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Tag: marxism

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

OXZ8B

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.

If I’m so bad, why don’t they take me away?

Vivek Chibber is the most controversial figure on the Left today – or, at least according to Vivek Chibber he is. The latest kerfuffle is, once again, over his attacks on postcolonialism. Chibber’s stated goal is to rescue Marxism from what he sees as an empirically incorrect perspectivism embedded in postcolonial theory – essentially, the idea that ‘our capitalism is different.’ Part of this programme involves, with the tedious weight of inevitability, a defence of Enlightenment rationality. This is a boring dispute, and I’m not really going to go into it. The more interesting aspects of his critique are those that slip and tremble in those strange spaces between the great tectonic monoliths of politics and ontology. Chibber wants to reclaim the universal: the idea that behind all the squirming differences of the world there is a level of understanding in which all things are essentially the same, and can all be described according to a single principle. But the way he goes about this is very odd.

Disputes between universalism and particularism go back to Spinoza and Leibniz, and beyond. The question runs like a zigzagging fissure throughout recent thought, opening up sudden chasms within formerly continuous areas of the intellectual landscape. On the side of the Universal there’s Hegel, Deleuze (in his plane-of-immanence univocity-of-Being mode), and Badiou (at least in terms of the political, with his reference to the figure of the ‘generic’); the partisans of the particular include Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida, and Spivak. There are convincing concepts on both sides here, and even if the politics envisaged are seemingly irreconcilable, this ought to indicate something for those of us who know our dialectic: what’s being presented is ultimately a false choice.

There are some aspects of Chibber’s argument that are worthwhile. The idea that we can have solidarity and even some level of understanding of lived experiences that are not exactly the same as our own really ought to be a truism: however arbitrary language may be, it’s still grounded in the commonality of the Symbolic. When Chibber characterises subaltern studies as a kind of contemporary Orientalism, one in which the colonial other is always an irrational, occulted mystery, his critique does seize on something important, even if it’s slightly unfair. I certainly agree that Marx is not just ‘another white male philosopher’. (Although I’m not sure if anyone of any significance is really disputing this. It’s an argument that’s been made, but from what I can tell it’s mostly made on Twitter rather than in the academy, and usually alongside other claims that are so bafflingly untrue – the idea that Marx was suspiciously silent on the question of slavery, for instance – that they indicate the operation of some unspoken fixation or agenda.) It’s a shame, then, that the central portion of Chibber’s argument is not just wrong and non-Marxist, but fully horrifying.

A dominant – and strangely unacknowledged – influence on Chibber’s line of thought is of course Jürgen Habermas. Habermas has charted an interesting course, from the would-be saviour of Frankfurt School critical theory to his current post as the official rubber duck lookalike of the European Union. Taking cues from a theorist so unabashedly enthusiastic about the European project – one that future historians (if any are allowed to exist) could only ever regard as one of history’s greatest evils – doesn’t generally make for a good critique. Elsewhere in the world the oceans are only poisoned by oil slicks; on Europe’s fortified seasides, the waves roll bloated corpses against the holiday resorts. In some cases, Chibber even doubles down on some of Habermas’s more profoundly stupid innovations. Habermas argues for socialism as the actual realisation of the liberal ethos – the problem with liberalism isn’t its principles, but the contradictions that prevent it from being able to actually put those principles into practice. Chibber puts a new gloss on this, going beyond slightly dodgy immanent critique into what amounts to an outright surrender to existing conditions: what we think of as liberalism isn’t a unified project but the result of extended class struggle. This is not particularly controversial in and of itself, but for Chibber those ‘positive’ elements within liberalism are not heterogeneous to liberalism itself. In other words, the good society isn’t a promise yet to be realised; it’s here, now, and we’re living in it. Exactly how this position can be reconciled with the scum-soaked pit of shit and misery that constitutes life in the twenty-first century is yet to be seen.

The really scary stuff only appears late in Chibber’s lecture, but it’s what really constitutes the core of his project. For Chibber, there are certain ‘basic human needs’ that are not conditioned by class or culture, that have to do with the biological core of our being, and that are exactly the same everywhere in the world. It’s on this level that we can all understand each other, and it’s from this base that we can build a solidarity that cuts across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As with Badiou’s invocation of the ‘generic’, this is a political project that insists on the stripping-away of all that is not essential; those elements that are lost in returning to this common core of our species are ultimately ephemeral epiphenomena. Even provisionally accepting that this kind of operation is even possible, it’s founded on a fairly dubious assumption – that what is the same between people is ontologically essential to them, and what differs between them is not. Race and gender might be constructed, but it’s this kind of formulation that can – without ever meaning to, but by slipping down the rungs from ontology to normativity – allow for the idea that being black or a woman is somehow a deviation from the norm.

What are these basic human needs? In his works Chibber gives a few examples: the need for shelter, for security, for dignity, liberty, and personal well-being. These are the things that define what it is to be human, across time, space, and culture. But if this is a universal essence, it’s a strange kind. The need for shelter is here a fundamental part of the species; but of course shelter itself is not. Nobody is born with a roof bolted to their heads. If well-being, rather than the need for well-being, were basic to existence, there would be no need for well-being. All these needs in fact describe a lack – what’s essential to all humanity isn’t in us at all; our basic properties consist of those things we don’t have. In a way, Chibber’s stripping-away of epiphenomena is really incomplete: he’s retained an extraneous need, when what he could have said is that the basic nature of humanity is to be exposed, vulnerable, wretched, persecuted, and sick.

This is a decent (if uncreative) reading of Beckett, but it’s not Marxism.

For Marx there is something like a universal solidarity, as in his famous slogan that ‘the working men have no country.’ But where Chibber makes a major and bizarre misstep is in ontologising this universality. In Marx what unites people is not some mysterious quality locked in to every human being, the navel and core of their existence, but the most ephemeral of all ephemera: capitalism itself. International proletarian solidarity is a unique creature of the capitalist mode of production; it emerges because capitalism (as Chibber correctly points out) is universal, not out of some pre-existing universal substance that gloops beneath the phenomenal appearances of things. This universality need not be homogeneous. The forces of capitalism act in different ways on different people – wage-labourers and artisans, queer and disabled people – because these people are different. This is not to say that there can be no solidarity and no processes of overdetermination, but these are fleeting unities formed out of the false and imposed unity of capitalism.

There is a real universal, but it’s not subject to the tyranny of the Same. Marx does, it’s true, refer in his ‘humanist’ works to something called ‘species-being’, but it’s not a ‘being’ in the usual, ontological sense of the word. Species-being is bound up with the process of production: the human capacity to change and remake the world, a capacity that is itself coded by that which is produced and changed. Species-being stands for the unfettered and continual realisation of human potential, with new potentialities opening with every new realisation. Returning to species-being does not for Marx require the stripping-away of everything but the essential, but the creation of vast and unknown realms of possibility and difference. This is not so much being as becoming; an ontology of continual flux. (Here, as in so many other areas, Marx and Nietzsche are not just compatible but exhibit an almost spooky level of correspondence.) This is where Chibber’s divergence from Marx is most striking: for Marx, communism means freedom from alienation and an opening up of the infinite possibilities that constitute our being. Chibber, meanwhile, presumably wants to see a world in which dignity and well-being are available to all, but because in his cosmology human beings are eternally defined by the fact that we lack these things, for him communism can only be a total estrangement from what we really are.

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.

Elliot Rodger among the ruins

It’s a cold, blustery day near Tintern Abbey. The wind, pouring over the wooded hills that surround this pile, washes the sharp stink of diesel exhaust against its tired stones. Vans chug along the A466, forming a slow but constant loop between Hereford and Newport. The abbey stands alone in its square of dead grass under a dead sky, hemmed in by a shabby stone wall. There’s a bus stop, and few B&Bs cluster nearby for those honeymooners whose imaginations can’t stretch further than south Wales. Aside from the speeding cars and the trembling of trees, battered into submission by modernity, there’s no sign of life. Any wreath of smoke sent up in silence from among the trees would be ripped to wisps in the wind. Nonetheless, he’s there, up in the houseless woods, in some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire the Hermit sits alone, scribbling line after line of self-aggrandising idiocy.

Before carrying out his killing spree in Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger posted a 141-page autobiographical manifesto called My Twisted World on the internet. Most of the recent controversy around the aetiology of the murders has ended up drawing on this text. Can the killings be reduced to some nebulous concept of mental illness and anomie, or are they the product of general societal misogyny and male entitlement? Either way, the answer’s inside, if you look at the text closely enough. All this only plays into the killer’s hands: he wanted his words to be studied and pondered and argued over. No text is ever complete, closed, and hermetic; the function of an autobiography isn’t to give clear answers but to keep people asking questions, to prop up the heroic mystique of its author. The only way to avoid falling into Rodger’s trap is to refuse to start by analysing his account of events. To understand the tragedy in Santa Barbara, you have to begin with Wordsworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

Wordsworth was the quintessential English poet. He wrote with a deep childlike love of this country, its landscapes, and its soothing and gentle sights. His compositions move with a rolling fluidity from limpidly gorgeous descriptions of nature to profound reflections on universal themes. Every brick in every lowly peasant hut is imbued with a sense of calm significance. Wordsworth’s poetry has a slow deliberate style, one without any of the tubthumping demagoguery of Shelley or the overblown mythopoeia of Blake. He was, in other words, utterly shit. All the great Romantics knew this. Byron had his number: in his dedication to Don Juan he has great fun tripping up the pompous old lake poets as they tramp off on their lonely excursions in the dull old English countryside. There is narrowness in such a notion/ Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes for ocean. Even Keats, the sad sensitive soul of the Romantic movement, could reserve some viciousness for Wordsworth’s grand mediocrity: All of these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet/ On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it? For Keats even the grander moments in Wordsworth’s poetry constitute an egotistical sublime – whatever bucolic landscape the poet plonks himself in front of, his reflections always end up falling back on himself. Just as well, then, that Wordsworth kept to Dover and the Lake District. Imagine the damage he’d do if his withered imagination were let loose in a genuinely spectacular landscape – somewhere like Byron’s Italy, or southern California.

