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Tag: marxism

What the radical left can learn from One Direction

My entire generation is traumatised by something that hasn’t happened yet. Shaking and sleeplessness, autoimmolatory alcoholism, fits of violent rage and sobbing breakdowns, weeks of self-imposed seclusion, an epidemic of anxiety. Generation Todestrieb. The accusatory inner voice that used to constantly seek out our weaknesses and insecurities doesn’t even have to bother any more. It just screams its wordless rage directly into our stream of thought, knowing that we know exactly what it means. We have all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, except that for many of us there’s no primal fracture, no repressed event. What’s tormenting us is the future, or rather the lack of a future. Now that the myth of human progress has been gently euthanised, the only thing facing us is a catastrophe. We’re standing on a cliffside, so close to the edge that the angle of its descent isn’t even visible. There’s just a blank and distant sea.

Personally, I’ve never been a nervous type; I tend towards melancholia instead. Days thud past like slats on a railway line, their rhythm producing only a jolting queasiness. They’re not hard to fill. Aside from the regulation egodystonicity of the heautontimoroumenos, which is quite time-consuming all by itself, I tend to find myself wasting a few hours on a couple of Nouvelle Vague films. Sad men and self-destructive women fuck, kill cops, smoke cigarettes, and feel nothing – and I’m always left with a strange kind of jealousy, as if a impeccably cut charcoal-grey suit and a Erik Satie soundtrack could lend my unhappiness some kind of significance. Or I’ll watch Hollywood blockbusters online; pirated cam versions filmed in a cinema somewhere in the Russian provinces. I prefer them. It’s not low quality, it’s high aesthetics. Action is flattened, motion is shaky, the multi-million dollar digital effects spectacle is reduced to a chaotic blur, an intricate mess of abstract patterns rising from the darkness of the screen; the whole thing starts to look like an overblown tribute to German Expressionism. All this is punctuated by occasional twelve-hour binges, expensive drinks, gambling, until I emerge somewhere near the Embankment some time after dawn and idly consider throwing myself in the Thames. It’s not too bad.

My sample is admittedly small and unscientific: a handful of recent graduates, often broadly middle class, mostly from the humanities. But there are more thorough studies that bear out my conclusions. ‘Millennials’ – the generation born after the early 1980s – carry the brunt of the ongoing anxiety epidemic. It’s not hard to see why. We’re the inheritors to an economic crisis which is starting to seem less and less like a genuine collapse and more and more like a cover for wholesale pillage on the part of the ultra-rich, a planet that’s slowly choking to death in its own farts, a society steadily reverting to the age-old division between the smugly monied and the shambling cap-in-hand peons. It’s there in our popular entertainment: we don’t expect glittering crystal cities, however dystopian; we expect a future of zombie hordes or mud-caked poverty.

Still, it’s not like we’re the first generation of youth to emerge trembling into the foreboding landscape of the Real World. Something’s changed: our ancestors had mass protest movements; our equivalent is the brief self-congratulatory spark of Occupy and the Tory-sanctioned uselessness of UAF. We’ve become atomised. We’re self-hating narcissists. Part of it must have to do with the form taken by work. Aside from the stability of employment large-scale manufacturing, in a mass production line every worker is collaborating on a single project; it’s a spatial arrangement that facilitates the emergence of a certain kind of solidarity. That’s gone now, and there’s no such luck in the service sector. Your actions are monitored, your productivity is plotted on a graph, your co-workers are your competitors. If you take an unpaid internship or work on a zero-hour contract you become existentially surplus, part of the reserve kamikaze squadron of labour.

We’re constantly connected, digitally rubbing shoulders with people across the world, and the result is that we’re more and more alone in humdrum phenomenal reality. Cyberspace isn’t really a space at all; certainly not in the ‘infinite and infinitely open’ sense outlined by Foucault in Des espaces autres – it’s far closer to the medieval order of lieux, places. The connections of cyberspace aren’t actual connections, they don’t form anything like a machinic assemblage; it’s a flat two-dimensional plane on which any number of projected images and identities mingle and are occasionally interposed, a white wall studded with innumerable black holes, a vast faciality machine producing a single face. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, the face is ‘something absolutely inhuman.’ We don’t touch. This pseudosociality bores down into the fundamental ground of our psychosexual selves: we can’t even fuck any more without the help of a dating site algorithm. Following the formula of commodity fetishism, to establish social relations we must stop being people and start being things.

