Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Uncategorized


I started writing here in 2011. I stopped in 2021. Ten years is quite a long time. A child born when I began this thing is now ready to start emerging out of childhood, to start noticing other people in different ways, to start reading and thinking about serious books. Some things never escape that bright world. A ten-year-old tiger is ready to die.

I started because the only thing I’ve ever really wanted in life was to be a writer. I thought the best way to do that was simply to write, and see what happened next. A lot of people have tried something similar, and it doesn’t always work; the process is absolutely random and unfair, but it worked for me. The first time a small publication offered me a few token dollars to reprint one of my pieces, I wrote in my notebook: No matter what happens next, from this day until you die you will always be a published writer. I’m still slightly giddy about that moment. I’ve learned – the hard way, maybe – not to take such things for granted.

Since I started here, my politics have changed – not much, but a little. I was twenty-one years old and a Bolshevik; now I’m balding into my thirties, less certain that the path to human progress involves battering all my ideological enemies over the head. I still believe that ‘there is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no one shall go hungry any more.’ But if you’ve been writing for over a decade, there will inevitably be a few pieces that you end up rediscovering with some light embarrassment. I think this should give you a touch of humility. If you were once capable of saying things that you later decide were actually cruel or cowardly or ungenerous or untrue, you should be open to the possibility that one day, in the future, you’ll have the same thoughts about the things you say now.

I’m not going to stop writing, but I am going to stop writing here. Part of this is because, like all the other people you hate, I’ve been poked and cajoled into starting a Substack. Part of this is because I discovered that WordPress has started adding reams of ads at the ends of my posts, spammy little links to articles titled You’ll Never Believe How Many Pencils This Brave Boy Ate In A Week on sites called BuzzBong and LimpFeed and and Cloom, and they were expecting me to pay money to get rid of them. But mostly, it’s because whatever Idiot Joy Showland was, it’s run its course.

The new thing may or may not survive. But I’m looking forward to it, because after a year or so in which most of my writing has been for editors, for money, pitching sensible essays that make some broadly comprehensible point, I’m excited to have the kind of space in which I could maybe do a cheeky Nando’s again. Either way, I’ll see you there.

Free Jussie Smollett

Jussie Smollett is an artist: a Hollywood actor. His job is to stand in front of a camera and pretend that various things are happening when they are not, in fact, happening. On January 29th, 2019, he stood in front of a camera and did precisely what he was supposed to do, and now he’s been convicted of a crime. Disorderly conduct – the state’s secret name for art. It is a travesty that in the supposedly democratic west, an artist could be put on trial for creating an artwork that injured nobody except himself, and revealed so much that is true about our world. His conviction must be overturned at once. Total solidarity! Down with the carceral state! Free Jussie Smollett!

Yes, of course it’s different. In Jussie’s boring, legally acceptable TV work, a camera is put in place and set rolling; there’s a magic word – action! – that separates one kind of reality from another. But that’s not how we really live any more. Jussie’s genius was to find the cameras that are always rolling, and perform for them. The city of Chicago is the most surveilled in the United States; thirty-two thousand cameras recording every second of every day – to prevent crime. During the Vietnam War, the US military’s Project Igloo White scattered thousands of electronic sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southeastern Laos to detect Communist convoys. They called it ‘bugging the battlefield.’ Instead of targeted surveillance – a tiny camera hidden in the office of the Soviet ambassador, the star of the movie around whom the whole plot revolves – here you simply record everything, capture the entire world as data. The surveillance apparatus sets the rules of the game: you must try to avoid being seen, and we must try to see you. It goes without saying that, visibility means death; if we become aware of your existence the bombs are loosed. This is the same game played between the Chicago police and the city’s gangs. (Although here there’s an added layer – the CPD operated a domestic ‘black site’ at Homan Square for off-the-books interrogation; detection could mean passing into bureaucratic darkness.) But in 1968, the Viet Cong refused to play by the rules. ‘The guerrillas had simply learned to confuse the American sensors with tape-recorded truck noises, bags of urine, and other decoys, provoking the release of countless tons of bombs onto empty jungle corridors which they then traversed at their leisure.’ Once you trick the Americans into dropping a bomb, it destroys the sensor: by playing to the cameras you become invisible. You can win by performing to the sensor, by showing it what it wants to see, by turning the field of surveillance into a stage – by making art.

You should never trust anyone who tries to tell you there’s any meaningful difference between art and lies: that person is a liar. When Zeuxis and Parrhasius held their contest, they both knew full well that they were drying to deceive. But Zeuxis thought there might be a reality lying behind the deception, and Parrhasius knew there wasn’t, which is why the contest went to him.

Of course, Jussie’s great performance didn’t go according to plan: in the end, it was not recorded. He was attacked by his paid accomplices, doused in bleach, a noose thrown around his neck – but throughout, the security camera was looking in the other direction. This is what liberated his work, turned it from a forgery into something much more profound. Like Parrhasius, he built his masterpiece around a missing object. Jussie understood that the entire world is now one vast array of cameras, always rolling. Where we see separate systems – the Hollywood array, the surveillance array, the news-media array, the front-facing array – he knew that there’s only the singular and continuous act of looking. There are always other eyes. Jussie was recorded telling police that two white men in red hats had attacked him; he repeated the story in front of news cameras. Performance creates its own stage. A boring artist might pick up crap from the side of the road and put it in some shitty gallery, where it becomes art; Jussie threaded his art through our global digital nerve system, and turned the whole of consensus reality into a gallery.

Jussie takes the always-on-ness of the cameras very seriously. Throughout his trial, he continued to insist that the attack had been real, that he really was threatened, long after it became obvious that he had staged the whole thing himself. There’s no moment when our revels now are ended, where the cameras are shut off and you can just come clean, admit that it was all costumes and makebelieve. The legal system is only another complex of seeing and being seen, narratives and simulations. In Roman courts, orators would tell lurid, gleefully fictionalised stories about the crime in question. Quintillian: ‘I am complaining that a man has been murdered. Shall I not see the assassin burst suddenly from his hiding place, the victim tremble, cry for help?’ The Latin name for this mode of fabulation and artistry and lies was evidentia: evidence.

You could, if you wanted, list the names of all the celebrities and politicians who felt the need to speak out about the vile, racist, homophobic attack against Jussie Smollett, who didn’t realise they were the moving parts in a planetary-scale kinetic sculpture. Plenty of people have. (I’ll only name one – Donald Trump, who commented: ‘I think that’s horrible. It doesn’t get worse.’) Lately, people have been amusing themselves by unearthing all those pious thinkpieces from the immediate aftermath – like the one that, after observing that the police were treating the incident as a ‘possible hate crime,’ felt the need to add: ‘The cautious wording is one last wound inflicted on Smollett’s battered body, a careful hedging of bets that don’t need hedging – a crime scene involving a corpse is not discussed as a possible death.’ Yeah, laugh all you like. You think you’re better than these people? They participated in something glorious – what have you done? Although, to be fair, most of them are not grateful about the experience. Jussie was convicted, not for what he did (unlike many liars, he never libelled any particular person), but because he embarrassed a lot of powerful and influential people. As if it’s his fault that his audience couldn’t tell that his performance was a performance; as if it’s his fault that they fly into the rage of Caliban as soon as he holds up a mirror.

It’s worth asking, though – why this story? Why this particular form? As always, there are predecessors. Just one example. In 2008, a young white woman working on John McCain’s presidential campaign was robbed at an ATM. A large, tall black man put a knife to her throat and took her money; then, when he noticed the McCain sticker on her car, he knocked her to the ground and used the point of his knife to scrape a letter B into her cheek, for Barack. ‘You are going to be a Barack supporter,’ he told her. Just like Jussie, she captured a moment. There was something deeply ugly buried in the Obama campaign: all that hope and change was really just a code for violence, thuggish and totalitarian; young white women attacked and mutilated on the street. There’s no place in the new society for people who have the wrong kind of opinion. This was, according to Fox News, a ‘watershed event’ in the election. Only later, once the story had already dominated rolling news, did people notice that the B on her cheek was backwards: as if she’d stood in front of a mirror and done it to herself.

A strange kind of fiction. After all, someone really did carve a B in this woman’s cheek; that person just happened to be herself. This has very little to do with politics. What we are looking at is an act of self-harm.

What really interests me here is the mirror, in which everything appears back to front. In very different circumstances, Michael Taussig describes a ‘colonial mirror of production.’ During the genocidal wars in Putumayo, white rubber planters brutally massacred the indigenous population, but they always ascribed their own brutality to the jungle itself: its steamy darkness, this pit of snakes and savages. ‘What stands out here is the mimesis between the savagery attributed to the Indians by the colonists and the savagery perpetrated by the colonists in the name of civilisation.’ An echo of Adorno and Horkheimer’s description of the antisemites. ‘They detest the Jews and imitate them constantly. There is no anti-Semite who does not feel an instinctive urge to ape what he imagines to be Jewishness… The argumentative jerking of the hands, the singing tone of voice, and the nose, that physiognomic principium individuationis, which writes the individual’s peculiarity on his face.’ I think when people are outraged by political hypocrisy – why do you condemn our side’s bad actions, but not your own? – this is what’s really going on. Not dumb partisanship, or object-level rather than meta-level thinking, but something much deeper. We are always shadowing an image of our enemies.

So: a Republican campaign worker detests her image of a violent black criminal, the kind of person she imagines might want to physically hurt her, or cut her skin – so much so that she has to become that person to herself. She detests the way that everything around her is becoming plastered with Obama stickers; a kind of ecstatic uniformity she won’t allow herself to participate in – so she scores the man’s initial directly into her flesh. ‘You are going to be a Barack supporter.’ The surging of a secret desire, one that can never be avowed. She blunders into a crucial psychoanalytic insight: our desires are not our own, they come to us from somewhere else. It was the other: he wanted this for me.

Terrible things happen in the world, and sometimes they spark outrage, but never as reliably as a hoax. Nothing sells like bullshit: false stories don’t just occasionally slip through our truth-telling apparatuses, the system seems to actively prefer them. This is not because they’re more lurid or extreme than reality, which should never be underestimated – it’s because they’re full of longing; they don’t pull on your beliefs, but your desires. They show you the secrets of what you want. And because our desires come from elsewhere and everywhere, the whole world shudders in response. But nobody pulled off this trick as beautifully or as massively as Jussie. Now, like a dog barking at its own reflection, you want to send him to prison. You pigs, you philistines, let him go! Free Jussie Smollett!

30,000 years of hurt

There is not an England.

England has a state church, but not a state. There’s a flag, but it doesn’t fly from any public buildings. An arts council, a national opera, some sports teams, and a Defence League: all the little medallions and accoutrements of an actual country, but there’s nothing there to pin them to. All our songs are about something that can’t quite wrench itself into reality. Till we have built JerusalemIt’s coming home. Strictly speaking, England does not even have its own territory; the real England is hundreds of miles away, a peninsula bulging into the Baltic Sea, universally acknowledged to be part of Germany. The dynastic seat of the heir to our throne is still on that peninsula: Glücksburg Castle on the Flensburg Fjord in Anglia, that peat-bog desert from which the pagan warriors came. England is one of those countries, like Benin or Ghana, that’s chosen to name itself after a place not actually within its borders. Which makes sense: There’s some corner of a foreign field… England only exists outside itself. Once this meant an empire: cricket fields on the Irrawaddy, mass graves in the silt. And it continues, in those stretches of the Spanish Riviera where there’s nothing to eat except beans on toast, but elsewhere things are stranger. In the refugee camp that once sprawled outside Calais, I saw a shanty version of England. There was a small shop there, selling small necessities – energy drinks, thick socks for climbing over barbed wire. The building was made from scrap and cardboard, and the sign over the door read Tesco Metro. Other signs named the Jungle’s streets and gave them London postcodes. Muslims flying the cross of St George. The Syrians and Afghans and Sudanese who lived in this place had built an England far more English than that drab island across the Channel. More English because England is a fake country, an imitation of itself, an unrealised idea that can only phase into existence across its seas – and the camp was like that in every respect, but more.

There is not an English language.

What we speak is an idiot pidgin, a grunting caveman version of Anglo-Saxon, stripped down enough to be understood by the rampaging Danes. The only Indo-European language without any grammatical gender; a dramatically simplified system of conjugation; the faintest ghost of a declension, now mostly limited to the personal pronouns; a flowing poetical syntax, now jammed up in rigid word orders. Actual English, with all its grammar intact, is something very foreign; unremembered and unintelligible. Hwæt ic swefna cyst hwæt me gemætte to midre nihte. Present-day translation: Alright, let me tell you about a cool dream I had last night. If the Saxons could hear us, they’d think we had brain damage, and they wouldn’t be alone. Those who didn’t grow up speaking our idiot dialect tend to notice something hard and ugly there. Poetic turns of phrase that would be completely unremarkable in French or German become something else when translated into English: either an obnoxious floweriness, or else cliché. People who try to write elegantly in English end up sounding like twats, because this is an argot born in the ashes of monasteries and composed of burning books. It’s for raiding and trading, establishing quantities of one thing and their equivalent in another – wool, barley, bond certificates, lives. A pared-down grammar for people who do not share a common world. The writing schools encourage a plain, frank, simple style – if you want to be successful, if you want to turn words into cash. Language itself becomes something like money, the blankness of a universal equivalent. No wonder English took over the world. It’s a speech already atomised; for hundreds of years it prefigured the emergence of capitalism. A flow without codes. Hence the much-celebrated vastness of its lexis: any word of any origin can be incorporated, eaten by English, so long as the digestive process melts away all its grammar, all the structures that make it part of a system of meanings and not just an agglutination of sounds. You can see it happening today, in the mania for scratching off every grammatical gender we encounter. Latinx; filipinx. Unpronounceable in Spanish, but so what? Even the last remains forms of English grammar are being eroded from the inside out. Business emails: Can you action this by Tuesday? Supermarket posters: Time to organic your September. Slogans: Get that deliciousness feeling! Unleash your fierce! I’m hamburgers it! This kind of thing couldn’t happen in any other language; when people want to commit such barbarisms in non-English-speaking countries they’re forced to replace the native words with English. Because English is not a language, but the slop and mulch that remains once language has disintegrated. A puddle without syntax, where oiled lexemes sprawl over each other, each point frictionless and interchangeable; adjectively gone nounish, verbs to interjectioned, and conjunction to preposition of but when after in…

There is not an English people.

