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For the pangolin

Why does one not say, to describe the absolute power of God, “God is small,” “really small,” instead of saying “God is great”? I leave you to reply to this question.
Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Seminar X

pangolin

An animal is the living strangeness of the world.

It’s unfathomable that we share the world with these bright, strange, deep, ancient gods. What are these things, with eyes that can look into ours, and bodies that move like ours, but which are so utterly different? How did they get to be so old? A wild animal looks at you from far away, from another world, a place beyond language, history, politics, or time. Even a newborn animal is within eternity, and its eyes are vast with the whole of the universe. But still, they know us. Crows will recognise individual humans. If they like you, they’ll bring gifts. If they turn against you, they’ll spread the word; crows you’ve never met before will croak viciously and swoop to peck your skull. They know what we are, maybe better than we know ourselves.

There’s a kind of automatic theory, in which our Palaeolithic ancestors, the ones who covered their caves with endless patterns of stampeding wild animals, must have worshipped these creatures as gods. Maybe they did; it’s impossible to tell. But see how long it took for the gods of Egypt to wrest off their animal heads. Look at the magnificent Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs in the British Museum, see Ashurbanipal and his retainers with their fixed, calm, empty, ataraxic smiles, and compare the sheer living suffering of the lions, who yowl with pain and fury as arrows split their flanks, or even the horror of the bridled horses. An animal is more real, more human, than humanity itself. We might have it the wrong way round. Maybe the gods, with their names and their rites and their rivalries, are only an echo of the fear and awe with which the first humans beheld the sacred beasts.

That strange world is receding. So many animals are dead. The mammoth is gone. The giant flightless owls that once stalked the forests of the Caribbean are gone. The gorilla-sized lemurs of Madagascar, who lived at the same time as Zhuangzi and Aristotle, are gone. Maybe soon, the pangolin will also be gone, and all we’ll be left with will be the cows, tagged and microchipped, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry. Dogs and cats, animals that recognise their names, that you can dress up in costumes, loyally enduring it all.

Why did we have to kill them? Maybe the animal always had a privileged connection with death. Theirs is the spirit-world, the dimensions folded into the cracks of reality. In a sense, they are already dead, already outside the finitude of life and world. ‘Mortals,’ writes Heidegger, ‘are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either.’ For Hegel, an animal can speak, but only once, as it’s dying. Language depends on the negation of its object, so that it’s ‘transformed into a pure and simple ideal.’ An animal’s noises can only point, not signify: birds chirp a stalking cat, wildebeest low a circling lion; not the general concept of catness or lionosity. But as an animal dies, it cries for an object – itself – that is no longer there. ‘Every animal finds a voice in its violent death; it expresses itself as a removed-self.’ In its dying cry, the animal learns to talk. In this way, the slaughter of an animal is a kind of miracle. It’s the only way we have of really speaking with these strange and wonderful things, sharing a register, inhabiting a single world, in which we live and they die. No wonder animal sacrifice is a central feature of so many world religions; it’s in the death of an animal that humans and gods can touch.

The wave of mass extinctions that followed the spread of our own species across the earth, and the wave of mass extinctions that’s happening right now, have any number of causes. Social, political, economic, accidental. But I think a lot of it comes down to this: that same desperate need to communicate with the animals that live beyond our world. A refusal to live with the otherness of the other, a steamrollering of radical difference into the flatness of the Same. Everything that is strange, and stays strange, gets obliterated – not despite our fascination, but because of it. A few years ago, conservationists warned against focusing too much on charismatic megafauna, the endangered elephants and pandas, while the crucial but ignored creatures that made up their environment were quietly snuffed out of existence. Now everyone is worried about the massive decline in insect populations, and it turns out that insects are also charismatic megafauna – the vast majority of all life is composed of single-celled organisms, and they’re dying too. I believe it. But if it’s not too late, if something can be pulled out of the oncoming wreckage of the future and preserved, if we can save just one living god, I’d like it to be the pangolin.

* * *

Ground-dwelling pangolins are bipedal. They walk on their hind legs, which are flat and splaying, almost like an elephant’s, and hold their little hands timidly crossed in front of them. Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, which are made from chitin, like human fingernails. Their bodies are like flowers. They walk from termite-mound to termite-mound, slipping their long tongues into the nests to feed. Baby pangolins, too young to walk, ride along on their parents’ tails. Some tree pangolins use their tails to hang from branches while they strip away sections of bark, revealing the insects beneath. While up there, they coil and flex, scratching their own bellies; they’re clearly having fun. When threatened, pangolins roll into a ball. Their scaly backs are a good enough defence against their natural predators, things with long teeth and sharp claws. But they’re almost absurdly vulnerable to anything with opposable thumbs. When poachers find one, they can just pick up the living shuddering terrified ball of pangolin, and take it away to its death.

