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Tag: imperialism

All cats are girls and all dogs are boys: further notes on Slavoj Žižek

Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

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It was gratifying to see, in his latest response to me, that Slavoj Žižek is finally engaging with the psychoanalytic concepts that are (after all) his intellectual speciality. I happen to have some disagreements with the way in which he uses them, but I’ll come to that later. The dispute over certain terms – desire, fantasy, culture, and so on – spirals out from a parenthetical observation I made in my initial critique of Žižek. He writes that migrants should abandon the unrealistic demand for a better life in a ‘Norway’ that does not exist, and should agree to be settled wherever a coercive European state apparatus decides to send them. I respond: ‘Isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?’ In our subsequent exchanges Žižek argues that my invocation of objet petit a is not legitimate, and that the desire in question has instead the structure of a fantasy. These are not, in the Lacanian cosmology, opposing terms; if what we’re dealing with here is indeed a fantasy, it needs to be taken seriously as such. Žižek disagrees; the fantasy must be ‘traversed.’ In this contest – who’s using the terms correctly, who’s abusing them, the gotcha game of faultlines and connections, the gasping slapfight for legitimacy, all of it largely irrelevant to the issue at hand – something was passed over: the question of whether migrants do, in fact, have an unconscious mind. The question was supposed to be absurd, but apparently I should have insisted on it with more force. Because the answer, according to Žižek’s recent essay in the New Statesman, is actually no, they don’t.

Here, Žižek builds on a structure proposed by Alain Badiou in the wake of the massacre in Paris, a division of the world into three forms of subjectivity: that of the liberal-democratic West (this is a neutral quantity, and demands no further investigation), and two modes of response to its global dominance. First, the ‘desire for the West,’ which manifests itself in migration and in what Žižek scorns as the ‘miserable copies of western prosperity’ – coffee shops in Lagos, shopping malls in Luanda. How dare they! (It’s not clear why Žižek invests these places with the horror of the unreal; you don’t have to be a Baudrillardian to recognise that the coffee shop in London or Lisbon is fundamentally also a miserable copy.) Secondly, the ‘nihilist reversal’: a zombie plague. The envy of the non-Western subject is inflamed into a fascistic, insensate rage, something that collapses into ‘hatred pure and simple.’ It’s here that Žižek diverges from Badiou. For the latter, our task is to ‘go and see who is this other about whom one talks, who are they really. We have to gather their thoughts, their ideas, their vision of things.’ For Žižek, this is impossible. This other is ‘utterly disoriented;’ behind their frantic psychodynamic torque there is no ‘”deeper” human core of global solidarity.’ So much for the depth metaphors of Freudianism; we cannot talk with these people because they are incapable of speech. It’s not just that we don’t share the same symbolic terrain; it’s a landscape on which they simply have no presence. They are incoherent Orientals, speechless and psychotic, objectively robbed of everything by the disposessive whirlwind of global capitalism, but on the subjective level terrifyingly uncastrated. This is the framework that Žižek uses to talk about the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

His primary theoretical referent here is not Lacan or even Badiou, but the new Tarantino film The Hateful Eight. Who, he asks, is the hateful figure in this film? It’s the entire cast: the black man fighting off armed racists is every bit as ‘mean, brutal, and revengeful’ as his enemies; the forces of law and order are as venal and sadistic as the gang of criminals. (He doesn’t mention it, but the friendly black inkeepers are also virulent anti-Mexican racists.) The lesson Žižek draws is that everyone is bad: refugees might be fleeing from terrible horrors, but that doesn’t give them any great moral virtue; they’re still capable of carrying out violent and inexcusable crimes. The idea that everything is bad should be pretty much axiomatic; I’m certainly not interested in contesting it. But I think Žižek has engaged in a significant misreading of the film. The Hateful Eight is not a film about good or bad people; it’s a film about the State. Everything in it centres around paperwork; when they’re not killing each other, the characters spend most of the running time scrutinising each other’s documents. Samuel L Jackson’s character has a letter from President Lincoln which is occasionally demanded of him; he also has warrants for the deaths of the three bodies he carries around with him. With these pieces of paper he is a lawful bounty hunter; without them he is a criminal. Tim Roth’s character is a travelling executioner; his paperwork entitles him to hang the guilty for a living, and if the message weren’t already clear he gives us a long monologue on the difference between State force and personal violence. The real lesson is that neither can be considered independently: each produces, structures, and limits the other. I didn’t particularly like The Hateful Eight, but it does demonstrate a fairly obvious Marxist dictum: it’s pointless to consider any instance of violence in its isolated abstraction, you have to position it within the concrete historical totality of human relations. It’s no use talking about good or bad people; any action is necessarily a product of the social field in which it takes place.

To be fair, Žižek makes a feint in this direction, referring (in a rushed, unenthusiastic moment of obeisance to the leftist liturgy) to the ‘systematic violence of capitalism itself, from the catastrophic consequences of global economy to the long story of military interventions.’ But this doesn’t really inform his analysis. Fundamentalist fascism is something other to the civilised West, attached by a gossamer-thin dialectic; women were attacked in Cologne not because migrants don’t understand that Western sexual etiquette is different, but because they understand that perfectly well, and they hate it. Here the societies of the West are figured as free and open and (on the level of gender, at least) egalitarian; those of the Middle East are not, and the events in Cologne mark the point of friction between these two codes. This is patently untrue. Societies in Europe and the Middle East are both of them patriarchal and repressive (it’s not as if sexual assault was unknown in Cologne until the refugees arrived; such atrocities are epidemic throughout the continent), and feminist movements in both regions have to contend with an overwhelming tide of male violence. There is a long and heroic tradition of Arab and Islamic feminism: the question isn’t one of why the West is more permissive but why oppositional movements within the West have had more success in influencing their social fields. It’s impossible to answer this question without looking in detail at the history and politics of the regions concerned. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East and the wider Islamic world has experienced a brutal repression of womens’ rights – compare, for instance, photographs of street scenes in Kabul from the era of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with images from today, and compare how the women are dressed. Throughout the twentieth century, peoples across the Islamic world attempted to build secular, socialist, egalitarian states, and time and again they were met by Western imperialism. The West’s geopolitical aims in the Middle East require repressive governments, subdued populations, client states that will obediently facilitate the extraction of value – and social repression in general is inextricable from the oppression of women. Fundamentalist fascism is not the dialectical antithesis of the values of a bourgeois West, but something entirely immanent to it. The cruelty that displayed itself on the streets and squares of Cologne was not the result of a cultural difference, with cultural causes; its causes were political.

It’s this notion of culture that returns us to Žižek’s critique of my critique of his critique of my critique. Beyond some minor terminological wrangling (no, fantasy is not a symptom, and I didn’t intend to suggest that it is; the notion that a fantasy is symptomatic of a ‘deeper’ ill comes straight from Žižek’s own essay), his main objection is this: by using Lacanian concepts to consider the relation to an other that is constructed along racial or cultural rather than sexual-libidinal lines, I am distorting and misusing those concepts. Naturally, I disagree: properly deployed, a concept would not be a border clamping down on its object, but something that allows it to open up, form connections, and reach out to further non-identities. This is why theory is useful: it provides a way to alternately bring things together and spread them apart, to form ways of thinking that cut across phenomena in their isolation and allow us to think things in their bubbling totality. Here I think the Master might be on my side – after all, Lacan famously declared that ‘Marx invented the symptom’; he’s generally open to the ability of a signifier to drift through various regimes.

Žižek’s objections, when taken seriously, indicate a strangely non-Lacanian approach. He writes that the lack of an appropriate signifier for the other is something that ‘does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture’ (ie, between a subject and its libidinal object) and that my position implies that ‘each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures.’ It does not; I’m talking about relations between subjects: as I’ve written before, I find the abstract notion of a distinct and cohesive culture to be fairly useless. Žižek’s insistence on upholding this idea in these circumstances is revealing: to do so, he ends up having to assert that the division of people into cultures is primary, primary even to the division in gender that Lacan is talking about. First people are arranged into different ‘ways of life,’ then we get Oedipus. This isn’t Lacan, it’s Samuel Huntington. Lacan, as far as I’m aware, does not tend to use the word ‘culture’ very much: what Žižek is talking about are his four discourses, those of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst – and not, I should point out, the European, the Arab, the African, and so on. Discourses are, as the name suggests, discursive; a structure of relations that will operate whenever there is any kind of relation. (As Žižek points out, this being Lacan, discourses are not spaces of mutual comprehensibility but different forms of mutual misunderstanding.) A subject can operate within a discourse, but to formulate an encounter between subjects – one that will necessarily take place under a certain set of conditions – as an encounter between discourses is nonsensical. These arrangements can meet, and have their agonisms – Lacan’s name for this is politics, and keeping in mind his dictum that ‘the unconscious is politics,’ it’s clear that this political clash of discourses should in no way be read as a clash of subjects.

Collapsing the notion of culture into that of discourse is, arguably, a far greater distortion of the terminology than anything I’ve achieved – most of all, because its operation is not expansive, but restrictive. With the discursive character of the discourse passed over, with its collapse into the blankness of culture, Žižek is capable of figuring migrants as a cultural null point, as those who do not and can not speak. What Žižek performs is an ossification of forms into static categories. All cats are girls. And all dogs are boys.