Tintern Abbey reached its present state of picturesque ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries of the 1530s, in which the assets of various ecclesiastical bodies were seized by the English crown, with the profits furthering imperial adventures abroad – but it’s not as if any of this historical fabric makes its way into Wordsworth’s poem. The abbey itself is never mentioned, appearing only as a trace, the conspicuous absence of a being-there under erasure. The abbey inspires Wordsworth’s reflections, but mentioning it can only destabilise the central opposition between the signifiers Nature and Man: the entire poem is an attempt to blot out the looming presence of the ruin and the historicity it represents. The landscape around Wordsworth is a wild secluded scene, a point of lasting communion with Nature: These beauteous forms/Through a long absence, have not been to me/As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:/But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities, I have owed to them/In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. Of course, the countryside around Tintern is no less artificial than the cities Wordsworth and Coleridge were so fond of despising; the pastoral farms/ Green to the very door are the result of centuries of enclosure and class struggle. For Wordsworth rural life is not merely idiocy, as in Marx’s formulation: it is fully non-human, appearing as part of a static Nature. Only the abbey, in its state of ruin or difference to itself, testifies to the internal heterogeneity of things; for that reason it must be erased.

True to form, the scene on the banks of the Wye soon gives way to an extended bout of poetic onanism, with Wordsworth recalling a previous visit to the same spot. Five years beforehand, he bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams/Wherever nature led; now he’s more inclined towards a subdued, solitary contemplation, and both desires are enthusiastically met by a promiscuous and polymorphously perverse Nature, one that never did betray/The heart that loved her. These modes of engagement are like the attributes of Spinoza’s divine Substance; Nature is a univocity of Being, a motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things – but at the same time it is directly opposed to the artificiality of the world, the heavy and weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world. Nature is meaning, eternity, and infinity. It’s a state of grace, a gift, but like all gifts its giving institutes a primordial lack. As such it can only be accessed by disavowing the impermanence of the world – in other words, by erasing the hulk of Tintern Abbey. But this is always an impossibility; the trace of the abbey plagues the poem like a rotten tooth.

William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger are describing the same phenomenon. Rodger’s screed is full of resentment against those living a better life. The bliss seen by Wordsworth in the impossible univocity of Nature is seen by Rodger in the impossible univocity of sex. However, Rodger was a virgin: he didn’t understand that the gift is impossible, and while Wordsworth tries to erase its non-existence, Rodger demands to receive it. He imagines that for those who can access sexual experiences, life must be a Paradise – when, of course, life is mostly vaguely shit for everyone, sex or no sex (and, as Adorno points out, happiness is always something you remember, not something you experience). There’s a lot that’s frightening in My Twisted World – the narcissism, the accounts of brutally failed attempts at socialisation, the fantasy of mass industrial femicide – but among its most disturbing aspects is the author’s complete lack of any of the fetishes or perversions that make actually existing sexuality sustainable. For Rodger sex is always homogeneous to itself. He doesn’t experience proximal sexual desire so much as a desire for sex, uninflected and generic. It’s only through this impossible unity that he can achieve happiness. Had he ever lost his virginity, his reaction could only have been one of enraged disappointment. Like Wordsworth, he can’t tolerate the internal difference of things – hence the continual egotistical return to the illusory unity of the self. (It’s no coincidence that Rodger subscribed to our era’s iteration of the mawkishly monist metaphysics of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the form of The Secret, a book that proclaims that the Universe exists to facilitate our desires, and that wishing for anything hard enough will make it come true.)

In the end, it comes back to Tintern Abbey and the dissolution of the monasteries. Elliot Rodger was propelled by a murderous culture of male entitlement, one in which women aren’t in any sense human beings but mere walking dispensers of sexual gratification. It’s an institutionalised system of domination that we’re all to some degree responsible for, a fact only confirmed by the inevitable self-centred attempts to wriggle out of this responsibility: but not all men! At the same time, it’s not just male entitlement that’s responsible. In My Twisted World Rodger describes himself as a perfect gentleman, someone hailing from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes. Elsewhere he writes: How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. Rodger’s entitlement is a feudal entitlement. Contemporary patriarchy tends to operate through the commmodification of female bodies; for Rodger such commodity-relations are inscrutable. He has an aristocratic horror of truck and barter, the processes of negotiation through which most people navigate the libidinal economy. When he decides that his only salvation lies in becoming a multi-millionaire, he decides to achieve this by winning the lottery, appealing to divine Providence instead of lowering himself to tradesmanship. His relations with women follow a similar pattern. He recounts the days leading up to his twentieth birthday: I made a bid to do everything I could to lose my virginity in those few remaining days I had […] I walked over to the centre of Isla Vista every day and sat at one of the tables outside Domino’s Pizza, hoping against hope that a girl would come up and talk to me. Why wouldn’t they? Women are subjects, not in the ontological but the sociological sense: peons expected to obey his desires without them ever being articulated, let alone acted upon. Nobody ever rejected Elliot Rodger; he never entered into any relation where acceptance or rejection was possible. What the women of Santa Barbara rejected was the social code of the fourteenth century – and for that, he decided that they had to die.

Across Europe, Protestant countries experienced some kind of a dissolution of the monasteries, but the experience of England is unique. On the Continent, the loss of monastic land was prompted by waves of popular anti-clericism; in England it was in intervention by the ruling class, widely opposed by the people. The dissolution of the monasteries marked the end of the static world of the medieval period and the ties of social obligation and feudal duty that had once characterised everyday life. As part of the process of primitive accumulation, it was the beginning of the world of property-relations that succeeded it. But these transitions are never so total as they might seem: as Marx writes, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The sense of noble privilege that fuelled the Santa Barbara killings is not, in the end, entirely heterogeneous to contemporary capitalist society: it’s present wherever human beings are instrumentalised. Tintern Abbey is in ruins, but its ghosts remain, haunting William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger and the families of his victims. Throughout the centuries, their grim whisper is the same: the world is singular and homogeneous, and you deserve the impossible gift.

Colton Burpo: all grown up

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2027, and Colton Burpo, subject of the bestselling 2010 book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back along with the hit 2014 film of the same name, is sitting in a strip club in the town of Little Whistling. He’s unrecognisable, and so nobody recognises him. The town is more a glorified truck stop, a shivering huddle of low square houses, half-buried in the loose winter ice that blankets the Dakota steppes in endless miles of blank white indistinction. Every time a big rig pulls into town, its headlights scything through the indifferent falling strata of snowflakes, the building shakes down to its foundations. 2027 is the harshest winter on record: outside it’s colder than the surface of Mars, but in Colton Burpo’s private booth there’s a heavy, sticky, woozy heat. The low rumble of an eighteen wheeler outside sends a brief seismic tremor through the stripper’s cellulite and gives Colton a jolt out from his narcotic daze. It’s not enough. He beckons the girl over. “Did you know why it is that serial killers keep on killing?” he says. He slurs, his head at a crooked angle; he doesn’t look right. Electra sighs. “No,” she says. “Now why is that?” She’s heard all this before. Every grizzled drifter that passes through Little Whistling ends up going off on a rant like this one, trying to imitate the engagingly twisted dialogue of the sexy redneck psychopaths they’ve seen on TV. It’s pathetic. Blood, snow, and the road; dead hobos and crooked cops; gun-running and dope-dealing; all as dull and as flat and as empty as the plains outside. Nobody’s real any more. (Not that she can really complain. Electra’s not a real stripper: she’s working undercover, writing an exposé on the dark underside of the sex industry for a feminist magazine. So far, all she’s been able to discover is that every other girl in this establishment is doing the exact same thing. Courageous investigative journalism is the only thing keeping these places running.) “It’s not that they enjoy killing,” Colton says. “They do it because they don’t. It ain’t never enough. It never gives them that thrill they want. So they just keep trying, in new ways, over and over again. It never works.” Satisfied, he sits back and pulls a little bag of white powder out his pocket. “You want some?” Electra shakes her head. She squats a little and presents him with her ass; customers like that sort of thing. “Not there,” he says. “Lie on your back.” This is where Electra can feel things start to get weird. He shakes a few soggy clumps of coke into the pit of her collarbone and snorts them up with a gruff yelp. It stings. Colton Burpo likes the town of Little Whistling. The people seem to be God-fearing folk, and honest, even if they do tend to embellish their personal histories. They’re willing to allow this pastor’s son his eccentricities. Colton Burpo has snorted cheap blow off just about every imaginable part of a woman’s body: her ankle, her labia, her armpit, her ocular cavity. He can’t get it back. It doesn’t work.