Pangolins are beautiful. Some people, who suffer from trypophobia or some other made-up condition, find their patterns of overlapping scales disgusting. Once, I tried in anxious desperation to show a friend just how wonderful they were: pictures of gentle pangolins browsing through the savannah, joyful pangolins playing in a mudhole, baby pangolins hugging tight to a larger pangolin’s tail, newborn pangolins sleeping in angelic circles. Get rid of it, she said, it’s horrible, I hope they go extinct. Otherness can be met with disgust, and this animal is bizarre beyond belief; alien and unknowable. But at the same time, it’s so hard not to see something speaking from its alien face. The habitual expression of a pangolin is a kind of loveable, fretful worry. They look embarrassed, with their nervous hands, and their sorrowful eyes. Oh, they say, me? But that’s so kind of you. They are ravenous killers of ants and termites, eating up to seventy million of them a year, but in all their dealings with anything that doesn’t get scooped up by their flicking tongues, they are marvellously gentle. Stooped, questing, humble, and hopeful, they browse over the strangeness of the earth. An unassuming dignity. They show another face of nature, not constant pointless struggle, but not hokey mystical balance either. If a creature can make itself safe from the terrors of the world under its overlapping scales, then nature can produce something rare and weird, infinitely variegated, utterly wonderful, and impossibly kind.

The meekness of the pangolin allowed it to survive for tens of millions of years. They are so very old. But humans, the only creatures that can threaten them, have not been kind to them in return. Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable, two as endangered, and two as critically endangered. They are the most trafficked animals in the world.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger is a crucial text – not least when it comes to understanding our own contemporary political neuroses – but what I love most of all is its treatment of the pangolin cult among the Lele of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like many people, the Lele distinguish between ritually pure animals, which can be eaten, and ritually impure animals, which can not. But the pangolin is a conundrum. It resists the prisons of thought, by the sheer virtue of its weirdness. ‘It is scaly like a fish, but it climbs trees. It is more like an egg-laying lizard than a mammal, yet it suckles its young.’ And its young are born singly, like human children, rather than in litters. Other animals are teeming and fecund, but this creature is slow, thoughtful, and still. The pangolin is a moment of calm in the chaos of wild nature, and while chaos can be moulded into order, the pangolin continues under its own peaceful laws, and refuses to submit to any other. As Douglas writes, they embody ‘the limitation on human contemplation of existence.’ They are the unapproachable equals of ourselves.

Among some peoples, it’s forbidden to kill a pangolin. Anti-poaching initiatives in Zimbabwe are trying to reactivate some of these traditions – how can it be anything other than taboo to destroy an animal that’s so mild, and so defenceless against death? But the Lele do kill and eat pangolins – never for their daily sustenance, but only as part of religious rituals. It is outside of the categories of ordinary life,  and they are fully aware that what they are killing is a god. ‘Like Abraham’s ram in the thicket and like Christ, the pangolin is spoken of as a voluntary victim. It is not caught, but rather it comes to the village. It is a kingly victim: the village treats its corpse as a living chief and requires the behaviour of respect for a chief on pain of future disaster. The mysteries of the pangolin are sorrowful mysteries.’

Emmanuel Levinas describes God as an ‘infinite Other,’ something unfathomably distant from ourselves, something which we can never hope to grasp conceptually. But that infinity is not unreachable; it exists whenever one living being looks at the defencelessness of another. Once, a long time ago, I was asked if I could ever be an ethical vegan. I said no: animals are not ethical subjects, and ethical gestures are only meaningful between ethical subjects. The animal is on the perpetual outside. Now, I’m not so sure. I still eat meat: the poor cows, the poor sheep, the poor and wonderful octopuses. But now I think an ethical system that only has meaning within its sectioned-off field of the Same fails the most fundamental test, which is our duty to the other, a duty that doesn’t diminish as the other gets stranger and more distant, but intensifies. A truly ethical system would be that which gives us a duty to those who are not ethical subjects – not despite their otherness, but because of it.

God is the suffering other, the infinitely distant suffering other. Somewhere beyond the endlessness of the meanings of the world, there is an image. A quiet, unassuming pangolin, nailed to a wooden cross.

If the pangolins were wiped out tomorrow, we wouldn’t even notice, and this is why they must be saved. I would love to see a pangolin in the wild, but even more than that, I would love to simply exist in a world that can contain them, a world where the pangolins are safe, happy, distant, and unseen. Today is World Pangolin Day. It doesn’t mean much to the pangolins, who are far beyond all such things, but it means a lot to me. For the love of God, and for the love of the pangolins, which means the same thing, their strangeness must not vanish.