As ever, Japan is miles ahead of the west: while most European nations tried to rearrange the rubble of the second world war into some kind of bric-a-brac social democracy, American economic planners ensured that Japan went straight from zero to capitalism. The proto-Reaganism of 1940s Japan was followed by a precursor to today’s global economic crisis: the ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, a long period of economic stagnation that further intensified the already profound alienation of Japanese society, giving rise to an ongoing epidemic of mass suicides (the rate averages at one suicide every fifteen minutes) and the emergence of the hikikomori phenomenon. Hikikomori are young men who confine themselves to their homes, abandoning studies, ignoring work, and disavowing social life; they communicate through the internet or not at all. It’s hard to tell, given their seclusion, but there may be over a million hikikomori in the country. Not that Japan has a monopoly on the phenomenon: researchers have identified similar trends in France and across the western world.

Given the sheer pointlessness of the world of work, becoming a hikikomori makes perfect sense. If you can, why not just opt out of the whole rotten socio-economic order? The problem is that doing so is a capitulation, a mute traumatised acceptance of existing conditions that precludes any real attempt to change them. In a way, the hikikomori is the ideal capitalist subject of the twenty-first century. The Deleuzian era, in which capitalism produced the schizophrenic as the ‘universal producer,’ has passed. Its replacement is the autist, the universal consumer. In previous economic crises salvation was to be found in putting people back to work and resuming production. This time the problem is one of a surplus of capital, a surplus of production and a surplus of population; we’re continually told that the only way out is to restore consumer confidence and restore the cycle of debt-spending. The hikikomori is the perfect solution: a consumer valve safely abstracted from the cycle of production, alone and defenceless, not enjoying his life but still endlessly consuming the means of its reproduction. That said, some governments haven’t quite caught on to the economic potential of mass isolation. Following case studies in Texas and Japan, there are serious proposals for antidepressants to be added to Ireland’s drinking water.

Which naturally leads me to One Direction.

This is One Direction.

It’s hideous, the kind of thing that makes you want to go to Theodor Adorno’s grave at midnight with a pentagram and a sacrificial goat, just so you can tell him to his face that he was right all along. The lyrical content is bad enough, at once recognising the sad prevalence of female body dysmorphia and trying to resolve it into the matrix of male sexual desire. But there’s also something profoundly unsettling about the expression worn by Harry Styles (he’s the tendril-haired lead singer and reportedly a pal of Alain de Botton, the psedophilosopher with a pebble for a head). It’s a grimace, a punk snarl totally at odds with his delivery, one expressing no discernible defiance. He prances around a beach and mouths insipidly anodyne lyrics, and all the while he snarls. It’s as if he realises exactly how ugly his creation is; his grimace is his own anxious withdrawal, the Steppenwolf baring its teeth. It doesn’t matter. There’ll be no peace for Harry Styles. One Direction is one of the biggest pop acts on the planet.

Their fans have a love for One Direction that borders on fanaticism. If you’re on Twitter you’ll probably already know this – Directioners and their fellow tribes consistently dominate the trending topics, helpfully reminding the rest of us that this is their turf, that we’re just a small group of weird adults hanging out at a teen party. Otherwise, a small insight was provided by the recent Channel 4 documentary Crazy About One Direction. Here we’re shown teenage fans squealing and weeping in bedrooms, their walls plastered with hundreds of pictures of the band, as if they’re sitting in the centre of a popstar panopticon. These girls hang around outside concerts waiting for a glimpse of the tour bus, they sneak into hotels where the band is rumoured to be staying, they make explicit artwork centring around the supposed homoeroticism between two of the band’s members, they send threatening messages to current and former girlfriends. “If they said chop an arm off, I would,” says one. “Because some people only have one arm, and they’re alright, aren’t they?” After the show aired, many fans were upset at being represented as psychopathic monomaniacs. They reacted, predictably, by being psychopathic monomaniacs. It’s tempting to dismiss all this as a kind of incipient fascism because, well, it is a kind of incipient fascism. Even the band’s name seems like it’d suit a bunch of 80s goths in ironic swastikas far better than a clean-cut pop band. Translate it into German and the Laibach aspect is hard to ignore: ein Volk, ein Wille, ein Richtung! If Liam, Louis & co. were to announce tomorrow that the body politic needs to be purged of its parasites, the resulting chaos would make Kristallnacht look like a mild spat in a rural post office. No army on earth could hold back the fury of ten million teenage girls in love. The fires would burn for months.

