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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: politics

On being bored of Brexit

Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus

namjunepaik

First there was a no. The Brexit referendum, nearly three years ago, was an enormous no to something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what. Immigration, multiculturalism, neoliberalism, bureaucracy, the democratic deficit, the loss of empire, the passage of time both historical and subjective, the zippy newness of everything, merciless, intangible, and the bloating hairy decay of a human body that’s always monstrously here, the impersonal systems that administer our general managed decline, the existence of a teeming world beyond Britain’s grey fag-end shores, the ugliness of life in general, the ugliness of those burgundy passports in particular, etc, etc, etc. All those things congealed into the shape of the EU, and we wanted them gone. The task was to turn this loud and incoherent no into an actual set of governing regulations to manage the future economic and political relationship between the UK and the European Union, which is stupid and can’t be done. The whole thing is a category error; it’s like trying to comfort a dying cancer patient with some new zoning laws to ban cemeteries. No wonder it’s all been going so badly. All the progress made in the three years since has been in the form of various deferrals, backstops and transition periods, levees against the frothing tides of no. And they’ve three times been voted down, including in the most devastating Parliamentary defeat for a sitting government in British history.

This is what Hegel calls abstract negation. As opposed to determinate negation, the negation that propels the dialectic, that ‘cancels in such a way that it maintains and preserves what has been cancelled,’ abstract negation is an action annulling its object, that tries to simply blot everything out, ‘declaring it to be a nothingness.’ But sadly, there is something rather than nothing, and as long as this basic travesty continues, the no that cries out for the abolition of everything will only ever result in more ontological clutter. The pure no of the referendum has to become a no to Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and once it’s gone an alternative banana-curvature regime will have to be put in its place.

Obviously, this doesn’t satisfy. This week, Parliament itself tried to break through the stasis by holding a series of ‘indicative votes,’ in which the Commons tried to establish whether it would be easiest to secure a majority for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, a customs union, EEA membership, a Norway-plus common-market arrangement, a second referendum, a unilateral revocation of Article 50, or leaving the EU without a deal. We should have seen the punchline coming from a mile off. Every single one of the indicative votes was defeated. We don’t want to stay in the EU, we don’t want to leave without a deal, but also we don’t want a deal. It’s not that doing nothing isn’t an option; it is, we’ve just turned it down.

This was probably the funniest thing to happen in politics for a while, and like every actually funny thing, it’s a combination of slapstick and nihilism. Two years of negotiations, two weeks to go before we leave, and we still can’t say what we actually want. We are frenzied. Parliament is a conga line of circus clowns juggling buckets of custard. We are inert. Limp, corpse-like, washing up on the tides, passing over every decision, passively rejecting the whole of the sunlit world, rolling round on Earth’s diurnal course. Theresa May tried to drum up support for her proposals by promising to resign if they passed: she tried to give her yes the dense allure of a no. It didn’t work. Now, she’s hoping for a fourth vote, Sideshow Bob plodding grimly for another rake. It’s obvious which proposal might pass the Commons; it’s just that nobody’s been brave enough to introduce it yet. Evacuate the island. Drill a few holes in the cliffs of Dover. Scuttle the whole country. We can gather at Calais or the Faroes to watch Britain sink into the sea, and then disperse, never to see each other again.

This situation feels new. It’s not. Philosophy has a name for it: boredom.

Kierkegaard describes precisely the dynamic behind the indicative votes debacle in Either/Or. ‘I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to ride, the motion is too violent. I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s too strenuous; I can’t be bothered to lie down, for either I’d have to stay lying down and that I can’t be bothered with, or I’d have to get up again, and I can’t be bothered with that either. In short: I can’t be bothered.’ This is the situation Heidegger gives as the third and highest form of boredom, the Es ist einem langweilig, ‘it is boring for one’: a boredom that is not bored by any specific object, a boring party, a boring film, but in which boredom becomes a Stimmung, an attunement, a way of being with regards to external reality. A boringness that leaks in grey spurts from everything on the earth. After the boring party or the boring film, you might go and have some vaguely interesting sex; but if you’re in the realm of the third form of boredom, that too, and sleeping afterwards, and breakfast, and the sun in the sky, and the European common market, and a no-deal Brexit, will all reveal themselves as unbearably dull. Things, Heidegger writes, refuse themselves, they withdraw into nothingness.

