reflections on Being, society and the self [Castoriadis: Psyche, Society, Autonomy.] The book introduces the reader to the main concepts of Castoriadis’ work, but goes further to uncover the fundamental philosophical issues addressed by Castoriadis, and to critically examine the issues his work opens up."
Never an easy read, but always rewarding, Castoriadis' work deserves to be better known in the UK. My introduction was by those wonderful pamphlets run off on an old duplicator by the Soldiarity group many years ago - which somehow still seem more appropriate for the subversive spirit that lays at the heart of Castioradis' writing.
Before I rest up for the weekend, a coupla things to draw your attention to:
- Steve provides us with "a selection that might be called The Best of This Space"
- The Armies by Colombian writer Evelio Rosero, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (as you know, I was judge, and I'm still scratching my head as to how come Dag Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18 wasn't even shortlisted!)
- interviews over on The Book Depository site with historian Andy Beckett ("The British 70s are full of political surprisess if you make yourself look at them with fresh eyes... the Labour vote in the 1979 election actually went up, especially among wealthier voters -- the idea that the behaviour of the unions sent the electorate running screaming away from Labour is a myth...") and Thomas Traherne expert Denise Inge ("Readers with imagination fall for Traherne. He takes you on unexpected interior journeys into desire and lack, infinity, time and eternity. Reading him isn't always easy since the language of his day is so different from ours and his world view sometimes challenges the assumptions of our time, but he will thrill, surprise and exhaust you...")
- a brief interview with Béla Tarr
- trailer for new Godard film Socialisme
David Aaronovitch was on Radio 4's Start the Week this morning. Each week, I nonsensically start my own working week by getting worked-up by the nonsense so often spouted by the facile contributions of the blathering contributors to said radio programme; I really need carefully to look within and work out why I regularly put myself though this unhappy ritual. Some Maoist self-criticism is obviously required!
Anyway, Aaronovitch has just written a book called Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History a part of the publisher blurb to which reads:
Our age is obsessed by the idea of conspiracy. We see it everywhere - from Pearl Harbour to 9/11, from the assassination of Kennedy to the death of Diana... For David Aaronovitch, there came a time when he started to see a pattern. These theories used similar dodgy methods with which to insinuate their claims: they linked themselves to the supposed conspiracies of the past (it happened then so it can happen now); they carefully manipulated their evidence to hide its holes; they relied on the authority of dubious academic sources. Most importantly, they elevated their believers to membership of an elite - a group of people able to see beyond lies to a higher reality... Aaronovitch... looks at why people believe them, and makes an argument for a true scepticism: one based on a thorough knowledge of history and a strong dose of common sense.
Ah, common sense! Well, we do like common sense around here, for sure. I'm always happy to see "conspiracy theories" debunked, but I'm equally intrigued by which theories are deemed to be conspiratorial and which historical theses are deemed to be sensible and sound. For example, why isn't the suggestion that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD a "conspiracy theory"? Belief in the lie that Saddam had such weapons was linked "to the supposed conspiracies of the past" (he bombed the working class stronghold of Halabja so therefore, it was asserted, he'll certainly do something as heinous again) and was based on "carefully manipulated... evidence" which "relied on the authority of dubious academic sources". Most importantly, this "elevated their believers to membership of an elite" -- those who saw the huge, looming threat had seen the truth and those of us who thought this huge "threat" was merely a manipulation of the Anglo-American ruling class were blind, naive or worse.
It is, indeed, interesting and important to debunk "conspiracy theories" -- there are a lot of them out there. Recent official history contains its fair share of such dangerous lies, too, so I wonder why Aaronovitch doesn't seem very keen on debunking them. Was it because there are certain conspiracy theories he fell hook, line and sinker for?
In Max Dunbar's response to Stephen Mitchelmore's critique of Max's review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke (yes, the internet is an echo-chamber!), Max quotes Steve's summing-up of some of the parallels between World War Two and the Iraq war. The parallels are important -- and it is especially important to draw attention to them to someone who suppported the slaughter in Iraq, as Max did.
Max quips that "it may stun Mitchelmore to know that the facts around Western support for Saddam, and the true motives behind the 2003 invasion, are available outside the Medialens chatboards." Well, indeed. But there is an interesting slippage when Max continually suggests that, with regard to that invasion, and to WW2, "it’s outcomes, not motives" that matter. This is, of course, a very convenient way to forget -- to ignore the history of -- how and why wars occur, how we got into Iraq, how the invasion was sold to us, and how those who bought the lies that created the conditions that allowed for invasion further communicated those lies to their own constituencies. This is very similar to WW2. The myth, so often told that very many people do believe it, is that the Allies were White Knights who came to the defence of the Jews. Are we to forget that that is a lie because "it’s outcomes, not motives" that matter? Because saving the Jews became the post-facto justification for the Allies war to prevent German imperial ambitions, are we to forget the anti-semitic nature of much Anglo-American domestic discourse in the 20s and 30s (and beyond)? Perhaps more importantly, however, is that the outcome of the Anglo-American adventure in Iraq has been chaos and death on a huge scale. If "it’s outcomes, not motives" that matter then the outcome here has been catastrophic for ordinary Iraqis.
Mitchelmore, we are told, "upbraids" Max:
... for using the term 'lazy moral equivalence': which is no surprise, as it's a technique he's fond of using. Thus: 'The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia'.
But as Steve makes very, very clear in his example (which Max does not quote in full): "The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia in that they violate the sixth Nuremberg Principle and the 1949 Geneva Convention." A factual equivalency then, not a moral one.
Max jokes that those who supported the slaughter in Iraq don't bear any responsibility for what has happened there ("I suppose that's for the tribunal to decide when we are all shipped off to the Hague"). Well, sadly, those who clamour for war from the safety of their front rooms don't have to take responsibility for their words, but they should be reminded that they help create the conditions that make war acceptable and that they thus bear some of the responsibilty for the death and destruction that war brings. It might be a laughing matter for Max, but I reserve the right not only to find it far from funny, but to find such a political position morally reprehensible.
On Radio 4's Start the Week this morning, one of Andrew Marr's guests was the Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett, author of Fool's Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe. Tett, Marr told us, has been credited with being one of the first journalists to have spotted the then oncoming credit crunch.
Tett explained that "if finance is made out to be very complicated, only a small number of people understand how it works, and so the people who have that knowledge are in a very strong position." Later in the interview Marr gushed about those same bankers -- bankers who were called Masters of the Universe by their friends in the media -- that "we have to remember, these are very, very clever people." Tett, almost by reflex, affirmed this characterisation, and then moved on to explain a little more about the macho, hothouse atmosphere of the City. But it was earlier, when she said that "if finance is made out to be very complicated" that she had it down.
I'm not sure why, but it has become something of a commonplace that, amidst the ruins of the global financial crisis, one thing that journalists seemingly have to do -- perhaps embarrassed that, unlike Tett, they didn't see this thing coming -- is affirm the complexity of the financial markets and, simultaneously, the matchless intelligence of bankers and traders. This is a very curious and incredibly tendentious way of reading the banking collapse. Strangely, too, this constant affirmation of bankers' braininess runs alongside a conflicting narrative: that the slicing and dicing of debt got so complicated that the "very, very clever" bankers no longer understood their -- our -- level of financial risk. So, they were "very, very clever", but they (or their clients) didn't understand the tools they were using or what they were doing with them? If a gaffer gave one of his carpenters a saw and told him to hold it by the serated edge you wouldn't think that either the gaffer or the carpenter was much of a brainbox; quite rightly, you'd think both were idiots. Understanding what credit default swaps or collateralized debt obligations are doesn't make you "very, very clever" -- it just makes you expert of a very limited vocabulary. It is most akin to being a teenage boy. Our children can talk in acronyms, abbreviations and neologisms about stuff that we don't really have too much of a clue about, but it doesn't tend to make us think that they are geniuses. They aren't. And neither, Andrew Marr take note, are any of those stupid bankers.
When Tony Blair became the British Prime Minister back in May 1997 there was a genuine -- if entirely unwarranted -- belief that a caring, principled government, antithetical to the Thatcherite/monetarist dark days of yore, would summon a bright, new dawn. But, as some ancient, neglected, bearded Victorian once said, "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" -- and caring and principled never, ever come in to it; bombing often does.
Similar enthusiasm to that which Blair cooked-up has greeted Obama. There is no reason here to rehearse the understandable reasons for the frenzy and joy that has been unleashed by the election of America's first Black President -- and, you know, who isn't glad to see the back of Bush? -- but, just a few weeks in, and we've already seen a Torture Ban that Doesn't Ban Torture and Obama-sanctioned airstrikes that have killed 22 in Pakistan. The status quo remains thoroughly entrenched, and business as usual means the Obama years, like the Blair years, will be bleak for the poor and the powerless -- and full of bombs.
Chomsky's new book of interviews What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World is as useful, thought-provoking and insightful as ever, and out next week. Also noteworthy is the recent re-release of Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's film on Chomsky's politics, Manufacturing Consent - Noam Chomsky And The Media, which includes an excellent bonus disc of interviews including: a 1969 episode of Firing Line with William Buckley, Jr; a 16-minute WGBH interview with Chomsky and John Silber; a half-hour debate with Michel Foucault; a 41-minute interview with the film makers; and an hour and a half 2005 Harvard University debate between Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz.
Someone else who fought against bombs:
Long before her fame as a writer began to take hold, Grace Paley was already involved in political activism. From early immersion in supper time family political squabbles, to high school political engagement, later expressed in local politics, Grace became a constant presence in protests against nuclear proliferation, the war in Vietnam, U.S. military encroachment in Central America and was a central figure in the peace movement until her death. (More at Grace Paley: Collected Shorts.)
Alberto Toscano argues that "the case of France's Tarnac Nine shows we are losing the political literacy to distinguish between sabotage and terrorism":
The war on terror, which we were once told was infinite, seems past its sell-by-date. Even David Miliband has declared the term to be "misleading and mistaken". But its effects on our polities persist. Following an age-old script, laws that had been sold as emergency measures have sunk their roots deep into the practices and mentalities of our governments. All forms of dissent that are linked, however tenuously, to politically-motivated illegal behaviour now fall within the purview of anti-terrorism measures, which claim to a nebulous "security" as their ultimate rationale.
While the geopolitical imperatives that underlay the war on terror are being fundamentally questioned, anti-terrorism continues to be used and abused as a flexible repressive instrument across Europe and beyond. From ecological activism to sociological research, there is little that anti-terrorism legislation cannot cover. The case of the "Tarnac Nine", which has recently drawn such attention in France after a series of spectacular arrests on 11 November 2008, is a case in point (more...)
Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason, has "just finished a 10,000 word piece on the origins of the current economic crisis." A pdf can be downloaded at Verso's website. In it Dan looks "at the various explanations as to why we are such deep trouble..."
I sketch the one I have come across that seems best supported by the evidence. The good news is that it is possible to understand what has happened over the last generation in Britain and America. The other good news is that we'll have to create a more equitable economic system if we are going to get out of the current shambles. The bad news is that the current political and economic establishment, to the loud applause of their many tame intellectuals, have really gone and fucked the dog on this one (more...)
