Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

The Idiot Joy Showland coronavirus reading list

atlast

These are twelve tales for the empty hours. They’re stories about waiting, about watching, about deferral and delay, about abeyance, about being somewhere else, at a distance, at a remove. They’re books about being stuck.

Early in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Jessica asks a question. “What was it like? Before the war?” She knows she was alive then, a child, but it’s not what she means. The question is impossible to answer. There’s nothing to recall. “All I remember is that it was silly. Just overwhelmingly silly. Nothing happened.” Jessica doesn’t want to know about the events that came before the war, the abdication, the fashion, the politics, but something stranger and harder to grasp. What did it feel like to live in a world that wasn’t always exploding? Flashes of small incidence. Games, pinafores, girl friends, a black alley kitten with white little feet, holidays all the family by the sea, brine, frying fish, donkey rides, peach taffeta, a boy named Robin… It barely exists.

If you’re like me, you might have suspected, for a very long time, that we were going about our lives in the blank empty period before the war.

I live in London. My girlfriend lives in New York. A few months ago, this wasn’t really much of a problem. I can do my day-job from basically anywhere; there was nothing really stopping me from jetting off across the Atlantic to sprawl around her apartment for a few weeks and develop strange obsessive new opinions about pizza. Now? The catastrophe we were all waiting for has finally arrived, and it’s another wait. The coronavirus puts everything in abeyance. If you don’t want other people to die – and I don’t – the only thing to do is to stay inside. Put your plans on hold. Suspend all hope. A vast pause descends on the world, and the future disintegrates. It rots into empty time.

My girlfriend works in fashion. You can probably see the problem: it might be fun to swan around an empty home in something expensive for a day or two, but nobody really needs couture during a plague. It belongs to the old world, the one of seeing and being seen, before the war. It might still return, when we come out of this thing. (When we come out of this thing is already in mythic time now, like when Judgement Day arrives or when the revolution comes.) But things won’t ever be the same; reality is already mutating while our backs are turned. Distance and delay seep into the stuff of the world.

I talk to her on the phone. Her face swims out of pixels and glitch. Can you see me? Can you hear me? I can hear you but I can’t see you. I can see you but I can’t hear you. Because I’m a dickhead, I spend a decent chunk of my time coming up with annoying little try-hard troll-statements to get a rise out of her. Being queer, I say, is when you’re either a gay man or a straight woman. She’s better at this game than I am. Well done, babe, she says, her voice full of enthusiasm and serenity and distance. I miss her a lot. I don’t know when I’ll get to see her again.

I have a flatmate. I have some hens I can visit without the risk of contaminating anyone. They’re wonderful birds; they bounce and cluck and follow me around the garden on their stubby little legs, and then once they’ve raced down to where I’m sitting they’ll peck at the dirt a short distance away, cooing happily, pretending not to notice me. But they’ll glance, sometimes, with dark gentle eyes. Herzog was wrong, and chickens are not stupid. They like to know I’m there.

For everyone else, the best thing I can do is be somewhere else.

One of Adorno’s aphorisms: every work of art is an uncommitted crime. Literature has always been a kind of grey substitute for the world. (From the very beginning, in fact; the signifier and the symbolic begin as sacrificial offerings, born out of the terror of castration.) To read or write is the opposite of living, which is why Nietzsche had so much scorn for people who could read a book in the morning. When you read, you are not in motion, you’re not in your body, you’re barely in your own head. You are displaced. You are also alone. Literary prose is the best system we’ve ever devised for really accessing the subjectivity of another human being – but for it to work, the other person has to be absent, annulled in words, stripped down to the ghost of a voice. (This is why communities of writers usually produce mediocrities, and communities of readers are always ruled by psychopaths.) Every book is a miniature quarantine zone.

The tales in this list are not Great Books to finally get around to, now you have so much time. Some of them are long, but others are short, very short. These are not achievements to tick off your list, so you’re still productive while you’re self-isolating, so this enormous hush descending on the world doesn’t stop you Achieving Your Goals. If that’s what you’re after, you might as well just give up now rather than later, and just binge-watch something on Netflix like everyone else. These are not stories to distract you from your isolation, to make it pass quicker, to make you feel better, to nourish your soul during the uncertain months ahead. Literature is not therapy, and putting a bird-feeder on your window will achieve all those things better than any book ever could. These are books that lengthen the silence in things.

* * *

Plays

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Under such suffering, speech and silence alike are beyond me.
A man is pinned to a rock, alone. Others pass by. They beg him to ask forgiveness and free himself, but he’s full of scorn, and he refuses. Prometheus is certain that one day, Zeus will have to free him: a disaster is coming, and only he can prevent it. History completes the joke for us. The second and third parts of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, are irretrievably lost. We’ll never know who the enemy was that only Prometheus could defeat. He is still on his rock.

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The time is out of joint.
A late Elizabethan grimoire, a guide to communicating with ghosts. An atlas of interstices, hiding-places, shadows: the spaces behind a tapestry, the chapels, the maze of ramparts, the places where bodies lie, compounded with dust, the innards where something is rotten. An agony of indecision. But most of all, a guide to reading and writing when you’d rather be doing something else. In the first act, Hamlet decides to wipe away all saws of books: to give up words and act. When do we see him next? Enter HAMLET, reading.

Novels

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs?
A lazy amble through the world and words. Famously, Tristram isn’t even born until a third of the way through; to account for him would mean accounting for everything. Like many of the best books – Moby-Dick, or Ulysses, or the Bible – it’s a treasury of the whole of the world, in which all its variegated stuff is pressed up close together, and everything that exists is only a distraction from something else. Most of all, though, it’s a book about time. Chronological time, measured by the clock, and the sexually exciting pauses as it runs down and is wound up again; narrative time, bending and contracting and racing ahead of itself; writerly time; historical time. It stretches forever, and everything and nothing happens in it at once. This is a long book, but you have plenty of time.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, À Rebours
The tortoise was still lying absolutely motionless. He touched it; it was dead.
Jean Des Esseintes, a dying thirty-year-old aristocrat, shuts himself away in a house on the outskirts of Paris, where he builds himself a synthetic paradise. The walls must be painted in colours that suit an artificial light; the poisonous plants he grows must look like artificial flowers, with ghastly pink blossoms. Like the 120 Days of Sodom, it’s less a novel than a catalogue of sensations. In the 21st century, we’re all Sadeans now: maybe not murdering and mutilating, but impoverished aristocrats in a tightly enclosed world, where the only goal in life is to curate exceptional experiences. Lockdown only accelerates the process. In retreating from modernity, Des Esseintes becomes its founding genius.

Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’: A Tate of the Forecastle
Nothing seems left of the whole universe but darkness, clamour, fury – and the ship.
The titular character is James (or Jimmy) Wait, a crewman on a ship from India to London. He announces himself by shouting that name: it can’t be made out on the ship’s roster; it’s all a smudge. The chief mate thinks he’s trying to hold up the ship’s departure, and he’s not wrong. Wait is a gap, a blockage, a delay in the imperial circulation of goods and capital. As soon as the Narcissus sets sail, he starts insisting that he’s about to die. He is a bad omen. First the ship capsizes, then it’s becalmed. Wait admits that he feigned his illness, but he’s quarantined anyway. Then, he really does start to become sick. Only when he dies can good winds speed us to London. Obviously, the book’s title leaves it open to the accusation that this is simply a racist text. Is Wait a fully human and fully realised character? No, of course not. He has a head powerful and misshapen with a tormented and flattened face – a face pathetic and brutal: the tragic, the mysterious, the repulsive mask of a nigger’s soul. Which is the entire point: he lives in a world in which he’s only legible as a smudge, a blockage, a gap, a distance. You should be able to relate. His mask is your mask: the soul of a disposable human subject in a time of plague.

Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
I longed to go back to the forest. Oh not a real longing. Molloy could stay, wherever he happened to be.
There is a voice, maybe one voice, maybe several voices, it’s no matter, they are here, or perhaps they could be elsewhere, perhaps it’s you who are elsewhere and they who are here. No matter. You are lost here. You travel in straight lines by reading in circles and travel in circles by reading in straight lines. No matter. Go on.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Castle to Castle
I’m always talking about myself!… It was easy for Hamlet to philosophise about skulls!… He had his security! We certainly didn’t!
A world is ending, even if that world is the Third Reich. Céline, with a gaggle of fellow Vichy lackeys, flees to Schloss Siegmaringen, a kind of Nazi Gormenghast, where the French fascists are making their final pointless stand. In a sense, this is Céline’s most hopeful book: even with the nightmare of the war as his subject, he can’t help but be his bilious self, unchanged and unchangeable. He keeps surfacing, again and again, to the present, where he whines about his literary reputation. (I’m just no candidate for the Pantheon… highest priced worms in the world!) A panicked scene at a railway station gives way to an extended rant on the practice of rating women’s looks on a twenty-point scale. (I’m speaking of all this as a veterinarian, a racist so to speak… the socio-Proustian terminology of the drawing rooms could easily turn me into a murderer… I’m only handing out marks… nothing else… “Hike up your skirts! Now let’s see! What mark?”) All he has is bitterness and spite. Bitterness and spite might save us, too, in the end.

Stories

Nikolai Gogol, The Nose
‘What an infernal face!’ he exclaimed, and spat with disgust. ‘If there were only something there instead of the nose, but there is absolutely nothing.’
A fable for the disintegrating body. A man’s nose appears in a loaf of bread. At first it’s an execrable object, to be dropped off a bridge – but as its one-time owner tries to find the thing, he discovers that his nose has become a state-councillor in a gold-embroidered uniform with a stiff, high collar. It firmly but politely refuses to rejoin his face. Political power always has the ability to strip us down into our constituent parts. Your mouth, your hands, the fluid in your lungs. What is an N95 mask for? It keeps your nose in place.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights
I am a dreamer; I have so little real life that I look upon such moments as this now, as so rare, that I cannot help going over such moments again in my dreams.
It’s summer, the sun barely sets, and the city is empty. Everyone has fled for their summer villas; you have been left behind. You wander the streets alone. You are a stranger to everyone except the houses; you imagine them talking to you when their owners are gone. For a moment – a flash, a bright second – you meet another person and fall in love. But the rules of social distancing were imposed on you a long time ago. A whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?

Bruno Schulz, The Comet
A spool of insulated wire became the symbol of the times.
This is not a story about the end of the world. It’s a story about a world that wants to end. Not from exhaustion or despair, but in the full confidence of its knowledge of itself. The most progressive, free thinking end of the world, befitting the times, plainly honourable, and a credit to the Supreme Wisdom. It was Schulz’s last story. The greatest Polish author of the twentieth century was shot on the street by a Nazi officer in 1942.

JG Ballard, The Enormous Space
This conventional suburban villa is in fact the junction between our small illusory world and another larger and more real one.
Good luck.

* * *

The final story is At Night by Franz Kafka, possibly the last human individual to ever truly Get It. It’s extremely short, and I’m reproducing it in full.

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, an innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

We must be there for each other. Which is to say, we must be elsewhere, for each other.

Love in the time of coronavirus

regnault

Is there an erotics of the coronavirus?

I ask because I’ve been ill lately, stuck at home, coughing and wheezing and watching old films. It’s probably just the common cold. It’s probably not anything to worry about. But if what you read here seems woozy or feverish, now you know why. I called the NHS helpline and described my symptoms. Where are you located? the faceless voice on the end of the line asked. London, I said. The voice seemed to find this suspicious. It didn’t like my answer. What’s the nearest town to you? it asked. London, I said. Ok, said the voice, irritated and confused, as if it was until now unaware that a major world capital is hiding in the south-east of this island. What’s your nearest city? it said. London, I said. We’re doomed.

What I’ve noticed about the old films is the way people in them do things that you could never get away with now. They touch their faces. They touch each other’s faces. They peck each other on the cheek. Already, these gestures are starting to feel charged, excessive, and dangerous. They have the potential to be either an expression of total devotion – you’re everything to me, pathogens and all – or total cruelty – you’re nothing to me, and if I touch you it’s only to spread my disease.

Kingsley Amis is supposed to have said that the sexiest part of a naked woman is her face. Back then, this was a piece of wit; now, it’s a symptom. The great unnoticed psychological shift in our era has been the total erotic devaluation of the genitalia, and the rise of the face. Digital networks have unburdened the face of its communicative functions: thanks to the internet, people can become friends, form relationships, or nurture hatreds without ever looking each other in the eye. It’s all in the hands, in text. As Richard Seymour points out, this isn’t really communication at all; it’s a collective project of inscription, a vast shared writing project addressed to nobody in particular. But the result has been to turn the face into a surplus, a zone of danger and desire. Grand right-wing fantasies about the Islamisation of Europe and global racial war always seem to hinge on the horrifying, tempting, fascinating vision of the woman with the visually unavailable face. In porn, some performers will show everything except the face; scenes of writhing acephales, penetrating and being penetrated in a world without sight or speech. But other forms focus on the face almost exclusively: a face that’s gagging, spluttering, streaming with mucus from the nose, the mouth, and the eyes. The symptoms of the virus were already waiting for us in our fantasies.

In Freud, the latency period is prompted by a sudden command: stop touching your genitals. It can never really be obeyed; all you get out of it is a lifetime of shame. Similarly, we’re now told to stop touching our faces. But on average, people touch their faces every two to three minutes. It happens without thought, and without anyone even noticing: you need a team of university researchers with cameras or a global pandemic before people start to realise what’s been going on. Humans are the only animals that do this. You need opposable thumbs and an upright posture: even apes, when they groom themselves, groom with the face, running the mouth and tongue over their forearms. An ape is still mostly arranged on what Bataille described as the horizontal axis, with the face as the prow, the foremost part through which it interacts with the world. An animal’s subjectivity lives entirely in its face. But humans are vertical; we extend into the world through our hands. The face is abstracted; as Deleuze and Guattari point out, ‘the face is produced only when the head ceases to be part of the body.’ Our own faces are capable of becoming an object: autonomous, detached, and erotic.

Deleuze and Guattari again. ‘A horror story, the face is a horror story.’

The virus can feel like a wordless critique of modernity. Just look at how it spreads: air travel, tourism, the globalised economy. Like so many of our commodities, it’s put together in China, where it inflicts mostly-invisible misery, before circulating in the churn and frenzy of global trade. Look at where the virus breeds: in cities. The city, an environment built deliberately by humans to suit our needs, has still never been the optimal environment for human life. For most of human history, cities were sink habitats: the death rate was always much higher than the birth rate, and they only kept growing because of migration from the hinterlands. (In many cities, this is still the case.) But the city is an almost perfect environment for endemic diseases. It’s a permanent feast. The sheer density of hosts, all rubbing up close against each other, all spraying every possible surface with snot. If an alien visitor came to our world without any preconceptions, they might assume that pathogens were our dominant species. The microbes were the ones who built our cities, as vast farm complexes for their livestock.

(But at the same time, it’s significant that these diseases, which seem so perfectly calibrated for a globe-straddling, city-dwelling, face-poking humanity, all seem to originate with wild animals. The beings that have no place in the capitalist order; the lives whose value – unlike those of domestic animals – can’t be computed, exchanged, volatilised. In these conditions, they move towards extinction and disappearance. It’s through disease that wild animals find a way of representing themselves within the system. In an interview with the German socialist magazine Marx21, biologist Rob Wallace traces these pandemics to capitalism’s destruction of primary forests. ‘Pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free.’ A deadly, occult secret in the ancient woods, but one capable of plugging into and hijacking the systems of modernity. Irruptions of the Outside. The 2002 SARS outbreak was transmitted by civets and bats; the H1N1 epidemic in the 2010s was spread by migrating birds. It’s possible that the coronavirus is the work of the pangolin. It’s hard to think of a creature that better deserves its revenge.)

Institutions more abstract than the city also take on a strange new light in the wake of the virus. More than anything, the US presidential election is revealed as an enormous disease vector. All those energised and infectious young people criss-crossing the country, smearing their hands over every doorbell, hacking and wheezing into every wrinkly face. All those big rallies. You wanted a future, but what you get is a plague.

But the virus doesn’t affect all politics equally. Mass-participation movements are uniquely vulnerable; projects based on universalism, collective emancipation, the collective subject. But movements based on what Pfaller and Žižek have called ‘interpassivity’ are not. Jair Bolsonaro has the virus, but it might not loosen his grip on power; he already conducted most of his 2018 campaign from behind closed doors, after being stabbed at a campaign event. Meanwhile, some critics are confounded by the recent successes of the Biden campaign against Bernie Sanders. After all, Biden has hardly any field offices, no ground game, no passion or joy behind his candidacy, no movement. There’s simply nothing there to attach yourself to; as Biden himself put it, ‘nothing would fundamentally change.’ This is more dangerous by far than Trumpism, which is still basically a participatory movement in the old mould. Trump wants something from you. Biden doesn’t; he insults seemingly every voter in his path, and sometimes forgets what position he’s even running for. He’s successful not despite the fact that his brain is clearly turning to jelly, but because of it. Leftists are currently insisting that Biden will inevitably lose to Trump, but the reality could be far worse. He’s the perfect expression of our senescent age. A politics of grudgeful stasis; in other words, a politics of defacialisation, a politics of social distancing, a politics of the coronavirus.