But Heidegger was not a nihilist; he was a Nazi. (This is generally considered to be worse.) He wasn’t content to see boredom as a black hole, the washed-out final truthlessness of a world without interest. He liked mountain-climbing and shiny buttons; something must come out the other side. For Heidegger, the depths of boredom are revelatory; they force us to consider the nature of the Being that has departed from the world. It leads, in the end, to a more profound relation to the temporality of one’s being. His argument for this mostly hinges on an untranslateable German pun: alles Versagen ist in sich ein Sagen; ‘all withdrawing is a telling.’ Kierkegaard, who was not a Nazi, but one of history’s greatest ironists, can’t make the same leap. ‘Boredom,’ he writes, ‘is the demonic pantheism. It is built on emptiness, but for this very reason it is a pantheistic qualification.’ It’s important in and of itself, not because it inevitably leads you somewhere else. Nothingness in its vast full suffocating weight; the dictatorship of an absent god, the inescapable empire of the undone.

And this Kierkegaardian boredom is everywhere. I’m so tired: that’s what people say now, isn’t it? The ruling political affect isn’t really hatred, or righteous anger, which is actually quite hard to fake for extended periods of time. It certainly isn’t anything as rich or as dark – or as strangely, secretly hopeful – as sadness. It’s exhaustion. Industrial society blasts us in the face with a hot stream of lights and colours, and we go ugh, can you not, I haven’t had my coffee. Nanette: ‘I identify as tired.’ Tired of people who don’t share our vague and mostly provisional opinions even though it’s 2019, tired of other people in general, tired of the white supremacist cisnormative heteronormative fatphobic ableist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. To negate something, you don’t have to say that it’s actively damaging or destructive, just that you can’t be bothered with it, that it makes you tired. It’s not that things intrude too deeply; what’s tiring is how they fade away. This is, of course, not the affect of the oppressed. As Kierkegaard – along with Walter Benjamin, in The Origins of German Tragic Drama – points out, the subject exhausted by the nullity of everything is usually a prince. ‘Those who bore others are the plebians, the mass, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect.’

And this is the thing: Brexit is deeply boring. Two years of negotiations, and every day the front pages of the newspapers announce another roadbump, and it’s all so utterly dull. And then, in the last few weeks, it got interesting again. It got funny, as soon as the process abandoned its activist mode and started to do nothing, as soon as Brexit finally entered the third mode, in which it stopped boring the public and became bored with itself. It’s finally been whittled down to that essential core of no. For Heidegger, this would mean that some great revelation is coming, that we’re on the path to a deeper and more authentic engagement with the materials of being. But I’m not so sure it’s possible to pass out of boredom. What would that engagement look like? A return to the Gelangweilt sein von etwas, a dullness without demonic grandeur or insight. Your bananas can be as straight or as bendy as you like; they’ll still taste like mushy nothing in your mouth.

There’s no such country as Russia

madeupnotreal

On the internet, there’s a small but dedicated group of people who believe that Donald Trump is secretly trans. To be honest, it explains a lot. That’s why he’s so histrionic, so obsessed with slights and appearances, so consumed with petty gossip and petty grievances. It’s why he’s so utterly soft, like a person sculpted out of margarine. It’s why he loves expensive things and little cakes: he’s a woman, and we all know what those are like. And it’s not just the first female President, but his entire family. Don Jr and Eric had big red ‘F’s on their birth certificates, to match the next twenty gormless years of transcripts and report cards. Melania wears all those disastrously unwoke outfits so nobody notices her dick. Barron is a girl being coercively raised with short hair and videogames; Ivanka was a boy forced to wear dresses. The believers scour through every second of video footage of the First Family, looking for any tiny trace of gender misperformance, filing it away in long YouTube videos: here is The Evidence. Of course, it all goes much deeper than the Trumps. They’re only part of a secret elite Satanic trans cabal. Everyone in the higher reaches of power is trans, from the British royal family to pop stars to TV anchors. Why isn’t entirely clear. Because they hate nature, because they hate God, because they’re mimicking the androgyny of the Baphomet, because they’re just perverts. (The theory is also somehow linked to the idea that all animals not mentioned in the Bible are actually fake – zebras are just painted donkeys, gorillas are men in suits, sloths are animatronics, and so on.) But the truth is plain to see, and the investigation continues. Soon, all will be revealed.