Of course, I’m hardly in a position to judge. When I was seventeen I covered my room with posters of Søren Kierkegaard. I had a small shrine at the foot of my bed in which copies of Either/OrThe Sickness Unto Death and Fear and Trembling were arranged with candles, incense, and small Danish flags I’d stolen from a local fishmonger. I founded my own chapter of the symparanekromenoi, with a membership of one, wherein the chief activity consisted of writing turgid erotic prose imagining the consummation of his love for Regine Olsen. On a holiday to Copenhagen I obsessed over the fact that Søren had walked the same streets where I stood, and nearly broke down in tears outside the University. I even went to the lengths of sending threatening letters and emails to professors of nineteenth-century philosophy across Europe and North America, informing them in no uncertain terms that Søren was mine and that nobody else was allowed to discuss his antiphilosophical approach to the question of being. Even more vicious missives went out to unreformed neo-Hegelians who dared to critique the infinite qualitative distinction. So I understand.

This kind of obsession isn’t just the alluring aura of commodity fetishism, it’s something far more significant. “What do you think about real boys?” the interviewer asks one fan, a nineteen-year-old with a One Direction tattoo and a tendency to camp out by the Styles family residence. She’s not interested; she doesn’t really speak to them. “Most One Direction fans are single. It’s weird. We’re all just single.” Real boys just get in the way the whole time, another explains. “Boy bands have ruined my life,” she says. She smiles. She doesn’t mind. What’s a life? There’s something admirable about this passion, something genuinely heroic about the extent to which these people sacrifice their own lives in the cause of a pop group-cum-transcendent Idea. In his Philosophy for Militants, Badiou proposes as the ‘revolutionary conception of our time’ a ‘militant desire’ standing against normal desires: the militant idea of desire is a ‘desire that permanently affirms the existence of that which has no name.’ Under a social order that has tried to eradicate all such yearnings, Directioners remain authentically militant in their devotion to a timeless and transhistorical Cause.

The object of this militant desire is not called One Direction. All the fans interviewed were painfully aware of a lack structuring their lives. For those who haven’t met the band, this lack becomes One Direction-shaped. They’ll meet their favourite member, sleep with them, marry them, and then everything will be better. For those who have, it’s a different story. Once is never enough; they have to meet them again and again, with ever-diminishing returns. They grow to realise that the band itself is insufficient. What they want is a different mode of existence. That something as banal as a manufactured pop group can embody this desire ought to be heartening: it’s the transcendent fervour, not its proximal object, that’s important. These girls are victims of the traumatic atomisation of contemporary capitalism. Many are cut off from conventional relationships; they spend long hours alone with Twitter and Tumblr, endlessly reiterating their love for something that exists beyond their comprehension, in a shared devotion that has become something like what Badiou terms the ‘local creation of something generic’ – something based not on the facile ‘connections’ of social media but a dissolution into a strong general unity of purpose.

Marx wrote that capitalism always creates the conditions for its own overthrow; Lenin nicely summarised the same principle when he declared that ‘we will hang the capitalists with the rope that they sell us.’ Through its campaign of atomisation capitalism has attempted to resolve this problem, but in doing so it’s created an acute consciousness of the wrongness of alienated existence. Directioners have achieved far more than most leftist thinkers in demonstrating how this anxiety can be displaced onto a real and immanent movement towards a transcendent goal. This is task the radical left faces: to become as fanatical about the overthrow of existing conditions as teenage girls are about One Direction.