Blanchot, quoting Biden: ‘The coronavirus ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.’ What the virus achieves is an intensification of everything that was already happening: the detachment of the face from the body, the detachment of human individuals from each other. The advice is to self-isolate: don’t go outside, don’t see your friends, don’t go to museums or theatres, don’t have sex, just stay at home and order stuff online. Watch porn. Consume entertainment media.  Post on the internet. Isn’t that what we were all doing already? In South Korea, health alerts have exposed ordinary people’s private lives to the world: everyone surveiling everyone else, disease as mass entertainment. In China, workers who were asked to do their jobs from home when the virus first emerged are now being told to stay there. The virus might imperil international trade, but the great dark secret of the post-2008 economy is that international trade has already collapsed, and while economists still can’t quite work out why, everything is still working.

In the end, after the chaos, the impact of the virus might be almost undetectable. You will be lonelier than before, but you were always lonelier than before. You will be feverish and breathless, but you were always feverish and breathless. You’ll sit in your isolation tank, and sometimes your hands will twitch, all by themselves, towards the alien entity that was once your face.

 

Teenage bloodbath: the 2010s in review

Death is grievance, and only grievance.
Philip Roth (died 2018)

orc

Reviewed:
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (film, JJ Abrams, 2019)
The Irishman (film, Martin Scorsese, 2019)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (film, Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
‘ok boomer’ (meme, the New York Times, 2019)
The death of Jeffrey Epstein (hyperobject, Bill and Hillary Clinton, 2019)
YA fiction (genre, JK Rowling et al., 1997)
The 2010s (decade, Time, 2010)
Industrial capitalism (mode of production, the World-Spirit, 1760)
The Earth (planet, God, 4,543,000,000 BC)
Myself (imbecile, God, 1990)

The most interesting images in the new Star Wars films are the ones in which they literally ruin the original trilogy. There’s one in 2015’s The Force Awakens: the collapsed shell of a Star Destroyer, huge in the desert, jammed into the world at the wrong angle. There’s one in the most recent film, The Rise of Skywalker: the Death Star itself, its colossal eye fractured, splattered with seaweed on a savage moon. (2017’s The Last Jedi didn’t have any of these shots, which might be why it’s the worst of the three.)[1] What’s strange is that these images show us something completely different to the films themselves. They mark a recognition of linear time and death: something was here, and now it’s gone; here is the index of its absence. But the films themselves are spastically cyclical. The plot of The Force Awakens is exactly the same as the plot of the 1977 original. The Empire isn’t really in ruins, it’s just been rebranded. Nothing grows, nothing dies, nothing changes. The latest film pushes this even further. Even the mild innovations of the sequels were too much; nobody cared about the new crop of villains, so now it’s Palpatine again. Philip K Dick predicted this. ‘The Empire never ended.’

There’s a sort of Mark Fisher-ish point to be made here. In the modernist 20th century, culture produced novelty: new galaxies, new empires, new images and affects. Now, in the era of neoliberalism, it’s all repetition and pastiche; the best we can do is repeat ourselves. Disney is churning out soulless live-action remakes of its old cartoons at a frightening, industrial rate. These aren’t for children: they’re for people who used to be children, and aren’t any more, but never actually grew up. People who want to remember their childhoods, but this time with lots of CGI. Sappy idiots. Meanwhile, every other major blockbuster is either a sequel or a franchise. Pop music copies the forms of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Literature recoils into tedious 19th century realism. All we can do is rearrange the rubble of the past.

You might remember that this current era of exhaustion was immediately preceded by the Age of Apocalypse. For a few years around the beginning of the 2010s, Hollywood showed us constant images of our own ruin. Skyscrapers squished. Cities splintered. London and New York abandoned, overgrown, and strangely beautiful. Sometimes this was vaguely inflected with 9/11 imagery, but not always.[2] These films didn’t refer to any actual destruction, but a culture that had nowhere else to go. In 2012, we cared about the end of the world, because it really was happening. Now, it’s already over. Around the same time, the big intellectual fad was for accelerationism: forget critique, forget ‘the emergency brake of history,’ let’s just passively will ourselves to get to the moment of crisis faster, and then everything will sort itself out. The moment of crisis is passed. Did you get everything you ever wanted?

The most dramatic example of this isn’t actually Star Wars, which is a bad film, but last year’s The Irishman, which is a good film. This isn’t a question of subject-matter, whatever Scorsese himself might think. There aren’t that many subjects that really matter. American pop culture is capable of telling stories about five different types of people: cowboys, criminals, cops, capes, and couples. Star Wars is about cowboys. The Irishman is about criminals. But The Irishman is a good film because it’s not just a collection of intellectual properties, it’s about people. Again, Scorsese doesn’t really understand his own work: he seems to really think it’s about giving outward visual expression to the inner life of a realistically drawn character. ‘Human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’ He thinks it’s still possible to create decent bourgeois art. But in fact, his real achievement is to turn up the volume on the raging nothingness of subjectivity. De Niro’s character isn’t a fully realised human being; he’s a fleshy instrument who obeys without really knowing why. ‘I deliver steak. I could deliver you steak.’ At the end of the film, he won’t say what really happened to Hoffa, even though every reason to keep his silence died a long time ago. He simply isn’t there, and this is precisely why he’s such a compelling figure. Scorsese’s previous film, Silence, was about the sense – advanced by theologians since Eriugena[3] – of God as a vast, all-powerful nothingness. ‘Am I praying to nothing? Nothing, because you are not there?’ This isn’t Andrew Garfield’s character losing his Christianity, but fully encountering it. The great revelation of Christ is an empty tomb. The absence of God is a religious experience, and the death of God is the condition of faith. And Foucault promised that the death of God would be followed by the death of Man.

Still, a few nods to capital-c Culture and some superficial psychological goodness count for a lot; it’s why I happily sat through all nine hours of The Irishman in the cinema, while after about forty minutes of flashing Star Wars drivel I wanted to scream or puke or both.[4] But The Irishman is also a deeply worrying film. This is Martin Scorsese directing Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in a film about Italian-American gangsters. It’s a McNugget of a Scorsese film; it’s as if his earlier canon had been juiced and then reconstituted. The most arresting thing about the film is its use of digital de-aging, allowing the 76-year-old De Niro to (not entirely convincingly, but still) play a man in his mid-thirties. As a proof of concept, Scorsese had De Niro recreate the Christmas party scene from Goodfellas, and then used the technology to make him look exactly as he did in 1990. This is more than nostalgia, it’s the extermination of time. Scorsese can dip into the past and insert a new item into his 90s crime canon. He can obliterate the last thirty years. In the ‘now’ of the film, the present from which De Niro remembers his life, US jets are bombing Yugoslavia. The most advanced digital technologies are used to keep culture in a permanent stasis.

It’s the end of anything resembling dignity. Look how Star Wars wheels out dead Carrie Fisher for one last sappy CGI-assisted waltz. She deserved better, but there’s no hope now. They’ll resurrect you, spin you backwards through time; they’ll crap in and through your mouth. You can live forever, but the price is a total passivity. Living forever is so much like being dead.

Or take our other great Italian-American auteur. Quentin Tarantino, at least, never made any claims to novelty. Instead, he spent his career referencing and reworking older films, back when this process was known as postmodernism, when it was a valid artistic technique, rather than just a symptom of our total cultural exhaustion. So what does he do now? In last year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s still referencing old movies – but they’re not the 60s cowboy flicks the film is supposedly about, they’re the films from the 90s and 2000s that Tarantino himself made. Viewers thought they were smart because they picked up on his foot fetish from Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown – so now he shows us a whole room full of young female Manson cultists, each with two naked feet and twenty naked toes. It’s not eroticism any more, because eroticism is over. The foot fetish, like the brief moment of brutal teenage-girl murder at the end of the film, has become a static and redeployable signifier, a reference, a husk.

But in fact, I think this kind of analysis doesn’t go far enough. In the Fisherite reading, something (creativity, novelty, etc) was here, and now it’s gone. But let’s go back to those ruined spaceships. The new Star Wars films could have told a new story, one about what happens after the Empire falls; instead, they popped the Hero’s Journey back in the microwave and slopped it out to us again. History gives us some clues to what this new story should look like. The fall of empires is almost always accompanied by a collapse in long-distance trade. Life expectancy falls; material and literary culture is hollowed out. Cities depopulate. The seas are full of monsters and pirates. The barbarian confederations that brought down the empire usually split up into warring factions.[5] But this story has already been told. It’s Star Wars.

George Lucas was the Albert Speer of cinema. Everything he built had extraordinary ruin value; all those spaceships work far better as enormous wrecks than as active fantasies. They were destroyed from the very beginning.

What kind of a state is the Galactic Empire? It’s hollow; it barely exists. It has no cities. It has no signs of a complex literary or material culture. It rules the entire galaxy, but all we see are border-zones; lawless, half-deserted worlds where an agrarian peasantry are continually menaced by criminal gangs and outright savages. A border with what? The only interplanetary trade seems to be carried out by smugglers and outlaws. There’s a military, but even that is only a shell. In the original 1977 film, our heroes blast through the facade of the sleek fascist-modernist Death Star, dart inside, and find themselves in the guts of the Empire. A primordial horror of a waste-disposal system: the room’s full of back sludge, and a huge tentacled monster is waiting for you just beneath the surface. This is a fake empire. It’s already collapsed; it was never anything other than its own collapse. This is why it needs the Death Star. A weapon that destroys entire planets is useless for counterinsurgency warfare, but that’s not the point. The Empire only uses its weapons against itself.

A decade ago, the volume of international trade suddenly collapsed. There’s been a partial recovery, but trade has been stagnating ever since. Huge trade firms like Hanjin Shipping have gone bankrupt; one of the stranger consequences is a sudden surplus in shipping containers, which we’re now expecting the poverty-stricken to actually live in. Economists are genuinely baffled: production keeps on going, but the stuff simply isn’t moving anywhere. Meanwhile, life expectancy is declining in Britain and America. For the first time in centuries, young people now can expect to live shorter lives than their parents. We can still travel in relative safety, but the monsters and pirates are coming. Star Wars accurately diagnosed our present. Everything is still here, and it will stay here forever. We can’t get rid of the empire, because it doesn’t exist.

* * *

Still, new things do happen. For instance, there are new people. They’re happening at a much slower rate, but there are still enough of them that they become impossible to ignore. 2019 was the year in which mass culture finally realised that millennials – my generation – are no longer children; that some of us will soon be forty. We’re over, we’re cancelled, it’s already done. The average millennial is balding now; he has a daughter that he can’t stop posting about on social media (yes! dip your child into the endless stream of digital images! submerge her! nothing could possibly go wrong!), he gets nostalgic about Disney or Pokémon; he’s a defeated sadsack loser, and history has already passed him by. In his place there’s something else. Kids now don’t understand the world by comparing it to The Simpsons, which is the good and correct way to behave; they understand the world by comparing it to SpongeBob SquarePants, which is wrong and terrifying.[6] They are genderless cyborgs, downloading new identities from an internet that now bleeds directly into their flesh. They are – depending on who you listen to – either hysterically woke or veering sharply towards the far right. (Same thing! These two things are the same thing!) And they’ve fired a terrifying and unprovoked shot in a new generational struggle: they say ‘ok boomer.’

Deleuze and Guattari argue that there’s only one class, and it’s the bourgeoisie. ‘To reread history through the class struggle is to read it in terms of the bourgeoisie as the decoding and decoded class. It is the only class as such.’ Similarly, you could make the case that there’s only one generation, the boomers. Who invented the language we use to talk about generational divides? The boomers. Who broke apart multigenerational community? The boomers. Who permanently inscribed mass culture on the substrate of youth rebellion? The boomers. The Futurists wanted to be slaughtered when they got old – but who dreamed of living forever, of staying young forever, of keeping their revolutionary fire lit forever, of wearing blue jeans and smoking weed into an embarrassing senescence, of pumping the corpse of culture full with their drab, deathless, synthetically youthful spurts? The boomers, the fucking unkillable zombie boomers. ‘Ok boomer’ is a boomer slogan. It’s a prison for young people, or an instrument of discipline; a way to force them to constitute themselves as a generation – that is, as boomers. The demand of age and power is to be young and rebel. Hate your parents, in the same way that we hated ours.[7]

I’m sure there are some young people who really have made a habit of saying ‘ok boomer.’ But not many of them. Young people simply don’t share any discursive spaces with the old. Old people spend the last years of their lives getting brain poisoning from Facebook and Twitter; young people are giving themselves vigorous new tumours from TikTok. How many teenagers are spending their time arguing online with septuagenarians? The phrase only became a phenomenon once it had featured in a viral New York Times article, full of frantic praise. ‘”Ok boomer” has become Generation Z’s endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it, a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids.’ Sounds pretty boomery. Are we really supposed to believe that teenagers are taking their cultural cues from the New York Times?

Youth, in our era of exhaustion, is a phantom. It’s something dreamed up by old people; it belongs to them, and they’ll control it until they die; maybe afterwards. In 2019, it was incontrovertibly proved that the world really is governed by a cabal of murderous paedophiles. They murdered Jeffrey Epstein. He was still paying out hush money to his victims from jail, because he wasn’t suicidal, but they murdered him. He had a crate full of DVDs of powerful people having sex with children, and now those tapes might be lost forever, because they murdered him. He could have brought down the entire global ruling class, and to stop this happening, they murdered him. Anyone who pretends to doubt any of this is not just an idiot, but probably dangerous. When Epstein was murdered, my first reaction was to think: ok, what really happened on 9/11? Who did kill JFK? What if the Moon really is a hologram? Because I was wrong, and the conspiracy theorists were right. Because clearly, we’re not living in the world we thought we were. This world isn’t just ruled by surplus value and the declining rate of profit; it’s deeper and stranger than that. Mystery and sacrifice, ugly magics and telluric wars, sunlight and demons, and the Milky Way a star-dark cunt smeared across the sky.

But actually, the most likely explanation is this: the paedophile elite didn’t think they were doing anything wrong by fucking children, because they all believed that they were, in some sense, children themselves. Boomers who never really managed to grow up; not adults, just kids with grey hair and dangling ballsacks. People who, on their deathbeds, will still be worrying about whether they’re cool or not. Monsters. The deadly global paedophile cabal that controls every aspect of our lives is only the highest, cruellest manifestation of  a general rule: youth has been privatised by the old. It permeates our culture. Is it really any surprise that only 1.7% of Teen Vogue‘s readership are 17 or younger, and only 4.3% are under 25? Is it any surprise that a solid majority of the readers of ‘young adult’ fiction are, in fact, full-grown adults?

I have to say, I called this one. More than three years ago, I wrote that Harry Potter was ‘never for children, and always for the bored 29-year-old human resources workers they would grow into.’ But I didn’t predict just how viciously youth would be deployed against the young. Late last year, a mob of bestselling young-adult authors, including Jodi Picoult (53), Jennifer Weiner (49), NK Jemisin (47), Roxane Gay (45), and led by Sarah Dessen (49), tried to destroy a college student for not liking their books. The student had been interviewed by a local newspaper article on her involvement in the college’s ‘Common Read’ programme, which assigns one book for all first-year students. Dessen was one of the authors being considered. ‘She’s fine for teen girls,’ the student said, ‘but definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.’ You should know how these things go by now. Thousands of brave women heroically spoke out against this terrible oppression. The student was a cultural elitist, a snob, an agent of the patriarchy, smashing the dreams and aspirations and validity of teenage girls, a fucking bitch, a raggedy ass bitch. Picoult: ‘To not speak up about this incident isn’t just demeaning to Sarah. It’s demeaning to women, period. Want to fight the patriarchy? Start by reminding everyone that stories about women are worthy, that they matter, that they are necessary.‘ The university issued an apology for having failed to eradicate literary taste in everyone who passes through its gates. ‘We are very sorry to Sarah Dessen… we love young adult novels.’ The student suffered all the psychological brutality that goes with this sort of thing. Nobody – for the first few days, at least – seemed too bothered by the fact that she had actually been a teen girl much, much more recently than the people monstering her.

