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Category: Politics & Current Events

Love in the time of coronavirus

regnault

Is there an erotics of the coronavirus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The case for giving up

dying-gaul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the many

tomorrow

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

Some things are higher than principle.

Please, please consider voting for Labour on Thursday.

1.

sabbath

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

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

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

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

2.

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

election2017election2019

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

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

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

3.

avarice

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.

spinne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.

corbyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vote Labour.

 

The war against the Jews

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The Jewish community in the UK is under attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meltdown

meltdown

Pretend this is some other country, a miserable guano-splat island somewhere to the east, surrounded by steel-grey seas. The Unified Monarchy, half-medieval and hermetic, where knobble-nosed old peasants carry bales of hay for dead horses, under the crumbling shadow of a nuclear reactor. Officially, the place is a liberal democracy, and if nothing else they commit to the charade. Lately they’ve decided to elect a new head of government, so all the candidates are corralled into a TV studio for a debate, to answer questions from the people before they get to crush them with an iron fist. Everyone knows it’s stupid and pointless; the ruling party has already chosen its man, and only three hundred-odd people get a vote anyway. But TV debates look democratic, and this is a cargo-cult country, manically putting up big apartment buildings in the capital for nobody to live in. And it’s certainly not illegal to criticise the governing class – it’s just that strange things start happening once you do. If you’re naive enough to ask an uncomfortable question during the TV debate, you become a person of interest. Spies trawl through your personal documents. All your faults and secrets are laid open to a suddenly deeply inquisitive state media. And, of course, you lose your job. For the victims, who believed all the propaganda, this feels wrong. Weren’t they the ones who were being judged and evaluated, the other people, the ministers of the state? But the judge rears up like the monster in a Kafka story, and bellows: no, it was only you, we wanted to see if you were pure enough to be ruled over by us, and you have failed.

This is, more or less, what happened during this weeks BBC Tory leadership debate. The obvious loser of the evening was Rory Stewart, who was shunted out of the competition immediately afterwards, haemorrhaging ten MPs. But this debate also came with collateral damage. In the aftermath, it wasn’t the politicians but the questioners from the public whose records were scrutinised and whose lives were put on the line. Two men, Abdullah in Bristol (an imam and deputy headteacher) and Aman in London (an employment lawyer), have been suspended from their jobs. Is it a coincidence that they were also the two members of the public with the two most pointed questions? (Abdullah asked about Islamophobia within the Conservative party, Aman asked how the winner of the contest could govern without holding a general election – both fairly uncomfortable issues for the contenders.) Is it a coincidence that the howl of outrage against these two questioners was first raised by Paul Staines, a psychotically right-wing Westminster gossip blogger, and subsequently relayed uncritically by the BBC and the right-wing press?

Ostensibly, Abdullah and Aman have not become the victims of a media free-for-all because of the questions they asked during the debates. Instead, it’s because of their tweets. Abdullah, for making some fundamentally quite banal and harmless statements about Israel – that a Jewish state should be set up in America instead, that Zionist politicians tend not to be very fond of Jeremy Corbyn, and so on. (He also expressed some considerably more retrograde opinions on whether women should ever be alone with men, but it still feels slightly silly to be outraged that a religious leader might also be a social conservative.) Aman, meanwhile, made a quite patently ironic joke tweet parodying the American conservative pundit Candace Owens. These are extremely flimsy ropes with which to hang these people. But in fact, it shouldn’t even matter.

It matters if Boris Johnson or Michael Gove are racists (which they are), because they’re trying to become Prime Minister of a country that’s home to some three and a half million Muslims. There are things which it should be unacceptable for a senior politician to say, think, or do. But even if Abdullah had advocated for antisemitism, rather than explicitly denouncing it – how many Jewish parishioners is he responsible for at the Masjid Umar mosque? Why should his stances, objectionable or otherwise, be anyone else’s business?

Take any random British resident, kidnap them, and interrogate them – until, wet with tears and spittle and blood, they’ve revealed all their darkest secrets and their worst prejudices. You’re almost certain to find something viscerally offensive and disturbing in there. Something bad enough to clear your conscience, immediately justifying all the suffering you’ve inflicted in getting it. As Žižek points out, the distinguishing factor in all truly oppressive societies is the patchiness and unevenness of the apparatus of repression. It’s not that the guilty are always mercilessly punished, because by the ruling doctrine everyone is potentially guilty. Instead, punishment is vicious but haphazard; everyone has to wait in fear, nurturing their guilt, hoping every morning that this won’t be the day they’re finally made accountable for their crimes.

Before the fifteenth century, a jury who returned the ‘wrong’ verdict could themselves be punished under a writ of attaint, and the punishment would be severe. The juror’s house was to be razed, his wife and children ‘thrown out of doors,’ his trees uprooted, his meadows ploughed, and his body imprisoned. Eventually, in the Tudor era, justice was softened: the guilty juror would only be subject to a fine, plus ‘perpetual infamy.’ Something similar’s at work today. There’s a common-law penalty for the breaking the unwritten law that Aman and Abdullah broke: perpetual infamy, of course, in the bubbling fury of the internet – but also, you have to lose your livelihood. Wherever you work, whatever you do, whatever union is supposed to be looking out for your interests, justice will not be served unless you’re booted out of your job.