PS: I can’t finish without noting Žižek’s complaint against my ‘intellectual sleight of hand’: where he said ‘fundamentalist Muslims,’ I only quoted the second word. It’s a bit like one of his own parables: the word that’s missing is the one that gives the sentence meaning, etc, etc. I’ll admit to the misquote, but I’m not sure that the appended word alters the meaning in any significant manner; the opposition between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘moderate’ Islam is a fairly insidious nonsense. Cracking kernels and so on.

PPS: In their discussion of the barbarian State, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as a train: the grand paranoiac, followed by his obedient perverts – ‘the conqueror and his elite troops, the despot and his bureaucrats, the anchorite and his monks.’ This came to mind while reading Adam Kotsko’s defence of Žižek. He argues that the best way to understand Žižek’s position is through the lens of his own book. (Well, of course.) Kotsko argues that the worst elements of Žižek’s stance on the migration crisis are in fact a provocative overidentification with the false terms of the debate. This is fine. He also writes that, unlike his critics, Žižek is providing concrete, sensible, workable solutions to the problem. This is also fine. I would suggest, though, that you can’t really have both.

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Building Norway: a critique of Slavoj Žižek

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration – the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This language isn’t just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people – children included – can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; it’s only once bodies wash up on beaches that there’s an imperative to act. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj Žižek’s essay on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: ‘The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe…’ What comes next is even more unsettling: Žižek compares the European response to the crisis to Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief, though – Europe is displaying ‘a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on learning we have a terminal illness.’ Migrants aren’t just a flood; Žižek resurrects a far more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer, a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction; he’s not himself making the comparison; it’s something that could be very plausibly dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, there’s no Freud, Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, there’s nothing that could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true. Clearly Žižek doesn’t agree: what The Non-Existence of Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal man’s take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

Žižek’s argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised like this. The migration ‘crisis’ currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time, migrants display an ‘enigmatically utopian’ demand: they don’t just want to arrive somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to camp in squalid conditions in Calais are ‘not satisfied with France’ and demand Britain instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a good life for themselves and their children in Norway – but, Žižek insists, ‘there is no Norway, not even in Norway.’ Life isn’t fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the invaders, but the ‘standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism’ – to insist that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is ‘merely the obverse of anti-immigrant brutality,’ because it accepts that the defence of one’s way of life is in contradiction with ‘ethical universalism.’ But rather than demonstrating that this is a false opposition, however, Žižek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the (nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. ‘Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals?’ After indulging in this airily speculative rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, Žižek finally gets down to some serious prescriptivism. Europe must ‘reassert its commitment’ to the dignified treatment of refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it ‘must impose clear rules and regulations,’ through a strengthened central European authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the world that produce migration. ‘Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.’ And they must be backed up by brutal state violence.

There is a lot that’s deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the primary problem is the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the master-signifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? Žižek’s essay seems to be as uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we should at least be open to the idea that their ‘values’ and ways of life will not be too different from those of bourgeois Europe.

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Žižek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also – isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all.’ Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented – but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Žižek can only articulate the European ‘way of life’ in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that Žižek has deployed himself – see his discussion of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of course, even if all this weren’t the case – so what? Must anyone who doesn’t embody a certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants’ crisis is happening now? Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does Žižek perform this total abandonment of theory? His ‘straightforward’ approach results in some highly uncomfortable formulations – take, for instance, the line that ‘refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely.’ Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of ‘price’ with ‘economy.’ A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself situated within some greater and more general economy – one that, under conditions of capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of economy as such, Žižek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources. Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on Žižek’s essay. A properly Marxist critique doesn’t just look at what a text says, but what it does, and to whom it’s speaking. Žižek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun throughout, but who is this ‘we’? Only and always the settled Europeans. It’s never once considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they could be reading the London Review of Books. When Žižek uses the vocative case, when he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do, it’s even more obvious who he’s talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is, to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence of Norway isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on ‘radical economic change,’ this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Žižek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.

The last of the cowboys

Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history, died on the 2nd of February, 2013. He’d served four tours in Iraq, been injured twice, involved in six roadside bomb attacks, and killed up to two hundred and fifty-five people; Islamist insurgents had offered a reward of $80,000 for his head, but when he died it was at the Rough Creek Lodge and Resort, an elegant ranch-style resort offering fine dining and a spa, plus a pool and tennis courts, an unremarkable flash of blue and white off Route 67 near Fort Worth, Texas. The man who killed an American icon, Eddie Ray Routh, was another Iraq War veteran; since his discharge he’d been in and out of psychiatric wards, bouncing between a bureaucratic state apparatus that tried to keep him sedated and a bureaucratic family apparatus that just couldn’t understand the horrors he’d lived through. But neither could Chris Kyle. The most lethal sniper in American military history never worried about what he’d done. Every Iraqi he’d killed was an American life saved; his only regret was that he hadn’t killed more people, saved more lives. It was a job, and he was extremely good at it. Afterwards, when he came home, he set about making regular TV appearances and publishing a folksy ghostwritten memoir in which the reader is consistently addressed as y’all, a book that ended up staying on the New York Times best-seller list for 37 weeks. He loved his wife and kids. He made it his mission to keep on saving American soldiers, and he went about it in the only way he knew: he’d take injured veterans out shooting. And then one of them killed him. He never thought that for someone still shaking from the slaughter in Iraq, the best therapeutic option might not be to put a gun back in his hands and let off rifle fire all around him. He never thought that the cure for war could be anything other than war. All this was something America’s greatest killer simply wasn’t capable of understanding.

If Chris Kyle had been killed in Iraq by someone who’d got lucky, or was simply better than him, it would’ve just been part of the general idiocy of war. Instead, he died because of that bullish indifference, the precise same buried trait that made him so successful in combat. Kyle was something somehow more or less than human, a man capable of not just killing without remorse but of laughing about it on Conan O’Brien afterwards. Someone who just couldn’t understand. His death in the flat fields of Erath County, Texas isn’t a strange coda or an anticlimactic end to a life of action; it’s a perfect catharsis, something out of Sophocles, a moment of pure Greek tragedy in the modern age. It’s an incredible story.

So how on Earth was it fucked up so badly?

American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood biopic of Chris Kyle, isn’t just a piece of gratuitous military propaganda; it’s a godawful, artless, bloated, cowardly failure of a film. Defending the abomination he’d created against accusations of propaganda, Eastwood insisted that it isn’t political, but a character study. Except the encounter between Kyle and Routh, the essential character-defining moment of the story, is entirely absent. All we see is Kyle’s wife watch him driving off with a stranger who, as we’re meant to infer from the slow zooming of the camera and the shot’s framing through a crack in the doorway, is somehow evil. Then fade to black, the words Chris Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help, and stirring music over real footage of Kyle’s funeral procession. Roll credits. That’s it.

In fact, none of Kyle’s actual character seems to have made it into this character study. The real-life Chris Kyle was a strange and unpleasant man: not just a killer but a liar, a braggart, and a thief. There’s something weirdly childish about him. He said he’d shot thirty armed looters from the top of the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Katrina (despite also boasting of having himself looted from apartments in Iraq), was successfully sued for claiming have knocked out the former politician and wrestler Jesse Ventura in a bar fight, and insisted he’d once effortlessly killed two Mexican carjackers in Texas. His uncle works for Nintendo, and he knows a secret karate move called the Touch of Death, and he totally had sex with all the girls at school, but don’t ask any of them about it, because they’ll only lie. It’s hard to take anything he says seriously. Chris Kyle served in Ramadi and Fallujah: in both cities American forces set up arbitrary no-go zones without any signposts, and shot anyone who stepped outside their homes or took a wrong turn while driving. Residents were afraid to even go near their windows. In Fallujah a sniper was positioned outside a hospital and fired on ambulance crews as they tried to leave. Was it Kyle? Who can say? In his book Kyle never really approaches Iraqis as being fully human, never takes a moment to try to comprehend why the people he kills might resent being occupied by the same empire that starved five hundred thousand of their children to death. It’s because they’re evil, he decides: playground morality. He never wonders what he’d do if a foreign power took over Texas. Your character study’s all here, ready and waiting, but this isn’t the film Clint Eastwood makes.

And then there’s his name: Chris Kyle. There’s always something slightly unsettling about people with two first names (and I say that as someone who is, sonically if not orthographically, among their number). There’s always the potential for a dangerous kind of play, like Yossarian with Irving Washington and Washington Irving. People with two first names can be mirrored, inverted; they always have Gothic doubles or ghostly opposites hanging around them somewhere. Who is Kyle Chris? Obviously someone like Eddie Ray Routh. But Eastwood takes a different approach.

