Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Politics & Current Events

Against the Evening Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing and identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How you lost the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

A creepy clown manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

JK Rowling and the Cauldron of Discourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Miliband isn’t real

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It is the bleak, chilly summer of 1978, and Primrose Hill is under siege. A fortified citadel of flowerbox houses aches with quiet fret, while down in Chalk Farm and Camden Town a crude Amoco Cadiz-tide of punk is lapping bitumen-black against their toes. The kids these days – they’re spitting on each other to say hello, they eat live rats, they swap VD like Panini cards, and there’s no love any more, only leather and swastikas, they’re all getting off on the mutual infliction of pain. And then the worriers look at their own children, jelly-eyed and milk-happy, and think: what will happen to them? We’re at the end of something. The winter about to arrive is already seeping into its past; icicles claw into the heart of July, and everyone somehow knows that when the sun starts to sink this year it might not rise again for two long decades.

Ralph Miliband is reading in the garden, tapping cigarette-ash into patio puddles that glitter with a dying age’s sickly-grey sky. He’s hardly had time to register the strange young men in mohawks gobbing phlegm on passers-by, he’s already accepted that however informed his analysis of the political situation London will always baffle him, that his adopted home still grunts danger whenever he shuttles back from lecture tours in the cloistered sycamore-shade of New England. But even in this politico-prepubescent tumult it’s impossible to ignore the facts: something is clearly wrong with eight-year-old Ed, his firstborn and only son.

Marion, for her part, is worried to bits. It’s normal for children to have imaginary friends, even at Edward’s age, but he’s doing it all wrong. For a start, David is older, and all Marion’s research at the LSE library informs her that this shouldn’t be the case. Edward doesn’t blame his made-up brother for pranks and mishaps, because there aren’t any; Ed is such a docile boy, quiet and conscientious, eating his vegetables and eagerly sitting down to do all his homework (which also worries her, a little; she remembers what happened to good and obedient people not so long ago) – and when he gets his praise, because regular affirmation is so important for a growing boy, he always says the same thing. Oh, it wasn’t me, I’m no good at school, David did it for me. It was David who helped with the dishes, it was David who drew that nice picture, it was David who tidied my room, David David David. She’s had to tease out little details about this son she never knew she had, piece by piece – Edward realises that nobody else can see his brother, but that’s why David does so much helpful work around the house; he wants to be recognised, he wants them all to be a family. But David bullies him too, David tugs on his ears and calls him stupidweakuseless, and Edward can only agree. All through the spring she relayed this to Ralph in those long late night transatlantic phone calls, and he’d always said not to worry, it’s normal for children to have imaginary friends. And then one night, curled up safe and warm on the trembling balance between storytime and sleep, Edward had muttered: goodnight David. David does everything. One day I’ll kill him.

Ralph always tried to be a kind father, even an indulgent father; he loved his son, he’d dedicated Marxism and Politics to him, and he could hardly wait until the little fidgeting creature in front of him was old enough to disagree with it. But he was also a good Leninist, of a sort, and he knew that sometimes one had to be harsh; some brief, scientifically applied harshness now might just be able to remove any need for all the kindness and patience of psychiatrists and clinicians for decades to come. So he calls Edward out into the garden and sits there, one leg folded over the other, a book splayed open over his knee, the pose of a man who has better things to do, and says: Edward, it’s time we had a chat about this David character. The change is immediate. Edward stops twitching, he sits bolt upright as a flash of utter terror floods his big brown eyes with black. And it’s strange; the air outside is dead and perfectly still, but shadows seem to be moving across the walls of the house. Yes? says David, and for a moment Ralph forgets what he was supposed to say. Young Edward still seems out of sorts, but thirteen-year-old David is perched nonchalant on the edge of his chair, picking at his toenails. It’s the fifteenth of July, his birthday, and tonight the whole family is going to Marine Ices to celebrate. They’d planned it for weeks. Could Ralph really have forgotten that he has two sons, that he’s always had two sons?

One thousand years ago the people that lived on this hill would scatter salt on their doorsteps as a barrier against the ælfe, but Ralph Miliband knows that all history is only class struggle. Thunder bellows over Primrose Hill, and in the park the cuckoos in their trees scream their victory in hideous unison.