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On the stupidity of Nate Silver

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If there’s a dominant experience of the twenty-first century, it’s that of living in a world that does not make sense. Life is stupid. Not stupid in the same way that a person might be stupid, in the sense of an incomplete grasp of the facts and a throttled slowness in processing those that it has, but a slick, dizzy, reckless, triumphant, positive stupidity, a stupidity that happily assimilates to itself all forms of intelligence. Sexual relationships are stupid; any form can only dissolve, monogamy, polygamy, celibacy, all teeming in panic against our inability to cope with other people or ourselves, charging like flies against a windowpane. Work is stupid; pointless drudgery that no longer pretends to have anything more in common with actual productive labour than ritual animal sacrifice, so that there’s nobody who won’t freely admit that they’ve wasted their life, so that the cherished tradition of killing time in the office had to be introduced as a new form of labour discipline. Democratic politics are stupid, not so much a reality TV show as a glorified version of the policeman’s identity parade, but in reverse time: the mass of voters identify the perp, and then he gets to go and commit his crimes. The international order is stupid, drugs law is stupid, global warming is stupid, mass media is stupid, going to the beach is stupid, the Sun and the Moon are stupid, staying at home is stupid, the tiny furrowed creatures that burrow between immense grains of earth are stupid. The world is ending! How did we end up here? Somewhere along the road, centuries ago, millennia ago, we took a very wrong turn. Hegel might have described a parallel reality where it never happened, but here, every new stage of history is a further progression in the dialectic of the original Mistake.

A stupid world can still make sense; what faces us now is the collapse of all its explanatory and predictive mechanisms. The gods, who had a plan, can no longer account for a world without one; nor can divination, or the natural sciences, or hermeneutics, or Marxism. It’s not that these procedures can’t be accurate – Marxism, in particular, might still be the only thing that can help us, retaining as it does the worthwhile kernels of all previous forms – but each of them serves to change the world as it is described, so that the dispassionate, bodiless observing eye becomes another component in the machinery, impaled on its axle, squelching and wobbling along with every other greasy cog. The gods were supposed to let us know what was good and just; instead they fucked us in the form of a swan, and in the war that started no ceasefire has ever lasted long. The natural sciences were supposed to flood the dark corners of the universe with reason; instead they choked the air with smog. Stupidity triumphant isn’t defeated by its opposite. It crawls the world on slug-trails, searching for cleverness to eat. Look at the US election: with every stupid lie Donald Trump speaks a thousand liberals jump up like snakes from a can to explain exactly why he’s wrong, as if they don’t realise that being wrong is in no sense a fault.

This is, I think, where my good friend Tom Whyman is wrong about Nate Silver. The American psephologist was a brief celebrity after the 2008 presidential election, when he correctly predicted the outcome in all but one of the fifty states; he promised a new way of approaching political events, based not on loyalty, prejudice, gut instinct, stereotyping, or partisan attempts to change the outcome by predicting it, but cold, objective numbers. No wonder he became a liberal hero – in whatever small way, he took an unpredictable world that did not make sense, and found a pattern. Silver did what nobody else had thought to do: he looked at the polls, measured them against each other, and formed a set of statistical probabilities. Ignoring any analysis of political moods or economic circumstances, he decided that the most likely predictor for how people would vote was who they said they were going to vote for. This is why Whyman refers to him as a ‘cold demon of knowledge’: the people and politicians who actually impact reality are idiots, but Silver, content to merely describe it, ‘the judge only of bland truisms that would and continue to exist anyway, seems god-like.’ Whyman is Hegelian here: the aggregated understanding of all existing active stupidity becomes a passive intelligence; there’s a conversion of quantity into quality. But stuck between these two poles – transformative stupidity, descriptive knowledge – he demands another: a transformative knowledge, the power to make discernments about the world and then ‘say, not merely: “it is thus and so” but also, “and it should be thus.”’

The fourth pole, descriptive stupidity, slips out of his discourse. It’s not quite the same thing as being simply wrong, although wrongness might be involved; in a fundamentally very stupid world, the concept that is in accordance with the present state of things will inevitably be a stupid one, while transformative knowledge gains its character precisely through its non-heterogeneity with things as they are, its capacity to imagine a better world as yet unrealised. On the level of the descriptive, knowledge and stupidity are therefore indistinguishable. (Let’s not forget that psephology contains its shadow twin, psephomancy. The ψῆφος is the pebble used as a ballot in Hellenic democracies; psephomancers would study the material patterns on pebbles or those made when they were thrown to gain knowledge of future events. The bloodless logic of data-driven election forecasters like Nate Silver only inverts the mysticism of the latter. Reading the prose of the world, you predict where the pebbles will fall; but the pattern itself is without signifying properties, meaningless, stupid.) But, as outlined above, the descriptive and the transformative can not so easily be distinguished. Under current conditions all poles are only attributes; the active and the passive, knowledge and ignorance, are just epiphenomena of a general stupidity. The cold demon doesn’t float above the earth but leaves icicles hanging in its wake. The forms of electoral practice have, since 2008, become entirely about numbers, number-forecasting, number-wrangling, polls and delegates, an idol in the demon’s likeness. But the content has become very different; Donald Trump is entirely unpredictable, a stupidity that cannot possibly be aggregated into knowledge. Since his candidacy was announced just about every American pundit has assured us that it’s doomed, that he’s a flash in the pan, that he will never take his party’s nomination. But they were wrong. And Nate Silver was wrong with them.

