Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: politics

The old golden savages killed their philosophers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canción de Trump

This isn’t about… yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it.
Donald Trump, November 2, 2020

In October, President Donald Trump suggested he might leave the country if he lost the election. Now, he’s lost. He won’t go, but I like to imagine him in Greenland. You might remember that only last year, there was a brief scandal when Trump suggested buying the island from Denmark. The Danes stuck their chests out and refused the deal, and everyone pretended to ignore the fact that the island is functionally an American colony anyway, dotted with US military bases and only barely, vaguely, fictionally under Danish sovereignty. Maybe that was why the sale never went through: so Trump would have somewhere to flee.

Imagine Trump in Nuuk, scraggly-bearded and swaddled in a parka, trudging through the snow with his rod to fish. A quiet man, a teetotaller on an island full of broken violent drunks. He has his own way of being broken. Imagine Trump in the island’s lonely hinterlands, a hermit. Greenland is a haunted country, numinous and cold, whispering; one of the last places that’s still truly wild. Reindeer nuzzle the close dark moss, seals bask on their floes, glaciers creak and there are monsters in the deep. Imagine Trump alone, watching the northern lights spin gorgeous threads across the sky, alone. What would happen to the man if he had nobody to watch him, nobody paying attention? If he had to be a person, a living subject, rather than an image and a symbol and a name? Would he develop a conscience? Would he become wise? Or would he just dissolve into motes, and drift away in the Arctic wind?

The Greenlanders know. Their monsters are the qivittok, spirits of the strange or unworthy people exiled from the community. No human can survive alone in this cold and beautiful place, and so the qivittok become something other than human: furry or antlered, gruesome mongrel forms. Some of them can fly. They live in the mountains and attack travellers, leaving piles of gnawed red bones in the snow.

In a way, the qivittok is what Trump has always been. Trump’s rhetoric centre around the community, the flag, the symbols of belonging, because this is what he’s always lacked. He’s never had relationships, only transactions, and even those are few. In his businesses, he avoids partnerships, shareholders, or joint enterprises. He grew up lonely, the son of an indifferent father, insulated from the world by his wealth. It takes a lonely man to plaster his own name over tall buildings. It takes a lonely man to need this kind of concrete proof that he really exists.

What it comes down to is this: Donald Trump is simply not like other people. He is something different, an alien walking among us. A creature from a haunted land. In his own way, a genius. Something bright and rare and strange.

Donald Trump doesn’t hold himself like an ordinary person. He isn’t straight and he doesn’t slouch; he bends. Creasing at the waist, torso angled forward to hide his incredible fatness, which means that his big round damp coquettish arse is constantly sticking out behind him. Most people acquire their bad posture from a lifetime of bad habits, but Donald Trump’s stance is deliberate. He came up with a terrible new way of standing on his feet, all by himself.

Donald Trump doesn’t look like an ordinary person. He is orange; the man is visibly orange. White around the eyes, like a painted clown. A soft, moist, puckered mouth. Everything about him is soft; you could spread one of his teeth on a slice of toast. His hair is an elaborate combover, extremely long on one side, folded back and forth over his scalp. In the old patriarchal schema, men were seeing subjects and women were visible objects, but Donald Trump is a thoroughly feminised man. He has to appear a certain way, with a full head of hair, because he dreams of being the reservoir of someone else’s desire. Sometimes, in high winds, the whole structure of his hair opens up, and you can see his shockingly white and crusted pate. You think that’s upsetting? Just imagine how Donald Trump’s hair looks when wet.

Donald Trump doesn’t talk like an ordinary person. Usually, when someone speaks in a non-standard form, it’s because they’re part of a language community that’s developed its own grammars and vocabulary. There is nobody on earth that speaks like Donald Trump. He is a language community of one. What he speaks isn’t even a jargon, it’s just bizarre. On the one hand, his speech is utterly impoverished. It’s incapable of conveying almost any of the major human experience. Everything he says is somehow integrally inappropriate. Here is a man who once described Frederick Douglass as ‘an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognised more and more.’ Like something out of Gertrude Stein: the black sludge of words, the sticky deposits left once language and communication have gone. But at the same time, his speech is incredibly fecund. The rolling rhythmic intensifiers that turn it into something like music, the way things are always very nice, very special, very good, or very, very, very… bad. Trump’s language never exhausts itself; he can fit a potentially infinite number of words between one concept and the next. This language really is a virus; a blob from outer space, breeding. Everyone I know has tried, at some point, to imitate it, and we all think we’re very clever. (Watching the chickens peck around the garden, I sometimes imagine them in his voice. We love mealworms, folks, don’t we love mealworms? Very wonderful mealworms, very nice and very delicious to eat. We love laying an egg.) But Trump invented this virus; he cooked it up in the strange secret lab inside his head. We just copy and pass it on. Infected. Transfixed.

How did a country as conservative as the United States ever manage to elect a man as utterly weird as Donald Trump? For decades, politicians have tried to sell themselves to ordinary people by pretending to be normal. Look at me eat a hot dog at a diner, just like all of you gurning rubes! Cramming wobbly tubes of pork into their mouths: aren’t I relatable? Aren’t I your abuela? But Donald Trump eats pizza with a knife and fork. You could not get a beer with him. He would not shake your hand. You are nothing alike. And still it doesn’t matter. Who ever said that people want to be governed by someone just like them? That’s what the ruling classes think, because they’re all covetous narcissists who want political power to wear a human face: their human face. They want their little daughters to grow up believing that one day they, too, could maintain an extrajudicial kill list. But the great mass of the people know better. They know that political power is something distant and strange that comes down from the white northern wastes.

It’s the sheer strangeness of the man that made him so intolerable, far more than any of the evil things he’s actually done. Even before he was elected, a vast conceptual production system was churning, trying to produce The Meaning of Donald Trump. Reduce him down to a single concept, something we know and can understand, something assimilable. So, for instance: Trump is just a cipher for race. Reterritorialise him on the stark terrain of white and black; people voted for him because they’re racists and they wanted to do racism; white people have a congenital sickness and its name is Trump. They’re still saying this, even after he increased his vote share among every demographic group except straight white men. If Trump really is making racial dogwhistles, his actual supporters don’t seem to hear them. The only creatures pricking up their ears are the racially-fixated media classes.

Another: Trump is a fascist, and his Presidency was a fascist regime. We all have an idea of what fascism is and what it looks like, so let’s just stuff this strange new creature into an already existing box. This theory has lost some credibility since Trump failed to suspend democracy or invade Poland, but I think there’s actually something to it – so long as it’s understood that Trump is fascist in the Theodor Adorno sense; the way that, say, the Marvel cinematic universe is fascist, rather than the way in which Adolf Hitler was a fascist. He’s a fascist because we live in an age of irrationality and unfreedom, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are fascists too. (Especially Kamala.) In other words, it’s true, but it tells us nothing at all.

A weaker version says that Trump is simply an authoritarian. He’s like those gaudy dictators in countries with unpronounceable names, the ones who build giant gold statues of themselves and rename the months of the year after their horses. Country-scale interior decorators with the power of life and death. Which is fine, but you don’t need to go trekking out to the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert to find a model of authoritarianism. Trump was a businessman, and he promised to run the country like a business. Every beloved small mom-and-pop business is a dictatorship in miniature, helmed by some grubby little Napoleon who leches on the employees, issues memos on acceptable hairstyles, or forces them to listen to his favourite conspiracy YouTubes while they work. But while they might admire him, none of these people will ever be Donald Trump.

What all these interpretations miss is that Donald Trump is the only person to have ever become President of the United States by accident. He never really wanted power, and he didn’t know what to do with the thing once he had it. He had no programme and no politics. His whole period in office was an aimless meander: sometimes he borrowed some policies from the people closest to him, sometimes he made them up as he went along. He spent most of those four years complaining that dishwashers don’t give you the kind of shine that they used to. If he was actually a right-wing populist, he would have given out multiple $1,200 stimulus cheques during the pandemic, and then handily won re-election. But he  didn’t. None of this was part of the plan. He simply wanted to win rather than lose – so people would pay attention to him, so he could continue to exist. That’s all. And around this tiny, dense, irrational core, millions of people built their own explanations, their own private reasons to love him or hate him and everything they wanted him to represent.

Trump has managed to form the passive centre for two personality cults: the one that loves him, and the one that’s no less of a cult for wanting him gone. To be honest, I prefer the first cult. They make better music. ¡Ay, ay, ay, ay, por Dios, yo voy a votar por Donald Trump! The negative cult thought they were resisting the man, but everything they did reeked of complicity. Obsessing over his every movement, freaking out under every one of his tweets. They ate up his turds one by one, greedily, smacking their lips, and then proclaimed: this shit is awful, it tastes disgusting, it’s poisoning us, and may I have some more? Rather than actually countering his worst actions, they were fixated on the idea that they could make him feel a certain way: mocking him, humiliating him. That stupid balloon of Trump as a baby that cost £16,000 – for what? To hurt his feelings? Why bother? All it did was charge him with subjectivity and substance – in other words, give him exactly what he’s always wanted. Even now, liberals aren’t satisfied with defeating Trump in the election, they want him to admit defeat. They want him duly chastened. They’re still trying to give the man a soul.

There are things that led to Trump. The millions consigned to surplus population, the hollow promise of the Obama years, the general social decay, the culture of fame and attention and narcissism in which he grew. All these conditions are necessary, but none of them are sufficient. Just like the world itself, Donald Trump has no singular meaning. He is an empty, misshapen container for others to fill with fantasy and desire.

Franz Kafka – the only man in human history to truly get it – tells a story about a crossbreed, a creature ‘half kitten, half lamb,’ inherited from his father. This thing also has no reason to exist. It should not exist. But against all reason, it does.

Sunday morning is the visiting hour. I sit with the little beast on my knees, and the children of the whole neighbourhood stand around me. Then the strangest questions are asked, which no human being could answer: Why there is only one such animal, why I rather than anybody else should own it, whether there was ever an animal like it before and what would happen if it died, whether it feels lonely, why it has no children, what it is called, etc.

They’re asking what the animal means, but Kafka doesn’t know. His creature seems to be happy. It likes to play, to dance, to purr, to run and skip around outside. In the proper order of things, something so unnatural ought to die. Watching his creature, Kafka decides that ‘the knife of the butcher would be a release for this animal,’ but that knife will never come. This monster was a legacy; a gift. So he looks at his crossbreed, and the crossbreed looks back, ‘challenging me to do the thing of which both of us are thinking.’

Today, we’ve beaten Donald Trump. We’ve banished the nightmare. We, the ungrateful of the earth, have done what Kafka couldn’t bear: we slaughtered the crossbreed. This is your victory. Enjoy it if you can.

PS: This really ought to be an entirely separate essay, but we’re all here now, so I might as well press ahead. About a week before the election, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled Why Leftists Should Vote for Biden in Droves. The actual argument is contained in a few sentences:

Mr Trump’s re-election would mean four more years of scrambling to shield the already insufficient Affordable Care Act, but a win by Mr Biden would allow socialists to go on the offence and push for a Medicare-for-all system. Mr Trump’s re-election would deal irreversible damage to the planet, but there are signs that Mr Biden could be pressured to adopt the ambition of the Green New Deal… These policies would not constitute the realisation of socialism, but they would help lay the foundation for liberating workers… Socialists should fight like hell to get Mr Biden into office – and then fight him like hell the day that he becomes president.

I disagree. I’m not saying there aren’t some upsides: the next regime will probably rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and ease sanctions on Iran, either of which could be worth the price of admission. But it will not create a more favourable terrain for socialism. Let me put forward another perspective: Joe Biden is going to eat you whole. Not aggressively, not deliberately, not with those white chomping teeth. He will consume you like a basking shark, trawling the seas with his mouth wide open, and you have already drifted right into his maw. His victory marks the end of the road for the American left as a significant political force. There will still be people with opinions, but they will never come close to forming policy. Joe Biden will do to the socialist left what Donald Trump did to the evangelical right.

Not so long ago, the evangelical right were genuinely terrifying. Under the George W Bush administration, they waged eight years of insane culture war, not to mention the actual war to reshape the Middle East. Abstinence and creationism in schools; the Ten Commandments outside courthouses, a curtain to cover the Spirit of Justice’s naked tits. Preachers screaming that Obama was the Antichrist. Gay marriage bans. Christofascism. And where are they now? Some of the churches those preachers screamed in are boarded up, and some have been converted into condos. Plenty are still going, but the parishioners are more likely to believe in some QAnon dribble than any imminent Rapture. Nothing collective and congregational; everything is scattered now, networked. It might come back – there are always revivals – but for now, organised Protestantism has lost its claws in American political life.

This is why. In 2016, the leadership of the religious right banded together to stop Trump winning the Republican primary. They were appalled by him, and for good reason. Donald Trump is, at heart, a New York liberal, a proud and open moral degenerate. How many abortions do you think he’s paid for? But when it came to the general, everything changed. What were they supposed to do – vote for Hillary Clinton? Don’t you know she eats fetuses? So they made their moral compromises, took whatever sops they were offered, and lined up behind Donald Trump. He’ll pander to them a little, when prodded. That’s enough.

Now, the Democrats have learned that this new revitalised socialist left can be cheated, backstabbed, connived against, offered absolutely no concessions whatsoever – and they will still vote for you. Not just that: the poor cretins will dance in the streets to celebrate your victory. So why give them anything now? The left has used up its last weapon, and they used it against Trump. Now they’re supposed to go on the offence for Medicare For All – but how? Pressure Biden for a Green New Deal – but how? Fight him like hell? But with what weapons?

One of the ugliest features of the Trump years was the way liberals suddenly found it in their hearts to forgive George W Bush. You can understand why they forgot his murder of one million Iraqis – they all voted for it, after all – but this was the president of Jesusland, the man whose mutant Christian army tried to get rid of their nice French cheeses and their nice French wine. In this context, though, it starts to make sense. Liberals could embrace the figurehead of the evangelical right because the evangelical right had become toothless; it was no longer the enemy. In the same vein, you can expect the right wing to start making similar overtures to what remains of the Bernie camp. In fact, it’s already happening. For instance, outlets like Quillette have started pointing out that class, rather than identity, is what really divides people. They’re right, of course, but why are they saying it? It’s not as if class analysis, even class analysis for babies, really gels with their ideology. Leftists can write for right-wing magazines if they want (I do), appear on their TV shows, spread the message; we all need to eat. I’m not here to pass judgement. But don’t ever imagine that some broad populist alliance is in the offing. The right will embrace you only because you are not a threat to them. You’re a legitimising trinket. They will wear you around their neck. This amulet that was your bones.

Of course, the Trump camp have been instrumentalising the left in other, subtler ways too. Over the summer, watching the political violence, the shootings, the militia on the streets, the revolutionaries seizing whole neighbourhoods, quite a few people I know decided that the United States was close to collapse or civil war. It wasn’t, of course. (One thing that never once occurred through all those months was an actual exchange of fire.) Instead, the state had strategically voided its authority over certain small areas, like the area that would become the CHAZ in Seattle. This was an obvious election ploy on Trump’s part: create pockets of instability to frighten his suburban base into voting for a stronger, more brutal, more repressive state. He was counting on the left to dramatically fuck up with whatever wisp of power he gave them, and even if it didn’t win him the election, they did exactly what he wanted.

On June 29th, self-appointed security forces in the CHAZ murdered Antonio Mays Jr, a sixteen-year-old black boy. On July 4th, armed protesters in Atlanta, occupying the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by police, opened fire on a passing car. They murdered Secoriea Turner, an eight-year-old black girl. Both crime scenes were heavily tampered with by protesters; the murderers of Antonio Mays and Secoriea Turner will probably never face justice. These names ought to be as famous as George Floyd or Tamir Rice. Why aren’t they? This is a genuine question: why? It’s fine for the left to turn itself into a circular firing squad over pronouns or microaggressions or awkward interactions – but not murder? After all, the scenario is very familiar: an armed authority claiming police powers indifferently destroys the lives of the same people it’s supposed to protect. But it turns out that these wonderful anti-racist abolish-the-police community defence units are actually far more sadistic and far less accountable than ordinary cops.

These killings ought to pose a major theoretical crisis for the insurrectionary left. These dead children should haunt your sleep. How is it that a movement against the police murder of black people ended up committing police murders of black people? What went wrong in your analysis of power, violence, and the state? How did this movement so quickly lose its moral right to complain? Because that right has absolutely been lost. It shouldn’t be hard to decry murder without hypocrisy, but here we are.