Of course, the tide turned eventually; this thing was just slightly too stupid even for a deeply stupid world.[8] And an instinctive critique – one it’s hard not to sympathise with a little – developed. It goes like this: why are you losers reading books for actual children? Why are you getting so angry about them? Grow up! Read a proper book for adults! Fuck you! Yeah, sure. There’s nothing as grotesque as a forty-year-old millionaire who thinks you have to be nice to her because she’s only a baby. But actually, adults should be reading books for children. Books for children tend to be free of all the tedious conventions of the bourgeois novel. They’ve inherited the legacy of the myth, the epic, and the tale. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, psychological realism will never come as close to the meat of human subjectivity as a good, radically indeterminate fairy-tale metaphor. See how he rails against ‘the dreadful cobbling-together of disparate elements that loosely make for characters in novels of an inferior sort,’ thrown together with ‘the repulsive crust of the psychologically palpable completing the mannequin.’ Children’s stories, and tales more generally, knew how to present things ‘dry, so to speak, drained of all psychological motivation,’ and ‘they lost nothing as a result.’

But there’s hardly any children’s fiction around any more – as an author friend put it to me, we jump straight from picture-books to young adult fiction. And young adult fiction is for adults. It’s fiction that Deals With Issues In People’s Lives; even when it’s about wizards or vampires, it’s always in a realist mode. If we take Derrida’s definition of literature – literature is a text in which the ‘thetic relation to meaning or referent’ is ‘complicated and folded,’ a text that isn’t simply about the thing that it’s about, but which involves you in the processes and difficulties of getting from words to meanings – then none of this stuff is literature. The repeated demand from the adult consumers of YA fiction is that it must always be more socially relevant, more virtuous, more unambiguous, more thetic. A good book is one that means the right things. But the solution isn’t to just read the books for adults that are marketed as being books for adults, because our contemporary prizewinning fiction is all shitty realist thetic non-literature as well. It’s in what I’ve elsewhere called Mfalé, MFA Literary English. All fiction is young-adult fiction now, and none of us are young.

* * *

I turn thirty this year. I knew this sort of thing happened to other people. But how could it happen to me?

Notes

[1] The film does redeem itself in its visual presentation of the Force as a mirror that shows you the back of your head. A lot of people seem to think that because of the endless references to the ‘dark side of the Force,’ there must also be a corresponding ‘light side.’ But none of the Star Wars films ever mention such a thing. The Force is its dark side. This is why ‘bringing balance to the Force’ means massacring children and blowing up entire planets.
[2] Do you remember 9/11? You promised you would, but it’s strange; the attacks seem to have left almost no permanent cultural traces, except a few memes about jet fuel and steel beams. In the years after the attacks, culture was saturated with 9/11; every film had the same washy ashy hues, every too-smart New York Jew had to write a novel about The Towers. Now? In The Emoji Movie, a big tower is destroyed in a way that looks pretty 9/11ish, but it was brought down by our endearingly clumsy hero in an accident. Keep in mind, though, that The Emoji Movie was the first film to be screened in Saudi Arabia since its ban on cinema was lifted.
[3] John Scotus Eriugena taught that all of human history is the dream of a dreaming God, and his students stabbed him to death with their pens. His contemporaries knew his as the Irishman. You can believe this is a coincidence if you want.
[4] There’s also the films’ treatment of their women. In The Irishman, women are basically silent throughout; when one does speak, right at the end, it’s an apocalypse. This is considerably less restrictive than the current Hollywood dogma on women, which is that there must be lots of them, but they should also be basically featureless, with one single personality-trait: ‘brave.’
[5] See, for instance, the disputes between the United States and al-Qa’eda after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
[6] This means that they’re unaware of Abe Simpson’s Curse. ‘I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you.’ But is this true any more? Part of why generational discourse has become so weird lately might be that the kids now might not become the grumpy old men of tomorrow. Personally, I refuse to call them Generation Z or zoomers; they’re Generation Terminus, because they’ll be the last.
[7] Obviously, this isn’t univocal. There are still a few ‘shut up and listen to your elders’ types out there, people who whinge about lazy millennials, people who seem to be deeply upset that they don’t get to fuck Greta Thunberg. As Baudrillard points out in The implosion of meaning in the media – basically the only text you need to understand our world, and one that almost nobody seems to be reading – children and proletarians always face both the subject-demand and the object-demand. But the subject-demand is always stronger; the subject-position is the horizon of our discourse.
[8] The afterlife of this incident is, if anything, more interesting than the event itself. Public opinion quickly turned against the bullies, and some of them issued apologies. Roxane Gay, for instance, wrote that ‘I absolutely messed up. I will definitely do better and be more mindful moving forward. I made a mistake.’ This is how they all seemed to see it – as a momentary personal moral lapse. None of them seemed to be interested in questioning how this actually happened. I don’t know if Roxane Gay googles herself – but given that she probably does, what do you reckon? What made a group of famous women in their forties, all with impeccable bien-pensant liberal-feminist politics, decide it was a good and just and brave thing to make life hell for a young college student? What clouded your vision? When you decided to call her a raggedy ass bitch, what structures were speaking through you? Why is it easier to accept that you Did A Bad Thing and Must Do Better than to accept that plugging your consciousness into a planet-sized communications system that turns you into a vicious psychopath might lead to some unpleasant results? When Dessen herself apologised (‘moving forward, I’ll do better’), the response was brutal: this apology isn’t enough, you need to take more personal responsibility, make yourself more accountable, debase yourself even further, grovel for us, beg, beg, beg. Because, of course, this kind of sadism seemed like the good and just and brave thing to do. These people have lost their minds. If you’re reading this and you use Twitter, even if you’re not Roxane Gay, DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT AT ONCE. It’s a poison, and you’re poisoning yourself. It is making you stupider, uglier, and worse every second you’re exposed to it. Nothing is worth this. You think you’re immune. You think it’s only the other people who do unconscionable things online. This is one of the symptoms of being poisoned. For your own sake, delete your fucking account.

The case for giving up

dying-gaul

1.1 A bull charges out of the sea. A white bull, white as the foam that birthed it, glowering with newborn joy, and beautiful. Turning and turning on the sand, tossing its mane now to the marble city on its hill, now to the man praying by the water’s edge. Everything here is bright and simple. The bull is a mirror for the sun, and the sun burns like a charging bull. The sea leaves glittering webs across the sand, and both earth and sky are dark with treasure. Poseidon leaves no message, only the bull, and it’s enough: you know what must be done. Take a knife and cut his throat. Let his salty blood drain into the sea, and then burn his body under the sun, a sacrifice to the god that sent him. The purpose of beautiful things is to be destroyed. This is why young people are closer to death than the old, why well-laid cities are always bombed, why history progresses by its bad side, and why revolutions fail. But King Minos doesn’t slaughter the bull; he wants to keep it. Big mistake. If a beautiful thing is allowed to live, it will fuck your wife and sire only monsters.

1.2 Something trembles at the bottom of a jar. Epimetheus struggles towards its voice against the tide of rubble that was once his world. The ruins are piling up, but all he can see is the past. ‘I shouldn’t have married Pandora,’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t have let her open the jar.’ The room where every evil erupted is unrecognisable now, but the voice calls him on, deeper into the heart of the storm. What had been a home with gold and marble columns, a school wreathed in ivy, a hospital, a railway, the scent of summer and figs – now, stones are churned in black slime, and evils jabber through the night. Still the voice pushes him on, even as the swarm of sufferings starts to peel away at his skin. Find me. Find me. And there, at the bottom of the jar, he finds only himself. Elpis, hope; in other words, blissful ignorance of the new and awful future, afterthought, Epimetheus. Nobody knows if this was the mercy of Zeus, or his final act of spite.

1.3 In one version of the story, the Moirai, the Fates who weave the world from a single thread, once had a fourth sister. Hetera, the warp in the weft. The others portioned out what would be and what would not be; Hetera weaved what was possible. Her work was beautiful and vague. She strangled herself in its knots.

2.1 Socialism started out speaking a very crude language, almost military – seize this, crush that, to victory! History is on our side! Decades of defeat have deepened our concepts. Sadness has enriched them. We’ve become elegaic, wistful; always broken, but still defiant. The heart of a heartless world. The soul of soulless conditions. Now, we don’t talk about victory; we talk about Beauty and Hope and The Possible. Our ideology has become a metaphor for the human condition, striving on against the odds. Other philosophies are not the same. The opposite of liberalism is conservatism. The opposite of despotism is democracy. The opposite of socialism isn’t capitalism, it’s the void. A Catholic priest isn’t troubled by Hinduism or Shinto, but by the vast, crushing silence of God. In the same way, our struggle isn’t against contingent social conditions, it’s against entropy and despair.

2.2 Leftist rhetoric puts a taboo on despair. Gramsci thunders against ‘the thick, dark cloud of pessimism which is oppressing the most able and responsible militants.’ He was writing in darker times than ours: the horrors facing him weren’t Boris or Brexit but the real thing, Mussolini in Rome, the catastrophe swelling. Still, there’s no room for despair. ‘Our party exists and that is something in itself; it is in that which we have never-ending faith as the better, most sound, most honest part of the Italian proletariat.’ Walter Benjamin has no time for the melancholic; they’re ‘agents or hacks who make a great display out of their poverty, and a banquet out of yawning emptiness.’ This tradition continues. The line after every defeat is the same. ‘Don’t mourn, organise.’ The worst sin for a Christian is to deny the Holy Spirit; the worst sin for a socialist is to lose hope. A vein of banal positivity runs through political discourse; at points it’s indistinguishable from the language of inspirational quotes about going to the gym. The rictus, the manic posture, the false cheer. Don’t quit! Keep going! If you stop for even a moment, the ground will swallow you and you’ll die. A few months ago, a panel of politicians from various parties were asked on the BBC’s Any Questions whether they considered themselves optimists or pessimists. Every single one of them loudly professed their optimism. Of course they did; it would have been a catastrophe otherwise. If we had this kind of enforced uniformity of opinion on any other subject, we’d see it for what it is. Optimists control the media, the government, the corporations – and even the revolutionaries are under their spell. It’s utterly forbidden not to hope. Despair must be repressed at all costs.

2.3 But despair is what there is. I don’t see the point of repressing, or pretending otherwise. The repressed always returns, nastier than it was, and more pervasive; the first step is to say it openly: I am in despair.

3.1 Like thousands of others, I fought hard for a Labour victory last week. I knocked on doors and talked to strangers, I talked Lib Dems down off the ledge, I got out the vote. In the end, we delivered the party’s worst electoral defeat since 1935. Corbynism was a movement based on joyful, emancipatory hope. It coalesced around the most fundamentally decent person to ever lead a British political party. It offered the possibility of something beautiful in an ugly world – and voters didn’t just reject it, they hated it.

3.2 Four years ago, Corbynism made a specific electoral promise. We argued that for decades the party had been chasing a small number of Labour-Tory swing voters by tacking steadily to the right, making things worse and alienating its core constituency in the process. But there was another way. By returning to an insurgent socialist platform, the party could reactivate the disillusioned working-class voters it had steadily haemorrhaged over the Blair years. Not only did this not happen, we managed to achieve the precise opposite effect. Former mining areas that had returned only Labour MPs for over a century are now in the hands of the Conservatives. The new Labour constituency is elsewhere. It’s the young, the urban, and the highly educated. It’s people like me, twats who have to reach for their Hesiod to explain why they feel upset. This is very bad.

3.3 The consolations on offer are – sorry – lacklustre. We might have been brutally rejected by the public, but look at all the new bonds of solidarity we’ve formed within our activist core. In other words, maybe the real socialism was the friends we made along the way.  Some people have attempted to redefine the problem away. Are young people automatically excluded from the working classes? No, but if you’re young, one of two things will happen, and they’re both awful: either you die, or you get old. The last century has seen one youth movement after another wait hungrily for the future, and then look on in shock and horror as everyone’s skin starts to droop. Youth is the only demographic with a 100% attrition rate, and the politics of youth are not sustainable. One of the reasons Momentum has managed to avoid the posturing, infighting, and embarrassment that plagues groups like the DSA is that its activist backbone is not made up of young people, but nice middle-aged mums from the Midlands. The other prong is to insist that the working classes are not all flat-cap wearers from the North, but are much blacker and browner and more metropolitan than people like to pretend. This is true (although one of the many virtues of our multiethnic working class is its blanket refusal to indulge in any of the soft-segregationist bourgeois racial neurosis that floods our liberal discourse). But it’s a sorry excuse; it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a critical mass of voters – however you want to define them – that Labour tried to reach, ought to have reached, and failed to reach.

4.1 I’m in despair. Everything I write here is written from despair, and should be read with that understanding. Don’t take me too seriously. But there’s one place to which even I won’t sink, which is to blame the voters. Weirdly, this is the gesture – the absolute blackest, most nihilistic, most obscenely despairing gesture – that’s been far too common from some of my comrades, the same ones who keep forbidding us to give up hope. This is the line you end up with when you repress despair, so forcefully that it has nowhere else to go except out your pores. Corbynism lost because it was simply too good for this world, because the British working classes were too racist, too thoughtless, too pigshit-ignorant and ugly and useless and vile to see all the good things we wanted to do for them. Brecht saw through this shit in 1953. If you want to know why we lost, start there: in a truly socialist movement, such a sentiment shouldn’t even be possible to articulate.

4.2 Some other explanations are equally untenable. You can blame the media and their broadly deranged campaign against the Labour leadership. Aside from London, one of the major surviving centres of Labour support is Liverpool. Why? Well, Scousers famously don’t read the Sun. The old press is dying, but it’s still not dying fast enough. You can blame the antisemitism scandal, which at this point we can all surely recognise for the smear campaign it was. The people peddling it are certainly aware of it. Days after Corbyn’s defeat, there was a raft of takes accusing Bernie Sanders – sorry, (((Bernie Sanders))) – of posing an existential threat to world Jewry. It should be impossible now for anyone to pretend, with a straight face, that these people were thinking anything other than ‘well, that line seemed to work in Britain, so let’s try it over here.’ You can blame the disloyalty of the party’s MPs and functionaries, who decided they’d rather sink the raft than allow it to veer to the left. But all this sounds too much like an excuse. We knew we’d face a hostile press, that they’d use every weapon in their arsenal, that they’d try to make Corbyn poisonous, that the right wing of the party would hatch its plots. We didn’t counter this effectively. The proper response to the antisemitism smears was not to endlessly decry the evils of antisemitism, it was outrage: ‘how dare you accuse me of this?’ This is the line Bernie’s staff are taking, but it wasn’t what Labour did. In the end, we didn’t have the guts.

4.3 When Labour lost in 2015, I wrote that it lost because it deserved to lose. I said much the same thing about Remain and Hillary Clinton in 2016. I can’t in good faith ignore the possibility that we, too, deserved to lose – even if we lost trying to do something good rather than something sordid. It wasn’t the media or the party’s right or even the Tories that beat us; leftism’s opposite isn’t rightism but despair. We lost to our own capacity for defeat. At the very least, we should give the winning side its due.

5.1 The explanation offered by the leadership is that Labour lost because of its stance on Brexit. In 2017, we ran promising a soft Brexit, and achieved the largest swing to Labour since 1945. (A lot of this came from young, educated people, which is not how it was supposed to go, but still.) This year, we won promising a second referendum, and we were crushed. The move to a more Remainy position was came after immense pressure from Guardian columnists and the kind of people who think it’s ‘cool’ to make a big sign that says ‘Fromage not Farage’: once again, Labour had to choose between bourgeois media liberals and its base, and once again it decided to take the base for granted. In the event, plenty of people who voted Remain were (like me) prepared to accept a Leave outcome, while people who voted Leave were fiercely intransigent, because – and it’s insane that this needs repeating – Leave actually won. But I’m still not sure if it’s true that ‘Brexit would have won.’ This isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom. The problem is the method. Watching Parliament pull out every trick to frustrate Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans earlier this year, I couldn’t help but feel a touch of dread: we’re going to be punished so hard for this. The problem is that Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to politics – and that of Corbynism more broadly – is predicated on a deep respect for the institutions of British representative democracy. Parliament is, after all, where he’s spent the last forty years. But there’s a gaping, unresolved contradiction. These institutions are the home of what Rancière calls la politique, politics, the squabbling over the apportioning of resources, as opposed to le politique, the political, the radical breaking-through of the demand for equality. It is utterly anathema to Beauty and Hope and The Possible. I don’t suffer from any insurrectionary fantasies here; we can’t do without electoralism – as a weapon in our arsenal, if nothing else. But it should be treated with extreme carefulness, and we were not careful. Watch – if you can bear it – footage of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2015 leadership hustings. It’s astonishing. He speaks honestly, passionately, and well. He speaks like a human being surrounded by flesh robots, which is exactly what he was. This was why he won, and why he deserved to win. But compare his performance in the debates against Boris Johnson. Now, he’s evading questions and regurgitating lines. He’s not facing down the monster, he’s in its mouth, speaking its words. He’s had to make compromises and espouse things he doesn’t really believe. He’s become a politician. Politics is an ophiocordyceps. It gets into your brain and makes you climb up to the highest leaf on the tree, so it can push mushrooms out of your head.