This election, there’s a new psephological hero, the most accurate pundit in the media: Carl ‘the Dig‘ Diggler. He correctly called Indiana for Bernie Sanders, while Silver was still giving a 90% chance for a Clinton victory; he predicted the results of the Iowa caucus, down to the exact order of candidates on both parties; he predicted every single one of the Super Tuesday primaries, while Silver only hazarded guesses at eight. Even when Diggler first appeared to have been wrong – predicting a Sanders win in Nevada, for instance – subsequent, seemingly random events retroactively changed the outcome in his favour. And he achieved this, not using polls or data, but with gut, personal instinct, conventional wisdom, race science, and stereotype (‘Cruz does exceptionally well in Midwestern states where Christian folks vote knowing the next Commander-in-Chief will preside over the Second Coming and End Times’) – all the things that Silver’s cold, inhuman intelligence was supposed to have done away with. And while Silver has repeatedly been challenged to account for his failures, in his cowardice he’s never responded.

This is, of course, because Diggler is not a real person, but a parody of the pundit classes created by Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman. Diggler is a hyperbolic sadsack, who spends about as much time complaining about his ex-wife and filing lawsuits against Tinder as he does making political judgements. His creators do look at the polls, but they balance out their predictions with other, non-numerical knowledge: the atmosphere at political rallies, who’s being talked about on TV, the actual personalities of the candidates and the people voting for them, things that can’t be reduced to data points. It would be possible to account for Diggler’s extraordinary predictive success, and everyone else’s failure, in this manner: the pundits are all very stupid, while Texas and Biederman are not. But something else is happening. If you see them talking about Carl in person, you notice something strange: they talk about him like new parents talking about their child; they talk about him as if he actually exists. He does actually exist. Carl Diggler is real – more real than Nate Silver or (say) Thomas Friedman, more real even than the people who invented him and who write his words. He’s not a fictional character, he’s a cuckoo; he’ll consume them with total indifference. Those predictions are all his own. Was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig – but here the rational is never fully dissociable from its colloidal stupidity, and the real is a stunted reality that is never entirely actual. Carl Diggler is real because his stupidity is of a piece with the stupidity around him, because his virtuality is not a separate frame to everyday existence but constitutive of it. His parodic interpretations all come true, because as everyone is aware, the world is parodic and lacks an interpretation.

Fragments against the ruin

1. Syriza are an anti-austerity party, and they have an excellent record when it comes to opposing austerity. They opposed the measures put forward by Greece’s creditors in February. They opposed the plan of agreement drawn up in June, and put it to a referendum. They opposed the harsh and punitive measures suggested by Germany over the weekend. Wherever the threat of austerity emerges in Greece, Syriza are on hand to heroically oppose it. They’ll oppose the sunset, they’ll oppose the locusts as they come in their chattering thousands to strip green islands to naked rock, and when they wheeze their dying breaths, cold and emaciated on soggy mattresses, they’ll oppose that too. Despite their pleas for an alternative, they’ve never approached austerity as anything other than a deterministic inevitability. It might be time to question how much value there actually is in ‘anti-austerity’ politics: it’s a formation in which opposing something has come to function as an effective substitute for actually doing anything about it. Anti-austerity movements scream their refusal to participate in the grand, stupid mechanism of austerity – and then do so anyway. These things are not opposed to each other.

2. In this context, the strange farce of the referendum starts to make a twisted sort of sense. The population of Greece overwhelmingly voted against austerity measures demanded by the Troika, only for the government of Greece to then almost immediately submit a set of proposals that mirrored them in every detail. In fact, Prime Minister Tsipras wrote to his creditors conceding to almost all of their demands before the referendum had even taken place. But the referendum was never intended to actually decide anything; after all, the plan of agreement to be accepted or rejected was no longer even on the table. It was always, explicitly, to be a gesture of rejection, something purely performative, which for some reason Syriza thought might help them negotiate a fairer deal.

3. Its ‘no’ was a pure ‘no’; there was no indication what the result of this rejection would be, because there was never to be a result. This isn’t far from what Hegel describes as ‘abstract negation’. Abstract negation is the form of negation based on an eternal and static binary of true and false or being and nothingness: under abstract negation what is negated is cast into pure nothingness. The act of negation, rather than producing a new state of affairs, instead simply cancels out everything; in the end, it doesn’t really matter what is being negated. Hegel’s complaint isn’t that abstract negation is too destructive, but that it isn’t destructive enough: abstract negation always fails. It sees the nothingness into which it condemns that which is negated as an absence that precedes any particular negation, while the dialectic recognises that any particular negation will continue to express the content of that which is negated, as ‘the nothingness of that from which it results. A negation built on stasis will remain static; without any process of sublation, the negated object will slowly achieve a kind of zombie rebirth, crawling on skeletal hands out the abyss of its own cancellation. This is how 61% of Greek voters managed to reject austerity, only for their government to then triumphantly impose it as the culmination of their democratic will.

