Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Why look at fire?

Some time in the twentieth century, the fires started to disappear. Gaston Bachelard was one of the first people to notice; in his magisterial The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he points out that ‘the chapters on fire in chemistry textbooks have become shorter and shorter. There are, indeed, a good many modern books on chemistry in which it is impossible to find any mention of flame or fire. Fire is no longer a reality for science.’ That was in 1938. In the pages that follow, he talks about his pride when tending to the fire in his stove every morning, or parents rapping their children’s knuckles when their hands stray too close to the hearth. A text from a different world, one in which people lived close to their fires, intimately, in relationships worth subjecting to psychoanalysis. How much time do you spend around open flames?

Sometimes I still smoke cigarettes, and there’s a gas hob in my flat, but all I’d need to do is switch to vaping and move somewhere with an electric stove, and fire would vanish almost entirely from my life. Open fires do not heat our homes, cook our food, or provide our entertainment. The only places they tend to survive are special occasions and religious rites. The presence of fire marks out particular moments from ordinary time. Candles for birthday cakes or romantic dinners; Diwali and Hanukkah. Years ago, when I was a student, we used to make bonfires in our overgrown nettle-strewn garden, burning sticks from the park and unwanted furniture left by the kerbside, slowly dismantling the landlord’s greenhouse and burning it piece by piece. But if one person had gone into the garden alone to make a fire and warm themselves with it, the rest of us would have started locking our doors at night. The fire was for sitting with each other, drinking and talking. It was a social ritual. It did not belong to the world of the profane.

Fire has almost vanished now. This does not mean that it’s gone. The machine I’m using to write these words is powered by a nationwide network of enormous fires that never go out, oil and gas burning under huge chimneys, set in blackened and grassless landscapes – but these fires are invisible. So are the big burning pools of petrol that power vehicles on the street. When fire appears again in the ordinary world, it’s always in the shape of a disaster or a god.

* * *

On November 7, 2018, a man walked into a country-themed bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and fired thirty rounds from a semi-automatic pistol into the crowd. Twelve were killed. Days later, the fires came. Mourners, gathering at community centres to stand vigil for the dead, found the sky clotting over. Ash rained over the town. Footage from inside the city shows the pink haze, fringes of grass hissing with smoke. From the surrounding hillsides, the fire is a giant squatting heavily over Thousand Oaks: a monster from a very old world, roaring up through the surface-sheen of the California exurbs. A journalist who’d been in town to cover the shooting and its aftermath commented of the flames: ‘I was entranced by both their beauty and their power.’ On the face of it, this is a very strange thing to say. Isn’t it almost insensitive? Already, the fires raging across the western United States had killed dozens of people, many more than the gunman at the Borderline Bar & Grill. She would never have dreamed of writing that there was an aesthetic grace in the act of mass murder, that she was somehow attracted or impressed by the killer, that her horror at the crime was tinged with awe. But fire is different.

This year, the California fires turned the sky orange over San Francisco. It looked like a fever dream: the skyscrapers with their white glowing windows against a city in Martian red; a world that had already ended without noticing. Another journalist described the scene. ‘People really don’t know what to do right now. Everyone on the Embarcadero is stopping to record the sky and chit chatting in a way I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic.’ I’d suggest that people did in fact know exactly what to do. When there is a fire, even if it’s the fires of Armageddon, you stop and look at it. You huddle with other people, and watch.

Fire is not simply one of the many things that are interesting to look at: plausibly, other things are interesting only insofar as they resemble fire. Digital screen displays, which grab so much of our attention: it’s not hard to work out why your gaze keeps drifting to the TV in the corner of a bar; it flickers, it glows. Birds in flight, or trees in the wind. The gaze of an animal: a live animal is always more interesting than a dead one, because there’s that invisible flutter behind the stillness of its eyes. Sometimes we call it a spark. And humans too. A beautiful person is a person who is, in some sense, on fire.

For me, at least, there’s a certain type of fire-image that’s hard to look away from. Probably the most famous version is the one above, from the Oregon wildfires of 2017. At the Beacon Rock Golf Course, a few players calmly finish their round. In the hills behind them, every tree is outlined in flames. The pictures of San Francisco bustling its way through the apocalypse are part of the same genre. But my favourite is from 2018: produce workers hunched over in the fields, still picking crops while the sky burns. There’s an obvious political resonance to these images: this is bourgeois indifference or the cruelty of the wage-relation; this climate change, the world burning while we look the other way. A diagram of our lives, moving furniture around in a house on fire. But I think the real fascination comes from somewhere else.

These images violate every rule of classical composition, starting with the law that the foreground in an image should always be brighter than the background. How do you light your little tableau when the mise-en-scène is burning? Wildfires makes a mockery of figure and ground; they always has the capacity to pour out from the edges of the image and breathe hot danger at the viewer. It’s the revenge of the setting, the unheeded pliable stuff of the world, against our system of objects. Its effect is not quite the same as the sublime. For both Burke and Kant, a canonical case of the sublime is a ship at sea, threatened by terrible stormy waves – but only for a viewer on land, who is himself safe from any peril. For someone on the boat, it’s simply peril. But fire abolishes that remove. However distant you are, it’s spreading.

There’s another kind of image that actively moves towards you as you approach. We love to look at fire because it is a mirror.

* * *

Traditionally, fire is not ours. It always comes from somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a gift; very often, it’s stolen. Prometheus descended from Olympus with a burning fennel-brush; Maui tore out the fingernails of fire from the goddess Mahuika. The God of Moses likes manifesting Himself in pillars of fire and burning bushes: ‘for the Lord your God is a consuming fire.’ The Israelites understood things very clearly. But what about the people for whom fire is brought by birds? In a Breton folk-narrative that survived well into the modern era, the wren steals the fire of heaven, but his wings are burned; he passes it on to the robin redbreast, whose chest is torched, and who passes it on again to the lark, who delivers it finally to the ground. Similar stories crop up across the world – the fire-bringer is variously a wren, a finch, a cockatoo, a crow, or a hawk. (And birds do actually carry fires: black kites have been observed clasping flaming sticks in their beaks, spreading fire in dry forests to flush out prey. Some people have been tempted to use this to argue that indigenous folklore encodes important scientific knowledge. This is euheremistic drivel. Don’t ever debase myth by dressing it up as data; myth is true in a far more important way. The truth of these stories is in the birds themselves: so firelike, trembling in quick feathers.)

In what might be the starkest version of the fire-origin story, fire is first stolen not from the gods or from heaven, but from women. A tradition among the Gaagudju of northern Australia, collected in 1930 by JG Frazer, holds that once only the women knew how to make fire; when the men returned to the camp after hunting, the women would gather up the burning ashes and hide them in their vaginas. In revenge, the men turned themselves into crocodiles and killed the women. ‘When all was over, the crocodile-men dragged the dead women out on the bank, and said to them, “Get up, go. Why did you tell us lies about the fire? But the dead women made no reply.’ They didn’t realise what they had done. Innocent reptiles, who understood none of the things that come from fire: warmth, and light, and knowledge, and death.