But this is where things get tricky. Aman’s law firm and Abdullah’s mosque were perfectly free to refuse to impose the default punishment; there was no state apparatchik looking over their shoulders. Similarly, the BBC could have defended its decision to let Aman and Abdullah ask their questions, instead of collapsing into spasmodic apologies. (It’s worth noting that the post-Hutton Inquiry, post-Saville BBC has pioneered a particularly aggressive style of political interview, in which the goal isn’t to find out what the poor bastard might have to say about the issue at hand, but to embarrass them as much as possible. It feels like a charade, and it is. The BBC play-acts a spiky independence, but crumbles as soon as there are any stakes involved.) But it’s hard to imagine that kind of resistance actually taking place. Resistance is the appropriate response to a political dictatorship, and that’s not what’s confronting us. It would be a fantasy to suggest that Britain were actually like the United Monarchy – a comforting and consoling fantasy. What’s facing us is far larger, and, in some ways, far worse. Aman and Abdullah had to participate in their own victimisations; for it to happen, they first had to build up a dossier of evidence against themselves. They tweeted. And in the place where social media, broadcast media, and politics conjoin, something monstrous slips through the gaps.

This being is artificial. Part hive mind, part computer, part alien, part newborn and capricious god. It’s the thing that makes the laws and sets the default punishments, the king and parliament and jury of this world. It’s a machine, in the Lewis Mumford sense of a machine, a contraption with human beings as moving parts. But there are other bits whirring away in its belly, things that were once vast. The BBC, the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, the capitalist mode of production, the written testament of God. We have created this thing without really understanding what it is, and it has been set loose.

The crime Aman and Abdullah committed was simply to make themselves visible to this thing. They were only exposed for a moment, a few seconds each, while they gave their questions, but a few seconds is enough. They weren’t really speaking to the Tory leadership contenders, or even to the BBC-watching public; they addressed the new entity. They’d circled its outer peripheries before, skimming its vast darknesses on small social media accounts, and now it knew who they were. If the thing recognises you, it will try to destroy you, and if you don’t have several inches of lead shielding, it will succeed. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re an imam or a member of the Privy Council. Five seconds of exposure, and your innards seep out for its billion eyes to see.

The voice from the black hole

hole

People are right about exactly one thing when it comes to YouTube: the place is a hole. They talk about falling in, starting out with the surface-level cats and music videos, until the recommendation algorithm does its work and they suddenly discover that they’ve turned into a Nazi. They talk about the depths. They talk about a tunnel or a vortex. This is all true, in a very literal sense. Most of the internet is a membrane, and things skim across its flat surface. That’s what it means when something goes viral: it becomes lubricated, slippery; it rolls, fluid and unstoppable, between the corners of the world. But every location is indexed, searchable, on precise co-ordinates and open to a roving gaze. It’s true that some parts of this flat surface are fenced off – locked Twitter accounts, private forums, paywalled websites, academic journals – but there’s always a high degree of entropy at work, wearing down the levees. Someone takes a screenshot. Someone’s account gets hacked. Any sufficient quantity of liquid content will inevitably end up slopping over the walls. But YouTube is something else.

It’s taken the mainstream quite a while to notice exactly what’s been happening on the site. But, to be fair, how were they supposed to find it? Text and images are synchronic: they’re arranged, fixed and static, to be scanned over, harvested, and thrown away. Video is diachronic: its basic unit isn’t meaning, but time. And YouTube contains a lot of time. Five hundred hours are uploaded to the site every minute. An entire human lifespan goes up every day. Thirty thousand years’ worth of video is added every year, which is six times longer than the entirety of written history.

Forty thousand years ago, the first known piece of figurative art was created: a sculpture in mammoth ivory of a man with the head of a lion. We don’t know what the lion-man did, or why it was produced. We don’t know what worlds of meaning its distant creators inhabited. This was the beginning of human cultural history, and in total YouTube archives a span of time fifty times longer than that. If unbroken generations had lived their lives watching every single YouTube video uploaded up until today, the first in the chain would have been an australopithecine, a squatting ape whose only tools were sticks and stones. You’re paddling out over that same chasm every time you watch someone opening boxes or shoutily explaining their political opinions on YouTube. It’s an accretion of masses and masses of impacted time, heaped over itself, condensed down to a single point. It’s a hole torn through the fabric of the universe.

Down in these depths, there are celebrities you’ve never heard of. Millions of children are obsessed with other, perfectly ordinary children, who mostly just answer questions about their favourite colours. Millions of adult men watch other adult men playing videogames. There are nursery rhymes and cartoon skits for toddlers that feature injections, decapitations, and torture. There are flat earthers and anti-vaxxers and people who think ordinary geometrical coincidence is a vast system of Satanic symbolism. There are senseless centuries that seem to have been spun out by algorithms. And what a surprise: just like the dark side of the moon, just like the inaccessible plains of the Antarctic, this black hole is full of Nazis.

I’ve been aware of right-wing YouTube for years now, before it started piling up real-world bodies in the street, before one of its heroes ran a hilariously failed Ukip election bid, before it became something that ordinary parents felt they had to worry about. What always struck me, far more than the antisemitism and the conspiracy theories, was just how lonely it was. A man sits in front of a camera, alone, and talks at rambling length about how the Jews are ruining everything. They’re talking in an empty room. Nobody’s actually there. And unlike film or TV, internet video is almost structurally designed to be viewed alone. You don’t watch it with a friend or a partner, you just share it on other digital platforms, to other people in other empty rooms.