* * *

The early twenty-first century was a time of incredible ethnological fecundity; perched on the far edge of the great era of demicentennial revolutions and counter-revolutions that started in the late eighteenth century and would come to end in the grand catastrophe that it had always predicted for itself, the years between 2010 and 2020 saw an immense flowering of chiliastic prophecy, cults of personality, interpretative schemata, fantastical creatures, and hero-figures. In this study I wish to focus on one particular such myth, which was briefly present among a small and largely unremembered tribe calling itself the Parliamentary Labour Party (rough translation: ‘the council of chieftains of those who till the soil’). The hero-cult of David Miliband is remarkably developed for its time, a period in which most myths were provisional, intended to be of use to a singular instant, and speaking to neither future nor past, perhaps indicating exogenous origin or a refracted version of narratives from earlier, more sophisticated eras.

The story of David Miliband describes a struggle between two cosmic brothers, one good and one evil; the evil, younger brother seduces the people of the tribe, and convinces them to band with him to defeat his older sibling, who is forced into exile, journeying across the seas to the West. As he departs, the good brother curses those who have betrayed him; thereafter they enter a fallen state, the earth does not yield up its fruits freely, the land is beset by natural and human catastrophe, and the tribe will be persecuted wherever they go. Redemption can come only when they have purged their tribe and their souls of this original wickedness; at this point the vanquished brother will return from across the sea to lead them once again to victory. Crucially, this return was not placed in some far-flung future, but was expected (despite the presumable antiquity of the mythic events) to be perpetually imminent and eternally immanent; any moment could bring salvation from evil.

This narrative has a number of important antecedent: the theme of an antagonistic duality out of balance with itself could be considered as a continuation of the Zoroastrian and Yezidi traditions of the Near West; a Levantine heritage is also manifest in its figuration of a returning saviour, although this is of a type more similar to myths of the Far Western Americas. (Some scholars have attempted to draw a parallel to the Biblical narratives of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, hunter and agriculturalist – note the identification of David with a banana and his brother with a bacon sandwich – however. it should be noted that here the scriptural principle of ultimogeniture is reversed, with the younger trickster-brother a figure to be despised.) My general contention is that the David Miliband myth is, at root, a solar myth, in which the westerly setting of the Sun and its eventual reappearance is cast as a metaphorical vehicle for redemptive, apocalyptic hope.

As always with this kind of study, we must be on guard against any kind of reductive literalism. It may be comforting to ascribe a kind of primitive credulity to group such as the Parliamentary Labour Party, but such tribes often have a sophisticated oral culture and a remarkable level of self-awareness about the social function of their mythic apparatuses. It’s very likely that none of the people who told the David Miliband story, or who publicly wished for the hero’s return, would have actually believed in his physical existence.

* * *

David Miliband ruined his chances of taking the Labour leadership when he was photographed holding a banana outside the party’s 2008 conference. Suddenly he looked ridiculous, a clown cartoon, the banana-man, a figure as waxy and as primary-coloured as the fruit in his hand. We would be in error to not consider the deliberate responsibility of the banana in all this, the possibility of a vegetable intervention in human political affairs, the expression of a long musaceous plot.

It’s well known that the banana plant is incapable of reproducing by itself: centuries of selective breeding have made its fruit entirely seedless, a long sugary appendage the blind, crazed, wordless organism endlessly extrudes without ever being able to know why. Only human labour, cutting and splicing, can reproduce the banana, and even then its vast genetic uniformity leaves it vulnerable to every kind of parasitic disease. The banana, mushily phallic, the great agricultural desideratum, the object of salivating desire who totemic presence crushed Latin American social democracy again and again over the twentieth century, is entirely sterile. A synthetic monster, a fruit tending towards the apocalypse. When the human species finally goes extinct, we’re taking the bananas with us. Most other forms of life are horrifying insofar as they present a potency alien to all human understanding; the banana is horrifying in that its weakness is all our own.

Bananas rot fast; they love decomposition, they love to fall apart. The banana-phallus, the thing that everyone wants but which you don’t have, your dick shrinking and liquefying and blackening into a putrid stump throwing up clouds of tiny burrowing flies. That moment with the banana was a visual gaffe, but how would a banana proceed except by failing at every turn? Examine the connections. The CIA overthrows democratic governments to protect banana plantations; David Miliband quits British politics to become president of the International Rescue Committee, a charity founded by Trotskyites but occasionally accused of operating as a CIA front organisation. The stink of rotting bananas hangs in the air long after you’ve thrown the things out, and Westminster still can’t seem to scrub a Miliband-y whiff out of its crumbling halls. David Miliband is long, and curved, and ever so slightly yellow. David Miliband has two adopted sons, which is commendable, but the fact remains that he was unable to produce children through ordinary sexual processes.

