Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: June, 2015

If I’m so bad, why don’t they take me away?

Vivek Chibber is the most controversial figure on the Left today – or, at least according to Vivek Chibber he is. The latest kerfuffle is, once again, over his attacks on postcolonialism. Chibber’s stated goal is to rescue Marxism from what he sees as an empirically incorrect perspectivism embedded in postcolonial theory – essentially, the idea that ‘our capitalism is different.’ Part of this programme involves, with the tedious weight of inevitability, a defence of Enlightenment rationality. This is a boring dispute, and I’m not really going to go into it. The more interesting aspects of his critique are those that slip and tremble in those strange spaces between the great tectonic monoliths of politics and ontology. Chibber wants to reclaim the universal: the idea that behind all the squirming differences of the world there is a level of understanding in which all things are essentially the same, and can all be described according to a single principle. But the way he goes about this is very odd.

Disputes between universalism and particularism go back to Spinoza and Leibniz, and beyond. The question runs like a zigzagging fissure throughout recent thought, opening up sudden chasms within formerly continuous areas of the intellectual landscape. On the side of the Universal there’s Hegel, Deleuze (in his plane-of-immanence univocity-of-Being mode), and Badiou (at least in terms of the political, with his reference to the figure of the ‘generic’); the partisans of the particular include Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida, and Spivak. There are convincing concepts on both sides here, and even if the politics envisaged are seemingly irreconcilable, this ought to indicate something for those of us who know our dialectic: what’s being presented is ultimately a false choice.

There are some aspects of Chibber’s argument that are worthwhile. The idea that we can have solidarity and even some level of understanding of lived experiences that are not exactly the same as our own really ought to be a truism: however arbitrary language may be, it’s still grounded in the commonality of the Symbolic. When Chibber characterises subaltern studies as a kind of contemporary Orientalism, one in which the colonial other is always an irrational, occulted mystery, his critique does seize on something important, even if it’s slightly unfair. I certainly agree that Marx is not just ‘another white male philosopher’. (Although I’m not sure if anyone of any significance is really disputing this. It’s an argument that’s been made, but from what I can tell it’s mostly made on Twitter rather than in the academy, and usually alongside other claims that are so bafflingly untrue – the idea that Marx was suspiciously silent on the question of slavery, for instance – that they indicate the operation of some unspoken fixation or agenda.) It’s a shame, then, that the central portion of Chibber’s argument is not just wrong and non-Marxist, but fully horrifying.

A dominant – and strangely unacknowledged – influence on Chibber’s line of thought is of course Jürgen Habermas. Habermas has charted an interesting course, from the would-be saviour of Frankfurt School critical theory to his current post as the official rubber duck lookalike of the European Union. Taking cues from a theorist so unabashedly enthusiastic about the European project – one that future historians (if any are allowed to exist) could only ever regard as one of history’s greatest evils – doesn’t generally make for a good critique. Elsewhere in the world the oceans are only poisoned by oil slicks; on Europe’s fortified seasides, the waves roll bloated corpses against the holiday resorts. In some cases, Chibber even doubles down on some of Habermas’s more profoundly stupid innovations. Habermas argues for socialism as the actual realisation of the liberal ethos – the problem with liberalism isn’t its principles, but the contradictions that prevent it from being able to actually put those principles into practice. Chibber puts a new gloss on this, going beyond slightly dodgy immanent critique into what amounts to an outright surrender to existing conditions: what we think of as liberalism isn’t a unified project but the result of extended class struggle. This is not particularly controversial in and of itself, but for Chibber those ‘positive’ elements within liberalism are not heterogeneous to liberalism itself. In other words, the good society isn’t a promise yet to be realised; it’s here, now, and we’re living in it. Exactly how this position can be reconciled with the scum-soaked pit of shit and misery that constitutes life in the twenty-first century is yet to be seen.