I don’t want to agree with him, but René Girard has an answer:

As soon as the essential quality of transcendence – religious, humanistic, or whatever – is lost, there are no longer any terms by which to define the legitimate form of violence and to recognise it among the multitude of illicit forms… The act of demystification retains a sacrificial quality and remains essentially religious in character as long as it fails to come to a conclusion – as long, that is, as the process purports to be nonviolent, or less violent than the system itself. In fact, demystification leads to constantly increasing violence, a violence perhaps less ‘hypocritical’ than the violence it seeks to oppose, but more energetic, more virulent, and the harbinger of something far worse – a violence that knows no bounds.

I would like the left to take power. But this left, the one we have, the one that systematically misuses whatever power it gains, the one that says nothing when children are gunned down in the street, does not deserve it. We blew it, and I don’t know how to fix this. But if you’re looking for a left case for Joe Biden, there it is.

Why you ought to vote

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Here’s something that’s changed lately: people are no longer ashamed to speak to the world at large in the imperative mood. It’s normal, now, to give orders to perfect strangers: stop doing this, start doing that. This is extremely rude, but I think I only really grasped its full horror when I saw an infographic telling me, in the jolly strident tones familiar from social justice advocacy, to Stop Making Depictions Of Blobfish As They Appear In Low-Pressure Environments. Hey asshole, why don’t you mind your own damn business? Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t draw? I’ll draw blobfish wobbling on the peak of Everest if I want! I will draw blobfish in space! I will draw the unhappiest and most exploded fish you’ve ever seen, its guts forming a frozen halo in the void, its lumpy baby-pap residue of a face collapsing into expressions of glumness too wearied for you to even imagine! Because I know the pain of the rapidly ascending blobfish. I have suffered its agonies; this miserable sack of slime is my brother. But you know nothing. How could you, in your bright helpful world where you’re always earnestly trying to do the right thing, understand a blobfish’s horror of the sun? Please, you quail, no, don’t depict suffering, don’t make art out of wretchedness, save me, I can’t handle the truth. Ingrate: I should force you to look at my drawings! Endless chapbooks full of collapsing psychrolutids! A pastel Holocaust of weird saggy fish! Did you really think you could take away my God-given right to draw marine wildlife however I see fit? Did you really think this tyranny, this affront to Enlightenment values, this new abyssopelagic Bolshevism – did you really think it could stand? Fuck you! Do you not know that we are warriors for a holy truth?

And it doesn’t even end with the blobfish. The big command right now, of course, is to VOTE. If you want, you can spend $850 on a black cashmere sweater that says VOTE in big white letters on the front. Not loud enough? You can also get a turquoise long-sleeved t-shirt that says VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE on the front and VOTE VOTE on each of the arms and incidentally looks like absolute shit. If you want to tell people to VOTE while also reminding them that it’s possible to buy vaguely acceptable burritos from a popular fast casual chain, you can get a plain white shirt that says CHI-VOTE-LE for just $11.03. Naturally, this entire process is extremely asymmetrical. There are far more people stomping around instructing the world at large to VOTE than there are people earnestly wondering what civic activities will be on offer this Tuesday, or how to inoffensively depict a blobfish. There are no t-shirts that read PLEASE TELL ME WHETHER OR NOT I SHOULD PARTICIPATE IN ELECTORAL POLITICS. A vast overproduction of answers to a question nobody seems to have actually asked.

Obviously, I’m now going to get in on this grift. These are your instructions for how to vote in the upcoming US presidential election, and you can take them as seriously or as unseriously as you want.

If you’re legally entitled to vote in the upcoming US presidential election, and you feel like voting, YOU SHOULD VOTE. If you don’t meet both of these criteria (for what it’s worth, I don’t), YOU SHOULD NOT VOTE. If you really, genuinely want to vote for Donald Trump, there’s not much I can do to help you, but YOU SHOULD VOTE FOR DONALD TRUMP. If you really, genuinely want to vote for Joe Biden, then likewise, but nonetheless YOU SHOULD VOTE FOR JOE BIDEN. If you’re seized with the desire to vote but don’t want to vote for either of these two people, then YOU SHOULD VOTE THIRD PARTY, WRITE IN ANOTHER CANDIDATE (WHERE POSSIBLE), or DEFACE YOUR BALLOT.

That’s it. What I am not saying is that you should simply do whatever you were going to do anyway. You should only vote for Trump, or Biden, or any of the others, if that is what you really want to do. Not because you’re scared of the other choices, not as a compromise, not as the lesser of two evils, not because you feel constrained by the two-party system, not out of duty, not because you live in a swing state, not even because of the political consequences you think might result if your chosen candidate wins. Really, you should forget about politics entirely. It’s neither the time nor the place. Just vote because you want to, or else don’t.

In the past, in this space and elsewhere, I’ve had some unkind words for the empty liberal form of the vote. Our activism and our engagement should not be constrained by the ritual of ticking boxes every few years; it saps and neuters our political energy; we need to find ways of making a difference that aren’t already given to us. Which: yeah, fine. But the fact remains that for most people, voting is the full extent of their political activity, and it will probably remain so. This isn’t entirely terrible. A world where everyone is an activist, kvetching and clamouring about their chosen issue – it would be an unbearable nightmare. And give the empty liberal form of the vote its due: it really does manage to give people a brief moment of freedom.

When you vote, you vote alone. You’re accountable to nobody, watched by nobody, in the papery secrecy of your own desires. Capitalism likes to pretend that what it offers people is an array of endless choices, but market decisions are always invisibly constrained, even for the very rich. Here, at least, liberalism lives up to its utopian promise. You decide, and sovereign is he who makes the decision. We can dream about some future liberated society all we want; right here, in the present, this is the closest most people will ever get to any measure of real freedom in their own lives. An isolated, monadic freedom (Marx would call it one-sided), not the type I’d really prefer, but probably the best we can expect. Maybe this, more than any purely pragmatic fears, is what drove racist voter suppression campaigns, both in the Jim Crow era and today. The servile classes must not be allowed to experience this instant of total irresponsibility, this pure and arbitrary sovereign choice.

This is why I find the command to VOTE repellent: a forced choice is no longer sovereign. Just as much as the ones purging the voter rolls, you’re trying to take away someone’s freedom to decide. But lately, the line has changed. The critique of the blank command to VOTE has been absorbed; now, the busybodies are just as likely to tell you to VOTE, BUT ONLY IF YOU VOTE FOR BIDEN. There’s something very uncomfortable about the idea, as suggested by some of my friends, that Bernie Bro types really ought to tick the box for Biden, that they have a moral duty to prevent a second Trump term. Firstly, because it assumes that these votes belong to Biden by default, and that voting for anyone else – or simply not voting at all – is to rob this poor lonely man of that which is rightfully his. No: let’s accept this liberal institution on its own terms; your vote belongs to nobody but yourself, and if you don’t like someone you shouldn’t vote for them. And further, because what about the Trump voters? Do they share the same duty? It’s hard to imagine that they could, or how the presumption that their vote somehow rightfully belongs to the DNC could possibly hold. So: are you comfortable with an ethical system that simply doesn’t bother addressing itself to millions of people, that writes them off as something other than moral agents? Are people who disagree with you about politics reduced to wild nature? Do they have the same ethical status as lions or tornadoes? And if so, by what right could you possibly condemn them?

The only good reasons to vote in this election are non-political. As a personal experience, voting is defensible. As a mass activity, it’s horrific. If you follow Kant – himself a crucial figure in the history of telling other people what to do – then there’s still an argument for voting politically, even if your vote doesn’t really matter: imagine if everyone acted that way. (In fact, you don’t even need to imagine; Saramago did it for us in his Ensaio sobre a lucidez, which you should read.) But a Kantian would also be bound by the Selbstzweckformel: ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.’ Words to live by. Do you really think these candidates see you as an ends in yourself? Then do not make yourself their means.

The great democracies no longer conscript entire populations to die fighting each other in the trenches, but there’s still an echo of that age. An actuarial power, one that’s interested in counting and mobilising large numbers of passive and pliable people. White feathers for conscientious objectors. Each individual sacrifice is basically meaningless and changes nothing, but you’re forced to make it anyway. Cancel out a stranger on the other side. Something very, very different from the clamour of the masses or the cry of the oppressed. It was the French revolution that introduced universal suffrage, and also the levée en masse: these are just two different versions of the same thing.

In any case, politically, there’s nothing much at stake. This is not a popular idea; like every election, this one is supposed to be the most consequential of our lives. The only thing everyone involved seems to agree on is that it’s all incredibly important. In one voice, they insist that you should whip yourself into a gibbering frenzy about it. Aren’t we on the precipice? Hasn’t Trump (or Biden, delete as applicable) done horrific evil? Absolutely – but what do you think the Presidency is? It’s the position of symbolic war chief, someone to lob large rocks at the other moiety. In some non-state societies, political life is dominated by charismatic Big Men whose formal powers are hazy and undefined, but who exercise authority through their personal and kinship ties. In a way, this is a perfect Millsian representative democracy. (Deleuze and Guattari describe the schema perfectly: the grand paranoiac, surrounded by his perverts.) The Presidency of the United States is slightly more formalised, but however many parping trumpets and silly motorcades surround the institution, it’s still only slightly.

So, for instance, Trump is widely blamed for America’s devastating losses from the coronavirus. Chaos and mismanagement have certainly played their part, but chaos and mismanagement are endemic to American society, regardless of who’s in charge. France is governed by a Jupiterian technocrat, but it’s also a society in which a few joyously chaotic undercurrents still survive, and it hasn’t fared much better. Trump’s major impact might have been to muddy the waters among his supporters by casting doubt on various public health measures. So: vote him out, right? Sanity reigns once more. But the Big Man is a discursive, political leader, and voting out a Big Man doesn’t make him disappear. It’s funny: whenever they’re out of power, the Democrats tell you that electoral victory will simply wash away all the bad ideas forever. But as soon as they take the reins they can’t actually do anything, because of all the conservatives. (Obviously, this works in both directions. Vote for Trump to get rid of all the woke globalist postmodern neo-Marxism! Only – has this phantom been preying on you more or less since he took office?)

For the most part, the powers that these Big Men hold are the powers to do evil: to kill, to act senselessly and arbitrarily. That’s what power means. Kids in cages, assassinations on foreign soil. What you’re voting for, when you vote politically, is the right and privilege of supporting this evil instead of being forced to oppose it. (The technical term for this is ‘going back to brunch.’) The idea that you can vote for someone and then hold them to account is a nonsense; you’ve already sacrificed whatever leverage you had. The only way to hold a Big Man to account is to defect: join the sycophantic gaggle of perverts that surrounds one of his competitors. This is where your principles get you: trapped forever in the orbit of some big fat cretin, pleading for him to save you from himself. Crisis consumes everything, but the system is unperturbed and the stakes are always low.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that someone could put the entire system itself at stake. This was the best argument for Bernie Sanders: he could have been an effective Big Man, precisely by turning power over to his perverts; he could have penetrated the membrane enclosing politics, as an image or hologram of the independently organised and extrapolitical forces in society at large seeking to effect a more general change. But these possibilities are always brief, and if you don’t short-circuit the entire loop quickly enough the result is always the same. A few days ago, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the Labour party. Already, he’s become the centre of a black legend; the lies and libels are calcifying, hardening, taking on the impenetrable solidity of official fact. There’s no longer any point even that the whole antisemitism scandal was confected from top to bottom; we’re in the Kafka-trap stage, where disputing a slander only convinces people that it must be true. This is what happens when you try to make politics actually matter: they destroy you. They will turn all of your virtues against you, they will blacken your memory, they will fuck you so thoroughly that it’s not even about you any more, you’re a shell, you’re empty, you’re dead, and your name is now just a weapon, an insult lobbed against people who once dared to breathe your air.

Yes, it’s true that Trump is equally abhorred. But he’s also been in office for four years, and in that time the system has not broken open; he’s directed it further inward than ever before. In 2016, for example, he ran against NAFTA. His replacement, the USMCA, received bipartisan support. The only real difference between the two was that his version was a populist, heartland-themed neoliberal trade bloc, a piece of immiserating administration for our moiety and not theirs. The Democrats, who no longer want to include subjects like international trade in their discursive armoury, were happy to concede it. A set of commands to vote for Trump argues that he ‘represents the human party, even if bad humans, or even subhumans, whereas Biden is the avatar of forces which are not entirely human, but composed of abstractions or categories.’ It’s a nice line, even though I thought the post-Landian right were supposed to scorn all such mawkish humanism. But it falls apart in the end, because the other side believe the exact same thing. No, Hillary and Joe aren’t perfect, they have flaws, they’re only human, but they have stories, they’ve suffered, they’ve struggled, they’ve been brave, they persisted – and meanwhile Trump isn’t even a man, he’s just the nexus and embodiment of every structural evil: racism, sexism, imperialism, transphobia, an avatar of the transhistorical Straight White Male…

So: don’t vote to make things happen. Don’t vote to change the world, or the country, or the large-scale structure of society. This might be possible in another time or another place, but not today. Things will not get better. Things will not be normal. These are not the stakes. But vote, if you feel like it, because it might still be good for you. For a moment, you can be powerful, arbitrary and cruel, rampaging around the world, propelled only by your own desires. Following these instructions doesn’t actually do anything. There’s no way to distinguish your vote from all the others; like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, you’re outwardly indistinguishable from everyone else, without any ‘chink through which the infinite might be seen to peer forth.’ This is the entire point. There’s just one last problem. If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to speak about our ‘authentic’ desires. What we want, even how we want, is always structured by our encounter with other people. And because the world is chaos, there’s always a rift of ambivalence right through the middle of every preference. How are you supposed to make the sovereign choice when you yourself are a contested territory? Don’t look at me; this one is for you to work out on your own. I’m not here to tell you what to do.

White skin, black squares

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Can you get rid of racism just by protesting against it?

Yes. Yes you can, absolutely, yes.

We know exactly how to reduce racist sentiment in people. It’s actually very simple. You don’t need any seminars, or handbooks, or reading lists, or even all that much introspection. There really is just one weird trick, and it’s this: racial animus goes down when people from different backgrounds stand together, work together, and fight together, on an equal footing, in their shared interest, and for a common goal. Once this happens, it becomes impossible to see the other person as only an instantiation of their race, something abstract and empty of determinate content. Once the practice of solidarity is established, it’s much harder for dehumanising ideas to take root. Obviously the process is uneven, and sometimes it only goes part way; you should never underestimate our capacity for hypocrisy. But it works.

This is why I’m quite hopeful about the ongoing protest movement in response to the police murder of George Floyd. Despite all the usual dangers of hope; despite the attempts at corporate hijack, despite the horizontalism, despite the grifters. From what I can see – and with the caveat that I’m not in America, and I can’t see everything – the protests seem to be strikingly racially desegregated. A lot of people from very different backgrounds have been brought together by their shared revulsion. They saw the state snuff out a man’s life, suffocate him to death on the concrete, laughing, sadistic – and said enough. Black lives matter, no more deaths. Without knowing exactly what to do or how to end this, they met each other in the streets. I can’t say what the long-term political impact will be, but this is how new collective subjects are formed.

So what am I supposed to make of something like this?

This is the time for white people and non-black POC to look at themselves in the mirror, take a hard look, and realise that you are not George Floyd in this story. In this story, and in all the different versions of this story, you are the pig that killed him. You cannot ever put yourself in a black person’s shoes.

There’s no nice way to say this: a certain subset of (mostly) white people have lost their minds online. These people wake up to a vast insurrection crossing all racial and national boundaries – and contrive to make this all about themselves. Their affects, their unconsciouses, their moral worthiness. How can I be Not Complicit? How can I be a Better Ally? How do I stop benefiting from white supremacy in my daily life? How do I rid myself of all the bad affects and attitudes? Can I purify my soul in the smelter of a burning police precinct? Occasional ratissages out into mainstream culture (we’re decolonising the Bon Appétit test kitchen!), but mostly what this uprising calls for is an extended bout of navel-gazing. Really get in there, get deep in that clammy lint-filled hole, push one finger into the wound of your separation from the primordial world, and never stop wriggling. Maybe there’s a switch, buried just below the knot, and if you trip it your body will open up like a David Cronenberg nightmare to reveal all its greasy secrets to your eyes. Interrogate yourself! Always yourself, swim deep in the filth of yourself. The world is on fire – but are my hands clean? People are dying – but how can I scrub this ghastly whiteness off my skin?

You could set aside the psychosexual madness of this stuff, maybe, if it actually worked. It does not work. It achieves nothing and helps nobody. Karen and Barbara Fields: ‘Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes. Racism is first and foremost a social practice.’ Social practices must be confronted on the level of the social. But for people who don’t want to change anything on the level of the social, there’s the Implicit Associations Test. This is the great technological triumph of what passes for anti-racist ideology: sit in front of your computer for a few minutes, click on some buttons, and you can get a number value on exactly how racist you are. Educators and politicians love this thing. Wheel it into offices. Listen up, guys, your boss just wants to take a quick peek into your unconscious mind, just to see how racist you are. How could anyone object to something like that?