This isolation is there even for the right-wing YouTubers who made it big – but most people never make it big. So many of the channels I saw had viewerships in the low tens, and these people still churn out videos, day after day, hour after hour. I found one, a video titled My message to the radical left, which had been viewed exactly once: by me. The orator sways and wobbles and pokes the phone camera up his nostril. You created your enemy, he says, and that was your biggest mistake, because with the anti-discrimination and the affirmative action you never leave us alone. Did this person know that I was the one he’d be talking to? Could he know that his message would, at long last, reach its destination?

YouTube was always going to end up being ruled by the right, because right-wing politics are a politics of loneliness. The helpless, atomised individual, endlessly at war with the world around them and everyone in it, desperate to cling to some imagined national, cultural, racial, or political community,  talking to an enemy who isn’t there. The new 14 words: Oh yeah, and by the way, please don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. If the site’s algorithms seem to be sending people into a tunnel to reaction, it’s because that’s what’s there; if the site has become a fascist playground, it’s because fascism is the sickness of internet video as a medium.

As always, the symptom gets confused with the disease. A lot of people seem to know intuitively that there’s something very badly wrong with the grand system of online video, but that complaint ends up turning into a very limited demand: YouTube just needs to kick the Nazis off its platform, and then it’ll be fine. It will not be fine. The platform itself, the whole complex of platform capitalism, is a machine for making Nazis, and the Nazis are only the most visible of its products.

This is why the mostly well-intentioned attempt to foster a leftist YouTube community is doomed to fail. It feels (with one or two honourable exceptions) deeply awkward, and not just because of the gangliness of the people who make these videos, or the way their jokes tend to fall flat. It’s the wrong content being shoehorned into the wrong form. Mass participatory politics can’t be fully expressed by one person talking to a camera in an empty room, in the same way that the unknown shamanism that surrounded the lion-man figurine couldn’t be expressed in a Papal bull, and mathematical proofs make poor protest chants. The left that takes shape on YouTube and the various other social media platforms tends to be a gloss over something that remains fundamentally reactionary: bickering and resentment, cringiness and vituperation, a bitter identification with imagined national, cultural, racial, or political communities, a subject at war with the world around them and everything in it. You can make a video or a blog post against neoliberal atomisation if you want, but it’s still in you, baked in to your every word.

It can’t be drowned out and it can’t be switched off. The only way to shut down the fascist creep on YouTube is to shut down YouTube itself.

This is, for obvious reasons, not Google’s preferred approach. For a long time, they simply did nothing, which is at the very least a coherent approach. The line goes that the site is a platform rather than a publisher, anyone can use it, and the firm isn’t responsible for what people throw into the hole it’s given them. And in any case, something like YouTube is impossible to effectively moderate. If you wanted full scrutiny, you’d need 90,000 moderators, watching every single newly uploaded video on eight-hour shifts. (YouTube presently has about 2,000 employees.) Pay them $10 an hour, and that’s $7.9bn a year. The complaints of liberal internet users are not worth $7.9bn a year. But they are worth something. And while the vast tunnel of YouTube can’t be effectively explored by humans, it can be processed by machines.

YouTube already used artificial intelligence to clamp down on nudity and copyright infringement in videos; now, in the wake of some stupid scandal, it’s doing the same for politics. The problems with this approach (even putting aside the inevitable free-speech squabble, or questions over whether we really want to give giant capitalist tech firms the power to determine what is and isn’t politically acceptable) are obvious. Almost as soon as the new anti-Nazi robot was installed, a slew of antifascist videos were taken offline, often for using Nazi imagery such as the swastika. If they’re smart, actual Nazis tend not to brandish swastikas in people’s faces, because the symbol has a well-known off-putting effect. Antifascists, who want people to know exactly what it is they’re fighting against, will deploy the swastika, for precisely the same reason.

Maybe these issues will be ironed out. More likely, people will end up learning what to do and what not to do to avoid being flagged up by the algorithms. Computers tend to have a hard time processing irony, ambiguity, and the use-mention distinction, so these things will vanish from our discourse and our two-million-year archive. (Of course, this was already happening.) We will start to think a little more like machines, sorting everything into clear, cold categories. We will start to speak less and less in language, and more and more in code.

This isn’t new; every technology turns human thought, to some degree, into an extension of itself. No animism without pigment, no Enlightenment materialism without clockwork gears, no fascism without radio. The difference is that previous technologies only left their stamp on relations between human subjects, while digital communications interposes itself entirely. This is why, even if it works perfectly, with no discursive collateral damage, algorithmic moderation is still a nightmare – not because it closes down the flows of speech, but because it creates a concentrated torrent of non-communication. I might have been the only person to view My message to the radical left, but despite the title it wasn’t to me. The intersubjective dimension is draining out of the world; what’s left is empty talk, psychotic mumbling, externalised monologue – not addressed to another human, but pouring itself into the void. All those people in front of cameras in empty rooms: they’re talking to and for the machine. They put their lips to the black hole and speak, and no echo meets them out of its infinite and lonely depths.