(Freud, who may or may not have been aware of this story, tells a similar myth. Human civilisation was only possible once men could restrain themselves from urinating all over any fire they encountered in homoerotic glee. Women, whose ‘anatomy makes it impossible for [them] to yield to such a temptation,’ might have got there first. A faint image emerges of women frustrated for thousands of years, constantly discovering fire, drawing themselves to the precipice of a long steep slide into advanced technological civilisation – only for the men of the tribe to arrive, honking and hollering, extinguishing the germ of all future society with joyful streams of piss.)

It’s with the emergence of philosophy that fire lost its secret history. Heraclitus declared that the universe was ‘made neither by God nor man, but it ever was and is, and will be, an ever-living fire’ – but Thales said the same for water, and Anaximenes for air. What’s interesting is that nobody ever proposed that earth might be the arche, or the fundamental substance of reality. The earth is always this particular piece of earth, granulated, strewn with rocks and bones; a silent archive of all the wrongs that have been done to it, shelved away in its sedimentary layers. It carries the dead weight of its history. Fire, meanwhile, takes no impressions. ‘All things are an exchange for fire,’ writes Heraclitus, ‘and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.’

This is an interesting comparison. It took Marx to really burrow into the universality of gold, to dig beneath the blank face of the money-form and see what hidden histories of suffering it contained. We could do the same with fire. As it turns out, the Bretons and the Gaagudju were right, and Heraclitus was wrong. Fire does have a history; it is, like us, contingent. We can say precisely when fire entered the world: it came to us in the year 470,000,000 BC.

* * *

In biology lessons, as a child, I was taught the properties of living things: movement, respiration, reproduction, excretion, and so on. It was stressed that all of these criteria must be met before you reach the magical status of life. Viruses adapt and reproduce, but they are not themselves living organisms. And fire, too, does so many of the same things that we do. It breathes in air and eats up fuel; it splits and spreads, and leaves ashes in its wake. But fire is not alive, it’s only a chemical reaction. (Well, so am I.) And that was that: I never wondered why it was that fire sprung out of a dead world and licked so close to life. The answer ought to have been obvious. The things that burn are, almost exclusively, organic materials: grass and wood; flesh and fat. (There are exceptions; flammable organic materials like methane can be produced by abiotic processes. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has glorious swirling methane seas, and Titan is lifeless – at least, as far as we know. But Titan also has no oxygen in its atmosphere. Those seas roil in the distant sunlight, but they’ll never burn.)

Before the emergence of living terrestrial organisms under an oxygen-rich sky, there was no fire. The slow crawl of molten rock down barren volcanoes, the diamond-spray of magma as asteroids collided with a liquid slag-heap earth, the distant nuclear reactors in the stars, but nothing that could be called a flame. Fire is the bright twin of terrestrial life. It’s been here as long as life has, exactly as long as we have. Maybe we have things the wrong way round. Maybe life is not a particularly important phenomenon in the universe; maybe it’s just the placenta, a self-replenishing stock of fuel, the egg-sac for a world birthing fire.

But humanity is a special case. Bernard Stiegler suggested that technics are a system in which human beings serve as the genital organs in an evolution of the inorganic; we are the reproductive system for our ever-changing tools. But for Stiegler – despite all his Promethean references – the paradigm of epiphylogenesis is in flint-knapping; tools of stone. ‘One must first ask what mirage of the cortex is experienced as pathbreaking, in the hardness of flint; what plasticity of grey matter corresponds to the flake of mineral matter.’ But fire fits his schema far more efficiently. By disguising itself as a technical instrument for human use, fire unconstrained itself. Tens of thousands of years ago, forests that would once burn and regrow and eventually burn again, returning the nutrients locked in trees to the soil, were burned for the last time; early humans used fire liberally to permanently clear the forests, creating wide grasslands in which to hunt. Tens of millions of years ago, intact forests were fossilised; now, we dig through the geological strata of the earth, tearing out vast quantities of coal and oil, to meet the fire they escaped the first time round. The distant past is burning, the future fills with smoke. If the movements and stasis of history make us feel anxious, unmoored, neurotic, it’s because we are simply a time machine for the flames.

As Stiegler argues, this relationship is based on a mutual constitution. Our australopithecine ancestors had a long digestive tract; ours are significantly shorter. This is because we evolved eating cooked food: when proteins and starches are broken down by heat, they can be digested much more efficiently.  Parasites and pathogens are killed by cooking, and humans have weaker immune systems than our ape relatives. It’s possible that the ability to cook unlocked significant energetic surpluses, with the shrinkage of the energy-intensive gut allowing for the costly development elsewhere. For instance, a bigger brain. The much-hyped human consciousness might, in the end, just be the residue of fire, a lump of charcoal left smouldering in our DNA.

What we’re not born with is any hardwired instinct for rubbing bits of wood together until there’s a spark. ‘Lay the secret on me,’ King Louis demands, ‘of man’s red fire.’ But Mowgli doesn’t know the secret; all he has is an alimentary canal that’s incomplete, that needs to be plugged in to an external, cultural machine. You need technics, language, science, and traditions. There is no pristine originary pre-cultural state of nature in our history. Instead, if you want to see where nature meets culture, if you want to see your origin and your future and yourself, then look into the flames.

The company of geese

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The first animal that ever made a person happy simply by existing was a goose.

In book XIX of the Odyssey, Penelope makes a small confession to the stranger that’s come to her house. ‘I keep a flock of twenty geese here,’ she tells him. ‘They come in from the pond to pick up their grain and I delight in watching them.’ As far as I can tell, this is the first time in literature that an animal is honoured not for being beautiful, or loyal, or strong, but for the sheer pleasure you get from seeing another living creature going about its day.[1] Penelope’s days are not happy. She’s spent twenty years waiting for something to happen, and nothing does. Every time we meet her, she’s either on the point of bursting into tears or curling into a depressive sleep.  She doesn’t get any joy from her palace, or her treasures, or even her son. She suffers. But watching her geese, just sitting idly and looking at them as they come in from the pond, gives her delight. 

It’s weird to feel such a kinship with someone who lived three thousand years ago, and who didn’t even exist to boot – but I get it. Whatever your miseries, it’s delightful to be around geese.

For months now the weather’s been balmy and the pubs have been shut; I’ve been spending a lot of time around geese. Like a somewhat thinner Tony Soprano, with marginally more hair, in the middle of a catastrophe, getting sentimental about waterfowl. In Regent’s Park, my favourite are a family of Egyptian geese that’s taken to lazing around near the Hanover Gate. The goslings are nearly grown now – only a few scruffs of down around their necks, their bodies breaking out in dappled ochre – but they still like to huddle close to each other, and they still sing in delicate cheeps. Further along the lake, Canada geese honk and plod out of the water in big genial gangs. There are a few greylags too, with their handsome dented faces. They seem to breed later; their goslings are still tiny and yellowish, little marzipan figurines.