Only one problem. Carlsson & Agerström, 2016: there is ‘little evidence that the IAT can meaningfully predict discrimination.’ Turns out that the inner content of your heart has no real bearing on the actual racial inequalities faced by actual non-white people in the actual world. (If you come across someone who very badly wants not to believe this, run. They don’t care about improving the world. They just want to take a scalpel to someone’s brain, maybe yours.) And there’s more. Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015: ‘In a competitive task, individuals who received a high prevalence of stereotyping message [ie, messaging about the evils of racial stereotypes] treated their opponents in more stereotype-consistent ways.’ All your Important Work, your self-reflection, your enforced racial neurosis – it’s making people more racist. Whoops! Classic slapstick. Unless, of course… unless that was always the point.

See, for instance, the form letters: How To Talk To Your Black Friends Right Now. Because I refuse to be told I can’t ever empathise with a black person, I try to imagine what it would be like to receive one of these. Say there’s been a synagogue shooting, or a bunch of swastikas spraypainted in Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Say someone set off a bomb inside Panzer’s in St John’s Wood – and then one of my goy friends sends me something like this:

Hey Sam – I can never understand how you feel right now, but I’m committed to doing the work both personally and in my community to make this world safer for you and for Jewish people everywhere. From the Babylonian Captivity to the Holocaust to today, my people have done reprehensible things to yours – and while my privilege will never let me share your experience, I want you to know that you’re supported right now. I see you. I hear you. I stand with the Jewish community, because you matterPlease give me your PayPal so I can buy you a bagel or some schamltz herring, or some of those little twisty pastries you people like.

How would I respond? I think I would never want to see or hear from this person again. If I saw them in the street, I would spit in their face, covid be damned. I would curse their descendants with an ancient cackling Yiddish curse. These days, I try to choose my actual friends wisely. Most of them tend to engage me with a constant low level of jocular antisemitic micoaggressions, because these things are funny and not particularly serious. But if one of my friends genuinely couldn’t see me past the Jew, and couldn’t see our friendship past the Jewish Question, I would be mortified. Of course, it’s possible that the comparison doesn’t hold. Maybe there are millions of black people I don’t know who love being essentialised and condescended to, who are thrilled by the thought of being nothing more than a shuddering expendable rack for holding up their own skin. But I doubt it. Unless you want me to believe that black people inherently have less dignity than I do, this is an insult.

(An anecdote from Frantz Fanon. ‘It was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: “Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.” And I found that he was universally right – by which I meant that I was answerable in my body and my heart for what was done to my brother. Later I realised that he meant, quite simply, an anti-Semite is invariably anti-Negro.’)

If you want to find the real secret of this stuff, look for the rules, the dos and don’ts, the Guides To Being A Better Ally that blob up everywhere like mushrooms on a rotting bough. You’ve seen them. And you’ve noticed, even if you don’t want to admit it, that these things are always contradictory:

DO the important work of interrogating your own biases and prejudices. DON’T obsess over your white guilt – this isn’t about you! DO use your white privilege as a shield by standing between black folx and the police. DON’T stand at the front of marches – it’s time for you to take a back seat. DO speak out against racism – never expect activists of colour to always perform the emotional labour. DON’T crowd the conversation with your voice – shut up, stay in your lane, and stick to signal boosting melanated voices. DO educate your white community by providing an example of white allyship. DON’T post selfies from a protest – our struggle isn’t a photo-op for riot tourists.

Žižek points out that the language of proverbial wisdom has no content. ‘If one says, “Forget about the afterlife, about the Elsewhere, seize the day, enjoy life fully here and now, it’s the only life you’ve got!” it sounds deep. If one says exactly the opposite (“Do not get trapped in the illusory and vain pleasures of earthly life; money, power, and passions are all destined to vanish into thin air – think about eternity!”), it also sounds deep.’ The same goes here. Whatever you say, it can still sound woke. Why?

Some right-wing critics have argued that the reason for all this contradiction is that the people making these demands want to boss their white allies around, but don’t know what they actually want from them. (Malcolm X with his cold hard stare, and a word: Nothing.) It’s a form of lashing out, a way to extract obedience for its own sake. If you think this, you don’t understand a thing. You have a layer of toilet bleach surrounding your brain. Look closer. What you’re reading is a menu. Good evening sir, ma’am – what would you like to be forbidden today? If you like, I could tell you not to empathise with black people. Or would sir prefer to be cautioned against leading chants at a rally? We have a specials list of phrases that aren’t for you this week…

This stuff is masochism, pleasure-seeking, full of erotic charge – and as Freud saw, the masochist’s desire is always primary and prior; it’s always the submissive partner who’s in charge of any relationship. Masochism is a technology of power. Setting the limits, defining the punishments they’d like to receive, dehumanising and instrumentalising the sadistic partner throughout. The sadist works to humiliate and degrade their partner, to make them feel something – everything for the other! And meanwhile, the masochist luxuriates in their own degradation – everything for myself! You’re just the robotic hand that hits me. When non-white people get involved in these discourses, they’re always at the mercy of their white audiences, the ones for whom they perform, the ones they titillate and entertain. A system for subjecting liberation movements to the fickle desires of the white bourgeoisie. Call it what it is. This is white supremacy; these scolding lists are white supremacist screeds.

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But systems of white supremacy have never been in the interests of most whites (‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded’), and they have never really fostered any solidarity between whites. Look at the stories. I had a run-in with the police, you announce, and a black person might have died, but I’m fine, because I’m white. No – you’re fine because you’re white and rich. You’re fine because you look like someone who reviews cartoons for a dying online publication called The Daily Muffin, which is exactly what you are. Bald and covered in cat hair. Frameless glasses cutting a red wedge into the bridge of your nose. The white people who get gunned down by police don’t look like you. Their class position is stamped visibly on their face, and so is yours. And you’ve trained yourself to see any suffering they experience as nothing more than ugly Trump voters getting what they deserve.

Why aren’t there protests when a white person is murdered by police? Answer 1: because, as John Berger points out, ‘demonstrations are essentially urban in character.’ Native Americans are killed by cops at an even higher rate than black people, but this too tends to happen very far away from the cities and the cameras; it becomes invisible. Answer 2: because nobody cares about them. Not the right wing, who only pretend to care as a discursive gotcha when there’s a BLM protest. And definitely not you. Sectors of the white intelligentsia have spent the last decade trying to train you out of fellow-feeling. Cooley et al., 2019: learning about white privilege has no positive effect on empathy towards black people, but it is ‘associated with greater punishment/blame and fewer external attributions for a poor white person’s plight.’ A machine for turning nice socially-conscious liberals into callous free-market conservatives.

The rhetoric of privilege is a weapon, but it’s not pointed at actually (ie, financially) privileged white people. We get off lightly. All we have to do is reflect on our privilege, chase our dreamy reflections through an endlessly mirrored habitus – and that was already our favourite game. You might as well decide that the only cure for white privilege is ice cream. Working-class whites get no such luxuries. But as always, the real brunt falls on non-white people. What happens when you present inequality in terms of privileges bestowed on white people, rather than rights and dignity denied to non-white people? The situation of the oppressed becomes a natural base-state. You end up thinking some very strange things. A few years ago, I was once told that I could only think that the film Black Panther isn’t very good because of my white privilege. Apparently, black people are incapable of aesthetic discernment or critical thought. (Do I need to mention that the person who told me this was white as sin?) This framing is as racist as anything in Carlyle. It could only have been invented by a rich white person.

Give them their due; rich white people are great at inventing terrible new concepts. Look at what’s happening right now: they’re telling each other to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. You should never tell people to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo – but we live in an evil world, and it’s stormed to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list. You maniacs, you psychopaths, look what you’ve done. I’m not saying people shouldn’t read the book – I read it, and I don’t get any special dispensations – but you should read it like Dianetics, like the doctrine of a strange and stupid cult.

Robin DiAngelo is a white person, an academic, an anti-racism educator, an agent of the CIA or Hell or both, and the author of a very bad book. It’s at the vanguard of one of the worst tendencies in contemporary politics, that of particularising the human condition. Freud showed us that the ego is just a scar or a callus on the surface of the id, a part that had to crack and harden on contact with a cruel and unpleasant world. We are all brittle. We are all fragile. We all try to protect ourselves with shabby costumes, and we all get upset when someone tries to triumphantly snatch them away. But some people like to pretend that this condition is specific. It’s ‘being a snowflake.’ It’s ‘white fragility.’

The book is a thrill-ride along a well-paved highway – ‘powerful institutions are controlled by white people;’ true, accurate, well-observed – that quickly takes a dive off the nearest cliff – ‘therefore white people as a whole are in control of powerful institutions.’ Speak for yourself, lady! All a are b, DiAngelo brightly informs us, therefore all b must also be a. She doesn’t advocate for her understanding of the world, she simply assumes it. So it’s not a surprise that the real takeaway from White Fragility is that Robin DiAngelo is not very good at her job. See this passage:

I recently gave a talk to a group of about two hundred employees. Over and over, I emphasised the importance of white people having racial humility and of not exempting ourselves from the unavoidable dynamics of racism. As soon as I was done speaking, a line of white people formed – ostensibly to ask me questions – but more typically to reiterate the same opinions on race they held when they entered the room.

Well, it didn’t work, then, did it?

Imagine a devoted cultist of Tengrism, who sometimes gets invited by company bosses to harangue the workforce on how the universe is created by a pure snow-white goose flying over an endless ocean, and how if you don’t make the appropriate ritual honks to this cosmic goose you’re failing in your moral duty. But every time she gives this spiel, she always gets the same questions. Exactly how big is this goose? Surely the goose must have to land sometimes? Geese hatch in litters – what happened to the other goslings? Something must be wrong with these people. Why don’t they just accept the doctrine? Why do they hate the goose? We need a name for their sickness. Call it Goose Reluctance, and next time someone doesn’t jump to attention whenever you speak, you’ll know why. Of course, the comparison is unfair; ideas about eternal geese are beautiful, and DiAngelo’s are not. But the structure is the same. Could it be that Robin DiAngelo is a poor communicator selling a heap of worthless abstractions? No, it’s the workers who are wrong.

(By the way, how did you feel about that phrase, racial humility? I didn’t like it, but her book is full of similar formulations – she also wants us to ‘build our racial stamina’ and ‘attain racial knowledge.’ Now, maybe I’m an oversensitive kike, but I can’t encounter phrases like these and not hear others in the background. Racial spirit. Racial consciousness. Racial hygiene. And somewhere, not close but coming closer, the sound of goosestepping feet.)

I didn’t seek out any of the material I talk about here. It came to me. And it’s making me feel insane. The only social media I use these days is Instagram – because if I’m going to be hand-shaping orecchiette all night, and serving it with salsiccia, rapini, and my own home-pickled fennel, it’s not for my own pleasure, and I demand to receive a decent 12 to 15 likes for my efforts. (I will not be accepting your follow request.) A week ago, on the 2nd of June, my feed was suddenly swarming with white people posting blank black squares. People I’d never known to be remotely political, people whose introduction to politics was clearly coming through the deranged machine of social media. Apparently, that was ‘Blackout Tuesday.’ I don’t know whose clever idea this was, and I don’t want to know, but it came with a threat. If all your friends are posting the square, and you’re not, does it mean you simply don’t care enough about black lives? Around the same time, I was helpfully made aware of a viral Instagram album titled Why The Refusal To Post Online Is Often Inherently Racist. I honestly can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to live like this – always on edge, always trying to be Good, always trying to have your Goodness recognised by other people, in a game where the scores are tracked by what you post on the internet, and the rules are always changing.

The real kicker was what happened next. Under just about every black square, some self-appointed prefect had commented, warning people not to tag the things with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Activists use the hashtag to post important information, and the black boxes risked swamping it, flooding the whole thing with silence. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. After all, the #blacklivesmatter tag is – like all the rest of them – indifferently and algorithmically curated by Facebook’s proprietary software. The ethico-political demand, then, is to avoid disrupting the algorithm at all costs.

Why am I complaining about this? The police are brutalising demonstrators on the street, multiple protesters have already died, Trump wants to deploy the army, something truly horrible might be lurking in our near future – so why spend nearly 4000 words talking about stupid ideas on the internet? Because I want the movement to win, and this is poison. It has killed movements before. It kills everything it can touch.

At the end of Black Skin, White Masks, in his closing burst of glorious autopoietic Nietzscheana, Fanon gives his sole demand: ‘That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever.’ It’s a hope I share, and one that I think the actual movement could one day help realise. But not if it surrenders to the forms and codes of social media, because social media is a tool that possesses the man. Like the owner of property, but also like a possessing devil. It takes over your mouth and your hands, and it whispers right into your brain. It tells you that the people around you are enemies, that you might be an enemy; it sends you spiralling into the claustrophobia of yourself. I can hope that this explosion of madness online is a final efflorescence, the monster making one last screech for attention. Something genuinely inspiring is happening, and maybe all the parasitic brands and networked neurotics will be left in the dust. But maybe, if we’re not careful, and if we can’t look away from our phones, a dumb comment from someone a thousand miles away will drown out the solidarity of the person next to you, and the moment will be lost.

Why Bernie lost (and how you can too)

quodsummushoceritis

First hypothesis. (Humour: melancholia / Star: Saturn / Stone: topaz.)

Bernie lost because he lost the working class. He started his campaign marshalling what Amber Frost has described as the Busytown coalition: the postal workers, the firemen, the nurses; the people who, even now, are still in shops and warehouses, ensuring the continuation of human life. It’s a good coalition. It cuts across all lines of age, race, gender, and sexuality. There are a lot of these people, and what’s more, they have justice on their side. So what the hell happened? Why is it that, by Super Tuesday, places with lower average incomes, higher unemployment, more ethnic diversity, more people without health insurance, and fewer university degrees were tilting towards Biden? The answer is you. You did this.

If you’re reading this, I know what you’re like. You’re young, or young-ish; you’re well-educated and ever so smart, but your life didn’t turn out exactly how you hoped. Your parents are from the middle classes, but what are you? Column A: you’re currently tending to a sourdough starter, you lug around several suitcases of books whenever you move house, and you can talk about Debussy or drill with equal enthusiasm. Column B: you’re flat fucking broke. When you were a kid, you imagined what your life would be like at twenty-five, or thirty, or forty, and it didn’t look like this. You imagined yourself into An Adult, a mythological creature that never unfurled from your cocoon. You are a nymph. You’re the same kid, terrified of the passing time, but still waiting. It’s not too late for you, not yet, but so much would need to change in such a short time. We’d need to totally decarbonise the economy and end all interventions in the Middle East. We’d need to massively raise corporate taxes and someone would have to marry you. You believe passionately in that kind of change, and that’s why you supported Bernie. We are the same, you and I. We’re poison, absolute poison, for any democratic leftist movement. We corrode it from the inside out.

I watched the same thing happen in the UK: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party tried to reactivate the working class vote – and instead, working-class voters fled the party in droves, abandoning it to a rump of young people with advanced degrees and low prospects. Children are not the future. Young people are not a solid political constituency. Give us our due, though: we’re passionate, and committed, and we’re strivers. In a few short weeks, we had the Bernie campaign speaking our language and broadcasting our concerns. We turned ourselves into its faces and figureheads. Just in time to thoroughly alienate everyone who wasn’t already onside.

I don’t think socialism is always, by necessity, a bourgeois idea. On both sides of the Atlantic, left-populism did briefly enjoy a broad base of support. But we need to be smarter: we need to understand that ordinary people simply do not like us, and they’re not wrong to feel that way. We’re basically obnoxious, and to overcome that we need to meet the people where they are. This is how.

Step one is to place a permanent taboo on the following words, which we use too much, and which do nothing to help our cause:

  • Kindness. A disgusting word. The watery eyes of some paedophile vicar, smacking his lips together as he dreams his gentle brutalities. Be kind to me, oh be kind to me, let’s all be kind to each other. You make me sick.
  • Empathy. Even worse. The person who needs to put a name to fellow-feeling, who needs to adopt it as a regulative principle, has none of the stuff. The person who endlessly natters on about empathy is always, without exception, a bitter and spiteful toad, asking for the manager, making complaints, deplatforming: bottomlessly, abysmally cruel.
  • Hope. The most vicious of the bunch. Hope is an ancient Greek curse. Hope is only a substitute for the thing you hope for; it’s what you’re left with after everything else has fled. Hope is always, always disappointed. No movement that bandies around words like hope ever delivers on its promises. No movement that talks about hope is ever trusted.

That’s step one. In step two, we embrace the values that actually matter to American voters. Namely, patriotism, the family, and badass overpowered military hardware. If you want to embark on a programme of economic nationalisation, why would you willingly give up a potent rhetorical tool like nationalism? If you want to build bonds of solidarity, why would you ignore the already-existing communism within a well-functioning family unit? And if you want the working classes to own the world their labour creates, should that not include the nightly livestreamed bombing runs over the Middle East? I made that, we could say, watching the fires consume an Afghan village. My hands tended this death.