PS: The problem is that a lot of what I’ve said about internet video here also applies to writing. Literature is also solitary, composed in silence, read in silence; it’s a fundamentally pathetic and asocial activity. In writing, we also talk to the inscription-machine more than we do to any actual reader: as Derrida argues in his commentary on Lacan’s seminar on The Purloined Letter, a letter never reaches its destination. One property of writing is its capacity to go unread. That said, three points in defence of my practice: writing is not embeddable within a concentrated technical platform; the materials of writing are not (necessarily) a global communications infrastructure but an emergent and mutually agreed-upon system of words; writing is removed from its object, and therefore involves a properly significatory aspect that video – which can only enframe, capture, and replicate – lacks. As such, it’s intersubjective in a way that video can not be, because words are not an exterior technology but the foundational stuff of subjectivity. But maybe we’ll have to get rid of all this as well.

What was Theresa May?

guhhh

Theresa May has a facial tic. When she’s giving a speech to four glum men in an enormous aircraft hangar, or engaged in fruitless eight-hour negotiations with her plumber, or licking all the nuclear launch codes so her successor can’t touch them, or otherwise discharging her duties as the head of Her Majesty’s government, the corners of her mouth will twitch and turn down, and she’ll flash an expression of utter disgust. As if she’s suddenly had a moment of terrible clarity, and realised exactly what it is she’s become. In photos she looks like a deep-sea fish, face gulping in permanent horror. Combined with the natural whelk-grey texture of her skin, it gives the sense of a general aquatic unhealthiness. Stinking silt, creatures with translucent needle-sharp teeth, worms feasting on the sunken corpse of a whale: she has come to us from the grey and empty place where dead things fall.

In general, the British media tend not to be unkind enough to actually mention her noticeable facial tic. That would be rude. Instead, whenever she dramatically bungles some minor endeavour – which is just about every day – they cover the front pages of the newspapers with a picture of her grimacing like a fart’s just come out of her own mouth. But some people are less generous than others. Me, for instance. I know, without remembering, that at some point in the last three years, in one outlet or another, I must have mocked the one thing about the woman that’s not her fault. I also know why I did it. It’s because I also have a facial tic.

I can keep it under control, mostly; strangers probably see it more often than friends. On the street, on the Tube, at the urinals – the need grabs me, and I have to push out my lower lip and fold it over itself, so the mucous membrane glistens and I look like a sad, drooling clown. I don’t enjoy doing this. It doesn’t make me feel any better. It just happens, at my direction but without my consent. It was worse when I was younger. Sometimes, at parties, I’d have to briefly hide myself in a corner to do it four or five times in quick succession where nobody could see me – but the whole procedure of hiding my weird facial spasms would put me in such a nervous state that I’d immediately feel the need to do it again. Throughout my teenage years, I was basically terrified that someone would see me doing it, and then call attention to it in front of everybody. Then they’d all know that I’m not really a person, but an animal, a thing of dumb instinct, a freak. So while I don’t know what it’s like for your embarrassing facial tic to be on the front page of the newspapers every morning, I can imagine. And this is why I can’t stand to see Theresa May do her trademark grimace. Not because she looks so gruesome and so weird, but because in the worst possible way, she and I are the same.

I don’t think this is just me. Theresa May has set herself up as the most nakedly authoritarian leader in recent British political history. She’s catastrophically mismanaged a major constitutional transition, devastated anonymous thousands of lives, wrecked the country, wrecked her own party, wrecked our future. But as she prepares to leave office, the big question isn’t about her actions or her legacy, or even the mess she’s left on the steps of Downing Street. It’s this: is it ok to feel sorry for her?

I do. I can’t help it. I feel sorry for Theresa May.

* * *

It wasn’t always like this. For a moment, in late 2016 and early 2017, Theresa May was the most popular British Prime Minister for nearly half a century. Or, at least, something that went by the name of Theresa May was. Whatever people loved in those short months, it wasn’t her.

The old political classes took this tense, rangy, fleabitten creature, these shabby rags framing a vulturine stoop, and turned her into Mummy. A big warm milky ocean you can also fuck, a fat-cheeked Oedipal fantasy come to envelop all the overgrown permanent schoolboys in acres of pillowy flesh – and then, when they’ve been naughty, to cane them across their leathery arses, because Mummy loves them, and Mummy needs them to obey.

The sensible technocratic classes took this screeching ideologue, the woman who sent vans with National Front slogans trundling around the outer boroughs of London, the woman who summarily deported 34,000 students because she couldn’t properly invigilate an English test, and turned her into A Firm Hand On The Wheel. Capable and serious, walking the sensible middle line between the irrational extreme of just murdering everyone and the irrational extreme of trying to make things somewhat better, a Remainer willing to make compromises, a capable negotiator with all the facts at her fingertips, a kind of vast spreadsheet buzzing behind synthetic skin.

The red-nosed tabloid editors took this glob spat out of the Tory front benches and into Downing Street, a woman whose premiership was secured on the basis of 199 votes in a country of sixty-six million, and turned her into The Voice Of The People. Red eyes, white hair, blue politics; a giant avenging mecha-suit powered by the incoherent outrage of millions of retired insurance salesmen, in a power stance so uncomfortably wide her legs straddle the entire country: one vast kitten heel ploughing through Lancashire until bubbles of shale gas wheeze out of the soil, the other flattening London into a great glowing splat of pulverised elites.

