Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Politics & Current Events

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.

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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.

How you lost the world

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I think I’m still in shock. When the sun rose this morning it was blistered with the face of Donald Trump, bronze and smirking hideous, and all I can think about is Hillary Clinton. It’s what I know. Throughout the entire election, one slow-motion clip of a clown car ramming into a crowd of pedestrians, I’d assumed that the danger of Trump and the danger of Clinton were of two different orders. Trump was dangerous because of what he said and what he represented, the waves of fascism and violence that rippled out from the dead plopping weight of his speeches. Clinton was dangerous because of what she would actually do, because Clinton was going to win the election. I was a sucker, the kind who gets duped precisely by believing himself to be too smart for any kind of con. I thought I saw through it all, the whole stupid charade, a coronation disguised as a battlefield. I was wrong. This was exactly what Hillary Clinton wanted people like me to think; she wanted to be an inevitability. And this is why Trump won: the presidency was Clinton’s to lose, from the moment she announced her candidacy, and she lost it. She was the only person who could. People don’t like taking part in someone else’s inevitability.

Why did Hillary Clinton run for President? The most gruesome spectacle of Election Day was her short speech outside the polling station in Chappaqua, New York. ‘It’s the most humbling feeling,’ she said, of voting for herself to control an enormous nuclear arsenal. All electoral politics are predicated on this kind of bullshit, the debates, the campaign ads, the phony acceptance speeches, the highminded types trying to focus on the ‘issues,’ as if there’s any issue at play beyond a pair of hungry-eyed megalomaniacs deciding that they want power. Someone like Trump might have been stupid enough to convince himself that he at least had some kind of grand vision for the country, or the will and dedication to really get things done, but Clinton had no such illusions. She’s been in government for a long time; she knew that the powers of the presidency can be competently exercised by any grey and dismal middle manager, she knew that she had nothing particularly unique to offer. She was running not because there was anything in particular she wanted to get done – look how slippery her positions have been on just about every issue – but because she wanted it, the big chair and the big desk and the first female President; she decided that it was her turn, that it was hers by right. She knew that she was electoral poison, that vast swathes of the country hated her and for good reason, that she was compromised by a miserable record spotted with sleaze and criminality, that she alienated the left, inflamed the right, and appealed mostly to a small coterie of sexually repressed and pathologically centrist think-tank nerds, that her entire constituency was made of limp cardboard and backlogged semen, that her candidacy raised the serious possibility of a Republican victory when anyone else would have beaten that divided and frothing party into insignificance with one hand tied behind their back – but she ran anyway.

And then she lost. Despite it all, the vast monumental horror of a Trump presidency, it’s hard not to feel a little twinge of satisfaction as Hillary Clinton is denied the only thing she ever wanted and which she never deserved. Trump has promised to send her to prison. Good. It’d be for all the wrong reasons, but her crimes are many, and losing a general election to an overgrown baby should absolutely carry a long minimum sentence. Let her rot.

Clinton’s media foot-rubbers are presenting this result as a victory for prejudice: Trump won on a platform of racism, sexism, ableism, misogynoir, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia; the American people are hateful beyond reason, and they elected a knight of the kyriarchy to turn their roiling incoherent psychopathologies into government policy. Of course these people are right; it would be incredibly stupid to discount the role of outright bigotry, especially in a country that has fuelled itself on bigotry for three hundred years. But it’s not enough; if the only problem was too many bigots the whole elections collapses into a question of tribes and demographics, and you don’t have to think about why Clinton lost. Trump won among voters who ticked the box for Obama in 2008 and 2012, he won decisively among white women, he picked up a far bigger share of ethnic minority voters than anyone would have reasonably expected, he won because the standard formula of American liberalism – eternal war abroad coupled with rationally administered dispossession at home and an ethics centred on where people should be allowed to piss and shit – is a toxic and unlovable ideology, and his candidacy turned it from an invisible consensus to one option among others.