I find geese beautiful. But I have no illusions. These are supremely ridiculous birds, and they know it. Their big, heavy, jellied walk on splayed and silly feet. The way they wag their stumpy tails. The constant laughter of their honks. The grand implausibility of their flight. Geese are slapstick creatures. They’re perfectly capable of being graceful, when they want to: watch them preen their feathers, see how that long neck dips and glides. When they dive to snatch something underwater, it’s with oiled precision; when they fly high overhead, it’s in a perfect V. But most of the time, they choose not to care. Geese are ironical birds, always mocking themselves. It’s there in the eyes, the most expressive eyes of any bird. I know some chickens, emotionally complex and surprisingly playful animals, but a chicken looks at you through hard-rimmed jewels. The eyes of a goose, on the other hand, are black and very deep. They will meet your gaze, and it’s impossible not to know that something is in there, inquisitive and alive, looking out at you. The gleam of a primordial chuckle at the world.

But sometimes, when it’s grazing, or drinking, or in a confrontation, a goose will walk with its shoulders hunched and its neck stretched out straight, held parallel to the ground. You know this stance. You’ve seen it huge, in bones, at the museum. Make no mistake, this thing is a dinosaur. Other birds never let you forget their ancestry. Ted Hughes saw it: ‘Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, more coiled steel than living…’ The lizard shines through in tilted heads and predatory stabs. With geese it works the other way. What are we missing, when we reassemble all those enormous bones? When we draw dinosaurs, we give them monstrous skeletal grins – but we lose the way they might have skittered over the water, their happy waddle, and the laughter of their song.

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Birds have always been signs and portents; the ancient Greeks had the same word, ὄρνις, for bird and omen. Hence Aristophanes: ‘A word can be a bird for you.’ In prophecy or poetry, all language leaps to flight; it becomes avian. ‘Turn your minds to our words, our ethereal words, for the words of birds last forever!’ (In the same play, we’re reminded that the birds are ‘older far than Kronos and the Titans, and even Earth;’ the true gods and kings of creation.) Geese, too, are symbols; Penelope’s geese appear in a prophetic dream. Like all good symbols, they’re contradictory. First, geese stand for loyalty. They mate for life, and raise their young together. Pairs dance together when they reunite. They return to the same nesting grounds. They mourn when an egg or a gosling is lost; if one partner dies, the widow is inconsolable. Konrad Lorenz, who virtually founded the discipline of ethology – the study of animal behaviour – on his studies with geese, writes that ‘a greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms described in young human children… the eyes sink deep in their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang.’ Lonely poets have always seen themselves mirrored in the mourning goose. Du Fu’s The Solitary Goose, written during the Tang Era: 谁联一片影, 相失万重云 – or, in Burton Watson’s translation, ‘Who pities his lonely form, lost from the others in ten-thousand-layered clouds?’ But geese strive to help their lonely. If a goose is tired or injured during flight, a few others from the flock will drop out of formation with it and stand guard until it’s recovered. And at the same time, geese also represent transience. They migrate: these heavy, fickle birds brighten the world for a season, and then the leaves change and they’re gone.

Geese don’t just signify; they also talk to us, specifically to us. Studies have shown that humans are capable of understanding geese signals intuitively, without any special knowledge of the animals. You can tell, without even thinking, when a goose is honking contentedly, when it’s searching for something, when it’s warning you away, or when it’s raising the alarm. Their sadness is bodily, viscerally the same as ours. So is their dancing, clucking, foot-stomping joy. The only other animal that shares so much of our semiotic space is a dog, and dogs are our own creations. And geese sometimes have the upper hand. In 390 BC, when an army of Gauls scaled the Capitoline Hill, the guard dogs slept, but the Romans were warned by the clamour of Juno’s sacred geese. Their ability to pass on meaningful messages has been understood for a very long time. It’s why geese are still used as guard animals today.

Like dogs, geese understand our language. They can learn their own names; flying geese will come to land if you call out for them. Even wild geese will quickly come to recognise individual humans, and can form strong friendships with us. But they also include us in their own speech. If you try to miaow at a cat, you’ll only get a blank look in return; cats have developed a one-way signalling system for humans. It’s not a medium of conversation, it’s a way of getting what they want. But geese want to chat. They know we can understand them. When they graze in groups, geese make soft reassuring noises to each other, in a complex social call and response – and when humans imitate their noises, they respond.

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In all their relations with humans, geese start with an assumption of equality. These are profoundly democratic birds. They certainly have nothing like a pecking order, and their monogamy guards against harems, dominance displays, or the greasy pole of hierarchy. (It’s not that these things don’t exist in geese, but they’re far less significant in their social behaviour than in other gregarious animals – like seals, for instance, or ourselves.) But this is not the same as being docile. A goose will calmly stand its ground against much larger animals. This extends to humans too. A few high-profile pecks and a defamatory video game have given geese a reputation for aggression, even malice, which is entirely undeserved. They don’t dislike us; nothing could be further from the truth. They’re simply not afraid of us. (Foxes, which I also admire, are the same. If you catch a fox loping across the road late a night, it will usually slow down, pause to study you with a slow, deft, mocking glance.) Lying down in the park, I once felt a slight tap on my head, and looked up to find a herd munching grass around me. If they trust you, they’ll even let you hang out with their goslings. These creatures are equally at home on land, on the water, and in the air: all of creation is theirs; they can slip from one realm to another whenever they choose. An animal with such majestic sovereignty can afford to be gentle, and unflappable, and brave.

Geese are territorial. They know which patches of land have been set aside by other geese, and also which territories are claimed by humans. If you see a group of geese genially and noisily going where they’re not supposed to be, it’s not because they don’t understand; they’re contesting our claim. This is more a game than an invasion; geese have a good ironic attitude towards the institution of private property. Anywhere that isn’t physically occupied is assumed to be up for grabs – and then the geese await our response. As always, they’d like to talk to us, to engage with us, because they believe they can. Sometimes we can annoy them, and sometimes we need a good sharp peck to keep the peace, but for the most part we’re good-natured, gregarious, and faintly silly animals, with occasional glints of intelligence, waddling lopsidedly over the earth.

We would be a far better species, and this would be a far better world, if we were more like the creatures the geese think we are.

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(All goose photos mine.)

Notes

[1] Yes, fine, sure, there’s Hyperion and his cattle, ‘the cattle that gave me such joy every day as I climbed the starry sky and as I dropped down from heaven and sank once more to earth.‘ But the Sun is a god, not a human being, and a purely sensory pleasure in the natural world has always been the prerogative of the sovereign gods. ‘He saw it and it was good.’ For the sailors, these cattle either have utilitarian value as food, or else they’re sacred, in the sense of being forbidden. Men and their stomachs.  Homer likes to describe Odysseus and Telemachus with the epithet θεοειδής, godlike, but in fact it’s Penelope who, in a quiet moment with her geese, touches the divine.

White skin, black squares

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Can you get rid of racism just by protesting against it?

Yes. Yes you can, absolutely, yes.

