Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Politics & Current Events

Who is Niezy?

reduplication

You could pretend it’s a game. Christmas is nearly here, and in the pale lazy brandy-soaked hours after dinner, you can sprawl around with your strange friends or your spiteful family and play a fun game of Who’s Nietzsche? There aren’t really any rules as such, but the game goes like this. In the first days of January 1889, the people of Turin might have one of the modern age’s greatest philosophers on the street, dashing lopsidedly between his front door and the city post office, a weird little man hurrying with his weird little letters. It’s unlikely that anyone would have recognised Nietzsche, but he wasn’t really Nietzsche any more. In some of those letters – sent to his friends, to the King of Italy, to the Grand Duke of Baden and his family, to ‘the illustrious Pole’ – the weird little man identified himself as the Buddha. The Buddha had holes in his boots. Several were signed by ‘The Crucified.’ Jesus wore a threadbare coat. In a letter to Cosima Wagner, widow of the great composer, he identified himself as her dead husband – but also as Alexander, Caesar, Shakespeare, and Napoleon. ‘What is unpleasant and a strain to my modesty,’ he wrote in another note, ‘is that in fact I am every historical personage.’ These were Nietzsche’s last written works. A few of the recipients of these letters, full of pious concern, quickly intervened: they had him carted away to a clinic in Switzerland. When Nietzsche died in 1901, it was after a decade of feverish silence.

To play the game, all you have to do is take Nietzsche at his word. Say he really was Caesar and Napoleon and all the rest of them. ‘I am Prado, I’m also Prado’s father.’ A genius, reborn endlessly through time, fated to violently remake the world in his own image and then watch as it dissolves back into goo, before he can return to mould it again. And why should the cycle have ended in 1900? Maybe Zarathustra has come back down from his mountain to preach to us again; maybe the incarnation of the living Nietzsche walks among us. If you had to identify someone as a candidate, who would it be?

There are plenty of wannabe prophets around these days, but none of them really fit the bill. We can definitely eliminate all those slovenly Silicon Valley techno-futurists, the ones waiting for a superintelligent artificial intelligence to pluck them out of their greasy bungalows and their greasy gangly bodies and the whole greasy mess of physical reality, so they can play video games forever and never have to log off. Backwordsmen, all of them. God is dead, said Nietzsche, horrified by the enormity of deicide. Who can replace Him? The prophets of the singularity want to replace Him with a big calculator. Not one of them were Caesar or Napoleon.

The same goes for all your favourite political prophets, the Jordan Petersons or Ben Shapiros, or whichever other rat-faced wimp is thrown up by the hidden telluric waves of smugness and outrage into general consciousness. Everything these people say is basically resolvable to a whine, and the content of that whine is always it’s not fair. Something has gone wrong in the last few decades; their face-stamping boot is now on someone else’s foot, and they’d like it back please. Slave morality! Smallness! Lice crawling over the corpse of modernity, as if gnawing its flesh could give over the grandeur of those bones! But it’s not any of the saprophages on the other side either, any yaas-kween clapback af woke embarrassment. True, these people tend to utterly despise the name of Nietzsche while unknowingly echoing his more brutal thoughts (‘the argument against a stupid head is a clenched fist’), which is a positive sign, and they at least speak like a master – this is mine by right, but this is not for you, Becky – but they insist on polluting it with the language of justice. If nothing else, it’s dishonest. All too human.

Maybe a better candidate is Elon Musk, who does at the very least appear to have gone genuinely mad, with some impressive delusions of grandeur, and who’s managed to cough up a few suitable weird aphorisms. ‘I would like to die on Mars,’ he once said, and it’s quite a Nietzschean sentiment, as long as you assume that the sole reason he keeps boosting Mars exploration is so he can step off his spaceship, the first man on an alien world, and then keel over on the landing ramp, instantly dead. Sadly, that’s probably not the case. All of Musk’s most quotable quotes have to do with parsimony and efficiency, energy-saving and calculation. Nietzsche had his number; he saw through the fake bluster of rationalism: ‘The objective man is in truth a mirror accustomed to prostration before everything that wants to be known.’ He’s never encountered the terror of infinite return. Besides, Zarathustra could never have shareholders. So who’s left? You? Me? Don’t make me croak bitterly into my clotted cream. The world is starved. We’re nothing. We’re the Last Men. We sit around with our belts fatly loosened, and wonder who the prophet might be, and blink.

In the end, Who’s Nietzsche? isn’t a very good game. Not because there’s no answer, and therefore no point, but because the answer is so obvious. We know Nietzsche is back; he’s been back for fifteen years, and he’s been saying so himself. How could it have ever been anyone other than Kanye West?

* * *

Kanye and Nietzsche are identical twins, stranded across time. Both love to proclaim their genius, as if it weren’t already evident. Both are propelled by a kind of expansive asexuality, both speak in quick aphorisms with barbed punchlines. Both have the same audacity of gesture, making Zoroaster an immoralist or sampling Strange Fruit to talk about insta thots. Both are in a sense unbearable – overflowing and tyrannical, as if we can’t see, as if it’s not obvious that all their grandstanding is just compensating for some private lack. Kanye spouts strange drivel, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’s not in on his own joke. Nietzsche thunders vitality with the cycles of the universe, as if we don’t know how skinny his chest is, or about his syphilis, his indigestion, his migraines, his rot. They swagger in time with one another, and with the same manic hollowness. There’s a tendency to wade into areas of which they know absolutely nothing. Kanye has his ill-judged political interventions. Nietzsche, strangely, has music. ‘There has never been a philosopher,’ he writes, ‘who has been in his essence a musician to such an extent as I am.’ (Kanye, meanwhile, has announced himself as a philosopher. Do you see now?) As a birthday gift, Nietzsche sent the sheet music for his own compositions to Richard and Cosima Wagner. You can listen to his music yourself, if you want. It’s terrible. Not the parping bombast you’d expect, but something basically sterile, imitating all of the basic features of music and sticking very carefully to the rules, music that would be strangely Apollonian if it weren’t also subtly, maddeningly wrong. Wagner had to excuse himself during the performance of his gift; he was found in another room, on the floor, laughing hysterically. Kanye should have stuck to music; Nietzsche should have stuck to not-music. But neither of them will be bounded, not even by their own talent.

If you wanted to be pedantic, you could list all the times that Kanye and Nietzsche have said the same thing – not repeating each other, but each of them saying it again and for the first time. ‘I am Warhol. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.’ Sound familiar? ‘Early in the morning,’ writes Kanye, ‘at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness!’ And Nietzsche echoes: ‘I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books.’ In 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Nietzsche unveils the consummating death, the festival death, the death that comes at the right time. Clearly, he’s quoting Yeezy’s Zarathustra: ‘Now this will be a beautiful death.’ Open the book to section fourteen: ‘Be at least mine enemy! How many of us? How many jealous?’ Who challenges us to name one genius who ain’t crazy? Who knows that one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star? They both chorus: ‘I am God, and this farce is my creation.’ And while they’re not the only madmen to have summarily deified themselves, for the last twenty centuries all the other pretenders have only tried to be the Judge of a trembling Abraham. Kanye and Nietzsche aren’t so tedious. They are Dionysus, the god of farce, frenzy, and screams.

What really distinguishes them is that both Nietzsche and Kanye are simply not interested in negation. They have no time for the dialectic, for opposites, for non-being: the world screams in bright colours, and everything in it must be affirmed. This is not quite the same as being positive. Someone like Hegel or Beyonce can accept the existence of evil or finitude because it’s necessary for the eventual triumph of good. That’s easy. Nietzsche and Kanye are driven to embrace everything. Not just because it marks a necessary historical stage comprehensible to absolute reason, not just because the darkness makes the light shine brighter, but in the fullness of its monstrosity. They go about this in slightly different ways. Nietzsche has eternal return, Kanye has his universal love for everyone and everything. (Not as different as they might appear. As Deleuze, who understood Nietzsche pretty well for a philosopher, puts it, ‘laziness, stupidity, baseness, cowardice or spitefulness that would will its own eternal return would no longer be the same laziness, stupidity etc. How does the eternal return perform the selection here? It is the thought of the eternal return that selects.’ And see how Kanye’s universal love functions: it transforms the world, refracting it via infinity, into something more loveable – so long as it’s met.) But they end up at the same place. Nietzsche throwing his arms over a sad dumb cart-horse, a plodding embodiment of the smallness and meekness he was supposed to despise. And Kanye, with a red hat on, embracing President Trump. So why were people so surprised? Did they really expect Dionysus to have good taste?

* * *

Kanye West’s brief flirtation with right-wing politics was many things, but it was not political. ‘I attack only causes that are victorious,’ he writes. ‘I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.’ Call it contrarianism if you want; at least it’s an ethos. And here he really did stand alone. Yes, he stood alone in embracing a political power that is, in fact, victorious, that commands the terrifying blinkered loyalty of millions, that kidnaps children, locks them in cages, and traumatises them for life, that commits regular and cowardly airborne massacres, that confronts the desperate with military calcifications against the border and chemical weapons for fleeing children – but those weren’t the terms in which Kanye embraced Trump. There are people who like the goblins of power precisely because they’re willing to carry out this violence. Kanye is not one of them. When he says he likes Trump because they both have dragon energy, he means it.

He stood alone in the White House with history’s greatest monster because while distant and silent psychopaths might enjoy his atrocities, Kanye’s doxa – that of Hollywood, hip-hop, and haute couture – is populated by a different type of psychopath altogether. Since Trump’s election, the vast culture-engine has been seized by a frenzy of contradiction. All it can do is watch what the government is doing, and scream no. (Not that there isn’t any determinate element: the hope is that if you say no to Trump loudly enough, the whole system will rebalance itself along the lines of a healthy Third Way liberalism. Good luck.) The fame factories spill huddled clouds of abstract negation. Slicks of negativity wash up against the beaches, cinders of cancellation creak and crackle over the hills. This stuff is absolutely hegemonic, even if it’s not politically efficacious – observe all the dark muttering that surrounded Taylor Swift (Kanye’s eternal Apollonian opposite) for her quite reasonable refusal to broadcast her opinions, and note how quickly she was lauded after caving in and endorsing a few right-wing Democrats like everyone else. How brave.

And Nietzsche is not interested in the negative. What he saw in Trump was a living principle of positivity, to which all the sour Puritan liberals in his new neighbourhood were glumly opposed – and there, at least, he wasn’t wrong. Look at what he actually said in the White House. ‘There was something about when I put this hat on that made me feel like Superman.’ Insurgent affirmationism; the power of flight. Or consider this: what kind of right-wing Trumpist installs himself in front of the great shit-eater himself to declare how much he loves Hillary Clinton?