I first encountered Colton Burpo in 2012 while tearing through a Walmart superstore in Anaheim, California. I was reaching the end of my year-long stay in the United States and starting to panic. I had to cram as much absurd Americana into my final days as possible: Vegas, Disneyland, road trips, shooting ranges. I loved Walmart. I revelled in the logo (I’d never seen so many friendly yellow anuses in my life), the enormous bags of waxy grated cheese, the rows of rifles two aisles away from babycare products, the sense of an entire world repackaged and itemised in a single vast cube, ready to supply every possible human want. Somewhere in there I found a book called Heaven is for Real – for kids. It explained, with lovingly coloured illustrations, how a four year-old boy had ascended to Heaven during an emergency appendix surgery; how he’d spoken to dead family members and petted the rainbow-coloured steed of Christ and come back knowing things that he couldn’t possibly have known. I was so taken by this piece of extravagance that I don’t think I ever even noticed that the boy in question was, spectacularly, named Colton Burpo. I never considered what it must be like to actually be him: not just to go to Heaven, but to then have to come back. I don’t doubt for a second that he saw the afterlife. But how can Colton Burpo now live in the depravity and fallenness of the world, having seen what he’s seen, knowing that suicide is a mortal sin, unable to regain his paradise until the end of his long prison sentence of an earthly existence? What acts of oddness will he turn to in his attempts to recapture a lost Heaven?

By 2045 Colton Burpo has, like so much of the world’s monied flotsam, washed up in the Sovereign Emirate of London. For a while around independence some people were suspicious of the new name, but by now Londoners have grown proud of it. Absolute monarchy is good for trade, and London has even less in common with the stuffy old monarchies of Europe than it does with the grotty hinterlands out in the British Isles. Emirates are modern and forward-thinking and business-friendly; kingdoms aren’t. It’s said that the Windsors, exiled from Buckingham and Balmoral, are now occupying a nice semi-detached house in Manchester, wherever that is. It’s also said that there are people starving to death in Yorkshire and sprawling refugee camps along the Scottish border, for all anyone cares. The skyscrapers of London receive and transmit constant streams of capital, and the tangled medieval streets around them are a net, trapping some of it in the city, even if only for a second. People too. Colton Burpo lost everything when the dollar collapsed. At the time the thing to do was to go to China, so he did; hamming up his old boy-who-went-to-Heaven routine around Shanghai and Guangzhou for audiences of enraptured evangelicals – as if it were still a beautiful story of inspiration and hope, as if it were anything other than a clawing void deep in his chest. He left after a few years. He can’t stay in one place too long: the sky presses down on him, the ground swallows him up, it’s all so hideously material. Everywhere is the same now, but London is special, because it’s more the same than anywhere else. It’s gone midnight when Colton Burpo spots his prey, but the sky is still a bright hellish orange , the low clouds glowing with reflected fire and infamy. The youth is striding out of one of the huge towers that line Brixton Road. Apart from the occasional swoosh of a surveillance orb, it’s silent here. No trees for birds; no homes, only offices. The kid is sharply dressed in business attire; his white t-shirt expertly stained, his tracksuits all but falling apart. He’s wealthy and important, but then so is everyone in London – everyone except domestic servants, and the menial workers ferried in and out of the city every day from one of the tiny surrounding fiefdoms, but it’s not as if they count. Colton has stopped trying to work out why he does what he does; all he knows is that he has to keep doing it.

Freud locates the source of the ‘oceanic’ religious feeling of universal interconnectedness in infantile prehistory, before the ego detaches from the outside world. In the immediate oral stage, the child doesn’t conceive of the mother’s breast as being a separate entity; mouth and teat form a single machinic assemblage controlling a single flow. She is the world; the world is her. It’s only when she looks at herself in the mirror and identifies with her specular image that the unified and discrete Subject is formed; after that only faint aftershocks of this originary molecularity remain. No wonder religious myths tend to place Paradise in the far-distant past. Colton Burpo knows better; he knows that Heaven is still here, just across the fragile bound of every living instant. When someone refuses to move past the oral stage they develop a neurotic fixation: they’ll become anxious and needy, or domineering and manipulative; alcoholic; unwell. It’s not uncommon. Everyone’s a neurotic. The real problems emerge if you proceed through the stages of psychosexual development in a perfectly ordinary fashion, and are then suddenly thrust back, all too briefly, into the deep dark holy oceans of immanent unity. Visiting Heaven as a four-year old boy will only give you psychosis, and the most dangerous psychotic delusions are the ones that happen to be true. Georges Bataille writes that continuous (or deindividuated) life is always accessible, at the moment of death and in the heights of erotic passion. These moments are still deeply religious in character, but in an inverted form: if you can achieve continuous life by murdering a priest in the church of San Seville, then all the better. For Colton Burpo in 2045, Bataille is tedious and conventional. Nobody likes to think that they live in an era of innocence, but we do. The decadents of the generation before 1914 didn’t think they lived in an innocent time either. Great terrors await. The present tendency towards jaded irony is held to be some kind of postmodern affliction; we forget that the twenty-first century is fourteen years old, and has just discovered sarcasm. Colton Burpo was born on the eve of the millennium; he’s as old as our present age. His psychosis is our psychosis; his future is our future.

It’s 2069, and Colton Burpo is dying. He’s lucky. Here, in this private hospice high up in the Ural mountains, the air is still clean. His last breath won’t choke him. From his window Colton can see the snowless peaks plunging down under a cold and limpid sky. The whole flat expanse of Europe is spread out before him, coquettishly cloaked in its radioactive smog. On the other side, nothing. He’s been pushed here, thrown up against the edges of the world. It’s time. He signals for a priest. For the first time in decades Colton thinks of his father. Pastor Todd Burpo, who believed everything, who spread the good news. The clean airy smell of whitewash and disinfectant in the Nebraska church; those long bright summers when Heaven seemed so real and so fresh he could see it whenever he closed his eyes, before the book and the TV appearances and the movie and everything else, before the space stations fell from the sky and the nuclear plants popped one by one. He almost expects the priest to be like those he remembers, someone in blue jeans and a polo shirt with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. Instead there’s a dour Orthodox seminary student in black robes and a black felt cap. The buboes are visible all over his neck; it’s not like it matters now. The man takes Colton’s hand for a second, crosses himself, and begins to administer the last rites. “Blagosloven Bog nash vsegda-” Colton stops him. A last feeble rasp. “Once,” he says, “once when I was young – too young to understand – He showed me Heaven. I know now that I’m not going back. Ever since, He’s shown me nothing but Hell, and all its horrors. Now… I wonder what He’s going to show me next.”

(There’s a tragic misconception that in Christianity, what one does is this earthly world is only important insofar as it secures one’s position in the afterlife. In such an understanding, Heaven and individual salvation is the only proper goal in life. This is nonsense, and it has no basis in Scripture or the theological consensus, both of which are as materialist and as hostile to such transcendentalism as anything in Marx or Nietzsche. There are some within Christianity that believe in a conscious afterlife immediately following death, but at no point is this idea of personal salvation held to be any kind of telos. Far from being eternal, the intermediate state isn’t much more than a spiritual screensaver, something to occupy the soul until the bodily reincarnation of the dead promised in Matthew 22:31-32. For the thnetopsychitae, this filler heaven doesn’t even exist. They may be right: the immortality of the soul was always a Platonist Greek doctrine, not a Christian one.

Biblical writings are singularly unconcerned with the fate of the soul immediately after death; the point is always to return to the world in all its immanence after the Last Judgement. Heaven isn’t a metaphysical realm; it’s what happens here, and the New Earth or the Kingdom of Heaven must be built. With postmillenial salvation – operating on the level of the 144,000 or the numberless multitude rather than on that of the individual subject – the curse of Adam is lifted. The old order to be overturned is described precisely in Genesis 3:18-19: Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. In other words, by opposition we can see that the salient features of the Kingdom of Heaven are: the unleashing of productive forces in the clearing-away of thorns and thistles, an end to the antagonistic dialectic between the equally false categories of Nature and Man, and the abolition of alienated wage-labour. It’s in this New Earth that the dead are redeemed and justified.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call the Kingdom of Heaven the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. We do not passively wait for it. Luke 17:20-21: And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, the kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. As ever, God is impeccably Marxist.)

On the state of the State of the Left

If he up, watch him fall, I can’t fuck wit yall.
Pimp C, Big Pimpin’

Among the guardians of sclerotic radicalism, the ones who like to make grand pronouncements on the Current State of the Left, it’s become a grim axiom that we’ve somehow been defeated. This is pronounced with all the usual apocalyptic wailing: we’ve become weak and petty, we’ve splintered into irrelevancy, we’ve retreated into academia, we’ve polluted ourselves with all manner of useless theory – Nietzscheanism, Foucauldianism, intersectionality, ontology, cultural studies. Those who still hold to some kind of Marxist or communist line are like the seventh-century squatters in Diocletian’s palace, shivering in the walled-off ruins of something grand and terrifying and extinct while the barbarians scour the countryside. They’re right. The State of the Left is a terrible one: palsied, liver-spotted, emphysemic, crying out with its sandpaper rasp for a strong dose of barbiturates in a comfortingly bleak Swiss clinic. The point is that the State of the Left is not the same as the actual Left. Like all states its function is to arrive to us already in an advanced state of decay and to wither away as soon as possible. The left itself is doing just fine.