5.2 The failure of Corbynism was a failure on the level of theory. It’s important to contextualise the decline of the Labour party. This wasn’t an isolated incident; the traditional centre-left is dying across Europe and across the world. Social-democratic politics are (mostly) a mass politics, and the last forty years have conspired to shatter all masses. Neoliberalism and deindustrialisation and the assault on the unions have disrupted collective subjects and collective solidarity – but new technologies do the same thing. Marxism was the ideological expression of the printed word, and we’re all illiterates now. How was it that so many voters in former mining communities could go for the Tories? It helps that many of these voters are no longer in former mining communities; they’re on their phones. Intergenerational links have dissolved. The work that’s replaced the coal mines – and the work that dominates among the ‘new’ urban working classes – is service-oriented, instilling brutal competition between workers for diminishing resources. It’s customer-facing, which, more often than not means, facing not a person but a screen. We are deracinated, individuated, torn free and sent spinning into the stream of digital images and synthetic affects. Digital communications are a weapon; they are to the class war what the nuclear bomb was to war between nations. And the ‘new left media’ are not a solution to this problem, but another symptom, breaking up masses into consumer groups ruled by the aegis of a single media principle. Adorno and Horkheimer predicted this: ‘The ruthless unity of the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification.’ The gambit made by Corbynism was to re-engage the traditional working classes through a platform that could open a space for mass politics – the Green Industrial Revolution, the expansion of free time, the fostering of solidarity. But this was also its failure. These proposals existed only as hopes and possibilities; Labour was speaking to the ghost of a collective subject. People liked these policies, but the social infrastructure for their realisation simply wasn’t there. For the strategy to have been effective, the collective subject would have had to already have been constituted. But the work of constituting it has not been done; it can only take place outside the forms of platforms and manifestos: within politics, and not the political.

5.3 I don’t know if this task can even be achieved. The left has a tendency to lapse into a kind of vulgar Kantianism here. Du kannst, denn du sollst: it’s necessary, therefore it must be possible. All we need is enough hope. What if it isn’t? Gramsci attacks ‘the sweet illusion that events could only follow a certain sequence, as we predicted, in which they would inevitably run into the dikes and channels that we constructed’ – but what if the dikes and channels are all working exactly as intended, and they were built by our enemies? We have to win, or it’ll be a disaster – but disaster is already triumphant. The crises of neoliberalism haven’t done much to dull its effects; if anything, they’re strengthened. They’re in our communicative media; they’re in the air we breathe. I thought the financial crash of 2008 would lead to a revitalised left, but the oppositional movements that followed were scattered and useless, reduplicating the worst aspects of neoliberalism under the banner of resistance. I thought the collapse of liberalism in 2016 would leave us poised to inherit the earth, but it’s produced a reactionary paradise in which we struggle to gain a foothold. I’m not convinced that more desperate optimism and voluntarism can help us here, if it means anything more than just headbutting the problem until your skull cracks. So: what’s out there, far away, in the bright worlds beyond hope? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out. All I know is that despair is only the first step, and the path will not be a circle. We’re standing where the land ends, on a bright and frenzied beach. We tremble on its edge. Time to charge into the sea.

For the many

tomorrow

I have done a weird and ugly thing. I have knocked on the front doors of complete strangers, and when they opened them, I stood in front of these poor innocent people and had the gall to ask them to please consider voting for Labour on Thursday. This is not entirely comfortable for me. For one thing, it means spending a fair amount of time around lots of young, smart, energised, politically active people, who are utterly terrifying. But it also involves telling people what to think and what to do, which is something I’ve become deeply allergic to. It’s presumptive, and a little pathetic. When you’re out canvassing, you’re not so different from the Jehovah’s Witnesses on their corners, doling out weak grins and the end of the world. You’re not a million miles away from the Americans who’ve somehow been taught that when they fly back into the heartland for Thanksgiving, they have a moral duty to accuse every single member of the family that raised them of being racists before the gravy sets. Trying to persuade people of things is a filthy activity, and in our liberated future it will be replaced with poetry and lies. But I did it, and now I’m sitting in front of a screen and doing it again.

Some things are higher than principle.

Please, please consider voting for Labour on Thursday.

1.

sabbath

It’s not enough to just point out how bad and cruel all the other options are. Yes, sure, Boris Johnson is the Poison Prime Minister, a man who’s toxic in the most literal sense of the word: it’s not safe for normal people to stand too near to him for too long. Members of the public who asked him uncomfortable questions during the BBC’s Conservative leadership debate lost their jobs. His neighbours, who couldn’t help but overhear a violent row coming from his home, were exposed to the media and forced to flee under a barrage of death threats. A man whose seven-day-old daughter had the temerity to be treated for a critical illness at the same hospital Johnson chose for a photo-op – you don’t need me to tell you what happened next. Strip his skin. Find out what he’s hiding. Johnson keeps on stumbling, but it’s always other people who get hurt. Dangling on a zipline. Falling into a lake. Trying to cheat emissions tests by gluing pollution to the street, and failing. Betraying a British national trapped in Iranian jail. A border across the Irish Sea. Lies after lies after lies after lies after lies. Defeat in every single meaningful Parliamentary vote. ‘Negroid.’ ‘Picaninnies.’ ‘Bumboys.’ ‘Letterboxes.’ ‘If that is racial prejudice, then I am guilty.’ All he knows how to do is rugby-tackle every ten-year-old who stands in his way – and when he’s done, the grass on the pitch frizzles and dies.

And yes, the other parties aren’t much better. The Liberal Democrats aren’t even a political party; they’re a gas, expanding to fill any unoccupied political space. Whatever principles they claim to have, the only thing that really motivates the Lib Dems is the fact that they’re the third party, and they’d like to be the second. If the two main parties seem to agree on something, they’ll take the opposite position, but they can never be trusted to hold it. In 2003, they opposed the Iraq War; in 2011 they were enthusiastically bombing Libya. In 2010, they wanted to abolish student fees; later the same year, they were imposing them. Right now, they’re in a frenzy of Remainery – they’re promising to unilaterally revoke Article 50 – but you cannot trust a word these desperate grasping weirdos say. They’ve already suggested that they could make a deal with the Tories again. All they know how to do is manoeuvre and betray. Don’t vote for them. Don’t even look into their eyes. And as for the nationalist parties, they’re much the same. The SNP denounce austerity in Westminster while implementing it from Holyrood. Independence for Scotland or Wales isn’t a solution to our social or political problems, it just means reframing them on a smaller, potentially nastier scale. And while the Greens probably mean well, their manifesto is still less ambitious than Labour’s – even on the environment, their flagship issue.

It’s not enough to simply point out how bad the other parties are, because people already know they’re bad, and still don’t feel comfortable voting for Labour. A lot of people are deeply unenthused by all the options available, the whole joyless puppet-show of politics in general, and the whole joyless puppet-show of this election in particular. And if I want to convince people to vote for Labour – which, against all my better instincts, I do – it’s not enough to fall back on my usual strategy of waffling vaguely about Hope and Heterogeneity and the Dialectic, assuming that everyone who reads me is already onside. You might not be. You might be concerned over the credibility of Labour’s proposals, left cold by its position on Brexit, or put off by the scandals over antisemitism. And I can sympathise.

I’m not going to tell anyone to ignore their qualms, hold their noses, and vote for Labour anyway. I don’t want to threaten anyone with the prospect of a Tory majority, because any movement that needs to resort to threats doesn’t deserve to win. Voting for the lesser evil is a grubby, cynical business, and I’ve tried to avoid it as much as possible myself. (For half a decade I usually spoiled every ballot that fell into my hands.) I’m asking you to vote for Labour because it’s the greater good.

2.

To start with, here are two charts. They show opinion polls in the lead-up to 2017’s general election, and the one that’s approaching now.

election2017election2019

In both cases, something strange happens: Labour seems to be skimming along a fairly historic low – but as soon as an election’s called, support for the party starts to skyrocket. What’s going on? Maybe the prospect of an election starts to focus people’s priorities: they start to think less about sending a message and more about who they actually want in power. (Polling for smaller parties like the Lib Dems or Ukip tends to fall at the same time.) Maybe the party performs better when it’s on an active campaign footing, rather than bogged down in Parliamentary debate.

But there’s another factor which might explain things. When a general election is called, broadcasters are subject to much stricter rules on impartiality. It’s harder for them to simply ignore or dismiss Labour’s proposals: they have to take them seriously as a prospect, and at least gesture towards what it would be like if these proposals were actually put into action. I’m not about to start whingeing about media bias, because if you want to radically transform a country for the better you should expect media bias. But it turns out that as soon as a gap opens up in that opposition, and people get to hear what Labour actually wants to do, they quite like it. It becomes much, much harder to conceal the fact that if Labour formed the next government, things would be much, much better.

This is all I’m asking from you at the moment: just to take Labour seriously. To consider its manifesto in the most obvious terms: what kind of a country would this be, if all this actually happened? If we built more good homes for people to actually live in, instead of filling our cities with luxury speculative assets? If the balance of power shifted a little more towards ordinary workers, and away from the people who exploit them? If we lived up to the founding spirit of the NHS – that it’s the responsibility of any humane society to defend the right to life of everyone within it, whoever they are? If ordinary people were no longer disempowered, but had the resources they need to take control over their own lives?

3.

avarice

There’s a common response to all this: it sounds very nice, but it’s just not realistic. What Labour’s offering is only a bribe to the electorate; they dangle a functioning hospital, or a well-funded school, or a life worth cherishing, or some other shiny bauble in front of our faces – but there’s no chance we’ll ever actually get it, not in this economy.

Take, for instance, the party’s proposal to fight the climate crisis by planting two billion trees by 2040. This is, apparently, so ridiculous that a BBC presenter laughed in John McDonnell’s face when he suggested it. As some have pointed out, planting two billion trees in twenty years means one hundred million every year, or two million every week, or two hundred trees every minute, 24 hours a day. Which is actually completely doable. Firstly, because planting a tree is actually not very hard. It involves putting a seed in the ground, a procedure so simple animals have managed to do it entirely by accident, without any large-scale government intervention, for billions of years. Secondly, because it’s not just one person planting all the trees.

In the UK, we produce nearly sixty billion pieces of plastic packaging every year. The scale and ambition of this exercise is vast. You have to drill deep underground for oil, refine it, collect the ethylene, polymerise it, form it into beads, extrude the beads into a film, form the film into a bag, and disperse the bags through a planet-sized consumer network – five thousand times every minute, fifty million times a week. All this to create something whose main purpose is to end up clogging a gutter or getting slimy in a canal. If this system didn’t already exist, would you want it? Would you consider it reasonable or practical to set it up?

Planting trees is far simpler. In a single day, volunteers in India planted fifty million; the government of Ethiopia claims to have planted three hundred and fifty million in a single day earlier this year. Our world is very large, and the realm of the possible is bigger than we might have imagined. It’s the other proposal – the idea that we can just do nothing, let our forests fall to fire and loggers as the earth becomes slowly uninhabitable – that’s unsustainable and unrealistic. Labour’s tree-planting programme is ambitious, but we need to totally decarbonise our economy within twenty years, just to limit the scale of the disaster. Ambition is the only thing that can save us. But it’s always confronted by this instant knee-jerk dismissal: actually workable proposals are rejected in the name of pragmatism and common sense, even when what’s held up as common sense is entirely wrong.

You can see the same thing in the response to Labour’s plan to nationalise the country’s broadband network. In fact, this makes perfect sense. Whether you like it or not (and, to be completely clear, I don’t like it; I think every single computer should be turned off at once and thrown into the sea to create artificial reefs where octopuses can thrive), broadband is a utility, and like every utility, there’s only one network. Openreach, a subsidiary of BT, has a monopoly on building and maintaining the physical infrastructure that connects you to the internet. Broadband providers then compete to charge you money to access this network, offering you different packaging for the same product. This system is insane, but it’s also everywhere.

We find the American for-profit healthcare system cruel and ridiculous, with its dozens of firms competing for vastly overpriced services – but we’re suffering from exactly the same thing in every corner of our economy. We have one national electricity grid, built and maintained by the state, but dozens of firms trying to sell access to it. We have one rail network, built and maintained by the state, but private firms are allowed to slap their logos on the trains and extract a profit from them. It doesn’t need to be like this; until relatively recently, it wasn’t. The situation we’re facing is one that was deliberately built by private interests to serve their own ends. It can be different, and we have the democratic power to make it different. If you could design a system from scratch, would it really look like this?

4.

The other great common-sense objection to Labour’s proposals is this: but how are you going to pay for it? There’s a simple answer, which is in the ‘grey book’ accompanying the manifesto: by closing tax loopholes, raising corporation tax, and increasing taxes on the top 5% of earners. But it’s worth thinking about what this question actually means. Like the objections to tree-planting or nationalising our utilities, it dismisses Labour’s policies on the basis of pragmatism – but it assumes an understanding of the economy that isn’t just false, but downright weird.

For decades now, we’ve been encouraged to think of the national economy as being a bit like a household budget. If you’re in debt as a private citizen, your first priority should be to get out of it. If you spend money as a private citizen, the money goes away forever. The most important thing is to always make sure that you’re earning more than you spend. But as soon as you start thinking about it, this analogy starts to make less and less sense. It’s a lie. For one, very few people use money with their own face on all the banknotes.

Labour’s spending proposals are significant. They want to entirely reverse the last decade of Tory and Lib Dem cuts to local government services. They want to reverse cuts to disability benefits, end the bedroom tax, and reintroduce free school meals for all. They want to launch a National Transformation Fund worth £400 billion. They want a National Investment Bank to lend £250 billion for infrastructure and productive enterprises. They want to build 150,000 new council homes a year. But when the state spends this money, it doesn’t vanish; it circulates. Spending money on construction, infrastructure, a Green Industrial Revolution, and social services means more jobs, and more money which more people can then go on to spend. These billions in investment just means that the money in the economy is circulating faster – and it’s this speed, not the amount going into and out of the budget, that determines the health of a capitalist economy.

When the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took power in 2010, their policy was to address the financial crisis by massively cutting government spending. This was a fiscal decision with devastating human consequences. 135,000 children will be homeless this Christmas. One in fifty households had to rely on food banks in the last year. Over a hundred thousand people have died needlessly as a result of these policies. For comparison, around 400,000 people have died in the civil war in Syria. The UK has experienced over a quarter of the world’s deadliest conflict, quietly, in our streets and behind our doors. And this was all for nothing. It didn’t work.

Despite years of hectoring about how we need to tighten our collective purse-strings, austerity did absolutely nothing to reduce the ratio of national debt to GDP – not least, because it actively shrunk our GDP. (Not that this would even be a particularly good thing. Paying off the national debt is not like paying off household debt; a good supply of government debt is actually necessary to keep the economy running. When government spending contracts, private credit usually steps in, and private debt rises; there’s been a consistent negative correlation between the two. In other words, either the government is in debt, or you are.) Instead, it meant that millions of people had less money to spend on goods and services, and the entire economy suffered.

The ten years since the 2008 crash have seen the feeblest economic recovery since records began. Tories like to point to the increase in employment, but these new jobs are not good jobs. Two-thirds of these new jobs are in ‘atypical work’ – zero-hours contracts, self-employment, or agency work; work that’s precarious and underpaid, the kind of work you get when companies are allowed to treat their workers however they like. (And while this hasn’t been at the expense of British workers, it’s worth noting that two-thirds of these jobs have also gone to migrant labourers, who are typically more vulnerable to exploitation.) Wages are stagnating, productivity is among the lowest in Europe, and we’re on the brink of another financial crisis.

productivity
The UK’s productivity crisis. Since the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took over, we’ve been working hard – but it hasn’t been getting us anywhere.

All of this is entirely attributable to this absurd, utopian project to fix the economy by making everyone poorer. And despite its failure, some parties are still wrapped up in this mad ideology. The Liberal Democrats have announced that they want the government to run a permanent surplus – in other words, they want to tax you, and then do nothing at all with the money you give them. How are we expected to pay for that?

For decades now, British fiscal policy has been dominated by cruelty masquerading as competence. The most absurd and economically illiterate ideas could become common sense, as long as they only hurt the most disadvantaged (tough decisions! more sadly necessary sacrifices for the unseen gods!) instead of trying to improve things. But finally, the shine is coming off. After promising the end of austerity for longer than I can remember, the Tories are finally proposing some increases in spending. There’s an admission that the policies of the last decade simply haven’t worked. But it’s simply not enough: Conservative proposals would maintain the legacy of Tory and Lib Dem austerity. Even if they were all put into practice, government spending would still be 15% lower than it was in 2010. Only Labour is willing to not only stop heading in the wrong direction, but to turn around and finally address some of the problems in our economy at their root.