The prophet always knew that he would be misinterpreted. ‘I have a terrible fear that one day I shall be considered holy.’ The fear was well-placed. At the end of October, Kanye West appeared to walk back his short flirtation with the right. ‘My eyes are now wide open,’ he wrote, ‘and now realise I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative.’ He was right; he had been used, in the same way that he had once been used by the murderous cabbage-fart dullards of the Third Reich. What could someone as magnificently sincere as Kanye West have in common with a smirking con artist like Candace Owens or the hosts of Fox News? Did his new boosters on the right really think he now supported public-sector austerity, state repression against the poor, corporate tax relief, tariffs on raw materials as a geopolitical bargaining tool, and everything else that slops along the sewer of conservative thought? He stood alone, despite these sycophants, or because of them. They can only have been cynical or deluded, and my money’s on cynical. They saw someone they could parasite themselves on, and, parasites that they are, they took the opportunity. But the left had nothing to gain from what they did. What’s their excuse?

* * *

The liberal mainstream’s attempted Dixie-Chicks-ing of Kanye West might be the most shameful and transparent moment in media history since the Iraq War. Everyone knew that when he called for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, he was talking about prison abolition – but it’s so much more gratifying to pretend to think he wanted slaves in the fields again. The worst are those who understand perfectly well what he was saying, but reserve the right to grab their pitchforks anyway, because he was being – unforgivable! – tone-deaf. Of course he was! He’s Kanye West! Why should he be subject to this ghastly new Victorian refinement? Why is it that the people who yap fuck civility at every opportunity are always the same trilling bourgeois cyber-matrons who spend their lives guarding against every potentially scandalous gesture, every fluctuation in the vagaries of tone?

But the tone has changed. See, for instance, how a popular music website – I won’t name it, because it’s no worse than any of the others, but yes, it’s obviously the one you’re thinking of – responded to his last two albums. 2016’s The Life of Pablo was – let’s be honest – a sloppy and unfinished effort, not without its frequent moments of brilliance but basically thin, thrown-together, and fallow. The reviewer manages to spin this into an act of profound Dadaist brilliance: album as objet trouvé. ‘The universe is a trick of the light, and we’re nothing but a figment in a higher being’s imagination. Nothing is as it seems, nothing is safe from revision, and nothing lasts.’ In other words, don’t you see what he’s doing? It’s not crap, it’s a statement about crapness. 2018’s ye was, by contrast, something far stronger: his Ecce Homo, a searing document of a man’s battle for recognition against himself, and a fully Nietzschean broadside against the deformation of the ideal subject in a time of scurrying smallness. ‘See, if I was trying to relate it to more people, I’d probably say I’m struggling with loving myself because that seems like a common theme. But that’s not the case here. I love myself way more than I love you.’ And what does our reviewer make of it? ‘Seven tracks he farted out to meet his arbitrarily self-imposed deadline… an album born from chaos for chaos’ sake, an album that can barely be bothered to refer to that chaos with anything more committal than a Kanye shrug.’

You may have noticed that the analysis of the two albums is identical in its particulars; only the valence has changed. Poptimsism was always a sham; you never really thought there was any actual liberatory potential in pop culture. If 2016 Kanye releases a hasty and provisional album, it’s an act of secret brilliance. If 2018 Kanye uses a photo he took on the way to his album’s launch party as its cover art, then he’s just a freewheeling asshole. What’s changed? There are plenty of plausible interpretations, but the most legible is this: it’s because Kanye went to the White House and hugged it out with Donald Trump. He took the side of the absolute negation of everything good and true, and it burned through his form. Or, to put it less charitably: in 2016 the received opinion was that he was brilliant if sometimes embarrassing, so we liked his music; now, everyone thinks he has dodgy politics, so we don’t. He’s bad now, tainted, and if we don’t wash our hands furiously enough we’ll get tainted too. (The politics of purity and contagion, it should be noted, are always deeply conservative, verging on fascist; far more reactionary than a red hat or a monologue about iPhones in the Oval Office.) What was it Kanye West said, a long time ago, about how the will to truth is a mask, about how ‘the greater part of conscious thinking must be counted among the instinctive functions’? Do these people know that they’re being dishonest? Clearly not, otherwise they wouldn’t have exposed the underbelly of panicked self-preservation that trembles beneath our system of cultural values. Nietzsche’s affirmationist contranianism might be juvenile, but the one who’s unwilling to deeply compromise themselves is infinitely worse. Here is your own dishonesty, they whimper, here it is scrubbed of difference. Please don’t kill me.

* * *

There is, of course, a second acceptable response to Kanye’s antics, which is to note that he’s clearly mentally ill, and we shouldn’t make the situation any worse by paying attention to him. This is, at least, not entirely untrue. We know Kanye West is suffering from mental illness, because he’s told us. He told us in 2016, when he mentioned that he had been prescribed Lexapro, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. He told us in 2012, when he discussed suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. In one unreleased song, he provided an extensive list of the psychiatric symptoms he suffers from. ‘Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness? The idea that someone else can control your thoughts. Feeling others are to blame for most of your thoughts. Feeling afraid in open spaces or in public. Thoughts of ending your life.’ We’ve known for a very long time, and the general response was to lionise him for speaking up and starting a conversation about mental health, which is now the only thing that an alienated society knows to do with its mad. We saw him interrupt live shows with bizarre rants, alienate those close to him, behave in ways that would be troubling if someone you actually knew and loved started exhibiting them – and we politely applauded. (It didn’t help that the people who had a problem with it were almost uniformly obnoxious, untroubled by fifty years of rock-star narcissism but violently upset by the same stuff coming from a black man. You don’t want to give ground to them.) But as soon as there’s the suggestion that these symptoms might take on a political dimension, the approach suddenly shifts. Disengage, block it out, seal it off, silence him, mock him if you feel like it – but make sure his madness stops speaking itself, and make sure it’s no longer heard. For his own good, of course. But why?

Possibly the most depressing image I’ve ever seen is a poster produced by the New York City Health Department as part of its ‘Choose the Best Words’ campaign. For a while, the things were everywhere in the city, plastered up like the banners of a dictatorial cult. The point is to teach people what to say and what not to say to friends who are suffering from mental health issues. Two cartoon figures on a basketball court. One is slumped over on the bench. The other says I know exactly how you feel. These are the wrong words, of course; you can tell, because they’ve been crossed out. The right words are Hey. Want to talk? Third panel, and the response: Thanks for talking, I feel better now. So what the hell happened in between? Thirty seconds of static? The right words are the vague notion of ‘talking,’ talking about talking, speaking up talkingly. The wrong words are, apparently, any actual specific instance of speech. How do we solve the mental health crisis? By feeding it to the discourse-monster, by flattening it into something that can shimmer on the surface of discursive life with all the other signifiers. Freudianism, once shucked off by psychopharmacology, returns – except now there’s no analyst, just your friends, press-ganged into the role of unpaid mental health nurse. Now, the latency that needs expression is only the empty form of latency. Now the talking-cure functions without anything ever being said.

Contemporary mental health discourse is founded on the exclusion of the particularity of madness itself; it effects a facile resolution of madness to sanity,  and declares its work done in the gesture of equivalence. (It’s true, obviously, that those we call mad are just those who aren’t assimilable to the neurotic mutilation of ordinary subjects – but that non-assimilability remains.) The mad have become, somehow, an identity group. Something like race, which has no prior existence outside of the repressive and historically contingent categories of racism. A form, engaged in the differential contest of hollow forms. The mad must speak up, represent our subject-position, communicate, and be listened to. The fact that madness profoundly problematises speech and the subject doesn’t enter into it. A mania for form, a terror of content. (Online writing, it’s true, is routinely referred to as content – but all this means is that it’s a shapeless fluid,  transparent and undifferentiated, whose function is only to ensure that all pre-existing forms are duly filled.) This is why mental health advocates are always calm and seemingly stable: they have anxiety or depression, but almost never psychosis, schizophrenia, any madness that might make their TV appearances too incomprehensible or too grimly fascinating.

Nietzsche, who is not a dialectician, has very little to say about form and content. What he does talk about is style. When he comes to reflect on the composition of his Zarathustra – the MBDTF of philosophy – he finds its first seeds in ‘a second birth within me of the art of hearing.’ His thought is solidified music: words and paragraphs are not a neutral container into which propositional content might be slotted and then maybe withdrawn. Styles are multiple, but the presence of one or another style is fundamental to the project; meaning is a property of what he calls ‘the tempo of the signs.’ A semiology without linguistics. (It’s probably not insignificant that parrots, the only other animals to make use of human speech, also dance for pleasure.) In Beyond Good and Evil (the first draft of 808s & Heartbreak): ‘There is art in every good sentence – art that must be figured out if the sentence is to be understood!’ See how Nietzsche’s thought limps when denuded of its style; listen to Heidegger glossing him. ‘Truth is the essence of the true; the true is that which is in being; to be in being is to be that which is taken as constant and fixed.’ Unrecognisable, pedantic, tautologous; a philosophy that’s become so gratingly German. As soon as you stop talking in dithyrambs, you no longer understand Becoming. It’s not Heidegger’s fault; he was more sensitive to the buried iceberg-weight of words than most. (Elsewhere in his seminars on Nietzsche, he argues very clearly that ‘to relegate the animated, vigorous word to the immobility of a univocal, mechanically programmed sequence of signs would mean the death of language and the petrification and devastation of Dasein.’) It’s just that attempts to translate Nietzsche into the ordinary language of philosophy always, always fail. Dumb teenage nihilists who think they’re the Overman understand him better than distinguished scholars of nineteenth-century thought, and Kanye West understands him best of all, despite never having read a word of his books. It’s in the style, the movement of it: he is his twin in the art of hearing.

(Derrida, it must be noted, disagrees. A style, he writes, is ‘a long object, an oblong object, a word, which perforates even as it parries.’ A stylus, a lance or a needle, a pen. ‘But, it must not be forgotten, it is also an umbrella.’ Style shelters that which is enclosed by it, and Derrida holds up as an instance of unstyled text a note in Nietzsche’s unpublished margins: ‘I have forgotten my umbrella.’  Meaning, it would seem, without art. Nietzsche is no longer compensating for his lacks with grandiloquence and fury, just baldly stating what is not there. That pure presence has been withdrawn from him. He has forgotten who he is, and so he scrabbles through space and time to find new answers. But what, in the end, is Nietzsche without his umbrella? A man in a clinic. Only silence.)

This was what agonised Kanye’s critics: they couldn’t separate the ‘real’ or healthy man, the part of him they were supposed to like, from the part that had gone awry. They couldn’t extricate worthy content from a maddened style. Not even conceptually; all they could do was temporalise. How did we get from ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ to this? Yes, there’s been a Becoming, but he has only ever become what he is. You can’t really like his music while hating his political interventions; they’re all swirled together. Kanye’s madness refuses to play by the rules that have been set for the mad. It’s not an abstract subject-position, but something positively articulated and in the fullness of its being. And as madness usually does, all this offends the sensibilities of a bourgeoisie anxious for its moral self-preservation. So Kanye’s friends do what Kanye’s friends did all those years ago in 1889: they try to shut him up, to cart him away to a mountainous silence, for his own good.