There are fetishes: an umbrella, a roundel, a breakfast, an armoury of sexual neuroses and different ways of taking tea. There is a history and a literature. But there are not the English. The traditional account distinguishes between British – an abstract political unit, broadly indifferent to race – and English, the tribe, the metaphor in blood. Because England is not a state, to be English seems less like being French, and more like being a Frank. This is why I still don’t like being described with the E-word: yes, my people came here on a boat, but we did not leap into the surf with war-axe and wooden shield; yes, we built our shrines in this new land, but they were never sacred to Woden. But that concept is changing: now, nine-tenths of the country see no connection between Englishness and ethnic origin. They’re correct, because in fact the tribe never existed. Defoe had it: From a mixture of all kinds began, that het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman… A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction, in speech an irony, in fact a fiction. It’s not just the disparate origins that are always the basis of ethnogenesis; the Englishman was always a political project, long before the Acts of Union. Today, July 12th, marks one thousand and ninety-four years since Æthelstan of Mercia proclaimed himself rex anglorum and brought a new political category into being. But this was not achieved simply through the unification of the Anglo-Saxon tribes: instead, July 12th, 927 is the day that the Celtic kings of Alba, Strathclyde, Deheubarth and Gwent accepted Æthelstan’s hegemony over the entire island of Britain. Why did the creation of the English require the assent of people who were not English? The only possible explanation is that the English are not the same as the Saxons; that they’re not a people, but a process. A swarming, a stamping boot, a subjugation. Once, the English occurred in the act of colonial conquest, from Ireland to every corner of the globe; now, sport substitutes for war. International fixtures set the wheels of Englishness turning; the Tebbit test defines it by your willingness to participate in the fate of our cricket team. This year, England’s footballers seemed to embody an Englishness without ethnicity: these nice lads representing all the diverse communities of our land, kneeling before every game, leading the way towards a kinder, better, more progressive version of English nationalism… Is that really what was going on? Notice that it only lasted as long as England kept winning. As soon as the nice lads missed a few penalties, a sudden explosion of racism. Ethnicity emerges again, in the ugliest form. It’s not just that Rashford and Sancho and Saka have lost the protective sheen of Englishness; it’s been denied to everyone.

But they could only ever lose. The process is always interminable, and victories must never be total, because England and the English always remain outside themselves; without a horizon the system would collapse. An England victory would have made it impossible to chant it’s coming home; it would have brought something which categorically can not exist into the agony of being. In this country, made of unrealised and unrealisable hopes, absent to itself, unpeopled and atomised beyond speech – in the middle of this void, do you really wonder why it is that we lost the Euros on a penalty?

What’s so bad about critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a fairly small body of texts produced by a splinter faction from a minor intellectual movement within American law schools during the 1980s. The best way to understand critical race theory is to read these texts. Some of these approaches are interesting or persuasive; others are not. But there are two things to keep in mind when approaching them. The first is that these texts were put together by lawyers – who are, as a group, not to be trusted. The second forms the subject of this essay.

The movement that critical race theory broke from is critical legal studies, or CLS. Briefly, CLS argues that the law is not as it presents itself, an impersonal arbiter between equal persons, but instead exists to uphold structures of inequality within society. This is not a particularly novel insight. Anatole France put it best in 1894: ‘The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.’ You don’t even need to be particularly critical of inequality to notice this – the Chicago jurist Richard Posner writes approvingly that ‘criminal law is designed primarily for the non-affluent; the affluent are kept in line, for the most part, by tort law.’ Where CLS differs from the existing Marxist critique of law is that Marxist approaches tend to see the law as an instrument wielded by the ruling classes to enforce an inequality that already exists in society, whereas critical legal studies supposes that the discourses of law themselves produce this inequality. This is plausible; it’s worth paying attention to the complexities of power, rather than reducing it to a caricature. Still, if we wanted to be unkind, we could say that what’s really going on here is that advocates of CLS are mostly well-paid professors at prestigious law schools, and the core theoretical insight of CLS allows you to pretend that being a well-paid professor at a prestigious law school is actually a deeply revolutionary act.

Critical race theory has its own intellectual roots (more on that shortly), but its history as a movement is usually traced back to the CLS conferences of the mid to late 1980s. At the 1986 conference, a long and panicked spat broke out after participants were asked ‘what is it about the whiteness of CLS that discourages participation by people of colour?’ The following year, Harlon Dalton (Yale) presented his paper The Clouded Prism, which briefly touched on some theoretical issues with CLS (its lack of a positively articulated programme for change, along with its Marxist-inflected critique of the liberal discourse of individual rights, which is ‘oblivious to, and potentially disruptive of, the interests of people of colour’ who had fought quite hard for some of those rights), before getting to the real meat of the issue: white attendees at CLS conferences were rude to black academics; they took all the big speaking slots for themselves, and they wrote papers with Chuck Berry lyrics for epigraphs. Crenshaw (UCLA) et al describe what happened next:

Responding to the critique, another scholar of colour shared with the audience his impression that the absence of much of minority scholarship was attributable to its poor quality, and to the lack of productivity of minority scholars. Scholars of colour were urged to stop complaining and simply to write. Of course, the discussion that followed was animated. But more important than what was said was what was assumed – namely, that the arena of academic discourse was functionally open to any scholar of merit who sought to enter it. Yet the very point that the speakers were trying to reveal (perhaps too subtly, in retrospect) was that the notions of merit that were so glibly employed to determine access and status within the intellectual arena were themselves repositories of racial power.

In other words, critical legal studies was based on the understanding that the law is not a neutral and universal institution – but as soon as that critique was turned around on CLS itself, its advocates suddenly turned into the same squeamish liberals they’d spent their entire careers opposing.

* * *

The basic axiom of critical race theory is that racism is not an irrational deviation from the norm of liberal neutrality – instead, it’s a system of exclusion that operates through those norms. It strikes me that we could avoid a lot of very pointless squabbles if we could just find different words for racism-as-individual-prejudice and racism-as-structural-inequality; clearly, tacking on the modifier ‘systemic’ isn’t doing the job. But semantics aside, the approach has some utility; it’s always worth looking under the surface of things to see if they’re really doing what they claim to do.

This core theory came out of a very specific historical moment. If critical race theory’s organisational history is grounded in the split from CLS, in its intellectual history it begins as a response to the perceived failure of the civil rights movement. Thanks to decades of activism, black Americans were legally identical to whites, formally equal in a system that now claimed to operate on a racially neutral basis – but for millions, things had simply not improved. So the first generation of critical race theorists turned their gaze on Civil Rights itself. Could it be that the demand for formal equality and a neutral public sphere was itself a mask for racism?

One of the foundational texts of CRT, Derrick Bell (Harvard)’s Serving Two Masters, takes the bolt gun to one of civil rights’ sacredest cows: the victory against school segregation. He argues that a desegregated school is not necessarily a better school for black students, noting that black students are often bussed to ‘the poorest and most violent white districts,’ while at the same time black students in majority-white schools can find themselves doing less well academically, and punished by teachers more frequently, than their white classmates. In such schools, ‘the racial subordination of blacks is reasserted in, if anything, a more damaging form.’

Still, Bell doesn’t directly advocate the resegregation of schools. His focus is on the immediate practicalities of legal work; the argument isn’t even that desegregation is necessarily bad in and of itself – just that civil rights lawyers should be able to advocate for the stated interests of their clients, even when they conflict with the doctrines of the NAACP. However, in his later work, he’s far more explicit in his rejection of the Civil Rights programme of reconciliation. In its place, he outlines a position of ‘racial realism.’ (This is by analogy with the theory of legal realism, and not the stance that racial categories are biologically ‘real.’) Realism means abandoning not just incremental change and engagement with the system, but also liberation in general, for the understanding that ‘black people will never gain full equality in this country.’ Instead of political ends, he advocates ‘racial strategies that can bring fulfilment and even triumph’ in the infinite continuation of struggle – or, more simply, ‘to harass white folks.’

Another particular Civil Rights target for CRT scholars is the ideal of race-blindness. In his 1963 debate with Malcolm X, James Baldwin expressed his hope for ‘a world in which there are no blacks, there are no whites, where it does not matter.’ Malcolm X disagreed (‘As a black man, and proud of being a black man, I can’t conceive of myself as having any desire whatsoever to lose my identity’), but one year later he too would disavow racial identitarianism for the ‘Human Family of Mankind.’ Critical race theorists have, by and large, not followed this trajectory. At points, their objections are persuasive. Alan Freeman (Minnesota) argues that using blanket gestures to simultaneously abolish the political categories of ‘black’ and ‘white’ treats these terms as if they were equivalent, rather than parts of a hierarchy. ‘The answers remain easy only so long as the theory remains divorced from its origins in the actuality of black-white relations. By abstracting racial discrimination into a myth world where all problems of race or ethnicity are fungible, the colour-blind theory turns around and denies concrete demands of blacks.’ This, arguably, is a kind of immanent critique. The original critical theorists argued that liberalism was incapable of realising liberal ideals; to achieve them, you need socialism. Here, the goal of race-blindness through universal liberation is hamstrung by race-blindness as a method, the blind assumption that it already exists.

For other theorists, however, colour-blindness is no longer a desiratum at all. Neil Gotanda (WSU) makes the stronger claim that ‘modern colour-blind constitutionalism supports the supremacy of white interests and must therefore be regarded as racist,’ but proposes an interesting remedy. Racial groups are compared to religions within a secular society: both are social constructions, rather than natural facts about a person; at the same time, both can hold meaning for those people. Gotanda argues that the state could allow and encourage ‘the positive expressions of race’ and ‘recognise black and white cultures as legitimate aspects of the American social fabric,’ while forbidding the ‘establishment’ of any one race – that is, ‘the use of either status-race or formal-race to establish domination, hierarchy, and exploitation.’ This is a strangely liberal approach; after all, the usual leftist view has been that race in general is nothing more than the calcification of various histories of domination, hierarchy, and exploitation. Still, it suggests an attractive future: one in which race is present, but, like religion, strictly optional.

But not all approaches are so equanimous. Mari Matsuda (UCLA), for instance, ends up reinventing the notion of ontologically distinct races on the terrain of legal theory. She begins by noting that a standard legal claim pits an individual plaintiff, who has been victimised, against an individual defendant, who has perpetrated harm. In a reparations case, however, the plaintiff is a demographic group, and the defendant includes the descendents of the perpetrators, or even those who have simply been assigned the same racial category. Still, it’s necessary to find those people guilty. She writes:

Of the taxpayers who must pay the reparations, some are direct descendents of perpetrators while others are merely guilty by association. Under a reparations doctrine, the working-class whites whose ancestors never harboured any prejudice or ill will toward the victim group are taxed equally with the perpetrators’ direct descendants for the sins of the past. However, looking to the bottom helps to refute the standard objection to reparations. In response to the problem of horizontal connection among victims and perpetrators, a victim would note that because the experience of discrimination against the group is real, the connection must exist.

‘Looking to the bottom’ refers to her understanding that ‘people who have experienced discrimination speak with a special voice to which we should listen,’ and that their thought and language will necessarily ‘differ from that of the more privileged.’ In other words, racial groups can be understood as coherent, homogenous units sharing a clearly defined set of interests – as ‘horizontally connected,’ and therefore a viable collective subject of law – because they appear that way from the outside. (And what if people who have experienced discrimination sometimes disagree with each other? Does the ‘scholar of colour’ Crenshaw mentions above lose his special voice for failing do differ adequately from the more privileged?) This approach is the opposite of any critical theory worth the name; instead of trying to distinguish between essence and appearance, Matsuda is transfixed by appearances, and uses the tools of theory to prop them up.

* * *

As critical race theory developed, such counter-critical tendencies became more pronounced. Instead of noting that institutions have advanced racist agendas under the cover of universalism, and attempting to correct this, some race theorists started to enter a Schmittian universe in which institutional neutrality is not just unrealised but impossible, and the only task is to direct institutions towards your racial ends and against your enemies. And meanwhile, others strayed further into the reification of race.

Cheryl Harris (UCLA)’s essay Whiteness as Property does pretty much what it says on the tin: rather than a social designation, a part of a code by which people are sorted and separated from each other, she proclaims whiteness as a thing that some people get to own and others do not. How can something human be a form of property? Well, human beings themselves were property, once… Harris argues that whiteness first became established in relation to property because it previously conferred the right to own slaves; the racial line ‘determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property.’ Even today, whiteness basically stands in for the ownership of human chattel. This is a deft argument, but unfortunately it’s empirically untrue: there are black slaveowners in American history, many of whom had previously been enslaved themselves.

The argument for whiteness-as-property is basically a series of analogies – property owners are entitled to the ‘use and enjoyment’ of their property, and white people have the ‘use and enjoyment’ of certain privileges conferred by their race; property is something to which the owner has exclusive right of use, and whiteness is formed ‘by the exclusion of others deemed to be not white’… Which is a bit like saying that a dog is really a type of metrical poetry, since they both have feet. (You could also quibble: if we’re going to be structuralists here, isn’t every category based on a differential relation to all other categories?) Besides, for a radical theory this is grounded in a strangely liberal, Lockean, non-critical account of property. Here, property is simply a relation between a person and an object – one ‘has’ whiteness. Meanwhile, the leftist view, which approaches property as a relation between people, is mostly ignored.

But never mind all that: what does thinking of whiteness as property allow you to do that a less wacky account of race would not? What new avenue of thought or action does it open up? Well, you could demand redistribution or collective ownership: whiteness for all! This is not a line that Harris chooses to go down. (The closest she gets is an endorsement of affirmative action.) But plausibly, if whiteness is property, then white people would be united in their relation to private property, and black people in their shared exclusion: suddenly, racial categories are imbued with all the materiality of class

* * *

Clearly, critical race theory is capable of becoming something very silly. Personally, I tend to be quite tolerant of academic silliness, as long as it’s provocative or engaging. I like weird essays about the semiotics of paving stones or spelunking as radical praxis; I think it would be a terrible shame to reduce all thought to dead dull practicality. It means you have to sift through a lot of bullshit, but that’s where the flowers grow. And CRT is, at times, provocative and engaging. Its best feature is probably the one that draws the most complaints: why can’t you just see people as individuals? Why can’t you just imagine people popping into monadic existence, without family, without social ties, without any history, just an isolated and atomised entrepreneurial speck? As Adorno saw, this kind of individuation is actually fatal for the autonomy of human individuals: an individual is more than a free-floating data-point, maximising its utility in the market. Still, it’s hardly better to replace isolated subjects with homogenous races; both reduce the fullness of human life to one small and sordid aspect. I don’t think this kind of essentialism is necessarily inherent in CRT; as I’ve tried to show, many critical race theorists avoid it. But others do not.

The real theoretical weakness of CRT is something far more damaging, and it’s arguably a legacy of its origin in critical legal studies. The mostly-white law school gang didn’t see the law as an expression of unjust power, but as a site in its production; similarly, when the critical race theorists tried to understand why non-white people were less likely to be involved in CLS conferences, they weren’t particularly interested in explanations that ran along the lines of well, black people are more likely to be impoverished, and impoverished people are less likely to become prominent legal theorists. That kind of analysis was dismissed as vulgar Marxism: instead, the obvious conclusion was that the CLS conference was itself engaged in the production of racism.

This dynamic has been noted before – particularly by critics on the right, who argue that it leads to specious accusations of bias. If the theory proceeds by showing how supposedly neutral structures are, in fact, freighted with racial content, then a subtle enough theorist will be able to show that any structure is deeply racist. Is yarn racist? What about the sky? It shouldn’t be any kind of concession to conservatism to accept that some fairly dumb accusations do, in fact, happen. I think a lot about one particular incident in late 2018. From a celebrity academic: ‘I hope one day people will be just as concerned for Black people as they are for the institutions that harm us.’ The harmful institution in question was an aquarium: a place where children go to learn about fish. The harm they had perpetrated was in describing a sea otter as thicc.

But the problem goes deeper than the otter wars: this approach has the strange effect of abstracting critical race theory from the reality of racial injustice. After all, the wage relation and the prison system are no more centrally involved in producing racism than some obscure conference of legal scholars (or an aquarium, or a knitting circle, or whatever’s annoying you on the internet today). If you’re the kind of person who teaches at Harvard or Yale or UCLA, rather than the kind of person who works for a wage (or is unable to work for a wage), this theory is obviously very attractive. But it means that any concrete social struggle – against, say, police violence – is inevitably diluted, until it becomes just another squabble within institutions.