The moaners and complainers are ignoring a central lesson of the dialectic. Marx describes precisely its revolutionary quality in his 1873 postface to Volume I of Capital: the material dialectic regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and [does] not let itself be impressed by anything. Deleuze and Guattari touch on a similar point in Plateau 1730 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia: in a becoming-animal what is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes. Any single State of the Left will be dead as soon as it is pinned down. Those who gripe about this or that static problem in the radical movement will see it as an endless succession of corpses, rather than a living motion.

And it is alive. As China plunges ever deeper into the watery graveyard of neoliberal accumulation, autonomous peasant uprisings are becoming a near-daily occurrence. In India the Naxalite insurgency governs vast swathes of the country. Radical left parties – both Cold War relics and newer coalitions – are gaining increasing support across much of Europe. Radical left magazines are reaching and radicalising new audiences. Protest movements are flaring up across the globe. Whatever the ideological or practical failings of these individual bodies or movements (and they exist), their emergence and resurgence is reason enough to be hopeful. The evidence is mounting for the radical – and correct – idea that the current way of doing things simply doesn’t work. There is significantly more debt than actual money in circulation, we’ve invested well over one planet’s worth of resources in the existing order, the wealth gap gets broader and more perilous with every crisis, the conditions necessary not only for social but biological life are being eroded, Macklemore won every rap award at the Grammys. Most importantly, this increasing consciousness of the sheer insanity of existing conditions has prompted an unashamed and unapologetic revival of the signifier communism.

In The German Ideology, Marx writes: Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The State of the Left is not communism. Politics, properly understood, is the practical arena in which the question of how life should be lived is contested and the method through which human beings can through mass action entirely overhaul their mode of existence. The State of the Left, more concerned with ossifying the present state of things with the basilisk stare of its displeasure than abolishing it, is not only non-communist but non-political. It’s squabbling for position and the allocation of immaterial resources, the reconfiguration of left politics into left politicking, and beyond any ideological or practical objections it’s profoundly, abyssally boring.

It’s for this reason that I try to engage with this stuff as little as possible. My last flight into the turbulent miasma of leftist infighting was a response to Mark Fisher’s ‘vampire castle’ nonsense, mostly written because everyone else was doing one and as an excuse to spend a few paragraphs playing around with Gothic metaphors, which are always fun. This intervention is prompted by something a little less conceptually fecund. Recently, Richard Seymour (formerly of the Socialist Workers Party and author of the often excellent and occasionally execrable blog Lenin’s Tomb) resigned from the International Socialist Network; much of the crowing at his apparent fall from grace has been led by Ross Wolfe (formerly of the Platypus Affiliated Society and author of the often execrable and occasionally excellent blog The Charnel-House). The dispute that prompted this move centred on the racial implications of a work of art-cum-furniture owned by the Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova, with Seymour insisting on the acceptability of something called ‘race play.’ Personally, I think that to complain about the chair that an oligarch’s girlfriend chooses to sit on is to miss the point a little (especially when cops are shooting people of colour in the streets with impunity), but I’ve no interest in trying to wave away someone else’s sense of outrage or direct it from the outside. What’s important here (for a given value of ‘important’) is that an argument about a chair ended in a further split in what’s still masquerading as the left.

Seymour (and others) have previously complained of a ‘politics of anathema’ within the ISN; others have pointed to a supposed culture of excommunication throughout the left and tied it (unfairly, I think) to the increasing influence of intersectionality theory. It’s easy to disdain all this polemicism as being contrary to the spirit of reasoned debate, but the practice of polemic has a very distinguished leftist pedigree – Marx against Bakunin, Lenin against Kautsky, Stalin against Trotsky, Mao against Khrushchev, Tito against his own conscience, Hoxha against the slimy creatures scurrying inside his walls at night, Kim against the oral stage of psychosexual development. We have a leftist duty to engage in criticism and self-criticism, to get rid of a bad style and keep the good, to not let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong. What we shouldn’t do is confuse these duties with communist praxis.

Purely rational debate isn’t something that’s ever existed; it’s a transcendent regulative ideal buttressed with violence and used to hold back people who actually have a stake in the game. Insisting on measured reasonableness in a time of crisis is madness. Something’s changed, though. The new polemicism and the old polemicism don’t look very much alike. The discussion inevitably ends up veering away from politics because politics is fundamentally not a concern here. One of Seymour’s accusers on Facebook wrote: I hope a bird shits on you. I hope a bird shits on you every day. Catullus it ain’t. (Besides, isn’t being shat on by a bird supposed to bring good luck?) This is the real problem with the current leftist infighting: rather than being too vicious, it’s not vicious enough. I’m not going to make prescriptions about how this stratum of contest can be reformed; it’s a useless husk, and its uselessness is affirmed by how seriously everyone involved takes it. Calls for unity and pleasantness in a State of the Left already clotted into paralysis miss the point entirely. If anything, more splits, more divisions; everyone knows that communist cells reproduce asexually. But if we are to have a pointless squabbling sideshow to left activism, the very least it could do is make itself interesting.

PS: For all the complaints of excommunication, the State of the Left is hardly catholic or Catholic in nature. Excommunication is a profoundly dialectical censure; the object is to prod the wayward sheep back into the fold precisely by showing them what going it alone would mean. Instead, the function of contemporary left infighting is a kind of secular takfirism, a static universalism within strict horizons. Excommunication is vicious, takfirism is merely brutal. Once you’ve been pronounced apostate, there’s no return. You might follow the same doctrine and the same liturgy; it doesn’t matter – you are our enemy and always have been. This can be seen in the doctrine of Platypus: only one obscure Marxist reading group can rescue the left from its ruin, everything else must be destroyed. It’s hard not to be reminded of the splinter groups in the Algerian Civil War that were able to declare themselves to be the only true Muslims and every single person outside their militia kafir.

Grand Theft Auto and the extinction of being

More like Geworfenheit Theft Auto amirite

In Rostov-on-Don, a provincial city in the south of Russia, two men had an argument in a supermarket. There’s no footage of it, but we can imagine the scene. The squeaky lino floors, the tinny sound of pop music. The strip-lighting, buzzing as it casts a dreary mundane pallor on the rows of produce, scrubs the shadows from the faces of the disputants, and eventually drains all colour from the flecks of blood. The other shoppers look on first in exasperation, then in horror: the argument devolves into a fistfight until its frenzy reaches a point where one man pulls out a gun and fires several rubber bullets into the other’s head. So it goes. What’s brought this dull event to the world’s attention is the fact that the two men were reportedly arguing about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The international press has treated this story with a kind of wry amusement: it’s perfectly normal to shoot someone in an argument over sex or money or football; it’s pretty weird (and kinda funny) to shoot someone in an argument over the nature of the noumenon. Going by the experience of history, this isn’t really the case. For a good part of the 20th Century, a philosophical debate (or at least something that claimed to be a philosophical debate) about the degree of contradiction between the material dialectic and humanist values got so out of hand that for a quite while it looked like the only way to properly resolve the issue was through the mass slaughter of every human being on the planet. Disputes over the mysteries of the Holy Trinity saw swarms of horsemen turn fields into hellish seas of mud under their hooves and reduce cities to blood-drenched ruins under their swords. Aristotle’s doctrine of virtuous moderation allowed his protégé to send a moving line of fire and bloodshed that swept from the Aegean to the Indus. You haven’t really made it as a philosopher until you’ve stacked up a decent body count.

Even Kant, shy and gentle, punctiliously pedestrian, isn’t exempt from the violence of philosophy. Presidente Gonzalo, the leader of the Peruvian Shining Path, had a secret identity: Abimael Guzmán, mild-manned professor of philosophy at San Cristóbal of Huamanga University. As the group’s notorious massacres in peasant villages show, he had a lot to learn about the proper implementation of Mao Tse-Tung Thought; nonetheless, his Kantian credentials are impeccable. If anything, transcendental idealism handily lends itself to a certain kind of will to destruction. Like most very clever people, Kant had something of a nasty smug streak. In his What is Enlightenment?, he describes the unenlightened condition of humanity as a ‘self-imposed nonage’: if other people are stupid, lazy, and cowardly, it’s only their own fault; leaders and tyrants only channel this mass stupidity rather than imposing it. This is why he can write that ‘freedom need not cause the least worry concerning public order or the unity of the community.’ Against those who try to stifle argument, Kant proposes the dictum ‘argue as much as you like – but obey!’ Enlightened argument can only proceed towards a singular truth, and if a ruler is himself enlightened, then any argument that challenges his rule is by definition invalid, with no place in a liberated discourse. Kant’s enlightenment admits no contradiction. There’s a very short line from his veneration of Frederick’s Prussia to a man being shot in the head in a Russian supermarket. The shooter was applying the categorical imperative perfectly: if everyone who dares to be so clearly and obstinately wrong about philosophy gets a rubber bullet to the head, then proper reasoned argument can begin, to the benefit of all humanity.