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An empty tomb

empty-tombs-1916

You don’t remember the dead of the First World War.

Nobody does, now, or almost nobody. At most, you might remember the ones who survived. There’s a photo, hidden away somewhere, of great-grandad in his old army uniform, and if you look at it you might notice with a kind of sickly horror that he looks a bit like you did at that age, that you’re now already so much older than this old, old man. Maybe there’s a box with some old medals, or even a decommissioned revolver. Pieces of someone who died much later, surrounded by TV and pop music, dreaming the blanketing dreams of the nuclear bomb. Someone who lived to see a different country, one that throbbed in full colour. The hole left in the world by those bullets and shells and clouds of poison gas one hundred years ago was not left in your world, or mine either. The people who had their heart ripped out by a stranger on the Somme are almost impossibly rare; we drag them out into our televised ceremonies now, so everyone can see what a fully incomplete human being looks like, so they can do our remembering for us. Trembling, a few last strands of thin hair limp against a crusting pate: I still miss my Arthur every day, every day it’s like he’s just been taken from me. That’s what it means to really remember: to be a seeping wound in a world that’s been bandaged up and gauzed into blankness. For the rest of us, there’s GCSE history, supermarket Christmas adverts, an immersive experience at the Imperial War Museum. For you, the dead of the Western Front or Gallipoli may as well be the dead of Sevastopol, or Agincourt, or Hastings, or all the nameless battles fought by our hooting ancestors, brachiating grimly through the canopies. We have nothing in common with the millions who went whistling into a barbed-wire void. If we did, we’d be a little more like the ones who came back out again, the ones the war turned into madmen or revolutionaries.

We don’t have memory. We have remembrance. Organised hypomnesis; a set of stony symbols. We remember that we ought not to have forgotten. The past is on the tip of your tongue, but it can’t be spoken; any word that could have contained it is an empty tomb. Non est hic. What remains are signifiers, gnawing at each other’s heads. A poppy is a symbol; it symbolises the Cenotaph. The two minutes silence has meaning, it means a wreath. The flag is a code for the national anthem. None of these things mean the mud and terror of the war, or the millions dead, because none of that is an object in our experience. There’s no shared referent other than the ritual of reference itself: the objects of remembrance stand, mutely, for themselves. Forgetfulness, made concrete, and misnamed.

This isn’t bad or wrong: it’s just space and time. We are where we are. Today marks the end of four years of official commemoration, an attempt to hang the shadow of the Great War over our own century, to turn time into a palimpsest. These have been four very strange years. On June 23rd, 2016, we voted to leave the European Union; one hundred years ago that day, a million Germans surged over the frontlines at Verdun and overran the fort at Thiaumont, only to be pushed back over days and weeks to where they had been. Endless, uncountable thousands dead. On June 8th, 2017, the Tories threw away their parliamentary majority in an act of blinkered authoritarian arrogance, a century after the British army accidentally shelled its own lines, killing three hundred colonial troops. In June this year, one hundred years after two dozen German divisions plunged deep into France in a last desperate effort to end the war, Germaine Greer asked why Beyoncé has to ‘have her tits hanging out.’ There’s no symmetry. Trump is not the October revolution. Weinstein is not the Armenian genocide. It doesn’t map. It’s no more present than the wars going on now, the thousands dying in Syria and Yemen and across the world. What can we do for the people of the Middle East, starved or disintegrated by British bombs or British military expertise? Build another monument for them, put it up on the fourth plinth, and forget them into symbols.

There are still ways to make the past breathe again. Mostly, by digitally altering and colourising old Pathé newsreel, and putting it in 3D. The effect is impressive: it looks so much more real. The war is no longer fought by spindly, jerky automatons, low-resolution flesh-robots. Computers have generated the missing material in the gaps within movement, to bring the footage up to 24 fps, which is the flicker rate of consensus reality. Now these soldiers look like actual human beings, which is to say that they look like all the other cinema-screen simulacra. Now the propaganda of the early twentieth century can be raised back up in the fullness of its authenticity, because now it looks more like how we lie in the twenty-first.

Again, this isn’t bad or wrong. There was a time in which we could remember, in which the war was something other than the mud-caked origin myth of modernity, but now is no longer that time. There are other ways of remembering. We can remember in the present: I remember when I came out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery, and – historically speaking, at least – that didn’t even happen; I can remember it in solidarity with those on the boats setting out across the Mediterranean, or those sleeping on the ground as their caravan twists slowly up over the Mexican plateau. We can remember the war the same way. We’ll never know the trenches, but when those that lived returned home, the fight didn’t end; so many of them, across Europe and across the world, took up the struggle against the ruling classes who had sent them there to die, and we can fight for life and dignity too. For obvious reasons, this is not the kind of remembrance we usually get.

What we get instead is a strange kind of rage. This year, and every year, the poppy wars. (Not unlike those other flower wars, fought between the Aztecs and their ritual enemies: both sides agree on a time and place, and neither seems to expect to actually win.) Who owns the past, now that it’s wordless and as transferable as any other debt? Is this year’s the most politicised Remembrance Sunday yet? Might Eid be getting more Islamic? Can we stop the commercialisation of Black Friday?

The anger of the poppy-scorners is fairly legible. Never Again, we were promised, but it keeps on happening; maybe we can sit in silent quietist remembrance once the war is actually over. The anger of the other side is thornier. A violent hatred for those who won’t wear the poppy, sing the national anthem, support the Legion, the ones who insult the memory of the dead by insisting that the war that killed them was Actually Bad. In other words, those that try to remember something specific, instead of remembering the process of being unable to remember. It can only be parsed as an externalised guilt. No, it’s not wrong or bad to not remember the dead of the First World War, it’s only distance and time – but the rituals of the state command memory, and there’s nothing in the memory to grasp. You have failed, because you’re living now instead of dying then; you’ve failed because you couldn’t stop one hundred years washing over the world that was. Seething indignation against the people who refuse to remember, because you, too, have forgotten.

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

An idiot’s manifesto

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?
(Materials brought in evidence at the trial of Barbara Bush)

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1.

Not too long after the election, I was walking downtown on 6th Avenue in Manhattan when I passed a sign, frosted into the window of a fast-casual Mexican chain restaurant, that said ‘Queso at Chipotle: not fake news.’

That sign made me an idiot.

At home, certain brands of chocolate bar are Brexity, with a chalky stodge in the bite that sticks, like the guilt you feel over your unvisited and dying relatives, implacably to the front of your teeth. An advert for HSBC bank is solidly Remain.

They made me hungry. Everything only makes me hungry for idiocy.

To say that everything is political is no longer an insurrectionary act, not now that everything really is. Every swollen mosquito of a transnational corporation has a codified set of progressive values. Every conversation in pubs or coffee shops ends up being about politics. Every online dating service promises to pair you with some stranger who shares your opinions or will fight you over them; the pretence that you’re in it for something as absurd as sex is just a euphemistic fiction. How are you meant to deal with the unacceptable politics of your extended kin at Christmas? Let some bright-eyed bores help you, with their handy online guides. Family dinners everywhere now follow the same messy form: two scripted one-person performance pieces trying to share a single stage, a discordance kaleidoscoped into infinity. Children, I hear, are constantly offering wise pronouncements on the state of the world, castigating the stupidity of our leaders in ways that seem strangely un-childlike, with none of the good sharp mockery of a playground insult, but judicious, rooted firmly in good morals and good policy. ‘Liberating ourselves, expressing ourselves at whatever cost – a form of blackmail and ultimatum.’ Chicken sandwiches, sports shoes, coffee machines, craft supplies, burritos, and sitcoms are political, sold politically, consumed or not consumed politically. Music videos are political. The personal is political.

Not me though. I’m an idiot.

As Marxists, we’re long accustomed to the practice of digging around under the foundations of things, scrabbling to find an essence which will always be ineluctably political. Domination with its leprous grimace, bubbling away under a blank façade of mere social life. We find the hidden propaganda in films and TV; the material basis of history; the networks of social relations that dominate our lives in the workplace, in the streets, or in the bedroom. Everything that parades itself to the senses is a crust over the deep subterranean well of the political. Once the political nature of things is made overt, we’ve been announcing for decades, we will all be one step closer to being free.

The well has become a geyser now, and we have never been further from our freedom.

Walter Benjamin wrote that fascism is the aestheticisation of politics, and communism politicises art. Well, we’ve politicised art; every glue-gun assemblage of hunched material, every glorified mirror in mixed or digital media, declares itself as an affront to Trexit and Brump. But where’s our communism?

It would be foolish to assume not only that there’s still something more profound beneath it all, but that what lies beneath is still more politics.

Today, to abandon the world of politics is the last, the only, and the truest political act.

2.

Yes, we know. Behind all this relentless opinion-having about politics there’s a relentless entrepreneurship of the self, which has to adorn itself with all the right stances for whatever demographic it’s targeting, and the more often you repeat them the higher your market-assigned price. (Do you support the good things? Do you oppose the bad things? Then what sort of a person are you? Hot wet indignity, the psychotic injury of someone who can’t accept that every game always has an opposing team.) Better to leave every evil in its place, so you can oppose it, than to overturn them and be left bereft.  And behind this brutalised vision of the self are the laws of neoliberal political economy, which haven’t just stamped themselves in our flesh but sealed us in, like the bindings that used to make infants’ soft heads grow into tall and alarming shapes, since before we were born. But you’ve not uncovered anything, just come back to where we started. You’re on a Möbius strip; there is no other side. And don’t you ever find it boring?

Yes, we know. Complacency is a luxury. Irony is a luxury. In this moment of crisis, in this moment of opportunity, to do nothing, to fail to have a position on the political shoes or the political sandwiches, to not preen yourself into a Good Person in a cruel world, to not talk about the latest deprivation over coffee and wine and hemlock and sewage, to let each dumb moment fall through our fingers, and not try to grab at it, to not fix its dwindling in the aspic of thought while every day people are suffering, is a luxury. May all luxuries belong to the working classes.

No, we don’t know a thing.

Sometimes my dreams are political. But in the end, it matters less that I dreamed I was consoling Barack Obama over the phone, and more that I did so in a cottage cut directly into the bedrock of a Hebridean crag, where the naked stone was livid with chilly light, where the sea glittered like needles, where titanic gulls – swift omnivorous airships, wingtips stabbing each towards its horizon, birds that could only hatch from the powdered eggshell of the moon – called out hideously overhead.

Prince Myshkin, Dostoyevsky’s idiot, sees the world from the vantage-point of infinity. It comes in his fits. At an aristocratic dinner full of cruel and vain society notables, he fucks everything up: he tries to discuss theology, he sprays spittle in the salad, he makes a spectacle of himself. He already knew he would break that Chinese vase. He knows, too, that at any moment the Bolsheviks will be breaking down the French windows to cart everyone off to a labour camp. Dostoyevsky’s novel, unlike anything else in the nineteenth century, unlike even Marx, comes with a full understanding of the fragility of the present. But the epileptic is not an excavator; his wisdom is the same as his ignorance, which is the same as his insensitivity, which is the same as his trembling. He suspects no subtleties. ‘He did not turn the coat and see the shabby lining.’ Instead he skims. Look at the grass growing, he announces, and then falls to the floor in a froth.

