Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Overt Marxism

Savages, savages, barely even human

It is worth noting that tribal peoples tend to feel that it is they who depict and we who symbolise.
Thomas McEvilley, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

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What does capitalism actually look like?

There’s a standard leftist answer to this question, from the great repertoire of standard leftist answers: we can’t know. Capitalism has us by the throat and wraps itself around our brain stem; we were interpellated as capitalist subjects before we were born, and from within the structure there’s no way to perceive it as a totality. The only way to proceed is dialectically and immanently, working through the internal contradictions until we end up somewhere else. But not everyone has always lived under capitalism; not everyone lives under capitalism today. History is full of these moments of encounter, when industrial modernity collided with something else. And they still take place. In 2007, Channel 4 engineered one of these encounters: in a TV show called Meet the Natives, a group of Melanasian villagers from the island of Tanna in Vanatu were brought to the UK, to see what they made of this haphazard world we’ve built. (It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone trying the same stunt now, just twelve years on. The whole thing is just somehow inappropriate: not racist or colonial, exactly, but potentially condescending, othering, problematic.) Reactions were mixed.

They liked ready meals, real ale, and the witchy animistic landscapes of the Hebrides. They were upset by street homelessness, confused by drag queens in Manchester’s Gay Quarter, and wryly amused by attempts at equal division in household labour. They understood that they were in a society of exchange-values and economic relations, rather than use-values and sociality. ‘There is something back-to-front in English culture. English people care a lot about their pets, but they don’t care about people’s lives.’ But there was only one thing about our society that actually appalled them, that felt viscerally wrong. On a Norfolk pig farm, they watched sows being artificially inseminated with a plastic syringe. This shocked them. They told their hosts to stop doing it, that it would have profound negative consequences. ‘I am not happy to see the artificial insemination. Animals and human beings are the same thing. This activity should be done in private.’

I was reminded of this episode quite recently, when reading, in an ‘indigenous critique of the Green New Deal‘ published in the Pacific Standard, that ‘colonists were warned by word and weapon that a system of individual land ownership would lead to ecological apocalypse, and here we are. What more could you ask from a system of truth and analysis than to alert you to a phenomenon like climate change before it occurs, with enough time to prevent it? That is significantly more than colonial science has offered.’

It’s not that the substance of this claim is entirely untrue (although it should be noted that many indigenous nations did have systems of private land ownership; land wasn’t denatured, fungible, and commodified, as it is in today’s capitalism, but then the same holds for European aristocracies, or the Nazis for that matter). Non-capitalist societies have persistently recognised that there’s an incredible potential for disaster in industrial modernity. Deleuze and Guattari develop an interesting idea here: capitalism isn’t really foreign to primitive society; it’s the nightmare they have of the world, the possibility of decoding and deterritorialisation that lurks somewhere in the dark thickets around the village. ‘Capitalism has haunted all forms of society, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes.’ Accordingly, the development of capitalism in early modern Europe wasn’t an achievement, but a failure to put up effective defences against this kind of social collapse. You can see something similar in the response of the Tanna islanders to artificial insemination. What’s so horrifying about it? Plausibly, it’s that it denies social and bodily relations between animals, and social and bodily relations between animals and people. The animal is no longer a living thing among living things (even if it’s one that, as the islanders tell a rabbit hunter, was ‘made to be killed’), but an abstract and deployable quantity. It’s the recasting of the mysteries of fecund nature as a procedure. It’s the introduction of what Szerszynski calls the ‘vertical axis,’ the transcendence from reality in which the world itself ‘comes to be seen as profane.’ It’s the breakdown of the fragile ties that hold back the instrumental potential of the world. When people are living like this, how could it result in anything other than disaster?

This seems to be the general shape of impressions of peoples living under capitalism by those who do not. These strangers are immensely powerful; they are gods or culture heroes, outside of the world. (The people of Tanna revere Prince Philip as a divinity.) At the same time, they’re often weak, palsied, wretched, and helpless; they are outside of the world, and lost. In 1641, a French missionary recorded the response of an Algonquian chief to incoming modernity. One the one hand, he describes Europeans as prisoners, trapped in immobile houses that they don’t even own themselves, fixed in place by rent and labour. ‘We can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere, because we set up our wigwams with ease wheresoever we go, and without asking permission of anybody […] We believe that you are incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves.’ At the same time, the French are untethered, deracinated, endlessly mobile. The Algonquians territorialise; everywhere they go becomes a home. The Europeans are not even at home in their static houses. They have fallen off the world. ‘Why abandon wives, children, relatives, and friends? Why risk thy life and thy property every year, and why venture thyself with such risk, in any season whatsoever, to the storms and tempests of the sea?’ And this constant circulation is a profound danger. ‘Before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Gaspesians live much longer than now?’

There’s something genuinely fascinating in these encounters. Whenever members of non-capitalist societies encounter modernity, they see something essential in what’s facing them. (For instance, Michael Taussig has explored how folk beliefs about the Devil in Colombia encode sophisticated understandings of the value-form.) But it seems to me to be deeply condescending to claim that this constitutes an explicit warning about climate change, that the methods of ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ are the same as the physical sciences, and to complain that ‘Western science has a lot of nerve showing up just as we’re on the precipice of a biospheric death spiral to brandish some graphs.’ The argument that the transcendent vertical axis estranges human beings from the cycles of biological life, with potentially dangerous results, is simply not the same as the argument that increased quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide will give rise to a greenhouse effect. It’s not that there’s nothing to learn from indigenous histories, quite the opposite. (I’ve written elsewhere on how the Aztecs – definitely not the romanticised vision of an indigenous society, but indigenous nonetheless – prefigured our contemporary notion of the Anthropocene.) But the claims in this essay set a predictive standard which ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ will inevitably fail; it refuses to acknowledge their actual insight and utility, and instead deploys them in a grudge match against contemporary political enemies.

Most fundamentally, the essay doesn’t consider this encounter as an encounter between modes of production, but an encounter between races. In the red corner, white people: brutally colonising the earth, wiping out all biological life, talking over BIPOC in seminars, etc, etc. In the blue corner, indigenous folk, who live in balance with the cycles of life, who feel the suffering of the earth because they are part of it, who intuitively understand climate atmospheric sciences because they’re plugged in to the Na’vi terrestrial hivemind, who are on the side of blind nature, rather than culture. This is not a new characterisation. The Algonquian chief complains that the French believe he and his people are ‘like the beasts in our woods and our forests;’ the Pacific Standard seems to agree.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but indigenous peoples are human, and their societies are as artificial and potentially destructive as any other. Being human means – Marx saw this very clearly – an essential disjuncture with essence and a natural discontinuity with nature. Ancient Amerindian beekeeping techniques are as foundationally artificial as McDonald’s or nuclear weapons. When humans first settled the Americas, they wiped out nearly a hundred genera of megafauna; the essay is entirely correct that ‘indigenous peoples have witnessed continual ecosystem and species collapse.’ Indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and social relations between humans and nonhumans are the mode of expression of their social forms in agrarian or nomadic communities. (Although some American societies were highly urbanised, with monumental earthworks, stratified class societies, and systemic religious practices. All of this is, of course, flattened under the steamroller of pacific indigeneity.) They are not transcendently true. They can not simply be transplanted onto industrial capitalism to mitigate its devastations.

The ‘indigenous critique’ suggests that, rather than some form of class-based mass programme to restructure our own mode of production, the solution to climate catastrophe is to ‘start giving back the land.’ (Here it’s following a fairly widespread form of reactionary identitarian discourse on indigineity.) Give it back to whom? To the present-day indigenous peoples of North America, who for the most part have cars and jobs and Social Security numbers, who have academic posts and social media, who do not confront capitalism from beyond a foundational ontological divide, but are as helplessly within it as any of the rest of us? (And meanwhile, what about Europe or China? Where are our magic noble savages?) Is ancestry or identity an expertise? Is living in a non-capitalist society now a hereditary condition?

Some indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and so on persist, long after the modes of production that gave rise to them have vanished. As we all know, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. But they’re also an artefact of modernity, which ceaselessly produces notions of wholesome authentic mystical nature in tandem with its production of consumer goods, ecological collapse, and death. Unless this relation is established, beliefs are all we get. ‘Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other.’ Think differently, see things differently, make all the right saintly gestures, defer to the most marginalised, and change nothing.