The problem with a character study that refuses to study its subject’s character is that it doesn’t really leave anywhere else to go. Chris Kyle’s real military career was a monotonously brutal series of unconnected killings; day after day of waiting, watching, shooting, without any narrative beyond the scattering of the Iraq War into entropic meaninglessness. One scene illustrates the problem nicely: a car full of insurgents attempt to fire a rocket at an American convoy; the machine-gunners instantly reduce it to bloodied scrap metal. When the forces are so mismatched there’s little scope for narrative tension, but a film needs a plot, so Clint Eastwood invents one. It’s a Western; a cowboy film. Bradley Cooper stars as the grizzled bearded stranger who rides into town with an uncanny knack for straight-shootin’, an inexplicable nonchalance towards murder, and a keen, Godly sense of right and wrong. As the armoured vehicles crawl towards Fallujah, someone says: welcome to the new Wild West of the old Middle East. One of the only aspects of Kyle’s book that Eastwood actually leaves in is his habit of referring to Iraqis – who, let’s not forget, invented irrigation, writing, and the State – as savages: these are Injuns here, warlike and whooping. And any Western needs a shootout: enter Kyle Chris, in the form of Mustafa, an invented Syrian sniper that Kyle faces off against throughout the film, culminating in a gunfight that across the dusty Main Street that is Baghdad’s Sadr City. Our hero draws first. He wins.

It doesn’t work. Nothing works. For a start, American Sniper seems to have been plotted by a wandering amnesiac or a slightly dim child. At first the main villain is ‘the Butcher’, a sadistic and fictional al-Qa’eda enforcer who vanishes from the story midway through and is never captured or heard from again. Kyle’s grisly tours of duty are interspersed with scenes in which he returns to an America of rolling wheatfields and sun-speckled copses, as if he’d briefly ascended to a patriotic Thomas Kinkade version of Heaven. The point might be to introduce pacing, but it ends up turning the story into half-chewed vomit. The action scenes are basically tedious, and in the end the constant gunfire just sounds like someone stepping on bubble wrap. But it fails on more fundamental levels as well. It’s interesting to compare American Sniper with Eastwood’s earlier cowboy adventures, many of which were masterpieces of the anti-Western genre. In Sergio Leone’s films the heroic trick-shooting cowboy of American mythology is transformed into the Man With No Name, someone skidding on the edges between avenging angel and brutally intrusive psychopath. A figure without past or future, only impish wit, venal greed, and silence.

This is a contradiction heightened in High Plains Drifter, one of Eastwood’s first films as a director. A mysterious Stranger rides into town from the mountainous wilds; all he claims to want is a drink and a haircut, but there’s an incredible violence to him, a seething, bodily violence, barely buried. Some local toughs start on him, and he kills them almost effortlessly. But there are also bandits coming for the townspeople, and with their protectors now dead, the Stranger agrees to organise their defence. But the Stranger is a rapist and a glutton, and his brief rule is very strange. He makes a grotesque dwarf called Mordecai the town’s mayor and sheriff; when the enemy approaches he paints all the buildings red and suddenly retreats, allowing the bandits to murder half the townspeople before returning to finish them off. The whole town is guilty, and he’s punished them. As the Stranger rides off again Mordecai comments that he never did know his name. Yes, you do, he says. If you know your masques, your lords of misrule, and your Bulgakov, you do too. It’s the Devil: justice in excess of itself and law as the right of the stronger is the Devil.

American Sniper feels wrong. It’s all hollow; there’s a constant sense of dislocation, like we’re looking at everything from the wrong angle. It wants the blood and brutality of the Stranger or the Man With No Name, only without his strangeness or his namelessness. It wants the Devil of Ramadi, but can’t accept that he might have been a devil. In fact, the opposite: Eastwood relentlessly humanises his hero, showing us all the pain and stress that the real Chris Kyle never suffered. He wants us to like this guy, this mass murderer, to like him unproblematically – because he’s a good guy, a sheepdog. It’s strange: he’s trying to resurrect all the stupid cowboy clichés he and Leone so thoroughly dismantled decades ago. But for all he rides in rodeos and prances around in a big hat, his Kyle isn’t a friendly cowboy. He kills too easily. He kills children. (At the start of the film, our hero kills a child holding a grenade. His mother rushes towards the body – and then picks up the weapon, forcing Kyle to kill her too. She can’t have loved her child, and so the infanticide is justified. In Kyle’s book, it’s just the woman, who he describes as being evil and having a twisted soul for trying the resist a foreign invasion of her home.) So with both poles of the cowboy continuum barred, the role can only escape into the dangerous wilds of the third term. Kyle is the bandit, the invader: Angel Eyes.

It’s still a cowboy film, but there are no great American cowboys any more. Cowboys don’t have helicopter support; they don’t provide covering fire for armoured columns, and no matter how morally ambiguous, they don’t kill kids. But the Man With No Name still rides. Mustasfa, the Syrian in the film, is a clumsy fiction, but he’s based on a real person: Juba, the Baghdad sniper, the terror of the occupiers, the hope of a nation. Unlike Chris Kyle, his TV appearances are grainy and functional. Somewhere in the haze of pixels there’s a soldier on patrol; a thunk, and he drops to the ground. Only occupiers: never Iraqi troops, never civilians. Perhaps Eastwood’s made his most daring deconstruction of the cowboy genre yet – something outwardly terrible, but which encodes another, very different film; one visible only by its negation, by the tiny cracks in the filmic facade. See how Mustafa runs across rooftops and jumps over alleyways, see his split-second moment of domesticity, his wife and infant child, his framed Olympic photo. Mustafa is killed in the film, but Juba never was. Nobody knows his name, nobody knows his face. He is everyone and no-one. He doesn’t talk, he acts. When armed cavalrymen from the West storm the city, when they burst into people’s homes at night and shoot children on the streets, one man makes a stand. The strange and savage invaders have cruise missiles and helicopter gunships; this hero is armed only with a rusting old Russian rifle, a gift for marksmanship, a moral code that’s firm but obscure, and his enduring faith in God. One man against a whole army! Can he survive? But a horse races across the deserts of Anbar province, and a low nasheed mingles with the billowing clouds of dust. Out from the freedom of the open range rides something cruel and strange. Our last best hope. He is the last of the cowboys. He is the American sniper.

Trifles for a massacre

Who is it that threatens free speech? When the French government bans all Gaza solidarity demonstrations at the height of a vicious massacre in Palestine, it’s not a threat to freedom of speech: it’s a public safety measure. When the French state bans Muslim women from wearing the veil in public, it’s not a threat to freedom of speech: it’s a defence of secularism. When fanatical Zionists plant a bomb under the car of a French Jewish journalist who won’t toe the party line on Israel, it’s not a threat to freedom of speech: it’s a criminal act, certainly, but not an existential threat to the general ability for you or for me to say whatever we want. In the UK newspaper offices are raided by spies and kids are sent to prison for burning artificial poppies; this isn’t a threat to free speech either. It’s strange. The capitalist state, once the existential enemy of all freedom, a monster to be kept constantly under watch, is now the armed guarantor of liberty. Threats to free speech don’t come from the powerful any more. It’s “the Muslims”: a mass both hydra-headed and faceless, like a handful of worms. A persecuted minority, the suffering conscience of Europe. (Did you know that it’s now illegal to build minarets in Switzerland? Or that several towns in Italy have banned non-Italian restaurants? Whose freedom is under threat?) Or if it does come from a state, it’s one far away, surrounded by barbed wire and guns pointing inwards. The poor and the despised: this is who we must defend ourselves against?

How do you exercise free speech? You don’t do anything. You hoist up your Je suis Charlie placard, you queue in the cold to see a stupid and ugly Seth Rogen film, because this is your duty to the ideal of liberty and free expression. Freedom means obedience. Is this Hegel we’re reading? You must passively and dutifully admire the courage of those who dare to ruthlessly satirise any and all targets. In other words, those who have stockholders and distribution networks, while you have forty Twitter followers and the right to pen a letter to the editor. Freedom of speech belongs to the brave, the few, the moneyed.

What does free speech do? It offends, and there’s no such thing as a right to not be offended. Fine. But why is it assumed that what really offends “the Muslims” is the mere depiction of the prophet Mohammed, that if all other things were equal “they” would still fly into a murderous fury at stick-figures? France has been killing and occupying in Muslim lands since 1830. Across Europe Muslims are subjected to discriminatory laws and police surveillance; outside Europe Muslims are slaughtered by the hundreds from the air; Muslim-majority countries are plunged into chaos and bloodshed on the whims of a paternalistic Atlantic elite – and all of it is done in the name of freedom, a freedom that quickly reveals itself as the freedom to mock the victims. Such bravery. It’s just cartoons, it’s just satire: but it’s not; it’s bombs and missiles,

Is this all it is? Is freedom of speech nothing more than the freedom for a multi-million dollar studio to make a warmongering film, or the freedom to publish a racist magazine? Freedom that only punches down, that only repeats and intensifies the discourse of power and oppression that already comes from all sides (but especially from above), that is lauded by presidents and parliaments, that is threatened only by those that it oppresses – is this, in the end, really the best we can do? Is the freedom to repeat really freedom?

The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?