The Greeks used the word idiot, ίδιώτης, to denote someone who was uninterested in the communal life of the polis. A private person, a selfish person, a person who keeps themselves to themselves, which was the true sin of Sodom. But the self of the idiot is not the same as the self of the present order. An idiot is never fungible. An idiot is absented from the system of values, exchange-values and political values included. Not a separation from the tissues of the world, but an approach on a different register. Prince Myshkin does not close himself off from society; he simply doesn’t understand it. An idiot suffers from idiopathies, strange and unknown diseases. An idiot speaks in an idiolect, a strange and unknown speech. An idiot is idiothermic, warmed by a strange and unknown light.

We, too, must become strange and unknown.

3.

The idiot has started reading novels again, which were always laced with a surplus – of what isn’t entirely clear, but it’s certainly not meaning – that can only be inassimilable to politics. At first it’s hard to give up the game of making clever inferences and readings, but once they learn that literature is, like sex or the sky, fundamentally prelinguistic and pleasurable, they wonder why they ever bothered. The idiot has taken an interest in early medieval panel paintings. Specifically, forging them. They end up selling panels to galleries and museums to the tune of £800,000 before being found out. The idiot is learning to be kinder and better to other people, to work diligently and conscientiously, to always be careful stomping around after it rains in case they hear the sickening wet crunch of a snail dying underfoot. The idiot murders a high-level diplomat for no reason whatsoever.

The idiot sits in a garden filled with terrifying flightless birds, which regard you from bronze-dull eyes. In the garden of the idiot foxgloves tower as tall as cypresses. Children with wild hair – not the idiot’s, maybe not anyone’s – climb the stalks of these plants, and settle themselves into their tubular flowers, and shriek from each nectar-smeared lip that this petal-pod is theirs, and they’ll kill anyone who tries to get in, and the idiot sits in the sunshine with a very small cup of coffee and shuffles papers without reading them.

The idiot decides to believe that market ideology is only humanity’s unconscious attempt – through the scrabbling activity of conquest, and the torque of capital flows – to speed the rotation of the earth on its axis. (This frenzy for speed will be its own undoing; read Capital, chapter ten, on the working day.) The idiot conjectures that liberal inclusivity, with its constellation of oppressions and privileges, is the political expression of an ancient Atlantean star-map. The idiot knows that the Sino-Soviet split was really only a metaphor for the eternal crisscrossings of the sun (Mao) and the moon (Brezhnev), and the same story was told by the Navajo around forgotten fires.

The idiot has translated their speech into a buzzing like that of bees, but the bees can’t understand them. Bees communicate through dance, and the idiot has never been any good at dancing.

Scales creep across the idiot’s skin. They harden. The idiot’s tongue has a weltering itch all the way down its length. The idiot is turning into a lizard. Thin leathery frills web the space under the idiot’s arms. The idiot might never be able to fly, but it’s possible they could one day learn how to swoop.

4.

I’m becoming an idiot.

I’m going to delete my Facebook. I’m only going to watch cooking shows on TV, and I won’t draw any lessons from them. The radio is for sports and music. If someone offers me the Evening Standard at the tube station, I’m going to spit cold blood in their face.

When a conversation turns to politics, I’ll get up and walk away, leaving my restaurant bill unpaid, and go to jail if I have to.

I’m going to clear out all this useless mental clutter. I’ll forget the capitals of Europe. I’ll stop being proud of knowing all the countries that only border one other country, even though everyone always forgets the Gambia. I’ll let the world fade away by degrees, until all that’s left is what I can touch, and mystery.

I’m going to lock myself away in my home and expand. I’ll refuse to understand anything outside its walls, and watch the patterns of dust on the windowsill to see what they do.

I’m going to lock myself in a sensory deprivation tank and expand. My entire world will be contained in a few feet of motionless water, and I won’t be there to experience any of it.

I’m not going to have any crazy hallucinations. I’m going to let blackness settle over me, and I’ll find it neither boring nor interesting.

I’m going to lock myself in a sealed tank, and only sleep.

I’m going to sleep where nobody will be able to disturb me.

When I die, they’ll bury me deep in the ground.

 

Ram-packed: a horror story about rail privatisation

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Despite what you might have heard, we did not collapse into savagery on the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston. There was not a breakdown of society. We did not revert to barbarism or become like beasts, we did not experience a collapse of social norms, we did not suffer from a brutal upsurge of some timeless human nature in all its frenzy, its envy, and its sanguinary gore. What we achieved on that train was the highest possible expression of modern liberal civilisation. What I saw there, among unseeing eyeballs trailing tails of slime, between its black holes and white walls, was the the truth. The realisation of a perfect idea; at long last, something that works. When the train finally slid into that dry and hungry mouth at Crewe, having experienced minor delays, and we got off to make our connections or to buy a sandwich and a bottle of Diet Coke from the WH Smiths or to wash the blood off our faces in the greasy train-station sinks, we arrived in a world made finally itself.

Start at the beginning. London dribbles in loose splats against the outside of the windows as we speed north. There are parts of the urban chimera that you can only really see out the window of a panting intercity train: the fast-coursing rivers of unused rail and mossy gravel, the heaped industrial shacks groping over each other behind barbed wire, the shockingly naked backsides of terraced houses in grimy brick and spiderweb-cracked plaster with their haphazardly placed windows and their squat forms that bloat like the buried secret of the nice stucco streetside. All these things fade, bursting against the window and trailing off along the sides of the train. London itself fades, staggering into its own twilight. Soon it will be night, and the only thing visible through the train windows will be your own guilty reflection. I am guilty. I am sitting in someone else’s seat. Of course the train is overcrowded; it’s a bank holiday weekend, and thousands are streaming out of London to get the boat from Holyhead – but more than that, this is just the way things are. See how practical questions become moral ones: if you wanted to sit down for your journey, you should have booked a seat instead of getting an open return like the feckless dilettante you are; if you really wanted that seat, you should have been on the platform early instead of wasting five minutes dithering over three types of layered salad at the M&S Simply Food in a drooling microcosm of the delayed-adulthood indecision that is already setting the coordinates for your wasted life and will make sure that your grave is unvisited and unmarked after you die. There are rules; if you can’t play by them then you have nobody else to blame. But trudging through the Gothic infinity of packed carriages, I find an empty seat. Reserved from Milton Keynes Central. And I sit down, knowing that it doesn’t belong to me and I’ll have to give it up, knowing that I am the most worthless creature on this train.

First division. The people left standing, their long line like manacled captives searing through the middle of the carriage, are giving me strange looks. A healthy-looking couple, her hair tied back in a sheer ponytail, his cut short, both of them dangling big hiking rucksacks knotted with strange straps and harnesses, glare. Aleady they want me dead. They know I have no real right to be sitting down and I only got where I am from sheer blind luck. Second division. Out in the vestibule, little eyes peer and scowl behind doors that intermittently hiss open and shut. Third division. In the seat besides me, a balding navy-suited creature reading the Financial Times will sometimes almost-accidentally jab me with his elbow as he lobs peanut M&Ms into his mouth. I hear the flickering neck-snap crackle of candy shells breaking, the damper meatier crunch of masticated peanuts, the slurp and slobber of liquefying chocolate as it gums up the unholy inside of his mouth. He wants me dead too; he knows I don’t belong in that chair, and he hates the fact that to an imaginary observer he might appear to be somehow on the same social plane as an indolent impostor like myself. And me? I hate every one of them, the athletic young couple, the accusing eyes from the vestibule, my peanut-eating neighbour; they’ve seen my shame, and I want it to sprout tendrils and strangle them all.

At Milton Keynes the first skirmishes break out. The platform is packed, and grunts of open hostility greet the people trying to move into the train as others move out. Toes are mangled underfoot, epithets hissed. I give up my seat when the shadow of a tall skinnyfat beardo hovers over me, brandishing his ticket. (It’s hard to tell in the flurry of fake-apologetic winces and grimaces that pass between us as mandated by law – so sorry, no I’m sorry – but for a moment he appears to be wearing my face.) As the train insinuates through rotting late-summer fields I slide into the aisle’s frozen conga. I don’t feel any more solidarity for the seatless as I join their ranks. They certainly don’t seem to feel any for me. At the end of the carriage I see an old man leaning on a stick, stoically mashing his gums. The passengers around him stare into their laps. Not my problem. He should have bought a proper ticket.

Behind me, things are not going so well. A newcomer, short and brutal in a floral print dress, seems to have been allocated a table seat that’s currently being occupied by a family of four – fat gregarious husband, patient hijabi wife, children sucked face-first into their iPads – who also have a valid reservation. The Miltonian still expects them to move, children be damned. She’ll call a conductor. She’ll tell the authorities. When threats don’t seem to work, she leans down, arse bumping against elbows on the opposite row, to grab one of the small children from his seat. The kid screams and flails for his iPad. The husband roars and stands, swings a big broad wobbling punch, catches the aggressor just under her collarbone, and she staggers. The whole line of patient standing-room travellers tilts; I’m knocked forwards into someone’s sweaty shoulderblade. What happens next seems to coruscate in time. In the chaos of that sudden motion a sleek black camping knife tears through the fabric of the big healthy hiker’s rucksack, waiting, mechanically erect. His girlfriend, standing behind him, is knocked forwards, and it jabs deep just under her chin and comes out again, followed by a halting piss-stream of blood. There’s no sound. ‘Whoa,’ he says, noncommittally, as he rights himself; he still doesn’t know what’s just happened. She crumples dead. This carriage is not safe for me. As the first screams rise, and the panic of people crammed immovably in place spreads, I duck and sidle out back to the vestibule. My voyage begins.

This was not, as I discover, the first death. They might have all started like that – accidental – but the killing made too much sense to end that way. In the rubbery intestine between carriages a sprawling clot of people has formed, a pearl around a corpse. The body flails helplessly as the train lurches from side to side, still being kicked and pummelled furiously by an inner ring of maddened passengers; it’s already too disfigured to tell what its age was, or its sex. I don’t ask what crime the victim committed. I already know: they didn’t have the proper reservation. I move on, squeezing past the murderers. Sorry, I say. Sorry, they mutter in reply. The train is a linear Gormenghast, a sucession of reclusive bubble-worlds, each of them with the same decor and the same grisly violence, each brutally different. In the little restaurant car, children run and scream through the burst contents of bags of crisps and other people’s luggage. There’s blood crusting under their nails. They turn dagger-sharp eyes to me, and I move on. In the quiet coach bodies dangle silently from the overhead rail, mouths yawning in wordless screams. I bump my head against one with a barely audible thwock, and a lone impatient tut sounds out from somewhere behind me. I move on. I journey for a very long time, for what feels like years, pushing politely past the killing and the dying, fighting when I have to, fleeing when I can. I’m looking for something. A space where I can catch my breath, just a breath of air that’s not been made humid by sweat and frenzy. No luck. There are, I hear someone whisper, plenty of seats up in first class; you just need to buy a £12 upgrade. Impossible. By this time I’ve seen it myself: the drinks trolleys barricaded against the entrance, the sloping pile of corpses abutting it, every poor mangled idiot still gripping his credit card. And behind them, painted in grime and ichor on the frosted-glass sliding door, the face of the god: bearded, smiling warmly, the faint outlined suggestion of a nude woman clinging behind him on his kiteboard. Not a god who might save us. Richard Branson is a god who has already come to deliver us all.