Critical race theory began by decrying the lack of a theory that responded to the direct needs of ordinary non-white people and offered a positively articulated programme for change. Its initial promise, per Richard Delgado (UCLA), was ‘deep discontent with liberalism, a system of civil rights litigation and activism, faith in the legal system, and hope for progress.’ On these criteria, the project has failed. It has jettisoned some of the better aspects of liberalism while retaining the worst. It began by defending the hard-won civil rights of ethnic minorities against a slightly sneering critique of rights-discourse, but soon switched to trashing those same freedoms. Its leading theorists have ended up abandoning liberation and insisting that social change is impossible. The main remedies they propose are affirmative action – which, as both its defenders and its detractors would have to admit, ultimately does far more to affect the ethnic makeup of law schools than to radically restructure society at large – and hate-crime legislation, which penalises expressions of individual prejudice without really striking against systemic racism. While CRT tends to totemically invoke the suffering of non-white people outside academia and the professions, in the end it has very little to offer them.

* * *

This is not really what most people are talking about when they talk about critical race theory.

As I write, seven US states have passed laws banning critical race theory. Politicians and pundits are lining up to denounce it in broadly illiterate terms; CRT is the font of everything evil, a threat to all liberal values. These people are not really referring to the works of Bell, Crenshaw, Delgado, etc (which they have not read), but something much more amorphous; attitudes more than ideas, a set of gestures, a certain tone. Critical race theory has turned into an umbrella term for every kind of new discursive orthodoxy around race: white privilege, white fragility, unconscious bias, intersectionality… Of course this stuff is in the schools; who wouldn’t want their children to be aware of all the important new trends? I’ve written about some of these affects before; I find most of them stupid and deeply unhelpful. And as I’ve outlined, there are theoretical failures in CRT that do pose problems for anti-racist activism. But I simply don’t accept that CRT is the source of all our present neurosis around race, or that the weird gestural politics of the twenty-first century were dreamed up in their entirety by a bunch of lawyers.

It’s true that a lot of concepts like privilege or implicit bias appear within the corpus of CRT texts, but so what? These days, they also appear in geology. Aside from intersectionality, which was first outlined in the Stanford Law Review, these are not specifically legal theories – and many of them significantly predate CRT. Go back to the primal scene: those early struggle sessions at the critical legal studies conferences are basically identical to what’s now happening within major media outlets and public institutions. But this was before critical race theory had constituted itself as a distinct approach or body of work. To adopt the vulgar Marxist position: these incidents are only an expression of something far more fundamental within the structure of society. The problem is not bad ideas, but an unjust world. If you want to understand why people are upset, and why that upset expresses itself in unproductive ways, it’s useless to play around with intellectual genealogies; you have to go to the actual source, to the empirical study of the social.

Obviously, conservatives don’t want to spend too much time thinking about actual social conditions; this is why the moral panic suits them fine. A panic means they’re under no obligation to engage with CRT as a theory; what they’ve developed is just a fancier way of railing against wokeness. (For what it’s worth, I think wokeness is actually a much better name for this thing: it makes clear that what we’re facing is not really a cohesive ideology, but a cluster of postures and affects.) But the exact same flight from theory is taking place on the left, among CRT’s defenders. Many of the people most vocally supporting the theory seem to believe that the sum total of its approach is to say that racism exists and is bad. (The Hill article I link above describes it as ‘the idea that students should learn about how race and racism has affected American society in the past and present day.’) Or, in other formulations, it’s simply an expression of the lived experience of black people. The attempts to censor CRT by law are deranged, obviously, but this has a very particular type of cruelty to it. It does incredible violence to a theory to pretend that all its conclusions are just obvious fact; you’re basically implying that no actual thought has taken place. Something similar happens when the advocates of these theories act as if it’s morally impermissible for any white person to ever subject them to critical scrutiny, because nobody asked for your yt opinion. No: if this stuff is thought, then it enjoys the dignity of critique. If it’s something other than thought, then why shouldn’t I just dismiss it out of hand?

I am a Marxist and a humanist. As such, I believe that ‘the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.’ This means that racial inequality must never be a side issue, a minority concern, something orthogonal to the major issues in the world: the struggle for each is the struggle for all. At the same time, this means that I have to disagree with any approach that tries to break this unity apart, and for the most part CRT is such an approach. But there’s a kind of recognition in disagreement, even vicious disagreement; something missing in both censorship and canonisation. In 1898, the last year of his life, Alexander Crummell – one of the great American intellectuals, and a lifelong mentor to WEB DuBois, now sadly forgotten – wrote about the ‘denial of intellectuality in the Negro.’ Isn’t the same thing happening now, on both sides of the CRT panic? As a child, Crummell personally overheard the racist senator John C Calhoun declare that ‘if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being.’ A hideous test, obviously – and, as Crummell points out, a rigged one too: Calhoun and his class were sent to white-only universities to learn the classics, but then expected ‘the Greek syntax to grow in Negro brains, by spontaneous generation.’ Still, Crummell became the first black person to earn a degree at Cambridge, and the first black American to learn the Greek syntax. (He beat William Sanders Scarborough by nearly a quarter-century. But obviously he was not the first black person to learn Greek: the black people who actually lived in ancient Greece may have got there first.) He understood very well that the same classical tradition that had been used to justify racism could also be a tool of liberation in black hands. He was also an imperialist, an advocate for ‘devoted racialism’ and the white-nationalist colonial project in Liberia. He’s a testament to how even great thinkers, even those who aim for liberation, can end up reproducing, in an inverted form, the worst and most repressive aspects of their age. Ultimately, I think critical race theory does the same thing; it is neither critical nor radical, but a capitulation to unfreedom. But if you genuinely believe that CRT is good and important, then trying to strip it of its intellectual quality should be something far, far more offensive than simply disagreeing with it.

They all fall

Last night, I attended a Palestine solidarity protest outside Downing Street. I think I’ve been attending Palestine solidarity protests for the better part of my life. Something terrible happens, children are incinerated alive, old men are attacked while they’re on their knees praying, and we all assemble somewhere in central London to chant slogans and oppose it. These protests are always strangely fun: welcoming, comradely, every fringe groupuscule coming together with everything for a huge party. Lots of cheering. We don’t wail for the dead; we wave the flag of a country that might never exist and bellow our optimism: from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. I’ve never been an organiser at these things, never sat on any committees, never marched at the front, but when the missiles start blowing away entire apartment buildings like they were made of candyfloss and styrofoam, I add my body to the crowd. Secular Jews go to Palestine solidarity solidarity protests for the same reason we go to shul on Yom Kippur. I can’t really stop my averot, and I can’t stop the bombing either, but for one day you pretend with the utmost sincerity that you can. Someone has to keep going, and that someone has to be me. You do what’s done. You do what we’ve always done.

I ran into some comrades at the edge of the demonstration. We talked about the kids who’d climbed up lampposts with their banners, or up onto the roof of a red London bus marooned in the middle of the crowd. We don’t do that kind of thing any more: too old. Once you hit your thirties, you have to start worrying about your knees. We compared the scenes to the George Floyd protests last summer: back then, the streets were full of people who’d never been on a march before; they didn’t know how these things work. Someone would shout one, two, three, four, and nobody had any idea how to complete the rhyme. What do we want? Well, you tell me. But Palestine activists are old hands; they know exactly what to do. Before the rubble’s cooled in Gaza they’re already picking a location, liaising with the police, thumbing through their rolodex for speakers. Thousands of people will arrive to say no, not this, and then afterwards we peacefully disperse into the tunnels underground and disappear.

I’m told that things are starting to change in America. There’s a whole generation of young Jews there who are sick of it, sick of being told what is and isn’t acceptable for people like them to think. After decades of polite scotomisation, CNN has started interviewing actual Palestinians in Gaza and East Jerusalem about what they’ve been suffering through, instead of leading with traumatised cats and dogs in Ashdod. Here in the UK, it’s gone backwards. Any Palestinian who speaks gets the same barrage. But what about the rockets? isn’t this all because of the rockets? Will you condemn the rockets? And if you do condemn the rockets, if you say no, obviously, I’m not thrilled by the practice of firing unguided munitions in the vague direction of large population centres, then it’s all over. Ah, well: both sides. You’re not meant to think about why the rockets. You’re not meant to consider that when Israeli police attacked one of the holiest sites in Islam, they did so in the full knowledge that this would inevitably lead to the rockets. You’re not meant to notice that Hamas issued repeated ultimatums to Israel to withdraw its goons from the Haram al-Sharif, in the miserable hope of maybe not having to resort to the rockets, and avoiding the inevitable response to the rockets. You just say oh, and also the rockets. That way, the two sides cancel each other out, and it’s as if you haven’t said anything at all. Which is the safest thing to do, these days. After the last few years, all this Jew stuff – well, it’s all a little fraught.

The reason things are all a little fraught was, I found out later, at the same protest last night. Jeremy Corbyn has never been one to miss a rally. He must have been somewhere in the big clump of people by Richmond House, the one that emanated a steady mumbling punctuated by cheers. I didn’t hear his speech; too many people loudly making takbir by the Cenotaph. But of course he was there. For half a century, this guy has been standing on principle against the evils of the world, whether they’re in Palestine or West Papua or Peterborough. And then there was a brief period, from the end of 2015 to the beginning of last year, when he fought the good fight as leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. Stadiums full of people chanted his name; thousands of us, myself included, tried to give him a nuclear arsenal. For a while, it felt like winning.

In 2017, when Labour lost a general election by a significantly smaller margin than expected, it felt like a small bathtub full of MDMA had been injected directly into my spinal cord. I remember thinking, stuck in traffic halfway to a party, with a bottle of champagne in my lap, this is beautiful, such a shame it isn’t real. As if, at any moment, the lights would blur and go cold, and I’d open my eyes to see a sorrowful little civil servant saying no, there’s been a mistake – did you really think something good might happen in this world? And that moment did come; it just took another two years. There were a lot of people trying to turn this good-hearted but basically hapless gardener into a demon, and somehow the fact that he believes in making nice but inefficacious gestures about Palestine and West Papua became something menacing, poisonous, a threat. In the end, the British public delivered their final judgement on the man and everything he’d built, and they hated it. Unlike some, I don’t take any solace from the idea that the voters were simply wrong. This was our project, and it failed. We talked about hope, and what we got was catastrophe – and it’s hard to shake the thought that there was something catastrophic baked into our hopes. Now it’s all over, but Jeremy Corbyn still turns up at every protest to give a variation on the same speech, just like before, as if nothing’s changed. In a way, it hasn’t. He’s a soldier. I’ve never been entirely sure if I’m the same.

I voted in last week’s local elections, sort of. I stared for a while at the list of candidates for London Mayor, and then drew a line through all the boxes. When I was younger, spoiling my ballot felt like a kind of insurrection, but really it was just a game. I’d scrawl some stupid joke over the piece of paper and take an illegal photo for social media. Now it just feels like resignation. None of these. What’s next? For the London Assembly, I voted to be represented by the delegates of the Communist Party of Britain. The CPB is, of course, not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain, from which it split in 1988, or the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which split in 1968, or the New Communist Party of Britain, which split in 1977. All of these are distinct from the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which split from an entirely separate faction in 2004. Each of these parties claims to be the sole authentic voice of the British working classes. I did not vote for the CPB with any particular enthusiasm. I’m sure if I still gave the slightest modicum of a shit about leftist lepidopterology I could find some reason to disavow these harmless dead-enders. Revisionists! Crypto-Kautskyites! But who cares? My vote was a gesture of vague, bloodyminded spite. Something like a rocket. Once things were different, but now they’re the same again. I do not like that the Labour party’s gone back to how it was before, so, in protest, I’ve gone back to how I was before as well.

After the votes were counted, I looked up the results. 598 other people voted for the Communist Party of Britain in my constituency. I was the 599th.

The first vote I ever cast was in the 2009 European elections. I was eighteen years old, and I voted for the Socialist Labour Party: Arthur Scargill’s lot. Once, the National Union of Mineworkers could seriously contest the legitimacy of a Tory government. Once, the state periodically had to ask who really governed the country, itself or the NUW – and for some time, it looked like the answer was the miners. By the time I was on the scene, in the twenty-first century, Scargill’s party picked up slightly over one per cent of the vote. Thousands of people would follow him into pitched battles with the police, but things work differently at the polling booth. It’s a less forgiving terrain. In the last general election, the Socialist Labour Party ran a single candidate, in Hartlepool, and came last.

After last week’s disastrous by-election in Hartlepool, I started to write something poking fun at Keir Starmer’s useless flopping leadership. Something vaguely Lovecraftian, shades of Innsmouth: Starmer as an unpleasant fish-creature that’s started beaching in huge numbers on the North Sea coast. No good fried; all bones in your mouth, slimy grey strands of flesh. Here’s a better idea: we’ll grind him up for fertiliser. So the fields of England grow flaccid carrots and dented balls of sprouts. I made it about four hundred words in before I gave up, vaguely disgusted with myself. I tried again, this time trying to do some clear and unadorned commentary. Here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, here’s why my political enemies are wrong, and here’s how we can do better. I gave up on that too, even more disgusted than before. Thank God, I no longer know how to come up with political opinion columns, the most debased and worthless form of writing any human society has ever produced.

The fact is that I don’t know how we can do better, and neither does anybody else. All I can say is that everyone seems to think that the only way to revive the Labour party’s fortunes is to shift it towards their own political positions, or lack thereof, and this seems suspiciously convenient. Personally, I’m not sure the party can be saved. Across Europe, all the old social-democratic parties are in collapse. There’s PASOK in Greece, which gave its name to the trend. In France, the Socialists are polling in the single digits and trending down. In Germany, the SDP is being eclipsed by the Greens. In Italy, the Democrats are the junior partners in a humiliating national unity coalition, alongside the fascists and the clowns. And in the UK, the Labour vote has shrunk at every election since 1997, with the sole exception being 2017. Something is happening in the world. It doesn’t seem to matter much what these parties say or do, or who they make alliances with; they all fall. These numbers are the footprints of something vast and destructive and moving, tangible but unseen. How many opinions does it take to slay a giant?

Corbynism had a theory of what had happened. It said that social-democratic parties were failing because they had abandoned their working-class base, given up on the socialist politics that they still want, and as a result millions of voters had become disillusioned with politics in general. What’s the point? They’re all the same. Corbynism also offered a solution: bring back the politics of the postwar consensus. Offer something to voters, a material change in their lives; give them a better set of policies, and the power of the working classes will reassert itself. Rise like lions out of slumber… I believed this, but it wasn’t true. It simply didn’t work.

The failure of Corbynism – and, frankly, the failure of much ‘class-first’ leftism – was that it mistook ontology for marketing. You start with the understanding that Britain is still a class society, that class is the real determining factor in social relations, the great turning cog that makes the whole Satanic engine spin. This is absolutely true. But then you conclude that simply appealing to broad class interests – or, in some formulations, simply saying the word ‘class’ a lot – is the one weird trick that will make people actually vote for you. This turned out to be mistaken. The old socialist parties were the expression of a unified and cohesive industrial working class, and that class simply no longer exists in Europe. Digital media and deindustrialisation have replaced it with atomised service workers, working alone, often farcically self-employed – and beyond them, the legions of the left-behind, no longer the reserve armies of labour but a pure, unbearable surplus, from which nobody needs anything but a vote, the last thing left to withhold.