We know exactly how to reduce racist sentiment in people. It’s actually very simple. You don’t need any seminars, or handbooks, or reading lists, or even all that much introspection. There really is just one weird trick, and it’s this: racial animus goes down when people from different backgrounds stand together, work together, and fight together, on an equal footing, in their shared interest, and for a common goal. Once this happens, it becomes impossible to see the other person as only an instantiation of their race, something abstract and empty of determinate content. Once the practice of solidarity is established, it’s much harder for dehumanising ideas to take root. Obviously the process is uneven, and sometimes it only goes part way; you should never underestimate our capacity for hypocrisy. But it works.

This is why I’m quite hopeful about the ongoing protest movement in response to the police murder of George Floyd. Despite all the usual dangers of hope; despite the attempts at corporate hijack, despite the horizontalism, despite the grifters. From what I can see – and with the caveat that I’m not in America, and I can’t see everything – the protests seem to be strikingly racially desegregated. A lot of people from very different backgrounds have been brought together by their shared revulsion. They saw the state snuff out a man’s life, suffocate him to death on the concrete, laughing, sadistic – and said enough. Black lives matter, no more deaths. Without knowing exactly what to do or how to end this, they met each other in the streets. I can’t say what the long-term political impact will be, but this is how new collective subjects are formed.

So what am I supposed to make of something like this?

This is the time for white people and non-black POC to look at themselves in the mirror, take a hard look, and realise that you are not George Floyd in this story. In this story, and in all the different versions of this story, you are the pig that killed him. You cannot ever put yourself in a black person’s shoes.

There’s no nice way to say this: a certain subset of (mostly) white people have lost their minds online. These people wake up to a vast insurrection crossing all racial and national boundaries – and contrive to make this all about themselves. Their affects, their unconsciouses, their moral worthiness. How can I be Not Complicit? How can I be a Better Ally? How do I stop benefiting from white supremacy in my daily life? How do I rid myself of all the bad affects and attitudes? Can I purify my soul in the smelter of a burning police precinct? Occasional ratissages out into mainstream culture (we’re decolonising the Bon Appétit test kitchen!), but mostly what this uprising calls for is an extended bout of navel-gazing. Really get in there, get deep in that clammy lint-filled hole, push one finger into the wound of your separation from the primordial world, and never stop wriggling. Maybe there’s a switch, buried just below the knot, and if you trip it your body will open up like a David Cronenberg nightmare to reveal all its greasy secrets to your eyes. Interrogate yourself! Always yourself, swim deep in the filth of yourself. The world is on fire – but are my hands clean? People are dying – but how can I scrub this ghastly whiteness off my skin?

You could set aside the psychosexual madness of this stuff, maybe, if it actually worked. It does not work. It achieves nothing and helps nobody. Karen and Barbara Fields: ‘Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes. Racism is first and foremost a social practice.’ Social practices must be confronted on the level of the social. But for people who don’t want to change anything on the level of the social, there’s the Implicit Associations Test. This is the great technological triumph of what passes for anti-racist ideology: sit in front of your computer for a few minutes, click on some buttons, and you can get a number value on exactly how racist you are. Educators and politicians love this thing. Wheel it into offices. Listen up, guys, your boss just wants to take a quick peek into your unconscious mind, just to see how racist you are. How could anyone object to something like that?

Only one problem. Carlsson & Agerström, 2016: there is ‘little evidence that the IAT can meaningfully predict discrimination.’ Turns out that the inner content of your heart has no real bearing on the actual racial inequalities faced by actual non-white people in the actual world. (If you come across someone who very badly wants not to believe this, run. They don’t care about improving the world. They just want to take a scalpel to someone’s brain, maybe yours.) And there’s more. Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015: ‘In a competitive task, individuals who received a high prevalence of stereotyping message [ie, messaging about the evils of racial stereotypes] treated their opponents in more stereotype-consistent ways.’ All your Important Work, your self-reflection, your enforced racial neurosis – it’s making people more racist. Whoops! Classic slapstick. Unless, of course… unless that was always the point.

See, for instance, the form letters: How To Talk To Your Black Friends Right Now. Because I refuse to be told I can’t ever empathise with a black person, I try to imagine what it would be like to receive one of these. Say there’s been a synagogue shooting, or a bunch of swastikas spraypainted in Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Say someone set off a bomb inside Panzer’s in St John’s Wood – and then one of my goy friends sends me something like this:

Hey Sam – I can never understand how you feel right now, but I’m committed to doing the work both personally and in my community to make this world safer for you and for Jewish people everywhere. From the Babylonian Captivity to the Holocaust to today, my people have done reprehensible things to yours – and while my privilege will never let me share your experience, I want you to know that you’re supported right now. I see you. I hear you. I stand with the Jewish community, because you matterPlease give me your PayPal so I can buy you a bagel or some schamltz herring, or some of those little twisty pastries you people like.

How would I respond? I think I would never want to see or hear from this person again. If I saw them in the street, I would spit in their face, covid be damned. I would curse their descendants with an ancient cackling Yiddish curse. These days, I try to choose my actual friends wisely. Most of them tend to engage me with a constant low level of jocular antisemitic micoaggressions, because these things are funny and not particularly serious. But if one of my friends genuinely couldn’t see me past the Jew, and couldn’t see our friendship past the Jewish Question, I would be mortified. Of course, it’s possible that the comparison doesn’t hold. Maybe there are millions of black people I don’t know who love being essentialised and condescended to, who are thrilled by the thought of being nothing more than a shuddering expendable rack for holding up their own skin. But I doubt it. Unless you want me to believe that black people inherently have less dignity than I do, this is an insult.

(An anecdote from Frantz Fanon. ‘It was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: “Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.” And I found that he was universally right – by which I meant that I was answerable in my body and my heart for what was done to my brother. Later I realised that he meant, quite simply, an anti-Semite is invariably anti-Negro.’)

If you want to find the real secret of this stuff, look for the rules, the dos and don’ts, the Guides To Being A Better Ally that blob up everywhere like mushrooms on a rotting bough. You’ve seen them. And you’ve noticed, even if you don’t want to admit it, that these things are always contradictory:

DO the important work of interrogating your own biases and prejudices. DON’T obsess over your white guilt – this isn’t about you! DO use your white privilege as a shield by standing between black folx and the police. DON’T stand at the front of marches – it’s time for you to take a back seat. DO speak out against racism – never expect activists of colour to always perform the emotional labour. DON’T crowd the conversation with your voice – shut up, stay in your lane, and stick to signal boosting melanated voices. DO educate your white community by providing an example of white allyship. DON’T post selfies from a protest – our struggle isn’t a photo-op for riot tourists.

Žižek points out that the language of proverbial wisdom has no content. ‘If one says, “Forget about the afterlife, about the Elsewhere, seize the day, enjoy life fully here and now, it’s the only life you’ve got!” it sounds deep. If one says exactly the opposite (“Do not get trapped in the illusory and vain pleasures of earthly life; money, power, and passions are all destined to vanish into thin air – think about eternity!”), it also sounds deep.’ The same goes here. Whatever you say, it can still sound woke. Why?