The really scary stuff only appears late in Chibber’s lecture, but it’s what really constitutes the core of his project. For Chibber, there are certain ‘basic human needs’ that are not conditioned by class or culture, that have to do with the biological core of our being, and that are exactly the same everywhere in the world. It’s on this level that we can all understand each other, and it’s from this base that we can build a solidarity that cuts across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As with Badiou’s invocation of the ‘generic’, this is a political project that insists on the stripping-away of all that is not essential; those elements that are lost in returning to this common core of our species are ultimately ephemeral epiphenomena. Even provisionally accepting that this kind of operation is even possible, it’s founded on a fairly dubious assumption – that what is the same between people is ontologically essential to them, and what differs between them is not. Race and gender might be constructed, but it’s this kind of formulation that can – without ever meaning to, but by slipping down the rungs from ontology to normativity – allow for the idea that being black or a woman is somehow a deviation from the norm.

What are these basic human needs? In his works Chibber gives a few examples: the need for shelter, for security, for dignity, liberty, and personal well-being. These are the things that define what it is to be human, across time, space, and culture. But if this is a universal essence, it’s a strange kind. The need for shelter is here a fundamental part of the species; but of course shelter itself is not. Nobody is born with a roof bolted to their heads. If well-being, rather than the need for well-being, were basic to existence, there would be no need for well-being. All these needs in fact describe a lack – what’s essential to all humanity isn’t in us at all; our basic properties consist of those things we don’t have. In a way, Chibber’s stripping-away of epiphenomena is really incomplete: he’s retained an extraneous need, when what he could have said is that the basic nature of humanity is to be exposed, vulnerable, wretched, persecuted, and sick.

This is a decent (if uncreative) reading of Beckett, but it’s not Marxism.

For Marx there is something like a universal solidarity, as in his famous slogan that ‘the working men have no country.’ But where Chibber makes a major and bizarre misstep is in ontologising this universality. In Marx what unites people is not some mysterious quality locked in to every human being, the navel and core of their existence, but the most ephemeral of all ephemera: capitalism itself. International proletarian solidarity is a unique creature of the capitalist mode of production; it emerges because capitalism (as Chibber correctly points out) is universal, not out of some pre-existing universal substance that gloops beneath the phenomenal appearances of things. This universality need not be homogeneous. The forces of capitalism act in different ways on different people – wage-labourers and artisans, queer and disabled people – because these people are different. This is not to say that there can be no solidarity and no processes of overdetermination, but these are fleeting unities formed out of the false and imposed unity of capitalism.

There is a real universal, but it’s not subject to the tyranny of the Same. Marx does, it’s true, refer in his ‘humanist’ works to something called ‘species-being’, but it’s not a ‘being’ in the usual, ontological sense of the word. Species-being is bound up with the process of production: the human capacity to change and remake the world, a capacity that is itself coded by that which is produced and changed. Species-being stands for the unfettered and continual realisation of human potential, with new potentialities opening with every new realisation. Returning to species-being does not for Marx require the stripping-away of everything but the essential, but the creation of vast and unknown realms of possibility and difference. This is not so much being as becoming; an ontology of continual flux. (Here, as in so many other areas, Marx and Nietzsche are not just compatible but exhibit an almost spooky level of correspondence.) This is where Chibber’s divergence from Marx is most striking: for Marx, communism means freedom from alienation and an opening up of the infinite possibilities that constitute our being. Chibber, meanwhile, presumably wants to see a world in which dignity and well-being are available to all, but because in his cosmology human beings are eternally defined by the fact that we lack these things, for him communism can only be a total estrangement from what we really are.