In this landscape, Marx can only take us so far. In an unfinished essay, The Results of the Immediate Process of Production, he writes: Types of work that are consumed as services and not as products separable from the worker and hence not capable of existing as commodities independently of him, are of microscopic significance. Therefore, they may be entirely neglected. This gap remains: it’s worth noting that the PMC left (of which I’m obviously a part) seems to spend far more time considering the PMC itself than it does the service sector, which is often treated as a continuum of the traditional working class. But you can sketch something out. For the industrial proletariat, class struggle is a struggle over things, the objectified product of labour. For the service worker, the product is not separable from yourself, it doesn’t exist independently of yourself, it is yourself. The question who am I? becomes the core of all political contention. And what do you get? Years of piddling debate on the subject of British national identity, flags and symbols, gestures, statues, words; what songs get played at the BBC Proms, what religious minorities are threatened if you demonstrate against a murderous state a thousand miles away, all while people starved to death in their homes. Socialist politics can make gains in this environment, but often it’s simply because socialism offers an answer to the question of personal identity. It does for me. But there are – thankfully – simply not enough people like me.

So I find it hard to agree that a Labour party under Corbyn, or some version of Corbyn, would have obviously won in Hartlepool, just like in 2017 and 2019. Yes, maybe it would. But maybe it wouldn’t. Left-wing policies would be better for people and the world, but that is not the same thing. I’m actually with the Starmerites when they say that Corbynism is over, that it would have failed even without Brexit and a hostile media and the antisemitism bullshit, that we can’t resuscitate the past and we need to come up with something new. But what, exactly, have they come up with? Corbynism was, at the very least, a theory of the collapse of the left, and a proposed remedy. What’s replaced it is neither of those things: it’s just the collapse itself, triumphant. Instead of a failed solution to the problem, all we’re left with is the problem.

Look: have you seen Lisa Nandy on TV? This is your big beast? This black hole of charisma, this mumbling middle-manager? But they’re all like this. Just look at Sir Kier. Immaculately professional, like someone playing the Prime Minister in a bad BBC drama. Slight strained expression at all times, like a respectable grown-up businessman trying and failing to take a shit. It’s bad enough when someone is merely desperate to be liked, a suckup, a begfriend, but Sir Kier doesn’t even try; he just goes about in the idiot assumption that he’s already beloved. His entire pitch was the idea that he’s deeply electable, and when the voters of Hartlepool disagreed all he could do was insist that the public simply didn’t realise how popular he actually is. Hey, aren’t you that guy everybody hates? Oh my, no – I’m Sir Keir Starmer! Why did they think this would work?

In the wreckage of their party, all these people have is a kind of cargo-cult Blairism. More one-weird-trickery: just make a few anodyne gestures, and the masses will gladly follow you off a cliff. Summon Peter Mandelson from his lair – it worked in the 90s! And it’s true: by liquidating its old working-class attachments, New Labour unlocked a significant amount of electoral energy under Blair. But this is the kind of chemical reaction that only happens once. You might as well go into the next election with the promise to modernise the economy by closing down the coal mines and privatising British Rail. What else is left? Well, there’s the old last refuge: Sir Kier, architect of Labour’s toxic tilt towards Remain, shoving the cross of St George through people’s letterboxes. Display this poster with pride in your window. Flags: that’s what you dumb proles like, isn’t it? You can’t say I’m not meeting you halfway! The only thing they haven’t tried is a turn to obnoxious wokeness, a total recoil into the language of identity. This would probably go about as well as you imagine. A scurrying, the last frantic twitch, eyes darting about in panic, before the end.

I quit the Labour party in July last year. The direct impetus was a six-figure settlement the party paid to a few of its worst cynics and hysterics, against legal advice. I told my CLP secretary that I was happy to dob in a fiver a month to keep the corpse of social democracy shambling around a little longer, but if my money was going to end up in the pockets of Sam Matthews and co I could hardly be expected to stick around. To be honest, though, the real reason I quit was that it offered the possibility of no longer having to care, of being free from all these mediocrities and their petty feuds. What a relief! Finally, I thought, I can focus on the things that really matter, like medieval folktales, or geese. A very stupid belief. Obviously I’m still chained to this thing, whatever it is, the desperate hope that the world really can be improved – or else I wouldn’t have written three thousand words about it. I can’t help it. You go to protests, you vote for whatever left-wing no-hopers present themselves, you do whatever you can, and pretend with the utmost sincerity that this time things might change. It goes on. You do what’s done. You do what we’ve always done.

You can donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians here.

Meghan and the monster-machine

Everyone knows that the British press is cruel and ugly and vicious beyond belief, but I’m still not sure you really understand just how miserable it is. Look: I know these people; I know them in my bowels. I have been to their interminable shop-talking pub nights. I have done cocaine at their parties. I have felt the stale aura, the hack hideousness that clings to these people, suds of grimy desperation, slug-trails glistening from Soho to Stratford and back again, binding the whole capital in their disease… The old Fleet Street veterans, obviously: hideous. Hair the colour of tweed, raked in thin strands over a snot-scratchy scalp. Teeth like a 70s interior, stained to a nice groovy tan. Smell of stale lager, grubby little eyes, a sneer: let’s say the immigrants… let’s say the immigrants ate a swan… But the young – the young are worse. They are smart, these young journalists, the ones pounding out their eighteenth article of the day, trying to incinerate some TikTok kid or gameshow contestant or Duchess of Sussex, but still managing to post all the right hashtags, support all the right causes, read all the right novels by all the right diverse authors… It’s a closed guild, and nobody comes up through graft alone; they’ve all got their degrees. The nice broadsheet writers, they’re the real simpletons; all the illiterates are happily gushing away in the pages of the Guardian. A Daily Mail hack is something else. She has no illusions; she doesn’t get paid enough for those. She hates what she does and hates herself and hates everything else in the world.

You might think journalism is about uncovering the truth, revealing the things people have a right to know, but she knows better. Journalism means stripping everything you have away. As soon as the vast roving eye of the press lands on someone, the sheer hatred of its glare starts to singe their clothes, it starts dissolving the ground under their feet. Local teacher in FAKE BUM scandal. Outrage after sick ‘influencer’ urinates in GRAVEYARD… Comb through their social media, rummage around in their bins, get the dirt, the beautiful filth. Scatter it everywhere! Pull everything into the annihilating light! Never forget that these are the scum who hacked into the phone of a murdered thirteen-year-old girl – well, don’t the public have a right to know? See their dead eyes as they say it. This isn’t about knowledge; it’s open warfare against everything good and wonderful in the world.

Is the press racist? Yes, of course it’s racist, viciously racist, but if you think that’s the primordial sin here then you don’t understand a thing. They have no real commitment to their racism; there’s no commitment to anything at all. These people don’t hate you because they’re racist; they’re racist because they hate you. Racism is useful: it helps them isolate their targets, unleash reservoirs of animus – but if it suits their purposes to accuse you of white fragility or implicit bias, they’ll do that instead. These were the jaws that lay waiting for Meghan Markle when she moved to this country. An evil unknown in sunnier lands. The Hollywood press will destroy you, sure. But they’ll destroy you like an over-excited five-year-old child destroys his favourite new toy. Smashing it about in glee, loving it until the head comes off. The British press will destroy you deliberately, with malice. They’ll do it just to watch you die.

That was the welcome party. Time to meet the in-laws. God, who are these people? We’re a long way from Hollywood now, Meghan; just look at this Gothic horror show of a family. Emotionally repressed, sun-starved, leaking dust out their joints; they don’t meditate, they don’t do reiki, they don’t even go for a hike unless it’s to shoot something on the way – oh, but here’s Prince Andrew, lumbering gump with a child sex slave in tow; maybe things aren’t so different after all… Indeed they aren’t. Engels once wrote that in addition to the standard-issue bourgeoisie, the English have managed to create a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well. What he forgot to mention was our bourgeois royalty. Ignore all the parp and the pomp, and the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha are a very familiar type: a pack of social climbers. People who spent the last century chasing after glamorous Americans and provoking national crises in the process. Fame goblins, starfuckers with awful chintzy furniture. C-listers! Dull!

They call themselves the Royal Family, but the United Kingdom is not a monarchy. Ask anyone who has sovereignty over these islands, and even the most devoted sceptresucker will have to work very hard to not just blurt out: well, the people, of course… We’re all Montagnards now. Still, popular sovereignty never really existed; it was always a sham, it doesn’t exist in capitalism and it won’t exist in the Something Worse that’s coming soon. A euphemism, a way to cover up the giant king-shaped hole in the liberal constitution: just plaster something called the people over the gap, and hope nobody steps in. But somebody did. Who governs Britain? The seeping hatred governs Britain; the poison in the water table governs Britain; the nexus of digital, social, and tabloid media is god and king and law. The monster-machine: it decides our elections, it leads us into wars. Remember in 2005, when a trio of royal princes were papped skiing in the Swiss Alps? Charles grinning for the cameras, but muttering through his teeth: bloody people, I can’t bear that man, he’s so awful, he really is… Is that really the posture of a sovereign? Is that the voice of the vitae necisque potestas? In 2012, the press published a photo of Harry’s dick and balls, and what happened? Fifteen years before that, the press effectively murdered a princess of the realm on foreign soil, and what happened? Nothing, that’s what: they have a monopoly on the use of deadly force.

Once, the absolutist monarchies turned themselves into vast spectacles: zebras and brocade, trumpets blare; gaze upon my magnificence… A nice trick while it lasted, but between the spectator and the spectacle something cancerous started to grow. Now you can watch The Crown on Netflix and switch over to the BBC News and it’s all the same show. Instead of a monarchy, we have some royals, a gaggle of chinless freaks for us to coo over. People still seem to believe the last lie left about this family: that they’re deeply private, that they prefer to keep to themselves, stiff upper lip and all that. No: this is the least private family on the planet. Kings no longer have two bodies; every swelling of a ducal uterus, every princely emission in an underage girl, is now in the common sphere. Unlike other celebrities, unlike even politicians, they are in no sense private individuals. Objects of mass consumption before they’re even born: the royal fetus, the royal blastocyst… In a way, the Royal Family are the most republican institution this country has: a res publica, a public thing. Ground zero for our age of mass digital surveillance and control, in which nothing is secret and you have to carefully curate your image at all times, or else. Not rulers: exemplary subjects.

And what about these royals: are they also racist? Again, yes, of course they are. But this racism works in curious ways. A tale from the family scrapbooks: in 1881, King Kalākaua of Hawaii visited England during his world tour, and was invited to a party at the Spencers’. Also in attendance: the Prince of Wales, who would one day become Edward VII, and his brother-in-law Frederick, Crown Prince of Germany. Edward insisted that Kalākaua should take precedence over Frederick, since a king outranks a prince; the Germans objected. Edward replied: either the brute is a king, or he’s a common or garden nigger, and if the latter, what’s he doing here? So, yes, racist – but between race and status, status usually wins. It’s not for nothing that in the run-up to the Duke and Duchess’s wedding, there was no question that the glamorous black mother of the bride would be invited – but her dad? This fat, balding, miserable schlub, this baseball-cap-wearing white-bread lumpen American from Newport, Pennsylvania… Not exactly sexy, is he? Not very aspirational. Not the type we want to be seen with, in case it rubs off…

Last weekend, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, performed a two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey for American TV, in which she claimed that she had been mistreated by the British press and mistreated by the Royal Family and that this mistreatment was racist. I don’t doubt any of it for a second. I don’t doubt that they made creepy speculations about her son’s skin tone, and I don’t doubt that they left her contemplating suicide. Her story sounds like Bluebeard in his bloody chamber – but fairy tales are true. Bad things happen to the women who marry into this family; somewhere in its twelve-hundred-year history it picked up a curse. All the gold tassels in the world couldn’t cover up the crumminess of this land: there’s barely a mile between Kensington Palace and Grenfell Tower, and the headquarters of the Daily Mail are on the way. But then in the same interview, the Duchess told her in-laws: we haven’t created this monster-machine around us in terms of clickbait and tabloid fodder, you’ve allowed that to happen. And again, there is a monster-machine, and the royals are in it up to their donkey-teeth – but what, exactly, does the Duchess of Sussex think she’s talking to? Oprah Winfrey? An old LA friend? And the multiple camera teams, crouching over her shoulder – did they just happen to come along too? It’s behind you, the monster is behind you right now…

In her interview, the Duchess of Sussex talked about a trip she and Prince Harry had made to South Africa. Because, she said, the Commonwealth is a huge part of the monarchy, seventy percent of which is people of colour, right? I know how important representation is… how much it meant to them to be able to see someone who looks like them in this position. So should township kids look at her and think, maybe one day I too can marry into the line of Theodoric of Wettin… There’s something very Anglo-American, very parochial, about this sort of idea. Why should South Africans need a European monarchy to give them a sense of worth? As the Duchess might be aware, since 1994 South Africa has acquired quite a few black faces in high places; black politicians, black intellectuals, a black business elite… But the poor are still poor. Diversifying the ruling class hasn’t stopped South Africa becoming the single most unequal society on earth. The thing that’s lacking in Africa is not black representation; its population are not a minority. But still, the Duchess blunders in with her Anglo ideas and her rigid Anglo schema of the world – how different is she, really, from the first crop of British royals to set their feet on African soil?

This is what it comes down to: she is one of the Firm, through and through. Already, a narrative is taking shape, Meghan vs the Monarchy – but there is no monarchy, and there’s no sense in which she is on the opposing side. These people are all the same. For all the rumours of some terrible rift between the Duchesses of Sussex and Cambridge, when Meghan was first pushed in front of that burning eye I remember being struck by just how identical the two of them seemed: the same Photoshopped smile, the same bone structure, the same face, as if the royals were cloning these women in a lab. (Maybe that explains it: undifferentiation, mimetic crisis…) The Duchess is not trying to take down the monarchy. The sovereign function of the monarch is now invested in the press, and her interview could only feed the monster-machine, empower it, set its gears and tentacles whirring faster. I want only good things for the Duchess of Sussex and every one of God’s creatures, which is why she and Harry should move to a shack in the woods and forage mushrooms. But she won’t: she has to keep on producing the mediated spectacle of royalty. She’s good at it! Have you not seen her personal arms? A shield Azure a feather bendwise Argent quilled Or between two bendlets Or all between two like feathers Argent quilled Or… per the palace, the quills represent communication and the power of words. There’s also to the sinister a songbird Argent wings spread, which also represents the power of communication. Like all those B-movie villains, giving themselves clever little names; enchanté, I am Seigneur Méchant de Mont-Staire… She’s announcing to the world in heraldic code: I am the machine, the monster is me…

What she really wanted to do, it seems, is patch the monster over to a different version of the machine. Oprah instead of Piers Morgan; something a bit sunnier, a monarchy that might inspire people, provide a model of courage, tell them that their feelings are valid… the same compulsory disclosure, the same commodification of experience, the same spectacle, but now it’s supposed to be a kind of therapy. Maybe she’ll start a podcast. The Americans ate this up: the same old stale British shit, stewed cabbage and doldrums, but now it tastes so fresh. See how they applauded His Royal Highness Prince Harry The Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton, and Baron Kilkeel – not for choosing his wife over his scummy little clan, which is genuinely honourable, but for confronting his white privilege. The same man who once gunned down Afghan herdsmen from his Apache helicopter: now he wants to talk about colonial undertones. He’s learned their language, and it’s working. They’ve shown that the monarchy does its job even better when stops even pretending to hold anything in reserve. Speak your truth, Hal! Make him King! Maybe in five or ten years, when the couple inevitably divorce, he’ll trot out the other side of this new vocabulary: abuser tactics, gaslighting, toxic personality… she isolated me from my family, manipulated me into denouncing them… Response from the other side, weepier than ever… And you: who do you believe? Because now that we’re talking about justice, it matters deeply who you believe; you have a moral duty to care about it. All the intellectuals and republicans are free to rubberneck at the royals just like everyone else… And the monster-machine-monarch clanks onward, shining under Californian skies, bursting with light, that bright clean pure annihilating light…

What if we kissed in the abandoned GameStop?