This racialisation is particularly obscene when you consider who else has made dire warnings about the environmental effects of private ownership in land. The encounter between capitalist and non-capitalist society didn’t only take place spatially, in the colonial world, but temporally, during the transition from feudalism. And the same critiques made by the Ni-Vanatu, and the Algonquians, and many more besides, were also expressed by insurrectionaries within Europe. Take just one instance: The Crying Sin of England, of not Caring for the Poor, the preacher John Moore’s 1653 polemic against primitive accumulation and the enclosure of common land: this would, he promised, lead to catastrophe, the impoverishment of the earth, the fury of God, the dissolution of the social ties that keep us human, the loss of sense and reason, the decoding of all codes. The ruling classes, ‘by their inclosure, would have no poore to live with them, nor by them, but delight to converse with Beasts; and to this purpose turn Corne in Grasse, and men into Beasts.’ He, too, saw things as they were. And he was right. Here we are, in a world in which the ruling classes have disarticulated themselves from society in general, in which cornfields are swallowed up by the desert, in which people pretend to be like animals in order to be taken seriously. The solution is obvious. Find the descendants of John Moore, and give back Norfolk.

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Here, there, everywhere

DIANA
You mean they actually shot this film while they were ripping off the bank?
HERRON
Yeah, wait till you see it. I don’t know whether to edit or leave it raw.
Network (1976)

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This is not the first time a killer has livestreamed their own crimes. In 2015, two journalists were murdered in Roanoke, Virginia by a man who filmed himself walking up to his victims, raising his gun, and opening fire. In April 2017, a man was shot on the street in Cleveland by a killer who uploaded the footage to Facebook. That same month, in Phuket, a man streamed himself murdering his own eleven-month-old daughter. This was always going to happen. The technologies promised to link us, to abolish distance, to turn everywhere into a potential collective here – and the result is that every square inch of the Earth is now the scene of the crime. There was a period between the abolition of public hanging and the invention of the GoPro in which death was no longer a mass spectacle. That time is over. We’re in the globe-straddling charnel-house. The conveyor belt to the abattoir runs through the palm of your hand.

But this killing is different. Today, a shooter filmed himself opening fire in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the time of writing, forty-nine people were killed. And it wasn’t just broadcast online: it was the internet. Not a representation of real-world events within digital media, but online culture, online pathologies, online idiocy, in the form of bullets and blood. People who’d come to New Zealand as refugees, fleeing distant wars that never appeared as tracked and fungible images, were killed by a man who’d learned he should do so from a lifetime festering in the world inside the screens. Subscribe to PewDiePie, he said, and then he opened fire.

A few years ago, people like me were made vaguely aware of the fact that a Swedish man who played video games while yelling constantly in a high, squeaky, annoying voice was now a millionaire. This was added to the mounting pile of evidence that the world was incurably broken, and we mostly ignored it. Then, a few years later, as these people tend to do, he shouted a racial slur while firing pretend guns at pretend enemies. This caused a kind of unreal explosion. Politics happened in the way that politics happens online: preening and denunciations, bile and squabbling, the staking-out of increasingly extreme positions, as a joke, as a posture, in the expanding imperium between the impossible zones of the real and the fake. Suddenly this obnoxious Swede was promoting white nationalists and paying people to hold up signs that read death to all Jews. How did this happen? It’s not clear. But it should be obvious that the default online-left position, that this guy is simply a Nazi, that happened to also be a YouTube celebrity, is not enough. Something is breeding in there, in the screens, uncoiling itself in the dialectic of vitriol, and it kills.

This was, of course, before everything, a racist attack, a nativist attack, a fascist attack, and a right-wing attack. But something like the right wing doesn’t have form or existence outside of the actual modes of society. Fascism isn’t independently created out of the aether, and it doesn’t pop fully-formed into existence within someone’s malfunctioning brain. The conditions inhere everywhere. There are the peddlers of respectable racism, the ones who tepidly suggest that those people aren’t really like us, are they, and then profess to be shocked when someone distils all these just-asking-questions into bloodshed. For the most part, people’s thoughts and actions are drawn from the cultural storehouses of possible thoughts and possible deeds, and those reserves are packed with racism. There’s a material base here, in the global division of labour, in the political economy of resource extraction, in the exploitation of low-wage migrant labour, in the unprecedented disposability of the global working class. But the specific form of these reactionary politics, and the oily everywhere-ness of their spread, is unquestionably that of the internet. And the internet is not only ephemeral; it’s woven deep into the structures of social and economic life.

In his online manifesto, the Christchurch killer talks like the internet. He regurgitates Stormfront’s favourite Kipling poems. He laces his population-replacement theories with memes and copypasta. But his attitudes are coded by mass communications on a far more fundamental level. He makes clear that he killed these people to intensify the online discourse. Just like the big tech firms, he wants more people engaged in the Conversation, more intensely, more of the time. He wants people to lash out at their favourite microceleb hate-figures, to say their favourite lines, to pick their habitual fights. Naturally, it’s worked. Death is what keeps the internet spinning.

His ideology is an internet ideology. In an age of digital disintegration, the collapse of sociality and of meaningful support structures, their replacement with shifting and volatile mediated affinities, is it surprising that so many people become fixated on the idea of organic and biological racial identities? In the age of curation and cancellation, rigid structures of the aligned and excluded, the followed and the blocked, shouldn’t we expect a politics that can only see heterogeneity as threat? When everywhere is everywhere else, when blocks of meaning roll over and flatten the particularities of the world, why wouldn’t it be easy to see forty-nine living human beings as only a hollowed otherness, and decide to kill them?

The killer was born in Australia. He committed his murders in New Zealand. In his manifesto, he complains repeatedly that Muslims are gaining sovereignty over ‘European land.’ It hardly needs pointing out that both Australia and New Zealand are very far away from Europe. And New Zealand in particular is very explicitly not European land. Its colonial history is, of course, one of bloodshed and theft – but with the Treaty of Waitangi now semi-formally enshrined as the country’s founding document, there is at least some measure of recognition by the State of tino rangatiratanga, Maori dominion over the land, within the transfer of sovereignty to the Crown. Unlike many colonised populations, the Maori were formally given the rights and privileges of British subjects; they’ve had designated political representation in New Zealand’s parliament since 1867. Like Australia, New Zealand maintained restrictive border policies in the twentieth century that aimed to keep out non-white migrants – but unlike in Australia, pakeha New Zealanders could never claim to constitute the sole political subject of the State. The ethno-nationalist discourses of the killer have nothing to do with the actual structures of race and politics in New Zealand. As always, the reactionary politics that claims to want to protect distinct cultures from global homogenisation actually ends up erasing all such differences. It’s an amalgam of European nativism and American clash-of-civilisations mythology, along with personal grievance and theatrical posturing. It’s the internet.

This should be disturbing. Like many socialists of my generation and my class, my own politics were developed online, refined online, and exercised online. Even in ‘real-world’ socialist movements like Momentum or the DSA, much of the formal structure is plugged in to digital communications. Online ideological petri dishes set the agenda and define the terms of discussion, and produce monsters. This is not to draw a moral equivalence. The internetworked right commits brutal massacres; the internetworked left mostly turns pissily on itself. But it would be extremely stupid to believe that the internet has turned the right into a viral plague, and had no ill effect whatsoever on the left. These technologies impose the same conditions on everyone that becomes mediated by them – and if ideology is not material, then it’s no defence against the same swamping, polarising, homogenising, and volatilising processes that gave us the atrocity in Christchurch. We ourselves are not immune. And rather than condemning an abstractly conceived ‘hatred’ from the outside, the task is to see how far we’ve sunk into the slaughterhouse of everywhere, and make urgent plans for an escape.

Why won’t you push the button?

Nuclear war is not only fabulous because one can only talk about it, but because the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry, psycho-rhetoric, and the most cursory, the most archaic, the most crudely opinionated psychagogy, the most vulgar psychology.
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)

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Imagine if a politician openly promised, during a campaign, that they would be willing to burn people alive. They come to knock on your door, bright and smiling in a freshly crinkled rosette: unlike my opponent, who doesn’t care about your security and the security of your family, I will personally subject someone to sixty million-degree heat, so that their fat melts and their bones are charred and their eyeballs burst and their bodies crumble into toxic dust. I will torture other people by burning their skin, I will torch their flesh away and leave them with open wounds bubbling with disease. They will die slowly. I will poison others; their organs will fail and they will shit out their guts in agony. I will do this to people who have done nothing wrong, to families, to children, to their pets; one by one, I will burn them to death. For you. For your security.