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Notes from the demonstration

It’s strange, but the same people who insist that voting is a sham and won’t change anything are often the ones who also maintain that your radicalism is inauthentic unless you get out in the streets and exercise your right to protest. Usually I find all this boosterism to be faintly ridiculous: the right of governments to peacefully ignore street demonstrations is by now a cherished part of our liberal democracy, and the people who put so much stock in these charades betray the same naive faith in the essential goodness of the capitalist state as those who think that non-voters instantly waive their right to an opinion. But we live in exceptional times. When I saw Prime Minister David Cameron go on TV to announce his plans to divert the asteroid 4179 Toutatis onto a collision course with Earth that would almost certainly wipe out the entire human species, I felt that the time for inaction was over. Something had to be done. So I went down to Saturday’s mass #StopTheAsteroid demonstration in central London, hoping against hope that something, anything, might happen. Life itself was in the balance.

They say that for a few days before the collision, Cameron’s Comet will be visible in the daytime sky, a tiny, tumbling sparkle hovering over the Thames between Wapping and Rotherhithe. It’ll stay there, static, fixed to the rotation of the Earth, sweeping through the distant void in perfect time with our planet’s slow decaying churn, until suddenly that glimmer bursts bright to swallow us all. I tried to imagine that scene as I crossed the river. The day was muggy and overcast; arthritic ripples trailed over the water’s surface. I wondered if the asteroid would appear as a hazy dot of light through those suffocating clouds, the way the Sun does sometimes, or if our shitty weather would leave us blind until the very last moment. In my head, people brought out deck chairs, or held hands as they crowded together to watch. Of course, it won’t happen like that: the government’s confirmed that most of us won’t even get the day off work. When the impact comes I’ll probably be doing something stupid; spasmodically failing to recover dropped change from a sandwich-shop floor, or fumbling for a roll of toilet paper that isn’t there, or suddenly realising I’ve missed my stop on the train, something like that. It won’t matter, not really. (I know I’m supposed to say if the impact comes. The parliamentary opposition keep telling us they can fight this. I’m not so sure. There’s something very inevitable about an asteroid.)

I could hear the protest before I could see it. A low babble, rising to a chant as I approached the Bank of England: ‘Fuck off back! To the void! We don’t want your asteroid!’ I was slightly early, but there must have been tens of thousands of people already clustered in the intersection before the Bank of England, heaped like dead spiders between the solemn stones. Loud festival drumming blasted from one crevice in the tangle of alleys around us, whistles shrieked from another. A few slimy geezers in leather jackets were pushing their way through the crowd with their elbows, thrusting Trotskyite papers into the hands, prams, or orifices of anyone who wasn’t paying sufficient attention. All entrances to the Tube had been chained shut; one was being repurposed by a troupe of young people in combat trousers and luridly painted gas masks, who had clambered on top to stage a Carnival Against The Comet. I watched for a few minutes: the comet, represented by a big papier mâché sphere on a stick, was turned away from Earth by three women in clown costumes representing Peace, Positivity, and Popular Participation. Elsewhere, various blocs were hoisting their standards: I saw one from Lewisham Teachers Fighting The Asteroid, another from Queer And Questioning Teens Oppose The Tory Meteor, and even two iron-eyed old ladies hoisting a banner for the Committee to Abolish Outer Space, which I had thought was just a myth.

The biggest contingent, or at least to begin with, was the badgers. The government had announced shortly after being elected that it would be rolling out a badger cull across the country, supposedly to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and so several thousand of the creatures had come in to central London to join the march. A mercury stream of badgers rushed between our legs and made frenetic circles around the edge of the protest, a dizzying stream of black and white indignation. Whenever the badgers took a pause you could see, between bulging eyes and snuffling snouts, the slogans daubed in mud or marker pens on their coats. Some of the badgers had opted for general anti-asteroid sentiments, in what might have been an attempt to emphasise the continuity of struggles, but most of them had (reasonably enough) chosen to take the opportunity to ask that they not be trapped and shot to death. Let me be! one said. I’m TB free! Some marchers were unimpressed. ‘It’s just identity politics,’ I heard one young man sneer. His satchel was dotted with Che badges. ‘When the asteroid hits, the badgers are gonna get it as bad as the rest of us.’ (Meanwhile some small scuffles broke out as a few protesters accidentally trod on the surging carpet of badgers running beneath them, while some especially pushy humans found a badger sinking its incisors deep into their ankle until the bones snapped – although I heard later that all this was a factional dispute between the badger bloc and some dregs of the Socialist Workers Party.) But for the most part the big badger debate took a back seat – most of what I heard was a gleeful whispering about which left-wing celebrity had been spotted where: Owen Jones spotted showing his bum from the balcony, Michael Sheen handing out placards to new arrivals on Threadneedle Street, or Russell Brand doing some impromptu swing-dancing with a few activists from Cheerful And Attractive A-Level Students Don’t Like This Asteroid Very Much. Everyone wanted to take a selfie with someone famous. After all, it might be the last chance they’d ever get.