This wasn’t the plan, exactly, but you held the line even when everyone else sold, and now you’re the majority shareholder in GameStop Incorporated. It’s all yours: five thousand stores to play with however you want. Some of the worried-looking executives took you on a brief tour of your new portfolio. They call it a brick-and-mortar business, but in fact it’s mostly drywall: scratchy, crumbling drywall slotted into dead linoleum malls. That’s right, the worried-looking GameStop executives told you, anything you want, you can game for free. You looked at the titles. Tax Accountant Simulator 4? A big-titted elf blows a kiss at you from the cover, whispering: come calculate my long-term capital loss carryover, my lord… Meanwhile Hog-Farm Tycoon promises to let you choose from over 1800 state and federal subsidies! and offers all-new groundwater contamination physics. Are the worried-looking executives trying to teach you some kind of lesson? But this one looks violent, at least. Operator: Drone Wars – real kills! Real carnage! NOT under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court! What happened to play? When did everything turn into a new kind of work?

This store was boarded up when you arrived, but everything inside is still pristine. In the dead malls the lights shine evenly and the acres of grey carpeting unroll smooth between empty shelves. This is the beige inferno. Brighter patches on the walls where the logos of long-extinct brands once hung: a massacre happened here. Empty fountains, ungurgling. And as you started walking out into the mall, dropping your free copy of Serf of Destiny (‘Ten thousand hours of tedious side quests!’) and just striding out until you could no longer hear the worried-looking executives calling you back, you noticed something else. A faint suggestion of music. Too ghostly to make out the tune or the timbre, but it was music and it was there. As if these square drywall columns were humming, resonating, as if they descended deep underground, becoming stakes to pierce the centre of the earth, where some lost demon sits in a cocoon of fire plucking each in turn. The music of the malls: a symphony for every abandoned retail space, everywhere in the world. If you could hear them all together, maybe they’d be beautiful. As it is, it’s maddening: the sound of a swallowed echo, the sound you hear once human life is gone. Maybe one day the entire universe will make that sound.

This is not a ruin. You saw ruins, as the worried-looking executives drove you from mall to empty mall. The great wide belly of America, blistered with bedsores. Wet rotting houses, potholes in the roads. It’s getting bad out there. First they gave out Fentanyl, now it’s the vaccine. For what? Haven’t you seen the weather? Better to stay inside and play video games. Better to stay inside and play the stock market. Build vast imaginary kingdoms from some warm mildewed pit of a home. At night, gales blow over the tangled woods that surround this place, and Main Street is clogged with dead slimy leaves. That was a ruin. This is something else. A clean white empty building on the edge of town, a mallsoleum. A monument to its own passing. America was always someone’s graveyard, from the moment the first Europeans blundered ashore; now, it’s a graveyard of malls. Your empire.

You read somewhere that these places were designed without right angles. Every corner is slightly wider than ninety degrees; they brought in the mathematicians to turn every mall into a labyrinth. The idea was to keep you dazed as you wandered about in there, lost but happy. Hide the clocks; make the exits a little harder to find. At every turn the mall would unfold into new, previously hidden dimensions: JG Ballard topologies, theoretically endless. Stores you’d never even noticed, stores not marked on the directory by the entrance, stores that sell stranger goods, amulets, muttering scrolls, tangle of beads in unholy patterns, tunnelling down to knucklebone and arrowheads, stores for our primordial selves, stores selling arrangements of the stars and knapped darts of flint, stores that are ossuaries, skulls rubbed with red ochre, each cleanly pricetagged, each with its barcode dangling on a bit of string… We have only penetrated the shallowest layers of mallspace. About a decade ago, some terrorists took a bunch of hostages at a luxury mall in Nairobi. The army surrounded the place, with Israeli counter-terrorism experts on the ground, but the siege was a disaster; dozens died. Hard to conduct straightforward military operations in this non-orthogonal world, where everything slips away.

After a few hours of wandering, you change your mind and head back. Your GameStop is gone; in its place there’s the coiled empty shell of a Nordstrom. This wasn’t the plan, exactly: the plan was to get rich. There are some people who make money effortlessly. Not that they were born into the stuff, not all of them at least, but they have a hunger for it. Hustle, they call it. Driving up and down the city, buying kitchen appliances on Facebook Marketplace and reselling for twice the value. Some nobody starts making bad egg videos on YouTube, suddenly they’re pulling in six figures. Everything is collapsing, falling into mulch, but someone will always get rich stripping out the copper wires. Not you, though. You are not one of those people. You worked a job and thought about quitting every day, until the virus came and your job quit first. You made just enough to start getting a taste for things you couldn’t afford, like lunch, or non-elective surgeries. It’s alright, you told yourself, I’m only beginning, my real life hasn’t started yet. You are thirty-eight years old.

So when GameStop stock started rising, you sunk everything you had. And at first it was a rush: your money doubled, tripled; you kept checking your phone every thirty seconds to watch the number go up. When you dreamed at night, you dreamed about stocks. No more weird oneiric geographies, no more disconnected images, no gorgeousness of childhood fears. In your dreams, you were in your perfectly ordinary apartment, looking at your phone, watching the numbers getting bigger – and when you woke up and looked instantly at your phone it was real, your dreams were literally coming true… Although you were barely sleeping at the time, because this stuff was like coke. A big fat fluffy line that never ends, racked up from here all the way to the moon. The shit that makes you mouthy, makes you tell complete strangers how much money you raked in just this month. I should start my own fund… I should sell stock tips on Patreon… And now – now you own a whole damn company. So why doesn’t it feel like victory? Why have you now spent six days lost in this dead and empty mall, licking sawdust out the corners, a million miles from home?

If you’re honest with yourself, it wasn’t even about the money, not really. It was a movement: standing up to the tycoons, the hedge-fund banshees, rallying around an embattled small business, the little guy… Only how did a retail giant with five thousand outlets become the little guy? Only because there are deadly waves moving through this ruined land. You can see them by the hollowness they leave in their wake. The next big thing in entertainment is cloud gaming: never mind physical discs, you don’t even need to download your games, you just stream them off a Google or Amazon server farm in a nuclear-hardened bunker somewhere out west. Pay a reasonable monthly fee to rent the computing power: feudalism is back, and this time it’s got a gun. In five years, owning an actual games console will be for weirdos and antiquarians. You might as well post some daguerreotypes to MySpace from your Leibniz wheel. It’s not just the malls: everything is emptying, becoming weightless, abstract. Everything you have is rented or streamed: your home, your music, and your opinions too. You don’t have a girlfriend, but there’s a stranger you’ve paid to moan your name on OnlyFans. You can pay rent on her attention. Squint your eyes, and it’s almost like touch.

You know that this is bad, even if it’s so convenient, even if you can’t really articulate why. The GameStop bubble began when hedge funds started spending billions shorting the company: they knew it wouldn’t survive the Great Emptiness that’s coming. But thousands of amateur traders didn’t pour their money into GameStop simply because they noticed that the short interest in GME was over 140% of the float, and that enough options could trigger a short squeeze on a potentially volatile security. They did it because, as various columnists have pointed out, these were nerds who congregated on Reddit; they liked GameStop, they had warm feelings towards it, and they didn’t like the idea of these rich Wall Street chads making a tidy profit by bankrupting something they cared about. It’s the same for all the meme stocks: people like going to AMC cinemas; they have fond memories of using a BlackBerry or a Nokia. They want to keep these things alive. (Or even practice a kind of corporate necromancy, bring them back from the dead. Shares in BB Liquidating, the holding company that inherited what’s left of Blockbuster, spiked by 700%.) The material world might be reduced to a handful of doomed capitalist enterprises, but we will not let it vanish! Of course, you still use Amazon like everyone else, and even if the cinemas were open you’d still be catatonic in front of Netflix every night; you invested in GameStop as a substitute for shopping there. A protest against the hollowing-out of reality – but one that took place entirely on the level of financialised abstraction. You made a bubble: something empty and lighter than air.

Still, it was funny. God, it was funny to see how much it made the titans of finance squirm. This is dangerous! This is the Capitol riots all over again! Speculative bubbles? Sure – but only for the right class of coked-up chancers, the ones with credentials, not for you. People with numbers after their names, yes, but Brick van Gloot III, not PussyEatah23. Don’t you know that the stock market exists to provide capital for productive industries? Don’t you realise that a good investor looks at the fundamentals? Don’t you care that you’re inflating this stock way above its intrinsic value? Only – what productive industries? What fundamentals? What intrinsic value? As everyone has already pointed out, nobody worries too much about these fogeyisms on a normal day, and the markets have been uncoupled from the ‘real’ economy for a very long time. Just google ‘Dow Jones’ and see: stock indexes have been coasting to an all-time high throughout the pandemic, while the rest of us were experiencing the sharpest economic collapse in modern history. But that’s only half the story. It’s not that what ought to be a single system has broken in two; this disarticulation is baked into how markets work.

The basics. A stock’s price rises when investors want to buy, and investors buy when they think its price will rise. In other words, prices are largely determined by what investors think other investors are likely to do. You might buy because you think a company has good ‘fundamentals’ – but equally, it could be because they’re about to get a fat federal bailout, or because there’s a cult of deranged day-traders out there who believe its CEO is the Maitreya Buddha. It doesn’t matter. This is why tech companies can make billions from IPOs despite never actually turning a profit: as long as everyone thinks that all those other rubes think it’s a moneymaker, then it is. Behind all the arcane language, it’s just ordinary dumb-ape psychology. Keynes compares these markets to a beauty contest in which the judges don’t vote for the contestant they personally find the most attractive, but the one that they think the other judges will go for. Everyone on the panel might have secretly fallen in love with Contestant Six, but each of them considers: well, my tastes run weird, and Contestant Four is a much more conventional beauty… As always, it’s not really about the girls, it’s about the other men. Keynes notes that ‘the shares of American companies which manufacture ice tend to sell at a higher price in summer when their profits are seasonally high than in winter when no one wants ice.’ If you were investing based on the year-round profitability of a company, buying ice shares in the summer would be a stupid bet. But if you’re buying because you think other people will make that same stupid bet, it suddenly makes a lot of sense. You end up with a whole field of very smart professionals, all making stupid hollow meaningless bets because everyone else is doing the same thing, setting up rituals, fluctuations that retrench themselves for no sensible reason – while the ice melts, unheeded, unimportant, underfoot.

For free-market ideologues, the market is an information-processing machine: its point isn’t to make money, but to send price signals. (Profit motive is what powers the machine, but it’s not its purpose, any more than the point of a car is to burn up petrol.) Here, they’re absolutely right, but not in the way they think: a stock market is a semiotic system, and it operates on the same rules laid down in Saussure’s structural linguistics. Every bet in the market exists in a field of relation to other bets in the market; the density of other bets are what gives it its value. There is no necessary relation between sign and referent.

But as psychoanalysis has shown, linguistic systems structure the entire psyche. It’s not for nothing that Keynes chose to describe the market as a beauty contest; he’s describing the same schema that Lacan gives for neurotic fantasy. In Lacan, your fantasy is not your own innermost authentic wish; it’s what you imagine the other desires from you. An animal simply wants to fuck something warm; as a fully neurotic human subject, you want to believe that your lover wants you too. You fantasise about their fantasy. ‘It is qua Other that man desires.’ Simulate the desire of the other for fun and profit. The markets really are a fantasy: all those heavily roided finance bros tenderly imagining what the other might want, these deep empaths trying to conjure your desires before you’ve even formulated them yourself. Che vuoi? What do you want? Is it equity in Tesla at $850 a share? Is that what your heart desires? Neurotic fantasy spills out of the trading floor; electric tendrils of desire cling and couple, writhing around each other – and as we recede from the wet kissy sounds of Wall Street, we can see the whole shuddering mess of tenderness and love, its spread, writhing to its outer edges, carving deep gashes into the invisible parts of the world, tearing them open, leaving ruins, leaving empty malls…

Yeah, where does this leave you? What about the proud owner of GameStop, Inc., wandering in mallspace, chained to all this obdurate physical waste? The GameStop investors challenged the entire fantastical system; rather than playing the subtle game of imagining what other people might want, they got together, reached a consensus decision on their desires, and then set about making it happen. Maybe this was why leftists got so into the whole thing: it might not abolish private property, but at least it looks a bit like collective action. If enough of us buy this stuff, its price will rise, so let’s do that. This isn’t supposed to happen, even though obviously it happens all the time. Technically, the structure of this kind of market activity is perversion: the pervert, unlike the neurotic, ‘knows very well’ what he desires. He disavows castration, the gap, the signifier hollowing out the world of things. (See all the GameStop investors who seemed to think their market hijinks could actually save a dying retail chain.) Well – so what? If the choice is between the madness of capital expressed as a monstrous, rational, all-consuming system, or the madness of capital expressed as a weird private perversion, I’ll always side with the perverts. Now that socialism is over, perversion is the only thing we’ve got left. But it still isn’t an answer to the Great Emptiness, and there was always going to be a crash. There would always be someone left in the desert of the real, the wordless rubble that remains once fantasy is gone. There would always be a loser. There would always be you.

On your twelfth day in the empty mall, you found a dead rat in the middle of the lino. A husk, dried in distant winds. Fur peeling back from fangs and eyes; that cavernous hollow of a belly sheltered under such delicate ribs, a fine scrim of red-black viscera between the naked bones, and full of maggots. You picked off those fat white worms and ate them one by one. Sucked them off your fingers. This was the meal you wanted. It tasted good.

Death and the treasure

A rider appeared outside the camp at midnight. In his left hand, he held a scroll; in his right, a severed head.

As this rider approached the centre of the camp, every door was opened for him, and silent courtiers ushered him towards the seat of power. This was the camp of King Zheng of Qin, who had chosen to conquer all of the Seven Warring States, and bring everything under Heaven into his hands. Now he had turned his armies towards the northern state of Yan. The severed head belonged to Fan Yuqi, a general who had betrayed King Zheng to fight for his enemies. Now the rider threw his head on the table before the king. Then, more delicately, he placed down the scroll. Son of Heaven, he said, I have presented you with these two treasures as a gift. This head is the lesser treasure; I have brought it so you will know I am your friend. The greater treasure is this scroll, which is a map of the state of Yan which you wish to conquer, the most accurate map ever made.