This is what the bomb did to Hiroshima. This is utter barbarism. Even saying that you would do it is utter barbarism. Of course, the nuclear deterrent only works if you say that you’re prepared to use it – which just demonstrates that we shouldn’t have it, that the whole logical structure of nuclear deterrence is abominable. Any tool whose mere existence forces you to say the unspeakable is not worth having; a hammer that causes you to make death threats is not fit for purpose. Anyone who threatens the world with blinding destruction in unspecified circumstances is simply not responsible enough to hold power. There is no situation in which the use of these weapons is ever justified – never, not in the most tortured hypotheticals of an undergraduate ethics seminar, not in the most Boschian secondary worlds inhabited by right-wing fantasists. If a nuclear attack on Britain has already been launched, retaliation will save nobody; it would just be the final act of spite in a long spiteful history. Nobody would accept a politician who threatened from the podium on live TV to personally burn one person to death, so why should we accept the idea of burning millions?

But what’s strange about the moral case against nuclear weapons – they cause horrendous suffering, must never be used, and should not exist – is that it doesn’t work.

We saw this on Friday night’s Question Time debate, as a parade of questioners took Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to task over his refusal to say that he would ‘push the button’ and initiate an attack. Theresa May has said that she would press the button in a first strike; Owen Smith, during the last leadership contest, said the same thing. This seems to be a fairly popular decision; the thoughtless destruction of everything that exists plays well with the British public. More than that: it’s demanded; according to the eldritch nostrums that structure British political life, if you’re not willing to promise horrendous genocide with the breezy psychopathy of some ancient khagan drinking from the skulls of his enemies, you can’t be trusted to keep us safe. The appetite for murder is incalculable. After Corbyn ruled out a first strike, one member of the public – red-faced, ageing, some sad retired insurance salesman comforting himself in his flabby decline with thoughts of the fiery extermination of humanity – demanded to know if he’d use Trident as a second strike: the British people demand death from beyond the grave; he’d die gladly if he knew that a few million innocent Iranians or Koreans went too.

It’s striking how sharply the inhuman vastness of nuclear war contrasts with the pettiness and finitude and awfulness of the people who demand it. The first question on nuclear weapons came from one Adam Murgatroyd, who looks exactly how you’d expect, some simpering Tory ponce with his slicked-back hair and his practised raise of an eyebrow. ‘It’s disconcerting,’ he later told the press, ‘that we could potentially in six days’ time have a prime minister who wouldn’t be prepared to protect British lives over someone else’s life.’ Imagine the air poisoned, the soil dying, the biosphere eradicated, the grand flailing tragedy of humanity and its aspirations put to an abrupt stop, the families huddling their loved ones close as the shock wave hits, knowing they’re about to die – and all because some limp umbrella of a man wanted a leader who’d make the right kind of nationalistic hoots about defence. Now I am become Adam from the BBC studio audience, destroyer of worlds.

We should consider the questions of the atomic age in fear and trembling. Instead we get the blearing idiocy of common sense, always pointing us to the wrong and most monstrous answer. The process of thinking about the red button has become as automatic as the button itself.

Nuclear war is unthinkable, in the most literal sense. It has no end and no interpretation; it is invisible, ungraspable, unconscionable. There is a significant cultural industry dedicated to depicting nuclear war precisely because it’s impossible, because we’re trying to find ways to depict a looming absence of everything, a nothing that can never be depicted. (This is why Derrida considers the real literature of the nuclear age to not be works that directly imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but the texts of Kafka, Mallarmé, and Joyce – the writing that comes closest to touching its own finitude and destructibility.) The death drive, Kristeva writes, is not represented in the unconscious, because the unconscious can not admit negation – only, as Freud puts it, ‘contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength.’ Instead, Kristeva writes, there is a ‘hiatus, spacing, or blank that constitutes death for the unconscious.’ Death is in the cadence of the psyche, the pause that gives regularity and reason to its articulation, the silence against which it expresses itself. Nuclear war is the death of politics and administration, the emptiness in which politics speaks. This is why petty, stupid bureaucrats, small people with small concerns, who mostly fuss about which type of coffee plays best with the focus-group voters, have to occasionally declare that they would take on the titanic task of wiping out all of human history. They have to announce their fidelity to the interior non-substance of our political discourse, which is the death of every living thing. Then they’re allowed to go on and talk about parking spaces and healthy eating and cutting taxes and aspiration. Everything is in its unplace, all policy is properly situated at ground zero, where the bombs will fall.

This silence is not pure unsignifying madness: it’s the final home of rationality. The sense in which we talk about reason – pure objectivity, emotionlessness, abstract numerical calculation, a kind of ratio that would have seemed very strange to, for instance, the medieval Europeans who helped first define it – is a product of the nuclear age. It’s well known that game theory, in which human decisions are modelled according to the assumption that everyone is a calculating and atomised individual who only wants to maximise their utility – was first taken up as a praxis to model the Cold War nuclear standoff, and was only then applied to all areas of social and economic life. But the most basic relay mechanisms of nuclear weapons by themselves enforce a post-politics. Paul Virilio notes that, as the warning times for a nuclear attack and a possible counter-attack shrunk from fifteen minutes to ten minutes to one, the effect was that of ‘finally abolishing the Head of state’s power of reflection and decision in favour of a pure and simple automation of defence systems… After having been the equivalent of total war the war machine suddenly becomes the very decision for war.‘ Somewhere, various sets of computer systems analyse the likelihood of an unprovoked strike and try to pre-empt it; when the end comes, it won’t be for explicable political goals, but out of a pure uninflected machine-reason, and none of us will ever know why. Reason and madness lose their distinction here. See Nixon, the shit Hamlet with his ‘madman doctrine,’ threatening to unleash the powers of apocalyptic calculation; see the tortured but valid syllogisms by which every democratic British leader has to make gruesome threats against the world. This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

Just like austerity or the massacre-by-inaction on Europe’s waters, the logic of nuclear weapons is not some pre-Kantian pure reason without a social or epistemological substrate. Nuclear weapons are, first of all, weapons in the class struggle. The greatest vector for socialism has always been war – in war, the ruling classes arm and mobilise the proletariat, tell them that they have the power to build the fate of nations, and then send them off to die; it’s only a matter of time before these workers decide that this power could be put to better use, and the people taking the most principled stand against these senseless wars have always been Communists. War between the powers became too great a threat to power itself. Nuclear weapons abolish this: abstract mobilisation, the disappearance of territory, the omnipresence of the front. Working classes win by striating and reinterpreting space – building barricades, occupying squares, cutting off the flows of production and exchange at crucial points – and under the global sovereignty of the bomb there is no such thing as space. Instead, our role is simply to die, in endless billions. But it all makes sense; every step is perfectly rational. It’s a death you can trust, to keep you and your family safe.

In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek

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Yesterday, Slavoj Žižek responded to my earlier critique of his discussion of the migrant crisis. There are a few strange moments in his piece – I’ve never before read anyone refer to ‘a hoax brilliantly performed by [the] Daily Currant‘ – but the essay is mostly dominated by a familiar discussion of the antinomies of liberal tolerance. Žižek has made a name for himself by bravely challenging leftist dogmas on the merits of multiculturalism, with a critique so puckish and devastating that, as many people have pointed out, it’s virtually indistinguishable from overt right-wing nativism. I’m not going to repeat this argument – in fact, I agree with Žižek: there is something deeply wrong with the logic of liberal multiculturalism, but rather than subjecting it to any serious critique, he only reproduces its worst aspects. To borrow a phrase of which he’s fond, his criticism is only the obverse of its object. Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism – as Marxists and Freudians know, the individual subject isn’t an originary Democritean atom but something constructed – any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory. Class analysis is carried out with the goal of abolishing class altogether, an antihumanism that aims to restore the human; multiculturalism reifies and hypostasises culture into an eternal absolute. Multiculturalism does not see a person who happens to be Muslim, it sees Islam embodied, and while it might call for all (assumed) differences to be respected, the actual person it addresses is approached only as a signifier of cultural difference. Within these synchronic cultural blocs any internal difference is erased; the fact that these cultures or ways of life are abstractions formed out a multiplicity of real behaviours is abandoned to a mystical idealism. The proper term for this kind of approach is racism. As Žižek himself frequently argues, the primary pathology of the racist is to refuse to see the Jew or the Muslim or the Roma as a person, but to see them only as an embodiment of Jew-ness, Muslim-ness, Roma-ness. So what, then, are we to make of his statement that ‘Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humour, which we consider a part of our freedoms’? Or when he approving quotes Yevgeny Grishkovetz, who writes that ‘they [migrants] have no idea of European values, lifestyles and traditions, multiculturalism or tolerance’? Or when he says of migrants that that ‘their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state’? Isn’t the appeal to the national or cultural way of life as fundamentally constitutive of subjectivity one that’s generally made by fascists?