~

One man shooting another because they disagree about the fundamental nature of reality is a funny human interest story. Someone pretending to shoot a virtual prostitute is grounds for a moral panic. Every iteration of the Grand Theft Auto series of games seems to raise the same clamour: it’s an awful, violent game in which you, the player, can fuck a prostitute, kill her, and then take your money back. It’s a strangely specific complaint – after all, you can do a lot of terrible things in GTA, your basic mode of existence in the game is that of a spree killer. This might have something to do with the level of intent involved: the game is ‘open’ to the extent that you can walk into a shop, stand in line for a while, and then shoot another customer in the head, but you can’t (yet) have a steadily escalating argument about Kant with him beforehand. The prostitute scenario is different; you have a reason to kill her. Ultimately, I think there’s more to it than that. The real object of horror isn’t the murder, it’s the retrieval of the money. What’s being dramatised is a violation of the laws of exchange, those in which – as Marx puts it in Volume I of Capital – ‘the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.’ By taking your money back, you’re breaking a contract, dispelling the comforting illusions of the marketplace, turning the covert oppression of the trade in bodies into its overt expression in violence.

The question of violence in video games is based on the horror of the uncanny: it’s about the power of images of things to come alive, the potential for onscreen violence to turn into actual violence. What’s apparently certain is that these games have some primordial connection to humanity’s intrinsic cruelty. Depending on whether you believe the dessicated pinch-faced puritans or the sloppily hirsute misogynists that make up video gaming’s core user base, this relation is either one of normalisation, in which representations of violence bring our animal natures out from the fragile cloak of civilisation – or one of release, allowing an expression of this violent nature that helps us function normally in the real world with only minimal loss of life. The case of the argument over Kant in Rostov-on-Don shows that it’s a little more complicated than that. Violence doesn’t proceed only from violence but from something quite different; there’s nothing more shatteringly, existentially violent than the infinite stillness of a Rothko multiform or the fragile sorrow of Chopin’s nocturnes. I’m not going to question whether or not human beings are existentially violent; at root the question is what it means for us to be violent, or, more fundamentally, what it means for us to be – and, as Heidegger shows, our being is inseparable from the world in which we exist.

Heidegger’s innovation is not only to ground ontology in actual existing beings instead of some grand unifying principle (as in Spinoza’s substance or Leibniz’s monads) but to stress the situatedness of the ontological object. His term for the human mode of existence, or that ‘which, in its very Being, comports itself understandingly towards that Being,’ is Dasein – literally ‘being-there.’ Awareness of your own existence is a matter of experience rather than a solipsistic Cartesian introspection; Dasein is a being-in-the-world rather than a being that just so happens to find itself inhabiting something vaguely world-shaped. This world isn’t just a set of beings, or the spatial framework in which they are dispersed: in Heidegger’s definition, ‘the world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we feel ourselves to be at home.’ Non-human beings, meanwhile, are encountered in two modes: as present-at-hand (in which they’re an object of detached contemplation) and as ready-to-hand (in which Dasein is absorbed in their use, with the categories of subject and object falling away into the undifferentiated process of work). Against much previous philosophy, which considers entities in terms of their properties and attributes, Heidegger stresses the primacy of the ready-to-hand. On perceiving a hammer, we don’t think about its abstract composition but how we can use it. The world is filled with equipment; useful, handy things.

It’s a nice way of thinking about things, but you get the feeling that for all his talk of handiness and equipmentality Heidegger would still have trouble with an Ikea wardrobe. Beyond that, Heidegger’s system runs into some problems when we’re forced to confront beings that aren’t handy or useful to us. True to form, he has his own word for this: Unzuhandenheit, unreadiness-to-hand. The unready-to-hand tool is something broken that doesn’t fulfil its function properly; it inhabits a grey phantom zone between the absorption of the ready-to-hand and the distant appraisal of the present-at-hand. We become aware of the thing as an object, but at the same time Dasein is engaged with it in the search for a solution. What happens, though, when we come up against something which is working in perfect order, but whose being is directly adversarial to ours? It’s an important question, because these things have come to dominate our lives.

Scholars of Heidegger tend to dispute the exact nature of Dasein and its relation to what we think of as the human being (there haven’t been any recorded fatalities yet, but there’s still plenty of time). Graham Harman and other advocates of object-oriented ontology attempt an ‘anthropodecentrism,’ in which the status of human beings as those beings that move towards their own Being is deprivileged. In a way, they have it right. Under industrial capitalism, an understanding comportment towards Being isn’t something that occurs on the level of the human, but on that of the firm. Humans are instrumentalised, first through their labour-power, and again through their position as consumers, becoming tools used in the production process. Capital-producing institutions are Dasein, reaching out towards an authentic existence; we are Zuhandenheit, the equipment used. The immense wealth of commodities produced is useful, but not for us. There are few consumer items that are used to solve our problems; our new technologies impose themselves as the solutions to problems that didn’t even exist before their arrival. Tools bear the stamp of their owners; now the tool is the stamp. The new iPhone has a fingerprint scanner, the new Xbox has an always-on camera. At the same time, it’s these same things that are used to stage our response: a steady, furious crusade against everything useful and handy, a purging of our own usefulness. Our violence is the violence of a being-in-the-world whose ability to understand that Being is under threat of extinction.

Watch someone playing GTA – not going through the storyline missions, but really playing, tearing at random through the vast cityscape, mowing down pedestrians, ducking down alleyways to avoid the cops. The landscape is littered with useful things, but rather than being absorbed in their use, we discard and destroy them. Get out of one car, steal another, over and over again. What distinguishes Grand Theft Auto is the sheer destructibility of the environment; we are the equipment through which the world’s destructibility is realised. In a world where the relation between humans and tools is inverted, the game offer us another reversal. Heidegger describes the condition of the individual human as one of thrown-ness, a state that goes beyond its Sartrean reformulation in the precession of existence over essence to encompass the position of having-to-be-open. We’re tossed into a world we don’t understand; to make sense of it we have to open ourselves to other beings. Through GTA, the world is thrown into us and has to be open to us. We’re faced with the infinite usefulness that’s lacking in reality. And so, of course, we have to destroy it.

PS: Incidentally, this is why video games can never be art. Art discloses the world; by giving us a world thrown into us, video games enframe it. They’re technology, and also a waste of time.

PPS: I haven’t actually played the new GTA, but they’re all basically the same, aren’t they?

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t care about my face

My body is in open insurrection against itself, and my chin is its Tahrir Square.

Towards the end of last month, as demonstrators in São Paulo were beginning to demand the return of the military dictatorship, I noticed a strange growth on my chin. It was a little like a spot, red and tender on the surface, but it refused to come to a head. Instead a vaguely conical mass sat just above the bone; I could move it around a little, nudge it this way and that, but it felt completely solid and unsquidgeable. Never mind, I thought. It’ll go away soon. And it did, retreating into a tiny hard kernel, as if it was about to vanish entirely.

And then, without warning, it returned. I woke up with my face numb, my cheeks puffy, and an alien virus colonising the bottom half of my face. It was no longer a swelling but an invasion; pressing against my gums, my teeth, its areolae of engorged tissue slanting the line of my chin, its growing bulk pushing out my bottom lip into a permanent prognathic scowl. Eating was painful. So was smoking. Even breathing started to carry a faint dull pain. There are names for these things: abscesses, cysts. Names whose sibilance suggests seeping pus, blood curdling in the off-white purulence, gangrene, death. It had me. I was afraid.

I say it happened without warning. That’s not entirely true. When I went to bed the previous night tens of thousands were gathering on the streets of Cairo to mark the anniversary of President Morsi’s election and to protest the betrayal of their revolution. Millions more were marching across the country; according to some, it was the biggest protest in human history. I was fully supportive: by all accounts, Morsi’s done a terrible job, marrying civil sectarianism with the cold inhuman logic of the markets. When I woke, though, it was to news (blearily observed through the ache in my chin) that the city’s police had declared their solidarity with the youth on the streets. Surely this wasn’t right: one of the main grievances of the demonstrators had been Morsi’s failure to properly prosecute the police and military for their misdeeds in the 2011 revolution and 2012’s Port Said massacre. The cops should have been in there, batons high, riot helmets turning human faces into mere avatars of the forces of reaction. They weren’t doing their job. Instead there were reports of gunshots and deaths in the night with no clear indication of who had been shot and who was doing the shooting, as if the bullets were some kind of freak weather event. As the Egyptian state festered against itself, my face had become my heautontimoroumenos. Something was going horribly wrong.

The creature had laid its roots deep. Its cystic tentacles must have spread around my head and drilled into my brain, because I was overcome by a fit of what can only be called psychotic narcissism. I closed my windows and drew the curtains. I cancelled social engagements. Mirrors, which showed me a face so swollen and lopsided I no longer recognised it as my own, were horrifying; I covered them up. Even the screen of my phone was too reflective; I considered having a go at it with some sandpaper. I was thinking like a cyst, retreating into my own little cavity, where I could swarm.