The line now is that you cannot criticise Charlie Hebdo, because they had the bravery to criticise anything. Je suis Charlie: you have to identify yourself with an openly racist publication. Why this identification? Protesters in the United States said that they were Mike Brown and Eric Garner because they, too, could be killed by cops, because they, too, were black. Do you also say that the French are stupid like blacks? Do you also show Boko Haram’s kidnap victims as pregnant grotesques demanding welfare money? When the Egyptian coup regime was killing thousands of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, the cover of Charlie Hebdo showed a bearded man holding up a book against a hail of gunfire and being shot through the chest; the caption read The Qur’an is shit: it doesn’t stop bullets. If they were really ‘equal-opportunity offenders’ relentlessly satirising anyone and anything without any thought for taste or morality, their next issue will be of this type, a ruthless mockery of the victims. We never liked them anyway, or something like that. It wont happen.

As soon as you question the value of this free speech that isn’t really free, the assumption from your defenders is that you must want to impose some kind of censorship. I have no desire to censor. My title here is from Louis-Ferdinand Céline, another French racist, whose hatred was this time ranged against my self and my people; a great writer, even a great writer of antisemitic screeds, who I would never want to censor. It’s assumed that you must want to limit criticism of Islam. I have no particular love for Islam; there’s a lot about it I don’t like. I don’t like the concept of tawhid, or the figuraion of the One as a uniqueness. I don’t like the circumscribed universalism, the community always facing the horizon-figure of the kuffar. I will always support the freedom for anyone to argue against any set of concepts. But this is different from the victimisation of an already persecuted minority. I also support the right of people to fight against those that would destroy them. Free speech fanatics have pointed approvingly to the verdict in the Skokie Affair; where would they have stood in the Battle of Cable Street? I believe in satire; sometimes I even try to do it myself. But I also believe that satire only works when it punches up, that free speech is only really a freedom when it threatens power, not when it becomes the cruel laugh of imperial sadism. The Interview didn’t do this, neither did Charlie Hebdo. Nobody should be killed for this. But they mustn’t be applauded either.

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.

Death to the moderates

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

They live among us, the moderates, if what they have can be called life. You’ve probably seen them, strolling on the streets and driving in their cars and looking every bit like the human beings they aren’t; maybe you happen to be one yourself. There are (but why?) people who will go out in the evening and drink exactly one half of a bottle of wine; people who think the new Simpsons episodes are still pretty funny; people who can look at the sheer swirling insanity that surrounds us, the artificial famines and the drowning refugees and the suffocating alienation, and declare themselves to be moderate in relation to it. Things aren’t perfect, but a few tweaks here and there should set things straight: raise the top income tax bracket (but not by too much), legalise marijuana (but not any of the interesting drugs), overthrow the Assad government in Syria, casual Fridays at the office and police action against internet trolls; forge a world that’s basically the same but a little bit nicer. For those of us suffering from compulsive self-destruction, chronic back pain, vague and unexplained sexual guilt, amphetamine withdrawal, and a quiet but persistent voice in the back of our heads that regales us with a nightly lullaby about every shitty thing we’ve ever done – in other words, for those of us with a normal and healthy response to life under late capitalism – the moderates take on demoniac proportions. There’s nothing quite so revolting as another person’s happiness. In the United States prescription drugs are routinely advertised on TV: the pictures show attractive middle-aged white people taking picnics, riding bicycles, not being dead, etc., while a cheery voice quickly runs through all the drug’s potentially lethal side-effects. It would take the forbearance of a coma patient not to wish every single one of them – from dizziness and erectile dysfunction through to thrombocytopaenia, atrial fibrillation, and instant death – on these blithely fictional ghouls. The foundations of social and biological life are collapsing around them, and they ride their bikes through a verdant meadow drenched in sunlight, just so grateful to finally be rid of their osteoarthritis. It’s a fiction, but one the moderates yearn for, a transcendent ego-ideal. They’re not just myopic or unimaginative, they’re utterly insane. So why on earth would anyone want to give these maniacs weapons? What carnage could they wreak if they were armed not just with condescending smiles, but heavy machine guns?

We might be about to find out. The Obama regime has asked for $500 million to arm and train ‘moderate’ forces in Syria to fight both the cartoon supervillain Bashar al-Assad and the unstoppable demon army of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS). These moderates don’t really exist as conventionally imagined (genocidal civil war is not usually a hospitable environment for nice guitar-strumming liberalism), but even by itself this a monstrous idea. The everyday awfulness of moderation becomes something far stranger and uglier when imposed on Islam; armed moderation might sound like an oxymoron, but in fact it’s a very real and very horrifying possibility. Muslims in the West are still allowed to follow Islam, just about, but not too much. It’s not bloodshed or misogyny that need to be moderated, but the religion itself: Islam and dangerous threatening foreign violence lie along a single axis; any public display of belief equals extremism equals homo sacer. The demand for a moderate Islam is for a watered-down Islam; you should treat your absolute faith in the transcendent oneness of God in the manner of someone warily inspecting a supermarket curry. Outside the West, it’s a different story. A Saudi cleric can advocate the continued ban on all Christian worship, the continued relegation of women to a status somewhere above household furniture and somewhere below household pets, and other such non-Islamic idiocy – but as long as he doesn’t oppose Western ambitions elsewhere in the Islamic world, he’s a moderate. Abroad, moderate Islam means acquiescence to imperialism. The gestalt ideal of the moderate Muslim, then, is this: a monstrous figure, clothes drenched in the blood of innocents, inflicter of hideous tortures and gruesome executions, someone casting terror across the blasted landscape seemingly for no particular reason, but in a manner that doesn’t disturb the mechanisms of profit.

Being moderate means destroying all possible futures and replacing them with a listlessly cheerful nihilism. The philosophy of moderation has always been one of bloodshed. Aristotle, who in his Eudemian Ethics celebrated the virtue of Mildness and argued that the moral good always lies between two extremes, was a tutor to Alexander the Great, who slaughtered hundreds of thousands so that modesty might conquer the world. Bloodthirsty prudery has always dispatched its victims because their misery or their enjoyment was too excessive.  In our age, the armed moderates of Syria are just the beginning. One of the groups under the FSA umbrella likely to receive some of the $50m jackpot is Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They’ll need it. Having the dual support of the Western intelligence apparatus and the stuffy old pedants that succeeded bin Laden doesn’t really do them any favours; they’re like a jihadi group officially sanctioned by your dad. The fighters joining Jabhat al-Nusra instead of the Islamic State are the gangly nerds of international terrorism: people who ride scooters, drink Pepsi, eat cashew butter, and spent their teenage years listening to prog instead of punk – impeccable moderates. They’ve also been filmed eating human hearts. Like all forms of mass discipline, this tactic of violent moderation is unlikely to stay in the imperial periphery. It didn’t take long for Victorian imperialists to start conceiving of their metropolitan working-class populations with the same eugenic horror in which they held the repressed colonial multitudes; it won’t be long before the moderates among us take up arms, and if we don’t stop them, their reign will be brutal.

Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

In German, the prefix ur- is used to indicate the now deeply unfashionable sense of an originary, primal form of a thing, which is also its end. Something ursprünglich is the first of its kind, so you’ll have the Uraufführung, or the début performance; the Urtext, the lost first draft of the Hebrew Bible that supposedly existed before all the various priests started fucking around with it; the Urwald, the dense dark forest that once covered the whole of central Europe. The word itself is of good Old Germanic stock, and it’s probably just a coincidence that this caveman’s grunt of a syllable is also the name of a city: that built by ‘Ara son of Kesed, where he made graven images and unclean simulacra, where evil spirits seduced him into wrong and sin, and where the sons of Noah first began to make war on each other. It’s a word from the oldest of the old histories, from when the world was still new; the brutal hoary infancy of civilisation. Before the Romans or the Greeks or the Persians or the Babylonians or the Egyptians, there was Ur, the city on the mouth of the Euphrates where Abraham smashed the idols of his father.

Freud tells a nice parable about the origin of the superego, what could be called an Ur-über-Ich. Once, among a band of squatting cannibal ape-men that would one day become the refined intellectual circus of Vienna, there lived a great and powerful father. This father had many wives, and he took many wives for himself: some were the captured daughters of smaller bands, some were his own daughters. Such was his power that his sons were left with neither food, nor loot, nor wives, and were reduced to contesting among themselves for what scraps they could gain. Eventually, in the face of his unbearable potency, the brothers grouped together, overwhelmed their father, and clubbed him to death. That night they held a great feast, at which their father was the main course. At this moment, the superego was brought into the world. The brothers were jealous of their father, but at the same time they still loved him; out of their guilt the rapacious greed of the father became internalised as a moral code, with its first commandment being a restatement of his paternal rights: Thou shalt not fuck thy sisters.

Like most myths of the land of Ur(-), it doesn’t really matter if any of this actually took place or not. Hobbes and Rousseau were both happy to admit that their states of nature never really existed; Marx was equally unconcerned by the historicity of primitive communism. Freud has a particularly good get-out clause – as he has his ‘exasperated reader’ exclaim, so it’s immaterial whether one kills one’s father or not! While some fathers might have a different opinion on the matter, Freud concedes the point: wanting to kill your father and actually doing so both produce the same psychological effect; the same guilt, the same internalisation. It’s in this context that the story of Abraham begins to make sense. When he lived with his father Terah in the city of Ur, the family sold graven idols; Abraham destroyed these unclean simulacra and went with his wife Sarah into the desert. It doesn’t matter that Terah died peacefully at the age of two hundred and five: the idols, rooted in the paternal totem of the victorious brothers, represent what Lacan calls the name-of-the-father; the Symbolic father that maintains the prohibition on incest. It’s possible to advance an alternate reading of Abraham’s flight to Canaan: when he lived in Mesopotamia he was married to Sarah but still he couldn’t fuck her, not in the house of his father. The book of Genesis explains their childlessness by claiming that Sarah was barren, but the book of Genesis was also written by men, who are always a little squeamish when it comes to male impotence. Sarah was the daughter of Terah by his second wife: she was Abraham’s sister.