Finally, with step three we build on the progress we made at the start, and gradually eliminate all words from our vocabulary. The working classes hate words. They’re all illiterate, probably; I assume they communicate in grunts and squeals. We must learn to squeal like they do. Roll around in the muck. Hide your delicate bourgeois face in a plastic snout. Lap up corn syrup from the trough. Drape yourself in a soiled flag and grunt the name of Jesus Christ. Squeal, piggy, squeal.

Second theory. (Humour: choler / Star: Jupiter / Beast: the Hog)

Bernie lost because, in the end, he wasn’t willing to fight. He set himself up rhetorically in opposition to a deeply corrupt and moribund Democratic establishment – but then he adopted all their dumbest talking points. He promised to support the nominee, whoever it was, because the greatest danger was another four years of Trump and his Russian cronies. No: the greatest danger to ordinary people is capitalism, whoever its figurehead. Trump won in 2016 by utterly eviscerating and then colonising a hated party structure. Bernie couldn’t bring himself to do the same. He talked about a revolution, but shrunk back from revolutionary agonisms. What he offered was, as he himself kept insisting, a political revolution – which is to say, not a social revolution, not a revolution in the forms of human life, but only in their superstructural expressions – and he couldn’t even do that. Imagine how differently things would have gone if, during one of the televised debates, Bernie had denounced Joe Biden as a kulak fattening himself on the misery of the American peasants. I don’t know why he didn’t do this; he should have been listening to me instead of his lib advisors. He should have pointed out this dazed, leathery man as a class enemy, and then two of his Blue Guards should have run out from the wings to beat Biden in the head with the butts of their rifles, until he was forced to kneel right in front of the MSNBC studio hosts and confess, with tears in his eyes, to being a capitalist roader and a traitor to the working masses. Execution should have followed instantly: a single nod from Bernie, and a single bullet in the back of Joe’s head. At this point the audience should have stood up and cheered as Biden’s blood congealed tackily over the pristine half-CGI debate stage – but the theatre of justice shouldn’t have ended there. More Blue Guards in Bernie caps with rifles slung over their shoulders should have poured out onto the stage and erected a guillotine, singing cheerful songs as they winched the enormous razor into place. Then Bernie should have puffed out his cheeks and wagged his finger and shouted ‘The people’s revenge is not yet whetted! Which of our enemies will hone this blade?’ and then he should have condemned his rivals to death and beheaded them one by one. One cannot serve as the Attorney General for California innocently! The Blue Guards should have blocked off all the exits to this philanthropically-funded theatre and arts space in a third-tier Midwestern city, to encourage patriotic feeling among the audience as the heads of one politician after another tumbled from the jaws of the guillotine, their faces frozen in expressions of unutterable horror – but if Bernie heard a murmur of discontent as the lifeless bodies were flung into the orchestra pit, limbs folded at unnatural angles, torsos crowned in red-rimmed stumps, he should have given the signal for one-tenth of the audience to be dispatched too, so a productive atmosphere of Blue Terror might set in among the workers and peasants live-streaming at home. Then, once the bloodshed was over, a gorgeous person of my preferred gender should have turned to me and said ‘We did it, comrade – we finally overthrew traditional beauty standards, and now I don’t mind that you’re obsessed with seedy violent revenge-fantasies and have a deeply unfortunate neck that just kinda melts clammily into your shoulders; at long last, you have become sexually viable,’ and then I should have never been alone again.

Third assertion. (Humour: blood / Planet: Mars / Curse: eternal)

Bernie lost because the 2020 Democratic primary was ssstolen.

You think you know what happened: Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropped out as if according to a script, dealsss were forged, rooms filled with sssmoke, polling sssstations were closed down in low-income and ethnic-minority areas, exit polls showed a marked dissscrepancy from the final result, there was some vast fuckery in Iowa, because They – the unnameable They – would never let Bernie Sssanders win.

This is not what I mean.

I know it was ssssstolen because I ssstole it myself.

For years now I have been sssneaking into Bernie’s house at night, quietly, sssilently, in through the windowsss to lick his furniture, up through the floorboards to wander through the objects of his life.

And one dark February night I sssaw it – I sssaw where he kept the election, hidden in his house.

It was an egg, an unformed thing.

He kept it in his fridge, in a carton with the other eggs, and nothing on its sssurface told how different this egg was from any of the otherssss – maybe he didn’t know himssself, but I knew; I felt what was waiting within its yolk, the thing that could hatch.

I conssssumed that egg there, in Bernie Sanders’ kitchen – I ate it whole, shell and all, unsocketing my jaw, engorging my gullet; hunger, straining againssst the wholenessss of this large cold egg.

And out of my throat black tendrils grew.

Fourth conjecture. (Humour: phlegm / Planet: Mercury / Leprosy: gleaming)

  1. Bernie lost because nobody – and I mean NOBODY – understands why people make the decisions they do.
  2. I mean, look at it. Look at the Biden voters who said they wanted Medicare for All. Or the Biden voters who said they thought radical – even revolutionary – change was necessary. But they still pulled the lever for ol’ Creepy Joe. They liked Bernie and they liked his policies, but they weren’t voting for them. You thought it would be easy? You thought you just had to present the right ideas in the right language? Nah. Something much stranger is at work.
  3. And please, I’m begging you, please don’t give me any guff about low-information voters. You seen what it’s like out there? You can’t move for information. The sky and the trees are information. It’s being poured into our eyes at one gigabyte per second, EVERY SECOND OF OUR LIVES. We eat pure information three meals a day. Chomp through it, metabolise, shit it out. We fuckin’ radiate data, and at night the tech companies come and gobble up whatever we’ve left behind. Like dust mites feasting on our sloughed-off skin. Maybe you wanna start talking about low-oxygen voters too while you’re at it?
  4. But you wanna hear a secret? Advertising is bunk. Market research is bunk. None of it works. All those urban legends about how gifted psychopaths are rearranging supermarkets to make you buy shit you don’t need – all fake. It’s the admen’s last con. Even marketing types don’t really understand why people make the decisions they do. Not in the market, not in relationships, not anywhere. Cuz what we have now is the data, man, THE DATA. We can see the chaos of everyone’s life in ten trillion consumer decisions, and none of it adds up. Like there’s some tiny chaotic imp burrowing around in the innermost folds of your brain, doing stuff for no reason. And everyone’s praying the truth of it never gets out, cuz if it does? Google, Facebook – worthless. Spent a decade collecting the whole global population’s shit, promising they could sift out some specks of gold. It ain’t there. Useless. Planetary midden. And yeah, it just so happens that we’ve premised the entire economy on online data-collection and advertising. Imagine if tomorrow morning, oil was as flammable as water. That’s the level of trouble we’re in.
  5. Unless there was a new science. Deleuze saw it, in the Postscript on the Societies of Control: ‘Can we already grasp the rough outlines of these coming forms, capable of threatening the joys of marketing?’ A science that could explain why people make the decisions they make, and accurately model long-term social changes. One that could inherit and abolish all the failed theories of the past. Shit like Marxism. Gramscianism. Freudianism. I’m talking politics, rhetoric, marketing. Marginal utility and rational-choice economics and von Neumann games. Hell, let’s chuck art in there too. It ain’t heavy. This theory would be huge. I’m not talking about a revolution in the human sciences. I’m talking about a revolution, full stop.
  6. Folks – this theory is real. It already exists.
  7. It’s called IMPERATOLOGY.
  8. And its terrifying power can be yours – TODAY.
  9. Find out what other people want – what they really want, what they don’t even know they desire. Or, better yet, change their minds. With IMPERATOLOGY, it’s all possible. It’s the most awesome weapon ever devised. It’s the ATOM BOMB OF THE PSYCHE – and I want to put it in YOUR hands.
  10. How does it work? Simple! All previous accounts of the mind have conceived of subjectivity as a field of positively articulated drives and needs. Even psychoanalysis can only compute death drive as a BLANK OR SPACING in the terrain of desire. Even Marxism insists that all NEGATION must be DETERMINATE, and papers over the FISSURES OF UNBEING that scar our world. But with IMPERATOLOGY the night is ended! Our modelling software uses a system based on NEGATIVE INFINITIES, allowing you to delve into the VAST RESERVOIRS OF DARKNESS that lie at the core of your being. (Sexual nihilism! Political unreason! Cannibal orgies! Blood! Ice on trees! A trackless and limitless forest! Wild hares dancing! The blank dancing eyes of a wild hare in the frosty dawn of the world!) Our patented system empowers YOU to scoop up variegated PEARLS OF MADNESS with your own TINY GRASPING CLAWS!
  11. I’m talking THE SECRET BACK DOOR TO THE HUMAN MIND. I’m talking MONEY. I’m talking SEX. I’m talking about YOUR BIZARRE AND IDIOSYNCRATIC POLITICAL OPINIONS, turned into received wisdom OVERNIGHT. I’m talking about a WORLD FUNDAMENTALLY RESHAPED INTO A SERIES OF LIVING DIORAMAS FOR YOUR OWN MASTURBATORY PLEASURE. Not sure how to use it? Forgotten how to get yourself off? No worries! Simply deploy the techniques of IMPERATOLOGY on YOURSELF, and instantly achieve SELF-REALISATION AS AN ABSOLUTE IDEA. I’m talking about PEERING BEYOND THE VEIL OF OUR EARTHLY REALITY. And I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. Let me tell you, folks, my third eye is a YAWNING, DISTENDED CHASM. Wildflowers grow wherever I lay my feet, and I have witnessed galaxies SPURT LIKE MY SEED across the velvet folds of time!
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Fifth derangement. (Humour: gelatine / Planet: Niburu / Destination: across the nameless sea to Knossos, where we are devoured)

Bernie lost because politics is not about power. It’s not about collective decision-making; it’s not even about representation. Try to imagine things differently. Try to imagine the 2020 election as a highly advanced form of vivisection.

Think of all the endless awful candidates invading your consciousness, one after another. Didn’t it feel like some kind of experiment was being performed? The system throws people and archetypes at you – A Woman, A Person Of Colour, A Rich Guy – and tries to find out what sticks. We might think the contenders are just a bunch of hollow-eyed narcissists vying for control of an enormous nuclear arsenal, and they might think it too, but they’re not. These are test subjects. In a sense, they’re victims.

A politician is shoved under the spotlight, and they tremble. Slowly, scientists peel back the skin so we can see their innards. We find out more about the personal histories and inner worlds of Beto O’Rourke or John Delaney than any sane person could possibly want to know. But someone, or something, somewhere, is learning. Slice through the flesh; get to the organs, the queasy, greasy, soft wobbling darkness in the creature’s furthest pit. See what’s there. Cory Booker’s kidneys. Julián Castro’s spleen. Scandals and corruption; dark money, racial epithets, sex scandals, and lies. The attrition rate is high; most test subjects don’t survive the procedure. Pour enough shampoo into Kamala Harris’s eyeballs, pump enough anti-depressants up Tom Steyer’s arsehole, and eventually the creature will just go limp.

For Baudrillard, new schemata of social control are always applied first to animals, and then to human beings. ‘Animals have preceded us on the path of liberal extermination.’ Couldn’t we say the same thing about politicians? What are electoral politics, if not a breeding-ground for affects and psychoses, a petri dish swarming with new and disordered ways of relating to the world? Forget policy. Forget the presidency. This is what it’s for.

Decades ago, politicians started being followed by people with cameras, monitoring their movements, looking for any hint of wrongness – a banana, for instance, held at an unusual angle. They had to perform, every minute of their waking lives. Forbidden from breaking character, they melted into their own personae. Politicians were the first to enter the world of inescapable digital surveillance, then celebrities, and then you and me. The innovation now, of course, is that the person following you around with the camera is yourself. We’re all public servants now.

Examples pile up. Politicians were the first humans to turn themselves into brands, to sell themselves not as a lump of labour-power but as a finished commodity, with the full fetishistic halo. Before there could be a Kim Kardashian, first there had to be a Tony Blair.

Of course, there’s another type, the Bernie-type. Politicians who sold themselves on the promise of what they could do rather than what they might mean. Politicians who offered something to the voting masses, a pact, a contract, not the possibility of representation or identification. Politicians who didn’t want to be your bff or your abuela, but who did want to build a big new canal. The heroic, promethean, reforming bourgeois politicians of the eighteenth century onwards, who set out to transform reality by their labour, not for themselves, not to rule the world, but only to remake it – these were the advance guards of proletarianisation. Their time has ended now. Like the organised proletariat, they survive – but lost in a whirlwind of new forms.

In fact, you could go further. The thing we call politics – in the sense of an ideological agonism, not just manoeuvring between personal factions – begins with the English and French revolutions. The birth of politics is also the birth of politicide, the idea that you can fix things by simply killing everyone with bad opinions. Both revolutions also featured, quite prominently, the removal of a royal head. The king becomes a politician – which is to say, a carcass, an animal test-subject – the moment the blade touches the hairs on the back of his neck. (This seems to hold across time. The ancient Greeks had their factional intrigues, and they thought a lot about systems of government, but they never managed to develop the political movement. The Romans, who executed their king, did.) He clears the way. Then the masses can follow him into the guillotine, or march off in vast conscript armies to the meat-grinder of the front.

This is why the nomination went to Joe Biden, a man who is clearly senile and dying, and not Bernie Sanders. He is our future, the herald of an exhausted and forgetful age. Digital archives are already eating away at our ability to remember. Automation enfeebles our bodies. The frenzy of communications puts a stammer in our speech. Senseless and dependent, passive in a meshwork of machines. In the crypt of the Capuchin friars in Rome, stacks of grinning skulls bear a motto. Quello che voi siete, noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo, voi sarete. What we are, you will be; what you are, we once were. Look on Joe Biden’s empty face, and be afraid.

The case for giving up

dying-gaul

1.1 A bull charges out of the sea. A white bull, white as the foam that birthed it, glowering with newborn joy, and beautiful. Turning and turning on the sand, tossing its mane now to the marble city on its hill, now to the man praying by the water’s edge. Everything here is bright and simple. The bull is a mirror for the sun, and the sun burns like a charging bull. The sea leaves glittering webs across the sand, and both earth and sky are dark with treasure. Poseidon leaves no message, only the bull, and it’s enough: you know what must be done. Take a knife and cut his throat. Let his salty blood drain into the sea, and then burn his body under the sun, a sacrifice to the god that sent him. The purpose of beautiful things is to be destroyed. This is why young people are closer to death than the old, why well-laid cities are always bombed, why history progresses by its bad side, and why revolutions fail. But King Minos doesn’t slaughter the bull; he wants to keep it. Big mistake. If a beautiful thing is allowed to live, it will fuck your wife and sire only monsters.

1.2 Something trembles at the bottom of a jar. Epimetheus struggles towards its voice against the tide of rubble that was once his world. The ruins are piling up, but all he can see is the past. ‘I shouldn’t have married Pandora,’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t have let her open the jar.’ The room where every evil erupted is unrecognisable now, but the voice calls him on, deeper into the heart of the storm. What had been a home with gold and marble columns, a school wreathed in ivy, a hospital, a railway, the scent of summer and figs – now, stones are churned in black slime, and evils jabber through the night. Still the voice pushes him on, even as the swarm of sufferings starts to peel away at his skin. Find me. Find me. And there, at the bottom of the jar, he finds only himself. Elpis, hope; in other words, blissful ignorance of the new and awful future, afterthought, Epimetheus. Nobody knows if this was the mercy of Zeus, or his final act of spite.

1.3 In one version of the story, the Moirai, the Fates who weave the world from a single thread, once had a fourth sister. Hetera, the warp in the weft. The others portioned out what would be and what would not be; Hetera weaved what was possible. Her work was beautiful and vague. She strangled herself in its knots.

2.1 Socialism started out speaking a very crude language, almost military – seize this, crush that, to victory! History is on our side! Decades of defeat have deepened our concepts. Sadness has enriched them. We’ve become elegaic, wistful; always broken, but still defiant. The heart of a heartless world. The soul of soulless conditions. Now, we don’t talk about victory; we talk about Beauty and Hope and The Possible. Our ideology has become a metaphor for the human condition, striving on against the odds. Other philosophies are not the same. The opposite of liberalism is conservatism. The opposite of despotism is democracy. The opposite of socialism isn’t capitalism, it’s the void. A Catholic priest isn’t troubled by Hinduism or Shinto, but by the vast, crushing silence of God. In the same way, our struggle isn’t against contingent social conditions, it’s against entropy and despair.