Everything started to flare again up as General al-Sisi issued his 48-hour ultimatum to President Morsi. Al-Sisi was supposed to be a Morsi loyalist, promoted to his post after the old military elite had been dismissed in the last power struggle between armed and elected authority – and yet here he was, demanding that the Muslim Brotherhood share power or lose it. As he did so my infected cyst bubbled. The entire left side of my face became swollen. A soft, foamy subcutaneous emulsion. My lymph nodes felt like ping-pong balls. My jawline was melting away on one side. I looked as though I’d been genetically spliced with a potato. Before long it was intolerable. I had to see a doctor.

I went to a drop-in clinic at an NHS surgery in Cricklewood, lodged awkwardly between an enormous B&Q centre sitting like a fat orange-roofed slug on its grassy mound and a general tat shop called Aladdin’s Cave. To get there I walked through a narrow grey alley into a small grey car park; the barbed wire that surrounded the clinic was bearded with shredded plastic sheeting. I stood and smoked a cigarette outside the entrance. An elderly woman with a smudged tattoo on her forearm stood on the other side and smoked a cigarette as well. We didn’t talk. Then, as I sat in the waiting room, al-Sisi’s deadline approached. I was the only person there, scrolling compulsively through Twitter, perched above a small forest of institution-blue chairs. The only sound came from the clicking of my phone and a flatscreen TV mounted on the wall opposite me showing Countdown. It was coup o’clock; 2.30 pm Cairo time. Onscreen, the hand whizzed down the face of the clock as the famous music played. I wish the winning anagram had been something germane or significant. It wasn’t. Years after an important event, people sometimes share stories of where they were as it happened. The highest-scoring word on Countdown was ‘parsnip.’ I might remember that for the rest of my life.

The GP who saw me was rather fat and affably Jewish. He told me a lot of what I already knew: I had an infected cyst, a gland had become impacted, and the bacteria had rushed in en masse to fill my face with slime. He prescribed me antibiotics; I now have eighty tablets of flucloxacillin to my name. I doubt they’ll do much good. Whatever his qualities as a doctor, the GP is unlikely to be able to alter the course of events in the Middle East. When I returned home I discovered that President Morsi had been put under house arrest and the constitution was being suspended. Tahrir Square was overflowing with celebrations.

There’s one other thing the doctor told me. If the swelling doesn’t respond to antibiotics and doesn’t go down, he said, if the blockage isn’t cleared – there’s always the option of surgery.

~

There’s a certain superior tone which Western commentators love to bring out whenever mass movements in the developing world take form. If they oppose the movement, it’s patronisingly dismissive, bringing all the accumulated wisdom of four decades’ drinking fairtrade coffee to bear on the situation: these people would do well to bear in mind, they say, or the leaders of the movement ought to consider. When they support the protesters it’s even worse; what’s happening on the ground is twisted into the expression of a Platonically ideal political agenda. The protesters are always fighting for the commentator’s own set of values, and any contradictory voices from the country in question are easily drowned out. We know what you want better than you do. As the crowds swelled in Cairo, the Guardian commented on an Egyptian activist tweeting ‘Fuck Western Media.’ ‘There’s a notable fatigue in Egypt with the Western media and media analysis,’ they said. We’ll keep you updated on our live blog as the situation progresses.

I’m going to try not to do that. I’m going to stick rigorously to the facts. And the fact is that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has purposefully, with full calculated intent, given me an infected cyst on the left side of my chin.

The evidence is incontrovertible. I don’t know exactly how he’s done it, but I have a vague idea. This is how. The protests in Egypt were spearheaded by liberal, leftist, and Nasserite parties, among others, under the umbrella of the Tamarrud (or Rebellion) movement. Many of these are the same groups that fought against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last year when it tried to write itself into the new constitution, hoping to supersede the powers of the presidency. When these groups did so they marched alongside the Muslim Brotherhood. Now many of these same people (with, of course, a vast number of dissenters) are celebrating the reimposition of military rule. What has taken place is a coup – but that said, Morsi’s government was overthrown not by the military but by the people on the streets; it was finished the moment millions gathered in Tahrir Square. The statements of support for the June 30th Movement by the police and army were not a gesture of solidarity but a means of control; they turned something that might have destabilised the exercise of state power into something that mimicked the state. The situation in Egypt demonstrates precisely the Marxian analysis of the state-form: it’s not a monolithic institution but a tactic, a tool that can be wielded by one group or class or another. As al-Sisi’s deadline approached there was speculation over whether the soldiers guarding the state broadcaster were loyal to the army or the government. In a way, it didn’t matter; they were the state. The state is control; the state is in control of everything apart from itself. When cops march at the head of a demonstration, it stops being a protest movement and starts to become an exercise of government power. Cops have an important role to play in any revolution; with their violence they focus the popular rage, they inflame its energies. As ever, the Egyptians are far ahead of us in the West; they found a way to stop this from happening, and all it took was a mild displacement in the loci of control. But those revolutionary energies are still there. According to the law of the conservation of energy, they can’t just vanish. And I know what’s happened to them. Somehow, by some strange magic, they’ve pooled in the left side of my chin. They’ve been displaced to my face. And Abdel Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t care about my face.

PS: I’ve said this kind of thing before, but it bears repeating: by enacting deeply unpopular policies and pointing to their victory at the ballot box to stifle dissent, the Muslim Brotherhood were behaving not like a dictatorship but precisely like Western liberal-democratic governments. If Britain were as new to representative rule as Egypt is, Cameron and co would have been on the way out some time in 2010. The difference between us and the Egyptians is that they really believe in democracy. We stopped doing that a long time ago.

PPS: Al-Sisi was Morsi’s appointee. One can imagine the scene at the barracks: Morsi, overthrown, weeping into his paternally greying beard, arms outstretched: Abdel, you were like a son to me. Could the whole scenario be reconsidered as an Oedipal drama? What is the state after all but a hideous trillion-titted mother?

Istanbul, Prism, São Paulo: Unearthing chthonic conspiracies

 

Two events are happening at once. In the year of our Lord 534, it’s a slick, sweaty night in Taksim Square, the kind of night that makes your skin shine and your hair stick to your forehead, the kind of sticky, fecund night that breeds love affairs and revolutions. On this night, although they don’t know it, the citizens of Constantinople are witnessing the last ever Roman Triumph. The great general Belisarius has recaptured Africa for the Eastern Empire: in a few years Justinian I will accuse him of various conspiracies, pull his eyes out, and leave him as a beggar by the gates of Rome, but for now he has his glory. The procession starts. First, the spoils of his conquest. The Temple Menorah, first captured in the sack of Jerusalem and brought to Rome, then seized by the Vandals and brought to Carthage – now restored at last to the Church, its silver gleams as the plebeians crowd round and snap eager photos of the treasure on their smartphones. Then the man himself. Belisarius sits in the cabin of the ceremonial mechanical digger, resplendent in his corona triumphalis, soaking himself wrinkled in the adulations of the crowd. As demanded by tradition, a woman in hijab sits perched on the boom, the long yellow-painted arm wreathed with hydraulic sinews. Hominem te memento, she mouths. Nobody hears her. The crowd waves banners and Turkish flags, they throw flares and garlands of flowers; the riot cops join in the universal celebrations, joyously firing rubber bullets and sending out waves of teargas. The tree-lined street is soon hazy with jubilant smoke. Everything is organised to the finest detail; it’s a spectacle, and the protesters and the police all play their allotted role. Finally, Belisarius’ chariot comes to a halt. A digger knows how to do one thing: it digs. Istanbul is a city built on its own ruins. The Gezi Park demonstrators dig, past Constantinople, past Byzantium, down to the ancient grotto where the Deep State has been managing the affairs of the world for twenty-six centuries. And this excavation has been planned, too; everything is part of the plan.

A few weeks before the London Olympics in 2012, I found myself in small but pleasant company, drinking wine from the bottle in Trafalgar Square, as you do when you’re young and pointless. A man came up to us and asked for a light. We got talking. He was due in court the next day, he told us, he’d been arrested while protesting in support of Julian Assange; he seemed a bit over-earnest but generally quite right-on. Across the square stood an Olympic countdown clock flanked by the two terrifying cyclops-mascots the organising committee had foisted on the world. I must have said something about how I didn’t think it was such a great idea for there to be anti-air missile batteries on residential buildings and carriers on the Thames just to protect a glorified sports day, because he agreed. Plus, he said, if you looked at our hideous logo, the numbers spelled out the word Zion. So did the logo for the 2008 Olympics. And, in the handover ceremony in Beijing, the London delegation had wheeled out a fake double-decker bus in the Bird’s Nest stadium before blowing the roof off to reveal Jimmy Page and Leona Lewis, one day before a real London bus was blown up in Tavistock Square. Unconvinced but not uncurious, I looked into his assertions. Naturally, they were nonsense. To make the Beijing logo read Zion you have to take the whole thing apart seemingly at random. Of course, the 7/7 attacks took place three years before the 2008 Olympics. And if a shadowy Zionist conspiracy was ruling the world behind the scenes, then why would they announce themselves? What on earth would make them leave little clues for us to decode?

 Yeah, no.