Some right-wing critics have argued that the reason for all this contradiction is that the people making these demands want to boss their white allies around, but don’t know what they actually want from them. (Malcolm X with his cold hard stare, and a word: Nothing.) It’s a form of lashing out, a way to extract obedience for its own sake. If you think this, you don’t understand a thing. You have a layer of toilet bleach surrounding your brain. Look closer. What you’re reading is a menu. Good evening sir, ma’am – what would you like to be forbidden today? If you like, I could tell you not to empathise with black people. Or would sir prefer to be cautioned against leading chants at a rally? We have a specials list of phrases that aren’t for you this week…

This stuff is masochism, pleasure-seeking, full of erotic charge – and as Freud saw, the masochist’s desire is always primary and prior; it’s always the submissive partner who’s in charge of any relationship. Masochism is a technology of power. Setting the limits, defining the punishments they’d like to receive, dehumanising and instrumentalising the sadistic partner throughout. The sadist works to humiliate and degrade their partner, to make them feel something – everything for the other! And meanwhile, the masochist luxuriates in their own degradation – everything for myself! You’re just the robotic hand that hits me. When non-white people get involved in these discourses, they’re always at the mercy of their white audiences, the ones for whom they perform, the ones they titillate and entertain. A system for subjecting liberation movements to the fickle desires of the white bourgeoisie. Call it what it is. This is white supremacy; these scolding lists are white supremacist screeds.

black

But systems of white supremacy have never been in the interests of most whites (‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded’), and they have never really fostered any solidarity between whites. Look at the stories. I had a run-in with the police, you announce, and a black person might have died, but I’m fine, because I’m white. No – you’re fine because you’re white and rich. You’re fine because you look like someone who reviews cartoons for a dying online publication called The Daily Muffin, which is exactly what you are. Bald and covered in cat hair. Frameless glasses cutting a red wedge into the bridge of your nose. The white people who get gunned down by police don’t look like you. Their class position is stamped visibly on their face, and so is yours. And you’ve trained yourself to see any suffering they experience as nothing more than ugly Trump voters getting what they deserve.

Why aren’t there protests when a white person is murdered by police? Answer 1: because, as John Berger points out, ‘demonstrations are essentially urban in character.’ Native Americans are killed by cops at an even higher rate than black people, but this too tends to happen very far away from the cities and the cameras; it becomes invisible. Answer 2: because nobody cares about them. Not the right wing, who only pretend to care as a discursive gotcha when there’s a BLM protest. And definitely not you. Sectors of the white intelligentsia have spent the last decade trying to train you out of fellow-feeling. Cooley et al., 2019: learning about white privilege has no positive effect on empathy towards black people, but it is ‘associated with greater punishment/blame and fewer external attributions for a poor white person’s plight.’ A machine for turning nice socially-conscious liberals into callous free-market conservatives.

The rhetoric of privilege is a weapon, but it’s not pointed at actually (ie, financially) privileged white people. We get off lightly. All we have to do is reflect on our privilege, chase our dreamy reflections through an endlessly mirrored habitus – and that was already our favourite game. You might as well decide that the only cure for white privilege is ice cream. Working-class whites get no such luxuries. But as always, the real brunt falls on non-white people. What happens when you present inequality in terms of privileges bestowed on white people, rather than rights and dignity denied to non-white people? The situation of the oppressed becomes a natural base-state. You end up thinking some very strange things. A few years ago, I was once told that I could only think that the film Black Panther isn’t very good because of my white privilege. Apparently, black people are incapable of aesthetic discernment or critical thought. (Do I need to mention that the person who told me this was white as sin?) This framing is as racist as anything in Carlyle. It could only have been invented by a rich white person.

Give them their due; rich white people are great at inventing terrible new concepts. Look at what’s happening right now: they’re telling each other to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. You should never tell people to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo – but we live in an evil world, and it’s stormed to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list. You maniacs, you psychopaths, look what you’ve done. I’m not saying people shouldn’t read the book – I read it, and I don’t get any special dispensations – but you should read it like Dianetics, like the doctrine of a strange and stupid cult.

Robin DiAngelo is a white person, an academic, an anti-racism educator, an agent of the CIA or Hell or both, and the author of a very bad book. It’s at the vanguard of one of the worst tendencies in contemporary politics, that of particularising the human condition. Freud showed us that the ego is just a scar or a callus on the surface of the id, a part that had to crack and harden on contact with a cruel and unpleasant world. We are all brittle. We are all fragile. We all try to protect ourselves with shabby costumes, and we all get upset when someone tries to triumphantly snatch them away. But some people like to pretend that this condition is specific. It’s ‘being a snowflake.’ It’s ‘white fragility.’

The book is a thrill-ride along a well-paved highway – ‘powerful institutions are controlled by white people;’ true, accurate, well-observed – that quickly takes a dive off the nearest cliff – ‘therefore white people as a whole are in control of powerful institutions.’ Speak for yourself, lady! All a are b, DiAngelo brightly informs us, therefore all b must also be a. She doesn’t advocate for her understanding of the world, she simply assumes it. So it’s not a surprise that the real takeaway from White Fragility is that Robin DiAngelo is not very good at her job. See this passage:

I recently gave a talk to a group of about two hundred employees. Over and over, I emphasised the importance of white people having racial humility and of not exempting ourselves from the unavoidable dynamics of racism. As soon as I was done speaking, a line of white people formed – ostensibly to ask me questions – but more typically to reiterate the same opinions on race they held when they entered the room.

Well, it didn’t work, then, did it?

Imagine a devoted cultist of Tengrism, who sometimes gets invited by company bosses to harangue the workforce on how the universe is created by a pure snow-white goose flying over an endless ocean, and how if you don’t make the appropriate ritual honks to this cosmic goose you’re failing in your moral duty. But every time she gives this spiel, she always gets the same questions. Exactly how big is this goose? Surely the goose must have to land sometimes? Geese hatch in litters – what happened to the other goslings? Something must be wrong with these people. Why don’t they just accept the doctrine? Why do they hate the goose? We need a name for their sickness. Call it Goose Reluctance, and next time someone doesn’t jump to attention whenever you speak, you’ll know why. Of course, the comparison is unfair; ideas about eternal geese are beautiful, and DiAngelo’s are not. But the structure is the same. Could it be that Robin DiAngelo is a poor communicator selling a heap of worthless abstractions? No, it’s the workers who are wrong.

(By the way, how did you feel about that phrase, racial humility? I didn’t like it, but her book is full of similar formulations – she also wants us to ‘build our racial stamina’ and ‘attain racial knowledge.’ Now, maybe I’m an oversensitive kike, but I can’t encounter phrases like these and not hear others in the background. Racial spirit. Racial consciousness. Racial hygiene. And somewhere, not close but coming closer, the sound of goosestepping feet.)