Hillary Clinton had nothing to offer people; all she could give them was fear and herself. Her campaign was the most cack-handed and disastrous in recent decades, managed by a gang of simpering imbeciles pretending to be Machiavellian strategists; it was all on the flimsy depthless level of TV. Now watch her whip, now watch her nae nae. Yaas kween, slay kween, slay. Clinton was to be carried through her path to the White House on the shoulders of irritating media celebrities; Lena Dunham’s Instagram feed, Beyoncé’s stage shows, Robert De Niro’s menacing monologues. Clinton strategists actively and deliberately abetted Trump at every stage of his rise through the Republican primaries, dignifying his candidacy with every statement of disapproval, because they thought that he was the enemy she had the best chance of beating. Clinton spent the final weeks of her campaign against a parody toddler obsessing over weird conspiracy theories, painting her opponent as a secret Russian agent. Clinton decided, as a vast country fumed bitterly for something different, anything, that she would actively court the approval of a few hundred policy wonks. Clinton all but outrightly told vast swathes of the American working classes that they were irrelevant, that she didn’t need them and they would be left behind by history, and then expected them to vote for her anyway. Clinton was playing at politics; it was a big and important game, but it could be fun too; it was entertainment, it was a play of personalities. Her campaign tried to reproduce the broad 500-channel swathe of TV: an intrigue-riddled prestige drama and a music video and the 24-hour news; they forgot that trashy reality shows always get the highest ratings.

Donald Trump is a fascist. We shouldn’t be afraid of the word: it’s simple and accurate, and his fascism is hardly unique; it’s just a suppurating outgrowth of the fascism that was already there. Still, this time it’s different. The fascisms of Europe in the 1920s and 30s, or east Asia in the 50s and 60s, or Latin America in the 70s and 80s were all the response of a capitalist order to the terrifying potency of an organised working class. Fascism is what capitalism does when it’s under threat, something always latent but extending in claws when it’s time to fight; it imitates mass movements while never really having the support of the masses. (In Germany, for instance, support for the Nazis was highest among the industrial haute bourgeoisie, and declined through every social stratum; look at Trump’s share of the voter per income band and see the same pattern. The workers didn’t vote for Trump, they just didn’t vote for Clinton either.) But today the organised working class is nowhere to be found. There’s no coherent left-wing movement actively endangering capitalism; the crisis facing the liberal-capitalist order is entirely internal. It’s grinding against its own contradictions, circling the globe to turn back against itself, smashing through its biological and ecological limits and finding nothing on the other side. This is the death spasm, a truly nihilist fascism, the fascism of a global system prickling for enemies to destroy but charging only against itself. There’s no silence in the final and total victory, just an endless war with only one side. It’s not entirely the case, as the slogan puts it, that the only thing capable of defeating the radical right is a radical left. The radical right will defeat itself, sooner or later, even if it’s at the cost of a few tens of millions of lives. We need a radical left so there can be any kind of fight at all.

A creepy clown manifesto

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We only wanted to entertain. We only wanted to make you laugh. We only wanted to see happiness, smiling children in the dizzy whirl of the circus tent; we only wanted to pull on our masks, as thin as a the image on your TV screens, and make you glad. Watch us tumble, watch us fall down ladders, watch us blow kisses and balloons: we only ever wanted to entertain.

Autumn is here, and you will have seen us at the edge of the woods. We live at the edge of the woods; like all the rest of your litter the damp winds have blown us to the edge of the woods. We haunt the fringes. Small-town America, brand-new and broken-down. The forests have been strip-logged and grown back again worse, and the trees are just weeds now, white and narrow, branching out like pale spindly fingers: the rustling of trees outside your window at night is how you know that there’s someone in your house. These woods are all hollow inside, forests too young and splintered to hold anything like folklore, where nature looks like a cheap film set, where the nymphs and sprites would get trapped in Coke cans and starve, where every animal is mud-splattered, pre-butchered, and desperate. Since you stopped leaving pornography out here you have no use for these woods, and they have become a home for the clowns. They suit us fine. Our evil is not ancient; we are depthless and outside of history. Hallowe’en is coming: leaves are starting to clog the dirt now, piling up in the gas station forecourt, deformed and organic against the square rows of toilet cleaner and laxatives. Leaves drift against the church, where God lives between plywood walls. Sooner or later someone will need to come along with a big noisy machine to blow all the leaves back to the edge of the woods. And then he’ll go back home, and not have to worry about what the clowns in the woods could possibly eat. He’s the lucky one. There aren’t any jobs or much hope either; some people are on heroin and most are on Netflix, staring through hours of entertainment standardised especially for you, plugging into Americanywhere. You don’t go to see the travelling circus any more. The travelling circus has pitched its tent right there in your house, and it’s come to whisk you away.