Much of this material is essentially a reiteration of his earlier essay in the London Review of Books, and I think it can stand (or fall) on its own merits. But his critique of my position is not just ideologically suspect; it verges on the illiterate.

In discussing my response to his initial argument in the LRB, Žižek zeroes in on a single parenthetical statement, in which I write that even if the dream migrants have of a good life in Norway is impossible, it functions as a transcendent object of desire, and it’s strange behaviour for a Lacanian to insist on the unreality of that object and to urge someone to be more realistic. This is, Žižek writes, ‘simply ridiculous, theoretical nonsense.’ His criticism can be read in two ways. Either his charge is that I’ve made a nonsense out of the theory, misapplying and distorting Lacanian concepts – or that I’m indulging in academic obscurantism, waffling on about obscure psychoanalytical theory while the migrants are charging in to destroy our cherished European way of life. Weirdly, the latter reading appears to be the correct one.

The ideal migrants hold of a better life in Europe is not objet petit a, Žižek writes – it’s ‘a fantasy.’ He continues: ‘Refugees who want to reach Norway present an exemplary case of ideological fantasy—a fantasy-formation that obfuscates the inherent antagonisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.’ In what sense is the word ‘fantasy’ being deployed here? In general, non-theoretical usage it refers to an imagined scenario that simply can’t take place: a deluded person is living in a fantasy-world, they need to snap out of it and rejoin reality. In this sense it makes perfect sense to talk about fantasy as something that ‘obfuscates inherent antagonisms.’ In psychoanalysis, it’d be a contradiction in terms: fantasy is that which structures reality, and even if it’s a symptom, the symptom is always a sign to be interpreted, rather than a cloud that obfuscates.

Let’s say, for the sake of immanence, that Žižek is right, and the good life in Norway is not object petit a but a fantasy. (Not that these two terms stand in any kind of opposition – the matheme of fantasy, $ a, merely represents the barred subject’s relation to that object.) In Freud, the fantasy is integral to sexual life and to life itself. ‘Life, as we find it, is too hard for us […] in order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.’ While for Freud the fantasies are ‘illusions in contrast with reality,’ they remain ‘psychically effective.’ He compares them directly with art and with scientific activity, both of which are ‘deflections,’ but both of which also allow access to truth. With Lacan, the role of fantasy in constituting the subject and its mental life is emphasised: as Žižek himself writes elsewhere, ‘in the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy lies on the side of reality.’ Lacan’s most famous dictum is that il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel; fantasy is the means by which love manages to persist anyway. The other is always lacking, their gaze is always a void, their figure is always the object of a certain ambivalence, they can never give you what you want. Fantasy compensates for this essential lack in the other; it’s what allows desire for the other to take place despite their inability to fulfil it. From the Écrits: ‘Fantasy is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire.’ This is not the fantasy that Žižek is talking about when he talks about migrants in Europe; he never allows his Lacanianism to actually inflect his politics, because the two are not reconcilable. In Lacanian terminology, what Žižek identifies as a fundamental disparity between ‘our’ civilised European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called a asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here – what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.

One final point. For decades, Marxists have made use of psychoanalytic theory; it’s sometimes easy to forget that Freud and Lacan were not themselves Marxists. In The Question of a Weltanschauung Freud, the Schopenhauerian pessimist, dismisses the Marxist theory of history as a ‘precipitate of the obscure Hegelian philosophy in whose school Marx graduated’ and laments that in the Soviet Union ‘any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden, doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic church.’ But if he wasn’t a Communist, he was a refugee. When the Nazis absorbed Austria in 1938, Freud escaped to London, fleeing those who would have murdered him with all of Europe’s Jews. (Four of his sisters died in the concentration camps.) He remained there until his death, twenty days after the declaration of war in September 1939. The British media of the time was full of familiar sentiments: fear of the tide of European Jews coming into Britain, represented as rats in cartoons, bringing with them nasty foreign diseases like revolutionary Communism, not respecting our way of life. Did Sigmund Freud abandon his Viennese ‘way of life’ for that of the British Empire? Successive attempts by British governments to define a discrete set of ‘British values’ have generally ended up producing bland nothings, but if we had to identify one absolutely central feature of the national character, it would have to be this: on absolutely no account whatsoever are you to talk about sex. Freud continued his psychoanalytic practice up until his death; we can only assume that this was a cultural injunction he failed to respect. And nor should he.

My own ancestors were Jewish migrants to Britain; had they remained in the Pale of Settlement, their children may well have been incinerated in Auschwitz, and I would have never lived to write these words. But still I’m not content with the situation we have: as a Marxist and a communist, I’m committed to a different and better world, one that does not yet exist. Call it Norway if you want. Žižek, who appears to have abandoned liberation, might sneer. And this may well be, in the conventional sense of the word, a fantasy. But it’s still one that absolutely must be maintained.

Building Norway: a critique of Slavoj Žižek

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration – the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This language isn’t just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people – children included – can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; it’s only once bodies wash up on beaches that there’s an imperative to act. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj Žižek’s essay on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: ‘The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe…’ What comes next is even more unsettling: Žižek compares the European response to the crisis to Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief, though – Europe is displaying ‘a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on learning we have a terminal illness.’ Migrants aren’t just a flood; Žižek resurrects a far more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer, a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction; he’s not himself making the comparison; it’s something that could be very plausibly dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, there’s no Freud, Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, there’s nothing that could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true. Clearly Žižek doesn’t agree: what The Non-Existence of Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal man’s take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

Žižek’s argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised like this. The migration ‘crisis’ currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time, migrants display an ‘enigmatically utopian’ demand: they don’t just want to arrive somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to camp in squalid conditions in Calais are ‘not satisfied with France’ and demand Britain instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a good life for themselves and their children in Norway – but, Žižek insists, ‘there is no Norway, not even in Norway.’ Life isn’t fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the invaders, but the ‘standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism’ – to insist that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is ‘merely the obverse of anti-immigrant brutality,’ because it accepts that the defence of one’s way of life is in contradiction with ‘ethical universalism.’ But rather than demonstrating that this is a false opposition, however, Žižek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the (nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. ‘Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals?’ After indulging in this airily speculative rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, Žižek finally gets down to some serious prescriptivism. Europe must ‘reassert its commitment’ to the dignified treatment of refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it ‘must impose clear rules and regulations,’ through a strengthened central European authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the world that produce migration. ‘Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.’ And they must be backed up by brutal state violence.

There is a lot that’s deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the primary problem is the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the master-signifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? Žižek’s essay seems to be as uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we should at least be open to the idea that their ‘values’ and ways of life will not be too different from those of bourgeois Europe.

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Žižek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also – isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all.’ Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented – but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Žižek can only articulate the European ‘way of life’ in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that Žižek has deployed himself – see his discussion of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of course, even if all this weren’t the case – so what? Must anyone who doesn’t embody a certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants’ crisis is happening now? Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does Žižek perform this total abandonment of theory? His ‘straightforward’ approach results in some highly uncomfortable formulations – take, for instance, the line that ‘refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely.’ Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of ‘price’ with ‘economy.’ A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself situated within some greater and more general economy – one that, under conditions of capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of economy as such, Žižek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources. Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on Žižek’s essay. A properly Marxist critique doesn’t just look at what a text says, but what it does, and to whom it’s speaking. Žižek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun throughout, but who is this ‘we’? Only and always the settled Europeans. It’s never once considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they could be reading the London Review of Books. When Žižek uses the vocative case, when he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do, it’s even more obvious who he’s talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is, to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence of Norway isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on ‘radical economic change,’ this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Žižek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.