Is David Miliband a banana? What’s under that waxy-smooth skin, once you peel slowly and see? Did we domesticate the bananas, or have they been waiting for a very long time, ready to start ruling over us?

Dan Hodges, lost in reality

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Dan Hodges – formerly of the Telegraph, now at the Mail on Sunday, but always, from the very first instant, predestined for Hell – is not the most vicious man in British comment journalism. He’s vicious enough: a recent full-page spread springs to mind, published shortly after the murder of Jo Cox, in which Jeremy Corbyn appears in a coffin, with the headline ‘Labour MUST kill vampire Jezza.’ But the real monsters of the field, people like Katie Hopkins or Richard Littlejohn, have a kind of icy interstellar hatred for everything good and just in life, something poor plodding Dan could never really muster. He’s not the most obnoxious (Howard Jacobson), not the most outrightly racist (Rod Liddle), not the most blundering (Camilla Long), not the most credulous (George Eaton), he doesn’t have the most unpleasantly shaped head (a tossup between Stephen Pollard and David Aaronovitch) or the most lifeless prose (Simon Jenkins), he’s not even the most distantly removed from the concerns of any sane readership (Polly Toynbee). Dan Hodges’ honour is to be the absolute thickest person in the UK media.

Examples abound. There’s the time he seemed to seriously be wondering why nuclear war is a bad thing; there’s the time he insisted that Labour criticising abusive workplace conditions at Sports Direct was a bad idea because it’s ‘a company favoured by millions of Britons,’ there’s the thoughtless antisemitism shining through the empty-gesture (((echo))) in his handle, there’s his decision that a Tory front-bencher was actually a great guy because nobody he had dinner with could be an evil man, there’s his tendency to believe any weird old lie about Jeremy Corbyn (or indeed myself for that matter) as long as it’s passed to him by a trusted source, there’s the fact that he thought people would want a Falklands War-themed board game for only one lonely player, etc, etc, etc, world without end. Still, for the purposes of this essay I really just want to talk about one particular instance. In a Telegraph column last December, titled ‘Donald Trump is an outright fascist who should be banned from Britain today’ (always so brave), Hodges compared the ongoing American nightmare to a popular alternate-history Amazon TV show, in which the Nazis win the Second World War. ‘Donald Trump,’ he wrote, ‘wants to be the man in the high castle. Ban him. Ban him now.’ The Daily Telegraph used to pride itself on maintaining a desperate, fetishistic attachment to high culture against the common slop of TV and Hollywood; apparently not any more. As anyone who’s read Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle knows, the titular character isn’t some dictator; it’s Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a novel within the novel, in which Hitler is defeated by the Allies. It’s a slip-up roughly on the level of saying that a visit to Buckingham Palace made him feel like Rebecca from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or that he loves playing as Zelda in The Legend of Zelda, or that he likes to pick his pineapples right from the conifer forests where they grow. Dan Hodges, you must understand, is extremely thick.

But it’s not just him. Over the weekend, this space’s perpetual enemy Nick Cohen wrote another piece on the extremism of Donald Trump, in which he notes that ‘Anglo-Saxon democracies’ enjoy producing alternate histories, so that ‘audiences can flatter themselves that they would never have collaborated with Robert Harris’s Fatherland or Amazon’s Man in the High Castle.’ Call me a totalitarian or an old-fashioned culture-grouch, but I think anyone who refers to ‘Amazon’s Man in the High Castle‘ should have all their writing fingers snapped. The possibility these incidents raise is horrifying. We’re in a time of profound danger, and it seems that the people tasked with mediating political events to the population and structuring the national dialogue are morons and illiterates, people who have never read a word of Philip K Dick in their fucking lives.