In 1897 Edward Carpenter, among others, had joined a small group outside the Spanish Embassy in London to protest against the treatment of the anarchists in Barcelona. Carpenter wrote the preface for a leaflet called ‘Revival of the Inquisition’, which argued, perhaps incorrectly, that the bomb they were accused of throwing was in fact thrown by an agent provocateur...
Carpenter was born in 1844 and attended Cambridge, where he took orders and had sexual dreams about his fellow students. Having left Cambridge, unhappy with its stuffiness, he began to give lectures to working men and women in the North of England. Eventually he moved to Sheffield where, having inherited capital on the death of his father, he built a house, Millthorpe Cottage, near the village of Holmesfield, where he lived for most of the rest of his life (more...)
Via signandsight -- Kluge's monumental News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx – Eisenstein – Das Kapital (does this have English subtitles, I wonder?) is "a 570-minute film available only on DVD which is based on the work of two other montage artists, James Joyce and Sergei Eisenstein":
Most of the film consists of involved discussions between Alexander Kluge and other Marx-savvy writers and artists. Poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger compares the soul of man with the soul of money, author Dietmar Dath explains the meaning of the hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag and, from the standpoint of the Stoics, leaps (rather than marches at an orderly pace) into industrialisation, the actress Sophie Rois makes an impassioned appeal for Medea, differentiating between additive and subtractive love, filmmaker Werner Schroeter stages a Wagner opera featuring the "rebirth of Tristan in the spirit of battleship Potemkin", philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks about Ovid and the metamorphosis of added value, a man at the piano analyses the score of a strike song while workers and factory owners face off in an opera by Luigi Nono, the poet Dürs Grünbein interprets Bert Brecht's aesthetisation of the Communist manifesto in swinging oceanic hexameter, cultural scientist Rainer Stollmann emphasises the myriad meanings of Marx's writings as science, art, story telling, philosophy, poetry. And social theorist and philosopher Oskar Negt looks sceptical when asked whether it's possible to find the right images for all this stuff when you're less interested in pedagogical content than the encompassing theory.
A useful set of links here (thanks Rowan): Radical perspectives on the crisis.
One of the cleverest films I have seen is Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman who finds himself stuck in time. At first he deludes himself that the same day and the same people and the same circumstances offer new opportunities. Finally, his naivety and false hope desert him and he realises the truth of his predicament and escapes. Is this a parable for the age of Obama? … He will continue to make stirring, platitudinous speeches, but the tears will dry as people understand that President Obama is the latest manager of an ideological machine that transcends electoral power (more...)
Scott McLemee on Negri (in BookForum):
Four new works by Negri appeared in English in 2008 — the year we all found ourselves well downstream from that era when debate over globalization and its discontents took the form of extrapolating long-term trends. The problem now is to find a way through the ruins. I have been studying the books in a state of heightened (indeed, strained) attention — with powers of concentration periodically stimulated and shattered by arteriosclerotic convulsions in the world’s financial markets — but also through tears in my eyes.
They are tears of perplexity and frustration. It is not that Negri’s most recent books pose difficulties, both conceptual and programmatic, that his earlier ones did not. The ambiguities have been there all along, as have the opacities. Still, they seemed poetic—not just in that terms like Empire and Multitude possessed a certain evocative, science-fictional luminosity, but also in something like the root sense of poesis. They did not simply name possibilities; they seemed to create a new thing in the world, if only by inciting the political imagination to new efforts. But the latest books do not have that quality. Negri’s analysis of the emerging system is itself a system — if not a world unto itself — and the movement of his thought is now largely centripetal (more...)
Right. Time to crack open a beer and have a shufty at: Life after bankruptcy -- Jürgen Habermas talks to Thomas Assheuer and Naomi Klein on the Bailout Profiteers and the Multi-Trillion-Dollar Crime Scene (both via wood s lot).
And then, tomorrow, I'm in Big London for the first IFFP09 meeting. In case you were wondering, I'm not allowed to blog about submissions as I'm reading them -- submissions are a secret it would seem. Which strikes me as... bloody daft!
In the background, Gas's Nah Und Fern -- you so need this!
“The horrific violence of our current economic system, which kills more people daily than our wars,” says Díaz, who won a Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, “will not change one jot under an Obama administration. Right now these elections are all about who plays the music at the party. Doesn’t change the fact that there’s a massacre going on. No US election is going to change that. And any writer worth a damn might be in the party but what he’s really listening to, bearing witness to, in small ways, in elliptical ways or flat-out head on, is the violence and terror and inhumanity that reign beyond the party’s walls.”
Via The Wooden Spoon:
At the Times Literary Supplement, David Hawkes reviews Russell A. Berman’s Fiction Sets You Free, a capitalist dialectical materialist critique of literature. "Like the most doctrinaire dialectical materialist, he insists that cultural trends are epiphenomenal reflections of economic interests. Anti-Americanism is really anti-capitalism, and in Fiction Sets You Free, Berman suggests that anti-capitalism is the true source of an intellectual anti-humanism which opposes imagination, enterprise, even literature itself." It's painful just to see the book reviewed, but I expect these kinds of theories to start popping up all over. Berman apparently tries to cite Theodore Adorno as a predecessor of pro-capitalist literary theory. This is insane. It's like Ayn Rand citing Lenin as a great influence. The inmates are loose! Release the hounds!
Infinite Thought, fast becoming my favourite blog, is currently running an occasional series of some of the finest philosophers/theorists on the financial crisis. Currently unearthed are Badiou, Virilio and Jacques Alain Miller.
Also IT has been attending numerous panels and discussions on the crisis and provides a handy digest of the of the views of the likes of Chris Harman, Peter Gowan, Alex Callinicos, Alan Freeman and Robin Blackburn.
We live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A great deal of energy is expended in promoting their significance for the construction of a better world. But for the most part the concepts circulating do not fundamentally challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics, or the dominant modes of legality and state action. We live, after all, in a world in which the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights. I here want to explore another type of human right, that of the right to the city (more...)
Well, it comes as no surprise really, but according to the BBC, Karl Marx is back in fashion (A Reader's Words blog comments further). (Presumably a raft of books from a neo-Keynesian perspective should be expected too.)
Karl Marx is back in fashion, says one German publisher, who attributes his new popularity to the economic crisis.
Publisher Karl-Dietz said it sold 1,500 copies of Das Kapital this year - up from the 200 it usually sells annually.
Written in 1867, sales of the tome rarely hit double digits but have been on the rise since 2005.
Marxist economic philosophy - and in particular its Russian Leninist version - fell out of favour with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
"It's definitely in vogue right now," said the publisher's director Joern Schuetrumpf.
"The financial crisis brought us a huge bump." (More...)
If the magical thinking that Enherenreich decries cannot be considered only delusional, it's because, in the markets, it's not possible to separate out beliefs from their objects. Beliefs don't register the true or falsity of propositions; rather, in the classic hyperstitional self-fulfilling loop, beliefs themselves determine value (and its destruction, as this meta-warning in The Economist points out). "Realism" isn't an available orientation. Moreover, the loop works both ways: as Robert Shiller pointed out in Irrational Exuberance, booms produce the euphoric psychological states necessary for their own maintenance (more...)
A considered and detailed debunking of the term "confidence" really needs to take place. That the global economy is in such tatters because of a lack of "confidence", a lack of faith in other words, is astonishing proof of the validity of Marx's theory of reification, but beyond that it shows that a profound irrationality sits at the heart of the global social system. A social system that claims it can never be bettered or changed or destroyed is, it clearly turns out, based almost entirely on our faith in it! The astonishing amount of energy -- and money -- being mobilised by governments, politicians and journalists to try to keep us keeping the faith shows clearly that it is time for us all to dream again of better worlds.
The second issue of the Radical Anthropology Group's journal Radical Anthropology is now online (PDF format, I'm afraid) with an excellent article on The Scarcity Myth: What hunter-gathers can teach us about sharing (Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins might be your follow-up reading), and interviews with a combative Noam Chomsky and with Lionel Sims, Principal Lecturer in Anthropology and Anthropology at the University of East London, who "decodes Stonehenge" for us.
Economists talk of trust, belief, faith; we now understand that all along neoliberal capitalism was a form of mythology. That's why the triumphalism was necessary - you could not afford to have anyone challenge the system or we might all realise we were gawping at the emperor's nakedness. Rowan Williams was right to quote Marx, that "unbridled capitalism becomes a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that have no life in themselves". Richard Dawkins should be critiquing this superstitious belief system (more...)
It’s been a week of inequality. First off, I finished Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Unjust Rewards - one of the most compelling political books of the year. The magnitude of inequality across Britain is extraordinary, the level of self-denial by the rich disgusting - and next time someone mutters something about dole scroungers to you, simply reel off the figures in here about how much tax dodging the rich do.
What’s this got to with the world of books? Well, this may be an unfair connection but with the dreadful levels of literacy of the young working class you can’t help but think that all the World Book Days won’t make an ounce of difference compared to what could be done simply providing enough funding for schools, and for pre-school help, to teach kids to read.
Secondly, Mark and I went to hear Joe Bageant talking about his new book Deer Hunting With Jesus at the Royal Festival Hall. Eloquent and fascinating, he warned about the disconnection between middle class liberals and an increasingly impoverished American working class and how the Republicans had filled the space left. Although the (mainly middle class) audience were anxious that the American poor should vote in their own interests and for Obama, it was oddly refreshing to hear an American progressive sceptical about what Obama would be able to do for them anyway. I paraphrase, but Bageant’s pessimistic view is that the US needs to reach apocalypse before it wakes up. Check out his blog.
Also at London's Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 17th September, Barbara Ehrenreich is talking with Polly Toynbee about the great wealth divide in America.
The Royal Court is celebrating playwright Caryl Churchill’s 70th birthday with a series of readings of her plays. Mark Ravenhill is directing a reading of her British Civil War play Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, which I have a special fondness for as this is a rare cultural recognition of this heady period. Somehow the Civil War fails to register in our culture as a major historical moment – compare it with other revolutions and civil wars the world over. (It was because of its scrubbing from popular discourse that I wanted Verso to publish an edition of the Putney Debates last year, and I’m delighted to say it was a success.) This may be because, in one sense, it failed, but it did provide Britons with the first coherently expressed demands for democracy and freedom. So how strange that, despite the conflict, the tragedy, the religious enthusiasm and the utopian vision, you can count on the fingers of two hands the cultural product that has been prompted by, or even set in, this period.
My list is:
Literature: Paradise Lost (Milton); Marvell’s poetry; Englishmen with Swords (Montagu Slater); Sexing the Cherry (Jeannette Winterston); and Winstanley (David Caute)
Films: Cromwell (Hughes); Winstanley (Brownlow); To Kill a King (Barker); and Witchfinder General (Reeves)
Ok – so what am I missing?
Charlie Brooker has set out to generate the largest number of reader responses in Comment is Free's history with a piece condemning 9/11 conspiracy theorists...