But all politicians create fantasies about themselves. What makes Theresa May different is that she’s so bad at it. Someone like Tony Blair is a pure simulacrum: there’s no point asking what the real Tony Blair is really like, because he’s just neon and soundbites all the way down. You can try to look behind his curtain, but it was put there by Parrhasius. Theresa May, on the other hand, was hiding something. She was alive in there, buried deep beneath mummy and monster and machine. She didn’t want to be seen. She has a facial tic.

* * *

It was the 2017 election that changed everything, but at first it was hard to see what was happening. The event was announced with terrifying authoritarian fanfare. ‘Every vote for the Conservatives,’ she said, ‘will make me stronger.’ The energy-vampire, swelling itself on a million willing sacrifices. Give me power! Give me life! A Schmittian sovereign, here to exercise the popular will with her limitless power to decide, inhaling blood and sweat. ‘There should be unity here in Westminster,’ she said, ‘but instead there is division. The country is coming together,’ she said, ‘but Westminster is not.’ Across the country, the stolid yeoman folk of England perform mass synchronised maypole dances around the eaten cake – and why aren’t you keeping time? And then, in two short months, it all fell apart.

She wouldn’t debate, she cringed when voters confronted her in the street, she spoke in front of tiny rallies while Corbyn was mobbed everywhere he went. It’s nice to pretend that it’s her nasty reactionary politics that were unpopular, but that’s not really true. Her politics were popular; they’re still popular today. It wasn’t that she was hollow inside: we like hollow flashy politicians with no substance. The problem was that the shell of Theresa May wasn’t empty enough. There was a little hermit crab in there, all claws and angles, and it was weird. We watched her gurn and grimace, and we could not love her.

Since then, it’s been humiliation after humiliation. Her Parliamentary majority vanished. Her throat caved in. Scenery collapsed around her. She suffered historic defeats in the Commons, and African schoolchildren laughed in her face when she tried to dance. She ended up in front of Downing Street, still notionally the most powerful person in the country, resigning in tears. Her own party hate her, in the cruel, spiny way that an overgrown schoolboy hates his own mother. The press hate her, in the hazy, slurring way that a professional fantasist hates all of invertebrate reality. And everyone else too. The electorate, the donors, the Europeans, the BBC studio audiences, the stalks of wheat bristling in the fields. As it turns out, people have an almost instinctual horror of Theresa May.

Henri Bergson, in his theory of laughter, suggests that we find animals funny ‘because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression’ – a dog trying to walk on two legs, or with some recognisable plaintiveness or eagerness in its face – and that we find people funny when they behave like machines. ‘The laughable element consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity… the rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.’ Theresa May is a person who behaves like a machine.

It was there from the start, in her favourite awful tautology: Brexit means Brexit means Brexit. It was there in her glum repetition, strong and stable, strong and stable, a computer stuttering as its circuits are deactivated one by one. She submitted the same Brexit bill to Parliament three hundred and twelve times, and each time it was rejected, and each time she tried again. When she has private meetings with MPs, instead of actually talking to them she writes what she wants to say on a piece of paper, and reads it out in front of them. The Guardian‘s sketchwriter started calling her the Maybot, and it stuck – because she’s not like other people, because there’s only a mechanical clunking behind her eyes.

But Bergson never noticed what happens when you run the sequence backwards. A machine that behaves like a human; a living doll, a creepy figure stalking the uncanny valley. A human that behaves like an animal; blind, grunting, savage instinct, where there should be thoughts and words. What these things inspire is horror. And as much as she was laughed at, there was always something deeply unsettling about May. A tic is something both animal and mechanical. A shudder in the gears, a flash of the wetness inside a living creature’s mouth. It turned the smooth fascist ideal of Brexit Britain into rotting flesh; it turned Mummy into the clockwork mother-thing whose wheels scream in the night.

* * *

So it’s not surprising that the dominant answer to the question of whether it’s ok to feel sorry for her seems to be a loud, bitter no. You can’t consider her on a merely human level, because she isn’t human. She’s the tens of thousands immiserated by austerity, women abused at Yarl’s Wood, the Windrush generation humiliated, surging right-wing street violence, Grenfell in flames. She’s a hostile environment. She’s tendons and rust.

And she is all of these things. But this is precisely why she might be the most human politician we’ve had. A human is not good; a human is a monster, an awful assemblage of animal and machine. In the Greek origin myth, Epimetheus gives the animals their attributes, sharp claws or wings or poison-tipped spears, but by the time he gets to us there’s nothing left. This is why Prometheus has to step in and give us fire and language and culture: we can’t live without machines. And we’re taking our revenge: one by one, the other animals are vanishing. Our true face is the grey face of the ticcing thing, the naked disaster, incompetent and despised.

Nobody likes looking in an unexpected mirror. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to feel sorry for the great ugly weirdos of the world; that’s fine. My problem is with the implicit commandment against sympathy, the point where I don’t becomes you can’t. For the left, it is politically unacceptable to feel sorry for Theresa May. As if there’s a ration-card system for human feelings. As if feeling sorry for her means diminishing your stock of sympathy for all the numberless people whose worlds she’s destroyed. As if you could measure someone’s moral worth by whether they feel sorry for the wrong kind of people. Watch your own feelings, citizen: make sure you’re only feeling bad for the correct designated victims. All this strikes me as not just misguided, but actively deranged.