Lacan’s concept of the name-of-the-father is a triple pun: le nom du père recalls le non du père (the ‘no’ of the father, the prohibitive function of the superego) but also les non-dupes errent (the non-dupes err). Those who refuse to be ‘duped’ by the process of castration and induction into the Symbolic order – the kind of person who might, for instance, take it upon himself to smash the idols of his father – are not in fact seeing the world as it really is; they’re stuck among the horrors of the Imaginary. The book of Genesis is full of hints towards Abraham’s singular neurosis. Several times in his journeys, as he comes across various unfriendly peoples, he has Sarah pretend to be his sister – in other words, pretend to be what she really is – so that kings and pharaohs will try to sleep with her. For this God punishes them with plagues and nightmares: none shall disrupt His holy incest.

All this is by way of approaching an understanding of the current instability in Iraq. The land of Ur is, for the Western powers that have been steadily clubbing it for the last century, a feared and hated father. All the paternal functions of society first sprung up in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates: alphabetical writing, codes of law, economic class, monotheism. In the pre-Oedipal stages of infantile psychology there is no recognition of sexual difference and the fantasy of anal birth is common, so it’s no wonder that the Iraq-Father assumes a hemaphrodite form. One vast leg stretches down the Arabian peninsula, the other is cocked between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Between these lie the damp muddy openings of the rivers, passages leading up into the womb of civilisation, while beyond their fertile banks the desert stretches for miles. An old, decaying parental presence that refuses to die. No wonder everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill felt the need to invade Iraq.

On the plane of grand strategy, nobody’s Middle East policy makes any sense. Saudi Arabia props up the secular Sisi regime in Egypt, and has threatened to blockade Qatar over the latter’s support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Sisi supports the Assad government in Syria, which the Saudis have spent millions trying to overthrow, and is making friendly overtures towards Iran, while his deposed predecessor Morsi tended to align himself with the Saudi-Israeli anti-Tehran axis. The United States is now considering intervention in support of Iran against Islamist movements in Iraq, fighting the same people it’s armed and funded (through Saudi proxies) to fight Iran’s allies in Damascus. The ‘war on terror’ was never really a consistent programme: while Western imperialism made some efforts against Sunni salafism (Afghanistan in 2001, possibly Iraq now) it’s mostly been used to attack secular Arab nationalist governments (Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2012). This is diplomacy as a dialectic. Its model isn’t the Nile, with its divisions along the axis of a straight line, but the swampy chaos of Mesopotamia. There are no fixed power blocs, not even Sunni and Shia, only a series of fluid phases successively subsumed in their own contradictions. It’s a grand process of decoding, the untethering of signification, the struggle against the Symbolic, the denial of castration, the murder of the father.

In 2003, the occupying US Army set up Camp Alpha, a huge military base in the ruins of Babylon. Helicopters buzzed around the ancient bricks, Humvees rolled through the Ishtar Gate, defensive trenches were dug through the strata of five millennia. As symbolic erasures of the name-of-the-father go, it ranks up there with Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols. Still, after the father is killed, it still remains to eat his corpse. Iraq must be consumed. In recent weeks a small armed outfit calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or of Iraq and al-Sham, or of Iraq and the Levant, or Daash – such signifiers tend to only refer to each other) has captured a string of cities in the country and is advancing, or at least making a feint, towards Baghdad. Reports in the Western media claim ISIS funds itself from the territory it already holds and doesn’t require any state support. They’re known to be selling oil to the Syrian government forces they’re supposedly fighting, and (this is a nice touch) are reportedly profiting from the sale of looted antiquities from archaeological digs. All this is pretty dubious, but in any case the Saudis seem rather nonchalant about the peril to the Iranian-aligned Maliki government. Even if ISIS aren’t receiving direct Western support it’s almost certain that arms supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels are filtering through to them. The terrors and massacres in Mesopotamia are as Western-manufactured as Big Macs and banking crises. Of course, when imperial adventures cause chaos, the solution is more imperial adventure. There’s a growing clamour for intervention; aircraft carriers are heading up the Gulf, the hideous grinning hobgoblin that is Tony Blair returns to haunt the political discourse with its carefully considered opinion. There’s a very real chance that we might be about to enter a third Gulf War. In the face of this danger, it must be kept in mind that when imperialists press for action, all they really mean is that they want to be able to fuck their own sisters.

The grand imperial puppet show

HIPPOLYTA:
This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
THESEUS:
The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst
are no worse, if imagination amend them.
HIPPOLYTA:
It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.210-213

Imperialism, as comrade Mao Tse-tung famously pointed out, is a paper tiger. The phrase has now become so well-worn that it can be taken as a familiar piece of imagery, that we can forget to ask: why a tiger? Why paper? The term is a Chinese idiom of some pedigree, but Mao was always scrupulously careful in his use of metaphor (especially when dealing with Western journalists), never missing an opportunity to interrogate every possible meaning. He says: In appearance [US imperialism] is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. The image emerges of something like Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm, the fear blazing in the beleaguered creature’s eyes as the damp winds wash its frame into sodden pulp. (Rousseau’s painting was initially titled Surprise!, with the implication that the tiger is about to pounce on an unsuspecting prey – but it’s equally possible to discern in the awkward position of the animal, its leg half-suspended over the foliage, the idea that it’s the tiger that’s been surprised, caught out among the suddenly inclement elements.) This image, with the unhappy predator crumbling under the triumphant might of the people, has a firm place in the Maoist repertoire, recalling directly his slogan that the East wind is stronger than the West wind. But all this is complicated immediately afterwards. History as a whole, Mao declares, the history of class society for thousands of years, has proved this point: the strong must give way to the weak. The tiger appears strong when in reality it is weak, but the winds and the rain that tear it to shreds are weaker still; it’s only in this weakness that they can gain their victory. What exactly are we talking about when we talk about paper tigers?

Paper animals are transient, vulnerable to the elements, powerless against time. They’re not built to last. Paper animals are decorative; they’re entertainment. A paper tiger takes on the form of something very powerful, but it’s a self-conscious ruse. However convincing the representation, nobody is really expected to be afraid of it, except the children. Mao continues: When we say US imperialism is a paper tiger, we are speaking in terms of strategy. Regarding it as a whole, we must despise it. But regarding each part, we must take it seriously. It has claws and fangs. Another reversal: the thing that projects a unified, total image of power is actually weak and vulnerable; the thing that should be correctly understood as weak and vulnerable in its abstract totality is actually very dangerous in its concrete particulars. Mao’s programme for the practical struggle against imperialism is to behave like a child at a puppet show, reacting to each swipe of the paper tiger’s claws as if it were real, while at the same time never forgetting that it’s all an illusion. It’s not enough to simply refute the lies of the imperialists; you have to defeat them on the level of their own simulation: knock out its teeth one by one, even though they’re only paper.

All this is by way of responding to the recent polemic on anti-imperialism and the left; in particular two essays by workers and scholars whose thought I greatly respect: No blood for oil? by Matthijs Krul, and On the urgent necessity of anti-imperialism by the sublunar entity known occasionally as Emma Quangel. The centre of the dispute, if I understand it correctly, is this: Krul argues that the slogan ‘no blood for oil’ represents a model of anti-imperialist thought that both understates imperialism’s scope and overrates its ability to succeed; Quangel responds by asserting that if the average protester does not understand wholly the conditions of the world petroleum market, they are still taking a correct stance against US Imperialism; that is: to condemn it. Krul cautions against an uncritical support for supposedly ‘anti-imperial’ states that precludes any actual appreciation for the political and social structures peculiar to the societies in question; Quangel maintains that the goal should be to try to hobble the greatest threat to building a better world.

It’s necessary to start with particulars. Quangel begins her intervention by stating that many of the youth coming into the anti-imperialist movement today seem genuinely confused about what imperialism is – what it smells like. What, then, does imperialism smell like? Burning oil wells, charred bodies, the sharpness of gunpowder and sweat – but as she points out, imperialism is not the same as imperial war. Imperialism is a global system existing primarily to perpetuate itself, stifling any germ of an alternate social order, and its primary vector is aid and development. Development money is used to integrate states into the general system of capitalist expropriation; recourse is usually only made to guns and bombs when these means are refused. Imperialism is an all-encompassing narrative, a puppet show being played against the backdrop of the entire world, and its smell is not the stench of war. Imperialism smells like roasting chestnuts, popcorn, fireworks, the sweet clinging night-time smell of entertainment.