After much hooting and piping, this swarm of people uncoiled itself from around the Bank of England and set off towards Westminster. Off we drifted, down Fleet Street, where kale-eaters in Itsu and Chinese tourists in waterproof ponchos stared at us in uncomprehending bemusement, through the Strand, where I saw one shopper turn to another and say ‘disgusting, they should bring out the water cannons,’ past Trafalgar Square, where the audience at a fenced-in festival called West End LIVE were entirely undisturbed by our last-ditch effort to save humanity, down Whitehall, where cops had encased the Cenotaph in protective plywood to stop the glorious dead being defaced by the ungratefully alive. We chanted. ‘We hate Tories, yes we do, and we hate their comet too,’ or ‘Get your comet out my face, send it back to outer space,’ or ‘Tory cunts are full of shite, and so’s their fucking meteorite.’ A float rolled by, crammed with speakers leaking euphoric drum and bass anthems from five years ago, DJ Fresh’s Gold Dust and so on, while the people surrounding it dipped and bobbed with that close, nervous energy of white people confronted by music without drugs. We marched in threads and clumps. Passing a glimpse of the river I was suddenly struck by the sheer dense claustrophobic vastness of London, the way it bloats for seething termite-mound miles in all directions. There were millions of people out there, not paying attention, as if the world weren’t ending. Where was the BBC? I felt fury growing, the sweet sting of vomit at the back of my throat. Forget the cops, forget the Tories: these people were the real enemies. The standers-by, the flatulent cud-chewers, the open-mouthed morons. They should be coming out to join this very important march against the bad asteroid. We shouldn’t be letting them live peacefully: we should be breaking the plate glass, dragging them off their injection-moulded plastic chairs as the crumbs of soggy falafel still fall from the corners of their mouths, out into the streets, to face revolutionary justice. Instead we just trundled on, a leisurely daytime stroll that was no more significant for the fact that it was being undertaken by two hundred thousand people. Maybe, I thought, we get the meteor we deserve.

The fact is that a lot of people in Britain passively support the destruction of all life on the planet. It’s something the whole country can get behind: it shows that Britain isn’t a spent power, and plus there’s the fact that 4179 Toutatis is named after a god of the ancient Britons. The policy might be mad and stupid, but it seems prudent and sensible. The asteroid is headed for a close approach with Earth anyway, on a course set from the beginning of time; what difference does one rocket nudging it towards our planet make? It’s just doing what needs to be done. It won’t be pleasant, but it’ll solve the debt crisis. The asteroid is all that gives them hope. Meanwhile there are the others, people who make it their speciality under the capitalist division of labour to take part in protests. When the asteroid comes, thundering towards the surface of our world with the full force of cosmic inevitability, they’ll be there, shouting at the asteroid to fuck off, willing it to turn away with llobbed fireworks and slogans and screams. For them, too, the asteroid is the only meaningful thing left.