Conspiracy theorists aren’t insane, they’re far saner then the rest of us; their delusions are those of sanity pushed to its furthest edge. Where we see a world that doesn’t make sense, they see something logical and precise and – crucially – knowable. Conspiracy theory is the most profound expression of Enlightenment ideology: there is a rational plan behind the phenomena we observe, and it can be uncovered through reason if you study and interpret those phenomena hard enough. In other words, there’s not as much separating dialectical materialism from the Space Lizards theory of western civilisation as good Marxists like myself would like to believe. It doesn’t really help that the world of late capitalism is, to some extent, structured exactly like the wildest fantasies of the conspiracy theorists. There really is a tiny – globally speaking – cabal at the top of the pyramid that run the lives of the billions below. They really do meet, occasionally, in secret summits with no reporters and no minutes taken. They really do pull the strings of our elected politicians. They really do leave clues to their activities; not as coded symbols, but in the newspapers – society’s conspiracy against itself is hidden in plain sight. The Queen really does look quite a bit like a cold-hearted creature from beyond the stars. Conspiracy theory is the nomos of a society in which the lacerations of democratic openness have become themselves a form of occlusion; in form, if not in content, they reflect actual conditions. The only difference is that there’s no singular teleological Plan; the initiates are just as dumb as the rest of us. There are only personal and class interests, bouncing off each other at a million intersecting angles.  We’re ruled not by cabals but by structures; conspiracy theory reduces the grand saga of the word to a roman à clef. Althusser describes the hidden conspiracy at the heart of society on the first page of Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: every social formation must reproduce the conditions of production at the same time as it produces. Reproduce the conditions of production: this is the creed of the Templars, the rite of the Illuminati, and the Wu-Tang Secret.

Take the recent revelations about the NSA’s Prism system. Snowden is undoubtedly a hero, if a politically naïve one, but what he’s told us isn’t really anything new. Everyone understood already, in some vague sense, that Western governments were breaking the law and spying on the internet communications of their citizens, it’s practically axiomatic. The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks told us more of what we already knew: US ambassadors were exasperated with every country they happened to be stationed in, and their hosts were equally bored with the meddling hyperpower. Leaked recordings of a conversation between Obama and Sarkozy revealed that neither of them much liked Israeli President Netenyahu; well, of course not, the man’s an utter twat. It’s not just that Bush and Blair lied about WMD to take us to war with Iraq; they didn’t even bother to make their lies convincing. The really dangerous liars are those who claim to have been convinced by the evidence in 2003. In the 1970s, Nixon and Kissinger went to extraordinary lengths to cover up their secret bombing of Cambodia; now, in 2013, every drone strike gets a short paragraph in the newspapers, described in neutral terms, as if they were natural disasters rather than acts of war. If you want to do evil, it’s far easier to do it out in the open. That way, when you’re called out on it, you can just shrug your shoulders and say: “Yeah. So what?”

What makes the recent Turkish protest movement interesting in this regard is that here it isn’t the protesters entertaining absurd conspiracy theorists; it’s the government. Edrogan has accused the protesters of being part of a global conspiracy against his government, one that takes in the feeble secular opposition, the international finance system, the BBC, the Knights Templar seeking to avenge the fall of Jerusalem, the reptilian aliens hoping to neutralise the threat posed to them by the indomitable Turkish race. So he’s crazy. After all, it’s not like his AK Party hasn’t done plenty of sucking up to finance capital in the past. Except the Turkish deep state, a murderous conspiracy of the anti-democratic and pro-secular powers that be, really did exist, and everyone knew that it existed long before it was officially uncovered. Did the protests seep up from its subterranean chambers? Probably not, but in its context the government response is understandable if not excusable. This is why Edrogan wants to pave over Gezi Park: parks are dangerous, anything can burrow down there; it’s easier to hatch plots beneath the soil than beneath a shopping centre. Conspiracies reach for the cloudless heights of power, but they’re always based underground. Chthonic spaces are hideous, they spawn plots and sacrilege. For all the years that Osama bin Laden was living comfortably in a two-storey house in Abbottabad, it was generally assumed that he was hiding out in a cave somewhere. In Negarestani’s terms, holey spaces subvert the plane of the monotheistic desert; the Inside is the spawning-ground of blasphemies.

The crackdown on the Taksim Square protests is, of course, being compared to the Arab Spring; all the tedious old questions about the compatibility of Islam with liberal democracy are being summoned from out of their graves to shuffle hungrily around newspaper opinion pages. Really, the government’s response should be answering these questions rather than posing them. Thousands were brutally beaten in the co-ordinated crackdown on the Occupy movement in 2011; the previous year riot police in London pulled a student demonstrator from his wheelchair and attacked him with batons. In ignoring demonstrators’ demands and sending in armoured cops against them Erdogan isn’t behaving like the archetypal Islamic dictator; he’s following to the letter the model provided by the Western democracies.

 Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia is the inverse of Haussman’s Paris. Its openness neutralises the advantage of police over protesters; in building a home for the state, he abolishes the State as such. His congress building is a stage. It moulds reality into revolutionary art.

The sound of truncheons against skulls echoes across the Atlantic. It’s interesting to note that the protest movement in Brazil is breaking out just under a year before (and is in part sparked by) the 2014 Brazil World Cup, just as the 2011 riots in England broke out just under a year before the 2012 London Olympics. Maybe this marks the beginning of a pattern: the symbolic violence of organised sports must be proceeded by real, political violence. The rioting functions as a prologue, an unofficial opening ceremony, to get everyone in the appropriate mood. Meanwhile the international news media will know to get their crews and commentators on the ground a year early to catch the mayhem. In 2019 a former footballer sits in front of an animated mural of a burning Almudena Cathedral. Outside the studio, the sky glows a demonic red. “A really strong showing from the rioters here in Madrid, Terry,” he says. “They played an great game, they were incredibly passionate, but honestly you have to hand it to the police. Excellent formation, really strong use of tear gas and pepper spray, top form throughout.”

The situations in Turkey and Brazil are, of course, not the same; nonetheless what’s happening in São Paulo might serve as a warning for Taksim. Ominous reports are coming in from Brazilian comrades: what started as a movement against a hike in transport prices spearheaded by working-class anarchist and communist parties is being hijacked by the far right. Red flags are being burned. Leftist demonstrators are being attacked, not by the police, but by the fascists in their midst. There are calls for the reimposition of military dictatorship. One account describes the origin of the situation very powerfully – I’m quoting at length because the author is, unlike me, on the ground in São Paulo; she describes the conditions there far better than I ever could:

The initial wave of protests were organized by the MPL, Movimento Passe-Livre, which is an autonomist anarchist movement, based primarily in public universities. Their main goal is and always was free, public funded transportation. The protests were organized in response to (left-wing, social democrat/liberal PT Worker’s Party) mayor Fernando Haddad’s and (right-wing, conservative, social democrat in name only PSDB governor) Geraldo Alckimin’s hikes in bus and metro fares.

The protests were instantly joined by communist parties PSTU, PSOL and PCB. The MPL, due their anarchist ideology, denounced party participation. This will become important later on.

The media, at first, launched a total offensive against the protests, accusing it of vandalism, and of being made-up by extreme leftists. They justified the actions of the armed Military Police of Brazil (which is a Gendarme), which was, at the time, shooting rubber bullets at people’s faces (which is lethal), beating up primarily women, using lots of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the movement, as well as several intimidation tactics, such as baseless arrests (including the famous arrests for vinegar possession).

The media realized that despite all of their efforts, the movement had a popular agenda and had been garnering support across progressive sections of the population. One very popular ultra-conservative pig-loving anchor attempted to ask the extremely loaded question to his viewers: do you support vandalism in ongoing protests? only to have his primarily reactionary audience humiliate him live by voting yes. The media, realizing they could no longer discredit the movement, and noticing that their most reactionary viewers were ready to take the street, switched strategies.

As I predicted, the raging anti-communist pundit withdrew his previous opinion and started favoring the protests, but also started claiming that the protests were about “much more”, and started to tell his viewers that the protests were about the long running list of anti-leftist complaints that were traditionally presented by the media against the left leaning worker’s party and used electorally by the right-wing PSDB. The rest of the media did exactly the same thing.

The most illuminating detail, however, comes from here:

They tried to hijack our rally, threatened, provoked, harassed us. It was tense. I was fucking scared.

One of the most common slogans people were yelling was “People united don’t need a party.” While yelling, they took the sidewalks and waved their arms in the nazi fashion.

When a protest movement loses its positively articulated ideological character and becomes a vehicle for negatively defined apolitical ‘discontent,’ it then becomes ripe for subversion. The neo-nazis are the ones assaulting people, but they could only do so once a space for fascist infiltration was opened by the well-meaning liberals, those for whom ‘ideology’ has become a dirty word. An absurd scene emerges: anti-partisan platitudes of tolerance emerging from the mouths of fascists as they set about attacking anyone wearing red shirts. In Istanbul, we’re told that there are Kemalists sitting next to Kurds sitting next to Keynesians as if this kind of ideological incoherence was somehow a good thing, rather than a testament to the sad decline of the unified worker’s party. Of course resistance should be as broad and inclusive as possible, but such inclusivity is not a substitute for a strong, organised radical left. As Mao writes, ‘if there is to be a revolution, there must be a revolutionary party.’ If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the resuscitation of the party-form, or the invention of a suitable alternative, is an urgent priority.