The Man in the High Castle is not a dystopian novel; it’s a utopia, the only kind of utopia that it’s possible to write. Our heroes live in a world under ruthless fascist domination, but in secret they pass around a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a fantastical history in which Britain and America defeat the Axis. This still isn’t a much better world, and it certainly isn’t ours: after Hitler is tried and executed, a new cold war breaks out between the United States and an increasingly brutal and racist British Empire. But it’s not just a fantasy either. As Abendsen reveals at the novel’s end, he didn’t write the book at all; it was written by the oracle of the I Ching, and the oracle wrote it to let a world know that their reality is not truly real. ‘Germany and Japan lost the war.’ But Dick’s novel does not simply affirm our reality against the fictionality of the text – as Patricia Waugh points out in her study of metafiction, these ’embedded strata which contradict the pre-suppositions of the strata immediately above or below’ allow us to ‘explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary text,’ one which is ‘no longer a world of eternal verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures.’ Mise en abyme, its depths bottomless. This is a recurring trope in Dick’s literature (see Ubik, see The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch) – the layering on of stratified realities until all ontologies, including those of the reader, break down. This is why he’s among the most important writers of the twentieth century. Metafiction is utopian, precisely because rather than presenting us with a shoddy image of the good life in its totality for us to contemplate while trapped across the border between dreams and waking life, it reveals that we were in dreams all along, that like Juliana Frink and Nobusuke Tagomi we are ourselves in a work of dystopian literature, a fiction that for all its crushing horror is still contingent. In Adorno’s formulation, from Negative Dialectics, ‘Woe speaks: Go.’ Within our woe the good life can only be a negation; utopia can only be a Becoming without programme, pointed towards the not-this, a voyage beyond the mapped domains of experience.

But Dan Hodges and Nick Cohen have never read Philip K Dick, even as they exist in his world. Instead, their call, and the call from pragmatic opinion writers the world over, is for people – and the left especially – to grow up and accept reality. ‘Labour won’t win an election until it stops believing in fairytales,’ wrote Hodges, in a frankly embarrassing article full of bradycardia-inducingly terrible sporting analogies. Jeremy Corbyn can never take power in this country; that’s the reality. Socialism is a doomed project; sorry, kid, but them’s the breaks. Life is wretched, and will continue in its wretchedness forever; it is what it is. But Dan Hodges and Nick Cohen have never read Philip K Dick.

Consider, for a moment, what this reality is. Hodges and Cohen have just inadvertently admitted to us that they spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the TV, powering through Amazon box sets until they arrive in a world where The Man in the High Castle was written by a room full of of corporate executives. And it’s just one hallucination among others: these are people who watch PMQs every week, who obsessively follow the minutiae of parliamentary gossip, who receive comfortable salaries from their newspapers – in other words, people who are comfortably insulated at every stage from life as it’s actually lived, who exist in something that almost anyone would recognise as among the most impermanent of all textual constructions. But this reality, concentrated in the doughy bodies of a few comment-pages philistines, is then transmitted outwards to their readership, through the deeply stupid articles they write. Tlön-like, it begins to code the phenomenal world. As far as they’re concerned, their soap-bubble is the truth. And in a sense it is, but the thing about reality is that it’s constantly capable of stratifying and reshaping itself. They don’t even know it, but by blotting out his name they’ve landed squarely in Philip K Dick’s kaleidoscope of universes. And then they talk to us about cold hard political reality.

As Tom Whyman writes, ‘the partisans of reality today are in truth complete fantasists.’ Political reality is not a given. From the standpoint of feudalism, our current society would be utterly inconceivable, as impossible to think as a fully liberated one is for us. Reality is contested and constituted within politics, not just something to be described but something that’s reshaped at every turn. If everyone believes that two plus two equals five nothing changes, but if everyone believes that I am the king of France, a new constitution will have to be written with me in it. This plasticity need not always be a positive – elsewhere, I’ve written that we live in a time when ‘loony minority propositions like leaving the European Union can suddenly surge to victory, when any monster can apparently wrench itself out of the imagination and into reality.’ But then we’ve always lived in such a time; the world becomes what it is by the successive formulation and attainment of impossibilities. This is not to uphold a false utopia, to say that we can stop worrying and a Corbyn premiership will fix everything – the impossible that creates itself tends, more often than not, to be the worst. It’s only to say that with so little that is solid, there are few things that can be said with certainty, except that there is no creature more stupid than Dan Hodges.

Corbynism or barbarism

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The Labour Party’s leadership election, slowly and greasily phlegmed up into being over the past month, is supposed to present us with a political choice. Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith – in other words, two sets of personalities, two ranges of competencies, even, if you squint, two sociopolitical classes. And overriding everything is the great question, shouted at the selectorate from every angle, of power versus principle: purity of purpose against hard-nosed political machinations, a party leader who seems to have abandoned any hope of actually winning elections or one determined to do whatever’s needed to get back into government. The question shouldn’t be rejected entirely; it’s something that the left has faced before. The Bolsheviks for instance, in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, worked under the principle that other revolutionary parties should be represented in an All-Russian Constituent Assembly; eventually, they had to sacrifice that principle for the power to make gains elsewhere. In less urgent and desperate times, like 1917, this was a question we had some time to ponder. Now, it should be the least of our concerns.