2.2 Leftist rhetoric puts a taboo on despair. Gramsci thunders against ‘the thick, dark cloud of pessimism which is oppressing the most able and responsible militants.’ He was writing in darker times than ours: the horrors facing him weren’t Boris or Brexit but the real thing, Mussolini in Rome, the catastrophe swelling. Still, there’s no room for despair. ‘Our party exists and that is something in itself; it is in that which we have never-ending faith as the better, most sound, most honest part of the Italian proletariat.’ Walter Benjamin has no time for the melancholic; they’re ‘agents or hacks who make a great display out of their poverty, and a banquet out of yawning emptiness.’ This tradition continues. The line after every defeat is the same. ‘Don’t mourn, organise.’ The worst sin for a Christian is to deny the Holy Spirit; the worst sin for a socialist is to lose hope. A vein of banal positivity runs through political discourse; at points it’s indistinguishable from the language of inspirational quotes about going to the gym. The rictus, the manic posture, the false cheer. Don’t quit! Keep going! If you stop for even a moment, the ground will swallow you and you’ll die. A few months ago, a panel of politicians from various parties were asked on the BBC’s Any Questions whether they considered themselves optimists or pessimists. Every single one of them loudly professed their optimism. Of course they did; it would have been a catastrophe otherwise. If we had this kind of enforced uniformity of opinion on any other subject, we’d see it for what it is. Optimists control the media, the government, the corporations – and even the revolutionaries are under their spell. It’s utterly forbidden not to hope. Despair must be repressed at all costs.

2.3 But despair is what there is. I don’t see the point of repressing, or pretending otherwise. The repressed always returns, nastier than it was, and more pervasive; the first step is to say it openly: I am in despair.

3.1 Like thousands of others, I fought hard for a Labour victory last week. I knocked on doors and talked to strangers, I talked Lib Dems down off the ledge, I got out the vote. In the end, we delivered the party’s worst electoral defeat since 1935. Corbynism was a movement based on joyful, emancipatory hope. It coalesced around the most fundamentally decent person to ever lead a British political party. It offered the possibility of something beautiful in an ugly world – and voters didn’t just reject it, they hated it.

3.2 Four years ago, Corbynism made a specific electoral promise. We argued that for decades the party had been chasing a small number of Labour-Tory swing voters by tacking steadily to the right, making things worse and alienating its core constituency in the process. But there was another way. By returning to an insurgent socialist platform, the party could reactivate the disillusioned working-class voters it had steadily haemorrhaged over the Blair years. Not only did this not happen, we managed to achieve the precise opposite effect. Former mining areas that had returned only Labour MPs for over a century are now in the hands of the Conservatives. The new Labour constituency is elsewhere. It’s the young, the urban, and the highly educated. It’s people like me, twats who have to reach for their Hesiod to explain why they feel upset. This is very bad.

3.3 The consolations on offer are – sorry – lacklustre. We might have been brutally rejected by the public, but look at all the new bonds of solidarity we’ve formed within our activist core. In other words, maybe the real socialism was the friends we made along the way.  Some people have attempted to redefine the problem away. Are young people automatically excluded from the working classes? No, but if you’re young, one of two things will happen, and they’re both awful: either you die, or you get old. The last century has seen one youth movement after another wait hungrily for the future, and then look on in shock and horror as everyone’s skin starts to droop. Youth is the only demographic with a 100% attrition rate, and the politics of youth are not sustainable. One of the reasons Momentum has managed to avoid the posturing, infighting, and embarrassment that plagues groups like the DSA is that its activist backbone is not made up of young people, but nice middle-aged mums from the Midlands. The other prong is to insist that the working classes are not all flat-cap wearers from the North, but are much blacker and browner and more metropolitan than people like to pretend. This is true (although one of the many virtues of our multiethnic working class is its blanket refusal to indulge in any of the soft-segregationist bourgeois racial neurosis that floods our liberal discourse). But it’s a sorry excuse; it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a critical mass of voters – however you want to define them – that Labour tried to reach, ought to have reached, and failed to reach.

4.1 I’m in despair. Everything I write here is written from despair, and should be read with that understanding. Don’t take me too seriously. But there’s one place to which even I won’t sink, which is to blame the voters. Weirdly, this is the gesture – the absolute blackest, most nihilistic, most obscenely despairing gesture – that’s been far too common from some of my comrades, the same ones who keep forbidding us to give up hope. This is the line you end up with when you repress despair, so forcefully that it has nowhere else to go except out your pores. Corbynism lost because it was simply too good for this world, because the British working classes were too racist, too thoughtless, too pigshit-ignorant and ugly and useless and vile to see all the good things we wanted to do for them. Brecht saw through this shit in 1953. If you want to know why we lost, start there: in a truly socialist movement, such a sentiment shouldn’t even be possible to articulate.

4.2 Some other explanations are equally untenable. You can blame the media and their broadly deranged campaign against the Labour leadership. Aside from London, one of the major surviving centres of Labour support is Liverpool. Why? Well, Scousers famously don’t read the Sun. The old press is dying, but it’s still not dying fast enough. You can blame the antisemitism scandal, which at this point we can all surely recognise for the smear campaign it was. The people peddling it are certainly aware of it. Days after Corbyn’s defeat, there was a raft of takes accusing Bernie Sanders – sorry, (((Bernie Sanders))) – of posing an existential threat to world Jewry. It should be impossible now for anyone to pretend, with a straight face, that these people were thinking anything other than ‘well, that line seemed to work in Britain, so let’s try it over here.’ You can blame the disloyalty of the party’s MPs and functionaries, who decided they’d rather sink the raft than allow it to veer to the left. But all this sounds too much like an excuse. We knew we’d face a hostile press, that they’d use every weapon in their arsenal, that they’d try to make Corbyn poisonous, that the right wing of the party would hatch its plots. We didn’t counter this effectively. The proper response to the antisemitism smears was not to endlessly decry the evils of antisemitism, it was outrage: ‘how dare you accuse me of this?’ This is the line Bernie’s staff are taking, but it wasn’t what Labour did. In the end, we didn’t have the guts.

4.3 When Labour lost in 2015, I wrote that it lost because it deserved to lose. I said much the same thing about Remain and Hillary Clinton in 2016. I can’t in good faith ignore the possibility that we, too, deserved to lose – even if we lost trying to do something good rather than something sordid. It wasn’t the media or the party’s right or even the Tories that beat us; leftism’s opposite isn’t rightism but despair. We lost to our own capacity for defeat. At the very least, we should give the winning side its due.

5.1 The explanation offered by the leadership is that Labour lost because of its stance on Brexit. In 2017, we ran promising a soft Brexit, and achieved the largest swing to Labour since 1945. (A lot of this came from young, educated people, which is not how it was supposed to go, but still.) This year, we won promising a second referendum, and we were crushed. The move to a more Remainy position was came after immense pressure from Guardian columnists and the kind of people who think it’s ‘cool’ to make a big sign that says ‘Fromage not Farage’: once again, Labour had to choose between bourgeois media liberals and its base, and once again it decided to take the base for granted. In the event, plenty of people who voted Remain were (like me) prepared to accept a Leave outcome, while people who voted Leave were fiercely intransigent, because – and it’s insane that this needs repeating – Leave actually won. But I’m still not sure if it’s true that ‘Brexit would have won.’ This isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom. The problem is the method. Watching Parliament pull out every trick to frustrate Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans earlier this year, I couldn’t help but feel a touch of dread: we’re going to be punished so hard for this. The problem is that Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to politics – and that of Corbynism more broadly – is predicated on a deep respect for the institutions of British representative democracy. Parliament is, after all, where he’s spent the last forty years. But there’s a gaping, unresolved contradiction. These institutions are the home of what Rancière calls la politique, politics, the squabbling over the apportioning of resources, as opposed to le politique, the political, the radical breaking-through of the demand for equality. It is utterly anathema to Beauty and Hope and The Possible. I don’t suffer from any insurrectionary fantasies here; we can’t do without electoralism – as a weapon in our arsenal, if nothing else. But it should be treated with extreme carefulness, and we were not careful. Watch – if you can bear it – footage of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2015 leadership hustings. It’s astonishing. He speaks honestly, passionately, and well. He speaks like a human being surrounded by flesh robots, which is exactly what he was. This was why he won, and why he deserved to win. But compare his performance in the debates against Boris Johnson. Now, he’s evading questions and regurgitating lines. He’s not facing down the monster, he’s in its mouth, speaking its words. He’s had to make compromises and espouse things he doesn’t really believe. He’s become a politician. Politics is an ophiocordyceps. It gets into your brain and makes you climb up to the highest leaf on the tree, so it can push mushrooms out of your head.

5.2 The failure of Corbynism was a failure on the level of theory. It’s important to contextualise the decline of the Labour party. This wasn’t an isolated incident; the traditional centre-left is dying across Europe and across the world. Social-democratic politics are (mostly) a mass politics, and the last forty years have conspired to shatter all masses. Neoliberalism and deindustrialisation and the assault on the unions have disrupted collective subjects and collective solidarity – but new technologies do the same thing. Marxism was the ideological expression of the printed word, and we’re all illiterates now. How was it that so many voters in former mining communities could go for the Tories? It helps that many of these voters are no longer in former mining communities; they’re on their phones. Intergenerational links have dissolved. The work that’s replaced the coal mines – and the work that dominates among the ‘new’ urban working classes – is service-oriented, instilling brutal competition between workers for diminishing resources. It’s customer-facing, which, more often than not means, facing not a person but a screen. We are deracinated, individuated, torn free and sent spinning into the stream of digital images and synthetic affects. Digital communications are a weapon; they are to the class war what the nuclear bomb was to war between nations. And the ‘new left media’ are not a solution to this problem, but another symptom, breaking up masses into consumer groups ruled by the aegis of a single media principle. Adorno and Horkheimer predicted this: ‘The ruthless unity of the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification.’ The gambit made by Corbynism was to re-engage the traditional working classes through a platform that could open a space for mass politics – the Green Industrial Revolution, the expansion of free time, the fostering of solidarity. But this was also its failure. These proposals existed only as hopes and possibilities; Labour was speaking to the ghost of a collective subject. People liked these policies, but the social infrastructure for their realisation simply wasn’t there. For the strategy to have been effective, the collective subject would have had to already have been constituted. But the work of constituting it has not been done; it can only take place outside the forms of platforms and manifestos: within politics, and not the political.

5.3 I don’t know if this task can even be achieved. The left has a tendency to lapse into a kind of vulgar Kantianism here. Du kannst, denn du sollst: it’s necessary, therefore it must be possible. All we need is enough hope. What if it isn’t? Gramsci attacks ‘the sweet illusion that events could only follow a certain sequence, as we predicted, in which they would inevitably run into the dikes and channels that we constructed’ – but what if the dikes and channels are all working exactly as intended, and they were built by our enemies? We have to win, or it’ll be a disaster – but disaster is already triumphant. The crises of neoliberalism haven’t done much to dull its effects; if anything, they’re strengthened. They’re in our communicative media; they’re in the air we breathe. I thought the financial crash of 2008 would lead to a revitalised left, but the oppositional movements that followed were scattered and useless, reduplicating the worst aspects of neoliberalism under the banner of resistance. I thought the collapse of liberalism in 2016 would leave us poised to inherit the earth, but it’s produced a reactionary paradise in which we struggle to gain a foothold. I’m not convinced that more desperate optimism and voluntarism can help us here, if it means anything more than just headbutting the problem until your skull cracks. So: what’s out there, far away, in the bright worlds beyond hope? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out. All I know is that despair is only the first step, and the path will not be a circle. We’re standing where the land ends, on a bright and frenzied beach. We tremble on its edge. Time to charge into the sea.

For the many

tomorrow

I have done a weird and ugly thing. I have knocked on the front doors of complete strangers, and when they opened them, I stood in front of these poor innocent people and had the gall to ask them to please consider voting for Labour on Thursday. This is not entirely comfortable for me. For one thing, it means spending a fair amount of time around lots of young, smart, energised, politically active people, who are utterly terrifying. But it also involves telling people what to think and what to do, which is something I’ve become deeply allergic to. It’s presumptive, and a little pathetic. When you’re out canvassing, you’re not so different from the Jehovah’s Witnesses on their corners, doling out weak grins and the end of the world. You’re not a million miles away from the Americans who’ve somehow been taught that when they fly back into the heartland for Thanksgiving, they have a moral duty to accuse every single member of the family that raised them of being racists before the gravy sets. Trying to persuade people of things is a filthy activity, and in our liberated future it will be replaced with poetry and lies. But I did it, and now I’m sitting in front of a screen and doing it again.

Some things are higher than principle.

Please, please consider voting for Labour on Thursday.

1.

sabbath

It’s not enough to just point out how bad and cruel all the other options are. Yes, sure, Boris Johnson is the Poison Prime Minister, a man who’s toxic in the most literal sense of the word: it’s not safe for normal people to stand too near to him for too long. Members of the public who asked him uncomfortable questions during the BBC’s Conservative leadership debate lost their jobs. His neighbours, who couldn’t help but overhear a violent row coming from his home, were exposed to the media and forced to flee under a barrage of death threats. A man whose seven-day-old daughter had the temerity to be treated for a critical illness at the same hospital Johnson chose for a photo-op – you don’t need me to tell you what happened next. Strip his skin. Find out what he’s hiding. Johnson keeps on stumbling, but it’s always other people who get hurt. Dangling on a zipline. Falling into a lake. Trying to cheat emissions tests by gluing pollution to the street, and failing. Betraying a British national trapped in Iranian jail. A border across the Irish Sea. Lies after lies after lies after lies after lies. Defeat in every single meaningful Parliamentary vote. ‘Negroid.’ ‘Picaninnies.’ ‘Bumboys.’ ‘Letterboxes.’ ‘If that is racial prejudice, then I am guilty.’ All he knows how to do is rugby-tackle every ten-year-old who stands in his way – and when he’s done, the grass on the pitch frizzles and dies.

And yes, the other parties aren’t much better. The Liberal Democrats aren’t even a political party; they’re a gas, expanding to fill any unoccupied political space. Whatever principles they claim to have, the only thing that really motivates the Lib Dems is the fact that they’re the third party, and they’d like to be the second. If the two main parties seem to agree on something, they’ll take the opposite position, but they can never be trusted to hold it. In 2003, they opposed the Iraq War; in 2011 they were enthusiastically bombing Libya. In 2010, they wanted to abolish student fees; later the same year, they were imposing them. Right now, they’re in a frenzy of Remainery – they’re promising to unilaterally revoke Article 50 – but you cannot trust a word these desperate grasping weirdos say. They’ve already suggested that they could make a deal with the Tories again. All they know how to do is manoeuvre and betray. Don’t vote for them. Don’t even look into their eyes. And as for the nationalist parties, they’re much the same. The SNP denounce austerity in Westminster while implementing it from Holyrood. Independence for Scotland or Wales isn’t a solution to our social or political problems, it just means reframing them on a smaller, potentially nastier scale. And while the Greens probably mean well, their manifesto is still less ambitious than Labour’s – even on the environment, their flagship issue.

It’s not enough to simply point out how bad the other parties are, because people already know they’re bad, and still don’t feel comfortable voting for Labour. A lot of people are deeply unenthused by all the options available, the whole joyless puppet-show of politics in general, and the whole joyless puppet-show of this election in particular. And if I want to convince people to vote for Labour – which, against all my better instincts, I do – it’s not enough to fall back on my usual strategy of waffling vaguely about Hope and Heterogeneity and the Dialectic, assuming that everyone who reads me is already onside. You might not be. You might be concerned over the credibility of Labour’s proposals, left cold by its position on Brexit, or put off by the scandals over antisemitism. And I can sympathise.

I’m not going to tell anyone to ignore their qualms, hold their noses, and vote for Labour anyway. I don’t want to threaten anyone with the prospect of a Tory majority, because any movement that needs to resort to threats doesn’t deserve to win. Voting for the lesser evil is a grubby, cynical business, and I’ve tried to avoid it as much as possible myself. (For half a decade I usually spoiled every ballot that fell into my hands.) I’m asking you to vote for Labour because it’s the greater good.

2.

To start with, here are two charts. They show opinion polls in the lead-up to 2017’s general election, and the one that’s approaching now.

election2017election2019

In both cases, something strange happens: Labour seems to be skimming along a fairly historic low – but as soon as an election’s called, support for the party starts to skyrocket. What’s going on? Maybe the prospect of an election starts to focus people’s priorities: they start to think less about sending a message and more about who they actually want in power. (Polling for smaller parties like the Lib Dems or Ukip tends to fall at the same time.) Maybe the party performs better when it’s on an active campaign footing, rather than bogged down in Parliamentary debate.