Full disclosure: I am still basically some sort of Marxist (the Still-Basically-Some-Sort-Of-Marxists being an ancient and august political sect, established only a few years after Marxism itself, and named after the slightly whiny noise we all make when asked to actually pin down our political commitments). As such, the health and good functioning of capitalism is not a massive priority for me. But it is a priority for David G Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College and a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. He’s one of 168 economists who’ve openly backed Labour’s manifesto. ‘The Labour Party,’ they write, ‘has not only understood the deep problems we face, but has devised serious proposals for dealing with them.’ And if these proposals seem extravagant, it’s only because the problems we face are extravagantly dire.

5.

lbn

But it’s possible you’re aware of this already. Labour’s policies are popular: 64% of the population support introducing a 50p tax band for earnings over £123,000. 56% support renationalising the railways. 54% support dedicating one third of seats on company boards to workers. And yet despite this, Labour is not polling at 54%. Why? Here’s a pull quote from a New Statesman editorial. ‘The essential judgement that must be made is on Mr Corbyn himself. His reluctance to apologise for the antisemitism in Labour and to take a stance on Brexit, the biggest issue facing the country, make him unfit to be prime minister.’

This is silly stuff, but there’s no point pretending it hasn’t had an effect. Corbynism as a movement has far more to do with the millions of people it’s empowered and united than the one person it’s named for – but it makes sense that the attempts to derail that movement have focused on the personal qualities of Jeremy Corbyn himself. And these attacks don’t often make a lot of sense. It’s strange to see outlets that once accused Corbyn of being a purity-cult extremist now attack him for trying too hard to keep both sides happy on Brexit. It’s almost impressive that the same press that once attacked Ed Miliband as a (((north London geek))) whose father was (((disloyal to Britain))) now has the gall to try to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of antisemitism. But four years of this slime-throwing has had an effect. There’s a chunk of the electorate that might agree with everything Corbyn wants to do, but is still wary of actually giving a Labour government the chance to do it. I’ve spoken to some of these people. It might be you.

So let’s talk about Brexit. Let’s talk about antisemitism. Let’s talk about Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour’s Brexit policy is not particularly complicated. The party will drop Boris Johnson’s catastrophic exit agreement, negotiate a new deal that protects British workers instead of betraying them, and then put it to a public vote. It’s true that it’s taken the party a while to arrive at this position. But the principles underlying it – that Brexit gives us the opportunity to change our country for the better, but only if the Tories aren’t allowed to turn it into a power-grab for private interests – haven’t changed since the referendum result was announced.

Corbyn’s Brexit policy is based on something the other parties would rather ignore: the fact that whatever happens in the end, Leavers and Remainers will all still have to live together in the same country (and sometimes in the same families) afterwards. The fringes of both sides of this debate don’t want to live with their opposite numbers; they want to see them crushed and humiliated. They want to set one half of this country at war with the other. Boris Johnson has purged the Tories into a Brexit-themed suicide cult, while the Lib Dems are campaigning on the bizarre idea that Brexit can be cancelled unilaterally, against the wishes of a majority of the country’s population. Trying to heal over this divide is extremely difficult, but everything about Brexit is extremely difficult. Any Brexit plan will have to reconcile a lot of nearly impossible contradictions: exiting the EU without imposing a border with Ireland, preventing a catastrophe without ignoring the result of the referendum, or even remaining within the EU without making millions of Leave voters rightfully very angry. This is why every single proposal has failed to pass unamended through Parliament. There is not a simple fix. This is hard.

I can understand the frustrations of people who just want Brexit finished, without another round of tedious negotiations, and without another referendum. But when we voted to leave the EU, all we voted for was a ‘no,’ an exit, the absence of something. Leave, yes – but leave where? We weren’t allowed to have any say on what should actually fill that gap.

The deal that Boris Johnson is proposing is a catastrophically bad one. It would split up the UK by introducing a customs border across the Irish Sea. It would leave our NHS at the mercy of the predatory American for-profit healthcare industry. It would leave the country £70 billion poorer within a decade.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit wasn’t on any ballot papers. Nobody voted for it. It’s the kind of Brexit he’d like – and this is why a second referendum is necessary – it’s the people, not politicians, who should decide what Brexit actually looks like.

The Conservatives’ plan for a post-Brexit Britain is a ‘Singapore-on-Thames‘ – a giant tax haven dominated by the financial sector. Singapore has a population of under six million. The population of the UK is more than ten times that, and it’s simply not possible to sustain a country our size on the tax-avoidance industry. More important than the ‘Singapore’ might be the ‘on-Thames.’ This is a plan that would work for London, and only London. The rest of the country – and, in particular, the regions that actually voted for Brexit – would be left to poverty and decline.

But this isn’t the only Brexit available. The Tories want to throw away what’s good about the EU and keep some of its worst aspects – its lack of democratic accountability, its forced sell-off of public goods, its partisanship on the side of capital. Labour will do precisely the opposite. The EU limits our ability to nationalise utilities, and prevents us from intervening in the economy to protect British industries and secure jobs. Leaving means we have the chance to radically reshape our economy for the better – but only if we set off in the right direction.

At the same time, I voted Remain in 2016, and I genuinely don’t yet know how I’d vote in another referendum. I have friends and family members who are strong Remainers – who’ve seen the absolute chaos that’s surrounded the Tory Brexit negotiations, and just want to throw the whole thing out and return to a more stable status quo. But where I think they go wrong is in assuming that Brexit can simply be cancelled by fiat, against the stated wishes of a (slim) majority of the British population. If you think we should remain in the EU, the only practical way to make that happen is to make that case to the public, which the campaign in 2016 catastrophically failed to do. You have to understand why we voted for Brexit three years ago – not just because we were duped, but because the situation was intolerable for millions of people, and they were desperate for some kind of change.

The only way we can undo the damage done by Cameron, May, and Johnson is by democratic means, which would require bringing the people who voted to leave in 2016 onboard, not riding roughshod over them.

Labour is the only party that can hope to achieve this. The Liberal Democrats’ call to cancel Brexit outright isn’t a serious policy; it’s an act of political warfare. It’s designed to appeal to one side in Brexit partisanship, and infuriate the other. But this is not the real division in British society. The real division isn’t between Leave and Remain, but between those who have money and power, and those who don’t. And the Lib Dems know this. It can’t be repeated enough: if they get the opportunity, they will prop up a Tory government again. The Brexit division has already been smoothed over for the political classes; Leavers and Remainers are already on the same side. They just want to exacerbate it for the rest of us. Is this what the New Statesman means when they talk about leadership on Brexit?

6.

spinne

As for the antisemitism furore, I’ve written about it previously – quite a lot, actually, because it seems to have been designed with the sole purpose of driving me insane.

Credentials time: I am a Jew. I am absurdly, unnecessarily Jewish. I was born in Israel. I had my barmitzvah at New North London Synagogue in Finchley. I went on yearly Jewish summer camps in the Peak District and Anglesey, until I somehow ended up running them. I live within the constant dislocation of being among Europe’s integral others. I sometimes find myself humming the aleinu in the shower. I’m deeply familiar with the works of Sigmund Freud, riddled with sexual neuroses, and I make a very good shakshuka. There is no institutional antisemitism in the Labour party.

What the Labour party does have is a lot of very earnest people who won’t stop talking about Palestine, even when it’s not particularly politic to do so. This is not actually particularly hard to explain. One of the favourite activities of the political left is to get ceaselessly angry about terrible things that are happening far away. When Britain and America invade other countries, topple their governments, and leave them in chaos, they get angry about that. This is met with some grumbling, but mostly just vague condescension. When Saudi Arabia promotes a murderous ideology throughout the Islamic world and starves children to death in Yemen, the left gets angry about that too. Less grumbling, a little more head-patting. Yes, it’s awful, but what can we do? When the government in China detains millions of Uighurs in an attempt to wipe out their cultural traditions, the left gets angry again. This time, some mild applause. But when Israel denies civil rights to nearly five million Palestinians, kills them at will, and subjects them to a discriminatory justice system that bears all the hallmarks of apartheid, and the left engages in its usual routine, something very different happens. Suddenly, it’s all very fraught. Suddenly, we have to walk on eggshells, in case we offend people’s sensibilities by pointing out that an extremely bad thing is, in fact, bad. There are reasons for this; we Jews have not always had such a happy time in this country. But because leftists are a broadly pugnacious and argumentative bunch, we tend to respond predictably to this sudden horror. Aha! This is the one we’re not supposed to talk about! In that case, let’s talk about it all the time.

I won’t pretend that this frustration doesn’t lead a few isolated people down into some slightly unpleasant tunnels of thought. But this is, in fact, rare: Labour supporters are less likely to endorse antisemitic statements than the general population. And antisemitism is simply not like other forms of racism in this country. No Jewish person faces diminished prospects simply because they are Jewish. We’re not more likely to be arrested, or murdered, or in poverty. We are not oppressed. Prejudice against Jews doesn’t express itself in a lower life expectancy, in callous immigration policies, or in violent policing – it’s discursive. For even the most panicky of the antisemitism obsessives, the biggest manifestation of antisemitism in this country is the fact that a lot of people don’t approve of a foreign country on another continent. People would kill to have problems like these.

As far as I can tell, absolutely nobody is seriously suggesting that a Labour government would pose any danger whatsoever to the life or security of British Jews. (Some of us might have to pay higher taxes, but that’s about it.) And the ‘institutional antisemitism’ line becomes much harder to swallow when you consider that the higher flights of Corbynism are practically a minyan. Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum, is Jewish. James Schneider, Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, is Jewish. The journalist Rachel Shabi is Jewish – and, like me, was born in Israel. The author and poet Michael Rosen is Jewish. In this week’s Jewish News, Labour’s candidate in Finchley and Golders Green (aka the cream cheese in the Bagel Belt), Ross Houston – himself hardly an ardent Corbynite – admitted that ‘our left-wing Jewish members are in fact very pro-Corbyn. What does come up a lot is Brexit and school cuts.’ There’s a possibility that both antisemites and hysterics don’t want to consider. What if, in the end, Jews are basically just like everyone else?

WoodGreen
The Battle of Wood Green. In 1977, twelve hundred fascists and antisemites attempted a march through heavily Jewish-populated areas of London. Among those organising the community’s self-defence was a young local councillor, Jeremy Corbyn. In 2015, months before becoming Labour leader, Corbyn similarly helped organise efforts to prevent antisemites marching in Golders Green.

Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have once suggested accusing an election opponent of having sex with pigs. His aides told him that was absurd. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘but let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.’ This has clearly given his British namesake some ideas. It’s utterly absurd that Jeremy Corbyn now has to repeat the same condemnation of antisemitism at every debate and in every interview, often while an actual racist is standing right next to him. Can you imagine the furore if Corbyn had made disparaging comments about the kippah or tzitzit? If he’d written a novel in which a heroic backbench MP defeats a villainous Jewish conspiracy? This isn’t a double standard; it’s a smear campaign. And the people pushing it don’t care even remotely about Jews. They’re perfectly willing to laud far-right and antisemitic figures in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey – so long as their racism towards Jews doesn’t extend to Israel. Only last weekend, the Sun published an absurd conspiratorial map of the ‘hard-left network’ that’s apparently taken over the Labour party. Its sources include a group called Aryan Unity. The article has since been taken offline. No explanation. And, of course, no apology.

I shouldn’t be saying this: it’s considered unacceptable to compare the phantom of antisemitism in Labour with the full-throated racism in other parties. For the left, at least; not for the right. In a stunningly strange opinion piece in the Times, Philip Collins – who is, of course, not a Jew – advanced the argument that ‘Labour’s racism is worse than the Tory kind.’ This is, apparently, because ‘the racism that exists in the Tory ranks is generational and casual’ and ‘incidental to their world view.’ Tory racists just happen to not like people of other ethnicities; they don’t want them in their neighbourhoods, in their government, or among their population. Labour supporters, meanwhile, ‘hold as a central belief that Israel is the creation of imperial ambition. They believe that the capitalist powers are upholding an illegitimate state and sponsoring the oppression of Arab peoples in the region.’ Apparently, this is worse, but Collins manages to avoid saying why. It’s always nice when your opponents make your own case for you. Tory racism is racism: a prejudice against black and Muslim people that helps to create negative outcomes for them. What’s happening in the Labour party isn’t directed against Jewish people at all; it’s a broadly correct analysis of international relations, explicitly formulated, and delivered with moral urgency.

Black and Muslim people in Britain aren’t frightened of a Conservative victory, in the way that I’m apparently supposed to be frightened of Corbyn. Tory racism isn’t a discursive puppet dangled in front of their faces – it’s what many of them have to live with, every single day. They don’t have to invent patently absurd misreadings – they’re already living under a Prime Minister who has explicitly disparaged them in racist language. The best tool we have for stamping out the racial inequalities that actually exist in this country is a Labour government. And thousands of Jews like myself know this too.

7.

corbyn

Finally, there’s Jeremy Corbyn himself. Corbyn’s supporters have a habit of extolling the man’s personal virtues – his kindness, his decency, his good humour, how wonderful it is that he finds time to potter about on his allotment. I’m not going to do this. The point of good politics are to make a person’s personal charms or vices basically irrelevant. In the UK, we don’t directly vote for a Prime Minister; we vote for a party and their manifesto. And Labour’s manifesto, which offers the kind of radical and necessary change we desperately need, could never have been written without Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

I’ve never met Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t know what he’s like. I do know what he’s done.

What he’s done is utterly transform the way frontline politics works in this country. What he’s done is slough off an immense quantity of the bullshit that surrounds our political discourse. Just one example. Previous Labour politicians hemmed and hawed about maybe cutting housing benefit along with a bevy of crucial social programmes. In his 2016 conference speech, Corbyn said something everyone knew, but which had been bizarrely unsayable: housing benefit isn’t helping anyone, it’s an enormous subsidy to our landlordism industry – one of Britain’s largest sectors, and its least productive. ‘We’re paying over £9 billion a year to private landlords in housing benefit. Instead of spending public money on building council housing, we’re subsidising private landlords. That’s wasteful, inefficient, and poor government.’ It’s true. So why couldn’t anyone say it before?

Take another example. Saudi Arabia crucifies and beheads its dissidents, and wages a genocidal war in Yemen, and our politicians have engaged in a long policy of appeasement – to the extent that British personnel are sent to actively keep their war going. Jeremy Corbyn has consistently said that he’ll ban all arms sales to the country. Sure, the Lib Dems are now saying the same thing – but their leader also approved £8.6 billion in weapons sales to the Saudis. It’s only in the space that Corbyn opened up that other parties can make these kind of progressive noises – and only Corbyn can be trusted to follow through on them.

This is because Corbyn isn’t guided by political calculation, but by principle. This has become something of a cliché, but it’s true – he has spent his entire political career fighting for the same humane values. Democratic socialism: dignity for the working classes, an end to wars and aggression abroad, an end to the mutilation of our natural environment. While other politicians swoop and swerve according to opinion polls and the texture of his discourse, Corbyn has always stuck to his guns. I can’t think of a record that would better qualify someone to be Prime Minister.

I grew up during the Blair years. I spent most of my adult life living under a Tory government. And this experience taught me that it was impossible for our political system to do anything but steadily make things worse. Millions of people have had the same experience. My politics oscillated between dumb edgy insurrectionism and nihilism, which didn’t achieve anything either, but were at least a bit more fun. Jeremy Corbyn changed that too. It’s inconceivable that I would have ended up stomping through a downpour to talk to strangers about voting Labour if he hadn’t won the leadership. Because what he offers is something genuinely different from the callousness and brutality of British politics.

It can be done. We can build a society worth living in.

Vote Labour.

 

The war against the Jews

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The Jewish community in the UK is under attack.

87% of British Jews believe an anti-Semite might be about to take power. Nearly half are considering fleeing the country if Labour wins the next election. These fears don’t come out of nowhere. Someone has done this to these people – to my people – and they should not be allowed to get away with it. Someone has convinced thousands of people who are not in any danger whatsoever that they are in danger. Someone has told them that a political party whose supporters are less antisemitic than the general population is a font of racism. What’s the human cost of something like this? How much suffering have they inflicted, in raised blood pressure, in lost sleep, in indigestion, heart attacks, insanity? How many Jews have died early because of this nonsense? How many families are mourning? How much Jewish suffering are they willing to inflict to get what they want?