Fragments against the ruin

1. Syriza are an anti-austerity party, and they have an excellent record when it comes to opposing austerity. They opposed the measures put forward by Greece’s creditors in February. They opposed the plan of agreement drawn up in June, and put it to a referendum. They opposed the harsh and punitive measures suggested by Germany over the weekend. Wherever the threat of austerity emerges in Greece, Syriza are on hand to heroically oppose it. They’ll oppose the sunset, they’ll oppose the locusts as they come in their chattering thousands to strip green islands to naked rock, and when they wheeze their dying breaths, cold and emaciated on soggy mattresses, they’ll oppose that too. Despite their pleas for an alternative, they’ve never approached austerity as anything other than a deterministic inevitability. It might be time to question how much value there actually is in ‘anti-austerity’ politics: it’s a formation in which opposing something has come to function as an effective substitute for actually doing anything about it. Anti-austerity movements scream their refusal to participate in the grand, stupid mechanism of austerity – and then do so anyway. These things are not opposed to each other.

2. In this context, the strange farce of the referendum starts to make a twisted sort of sense. The population of Greece overwhelmingly voted against austerity measures demanded by the Troika, only for the government of Greece to then almost immediately submit a set of proposals that mirrored them in every detail. In fact, Prime Minister Tsipras wrote to his creditors conceding to almost all of their demands before the referendum had even taken place. But the referendum was never intended to actually decide anything; after all, the plan of agreement to be accepted or rejected was no longer even on the table. It was always, explicitly, to be a gesture of rejection, something purely performative, which for some reason Syriza thought might help them negotiate a fairer deal.

3. Its ‘no’ was a pure ‘no’; there was no indication what the result of this rejection would be, because there was never to be a result. This isn’t far from what Hegel describes as ‘abstract negation’. Abstract negation is the form of negation based on an eternal and static binary of true and false or being and nothingness: under abstract negation what is negated is cast into pure nothingness. The act of negation, rather than producing a new state of affairs, instead simply cancels out everything; in the end, it doesn’t really matter what is being negated. Hegel’s complaint isn’t that abstract negation is too destructive, but that it isn’t destructive enough: abstract negation always fails. It sees the nothingness into which it condemns that which is negated as an absence that precedes any particular negation, while the dialectic recognises that any particular negation will continue to express the content of that which is negated, as ‘the nothingness of that from which it results. A negation built on stasis will remain static; without any process of sublation, the negated object will slowly achieve a kind of zombie rebirth, crawling on skeletal hands out the abyss of its own cancellation. This is how 61% of Greek voters managed to reject austerity, only for their government to then triumphantly impose it as the culmination of their democratic will.

4. Most journalists don’t know much about Greece, but they have been to Oxbridge, which is why it’s hard to read anything on the situation without some reference to Sophocles or Aeschylus. What would Thucydides make of the European bond market? Isn’t Tsipras a modern Priam of Troy? This is nonsense. There is a text that can help us understand what’s happening in Greece, but it’s not from some cartoon antiquity. In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs we meet Severin, a sick and sensitive young man, exhausted by Northern civilisation, an admirer of the free sensuality of Greece. He seemingly wills a portrait of the goddess Venus into life as Wanda, an impish and imperious woman; the two draw up a contract in which Severin agrees to be her slave, and enter into a relationship. Theirs is not, as it’s been described, a sado-masochistic relationship, but one between masochists: Wanda, too, wants to be dominated and humiliated, and because Severin is unable to do this for her, she soon begins to lose her love for him. The identification of masochism as an inverse of sadism is troubled from the start: Fifty Shades aside, sadists don’t tend to write contracts with their victims. Sadism is mechanical and automatic, from the distant burning cruelty of the stars to the bloodstained fury of all wild animals; de Sade’s grotesques don’t draw up contracts, they just do whatever they want. Laws and agreements are functions of a willed, deliberate masochism. (As Deleuze writes, the masochist ‘aims not to mitigate the law but on the contrary to emphasise its extreme severity.’) In the end Wanda, now disgusted by her slave, falls for a brutish, Byronic, ‘barbarian’ Greek. First she rejects Severin, then she declares her love for him, makes him agree to put aside his masochism and enter into a ‘normal’, sadistic relationship – and then ties him to a bed, whereupon the Greek suddenly appears, to ‘whip all poetry from him.’ This Greek is a walking dildo; he dies before long, and for all his displays of dominance he only really existed to satisfy Wanda’s masochistic desires. Freud, with whom the idea of masochism as an inverted sadism originates, was still troubled throughout his career by the idea of a ‘primary masochism’. By the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle he was ready to admit its existence, but his death drive is still fundamentally ambiguous: on the one hand it’s a desire to return to an inorganic stillness, on the other it’s just a redirection of the universal sadistic impulses against the self. In fact, this ambiguity goes back to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905; at the same time as he describes masochism as an inverted sadism, he also connects sadism with cannibalism. The Bemächtigungsapparatus, or structure of domination, exists only to serve the desires of another, ‘ontogenetically prior’ impulse – but, syntactically, it’s never clear whether this prior impulse is cannibalism or masochism. (After all, in actually existing BDSM relationships, the real power always belongs to the submissive partner: theirs is the limit that must not be crossed.) In the end, it’s far easier for Freud to imagine that we want to eat each other than to think that, when surrounded by a universal and impersonal sadism without subject, the immediate human response is to want to give in to it. The German response to Syriza’s desperate, humiliated proposals – to reject them, and insist on something even harsher, even though it may well end up harming them – has been strongly criticised, but in a way Greece’s creditors are only following the blank and impersonal laws of capital. Their sadism is the sadism of the unliving. Solidarity with Greece shouldn’t imply sympathy for Syriza: they could have got out of this dually-masochistic contract if they wanted (throughout the referendum period it was assumed that Greece was drawing up secret plans for an exit from the Euro; now it’s been revealed that beyond a few tiny committees, they really weren’t); instead they’re bringing in austerity as the fulfilment of their own desires.

5. Among a few of Syriza’s defenders, there’s a complaint that left-wing critics seem to want Greece to fling itself into uncertainty for the sake of a few old Marxist orthodoxies. From our armchairs in the insulated north, we leftier-than-thou dilettantes demand that an entire country ruin itself, just so that we can get the vicarious thrill of resistance. But the ruin is already here. We’re living in it. The deal that Greece has agreed to will enforce mandatory privatisations, automatic spending cuts, and a mechanism to ensure that all these measures are locked outside the realm of politics. The anti-austerity party has delivered the forces of austerity a far more total victory than the old ND-Pasok coalition ever could – they, at least, had to deal with a strong domestic opposition. This ruin is all of Europe’s. In his pre-referendum speech, Tsipras made constant, fawning references to ‘European ideals’ betrayed by the EU, but of course Europe has never really existed. It’s a spur of Asia with unwarranted pretensions, and because it has no geographical reality, it’s had to invent a cultural one. In the years after the collapse of the Mediterranean world, Europe and Christendom were almost identical concepts; after that, Europe was defined by white skin and a habit of imperial massacre elsewhere in the world. Now, Europe is best defined as the place where they implement austerity. Any movement that tries to change this will have to start by abolishing Europe altogether.

6. After the fall of the Roman empire, locals plundered its grand ruins for stones to build homes and churches. For some reason this is generally treated as a terrible philistinism, but in fact it’s determinate negation in action: the cancellation of something already cancelled in order to build something new. It’s better to have a house than a ruin. In Greece, there are still factions willing to oppose the destruction of the country, including the KKE, the Greek Communist Party, and PAME, the All-Workers Militant Front. These groups have consistently warned against Syriza’s brand of capital-friendly anti-austerity politics; there are plans for strikes and demonstrations; the resistance continues. Of course, it’s not enough to simply negate the disaster, and expect it to then be done with. Against the blank and useless negationism of Syriza, it might now be necessary to turn the ruins into a proper structure: to be not against austerity, but for communism.

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.

Green-eyed loco men

“Nilbog! That’s…”

Forgive me, but the much-vaunted ‘Green Surge’ doesn’t sound like the most important underground political shift in a generation. It doesn’t sound like politics at all. It’s a disease, one of those old medieval sicknesses that would suddenly sweep its bile-trimmed cloak across a nation and then vanish, leaving modern historians baffled. What caused the Green Surge? Why was it that thousands of people in 13th-century England spewed this strange green substance from every possible orifice before dying in their inexplicable filth? From what infected pits of the body did the Green Surge spring? Contemporary scientists suggest some kind of virus, an organism too blind and stupid to know not to kill its host, possibly carried to Europe with seafaring rats. The people of the time knew better. These sicknesses come with the miasma that wafts into towns with the morning breeze, carrying with it the stench of undrained marshes and dense bogs, the foulness of rotting vegetable matter and the eructations of unclean animals. Like a rolling, invisible tide, sweeping past the fragile barriers that separate civilisation from all that swarming organic decay upon which the social limpet is encrusted; the stinking revenge of the English countryside, in all its ancient, unknowable evil. Nature kills.

