Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

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.

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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.

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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

ydshkt

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

boas

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.

* * *

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?

How to disdain your dragon

I have never been here before: my breath comes differently, the sun is outshone by a star beside it.
Kafka, Aphorism 17

bjjjk

Literary fiction these days is crap, isn’t it? It might be better if the problem were just that most books are worthless – they are, but that’s always been the case; you always need a few decades to let the dross sink. There’s still good stuff out there; the blame must be placed squarely with you, the readers. Because somehow, even with your lives constantly probed and perforated, shokushu-like, by digital text, you people have forgotten how to read.

Look at what was probably the most significant literary event of the last few years, the publication of Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”. The story of two people who meet, text each other, have awful unsatisfying sex, and then drift apart, “Cat Person” is written in a brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, readable style. It includes sentences like ‘Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts’ and ‘maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him, had intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her.’ It describes a situation that’s fairly familiar – just about everyone I know, both male and female, has been in the position it describes, of having sex with someone out of a sense of exhausted duty, going through the motions so as not to upset or disappoint the other person, of resigning yourself to a basically joyless life. It’s very easy to point at one or both of the basically hapless couple and say: it me. It’s all very well-observed, a very plausible dip into the mind of a tedious neurotic. It was received very well.

But something about this reception was strange. Shortly after the story exploded, people were announcing – in breathless, almost angry tones – that the author was actually a writer, that Roupenian actually had an MFA, and a PhD in English from Harvard to boot, that “Cat Person” might actually be a deliberately constructed work of fiction. This feels like a strange thing to be saying about a short story published in the New Yorker, but it was necessary. Broad swathes of the reading public seemed determined to read “Cat Person” as anything other than literature. Something about that brisk, frank, stark, plain style marked it off as something else: a piece of reportage, a personal account, a confession, an accusation. Something about the naïve realism of the literary voice made people assume that the author herself had to be a naïf, unadorned with any kind of creative untruth. Opinion writers – many of whom had their own degrees in English literature – refused to see it as a text to be evaluated; instead, the point was apparently to simply correctly identify the goodie and the baddie in the story, and hate the baddie appropriately. This is how children read. What is going on?

All this is particularly strange when you consider that “Cat Person” was written in a very particular ritual dialect called Mfalé, which emerged out of the temple complexes in Norwich and Iowa City, and is short for MFA Literary English. But the thing about Mfalé is that it tries to make itself invisible: it’s the style of no style; simple, unadorned, correct realist writing. This is how it became a vernacular; this is why Mfalé literature is so easily read as something other than literature. But for all that, it’s still a set of conventions, as basically artificial as any other.

Texts written in Mfalé are brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, and readable. They concern the daily lives of a few everyday characters, usually young, usually in some kind of bad sexual relationship or complicated breakup, usually mediated by digital technology. There’s a close attention to sensory detail, and an even closer attention to minor affective nuances: moments of inattention or miscommunication, people who see each other as more or less than they actually are, small eddies of desperation or loneliness or regret. There’s a lot of banal but realistically rendered dialogue. Stories are generally (but not always) written in the third person, but hew very closely to one particular perspective. If they’re not autobiographical, they read very strongly as if they might be autobiographical. They’re implicitly universal, but shy away from allegory, symbolism, or satire; instead of being general they’re relatable, so that each incident could plausibly echo a situation in your own life in a blossoming of one-to-one correspondences, so that the reader can imagine that the smart but fucked-up girl or the soulful but awkward boy is themselves and nobody else. Unlike some terminally online writers you might want to name, the authors of these works aren’t adverbially preening themselves with strange words or sentences elongated into unreadability – but they’re also not self-consciously flat or affectless or nihilistic. They gesture towards a kind of emotional hyperliteracy. If the author is showing off about something, it’s how much they see, how well they understand the social pitfalls of ordinary life.

I find these texts to be, in general, deeply creepy. If literature is not only a reproduction of social existence, but a site in the production of subjectivity, then this form is a machine for creating paranoiacs. The narrative is odourless and invisible, practically absent altogether, but it sees everything. It watches every minute shift in your emotional state, and jots it down. It’s the literary voice of the creature hiding in the shadows. The technology didn’t arrive until afterwards, but there might be a reason this style is so dominant now: it’s the literature of the social-media panopticon, where everyone is sitting blank-faced behind a screen, watching each other, and waiting for a chance to judge.

This would all be forgivable, if it weren’t for the fact that these texts are also profoundly unrealistic. Take, for instance, Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, which is definitely one of the better instances of the form. The story concerns a couple who get together, then split up again, then get together again, then split up again, then get together again, and in the final pages are implied to be about to split up again. Like “Cat Person”, it’s well observed and very competently written. But this is a story about young Irish people in the present day, and not once in the entire novel does anyone actually crack a joke. Every conversation is deeply earnest and deeply fraught. These people just have feelings, and conceal or talk about them, and are utterly po-faced throughout.

Realist fiction is not realistic. After all, what is a joke? It’s the eruption of a kind of abstract absurdity into the social world, an absurdity that throws everything into sharp relief, that reveals a certain truth that was previously buried, but without simply representing it. Realism is always meticulously anti-absurdist: everything has to be believable, or it’s harder to relate. Which is how you end up with a vision of human existence that rings true in every particular, but fails to add up to anything, that presents people as always diminished, petty, and dull. As Borges notes of Proust, these fictional events are ‘unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each new day.’

As well as instant fame, “Cat Person” gave Kristen Roupenian a $1.2 million advance on her book. But when You Know You Want This was published this year, it was to tepid, cautious reviews. Some of the awkwardness that surrounds an apostate: aside from “Cat Person” itself and one or two others, the texts it contains are not written in Mfalé. Instead, they’re fabular, artifical, constructed; less like a story and more like a tale, something like the Grimm brothers, Kafka, or the Arabian Nights. They describe situations that it’s harder to relate to, because you’ve never fused all your enemies into a giant flesh-monster, or killed your husband because of a bucket. People are depthless, obscure and obscene. In the LRB, a frustrated reviewer took to parenthetically adding ‘(no reason)’ every time one of Roupenian’s characters did something that couldn’t be understood. These stories carry a note of the inexplicable. A rising strangeness that’s set against the background of mundane thoughts and lives, and seems to emerge out of it, but in a way that can’t be reduced to that setting. This is what reviewers complained about: you have a story about a young couple forced to deal with what’s obviously a metaphor for Our Modern-Day Issues With Self-Esteem, a woman obsessing over every inch of her skin with a magnifying glass – but then the metaphor ‘pierces through her flesh and wriggles free,’ alive, spiked with thousands of tiny legs, and incapable of thinking neurotically about what it might mean.