Forget Orwell

obama-orwell

Monday of last week marked the first annual George Orwell Day, seeing Penguin’s rerelease of several of his books, mass giveaways of his essay Politics and the English Language, and the launch of an Orwell season on BBC radio. (Purely by coincidence, it was also ‘blue Monday’ – the day calculated by to be the most depressing of the year.) For a supposedly radical writer, Orwell fits very comfortably into the cultural mainstream. Certainly it’s easy to claim that Orwell’s been hijacked by the political Right – witness the countless chiding voices from the Left reminding those that hold up the Obama administration as a prophecy fulfilled or recommend Animal Farm as an education for naive socialists that Orwell was, in fact, actually, despite what you might think, incredible though it may seem, something of a leftie himself. Was he actually, though? Now that Orwell’s been thoroughly assimilated into the ideological state apparatuses, it’s time to ask if there’s really much left over. To be honest, there’s not a lot. Here’s why.

1: Nineteen Eight-Four misses the point entirely.

I’ll start with the big one. There are two main criticisms of the dystopian society presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four: firstly, it’s impossible, and secondly, it already exists. These aren’t quite as contradictory as they appear.

The society in the novel is an absolute tyranny, a warning (not, as we’re continually reminded, a prediction) of the horrific consequences of absolute power and its ability to completely dominate both the individual human and the entire world. This Orwellian-Arendite dogma needs to be challenged. So-called ‘totalitarian’ societies are in fact defined not by their totalising discourses but by their utter failure to exert such a monopoly. Totalitarianism is a state of vulnerability: the paranoid totalitarian state continually affirms its own weakness. It is beset by saboteurs or contaminated with impure races; it is situated in opposition to a political Other with which it must maintain a constant dialogue (albeit one of repression); it depends, utterly and openly, on the support of the faithful masses. (Really, Arendite totalitarianism should be considered not as a social form but as a tactic.) The Orwellian society simultaneously projects an image of fragility (bombing its own citizens, inventing a political Other in the form of Emmanuel Goldstein) and an image of strength (orders are barked from screens, Big Brother is everywhere, sexuality is confined, reality itself is moulded to its rulers’ will).  Such a society wouldn’t last two minutes: in its crude parody of authoritarianism it could never admit that the source of its continuation lies in the faith of its populace, despite such an admission being absolutely essential for its operation.  This is why, for instance, present-day dictatorial societies are in general far more likely to yield to popular pressure on matters of policy. It’s precisely because such governments are not constrained by judicial, constitutional or electoral limits to their power that they have to listen very carefully to the voice of the street: if they ignore it too much, they lose all legitimacy. Democratically elected governments, meanwhile, already have their legitimacy in the ritual of the vote; they are entirely unbounded; they can ignore millions of marchers or break up protest camps with disproportionate force, and when challenged, they have an undeniable excuse: well, you voted for us.

This is where the impossibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four meets its pre-existence. We do, in fact, live in a society where discourse is totalised and panopticism is embedded in the structure of everyday life. Dictatorial societies must engage with their Other; in liberal society the political Other is pathological or an aberration, it can be rectified through the use of military violence but is never engaged with. A constrictive discourse of rights, freedoms, limitations, and above all of choices is maintained far more subtly than any Newspeak because the violence that underpins its operation is not an overt one. The panoptic gaze that fixes and individuates us is everywhere, but rather than watching for forbidden activity, it commands us to enjoy. When it comes to subsuming libidinal flows, the pornographic commodification of sexuality functions more efficiently than the Junior Anti-Sex League.

The root of the problem here is Orwell’s conception of power as something that is held and wielded by a group or individual. It’s not: power is a field, it’s decentred, something that can only be directed; that’s what makes it so pernicious. In the medieval period the field of power was fractal, with the feudal and family units replicating royal sovereignty; in this manner its structure was able to be continually reproduced. In liberal capitalism it is decentred; this is another defence mechanism. In the panopticon the exercise of power is both universally supervised and universal in its reach; there is no Big Brother, just everyone else. Improper attitudes aren’t punished, they’re medicalised; the patient turns herself in, there’s no need for rats, and the administrator of the cure can believe that she’s doing the right thing.