Even Jews who don’t get swept up in this campaign of fear and intimidation are victimised. Even me. Yesterday, the Jewish Chronicle published a scoop on a Labour parliamentary candidate’s ‘blatant antisemitism.’ She’d compared the state of Israel to an abused child who grows up to be an abusive adult. Inaccurate, yes. (Early Israeli leaders tended to have not been Holocaust survivors. Ben-Gurion, for instance, didn’t have much time for the victims of the Nazi genocide. They were weak and traumatised. He wanted completely new Jews, strong Jews, the kind of Jews who could commit atrocities.) Tactless, maybe. Rote and pat and cliché, which is worse, sure. But antisemitic? Really? On Newsnight, Emma Barnett confronted a Labour representative with the claim that this was an ‘old antisemitic trope.’ Which trope? How old? When did half this country descend into an alternate reality in which the word ‘antisemitism’ has lost all differential meaning? The more I think about it, the crazier I feel. The radio and the newspapers and the TV keep talking about the fibres growing through everyone’s skin, and as much as I keep on scratching the fibres are simply not there. Of course you’d say that, people tell me, you’re part of the problem, you’re in league with the fibres. And then my blood pressure rises, and the hair thins out around my temples, and I realise that one day soon I’m going to die.

Every new microscandal in the Labour antisemitism furore has been like this, every single one, for four pointless years; either exaggerated or contrived or inconsequential. In the very first broadside, back in 2016, it was revealed that the Labour MP Naz Shah had once shared a joke image on Facebook calling for Israel to be relocated to the United States. For this, her parliamentary colleagues compared her to Eichmann. The image had originated with Professor Norman Finkelstein, who is (of course) a Jew and the child of Holocaust survivors. No matter. Let’s try again. The next furore involved Oxford University Labour Club, where it was alleged that left-wing members had encouraged a hate campaign against Jewish students, following them around campus and shouting ‘dirty Zionist.’ If true, this would have been reprehensible – but it wasn’t true. Someone lied. An investigation found that nothing of the sort had ever occurred. No matter. On to the next one.

At the launch of the Chakrabarti inquiry, the veteran anti-racist campaigner Marc Wadsworth – who helped found the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence – witnessed a Daily Telegraph journalist handing one of his press releases to the Labour MP Ruth Smeeth. He commented that right-wing politicians and the right-wing press were working ‘hand in hand,’ which they were. Somehow, this turned into ‘hand in glove.’ Suddenly, he was insinuating that Jews control the media. Drivel, but he was still expelled from the party. Wandsworth claims that he wasn’t even aware that Smeeth was Jewish, and I believe him. Minor MPs tend to believe very strongly in their own importance, but there are hundreds of them, and outside of their constituencies most people – veteran campaigners included – don’t have a clue who they are. No matter. On to the next one. In 2017, a fringe event at the Labour party conference featured a speaker who was reported as having said that ‘this is about free speech, the freedom to criticise and to discuss every issue, whether it’s the Holocaust: yes or no, Palestine, the liberation, the whole spectrum.’ Shadow ministers lined up to denounce this terrible antisemitism. Does it matter that the speaker was one Miko Peled, an Israeli Jew and IDF Special Forces veteran, and the grandson of a signatory to Israel’s declaration of independence? Of course not. On to the next, and the next, and the next.

Of course, the Labour Party’s response to all this has been deeply inadequate. The poor sweet rubes didn’t understand what was happening to them until it was too late. Look at how the Tories are reacting to their own scandals over Islamophobia: they barely even bother to deny it, they just change the subject. This is because many Tories genuinely are racists, and they’re also cynics, and good at what they do. Labour is committed to anti-racism, so if someone accuses the party of harbouring racists, the accusation genuinely stings. Oh god, what if it’s true? We need to find out immediately. We need to send a strong and clear message that racism isn’t welcome here. By the time they’ve figured out the trick, it’s all over. They’ve already admitted that there’s a problem. They’ve already committed themselves to endless war against their own membership, and if they decide to slow down once the realisation sinks in, it’s just proof that the rot goes all the way to the top.

This trick is easy to perform. Say you wanted to wreck the activities of the Royal Horticultural Society – it doesn’t matter why: maybe they spurned your petunias, maybe you missed out on a Lindley Medal, maybe you just hate gardening. Start by saying that there are troubling incidents of anti-Japanese racism within the RHS. After all, aren’t they trying to eradicate Japanese knotweed? Aren’t there a few members who will sometimes grumble that raking pebbles around isn’t ‘real gardening’? Maybe you’ll have to fabricate a few incidents, but the RHS has nearly half a million members; some of them must have said something unpleasant about the Japanese at some point in the past. Of course, the RHS will try to defend themselves, but you’re one step ahead of them. Anti-Japanese prejudice clearly exists, you say, and therefore denying that there’s any problem is part of the problem. Now the gardeners have to pick up their pitchforks and start rooting around for racists, and they keep finding nothing of any significance – which just proves how bad the problem really is. If their leadership keeps ignoring the issue, maybe we need a new leadership. And meanwhile, green-fingered Japanese are getting – justifiably – very worried. What will happen to them if they turn up at the Chelsea Garden Show this year? Are they safe among their own plants? (It’s true; fellow gardeners have started looking at them strangely lately. A lot of people just want to nurture something living out of the soil, but now all these Japanese are making things impossible. So when they see a Japanese person at an RHS event, they can’t suppress the thought: is this person against me?) Now you’re on a roll. If anyone tries to object to what you’re doing, you can just point to the growing gloom among Japanese gardeners. How dare anyone try to delegitimise their lived experiences? They’ve start putting down their shears en masse. Some are even talking about leaving the country. You’ve taken away a wholesome pastime from thousands of blameless Japanese people, made them anxious and miserable, but the Royal Horticultural Society is now in total disarray, devouring itself in search of hidden racism. Congratulations. You’ve won.

It’s worth remembering that the first time they tried this trick with the Labour party, it wasn’t about Jews; it was about women. Two women ran against Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election, and for a while the line went that one could only prefer him to one of them for reasons of sexism. Yvette Cooper laid out the choice: did we want ‘a Labour Party after a century of championing equality and diversity which turns the clock back to be led again by a leader and deputy leader, both white men? Or to smash our own glass ceiling to get Labour’s first elected woman leader and woman prime minister too? Who’s the real radical? Jeremy or me?’ Articles bemoaning Labour’s ‘woman problem,’ the misogyny in its ranks, the bullying online. It didn’t work. Women make up the majority of the British population and the majority of Labour supporters; for the most part, they weren’t fooled. But Jews are different. Jews are a small minority in Britain, with a long historical memory and a very justifiable fear of persecution. Jews, it turns out, are easy to gaslight and manipulate and terrify. You can attack the Jewish community and get away with it.

I don’t know how to fight this thing. Of course not: I’m a Jew; I’ve been driven mad by it. Currently, my best idea is to crowdfund a skywriter to scrawl something in the air above Westminster. Something like ARE YOU NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT WORRIED THAT TELLING MILLIONS OF VOTERS WHO’VE NEVER MET A JEWISH PERSON IN THEIR LIVES THAT THEY CAN’T HAVE A LIVING WAGE OR A WORKING NHS OR ANY HOPE FOR THEIR CHILDREN’S FUTURES BECAUSE ‘IT’S NOT FAIR TO THE JEWS’ MIGHT CREATE A MISLEADING IMPRESSION OF THE ROLE OF JEWISH PEOPLE IN SOCIETY AND ACTUALLY SEVERELY EXACERBATE ANTISEMITISM RATHER THAN GETTING RID OF IT? It won’t work, of course. Even if some of the people pushing this narrative are Jewish themselves, they’re not concerned. It was never about Jews, or antisemitism, or even about Israel. They don’t care about us, or how this might affect us down the line. They’re willing to extinguish the entire Anglo-Jewish population, rip us out of our homes, and send us fleeing in fear from one of the safest countries for Jews in the world, headed for – where? Israel, which is a war zone?  America, where people can walk into synagogues with automatic weapons and open fire? We’re collateral damage in a political struggle against resurgent socialism. But from here on the ground, it feels like being targeted. How far will these people go in their war against the Jews?

How I got these scars

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BRITISH COLUMBIA, 1895

I learned to laugh where the whale bones were. On the iron shores, where gulls tittered and tore the last scraps of greying whaleflesh from ribs half-buried in the muck. Where curving bones threatened the foam, like the earth itself had fangs. Where the boulders were carved with bug-eyed faces, fat-lipped, grimacing; the sisiutl, sea-monsters. In low unadorned longhouses, huddled in the chill, where I sang: ‘Wa haiya, wa haiya, the weapon flew into my hands, the tool with which I am murdering, with which I am cutting off heads.’ And around me they sang: ‘The great madness entered our friend, he is killing old and young.’ Here I blackened my face with ashes and reddened my nose in the snow. Here I tore my clothes and tossed eagle-down in my hair. Here I became the nūlmal, the fool dancer, the killer clown. Here I learned that laughter is mine and nobody else’s, and when the boy – my cousin’s son – laughed as I japed and spun, I put my lance through his neck.

But who is this stranger in the cabin? Squatting by the fire is a man of no tribe, or who gave up his tribe – the Deutsche Juden – many years ago. A lonely creature. Not timid, with his virile moustache and his shock of dark hair, but passive. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, does nothing: he just sits and observes, even when the boy is speared. Only scribbling in his notebook: ‘They do not dance, but, when excited, run about like madmen, throwing stones, knocking people down, and crying… They dislike to see clean and beautiful clothing. They tear and soil it. They break canoes, houses, kettles, and boxes…’ In the summer months the Kwakiutl live in small bands, whose chiefs are ceremonial or mediatory. Only in the winter, when the world turns harsh, do they congregate together in one place. This is the ritual season, the potlatch season. But it’s also the season of the clowns. And these clowns officiate: they set the times of the ceremonies, they punish anyone who eats too slowly or performs the wrong dance… What are they if not a form of police? In the summer these people are peaceful anarchists, and in the winter they fall under a crazed dictatorship… Mein Gott, we’ve got it all backwards; the fool dancers aren’t a chaotic response to repressive society, they’re the basis for the whole structure… And even though he’s a lifelong opponent of cultural evolutionism, he can’t quite suppress a guilty thought. Is this how it all started? When political power first showed its face to the world, was it really in marble and bronze? Or was it a face like this, blackened with soot, decked in rags and shit, its centre bursting out into a huge red nose?

He looks into the fire, as if it could have an answer, and it does. A figure circles four times around the fire – tonight, she is the Kinqalalala, the female slave of Baxbakwalanuxsiwae (a figure he’s already described in his notes: the great cannibal god, He-Who-First-Ate-Man-At-The-North-End-Of-The-World, every inch of his body covered in terrible chomping mouths). At each turn, Kinqalalala throws a handful of something into the fire, and there’s a flash. Shapes indistinct in the flames. Here a molten ditch cut through the earth, and slimepits where the bodies rot. Here a bolus of flame bigger than cities, a sun-mote brought down to cauterise the earth of life. Here a barbed-wire cage webbed tight against the earth, thrumming with frenzy and exhaustion. He doesn’t know it, but he’s witnessing the vast long mistake of the twentieth century that is to come. And somewhere, rising through all this wreckage, a single wordless laugh salutes the highest joke.

LONDON, 1920

Ah, so this is what a philosopher looks like. He looks sad. The great thinker approaches the table timidly, nose-first, sad wet eyes following far behind. ‘You must be Georges,’ he says. Georges stands, removes his hat, shakes the philosopher’s hand. ‘Monsieur Bergson,’ he says. Henri also removes his hat, removes his coat, sits down. ‘I hope this restaurant is to your satisfaction,’ he says. ‘I know the chef to be French, but there have been no good waiters in this city since all the Germans left.’ They talk about this for a while – the small travails of being a Frenchman in London, the scattered places where one can still get a good hat, a good shave, a good steak. Something vicious wants to bubble up through Georges’ throat. ‘What about a good fuck?’ he says. ‘These English girls, they don’t have any word for partouze.’ Henri looks like a startled rabbit. ‘Just a joke,’ says Georges, and he laughs. Henri laughs too, but he’s nervous. Those eyes dart from the menu, to the grinning face of the young man in front of him, to the exit, the empty chill outside, the everywhere-else where he’d suddenly much rather be. He’s a kind and generous man, which is why he’s agreed to meet this young student from the British Museum – but ever since the War these young students have been crueller, stranger, their heads all muddled by Marx and Freud… ‘I read your book,’ says Georges suddenly, ‘your essay on laughter. I must admit – please, forgive me – I’d not had the pleasure of reading your work before.’ This surprises Henri. ‘And you wish to be a philosopher?’ he says. ‘I don’t regret my essay, but perhaps you should begin with something more substantial – my Matière et mémoire, perhaps; I would gladly lend you a copy…’ Georges shakes his head. ‘This is precisely the matter,’ he says. ‘I think your essay might have cured me of philosophy altogether. If I could ask you something… how can you write so many pages on laughter, and all of them with a straight face?’ Henri appears to consider this. ‘But surely, Monsieur Bataille, you must agree that the comic forms part of the human tissue? That it is as worthy of serious study as any other facet of experience?’ Georges shakes his head. ‘You misunderstand,’ he says, sadly, disappointed to his core. ‘I don’t doubt that laughter is worthy of serious study. But is serious study worthy of laughter? That is to say, Monsieur Bergson, why must you be so eternally serious? What is the laugh if not the annihilation of all seriousness, all propriety… yes, even philosophy? How can you write a study of laughter without first staring into the sun?’ Henri doesn’t say anything. ‘Have you not read the anthropological reports on the primitives of British Columbia?’ says Georges. ‘Their societies are ruled by clowns, but it’s forbidden to laugh at them, on pain of death.’ ‘I’m not sure I follow,’ says Henri. ‘Allow me to demonstrate,’ says Georges. ‘Here’s another joke; you’ll like it. Toc toc toc.’ Henri sighs. ‘Qui est là?’ he says, and then Georges pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the head.

HUẾ, 1968

A line crawls across this city. On the other side of the line lies chaos and Communism, and the people shiver under the terror of the Viet Cong. They have lists of enemies – ‘tyrants and reactionaries,’ in their jargon. Names are read out on loudspeakers. The tyrants and reactionaries assemble dutifully in the designated places, and then they’re trucked out of the city, never to be seen again…

On this side of the line, freedom reigns. On this side of the line, by sheer coincidence, all the buildings are in ruins. And the line is moving: whatever all those cowards back home might want you to believe, the line is moving, and the bright realm of freedom and ruin grows larger every day. A column is trudging forwards, through the mire, to push against that border. Helmets and rucksacks, assault rifles or flamethrowers slung over their shoulders, and at the front, the banner of the LCAB, the Ladies’ Crusade Against Beastliness. Two Marines lean against some piled-up rubble, smoking. Before Tet, this was a bar popular with GIs, and they’ve returned out of sheer instinct – in the same way that migratory birds sometimes flap over the chaos of the war, looking for trees long since defoliated, eaves shelled into fragments while they were away. These Marines know better than to whistle at the LCABs as they pass, or make any crude remarks. That would fall squarely under Beastliness, and Kissinger has given the Ladies all the necessary authority to punish any beastliness, in any way they see fit. So they just watch them as they pass, from a thousand yards’ distance. Afterwards, one passes the joint to another. ‘Someone’s gonna die,’ he says. Maybe the Ladies; maybe their enemies. This is the law.

Somewhere in Huế, the Commies have set up a secret special-weapons unit: pinko intellectuals from Europe, alongside loonies scraped from asylums over three continents. Every day, shells from across the frontlines burst overhead into a flurry of pamphlets. Some of this artillery-borne propaganda is dense, in tiny print. ‘WHAT IS LAUGHTER? The laugh is a painful spasm affecting the chest, neck, and face. When laughing, a subject experiences a significant decline in reflex response and awareness of his surroundings. Vision in laughing subjects may be blurred. They may experience salivation, watering in the eyes, nasal congestion, shortness of breath, or involuntary animal-like vocalisations. Laughter substantially reduces combat effectiveness, often fatally. HOW IS LAUGHTER INDUCED? The laugh may be induced by certain chemical weapons. However, we are also developing the capacity to induce laughter through the combination of words, noises, and actions. We can turn any part of your language into the laughter-weapon. Even the most basic movements of your body – eg, coitus or defecation – are not safe. HOW CAN I PREVENT MYSELF FROM LAUGHING? You can not prevent yourself from laughing. If your people do not leave Việt Nam, we promise to spread joy and laughter among your ranks.’ Other leaflets are far cruder. One shows a grotesque cartoon of an old man with an erect penis, and the slogan: ‘AMERICAN SOLDIER, GO HOME… To Be Gay With Your Dad!!’