The first person to spot us this year was a young boy in Greenville, South Carolina. Standing in the scrub-patches between Greenville and whatever surrounds it, he saw two figures at the edge of the woods, one in a bright red wig, the other with a black star painted over his face, silent, motionless. He ran to tell his mother. He wasn’t the last. In the same town another clown appeared in the woods behind an apartment block, and another was seen staring impassively outside a laundrette. This was late August, when the nights are too hot for too many clowns to squelch out from the soil; our face-paint runs in sweaty drips, we wilt. In September, we started to spread. Across the state, then to South Carolina, then to Georgia and Virginia, until we could stalk from coast to coast, leering over the border at Canada, tumbling slapstick to Europe. An epidemic of creepy clowns, panic across the nation, and nobody knows why. Clowns were seen holding knives in Kistler, Pennsylvania; machetes in Tchula, Mississippi; a pistol in Monroe, New Jersey. Clowns started to appear outside schools. Clowns started to leer at the side of the freeway, watching you buzz about from one place to another, rooted among the wet exhaust-stained trees. People have been fired from their jobs for wearing ordinary non-creepy clown costumes in social media pictures; it’s become the sign of an obscure and undefinable criminality. Every genuine sighting brings a dozen phantasmic ones; schools close, mobs form, ordinary citizens buy themselves a gun. These clowns hunt a very particular demographic: white, prim, conservative young families, away from the big cities, once comfortable but declining, the moribund lower bourgeoisie. People who despite themselves feel that subtle tug coming from the edge of the woods, the call of rot and decay, the bliss that comes when everything sprouts mushrooms and melts into the trash-strewn ground. People who are afraid of clowns, and people whose fears are listened to. We are by nature indifferent to the state, but it’s been amusing to watch its antics and pratfalls: the armed police establishing their perimeter around a school in Flomaton, Alabama, sweeping the classrooms for signs of clown-related mischief; the men charged with terrorism for wearing clown costumes; the helicopters on standby and the military bases on constant alert; the tension as a vast engine readies itself for war against its own clowns, and finds that when the missile silos are opened there’s only the wet smack of a custard pie against the ground.

It’s so boring of you to make this about politics, when you could just as well blame rising global temperatures giving us a glut of worms to feed on, or astral alignments poking pores in the fabric of your universe. Why clowns? Why now? Isn’t a big sad-faced clown about to reach out for the Presidency? Aren’t you all afraid, safer than you’ve ever been in your homes surrounded by three lines of cops with military-grade weapons, but terrified of the refugees, of the terrorists, of the criminals, of whatever it is that’s lurking in the dark by the edge of the woods? It’s even worse when you psychologise. The horror of the clown is the sad man behind the painted smile, that desperate need, going back to old Grimaldi, for the unhappiest ones to make other people laugh. Learn the truth: we are not unhappy. There is nothing behind our masks. Note how in so many media reports, the clowns are not a he or a she but an it. Why are you afraid of clowns? Don’t you love to be entertained? Weren’t wars fought, cities basted to rubble, children burned alive, all to defend a free society in which you could live without fear and be entertained? But there’s something restless: a vague sense, as credits roll for episode eight and you know without thinking that however much you might want to do something else episode nine is as inevitable as the setting sun, that you’re wasting your life; that it may as well be over already. And at that very moment, a clown lurches out of the edge of the woods behind your house, a big plastic grin on his face, and a knife in his hand.

We don’t mean to frighten you. We don’t mean to cause you any harm. We carry weapons, but you love to look at weapons; you put them in our hands. This is what we will do. We will stand at the edge of the woods and not say a word. We will wait patiently until you put down your guns, call off the police, and end all this senseless panic. We will wait until, of your own free will, you follow us into the woods, those grey shallow woods where everything new falls to rot. We will take you into the woods, and then we will put on a little show for you. And you will laugh.