This is a fairly stupid, bigoted, and dangerous theory. It’s also far more believable than the idea that Donald Trump is a secret deep-cover Kremlin agent. So why is the Transvestigation confined to a few YouTube channels, while Russiagate spent nearly three years dominating the news?

Three years of drivel. Three years of Putin’s puppet, of game theory, of Slovakia being part of ‘Soviet Yugoslavia,’ of the shocking revelation that Russia sends delegates to the World Economic Forum, of a Hollywood actor declaring war on behalf of a government that never got to exist, of ‘the Communists are now dictating the terms of the debate,’ of ‘the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for Steve Bannon,’ of ‘what would your family do if Russia killed the US power grid,’ of ‘the only option is a coup,’ of ‘Russia was able to influence our election because they figured out that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are America’s Achilles heel,’ of protesters waving hammer-and-sickle flags at demonstrations, of ‘Comrade Trump,’ of ‘welcome to the resistance,’ of hysteria, of anthem-farting nativist boosterism, of fantasies in which all your political enemies are legislated out of existence, of the idea that the mere existence of the world’s largest country is somehow illegitimate, of endless screams for war and military aggression, of sub-John Birch Society reactionary psychosis, eyes rotating independently, brains glittering with crank, delusions piling on delusions, TV comedians and failed politicos turning themselves into volunteer CIA analysts, an entire intellectual class bursting out of reality and into the lunatic swirls beyond, a bourgeois elite that needs to invent global conspiracies to account for the fact that nobody loves them as much as they love themselves, messianic terrors, indictments swooping in the night, the titanomachy for the soul of America, the war against saboteurs and spies, braindead dads playing toy soldiers on Twitter, silent retractions, bashful corrections, denial, bargaining, anger, total psychological rot. Three years of this crap, and none of it was true.

From the Mueller report, the thing that all these mad hopes hinged on and swung from: ‘The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’

Of course, the investigations have led to several indictments, and exposed some of Trump’s sleaze, lies, and criminality – but that’s just because the man is a sleazy lying criminal. That wasn’t the focus, it wasn’t what the investigations and their boosters promised. For years, I was gloatingly told that any day now, it would be proved that the President of the United States had covertly worked with the Russian state to steal the 2016 election, not that he’d illegally paid off a porn star out of campaign funds to cover up an affair. It’s not hard to catch the world’s absolute pigshit dumbest head of state out – but somehow, the Russiagaters have shown themselves to be even stupider than he is. They challenged a bloated foetus with a combover to a game of wits, and they can’t stop losing. For three years, they’ve been trying to get some dirt on a scummy Mafia associate – and they thought they could do it by collectively pretending to live in a spy novel.

It doesn’t matter. It isn’t over: it’ll never be over, not as long as people continue to believe. At the time of writing, the theory goes that the Attorney General’s summary of the Mueller investigation’s findings is actually a cover-up, a Trump nominee lying about the devastating report in a last desperate effort to hide the awful truth. When the full report is released, it’ll be something else. If the Rapture didn’t come on the predicted date, it’s because you were too sinful; if the comet failed to pick you up and carry you out into kaleidoscopic polysexual interstellar space, it’s because something polluted your positive vibes.