Displacing the panoptic and discourse-totalising elements of contemporary society onto an imagined ideal totalitarian state means that these aspects are relegated to the Outside of contemporary politics. It is precisely because of this that paranoiacs of all shades can see the incipient elements of a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style tyranny manifesting themselves in our society: totalitarianism is evident in security cameras, in government jargon, in detention without trial. The Orwellian society is one that we might move towards, it is not something that is already there. Not that these aren’t valid concerns, but they’re the accoutrements of totalitarianism, not its content. Our present society can’t exert despotic power, Nineteen Eighty-Four tells us, not until the government starts rationing food and banning sex.

2: Animal Farm is pretty awful and Trotskyism isn’t much good either.

Admittedly, the most glaring problem with Animal Farm isn’t so much the text itself as the way it’s entered the literary canon. It’s a staple of the GCSE curriculum in the UK, and seems to be just as prevalent in America. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that it’s not presented as a historical document embodying a certain political attitude, but both as allegorical literature representing universal themes and as an accurate history of the Russian Revolution. It’s no such thing. Animal Farm is, avowedly and openly, a Trotskyite polemic, a political pamphlet.

The text has its own problems – the lack of a Lenin-figure, for instance, or any allegorical representation of the Civil War – but it’s this Trotskyism that lies at the root of its easy integration into the educational apparatuses of ideology. Trotskyism shouldn’t really be considered as a branch of Marxist thought in the proper sense. Rather, it’s a symptom. Trotskyism represents simultaneously the elevation of the October Revolution to a world-historical moment and the disavowal of every subsequent attempt at building socialism. Trotskyites like the idea of revolution – which is why they make every effort to turn 1917 into an abstract ideal – but they don’t much like any of its ‘perverted’ aftereffects. Trotskyism means keeping the revolution pure and unsullied by historical reality, turning it into a dinner party.

Trotsky himself is really incidental to all this. His actual deeds and policies are irrelevant; he’s only a master-signifier for anti-Stalinism. Needless to say, this is all profoundly anti-materialist: despite their attempts to effect a materialist analysis of Stalinism as ‘bureaucratic state capitalism,’ the jargon really just disguises a complaint: ‘if my guy had won out, everything would have been so much better!’ – with the unspoken caveat that this can never be anything other than a conditional, that Trotsky represents nothing more than the guy who didn’t win out. As such Trotskyism raises the cult of personality to its apotheosis: it’s pure personality-cult, based on a ‘pure’ personality, defined entirely negatively, a personality that can gain universal relevance through avoiding any particular affirmation.

It should be remembered that after he consolidated his power, Stalin actually put most of Trotsky’s ‘far-left’ policies into practice, collectivising agriculture and focusing on the rapid development of heavy industry in the five-year plans. None of this is to say that the excesses of Stalinism should not be critiqued; the point is that the Trotskyite critique lacks any substantive foundation. Imagine a counterfactual: if Trotsky had won the Soviet power struggle, expelling Stalin and extending the violence of War Communism into peacetime, would present-day Trotskyites have affiliated themselves with his period in power? Of course not. They’d be calling themselves Stalinists.

You can see this in Homage to Catalonia: Barcelona under the Anarchists and the POUM is described as ‘real socialism,’ pure and unsullied. Why? Because they were crushed. Any successful socialist project is inherently untrustworthy; ‘real socialism’ is that which is crushed. This is why Animal Farm lends itself so easily to anti-Communist interpretation. The only pig-character not at fault – including Snowball, the Trotsky-surrogate – is Old Major, representing Karl Marx, who dies before the Revolution. While Napoleon demonstrates his evil by drinking the communal milk, his evil is on an axis with Snowball’s speechmaking and political organising; despite their internal differences the pigs are for the first few pages presented as a coherent bloc. Class divisions inhere; socialism is ultimately a quixotic endeavour. In other words, Trotsky himself is guilty of the Trotskyite original sin: he actualised revolutionary ideology.