Tales, in general, are truer than stories. Here’s one, related by Borges in The Dialogues of Ascetic and King: one night, an old man arrives at the court of Olaf Tryggvason, who had been converted to Christianity while in England. The king asks him what he can do, and the old man replies that he knows how to play the harp and tell stories. After a few songs, he relates the story of the birth of Odin. Three Fates arrived at the god’s birth; two prophesied great fortune and happiness, but the third, in a rage, said: you will live no longer than the candle burning by your side, and so Odin’s parents quickly extinguished the candle. Olaf Tryggvason doesn’t believe the story, and the two of them debate the matter into the night, until the lights are dim and the stranger finally announces that it is late, and he must leave. After the lights have exhausted themselves, the king and his men go out to search for him. A few steps from the king’s house, Odin is lying dead.

It’s a melancholy story. The passing of an era, the roar of the old gods fading to a few quiet notes on the harp, the way Odin comes to inhabit the meekness of the Christ that overthrew him. But it’s not just a historical artefact. It feels true, without having any obvious point of identification or clear symbolic meaning. Sad dignity, resignation, and the inexplicable, because life itself is often sad and thankless and strange. The sense, somewhere, of an entirely different way of being, a different way of relating to the snow and the gods and time, a dying world, but one that still echoes, that’s curled up tight inside our potential selves, even today.

All of this, of course, is by way of talking about Game of Thrones.

It’s become a commonplace to point out just how uncreative most fantasy is. I’m sometimes struck by it, reading the blurbs on the fantasy novels at the Tube station mini library. Gogorax is an apprentice Brightcaster – a wielder of powerful magic. When the evil Lord Zugenhelm threatens the realm of Palovar, he must embark on a journey that leads him past the Pillars of Plib and the swamplands of Plonts to collect the five mystical Orbs of Power. This is what’s called worldbuilding, but it’s not world that’s being built. A world is a way of experiencing reality and other people; it’s the unit of social and phenomenological difference. The greatest builder of fantasy worlds in literature was probably Bruno Schulz, who set all his stories in the same quiet Polish town. What these authors build are only geographies.

The innovation of Game of Thrones was supposedly to build a more realistic world. Instead of the hollow creatures of schlock-fantasy – the trueborn heir, the dark lord, the sturdy peasant – you get fleshed-out characters, with the same family squabbles and romantic disappointments you’ve learned to expect from Rooney or Knausgaard. When the war against an undead evil comes, you still need to worry about how you’re going to feed the horses. Even if there’s a bit of magic here and there, it’s all ultimately about politics: it’s realist fiction with dragons in. But then, in the last two seasons, the glamour of realism started to wear off.

An online petition demanding that the final season be scrapped and remade has gathered, at the time of writing, three billion signatures. But beyond the self-evident fact that this show has become extremely bad, the complaint is actually quite incoherent. On the one hand, viewers are upset that ‘character arcs’ aren’t being respected, that the show’s done away with the narrative conventions of high fantasy. The magic zombie army is destroyed in a single battle, almost as a prelude to three more episodes of squabbling and politics! It’s not even the secret trueborn heir who defeats them! In the end, he doesn’t even take the throne! Why isn’t this The Lord of the Rings? But at the same time, the show is no longer realistic. How are these characters zipping instantaneously around the map? Why did they put the catapults in front of their infantry? How come she couldn’t see all those ships? What happened to the Mongols? Why do characters no longer do things that an actual person would do in their situation, but act as if tugged along by invisible lines of plot?

I’m not here to defend one of the biggest and most lucrative culture-commodities of the twenty-first century. A complaint can be both incoherent and also correct (in fact, they usually are). I just want to talk about one particular scene. In the penultimate episode, Dragon Hillary finally gets everything she ever wanted. Her troops breach the walls of the enemy’s capital, the forces opposing them surrender, the crown is practically tossed at her feet. And in this moment, as the bells ring, the liberator goes on a murderous rampage, burning and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people – once she’s already won – for, as the LRB would put it, (no reason).

You could talk about this in terms of cheap and lazy plotting, rushed heel-turns, violence against the character. This is dull. You could talk about representation and the distrust of women in power, or crow that Dragon Hillary turned out to be just like the real Hillary after all. This is also dull. So is Hobbes and realpolitik, the arbitrary violence of sacred kingships, the mass human sacrifices that accompanied royal successions in West Africa and Mesoamerica. What struck me about that scene – and it struck me hard, shortened breath and anxious heartbeats as the city burned – was how true it was to daily life. A child has a favourite toy confiscated; for weeks he begs to get it back, because it’s the thing he wants most in the world – and then when it’s returned, in a fit of sudden sourceless fury, he smashes the thing to bits. A basic psychoanalytic principle: the thing you want is never the thing you really want. The thing you really want, the objet petit a, is the impossible thing, the thing that isn’t, the thing that flies with dragons in the night. And Dragon Hillary, watching her victory from a distance, isn’t satisfied. She thought this would make her happy, but it’s not enough; happiness doesn’t work like that. So she burns it all down – and afterwards it’s too late; you can burn it down, but you can’t fix it once that’s done, and you can’t fix yourself. (In a better show, the next episode would have had her advisors confront her in those terms: so, do you feel better now? Did you get it out of your system?) I’ve felt that urge before, that vertigo. You have too.

You can describe all this with realist narrative and without any dragons. Of course you can; it’s what I’m trying to do right now. But it’s missing something, and it’ll never be as real. It will always lack the impossibility and inexplicability of our lives. It will miss the fact that we all live with our fingertips trailing through other worlds. It will forget that we are lit by other suns.