A radio broadcast, a book, even a movie, that can seize the people exposed to it, make them break out in violent spasms… the top brass are worried, and it’s understandable why. Huế is exporting body-bags at a prodigious rate, and at home, the appetite for war is diminishing. ARPA’s trying to engineer its own version of the laughter-weapon, but trial versions (tested illegally on black civilians) are stubbornly ineffective. ‘So look,’ says a Pentagon scientist in a windowless cell. ‘I’m white. I know, right? Like, Whitey-McWhite-white. But I’m trying to get better.’ Behind the one-way mirror, they monitor the test subject’s heart rate, his breath, sweat, hormone levels, brain activity… nothing. Why isn’t he laughing? ‘Please,’ he says, ‘I’m begging you, please can you just let me out of here?’ The scientists know that some kind of cruelty – sadism, even – is essential to the procedure, but even after dumping the bodies of a thousand failed test subjects in landfills across the country, it just won’t work. Still, there’s one interesting finding. Certain individuals from certain socioeconomic strata are entirely immune to the laughter-weapon. The Viet Cong can broadcast whatever they want; the upstanding patriots of the LCAB suffer no spasms, eject no crude and ugly noises, have no spit running unwholesomely out of their faces. So now, combat teams of conscientious young ladies fan out across the city, finding VC laughter-weapon cells buried in the rubble, and cancelling out their cruelties with bright clean jets of flame. Leave the world purer. Kinder. More empathic. More polite.

At the head of the column, the head of the LCAB battalion is being interviewed by a spectacled young man for Stars and Stripes. (And is that – is that a peace button on his helmet? Above the words ‘BORN TO KILL’?) All the usual questions. So are you gonna get that weapon before it’s too late? Aren’t these tactics proof of the cruel and underhanded nature of the enemy? But then he gets a strange glint in his eyes. ‘Don’t you think,’ he says, ‘that destroying this weapon robs us of an essential part of the human experience?’ The commander’s head whips suddenly towards him. ‘The human experience?’ she says. ‘What’s your name, young man?’ The reporter swallows. ‘I’m Sergeant J.T. Davis,’ he says. ‘But they call me the Joker.’

NEW YORK CITY, 1985

‘See, what they don’t understand about Bernie Goetz is that he’s a vigilante, a crime-fighter, an honest-to-God American hero… Those folks watch cartoons about the heroes who dare to stand up to crime, but when it actually happens they want to prosecute the man like he’s a criminal? No, no, no. Haven’t they seen what’s going on out there? You got people scared to go out at night. You got people scared to walk the streets of their own city, cuz of what the young folks might do… And down there it’s even worse! Down there the sun never comes up! You walk these streets and think you’re safe, while not twenty feet beneath your shoes there’s folks getting beaten, folks getting mugged, folks getting killed, twenty-four hours a day… Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there? What kind of world is this, where the kids are beating up on their elders? How did we, as the guardians of this community, let it come to this?’ Give the man his due: Walt is a powerful speaker, but this is entirely the wrong audience. It’s not his fault that his charging, stomping oratorical style comes with a slightly slipshod attitude towards the Word in its written form. The names are so similar, after all, and as for the photo on the posters – ah, white people all look alike. So while Walt thinks he’s addressing a fundraiser for Bernie Goetz – the subway avenger, the white man who shot four unarmed black kids on the 2 train when they asked him for a cigarette, who shot two of them in the back – the attendees at an academic symposium on Clifford Geertz’s Anti-Anti-Relativism watch politely, and wait for this unexpectedly impassioned presentation to meander a little further towards the point. Geertz himself, the plenary speaker, shuffles through his papers: this man isn’t citing my work at all… Still he continues. ‘You know what I say? I say Bernie Goetz is the sanest man in this city. And do you know, do you understand what it means to be a sane man in a crazy world? It means wherever you plant your two feet, that’s where you stand, and if someone tries to threaten your life where you stand – then you put! him! down!’ At this point a graduate student starts to ask a question: has Walt considered the relevance of his namesake Walter Benjamin’s Kritik der Gewalt to this issue? The law prohibits individual violence, not because it contingently contradicts the content of the legal system, but because it challenges the juridical form itself… The fear of some lone individual (and aren’t individuals getting lonelier and lonelier, as Reagan goes to war against the unions, as capitalism starts to eat away at the foundations of society itself?) picking up a gun and exercising sovereign authority all by himself – it’s not just a practical fear, it’s an ontological horror. The madman returning from the mountaintop with the tablets of the Law. A cruel new social order, festering like a parasite inside the corpse of the old. Only – if Goetz is found innocent at trial, what would that say about the present constitution of the State? Walt looks slowly around the room. ‘Now what kind of foolish question is that?’ he says, and then it starts to dawn on him exactly where he is. Oh, how they laughed.

LOS ANGELES, 2019

A killer clown is on the loose.

The weather here is perfect every day of the year, and you spend your life inside, consuming entertainment media. When you do venture out, it’s to the canyons and valleys, where you trim and tone your body so it looks more like the images of bodies you’ve seen, so it can be turned into a more pleasing picture. You live alone with a very small dog. You’re afraid of the other people, the lonely sexless weirdos who stay indoors, whose lives are directed by entertainment.

The world churns out pretty things for you to enjoy. Like a child, holding up some squidged clay in two timid hands: look what I made. I made a movie. I made a TV show. I made an opinion column. I made it so that you’d be happy. Far away, there are coups and genocides and workers jumping off the roofs of their factories, to keep it all moving, so that you’ll be happy. So why aren’t you?

After the revolution withered and the religions drifted away, the only one left was the clown. He is here to entertain. The planet’s getting warmer: a fiery red desert on the equator, and permafrost melting into fringes of unkempt green. One huge mask, spinning giddily through space.

It was already too late when we realised that this clown, like all clowns, is carrying a gun.

The Army surrounds the red-carpet premiere with tanks and armoured personnel carriers. (This basically derivative pastiche movie about a sad clown who hates society – it’s simply too radical and dangerous.) Busy soldiers dig trenches through Hollywood Boulevard. (So why are they all wearing white masks?) Attack helicopters chuckle in the sky overhead, and outside the city, generals in bunkers stare at computer screens, their fingers trembling over the red button, ready to commence a full-scale nuclear bombardment of the greater Los Angeles area if the Thing inside the cinema starts to stir.

And in the dark, it does stir. Baxbakwalanuxsiwae, the cannibal with a thousand mouths, who lives in his lodge at the frosty edge of the world. Mouths that chomp human bones and tear human flesh; mouths that once burst, in the old cold times before the world, into the first and endless laugh.

I, who learned how to laugh where the whale bones were, watched the gunfire start. I squatted by the burning city – not timid, but passive. I saw moviegoers streaming in terror out of the cinema, only to be cut down by the soldiers outside. I saw tanks grunt in formation to pound the building, one after another in turn. And from far over the hills, a screaming across the sky.

Here I sung my song.

Ham ham a’mai, ham ham a’mai, hamaima ma’mai, hamai hamamai.

Utter the hamatsa cry, utter the hamatsa cry, the cry of the great spirit who dwells at the north end of the world.

Utter Baxbakwalanuxsiwae’s war cry, utter Baxbakwalanuxsiwae’s war cry, the cry of the one who eats living men.

Utter the raven’s cry, utter the raven’s cry, the cry of the cannibal pole which is the Milky Way of our world.

Utter the hoxhoku cry, the hoxhoku cry, the cry of the one who is going to eat, whose face is ghastly pale.

Utter the clown dancer’s cry, the clown dancer’s cry, the cry that is heard all over the world.

Wa ha hai, waiya wai.

 

Meltdown

meltdown

Pretend this is some other country, a miserable guano-splat island somewhere to the east, surrounded by steel-grey seas. The Unified Monarchy, half-medieval and hermetic, where knobble-nosed old peasants carry bales of hay for dead horses, under the crumbling shadow of a nuclear reactor. Officially, the place is a liberal democracy, and if nothing else they commit to the charade. Lately they’ve decided to elect a new head of government, so all the candidates are corralled into a TV studio for a debate, to answer questions from the people before they get to crush them with an iron fist. Everyone knows it’s stupid and pointless; the ruling party has already chosen its man, and only three hundred-odd people get a vote anyway. But TV debates look democratic, and this is a cargo-cult country, manically putting up big apartment buildings in the capital for nobody to live in. And it’s certainly not illegal to criticise the governing class – it’s just that strange things start happening once you do. If you’re naive enough to ask an uncomfortable question during the TV debate, you become a person of interest. Spies trawl through your personal documents. All your faults and secrets are laid open to a suddenly deeply inquisitive state media. And, of course, you lose your job. For the victims, who believed all the propaganda, this feels wrong. Weren’t they the ones who were being judged and evaluated, the other people, the ministers of the state? But the judge rears up like the monster in a Kafka story, and bellows: no, it was only you, we wanted to see if you were pure enough to be ruled over by us, and you have failed.

This is, more or less, what happened during this weeks BBC Tory leadership debate. The obvious loser of the evening was Rory Stewart, who was shunted out of the competition immediately afterwards, haemorrhaging ten MPs. But this debate also came with collateral damage. In the aftermath, it wasn’t the politicians but the questioners from the public whose records were scrutinised and whose lives were put on the line. Two men, Abdullah in Bristol (an imam and deputy headteacher) and Aman in London (an employment lawyer), have been suspended from their jobs. Is it a coincidence that they were also the two members of the public with the two most pointed questions? (Abdullah asked about Islamophobia within the Conservative party, Aman asked how the winner of the contest could govern without holding a general election – both fairly uncomfortable issues for the contenders.) Is it a coincidence that the howl of outrage against these two questioners was first raised by Paul Staines, a psychotically right-wing Westminster gossip blogger, and subsequently relayed uncritically by the BBC and the right-wing press?

Ostensibly, Abdullah and Aman have not become the victims of a media free-for-all because of the questions they asked during the debates. Instead, it’s because of their tweets. Abdullah, for making some fundamentally quite banal and harmless statements about Israel – that a Jewish state should be set up in America instead, that Zionist politicians tend not to be very fond of Jeremy Corbyn, and so on. (He also expressed some considerably more retrograde opinions on whether women should ever be alone with men, but it still feels slightly silly to be outraged that a religious leader might also be a social conservative.) Aman, meanwhile, made a quite patently ironic joke tweet parodying the American conservative pundit Candace Owens. These are extremely flimsy ropes with which to hang these people. But in fact, it shouldn’t even matter.

It matters if Boris Johnson or Michael Gove are racists (which they are), because they’re trying to become Prime Minister of a country that’s home to some three and a half million Muslims. There are things which it should be unacceptable for a senior politician to say, think, or do. But even if Abdullah had advocated for antisemitism, rather than explicitly denouncing it – how many Jewish parishioners is he responsible for at the Masjid Umar mosque? Why should his stances, objectionable or otherwise, be anyone else’s business?

Take any random British resident, kidnap them, and interrogate them – until, wet with tears and spittle and blood, they’ve revealed all their darkest secrets and their worst prejudices. You’re almost certain to find something viscerally offensive and disturbing in there. Something bad enough to clear your conscience, immediately justifying all the suffering you’ve inflicted in getting it. As Žižek points out, the distinguishing factor in all truly oppressive societies is the patchiness and unevenness of the apparatus of repression. It’s not that the guilty are always mercilessly punished, because by the ruling doctrine everyone is potentially guilty. Instead, punishment is vicious but haphazard; everyone has to wait in fear, nurturing their guilt, hoping every morning that this won’t be the day they’re finally made accountable for their crimes.

Before the fifteenth century, a jury who returned the ‘wrong’ verdict could themselves be punished under a writ of attaint, and the punishment would be severe. The juror’s house was to be razed, his wife and children ‘thrown out of doors,’ his trees uprooted, his meadows ploughed, and his body imprisoned. Eventually, in the Tudor era, justice was softened: the guilty juror would only be subject to a fine, plus ‘perpetual infamy.’ Something similar’s at work today. There’s a common-law penalty for the breaking the unwritten law that Aman and Abdullah broke: perpetual infamy, of course, in the bubbling fury of the internet – but also, you have to lose your livelihood. Wherever you work, whatever you do, whatever union is supposed to be looking out for your interests, justice will not be served unless you’re booted out of your job.

But this is where things get tricky. Aman’s law firm and Abdullah’s mosque were perfectly free to refuse to impose the default punishment; there was no state apparatchik looking over their shoulders. Similarly, the BBC could have defended its decision to let Aman and Abdullah ask their questions, instead of collapsing into spasmodic apologies. (It’s worth noting that the post-Hutton Inquiry, post-Saville BBC has pioneered a particularly aggressive style of political interview, in which the goal isn’t to find out what the poor bastard might have to say about the issue at hand, but to embarrass them as much as possible. It feels like a charade, and it is. The BBC play-acts a spiky independence, but crumbles as soon as there are any stakes involved.) But it’s hard to imagine that kind of resistance actually taking place. Resistance is the appropriate response to a political dictatorship, and that’s not what’s confronting us. It would be a fantasy to suggest that Britain were actually like the United Monarchy – a comforting and consoling fantasy. What’s facing us is far larger, and, in some ways, far worse. Aman and Abdullah had to participate in their own victimisations; for it to happen, they first had to build up a dossier of evidence against themselves. They tweeted. And in the place where social media, broadcast media, and politics conjoin, something monstrous slips through the gaps.

This being is artificial. Part hive mind, part computer, part alien, part newborn and capricious god. It’s the thing that makes the laws and sets the default punishments, the king and parliament and jury of this world. It’s a machine, in the Lewis Mumford sense of a machine, a contraption with human beings as moving parts. But there are other bits whirring away in its belly, things that were once vast. The BBC, the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, the capitalist mode of production, the written testament of God. We have created this thing without really understanding what it is, and it has been set loose.

The crime Aman and Abdullah committed was simply to make themselves visible to this thing. They were only exposed for a moment, a few seconds each, while they gave their questions, but a few seconds is enough. They weren’t really speaking to the Tory leadership contenders, or even to the BBC-watching public; they addressed the new entity. They’d circled its outer peripheries before, skimming its vast darknesses on small social media accounts, and now it knew who they were. If the thing recognises you, it will try to destroy you, and if you don’t have several inches of lead shielding, it will succeed. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re an imam or a member of the Privy Council. Five seconds of exposure, and your innards seep out for its billion eyes to see.

The voice from the black hole

hole

People are right about exactly one thing when it comes to YouTube: the place is a hole. They talk about falling in, starting out with the surface-level cats and music videos, until the recommendation algorithm does its work and they suddenly discover that they’ve turned into a Nazi. They talk about the depths. They talk about a tunnel or a vortex. This is all true, in a very literal sense. Most of the internet is a membrane, and things skim across its flat surface. That’s what it means when something goes viral: it becomes lubricated, slippery; it rolls, fluid and unstoppable, between the corners of the world. But every location is indexed, searchable, on precise co-ordinates and open to a roving gaze. It’s true that some parts of this flat surface are fenced off – locked Twitter accounts, private forums, paywalled websites, academic journals – but there’s always a high degree of entropy at work, wearing down the levees. Someone takes a screenshot. Someone’s account gets hacked. Any sufficient quantity of liquid content will inevitably end up slopping over the walls. But YouTube is something else.

It’s taken the mainstream quite a while to notice exactly what’s been happening on the site. But, to be fair, how were they supposed to find it? Text and images are synchronic: they’re arranged, fixed and static, to be scanned over, harvested, and thrown away. Video is diachronic: its basic unit isn’t meaning, but time. And YouTube contains a lot of time. Five hundred hours are uploaded to the site every minute. An entire human lifespan goes up every day. Thirty thousand years’ worth of video is added every year, which is six times longer than the entirety of written history.

Forty thousand years ago, the first known piece of figurative art was created: a sculpture in mammoth ivory of a man with the head of a lion. We don’t know what the lion-man did, or why it was produced. We don’t know what worlds of meaning its distant creators inhabited. This was the beginning of human cultural history, and in total YouTube archives a span of time fifty times longer than that. If unbroken generations had lived their lives watching every single YouTube video uploaded up until today, the first in the chain would have been an australopithecine, a squatting ape whose only tools were sticks and stones. You’re paddling out over that same chasm every time you watch someone opening boxes or shoutily explaining their political opinions on YouTube. It’s an accretion of masses and masses of impacted time, heaped over itself, condensed down to a single point. It’s a hole torn through the fabric of the universe.

Down in these depths, there are celebrities you’ve never heard of. Millions of children are obsessed with other, perfectly ordinary children, who mostly just answer questions about their favourite colours. Millions of adult men watch other adult men playing videogames. There are nursery rhymes and cartoon skits for toddlers that feature injections, decapitations, and torture. There are flat earthers and anti-vaxxers and people who think ordinary geometrical coincidence is a vast system of Satanic symbolism. There are senseless centuries that seem to have been spun out by algorithms. And what a surprise: just like the dark side of the moon, just like the inaccessible plains of the Antarctic, this black hole is full of Nazis.

I’ve been aware of right-wing YouTube for years now, before it started piling up real-world bodies in the street, before one of its heroes ran a hilariously failed Ukip election bid, before it became something that ordinary parents felt they had to worry about. What always struck me, far more than the antisemitism and the conspiracy theories, was just how lonely it was. A man sits in front of a camera, alone, and talks at rambling length about how the Jews are ruining everything. They’re talking in an empty room. Nobody’s actually there. And unlike film or TV, internet video is almost structurally designed to be viewed alone. You don’t watch it with a friend or a partner, you just share it on other digital platforms, to other people in other empty rooms.