Conspiracy theories, the idea goes, swill around in the dregs of society, among the toothless, tobacco-stained, and deranged. The people who believe Trump is secretly trans are isolated cranks, while the people who believe Trump is secretly a Russian agent – or pretend to think that – are Hillary Clinton, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, CNN, MSNBC, a substantial chunk of elected Democrats and not a few Republicans, along with doctors, lawyers, scientists, and celebrities. Early in 2017, the Washington Post published an op-ed castigating sections of the public for believing the insane reactionary nativist fantasy that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, while not believing the insane reactionary nativist fantasy that Donald Trump is a Russian asset. Obviously, this writer didn’t think these ideas were comparable. It’s hard to imagine that the class character of the people who hold them didn’t have an effect. But ruling-class conspiracies aren’t really so unusual. For centuries, the European ruling classes were happily spreading and inventing paranoia against the continent’s Jews. Today, the Hungarian ruling classes do much the same thing. And the Prime Minister of Israel, not to be outdone, has tried to somehow exonerate Hitler for the Holocaust, and pin it all on the Palestinians.

All this is difficult for me, because I love conspiracy theories and the people that hold them. But there’s an inconsistency. Climate change denialists are not as dear to me as creationists. I can’t sympathise with people who think a tragic drink-driving accident was actually an Islamic terror attack because the driver was Indian, not in the same way that I sympathise with people who think the Sun’s been replaced by an artificial double because the daylight seemed warmer when they were young. And while I love flat earth, hollow moon, and the new chronology, I can’t love Russiagate. Maybe it’s because I don’t have family members furiously insisting that all of history up to the sixteenth century was fabricated by the Jesuits. Maybe it’s because my class and my education mean that I can love these other things without anyone taking it too seriously. But mostly I think it’s because what I admire in untruth is its expansiveness, and Russiagate is so small. Nasty, measly bullshit; Cold War imperialism and a horror of foreign contamination; the petty presumption of the educated upper class. I don’t hate it because it’s untrue. I hate it because it’s another grim wift of what’s killing us.

‘We do not object to a judgement just because it is false,’ writes Nietzsche, ‘and this is probably what is strangest about our new language.’ We’re all Nietzscheans now. It’s worth noting that the people who gave themselves brain damage over an utterly imaginary Russiagate are the same ones who’ve also been having a three-year-long freakout about fake news and post-truth politics. The responsible, the sensible, the evidence-based, the moderate. In 2017, the British publishing industry saw fit to put out three separate books titled Post-Truth. Two had the word ‘bullshit’ in the subtitle. This frantic repetition, as any good Freudian knows, is the foundation of civilisation and sanity, while itself being utterly deranged. (Psychoanalysis is always quite Nietzschean in this regard. Whether your father actually wants to castrate you is immaterial. Just because they’re after you, doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.) I’ve spent a long time writing against this kind of miserable desaturated administration-as-politics, but if it ever existed in fact rather than as a regulative ideal, that mask has fallen now. All the Mueller report has done is made it a little bit harder to pretend that politics is, or should be, within the domain of facts. Russiagaters, welcome to the unreal. Let’s build you a better lie.

Here, there, everywhere

DIANA
You mean they actually shot this film while they were ripping off the bank?
HERRON
Yeah, wait till you see it. I don’t know whether to edit or leave it raw.
Network (1976)

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This is not the first time a killer has livestreamed their own crimes. In 2015, two journalists were murdered in Roanoke, Virginia by a man who filmed himself walking up to his victims, raising his gun, and opening fire. In April 2017, a man was shot on the street in Cleveland by a killer who uploaded the footage to Facebook. That same month, in Phuket, a man streamed himself murdering his own eleven-month-old daughter. This was always going to happen. The technologies promised to link us, to abolish distance, to turn everywhere into a potential collective here – and the result is that every square inch of the Earth is now the scene of the crime. There was a period between the abolition of public hanging and the invention of the GoPro in which death was no longer a mass spectacle. That time is over. We’re in the globe-straddling charnel-house. The conveyor belt to the abattoir runs through the palm of your hand.