3. Politics and the English Language is utterly repulsive.

Really it’s not the whole essay I want to take issue with, but this helpful list right near the end:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

There’s a great line in Godard’s film La Chinoise: ‘We are not the ones using obscure language; it’s our society, which is hermetic and closed up in the poorest of languages possible.’ Orwell’s rules, more than those of anyone except perhaps Strunk and White, have impoverished the English language. They’ve become entrenched: creative writing programmes encourage their students to righteously purge their works of any adjectives or adverbs, contemporary literature has become a sullen grey plain of terse mediocrity. Why shouldn’t we use long words? Why shouldn’t we use more words than is strictly necessary? Why not enrich our works with language from around the world and throughout the span of human knowledge? Orwell has his answer: without poetic language it would be impossible for politicians to mislead people. Any cursory reading of the grimly matter-of-fact reportage that surrounds the ongoing drone war would be enough to bring that into question. Nonetheless, he has something of a point: it would be hard for a dictatorship to survive under his rules; the same goes for anything approaching literature. Orwell is not a great stylist. He communicates himself through language well enough, but to reduce the incredible power of language to its capacity to convey a series of statements – in the name of combating totalitarianism, no less – is to rob it of everything that makes it valuable. It’s barborous. And so, by Orwell’s sixth law, the others should be immediately discarded.

4. Time for a purge.

There’s plenty more to be said, I’ve barely scratched the surface. John Dolan has an excellent piece on Orwell’s racism, classism and anti-Catholicism. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he wrote a blacklist of ‘crypto-communists’ working in the media for the British Foreign Office, or that the dissemination of his books was encouraged by imperialist intelligence agencies. Above all, however, the problem with Orwell is not that he was a writer who collaborated with oppressive forces or held incorrect or prejudicial opinions – there have been plenty of those; some are very good – but the extent to which he’s wormed himself in to the general understanding. To understand totalitarianism, you must read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and end up with an entirely distorted view of what State power is and how it functions. As an introduction to Soviet history, we’re given Animal Farm, and a partisan screed is enshrined as a true historical fable. And, God knows why, but being a writer still means being held to the standard of Politics and the English Language, and the blandly awful fiction being produced today speaks for itself. It’s time to rid ourselves of this toxic influence – maybe only temporarily, so that afterwards we can go back to Orwell without the figure of Orwell weighing down on us. It’s interesting that this year’s Orwell Day was held not on the anniversary of the writers birth, but that of his death. Perhaps Orwell Day should mark the day that he can finally be laid to rest.

Acropolis Now

Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks – Karl Marx

Successive attempts to rescue the Greek economy fail to have any effect. European leaders explain to Papandreou in no uncertain terms that the birthplace of democracy is no place in which to implement it. Forbes magazine hilariously calls for a military coup. The legions of the undead begin to stir… Now the EU casts aside its humanitarian mask to reveal itself for the monster of imperialism it has always been, its neck ringed with the skulls of defeated institutions, its fangs dripping with viscous liquidity. The spectral sallow-cheeked armies of finance capital make circles around the Peloponnese, howling with savage hunger at the juicy public sector, gesturing menacingly with the grim weapons of austerity, their eyes gleaming with blood-lust. A hundred gold coins marked with the stamp of a skull and bearing an ancient curse fall from the bloated fist of Jin Liqun. On the streets of Athens, anarchists fight hand-to-hand with the fire-wraiths of the Elliniki Astynomia. Gibbering poltergeists brandishing court orders pour through cracks in the masonry of family homes and drive out their inhabitants. In a vaulted chamber miles below Strasbourg, decorated with sacred carvings in which Merkel and Sarkozy are depicted in a variety of grotesque sexual positions, the secret haunt of withered seers who divine the will of the Market through the flows of the telluric currents, a thousand hooded forms look on approvingly as Papademos signs their infernal contract in the blood of his people. His hand hesitates over the parchment!… Uproar ensues, dark curses are flung, lightning cracks in the dank air. There is no other option left. Twenty thousand grim-faced German soldiers march in lock-step formation as planes ready their engines for the final assault on Greece: ein Union, ein Währung, ein Zentralbank! Peace and democracy are fine things, but investments are at stake.

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