I soon realise that this isn’t mere anarchy. This is the train responding creatively to its crisis, in the only way a privatised British rail service knows how. All the normal rules of decorum are still in place, the rules that let thousands of people travel amicably across the country while speaking as few words to each other as possible, the rules that give the reservation ticket its magical power and are inscribed in tiny polite jargon on its back – it’s just that the rules that ensure peace are being enforced by increasingly violent means. We are all good and valued customers, and we all have a right to be on this train. It’s just that there’s not enough room for us all. How else can we process our abstract equality? The marketplace of violence will sort everything out. Here, cloistered on a speeding train, we have spontaneously generated the most perfected version of the neoliberal utopia: thousands of subjects, all imprinted with its rational doctrines, working things out. The system is fair, I know it is – because in every carriage I cross, each bristled knotted carpet strewn with blood and viscera, the seated passengers are tapping placidly at their phones, leafing through the g2, idly munching Jelly Babies or nibbling at supermarket sushi, as if nothing were happening at all. Not my problem, their eyes say. They should have bought a proper ticket.

There’s so much I don’t remember.

Not the murder and the bloodshed – I will remember that forever – but more basic facts. Why was I going to Crewe? Why did I leave London and its nurturing stink? I paid, I think, twelve hundred pounds for my ticket. Sometimes I can’t help the vague disquieting feeling that there was someone else with me, that I was idly chatting in my stolen seat to someone important, someone that I knew but can’t now remember, until we reached Milton Keynes and everything started to become the same as it had always been. On this train everyone is only alone. Sometimes, as I edged my way through cacophonous carriages, I’d put a hand against the windowpane and try to look outside, at scenes that felt wrong. Were we moving? Sometimes there seemed to be deserts outside, sloshing dunes in the blue twilight, running like water from vast buried scales, beneath this train gritted still by a million chattering grains of sand. Sometimes I saw the sullen fields of England crisscrossed by tracer fire, paratroopers tumbling strangled from invisible planes, and over the horizon Coventry burning. Sometimes the darkness outside was lit by a tiny pinprick of the noonday sun, burning cold to the faint peripheries of this faraway solar system, where the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston ploughed through sterile Hadean rock that had glittered lifeless for four and a half billion years, and under contellations unseen by humankind. At one point, I briefly locked myself in the bathroom, shortly before a furious minor tribe ripped out the door. I sat shivering on a toilet seat that pathetically begged with a coprophage’s masochism: ‘Don’t feed me wet wipes or sanitary products – they make me feel very poorly.’ I tried to connect to the onboard WiFi, and instead of a username and password, it asked me for the true name of God.

Despite what you might have heard, I said, we did not collapse into savagery on the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston. But if I’m honest, I don’t know what you might have heard. As the train finally slid into that dry and hungry mouth at Crewe, having experienced minor delays, I found myself cowering in another vestibule. Most of the others were dead; the screams and gurgles, at least, had faded. And above the bins, behind blood-smeared glass, was a screen showing live CCTV from throughout a clean and orderly privatised train, resplendent with soft comfortable inviting empty seats. The god’s eye view. Onscreen, the only people left standing, or cluttering up the vestibules, were the ones who obstinately refused to sit. There, on one seat, with his hand on his companion’s knee, hunched over an open copy of René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, scrolling through his phone between its pages, was myself. I remembered the man who had taken my seat at Milton Keynes, the one that looked for a moment exactly like me. He was arriving at his destination. I had no idea where I had ended up. I still don’t know where I am. As the doors pinged and hissed and opened, I stepped out of the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston, and into the truth.

The iron law of online abuse

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You could call it something like Cohen’s Law – named, of course, for Nick Cohen, the seething thing in the middle pages of the Observer – or the Iron Law of Online Abuse. It goes something like this: every single pundit or journalist who goes on a moral crusade against left-wing social-media crudery will have, very recently, done the exact same things they’re complaining against. They will have used insults, personal attacks, expletives, epithets, or unpleasant sexual suggestions; they will have engaged in bullying or spiteful little squabbles; they will have indulged in some form of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia; they will have encouraged political repression, violence, or censorship; they will have threatened to contact someone’s editor or boss or the police or otherwise have conspired to ruin their life. Chances are that they won’t have been very good at it, but they will have been mean; they will have used invective. This is always – always – true.

Nick Cohen gets the honours, firstly because he’s just awful, and secondly because he’s such a luminously dumb exemplar of this tendency: in column after column he condemns the vicious epithets suffered by MPs and public figures, grouching for civility and good, clean, open debate – but, when he’s not play-acting at high-mindedness, he compares socialists in solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution to sex tourists, flings antisemitic stereotypes at anti-Zionist Jews, and apostrophises Corbyn’s supporters as ‘fucking fools.’ This week, three young men with a podcast were monstered by the right-wing press, their names and faces revealed to an audience of frothing reactionaries, for posting a photo of Yvette Cooper MP in a first-class train carriage without her consent, and calling her a ‘bellend.’ (Cohen’s Law: the same publication, so primly outraged by the epithet that it had to render it as ‘bell**d,’ itself puts out material in which migrants are compared to rats) The publication of the photo had already been subjected to a comradely critique from within the left for its misogynistic overtones; the podcast account had apologised and taken it down. It was only afterwards that the reactionary press seized on the incident as part of its war of extermination against all left-wing thought, and moderate liberals happily joined in. If you don’t uncritically support a Daily Mail smear campaign, they said, you’re an abuser. How did Cohen respond to all this? With a personal insult about the appearances of the three men, of course. The Law is never wrong.

My point here isn’t to simply condemn the hypocrisy of Cohen and his ilk, although their hypocrisy is stunning. I’m certainly not trying to uphold the principle that they themselves fail to meet – don’t be rude, don’t be nasty, demolish ideas and not people, never find inventive ways to mock your enemies. As I’ve said before, there’s a great virtue in well-crafted nastiness, and there are few better measures of a good writer than how well they rise to the challenge of magnificently crushing somebody else. But when it comes to the question of online abuse, the left is forced to fight on strangely uneven territory. No wonder, then, that it’s the favoured terrain for anti-socialists. In Britain and in America, whenever a positive, hopeful, emancipatory left-wing movement makes electoral successes, it’s immediately dogged by claims that its supporters are behaving intemperately online. And it’s usually true. You will find supporters of any movement saying deeply unpleasant things on the internet. (All this stuff is, for some reason, usually treated as the voice of a rampaging, uncensored id, humanity’s oldest and worst instincts from the vicious dawn of the species suddenly re-amplified by technology; what it actually is, of course, is the voice of a rampaging, censorious superego.) But the goal of the accusation is always to present online abuse as a peculiarly left-wing phenomenon, or to make innuendoes towards some kind of complicity between the socialist left and the Nazi alt-right in their shared fondness for being mean online. This red-baiting tactic should be recognised for what it is: one of desperation. Most voters have better sense than to care too much about what’s happening on Twitter; it’s instructive that the latest round of deeply stupid recriminations in the UK only emerged after the June election made it impossible to continue arguing that Corbynism is inherently unelectable. The point isn’t to actually win on these grounds: it’s a delaying tactic, an attempt to set leftists against each other, to draw us onto unforgiving terrain, to have us all talking, interminably, about online abuse

So let’s talk about online abuse. What actually is it? A man who called a Tory MP a ‘backstabber’ and said that ‘austerity has murdered tens of thousands of disabled people’ was accused, by that MP, of abuse. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who quoted Engels in referring to the Grenfell Tower massacre as ‘social murder,’ was implicitly accused of inciting abuse. Someone who accused a Labour MP of ‘xenophobia’ for pandering to anti-migration sentiments during the EU referendum debate was told in turn that what they were doing was abuse. There’s a rhetorical legerdemain here. Legal definitions exist for domestic abuse and workplace abuse; these things have workable meanings. Online abuse has none. The term ‘abuse’ is amorphous and pullulating: it means death or rape threats, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, obsessive stalking, menacing messages and intimidation – but it also bundles up all those evils with critique, invective, any form of political anger, any form of negativity. These things are all forms of hate, and it’s forbidden to hate, even to hate what is evil. If someone tells a member of a government that routinely destroys lives that they are, in fact, destroying lives, this is abuse: it’s basically the same as making a violent death threat. If you call someone a ‘warmonger’ just because they want to start a war, this is abuse, and for that reason alone, the war must go ahead.

Socialists are continually called upon to condemn all abuse. We should be careful about doing this; the term is fundamentally deeply dishonest. It has a way of inverting actual power relations: the powerful, the corrupt and chrematistic and condescending, become the victims of a population half-starved and lied to. You can forget, almost, that the people being abused might also be killers. Movements to end mass social slaughter and build socialism in its place are delegitimised by political anger of any kind, but the engines of the vast structure of repression always remain respectable in their monstrosity. If there is racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or transphobia, then that is what it should be called, and that is what should be condemned: we should oppose it wherever it appears, and especially within our own movement. But nobody should ever feel obliged to condemn the act of not respecting your betters.

Hierarchy, in the end, is what it all boils down to. Once, writers were more up-front about this kind of thing. The great English reactionary Edmund Burke, writing against the horrors of the French Revolution, lingers over the violation of Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber, in dark and gushing prose. ‘A band of cruel ruffians and assassins rushed into the chamber of the queen and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly.’ This is the essence of the confounding of ‘all orders, ranks, and distinctions’: in normal times, pointed weapons should be used to dispatch the people who didn’t even have a bed; for these sans-brolottes to attack a queen’s mattress is an inversion of the natural order worse than massacre of peasants by violence or poverty in history.