 

 

Avengers: Endgame, or, why this is all your fault

you

You were born. For billions of years, the universe existed and you were not alive. There were stars and lights and giant lizards and Romans and so on, but it all took place under a kind of invisible shroud, the blackness of non-experience. One day you will go back into that blackness, and it will be as if the universe had never existed. But you are alive now, in the early twenty-first century – and because of that fact, the human race will probably be extinct within the next thousand years.

This is called the Doomsday Argument, and frankly it makes a lot of sense. This subjectivity, this you-ness that you experience, could have come into the world at any point in human history. You could have been one of those Romans, but you weren’t. You were born in the middle of the greatest population explosion in human history. Two hundred years ago, the global population barely scraped a billion; it took nearly a century for that number to double. It’ll be eight billion soon. You were born in the time in which there were more people than ever before – and did you think this was a coincidence? You’re here now because now is the most likely time for you to be here. You’re here now because you’re not special.

The argument is a version of the German Tank Problem, which goes something like this. Millions of people are dying horribly in the Second World War, and in the middle of all this chaos you’ve managed to sneak a spy into a German tank factory – but they’re soon discovered, and manage to escape with their life having only taken one photo. A tank’s chassis, with the serial number 396. So: how many tanks are the Nazis producing? Keep in mind that the answer is crucial to the war effort. They might have only built four hundred tanks, and your spy happened to snap one of the last off the assembly line. Or maybe your spy caught one of the first, and the Germans are building millions of the things, tens of millions, enough tanks to drive into the English Channel, fill it up, and keep on driving, simply flattening everything from Dover to Durness. But in both cases, the probability is low. There’s only a 1% chance this tank is in the first or last 1% of tanks made. Without any other data, you have to assume that the one instance you’re aware of is probably somewhere around the middle of the distribution. So: eight hundred tanks total, give or take. This was a statistical method the Allies actually used, based on serial numbers from captured vehicles. After the war, when production figures from the Reichsministerium für Rüstung were analysed, the statistical method turned out to have been almost spookily accurate, far more so than the estimates given by ordinary intelligence. The nerds won. They always do.

You are a German tank. You were built by the Nazis to do evil in the world. The only data-point we have is that you are alive in the present day, and without anything else to work with, we have to assume that you were born vaguely in the middle of experiential history. Something like one hundred billion people have ever lived, so, once the dust clears and the final accounts are totted up, chances are there will have been around two hundred billion people to have lived and died on this miserable rock. But we’re still in the middle of a population explosion; we’re eating into that remaining one hundred billion faster than we’ve ever done before. The future of humanity will be much, much shorter than its past.

The simplest thing would be to kill you. Yes, I know, you didn’t ask for any of this – but the inevitable extinction of humanity is still entirely your fault, and it would still be pretty satisfying to make you suffer for it. But it’s too late now, your damage is already done. You doomed us all the moment you entered the world. The only thing you can really do is make sure that the life you’re living is worth the mass extinction it’s caused. It’s an impossible task, but you can try. Except you’re not even trying, are you? Life is short, and finite, and Avengers: Endgame is three goddamn hours long, and you watched it. You paid money to sit in a darkened room and eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola while you watched Captain America travel into the past to knock himself unconscious and leer at his own ass, as if he’s about to pull down his own trousers and start fucking it. And now you’re reading a review of the same film, and every second that passes is lost forever. What the hell is wrong with you? How can you bear to look at yourself in the mirror? How do you sleep at night? Aren’t you ashamed of what you’ve done?

* * *

Look: I don’t understand the world, and even as a cultural critic, I’m ok with that. I don’t know why kids keep saying things like ‘yeet’ and ‘mood.’ I’m fine not knowing. The answer will end up being something horrible, mass lead poisoning maybe; I don’t want to find out. I don’t know why I’m haunted by intermittent intrusive visions of someone taking a disposable razor, sticking it in their mouth, and ‘shaving’ their gums. I don’t know why Americans who claim to be socialists are putting so much demented effort into opposing a less monstrous and cruel healthcare system. And I don’t really understand why people like the Avengers films; I have a theory, but I don’t really ‘get’ it. This is also fine. Not everyone will like the same things I like; it would be a terrible world if they did. What bothers me is the fact that the last two Avengers films also received near-universal critical acclaim, from people whose sole task on this earth it is to watch films and discern the good ones from the bad. These same people are basically united in the opinion that the DC comic book films are stupid, portentous, and ungainly, that their plots make no sense, that they keep hamfistedly telling us to care about fundamentally hollow characters, and that their over-long and terrifyingly expensive action sequences resolve into noisy tedium. But they like these ones. Why? What is it that’s crawled into their brains? Is there any way of getting it out again, or will we just have to line up every overgrown fanboy in every pivoted-to-online legacy publication in front of a ditch, and do what must be done?

These films are terrible. They’re not just bad in comparison to Tarkovsky or Bergman, bad in the way that all commmodity-culture is fundamentally bad. They’re bad as dumb action films. They fail to even meet the requirements of the genre. You are being pandered to and patronised. Why do you not want revenge?

In a New Yorker review, Richard Brody proposes that Avengers: Endgame could have been better if it spent more time delving into the characters and their emotions, if it dealt more seriously with the theme of loss. This is a terrible idea; he wants to turn the film with a giant blue alien into another tedious Hampstead novel. Instead, imagine taking a moderately bright and imaginative twelve-year-old boy and telling him you have a basically infinite budget to produce two films, which you want him to write. The films have to concern the Plot Emeralds, which were created alongside the universe itself, and contain the terrifying potencies of its six aspects: Space, Time, Mind, Soul, Reality, and Power. In the first film, a big purple villain manages to acquire all six IndecipheraBalls, and uses them to commit an act of cataclysmic evil. In the second, the bedraggled heroes band together and travel back in time to get the Sempiternal Zirconias back, and undo the damage he’s done. What kind of story would a twelve-year-old write? Probably, at a guess, one in which the narrative potential of these Chaos Crystals is actually explored. Space is spliced, cloned, distorted: the universe folds into terrifying new shapes, organic monstrosities unfurl from inorganic matter, the stars are dandruff, pebbles are planets, everything is a distortion of everything else. Time twists into loops and paradoxes; laser battles in medieval castles, Stone Age shamans hurling spears between distant suns. In the chaos, inert objects are ensouled and living creatures become mindless automatons; dreams blur with reality, unreal logics are set loose on the world, and our heroes have to battle in a universe turned to vapour.  For all the inevitable high-concept manoeuvres, it would probably be quite dumb. But at least it would be fun.