It might well be consoling in some way to know that the CIA plots the overthrow of unhelpful foreign regimes. But it is also true. To insist that, say, the CIA had nothing to do with the fall of Arbenz or Allende might feel terrifically sensible and sane - can't always be seeing the hidden hand of the CIA, no call for reductionism... It is also, you know, wrong.
It's worth noting as an aside that the most pernicious conspiracy theory about the 9/11 attacks was promoted by the American state. In the run-up to the Iraq war every effort was made to link Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda. Those who want to debunk conspiracy theories have an awkward time with this one - that particular paranoid fantasy wasn't pushed by the tinfoil hat brigade, but by a highly focussed and skilled group of people working in secret to manage the perceptions of the American and global public ... A conspiracy to promote a (false) conspiracy theory... And they helped prepare the way for an illegal war in which more than half a million people have died (more...)
My friend Joe Bageant's book Deer Hunting With Jesus explains through personal stories his brutal assessment of just how strong the class system in the US really is, why the classes are and always have been at war, and why that plays perfectly into the hands of the right-wing political and economic interests there. These are stories about the people Joe grew up with and calls friends, and to write about their lives so bluntly and candidly is an act of incredible courage and honesty.
This is a society where poverty and illness are stigmatized as symptoms of laziness, ignorance and self-neglect, a society built on two-way class vs class fear of the unknown and misunderstood. The principal determinant of one's class in America, and the hermetic worldview that comes with it, is education.
More than anything, Deer Hunting With Jesus is a plea to those of progressive inclination to meet with their working-class peers, at a grass-roots level, to understand how they live, how they think, and why they think that way, and to find, as hard as it will be to do so, common cause with them against the corporatist exploiters and their right-wing political and religious handmaidens, and common cause for universal health care, quality education for all, a fair pension and a decent wage for a day's work -- the end of the "dead-end social construction that all but guarantees failure".
whoeverfightsmonsters brings my attention to the "final words from Sam Anderson’s online review of Human Smoke in the New York Magazine":
To dismiss Baker’s project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It’s an auto-didact’s record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes ('What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none'), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources. As in all of Baker’s work, the strength of Human Smoke comes from the defamiliarizing charge it brings to a familiar subject. Its unorthodox form allows it to capture, with brutal efficiency, the daily texture of the war—the suffering, the confusion on the ground, the strike among Viennese mail carriers from the stress of delivering too many death letters. Baker doesn’t hide his omissions or his anecdotes’ lack of context—in fact, each vignette is surrounded by generous white space, so the lacunae are a constant visible presence in the book. It’s the kind of project that encourages, rather than closes off, further reading. Its texture is deeply convincing, and a much stronger message of peace than mere argument could ever muster.
The Shock Doctrine is organized around a conceit: “shock” and its cousin “disaster” explain the political economy of the last several decades. One ur-figure is Dr. Ewen Cameron, a ghoulish psychiatrist who worked under contract with the CIA during the 1950s, devising methods to extract information and remake personalities through the use of drugs and torture. His information-extraction techniques became the templates for Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, and the personality renovation became the psycho-political template for the neoliberal restructuring of much of the globe. And the other ur-figure is Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who wrote the playbook for the policy innovations themselves. The two came together in Chile, via Gen. Augusto Pinochet, when a whole society was remade, in no small part through literal torture techniques, in accordance with the Chicago School’s radical free-market dogma. Modern capitalism, says Klein, was born in the Southern Cone, and Pinochet was its midwife.
[...] Clearly, there’s some truth here, but the list of instances is so varied that they don’t always merit a single theory. Even if you limit the theory to the idea that there’s nothing “free” about the free market, it’s strange to see that notion presented as the revelation of a secret history. What is called the “free market” has always been inseparable from state coercion; there was never anything spontaneous about it at all. This has been true at least since the enclosure movement in England privatized previously common lands starting in the sixteenth century, give or take a century or two. In more modern times, the role of U.S. imperial power in promoting the so-called free market has long been a central theme of Noam Chomsky, a writer who doesn’t lack for readers.
Right, now you have no excuse: Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey (thanks Rowan!)
Interesting event tonight at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 7:30pm (tickets are £12)
Our leading thinkers discuss the history and future of radical thought at this centrepiece event in the Southbank series All Power to the Imagination. After the events of 1968 there was a dramatic rise in the popularity of radical theory, but in the 21st century it seems to be on the wane – is it still useful? Has its utopianism been found lacking after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of neo-liberalism? Where is the next generation of radical thinkers? A distinguished panel of authors from Verso’s acclaimed Radical Thinkers series discuss the context in which radical thought evolved in the 1960s and debate its future.
Panellists are: Peter Dews author of Logics of Disintegration: Poststructuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory; Mark Kurlansky author of 1968: The Year that Rocked the World; Ernesto Laclau author of On Populist Reason; Jacqueline Rose author of Sexuality in the Field of Vision; and Göran Therborn author of What Does the Ruling Class Do When it Rules?. The event is chaired by Patrick Wright author of Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War.
Good pal of ReadySteadyBook, Ken Worpole, writes about children's street games and the importance of play in underpinning a free society (via Booksurfer):
As the events of 1968 are commemorated, it is worth noting that it was the postwar celebration of children's play that anticipated the reclamation of the street as a domain of political liberty. Even the Opies realised that many children's games were an implicit form of political protest, as when they saw that dangerous games of risk such as Last Across the Road were an "impulse of the tribe" against the encroachment of the car into their sacred territory. This position was endorsed by the anarchist Colin Ward in his seminal 1970s book, The Child in the City, the last great expression of belief in the power of play to turn the street and the playground, if not the world, upside down (more...)
Wood s lot provides some excellent May Day links including The Origins and Traditions of May Day by Eugene Plawiuk (from La Revue Gauche), The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day by the peerless Peter Linebaugh (author of The Many-headed Hydra: The Hidden History Of The Revolutionary Atlantic and The London Hanged: Crime And Civil Society In The Eighteenth Century) and The May-Pole of Merry Mount by Nathaniel Hawthorne (from Twice-Told Tales).
Surely we could do them under the Trade Descriptions Act!? Nick Cohen and Johann Hari are both finalists for this year's Orwell prize for journalism. Ha!
Reading some of today’s news, it suddenly struck me: we’re living in the age of the anti-Cassandra.
Cassandra had the gift of prophecy — she saw, correctly, what was coming — but was under a curse: nobody would believe her.
Today, our public discourse is dominated by people who have been wrong about everything — but are still, mysteriously, treated as men of wisdom, whose judgments should be believed. Those who were actually right about the major issues of the day can’t get a word in edgewise.
What set me off was the matter of Alan Greenspan; as Dean Baker like to remind us, news analyses of the housing and financial crisis almost always draw exclusively on “experts” who first insisted that there wasn’t a housing bubble, then insisted that the financial consequences of the bubble’s bursting would remain “contained.”
It’s even worse, of course, on the matter of Iraq: just about every one of the panels convened to discuss the lessons of five disastrous years consisted solely of men and women who cheered the idiocy on.
Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory – especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools – woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned ... [we] need to look at the variety of different social formations from individuals, to small associations like groups (the blog collective for instance), to larger groupings and institutions, to global interrelations, treating none of these as hegemonizing all the others, but instead discerning their varying temporalities, organizations, inter-relations, points of antagonism, and so on. This, I think, is far closer to Marx’s own vision – or at least the spirit of his analyses in texts like Grundrisse and Capital.
E.P. Thompson’s critique of Althusser in his excellent The Poverty of Theory (1978) hangs in the air here — and rightly so. Thompson's account is still sharp and wholly relevant: empirical, local and humanistic (and I know that that is a bogey word!)
With regard to evolutionary theory highlighting the possible ways that change can occur in societies, the work of Chris Knight (Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture) shows the way. Knight argues that we became human via a revolutionary sex strike ... you’ll learn more from radicalanthropologygroup.org.
Tom Engelhardt and William Hartung discuss the economic cost of war:
How far off were they? Well, it depends on which figure you choose to start with. Here's the range: According to key officials in the Bush administration back in 2002-2003, the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq was either going to cost $60 billion, or $100-$200 billion. Actually, we can start by tossing that top figure out, since not long after Bush economic advisor Larry Lindsey offered it in 2002, he was shown the door, in part assumedly for even suggesting something so ludicrous.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz championed the $60 billion figure, but added that much of the cost might well be covered by Iraqi oil revenues; the country was, after all, floating on a "sea of oil." ("To assume we're going to pay for it all is just wrong," he told a congressional hearing.) Still, let's take that $60 billion figure as the Bush baseline. If economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes are right in their recent calculations and this will turn out to be more than a $3 trillion war (or even a $5-7 trillion one), then the Bush administration was at least $2,940,000,000,000 off in its calculations.
Martyn Everett on "old school lefty" Julian Rathbone:
Nick Coleman, in the Guardian describes Rathbone as "an old-school lefty. He said so himself. His detestation of privilege and the structures which maintain it was profound. His contempt for them was expressed by turn frighteningly, wittily and sexily, and often all at once, but never, ever dully or merely rhetorically," but Julian Rathbone was more than that, describing himself in an article for the Independent as "a romantic optimist with anarchist leanings."
It was this libertarian socialist vision that suffuses Rathbone's books and makes them quite unlike those of any other modern English writer, giving them an alternative system of values and ideas which appealed to the ordinary reader.
In the last few years, there have been several books by writers urgently seeking to not only discredit religion, but also to advance the atheistic viewpoint and to defend "reason", or rationality, from the forces of darkness. Though I often agree with many of the basic points these authors tend to make, my essential position is that the focus on religion by these writers is misplaced. Indeed, if the elimination of religion or, more realistically, the lessening of its influence, especially the influence of its more extreme manifestations, is the goal, then they are taking exactly the wrong approach. But to these writers and others the matter is urgent: they are worried about the survival of the species. Well, let me tell you: in my view, there are numerous good reasons to be worried. But such concern, if genuine, should focus attention on our disastrous political and economic situation, yet it rarely does.
... against all expectations, I did recently read Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great: How Religlion Poisons Everything. My in-laws have a copy, so it was easily available, and I admit to having had a sort of mordant curiosity about it. I also admit I came into it not expecting much by way of argument, but in fact it's much worse than I imagined it would be. The book is quite terrible, for a variety of reasons. But the things that make it bad (and to my mind, virtually unpublishable) are not necessarily those elements that make up my main problems with it and with the popular so-called “atheist books” it exemplifies. It's bad not least because it's hard to figure what Hitchens really thinks he's doing with the book. He's said that, in effect, he's been writing the book his whole life (the link is to an interview, but he also says as much in the acknowledgments). You'd think he'd have taken more care with it. It's full of sloppy thinking, awkward writing, adolescent point-making, and of course, his stylistic trademarks: withering, sometimes glib scorn, and ostentatious displays of erudition (not to mention outright errors: he has Saddam Hussein invading Iran in 1979, rather than 1980). Occasionally he gets out of his own way long enough to tell us about an interesting historical event or figure, but these passages are the exception.