It’s not just that the terms don’t fully make sense, although they really don’t. As the party’s chorus of Cassandras keeps insisting, Labour is in an incredibly weak position – to take power at the next election would require a surge in support unprecedented in modern British political history, something utterly outside the boundaries of convention. So why do they think that going to the polls with a conventional leader, espousing now-conventional policies, would produce that result? How is someone like Owen Smith, a piece of forgettable biological generica, someone whose main tactic appears to be pretending to have so few distinguishing characteristics that the only possible polemic against him would be a mean-spirited attack on the essential impotence and idiocy of humanity as such, supposed to do it? If Corbyn’s leadership has been incompetent, how much more incompetent are the Parliamentary rebels who can’t even defeat him within their own party? If the worry is that a right-wing media will never accept Corbyn, hasn’t a half-decade of embarrassing bacon sandwich-eating shots shown that no successor is likely to fare any better? In a time when political certainties have all melted into the stale fog, when loony minority propositions like leaving the European Union can suddenly surge to victory, when any monster can apparently wrench itself out of the imagination and into reality, when the quiet and dignified prude on the Clapham omnibus is now sweating omnicidal rage from every pore as the bus cooks in the July heat and small riots pop off like firecrackers in scattered corners of the city, why is centrist pabulum still thought to be what the great British public are desperately crying out for?

But what’s being presented is not, despite appearances, a tactical question. It’s not even a political choice. The battle isn’t between the left and the centre, and it’s certainly not between Corbyn and Smith; it’s a choice between politics in general and something else, between the possibility of politics as a terrain for contention and its collapse into the crumbling administration of class society as it slowly declines into incoherence. Jeremy Corbyn, for better or worse, might be the last party leader whose politics are still actually political. His removal would be the victory of the monster, an enormous creature turning a sanitised face of bland focus-group triangulation towards us, while far away at its distant arse-end there’s the febrile wailing of a resurgent fascism. The fact that my politics are substantially different to Corbyn’s, or that I happen to think his old-Labour Keynesianism, lightly inflected with universal basic modishness, is actually less likely to be put into practice in the current climate than the kind of ludic revolutionary hyperbole I’d prefer – it’s immaterial. Now is not the time. Emancipatory politics of any shade, from the mildest reformism to Bataille’s becoming other or else ceasing to be, can only have a language in which to communicate themselves while there’s still a field of politics separate from management. Without that, they’ll slip back into theology. The concerned types of the soft left, the ones who don’t even really disagree with Corbyn’s politics but have decided that he’s too compromised and too toxic and a unifying candidate needs to be found, would condemn their own projects and mine for the sake of removing one crotchety old man and in the vain hope of winning one general election. The real choice has been with us for a while. Corbynism or barbarism.

And we are already in barbarism; the catastrophe isn’t incoming, it’s already here. ‘The world,’ Derrida wrote, ‘is going very badly.’ That was in 1993; since then it’s continued to go very badly, and for long millennia beforehand it was going very badly too. Occasionally people like to point out that some things have improved, that people are living longer than they were a century ago, that there’s less lead in our drinking water, that fewer people are mauled by bears, as if this were anything other than the slow wearing-out of a giant machine for producing corpses. The world, the field for our powerlessness, the thing foreign to us into which we are thrown, the thing that elsewhere I’ve called the dead world, is always going very badly. The moment it starts to go well will be the moment we are no longer alienated from objective existence; at that point there will be no vast crushing indifferent entity to give that name to. Until then, the world and the end of the world will continue to be exactly the same thing.

Barbarism is everywhere. The Prime Minister recently announced in Parliament that she would be willing to use Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and Owen Smith, speaking on a cheerful ITV breakfast show, repeated the same line: he would fire the missiles, because ‘if you are serious about defence and serious about having a nuclear deterrent then you have to be prepared to do that.’ Atomic weapons aren’t just some ominous future threat of devastation; they enforce the immanent mass destructibility of human life. The fact that our governing classes will proudly announce their intention to kill millions of people in a nuclear war, all for no reason, the fact that they’re structurally required to make that announcement, is what allows for everything else: slow death by austerity, migrants drowning on the Mediterranean, the demotion of vast sectors of the world’s population to the status of surplus flesh, to be fed occasionally, without forgetting that it’s a terrible drain on public finances. None of this is political, before long it’ll just be common sense, a final enclosure of the name of the commons.