JK Rowling and the Cauldron of Discourse

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Please understand that I’m not making any kind of criticism of her when I say that JK Rowling has abandoned the real world. When you have one billion dollars, it’s not really something you need any more; there’s no real need to explain why she chooses to live with magic instead. If nothing else, she inhabits herself. In Edinburgh’s rain-splattered streets familiar beings are at work. The troll in chains, for instance, grunting behind the wheel of the bus, pressed into its dreary service shuttling endlessly from Hanover Street to Holyrood and back by a simple first-year spell, Instrumentio, for the manipulation of hyponoiacs – because why else would the Lothian number 6 have ploughed so carelessly into that puddle just as she was walking past? You might think that Ocado being out of smoked salmon for three weeks running is a supply-chain problem, another of those market inefficiencies that together determine the course of our lives, but she knows better: when she scans down her receipt to see it replaced by mackerel again, she knows it’s an infestation of nifflers, scurrying rapacious all along the warehouse floor, snuffling up anything that looks like it might be valuable, cramming thick slices of translucent rippling salmon into their always-hungry bellies. When helicopters thrum overhead to ruin her sleep at three in the morning, JK Rowling knows that a werewolf’s on the loose; when politically engaged young people mass in front of Parliament she sees the crowded hoods of the Dementors, and shivers.

Things continue to work after their usual fashion; it’s house-elves in their willing legions that stitched all her clothes together, and worryingly megarhinic goblins judiciously sliding banknotes to her through the cash machine. She’s grateful for the advice of Hagrid and Dumbledore and all the others as they follow her around this greyed-out half-world, she’s glad that she’s not like all the boring and stupid people, that she has an active imagination and a rich inner life. Of course she knows that all these wizards and griffins are just stuff that she made up, that none of it is really real, that she prefers living with them because she can control it all to the last detail, while even one billion dollars won’t let you rearrange the universe at will. But things aren’t always so clear. She’s sure, occasionally, that Harry had always been there, telling her what to do. He told her to write the book. Then she went back into the house and wrote, It was nearly midnight, and Harry Potter was lying on his stomach in bed. It was not nearly midnight. Harry Potter was not lying on his stomach in bed.

This is about JK Rowling’s political interventions, of course, her pathological tendency to justify vague and insipid reaction by pointing out that some fictional wizards she thought up inside her own head also share her views, her apparent inability to think about the real world without first mapping it onto the one she invented. JK Rowling has variously pissed off Scottish nationalists and the Palestine solidarity movement and the Labour left, wielding a Dumbledore hand puppet that repeats everything she says in a slightly lower voice, but she’s also pissed off a significant number of her own fans, and that’s where you have to start.

In 2007, Rowling was widely celebrated for announcing that her character Dumbledore was gay, despite the fact that there’s nothing to suggest this in the text itself, where she had an opportunity to actually advocate for queer issues; this year, when she told her fans that their personal theories were all incorrect and another character, Sirius Black, was not gay, they were outraged. We grew up with these characters, they insisted, we decide how to read them. JK Rowling is over, they declared, as if she hadn’t already been dead since Barthes. (Or longer: there’s a reason every testament is final, why God never actively intervenes in the world once His holy book is set down, why the medieval Kabbalists had to invent reader-response theory and the Catholic Church headcanons.) What’s clear is that absolutely nobody involved has ever read a word of Derrida.

There are many definitions of deconstruction, none of them particularly good, but you could do worse than to describe it as a mode of reading that refuses to forget the textuality of the text, the fact that it’s a series of marks on a material substrate that were written and which can be read, copied, misunderstood, ignored, or destroyed, that before it conjures up a private universe it exists as a shared object in this one. As a sop to her LGBT+ critics, Rowling shortly afterwards revealed that in her books lycanthropy is actually a metaphor for AIDS. Her position on all this is clear: she came up with these stories, she owns them, and long after they’ve slipped into the wider discourse they still remain essentially hers, essentially private. On Twitter, her header image was briefly two lines of text reading ‘I know what Dumbledore would do. Deal with it.’ The true text of Harry Potter is not on the printed page, but between her ears, to be altered whenever she wants; in her Platonist cosmology fictional events have a shining reality that is all their own, which emanates from out her mouth. She’s following the fandom-headcanon model of literary theory, but here hers is the largest, most bloated head, and the only one that counts. It’s impossible to read this denial of the text anything other than an abrogation of her rights and duties as an author. Sometimes dedicated fans whip themselves up into such a frenzy over their favourite culture-commodities that they act as if the stories were real, centring themselves in a private world that does not belong to them, and JK Rowling does the exact same thing. As soon as she moves to keep hold of her creation, it gains a terrifying, spectral autonomy. JK Rowling is not the author of the Harry Potter books; she is their biggest fan.