There is nothing in god is Not Great that can't be found elsewhere, other than the ubiquitous presence of Christopher Hitchens himself, with his rhetorical winks and nudges. The book is poorly argued, tonally inconsistent, and frankly childish, from the title and sub-title on down. The inconsistency in tone--as if he intended to destroy religion once and for all with the power of his scorn, but then occasionally realized that he needed to make a feint in the direction of persuasion, with disingenuous displays of humility thrown in for good measure--is part of what I mean when I say the book is sloppily written. For me, these qualities ought to mean that the book should have been sent back for considerable re-tooling before it got anywhere near being published. And yet it was not only a best-seller, but was nominated for a National Book Award. The latter in particular is another tiny sign of an intellectual culture in poor health. Hitchens may say that he'd been effectively writing the book his whole life, but it has the feel of something slapped together quickly in order to cash in on a trend.
And now go and read the whole of Richard's great piece!
There are two cliches about the Nazis: one is that there wasn't a single one to be found after WWII; the other is that those who were discovered were only following orders. Both are reasonably well-founded. But actually, as Enzo Traverso points out in The Origins of Nazi Violence, the alienation that this implies, the separation between conception and action, was already embedded in the capitalist social pattern.
Jonathan Derbyshire chaired a talk at the RSA by Dan Hind a couple of weeks back. Jonathan, normally a pretty solid reviewer, penned an incomprehensibly bad notice of Dan's book a few months back for the New Humanist magazine. Anyway, forget that, and go and listen to Dan's talk over on the RSA website.
...who was better at imagining a whole cast of characters than Charles Dickens? And what happened when the Indian mutiny broke out? Did Dickens use his prodigious imaginative gifts to understand why there was resistance to the British occupation of India? He certainly dreamed of being Commander in Chief of the British army of occupation. In this role, he assured his dear friend Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, he would “do my utmost to exterminate the [Indian] Race” and “with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution…blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”
Mike Davis, author of many excellent titles including Planet of Slums, Late Victorian Holocausts, City of Quartsz and most recently Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, has won the Lannan Foundation Nonfiction Literary Award. (For a filmed interview with Mike Davis about Buda's Wagon take a look at the Verso website.)
The London-based Radical Anthropology Group has just released the first edition of their Radical Anthropology Journal (beware pdf!). The group is inspired by the work of RSB interviewee Chris Knight (author of Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture) and contains an article by RSB interviewee David Graeber (Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology).
Two recent additions to the 400+ documentaries, shorts and feature films on ChristieBooks' Brightcove site are Costa-Gavras' Z (1969) and Peter Watkins' rarely seen 1967 film Privilege.
Z (1969; Costa-Gavras)
Z is a 1969 French language political thriller directed by Costa Gavras, with a screenplay by Gavras and Jorge Semprún, based on the novel of the same name by Vassilis Vassilikos. The film presents a thinly fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of democratic Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963. With its satirical view of Greek politics, its dark sense of humor, and its chilling ending, the film captures the sense of outrage about the military dictatorship that ruled Greece at the time of its making.
Privilege (1967; Peter Watkins)
After directing several extraordinary documentaries for the BBC, Peter Watkins made his first dramatic feature with this flawed but striking film about Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), a pop singer in a future society where entertainment is controlled by a totalitarian government. Shorter's music and image is used to channel the impulses of rebellious youth; in one concert sequence, the crowd watches him sing a plaintive plea for love and understanding while locked in a cage surrounded by police officers armed with clubs. While Shorter is remarkably popular, he's also living a life created for him by the government, which Steven knows is a sham. When Shorter's handlers decide to revis image into that of an obedient, religious boy, he rebels, to his peril. Model Jean Shrimpton made her film debut here as an artist comissioned to paint a portrait of Shorter. Privilege later became something of a cult film; one of the film's admirers was rock poet Patti Smith, who recorded one of "Steven Shorter"'s songs, Set Me Free, on her 1978 album Easter.
From the Independent newspaper:
Terry Eagleton ... attacks Amis's father Kingsley as "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals". He adds that he believes that "Amis fils has clearly learnt more from him than how to turn a shapely phrase".
Via the (new to me; thanks Robin) Outside Philosophy blog:
Peter Hallward, the excellent philosopher working at Middlesex University in London -- also part of the Radical Philosophy editorial collective -- has written an outstanding article on the interests of the British press. He contrasts the blanket coverage of a missing child to the almost total overlooking of the death of 80 Haitians at sea, deaths for which British authorities are responsible due to their callous disregard of the lives of those they intercept fleeing the poverty of Haiti. Poverty for which, it should always be recalled, American policy bears great responsibility. The article appears on what looks to be an important resource, haitianalysis.com.
There is a new Noam Chomsky title due in August, op-ed pieces "adapted from essays ... distributed by the New York Times Syndicate":
Interventions is Noam Chomsky at his best. At a time when the United States exacts a greater and greater power over the rest of the world, America’s leading voice of dissent needs to be heard more than ever. In over thirty timely, accessible and urgent essays, Chomsky cogently examines the burning issues of our post-9/11 world, covering the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Bush presidency and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This is an essential collection, from a vital and authoritative perspective.
This landed here with me yesterday and I'll no doubt read it this weekend. I do think it is worth noting, however, that this is printed on really grotty, low-grade quality paper (nothing to indicate that this is recycled paper). It is a little, boxy hardback which seems a hell of price at £12.99 to me. And there seems little chance of Asda offering this as a loss-leader for a fiver either!
Alan Wall has written a superb review for me of John Berger's latest book Hold Everything Dear: Despatches on Survival and Resistance:
Berger’s contempt verges on incredulity, and it’s hard not to sympathise. We live in a world dominated by late capitalism in its corporate finance stage. The rich get richer, and they have no shame whatsoever about it: they believe themselves to be the chosen of the earth. What is so astonishing is that they believe themselves to be the chosen of the heavens too. The most witless and bellicose American President in living memory, a child of wealth, corruption and privilege, tops it all off with a garnish of piety. Even the Almighty would surely have preferred the fornications of JFK to the posturings of this born-again bombing instructor. He arrived on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and declared that the war in Iraq was now a ‘Mission Accomplished’. That was some years back. Nobody knows how many deaths ago, because no one bothered counting.
Author Michael Otterman has a blog over on his American Torture site. His book, also called American Torture, which was one of my Books of the Week back at the beginning of May, is out now from Pluto Press:
Michael Otterman reveals the long history of US torture. He shows how these procedures became standard practice in today's war on terror. Initially, the US military and CIA based their techniques on the work of their enemies: the Nazis, Soviets and Chinese. Billions of dollars were spent studying, refining, then teaching these techniques to instructors at military survival schools and interrogators charged with keeping communism at bay. Along the way, the US government produced torture-training manuals that were used in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere. As the Cold War ended, these tortures -- engineered to leave deep psychological wounds but few physical scars -- were legalized using the very laws designed to eradicate their use. After 9/11, they were revived again for use on enemy combatants detained in America's vast gulag of prisons across the globe -- from secret CIA black sites in Thailand to the Pentagon's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Last week, I dedicated much of the blog to a five-part (first part, second part, third part, fourth part and fifth part) interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso). I devoted so much space to this feature because I think Dan's book, though flawed, is a very important response to much of the nonsence currently being poured forth in the name of so-called reason. Also, I really liked the format! So, a question to you guys: did you like the format too? Is this something I should do again with other authors? Do, please, let me know.
Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason
Below is the fifth and final part (first part, second part, third part, fourth part) of my interview with Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason (Verso). Threat was very favourably mentioned in of the book in the Spectator yesterday; good to see.
Very many thanks to Dan for taking the time out of such a busy schedule to answer my questions:
Mark Thwaite: You end The Threat to Reason with a call for a re-energisation of the public sphere. Isn't this a kind of naive amalgam of Habermas and Internet optimism?
Dan Hind: Well I am not that naive about the emancipatory potential of new technology. The internet has great potential as a way to widen participation in research and debate; that is, I think, already being demonstrated and we are only at the start of that process. But it is also a great venue for peddling misinformation, violent pornography, and corporate advertising.
Habermas and I mean different things when we talk about the public sphere. Habermas is describing a history of modern society, which he traces back to eighteenth century England. He is talking about how individuals and institutions create a space for discussions about the 'public interest'. I follow Kant in seeing the public sphere as a realm where individuals and groups abstract themselves from their institutional roles and try to achieve a state of total autonomy. Collaboration, of course, but an acute sensitivity towards, and suspicion about, the distorting effect of institutional power on the free exercise of the intellect. This runs against the idea that one can be entirely free to inquiry in the context of one's institutional life (a claim that academics and journalists sometimes make). Kant's conception of the public/private divide is a good deal more exotic, and more radical, than we usually recognise. He is very far from Habermas in this regard.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
From the Enlightenment, Hume is an extraordinary figure and in many ways a sympathetic one. I'd like to read more Diderot and more Madison over the summer, too, now I think about it, but I wouldn't call them favourites. It won't come as a great surprise that I admire Noam Chomsky a great deal. His book with Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent, is still news. Joel Bakan's The Corporation is a model of how to deliver an unanswerable polemic. It is calm, concise, devastating, and it achieves precisely what the author intended. As far as reading for pleasure I have recently been introduced to graphic novels. Two that stand out are Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Joe's Matt's The Poor Bastard. In their very different ways they are exceedingly fine.
Can't claim any great authority or knowledge about fiction. I don't think anyone would regret taking the time to read Bulgakov's The Master and Magarita (I read Glenny's translation) or Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. And there is something about The Iliad that I can't stop wondering about. Christopher Logue's re-workings of it are a good place to start. Not so much a favourite as a puzzle I can't solve, and wouldn't want to.
MT: What would you like readers to take away from your book?
DH: The main point I'd like readers to take away is that the Enlightenment doesn't belong to a small group of experts. The Enlightenment was a public debate about the fundamental issues in society; who should rule, how should their power be limited, how do we agree on a common account of reality? We can take useful things from the historical Enlightenment, and use them to help us in the work of becoming more enlightened now. Without becoming lost in the thickets of the history of ideas, we can draw on the work of figures like Bacon and Kant and learn from them about the possibilities and dangers of a campaign for knowledge. I believe that only a world more fully understood can be made more just.
But don't take anyone else's word on faith. What the Enlightenment was, what it might be now, these are questions for us all to try to answer.
MT: Thanks so much for your time Dan. All the best with the book!
Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason
Yesterday, there were good reviews of Dan's book over on Lenin's Tomb (where the latest Christopher Hitchens book, God is Not Great, is also soundly dismantled) and at the Socialist Review. Right, onto the interview:
Mark Thwaite: Now, postmodernists! They're a rum lot aren't they? Lots of anti-foundationalist mumbo-jumbo. Surely they are a threat to reason!?
Dan Hind: Well, some of them would certainly like to think they are. It's dangerous to generalise, though. The post-modern impulse to cast doubt on the legacy of the Enlightenment has a strong historical justification. Ideas and language we associate with the Enlightenment have been used repeatedly by European powers to justify aggression and state terror. The Americans in the Philippinnes were bringing progress to the region, as they are in Iraq now. So it is quite right to question the uses made of the Enlightenment. Now I don't agree with some post-modern positions, and some I plain don't understand. I think it is wrong to dismiss the ideas of the Enlightenment outright because of the use that has been made of them in the past, which is sometimes a temptation. 'Radical' critiques of reason and morality can, I think, lead to a withdrawal from the work of knowing, and of trying to change, the world.