Slowly, the rider unrolled the map from west to east, pointing out all the features of Yan: the roads along which Zheng might march his armies and the towers that defended them; the villages that were good for plunder and the lean wastelands where barbarians roam. Soon Zheng saw that this map really was the most accurate ever made. He examined a minor river, and something in the ink made the water seem to churn and flow. Zheng saw clumps of ice floating in the rapids and fields glittering with springtime frost; he heard the lively chatter of the peasant-women as they took their clothes to be washed, and smelled the good sharp smell of logs burning in a stove. When he peered closer he could even see, between the brushstrokes, the footprints of those women, stamped deep in the half-frozen mud. For an instant, Zheng felt that he was very small, and the map on his table was larger than the room, larger than his tent or the camp that contained it, until it sprawled as vast as the kingdom of Yan itself.

What the Son of Heaven did not know was that the man in his tent was an assassin sent by the Crown Prince of Yan, and that his enemy Fan Yuqi had given his life willingly to help the plot. This assassin had hidden a slender dagger inside the map, and once the entire kingdom had been unrolled, he would seize the dagger and thrust it into King Zheng’s heart. But once the map lay flat on the table, there was no dagger to be seen. Instead, the map showed a large island in the Gulf of Zhili formed in the shape of a dagger: an island that had never been known of before, with many pastures where the blade had been sharpened, many orchards along the line of its grooves, and many cities with strong walls where precious stones had been inlaid in the dagger’s hilt.

At once, King Zheng understood the plan, and he had the assassin buried alive in the black earth. Using the map, he quickly conquered the kingdom of Yan. Afterwards, he declared himself Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of Qin. Then he sent a fleet out into the sea, and found an island there in the shape of a dagger with many pastures, many orchards, and many cities with strong walls, which was populated by his enemies, and thousands of them were slain.

* * *

This story comes to us in two parts. They are pieces of a puzzle, and each is slightly less than half of the whole.

In the first part, there is a poor merchant who lives in Cairo. Once he was rich, but his fortune has vanished; he had to sell his scented palace, and now he lives in a hovel where the dust in the courtyard piles up against the trunk of a long-dead olive tree. But one night, this merchant had a dream. In his dream he saw a beautiful mosque with four minarets and two golden domes stood side by side; the minarets were also coated in gold and carved with all the names of God. In his dream, the poor merchant heard the voice of an angel, who said to him: your treasure is here; find this place, and dig. In his days this merchant had travelled up and down the valley of the Nile, but he had never seen a mosque like this one, and neither had any of his fellows. He tried to draw the mosque of his dreams, but with each version he made it felt as if the image was fading, and every picture was only a more imperfect copy of the last. One day, he presented a painting to a very old traveller who now begged on the streets. Where he had once tried to show the mosque in every false detail – the walls with their mosaics, the pleasant avenues with their trees, the way the light burned on the golden domes, and the cool waters of the sabil – now, there were only six lines: two curving for the domes, four straight for the minarets. I know this place, said the beggar; I didn’t recognise it before. I saw it when I was a much younger man: this is the mosque of al-Kadhimiya in Baghdad.

At once the merchant set off in a caravan for Baghdad. It was night when they arrived in the city, but he saw those golden domes shining above him, and ran to the mosque to dig up its grounds. Soon the noise woke some people in the nearby houses: they sent for the guards, who seized the merchant and beat him with palm-rods until he was all but dead. Finally he was brought before the head of the Caliph’s police, who asked who he was and why he, a stranger, had come to Baghdad only to desecrate its mosque. The merchant, who was an honest man, told him about his dream, but the chief only laughed. You idiot, he said, don’t you know that dreams mean nothing? Let me tell you a story: not long ago, I had a dream in which I saw a poor hovel in Cairo with a dead olive tree in the courtyard; a voice told me that a great treasure was buried there. But I wasn’t foolish enough to actually go to Egypt and start digging up someone else’s garden. Now, he concluded, go back to your own country, and don’t trouble us again.

The merchant travelled back to Cairo and returned to his hovel. He uprooted the dead olive tree in his courtyard and dug; on the third day he found a jar full of faceless gold coins, worth just as much as the money he had lost, to the last uqiyyah.

The second part is also about a merchant of Cairo, but this one was rich. While attending the market in Baghdad, he was jostled by a stranger. He looked up: the stranger was hidden in white robes, but his face was unmistakeable. This was Azra’il, the angel of death, and the figure cast a terrifying glare on the merchant; it started to walk towards him. It is said that only those who are about to die can see the the angel of death. This merchant was a healthy man, even in his age, but there are many ways to die, especially in a foreign city. The merchant fled. Leaving his wares behind, he took his fastest horse and set off across the desert to Egypt, his home, where death would not be able to find him. He made the journey a night and a day; exhausted, he collapsed on the ground in front of his hone. The ride had been hard, the sun merciless, the ground rocky and broken. Now, soft lights burned in the windows of his house, and a scented air came from the gardens – but after such an ordeal he could barely manage to crawl through the gates. At last, a pair of feet appeared in front of him. He looked up to see the face of Azra’il. You have caught me, said the merchant, but tell me: why did you threaten me when I saw you in Baghdad? The angel of death knelt, and as the merchant drew his last breath he replied: I was not threatening you; I was only surprised to see you in Baghdad, since I knew that we had an appointment here in Cairo, tonight, at your house.

Both of these stories have the same form; only a few of the details change. In one, a poor man chases treasure; in the other, a rich man flees from death – but both go on a journey only to find that its cause was already waiting for them. In both there is the apparition of an angel, in both a mystery. Who buried the coins? And why would Azra’il be at the market, when the angel of death has nothing to buy or sell?

Perhaps these tales describe the same merchant: once he was poor, and then he became rich; God, in His wisdom and for the edification of His worshippers, chose to humble His slave according to the same design with which He had rewarded him. But there are some who say that these two men were the same in a more subtle sense. It is known that the followers of Pythagoras held to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: across the span of many lives, a man is made to repeat the same journey, without end. In one generation he crosses the sands for riches, in another he only wants to save his life – but he does not wonder why there is already a set of tracks leading across the desert. Once this man was Brutus, then he was Judas, tomorrow he might be the brother in your house. Perhaps God creates such individuals only once: in the crystal prism of time their number seems to increase, but in eternity there is a single creature, walking in his own footprints for the first and only time.

Perhaps – and this is the doctrine of the more melancholy scholars – the rich merchant was the first, and the poor merchant came afterwards. After we die, they say, a mourning angel performs one last cruelty. The body that is still here after you have gone: deep in the black earth, it suffers a change, and every heart forever stilled becomes a cold hard blank gold coin.

The most sorrowful of all are those who say that both tales are really a single tale, and that in some mystical sense, glimpsed only by the sages, death and the treasure, yearning and fear, were one and the same thing.

May God, the most glorified, the most high, who knows all things, protect us from what we seek.

* * *

In the town of Kuttenberg in Bohemia there was a monastery and a silver mine, and all the men were either monks or miners. In their abbey, the monks – who were Cistercians, and wore white – praised the Blessed Virgin at all the appointed hours, but the miners – who wore black, so they would be dressed well for their funerals – knew that another power also rules the earth. In the labyrinth of that mine, there were a few hidden grottoes that were the Devil’s chapels: a miner would throw the rough Baphomet a crust of bread on his way into the mine, and then thank the saints for his safety on the way out again. You can afford few enemies underground.

This man was a miner. Every day he would tap on the window of his bride-to-be as he walked up to the mountain and kiss her good morning. In the evenings, when he returned with a face blacker than his shirt and silver nuggets in his pockets, he would tap again. The date of the wedding was set for the feast of St Lucia: the shortest day of winter, when all the world wears silver robes. On that day he, too, would wear a coat of white.

On the morning before their wedding came the knock. I will see you again on my way out, he said, but the evening was silent. She waited long into the night, and when morning came again she folded up her white dress and put it away forever.

In those first few weeks, she would sometimes look at the mountain that rose high above Kuttenberg, and think: he is there. Somewhere behind the walls of stone, in that vast underground world where veins of silver glitter in the dark and the bodies of men disappear. How could she ever forget him? He was made of solid rock now, and his monument would stand over the town, unchanging, forever.

But she did forget. After only a few months, she could no longer conjure his voice in her head when she felt lonely, and when it was winter again, she had trouble recalling his face. The man became a gap in her world. He had only disappeared; she was the one that was dying. Whole regions of herself falling away. That sharp hopeful glance when he came to tap on her window: she would never glance that way again. She’d lost a way of turning her head and opening her eyes, like the amputees whose arms were crushed in the mines – only what she was missing was her face, her lips, her throat. There was no one else she could speak to in the way she’d spoken to her husband-to-be: a part of her voice was locked away where there’s no air to breathe.

But not in her dreams. In dreams he would visit her, with a face that was cloudy and couldn’t be looked at, but which was always his: as immediately his as the ant crossing a sunbeam is itself. She would forget that he was in the mountain, which meant that she forgot to say all the things she needed him to hear. I miss you. Come back. When she woke, it was like that first evening again, and all she wanted was to sleep: sink deep into the stillness of silver seams and stone.

Years passed, and the mountain changed as well. Engineers arrived from every corner of the Empire with new methods and new ideas. Some of them tore open the face of the mountain and smashed up boulders to get at the treasure inside. They built machines: first the wheels were turned by horses on treadmills, then by pistons and steam. Soon the charcoal-burners had stripped the hills of their forests; black smoke poured incessantly from the peak. Everything in Kuttenberg was coated in sticky soot. Even the white habits of the Cistercians turned grey, so they fled the abbey, which was taken over by tax collectors. Men in dark livery who demanded to be paid in silver thalers, since the ground was now too poor to farm and the streams too poisoned to fish. The families who had once lived here moved out, and new people moved in. Dead cattle rotted in their fields, but there were no flies in this sour air. Only thick heavy crows, who hopped on both feet between the exposed ribs, uttering dark and joyful cries.

The machines on the peak were used to pump out old mine-shafts. Some had been flooded with water, some with oil of vitriol, or aqua valens, or any of the other poisons that collect in a working mine. One day they drained a long-abandoned cavern, and when the miners went inside they found a nugget of silver bigger than any they’d ever seen. Hauling it out into the open air, they found that it was not a lump of metal at all, but a man. Some miracle of alchemy had occurred in that mine: a precipitate of silver had formed around the corpse. This man’s face was as full and lively as it had been on the day he went into the mountain, for all that his eyes were fixed open in their silver casing. Still, nobody in Kuttenberg could recognise him. Nobody knew the dead man’s name. He might have fallen into that pool of vitriol the night before it was drained – or he might have been an ancient of these hills, who dug out their silver ten centuries ago.

For a day they let the silver man lie on the church altar, the brightest thing in that black and ruined town. All the people came to look at this marvel, even the blind old woman who had always lived alone in her little wooden house, who went out in a mourner’s shawl even though she had never been married. She ran her fingers over the cold silver of his face, and there was something she remembered there, even though she couldn’t remember what it was. When it was done they put him in the black earth again: a small plot in the churchyard, unmarked, to await the final call.

It was the shortest day of winter; the day of Saint Lucia’s feast.

* * *

Once there was a man of the Umuako whose wife fell ill and died. After she was buried he left his home, which was too full of her things, and his native land, which was too foggy with her memories. For years he walked, seeking a place he had heard about long ago: the shining city of the immortals where there is no death. He knew he would find this place when he came to a village without a graveyard, where there were no beloved corpses to be sent into the black earth, and at last he found one. Here every house had copper wire woven into the thatch, and the mud walls were studded with dozens of copper bracelets; each ngwulu contained the fortune of twenty lifetimes. The eze of this village invited the traveller to dine with him as a guest, and the traveller accepted. As they were eating a stew of well-seasoned meat, the traveller noticed that this eze lived with only his wives and children in the family compound. Respected igwe, the traveller said, if this truly is the city of the immortals, then where are your mother and your father? Or is it the custom in your land for fathers to live apart from their sons? No, said the eze, my parents are here. And he pointed downwards at the traveller’s bowl.

The old golden savages killed their philosophers

Yesterday, in the funniest thing to have ever happened in Washington DC, thousands of Trump supporters breached the US Capitol in an attempt to prevent Joe Biden’s victory being confirmed in the Senate. This is worrying, for obvious reasons. These people are entirely disconnected from reality, susceptible to far-right messaging, capable of violence, and numerous. It’s a dangerous erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law. It’s tragic: four people died in the disturbance; four worlds have gone black forever because of the doomed political fantasies of a TV game show host. But it’s also – and this is not an ethical judgement, or even really a commentary, just a statement of the facts on the ground – hilarious.

It’s funny in the way that the truth is always funny. Here is the bland citadel of American power, big white halls with mediocre paintings, men in breeches either firing muskets at each other or engaged in some lofty Enlightenment-era debate. The myth of America. And here, hooting and hollering as they ransack the place, are the Americans. This is the world you made: an army of corn-fed cretins, blasted in the face by digital media until their brains shrivelled into radioactive pebbles; churning flesh in the gears of the most advanced bureaucracy ever devised by man. A nation that rants, that stands on street corners yelling to itself, sometimes into a camera, sometimes into the faces of anyone passing by. They came here from the dead places. Car dealerships, yacht clubs, poisoned creeks; the places where covid swept away twenty million years of cumulative memory and nobody really cared. Not the wretched of the earth, but a new kind of lumpen. The rabble at the dead end of history, lost in a world that no longer needs their productive labour, or their folkways, or their lives.

One of them was a topless, muscled man wearing a fur hood, patriotic face paint, and horns. Another came to the protest with a bright red MAGA cap perched on top of his ghillie suit. Others were dressed in Revolutionary War outfits, or as cavemen, or simply looked like they’d just escaped from a hospice. Orwell once wrote that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. Now, the same thing is happening on the right: yesterday’s crowd included a man hoisting a sign that read NO BLOODY CIRCUMCISERS – PERVERTS IN U.S. COURTS, U.S. SENATE OR U.S. PRESIDENT, NO FORESKIN NO PEACE!!! Given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, all these people could have easily hidden their identities – but because of they’ve convinced themselves that a cloth mask dangerously cuts off your oxygen supply, they allowed their faces to be photographed, and now they’ll all be rounded up and sent to federal prison for a decade. One of the fatalities occurred when someone tasered themselves by accident. When they broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office, they took turns pretending to be her, sitting in her special chair, picking up her phone and acting as if they had to take an important political call. This is funny. Even funnier is the spectacle of the politicians themselves, ducking in the aisles, cucked and cowardly in their ridiculous plastic-bag gas masks, trembling in fear as their own constituents try to rip the wood panelling off the walls. This is not what an attempted coup looks like. This is the circus. And you’re lying, you’re lying to yourself and everyone around you, if you claim that you’re not entertained.

More than half a decade ago, I wrote up a fruitless A-to-B anti-austerity march through central London, ending in Parliament Square: The Palace of Westminster was within puking distance, and we were in the hundreds of thousands; I couldn’t understand why nobody was rushing the gates to actually overthrow the government. Even if they had cops with sniper rifles on the roofs, they couldn’t shoot all of us. It never happened. The closest we ever came was the storming of Millbank Tower in 2010 – and that was always enemy territory; we couldn’t march through Tory HQ and shout, like the people who breached the Capitol: this is our house, this belongs to us. If it had been leftists breaking into the halls of power, we’d have known exactly what to do: declare a provisional revolutionary government, set up a thousand different subcommittees, and then immediately start braining each other with congressional paperweights in a series of bloody factional purges. This lot, meanwhile, had no idea what they were supposed to actually do once they were inside.