In Parliament Square there was a stage, and speeches. Caroline Lucas came out to remind everyone that seventy-five percent of the British people didn’t vote for this asteroid. Owen Jones came out to say that the Tories would probably blame the total human extinction caused by their asteroid on immigrants and welfare scroungers, and that this was unfair. Jeremy Corbyn came out to ask why the Conservatives didn’t just go and live on the asteroid if they thought it was such a good idea. Charlotte Church came out to implore everyone, black and white, straight and queer, welfare recipients and CEOs, to come together to let the government know that we oppose their asteroid. ‘If we work together, someone or other said, ‘if we have faith in ourselves and our communities, we can and we will stop this asteroid!’ The crowd roared. Further up Whitehall, a couple of Class War insurrectionists in black bandanas were blasting gabber through portable speakers and setting fire ‘to let’ signs in a big circle, putting the purifying fire to their property of property. The Palace of Westminster was within puking distance, and we were in the hundreds of thousands; I couldn’t understand why nobody was rushing the gates to actually overthrow the government. Even if they had cops with sniper rifles on the roofs, they couldn’t shoot all of us. What would it matter, if we only have twelve months until the asteroid wipes us out anyway? This could all end! It was as if we were all resigned to the inevitability of the impact. Like we didn’t really want to live. I watched Russell Brand stumble around the stage, his eyes popping queasily, his shirt hanging in expensive rags. ‘Eeeuuurbbuhuh,’ he said, his head lolling in circles. ‘It’s systemic, yeah, a systemic asteroid, it’s this proper gestalt entity that’s the totality of everything threatening people today,’ he shrilled, his fingers twitching like faulty machinery. ‘Nnnurghh,’ he continued. ‘It’s like, oooouuuueeergh.’ If we don’t want to live, can you really blame us?

It was the cops that worried me the most. They were nowhere to be seen. When cops baton-charge a protest march, when they kettle the stragglers, when they snatch people from the crowd and cram them into trucks, it’s not pleasant – but it shows a level of respect. When their riot helmets and visors turn them into glassy robots, blank creatures of the faceless State, it’s because they’re ashamed to show their faces. Far worse for them to lounge in twos and threes at the sidelines, trusting the organisers to lead a protest that’s peaceful and responsible and entirely within the law, knowing that the demonstrators don’t pose any threat to anything. Even when the speeches gave way first to earnest men strumming acoustic guitars and singing about how the people can push back any asteroid, and then to nothing, after the scheduled protest finished, the self-satisfied daytripping contingent started to dribble back home, and only the militant and the badgers remained, the cops did nothing. Instead the sky darkened, and it began to rain. Now I know why it’s so damp in this country; now I know why fascism is so entrenched in our daily life. A crowd that would have kicked back tear gas canisters and struck body armour with the sticks off placards melted to nothing in the summer rain. Raindrops are miniature cops; the water here is liquid police. And Britain is an island.

(The left put the first person in space. Once we had our own grand projects. Now all we can do is feebly oppose the asteroids of our enemies, mount a rearguard action in defence of a planet we don’t even like. I don’t know why I’m writing this down. The government’s just announced £1.3 billion of funding for the rocket that’ll divert the asteroid’s orbit; it’s not like there’ll be anyone to read this in twelve months’ time.)

Eventually, just before dusk, the sky opened out once more – and I thought I saw a cold light twinkle in the dimming to the east. I stood and stared in the middle of the pavement, while patrons in the noisy shisha bar beside me, underlit in purple and orange, puffing rolling blooms of apple-scented smoke, stared themselves at me. Horns honked, men spat, women screeched, and something like life continued the way it always does, all buzz, all turn, all busyness and worry, all gas bills, box sets, pension plans and nights out, schmoozing at mosque and crying at home – but there it was. Something at once very distant and very near, like a pinprick through the fabric of the firmament, torn to reveal a mote of blinding-white truth beyond. The singularity. Pure speed and pure intent, crystallised in a fixed and shining speck. It wasn’t the asteroid, of course. Just a passenger plane, in its lazy final swoop down towards Heathrow. I realised my mistake as soon as I turned away. But it won’t be long. It won’t be long at all.

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