Still, even at their most radically anti-rational, post-modernists pale into insignifance as a threat to reason. A philosopher might tell a journalist that they can never report truthfully on a situation; this might give the journalist pause, it might even undermine his or her self-confidence a little. But politicians and businessmen have journalists killed when they stumble on a story, or simply when they are in the wrong place. Now it is not a subtle point, but it is worth making; post-modernists don't kill journalists as part of their efforts to derail Western metaphyisics. What is a more serious threat to your capacity to make reasoned judgments about the world - academics who claim that reason is a chimera, or institutions that use violence to suppress information that might have a disruptive effect?
MT: I'm been particularly dismayed recently by the so-called "bombing left"? How do you respond to them and their (ir)rationalism?
DH: You're talking about Christopher Hitchens, Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch, I guess, the enlightened supporters of intervention in Iraq. One of my main aims in writing the book was to try to gently prise their fingers off the Enlightenment. So in a sense the book is my response to them. They wanted to claim that US-UK military intervention in the Middle East had an 'objectively' enlightened quality, somehow; to side with America was to side with progress. This is an idea that depends on a very eccentric understanding of what the Enlightenment itself was about, and a wilful reluctance to find out what was going on in 2002-2003. Plenty of people were able to see that the invasion was not about promoting democracy, or confronting religious tyranny, and that it was likely to be a disaster for the Iraqi people. Interventionist liberals thought they could see a bright shining future. Clearly the people who protested against the war had a better title to the Enlightenment than the 'bombing left; they had the courage to use their own reason and weren't suckers for any old mood music that the White House put on.
Power is very adept at finding reasons why we should stand by and let them do what it wants. The language of Enlightenment was part of that process in 2002-2003. It is time to put an end to this blackmail - 'either you're with us or you're against the Enlightenment', not only in our dealings with state power, but also with the corporations. States and corporations are very dangerous, and if you ever hear them talking about the forward march of progress and the triumphant possibilities offered to us by modern science, then you have to start worrying.
MT: What are you working on now Dan?
DH: I am working on a longish article about the possibilities and opportunities presented by new technology. I am not a techno-utopian, by any means - posting on the Guardian's Comment is Free is enough to cure anyone of that. But I am interested in looking at the potential of new technology. And I am also writing a proposal for a new book. When I say writing, I am mostly staring at a blank piece of paper and then checking the Amazon ranking for The Threat to Reason. I mean, I am only human.
I am also trying to do some work at the day job, at Random House.
Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason
Mark Thwaite: In one sense, your book is all about asking people to ask themselves what are the real threats that are out there. The world is not a bad place because of homeopathy! Is that correct?
Dan Hind: Yes, that's an important theme in the book, definitely. This comes back to your earlier surprise about my surprise at the need to make the case I make in the book. If you believe something like Dick Taverne's The March of Unreason, you would end up thinking that a sinister alliance of New Age aromatherapists, animal rights activists and NGOs were about to destroy western civilization. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World played a similar tune. Part of me finds it baffling that people can take this sort of thing seriously, but clearly they do and that has serious consequences.
We have already talked about fundamentalist religion a little. The point here is not that it doesn't have any threatening aspects (it is more threatening than homeopathy, say). But we need to investigate how it relates to other forces. The alliance between the Evangelicals and elements in the Republican party should be explored, of example. But this line of inquiry leads us away from fretting about metaphysics and towards the messiness of facts; it becomes a matter of Enron consultancies and casino shakedowns.
Let's try to order problems rationally, in line with their objective significance. Let's investigate them on rational lines, by inquiring into their structure. And then let's develop responses that are based on a clear-eyed understanding of them. Some people might really think that Greenpeace is a more serious menace to public understanding than, say, Exxonmobil. Well, that's up to them. I think most people can see that a large transnational energy company is more likely to be able to estrange us from reality than a relatively tiny NGO.
MT: Isn't this all a bit conspiratorial? Are you really suggesting that the pharmaceutical industry are putting profits ahead of people and allowing countless folk to die!?
DH: Well the pharmaceutical companies do put profits ahead of people and countless people have died as a result of this profit orientation. Some of this is a matter of secret, coordinated efforts to suppress unwelcome trial data and keep lucrative drugs on the market -- these efforts might be legal, in the sense that no one ends up going to prison, so I would hesitate to use the word conspiracy. But I talk a little about the controversy over SSRIs and Vioxx in the book; what was happening simply boggles the mind.
More generally, the structure of corporations leads them to ignore the public health and safety, if they can get away with it, and if there is an incentive to do so. They will also deceive the public if it serves their interests and they can get away with it. Now I don't propose to know what to do about this fact about corporations, but it is a fact. And if we take the "threat to reason" seriously, we should bear it in mind. Ideally I'd like every news bulletin to end with: "And finally, today states and corporations told thousands of lies that resulted in death, injury and misery for millions of people around the world." Is that too much to ask?
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
DH: Well, partly I wanted to reach people who get upset and angry about the threat posed to secular liberal society by religious fanatics, postmodernists and New Age crystal healers. I wanted to suggest that they were possibly being distracted from some other issues that are a sight more serious, and that we had some way to go before we could claim to be enlightened.
Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason
Yesterday, Dan had a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog. Goodness knows why, but the Guardian blog always seems to attract some right nutters on its comments threads. Anyway, over to my continuing conversation with Dan ...
Mark Thwaite: Speaking with you, in one sense you seem surprised that your book even needed to be written. I'm surprised you're surprised! It seems to be that - particularly since 9/11 - the ruling elites of the UK and US have become dangerously tyrannical and that is obvious for all to see.
Dan Hind: Certainly our rulers have become more authoritarian since 9/11. What surprises me is the ease with which they have been able to claim that their project was in some way enlightened. The idea that the Enlightenment can be re-staged now as a showdown between (Western) reason and (Islamic) faith has gained a measure of respectability that is in a way rather amazing.
MT: The current political climate seems to suggest that every single Muslim in the world is potentially bad and evil and that our brave politicians will wage a war without end against them. How has this nonsense managed to gain any foothold?
DH: The honest answer is that I don't know. History shows that people can be made to be frightened of pretty much anyone. Effective propaganda works with what it has, it generalises from the particular in ways that suit its purposes. Aggressive campaigns to promote prejudice often pose as self-defence. Isolated incidents and a tiny minority of extremists can be made to define whole communities, if the conditions are right. Certainly many people who should know better have gone along with this, even contributed to it. There is an alternative, we can change the subject; it is up to us to step outside the story we have been given, a story that we are tempted to tell ourselves, that evil is external and simple and our leaders are only trying to keep us safe.
MT: Is the War on Terror a racist war, an imperialist war or something else? Are terms like imperialist even very useful to describe the dreadful mistake that was the invasion of Iraq?
DH: Well, last week BBC radio referred to 'the so-called War on Terror'. That was a bit of a breakthrough, though it happened before the recent run of scares. There is a very lively debate about American global policy going on and you can find a wide range of answers to your questions.
We do know that the prime movers in the Iraq invasion were a coalition of imperialists and militarists who were in a hurry to exploit America's 'unipolar' moment. They were backed by a network of institutional interests who could see the benefits of a move to a war footing. Forty percent of America's tax income is spent on defence; that kind of money can change your life, or end it if you are in the wrong place. Readers who are interested in this might want to look at Ismael Hossein-Zadeh's The Political Economy of US Militarism for a detailed recent treatment of this subject.
I am not sure we can expect an entirely adequate explanation of what is going on in a useful timeframe. We can get a reasonable sketch. It is at least as important to try to figure out how to stop it.
Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason
Mark Thwaite: Dan, thanks for submitting to my questions and agreeing to this! So, for starters, what gave you the idea for The Threat to Reason?
Dan Hind: After 9/11 I noticed that the word Enlightenment seemed to be cropping up much more regularly - one source suggests that the phrase "enlightened values" cropped up four times more often in broadsheet newspapers in Britain in the period after the terrorist attacks in the US. People started to claim that we had to defend enlightened values from Muslim fanatics. This made me wonder what the Enlightenment was as a set of historical events, and what we could learn from it now. The book came from out of that curiosity, and from an impatience with what some liberals and progressives were saying, especially in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
MT: How long did it take you write it?
DH: I started writing some notes in the summer of 2004. Francis Wheen's book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World was kind of the last straw... I wrote a first draft Autumn 2005 - Spring 2006, which I sent to publishers And I wrote the final draft in the Autumn of last year when Verso) signed me up. Apart from that final re-write I was working full-time, so the book came along quite slowly.
MT: Lets get back to basics: what was and is the Enlightenment?
DH: What was the Enlightenment? That's big question! Put neutrally it was a period of philosophical and political upheaval between the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the French Revolution around a century later. If I had to give a more substantial definition, I'd say it was a collection of attempts to describe the world more accurately, by replacing dogma with experiment and open debate. A world understood more clearly could be improved. That was, I think, the characteristic hope of Enlightenment. That's what it was, at least seen in one light. There are other ways to describe it and I talk a little about them in my book. But that is a useful definition to start with.
MT: Why is it perceived to be under threat? Is it?
DH: Well a number of movements consciously or implicitly reject the ideas that we associate with the Enlightenment; most spectacularly some religious fundamentalists insist that science cannot challenge the authority of scripture. More complicatedly, postmodern philosophers have sometimes seemed to argue that Enlightenment universalism is only ever a cover for imperialist land grabs.
In my book I argue that the enlightened inheritance really is under threat and that it should be defended, but that its most significant enemies usually pose as its friends. Science is under constant, corrupting pressure from the institutions that fund it, or example. All the time these institutions pose, sometimes very convincingly, as the defenders of science. Angelina Jolie perhaps alludes to this with her tattoo, 'What nourishes me destroys me'. Too often defenders of the Enlightenment engage in a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy show, a formal confrontation between faith and reason, say, where everyone happily talks at cross purposes and hits each other with rhetorical sticks. Reality doesn't have the same, reassuring, seaside-knockabout form. Enlightenment is a much more unsettling subject than most of its self-appointed defenders are comfortable admitting; the word itself demands a state of constant vigilance in those who presume to use it.
The Threat to Reason
Dan Hind's The Threat to Reason (Verso) comes out today. It is also, you'll note, one of my Books of the Month this month. Despite its pastiche pulp cover, Dan's book is a serious and important contribution to the current debates about the War on Terror, postmodernism, and religion versus secularism and atheism.
I really want to get behind Dan's book and see it do well. So, to that end, this week is going to be Dan Week here on RSB. Breaking from my usual interview structure, I'll be asking Dan 3 questions every day this week on the blog. Hopefully, this will create a decent amount of debate -- Dan will be about to respond to any questions/responses you have to his answers via the comments so do, please, get involved.
Update: d'oh! I failed to mention that Dan also has a blog at thethreattoreason.blogspot.com.