This is not what we get. The stones are barely used in either film. In the first, Thanos attaches them to a big glove and snaps his fingers: half of all living creatures suddenly die. In the second, the Hulk does the exact same thing, and everyone who died comes back. That’s basically it. What a waste! The real focus is always on the crossover aspect, the fact that every character from every Marvel film is here, together. Instead of the creative potentials of a twelve-year-old, these films are pitched towards the level of someone of around six. A child playing with the tie-in action figures, recombining the characters: what if Iron Man met Nebula? What if Star Lord teamed up with Thor? If the Bog-Hole fought Pencil-Guy, who would win? Five and a half cumulative hours of a media franchise showing us its various copyright properties, all in their original packaging. Let me be mawkish and hysterical for a moment. Is this the kind of imaginative model we want to pass on to our children? Are these the dreams we want them to dream? Is this sordid petty rearrangement all that they have left?

Superhero narratives have a fairly obvious social role. People are boring and frustrated; they’d like to be more than they are, but everyone is still somehow less than themselves. You can feel your existence fraying away at its fringes. Whatever life should have been, it isn’t this: not plasterboard bureaucracies staffed by people with irritating vocal tics; not slow-withering marriages, hair falling out, cartilage wearing thin, dreams unfulfilled, places unseen, books unwritten and unread; not Netflix automatically queuing up the next episode; not this couch, this rough fabric, this laundry, this potted plant, this foetid darkness of 11.26 pm on a Saturday night, this screen, this single life in a planet of seven billion lives, this life that will not be remembered, that will vanish without a trace into the ooze of unbeing, that will end having gone unlived, full of regret, emptying its nothing into the nothing that ever was and shall ever be. But this is what you get. So you have superheroes, people who live in the not-this. They can fly: where would you go, if you could fly? They can turn invisible or stop time: what hideous crimes would you commit, if you could turn invisible or stop time? They can beat anyone in a fight: how would you live, if you weren’t so afraid? And they have secret identities, because this freedom could belong to anyone, maybe even you.

The social function of a superhero story is to work through all these possibilities, to leave the audience with some of the libidinal payoffs that come with a brief excursion to the not-this, exhausted but satisfied, ready to go back to work. In Minima Moralia, Adorno complains that under conditions of domination, happiness is reduced to tawdry pleasure: one ‘has no choice but to find inspiration in the trashy film, the expensive but bad meal at the French restaurant, the serious “drink” and sexuality reduced to doses of “sex.”‘ The classic superhero story stands in the same relation to actual liberation as sex does to sexuality. But clearly, we’re no longer in that era. It’s got much, much worse. Another layer of ersatzification has formed over our enjoyments. That vague sense of the not-this has been hardened and crystallised into the hermetic detachability of a cinematic universe, in the same way that the vastness of love and sexuality became the healthy energetic pleasures of sex, and then contracted further into porn: rigid and isolated, infinitely distant from the actual act. The vision of another existence no longer needs to explore the unfolding of human potentials. It can just as easily be maintained in their annihilation. After all, these characters are dealing with the fundamental forces of the universe, but they’re absurdly under-powered. One of them is a superhero by dint of being good at archery. Not that it matters. A made-up world where meaningless heroes fight meaningless monsters with meaningless names.

It works. You love it. It takes you out of yourself for a moment. It’s like you’re already dead.

* * *

Thanos is a Malthusian, but he doesn’t appear to have any books on his big spaceship of doom, so we’ll have to assume that he’s never actually read Malthus. This has to be the case, otherwise he would never have thought that exterminating one-half of the living population of the universe would make things any better. Too many people, he says, not enough to go round – but he’s forgotten that the number of people will still continue to grow, and it’ll grow faster if there are more resources available. So he snaps his fingers, and returns the Earth’s population to what it was in the year 1973, when we had no problems whatsoever.

1973, as it happens, was the year of the economic crisis that put an end to the era of social-democratic expansion in the First World. In its wake, we got the beginnings of neoliberalism, the financialisation of the economy, the replacement of common ownership with cheap credit. This new system met its own major crisis with the economic collapse of 2008. That was also the year that Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released.

And this is supposed to be a coincidence?

* * *

It’s maybe not entirely true that there’s no element of wish-fulfilment fantasy in Avengers: Endgame. The heroes don’t maintain secret identities while performing exhilarating feats in their spare time, but they do go back into the past, correct their mistakes, and resurrect the loved ones that they’ve lost. This fantasy has a decent pedigree, right back to Gilgamesh and Orpheus. And I get it: when tragedy has struck in my own life, there’s always been an irrational part of my mind that’s told me this isn’t real, you can go back, you can undo it all. I’d like to undo it all. I’d like to go back and tell that first cell not to split, avoid all the trauma of differentiation, let life in its entirety persist in a singular eternal prokaryotic bliss. It can’t be done, which is why I’m a melancholic, constantly splitting and doubling my ego, introducing new traumas and breaks, to preserve all the objects that were lost. But it’s nice to see someone manage to do it onscreen.

Except – what is this underworld that we enter to resurrect the dead? Here, it’s the past, but a specific past: they go back into the previous Avengers films. We get to see the big scaly monsters from the first instalment invade New York again, only this time our heroes are standing around wryly commenting on the action, rather than participating in it. We’re watching Thor again, and the first moments of Guardians of the Galaxy. The stakes have vanished; it’s been doubled into farce. And this is happening everywhere. Sequels and reboots aren’t enough; now the Hollywood nostalgia-machine is umping out simple recapitulation, serving up the exact same warmed-over pap that we’ve already seen. One of the new Star Wars films overlaps directly with the first trilogy, with the help of a CGI Carrie Fisher. A decent chunk of 2015’s Terminator Genisys takes place within the action of the 1984 original. In Jurassic World, one of the more interesting examples, the sequel itself appears within the film as a ravenous and unholy monster cooked up by mercurial executives, which tramples all over Spielberg’s legacy before finally being taken down by the iconic tyrannosaur. What is going on?