But there’s another factor which might explain things. When a general election is called, broadcasters are subject to much stricter rules on impartiality. It’s harder for them to simply ignore or dismiss Labour’s proposals: they have to take them seriously as a prospect, and at least gesture towards what it would be like if these proposals were actually put into action. I’m not about to start whingeing about media bias, because if you want to radically transform a country for the better you should expect media bias. But it turns out that as soon as a gap opens up in that opposition, and people get to hear what Labour actually wants to do, they quite like it. It becomes much, much harder to conceal the fact that if Labour formed the next government, things would be much, much better.

This is all I’m asking from you at the moment: just to take Labour seriously. To consider its manifesto in the most obvious terms: what kind of a country would this be, if all this actually happened? If we built more good homes for people to actually live in, instead of filling our cities with luxury speculative assets? If the balance of power shifted a little more towards ordinary workers, and away from the people who exploit them? If we lived up to the founding spirit of the NHS – that it’s the responsibility of any humane society to defend the right to life of everyone within it, whoever they are? If ordinary people were no longer disempowered, but had the resources they need to take control over their own lives?

3.

avarice

There’s a common response to all this: it sounds very nice, but it’s just not realistic. What Labour’s offering is only a bribe to the electorate; they dangle a functioning hospital, or a well-funded school, or a life worth cherishing, or some other shiny bauble in front of our faces – but there’s no chance we’ll ever actually get it, not in this economy.

Take, for instance, the party’s proposal to fight the climate crisis by planting two billion trees by 2040. This is, apparently, so ridiculous that a BBC presenter laughed in John McDonnell’s face when he suggested it. As some have pointed out, planting two billion trees in twenty years means one hundred million every year, or two million every week, or two hundred trees every minute, 24 hours a day. Which is actually completely doable. Firstly, because planting a tree is actually not very hard. It involves putting a seed in the ground, a procedure so simple animals have managed to do it entirely by accident, without any large-scale government intervention, for billions of years. Secondly, because it’s not just one person planting all the trees.

In the UK, we produce nearly sixty billion pieces of plastic packaging every year. The scale and ambition of this exercise is vast. You have to drill deep underground for oil, refine it, collect the ethylene, polymerise it, form it into beads, extrude the beads into a film, form the film into a bag, and disperse the bags through a planet-sized consumer network – five thousand times every minute, fifty million times a week. All this to create something whose main purpose is to end up clogging a gutter or getting slimy in a canal. If this system didn’t already exist, would you want it? Would you consider it reasonable or practical to set it up?

Planting trees is far simpler. In a single day, volunteers in India planted fifty million; the government of Ethiopia claims to have planted three hundred and fifty million in a single day earlier this year. Our world is very large, and the realm of the possible is bigger than we might have imagined. It’s the other proposal – the idea that we can just do nothing, let our forests fall to fire and loggers as the earth becomes slowly uninhabitable – that’s unsustainable and unrealistic. Labour’s tree-planting programme is ambitious, but we need to totally decarbonise our economy within twenty years, just to limit the scale of the disaster. Ambition is the only thing that can save us. But it’s always confronted by this instant knee-jerk dismissal: actually workable proposals are rejected in the name of pragmatism and common sense, even when what’s held up as common sense is entirely wrong.

You can see the same thing in the response to Labour’s plan to nationalise the country’s broadband network. In fact, this makes perfect sense. Whether you like it or not (and, to be completely clear, I don’t like it; I think every single computer should be turned off at once and thrown into the sea to create artificial reefs where octopuses can thrive), broadband is a utility, and like every utility, there’s only one network. Openreach, a subsidiary of BT, has a monopoly on building and maintaining the physical infrastructure that connects you to the internet. Broadband providers then compete to charge you money to access this network, offering you different packaging for the same product. This system is insane, but it’s also everywhere.

We find the American for-profit healthcare system cruel and ridiculous, with its dozens of firms competing for vastly overpriced services – but we’re suffering from exactly the same thing in every corner of our economy. We have one national electricity grid, built and maintained by the state, but dozens of firms trying to sell access to it. We have one rail network, built and maintained by the state, but private firms are allowed to slap their logos on the trains and extract a profit from them. It doesn’t need to be like this; until relatively recently, it wasn’t. The situation we’re facing is one that was deliberately built by private interests to serve their own ends. It can be different, and we have the democratic power to make it different. If you could design a system from scratch, would it really look like this?

4.

The other great common-sense objection to Labour’s proposals is this: but how are you going to pay for it? There’s a simple answer, which is in the ‘grey book’ accompanying the manifesto: by closing tax loopholes, raising corporation tax, and increasing taxes on the top 5% of earners. But it’s worth thinking about what this question actually means. Like the objections to tree-planting or nationalising our utilities, it dismisses Labour’s policies on the basis of pragmatism – but it assumes an understanding of the economy that isn’t just false, but downright weird.

For decades now, we’ve been encouraged to think of the national economy as being a bit like a household budget. If you’re in debt as a private citizen, your first priority should be to get out of it. If you spend money as a private citizen, the money goes away forever. The most important thing is to always make sure that you’re earning more than you spend. But as soon as you start thinking about it, this analogy starts to make less and less sense. It’s a lie. For one, very few people use money with their own face on all the banknotes.

Labour’s spending proposals are significant. They want to entirely reverse the last decade of Tory and Lib Dem cuts to local government services. They want to reverse cuts to disability benefits, end the bedroom tax, and reintroduce free school meals for all. They want to launch a National Transformation Fund worth £400 billion. They want a National Investment Bank to lend £250 billion for infrastructure and productive enterprises. They want to build 150,000 new council homes a year. But when the state spends this money, it doesn’t vanish; it circulates. Spending money on construction, infrastructure, a Green Industrial Revolution, and social services means more jobs, and more money which more people can then go on to spend. These billions in investment just means that the money in the economy is circulating faster – and it’s this speed, not the amount going into and out of the budget, that determines the health of a capitalist economy.

When the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took power in 2010, their policy was to address the financial crisis by massively cutting government spending. This was a fiscal decision with devastating human consequences. 135,000 children will be homeless this Christmas. One in fifty households had to rely on food banks in the last year. Over a hundred thousand people have died needlessly as a result of these policies. For comparison, around 400,000 people have died in the civil war in Syria. The UK has experienced over a quarter of the world’s deadliest conflict, quietly, in our streets and behind our doors. And this was all for nothing. It didn’t work.

Despite years of hectoring about how we need to tighten our collective purse-strings, austerity did absolutely nothing to reduce the ratio of national debt to GDP – not least, because it actively shrunk our GDP. (Not that this would even be a particularly good thing. Paying off the national debt is not like paying off household debt; a good supply of government debt is actually necessary to keep the economy running. When government spending contracts, private credit usually steps in, and private debt rises; there’s been a consistent negative correlation between the two. In other words, either the government is in debt, or you are.) Instead, it meant that millions of people had less money to spend on goods and services, and the entire economy suffered.

The ten years since the 2008 crash have seen the feeblest economic recovery since records began. Tories like to point to the increase in employment, but these new jobs are not good jobs. Two-thirds of these new jobs are in ‘atypical work’ – zero-hours contracts, self-employment, or agency work; work that’s precarious and underpaid, the kind of work you get when companies are allowed to treat their workers however they like. (And while this hasn’t been at the expense of British workers, it’s worth noting that two-thirds of these jobs have also gone to migrant labourers, who are typically more vulnerable to exploitation.) Wages are stagnating, productivity is among the lowest in Europe, and we’re on the brink of another financial crisis.

productivity
The UK’s productivity crisis. Since the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took over, we’ve been working hard – but it hasn’t been getting us anywhere.

All of this is entirely attributable to this absurd, utopian project to fix the economy by making everyone poorer. And despite its failure, some parties are still wrapped up in this mad ideology. The Liberal Democrats have announced that they want the government to run a permanent surplus – in other words, they want to tax you, and then do nothing at all with the money you give them. How are we expected to pay for that?

For decades now, British fiscal policy has been dominated by cruelty masquerading as competence. The most absurd and economically illiterate ideas could become common sense, as long as they only hurt the most disadvantaged (tough decisions! more sadly necessary sacrifices for the unseen gods!) instead of trying to improve things. But finally, the shine is coming off. After promising the end of austerity for longer than I can remember, the Tories are finally proposing some increases in spending. There’s an admission that the policies of the last decade simply haven’t worked. But it’s simply not enough: Conservative proposals would maintain the legacy of Tory and Lib Dem austerity. Even if they were all put into practice, government spending would still be 15% lower than it was in 2010. Only Labour is willing to not only stop heading in the wrong direction, but to turn around and finally address some of the problems in our economy at their root.

Full disclosure: I am still basically some sort of Marxist (the Still-Basically-Some-Sort-Of-Marxists being an ancient and august political sect, established only a few years after Marxism itself, and named after the slightly whiny noise we all make when asked to actually pin down our political commitments). As such, the health and good functioning of capitalism is not a massive priority for me. But it is a priority for David G Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College and a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. He’s one of 168 economists who’ve openly backed Labour’s manifesto. ‘The Labour Party,’ they write, ‘has not only understood the deep problems we face, but has devised serious proposals for dealing with them.’ And if these proposals seem extravagant, it’s only because the problems we face are extravagantly dire.

5.

lbn

But it’s possible you’re aware of this already. Labour’s policies are popular: 64% of the population support introducing a 50p tax band for earnings over £123,000. 56% support renationalising the railways. 54% support dedicating one third of seats on company boards to workers. And yet despite this, Labour is not polling at 54%. Why? Here’s a pull quote from a New Statesman editorial. ‘The essential judgement that must be made is on Mr Corbyn himself. His reluctance to apologise for the antisemitism in Labour and to take a stance on Brexit, the biggest issue facing the country, make him unfit to be prime minister.’

This is silly stuff, but there’s no point pretending it hasn’t had an effect. Corbynism as a movement has far more to do with the millions of people it’s empowered and united than the one person it’s named for – but it makes sense that the attempts to derail that movement have focused on the personal qualities of Jeremy Corbyn himself. And these attacks don’t often make a lot of sense. It’s strange to see outlets that once accused Corbyn of being a purity-cult extremist now attack him for trying too hard to keep both sides happy on Brexit. It’s almost impressive that the same press that once attacked Ed Miliband as a (((north London geek))) whose father was (((disloyal to Britain))) now has the gall to try to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of antisemitism. But four years of this slime-throwing has had an effect. There’s a chunk of the electorate that might agree with everything Corbyn wants to do, but is still wary of actually giving a Labour government the chance to do it. I’ve spoken to some of these people. It might be you.

So let’s talk about Brexit. Let’s talk about antisemitism. Let’s talk about Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour’s Brexit policy is not particularly complicated. The party will drop Boris Johnson’s catastrophic exit agreement, negotiate a new deal that protects British workers instead of betraying them, and then put it to a public vote. It’s true that it’s taken the party a while to arrive at this position. But the principles underlying it – that Brexit gives us the opportunity to change our country for the better, but only if the Tories aren’t allowed to turn it into a power-grab for private interests – haven’t changed since the referendum result was announced.

Corbyn’s Brexit policy is based on something the other parties would rather ignore: the fact that whatever happens in the end, Leavers and Remainers will all still have to live together in the same country (and sometimes in the same families) afterwards. The fringes of both sides of this debate don’t want to live with their opposite numbers; they want to see them crushed and humiliated. They want to set one half of this country at war with the other. Boris Johnson has purged the Tories into a Brexit-themed suicide cult, while the Lib Dems are campaigning on the bizarre idea that Brexit can be cancelled unilaterally, against the wishes of a majority of the country’s population. Trying to heal over this divide is extremely difficult, but everything about Brexit is extremely difficult. Any Brexit plan will have to reconcile a lot of nearly impossible contradictions: exiting the EU without imposing a border with Ireland, preventing a catastrophe without ignoring the result of the referendum, or even remaining within the EU without making millions of Leave voters rightfully very angry. This is why every single proposal has failed to pass unamended through Parliament. There is not a simple fix. This is hard.

I can understand the frustrations of people who just want Brexit finished, without another round of tedious negotiations, and without another referendum. But when we voted to leave the EU, all we voted for was a ‘no,’ an exit, the absence of something. Leave, yes – but leave where? We weren’t allowed to have any say on what should actually fill that gap.

The deal that Boris Johnson is proposing is a catastrophically bad one. It would split up the UK by introducing a customs border across the Irish Sea. It would leave our NHS at the mercy of the predatory American for-profit healthcare industry. It would leave the country £70 billion poorer within a decade.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit wasn’t on any ballot papers. Nobody voted for it. It’s the kind of Brexit he’d like – and this is why a second referendum is necessary – it’s the people, not politicians, who should decide what Brexit actually looks like.

The Conservatives’ plan for a post-Brexit Britain is a ‘Singapore-on-Thames‘ – a giant tax haven dominated by the financial sector. Singapore has a population of under six million. The population of the UK is more than ten times that, and it’s simply not possible to sustain a country our size on the tax-avoidance industry. More important than the ‘Singapore’ might be the ‘on-Thames.’ This is a plan that would work for London, and only London. The rest of the country – and, in particular, the regions that actually voted for Brexit – would be left to poverty and decline.

But this isn’t the only Brexit available. The Tories want to throw away what’s good about the EU and keep some of its worst aspects – its lack of democratic accountability, its forced sell-off of public goods, its partisanship on the side of capital. Labour will do precisely the opposite. The EU limits our ability to nationalise utilities, and prevents us from intervening in the economy to protect British industries and secure jobs. Leaving means we have the chance to radically reshape our economy for the better – but only if we set off in the right direction.

At the same time, I voted Remain in 2016, and I genuinely don’t yet know how I’d vote in another referendum. I have friends and family members who are strong Remainers – who’ve seen the absolute chaos that’s surrounded the Tory Brexit negotiations, and just want to throw the whole thing out and return to a more stable status quo. But where I think they go wrong is in assuming that Brexit can simply be cancelled by fiat, against the stated wishes of a (slim) majority of the British population. If you think we should remain in the EU, the only practical way to make that happen is to make that case to the public, which the campaign in 2016 catastrophically failed to do. You have to understand why we voted for Brexit three years ago – not just because we were duped, but because the situation was intolerable for millions of people, and they were desperate for some kind of change.

The only way we can undo the damage done by Cameron, May, and Johnson is by democratic means, which would require bringing the people who voted to leave in 2016 onboard, not riding roughshod over them.

Labour is the only party that can hope to achieve this. The Liberal Democrats’ call to cancel Brexit outright isn’t a serious policy; it’s an act of political warfare. It’s designed to appeal to one side in Brexit partisanship, and infuriate the other. But this is not the real division in British society. The real division isn’t between Leave and Remain, but between those who have money and power, and those who don’t. And the Lib Dems know this. It can’t be repeated enough: if they get the opportunity, they will prop up a Tory government again. The Brexit division has already been smoothed over for the political classes; Leavers and Remainers are already on the same side. They just want to exacerbate it for the rest of us. Is this what the New Statesman means when they talk about leadership on Brexit?

6.

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As for the antisemitism furore, I’ve written about it previously – quite a lot, actually, because it seems to have been designed with the sole purpose of driving me insane.

Credentials time: I am a Jew. I am absurdly, unnecessarily Jewish. I was born in Israel. I had my barmitzvah at New North London Synagogue in Finchley. I went on yearly Jewish summer camps in the Peak District and Anglesey, until I somehow ended up running them. I live within the constant dislocation of being among Europe’s integral others. I sometimes find myself humming the aleinu in the shower. I’m deeply familiar with the works of Sigmund Freud, riddled with sexual neuroses, and I make a very good shakshuka. There is no institutional antisemitism in the Labour party.

What the Labour party does have is a lot of very earnest people who won’t stop talking about Palestine, even when it’s not particularly politic to do so. This is not actually particularly hard to explain. One of the favourite activities of the political left is to get ceaselessly angry about terrible things that are happening far away. When Britain and America invade other countries, topple their governments, and leave them in chaos, they get angry about that. This is met with some grumbling, but mostly just vague condescension. When Saudi Arabia promotes a murderous ideology throughout the Islamic world and starves children to death in Yemen, the left gets angry about that too. Less grumbling, a little more head-patting. Yes, it’s awful, but what can we do? When the government in China detains millions of Uighurs in an attempt to wipe out their cultural traditions, the left gets angry again. This time, some mild applause. But when Israel denies civil rights to nearly five million Palestinians, kills them at will, and subjects them to a discriminatory justice system that bears all the hallmarks of apartheid, and the left engages in its usual routine, something very different happens. Suddenly, it’s all very fraught. Suddenly, we have to walk on eggshells, in case we offend people’s sensibilities by pointing out that an extremely bad thing is, in fact, bad. There are reasons for this; we Jews have not always had such a happy time in this country. But because leftists are a broadly pugnacious and argumentative bunch, we tend to respond predictably to this sudden horror. Aha! This is the one we’re not supposed to talk about! In that case, let’s talk about it all the time.