Always a good thing: a new John Berger book came out yesterday:
Hold Everything Dear is John Berger’s vital response to today’s global economic and military tyranny. From Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and 7/7, to resistance in Ramallah and traumatic dislocation in the Middle East, Berger explores the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and memories that occur in the course of political resistance to empire and colonialism.
(Oh, and if anyone is counting, this is the 1000th post on RSB's blog. Yay!)
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's Yo, Blair! is a caustic, bitter satire of Tony Blair and his ten terrible years in power: "a blast on the trumpet about the most disastrous premiership of modern times." The title, of course, refers to that totemic moment when the American President George Bush greeted Blair with those eponymous words at the St. Petersburg summit in 2006. Spun as merely a friendly acknowledgement, the phrase seemed to indicate so much more: Blair was subservient to Bush in every way. The ruinous war in Iraq, that Blair backed knowing full well it was illegal, showed that when the Americans said jump, Blair blindly rushed forward to shout how high. Wheatcroft shows that the "calamitous Blair decade" has been defined by absurd foreign adventures: "While Blair is not a fascist himself ... he and his party have continually if unconciously echoed the language of fascism." This is an often funny book, but the humour is black and the tone is angry. Yo, Blair! is very well done; biting satire is the very least Blair deserves.
Frustratingly, I missed Adam Curtis's documentary series The Trap which was recently aired on the BBC. In a recent blog, Jonathan Derbyshire points to a snipe at the programme -- he calls it a "dismantling" which substantially flatters both the power and the coherence of the paragraph he cites -- by Chris Dillow who "argued a few weeks ago that Adam Curtis's documentary series The Trap is intellectually vacuous and historically inaccurate. Not only did John Nash not intend game theory as a compehensive theory of human nature, Hobbes got there first, 300 years before the Cold War, with a vision of human beings as 'selfish and paranoid.'" (As I understood it, but I've not seen the programme so I may be way off here, Curtis's argument was that Game Theory was (mis-)used by many people to justify the notion of selfish individualism so propagandised from the Cold War onwards. In this regard, it matters very little what Nash or other mathematicians intended for their work; it's how it was taken up and used by others that should be our concern.)
Jonathan goes on to praise a further attack on the programme by Paul Myerscough writing in the LRB. Myerscough, we're told, "develops a formal critique of The Trap that's every bit as powerful as Dillow's dismantling of its substantive claims. Myerscough makes the point that Curtis has cultivated a documentary style and visual grammar perfectly suited to his essentially paranoid vision ('paranoid' is my word, not Myerscough's, by the way). To the paranoid mind, everything is connected."
I'll leave you to read and digest these attacks on Curtis and save any substantial arguments I have about his latest film until I've watched it (hopefully at the weekend, if Lola the Puppy lets me!) In the meantime, I just wanted to raise one point with regard to all this.
Couldn't it be argued that one version of the form of political thinking that we might call "liberal" could be characterised by precisely its inability to see such connections (connections that are here labelled "paranoid")? Indeed, that it is a mode of thinking that could be defined by its refusal to accept even the possibility of such connections? What liberalism labels paranoia might (sometimes) genuinely be connected. It is vital to a liberal's thinking that "reducing" history to e.g. class forces, or pinpointing what a ruling elite might have to gain from a particular course of action, is always ruled out of court. In that way, liberals are often blind to the forces that make history. For example, putting the War on Terror into its historic context, remembering that world history, including American history, didn't start with 9/11, seeing the links between policies that were created for particular reasons to achieve particular ends for particular groups is good history. The Iraq War, to give another example, is not simply an appalling humanitarian scandal, nor just a botched job, nor a "mistake", it is a policy and it was orchestrated and executed for a reason.
History is not accidental; human elements move it along; these elements are not always reducible to the individual.
Update: there is a useful, long debate about some of this over on Medialens. Thanks Steve!
I've just heard the sad news of Tanya Reinhart's death. This, below, is verbatim from a press release sent by her UK publisher Verso:
Tanya Reinhart has died March 17 2007 in Long Island, New York.
Tanya was a tireless voice against the Israeli state’s oppression of the Palestinian people. In the articles she wrote for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot as well as Counterpunch and Znet, she argued passionately and with an unequalled rigour that Israel should leave the occupied territories.
Her books were similarly sharp and scholarly analyses. She wrote the acclaimed Israel/Palestine: How To End the War of 1948 (2002) of which Edward Said said: “The most devastating critique now available of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinian people.” Last year Verso published her The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine Since 2003 (2006), which detailed the grim logic behind the erection of Israel’s wall but also the hope engendered by the increasing resistance of both Palestinians and Israelis to Sharon and Olmert’s brutality.
Tanya was a Professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University, her Ph.D having been supervised by Noam Chomsky. She had recently taken a position as Distinguished Global Professor at New York University.
We are shocked and saddened to hear of Tanya’s death. The Palestinian cause has lost a great voice.
Last week, on the 14th March, Being Arab by Samir Kassir (described by his publisher as a "Lebanese journalist, historian and radical democracy activist") won the Index on Censorship T.R. Fyvel Book Award 2007. I'm told: "Controversially, Kassir documents what he regards as the stagnation of the Arab world and its descent into nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism as a response to modernity." The book has an introduction by Robert Fisk in which he examines why Kassir was assassinated by unknown forces with a car bomb in Beirut on June 2nd 2005.
Chandrahas, over at The Middle Stage, has a great post on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel (including lots of links to a "crackling discussion of the questions raised by Hirsi Ali's book ... on the European website Signandsight here, with pieces by Pascal Bruckner, Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek, Paul Cliteur and Ulrike Ackermann among others. Another piece, by Christopher Hitchens, is here").
I was vaguely aware of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but it was only reading Ian Buruma's excellent and measured Murder in Amsterdam this last weekend that I really began to understand what a controversial figure she is. Buruma's argument is a little light on the wider global and historic context of Amsterdam's recent difficulties, and whilst its even-handedness might be judicious, a strong opinion would occassionally be appreciated; regardless of this, it does a good job and I'd commend it. I've not read Ali's book Infidel (nor the follow up The Caged Virgin) but they are on their way to me ...
Infidel is subtitled: "The Story of My Enlightenment". And "enlightenment" is, here, not used innocently. It refers partially to The Enlightenment, of course. This is interesting. Regularly, Enlightenment values are held up as what we should be fighting for (against what exactly? and fighting for whom exactly when/if we do this?) So, I'm keen to read Daniel Hind's The Threat to Reason (Verso) which is due in May:
Today's media commentators and politicians constantly enlist the language and prestige of the historical Enlightenment to defend western science and rationality from its irrational enemies — Evangelicals, post-modernists, and Islamists, are on the march, they say.
Yet, in exploring how the Enlightenment continues to operate as a powerful guiding principle in Western politics, The Threat to Reason reveals how the truly pressing threats to free inquiry reside within the allegedly enlightened institutions of state and corporation. In their hands, the potential of Enlightenment ideas is implicated in the maintenance and furthering of neoliberal market values, while the permanent war envisaged by American state planners transforms the Enlightenment into a resource for establishing information dominance. By default science becomes what corporations want, and progress becomes what the US military can impose on the world.
A reader (hi Katherine) has just sent me this:
I read your info about the William Morris Internet Archive and wondered if you'd be intrested in adding a link anywhere on your site to keepourmuseumsopen.org.uk [this being the William Morris Gallery & Vestry House Museum]. Waltham Forests Labour Council are trying to close the gallery and this website details their plans and information about contacting them.
Not yet complete but still an amazing online resource -- it will eventually provide free access to "virtually all written material from William Morris that was published in his lifetime." Most of the material in the archive was provided and transcribed by the late Nick Salmon (author of the William Morris Chronology). In particular the website includes many articles and talks that are difficult to locate including Morris's contributions to Commonweal, as well as the remarkable Socialist Diary, edited and annotated by Florence Boos (originally published by the History Workshop Journal in 1982). This is a website to bookmark and return to again and again.
Whenever a politician or government minister says "we can't afford that" they are lying. Full stop. If they want to afford it, they can afford it. The price tag for the Iraq War (via 3 Quarks, quoting John Allen Paulos in his Who's Counting column at ABC News) is now estimated at $700 billion ...
... $700 billion in direct costs and perhaps twice that much when indirect expenditures are included. Cost estimates vary — Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts the total cost at more than $2 trillion — but let's be conservative and say it's only $1 trillion (in today's dollars).
As a number of other commentators have recently written, this number — a 1 followed by 12 zeroes — can be put into perspective in various ways. Given how large the war looms, it doesn't hurt to repeat this simple exercise with other examples and in other ways.
There are many comparisons that might be made, and devising new governmental monetary units is one way to make them. Consider, for example, that the value of one EPA, the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, is about $7.5 billion. The cost of the Iraq War is thus more than a century's worth of EPA spending (in today's dollars), almost 130 EPAs, only a small handful of which would probably have been sufficient to clean up Superfund sites around the country.
Eric Fair, "one of two civilian interrogators assigned to the division interrogation facility (DIF) of the 82nd Airborne Division," writes about his "experiences as an interrogator in Iraq":
Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.
In a post earlier today, Jonathan Derbyshire quotes from (some of?) his forthcoming interview with Nick Cohen, "in which he and I discuss his forthcoming book What's Left?" I suspect that I will have plenty to take issue with in Cohen's book, but I've yet to see a copy, and so will reserve my comments to simply trying to work out what Jonathan (and Cohen) mean in the following. Cohen is quoted as saying, "Because you’re no longer a socialist putting forward a programme, you don’t have to stand for anything. That’s why so many people read Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore – they don’t have to commit to anything. They just have to jeer." Jonathan calls this a "chastening diagnosis" He goes on to say, "at least in setting it out Cohen shows that there is still an alternative on the left to Chomsky’s suave nihilism and Moore's lumpen idiocies."
The only coherent reason for singling out Chomsky and Moore in this way is that they are both bestselling authors. Politically their methods are miles apart and, whilst no doubt many people buy books by both writers, their agendas and their constituencies are very different too. Moore's populism is useful for puncturing the pomposity of the powerful; Chomsky's critiques are far more considered and careful. Regardless of this, I take objection to Cohen's statement that those who read Chomsky and Moore do so merely to "jeer". Of course, when one buys a book one commits to nothing whatsoever. But many of those who have bought books by Chomsky and Moore, like I'm sure some who will buy Cohen's book, do so because of a profound interest in what is going on in the world. Those books represent just part of a way that they might begin to understand and engage in it. Further, I have no idea whatsoever how Chomsky can be called a "nihilist" (Derbyshire I'm sure knows what this word means, so I have no idea why he applies it). I'm guessing that it might be because Chomsky offers a partial critique of the Left from the Left, but I'm unsure. And the phrase "Moore's lumpen idiocies" sounds like the silliest kind of snobbery to me.
What underlies this rather forceless little attack on Moore and Chomsky, and those who read them, is Cohen's statement, followed by Jonathan's comment that "‘socialism as a practical political project is simply dead.’ What remains is the anti-imperialism of fools." What that actually equates to meaning is that those who opposed the war in Iraq, and the subsequent killing of 650,000 Iraqi civilians, are idiots. Well, I'm an idiot then. I console myself by thinking, nay jeering, that at least I know what nihilism means.