4. Most journalists don’t know much about Greece, but they have been to Oxbridge, which is why it’s hard to read anything on the situation without some reference to Sophocles or Aeschylus. What would Thucydides make of the European bond market? Isn’t Tsipras a modern Priam of Troy? This is nonsense. There is a text that can help us understand what’s happening in Greece, but it’s not from some cartoon antiquity. In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs we meet Severin, a sick and sensitive young man, exhausted by Northern civilisation, an admirer of the free sensuality of Greece. He seemingly wills a portrait of the goddess Venus into life as Wanda, an impish and imperious woman; the two draw up a contract in which Severin agrees to be her slave, and enter into a relationship. Theirs is not, as it’s been described, a sado-masochistic relationship, but one between masochists: Wanda, too, wants to be dominated and humiliated, and because Severin is unable to do this for her, she soon begins to lose her love for him. The identification of masochism as an inverse of sadism is troubled from the start: Fifty Shades aside, sadists don’t tend to write contracts with their victims. Sadism is mechanical and automatic, from the distant burning cruelty of the stars to the bloodstained fury of all wild animals; de Sade’s grotesques don’t draw up contracts, they just do whatever they want. Laws and agreements are functions of a willed, deliberate masochism. (As Deleuze writes, the masochist ‘aims not to mitigate the law but on the contrary to emphasise its extreme severity.’) In the end Wanda, now disgusted by her slave, falls for a brutish, Byronic, ‘barbarian’ Greek. First she rejects Severin, then she declares her love for him, makes him agree to put aside his masochism and enter into a ‘normal’, sadistic relationship – and then ties him to a bed, whereupon the Greek suddenly appears, to ‘whip all poetry from him.’ This Greek is a walking dildo; he dies before long, and for all his displays of dominance he only really existed to satisfy Wanda’s masochistic desires. Freud, with whom the idea of masochism as an inverted sadism originates, was still troubled throughout his career by the idea of a ‘primary masochism’. By the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle he was ready to admit its existence, but his death drive is still fundamentally ambiguous: on the one hand it’s a desire to return to an inorganic stillness, on the other it’s just a redirection of the universal sadistic impulses against the self. In fact, this ambiguity goes back to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905; at the same time as he describes masochism as an inverted sadism, he also connects sadism with cannibalism. The Bemächtigungsapparatus, or structure of domination, exists only to serve the desires of another, ‘ontogenetically prior’ impulse – but, syntactically, it’s never clear whether this prior impulse is cannibalism or masochism. (After all, in actually existing BDSM relationships, the real power always belongs to the submissive partner: theirs is the limit that must not be crossed.) In the end, it’s far easier for Freud to imagine that we want to eat each other than to think that, when surrounded by a universal and impersonal sadism without subject, the immediate human response is to want to give in to it. The German response to Syriza’s desperate, humiliated proposals – to reject them, and insist on something even harsher, even though it may well end up harming them – has been strongly criticised, but in a way Greece’s creditors are only following the blank and impersonal laws of capital. Their sadism is the sadism of the unliving. Solidarity with Greece shouldn’t imply sympathy for Syriza: they could have got out of this dually-masochistic contract if they wanted (throughout the referendum period it was assumed that Greece was drawing up secret plans for an exit from the Euro; now it’s been revealed that beyond a few tiny committees, they really weren’t); instead they’re bringing in austerity as the fulfilment of their own desires.

5. Among a few of Syriza’s defenders, there’s a complaint that left-wing critics seem to want Greece to fling itself into uncertainty for the sake of a few old Marxist orthodoxies. From our armchairs in the insulated north, we leftier-than-thou dilettantes demand that an entire country ruin itself, just so that we can get the vicarious thrill of resistance. But the ruin is already here. We’re living in it. The deal that Greece has agreed to will enforce mandatory privatisations, automatic spending cuts, and a mechanism to ensure that all these measures are locked outside the realm of politics. The anti-austerity party has delivered the forces of austerity a far more total victory than the old ND-Pasok coalition ever could – they, at least, had to deal with a strong domestic opposition. This ruin is all of Europe’s. In his pre-referendum speech, Tsipras made constant, fawning references to ‘European ideals’ betrayed by the EU, but of course Europe has never really existed. It’s a spur of Asia with unwarranted pretensions, and because it has no geographical reality, it’s had to invent a cultural one. In the years after the collapse of the Mediterranean world, Europe and Christendom were almost identical concepts; after that, Europe was defined by white skin and a habit of imperial massacre elsewhere in the world. Now, Europe is best defined as the place where they implement austerity. Any movement that tries to change this will have to start by abolishing Europe altogether.