Theory is comfortable with self-reference, but this is something else. The classical poststructuralist metaphysics of inscription constrains its institution of difference within a horizon of ineradicability. Writing institutes a relation to death precisely because, unlike the vocal utterance, it survives its author, whose death and absence ‘belongs to the structure of all writing.’ Omar Khayyam had it: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’ In Derrida, writing is figured as a negative space, a break or chasm in matter: track or footprint, chisel to stone, fissuring neurones. It is also indifferent to its substrate; without writing, the lithographic ‘slate’ is in a state of ‘virginity’ – but further, writing must ‘produce the space and materiality of the sheet itself.’ This notion is articulated in his essay Freud and the Scene of Writing, itself a reading of Freud’s Notiz über den Wunderblock. Here he compares the function of the perceptual system to a children’s toy, the Mystic Writing Pad, consisting of a clear plastic sheet pressed against a block of wax. By making marks with a stylus on the plastic sheet, you can record words and images; lift the sheet away, and the surface is cleared. But even though these traces are no longer visible, they are retained, imperceptibly, within the wax. The analogy is not perfect: Freud notes that to function like the mind, it would have to be possible for the wax to recall and make use of marks that had already been withdrawn from the surface, to bring them back again after they’d been erased. ‘It would be a mystic pad indeed if it could accomplish that.’ Here, in the twenty-first century, we can recognise what he’d done. In 1925, Sigmund Freud invented the computer.

You are reading this review of Avengers: Endgame sequentially, from the beginning to the end, maybe skipping over the boring bits, maybe giving up halfway through, but treating it as what it is: a written block of linear time. But I wrote it on a computer, and as I wrote it I continually went back, changing things, fixing things, dipping in and out of linear time at will – because I badly need an editor, but I’m doing my best. In Paper Machine, Derrida gives some thought to the potentials of word processing. ‘With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go on revising forever.’ But the operative word here is rapid: throughout, he conceives of digital writing as an acceleration of existing processes. Before the computer, actions were ‘slow, heavy, and sometimes off-putting,’ now, ‘the word processor saves an amazing amount of time.’ It’s ‘a question of speed and rhythm,’ differing velocities on the same course. But digital text abolishes the sequential ‘now’ of writing; there is no speed and there is no course, only an endless folding and complication, potentially interminable revisions, a text that is endlessly going back and fixing itself, reanimating its own corpse.

The desire to bring back the dead, to re-present the impressions that have been wiped clean – this isn’t Orpheus, because Orpheus had to go elsewhere, into the underworld, into the future, to smooth over the gaps in the world. In Avengers: Endgame, the journey is into the past, into itself, into the existing body of text, pulling out a section, pasting it into the roving present. It’s the dream the computers have dreamed for us. And this dream is incapable of computing finality. (Even after I publish this review, if I find a typo I can stick my hands back into the thing and fix it.) But the world itself is only a final and oncoming horizon. Is it any wonder, then, that we seem to be so incapable of dealing with something like climate change, stuck in our endlessly editable fantasia? Is it any wonder that you’re wasting your life watching Avengers: Endgame and reading reviews of Avengers: Endgame, even while the circle of light that surrounds you is narrowing, and the blackness tightens closer to crush you through your skin?

At a showing of Avengers: Endgame in Fullerton, California, an entire film-going audience was unwittingly exposed to measles. The measles virus, of course, works by sticking its glycoproteins into a host cell, and editing the cell’s DNA to produce more viruses. It causes around one hundred thousand deaths a year. More meat for the past; a slow swelling in the ranks of the one hundred billion who brought us here, to this moment, to this film, to you. Can you really pretend that it isn’t your fault?

Scenes from the Žižek-Peterson debate

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[Applause. SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK and JORDAN PETERSON are standing in a big cauldron, tied together back-to-back, before an audience of CANNIBALS from a racist 19th century cartoon. The CHIEF CANNIBAL, or at least the one with the largest bone through his nose, prances around the cauldron, humming an obscure tune and freezing at regular intervals to hiss and violently shake a long staff at the two debaters. He is the moderator. Once this ritual is complete, he gives the cauldron a good sharp kick, and it rings satisfyingly. The AUDIENCE squats. They spit betel juice into the damp earth. We are ready to begin.]

MODERATOR: Thank you, thank you all. I’d like to start by acknowledging that we are on the ancestral lands of the earthworms, who funnelled the soil through their bodies before we walked upon it, and who will eat us when we die.

[Applause.]

MODERATOR: So: we have something of a treat for you tonight – two of the most prolific and controversial scholars in the humanities, Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson, finally coming head to head, here to debate the motion ‘For God’s sake, not me, don’t eat me, eat him.’ Arguing for the motion is Professor Žižek. Slavoj Žižek is the author of over eight thousand books, some of which are slightly different. Stunning in its breadth and fluency, his work has touched on Lacan, Hegel, Marx, what would happen if they were cold pockets instead of hot pockets, what the deal is with airline food, and whether or not we deserve doggos. Among his roster of impressive academic titles, he is Global Distinguished Professor at NYU’s College of Dentistry, Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis at the European Graduate Dental School, International Director at Birkbeck Dental Institute, and a Senior Researcher at the Department of Dental Diseases and Endodontics at the University of Ljubljana.

[ŽIŽEK hacks up what appears to be a small quantity of frogspawn onto his shirt.]

MODERATOR: Arguing against the motion, we’re very lucky to have Dr Peterson, who shot to fame after he filmed himself eating dog turds to prevent Islam. He’s received further notoriety for his self-help book Crying Yourself to Dignity, sleeps surrounded by Soviet propaganda for apparently non-sexual reasons, and is currently serving on the editorial review board for a twelve-year-old’s Disney blog. The debate will work like this. Each participant will have ten minutes to make an opening statement, which will be followed by three minutes for rebuttals, before we open it up to the audience, who will be able to ask questions and then eat one of the debaters. Professor Žižek, you’re arguing for the motion, so if you’d like to start?

[Applause. PETERSON rolls his eyes.]

ŽIŽEK: Thank you, thank you, no, no, thank you.