Affinities "is a web-based journal that focuses on groups, movements, and communities that set out to construct sustainable alternatives to the racist, hetero-sexist system of liberal-capitalist nation-states." Contributors include Steve Wright, author of the excellent Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. Beware the PDFs, though!
I first came across Michel Onfray back last December. Then, in September, I noted that Serpent's Tail will be publishing Atheist Manifesto, his first book to be translated into English, early next year (Traité d'Athéologie, Grasset).
And I've just noticed that, in the Toronto Star last Sunday, Brad Spurgeon ran a piece about "France's best-selling philosopher". I remain intrigued.
He is a self-described hedonist, atheist, libertarian, and left-wing anarchist ... in Atheist Manifesto he dismantles and condemns as dangerous and archaic not only Islam, but Christianity and Judaism as well ... And after more than 30 books, he is finally seeing his ideas spread far beyond his native Normandy. His 2005 book, Traité d'Athéologie, became a best-seller not only in France, where it has sold 230,000 copies, but also in Italy and Spain, and has sold well in other Latin countries, and even in Germany and Asia ... he says that believing in religion's "children's stories for comfort" deflects from the real problems of existence and thus exacerbates them, he does not despise the believers. As a rebel against all manner of authority, he aims his ire at those who impose and organize religion and its ethics, morals and customs.
Jörg Friedrich's The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 is just out from Columbia University Press. The author will be in the UK, speaking at the London Review bookshop, on Thursday, February 1st (in discussion with Joanna Bourke, author of Fear: A Cultural History; chaired by Peter Furtado, editor of History Today). On the Columbia site there is a podcast interview with Friedrich, an excerpt from the book and there are more links to reviews and the like.
Steve recently wrote about The Fire noting the irony that Friedrich actually supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Back in April 2003, Steve wrote a letter to the TLS in response to a review in their pages, by Daniel Johnson, of three books about the WWII air raids on Germany. That letter begins:
Daniel Johnson is right to dismiss the "moral equivalence" between the air war on Nazi Germany and the "Shock and Awe" campaign against Saddam's Iraq. One was an attack on a nation with the highest military spending in the world, bent on global expansion and threatening to succeed. The other is an attack by the most expensive military force in world history on an impoverished country with no apparent means of defence. How on Earth can they be the same?
On 17 October, President Bush signed a bill that legalised torture and kidnapping and effectively repealed the Bill of Rights and habeas corpus. The CIA can now legally abduct people and “render” them to secret prisons in countries where they are likely to be tortured. Evidence extracted under torture is now permissible in “military commissions”; people can be sentenced to death based on testimony beaten out of witnesses. You are now guilty until confirmed guilty. And you are a “terrorist” if you commit what George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, called “thoughtcrimes”. Bush has revived the prerogatives of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs: the power of unrestricted lawlessness. “America can be proud,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the bill’s promoters, who stood with other congressmen, clapping as Bush signed away the American constitution and the essence of American democracy.
The historic significance of this was barely acknowledged in Britain, the source of these abandoned ancient rights, no doubt because the same barbarians’ law is taking hold here [in the UK].
The Folkestone Literary Festival started a few days ago and goes on until this coming Saturday. On that day, November 18th, the last event is Debating Nuclear Energy: Solution or Setback?: Martin Empson and Malcolm Grimston. Martin, campaigning journalist and member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, recently reviewed George Monbiot's Heat on RSB, Grimston is a Member of the Atomic Energy Authority and Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House.
One of my Books of the Week this week is Chushichi Tsuzukis' biography of Edward Carpenter. Carpenter (1844-1929) is a fascinating figure: "a utopian gay man who lived for much of his life in a large rural house amongst a group of his friends and lovers. EM Forster described him as 'a poet, a prose writer, a mystic, a manual labourer, an anti-vivisectionist, an art critic'" (quote from the Edward Carpenter Community website).
Edward Carpenter was a pioneering socialist and radical prophet of a new age of fellowship in which social relations would be transformed by a new spiritual consciousness. The way he lived his life, perhaps even more than his extensive writings, was the essence of his message. It is perhaps not surprising that his reputation faded quickly after his death, as he lived much of his life modestly spreading his message by personal contact and example rather than by major literary works or through a national political career. He has been described as having that unusual combination of qualities: charisma with modesty. His ideas became immensely influential during the early years of the Socialist movement in Britain: perhaps Carpenter's most widely remembered legacy to the Socialist and Co-operative movements was his anthem England Arise! but it is his writings on the subject of homosexuality and his open espousal of this identity that makes him unique.
Interesting! Via GalleyCat:
Back in March, political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote an essay for the London Review of Books called "The Israel Lobby," exploring the close political and diplomatic links between the U.S. and Israeli governments and how they got so cozy. "It is hard to imagine any mainstream media outlet in the United States publishing a piece like this one," they said at the time. Well, I hope their minds were sufficiently blown by Farrar Straus Giroux's decision to publish a book-length expansion of the article (as reported by Gabriel Sanders of The Forward). No pub date has been set yet, but in the meantime, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where Walt teaches international affairs, hosts a longer version of the essay (PDF) on its website.
Another fine looking title that I notice is just out from Columbia University Press is The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad. I'd never heard of Eqbal until about an hour ago, but Noam Chomsky's foreword (caution pdf!) makes him sound well worth reading. The publisher's quote Edward Said:
Eqbal Ahmad was perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of the postwar world. Ahmad's themes were always liberation and injustice, or how to achieve the first without reproducing more of the second. Humanity and genuine secularism in this blood-drenched old century of ours had no finer champion.
Moral philosophy's firebrand Ted Honderich was on the telly last night (on Five's Don't Get Me Started). The programme was entitled The Real Friends of Terror and it rehearsed the arguments in his recent Continuum title Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9-11, Iraq, 7-7. Honderich argued clearly and convincingly that Blair's moral barbarism is atrocious, and that the real cause of the 9-11 and 7-7 attacks is the ongoing situation in Palestine. The programme was good polemic and it is always nice to see Blair (and Bush) condemned so trenchantly. But Honderich's argument is maddening.
If you jettison politics in favour of "moral philosophy" and the (very questionable and hubristic) "principle of humanity" (the principle Honderich uses to ground his argument, a principle, in short, that everyone should have "good lives") you concede to politicians the very ground you should be fighting them on. Politicians aren't (just) morally stupid; they are also CEOs of countries that have political and strategic ends to follow by whatever means. Throwing politics out of the window, and blaming politicians for moral stupidity, means no questions are asked about oil and arms, about realpolitik. Engaging with Blair's arguments as a moral philosopher flatters a politician's spin as somehow worthy of being taken seriously. There is a spurious War on Terror and tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians because of oil, power and money. Moral failings may certainly stem from the hunger for these "resources", but they are not the cause of the wars fought to capture them.
Larry Law's renowned series of situationist booklets, Spectacular Times, are online over at cornersoul. I tried to take a nostalgic peak at Bigger Cages Longer Chains but, frustratingly, it took an age to download (the text seems to have been captured as images of each individual page) ...
The world is full of ideologies that claim to offer freedom, but in reality simply offer us bigger cages and longer chains. The demand for an end to cages and chains may seem idealistic to some people, but the real idealists are those who think we can carry on as we are.
I should have mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but Verso (who are Publisher of the Week over at The Book Depository) have just released (well, it's been out for about a month now) Tanya Reinhart's The Road Map to Nowhere: Israel/Palestine Since 2003. This looks like the best recent history of the area I've seen:
Reinhart shows that throughout, Ariel Sharon's goals, ad those of his successor Ehud Olmert, have stayed the same: to maintain Gaza as a closed prison, to transform the West Bank into a system of sealed enclaves and to annex Palestinian land under cover of the construction of the "separation wall." The army, which represents the true power in Israel, will forcibly ensure the legacy of Sharon is applied -- Hamas' election success represents an ideal pretext to do so.
Recent revelations about Günter Grass (his time spent as a teenager in the Waffen SS, in the 10th SS Panzer Division no less) have met with the expected media responses. Grass was (just about; he was 15 years old) the right age and class to have served: it was known he was a soldier, but not that he had been a member of an organisation declared by the Nuremberg tribunal to be "criminal".
As readers, what we might do well to ask ourselves after these "revelations" (instead of indulging ourselves in high-handed and ignorant condemnation) is how Grass's writing has served us as readers in each of his novels. (Not least because saying it was bad to be a Nazi is a pathetically banal response.)
Like Steve, I don't find myself ideally placed to answer: I've tried and failed to read an entire Grass novel on a number of occassions (I floundered with The Flounder; The Tin Drum beat me). Regardless, I think what we should be asking is what questions that we previously hoped his novels might answer or pose cannot now be put or responded to now that we think we know about Grass's personal history? What do we think this knowledge can and should do to our reading? And what does this tell us about our readerly expectations in the first place? What image of the writer has been destroyed or damaged by us knowing now what we think we know? (I note that in Daniel Johnson pompous Open Letter to Günter Grass he complains that: "Now, however, you have forced us to read your books again, and in an ambiguous light": if Johnson was previously reading any novel unambiguously it shows just what a bad reader he is.)
Ellis Sharp condemns, sometimes superbly well, Israel and its atrocities towards the Palestinians (and, in this most recent phase of its ongoing warring, the Lebanese). (I do sometimes find his obsession with Israel a little worrying: all states are war machines.) Recently, Imre Kertész's stupid remarks about José Saramago (referring to none to clever remarks by Saramago himself) were highlighted on his blog and now Aharon Appelfeld has been condemned.
Condemning Appelfeld for his silence, which has been rendered into support for Israeli violence, seems as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Perhaps it is useful to point out the partiality of his understanding of the "human condition", about which he has written so wonderfully well, and right to condemn his silence and the politics it suggests. But this only confirms that Appelfeld's novels are better than the man, a paradox one should remember as we read his best novels and ignore (what we imagine to be) his politics. Knowing that Appelfeld has perhaps failed to understand the full import of his own enigmatic writing makes me wish he was as good a reader as he is a writer. But good readers are as rare as good writers. And good men rarer still.
The bringing to bear of what, following Veblen, we might call conspicuous force presupposes a second stupidity: the verminization of the Enemy. Before Gulf War 1 had even happened, Virilio saw the logic of verminization rehearsed in James Cameron's Aliens wherein the 'machinic actors do battle in a Manichean combat in which the enemy is no longer an adversary, a fellow creature one must respect in spite of everything; rather, it is an unnameable being that it is more appropriate to exerminate than to examine or analyse.' In Aliens, Virilio ominously notes, attacks on the 'family [form] the basis of ... necolonial intervention.' The teeming, Lovecraftian abominations which can breed much faster than we can are to be dealt with by machines whose 'awesome appearance is part of [their] military effectiveness.' Shock and awe.
Paul Routledge, political columnist at the Mirror newspaper, recommends his 10 favourite political biographies over at Abebooks.co.uk. Nowt much of interest there, really. Political biographies are mostly deadly dull but, if you can wait until late September, Penguin Classics are releasing Emma Goldman's Living My Life.