6. After the fall of the Roman empire, locals plundered its grand ruins for stones to build homes and churches. For some reason this is generally treated as a terrible philistinism, but in fact it’s determinate negation in action: the cancellation of something already cancelled in order to build something new. It’s better to have a house than a ruin. In Greece, there are still factions willing to oppose the destruction of the country, including the KKE, the Greek Communist Party, and PAME, the All-Workers Militant Front. These groups have consistently warned against Syriza’s brand of capital-friendly anti-austerity politics; there are plans for strikes and demonstrations; the resistance continues. Of course, it’s not enough to simply negate the disaster, and expect it to then be done with. Against the blank and useless negationism of Syriza, it might now be necessary to turn the ruins into a proper structure: to be not against austerity, but for communism.

Vote for death

General Election is, as everyone knows, the main character in the much-loved 1970s WWII sitcom Up The Army!. Gen. Bertrand Election started the show as a fussy, uncomfortable, endearingly incompetent bureaucrat, utterly devoted to the bigwigs at Allied Command, and subjected to constant, ambiguously good-natured ribbing from his men. But as is so often the case, as the show began to drag on and the writers lost creative inspiration, Election went from character to caricature. By the time Up the Army! was cancelled in 1979, he wasn’t just incompetent but insensible: a sad, roving, pathetic, confused old man. He didn’t seem to realise there was a war on. When he spoke with his officers there was always a look of veiled panic in his eyes, as he tried to work out who the person in front of him was. For most of the last series, he had trouble remembering his own name.

In fact, a similar set of transformations seemed to affect the entire cast of Up The Army!, one that became uglier the further it went down the ranks. Major John Spendings-Cutts grew gaunt, his weak and watery eyes peering out from two immense, dark, ridged concavities, his bony limbs thrashing about like treetops in a winter storm. Corporal Ned Punishment went from being a stern disciplinarian to an almost inhuman sadist. The beatings he administered to his disobedient subordinates were long, gruelling affairs; he’d slice away fingertips with a rusty knife or claw out an eyeball with his bare hands, all the while vigorously pumping on his long, thin, curved, barbed penis. The only one that didn’t change was Private Property. He only grew. Private Property was an entity – although entity might be the wrong word – that swarmed and sprawled, a buzzing, violent mess of content without form. He was chirpy and polite, forever doffing his helmet to his superiors, and he had a charming, naive faith in King and Country, but he was insatiable. First he glooped over the mess hall, translucently, like an amoeba, and swallowed it up, then the briefing room, then the entire base.

What’s strange is that nobody ever commented on any of these changes, the little weekly stories kept on going, just as they always had. The final episode centred around a teacup that’d been stolen from the officers’ mess. In the end it turned out Private Property had taken it. He’d taken everything. The planes, the tanks, the guns, the Nazis over the hill, the hill itself. Everything took place just below the surface of Pte. Property’s shimmering, iridescent skin, and when the A-bomb finally fell on Hiroshima, it left just the smallest of wobbling ripples on his surface.

* * *

The latest political news is disturbing. Labour leader Ed Miliband has erected an enormous stone obelisk, on which he’s carved his election platform. The idea is that his promises are to be ‘set in stone’, and as a symbol of their permanence, his stele will be sailed down the Thames, out to sea, and stood among the pyramids at Giza, to take their place among the eternal testaments to human imagination. Hegel, in his Aesthetics, says of such structures that what is preserved naturally is also interpreted in its idea as enduring. Herodotus says of the Egyptians that they were the first to teach the immortality of the human soul. With them, that is, there first emerges in this higher way too the separation between nature and spirit. He also notes that we have before us a double architecture, one above ground, the other subterranean: labyrinths under the soil, magnificent vast excavations, passages half a mile long, chambers adorned with hieroglyphics, everything worked out with the maximum of care; then above ground there are built in addition those amazing constructions amongst which the Pyramids are to be counted the chief. Like the iceberg, what we see of Miliband’s stone is not the entire thing; it extends underground. The stone has a buried double, an inverted image of itself: something cannot last forever without the incorporation of its antithesis, which is also its truth, into its totality. The shadow-stone promises the economic ruin of the ruling classes, vows to smash the NHS, and praises the undifferentiated tide of immigrants, all scowling, all crawling with fleas and disease, that will come to sweep away the rottenness of this country. And just as the sublunar stone is a monument to the Gods, in the form of the news media whose signals bounce around off satellites on the chilly edge of outer space, so too does the subterranean stone have its audience. After the election is lost and won, the obelisk will be set up, and beneath it there must be a tomb. Inside: the shrunken, dessicated corpse of Ed Miliband, his skin grey and stretched over fossilised bone, his body untold thousands of years old.