For a while they milled about, carrying flags and stealing things. They didn’t even start any fires; all they left with were some bits of wood and covid-19. There was no plan to any of this, because their brand of right-wing populism isn’t really a politics at all. It has no real coherent sense of what it wants to abolish or what it wants to uphold, and a long frantic scream instead of a theory of change. This is why you don’t need to worry that a ‘competent fascist’ might come along to pick up where Trump left off: incompetence and incoherence is the substance of this movement. Nothing that smells like ideological rigour will stick in our swirling stupid age. (This is why it’s equally unlikely that these unfocused anti-establishment energies will be redirected into a populist grand coalition with the left. This isn’t a primitive dissatisfaction that just needs a few lessons on how surplus value works to mature into a good socialist analysis; it’s its own thing, not inchoate, but a final form.) A friend of mine once came across a QAnon protest in London and realised that she simply couldn’t understand any of their signs, all of which seemed to have to do with the politics of an entirely separate reality. As a political demonstration, it was a total failure; it did nothing to communicate what the activists thought was going on or what they wanted done to fix it. But it wasn’t a political demonstration. What these people want is simply to be recognised: for the social machine to know they exist. (Obviously, this same instinct is perfectly capable of wearing the skin of left-wing politics too. It’s the spirit of our age; it swallows everything it finds without discrimination.) Entering a semiotic zero-space does nothing to hurt this cause; if anything, believing truly stupid and incomprehensible things only adds to the mystique. Force the machine to ask why. Is this fascism? Is this a coup? The protesters broke into the temple of American democracy, not despite the waiting cameras, but because of them. They want to see themselves floating within the system of images. Notice me. Care about me. Give me a hug.

They know that Trump really won the election; the truth of it is in their bones. All the stuff about voter fraud is just an elaborate rationalisation of something very visceral and very universal and which has nothing to do with politics. If Trump actually lost, then it means I don’t matter. If Trump actually lost, then the universe repudiates me. Hard to blame them: very few of us are capable of confronting the Lovecraftian reality of our blind, uncaring cosmos. These people aspire to exist, and they were just unfortunate enough to sink all their cathectic energies into a painted clown instead of something more appropriate, like a sports team or a war. But you can understand why: here, the same affects go all the way up to the top. Just like his followers, Trump doesn’t have a plan. If he’s still refusing to concede defeat, it’s simply because he believes in the power of positive thinking. Just like your ex-girlfriend, he thinks that the universe will give him whatever he wants as long as he wants it hard enough. It’s worked well for him so far, hasn’t it? So why give up on your dreams now?

In the end, it’s hard for me to feel too upset about anyone who trashes a big public building in Washington DC. I last visited DC about a year ago; unfortunately, I had friends there. Unfortunately, because it’s grimmer than a typhoid-riddled refugee camp or a North Korean jail: the worst, most miserable place in the world. This is not a city. It’s an endless maze of low barriers and security zones, a place infinitely cordoned off from itself. Every street is lined with low ugly business-park blocks that modestly announce themselves as the headquarters of some kind of terrible global evil: the International Directorate for Diarrhoea and Diarrhoea-Causing Pathogens, the Alliance for Tearing Small Holes In Mosquito Nets, the US State Department, the IMF. Evil without grandeur: the ground floor of every one of these blocks is always occupied by a CVS or a Peet’s Coffee. You want to eat? Eat this cinnamon swirl; it’s made from corn syrup and chalk. Your only other option is some brassy gloomy den of a hotel restaurant, where greased lobbyists feed their politicians on plates of paler flesh, scorched and braised, with truffles grated on top. Don’t ask what animal this came from. You don’t want to know his name. In the streets, the DC people bustle about: cut-throat mediocrities with suits shinier than their lanyards and foreheads shinier still, visibly humming with satisfaction. I made it! I’m here, in the birdshit trench of despair where Everything Gets Done! It’s good that these people don’t get Congressional representation. They shouldn’t get to breathe. Nothing good can survive in a place like this. Imagine if Slough or Swindon or Milton Keynes were also the nexus of a fanatical empire bent on world domination. Imagine seventy square miles in which the Nazis won the war.

The one really interesting place in DC is the Lincoln Memorial. It has what Albert Speer called Ruinenwert, ruin-value. (His idea was to construct buildings that would one day produce sublime wreckage, as a noble example for the Aryans of the distant future. The Red Army made sure that Nazi Germany left no monuments. As ever, America picked up the slack.) After all, it’s already a kind of tomb. The marble is too smooth, it glows too evenly; begging to be slapped about a bit, roughened up by time. I imagined the ceiling collapsing, the bog-weeds marching out of the Mall and up the famous steps to wetly choke these stones. The man himself sits there on his marble throne, huger than life. Maybe in the future, the savages that will inhabit this place might regard Lincoln as a kind of stern primordial god; maybe they’ll sacrifice twins at his feet. The text of the Gettysburg Address is chiselled into one wall. Lincoln is apparently no longer a woke hero, but it’s still stirring stuff. These are the words of someone who really genuinely believed in his political ideal – a new birth of freedom, an extirpation of the sin of slavery – and who was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of lives to achieve it, before he finally gave his own. A man like Lenin or Napoleon, a bloodied founder of the law. I imagined those holes in the wall cracking and filled with slime, and the tomb-dwellers of the future barely noticing them as they shuffle in and out carrying skinned deer and captive children from the other tribe. Outside, on the windswept steps, a black-clad Christian with a megaphone was preaching to a crowd of none. On Judgement Day, when you stand before holy God, it won’t matter a bit about Donald Trump. The Bible says all have sinned. Call Donald Trump a liar if you want, but how many lies have you told in your life? A few steps away, but not facing him, a man in dayglo cycling gear stood and heckled. YOU ARE DEFENDING A PIMP, A LIAR, AND A CON ARTIST! JESUS WOULD BE APPALLED! The secret is, of course, that the collapse I was imagining had already happened, that it’s been happening since the first syllable of recorded time.

As bowtie-wearing types have pointed out, the storming of the Capitol looks a lot like a barbarian sack of Rome. The gardens ravaged, the altars and chalices profaned, the Huns rode their horses into the monastery library and mangled the incomprehensible books and reviled and burned them – fearful perhaps that the letters of the books might harbour blasphemies against their god, which was a scimitar of iron. But what kind of Rome is Washington DC? To be honest, maybe it’s the same one. Philip K Dick got it: The Empire never ended. A single state, unevenly distributed in time. Storming out of the colonial lands to the west, far away from the traditional centres of civilisation. A ruling class that turns its genocidal conquests into a series of fun and fashionable diversions: foreign food, foreign décor, foreign clothes, foreign gods. An underclass that simmers and periodically threatens to burn everything down. Slave plantations. A set of good solid decent civic virtues that always seem to have really existed somewhere in the past, however far back you go. (Or – and this is always a nice rhetorical trick – among the barbarians.) And that unique combination of brutality and silliness, entertainment and administration and death. What was their civilisation? Vast, I allow: but vile. Later writers tried, but they couldn’t really understand the Romans. The medievals and early moderns had no reference point for the ruins they inhabited. Europe had to wait until the twentieth century, until it was once again conquered by a huge frivolous empire that only wanted to entertain. The primary instrument of Roman rule wasn’t the magistrates or even the legions, it was the arenas. Auction off the tax collection, let some local notable have his crown, but build a circus. The empire depends on it. Or maybe that’s the wrong way round: maybe the majesty of the Roman state, with its court poets and its marble halls and its great orators with their hands nailed to the rostra, only existed to spread the institution of the arena further across the world.

This time around, of course, things are simpler. There is nothing outside the empire and nowhere left to expand. There is nothing sacred to be defiled. You can worship God and the scimitar at the same time. The barbarians have always been ourselves.

The itch

The universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes.
An old French lai

It doesn’t take much to be exiled from this village, which sprawls in timber and straw by the mouth of the river. A limp is enough. A child born with fingers scrunched, a hare lip, or his knees pointed in. This one had an itchy eye. Most eyes want to look; for whatever reason, her eye wanted to be touched – and not gently. Better a rubbing knuckle than a stroke, better still a fingernail to dig and tear. It satisfied nothing, but once she’d started it was so hard to stop. The more you rub, the more it hurts, the more you keep on rubbing. Dig into the pain, deeper; claw through into the ugly and endless pleasure of an itch.

She might have been beautiful, but soon the skin around her left eye became thin and raw and shed small white flakes. Something other eyes couldn’t bear to see. When she scratched too hard there was blood, and afterwards the wound crusted over. Where the dirt got in, it bubbled and seeped. An eye set in a ring of boiling flesh. Nobody ever threw her out of the town, and no door was ever barred to her, but she never married, and eventually she went away to live in the hills. Higher than the trees will grow or the herds will graze, in the great blistered interior of the land, where winter winds scrape against the naked rock. There, in a little sheltered crevasse, she built her shack with yellowing moss on the roof, cultivated her garden, enjoyed the secret joys of her eye, and at long last she grew old there, alone.

This is the story of how the itch finally cost her the eye.

It wasn’t only the lame or the harelipped that vanished from this town. There was the girl whose footsteps led down across a meadow to the banks of a bright cold spring; there were no footsteps leading out. Another girl became a voice singing to herself in the forest, which you can still hear on moonless nights, when the sheep on their hillsides twitch worried noses and the insects fear to creak. Her high brave voice in the hollow of the woods. One girl, they say, was offered a ride out of town by a strange carter whose wheels left no ruts in the road. He kept his promise: she was never seen again.

Where did they go? On its outcrop, just over the river from the town with its streets dug through tight-packed dung, the English earl had his castle. Like an enormous gemstone: its high sheer curtain walls, its turrets. At low tide, the river was shallow enough to wade clear across. The brownish silt would suck at your shoes, and when it gave them up it released the smell of sulphur. When the people went across to pay their taxes, they would track mud over the smooth clean flagstones. This felt like part of the design: a reminder that you are a stain on the world. A generation ago, when Madog ap Llywelyn rose up to reclaim this land, the English knights fanned out from that castle over the countryside, burning fields and houses, killing fathers and taking away girls. Eventually they stopped burning the fields, but they still rode out for the girls. Everyone knew they kidnapped any young woman who went wandering the paths at night. She would be bundled up and carried away, off to that cold sheer castle to cook and clean and sew. And because everyone knew this, they never had to mention all the girls whose own families had sent them over the river. In a little stone room, the earl’s reeve would look a girl up and down, put a hand on her thigh or her forearm, squeeze. Smack his wet lips, nod, and pay her father with a handful of silver coins. There were many families ashamed and close to starving with a stash of silver coins buried in the soot of the hearth.

But there was also the girl on the rocks. She had been a crofter’s daughter; betrothed to a slight young man who crabbed along the shores of the bay, who knew the pools where scuttling things went to hide. This crabber was the one who found her there one morning, her back arched over the curve of a great boulder jutting out into the sea. Her body hung with seaweed and slime: a funeral robe. Her eyes still open: hard staring icy blue. They buried that girl in the black of the ground, but the crabber wouldn’t go. Around the same time, he started to drink. Outside the wake he leaned on a yew-tree and laughed in the mourners’ faces: that’s only a thing you’re burying, shit-brains, go on, go weep for your wooden doll. The family had to throw rocks until he left. In the night, he’d wander drunk over the rocks by the shore, calling her name. Because the girl he loved was still alive. Because the real girl’s eyes were green.

One night, many years later, this crabber wandered too far, until he found himself in a part of the country he’d never seen before. Lost and hungry, with frost forming in the grey of his beard, he ranged over the hillsides until the forests fell away and the grass became hard scratchy scrub. He thought he might die of cold. But finally, he reached the crest of a hill and saw beneath him a large stone house, with flowers growing up the walls and a warm light in every window. As he came closer, he could hear the lively music and the chatter of guests, spilling out of the doors, lounging around the scented gardens. The smell of roasting meat, and a sudden warmth in the air, like those close clammy summer nights when even at midnight the birds announce the dawn. When the guests noticed him, they crowded around; they told him how wonderful it was to see him and how glad they were he’d finally come. We have a place for you, they said, we’ve been waiting so long. What was this party? A wake, they said. These people were tall and beautiful and dressed like gentlemen, but they spoke to him in his own language. They offered him wine and meat. Starving, he accepted. One of them took him by the hand and led him inside, but just as he was about to pass through the door a young servant-girl grabbed his arm. Leave, she hissed, do not eat their food or drink their wine; it will turn to soil in your mouth, and this funeral is yours. He was almost at the doorway before he turned. The house was so warm and inviting, with its hundreds of candles and its mingling of perfumed skin. It felt, in a way he couldn’t describe, like sleep. But when he turned he saw the side of the servant-girl’s face, and her eye as green as pond-weed or the fields after rain.

The crabber woke on that rock, his back arched over the curve of the boulder, strewn with seaweed and slime. Overnight, banks of ice had built up by the foot of the stone. But in the scratchy scrub-hills high above the bay, he found a circle of ash burned into the earth, and a few singed petals still drifting on the wind.

The people in the village knew better than to disbelieve him, but they kept their distance all the same. The man was elf-touched; he had lingered by the gates of that other kingdom. Everyone knew it was there. The place of the invisible people who live underground, more ancient than the treeless hills, as deep in this country as its slate or its coal. They were here before the Normans and the Saxons both, and before the name of Jesus Christ. They speak the language of rustling leaves, or a knock from underneath the hearthstone on a winter’s night. Sometimes a ring of mushrooms might appear in the middle of a grassy field: a fairy-circle. There are places in the forests where people know not to go, where the trees warp in elderly coils, marking the drift of invisible forces in the slow vastness of time. Where the dawn always comes a little later; where boughs carry heavy wolfmoss robes. Where you might find a single human toe, twitching, sprouting from out of the muck.

Sometimes, in the night, they will join a pile of planks into a boat or sew leather into jerkins. If a house is untidy, they will scamper through every room and clean. Our drudgery is play for them; they are lighter and happier than we are. They are the the tylwyth teg, the Fair Family, and they do not know sin or sadness or jealousy or toil. They do not bear the curse of Eve. But because they aren’t serious about it, their work is poor: the boots the fairy-folk stitch tend to fall apart, and most of the thread they spin is useless.

Sometimes they steal human children, and leave one of their own in its place. Spiky-faced infants with rough skin or goat teeth; loud upsetting wails. You can send away a changeling by putting it in the oven or over an open fire; this is how many mothers quietly removed a troublesome or sickly child. But the best way is simply to show the fairy something it hasn’t seen. In view of the cradle, brew beer or boil stew in an empty eggshell. Your baby will exclaim: I am old, so very old; I lived when the oak was an acorn, before the forests grew – but I never saw beer brewed in an eggshell before! Then, discovered, it will vanish, leaving your real child in its place. The changeling is not really a baby.  It’s one of their elders, one whose time has come. For the tylwyth teg, the upper world is where the dead go. We are like shades and spectres to them: so heavy and mournful, bent down in our sadness, diligent in our monasteries, obedient to the law, and regretful when we die.

But for all their lightness, the tylwyth teg must live underground, and they cannot bear the sun. Their lives are in laughter, but they pay their tithes to Hell. They love spinning-wheels, needles, fine clothes, good meat, and good wine; they love music, tiaras, courtly dance, flowers, and golden coins – but the doorway to their other kingdom is far away from all those softer artificial things, high up in the hills where the wind howls against naked rock, where nobody lives except an old woman with red weeping welts all around her eye.