[He does his bit about Stalin clapping for himself.]

ŽIŽEK: I’m very glad to be here, my God, in this pot, to be cooked and eaten and so on and so on. In this situation, I am reminded of one of my beloved Radio Yerevan jokes from Soviet Union. You will see, I have a very vulgar sense of humour.

[Indescribable throat noises.]

ŽIŽEK: So the listener asks, is it true that Marx, Engels, and Lenin were stealing the wheelbarrows? And Radio Yerevan replies, in principle yes, but with three corrections. First, it wasn’t Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but you, second, you weren’t stealing them but being gifted them, and third, they weren’t wheelbarrows, but a pair of testicles hanging underneath your chin. I claim, is this not our situation today? I like this joke in that it repeats itself. You will see what I mean. First you have the heroes of the grand socialism of twentieth century, my God, in reality it is only yourself, the politics of the self. The act of stealing the wheelbarrows, in which we see labour activism, fighting your bosses, insurrection, all that bullshit: they are not what is taken, but precisely that which is given to us by power. You know, I was at Occupy, but now I have no time for these things, it is precisely the form prescribed by capitalism. It is as Jacques Lacan said to the revolutionary students in Paris ’68 – as hysterics, what you want is a new master.

[He does his bit about perverse fantasy vs. hysterical questioning.] 

ŽIŽEK: But see what is happening in this joke! Here I agree with my good friend Alain Badiou – the testicles are the least shameful area of the body, precisely because they belong to the part of the Real; there is no testicular enjoyment, testicular desire, and so on, and so on. They constitute the remainder, the third term that destabilises the system, it is here that the truth of the system will be found. In the whole of Freud, he refers to the testicles only twelve times, and the penis, you know, on every page he has the penis, if you look. But do you know this, Freud’s first research as a physician was to try to find the testicles of an eel by, how do you say in English, disekcija, cutting up hundreds of eels to find their balls. You do not need me to finish the joke, you are good Lacanians: he did not find them. The eels, they are very postmodern, very LGBT-plus, they do not grow the balls until mating season comes, eel gets horny, and they appear.

[He does his bit about the Hegelian implications of ‘being a plus’ in LGBT+.]

ŽIŽEK: Now Freud says in his letters, he writes: I cannot find these testicles, all the specimens must therefore be female, das schönere Geschlecht. In this, I claim, we find the model of the entire theory of castration complex. It is not, as the postmodern feminists will tell you, that Freud can only see woman as a mutilated man. No! The true history of Freudian psychoanalysis is the history of a fruitless search precisely for the mutilation, for testicles within the, sorry to be vulgar, the impenetrable feminine-phallic body of the eel. But what is it when the testicles appear underneath the chin? Just as what was taken is in fact a gift, now the Real we try to encounter in revolution becomes this grotesque ornament. Here I am a pessimist. It is not that mystical bullshit, the answers will always elude us, we have limited intellect, truth is outside our grasp, and so on and so on. No! The answers are literally under our noses, but they are only a pair of testicles, they will not satisfy you. But I see from our moderator that I am running out of time talking about the testicles on his chin, ok, so enough stupid jokes, I will address the question. You know, my critics will tell me that as a Communist I should not be arguing for this motion, that I should take the militant posture, sacrifice my life, heroically demand that I be eaten instead of Dr Peterson, and so on and so on. But here I claim that in this stance we do not see the testicles on the groin, the proper functioning of things, but precisely the testicles on the face. The renunciation of desire is in itself a perversion, because there is no ordinary operation of things in which the testicles that have no proper place are in their proper place.

MODERATOR: Slavoj Žižek, thank you very much.

[He throws a bay leaf and some peppercorns into the cauldron.]

PETERSON: Well.

[He chuckles. A pause.]

PETERSON: I suppose I’m meant to respond to this, but I think my opponent’s made my case for me already. He claims I have a pair of testicles on my chin. I don’t. It simply isn’t true at all. I challenge you to find even one, let alone two. Clearly Professor Žižek doesn’t have the faintest bloody idea about basic human anatomy. It’s an absolutely dreadful lie, it’s a horrible thing for a distinguished professor to be teaching people, and it’s the kind of degeneration of civilised debate that happens when you allow this neo-Marxism to take over our universities. Professor Žižek is upholding an ideology that brutally murdered tens of millions of people, starved them in gulags, shot them in ditches, all because they held to the nonsense idea that people could have testicles on their chins. Totally contrary to biology, and when you come up against the laws of nature you need to be ready, man, because they will always win. I think the only sane solution is to just damn well eat him. Among certain species of amoeba, they performed a study, the amoebae will hold a debate on abstract concepts, and the losers are digested by the winners. And you see the same principle in the Bible, when Elijah holds an Parliamentary-style debate with the prophets of Baal and slaughters five hundred of them on a point of information. So you can complain, or call this injustice, but you have to accept that the most competent individual will always win, and elites are there for a reason.

[There’s a whine like escaping gas. Has the fire been lit? But the wood’s still dry; it’s just Jordan Peterson, thinking.]

PETERSON: Except academic elites, they don’t count.

[The CANNIBALS nod sagely and make hungry humming noises.]

PETERSON: There’s an important archetype you should know about here, and that’s the Devouring Mother. There’s the Devouring Mother in Babylonian myth, the monster Tiamat, and in some of the early Care Bears cartoons. And the Devouring Mother teaches you that if you’re not careful, the same things that created you are going to consume you, and that’s life, man. It goes to show that these behaviours have been with us for a long time. You can’t just throw out these traditions, you can’t go into a fantasy world where you pretend they don’t exist, unless they tell you to eat a varied diet of grains, pulses, fruits, and vegetables. So maybe if more discussions were run like this, and people understood that the consequences of falling into this kind of pernicious nonsense is that the nonsense is going to come and eat you, bucko, then we’d have a lot more caution and a much fairer debate on our college campuses.

MODERATOR: I should remind Dr Peterson that the motion today is ‘For God’s sake, not me, don’t eat me, eat him,’ and he’s agreed to argue against it.

[PETERSON bursts instantly into tears.]