* * *

Russell Brand, marmoset rights advocate and the foremost political thinker of what will come to be known as the UKTV Dave Age, has reversed his former electoral pessimism and is now encouraging us all to vote. Disputes over the strange cultural practice tend to pit those who think voting is the sole mode of human self-realisation against those who think it’s a spectacular distraction that has never once changed anything whatsoever. The answer isn’t in the middle, but buried deep beneath both positions. The single vote, cast anonymously, for a single person instead of a course of action – these things aren’t democracy, they’re a quirk of the democratic system that has come to engulf the entire structure. In classical Athens, governmental positions were usually determined by lots, to counteract the advantages enjoyed by rich citizens and great orators. The only time as as a fifth-century Athenian citizen you’d ever actually vote for a politician, it was because you were casting an ostrakon: voting for them to be exiled from the city. If we’re to extract the rational kernel from the parliamentary madness that surrounds us, this is a practice that must be reinstated. On polling day, your duty is to vote for the candidate you like the least.

This election is the tightest and most unpredictable in decades, but it’s still singularly unexciting. Everyone is pretending that nobody knows what will happen after the 7th of May. Will there be a minority government? A grand coalition to save the Union? Will Scottish raiders once more descend from their barbarian highlands to steal our cattle? Will the Liberal Democrat front bench die on the way back to their home planet? It’s a ruse, a shoddy imitation of the alliances and intrigues that They see us enjoying on TV, the Game of Thrones-ification of electoral democracy. We all know what’s going to happen, whoever wins. The Mother of All Parliaments is falling apart; the Commons will have to relocate to a nearby conference centre for five years while repairs are made to the Palace of Westminster. There will be more cuts, more austerity, more privatisation, more war. There will be an expenses scandal, a corruption scandal, a sex scandal, a socks-and-sandals scandal. It’s not just that. The newspapers keep making their probability pie-charts and speculative coalition Venn diagrams to cover up a terrifying truth. There can be no doubt what will happen after the election. After the election, sooner or later, you are going to die.

United Kingdämmerung

What happened to the English that turned them into the most evil people on the planet? There’s not much in their national prehistory to explain the horrors that would come later: the English are, even according to their own national mythology, a supremely wimpy tribe. When the other Germanic peoples were pushed from their homes by the constant westward pressure of the Huns they went off on grand adventures, pouring through the cracks of the rotting Roman empire, sacking the great cities of Africa, tearing Europe down and building it up again. The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, settled for a few damp and undefended islands on the surf-softened periphery of the continent. They could have had Byzantium; they settled for Basildon. Most historians now conclude that they didn’t even have the guts to conquer the place outright, but just slowly assimilated its existing residents into what passed for their culture.  No classic primal scene, just a miserable clump of soil in the middle of a grey sea, where the English festered, waiting to erupt. Maybe there was. Maybe they saw something on their journey, those first witlessly seasick Saxons, tactically chundering over the sides of the Britannia-bound banter boat. Some primordial nymph or siren lurking in the chilly waters of the North Sea, all blue tits and seaweed-strewn limbs and timeless malice, who emerged wreathed by storms and lighting before the bedraggled ancestors of our modern hell, saw a bunch of easy marks, and told them: accept my evil, and I will let you conquer the world. Something that struck madness and bloodlust into their hearts and those of their children even unto the hundredth generation. For centuries the promise went unfulfilled: the English had to stay cooped up in their island-prison, being periodically humiliated by the other dregs of Europe (such as the Normans, an utterly wretched gang of lost Vikings led by the walking embodiment of preening insecurity) and using their spare time to compose tediously alliterative poetry. But when it finally came to pass, it did so with raging hatred; four centuries of unrelenting revenge against the world.

When the Chinese set sail across the world, it was in pursuit of knowledge; when the Spanish did it, it was for gold and glory. The explorations of the English seem to have been propelled by a sense of fidgety restlessness, a brutally murderous boredom. For all the massacres committed by the Catholic powers in the New World, they at least left some gasping harried remnants of the old cultures. Where the English went, they tended to kill every living thing.  There are, by some accounts, only twenty-two countries that have not at some point or another been attacked by this top bunch of lads. (It’s still going on; every summer, systolic contractions in the metropole send out streams of English to wash up like an oil sick against beaches the world over.) The result is that the sickness of the Anglo-Saxons is now spread across the world: the boredom and fury of centuries of imprisonment on that rainy island in the North Atlantic; from the endless suburbs of the United States to the cultural voids of Australia there are everywhere scars on the landscape that will be forever England. And it’s nothing if not a sickness. On top of their sadistic psychopathy the English have over time absorbed every possible personality defect into their national psyche: a horrifying range of sexual neuroses, a repugnant patrician narcissism, an unbearable prudishness, a whole complex of perplexing delusional psychoses, all wrapped up in a code of socially mandated autism. The English eat terrible food, enjoy ugly saccharine literature, make art without any gleam of merit and TV shows so gut-knottingly awful it’s a wonder entire production teams don’t commit ritual suicide out of sheer embarrassment. It’s not even as if they’re unaware of it all: the English are obsessed with these signifiers of Englishness. Endless fetishes: umbrellas, cigars, rolled-up newspapers, nuclear-armed submarines. There have been antique god-kings less self-regarding than the English middle classes. These people honestly believe that if everyone else were more like them – if they liked tea and gin, if they were decent and polite as only those sitting on half a century of imperial slaughter can be – there wouldn’t be any more problems. It’s charming eccentricity, they clamour. It’s not: it’s lunacy. The English aren’t a race, they’re an infectious disease. So I entirely support Scottish aspirations for independence.