I didn’t seek out any of the material I talk about here. It came to me. And it’s making me feel insane. The only social media I use these days is Instagram – because if I’m going to be hand-shaping orecchiette all night, and serving it with salsiccia, rapini, and my own home-pickled fennel, it’s not for my own pleasure, and I demand to receive a decent 12 to 15 likes for my efforts. (I will not be accepting your follow request.) A week ago, on the 2nd of June, my feed was suddenly swarming with white people posting blank black squares. People I’d never known to be remotely political, people whose introduction to politics was clearly coming through the deranged machine of social media. Apparently, that was ‘Blackout Tuesday.’ I don’t know whose clever idea this was, and I don’t want to know, but it came with a threat. If all your friends are posting the square, and you’re not, does it mean you simply don’t care enough about black lives? Around the same time, I was helpfully made aware of a viral Instagram album titled Why The Refusal To Post Online Is Often Inherently Racist. I honestly can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to live like this – always on edge, always trying to be Good, always trying to have your Goodness recognised by other people, in a game where the scores are tracked by what you post on the internet, and the rules are always changing.

The real kicker was what happened next. Under just about every black square, some self-appointed prefect had commented, warning people not to tag the things with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Activists use the hashtag to post important information, and the black boxes risked swamping it, flooding the whole thing with silence. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. After all, the #blacklivesmatter tag is – like all the rest of them – indifferently and algorithmically curated by Facebook’s proprietary software. The ethico-political demand, then, is to avoid disrupting the algorithm at all costs.

Why am I complaining about this? The police are brutalising demonstrators on the street, multiple protesters have already died, Trump wants to deploy the army, something truly horrible might be lurking in our near future – so why spend nearly 4000 words talking about stupid ideas on the internet? Because I want the movement to win, and this is poison. It has killed movements before. It kills everything it can touch.

At the end of Black Skin, White Masks, in his closing burst of glorious autopoietic Nietzscheana, Fanon gives his sole demand: ‘That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever.’ It’s a hope I share, and one that I think the actual movement could one day help realise. But not if it surrenders to the forms and codes of social media, because social media is a tool that possesses the man. Like the owner of property, but also like a possessing devil. It takes over your mouth and your hands, and it whispers right into your brain. It tells you that the people around you are enemies, that you might be an enemy; it sends you spiralling into the claustrophobia of yourself. I can hope that this explosion of madness online is a final efflorescence, the monster making one last screech for attention. Something genuinely inspiring is happening, and maybe all the parasitic brands and networked neurotics will be left in the dust. But maybe, if we’re not careful, and if we can’t look away from our phones, a dumb comment from someone a thousand miles away will drown out the solidarity of the person next to you, and the moment will be lost.

Why Bernie lost (and how you can too)

quodsummushoceritis

First hypothesis. (Humour: melancholia / Star: Saturn / Stone: topaz.)

Bernie lost because he lost the working class. He started his campaign marshalling what Amber Frost has described as the Busytown coalition: the postal workers, the firemen, the nurses; the people who, even now, are still in shops and warehouses, ensuring the continuation of human life. It’s a good coalition. It cuts across all lines of age, race, gender, and sexuality. There are a lot of these people, and what’s more, they have justice on their side. So what the hell happened? Why is it that, by Super Tuesday, places with lower average incomes, higher unemployment, more ethnic diversity, more people without health insurance, and fewer university degrees were tilting towards Biden? The answer is you. You did this.

If you’re reading this, I know what you’re like. You’re young, or young-ish; you’re well-educated and ever so smart, but your life didn’t turn out exactly how you hoped. Your parents are from the middle classes, but what are you? Column A: you’re currently tending to a sourdough starter, you lug around several suitcases of books whenever you move house, and you can talk about Debussy or drill with equal enthusiasm. Column B: you’re flat fucking broke. When you were a kid, you imagined what your life would be like at twenty-five, or thirty, or forty, and it didn’t look like this. You imagined yourself into An Adult, a mythological creature that never unfurled from your cocoon. You are a nymph. You’re the same kid, terrified of the passing time, but still waiting. It’s not too late for you, not yet, but so much would need to change in such a short time. We’d need to totally decarbonise the economy and end all interventions in the Middle East. We’d need to massively raise corporate taxes and someone would have to marry you. You believe passionately in that kind of change, and that’s why you supported Bernie. We are the same, you and I. We’re poison, absolute poison, for any democratic leftist movement. We corrode it from the inside out.

I watched the same thing happen in the UK: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party tried to reactivate the working class vote – and instead, working-class voters fled the party in droves, abandoning it to a rump of young people with advanced degrees and low prospects. Children are not the future. Young people are not a solid political constituency. Give us our due, though: we’re passionate, and committed, and we’re strivers. In a few short weeks, we had the Bernie campaign speaking our language and broadcasting our concerns. We turned ourselves into its faces and figureheads. Just in time to thoroughly alienate everyone who wasn’t already onside.

I don’t think socialism is always, by necessity, a bourgeois idea. On both sides of the Atlantic, left-populism did briefly enjoy a broad base of support. But we need to be smarter: we need to understand that ordinary people simply do not like us, and they’re not wrong to feel that way. We’re basically obnoxious, and to overcome that we need to meet the people where they are. This is how.

Step one is to place a permanent taboo on the following words, which we use too much, and which do nothing to help our cause:

  • Kindness. A disgusting word. The watery eyes of some paedophile vicar, smacking his lips together as he dreams his gentle brutalities. Be kind to me, oh be kind to me, let’s all be kind to each other. You make me sick.
  • Empathy. Even worse. The person who needs to put a name to fellow-feeling, who needs to adopt it as a regulative principle, has none of the stuff. The person who endlessly natters on about empathy is always, without exception, a bitter and spiteful toad, asking for the manager, making complaints, deplatforming: bottomlessly, abysmally cruel.
  • Hope. The most vicious of the bunch. Hope is an ancient Greek curse. Hope is only a substitute for the thing you hope for; it’s what you’re left with after everything else has fled. Hope is always, always disappointed. No movement that bandies around words like hope ever delivers on its promises. No movement that talks about hope is ever trusted.

That’s step one. In step two, we embrace the values that actually matter to American voters. Namely, patriotism, the family, and badass overpowered military hardware. If you want to embark on a programme of economic nationalisation, why would you willingly give up a potent rhetorical tool like nationalism? If you want to build bonds of solidarity, why would you ignore the already-existing communism within a well-functioning family unit? And if you want the working classes to own the world their labour creates, should that not include the nightly livestreamed bombing runs over the Middle East? I made that, we could say, watching the fires consume an Afghan village. My hands tended this death.

Finally, with step three we build on the progress we made at the start, and gradually eliminate all words from our vocabulary. The working classes hate words. They’re all illiterate, probably; I assume they communicate in grunts and squeals. We must learn to squeal like they do. Roll around in the muck. Hide your delicate bourgeois face in a plastic snout. Lap up corn syrup from the trough. Drape yourself in a soiled flag and grunt the name of Jesus Christ. Squeal, piggy, squeal.