I’m writing this too late. The nominations are closed, and so are the voter registrations; if I wanted to encourage you to sign up as Labour party supporters like I haven’t and vote for Jeremy Corbyn like I won’t, I wouldn’t be able to. That’s not really what I want to do. Electoral boosterism is always faintly sickening – the sense of a circus suddenly turning on its audience, the clowns in their painted rictuses teetering on a narrow political proscenium, staring into the cowed darkness and barking now you make us laugh. There’s not that much between your old friends you never speak to taking to Facebook with the cheery demand that whoever you vote for you just get out there and vote like hell, and – to take a random example – Will Self last year, breaking however many decades of principled anarcho-floccinaucinihilipilification to beg us all to go and vote for, of all people, Ed Miliband. In any case Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader seems pretty much assured, but this is a Baudrillardian age, of volatilisation and disappearance. Whatever it is that comes next, the good or the barbaric, will only have use for electoral engagement as a minor prop. Still, there’s no finality, and the nihilist void of pure management is a form among others; it too can fade. Something is about to vanish before our eyes. The question, between two evaporating sides, is what. The terms of combat are this: will Corbyn’s leadership be the last fluttering breath of politics, or is its choke the water coming out the lungs in the unsteady birth of something new?

Sickness, health, death

Medical thought finally effected an identification over which all Western thought since Greek medicine had hesitated: that madness, after all, was only madness.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation

sickness

We are all crazed, weird loners. I am. You are. Silent all day, fixed to the computer, quiet in company, meek and polite, docile, neutered, and dangerous. We went wrong somewhere, a line was crossed, and though we don’t know when it happened we do know that we shouldn’t be feeling like this, that this isn’t just ordinary unhappiness. It’s hard to fix. Somatic sicknesses have their pathogens swarming in your veins, but there’s no antibiotic for an illness that comes from outside and everywhere.

Whenever someone snaps, when an ordinary and anonymous person starts killing, the obvious question is why. This is the kind of thing that ought not to be happening; we’ve worked for centuries to excise violent death from ordinary life, but the result is that when it does happen it’s all the more wounding, a tear cut right through the thinness of social existence, and we need to know why. This desperate need to know doesn’t apply so much to all the other horrors people suffer constantly, things that are held to be an intrinsic part of the world, even though most people don’t have much of a rigorous understanding of them either: why are some people poor and other people rich? Why are we always at war? Never mind murder, where does bread come from? There aren’t any easy answers for these, although people have tried. For the other question we have plenty. If that moment, the person snapping, the tragedy, is classed as terrorism, there’s a ready-made language of violent ideology, radicalisation, geopolitics and civilisational conflict waiting to be inhabited. If it’s been classed as something else, another world awaits: this is about mental health, loners and weirdos, a psychology hovering on the edge of the biological. Madness happens, sometimes, and for no good reason: of course it’s inexplicable, otherwise it wouldn’t be madness.

This is what happened when a single gunman murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox this week: the newspapers insisted that this was a case of one man’s disease, the hatred of a crazed, weird loner. The nature of the disease doesn’t need to be mentioned. Schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, anorexia, trichotillomania all collapse into the blank euphemism of the Mentally Ill, a sympathetic shorthand for doing what ought not to be done. And they’re right. It’s all very well to insist that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrator – but this particular form of violence, the lone obsessive’s attack, is with only a few exceptions the preserve of the sick. A mentally healthy person does not do this. The smiling people in adverts and sitcoms, the obnoxiously at-ease, the people whose minds sit happily in their skulls and don’t torment them with the sweat and terror of late-night resentment – these people do not commit acts of random mass murder, or shoot politicians on the street, or blow themselves up in a crowd of strangers. Nobody has ever killed because they were too happy and too content with their life.

But who are these mentally healthy people? In the simplest of terms, they don’t exist. Illness is a presence: there’s something wrong, something that announces itself, you can probe it and ask it questions, diagnose it and give it a name. Health is a negative, the absence of anything wrong. The mentally healthy person is entirely in accord with their environment, without any tension between inside and out, faultless in a perfect homogeneity with the world. The only person this could actually describe is a fully decomposed corpse. For the living, there are only different species of madness: in psychoanalysis, for instance, the great manoeuvre is to turn the psychotic into a more socially acceptable neurotic, and untangle a few of the neurotic’s looser knots; that’s the best we can do. What we really mean by a healthy person is someone whose madness isn’t out of step with the madness of the social whole, who suffers what Adorno called the health unto death. The social whole is deeply, terrifyingly mad.