The thing about sympathy is that it’s involuntary. Theresa May doesn’t deserve my sympathy, but she has it – and if you can only feel sympathy for the people that deserve it, what you have isn’t sympathy at all, just an opinion. I can’t see a person who lost everything – not because of blind chance, or because someone else took it from her, but simply because of what she was – and not feel sorry for her. And there’s something desperate in all these professions of indifference. People training themselves not to care, because they’re seized with the mad idea that how you feel is a question of political duty. People installing a GCHQ listening station inside their own heads. It’s a cruelty that’s not too different from Mayism itself, which taught the country not to feel sorry for the foreigners, the scroungers, the asylum seekers, the shouty metropolitan young people, because they were the wrong type.

Of course, it’s possible I’m being played here. Is this just what power looks like now? May is gone, and the dark hulking teddy-bear shape of Boris Johnson squats heavy on the horizon. Here he is, stuck on a zipline. Here he is, falling into a pond. Here he is, accidentally reeling off a series of obsolete racial slurs in a speech to the United Nations. It’s not his fault, he’s just a bit clumsy and a bit out of touch. Don’t you feel sorry for him?

In defence of lazy kneejerk contrarianism

I attack only causes that are victorious. I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.
Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

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Look, I’ve only read Less Than Zero and American Psycho, so maybe I’m wrong here. But it seems to me like Bret Easton Ellis, like every pornographer since de Sade, is a secret sentimentalist. He’s not a real nihilist, because there’s no such thing as a nihilist. He doesn’t believe that there are no values and nothing matters, because if he did, why show us rape and torture and apathy in particular? Like every crass contrarian, he doesn’t abolish value, he just inverts it; his books are apophatic morality tales. Not irony, just sarcasm. And sometimes, the mask slips. The protagonist in Less Than Zero plays at being dead inside, but really he’s still upset about his late grandmother. Still, in the time since 1985, Ellis seems to be getting better at disaffection, while everyone else is getting worse. See, for instance, his recent interview with Isaac Chotiner in the New Yorker.

The general media-class consensus seems to be that the interview was ‘brutal,’ ‘a murder,’ ‘asinine,’ etc, etc, etc. It’s definitely weird and frustrating to read. Does Ellis have anything interesting to say about the state of the world? It’s hard to say without actually reading his book, because all either Ellis or his interviewer wants to talk about is the fact that he doesn’t much care either way about Donald Trump. For the bulk of the interview, Chotiner brandishes the various terrible things Trump has said or done in front of Ellis, one by one – kids in cages, grab them by the pussy, Mexicans are rapists, decent folks in Charlottesville – and demands that Ellis start caring about them, like everyone else. And each time, Ellis shrugs. ‘I think the voice in the book is pretty chill and neutral.’ ‘Well, whatever.’ ‘I don’t really care.’ ‘I’m not really bothered by that one way or the other.’ ‘I think you are leading me into things I am not particularly that interested in.’ Ellis gets the last word. It’s been an interesting interview, he says. ‘The only problem, however, is that I am not that political, and so, when we have this conversation, and you confront me with certain things like this, I really am, I have to say, at a loss.’

And I’m at a loss too. Where’s the brutality? Where’s the murder? Where’s Ellis being gorily dismembered, like a victim in one of his books? All I can see are two people speaking entirely different languages to each other. And because the audience speak the same language as the New Yorker, and not the language of Ellis, they conclude that their language won.

Ellis is stuck in a different age. The Gen X era, the era of disaffection and OK Cola, the time in which caring too much about anything made you uncool. The twenty-first century is different. Frantic activity, desperate sloganeering. Being a good person means giving yourself brain damage about politics. He knows how it works. ‘Don’t you know anything about Sri Lanka? About how the Sikhs are killing like tons of Israelis out there?’ We’re in an upswing in the activism-vs-cynicism cycle that’s been churning since the 60s: we want pop stars to deliver bromides on anti–racism, we want fast food outlets to be our allies, we want everything in the world to be committed to progressive social change. In his introduction to the interview, Chotiner notes that the ‘materialism, misogyny, and amorality’ of Ellis’s characters ‘have persistently raised questions regarding the depth of his social critique.’ Because if a book is anything other than a profound social critique, why does it exist?

The activist posture has plenty of virtues, but when it becomes an enforced social norm, most of it will inevitably be deeply phony. Fake outrage, manufactured hysteria, culturally sanctioned radicalism, constantly caring about things as a narcissistic substitute for actually doing something about them. Chotiner’s complaint is precisely this: Ellis is refusing to move in lock-step with the times. He’s still stuck in that deeply passé 80s nihilism; it’s the horror of the cool confronted with unrepentant squareness. Why aren’t you freaking out every time Trump tweets something, just like everyone else?

And all this might have a little more weight, if it weren’t for the fact that the Mueller Report just came out, and told us all that the media class’s Trump obsession really was packed to the gills with deranged and obsessive fantasy. It might be easier to sympathise, if Libya weren’t in the news again, to remind a distracted public that our liberal heroes who care so much about things also engaged in the aerial destruction of an entire country, without a mote of outrage from almost anyone. It might be easier to laugh at Ellis for his apathy, if his apathy weren’t infinitely more honest than the frenzy that confronts it on all sides.