The sad news of the death, at 85 years of age, of social ecologist Murray Bookchin comes via Booksurfer:
Author, activist, pioneer of social ecology and libertarian municipalism Murray Bookchin died on Sunday. Writing under the pen-name of Lewis Herber in the 1960s he was one of the first people to draw attention to the developing ecolological crisis in his book Our Synthetic Environment (1962). He also wrote about the breakdown and potential of urban living in The Crisis in Our Cities (1965) the same year in which his influential Post Scarcity Anarchism was published. He was author of the widely influential polemic Listen Marxist! and Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism in which he restates the case for anarchism as a movement for social revolution and not simply a lifestyle choice. The Press Association obituary is rather thin on detail, but there is a detailed biography of his life on the Anarchy Archives, with links through to a slightly dated bibliography.
From the Information Clearing House
How soon must we use the words "war crime"? How many children must be scattered in the rubble of Israeli air attacks before we reject the obscene phrase "collateral damage" and start talking about prosecution for crimes against humanity?
A United Nations report released this week says that the death toll among Iraqi civilians since January 2006 is 14,338. The number killed has been rising steadily each month, from 1,778 in January to 3,149 in June. That report significantly understates the actual totals. The U.N. relied on official data reported by the Iraqi government, which is prone to omit some of the dead. But in any case the situation in Iraq is so chaotic that it is impossible to count their numbers, especially in far-flung provinces. Still, the U.N.’s figures far surpassed previous estimates of casualties from any source.
What’s shocking — especially if you’ve been paying more attention to the destruction of Lebanon by the Israeli armed forces and missed it — is that things in Iraq has gotten qualitatively worse in July. In June, Iraqis died at the rate of nearly 1,000 per week. In July, we can only speculate—but it’s not impossible that the toll is at least twice that, 2,000 per week. The word genocide comes to mind.
It ain't a pretty website but, if you can force your way around it, and ignore the fact that many of the articles are bloody PDFs, The Commoner has a lot of very fine essays from the likes of Nick Dyer-Witheford (author of the excellent Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-technology Capitalism), Silvia Federici (author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation) and Steve Wright (author of Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism). Definitely worth taking the time to navigate.
Bad news about the Turkish writer Elif Shafak from the highly appealing (if a little confusing) website The Ledge ("an independent platform for international literature. At the heart of the site is a series of interviews with authors, translators and critics from around the world" -- thanks Wah-Ming):
Turkish ultranationalists have once again filed a complaint against the Turkish writer Elif Shafak (1971), author of The Saint of Incipient Insanities, The Gaze and The Flea Palace, charging her with ‘insulting Turkishness.’ The complaint focuses on two passages from Shafak’s latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. Like Orhan Pamuk, whose statements about ‘the Armenian question’ in a newspaper interview raised the ire of the nationalists, Shafak is being charged with transgressing Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which makes denigrating Turkishness a criminal offense.
For more information, please contact Fran van den Bogaert at firstname.lastname@example.org
I've just learned of the death of Philip Rieff (1922-2006). He died last Saturday in Philadelphia. "Rieff was a sociologist best known for his examination of the social consequences — especially the moral consequences — of the assimilation of the ideas of Freud into modern culture."
In 1989, the University of Chicago Press published a collection of Rieff's essays, The Feeling Intellect: Selected Writings, edited by Jonathan B. Imber. They also have two of Rieff's most influential works: Freud: The Mind of the Moralist and The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud.
...Rieff articulates a comprehensive, typological theory of Western culture. Using visual illustrations and unique juxtapositions, he displays remarkable erudition in drawing from such disciplines as sociology, history, literature, poetry, music, plastic arts, and film; he contrasts the changing modes of spiritual and social thought that have struggled for dominance throughout Western history. Our modern culture—to Rieff's mind only the "third" type in western history—is the object of his deepest scrutiny, described here as morally ruinous, death-affirming rather than life-affirming, and representing an unprecedented attempt to create a culture completely devoid of any concept of the sacred.
Noam Chomsky has a new book out -- Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy -- which was idiotically reviewed in a snide piece of bile by Peter Beaumont in the Observer yesterday (a review glowingly reported on in an idiotic and snide blog by Michael Schaub at Bookslut). A decent response to Beaumont can be read over at Lenin's Tomb and many of the comments at the Observer blog are worth reading too.
One reads from Mark Curtis ("Voice of the unpeople", June 3) that John Pilger has come to the conclusion that there is a certain "ambiguity" about the heritage of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and that the government of the African National Congress has presided over the empowerment of a small black elite alongside the continued impoverishment of the majority.
In making these unremarkable observations in his new book, Freedom Next Time, Pilger is merely marching in step with the South African communist party or the veteran South African journalists Stanley Uys and James Myburgh.
My late colleague, Dr Baruch Hirson (Pretoria Prison, 1964-73) and I (Pretoria Prison and the Fort, Johannesburg, 1964-67), anticipated Pilger's observations more than 16 years ago in our journal, Searchlight South Africa (banned there), in article after article. At that time and for a decade-and-a-half afterwards, Pilger's global tribuning of the people had its attention elsewhere. More honest, less ideological, and with no bandwagon to give it attention, is Carol Lee's new book, A Child Called Freedom (Century 2006) published to commemorate the 30th anniversary this month of the Soweto school students' uprising. Anyone interested in conditions of poverty in the "new" South Africa, and the unpleasant fate of those who sought democracy in Soweto and in the ANC in exile, would do better to read this unpretentious book.
According to the BBC, Poet Roger McGough has "pulled out of a gala concert to welcome Condoleezza Rice to the city, amid protests by anti-war campaigners." Anti-war campaigners, including the Merseyside Stop the War Coalition, are expected to protest outside the event in Liverpool on the 31st March.
The proletariat are factory-farmed replicants who believe they are something called the working class. The task for telecommunism is to strip out the false memory chips binding them to the quasi-organic earth, in order to produce a New Earth for a 'people that do not yet exist'.
Also worth a read is Jon on Tronti, over at Long Sunday. Jon promises a "Tronti fest" to come: looking forward to that!
Of further interest may be the fact that I'll be posting Nick Dyer-Witherford's essay Cyber-Negr: General Intellect and Immaterial Labour (from The Philosophy of Antonio Negri: Resistance in Practice (Pluto) here on RSB within the next day or so.
The Berlin-based Peter Weiss Foundation for Arts and Politics based has sent out an appeal to commit the 20th of March (the third anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq) as an Anniversary of the Political Lie. In support of this, public readings of Eliot Weinberger’s What I Heard About Iraq will be performed across the world.
The text is a collage of the statements made by American administration officials and their allies leading up to the war, and then, after the war began, of these same officials, as well as American soldiers and ordinary Iraqi citizens. It is a history of the Iraq war in "soundbites," from 1992 to January 2005. After its publication in the London Review of Books, the text was the most-visited article ever on the magazine's website, and was reproduced or linked on some 100,000 other websites.
The London reading will be held at the London Review Bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1, with Terry Jones, David Calder, Jenny Diski, Susan Wooldridge, Andy de la Tour and Tariq Ali. It starts at 7pm, wine will be served, it's free entry, but you will need to reserve a seat (call 020 7269 9030).
To be "rushed out in time for the 3rd anniversary of the declaration of war on 20th March and the major international demonstrations on 18th March", Verso (in collaboration with the Stop the War Coalition) are just about to release Not One More Death: "Luminaries of literature, science and music unite in their condemnation of the unjust war on Iraq and its disastrous occupation":
John le Carré attacks Tony Blair’s attempts to save the US and UK’s special relationship by giving legitimacy to the war; Richard Dawkins writes of the terrifying discourse of Good and Evil that dominates the Bush government’s thinking; Brian Eno tears apart the alleged reasons for the war and makes a compelling argument for the withdrawal of troops; Michel Faber highlights how language and rational debate gurgles down the drain in an atmosphere of hysteria; Harold Pinter’s excoriating Nobel acceptance speech; Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana documents the shocking record of atrocities in occupied Iraq and argues for the right of the Iraqi people to resist
Yesterday, Reaktion very kindly sent on to me Robert Bevan's excellent looking The Destruction of Memory. Just now I read, via the Distributed Presses blog, of an article by Robert Bevan in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Bevan argues that ... attacks on cultural and religious sites are "double attacks" on a society's foundations, "This is not collateral damage. It can be an attempt to destabilise a society or, where memories, history, and identity are attached to architecture and place, to enforce forgetting." In addition to the destruction of the Golden Mosque by unknown forces, Bevan's editorial provides various examples of different factions' uses of architecture in Iraq: the Shiite Mahdi Army's occupation of the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf in order to gain protection from the U.S forces, who knew that attacking the shrine would be unforgivable in the eyes of the Shiite population; the reprisals from Shiite groups toward Sunni mosques following the destruction of the Golden Dome; the U.S. military's use and disregard of historical sites, its militarily worthless "Shock and Awe" method, and its general failure to protect Iraq's heritage sites from looting and destruction.
It has come to my attention that Paul Avrich (1931-2006), the noted historian of anarchism, died on the 17th February (via Normblog). Avrich was born in New York City on August 4, 1931. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize several times and in 1984 he won the Philip Taft Labor History Award. The Library of Congress houses the Paul Avrich Collection, a collection of over twenty thousand manuscripts and publications on American and European anarchism that Avrich donated to the library. Amongst his works are Kronstadt, 1921, The Russian Anarchists and Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background. More from anarkismo.net and Interactivist Info Exchange.
So you have your typical right-winger newspaper in Denmark, who - surprise, surprise - tend to score political points off provoking the 'opposing team'... so they publish cartoons... basically suggest that 'the other guys' are completely unreasonable and hate us and are probably evil. Unfortunately for them, other right-wingers, this time in Iran, pick up on that, see a chance to score political points by suggesting that 'the other guys' are completely unreasonable, and hate us, and are probably evil. All they wanted were some cheap political points, instead they got an international incident, which leads right-wingers, this time all over the world, to pick up on the chance to show how 'the other guys' are completely unreasonable and are probably evil and totally hate our guts. It's a transcontinental right-winger circle jerk, it's the Sam Huntington version of the special olympics. Fuck those guys.
A new (British) film, by director Michael Winterbottom, about the horrors of Guantánamo Bay has, it seems, excited audiences at the Berlin International Film Festival and is being tipped to win the festival's prestigious Golden Bear award. The film is funded by Channel Four and will air on British TV on March 9th (the day after, the film will be released online, on DVD and in cinemas). The Road to Guantánamo is the story of the three British Muslims (Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul, the so-called Tipton Three) who were held at the US military base for two years without charge or trial.
This is all very timely as it was only yesterday that the Guardian reported that a leaked UN draft report said that treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay constitutes torture in some cases and violates international law.
Usefully, just recently out in paperback from The New Press is Torture: A Human Rights Perspective edited by Kenneth Roth and with an introduction by Geoffrey Robertson. Due soon is David Rose's Guantánamo: The War on Human Rights.