But this killing is different. Today, a shooter filmed himself opening fire in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the time of writing, forty-nine people were killed. And it wasn’t just broadcast online: it was the internet. Not a representation of real-world events within digital media, but online culture, online pathologies, online idiocy, in the form of bullets and blood. People who’d come to New Zealand as refugees, fleeing distant wars that never appeared as tracked and fungible images, were killed by a man who’d learned he should do so from a lifetime festering in the world inside the screens. Subscribe to PewDiePie, he said, and then he opened fire.

A few years ago, people like me were made vaguely aware of the fact that a Swedish man who played video games while yelling constantly in a high, squeaky, annoying voice was now a millionaire. This was added to the mounting pile of evidence that the world was incurably broken, and we mostly ignored it. Then, a few years later, as these people tend to do, he shouted a racial slur while firing pretend guns at pretend enemies. This caused a kind of unreal explosion. Politics happened in the way that politics happens online: preening and denunciations, bile and squabbling, the staking-out of increasingly extreme positions, as a joke, as a posture, in the expanding imperium between the impossible zones of the real and the fake. Suddenly this obnoxious Swede was promoting white nationalists and paying people to hold up signs that read death to all Jews. How did this happen? It’s not clear. But it should be obvious that the default online-left position, that this guy is simply a Nazi, that happened to also be a YouTube celebrity, is not enough. Something is breeding in there, in the screens, uncoiling itself in the dialectic of vitriol, and it kills.

This was, of course, before everything, a racist attack, a nativist attack, a fascist attack, and a right-wing attack. But something like the right wing doesn’t have form or existence outside of the actual modes of society. Fascism isn’t independently created out of the aether, and it doesn’t pop fully-formed into existence within someone’s malfunctioning brain. The conditions inhere everywhere. There are the peddlers of respectable racism, the ones who tepidly suggest that those people aren’t really like us, are they, and then profess to be shocked when someone distils all these just-asking-questions into bloodshed. For the most part, people’s thoughts and actions are drawn from the cultural storehouses of possible thoughts and possible deeds, and those reserves are packed with racism. There’s a material base here, in the global division of labour, in the political economy of resource extraction, in the exploitation of low-wage migrant labour, in the unprecedented disposability of the global working class. But the specific form of these reactionary politics, and the oily everywhere-ness of their spread, is unquestionably that of the internet. And the internet is not only ephemeral; it’s woven deep into the structures of social and economic life.

In his online manifesto, the Christchurch killer talks like the internet. He regurgitates Stormfront’s favourite Kipling poems. He laces his population-replacement theories with memes and copypasta. But his attitudes are coded by mass communications on a far more fundamental level. He makes clear that he killed these people to intensify the online discourse. Just like the big tech firms, he wants more people engaged in the Conversation, more intensely, more of the time. He wants people to lash out at their favourite microceleb hate-figures, to say their favourite lines, to pick their habitual fights. Naturally, it’s worked. Death is what keeps the internet spinning.

His ideology is an internet ideology. In an age of digital disintegration, the collapse of sociality and of meaningful support structures, their replacement with shifting and volatile mediated affinities, is it surprising that so many people become fixated on the idea of organic and biological racial identities? In the age of curation and cancellation, rigid structures of the aligned and excluded, the followed and the blocked, shouldn’t we expect a politics that can only see heterogeneity as threat? When everywhere is everywhere else, when blocks of meaning roll over and flatten the particularities of the world, why wouldn’t it be easy to see forty-nine living human beings as only a hollowed otherness, and decide to kill them?

The killer was born in Australia. He committed his murders in New Zealand. In his manifesto, he complains repeatedly that Muslims are gaining sovereignty over ‘European land.’ It hardly needs pointing out that both Australia and New Zealand are very far away from Europe. And New Zealand in particular is very explicitly not European land. Its colonial history is, of course, one of bloodshed and theft – but with the Treaty of Waitangi now semi-formally enshrined as the country’s founding document, there is at least some measure of recognition by the State of tino rangatiratanga, Maori dominion over the land, within the transfer of sovereignty to the Crown. Unlike many colonised populations, the Maori were formally given the rights and privileges of British subjects; they’ve had designated political representation in New Zealand’s parliament since 1867. Like Australia, New Zealand maintained restrictive border policies in the twentieth century that aimed to keep out non-white migrants – but unlike in Australia, pakeha New Zealanders could never claim to constitute the sole political subject of the State. The ethno-nationalist discourses of the killer have nothing to do with the actual structures of race and politics in New Zealand. As always, the reactionary politics that claims to want to protect distinct cultures from global homogenisation actually ends up erasing all such differences. It’s an amalgam of European nativism and American clash-of-civilisations mythology, along with personal grievance and theatrical posturing. It’s the internet.