The 1990s were a vast battlefield in literature’s struggle for the soul of America. Ellis was on one side, with the forces of cruelty, nihilism, apathy, depthlessness, and despair. On the other side stood – because these things have to be balanced – another young writer with three names, David Foster Wallace. Where Ellis was cool, blank, hard, and indifferent, Wallace was warm. Dialogue in Ellis’s novels is lighter than air and always utterly impenetrable; it feels programmed, like the clattering of lifeless machines. Wallace is humble; he writes like he’s talking directly to you and you alone, in one of those deep long 4 am conversations with a well-loved friend, once you stop drinking wine and start drinking tea, where you can finally be honest, and give voice to the things that really worry you. In his celebrated essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, Wallace railed against the cruel ironism of his times, the cynicism of its sneer, the way it reduces everything potentially worthwhile to a nothing. Once, irony was useful: it was ‘a creative instantiation of deviance from bogus values’; it revealed the sordid phoniness that undergirded the straight-laced society of the past. But then irony itself, with its ‘blank, bored, too-wise expression’ became dominant. Wallace uses the example of a Pepsi advert, which dramatises the process of advertising, the stick being rattled in the swill-bucket, knowingly acknowledging that this is all a form of manipulation, but then encouraging you to drink Pepsi anyway. ‘The point of this successful bit of advertising is that Pepsi has been advertised successfully.’ This prompts a call for a New Sincerity, for the unashamed revival of ‘retrovalues like originality, depth and integrity,’ for a return to caring, deeply, vulnerably, about something.

And somewhere, a monkey’s paw twitches. Wallace’s side won, in a defeat so total that the last straggling survivors of irony and disaffection are simply no longer comprehensible to mainstream culture. Even the reactionaries, who play with the idea of nihilism, are basically frantic sincere activists: constantly fretting about white genocide or feminism ruining videogames or whatever else it is they keep caring about. And Ellis lost, even if he lived to see his defeat. What does a Pepsi advert look like now? It isn’t sneering, or cynical, or too-wise; it wants you to know that Pepsi cares. It looks like a Black Lives Matter protest – and when it fails, it fails for not being progressive enough, not being sincere enough, for not doing the Pepsi-Cola Corporation’s full duty to the revolution. Irony is fast becoming a term of abuse. We sneer at the sneerers, because it’s not cool to be too cool. We’re in the world David Foster Wallace built, and it’s a nightmare.

Unlike Ellis, I don’t hate David Foster Wallace. (His fiction is basically unreadably precious, but his essays are good.) I think there was an important value, in the irony-saturated 90s, of calling for a return to honesty and seriousness – even if I don’t actually agree. I think in the present moment, there’s a crucial need for irony, for a writing which explores the potential of possible positions without making a life-or-death stake out of everything, which engages with the infinite multiplicity of meaning and the world. Irony is not a distancing from the world, it’s a faithful attachment to the world in the fullness of its possibilities. (The opposite of irony, as Deleuze and Guattari understood, is not sincerity but paranoia, and ours is a deeply paranoid time.) After all, each term, activism and indifference, will inevitably contain its opposite. The coolness of Less Than Zero is a negative affirmation of sentimental values, the grim boosterism of mainstream culture is deeply cynical. This is why the highest achievable value, at any time, might be contrarianism. If radicalism is something other than a buzzword you can attach to commodities, if it means more than a narcissistic posture, then it means seeking out that which is heterogeneous to the world as it’s currently constituted. To declare for human values in a time of brattishness or indifference in a time of po-faced outrage is the lowest form of contrarianism, one which only speeds the dialectic along rather than breaking out of it. There are higher ironies; as everyone keeps saying, we need to do better. But it’s a start.

Savages, savages, barely even human

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

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What does capitalism actually look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On being bored of Brexit

Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus

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First there was a no. The Brexit referendum, nearly three years ago, was an enormous no to something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what. Immigration, multiculturalism, neoliberalism, bureaucracy, the democratic deficit, the loss of empire, the passage of time both historical and subjective, the zippy newness of everything, merciless, intangible, and the bloating hairy decay of a human body that’s always monstrously here, the impersonal systems that administer our general managed decline, the existence of a teeming world beyond Britain’s grey fag-end shores, the ugliness of life in general, the ugliness of those burgundy passports in particular, etc, etc, etc. All those things congealed into the shape of the EU, and we wanted them gone. The task was to turn this loud and incoherent no into an actual set of governing regulations to manage the future economic and political relationship between the UK and the European Union, which is stupid and can’t be done. The whole thing is a category error; it’s like trying to comfort a dying cancer patient with some new zoning laws to ban cemeteries. No wonder it’s all been going so badly. All the progress made in the three years since has been in the form of various deferrals, backstops and transition periods, levees against the frothing tides of no. And they’ve three times been voted down, including in the most devastating Parliamentary defeat for a sitting government in British history.

This is what Hegel calls abstract negation. As opposed to determinate negation, the negation that propels the dialectic, that ‘cancels in such a way that it maintains and preserves what has been cancelled,’ abstract negation is an action annulling its object, that tries to simply blot everything out, ‘declaring it to be a nothingness.’ But sadly, there is something rather than nothing, and as long as this basic travesty continues, the no that cries out for the abolition of everything will only ever result in more ontological clutter. The pure no of the referendum has to become a no to Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and once it’s gone an alternative banana-curvature regime will have to be put in its place.