According to the Green Party itself, the Green Surge is actually a sudden exponential spike in their membership, which has since the beginning of the year given them more paying party members than either Ukip or the Liberal Democrats – but then these people shouldn’t be trusted. The Greens aren’t a political party, they’re a cult. American politics are often described as a circus: they’ve got the flashing lights and booming announcers, the roving lights that settle on some terrified elephant shuffling along a high fiscal tightrope. Every American politician is inescapably clownish, with their heavy caking of make-up, their pathetic and seedy desire to entertain that only terrifies the children, and the sure knowledge that they’ll all eventually all die strung out on prescription painkillers in a lonely ranch somewhere. British politics is less refined, less glossy. It harkens back to a more earthy form of entertainment: parliamentary procedure is a gang of witless peasants pushing each other into the village midden. But even among all these gormless shit-splattered idiots, the Green Party might be the worst. They’re the only ones who actually want to roll around in all that natural, organic filth. They want it with such a seriousness that the cult is the only available working model. Eco-scientology: a ghastly dead-eyed vegetable legion, a slow cellulose celebration of every tuberous bloat in the ranks of the Turnip People. You can see Green Party members canvassing on any given Sunday in farmers’ markets and greengrocers. One of us, they chant through brussels-sprout blob mouths, staring at a bag of spinach with a fraternal reverence. One of us, they implore the silent ranks of moulding courgettes. One of us, they yelp as they fuck a lettuce. One of us. Any politics that’s not grounded in a fundamental disdain for all vegetables is not worthy of the name.

God knows why, but people – normal, ordinarily sensible people – actually plan on voting for this gang of dendrophile lunatics. Ask them why, and they’ll come up with the usual platitudes: a break from politics as usual, the chance for a fairer society, a different way of doing things. Haven’t we learned anything? This was the same brave cry thousands of students roared five years ago as they flung themselves into the fathomless void of Nick Clegg’s conscience, like young Hashishim from the walls of Alamut. The Greens are a chiliastic suicide cult as mad and deadly as the worst of them. Their logo literally depicts the world in flames. They, too, are waiting for the aliens to come and whisk them away: they’re here to prepare the ground for the final victory of the plants. The tendrils that will twist their way through the mortar of our homes, the scraggly blotches of lichen that will expand upon the oily surfaces of our great artworks. The seething, bubbling, rotting stupidity of mere life, Utopia and apocalypse all at once.

To be fair to the potato folk, they’re in a strange and contradictory position. On the one hand they’re desperate to be seen as a real, proper, viable political party, which is why they’re collecting council seats like gym badges and clamouring for a spot in the TV debates. Not just a drifting protest march of sandal-wearing beardies, but an organisation capable of real competency in real politics. On the other, there’s still the buried desire to be an actually radical alternative, to delineate the absolute horizon of acceptable thought under conditions of post-everything modernity and, by circumscribing it, necessitate the faint conceptualisation of its Other, a thought and a programme that lies beyond any such limit. There’s nothing wrong with either of these desiderata, especially not the fact that they’re mutually contradictory. The problem is that rather than attempting any kind of synthesis, the Greens have settled on a policy of abstract negation. As Caroline Lucas, their only current MP, admitted, the Greens won’t be taking power any time soon; instead they exist to put forward some radical ideas which this political system needs so badly, and to push Labour to be far more progressive. What this actually means is that firstly, these radical ideas must remain as ideas and only ideas; even if framed as concrete proposals in a manifesto, their function is only ever entirely symbolic. And secondly, the radical nature of these ideas must always be essentially non-heterogeneous to the politics of the Labour front bench – a group which should, after its jolly little adventure in Iraq, be considered a genocidal party of a type with the Khmer Rouge and the Impuzamugambi. (And how should Labour be more radical? According to Lucas, by renationalising the railways. Icarus never dared dream higher.) The absolute worst of both worlds: at once a flighty, immaterial, nonsensical radicalism without its usual and important virtue of that unbounded creativity only possible through sheer silliness – and a grounded, measly, banal fascism that doesn’t even have the grisly sop of bare practicability. There’s nothing there. It’s a politics of the void; the unthinkingness of plant life.

Until recently, the Greens called for the replacement of the current benefits structure with a universal basic income of £72 a week. As a transitional demand, it’s not a terrible idea (even if it came with the quesily cauvinist name of a Citizens’ Income). That plan has been dropped from their 2015 manifesto. Why? Because the Green platform is structurally required to be a colossal failure of the imagination. Uniquely, the Greens could rename themselves the Why-Isn’t-Everything-Nicer Party without any substantial loss of meaning. Their vision is of a Britain powered by the kinetic energy of middle-aged people in cardigans pottering around allotments. A Britain where every family will bury acorns over the winter, where discussions of state will take place in a magnificent wooden treehouse, where thousands of protected voles will form a living quilt to scurry you off to sleep at night. (Plenary sessions at their party conferences – this is true – start with enforced ataraxy, a horrifying hippie-fascist ‘period of attunement’ in which the delegates engage in sixty seconds of ‘calm reflection’ to ‘clear their minds’ before the chakra-straining bustle of minor-party politics. Hard not to imagine them skimming off all actual thought like the fatty film from a psychic consommé.)  It’s the same kind of ideology that propels people into thinking that 3D-printed shovels can save Africa; that drinking soya milk will refoliate the rainforests, make dogs and cats be friends again, and resolve the subject-object dichotomy; that they’re ‘lifehacking’ or ‘finding ingenious solutions to everyday problems’ as thousands of twanging rubber bands bounce around their heads and smash all their glassware. Heads in the clouds, knees in the shit; social change reconceived as a single rubbery floret of overcooked broccoli.

Given that they’re without any real radical vision or plan for action, the Greens have had to organise themselves around some kind of principle beyond mere vegetative idiocy. Be like the cabbage might have worked as a rallying cry at the time of Puritan pietism, but it doesn’t sound quite so sexy now. So the Green movement has taken as its empty signifier of choice a concern for the environment. Fine: who could possibly be against saving the environment? But what environment? An environment is something that surrounds, encloses, and determines any individual phenomena, something that always remains fundamentally outside. What’s called the natural environment is not this thing; in fact, it no longer really exists. There’s not a scrap of the non-human world that hasn’t been invaded and encoded by capitalist practices. The bunnies fucking in the fields are being pimped out by greetings cards companies. Songbirds now chirp car-insurance adverts every fifteen minutes. Even those places that are supposedly still wild and untouched are, precisely by virtue of their exclusion from the order of commodity society, utterly enmeshed within it – after all, sovereignty is defined by its capacity to create a state of exception. The deep-sea tube worms that gulp nutrients from the fires at the centre of the earth, waving their sad frilly fringes alone and unseen in a world without sunlight – they’re pioneering examples of neoliberal entrepreneurship. The last really wild megafauna are the subject of a frantic exchange in images; more than anything, they’re used to advertise their own endangerment. Some Latin American governments are seeking money to not exploit their oil reserves – a proposal that, while gesturing towards the inviolable difference of the ‘natural’ world, actually effects its opposite: the gooey remains of our old dinosaur rulers can’t even gloop around in peace beneath the soil without being subjected to the laws of the commodity. If there is an environment that acts as a substrate to our everyday activities, it’s not nature, but late capitalism itself. The esoteric core of the Green leadership must know this. Just like the malignant nature that threatened earlier societies, capital is vast, profligate, and ravenous; it knows no limits to itself, but seeks to spread its evil to the furthest galaxies. It’s something we’re in but not of; a vast stalking alien demon. The abstract principle that the Greens want to protect is nothing more than the blank futility of the status quo.

Their ideology is utterly hollow, and they don’t even have the aesthetic sense to exult in its hollowness. But still thousands of people believe in it – not just that, they believe in it very seriously. Believing something stupid but magnificent is generally laudable. Believing something stupid and miserly is cultish. This is the difference between a cult and a religion: when you join a cult, you have to give up your imagination at the door.