PETERSON: No, I’m sorry. No, no, no, I don’t accept that premise in the least. There’s a basic principle of fair discussion, and that’s the equal and opposite nature of each side. That is foundational. I won’t debate on these terms.

[ŽIŽEK tries to interrupt with something about the dialectic, but the MODERATOR bonks him over the head with a ladle.]

PETERSON: You can’t have us both arguing that I should be the one that gets eaten. That’s entirely unjust. Look at what you’ve thrown away! Western civilisation is in ruins! We had trains that arrived on time, they had a computer to tell you when they’d be arriving to the minute – an honest-to-God miracle, something that would have astounded every one of our ancestors. A society that works – and they want to get rid of it! Look what happens when the SJWs get the upper hand! Cannibalism, gulags, Frozen, the total bloody collapse of meaning in people’s lives! This is how Marxism always ends! It’s got to the point now that they’re openly saying – and this is their argument, not mine – that they should kill and eat people if they don’t like their ideas!

[He’s bawling now. PETERSON strains against his bonds, and ŽIŽEK is also struggling, trying to scratch his nose with his elbow. Clearly, it’s all a joke to him; he’s worked out where he is. He wears a truly monstrous grin. Some of the CANNIBALS rush over to fan PETERSON ineffectually with large banana leaves, but the MODERATOR bares his teeth, filed into a row of serrated points, and they disperse. PETERSON appears to be finished – or, if he has more to say, it’s drowned by his sobs. Striking the cauldron again with his stick, the MODERATOR allows ŽIŽEK to make his rebuttal.]

ŽIŽEK: You know, I agree with everything my friend Dr Peterson says here. My God, it is a monstrosity that we must eat him, I oppose this utterly. But let me pick up on what he says here. Yes, I agree, we must defend the Western tradition, but is it not true that Marxism and postmodernism come precisely out of that tradition? I claim, look at where we are, in this pot, about to be eaten by naked cannibals: instead of the opposing term of Western humanism, is this not its own internal fantasy of the colonial other? So when Dr Peterson says that one tries to escape the contradictions of reality in a fantasy world, is not fantasy that which is precisely more real than the reality?

[His opponent doesn’t seem to hear him. He twitches, and tries to rock back and forth, but he’s immobilised by ŽIŽEK’s bulk.]

PETERSON: My testicles are normal. They’re not on my chin. They’re normal. I have normal balls.

[Finally, the Q&A begins – but nobody has a question. The SAVAGES all seem bored, listless; they’re not happy with the debate. Why these speakers, and this topic? It might make sense to have ŽIŽEK and PETERSON tussle, with Lacan and Jung, over the ashes of Freud. But who eats and who gets eaten is a political question, and these two are both uniquely inappropriate representatives of their putative politics. ŽIŽEK, who is simply too clever by half to repeat all the stale and earnest socialist talking points, who’d rather talk about the antinomies of the left than the evident evils of capitalism. PETERSON, who seems to think capitalism is as socially conservative as he is, who thinks he’s defending competence hierarchies rather than entropy itself, who doesn’t understand that he’s been riding his own chaos-dragon for his entire career. Still, there’s a group of GIRLS in grass skirts. They giggle and avert their eyes, and stutter over the words, until they each take a deep breath and chant their question in chorus.]

GIRLS: Daddy, does capitalism make us happy, or does it create a need in happiness? Daddy, does it fulfil the essential lack in being, or does it open up a void to be filled? Daddy, does happiness only ever belong to other people?

[Both ŽIŽEK and PETERSON attempt to answer at the same time.]

GIRLS: Daddy, please.

[ŽIŽEK releases a flurry of woodland animal noises, slurring over mutations of the word ‘precisely,’ emitting the phrase ‘petit a‘ in a sharp volley of spit. PETERSON complains, between sobs, that he’s not their daddy, and what would the girls’ real father think about how they’re using that word? At this, an ENORMOUS NAKED SAVAGE suddenly stands. A terrified silence. His vast, muscled body is covered in patterned scars, whorls of gleaming spider’s-web flesh all over his chest and back. He wears a long necklace beaded with human teeth. His balls are enormous, and not under his chin; one of his eyes is milky-white, the other only ferocious. A long spear in his hand, viciously barbed. When he opens his mouth the teeth are black and rotting, and the foulness of his breath wilts the long grasses. Is this the father? What could this monster possibly want?]

ENORMOUS NAKED SAVAGE: This isn’t really a question, more of a statement.

[He sits back down.]

ŽIŽEK: Yes. My God. I couldn’t agree more.

[A fire is lit under the cauldron. Rot and jungle surrounds the whooping in the camp, and the hills slope down to a warm and sparkling sea.]

In defence of lazy kneejerk contrarianism

I attack only causes that are victorious. I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.
Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

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Look, I’ve only read Less Than Zero and American Psycho, so maybe I’m wrong here. But it seems to me like Bret Easton Ellis, like every pornographer since de Sade, is a secret sentimentalist. He’s not a real nihilist, because there’s no such thing as a nihilist. He doesn’t believe that there are no values and nothing matters, because if he did, why show us rape and torture and apathy in particular? Like every crass contrarian, he doesn’t abolish value, he just inverts it; his books are apophatic morality tales. Not irony, just sarcasm. And sometimes, the mask slips. The protagonist in Less Than Zero plays at being dead inside, but really he’s still upset about his late grandmother. Still, in the time since 1985, Ellis seems to be getting better at disaffection, while everyone else is getting worse. See, for instance, his recent interview with Isaac Chotiner in the New Yorker.

The general media-class consensus seems to be that the interview was ‘brutal,’ ‘a murder,’ ‘asinine,’ etc, etc, etc. It’s definitely weird and frustrating to read. Does Ellis have anything interesting to say about the state of the world? It’s hard to say without actually reading his book, because all either Ellis or his interviewer wants to talk about is the fact that he doesn’t much care either way about Donald Trump. For the bulk of the interview, Chotiner brandishes the various terrible things Trump has said or done in front of Ellis, one by one – kids in cages, grab them by the pussy, Mexicans are rapists, decent folks in Charlottesville – and demands that Ellis start caring about them, like everyone else. And each time, Ellis shrugs. ‘I think the voice in the book is pretty chill and neutral.’ ‘Well, whatever.’ ‘I don’t really care.’ ‘I’m not really bothered by that one way or the other.’ ‘I think you are leading me into things I am not particularly that interested in.’ Ellis gets the last word. It’s been an interesting interview, he says. ‘The only problem, however, is that I am not that political, and so, when we have this conversation, and you confront me with certain things like this, I really am, I have to say, at a loss.’