Second theory. (Humour: choler / Star: Jupiter / Beast: the Hog)

Bernie lost because, in the end, he wasn’t willing to fight. He set himself up rhetorically in opposition to a deeply corrupt and moribund Democratic establishment – but then he adopted all their dumbest talking points. He promised to support the nominee, whoever it was, because the greatest danger was another four years of Trump and his Russian cronies. No: the greatest danger to ordinary people is capitalism, whoever its figurehead. Trump won in 2016 by utterly eviscerating and then colonising a hated party structure. Bernie couldn’t bring himself to do the same. He talked about a revolution, but shrunk back from revolutionary agonisms. What he offered was, as he himself kept insisting, a political revolution – which is to say, not a social revolution, not a revolution in the forms of human life, but only in their superstructural expressions – and he couldn’t even do that. Imagine how differently things would have gone if, during one of the televised debates, Bernie had denounced Joe Biden as a kulak fattening himself on the misery of the American peasants. I don’t know why he didn’t do this; he should have been listening to me instead of his lib advisors. He should have pointed out this dazed, leathery man as a class enemy, and then two of his Blue Guards should have run out from the wings to beat Biden in the head with the butts of their rifles, until he was forced to kneel right in front of the MSNBC studio hosts and confess, with tears in his eyes, to being a capitalist roader and a traitor to the working masses. Execution should have followed instantly: a single nod from Bernie, and a single bullet in the back of Joe’s head. At this point the audience should have stood up and cheered as Biden’s blood congealed tackily over the pristine half-CGI debate stage – but the theatre of justice shouldn’t have ended there. More Blue Guards in Bernie caps with rifles slung over their shoulders should have poured out onto the stage and erected a guillotine, singing cheerful songs as they winched the enormous razor into place. Then Bernie should have puffed out his cheeks and wagged his finger and shouted ‘The people’s revenge is not yet whetted! Which of our enemies will hone this blade?’ and then he should have condemned his rivals to death and beheaded them one by one. One cannot serve as the Attorney General for California innocently! The Blue Guards should have blocked off all the exits to this philanthropically-funded theatre and arts space in a third-tier Midwestern city, to encourage patriotic feeling among the audience as the heads of one politician after another tumbled from the jaws of the guillotine, their faces frozen in expressions of unutterable horror – but if Bernie heard a murmur of discontent as the lifeless bodies were flung into the orchestra pit, limbs folded at unnatural angles, torsos crowned in red-rimmed stumps, he should have given the signal for one-tenth of the audience to be dispatched too, so a productive atmosphere of Blue Terror might set in among the workers and peasants live-streaming at home. Then, once the bloodshed was over, a gorgeous person of my preferred gender should have turned to me and said ‘We did it, comrade – we finally overthrew traditional beauty standards, and now I don’t mind that you’re obsessed with seedy violent revenge-fantasies and have a deeply unfortunate neck that just kinda melts clammily into your shoulders; at long last, you have become sexually viable,’ and then I should have never been alone again.

Third assertion. (Humour: blood / Planet: Mars / Curse: eternal)

Bernie lost because the 2020 Democratic primary was ssstolen.

You think you know what happened: Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropped out as if according to a script, dealsss were forged, rooms filled with sssmoke, polling sssstations were closed down in low-income and ethnic-minority areas, exit polls showed a marked dissscrepancy from the final result, there was some vast fuckery in Iowa, because They – the unnameable They – would never let Bernie Sssanders win.

This is not what I mean.

I know it was ssssstolen because I ssstole it myself.

For years now I have been sssneaking into Bernie’s house at night, quietly, sssilently, in through the windowsss to lick his furniture, up through the floorboards to wander through the objects of his life.

And one dark February night I sssaw it – I sssaw where he kept the election, hidden in his house.

It was an egg, an unformed thing.

He kept it in his fridge, in a carton with the other eggs, and nothing on its sssurface told how different this egg was from any of the otherssss – maybe he didn’t know himssself, but I knew; I felt what was waiting within its yolk, the thing that could hatch.

I conssssumed that egg there, in Bernie Sanders’ kitchen – I ate it whole, shell and all, unsocketing my jaw, engorging my gullet; hunger, straining againssst the wholenessss of this large cold egg.

And out of my throat black tendrils grew.

Fourth conjecture. (Humour: phlegm / Planet: Mercury / Leprosy: gleaming)

  1. Bernie lost because nobody – and I mean NOBODY – understands why people make the decisions they do.
  2. I mean, look at it. Look at the Biden voters who said they wanted Medicare for All. Or the Biden voters who said they thought radical – even revolutionary – change was necessary. But they still pulled the lever for ol’ Creepy Joe. They liked Bernie and they liked his policies, but they weren’t voting for them. You thought it would be easy? You thought you just had to present the right ideas in the right language? Nah. Something much stranger is at work.
  3. And please, I’m begging you, please don’t give me any guff about low-information voters. You seen what it’s like out there? You can’t move for information. The sky and the trees are information. It’s being poured into our eyes at one gigabyte per second, EVERY SECOND OF OUR LIVES. We eat pure information three meals a day. Chomp through it, metabolise, shit it out. We fuckin’ radiate data, and at night the tech companies come and gobble up whatever we’ve left behind. Like dust mites feasting on our sloughed-off skin. Maybe you wanna start talking about low-oxygen voters too while you’re at it?
  4. But you wanna hear a secret? Advertising is bunk. Market research is bunk. None of it works. All those urban legends about how gifted psychopaths are rearranging supermarkets to make you buy shit you don’t need – all fake. It’s the admen’s last con. Even marketing types don’t really understand why people make the decisions they do. Not in the market, not in relationships, not anywhere. Cuz what we have now is the data, man, THE DATA. We can see the chaos of everyone’s life in ten trillion consumer decisions, and none of it adds up. Like there’s some tiny chaotic imp burrowing around in the innermost folds of your brain, doing stuff for no reason. And everyone’s praying the truth of it never gets out, cuz if it does? Google, Facebook – worthless. Spent a decade collecting the whole global population’s shit, promising they could sift out some specks of gold. It ain’t there. Useless. Planetary midden. And yeah, it just so happens that we’ve premised the entire economy on online data-collection and advertising. Imagine if tomorrow morning, oil was as flammable as water. That’s the level of trouble we’re in.
  5. Unless there was a new science. Deleuze saw it, in the Postscript on the Societies of Control: ‘Can we already grasp the rough outlines of these coming forms, capable of threatening the joys of marketing?’ A science that could explain why people make the decisions they make, and accurately model long-term social changes. One that could inherit and abolish all the failed theories of the past. Shit like Marxism. Gramscianism. Freudianism. I’m talking politics, rhetoric, marketing. Marginal utility and rational-choice economics and von Neumann games. Hell, let’s chuck art in there too. It ain’t heavy. This theory would be huge. I’m not talking about a revolution in the human sciences. I’m talking about a revolution, full stop.
  6. Folks – this theory is real. It already exists.
  7. It’s called IMPERATOLOGY.
  8. And its terrifying power can be yours – TODAY.
  9. Find out what other people want – what they really want, what they don’t even know they desire. Or, better yet, change their minds. With IMPERATOLOGY, it’s all possible. It’s the most awesome weapon ever devised. It’s the ATOM BOMB OF THE PSYCHE – and I want to put it in YOUR hands.
  10. How does it work? Simple! All previous accounts of the mind have conceived of subjectivity as a field of positively articulated drives and needs. Even psychoanalysis can only compute death drive as a BLANK OR SPACING in the terrain of desire. Even Marxism insists that all NEGATION must be DETERMINATE, and papers over the FISSURES OF UNBEING that scar our world. But with IMPERATOLOGY the night is ended! Our modelling software uses a system based on NEGATIVE INFINITIES, allowing you to delve into the VAST RESERVOIRS OF DARKNESS that lie at the core of your being. (Sexual nihilism! Political unreason! Cannibal orgies! Blood! Ice on trees! A trackless and limitless forest! Wild hares dancing! The blank dancing eyes of a wild hare in the frosty dawn of the world!) Our patented system empowers YOU to scoop up variegated PEARLS OF MADNESS with your own TINY GRASPING CLAWS!
  11. I’m talking THE SECRET BACK DOOR TO THE HUMAN MIND. I’m talking MONEY. I’m talking SEX. I’m talking about YOUR BIZARRE AND IDIOSYNCRATIC POLITICAL OPINIONS, turned into received wisdom OVERNIGHT. I’m talking about a WORLD FUNDAMENTALLY RESHAPED INTO A SERIES OF LIVING DIORAMAS FOR YOUR OWN MASTURBATORY PLEASURE. Not sure how to use it? Forgotten how to get yourself off? No worries! Simply deploy the techniques of IMPERATOLOGY on YOURSELF, and instantly achieve SELF-REALISATION AS AN ABSOLUTE IDEA. I’m talking about PEERING BEYOND THE VEIL OF OUR EARTHLY REALITY. And I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. Let me tell you, folks, my third eye is a YAWNING, DISTENDED CHASM. Wildflowers grow wherever I lay my feet, and I have witnessed galaxies SPURT LIKE MY SEED across the velvet folds of time!
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Fifth derangement. (Humour: gelatine / Planet: Niburu / Destination: across the nameless sea to Knossos, where we are devoured)