It doesn’t matter that some of the things they actually say about climate and inequality and so on happen to be true. Imagine some young person telling you, with perfect straight-faced enthusiasm, as if they’d just discovered the most important fact in human history, some perfectly ordinary truth – that blue whales are bigger than any dinosaur, that ducks fly south in the winter, that the polar ice caps are melting, whatever. Now imagine that this person keeps telling you their fact, over and over again, and tries to cajole you into signing a petition to help their fact gain wider recognition, and begs you to join their organisation, dedicated to the propagation of this important fact. The truth-value of what they’re saying doesn’t matter. It’s in the earnestness, those wide sugar-blasted eyes: this person is insane. Someone who cares this much about waterfowl migration can’t put much of a value on human life. Any hierarchical organisation affirming cetacean vastness can only be a violent, paranoid sect. Should I run? Am I about to be bludgeoned to death with a clipboard? When the nails on those wiry, intense hands start to claw at my face, will anything be left of me apart from a messy splat on the pavement? This is how the Green Party functions.

This isn’t to say that earnestness by itself is a bad thing. But if you’re going to earnestly attach yourself to a political project, it should at least be one that has something to show for itself. Storming palaces, overthrowing humanity, war against the Sun, not a miserable set of policy prescriptions designed purely to appeal to the symbolic intelligence of disaffected lefties. Look at the areas where the Greens are projected to do well. Brighton, Oxford, west Bristol, and north London: middle class enclaves, petty fiefdoms of the bien pensant liberal bourgeoisie (full disclosure: I’ve lived in two of these places). Ukip is bearing down on the east coast like a horde of zimmer-frame vikings, the Tories soar over vast swathes of the countryside on ragged vulture wings, an infestation of Labour candidates scuttle through city sewers – and the Greens send their zapped-out cultists to canvass for votes in Brockley and Stokes Croft. For a counter-example, just look at Syriza in Greece. They also started as a small, weird party, and however many theoretical and practical mistakes they’ve made since taking power – and there have been plenty – their method of getting there was exemplary. They actually listened to the people, stepped in to provide services when the state couldn’t, helped to organise workers and position themselves as something radically heterogeneous to the governmental system. Even after taking office, they promised to keep the central locus of power on the streets; they knew that party politics is just an abstracted expression of the real, visceral thing. This was hailed as a radical innovation, but it’s not really anything new: the Black Panthers were doing the same thing in the 60s, giving out free school meals and getting shot by police for their efforts; Hezbollah have come to replace the State in much of Lebanon; even Occupy briefly experimented with moving homeless families into foreclosed properties. The Greens don’t seem to do anything of the sort. They’re far more interested in getting MPs and council seats; for them a 6% electoral representation is the highest radical goal. They move entirely within the repressive state apparatuses, as if politics is something that takes place only in constituency surgeries and the wormy tunnels of Westminster. When they do try to actually effectuate any kind of change it’s always as a local government – here in Brighton, for instance, where their rule has been an unmitigated disaster. But of course it has: the institutions they’re working in are structurally calibrated to make radical change an impossibility, which is why they’ve ended up as the simpering enforcers of austerity.

The election is looming, and even the most devout Green cultists will eventually be forced to admit that they’re not going to do especially well. But doing well was never the point. The political right is, of course, up in arms about some of their policies – they want to legalise ISIS but ban your bins! they want foxes and hunters to attend interspecies sensitivity courses! they want to give all our jobs to Mongolian yak-herders and teach our children to go into prostitution instead! – but far from delegitimising the Greens, these paranoid critiques actually recapitulate the narrative in which any of this might actually happen, in which the Greens are a genuine electoral viability. They’ve been compared to a watermelon, green on the outside, red on the inside; in fact they’re a cauliflower, grey and frothy without, grey and rubbery within. What this troupe of cauliflower-headed clowns want more than anything is your vote: the claws to dig them further into the bloated corpse of liberal democracy, the biofuel that keeps the dismal train of parliamentary radicalism chuffing, so they can continue their sad stomping march into the algae-choked sea. They want your vote with a vegetable hunger, eyeless, faceless, insatiable.  Don’t give it to them.

The poppy conspiracy

An enigmatic figure, common to all great mythologies: the blue demon, the sower and reaper of blood.

Conspiracy theory: British imperial history, in its entirety, is the result of a dark and ancient plot on the part of the poppies; a Papaveraceaen pact ranged against humanity. For centuries they schemed in their hedgerows and pastures, dreaming up strange and cruel ideas in those ugly flaring heads of theirs, communicating their vegetable conspiracies through codes carried on unwitting bees (while the rest of us just innocently assumed them to be having sex), until the time came to strike. Wherever empire goes, poppies seem to follow: maybe we’ve got it the wrong way round. Our ruling classes have had their alliance with these plants for a long time now; in a state of opiate suggestion, it’s very possible that the flowers could do whatever they wanted with them. The poppies wanted China: we took them there, and forced millions into somniferous slavery. The poppies wanted to grow undisturbed, and our artillery obediently churned up the fields of Europe for them. Even this century they’ve reclaimed Afghanistan with British helicopter support. Now the poppies, and their puppeted politicians, are so sure of their angiospermic power over us that they can demand we peons each wear their plastic sigil every November, to remind us who we belong to. Now angry mobs will descend on anyone who insults our overlords by burning them in effigy, or else these iconoclasts will be legally imprisoned for crimes against the dignity of plants that (let’s not forget) grow in shit. Poppies have been a symbol of death since the Greeks; the fury of the pro-poppy partisans is the fury of death against life; it’s almost certain that the poppies are trying to lure us into a nuclear war, so that when the dust clears from the sky and all the humans are dead, the scorched scrublands of the future will flower with nothing but giant irradiated poppies, twisting happily in the wind as it howls an unheard threnody through the shells of ruined cities.

Even if all this isn’t true – and I don’t see why it couldn’t be – it doesn’t matter. Conspiracy theory is always true in a sense, in form if not content. We’re not being controlled by creatures from outer space (whatever kind of lizard the Queen is, it’s one autocthonous to this lump of rock), the Jews aren’t putting fluorine in your water and gay propaganda on your TV, and however you arrange the little clues you’ll never be able to make a complete and rational account of things – but at the same time our society functions by conspiracy: no actions are innocent, every meeting of a two implies an excluded third. We’re constantly told that this is a time of synoptic openness; nothing is further from the truth. It no longer makes sense to say, for instance, that you’re going shopping: you’re being made complicit in a conspiracy between yourself and the supermarkets against some poor indentured Guinean cocoa farmer. Reading a book is a conspiracy between you and the author, going outside is a conspiracy between the earth and the Sun. We’re all complicit, we’re all somewhere in the cold staring pyramid, and poppies are growing in straggly clumps all along its base.

So what: it’s just a symbol, it’s just a nice way of remembering the dead. The problem is that every act of ritualised remembrance necessitates a simultaneous forgetting. What’s remembered is the ritual itself, the po-faced charade of monarchs and prime ministers placing those sinister circles of poppies by the Cenotaph, a two minutes’ silence indistinguishable from a two minutes’ acquiescence. The process of memory and its transformations must be wiped out in the moment of remembering. Nobody now seems to remember that the whole red-poppy charade was brought to Britain by none other than one Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the man responsible for the brutal waste of millions of lives at Passchendaele and the Somme. He struts around postwar London with a fake poppy in his lapel, and by its apotropaic magic the teeming ghosts of his victims no longer impede his sight but can only claw ineffectually at his shoulders. If the poppy were just a symbol inscribed with unfortunate militaristic overtones it could be opposed without much effort, but in fact it’s much more subtle and dangerous than that. We’re locked in a struggle against dreams and magic. Wearing a poppy doesn’t honour the victims of war, it banishes them. As long as we can fixate on the narcotic solemnity of those two clean red circles, we don’t need to think about the mud and gas and rats, or the victims of shellshock tried and shot by their own officers, or the millions of innocents slaughtered before and after the war in Ireland and India and Malaya and Kenya and Iraq, or those ethnic and religious minorities who are even today compelled to demonstrate their patriotism by wearing poppy-patterned hijabs. It’s a drug, something out of a Philip K Dick novel; it produces a new reality and traps us inside of it. If we’re to start really remembering the tragedy of war, the only way is to burn all the poppies, wipe out their evil magic with fire, and look our ghosts squarely in the eye.