The victim was an MP noted for her advocacy for Syrian migrants. Her killer was a neo-Nazi, who bought gun-making instructions from an American white supremacist group, reportedly shouted ‘Britain First!’ after the murder, and gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ You can call his ideology an epiphenomenon of his madness if you want; plenty have. Since 1945, happy and content people have tended not to be outright Hitlerists. (In fact, they tend to not be interested in any kind of politics whatsoever.) But there is no mental illness known to medical practice that turns its sufferers into violent fascists; fascism as a political ideology is not independently created, swastikas and all, every time something goes clunk in the brain. Go back to your Lacan: the mind is not a self-contained system; nothing in the psyche is ever a pure interiority. This fascism is coming from somewhere, and the fog over Britain is full of it.

Who did this? Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove, and all the others wallowing happily in this island’s deep muddy fathoms of petty resentment and slow-boiling hate, crusted over with a thin facade of blank politeness. The whole country is a crazed, weird loner, locking itself off with oceans, distant but friendly, furious inside. More than anyone, this situation is the creature of the Labour party itself, which has been for decades covering itself in the soft fascism of anti-immigrant sentiment, assured that everyone would like them if only they were more racist, convinced that demanding controls on immigration from a big rock or a novelty mug would endear them to an imagined audience of nationalist thugs. In the process, they shut out anything that would have insisted on our common humanity as sneering metropolitan humanism. They fattened up the fury of groups like Britain First; an ideology as crazed and lunatic as fascism wouldn’t be able to communicate itself if it didn’t find friendly footholds in the ruling discourses. It’s not that the EU referendum has unleashed an already existing tide of xenophobia and racism – this debate, and so many beforehand, have been actively creating it.

It’s not just newspapers and politicians, though; as Britain declines the entire country has taken on an unspoken nihilist ideology, a constant drizzling hatred for all life. The bloom of anti-migrant feeling in Britain is stinking and poisonous, but it’s only a symptom, and like all symptoms it speaks itself. We talk about the burden of migration, having to cope with however many new arrivals, the drain on common resources that each of them represents. In other words, the human being is both excess and negation, something distressingly more than it ought to be, something less than a presence, something that ought not to exist at all. Every person is a void, sucking up food and jobs and healthcare that could have gone to someone else. In a post-industrial society, our dominant economic activity is no longer production but consumption, and politics lacks a language for all the other ways in which any person can add to the world: all it can see is a ravenous jaw and a shitting anus, a despoiler, a locust. The Khmer Rouge said that ‘to keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss,’ but in twenty-first century Britain we really believe it. And in such a situation to kill someone isn’t to destroy a life, it’s the only kind of production we can still recognise.

The world is wrong, the social whole is sick, and we’re sick with it. The Brexit charade has brought a terrifying frenzy to our usual political stupor, but there’s no point pretending that the killing of Jo Cox represents some new violence, a death of civility, a withering of respect. With its grey damp misery this country has always hated life: before this we were butchering in the Middle East, before that we were massacring in Ireland, before that Britain was seized by a five hundred year long spasm of murder, washing blood over every continent, and we called it glorious. But the general sickness carries a central contradiction: you’re meant to believe that the country is under threat, that enemies are swarming in, that life is worthless – but you’re not supposed to do anything about it. The sane and healthy people will still kill, but in more socially acceptable ways – in uniform, or from behind a desk, out of sight; they do it happily, but within a legitimised structure that blots out the personal will. This is what it comes down to: the murderer of Jo Cox swallowed it all up and killed all by himself, and therefore he was crazy.

Learning to live after Bernie Sanders

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It’s OK to feel helpless, because you are, and evil is triumphant. Whatever else he says, Bernie Sanders has lost the world. Trump versus Clinton is not the contest of two creatures in a ruined city; it’s Miltonian chaos, eternal anarchy amidst the noise of endless wars. Of course one of them is better than the other; you can even pull out your utilitarian calculator and work out which one it is – but these are not fungible quantities, but endlessly different, and therefore the same. Hillary Clinton is, as her supporters like to put it, imperfect – a mass murderer, a wrecker of nations and peoples, the political expression of biophagous finance, a ruthless cynic who will fling millions into whatever ravine presents itself to get what she wants, which is power. Donald Trump doesn’t want power; he’s far more dangerous than that. He wants attention. How can you really measure her long list of abuses against the sheer potential for disaster coiled in his stupid, stocky body? Measure so many thousands of dead Libyans, so many tens of thousands of dead Syrians, so many hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis against the peril of a waddling baby in charge of the world? Still it’s not impossible, we can quantify anything. Say two million excess deaths under President Clinton – from financial predation, from disease, from war – and ten million excess deaths under President Trump – all those plus racist violence, malfeasance, and incompetence – and there’s your moral case for voting for Clinton. It’s not nice, it never is, but you vote for the lesser of two evils, refining the selection process again and again until you find something good. Except you never will; there’s a sameness beyond magnitude. This is where the evil comes from: quantification, ethics as a series of numbers, human life as a data-point. The least bad option, which represents the systematisation of evil, is always worse than the worst.