It’s in this context that Rowling’s bizarre forays into politics, her marshalling of the powers of literary enchantment for the most banal and miserable of mundane causes, start to make a kind of sense. When she stridently opposed the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society, she did so through a lengthy exegesis on the moral message of her own books, eventually concluding that BDS is wrong because the magical wizards wouldn’t like it. (To be fair, she admits that Harry might have started out with natural pro-Palestine sympathies, but maintains that by the end of the last book he would have grown up and learned to accept that Israel has a right to exist.) When Britain voted to leave the European Union, her public response was that she’d ‘never wanted magic more,’ presumably so she could cast a spoiling spell on millions of ballots. Her opposition to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn seems to be based on the usual confused half-ideas about electability, as if the party’s right wing and its generic brand of watered-down Toryism hadn’t shown itself to be a losing proposition twice in the last decade, but it’s mostly supported by the fact that, as she insisted, ‘Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.’ Which is true: Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t as good as the wise old magician who doesn’t exist, having shown himself to be entirely incapable of casting even the most basic of spells, and utterly failed to function as a universally adored avatar of infallible good; he’s capable of occasionally holding views contrary to those of JK Rowling even when she doesn’t want him to, and he didn’t even have the good grace to give her one billion dollars. None of this is, strictly speaking, analogy; in almost every case she’s responding to other, lesser fans to say that their analogies are inadmissible. In analogy a fictional scenario acts as a map for real events; something intersubjective and mutually agreed upon can explicate (or, if you know how to do it right, confuse) an objective situation. For Rowling, the situation is reversed: real events are trespassing on her characters, the real world is only an imperfect map for Harry Potter.

Rowling’s politics didn’t create those of the Harry Potter fantasy – she is, remember, not an author but a fan. Instead, the books themselves distilled all the latent fascism out of the political mainstream, boiling the discourse into a heavy green slime, and she drank it all down in one gulp. People sometimes try to play a fun game in which they match the Hogwarts houses to political ideologies, usually ending up with a ranked list of what ideas they like and don’t like (Gryffindors are nice social liberals like me! Donald Trump is a Voldemort!). This is the wrong way of looking at it; any division into types must itself exemplify a particular type, so that the four together express a single Weltanschauung. Gryffindor are fascists according to fascist ideology itself, the ideal-ego of the fascist subject: a natural elite, strong, noble, honourable, yellow-haired, and respectful of difference, but only within strict limits. Slytherin is the same figure as she appears to the outside world, her negative aspects projected onto a despised other. Hufflepuff is the fascist’s ideal ordinary political subject, dull and stolid, but essentially good-hearted; Ravenclaw is the indeterminate other that resists assimilation into this conceptual matrix, the thing that constitutes the order through its exclusion, the figure that in the early twentieth century was identified with the body of the Jew.

Harry Potter is a profoundly reactionary fable; its fantasy isn’t really about dragons and broomsticks but the tired old fantasy of the British class system. Harry Potter is the petit-bourgeois boy who goes to a magical Eton (one that, incidentally, runs on actual slave-labour), faces a few tribulations along his way, but eventually finds himself admitted to the ranks of the aristocracy. The central moral dilemma is one of inequality – what do you do when you have one class of people who, by dint of their extraordinary powers, are innately superior to the society surrounding them? (This goes some way to explaining its popularity: Harry Potter is a book for people who are very pleased with themselves because they love books and love to read, without any judgements on what’s being read; it was never for children and always for the bored 29-year-old human resources workers they would grow into. To read Harry Potter uncritically is to adopt the posture of a Hufflepuff.) The crude, cartoon fascism of Voldemort and the Death Eaters answers that they must rule, killing and enslaving the lesser races. The good characters, meanwhile, want the wizarding world to coil up into its own superiority and seethe in its own ressentiment; every adult is seemingly employed by a government bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to maintain a system of magical apartheid. But remember that these are not actually opposing factions, only varying perspectives of a single ideological object; the difference between Dumbledore and Voldemort is as illusory as that between white nationalism and white supremacism. When JK Rowling announces what Dumbledore would do, she’s announcing the politics of the entire work, its good and evil figures all rolled into one. This is what fandom-hermeneutics fails to understand: you can’t introject a single character sliced off from its text; you can only swallow the whole thing. When JK Rowling ventriloquises her friendly wizard to say that Palestine solidarity or socialism make the Hogwarts man feel very sad, watch her head spin round to reveal the pale leering mouth of the Dark Lord.

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