Faced by an onslaught of politicised remembrance, the instinct from the Left seems to be to depoliticise, to present the war as a purely human tragedy, one in which any imposition of political meaning is something like blasphemy. To actually celebrate a victory is crass beyond imagining. This is bullshit. The First World War was a class war, an organised assault against the European working classes on the part of the European ruling classes – and we won. It wasn’t a war for freedom or democracy: even by the standards of miserable contemporary liberalism Britain in 1914 was not a democracy (neither was France, or Canada, or Australia, or the United States), for the simple reason that women and the working classes were denied the vote. Our victory didn’t coincide with the Armistice; it was uneven and generally rolled back, and it came at a terrible cost, but it was real. Everywhere returning troops struggled to overthrow the forces that had sent them off to die. Votes for women and the empowerment of labour unions in the United Kingdom, a surge of civil rights militancy in the United States, workers’ uprisings in Germany, and the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia. Still it’s not finished. Remembrance Sunday demands that we sit by passively and let the vague tones of history wash over us; our real history compels us – in honour of the dead, and in respect of their legacy – to fight.

This post is dedicated to the memory of those ten thousand soldiers who were killed in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and its taking effect ninety-six years ago, who gave their lives so that schoolchildren could easily learn that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

United Kingdämmerung

What happened to the English that turned them into the most evil people on the planet? There’s not much in their national prehistory to explain the horrors that would come later: the English are, even according to their own national mythology, a supremely wimpy tribe. When the other Germanic peoples were pushed from their homes by the constant westward pressure of the Huns they went off on grand adventures, pouring through the cracks of the rotting Roman empire, sacking the great cities of Africa, tearing Europe down and building it up again. The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, settled for a few damp and undefended islands on the surf-softened periphery of the continent. They could have had Byzantium; they settled for Basildon. Most historians now conclude that they didn’t even have the guts to conquer the place outright, but just slowly assimilated its existing residents into what passed for their culture.  No classic primal scene, just a miserable clump of soil in the middle of a grey sea, where the English festered, waiting to erupt. Maybe there was. Maybe they saw something on their journey, those first witlessly seasick Saxons, tactically chundering over the sides of the Britannia-bound banter boat. Some primordial nymph or siren lurking in the chilly waters of the North Sea, all blue tits and seaweed-strewn limbs and timeless malice, who emerged wreathed by storms and lighting before the bedraggled ancestors of our modern hell, saw a bunch of easy marks, and told them: accept my evil, and I will let you conquer the world. Something that struck madness and bloodlust into their hearts and those of their children even unto the hundredth generation. For centuries the promise went unfulfilled: the English had to stay cooped up in their island-prison, being periodically humiliated by the other dregs of Europe (such as the Normans, an utterly wretched gang of lost Vikings led by the walking embodiment of preening insecurity) and using their spare time to compose tediously alliterative poetry. But when it finally came to pass, it did so with raging hatred; four centuries of unrelenting revenge against the world.

When the Chinese set sail across the world, it was in pursuit of knowledge; when the Spanish did it, it was for gold and glory. The explorations of the English seem to have been propelled by a sense of fidgety restlessness, a brutally murderous boredom. For all the massacres committed by the Catholic powers in the New World, they at least left some gasping harried remnants of the old cultures. Where the English went, they tended to kill every living thing.  There are, by some accounts, only twenty-two countries that have not at some point or another been attacked by this top bunch of lads. (It’s still going on; every summer, systolic contractions in the metropole send out streams of English to wash up like an oil sick against beaches the world over.) The result is that the sickness of the Anglo-Saxons is now spread across the world: the boredom and fury of centuries of imprisonment on that rainy island in the North Atlantic; from the endless suburbs of the United States to the cultural voids of Australia there are everywhere scars on the landscape that will be forever England. And it’s nothing if not a sickness. On top of their sadistic psychopathy the English have over time absorbed every possible personality defect into their national psyche: a horrifying range of sexual neuroses, a repugnant patrician narcissism, an unbearable prudishness, a whole complex of perplexing delusional psychoses, all wrapped up in a code of socially mandated autism. The English eat terrible food, enjoy ugly saccharine literature, make art without any gleam of merit and TV shows so gut-knottingly awful it’s a wonder entire production teams don’t commit ritual suicide out of sheer embarrassment. It’s not even as if they’re unaware of it all: the English are obsessed with these signifiers of Englishness. Endless fetishes: umbrellas, cigars, rolled-up newspapers, nuclear-armed submarines. There have been antique god-kings less self-regarding than the English middle classes. These people honestly believe that if everyone else were more like them – if they liked tea and gin, if they were decent and polite as only those sitting on half a century of imperial slaughter can be – there wouldn’t be any more problems. It’s charming eccentricity, they clamour. It’s not: it’s lunacy. The English aren’t a race, they’re an infectious disease. So I entirely support Scottish aspirations for independence.

I’m not alone. An entire country is emerging into a chilly blue-and-white dawn, and the grotesque historical abomination known as the United Kingdom might finally be finished forever. The Scots can govern themselves: no more English, no more Tories, a chance to build something new and human. The problem is that it won’t really work. Not that this month’s referendum will fail – there’s enough reason to be optimistic, even factoring in the No campaign’s recent rebrand to the nauseating ‘no thanks,’ the revelation that Scottish independence forms part of a massive jihadi conspiracy to split the union, fears that bekilted diehard irredentist militias might start firing mortars into Newcastle in an attempt to return the border to Hadrian’s Wall, the looming presence of another royal baby, and so on. Most psephologists (onomatopoetic creatures; snake-tongued and disgusting) still predict a narrow victory for the unionists, but this means nothing: as any cursory reading of Hegel will show, the metaphysical force that drives world-historical transformations expresses itself through the subjective will rather than being constituted by it. It might be the case that, for all the white papers, nobody seems to be entirely sure what an independent Scotland would look like, beyond being different to things as they are now – but this isn’t a bad thing: every worthwhile political programme starts with an anguished cry of ‘not this.’ The problem is that, unless you squint at them very hard, this and not-this are entirely identical. What’s being offered is a shitty simulacrum of independence. An independent Scotland will keep our beloved ghastly peg-toothed Queen, and she will no doubt keep the vast tracts of Scotland in which she conducts her strange summer blood-rites. Scotland will likely attempt to carry on using the pahnd sterling, and continue to submit itself to the mad whims of the Bank of England. Scotland might no longer host Trident, the UK’s nuclear albatross,  but it’s likely to maintain its NATO and US presence – and may even build new bases. Scotland also hopes to remain in the European Union, with the result that, when the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership comes into force, corporations will be able to sue the state for any future profits lost through any governmental policy that restricts the free market. Not that it matters: the SNP already has one of the most business-friendly platforms in Europe, and the restructuring that will inevitably follow any post-independence capital flight should quickly quash any dreams of Scottish socialism.

Across Europe once-solid borders are turning into a network of twanging rubber bands. Independence is almost in reach for the Catalans of Spain and the Flemish of Belgium. A non-binding referendum revealed that a significant majority of Venetians want to unshackle themselves from Italy; after that anything is possible. Occitanie libre, free Bavaria, a Sámi homeland, a Székely Empire, a glittering panoply of tiny strange new nations dancing in the gorgeous sunset of western civilisation. Some new states might take their names and identities from half-forgotten medieval liberties, others from hybridised immigrant cultures, others from dodgy mythology, apocalyptic cults, faint memories of visitors from beyond the stars. It won’t matter. The grand myth of our age is that the world is somehow becoming more global and more open, a smooth space lit up by the blazing trails of billions of lines of flight. In fact, there are more fences than ever – between Latin and German America, between Europe and Africa, between Israelis and Palestinians, between the rich and poor residents of the same cities and sometimes the same buildings. Capitalism doesn’t mind borders; they’re very good for isolating and exploiting people, especially those caught on the wrong side. All the capitalists ask is that their rule be entrenched on both sides of any barrier, and you can have any kind of state you like. The people ruling an independent Scotland will most likely be the exact same people ruling it today: international capitalists – in other words, the English.

Frantz Fanon wrote that the psychological tolls of imperialism could only be undone through the catharsis of violent anticolonial revolution. For all the plummy southern accents on the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland has dubious claims to being a colonised population. Educational massacre seems out of the question. What’s left? In the end it always comes back to the sea. It’s been well demonstrated that the primitive capital that set off the Industrial Revolution came from the transatlantic slave trade; from dark-age longboats to oil supertankers the sickness of the English is a sea-borne pathogen. Industrial-financial capitalism is the English madness reconfigured as a total world-system, rolling across the crested currents: illusions of representation, dispossession and death, alienation, atomisation, constant, aching, desperate boredom. If Scotland goes, it’ll be from one stacked undemocratic English-dominated system into another. The only way Scottish independence can become anything more than a sham is through a concerted effort from the whole of humanity to abolish the ocean forever.

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