This isolation is there even for the right-wing YouTubers who made it big – but most people never make it big. So many of the channels I saw had viewerships in the low tens, and these people still churn out videos, day after day, hour after hour. I found one, a video titled My message to the radical left, which had been viewed exactly once: by me. The orator sways and wobbles and pokes the phone camera up his nostril. You created your enemy, he says, and that was your biggest mistake, because with the anti-discrimination and the affirmative action you never leave us alone. Did this person know that I was the one he’d be talking to? Could he know that his message would, at long last, reach its destination?

YouTube was always going to end up being ruled by the right, because right-wing politics are a politics of loneliness. The helpless, atomised individual, endlessly at war with the world around them and everyone in it, desperate to cling to some imagined national, cultural, racial, or political community,  talking to an enemy who isn’t there. The new 14 words: Oh yeah, and by the way, please don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. If the site’s algorithms seem to be sending people into a tunnel to reaction, it’s because that’s what’s there; if the site has become a fascist playground, it’s because fascism is the sickness of internet video as a medium.

As always, the symptom gets confused with the disease. A lot of people seem to know intuitively that there’s something very badly wrong with the grand system of online video, but that complaint ends up turning into a very limited demand: YouTube just needs to kick the Nazis off its platform, and then it’ll be fine. It will not be fine. The platform itself, the whole complex of platform capitalism, is a machine for making Nazis, and the Nazis are only the most visible of its products.

This is why the mostly well-intentioned attempt to foster a leftist YouTube community is doomed to fail. It feels (with one or two honourable exceptions) deeply awkward, and not just because of the gangliness of the people who make these videos, or the way their jokes tend to fall flat. It’s the wrong content being shoehorned into the wrong form. Mass participatory politics can’t be fully expressed by one person talking to a camera in an empty room, in the same way that the unknown shamanism that surrounded the lion-man figurine couldn’t be expressed in a Papal bull, and mathematical proofs make poor protest chants. The left that takes shape on YouTube and the various other social media platforms tends to be a gloss over something that remains fundamentally reactionary: bickering and resentment, cringiness and vituperation, a bitter identification with imagined national, cultural, racial, or political communities, a subject at war with the world around them and everything in it. You can make a video or a blog post against neoliberal atomisation if you want, but it’s still in you, baked in to your every word.

It can’t be drowned out and it can’t be switched off. The only way to shut down the fascist creep on YouTube is to shut down YouTube itself.

This is, for obvious reasons, not Google’s preferred approach. For a long time, they simply did nothing, which is at the very least a coherent approach. The line goes that the site is a platform rather than a publisher, anyone can use it, and the firm isn’t responsible for what people throw into the hole it’s given them. And in any case, something like YouTube is impossible to effectively moderate. If you wanted full scrutiny, you’d need 90,000 moderators, watching every single newly uploaded video on eight-hour shifts. (YouTube presently has about 2,000 employees.) Pay them $10 an hour, and that’s $7.9bn a year. The complaints of liberal internet users are not worth $7.9bn a year. But they are worth something. And while the vast tunnel of YouTube can’t be effectively explored by humans, it can be processed by machines.

YouTube already used artificial intelligence to clamp down on nudity and copyright infringement in videos; now, in the wake of some stupid scandal, it’s doing the same for politics. The problems with this approach (even putting aside the inevitable free-speech squabble, or questions over whether we really want to give giant capitalist tech firms the power to determine what is and isn’t politically acceptable) are obvious. Almost as soon as the new anti-Nazi robot was installed, a slew of antifascist videos were taken offline, often for using Nazi imagery such as the swastika. If they’re smart, actual Nazis tend not to brandish swastikas in people’s faces, because the symbol has a well-known off-putting effect. Antifascists, who want people to know exactly what it is they’re fighting against, will deploy the swastika, for precisely the same reason.

Maybe these issues will be ironed out. More likely, people will end up learning what to do and what not to do to avoid being flagged up by the algorithms. Computers tend to have a hard time processing irony, ambiguity, and the use-mention distinction, so these things will vanish from our discourse and our two-million-year archive. (Of course, this was already happening.) We will start to think a little more like machines, sorting everything into clear, cold categories. We will start to speak less and less in language, and more and more in code.

This isn’t new; every technology turns human thought, to some degree, into an extension of itself. No animism without pigment, no Enlightenment materialism without clockwork gears, no fascism without radio. The difference is that previous technologies only left their stamp on relations between human subjects, while digital communications interposes itself entirely. This is why, even if it works perfectly, with no discursive collateral damage, algorithmic moderation is still a nightmare – not because it closes down the flows of speech, but because it creates a concentrated torrent of non-communication. I might have been the only person to view My message to the radical left, but despite the title it wasn’t to me. The intersubjective dimension is draining out of the world; what’s left is empty talk, psychotic mumbling, externalised monologue – not addressed to another human, but pouring itself into the void. All those people in front of cameras in empty rooms: they’re talking to and for the machine. They put their lips to the black hole and speak, and no echo meets them out of its infinite and lonely depths.

PS: The problem is that a lot of what I’ve said about internet video here also applies to writing. Literature is also solitary, composed in silence, read in silence; it’s a fundamentally pathetic and asocial activity. In writing, we also talk to the inscription-machine more than we do to any actual reader: as Derrida argues in his commentary on Lacan’s seminar on The Purloined Letter, a letter never reaches its destination. One property of writing is its capacity to go unread. That said, three points in defence of my practice: writing is not embeddable within a concentrated technical platform; the materials of writing are not (necessarily) a global communications infrastructure but an emergent and mutually agreed-upon system of words; writing is removed from its object, and therefore involves a properly significatory aspect that video – which can only enframe, capture, and replicate – lacks. As such, it’s intersubjective in a way that video can not be, because words are not an exterior technology but the foundational stuff of subjectivity. But maybe we’ll have to get rid of all this as well.

What was Theresa May?

guhhh

Theresa May has a facial tic. When she’s giving a speech to four glum men in an enormous aircraft hangar, or engaged in fruitless eight-hour negotiations with her plumber, or licking all the nuclear launch codes so her successor can’t touch them, or otherwise discharging her duties as the head of Her Majesty’s government, the corners of her mouth will twitch and turn down, and she’ll flash an expression of utter disgust. As if she’s suddenly had a moment of terrible clarity, and realised exactly what it is she’s become. In photos she looks like a deep-sea fish, face gulping in permanent horror. Combined with the natural whelk-grey texture of her skin, it gives the sense of a general aquatic unhealthiness. Stinking silt, creatures with translucent needle-sharp teeth, worms feasting on the sunken corpse of a whale: she has come to us from the grey and empty place where dead things fall.

In general, the British media tend not to be unkind enough to actually mention her noticeable facial tic. That would be rude. Instead, whenever she dramatically bungles some minor endeavour – which is just about every day – they cover the front pages of the newspapers with a picture of her grimacing like a fart’s just come out of her own mouth. But some people are less generous than others. Me, for instance. I know, without remembering, that at some point in the last three years, in one outlet or another, I must have mocked the one thing about the woman that’s not her fault. I also know why I did it. It’s because I also have a facial tic.

I can keep it under control, mostly; strangers probably see it more often than friends. On the street, on the Tube, at the urinals – the need grabs me, and I have to push out my lower lip and fold it over itself, so the mucous membrane glistens and I look like a sad, drooling clown. I don’t enjoy doing this. It doesn’t make me feel any better. It just happens, at my direction but without my consent. It was worse when I was younger. Sometimes, at parties, I’d have to briefly hide myself in a corner to do it four or five times in quick succession where nobody could see me – but the whole procedure of hiding my weird facial spasms would put me in such a nervous state that I’d immediately feel the need to do it again. Throughout my teenage years, I was basically terrified that someone would see me doing it, and then call attention to it in front of everybody. Then they’d all know that I’m not really a person, but an animal, a thing of dumb instinct, a freak. So while I don’t know what it’s like for your embarrassing facial tic to be on the front page of the newspapers every morning, I can imagine. And this is why I can’t stand to see Theresa May do her trademark grimace. Not because she looks so gruesome and so weird, but because in the worst possible way, she and I are the same.

I don’t think this is just me. Theresa May has set herself up as the most nakedly authoritarian leader in recent British political history. She’s catastrophically mismanaged a major constitutional transition, devastated anonymous thousands of lives, wrecked the country, wrecked her own party, wrecked our future. But as she prepares to leave office, the big question isn’t about her actions or her legacy, or even the mess she’s left on the steps of Downing Street. It’s this: is it ok to feel sorry for her?

I do. I can’t help it. I feel sorry for Theresa May.

* * *

It wasn’t always like this. For a moment, in late 2016 and early 2017, Theresa May was the most popular British Prime Minister for nearly half a century. Or, at least, something that went by the name of Theresa May was. Whatever people loved in those short months, it wasn’t her.

The old political classes took this tense, rangy, fleabitten creature, these shabby rags framing a vulturine stoop, and turned her into Mummy. A big warm milky ocean you can also fuck, a fat-cheeked Oedipal fantasy come to envelop all the overgrown permanent schoolboys in acres of pillowy flesh – and then, when they’ve been naughty, to cane them across their leathery arses, because Mummy loves them, and Mummy needs them to obey.

The sensible technocratic classes took this screeching ideologue, the woman who sent vans with National Front slogans trundling around the outer boroughs of London, the woman who summarily deported 34,000 students because she couldn’t properly invigilate an English test, and turned her into A Firm Hand On The Wheel. Capable and serious, walking the sensible middle line between the irrational extreme of just murdering everyone and the irrational extreme of trying to make things somewhat better, a Remainer willing to make compromises, a capable negotiator with all the facts at her fingertips, a kind of vast spreadsheet buzzing behind synthetic skin.

The red-nosed tabloid editors took this glob spat out of the Tory front benches and into Downing Street, a woman whose premiership was secured on the basis of 199 votes in a country of sixty-six million, and turned her into The Voice Of The People. Red eyes, white hair, blue politics; a giant avenging mecha-suit powered by the incoherent outrage of millions of retired insurance salesmen, in a power stance so uncomfortably wide her legs straddle the entire country: one vast kitten heel ploughing through Lancashire until bubbles of shale gas wheeze out of the soil, the other flattening London into a great glowing splat of pulverised elites.

But all politicians create fantasies about themselves. What makes Theresa May different is that she’s so bad at it. Someone like Tony Blair is a pure simulacrum: there’s no point asking what the real Tony Blair is really like, because he’s just neon and soundbites all the way down. You can try to look behind his curtain, but it was put there by Parrhasius. Theresa May, on the other hand, was hiding something. She was alive in there, buried deep beneath mummy and monster and machine. She didn’t want to be seen. She has a facial tic.

* * *

It was the 2017 election that changed everything, but at first it was hard to see what was happening. The event was announced with terrifying authoritarian fanfare. ‘Every vote for the Conservatives,’ she said, ‘will make me stronger.’ The energy-vampire, swelling itself on a million willing sacrifices. Give me power! Give me life! A Schmittian sovereign, here to exercise the popular will with her limitless power to decide, inhaling blood and sweat. ‘There should be unity here in Westminster,’ she said, ‘but instead there is division. The country is coming together,’ she said, ‘but Westminster is not.’ Across the country, the stolid yeoman folk of England perform mass synchronised maypole dances around the eaten cake – and why aren’t you keeping time? And then, in two short months, it all fell apart.

She wouldn’t debate, she cringed when voters confronted her in the street, she spoke in front of tiny rallies while Corbyn was mobbed everywhere he went. It’s nice to pretend that it’s her nasty reactionary politics that were unpopular, but that’s not really true. Her politics were popular; they’re still popular today. It wasn’t that she was hollow inside: we like hollow flashy politicians with no substance. The problem was that the shell of Theresa May wasn’t empty enough. There was a little hermit crab in there, all claws and angles, and it was weird. We watched her gurn and grimace, and we could not love her.

Since then, it’s been humiliation after humiliation. Her Parliamentary majority vanished. Her throat caved in. Scenery collapsed around her. She suffered historic defeats in the Commons, and African schoolchildren laughed in her face when she tried to dance. She ended up in front of Downing Street, still notionally the most powerful person in the country, resigning in tears. Her own party hate her, in the cruel, spiny way that an overgrown schoolboy hates his own mother. The press hate her, in the hazy, slurring way that a professional fantasist hates all of invertebrate reality. And everyone else too. The electorate, the donors, the Europeans, the BBC studio audiences, the stalks of wheat bristling in the fields. As it turns out, people have an almost instinctual horror of Theresa May.

Henri Bergson, in his theory of laughter, suggests that we find animals funny ‘because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression’ – a dog trying to walk on two legs, or with some recognisable plaintiveness or eagerness in its face – and that we find people funny when they behave like machines. ‘The laughable element consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity… the rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.’ Theresa May is a person who behaves like a machine.

It was there from the start, in her favourite awful tautology: Brexit means Brexit means Brexit. It was there in her glum repetition, strong and stable, strong and stable, a computer stuttering as its circuits are deactivated one by one. She submitted the same Brexit bill to Parliament three hundred and twelve times, and each time it was rejected, and each time she tried again. When she has private meetings with MPs, instead of actually talking to them she writes what she wants to say on a piece of paper, and reads it out in front of them. The Guardian‘s sketchwriter started calling her the Maybot, and it stuck – because she’s not like other people, because there’s only a mechanical clunking behind her eyes.

But Bergson never noticed what happens when you run the sequence backwards. A machine that behaves like a human; a living doll, a creepy figure stalking the uncanny valley. A human that behaves like an animal; blind, grunting, savage instinct, where there should be thoughts and words. What these things inspire is horror. And as much as she was laughed at, there was always something deeply unsettling about May. A tic is something both animal and mechanical. A shudder in the gears, a flash of the wetness inside a living creature’s mouth. It turned the smooth fascist ideal of Brexit Britain into rotting flesh; it turned Mummy into the clockwork mother-thing whose wheels scream in the night.

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So it’s not surprising that the dominant answer to the question of whether it’s ok to feel sorry for her seems to be a loud, bitter no. You can’t consider her on a merely human level, because she isn’t human. She’s the tens of thousands immiserated by austerity, women abused at Yarl’s Wood, the Windrush generation humiliated, surging right-wing street violence, Grenfell in flames. She’s a hostile environment. She’s tendons and rust.

And she is all of these things. But this is precisely why she might be the most human politician we’ve had. A human is not good; a human is a monster, an awful assemblage of animal and machine. In the Greek origin myth, Epimetheus gives the animals their attributes, sharp claws or wings or poison-tipped spears, but by the time he gets to us there’s nothing left. This is why Prometheus has to step in and give us fire and language and culture: we can’t live without machines. And we’re taking our revenge: one by one, the other animals are vanishing. Our true face is the grey face of the ticcing thing, the naked disaster, incompetent and despised.

Nobody likes looking in an unexpected mirror. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to feel sorry for the great ugly weirdos of the world; that’s fine. My problem is with the implicit commandment against sympathy, the point where I don’t becomes you can’t. For the left, it is politically unacceptable to feel sorry for Theresa May. As if there’s a ration-card system for human feelings. As if feeling sorry for her means diminishing your stock of sympathy for all the numberless people whose worlds she’s destroyed. As if you could measure someone’s moral worth by whether they feel sorry for the wrong kind of people. Watch your own feelings, citizen: make sure you’re only feeling bad for the correct designated victims. All this strikes me as not just misguided, but actively deranged.

The thing about sympathy is that it’s involuntary. Theresa May doesn’t deserve my sympathy, but she has it – and if you can only feel sympathy for the people that deserve it, what you have isn’t sympathy at all, just an opinion. I can’t see a person who lost everything – not because of blind chance, or because someone else took it from her, but simply because of what she was – and not feel sorry for her. And there’s something desperate in all these professions of indifference. People training themselves not to care, because they’re seized with the mad idea that how you feel is a question of political duty. People installing a GCHQ listening station inside their own heads. It’s a cruelty that’s not too different from Mayism itself, which taught the country not to feel sorry for the foreigners, the scroungers, the asylum seekers, the shouty metropolitan young people, because they were the wrong type.

Of course, it’s possible I’m being played here. Is this just what power looks like now? May is gone, and the dark hulking teddy-bear shape of Boris Johnson squats heavy on the horizon. Here he is, stuck on a zipline. Here he is, falling into a pond. Here he is, accidentally reeling off a series of obsolete racial slurs in a speech to the United Nations. It’s not his fault, he’s just a bit clumsy and a bit out of touch. Don’t you feel sorry for him?

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