I won’t pretend that this frustration doesn’t lead a few isolated people down into some slightly unpleasant tunnels of thought. But this is, in fact, rare: Labour supporters are less likely to endorse antisemitic statements than the general population. And antisemitism is simply not like other forms of racism in this country. No Jewish person faces diminished prospects simply because they are Jewish. We’re not more likely to be arrested, or murdered, or in poverty. We are not oppressed. Prejudice against Jews doesn’t express itself in a lower life expectancy, in callous immigration policies, or in violent policing – it’s discursive. For even the most panicky of the antisemitism obsessives, the biggest manifestation of antisemitism in this country is the fact that a lot of people don’t approve of a foreign country on another continent. People would kill to have problems like these.

As far as I can tell, absolutely nobody is seriously suggesting that a Labour government would pose any danger whatsoever to the life or security of British Jews. (Some of us might have to pay higher taxes, but that’s about it.) And the ‘institutional antisemitism’ line becomes much harder to swallow when you consider that the higher flights of Corbynism are practically a minyan. Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum, is Jewish. James Schneider, Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, is Jewish. The journalist Rachel Shabi is Jewish – and, like me, was born in Israel. The author and poet Michael Rosen is Jewish. In this week’s Jewish News, Labour’s candidate in Finchley and Golders Green (aka the cream cheese in the Bagel Belt), Ross Houston – himself hardly an ardent Corbynite – admitted that ‘our left-wing Jewish members are in fact very pro-Corbyn. What does come up a lot is Brexit and school cuts.’ There’s a possibility that both antisemites and hysterics don’t want to consider. What if, in the end, Jews are basically just like everyone else?

WoodGreen
The Battle of Wood Green. In 1977, twelve hundred fascists and antisemites attempted a march through heavily Jewish-populated areas of London. Among those organising the community’s self-defence was a young local councillor, Jeremy Corbyn. In 2015, months before becoming Labour leader, Corbyn similarly helped organise efforts to prevent antisemites marching in Golders Green.

Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have once suggested accusing an election opponent of having sex with pigs. His aides told him that was absurd. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘but let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.’ This has clearly given his British namesake some ideas. It’s utterly absurd that Jeremy Corbyn now has to repeat the same condemnation of antisemitism at every debate and in every interview, often while an actual racist is standing right next to him. Can you imagine the furore if Corbyn had made disparaging comments about the kippah or tzitzit? If he’d written a novel in which a heroic backbench MP defeats a villainous Jewish conspiracy? This isn’t a double standard; it’s a smear campaign. And the people pushing it don’t care even remotely about Jews. They’re perfectly willing to laud far-right and antisemitic figures in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey – so long as their racism towards Jews doesn’t extend to Israel. Only last weekend, the Sun published an absurd conspiratorial map of the ‘hard-left network’ that’s apparently taken over the Labour party. Its sources include a group called Aryan Unity. The article has since been taken offline. No explanation. And, of course, no apology.

I shouldn’t be saying this: it’s considered unacceptable to compare the phantom of antisemitism in Labour with the full-throated racism in other parties. For the left, at least; not for the right. In a stunningly strange opinion piece in the Times, Philip Collins – who is, of course, not a Jew – advanced the argument that ‘Labour’s racism is worse than the Tory kind.’ This is, apparently, because ‘the racism that exists in the Tory ranks is generational and casual’ and ‘incidental to their world view.’ Tory racists just happen to not like people of other ethnicities; they don’t want them in their neighbourhoods, in their government, or among their population. Labour supporters, meanwhile, ‘hold as a central belief that Israel is the creation of imperial ambition. They believe that the capitalist powers are upholding an illegitimate state and sponsoring the oppression of Arab peoples in the region.’ Apparently, this is worse, but Collins manages to avoid saying why. It’s always nice when your opponents make your own case for you. Tory racism is racism: a prejudice against black and Muslim people that helps to create negative outcomes for them. What’s happening in the Labour party isn’t directed against Jewish people at all; it’s a broadly correct analysis of international relations, explicitly formulated, and delivered with moral urgency.

Black and Muslim people in Britain aren’t frightened of a Conservative victory, in the way that I’m apparently supposed to be frightened of Corbyn. Tory racism isn’t a discursive puppet dangled in front of their faces – it’s what many of them have to live with, every single day. They don’t have to invent patently absurd misreadings – they’re already living under a Prime Minister who has explicitly disparaged them in racist language. The best tool we have for stamping out the racial inequalities that actually exist in this country is a Labour government. And thousands of Jews like myself know this too.

7.

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Finally, there’s Jeremy Corbyn himself. Corbyn’s supporters have a habit of extolling the man’s personal virtues – his kindness, his decency, his good humour, how wonderful it is that he finds time to potter about on his allotment. I’m not going to do this. The point of good politics are to make a person’s personal charms or vices basically irrelevant. In the UK, we don’t directly vote for a Prime Minister; we vote for a party and their manifesto. And Labour’s manifesto, which offers the kind of radical and necessary change we desperately need, could never have been written without Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

I’ve never met Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t know what he’s like. I do know what he’s done.

What he’s done is utterly transform the way frontline politics works in this country. What he’s done is slough off an immense quantity of the bullshit that surrounds our political discourse. Just one example. Previous Labour politicians hemmed and hawed about maybe cutting housing benefit along with a bevy of crucial social programmes. In his 2016 conference speech, Corbyn said something everyone knew, but which had been bizarrely unsayable: housing benefit isn’t helping anyone, it’s an enormous subsidy to our landlordism industry – one of Britain’s largest sectors, and its least productive. ‘We’re paying over £9 billion a year to private landlords in housing benefit. Instead of spending public money on building council housing, we’re subsidising private landlords. That’s wasteful, inefficient, and poor government.’ It’s true. So why couldn’t anyone say it before?

Take another example. Saudi Arabia crucifies and beheads its dissidents, and wages a genocidal war in Yemen, and our politicians have engaged in a long policy of appeasement – to the extent that British personnel are sent to actively keep their war going. Jeremy Corbyn has consistently said that he’ll ban all arms sales to the country. Sure, the Lib Dems are now saying the same thing – but their leader also approved £8.6 billion in weapons sales to the Saudis. It’s only in the space that Corbyn opened up that other parties can make these kind of progressive noises – and only Corbyn can be trusted to follow through on them.

This is because Corbyn isn’t guided by political calculation, but by principle. This has become something of a cliché, but it’s true – he has spent his entire political career fighting for the same humane values. Democratic socialism: dignity for the working classes, an end to wars and aggression abroad, an end to the mutilation of our natural environment. While other politicians swoop and swerve according to opinion polls and the texture of his discourse, Corbyn has always stuck to his guns. I can’t think of a record that would better qualify someone to be Prime Minister.

I grew up during the Blair years. I spent most of my adult life living under a Tory government. And this experience taught me that it was impossible for our political system to do anything but steadily make things worse. Millions of people have had the same experience. My politics oscillated between dumb edgy insurrectionism and nihilism, which didn’t achieve anything either, but were at least a bit more fun. Jeremy Corbyn changed that too. It’s inconceivable that I would have ended up stomping through a downpour to talk to strangers about voting Labour if he hadn’t won the leadership. Because what he offers is something genuinely different from the callousness and brutality of British politics.

It can be done. We can build a society worth living in.

Vote Labour.

 

The war against the Jews

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The Jewish community in the UK is under attack.

87% of British Jews believe an anti-Semite might be about to take power. Nearly half are considering fleeing the country if Labour wins the next election. These fears don’t come out of nowhere. Someone has done this to these people – to my people – and they should not be allowed to get away with it. Someone has convinced thousands of people who are not in any danger whatsoever that they are in danger. Someone has told them that a political party whose supporters are less antisemitic than the general population is a font of racism. What’s the human cost of something like this? How much suffering have they inflicted, in raised blood pressure, in lost sleep, in indigestion, heart attacks, insanity? How many Jews have died early because of this nonsense? How many families are mourning? How much Jewish suffering are they willing to inflict to get what they want?

Even Jews who don’t get swept up in this campaign of fear and intimidation are victimised. Even me. Yesterday, the Jewish Chronicle published a scoop on a Labour parliamentary candidate’s ‘blatant antisemitism.’ She’d compared the state of Israel to an abused child who grows up to be an abusive adult. Inaccurate, yes. (Early Israeli leaders tended to have not been Holocaust survivors. Ben-Gurion, for instance, didn’t have much time for the victims of the Nazi genocide. They were weak and traumatised. He wanted completely new Jews, strong Jews, the kind of Jews who could commit atrocities.) Tactless, maybe. Rote and pat and cliché, which is worse, sure. But antisemitic? Really? On Newsnight, Emma Barnett confronted a Labour representative with the claim that this was an ‘old antisemitic trope.’ Which trope? How old? When did half this country descend into an alternate reality in which the word ‘antisemitism’ has lost all differential meaning? The more I think about it, the crazier I feel. The radio and the newspapers and the TV keep talking about the fibres growing through everyone’s skin, and as much as I keep on scratching the fibres are simply not there. Of course you’d say that, people tell me, you’re part of the problem, you’re in league with the fibres. And then my blood pressure rises, and the hair thins out around my temples, and I realise that one day soon I’m going to die.

Every new microscandal in the Labour antisemitism furore has been like this, every single one, for four pointless years; either exaggerated or contrived or inconsequential. In the very first broadside, back in 2016, it was revealed that the Labour MP Naz Shah had once shared a joke image on Facebook calling for Israel to be relocated to the United States. For this, her parliamentary colleagues compared her to Eichmann. The image had originated with Professor Norman Finkelstein, who is (of course) a Jew and the child of Holocaust survivors. No matter. Let’s try again. The next furore involved Oxford University Labour Club, where it was alleged that left-wing members had encouraged a hate campaign against Jewish students, following them around campus and shouting ‘dirty Zionist.’ If true, this would have been reprehensible – but it wasn’t true. Someone lied. An investigation found that nothing of the sort had ever occurred. No matter. On to the next one.

At the launch of the Chakrabarti inquiry, the veteran anti-racist campaigner Marc Wadsworth – who helped found the campaign for justice for Stephen Lawrence – witnessed a Daily Telegraph journalist handing one of his press releases to the Labour MP Ruth Smeeth. He commented that right-wing politicians and the right-wing press were working ‘hand in hand,’ which they were. Somehow, this turned into ‘hand in glove.’ Suddenly, he was insinuating that Jews control the media. Drivel, but he was still expelled from the party. Wandsworth claims that he wasn’t even aware that Smeeth was Jewish, and I believe him. Minor MPs tend to believe very strongly in their own importance, but there are hundreds of them, and outside of their constituencies most people – veteran campaigners included – don’t have a clue who they are. No matter. On to the next one. In 2017, a fringe event at the Labour party conference featured a speaker who was reported as having said that ‘this is about free speech, the freedom to criticise and to discuss every issue, whether it’s the Holocaust: yes or no, Palestine, the liberation, the whole spectrum.’ Shadow ministers lined up to denounce this terrible antisemitism. Does it matter that the speaker was one Miko Peled, an Israeli Jew and IDF Special Forces veteran, and the grandson of a signatory to Israel’s declaration of independence? Of course not. On to the next, and the next, and the next.

Of course, the Labour Party’s response to all this has been deeply inadequate. The poor sweet rubes didn’t understand what was happening to them until it was too late. Look at how the Tories are reacting to their own scandals over Islamophobia: they barely even bother to deny it, they just change the subject. This is because many Tories genuinely are racists, and they’re also cynics, and good at what they do. Labour is committed to anti-racism, so if someone accuses the party of harbouring racists, the accusation genuinely stings. Oh god, what if it’s true? We need to find out immediately. We need to send a strong and clear message that racism isn’t welcome here. By the time they’ve figured out the trick, it’s all over. They’ve already admitted that there’s a problem. They’ve already committed themselves to endless war against their own membership, and if they decide to slow down once the realisation sinks in, it’s just proof that the rot goes all the way to the top.

This trick is easy to perform. Say you wanted to wreck the activities of the Royal Horticultural Society – it doesn’t matter why: maybe they spurned your petunias, maybe you missed out on a Lindley Medal, maybe you just hate gardening. Start by saying that there are troubling incidents of anti-Japanese racism within the RHS. After all, aren’t they trying to eradicate Japanese knotweed? Aren’t there a few members who will sometimes grumble that raking pebbles around isn’t ‘real gardening’? Maybe you’ll have to fabricate a few incidents, but the RHS has nearly half a million members; some of them must have said something unpleasant about the Japanese at some point in the past. Of course, the RHS will try to defend themselves, but you’re one step ahead of them. Anti-Japanese prejudice clearly exists, you say, and therefore denying that there’s any problem is part of the problem. Now the gardeners have to pick up their pitchforks and start rooting around for racists, and they keep finding nothing of any significance – which just proves how bad the problem really is. If their leadership keeps ignoring the issue, maybe we need a new leadership. And meanwhile, green-fingered Japanese are getting – justifiably – very worried. What will happen to them if they turn up at the Chelsea Garden Show this year? Are they safe among their own plants? (It’s true; fellow gardeners have started looking at them strangely lately. A lot of people just want to nurture something living out of the soil, but now all these Japanese are making things impossible. So when they see a Japanese person at an RHS event, they can’t suppress the thought: is this person against me?) Now you’re on a roll. If anyone tries to object to what you’re doing, you can just point to the growing gloom among Japanese gardeners. How dare anyone try to delegitimise their lived experiences? They’ve start putting down their shears en masse. Some are even talking about leaving the country. You’ve taken away a wholesome pastime from thousands of blameless Japanese people, made them anxious and miserable, but the Royal Horticultural Society is now in total disarray, devouring itself in search of hidden racism. Congratulations. You’ve won.

It’s worth remembering that the first time they tried this trick with the Labour party, it wasn’t about Jews; it was about women. Two women ran against Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election, and for a while the line went that one could only prefer him to one of them for reasons of sexism. Yvette Cooper laid out the choice: did we want ‘a Labour Party after a century of championing equality and diversity which turns the clock back to be led again by a leader and deputy leader, both white men? Or to smash our own glass ceiling to get Labour’s first elected woman leader and woman prime minister too? Who’s the real radical? Jeremy or me?’ Articles bemoaning Labour’s ‘woman problem,’ the misogyny in its ranks, the bullying online. It didn’t work. Women make up the majority of the British population and the majority of Labour supporters; for the most part, they weren’t fooled. But Jews are different. Jews are a small minority in Britain, with a long historical memory and a very justifiable fear of persecution. Jews, it turns out, are easy to gaslight and manipulate and terrify. You can attack the Jewish community and get away with it.

I don’t know how to fight this thing. Of course not: I’m a Jew; I’ve been driven mad by it. Currently, my best idea is to crowdfund a skywriter to scrawl something in the air above Westminster. Something like ARE YOU NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT WORRIED THAT TELLING MILLIONS OF VOTERS WHO’VE NEVER MET A JEWISH PERSON IN THEIR LIVES THAT THEY CAN’T HAVE A LIVING WAGE OR A WORKING NHS OR ANY HOPE FOR THEIR CHILDREN’S FUTURES BECAUSE ‘IT’S NOT FAIR TO THE JEWS’ MIGHT CREATE A MISLEADING IMPRESSION OF THE ROLE OF JEWISH PEOPLE IN SOCIETY AND ACTUALLY SEVERELY EXACERBATE ANTISEMITISM RATHER THAN GETTING RID OF IT? It won’t work, of course. Even if some of the people pushing this narrative are Jewish themselves, they’re not concerned. It was never about Jews, or antisemitism, or even about Israel. They don’t care about us, or how this might affect us down the line. They’re willing to extinguish the entire Anglo-Jewish population, rip us out of our homes, and send us fleeing in fear from one of the safest countries for Jews in the world, headed for – where? Israel, which is a war zone?  America, where people can walk into synagogues with automatic weapons and open fire? We’re collateral damage in a political struggle against resurgent socialism. But from here on the ground, it feels like being targeted. How far will these people go in their war against the Jews?

Meltdown

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Pretend this is some other country, a miserable guano-splat island somewhere to the east, surrounded by steel-grey seas. The Unified Monarchy, half-medieval and hermetic, where knobble-nosed old peasants carry bales of hay for dead horses, under the crumbling shadow of a nuclear reactor. Officially, the place is a liberal democracy, and if nothing else they commit to the charade. Lately they’ve decided to elect a new head of government, so all the candidates are corralled into a TV studio for a debate, to answer questions from the people before they get to crush them with an iron fist. Everyone knows it’s stupid and pointless; the ruling party has already chosen its man, and only three hundred-odd people get a vote anyway. But TV debates look democratic, and this is a cargo-cult country, manically putting up big apartment buildings in the capital for nobody to live in. And it’s certainly not illegal to criticise the governing class – it’s just that strange things start happening once you do. If you’re naive enough to ask an uncomfortable question during the TV debate, you become a person of interest. Spies trawl through your personal documents. All your faults and secrets are laid open to a suddenly deeply inquisitive state media. And, of course, you lose your job. For the victims, who believed all the propaganda, this feels wrong. Weren’t they the ones who were being judged and evaluated, the other people, the ministers of the state? But the judge rears up like the monster in a Kafka story, and bellows: no, it was only you, we wanted to see if you were pure enough to be ruled over by us, and you have failed.