Today, there are no armed assaults on the Queen to condemn. Instead, there is a sociology of the term ‘abuse,’ a subject-capable-of-being-abused, a subject-capable-of-abusing. The primary determining factor is, of course, class, in all its articulations. This is where Cohen’s Law is important.  After all, the only people more profoundly unpleasant on Twitter than right-wing Labour MPs, who take a perverse delight in mocking and blocking their own constituents, are some of my colleagues in the media. Often, the same people who are obsessively demanding that leftie snowflakes put aside their trigger warnings and toughen up will turn into a fainting nineteenth-century prude the moment an unkind word is sent in their direction. An unknown and unimportant person who calls a journalist or a politician a prick online is engaging in abuse; she is part of the bloodthirsty mob; her actions are immediately concatenated with every evil and prejudice imaginable. If the journalist or politician calls her a prick back, this is a delightful little piece of vulgarity, a witty rejoinder, a cutting put-down, an artist enjoying the varied fruits of their craft. They can write articles demonising some of the most vulnerable elements of society, and this is just a reasoned opinion; they can create policies that materially harm thousands of people and cement the power of the ruling class, and this is just a necessity of government. If an ordinary and powerless member of the public sends an email full of racial invective, it’s (quite rightfully) condemned – vile, hateful, sickening abuse, utterly unacceptable, drivel from the lowest dregs of humanity – but if professional writers build up a vast archive of work that delegitimises (to take a purely random example) the rights and identities of trans people, it’s part of a debate. Confront the magazine writer with the terms used to describe the anonymous emailer, and you too will be engaging in abuse. The prejudice is very rarely the real source of the objection. It’s the rudeness, the social impropriety, the talking back to your betters.

Nobody should be surprised that the great and the good also behave badly online. The internet is a close, dark, humid void that sits in the palm of your hand, and it’s full of everyone you could ever have a reason to hate. It’s an open-plan bestiary, where the monsters of ideology shudder and crawl and tear into each other with strange serrated claws, scattering viscera in every black and boundless direction, but unable to ever kill or to ever die. The only way to live there is to grow grim keratins yourself. I don’t begrudge Nick Cohen his personal attacks; if they were actually any good, and if they didn’t stray into dishonesty and antisemitism, I might admire him for them. Invective can be vital and creative and fun. But for so many people they’re accompanied by an unbearable sanctimony. It’s sometimes claimed that the left has decided that our ‘moral purity’ gives us the right to attack anyone we like. It might be true. But these centrists, who have twisted their lack of principle into an obscure virtue, claim for themselves a much more destructive right: primly appalled, they can do whatever they like to destroy another person, because they were rude first. The language of respected opinion leaders collapses into infantile babble: a leering spectacle, children’s heads stitched to hulking adult bodies. He started it. I’m telling on you. A game of osctracisms and recriminations, all of it far more vicious and unpleasant than a good sharp ‘cunt.’

Buried in all of this is the expectation that those who occasionally inform the people who do wrong that they are doing wrong will stop, if they’re just hectored enough. This will not happen. One way to fix the ‘abuse’ problem is methodological and technological; this is the one that’s already being put into place. I have a blue tick on Twitter; I can swear at Nick Cohen all I like, and sometimes do. Most users, however, will be subjected to automated moderation if they say anything to him that the algorithm decides he might not like. The effect is to entrench the existing class system, to tear out the throats of the voiceless, and create a world safer for idiot men and their gusts of opinion; there’s less unpleasantness on Twitter, but only for the people who keep writing columns about how unfairly they’re treated on Twitter. The other way to fix the problem is harder, but it might actually work: to start building a world that is not sustained through perpetual cycles of immiseration and malice, in which the mutual recognition of all human subjects replaces the scraping respect for authority, and in which we could decide to enjoy being extravagantly mean to each other if we liked, without any harm ever being done.

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.

Corbynism or barbarism, part II

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I’m going to be voting for Labour.

This is a new experience for me. It’s not that I haven’t voted Labour before: I did in 2010. Posturing and frightened in a low, scuzzy student block in Leeds, I pulled myself out my personal bathysphere of weed stink and late-teenage ripeness to plod over under crows and clouds and do my duty and keep out the Tories – and afterwards I felt deeply ashamed. It was like having one of Gordon Brown’s hairs stuck in my mouth; it was as if his grease had started oozing through my skin. I felt suddenly complicit in everything – the wars, the privatisations, the ASBOs and ID cards, the scudding lies and shabby gloss of New Labour Britain. Five years of Tory government acid couldn’t burn off the guilt. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever do it again, and when I had the chance two years ago, I didn’t.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s not that they were just as bad as the Tories; the government had been a half-decade horror. a cast of seepy flesh-bubbles bloating out the mire, some murderous gang of ninnying imbeciles and swill-fed ponces that had, for all the usual reasons, decided theirs was the right to go about making life quantifiably, measurably worse. I hated them and I wanted them gone. But I couldn’t vote for Labour. I couldn’t stand hearing Ed Miliband’s voice on the radio, because it was the honk and bleat of someone who was basically just like me, another nice left-wing Jewish boy from North London, a bit clumsy, a bit gangly, a bit insecure – but one who didn’t indulge in my purism, or my nihilism, or whatever it was that made me refuse compromises and triangulation and any attempt to make common ground with established power. Any student of history knows what power does to the commons. I would not settle for the least worst option; I would not pick sides in the stupid intra-capitalist squabbles of electoralism. I knew that a Labour government would materially reduce the suffering and deprivation of millions of people – but I also knew that once you let that turn into an ethical duty to vote, anything beyond the minute reduction of suffering is lost, and worst of all, the suffering of others (migrants, asylum seekers, the global working class) becomes something utterly hideous: a worthwhile price. When I voted for some tiny Menshevik party I didn’t really like and whose name I can’t even remember, it didn’t help anybody. But who says our capacity to help, to do politics, to be engaged, has to be bounded by the form of the vote?

Since then things have become immeasurably worse, but that’s not why I’m voting for Labour. Britain is not just sliding into fascism; we’ve landed. This has become a deeply ugly place. Our Prime Minister – gurning, grimacing, parochial,  incompetent, rhadmanthine, segmented, arachnid, and inhuman; the Daily Mail letters page given chitinous flesh; a zealous ideologue for the doctrines of smallness and stupidity and dumbfuck blithering hatred; a vicar’s daughter distilling all the common-sense peevishness and resentment from the dingy grog of the English national spirit; a leader who doesn’t so much impose austerity as embody it, in every word or gesture that seeks to foreclose on all possibilities and draw the furthest boundaries of the sunlit world no further than your respectable lace curtains – instructs the public to give her more power, to paint over a divided country with a false unity in Parliament, so she can exercise her supreme will. The loyal Tory press responds with terrifying outbursts against all enemies: ‘Hang The Lot,’ ‘Boil The Traitors Alive,’ ‘Insert The Pear Of Anguish Into The Anuses Of Our Enemies So That They May Be Disembowelled From Within,’ ‘Readers Agree: It’s Time To Crush The Heads Of The Remoaners Under A Large Millstone,’ ‘Where Are Our Common-Sense Torture Kennels In Which The People We Don’t Like Are Torn Apart Shred By Shred By Starving Dogs?’ All the anti-establishment energies that fuelled the Brexit vote have been effortlessly consumed by the administration: the people had their say, and (given that this is all out of the Schmittian playbook) they will only get to have it once; now it’s the role of power to implement it, and the will of the people as refracted through this government is for total centralised power with anything that could be called political extinguished. This is fascism: a simple, easy, descriptive term for what it is we’re living under.

But I’m not voting against Theresa May. I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s easy, very easy, to be against something. I was against Labour in 2015, and I still don’t think I was wrong. But being purely against – anti-fascist, anti-liberal, anti-racist, anti-sexist – means never being let down, and never being vulnerable. The horrors of the world descend on you, and you oppose them. But it’s not enough. There needs to be some positively articulated shared object, something that can be affirmed. It means losing some cynicism, giving up some of the invulnerability of ironism, attaching the boundless subjective I to a thing of history, that could get swept up with every other fragile thing and destroyed. But without that attachment nothing can be done. This is why so many socialists still see a value and an importance in maintaining some kind of attachment to the old dead Soviet project – people who know full well that there were famines and purges, mass deportations and mass shootings, and who are repulsed by all suffering, but who know that, whatever its failings, the Soviet project was our project. Socialism is not an abstraction or a negation; it’s the real attempt to build a better world in this one, and it demands our fidelity. It won’t be possible unless we’re prepared to do more than oppose the evil. Demands are made on us for the sake of a liberated existence, and the first is that we be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable, and that we accept that our faith might be disappointed.

To be for Jeremy Corbyn is dangerous, and the possibility of disappointment is high. His ideology is not the same as mine; his policies, while good, are disarticulated; his leadership, while inspiring, has not been effective; most of all, the Labour Party might be the worst vehicle possible for a programme of genuinely egalitarian change. It doesn’t matter. If he loses, the suds and mediocrities of the party’s right wing will be relentless; if they manage to force back the leadership, they will go to work destroying absolutely anyone who still holds the belief that life can be made better, burying the idea in its fringes for another generation or more, rooting out the seeds of utopia wherever they’re planted. The Labour party will be refashioned into something that once again proposes Tory policies using Tory methods and with priorities, just as the Tories skid further into authoritarianism – but while the Tories will just flatly tell us that they do evil because that’s how things are, Labour will still be begging to have a go on the torture kit so they can make things better. And people might believe them. After all, it won’t be quite as bad as the alternative.

Corbyn stands for a refusal to accept something that’s just not quite as bad as the alternative. Corbynism means not just electing the least fascist, the least liberal, the least racist, and the least sexist. The Labour right, the Tories, the Lib Dems, and Ukip are all partisans of a restricted imagination and a penny-pinching common sense; Corbynism the possibility of something actually good, the possibility of a way out. It points beyond itself.  Jeremy Corbyn did something quietly incredible, and which has nothing to do with his actual performance as Labour leader: he acted as the signifier that brought together a collectivity, he formed a point of unity for everyone who wanted a radical and transformative social change, even if they didn’t agree on what it should look like or how to bring it about. He gave the left a space to assert itself openly in British politics, in surprising numbers. This – the collective, not the man – is what’s important, and what’s feared, and what our enemies are desperate to crush.

After all, it wasn’t meant to be like this. There is a programme now for Western politics: it’s what we saw last year in the United States, and what’s unfolding right now in France. Wets versus Nazis, the collapsing liberal order against the embodiment of its own internal collapse, reiterated over and over again in every country, politics as a looping gif, the juddering replay at the end of the world. No hope, no possibility, this or the abyss. The radical left still has a role to play: its role is to lose. You thought you could have something better, and it turns out that you can’t: now choose. Centrists are obsessed by the idea that radicals secretly prefer the fascists to themselves; as soon as the hope for anything better is extinguished they demand that everyone on the left loudly announce how much they prefer the status quo to the remaining alternative. We have to pick sides in what is essentially a family squabble among reactionaries. Isn’t Hillary Clinton better than Donald Trump? Isn’t Mark Rutte better than Geert Wilders? Isn’t Emmanuel Macron better than Marine Le Pen?