This should be disturbing. Like many socialists of my generation and my class, my own politics were developed online, refined online, and exercised online. Even in ‘real-world’ socialist movements like Momentum or the DSA, much of the formal structure is plugged in to digital communications. Online ideological petri dishes set the agenda and define the terms of discussion, and produce monsters. This is not to draw a moral equivalence. The internetworked right commits brutal massacres; the internetworked left mostly turns pissily on itself. But it would be extremely stupid to believe that the internet has turned the right into a viral plague, and had no ill effect whatsoever on the left. These technologies impose the same conditions on everyone that becomes mediated by them – and if ideology is not material, then it’s no defence against the same swamping, polarising, homogenising, and volatilising processes that gave us the atrocity in Christchurch. We ourselves are not immune. And rather than condemning an abstractly conceived ‘hatred’ from the outside, the task is to see how far we’ve sunk into the slaughterhouse of everywhere, and make urgent plans for an escape.

Policy break: maternal mortality

policy

One of the most encouraging things to happen in recent American political discourse is the new and heightened focus on racial disparities in maternal mortality rates. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women – and this is a scandal, and needs to be seen as such. It’s a cruel and senseless world in which creating new life can carry a death sentence, and this does not need to be happening. Every preventable death that takes place in a maternity ward – and up to 60% of these are preventable – is a woman who was, objectively, murdered by a social order that fails to allow the essential needs of human life to be met. It has to end. How?

One popular approach comes from Senator Kamala Harris, also running for the US Presidency. Her Maternal CARE Act explicitly aims to eliminate this racial disparity through three proposals: providing funds to ‘incentivise’ healthcare providers to deliver ‘integrated health care services to pregnant women,’ providing competitive grants to encourage medical and nursing schools to introduce implicit bias training, and directing the National Academy of Medicine to make recommendations on a further rollout of implicit bias training as part of medical education. Of these three, the proposals concerning implicit bias have received by far the most emphasis, from both Harris and the media. It’s a popular policy, and it’s already being woven into Harris’s Presidential campaign.

It’s the other proposal, however, that has the greatest chance of offering a potential solution. The racial pregnancy outcomes gap is not fixed or universal: in most of the United States, the gap is widening – but one US state, North Carolina, has managed to almost entirely close the gap. Black women died during childbirth at a rate of 24.3 per 100,000 in 2013, down from nearly 60 in the early 2000s; white women at a rate of 24.2. Some of this narrowing is accounted for by a rise in white mortality, which more than doubled in the same time period. I don’t think there should be any question that it would be far better, if it were the only option, to reduce the total number of preventable deaths while maintaining a racial disparity (North Carolina is 71% white). But the rise in white mortality is in line with a nationwide collapse in quality of life for white working-class individuals (the national rate climbed, while the decline in black mortality, in both relative and absolute terms, is unique. One significant factor is the state’s Pregnancy Medical Home programme, which uses the existing Medicaid system to deliver state funds that promote early intervention for high-risk pregnancies. The programme is expansive, addressing not only strictly medical issues but factors such as homelessness or food insecurity that strongly correlate with deaths during childbirth. It shows concretely that policy aimed at improving the lives of the working class can massively alter racial disparities. The most shocking and deadly effects of racism really can simply vanish once an effort is made to redress inequality in general.