Obviously, this doesn’t satisfy. This week, Parliament itself tried to break through the stasis by holding a series of ‘indicative votes,’ in which the Commons tried to establish whether it would be easiest to secure a majority for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, a customs union, EEA membership, a Norway-plus common-market arrangement, a second referendum, a unilateral revocation of Article 50, or leaving the EU without a deal. We should have seen the punchline coming from a mile off. Every single one of the indicative votes was defeated. We don’t want to stay in the EU, we don’t want to leave without a deal, but also we don’t want a deal. It’s not that doing nothing isn’t an option; it is, we’ve just turned it down.

This was probably the funniest thing to happen in politics for a while, and like every actually funny thing, it’s a combination of slapstick and nihilism. Two years of negotiations, two weeks to go before we leave, and we still can’t say what we actually want. We are frenzied. Parliament is a conga line of circus clowns juggling buckets of custard. We are inert. Limp, corpse-like, washing up on the tides, passing over every decision, passively rejecting the whole of the sunlit world, rolling round on Earth’s diurnal course. Theresa May tried to drum up support for her proposals by promising to resign if they passed: she tried to give her yes the dense allure of a no. It didn’t work. Now, she’s hoping for a fourth vote, Sideshow Bob plodding grimly for another rake. It’s obvious which proposal might pass the Commons; it’s just that nobody’s been brave enough to introduce it yet. Evacuate the island. Drill a few holes in the cliffs of Dover. Scuttle the whole country. We can gather at Calais or the Faroes to watch Britain sink into the sea, and then disperse, never to see each other again.

This situation feels new. It’s not. Philosophy has a name for it: boredom.

Kierkegaard describes precisely the dynamic behind the indicative votes debacle in Either/Or. ‘I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to ride, the motion is too violent. I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s too strenuous; I can’t be bothered to lie down, for either I’d have to stay lying down and that I can’t be bothered with, or I’d have to get up again, and I can’t be bothered with that either. In short: I can’t be bothered.’ This is the situation Heidegger gives as the third and highest form of boredom, the Es ist einem langweilig, ‘it is boring for one’: a boredom that is not bored by any specific object, a boring party, a boring film, but in which boredom becomes a Stimmung, an attunement, a way of being with regards to external reality. A boringness that leaks in grey spurts from everything on the earth. After the boring party or the boring film, you might go and have some vaguely interesting sex; but if you’re in the realm of the third form of boredom, that too, and sleeping afterwards, and breakfast, and the sun in the sky, and the European common market, and a no-deal Brexit, will all reveal themselves as unbearably dull. Things, Heidegger writes, refuse themselves, they withdraw into nothingness.

But Heidegger was not a nihilist; he was a Nazi. (This is generally considered to be worse.) He wasn’t content to see boredom as a black hole, the washed-out final truthlessness of a world without interest. He liked mountain-climbing and shiny buttons; something must come out the other side. For Heidegger, the depths of boredom are revelatory; they force us to consider the nature of the Being that has departed from the world. It leads, in the end, to a more profound relation to the temporality of one’s being. His argument for this mostly hinges on an untranslateable German pun: alles Versagen ist in sich ein Sagen; ‘all withdrawing is a telling.’ Kierkegaard, who was not a Nazi, but one of history’s greatest ironists, can’t make the same leap. ‘Boredom,’ he writes, ‘is the demonic pantheism. It is built on emptiness, but for this very reason it is a pantheistic qualification.’ It’s important in and of itself, not because it inevitably leads you somewhere else. Nothingness in its vast full suffocating weight; the dictatorship of an absent god, the inescapable empire of the undone.

And this Kierkegaardian boredom is everywhere. I’m so tired: that’s what people say now, isn’t it? The ruling political affect isn’t really hatred, or righteous anger, which is actually quite hard to fake for extended periods of time. It certainly isn’t anything as rich or as dark – or as strangely, secretly hopeful – as sadness. It’s exhaustion. Industrial society blasts us in the face with a hot stream of lights and colours, and we go ugh, can you not, I haven’t had my coffee. Nanette: ‘I identify as tired.’ Tired of people who don’t share our vague and mostly provisional opinions even though it’s 2019, tired of other people in general, tired of the white supremacist cisnormative heteronormative fatphobic ableist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. To negate something, you don’t have to say that it’s actively damaging or destructive, just that you can’t be bothered with it, that it makes you tired. It’s not that things intrude too deeply; what’s tiring is how they fade away. This is, of course, not the affect of the oppressed. As Kierkegaard – along with Walter Benjamin, in The Origins of German Tragic Drama – points out, the subject exhausted by the nullity of everything is usually a prince. ‘Those who bore others are the plebians, the mass, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect.’

And this is the thing: Brexit is deeply boring. Two years of negotiations, and every day the front pages of the newspapers announce another roadbump, and it’s all so utterly dull. And then, in the last few weeks, it got interesting again. It got funny, as soon as the process abandoned its activist mode and started to do nothing, as soon as Brexit finally entered the third mode, in which it stopped boring the public and became bored with itself. It’s finally been whittled down to that essential core of no. For Heidegger, this would mean that some great revelation is coming, that we’re on the path to a deeper and more authentic engagement with the materials of being. But I’m not so sure it’s possible to pass out of boredom. What would that engagement look like? A return to the Gelangweilt sein von etwas, a dullness without demonic grandeur or insight. Your bananas can be as straight or as bendy as you like; they’ll still taste like mushy nothing in your mouth.

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