Bernie Sanders lost, and he was supposed to replace this logic: you didn’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils, you could vote for the good. When someone makes that claim it’s important to evaluate it properly, and for those of us who still call ourselves communists and socialists it was always clear that he wasn’t really on our side. After all, he had efficiently managed a decent-sized town under capitalism. He was never a serious anti-imperialist or internationalist, happy to vote for bombs and occasionally implying that American workers were being cheated by greedy Vietnamese sweatshop labourers; his analysis was not a real class analysis, slumping over the lazy shorthand of big banks and the 1%; his vaunted democratic socialism was only social democracy, not phase one in the sliding scale of communism but a distinct ideology, a postwar class compromise designed to ward off the real thing, and discarded by capital when it was no longer necessary. Bernie Sanders was also a compromise candidate, the lesser of two evils, but a very diminished evil, a tiny evil whose domed sand-speck of a forehead might sparkle in the palm of your hand. And there were plenty of reasons to support him, even if only in that ropey old Leninist sense. For the calmer, milder, saner types among us, his candidacy might pull the Democratic party gently to the left, letting them know that there was a voter base out there for more progressive politics. The semi-official line at Jacobin magazine was that a few Sanders successes would help to distigmatise the name ‘socialism,’ to get more people interested in radical ideas, so they might go further than he could. More then anything, when there’s a vaguely decent man fighting a monster like Hillary Clinton, you support him, however passively, whatever it means to do so, in the full knowledge that he’ll never win, with the solidarity of the doomed.

But then he did something unexpected: he started to win, he started to surge in the polls, he started to look like someone who might actually do what he was pretending to be doing. The terror from media liberals, the paranoiac’s pervert-train of cloistered idiots, was thick: witless vultures, flapping and colliding, people who really thought that accusing Bernie’s supporters of being rude on Twitter would make normal non-psychotic voters switch to Clinton. Whatever stopped his rise, it wasn’t that; I’ll leave it to the numbers-sadists to work out what it was. The point is that as soon as President Bernie Sanders became an actual possibility, it became meaningless: building that idol towered over any other goal. Forming a government is not seizing the state; and we don’t want the state because that’s where power lives, but so we can use it as a crowbar for its real nexuses. Say Bernie really was a good anti-imperialist – why would you want him to become Commander in Chief? Say he really was a good anti-capitalist – why put him in charge of a capitalist economy? Stuff a pacifist in the warhead of a ballistic missile, so they can stop the violence. Take a good person and dunk them in a vat of boiling acid, so they can reform the acid from within.

Fielding candidates can be useful for radical movements, but you won’t build socialism out of ballot boxes. The vote and its deployment of passive helpless majorities is another piece of arithmetical logic, the quantification of humanity, structurally inimical to the good. Having the lesser evil in office can ameliorate some ills, but it can’t do it alone. Where good things have happened, it’s always through mechanisms other than the vote – including the extension of the vote itself to people who were denied it, in causes that would have lost if they’d been put to a referendum. As Badiou asks, why would number have any political virtue? As the Bolsheviks knew, a true majority has nothing to do with a mere headcount. Bernie Sanders losing the popular vote – and he did lose it, more narrowly than we might have expected, more crushingly than we might have hoped – has abandoned us powerless to the monsters, but him winning would have done the same: on the terrain of the vote we’re always powerless, able to lift a pencil, barely, but that’s all. Our strength lies elsewhere, in the places where politics actually takes place. This isn’t a call to the stupid ceremonies and grimly coerced cheerfulness of political voluntarism; this isn’t to pretend that we’re not all deeply fucked. For now, we can’t stop them. Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States, which is bad enough; what’s worse is that the President of the United States has always been the President of the United States. I won’t tell you how to vote (I’ll just hint) because that’s not the point. Vote for Clinton to stop Trump; save the eight million, nobody will blame you. But the task isn’t to stop this or that person from becoming President, but to find the President itself, that lifeless shambling thing with so many bodies, and put something pointy through its heart.

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