Imperialism is seductive, in the full Baudrillardian sense of the term. In the nineteenth century, it operated along the principle of contest, propelled by the self-confidence of the newly dominant bourgeoisie, pitting its strength against the strength of others. In the twenty-first, imperialism operates within the other’s area of weakness, which is also its own. The precursor to any imperialist action, whether as development aid or military intervention, is always an initial rupture, a breach in the form of a humanitarian crisis. There are famines, or shortages, or a government crackdown on protests, or a civil war. When this occurs, imperialist powers do not proclaim their decision to act as a function of a world-spanning omnipotence. Instead, they plead their own powerlessness in the face of the catastrophe (as in Syria today) and their own vulnerability against the other, until the clamour for action reaches boiling point. Imperial adventures from Korea to Iraq have been launched in the form of desperate measures against a looming threat; it was not only necessary for Saddam Hussein’s government to have brought suffering and genocide against its own people, he was also required to have the capacity to launch chemical drone attacks against American cities. This is a dual weakness: it’s precisely on the terrain of the human catastrophe that imperialism is weakest, because imperialism is the mother of all catastrophes.

Recent years have seen the grim spectacle of avowed leftists and socialists aligning themselves with the grand catastrophe of global imperialism to ward off the lesser catastrophe that precedes it. The counter-slogan, adopted from current trends in feminism, is that my Marxism will be anti-imperialist or it will be bullshit. The necessity of such a position is made clear by the abject pronouncements of empire’s left-apologists, less sleek running-dogs than mangy senile old hounds loping in circles as they attempt to gain a lick at their own anuses – but it also raises the spectre of an anti-imperialism without communism. A prime example of this phenomenon is provided by a recent article by Atheling P Reginald Mavengira published by the Centre for Research on Globalisation, alleging that the Boko Haram insurgency is a CIA covert operation designed to neutralise the supposed Nigerian threat to American regional power. He writes that Nigeria is a country which has always been known for its resilience and ability to resolve its problems without outside interference […] Why is someone somewhere hell bent on engineering Nigerians to form the un-Nigerian habit of harbouring and perpetrating desperate, extreme and unforgiving actions against themselves? As any cursory reading of Nigerian history should demonstrate, this is bullshit. Africans are just as capable as Europeans of delivering death and horror on each other. Mavengira has the correct stance on US imperialism – to condemn it – but it’s a condemnation arising from spurious allegations and bourgeois nationalism (although, confusingly, Mavengira doesn’t appear to be Nigerian himself but is instead a Zimbabwean businessman living in South Africa). He approaches imperialism as a function of American geopolitical ambition ranged against African states; in fact imperialism is perfectly willing to tolerate a strong and stable Nigeria. Capital always needs new spaces in which to expand: Nigeria was listed among the ‘next 11’ emerging economies by Goldman Sachs, whose board of directors now includes a Nigerian banker, and the operation of capital investment (and the enclosure and dispossession that goes with it) within the country is likely to be far more damaging than any mythical CIA covert operation. However correct Mavengira’s stance on imperialism, his analysis of it is politically useless.

Both the left apologists for empire and these vulgar anti-imperialists commit the same error: they’re taken in by the puppet show, confusing paper tigers for real ones. In the subaltern nations there is chaos and confusion; imperialism is an orderly and rational system. The only difference lies in whether they stand with this order or against it. Against this it needs to be stressed that imperialists are, for the most part, idiots who don’t know what they’re doing. The CIA isn’t some hidden cabal out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, directing events with a malign precision; it’s a hive of myopic nerds that excels only at receiving government money, levelling Pakistani villages, and systematically fucking up. The global ruling class might have been able to ruthlessly profiteer from the current economic crisis, but they couldn’t predict or prevent it. It’s always been this way. In the nineteenth century a grand geopolitical game of chess was played between Britain and Russia over the Central Asian heartland: the British played admirably, protecting India from any encroachment to the north; the Russians had no idea the game was even taking place. There is no master plan or secret logic: imperialism is a catastrophe. Not an explosion of violence or the sudden onset of famine, but a single, sustained, rolling catastrophe, blind and stupid and propelled only by its own weakness, that has bounced around the world for five centuries, until it has eventually become the world.

How should Marxists respond when imperialism threatens a foreign state, plunging through the rupture of some local crisis to substitute its own, globally institutional crisis? Simply condemning it has not, so far, brought much success, and reading the impoverished language of some vulgar anti-imperialists might explain why. It’s been remarked that much Anglophone critical theory reads as if it had been translated from French; this stuff, with its clunky sloganeering and reliance on the imperative, sounds like an inelegant translation from Chinese. Defend the heroic resistance against US imperialism! Stand against NATO aggression! People must write these pronouncements, and some might even read them, but it’s unclear why. As Krul points out, making a show of support for one or another ‘side’ (be it the ‘anti-imperial’ state apparatus or some inconsequential socialist sect) offers little scope for actively disrupting imperialism. The task is to, in a sense, play along with the imperial game of pitting weakness against weakness. We must see where imperialism is weak and confront it there, confront it with our own weakness in the face of its cataclysm, and that weak spot is precisely those crimes and horrors used by imperialism to justify its actions. These are not the lesser of two evils: they are non-heterogeneous to the greater evil. In a world shaped and defined by the madness of imperialism, there is no human tragedy that does not follow in some manner from these conditions, nor any real distinction between the local catastrophes and the grand catastrophe: the latter is nothing more than the sum total of the former. Our world is like the Chaos described by Milton: Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise/ Of endless wars […] A universal hubbub wild/ Of stunning sounds and voices all confus’d. Every imperial intervention is a strike against itself. To admit to the global supremacy of imperialism is at the same time to show up its monumental idiocy and weakness. Any system that conquers the world becomes isomorphic with it: imperial capitalism is now not only reshaping political geography but altering the planet’s climate – it has become the wind and the rain, but it’s that wind and that rain that tears paper tigers apart.

Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?

Philosophy means asking difficult questions. Not the questions that actually make up philosophical enquiry – those tend to be quite simple, which is why they can be so easily worked into summer blockbusters – but the tiny, dark questions that swarm around them. The questions that you can never quite get out of your head, even though you know full well that the answers won’t bring you any hope or solace. Questions that form miniature doorways into small tight universes of unrelenting horror. A field philosopher of an earlier century, his brain slow-cooking in his pith helmet, tramping through the sweaty heat of a tropical rainforest with the weight of his rifle and pack dragging him down into the muddy ooze below, trying to discern the mating call of his prey in the jungle’s unending din, might stop and ask himself – if I do manage to track and shoot the synthetic a priori proposition, will that make me happy? These days, the rainforests have mostly been cleared to grow soybeans and palm oil, and the old briery questions that used to hide in their shadows are now everywhere. Why do I keep making such a tit out of myself at parties? Was romantic love really invented by a conspiracy of medieval poets and soft toy manufacturers in collusion against the world? Does Alain de Botton actually fuck? And if he does, then what could that kind of monstrosity actually look like?

Alain de Botton is the most banal man alive and the most banal man to have ever lived, but it’s not enough to just complain about banality as itself, because banality doesn’t exist. Banality isn’t like misery, or ecstasy for that matter, which swallow you up completely, admitting no outside or differentiation, like Badiou’s grey-black that negates even the possibility of a light. Banality is a spectral relation between something real and something that used to be real; it speaks to something that’s been lost. If everything in the world were completely banal and always had been, we wouldn’t be able to talk about it; we’d have nothing to compare it to. There has to be something significant, somewhere. The problem is that most things are pretty dull. Look around you; try to find one non-boring mass-produced object, anything whose existence you could really uphold in the court of eternity. It’s not easy. The sense of banality is the ghost of a significance that has been thoroughly and deliberately wiped out. These concepts are all the products of a particular set of material and historical circumstances: the idea of virtue would be impossible without classical slavery, ennui came out of the stillbirth of modernity, and banality is the cultural logic of colonial genocide. Dig around near the roots of any piece of tritely inspirational advice, and it won’t be long before you unearth the mass graves.

You can see this in the suburb, an urban form so monolithically banal its structural violence rivals that of the temple complexes in Tenochtitlan. The vast bloated suburbs of the western United States could only be built once the native Americans had been completely wiped out and any mystical autonomous connection between humanity and the earth had been eradicated; only then were the hills and the desert reduced to mere land, which could be parcelled out in lots for tract housing and strip malls. In France, meanwhile, the suburb-form appears as a drab concrete prison suffocating the ancient heart of the city, a holding pen for the survivors of the state’s imperial killing sprees abroad. Britain’s commuter belt villages, coma-quiet but for church bells and the dying yelps of the foxes, built their sleepy tedium on the superprofits extracted through the rape of three continents. The strange tendency for acolytes of the supremely boring New Atheism to be from Australia makes a lot of sense in this context: once the songlines have been scrubbed out and the unburdened creativity of the Dreaming has been extinguished – along with the continent’s original inhabitants – the land becomes a flat and empty space for the exercise of instrumental reason. Israel, one of the few actively ongoing colonial projects in the old mould, is fast getting in on the act: it’s official propaganda is now laced with dull affirmatory homilies. Banality is the quiet revenge of the societies we’ve destroyed and the lives we’ve extinguished, its stiflingness is the traumatic echo of the bloody chaos that suddenly descended on them. And Alain de Botton is the most banal person to have ever lived. How many massacres must he have committed?