This is, more or less, what happened during this weeks BBC Tory leadership debate. The obvious loser of the evening was Rory Stewart, who was shunted out of the competition immediately afterwards, haemorrhaging ten MPs. But this debate also came with collateral damage. In the aftermath, it wasn’t the politicians but the questioners from the public whose records were scrutinised and whose lives were put on the line. Two men, Abdullah in Bristol (an imam and deputy headteacher) and Aman in London (an employment lawyer), have been suspended from their jobs. Is it a coincidence that they were also the two members of the public with the two most pointed questions? (Abdullah asked about Islamophobia within the Conservative party, Aman asked how the winner of the contest could govern without holding a general election – both fairly uncomfortable issues for the contenders.) Is it a coincidence that the howl of outrage against these two questioners was first raised by Paul Staines, a psychotically right-wing Westminster gossip blogger, and subsequently relayed uncritically by the BBC and the right-wing press?

Ostensibly, Abdullah and Aman have not become the victims of a media free-for-all because of the questions they asked during the debates. Instead, it’s because of their tweets. Abdullah, for making some fundamentally quite banal and harmless statements about Israel – that a Jewish state should be set up in America instead, that Zionist politicians tend not to be very fond of Jeremy Corbyn, and so on. (He also expressed some considerably more retrograde opinions on whether women should ever be alone with men, but it still feels slightly silly to be outraged that a religious leader might also be a social conservative.) Aman, meanwhile, made a quite patently ironic joke tweet parodying the American conservative pundit Candace Owens. These are extremely flimsy ropes with which to hang these people. But in fact, it shouldn’t even matter.

It matters if Boris Johnson or Michael Gove are racists (which they are), because they’re trying to become Prime Minister of a country that’s home to some three and a half million Muslims. There are things which it should be unacceptable for a senior politician to say, think, or do. But even if Abdullah had advocated for antisemitism, rather than explicitly denouncing it – how many Jewish parishioners is he responsible for at the Masjid Umar mosque? Why should his stances, objectionable or otherwise, be anyone else’s business?

Take any random British resident, kidnap them, and interrogate them – until, wet with tears and spittle and blood, they’ve revealed all their darkest secrets and their worst prejudices. You’re almost certain to find something viscerally offensive and disturbing in there. Something bad enough to clear your conscience, immediately justifying all the suffering you’ve inflicted in getting it. As Žižek points out, the distinguishing factor in all truly oppressive societies is the patchiness and unevenness of the apparatus of repression. It’s not that the guilty are always mercilessly punished, because by the ruling doctrine everyone is potentially guilty. Instead, punishment is vicious but haphazard; everyone has to wait in fear, nurturing their guilt, hoping every morning that this won’t be the day they’re finally made accountable for their crimes.

Before the fifteenth century, a jury who returned the ‘wrong’ verdict could themselves be punished under a writ of attaint, and the punishment would be severe. The juror’s house was to be razed, his wife and children ‘thrown out of doors,’ his trees uprooted, his meadows ploughed, and his body imprisoned. Eventually, in the Tudor era, justice was softened: the guilty juror would only be subject to a fine, plus ‘perpetual infamy.’ Something similar’s at work today. There’s a common-law penalty for the breaking the unwritten law that Aman and Abdullah broke: perpetual infamy, of course, in the bubbling fury of the internet – but also, you have to lose your livelihood. Wherever you work, whatever you do, whatever union is supposed to be looking out for your interests, justice will not be served unless you’re booted out of your job.

But this is where things get tricky. Aman’s law firm and Abdullah’s mosque were perfectly free to refuse to impose the default punishment; there was no state apparatchik looking over their shoulders. Similarly, the BBC could have defended its decision to let Aman and Abdullah ask their questions, instead of collapsing into spasmodic apologies. (It’s worth noting that the post-Hutton Inquiry, post-Saville BBC has pioneered a particularly aggressive style of political interview, in which the goal isn’t to find out what the poor bastard might have to say about the issue at hand, but to embarrass them as much as possible. It feels like a charade, and it is. The BBC play-acts a spiky independence, but crumbles as soon as there are any stakes involved.) But it’s hard to imagine that kind of resistance actually taking place. Resistance is the appropriate response to a political dictatorship, and that’s not what’s confronting us. It would be a fantasy to suggest that Britain were actually like the United Monarchy – a comforting and consoling fantasy. What’s facing us is far larger, and, in some ways, far worse. Aman and Abdullah had to participate in their own victimisations; for it to happen, they first had to build up a dossier of evidence against themselves. They tweeted. And in the place where social media, broadcast media, and politics conjoin, something monstrous slips through the gaps.

This being is artificial. Part hive mind, part computer, part alien, part newborn and capricious god. It’s the thing that makes the laws and sets the default punishments, the king and parliament and jury of this world. It’s a machine, in the Lewis Mumford sense of a machine, a contraption with human beings as moving parts. But there are other bits whirring away in its belly, things that were once vast. The BBC, the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, the capitalist mode of production, the written testament of God. We have created this thing without really understanding what it is, and it has been set loose.

The crime Aman and Abdullah committed was simply to make themselves visible to this thing. They were only exposed for a moment, a few seconds each, while they gave their questions, but a few seconds is enough. They weren’t really speaking to the Tory leadership contenders, or even to the BBC-watching public; they addressed the new entity. They’d circled its outer peripheries before, skimming its vast darknesses on small social media accounts, and now it knew who they were. If the thing recognises you, it will try to destroy you, and if you don’t have several inches of lead shielding, it will succeed. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re an imam or a member of the Privy Council. Five seconds of exposure, and your innards seep out for its billion eyes to see.

What was Theresa May?

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Theresa May has a facial tic. When she’s giving a speech to four glum men in an enormous aircraft hangar, or engaged in fruitless eight-hour negotiations with her plumber, or licking all the nuclear launch codes so her successor can’t touch them, or otherwise discharging her duties as the head of Her Majesty’s government, the corners of her mouth will twitch and turn down, and she’ll flash an expression of utter disgust. As if she’s suddenly had a moment of terrible clarity, and realised exactly what it is she’s become. In photos she looks like a deep-sea fish, face gulping in permanent horror. Combined with the natural whelk-grey texture of her skin, it gives the sense of a general aquatic unhealthiness. Stinking silt, creatures with translucent needle-sharp teeth, worms feasting on the sunken corpse of a whale: she has come to us from the grey and empty place where dead things fall.

In general, the British media tend not to be unkind enough to actually mention her noticeable facial tic. That would be rude. Instead, whenever she dramatically bungles some minor endeavour – which is just about every day – they cover the front pages of the newspapers with a picture of her grimacing like a fart’s just come out of her own mouth. But some people are less generous than others. Me, for instance. I know, without remembering, that at some point in the last three years, in one outlet or another, I must have mocked the one thing about the woman that’s not her fault. I also know why I did it. It’s because I also have a facial tic.

I can keep it under control, mostly; strangers probably see it more often than friends. On the street, on the Tube, at the urinals – the need grabs me, and I have to push out my lower lip and fold it over itself, so the mucous membrane glistens and I look like a sad, drooling clown. I don’t enjoy doing this. It doesn’t make me feel any better. It just happens, at my direction but without my consent. It was worse when I was younger. Sometimes, at parties, I’d have to briefly hide myself in a corner to do it four or five times in quick succession where nobody could see me – but the whole procedure of hiding my weird facial spasms would put me in such a nervous state that I’d immediately feel the need to do it again. Throughout my teenage years, I was basically terrified that someone would see me doing it, and then call attention to it in front of everybody. Then they’d all know that I’m not really a person, but an animal, a thing of dumb instinct, a freak. So while I don’t know what it’s like for your embarrassing facial tic to be on the front page of the newspapers every morning, I can imagine. And this is why I can’t stand to see Theresa May do her trademark grimace. Not because she looks so gruesome and so weird, but because in the worst possible way, she and I are the same.

I don’t think this is just me. Theresa May has set herself up as the most nakedly authoritarian leader in recent British political history. She’s catastrophically mismanaged a major constitutional transition, devastated anonymous thousands of lives, wrecked the country, wrecked her own party, wrecked our future. But as she prepares to leave office, the big question isn’t about her actions or her legacy, or even the mess she’s left on the steps of Downing Street. It’s this: is it ok to feel sorry for her?

I do. I can’t help it. I feel sorry for Theresa May.

* * *

It wasn’t always like this. For a moment, in late 2016 and early 2017, Theresa May was the most popular British Prime Minister for nearly half a century. Or, at least, something that went by the name of Theresa May was. Whatever people loved in those short months, it wasn’t her.

The old political classes took this tense, rangy, fleabitten creature, these shabby rags framing a vulturine stoop, and turned her into Mummy. A big warm milky ocean you can also fuck, a fat-cheeked Oedipal fantasy come to envelop all the overgrown permanent schoolboys in acres of pillowy flesh – and then, when they’ve been naughty, to cane them across their leathery arses, because Mummy loves them, and Mummy needs them to obey.

The sensible technocratic classes took this screeching ideologue, the woman who sent vans with National Front slogans trundling around the outer boroughs of London, the woman who summarily deported 34,000 students because she couldn’t properly invigilate an English test, and turned her into A Firm Hand On The Wheel. Capable and serious, walking the sensible middle line between the irrational extreme of just murdering everyone and the irrational extreme of trying to make things somewhat better, a Remainer willing to make compromises, a capable negotiator with all the facts at her fingertips, a kind of vast spreadsheet buzzing behind synthetic skin.

The red-nosed tabloid editors took this glob spat out of the Tory front benches and into Downing Street, a woman whose premiership was secured on the basis of 199 votes in a country of sixty-six million, and turned her into The Voice Of The People. Red eyes, white hair, blue politics; a giant avenging mecha-suit powered by the incoherent outrage of millions of retired insurance salesmen, in a power stance so uncomfortably wide her legs straddle the entire country: one vast kitten heel ploughing through Lancashire until bubbles of shale gas wheeze out of the soil, the other flattening London into a great glowing splat of pulverised elites.

But all politicians create fantasies about themselves. What makes Theresa May different is that she’s so bad at it. Someone like Tony Blair is a pure simulacrum: there’s no point asking what the real Tony Blair is really like, because he’s just neon and soundbites all the way down. You can try to look behind his curtain, but it was put there by Parrhasius. Theresa May, on the other hand, was hiding something. She was alive in there, buried deep beneath mummy and monster and machine. She didn’t want to be seen. She has a facial tic.

* * *

It was the 2017 election that changed everything, but at first it was hard to see what was happening. The event was announced with terrifying authoritarian fanfare. ‘Every vote for the Conservatives,’ she said, ‘will make me stronger.’ The energy-vampire, swelling itself on a million willing sacrifices. Give me power! Give me life! A Schmittian sovereign, here to exercise the popular will with her limitless power to decide, inhaling blood and sweat. ‘There should be unity here in Westminster,’ she said, ‘but instead there is division. The country is coming together,’ she said, ‘but Westminster is not.’ Across the country, the stolid yeoman folk of England perform mass synchronised maypole dances around the eaten cake – and why aren’t you keeping time? And then, in two short months, it all fell apart.

She wouldn’t debate, she cringed when voters confronted her in the street, she spoke in front of tiny rallies while Corbyn was mobbed everywhere he went. It’s nice to pretend that it’s her nasty reactionary politics that were unpopular, but that’s not really true. Her politics were popular; they’re still popular today. It wasn’t that she was hollow inside: we like hollow flashy politicians with no substance. The problem was that the shell of Theresa May wasn’t empty enough. There was a little hermit crab in there, all claws and angles, and it was weird. We watched her gurn and grimace, and we could not love her.

Since then, it’s been humiliation after humiliation. Her Parliamentary majority vanished. Her throat caved in. Scenery collapsed around her. She suffered historic defeats in the Commons, and African schoolchildren laughed in her face when she tried to dance. She ended up in front of Downing Street, still notionally the most powerful person in the country, resigning in tears. Her own party hate her, in the cruel, spiny way that an overgrown schoolboy hates his own mother. The press hate her, in the hazy, slurring way that a professional fantasist hates all of invertebrate reality. And everyone else too. The electorate, the donors, the Europeans, the BBC studio audiences, the stalks of wheat bristling in the fields. As it turns out, people have an almost instinctual horror of Theresa May.

Henri Bergson, in his theory of laughter, suggests that we find animals funny ‘because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression’ – a dog trying to walk on two legs, or with some recognisable plaintiveness or eagerness in its face – and that we find people funny when they behave like machines. ‘The laughable element consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity… the rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.’ Theresa May is a person who behaves like a machine.

It was there from the start, in her favourite awful tautology: Brexit means Brexit means Brexit. It was there in her glum repetition, strong and stable, strong and stable, a computer stuttering as its circuits are deactivated one by one. She submitted the same Brexit bill to Parliament three hundred and twelve times, and each time it was rejected, and each time she tried again. When she has private meetings with MPs, instead of actually talking to them she writes what she wants to say on a piece of paper, and reads it out in front of them. The Guardian‘s sketchwriter started calling her the Maybot, and it stuck – because she’s not like other people, because there’s only a mechanical clunking behind her eyes.

But Bergson never noticed what happens when you run the sequence backwards. A machine that behaves like a human; a living doll, a creepy figure stalking the uncanny valley. A human that behaves like an animal; blind, grunting, savage instinct, where there should be thoughts and words. What these things inspire is horror. And as much as she was laughed at, there was always something deeply unsettling about May. A tic is something both animal and mechanical. A shudder in the gears, a flash of the wetness inside a living creature’s mouth. It turned the smooth fascist ideal of Brexit Britain into rotting flesh; it turned Mummy into the clockwork mother-thing whose wheels scream in the night.

* * *

So it’s not surprising that the dominant answer to the question of whether it’s ok to feel sorry for her seems to be a loud, bitter no. You can’t consider her on a merely human level, because she isn’t human. She’s the tens of thousands immiserated by austerity, women abused at Yarl’s Wood, the Windrush generation humiliated, surging right-wing street violence, Grenfell in flames. She’s a hostile environment. She’s tendons and rust.

And she is all of these things. But this is precisely why she might be the most human politician we’ve had. A human is not good; a human is a monster, an awful assemblage of animal and machine. In the Greek origin myth, Epimetheus gives the animals their attributes, sharp claws or wings or poison-tipped spears, but by the time he gets to us there’s nothing left. This is why Prometheus has to step in and give us fire and language and culture: we can’t live without machines. And we’re taking our revenge: one by one, the other animals are vanishing. Our true face is the grey face of the ticcing thing, the naked disaster, incompetent and despised.

Nobody likes looking in an unexpected mirror. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to feel sorry for the great ugly weirdos of the world; that’s fine. My problem is with the implicit commandment against sympathy, the point where I don’t becomes you can’t. For the left, it is politically unacceptable to feel sorry for Theresa May. As if there’s a ration-card system for human feelings. As if feeling sorry for her means diminishing your stock of sympathy for all the numberless people whose worlds she’s destroyed. As if you could measure someone’s moral worth by whether they feel sorry for the wrong kind of people. Watch your own feelings, citizen: make sure you’re only feeling bad for the correct designated victims. All this strikes me as not just misguided, but actively deranged.

The thing about sympathy is that it’s involuntary. Theresa May doesn’t deserve my sympathy, but she has it – and if you can only feel sympathy for the people that deserve it, what you have isn’t sympathy at all, just an opinion. I can’t see a person who lost everything – not because of blind chance, or because someone else took it from her, but simply because of what she was – and not feel sorry for her. And there’s something desperate in all these professions of indifference. People training themselves not to care, because they’re seized with the mad idea that how you feel is a question of political duty. People installing a GCHQ listening station inside their own heads. It’s a cruelty that’s not too different from Mayism itself, which taught the country not to feel sorry for the foreigners, the scroungers, the asylum seekers, the shouty metropolitan young people, because they were the wrong type.

Of course, it’s possible I’m being played here. Is this just what power looks like now? May is gone, and the dark hulking teddy-bear shape of Boris Johnson squats heavy on the horizon. Here he is, stuck on a zipline. Here he is, falling into a pond. Here he is, accidentally reeling off a series of obsolete racial slurs in a speech to the United Nations. It’s not his fault, he’s just a bit clumsy and a bit out of touch. Don’t you feel sorry for him?

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