And I’m at a loss too. Where’s the brutality? Where’s the murder? Where’s Ellis being gorily dismembered, like a victim in one of his books? All I can see are two people speaking entirely different languages to each other. And because the audience speak the same language as the New Yorker, and not the language of Ellis, they conclude that their language won.

Ellis is stuck in a different age. The Gen X era, the era of disaffection and OK Cola, the time in which caring too much about anything made you uncool. The twenty-first century is different. Frantic activity, desperate sloganeering. Being a good person means giving yourself brain damage about politics. He knows how it works. ‘Don’t you know anything about Sri Lanka? About how the Sikhs are killing like tons of Israelis out there?’ We’re in an upswing in the activism-vs-cynicism cycle that’s been churning since the 60s: we want pop stars to deliver bromides on anti–racism, we want fast food outlets to be our allies, we want everything in the world to be committed to progressive social change. In his introduction to the interview, Chotiner notes that the ‘materialism, misogyny, and amorality’ of Ellis’s characters ‘have persistently raised questions regarding the depth of his social critique.’ Because if a book is anything other than a profound social critique, why does it exist?

The activist posture has plenty of virtues, but when it becomes an enforced social norm, most of it will inevitably be deeply phony. Fake outrage, manufactured hysteria, culturally sanctioned radicalism, constantly caring about things as a narcissistic substitute for actually doing something about them. Chotiner’s complaint is precisely this: Ellis is refusing to move in lock-step with the times. He’s still stuck in that deeply passé 80s nihilism; it’s the horror of the cool confronted with unrepentant squareness. Why aren’t you freaking out every time Trump tweets something, just like everyone else?

And all this might have a little more weight, if it weren’t for the fact that the Mueller Report just came out, and told us all that the media class’s Trump obsession really was packed to the gills with deranged and obsessive fantasy. It might be easier to sympathise, if Libya weren’t in the news again, to remind a distracted public that our liberal heroes who care so much about things also engaged in the aerial destruction of an entire country, without a mote of outrage from almost anyone. It might be easier to laugh at Ellis for his apathy, if his apathy weren’t infinitely more honest than the frenzy that confronts it on all sides.

The 1990s were a vast battlefield in literature’s struggle for the soul of America. Ellis was on one side, with the forces of cruelty, nihilism, apathy, depthlessness, and despair. On the other side stood – because these things have to be balanced – another young writer with three names, David Foster Wallace. Where Ellis was cool, blank, hard, and indifferent, Wallace was warm. Dialogue in Ellis’s novels is lighter than air and always utterly impenetrable; it feels programmed, like the clattering of lifeless machines. Wallace is humble; he writes like he’s talking directly to you and you alone, in one of those deep long 4 am conversations with a well-loved friend, once you stop drinking wine and start drinking tea, where you can finally be honest, and give voice to the things that really worry you. In his celebrated essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, Wallace railed against the cruel ironism of his times, the cynicism of its sneer, the way it reduces everything potentially worthwhile to a nothing. Once, irony was useful: it was ‘a creative instantiation of deviance from bogus values’; it revealed the sordid phoniness that undergirded the straight-laced society of the past. But then irony itself, with its ‘blank, bored, too-wise expression’ became dominant. Wallace uses the example of a Pepsi advert, which dramatises the process of advertising, the stick being rattled in the swill-bucket, knowingly acknowledging that this is all a form of manipulation, but then encouraging you to drink Pepsi anyway. ‘The point of this successful bit of advertising is that Pepsi has been advertised successfully.’ This prompts a call for a New Sincerity, for the unashamed revival of ‘retrovalues like originality, depth and integrity,’ for a return to caring, deeply, vulnerably, about something.

And somewhere, a monkey’s paw twitches. Wallace’s side won, in a defeat so total that the last straggling survivors of irony and disaffection are simply no longer comprehensible to mainstream culture. Even the reactionaries, who play with the idea of nihilism, are basically frantic sincere activists: constantly fretting about white genocide or feminism ruining videogames or whatever else it is they keep caring about. And Ellis lost, even if he lived to see his defeat. What does a Pepsi advert look like now? It isn’t sneering, or cynical, or too-wise; it wants you to know that Pepsi cares. It looks like a Black Lives Matter protest – and when it fails, it fails for not being progressive enough, not being sincere enough, for not doing the Pepsi-Cola Corporation’s full duty to the revolution. Irony is fast becoming a term of abuse. We sneer at the sneerers, because it’s not cool to be too cool. We’re in the world David Foster Wallace built, and it’s a nightmare.

Unlike Ellis, I don’t hate David Foster Wallace. (His fiction is basically unreadably precious, but his essays are good.) I think there was an important value, in the irony-saturated 90s, of calling for a return to honesty and seriousness – even if I don’t actually agree. I think in the present moment, there’s a crucial need for irony, for a writing which explores the potential of possible positions without making a life-or-death stake out of everything, which engages with the infinite multiplicity of meaning and the world. Irony is not a distancing from the world, it’s a faithful attachment to the world in the fullness of its possibilities. (The opposite of irony, as Deleuze and Guattari understood, is not sincerity but paranoia, and ours is a deeply paranoid time.) After all, each term, activism and indifference, will inevitably contain its opposite. The coolness of Less Than Zero is a negative affirmation of sentimental values, the grim boosterism of mainstream culture is deeply cynical. This is why the highest achievable value, at any time, might be contrarianism. If radicalism is something other than a buzzword you can attach to commodities, if it means more than a narcissistic posture, then it means seeking out that which is heterogeneous to the world as it’s currently constituted. To declare for human values in a time of brattishness or indifference in a time of po-faced outrage is the lowest form of contrarianism, one which only speeds the dialectic along rather than breaking out of it. There are higher ironies; as everyone keeps saying, we need to do better. But it’s a start.

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