Yes, of course they are. However badly things are going, they could always get worse. But the final collapse of liberalism is a situation in which liberalism seems perversely comfortable. Anti-fascism is only one half of what the world needs; it also needs a positively articulated vision of how it can be improved, and the centrists have nothing: lower business rates, softer racism, friendlier faces. Of course it’s necessary – urgently, frantically necessary – to defeat the Nazis, not least because it buys us more time. But it’s not enough, it’s a stopgap for the symptoms. Almost all the advanced capitalist societies are tilting in the same direction, and these Nazis didn’t come from nowhere. They are entirely immanent to the liberal political order as it stands; their racism and violence and hatred comes from a society which is already racist and hateful and violent. The fascists gain their energy from the failure of liberalism, and liberalism gets to stave off its failure thanks to the threat posed by the fascists. Both are the living undeath of the other. The whole order is monstrous, decrepit, shambling, and lifeless; it has to go. To struggle for a better world isn’t a luxury in a time of rising fascism, it’s the only thing that can save us.

I’m voting for Labour. It’s not perfect, of course it’s not. And Labour are unlikely to win. Corbynism or barbarism doesn’t represent a fork in the road, but something much harder; barbarism surrounds us everywhere, and Corbynism is attempting to wrench us out of it; it’s hard to pull an entire planet out of the swamp it’s made for itself, it’s hard to lift something up when it’s already slipping down, it’s hard to tear yourself away from a brutal and stupid reality. But it can be done. Something like Corbynism was never meant to happen. The narrative failed here: where there should have been a brief entrancing spark of hope followed by another grim round of which-is-worse centrism-or-fascism, that spark refused to be snuffed out. It’s burning lower than I’d like, but it’s still there, and while it is, I’m voting for Labour.

Corbynism or barbarism, part I, written during the last Labour leadership election, is here.

First we take Damascus

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Donald Trump ordered his attack on Syria because of something he saw on TV. The world is full of people like him: old, shabby, pompous; people who know everything because they learned it all from somewhere, people who function as exit nodes for the vast extraorganic network of information that chatters across oceans and ping-pongs through outer space, people who form the anuses of the system of images, excreting their content back into the world of things, people who repeat everything they see on TV. Every suburban bus stop shelters a Donald Trump, some smugly witless man of the world who knows what he knows and knows it better than you, some tyrant-in-waiting ready at any moment to vomit up the whole of the received wisdom in one splattering stream, and then act like they’re in possession of some special knowledge because they’re able to do so. The only difference is that when Donald Trump blathers from the TV, the TV takes notice: he repeats what it says, it repeats what he says. Donald Trump is the network whorling in on itself; the system of careful mediation finally splayed out in the mud, legs out, back twisted, licking its own arsehole.

The media was kind to Trump’s attack on Syria. Every pompous outlet that has spent the last five months screaming incessantly about the threat to democracy, the inevitable deaths and the terror of wars, had nothing but applause as soon as the wars and the deaths actually got going. A fleshy and dangerous idiot, a vulgarian, an imbecile – until those first perfect screaming shots of Tomahawk missiles being fired were broadcast – that’s our guy, you show them Donny! This is when, as Fareed Zakaria put it on CNN, Trump ‘became the president.’ And he really is presidential now, because the president is a totemic war-chief, the bloated repository of every male fantasy that had to be repressed, someone whose only job is to look like they could kill a hundred people in the morning and pose for a photoshoot with their dogs in the afternoon. Never mind the deaths or the uncertain repercussions; Trump’s strike was utterly squalid and utterly ignoble, some fattened toddler idly shitting out molten steel into the parched graveyard that used to be Syria, saving nobody, helping nobody, thoughtless and obscene. Kill a few of their guys, teach them a lesson, it’s common sense. And all the sophisticates and strategists applaud – stricken by half-hearted guilt, of course; after all, you still wouldn’t want to have the man round for dinner. They write their long justificatory exegeses on the timeliness of the act, bringing out every little rhetorical trick of the educated ruling classes, because all their moral angst is also from comic books, and cinema, and TV.

On NBC, Brian Williamss, ranting himself into ecstasy, quoted Leonard Cohen: I am guided by the beauty of our weapons. What weapons guide? Cohen wasn’t singing about clubs or spears or missiles, but ideology, culture, and fame. Mediation. Whether he knew it or not, what Brian Williams was saying had nothing to do with the spotlit plumes of white smoke rising from the US Navy vessels in the Mediterranean. The beautiful weapon was himself. the beautiful weapon was TV.

Beyond the fiddly cloisters of the media intellectuals, why do Americans love their wars so much? Because war is the only workable substitute for being able to turn off the TV. Wars happen for the same grim and venal reasons that have always made the rich massacre the poor, but every other weapon is now subordinated to the screens, the nightly news and the outrage on Twitter. The media transmits the relentless horror of the world, sliced up into edible segments: here’s a problem, here’s a tragedy, here’s an atrocity, here’s something else. Chemical weapons, starvation, murder, war. All of it is shrink-wrapped and isolated; you can never really find out why this is happening, no more than you could really learn the long sad stories behind every neatly packaged item on the supermarket shelves. They don’t even need to lie, although they do that too; the propaganda is in the medium itself. And the ethical response to all this diffuse suffering, charging at your face out of nowhere, is no longer why is this happening? but we have to make it stop. Anything is permissible if it’ll just make this go away. There’s no better example than the 2000 film Rules of Engagement: our heroic Marines are called in to defend the US Embassy in Yemen from an angry crowd outside, and all the time they’re there we can constantly hear their endless and repetitive chants, and the camera flashes between shots to glimpses of furious mouths with terrible third-world teeth, furious, inhuman, a slow torture, until the good patriotic viewer is begging our heroes to just shut them up. After the Marines fire into the crowd, there’s a moment of perfect silence. Bliss.

The attack on Syria will not make its war go away. Every primly disgusted apologia for the attack is a travesty. So Assad should be able to use chemical weapons with impunity? So we should do nothing? See how that we slips in there, almost unnoticed. Is this the same we that killed 56 Syrian civilians in Manbij last year, and then 46 in rural Aleppo, and then nearly 300 innocent Iraqis in Mosul? The we that turned the Korean peninsula into rubble and carnage because the people there wanted a better life, and then Indochina, and then the Middle East; the one that’s currently engaged in starving millions in Yemen? What happened to Libya, after we were told we had a responsibility to save the civilians there too? This isn’t ‘whataboutery,’ but a simple question: when judgement and punishment are carried out by the same people, who gets to judge? If the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun then it is monstrous, cynical, and murderous – but the ability to punish monstrous states seems to belong only to the most powerful; in other words, the most monstrous, the most cynical, and the most violent. But all it needs is a we – a word reaching through the screen to swaddle you up in it – for the great roving predator of the world, dripping with blood from every pore, to become something else: the international community, the ones who must intervene, to protect the children.

The next attack won’t stop the war in Syria either, or the next one. That’s not what these things are for. The response from the Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges was instructive. Bomb Assad, he said, and then bomb Isis. And when that leaves what was once a functioning society in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham? ‘Then we go and get them too.’ After all, if every Syrian is dead, then the war is finally over. Their suffering is immense, but it’s not their suffering that matters: it’s the suffering of the viewer, at home, heartbroken as they watch the carnage playing out onscreen. It doesn’t matter who does it, and it doesn’t matter how it’s done, but we need to turn it off forever.

Against the Evening Standard

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The collective noun for issues of the Evening Standard is a plague. These things should be dead, pulped and bleached to nothing, but watch how they move. Like any parasite, it never crawls around under its own power. The Evening Standard, folded in half to form a coward’s carapace, skitters about in the wind on its pointed pages, tapping in darts and pounces along the Tube-station kerbside between fag-ends and plastic bags. After it rains the water glugs upwards through an overflowing sewer, and the Evening Standard sprawled lazy over the grate rises and falls, seepages of grime-stained rainwater passing over the warping lines of text and sinking back down again; it’s found its power, it’s breathing. On the escalators the Evening Standard waits, great snowdrifts of the Evening Standard piling against the rails, to moulder and soften until it’s ripe. The Standard swarms on the carriages, waiting just behind your neck; the distracted millions pick it up and leave it somewhere else, spread its spores across the city, bring it into their homes. Assume that half of the Standard‘s daily circulation of 850,000 is zooming around on the Tube at any given time: all together, the newspaper is moving at nearly nine million miles per hour; over the course of a working day, plus an hour’s commute each way, the Evening Standard plunges the distance from London to its faint anaemic sun. Imagine if the city were stripped, like Calvino’s Armilla, of everything – roads, trees, bollards, buildings, people – but undergrowth, earwigs, and the Evening Standard. You don’t need to imagine; you’re already there. You’re wandering through the second city, its towers built from fraying newsprint. London is not a place to live; it’s a vast, decaying, mobile archive; a hole ceaselessly filling itself with the Evening Standard.

Reading the Standard always gives me a feeling of slow, creeping fury, boiling just below my skin, the sense that I might suddenly break out in gleaming pustules of bile right there on the Tube, that some parasite worming through the paper could claw its way into my eyeballs on its tiny hooks, fester, and breed: then vomiting, suppuration, horror, the screaming commuters banging their fists bloody on the windows as they try to escape, the train howling to a stop in the middle of the tunnel, the armed police in hazmat suits quarantining the area, lights sweeping through the shivering and the dying, the paper in my hands suddenly gone. Not on the first reading, of course: the Standard is awful in the same way London itself is awful, its vastness slowly bending in on itself until it becomes a cage, the steady tick of days and weeks and years, thudding past like the slats on a train journey: here you are, still in London, older, sadder, lonelier, and here’s another edition of the Evening Standard to carry you home to ready meals, Netflix, and sleep.

It’s monstrous in a way entirely different from the Daily Mail, for instance, which announces its monstrousness right there in screaming letters on the front page, or the neo-Nazi Spectator, making the reasonable case for racism in hectoring and patient tones. As long as there are Tories there will be Tory papers; complaining that the right-wing exists is entirely valid but not particularly useful. I’m not even talking about its most publicised outrages, although there are many. During the London mayoral election, for instance, there was its despicably Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan, screaming in panic about his phantasmal terrorist connections, until he won the largest electoral mandate of any politician in British history, and the paper suddenly rolled over with drooping ears, fawning over wonderful lovely Sadiq and his brilliant plans for brilliant London. (Khan, of course, is the liberal ideal of the assimilated Muslim, a chummy tieless true-blue Labour Brit; if it can happen to him, then is anyone safe?) There’s its recent appointment of George Osborne, a Vaselined marionette whose only previous journalistic experience was as a freelancer for the Peterborough diary column at the Daily Telegraph, as editor. There was that gurning fluff piece on the alt-right, full of grateful remarks on how dapper they all look with their sweater-vests and their pale and perfectly cubical heads, complete with instructions on how to get the ‘fashie’ haircut for yourself. There’s its tireless advocacy for that fucking Garden Bridge. All this is awful and unexceptional. This is the media we’re talking about; why would you expect anything other than racism, idiocy, and a nice tongue-bath for established power?