I’ve mentioned de Botton a few times before in these pages, but only because I find him an object of gruesome fascination and psychotically obsessive hate. According to his own personal website, he is ‘a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries.’ He’s also presented a couple of TV series and is the founder of something faintly ominous called the ‘School of Life.’ He is, we’re expected to believe, a philosopher: someone with the same basic job description as Heraclitus or Kant or Hegel. What the site fails to mention is that he looks like nothing of this world. Generally it’s bad form to make fun of someone’s physical appearance; they can’t really help it, after all. (In any case, philosophers shouldn’t really look like normal people. They exist to seek out the strangeness in life: Heraclitus was a ragged he-crone, Kierkegaard was a hunchback, Adorno was an absurd Humpty Dumpty figure; if these people weren’t weirdos they would’ve ended up getting a normal job.) With de Botton it’s different; his bodily strangeness is inseparable from the bland conventionality of his thought.  Alain de Botton looks like a human being as designed by HR Giger. His forehead rises high up to a vaulted dome, a tapering lizard’s egg of a cranium. His eyebrows jolt and shudder with his shoulders. His nose has a lubricious gleam; his mouth is a dark stain, red wine or fresh blood, and when he talks his deathly-white teeth seem to slide oilily against each other. His skin is faintly rubbery, and while it mostly seems to fit him there are still a few places where is bunches up or stretches out, like a cutaneous gimp suit. He looks weird, interstellarly weird; half Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway, half sentient rock formation. The general impression given is that of a reptilian alien awkwardly stuffed into a human form – not a particularly malevolent alien, just one that in its own unknowable way is making an honest and doomed attempt to fit in among us Earthlings. It’s a lie. He’s evil, and his evil is entirely human.

Alain de Botton specialises in a kind of humdrum potted sagacity, the kind of stuff that has all the outward appearance of insight while managing to avoid saying anything at all. This mushy nothingness can take the form of pointless tautology (‘In a meritocracy, success comes to seem earnt – but failure deserved’), excerpts from the Dictionary of Twee Vacuousness (‘Magnanimity: the one who was right does not say ‘I told you so,’ the one who was wronged does not seek vengeance’), outright untruth (‘Choosing a spouse and choosing a career: the two great decisions for which society refuses to set up institutional guidance’), inspirational pap (‘Our real motivation comes from people who don’t believe in us’), and the final spluttering descent into total incoherency (‘The end logic of our relationship to computers: sincerely asking the search engine “what should I do with the rest of my life?”‘).

These nuggets are all from his inevitable Twitter account; for the really heavy froth you’ll have to turn to his books. To be fair, Alain de Botton is a man of great intellectual breadth. In his many published works he has managed to be boring about Proust, anodyne about art and architecture, tedious about travel, and spend several hundred pages completely failing to understand love, sex, and religion. Aside from the general awfulness of his writing, it’s on these last two subjects (I don’t really like Proust) that his peculiar monstrosity really shines through. In Religion for Atheists (Penguin, 2012) he tries to reconcile the virtues of religious faith with a non-belief in an objectively existing God. That’s perfectly fine; plenty of worthwhile thinkers (Bloch, Althusser, Agamben, Badiou) have tried to do the same. However, for de Botton religion is useful because it ‘teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober’ and because it can help us learn ‘how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper.’ No it’s not. Religion is fire and passion, a point of connection between humanity and the infinite, the cry of the oppressed creature, the foundation of universalism. It’s meant to be vast and terrifying and emancipatory. In the face of the vastness of the Absolute Other all human distinctions are meaningless; that’s why so many radical liberation movements have been religious in nature. What this book does is try to turn six millennia of blazing fervour into a half-baked set of minute consolations. It’s an act of hideous violence.

That’s bad enough, but How To Think More About Sex (Picador, 2012) might be the worst book ever written. It’s not too long, but de Botton manages to squeeze into its pages an entire compendium of some of the most grotesque and ungodly sexual acts ever committed. There are the infamous blood orgies of the Mughal emperors, in which the slit throat of a young harem slave was used as a lubricant; there are the thanatophilic séances of certain Theosophist sects, in which the spirits of the dead were summoned and subjected to days of sexual torture; there’s the story of the medieval Saint Quasivermus of Caenumia, who held that congress with earthworms was the only unsinful carnal activity. His book describes every possible interposition of body parts with orifices: there are toes in nostrils, the practice of ‘elbow-fucking,’ and one instance in which an entire dwarf is inserted into an anus. The whole book is awash in a queasy sea of bodily effluent – blood, vomit, bile, cum, pus, piss. Of course, none of this is in the text itself, but it’s the unvoiced content of de Botton’s continual refusal to follow his title and actually think about sex. What he does is recoil from it. For him, sex is for procreation and to stave off loneliness; it’s always a fundamentally selfish act. Most of the time it’s a case of ‘squandered human energy;’ he continually resorts to the idea of sexuality being somehow base: a vestigal, degrading, primal urge we’d all be better off without. At one point he even upholds impotence as an ‘achievement of the ethical imagination.’ None of which is necessarily objectionable – maybe we would be better off without libidinality, free to concentrate on more important things like compiling spreadsheets of sporting statistics and overthrowing capitalism – except for the fact that de Botton never actually makes any argument for this position; he just presents it as a given. He doesn’t seem to even consider the idea that sexuality might be fundamentally related to how we can conceive of ourselves as people, or even that it might actually be enjoyable.

Alain de Botton doesn’t understand sex or religion because sexual and religious experiences are fundamentally transcendental; they allow people to escape the bounds of the atomised subject. They point, however darkly, to something we can’t quite name or describe. They are experiences that are not yet completely banal, and there’s no room for that kind of thing in his watered-down gruel of a philosophy. Does Alain de Botton fuck? Of course he doesn’t. What happens is the female of the de Botton species releases her eggs in the water, and the male comes along later and fertilises them. But supposing he did?

It’s all very well to make fun of Alain de Botton for being an intellectual lightweight and looking like a monster from a cheap B-movie, but these facts should be immediately obvious to anyone. The point is that his brand of fluffy philosophy-as-self-help isn’t just annoying. It’s an enemy; it’s bloodthirsty and dangerous. The usual charge levied against de Botton is that he ‘isn’t a real philosopher.’ This isn’t true at all; he’s a philosopher in the highest sense, as described by Marx and Nietzsche – in the sense that philosophers are ‘advocates who refuse the name, wily spokesmen for their prejudices,’ or those who try to interpret the world when the point is to change it. Despite his small nods to the idea that maybe the senseless and continual catastrophe of capitalism might not be the best way to run a planet, de Botton isn’t really interested in changing the world. He thinks people should be a little bit more reflective, he thinks he can help people cope with the stresses of the workplace and the perils of romance, he thinks everyone should have a ‘sunlit room set with honey-coloured limestone tiles’ in which to relax – and that’s basically it. No passions, no fury, no grand and wild ideas, just a dull life with a few small pleasures and a few small worries, instantly soothed. He’s standing atop a pile of corpses and suggesting that they might be arranged more pleasingly. Alain de Botton isn’t just banal, he embraces his own banality; he tries to dress vacuousness up as significance. If the sense of the banal is the whispering reminder that there was once something important and our society has since then expended every effort in wiping it out, then de Botton’s achievement is to close up that anxious gap, to make dullness a universal with no horizon. With that achieved, the slaughter can continue. Alain de Botton would see the seas turned to acid slime and the sky filled with iron and smoke. He is directly responsible for every evil act in the world today. He wants us to kill our young.

He’s not alone. De Botton is just the thin edge of an enormous and boring wedge, the Blitzkreig of banality. This stuff is dangerous, and it needs to be fought with every weapon available, with all the puerile and tasteless fury we can muster. What if Alain de Botton actually fucked? What could such a monstrosity actually look like? His tiny, shiny pebble-head gleaming with sweat, his weird lips twisting into a grimace of enjoyment. His flappy, skinny torso heaving, pale as milk, brushed with dark greasy hairs. He’d go too far. He’s coming into contact with something he’s disavowed his entire life; all his symbolic violence is coming into brutal reality. First the blood, then the fragments of bone tossed around the room, a screeching, scrabbling fury. Alain de Botton rears his head and howls – then stops. He looks down at himself. He looks at the carnage he’s responsible for. Finally, he’s come face to face with what he really is.

PS: I might have been a little unkind to Mr. de Botton. He’s not a total stranger to outright fury – after a negative book review, he left a comment on the author’s blog, writing ‘I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.’ I await his comments on my own appraisal of his work with anticipation.

Twerking over Ghouta: Miley Cyrus, Syria, and war as a consumer item

 True fact: Miley’s pelvic gyrations spell out a list of war casualties in Morse code. Scientists are baffled by this phenomenon.

The spider’s been dead for three days – an eternity in the  arthropod timescale – but its web is still there; suspended between the housing and the yoke of a stage light. When the lamp clunks on and starts to throb with burning mercury it sends the flies into a dizzy rage; they launch themselves, terrified, in all directions. One tries to take refuge in the darkness behind the light itself and finds itself suddenly caught in the web. There’s a brief, flailing panic, in which the fly manages to tear off one of its own wings. It’s no use. A sudden calm. It can’t free itself, and without the spider’s ministrations death will take a long time. The fly resignedly settles down to watch the show. It might not realise it, but it’s got a very good seat.