Without much else to do, this old woman became wise. She knew how to make a poultice to treat a broken leg; she knew what herbs to feed a sickly calf and how to tell tomorrow’s weather from the wriggling of the worms. A few times a year she’d be called down to the village to attend a difficult birth. Sometimes the mother would live, and sometimes she did what she could to make her dying easier. She was like the charcoal-burner in his hut or the lonely crabber who still pined among the rocks at night: someone necessary, but best kept far away. Paid in a few sacks of oats come harvest, firewood or fish.  Once, the call went out not from the village but the castle: two riders in chain-mail appeared outside her door, and while she spoke no English they made her understand that she was needed. She had never been on the back of a horse before. Inside the castle, she walked smooth flagstones and peered into its hundreds of halls. She saw girls she might have delivered, twelve or thirteen years old, scurrying around. Sometimes a bowed face to hide the bruise. She delivered the Countess’s child safely, and while the lady kept her head under a silk veil, she still left with the secret that the Earl’s wife kept her cunt in the French manner, without hair. Also a single gold dinar, which dented when she bit it. A line of writing around the edge of the coin testified that there is no god but God.

The only thing she didn’t learn was a cure for her itching eye. She could soothe a nettle-sting or the last gasps of death, but nothing could fix her eye. It wanted to be touched. It wanted to bleed.

Later, her legs grew weak and the hair started thinning on her head. Worst of all, her fingers stiffened. Harder to spin her thread or cook her meals. Eventually she went down to the village again. Crossed the mud-flats to the castle fair, where she might find a servant-girl to help her in her age. It was Christmas: a lean time; much to hoard and little to sell. In shivering tents the villagers displayed their last skinny parsnips, their young skinny daughters, their old skinny mules. Red-faced girls, roughened in the fields – but nobody wanted to hire themselves out to the old woman with the blistered eye. Nobody wanted to live out in the wilderness and the hills, a day’s heavy slog from their cousins and friends. At last, she found a girl who was standing all by herself. She was maybe seventeen years old. Lanky; gormless. An upturned nose; a triangular mouth half-open, showing a pair of rodenty teeth. Wide passive eyes, the eyes of the cows in their marshes. Hair like hay. Skin like sea-scum, or wet uncooked dough. She said her name was Eilian, which is a boy’s name, the name of the Roman saint who built his church on Ynys Môn. But the old woman shrugged. Everything is wrong in the world, so why not a name? She showed Eilian the gold coin, and offered it for a year’s work in her cottage. The girl readily agreed. They walked back together, not speaking, into the high barren hills.

Eilian was impossible to understand. In the mornings she would clean the shack, chop wood, light the fire, milk the goat, and set a pot of llymru bubbling over the hearth. In the afternoons she would churn butter or weed the vegetable garden, in the evenings she would spin, and at night she bedded down with the old woman in her heavy woollen coat. She did everything she was ordered to, but she needed orders. Eilian, chop some firewood. Eilian, light the fire. If she wasn’t told what to do, Eilian would simply sit and stare, her mouth hung open, with that little nub of a chin dangling in the middle of her neck. The old woman had a crwth: one evening, she asked Eilian if she could play. The girl took the thing and plucked a few strings like a child would, grabbing them at random. Pling plang plong. The old woman handed her the bow, and Eilian looked at it without much understanding, before suddenly breaking into a tune of dark rasping beauty, a song that sang with the winds in the black night of the moor. Slow and broken: the heartbreak of the land. It lasted a single minute, and then she handed back the box and continued staring at the wall. That song, whatever it was, had no meaning for her.

When she span in the gloaming, Eilian would take her work outside. Squatting in the snow, she looked like an old half-buried stone. Her curving back, wrapped in a lumpy coat – that was the silhouette of the boulder. The thin hair that snapped about in the furious January winds – that was the last clump, clinging, of summer straw. The silence of the mineral world. Especially since, even though it was hard to make everything out in the yellowy gloom, it looked to the old woman that when she sat outside Eilian’s long listless limbs never actually moved. Still, the work was done; Eilian spun all the wool that could be sheared, more than the old woman could possibly need. And if she forgot to tell Eilian to carry the wool back inside, half a dozen spindles would be left to rot in the snow until morning.

On the first day of spring, Eilian disappeared. After a long day shearing sheep, and a night of unwholesome dreams, the old woman woke to find the place cold and empty. On the hearth, she found a gold coin with Arabic letters stamped around the edge. The girl must have wandered down the hills again, following the goat-paths home with her mouth open and her arms drooping empty by her side. Well, at least she’d returned the coin.

The old woman spent her summer alone, eating little things, mushrooms. When the new year approached again, she only noticed from the stars. A year is like a life is like a day: you come into it bleary and slog through the long dark early reaches, waiting for something to get better, but when it ends it ends all at once.

The call came on the night of the solstice, the longest night of the year. This man looked like he had come up from the castle again: a short man, with a beardless and pretty little face, dressed in fine silks embroidered with golden thread. He asked if she was the midwife, and she said that she was. The man was in a panic, but there was still a kind of laughter swelling out in his cheeks; he was the kind of man who’d smile in his sleep. Not to be trusted. He led her to his horse: the biggest animal the old woman had ever encountered, a snorting monster heavier than a bull, with bright madness foaming from every hole in its face. They did not ride through the hills to the castle. Instead, the master gave a vicious crack of the whip, and the creature bolted higher up into the wilderness. They stopped, finally, by a place the old woman knew well, a patch of high moorland crowned with old stones. But this place was not how she remembered, because between the boulders gaped the mouth of a cave where there had never been a cave before.

The master lit a lantern and led her inside, and when the passage narrowed they crawled. Icicles of stone there, damp grit underfoot. And deeper: marks on the wall, flashes of surging antlers in the lamplight, or huge crude tusks. Once, something had lived here. Greasy scorches of soot, fragments of bone. The old woman knew a tale about a cave like this: a boy had found a gap in the rocks hidden by a scrap of turf, and inside a vast hall of stone where thousands of men in ugly spiked armour lay as if they had died in a heap, each clasping a switch of hazel. Frightened, the boy started to run for daylight, but he hit his head on a large bell suspended from the roof of the cavern. It clanged loud enough to shake the earth, and at once the men jumped up and started to shout: is this the day? Has it dawned? Is this the day? No, the boy managed, not today. Then the warriors went back to sleep. Not long after he emerged from underground, the boy pined away and died; nobody learned what day those men were waiting for. If we are lucky, we might never know.

Here, said the master. Here, in the foggiest depths of the cave, someone had cut a square hole through the rock and placed a heavy golden door. The old woman pushed, and the hinges were as smooth as butter. Inside was the most sumptuous place she’d seen, grander by far than the castle on the strait, maybe grander than the courts of France she’d heard described in ballads. The floor was heavy with richly coloured Persian carpets. The walls were decked in tapestries and furs. A huge fire crackled from its hearth, and everything glowed in its light. The brass baubles, the fine wooden furniture heaped with rare foods. Peaches, cherries, sides of salmon: summer delicacies in December. And a bed. Carefully, the old woman removed her boots so as not to spoil the carpets, and walked on suddenly aching feet over to that bed. The girl there had passed out in her labour, and the sweat was high on her forehead. The master hovered by her side. Save my child, he said, if you can only save one of them, then bring me my son.

She saved both. The boy, when he came, was fat and healthy, bellowing. The mother, pale, exhausted, mostly slept. When she looked at the old woman her face was clouded, only barely aware that someone else was in the room with her. She would take a few days to recover, and in that time the master invited the old woman to stay. She could warm herself by his fire, take whatever she wanted from his table, and tend to the mother and the child. She accepted. Finally, just before he left, the father passed a glass bottle into her hands. This oil, he said, is to be rubbed into my son’s eyes, only gently, but twice every day. And be warned: you must not touch your own eyes with it, not even a drop, or your fate will be terrible indeed.

The baby cried every time she poured the oil over his eyes. The fits would last for hours, each one worse than the last. She did her best to soothe him, bouncing him in her stiff skinny arms. She ate from the table: a few ripe apricots. They were soft and juicy, but not at all sweet. A salty-bitter taste, and something slimy between her teeth. These fruits were barren: without a stone. She looked at the tapestries on the walls, which all depicted hunts. The gentlemen on fine black horses were shown surrounding a bear; they thrust stone-tipped lances and split open the animal’s brains. She examined herself in the large polished bronze mirror, the wreckage of her face. The fire burned high. So why was she so cold? And why did it prick her feet so much to walk on that smooth, well-carpeted floor?

After maybe a night and a day – the place had no windows – the mother started to stir a little. She nursed the child and kissed his angry little scalp. She didn’t speak. She was beautiful, but something about her face troubled the old woman. Maybe she looked a little too much like the old woman herself might have looked, if she’d led a softer life. Once the baby was vomiting little glugs of milk, his mother gave him over to be anointed. The old woman shook a drop of the oil onto her left finger, and rubbed the baby’s eyes; he bawled, she handed him back. Now her eye itched again, so she sat on a chair and scratched. Pulse over the skin of the eyelid, push until the eye bruises the back of its socket. She had been scratching for quite a while until she noticed the slight greasiness between her finger and her eye, and realised that she had rubbed the oil into her own eye. Slowly, she withdrew her hand and opened her eyes.

This is what her right eye saw. There was the well-furnished room, the carpets, the tapestries, the fire, the table, the bed, the food, the baby, and his mother. But the left eye saw something else. It was only a matter of perspective, the slight distance between one eye and another, the world seen from a slightly different angle. Like peering behind a stage to see the ropes and the sawdust. Like peering around the back of a stately manor, where the pigs eat kitchen scraps and shit in the same mire. The left eye saw that this room was not a room, but a wet cavern. That there was no carpet, but the rough rocky floor that had shredded the soles of her feet. That there were no tapestries, but an array of skulls staring with empty sockets from every cranny: the skulls of deer, foxes, bears, and yes, human skulls, fractured, pierced with a stone-tipped lance. That there was no fire, but a fissure in the vault of the cave through which the drizzle came down. Not a table: a moss-furred rock. Not a bed: a stagnant pool of fronds and slime. No summertime fruit, but fat white feasting slugs. The left eye saw that the baby was a monstrous imp, covered in thick dark fur, that grinned through sharpened teeth. And his mother, naked in the slime, bleeding from the dozens of tiny deep gashes all over her breast, was Eilian.

Eilian, said the old woman. The girl looked up, still dazed. He said you wouldn’t see me, she said. Tell me what happened, said the old woman, and she told. The tylwyth teg had come to her on the moor, she said, and offered to lighten her labours. They would spin for her and chop the firewood; they even taught her their music. In return, she agreed to marry their elf-king before the first day of spring. The days between the winter solstice and the spring equinox are the season of the fairies, when the world slips away from the sun, given over to the unhomely powers of bog and heath; these are the dark rotting days in which fairies roam. In Elfland, it is always winter. Every night, Eilian had resisted the tylwyth teg; she slept with a belt of braided rowan-twigs across her waist, which the fairies cannot touch. But on the last day of winter she was so tired from her work that she forgot to wear her belt, and the elf-king came in the night to take what was his. Fairy weddings have no ceremony. In a minute the brutal business was done, all while the old woman slept next to them, dreaming goatish dreams. As soon as it was over he took Eilian away with him, under the hills to the sunless kingdom he ruled.

The old woman told Eilian that she would help them escape, but the girl shook her head. Wait a little longer, she said, and go when my husband returns; he will pay you well, but he must never know that you can see through his charms. Again and again the old woman tried to convince Eilian to abandon her monstrous child and leave, but every time the girl refused. Eventually her face took on a hard glinting set; there was a vein of cruelty there that the old woman would have never expected from the gormless girl at the castle fair. Eilian no longer left her mouth hanging open. How can you understand? she said. You are still a maid.

Her husband paid as well as was promised. Four gold coins, each identical to the dinar in her home. Down to the Arabic around the edge; down to the bite-mark. But later, when she’d returned to her shack and she looked at the coins again with her right eye closed, what she held was a brown handful of human teeth.

Much of the world stayed the same. The hills were the hills, the rain was only rain. These things had not been glamoured. But animals seemed larger through her new eye, and wilder too, shining primitive. The nanny-goat that munched behind her shack was no longer a goat, but Goatness itself. Maybe Adam had named something like this in the garden: a goat with a beard that kings could only imitate, a pair of horns finer than the Devil’s.

She learned things. She discovered that Elfland is not a different place under a different sky, but the world in its hiddenness. Every dark secret place is theirs; the empire reaches through the caves and the burrows, the dungeons, the cracks of the earth, and into your home. It’s under your bed and up in the rafters, in all the places that frighten children. Imagine a ball, and cup your hands around it tight: you’ve built a doorway to that other realm. Still there were secrets she couldn’t penetrate. They had to do with death, but also the savagery of the elves on their wedding-nights, and the way thick spears of grass throb towards the sky, and raw antlers shedding blood with the velvet, and the fact that Christ was born in the fairy-season, and Eilian’s mocking smile when she said you are still a maid.

The sky was one place to begin. She discovered, when she looked through her left eye, that the night sky was black and empty and there were no stars.  And when she steeled herself on a winter noon and stared directly at the sun, she wept for a week. The vastness of that dead thing, that carcass. She saw that what lights our days is a funeral pyre.

Once several weeks had passed, she noticed that her eye had stopped itching. She felt the skin with a cautious fingertip: it was healed.

Eventually, the old woman wandered into town for the market, to see if it was possible to spend one of her teeth. It was funny how the banners streaming from the castle were really only drab and white, with plain black letters that said SLEEP and CONFORM and OBEY. The market was busier now; the first daffodils were blooming, the first lambs were tottering bravely in the fields. She walked the stalls and felt invisible. Everyone in town had known her by her hideous eye, and now it was gone she could be anyone: a grandmother, maybe, from the next village over the hills. As she wandered, she noticed another figure always ahead of her, tripping from bench to bench, grabbing a loaf of bread, a measure of barley, a pot of herrings, throwing them in a black velvet sack. Thief, she cried. The vendors all looked up, but nobody stopped him. The old woman strode forward and grabbed the criminal by the scruff of his neck. Thief, she said again, but when he spun around she saw that this thief was none other the man who had come to her door on the longest night of the year, the man who married Eilian.

You can see me, said the elf-king, clearly delighted. Well, I did tell you that your fate would be terrible indeed. You must have been so confused by the things you saw! And how could you possibly understand them? You know how fond we are of our little tricks and our little games. Tell me, did you imagine that it was the truth? Now the elf-king drew himself very close to the old woman so she could smell the carrion on his breath, and whispered in her ear, like someone telling a juicy secret to a friend: there isn’t one. And although the fairy was still standing there, still smiling, still in his fine silks and perfumed hair, for an instant she saw that he was a mask. Something churned beneath his surface: the serpent that strangles and is the world.

Now, said the elf-king, which eye is it that you see me with? By your squint I know that it’s only the one. The old woman didn’t have a moment to answer; he was already peering close at her left eye, the one that had lost its halo of livid skin. In an instant, he flicked a bulrush and pulled out her eye. The eyeball glistened on the spear of his stick, dangling its bloodied wormy trail. Jelly ran out from where it had been pierced. An eye is only a ball of wet matter, invisible to the one that uses it. So is a brain. The elf-king flicked the eyeball to the ground, stamped on it once with the heel of his shoe, and then he went on his mischievous way to steal a round of good yellow cheese.

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