Meanwhile, in the sixth century, the mechanical digger digs. It would have been used to tear up the park that the protesters want to save; in fighting Gezi’s destruction, they’ll do the work themselves.

Richard Dawkins and the ascent of madness

 The fossil later received £250,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Richard Dawkins wakes some time before dawn. He doesn’t blink or yawn or stretch – his eyes clang open with all the force and suddenness of a steel door. He stares at his ceiling, blue and brown swirling in his irises like cars and livestock in the centre of a tornado. Richard Dawkins’ head is fizzing with mad thoughts. He chatters under his breath as he strides out of bed and down the stairs of his Oxford home. His wife gives a small grunt and goes back to sleep. Outside a shimmering band of turquoise near the horizon brings a soft sparkle to the beads of dew hanging from trees in early bud; the heavy clouds in the distance look peach-pink and insubstantial; so do the old pale brick houses that line his street. The birds are singing in riotous chorus. “Accept my genetic information, females of my species!” they sing. “Observe my superior fitness for survival, as evidenced by the strength and clarity of my voice! Oh, and, by the way, as a bird I have no concept of God or metaphysics, but I do believe in strict gender roles and the principles of Aufklärung!” Richard Dawkins sets off into the world.

As he shambles down his street a few small birds burst from a shrub, scattering at his approach. The famous scientist suddenly breaks from his mutterings and watches them carefully. “Horses!” he says, finally. “Flying horses. Nonsense. Balderdash. Not now. Not yet. One day. Tiny flying horses, tiny flying horses, millions of tiny flying horses. One day. One day.” Later, an upended bin gives the bestselling biologist some cause for reflection. Foxes have tipped it over, sprawling its contents over the pavement. “Hitler’s brain!” Dawkins exclaims. “Save Hitler’s brain, study Hitler’s brain, gain Hitler knowledge. Hitler science. Science Hitler. Hitler Hitler.” Soon he is heading down from his wealthy suburb into the medieval heart of Oxford, towards the University, seat of learning and discovery for over nine hundred years. A few vans making early-morning deliveries trundle past him. He smiles and waves. “You want to see some films of a lady giving birth?” he shouts happily. “Fantastic stuff. Two million years old. Baby porn, baby.” By the time he’s on Market Street the sky has lightened and there are already a few pedestrians on the road – postgrad students with their morning coffees, undergraduates still stumbling home from the previous night. Some stare as he passes; some turn their backs. Suddenly, Richard Dawkins stops dead. He raises an accusatory finger at a horrific building standing in front of him. His face is twisted in fury. It’s not a church, though – it’s a charity shop. “WHERE DO AMPUTEES BUY THEIR SHOES?” the internationally renown secularist bellows, spitting and grimacing, tears rolling down his face. “DO AMPUTEES THROW AWAY ONE SHOE?”

His journey is almost complete. As the sun, burning with nuclear fusion’s blasphemous glory, begins to float above the crenelated urban horizon, Richard Dawkins is climbing Magdalen Tower. Finally he is at the summit, surrounded by its magnificent Gothic spires. As dawn becomes day, Richard Dawkins looks out at a gloriously mechanistic universe, and begins to laugh. “There is no God!” he shouts. “There is no God! There is no God!” As he does so, his testicles sway freely in the breeze, swinging slowly, with all the dignified solemnity of old church bells.

~

Richard Dawkins has gone insane.

It’s probably for the best. In his more lucid moments his proclamations tend towards an unselfconscious misogyny and Islamophobia – his thought bears the ugly stamp of the bigot who thinks that not believing in God lends his opinions some kind of Rational Objectivity. His links with the far right are extensive; it might not be a coincidence that his personal foundation shares a logo with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Far better for him to be endlessly wittering about Pleistocene porn and Hitler’s brain. I’d like to think I helped in some small way: I am, after all, one of the voices that reminds him daily of an inconvenient truth. But really it was inevitable; it’s inscribed in his ideology. The ‘New Atheists’ should, I think, more properly be called the New Young Hegelians; much of their bad politics comes from their refusal to accept that their ideas were thoroughly refuted by a pair of bearded weirdos over 150 years ago. This is aggravating enough, but the madness comes in when their insistence on rationality turns from an irritating ideological quirk into a full-blown psychosis. You can’t talk to these people. “I prefer tangerines to oranges,” I say. “I’ll believe that when I see the proof,” they thunder in response, glutamated granules falling from their beards like dandruff as they shake their heads in scorn. “Maybe the juridical categories of proof and evidence aren’t universally applicable?” I suggest. The whining chorus: “Got any evidence for that?” Wander too far down the path of rationalist dogma and it’ll be no surprise if you’ll end up like Richard Dawkins, sunning his genitals in a world that no longer makes any sense.

But what if it’s something more? What if Richard Dawkins’ madness isn’t the end of his story, but the start of his elevation to something entirely different?

~

Richard Dawkins is not new. Richard Dawkins has been with us for thousands of years. Xanthus of Lydia writes of the presocratic philosopher Empedocles:

Having reached the summit of Etna, he threw himself into the flames, believing that with the scourging of his body by the fire he would arise as a god. From that day he was known to the people as Μαργίτηἅγιοσ (Margithagios).

What is a margithagios? The word recurs several times in Greek writing without much in the way of elucidation. In Latin it was translated as furiosus sanctum, or the holy madman: the Roman jurist Sextus Pomponius wrote that ‘the holy madman is he who, having been a great man, places himself by his own will beyond the limit of the law and its reason. Thereafter he is the property of the gods; he is theirs to kill or take in sacrifice.’ That the gods will claim their sacrifice seems to be a given. Of the individuals later described as margithagies or furiosi sancti, few tend to meet a peaceful end. The fourteenth-century German theologian Thomas von Klöt was born to an aristocratic family but renounced his worldly wealth in the service of the Church; he was at one point considered a candidate for posthumous canonisation. However, his preaching became steadily more bizarre and began to verge on the blasphemous: he began to insist that God manifested Himself in vegetable life and forbade his followers to eat any plants or anything which fed on them (flies, worms, etc were at the time believed to emerge through spontaneous generation and were therefore considered safe to eat). He was killed with two of his disciples when he was crushed by a falling tree. Comte Xavier de Mazan, commonly considered to be an inspiration for the Marquis de Sade, took to calling himself Priapus Invictus and walking around Paris in specially designed breeches that allowed his penis to protrude through an opening surrounded by rubies and sapphires; he died in 1761 when an improperly cut diamond tore through his femoral artery. At the close of the nineteenth century, the British imperialist and industrial magnate Harry Suggle began to take an interest in Hindu cosmology and eventually proclaimed himself Īshvara, the supreme ruler of Vyāvahārika or the World Inside the Veil, to a crowd of his workers. He was killed when a rotary blade in his beet-processing factory came loose and sheared off the top of his head.

A general theory of margithagies was first devised by the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1972 work Les Hommes à l’extérieur. Lévi-Strauss connected the figure of the margithagios with the Outside Men of Amerindian society – those madmen who, unlike prophets or shamans, would live within the camp but not take part in its rites. The position of the Outside Man was an ambiguous one: at once man, god, and beast. In times of grave general danger (such as drought or war), the holy madman would be ritually sacrificed; however once the rite was carried out it was forbidden to speak of it on pain of death. Perhaps the most systematic analysis of the sacred madman, however, is in Giorgio Agamben’s 1996 Margithagios: Dissent and despotism from the classical to the modern. Agamben argues that the margithagios formed a ‘state of exception’ allowing ancient societies to allow for dissenting or contradictory opinion to be at once openly expressed and rejected as madness (and potentially cut short with the life of the holy madman). In his conclusion, Agamben explicitly identifies the margithagios with freedom of speech in liberal democracy, proclaiming that ‘in the twenty-first century, we will all be furiosi sancti.’ Notably, Deleuze and Guattari refer to the holy madman in Plateau 10 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia:

We refer not to prophets or seers, molar aggregates all, but the margithagios, for whom the revelation is always a becoming: becoming-God, becoming-flames, becoming-ashes. Can we say with certitude that Empedocles did not, in the end, adopt the trajectories of an Apollo? In the margithagios space becomes a field of n points, n-dimensional movements, intersected by n plan(e)s. Margithagios haecceities form lines of flight extending in every dimension, the contagion of the sacred madman is effected through these backchannels, in which deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation form a loop or sequence connected not by graduation but consistency. There is never a city, there is only a city and a volcano, never a volcano, only a volcano and a sandal, never a sandal, only a sandal and a god. Rhizome.

The theoretical margithagios is diverting, but you get the sense that Deleuze and Guattari have missed the point a little. The holy madmen existed. For a short time they transcended our world while continuing to walk within it, and then they all fell. They were sacred to something. Something took them back to itself, something greater and more powerful than we can imagine. As he babbles about tiny flying horses and people with more shoes than legs, a question is forced upon us – is Richard Dawkins about to prove the existence of God?

~

Richard Dawkins stands on the top of Magdalen Tower. The sun is rising over Oxford. The fires of Etna shine their feverish light over his naked body. He smiles.

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