What makes the Standard so uniquely infuriating is this. Several years ago, a group of skaters were campaigning to halt the vandalism-by-redevelopment of the magnificent South Bank Centre, and along the way prevent the bulldozing of its undercroft, a much-loved graffiti and skateboarding space. It should have been hard to oppose them on this: the skate park gave joy to thousands, destroying it would have given money to a few. Not for the Evening Standard. In a short note appended to an editorial column, the paper congratulated the skaters of the successes of their campaign. ‘In this stand-off between culture and counter-culture, the skaters have pulled off some deft moves,’ it wrote. And then, without warning: ‘But it is now time for them to see reason.’ What reason? What are they talking about? What could this possibly mean? The world is full of people making the case for what is stupid and wrong, but the Evening Standard never even makes its case. Here is something stupid and wrong, please agree with it at once. After all, this is what’s reasonable. That sentence contains in its ten short words everything that’s broken in life. The thoughtless appeal to a common sense that never existed. The endless construction of the reasonable conservative subject, spat out in their millions, naked and glistening onto the tarmac as the traffic arrives, reading the Evening Standard. If the world were a rational place, if people really were ever capable of seeing reason, that would have been it: eight hundred and fifty thousand trudging commuters would have thrown up their hands – god, fuck this – and immediately assembled to burn down the offices of the Evening Standard and start building a society in which nothing so blindly meaningless could ever happen again.

They may as well put it up on the masthead, in little manicured letters by the picture of Eros: Sed nunc tempus est ratio videre. To see reason; to do what is already being done, and not complain about it. In most newspapers the reactionary spite is calculated, mendacious, and vicious; in the Standard what dominates is a total witlessness. It’s all seemingly by accident, none of these people understand what they’re saying, they don’t know why they think the way they do, they don’t even really think. Take a journey with me, walk through the pages of the Evening Standard, see its gardens of fury. Half of the paper appears to have been written in crayon. In an article on infrastructure maintenance, the opening paragraph – this is entirely real – informs us that ‘Tower Bridge has to close for three months because the road surface is falling apart, the man in charge of it said today.’ Innumeracy is everywhere in its massive property section, which cheerfully exhorts you to move into a £3.6m new-build penthouse with a balcony swimming pool and 24-hour concierge. The lifestyle pages read like promotional copy – ooh, we all love a nice cupcake, don’t we. The opinion pages regularly host the observations of an extremely long-winded four-year-old child. One column sagely informs the reader that while it feels bad to get stuck in the rain, it also helps the crops grow, and that’s good. Another, from September of last year, took a full page to let us know that it’s autumn now. Various drabs of opinion impress on you the fact that London is good and great and the most wonderful city in the world; in others the writers simply summarise a book they just read, or say that there’s been a lot of good stuff of the telly lately.

When they turn to politics it’s similarly stupid. In November, the Standard told its London-based readership that the only person they could in good conscience vote for was Hillary Clinton. After the Copeland by-election, we were told that ‘the distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents.” Something similar could be said about Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all’ – a fantastically terrible piece of writing, introducing a comparison only to immediately proclaim its uselessness in the very next sentence. With dispiriting frequency, Evening Standard writers like to dream up dialogues within Cabinet meetings – politics, as imagined by an idiot! – always giving the strange sense that you’re watching the world’s least popular child playing with her action figures. Finally, the star columnists. Here comes Matthew D’Ancona, plodding about like a lost child in orthopaedic shoes, with his glum little question mark of a face significantly too small for his head, and his mildly interesting name in lieu of anything interesting to say. Here comes Simon Jenkins, whingeing that he went for a walk in the park and some children who were probably immigrants splashed mud on his new linen trousers. Here’s the Tory line, repeated not out of any ideological impetus but as pure common sense: here it is, it’s time to see reason. Here they all are, shuffling, brainless, petulant, and wrong, the Kharons of London’s new modern hell, come to ferry you home.

You’re worried that having George Osborne as editor might compromise the paper’s editorial independence. What editorial independence? The Standard is a jellyfish, a parasitic worm, a creature with a hole at each end and nothing inbetween: it thinks nothing, it feels nothing, it floats through the infinite dark and waits for a tide to carry it along. Hence the fury. If someone believes something and you don’t concur, you can disagree with them. If someone has bad opinions, you can correct them. But there are no real opinions in the Standard, just the trace of drifting plankton, just idiocy and repetition. Sadiq Khan was a terrorist, now he’s the cuddliest mayor in the whole wide world; the tides changed, and this twitching thing drifted in another direction. It was autumn once, but now it’s spring. The Evening Standard is London’s paper; it’s the paper that London deserves: a proud and ancient city that’s now nothing more than a brief staging-post for international capital, whose lifeblood and materiality is nothing more than the wordless, unconscious, insatiable self-expansion of capital. Always parasitic, powerless without its structures of domination, achieving nothing by itself except the immiseration of others; always solipsistic, always feared, always terrified. If capitalism could speak, it would speak with a child’s voice. If capitalism could speak, it would speak like the Evening Standard.

Writing and identity

There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility. I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others… As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

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0. To write feels like violence. All of us are mortal, but the text can survive long after its author: who are you, fleshy and contingent thing, who wants to live forever? To write is to stain clean paper, press sticks in smooth clay; in some sense always, to deform the world. To write something down is to turn the limitless possibility of what could be into the dead presence of what turned out to have been. A line in Beckett’s Molloy which I always find myself returning to, because it speaks what it isn’t: ‘You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till everything is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Writing obscures the ghastliness of what is, which is speechlessness; it weaves a flimsy veil of presence around the eternal nothing. Writing is a lack, but the lack is not in words but the world that surrounds them.

1. One form of the discourse in question, an instance: Don’t write thinkpieces about Beyoncé (or whatever) if you’re not a black woman. You will not understand the subject-matter, not properly, it will be a waste. It isn’t for you. (As if the commodified culture-object is ever really for anyone.) The really notable thing here is where the demand is placed. What’s needed – and what’s generally articulated – is a critique of the journalistic economy and its deeply unequal hiring and commissioning practices, the thorny nexus of social practices that create a class of profession writers that generally looks like the class of the bourgeoisie from which it is mostly drawn. But what can often occur with it is a metaphysics of the text: illegitimate writing is not even itself, but an absence, the absence of everything else that could have been there instead. Any one person writing means another who can’t; the sin is in its having been written, the fault belongs to the writer as such. But while most writing really is inexcusably bad, the one mark in its favour is that the possibility of writing is limitless. It’s the industrial complex of writing that is restricted, along with the number of people who can sustain themselves in this fairly shabby trade: here, as everywhere, the task is to reproduce in the economy at large the infinity that already exists in the economy of language, to abolish the distinction between the professional writer and the public they serve or negate, to make sure that nobody will ever go hungry again.

2. Instead, a general trend within those discourses that claim to have justice as their aim is the selective and demographic apportioning out of the field of human understanding: black writers may and must write about black celebrities, music, and their own experiences; women writers may and must must write about lifestyle trends, feminism, and their own experiences; trans writers about their own experiences; Muslim writers about their own experiences; disabled writers about their own experiences. In one avowedly intersectional-feminist online publication, female writers are given an ‘Identity Survey,’ a monstrous questionnaire in which they’re asked to list every horrifying experience they had ever survived, and are then told to turn it all into short, shareable, fungible articles for $90-a-day wages. I was raped, I was in an abusive relationship, I had an abortion, I suffered; a strip-mining of saleable identities, a kind of primitive accumulation across the terrain of trauma. Meanwhile the universal subject, the one that need not suffer to be heard, remains white and male. The right of black women to write about Beyoncé is important. But they must also be able to write about deep-sea ecology, Kantian philosophy, writing itself, and what they do not know – and while there are many who do precisely this, the under-representation of writers of colour, queer and trans writers, and other marginalised people on the topics of oceanography, German idealism, deconstruction, and ignorance is significantly more marked. Overwhelmingly it is white men who are afforded the privilege of being other than themselves, of not having to continuously say ‘I’ – not least because the validity of their self-identity is already assured, because the world is already in their image. And while the ability to declare oneself in the face of a world that would prefer you not to to is essential, the dogma that writing must and can only be a self-declaration resigns marginalised people to this condition. My critique here is very limited: within this discourse it has become the case that it is the presence and particularity of the ‘I’ that legitimises writing, that makes it appropriate or inappropriate, that makes it either it either presence itself or the lack of something else. And this is not helpful.

3. If there must be a rule, then it should be that we must not only write what we know. If we don’t write an ignorance other than ourselves, in the end all that remains is a mute, gnashing, helpless, final I. There is no writing that is only legible to and can only be created by people occupying a particular subject-position; there are experiences that are unique and incommensurable, even incommunicable, but if this were the case here there would be no possibility of writing: everyone who could understand would already know.

4. Derrida notes in Plato’s Pharmacy that ‘the speaking subject is the father of his speech […] Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father. His father who speaks for him and answers for him. Without his father he would be nothing but, in fact, writing.’ There is no speech without its anchor in the person that speaks and her physical presence, but in writing – the ‘breathless sign’ – the author is always simply not there, even if she has an active Twitter account. It persists without its creator; what faces you is the text, something entirely different. I speak and say ‘I’ and you know who says the word, but the written ‘I’ is always indeterminate, a tangle of lies and fantasies and ironies and pretences, a person just like you half a world away, the person that you are yourself, an immortal and changing thing. If you speak and someone interprets what you say in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is a misunderstanding. If you write and someone interprets what you’ve written in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is literature. The demand that any text be legitimised by the self-identity of its author is the demand for a text that behaves more like speech. And not just any speech. The writing that responds to this demand is ‘testimonial’ or ‘confessional’ writing, and the place in which one testifies or confesses is in a court. In a courtroom logocentrism holds sway; the preference is for a speaking person, whose truth is guaranteed by a spoken oath, who is present to speak for and answer for their own speech. The discourse here is not one of justice, strictly speaking, but the law. It is the law that, first of all, demands to know who a person is before deciding what to do with them. These are not opposing concepts, necessarily, but they are not the same. The law can be deconstructed. Justice cannot.

5. Whose voice is allowed to speak? Only yours. In Beckett’s novels the reader is lost and confused, stranded in a mire of words that seem designed to be inhospitable and to exclude, accompanying something that speaks its unquestioning I-say-I while forbidding any identification – until you realise that the strange tormenting voice that is mentioned sometimes, the one that tells people what to do, the one that is constantly trying to bring itself to an end but is never able to stop speaking itself, is the same voice that’s been in your head the entire time as you read. It’s shocking, but there’s a sense of joy at the same time. What distinguishes real writing from a legal deposition or a laundry list is its occasional capacity to provoke a kind of joy, even in evocations of sadness, loneliness, misery, loss, repression, and horror, the sheer pleasure of something entirely alien and entirely intimate, of a voice that is nobody’s and everyone’s and yours, there with you in your solitude, of language in the infinity of its play and substitutions, a moment of the freedom that’s still to come.

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