I’m not alone. An entire country is emerging into a chilly blue-and-white dawn, and the grotesque historical abomination known as the United Kingdom might finally be finished forever. The Scots can govern themselves: no more English, no more Tories, a chance to build something new and human. The problem is that it won’t really work. Not that this month’s referendum will fail – there’s enough reason to be optimistic, even factoring in the No campaign’s recent rebrand to the nauseating ‘no thanks,’ the revelation that Scottish independence forms part of a massive jihadi conspiracy to split the union, fears that bekilted diehard irredentist militias might start firing mortars into Newcastle in an attempt to return the border to Hadrian’s Wall, the looming presence of another royal baby, and so on. Most psephologists (onomatopoetic creatures; snake-tongued and disgusting) still predict a narrow victory for the unionists, but this means nothing: as any cursory reading of Hegel will show, the metaphysical force that drives world-historical transformations expresses itself through the subjective will rather than being constituted by it. It might be the case that, for all the white papers, nobody seems to be entirely sure what an independent Scotland would look like, beyond being different to things as they are now – but this isn’t a bad thing: every worthwhile political programme starts with an anguished cry of ‘not this.’ The problem is that, unless you squint at them very hard, this and not-this are entirely identical. What’s being offered is a shitty simulacrum of independence. An independent Scotland will keep our beloved ghastly peg-toothed Queen, and she will no doubt keep the vast tracts of Scotland in which she conducts her strange summer blood-rites. Scotland will likely attempt to carry on using the pahnd sterling, and continue to submit itself to the mad whims of the Bank of England. Scotland might no longer host Trident, the UK’s nuclear albatross,  but it’s likely to maintain its NATO and US presence – and may even build new bases. Scotland also hopes to remain in the European Union, with the result that, when the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership comes into force, corporations will be able to sue the state for any future profits lost through any governmental policy that restricts the free market. Not that it matters: the SNP already has one of the most business-friendly platforms in Europe, and the restructuring that will inevitably follow any post-independence capital flight should quickly quash any dreams of Scottish socialism.

Across Europe once-solid borders are turning into a network of twanging rubber bands. Independence is almost in reach for the Catalans of Spain and the Flemish of Belgium. A non-binding referendum revealed that a significant majority of Venetians want to unshackle themselves from Italy; after that anything is possible. Occitanie libre, free Bavaria, a Sámi homeland, a Székely Empire, a glittering panoply of tiny strange new nations dancing in the gorgeous sunset of western civilisation. Some new states might take their names and identities from half-forgotten medieval liberties, others from hybridised immigrant cultures, others from dodgy mythology, apocalyptic cults, faint memories of visitors from beyond the stars. It won’t matter. The grand myth of our age is that the world is somehow becoming more global and more open, a smooth space lit up by the blazing trails of billions of lines of flight. In fact, there are more fences than ever – between Latin and German America, between Europe and Africa, between Israelis and Palestinians, between the rich and poor residents of the same cities and sometimes the same buildings. Capitalism doesn’t mind borders; they’re very good for isolating and exploiting people, especially those caught on the wrong side. All the capitalists ask is that their rule be entrenched on both sides of any barrier, and you can have any kind of state you like. The people ruling an independent Scotland will most likely be the exact same people ruling it today: international capitalists – in other words, the English.

Frantz Fanon wrote that the psychological tolls of imperialism could only be undone through the catharsis of violent anticolonial revolution. For all the plummy southern accents on the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland has dubious claims to being a colonised population. Educational massacre seems out of the question. What’s left? In the end it always comes back to the sea. It’s been well demonstrated that the primitive capital that set off the Industrial Revolution came from the transatlantic slave trade; from dark-age longboats to oil supertankers the sickness of the English is a sea-borne pathogen. Industrial-financial capitalism is the English madness reconfigured as a total world-system, rolling across the crested currents: illusions of representation, dispossession and death, alienation, atomisation, constant, aching, desperate boredom. If Scotland goes, it’ll be from one stacked undemocratic English-dominated system into another. The only way Scottish independence can become anything more than a sham is through a concerted effort from the whole of humanity to abolish the ocean forever.

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