In one of his correspondences, Michel Houellebecq proposes what he calls a ‘bacterial view’ of humanity. We’re a saprophytic swarm, teeming in our billions across the carcass of the planet, turning it into rotten mush. Perhaps it would be better if the whole infestation were wiped out. As ever, he’s being a thoroughly miserable bastard. It’s far more interesting to take his phrase more literally. If humans and bacteria are equivalent, what view would our prokaryotic cousins take on human civilisation? Would they be astounded by the scale of our achievements? Would they care that we put a man on the moon? Maybe their attitude would be one of haughty contempt. This is their world, not ours: their total biomass dwarfs ours; we can’t even keep them out of our own bodies, and when they want to, they can kill us at will. From their point of view, we multicellular organisms are little more than a brief gimmick of evolution, one sure to meet a dead end before too long. It must appear incredible that while they can survive quite happily clinging to Antarctic rock and swimming in the fires below the Earth’s crust we starve to death in our millions surrounded by fertile soil.

The bacterial view is too strange to properly conceptualise. A fly is easier. Suspended from the spider’s web, it watches the last show of its life. It doesn’t know it, but it’s present at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in Brooklyn, and the teen pop sensation Miley Cyrus is about to twerk her way to international notoriety. Humans have a hard time recognising sexual dimorphism in most animals, so it’s fair to assume the reverse is true. At the front of the stage there are two humans, one black and white, the other tan, vague blurry forms. They’re moving. A fly’s eye picks up motion at a flicker rate of three hundred frames a second; a fly in a cinema will see a slow procession of still images cascading down the screen. As Miley Cyrus wriggles her arse against Robin Thicke’s crotch, the fly sees the skin ripple across her flesh with all the serene solemnity of a tsunami tracking its way across a vast ocean. Her tongue unfurls as slowly as a flower opening at dawn. The music hums a droning threnody; drums crash like breaking waves. The fly doesn’t think about feminism, or representations of sexuality, or race relations. All it has is its hypernoia and its own furious little ego; in Miley Cyrus’s twerking it sees a reflected image of its own death.

It’s trapped. So are we. The days after Cyrus’s performance saw a sudden paroxysm of hand-wringing among the usual designated commentators. What we witnessed was the naked appropriation of an African-American cultural form, the spectacularisation and commodification of the female body, the banalisation of eroticism, an utterly dreadful example for young women. They’re completely right, of course, but that’s the trap. After the performance Cyrus boasted on Twitter that she had been the subject of 306,000 tweets a minute. The whole thing was designed to infuriate Hadley Freeman and her various clones; the point was to get people who wouldn’t otherwise be talking about Miley Cyrus talking about Miley Cyrus. By trying to pull ourselves out of the web we’re only tearing out our own wings. Then there was the tiresome follow-up: a further round of hand-wringing over the hand-wringing itself. Why are we talking about some singer when people are dying in Syria? This sanctimoniousness reached its apotheosis with a Tumblr blog called Miley Cyrus Twerking on Reality, a series of low-effort high-smugness images of the pop star gyrating against various online news stories supposedly constituting ‘reality’. It completely misses the point. The real critical task isn’t to complain that Miley Cyrus is diverting attention from real and important issues; it’s to see in her performance and the situation in Syria two parts of a single system.

Nobody asked for Miley Cyrus Twerking At The 2013 MTV Music Video Awards, it was thrust upon us. The same trend is everywhere in consumer society. When Apple announces a new glowing rectangle, it’s not so much persuading us of its usefulness as telling us in no uncertain terms that this is the new thing we need to own. The most egregious example of this might be the launch of the new BT Sport channel in the UK. It’s not like the company has invented any new and interesting sports; it’s just bought the broadcast rights for various games from its competitors. The adverts plastered around London bluntly repeated this fact: some of your matches won’t be on the usual channel any more, In other words, pay up if you want to see your footy. It’s the same with war. A vast industry of death puts on a cheerful face and tells us to sit tight and be entertained.

Earlier this month an alleged chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus killed up to 1700 people. The Syrian government denied all responsibility and blamed rebel fighters; the rebels (and much of the Western world) blamed Assad. He’s crossed Obama’s red line: to kill people in their tens of thousands by putting bits of metal into their bodies at high speed is unpleasant but allowed; to kill people making them inhale poisonous gases is strictly forbidden. In the absence of any expertise in biochemistry or rocket physics I won’t pretend to know who carried out the attack or what weapons were really used; that said, the whole affair carries a farcical echo of 2003 and 1898. The idea that the Syrian government would do this kind of thing a few days after the arrival of UN inspectors and in a region where they are gaining rather than losing ground doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, while the argument that Assad gassed hundreds of people to flaunt his invincibility before the world stage seems a bit absurd given that Western powers are now screaming retribution. If it happens, this retribution will take the form of a punitive strike, punishing Assad while securing his chemical weapons stockpiles. It’s not exactly clear how you can ‘secure’ a depot with a Tomahawk missile: is the idea to encase it safely in rubble, or will enough missiles be fired that their bodies will form a protective dome around the sites? What’s clear is that any move will not constitute an act of war against Syria or an intervention in support of any rebel group. In other words, its geopolitical value is precisely zero. This isn’t war in the Clausewitzian sense of politics continued by other means, it’s war for the domestic market, war as a consumer item. Most opinion polls show that populations in the West are broadly against intervention; this is precisely the point. The attack exists solely to provide a justification for its own existence.

Industrial capitalism needs a constant supply of iron, oil, and coltan; it needs a constant supply of entertainment; it needs a constant supply of war. In many countries arms manufacturers are pretty much the last big industrial operations still going; we’ll trust China to make the shiny gadgets through which we mediate our social lives, but the the production of death is still very much a domestic concern. Weapons are all we have left, and there’s no point churning out a constant stream of the things if they’re not going to be used. The problem with war is that it’s hard to work out a proper line of supply for the stuff; you need the co-operation of the other side, and unless you have a nice Flower War-type setup, nations tend not to work together much once hostilities have broken out. In a post-Fordist economic order dominated by the principles of just-in-time production, this isn’t much good at all. The consumers of war need their product to arrive in a steady, continuous, and predictable manner. The solution is to get rid of the other side entirely, so that war is no longer a relation between opposing forces but a mass consumer product as fungible as any other. Now you can go down to the gas station to pick up a microwave burrito, a pack of Slim Jims, and an armed incursion into a refugee camp, killing sixteen.

In Egypt, before the military government started massacring protesters in the streets, it declared a state of emergency that would last for exactly one month. Either general al-Sisi’s precognitive abilities let him know exactly how long the terrorist threat posed by the Muslim brotherhood would last, or the army was always in complete control of the precise levels of disturbance and could wage war or make peace entirely on its own terms. In early August, not too long after the Snowden leaks on government surveillance, Britain and the United States shut down their embassies in Sana’a in response to an unspecified but ‘immediate’ terrorist threat. This was followed by a series of drone strikes throughout Yemen that killed at least fourteen suspected militants; in response a Yemeni military helicopter was shot down. I wrote about something similar in relation to Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza: one side decides that there will be a crisis, the other has no choice but to act out its allotted role. The radicalisation caused by drone strikes is a feature, not a bug: this is war as a continual spectacle, not a war that achieves any concrete aims. If there were no angry herdsmen with Kalashnikovs, there wouldn’t be anyone to kill next time our intelligence services have a crisis of credibility.

It’s not enough for us to consume any more; it’s constantly demanded that we interact with our commodities. Join the conversation! Accept your new reality! Miley Cyrus twerking wouldn’t have much value if it weren’t for the thousands of blogs like this one clamouring to present an opinion on it. This is the next step: for the consumer base to be fully engaged with war as a mass entertainment product. Special packs of corn-based snacks will come with the co-ordinates of a single square mile of Pakistani territory: if your area is the site of a terrorist bombing you could win a new Xbox! A chirpy voice shouts from the TV: if you want the next drone strike to be in SOMALIA, press the RED button on your remote now. If you want the next drone strike to be in MALI, press the GREEN button on your remote now. The point is to make us all complicit. Armies are a tired old Westphalian relic; in the new age of mass-produced war there’s no need for any separation between military and civilian life. For some of us, armed intervention will merge into a seamless cycle of wiggling arses and electronic self-affirmation. Meanwhile, those people unlucky enough to live outside the bounds of the twerking-warfare complex won’t even be able to understand themselves to be at war; they’ll live their lives under the shadow of a vast organic-cybernetic mass, total and homogeneous, swarming in the skies and killing on a whim. Behind a suburban sofa, a fly is trapped in a spider’s web. As it waits to die it watches the last show of its life. A slow succession of images pulses on the television screen as six hundred channels rear up and flicker away: a human dressed in black giving a drawn-out wail as it holds up a dead body to the camera, a human dressed in nothing slowly gyrating on a stage; and the fly sees no difference at all.

PS: As everyone knows by now, Miley Cyrus is of course the direct descendent and probable reincarnation of the Achaemenid ruler Cyrus II, founder of the First Persian Empire, the Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the world.

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