Bernie lost because politics is not about power. It’s not about collective decision-making; it’s not even about representation. Try to imagine things differently. Try to imagine the 2020 election as a highly advanced form of vivisection.

Think of all the endless awful candidates invading your consciousness, one after another. Didn’t it feel like some kind of experiment was being performed? The system throws people and archetypes at you – A Woman, A Person Of Colour, A Rich Guy – and tries to find out what sticks. We might think the contenders are just a bunch of hollow-eyed narcissists vying for control of an enormous nuclear arsenal, and they might think it too, but they’re not. These are test subjects. In a sense, they’re victims.

A politician is shoved under the spotlight, and they tremble. Slowly, scientists peel back the skin so we can see their innards. We find out more about the personal histories and inner worlds of Beto O’Rourke or John Delaney than any sane person could possibly want to know. But someone, or something, somewhere, is learning. Slice through the flesh; get to the organs, the queasy, greasy, soft wobbling darkness in the creature’s furthest pit. See what’s there. Cory Booker’s kidneys. Julián Castro’s spleen. Scandals and corruption; dark money, racial epithets, sex scandals, and lies. The attrition rate is high; most test subjects don’t survive the procedure. Pour enough shampoo into Kamala Harris’s eyeballs, pump enough anti-depressants up Tom Steyer’s arsehole, and eventually the creature will just go limp.

For Baudrillard, new schemata of social control are always applied first to animals, and then to human beings. ‘Animals have preceded us on the path of liberal extermination.’ Couldn’t we say the same thing about politicians? What are electoral politics, if not a breeding-ground for affects and psychoses, a petri dish swarming with new and disordered ways of relating to the world? Forget policy. Forget the presidency. This is what it’s for.

Decades ago, politicians started being followed by people with cameras, monitoring their movements, looking for any hint of wrongness – a banana, for instance, held at an unusual angle. They had to perform, every minute of their waking lives. Forbidden from breaking character, they melted into their own personae. Politicians were the first to enter the world of inescapable digital surveillance, then celebrities, and then you and me. The innovation now, of course, is that the person following you around with the camera is yourself. We’re all public servants now.

Examples pile up. Politicians were the first humans to turn themselves into brands, to sell themselves not as a lump of labour-power but as a finished commodity, with the full fetishistic halo. Before there could be a Kim Kardashian, first there had to be a Tony Blair.

Of course, there’s another type, the Bernie-type. Politicians who sold themselves on the promise of what they could do rather than what they might mean. Politicians who offered something to the voting masses, a pact, a contract, not the possibility of representation or identification. Politicians who didn’t want to be your bff or your abuela, but who did want to build a big new canal. The heroic, promethean, reforming bourgeois politicians of the eighteenth century onwards, who set out to transform reality by their labour, not for themselves, not to rule the world, but only to remake it – these were the advance guards of proletarianisation. Their time has ended now. Like the organised proletariat, they survive – but lost in a whirlwind of new forms.

In fact, you could go further. The thing we call politics – in the sense of an ideological agonism, not just manoeuvring between personal factions – begins with the English and French revolutions. The birth of politics is also the birth of politicide, the idea that you can fix things by simply killing everyone with bad opinions. Both revolutions also featured, quite prominently, the removal of a royal head. The king becomes a politician – which is to say, a carcass, an animal test-subject – the moment the blade touches the hairs on the back of his neck. (This seems to hold across time. The ancient Greeks had their factional intrigues, and they thought a lot about systems of government, but they never managed to develop the political movement. The Romans, who executed their king, did.) He clears the way. Then the masses can follow him into the guillotine, or march off in vast conscript armies to the meat-grinder of the front.

This is why the nomination went to Joe Biden, a man who is clearly senile and dying, and not Bernie Sanders. He is our future, the herald of an exhausted and forgetful age. Digital archives are already eating away at our ability to remember. Automation enfeebles our bodies. The frenzy of communications puts a stammer in our speech. Senseless and dependent, passive in a meshwork of machines. In the crypt of the Capuchin friars in Rome, stacks of grinning skulls bear a motto. Quello che voi siete, noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo, voi sarete. What we are, you will be; what you are, we once were. Look on Joe Biden’s empty face, and be afraid.

The Idiot Joy Showland coronavirus reading list

atlast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Plays

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

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

Novels

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

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

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

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

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

Stories

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Love in the time of coronavirus

regnault

Is there an erotics of the coronavirus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Teenage bloodbath: the 2010s in review

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

orc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Notes

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

The case for giving up

dying-gaul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the many

tomorrow

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

Some things are higher than principle.

Please, please consider voting for Labour on Thursday.

1.

sabbath

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

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

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

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

2.

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

election2017election2019

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

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

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

3.

avarice

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

lbn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.

spinne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.

corbyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vote Labour.

 

The war against the Jews

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The Jewish community in the UK is under attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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