The programme is, of course, deeply insufficient. It’s brought mortality rates for black women in North Carolina down to around the level of the national average, which is still monstrously high. But it shows the kind of outcomes that could emerge out of more radical intervention. Currently, the programme offers women advice and assistance dealing with food insecurity and homelessness – what if there were a serious redistributive programme to eliminate these factors altogether? In New York City, 63% of white patients give birth in the safest hospitals in the city; for black women, it’s 23%. What if no hospitals were unsafe? This is why the question of race and childbirth mortality is so crucial: as soon as you get really serious about solving it, you start dealing with the totality of oppression in general. After all, isn’t the question, at its root, that of life itself?

Senator Harris is seemingly not interested in confronting that question. It proposes a demonstration project, in which ten states would, for a limited period, mimic the South Carolina model. When compared with more ambitious policies, such as Medicare for All, it’s simply not enough. But the flagship proposal has nothing o do with increasing the quantity of care available: the radical element, the part that stands out, is the implicit bias training.

Implicit bias theorises that behaviour is influenced by unconscious stereotypes – that, for instance, even an avowed and conscientious anti-racist might hold racist attitudes and adhere to stereotypes, even as they explicitly reject them. In this context, the implication is that the unconscious biases of medical workers lead them to deliver a worse standard of care to black patients – because black suffering is simply not valued as much as white suffering. Implicit bias training aims to overcome this effect. First, trainees typically take an electronic implicit bias test, in which they’re asked to associate names or terms with the categories ‘white or pleasant,’ or ‘black or unpleasant,’ or ‘white or unpleasant’ or ‘black or pleasant.’ Their response times are measured. Typically 70% of participants (including nearly 50% of black Americans) have a harder time associating positive terms with the ‘black or pleasant’ category than the white. This gives a numerically quantifiable indicator of the test subject’s unconscious racism. They’re then trained to recognise this bias, confront it, own up to it, and overcome it. Then, the test is administered again, to see if they’ve improved.

One of the more alarming problems with implicit bias training is that it doesn’t work. Studies of the literature have found that the correlation between implicit bias test scores and actual discrimination outcomes is ‘close to zero.’ Systemic racism is not the same as the aggregate of millions of unconscious ideas, and the unconscious mind moves in stranger ways than causing you to hesitate on a timed computer test. Worse still, it’s been suggested that implicit bias trainings can have an effect – in the wrong direction. An exhaustive training in the persistence of racial biases can, it seem, have a mimetic effect. The sessions might encourage, not alleviate, racial stereotypes.

This is of minor importance when it comes to implicit bias training in universities or the corporate sector – even if it really is counter-productive, that doesn’t affect its primary purpose as a PR fig-leaf. But if you believe, as Senator Harris appears to, that the disparity in health outcomes is caused to some degree by unconscious bias, the consequences here are potentially monstrous. Outside of the ten states selected for the Pregnancy Medical Home demonstration project, her proposal could directly lead to a widening of the racial disparity, and more black women dying during childbirth.

* * *

All this assumes, of course, a certain vision of what policy is: we have a society that’s mostly good, but which has some problems, and after reviewing the evidence we can decide to do things that might fix those problems and help society function better and more equitably. I happen to have another view, and try to be as resistant to facts and evidence as possible. The sphere of potential is vast – and policy is a dream we have about ourselves, the kind of people we think we are, the kind of world we think we live in. This is why the argument that Trump’s wall wouldn’t be very effective at keeping out undocumented migrants is itself so singularly ineffective: Trump’s base don’t want a wall because they’re convinced it will lead to desirable objective outcomes. They want a wall; they want to live in a country that’s fortified.

But Harris and her ideological kin are very much wedded to the utilitarian and technocratic approach. See, for instance, her most notorious policy innovation: her practice, as a California District Attorney, of throwing the parents of truant children in jail. This is, as critics have pointed out, a profoundly unpleasant thing to be doing – but her campaign defended it in explicitly technocratic terms. ‘A critical way to keep kids out of jail when they’re older,’ a spokesperson said, ‘is to keep them in school when they’re young.’ Her contention is that the policy worked – school attendance rose in San Francisco during her tenure as DA – and there’s therefore nothing to complain about. The ends (kids in education) justifies the means (intensified police surveillance and discipline of the working classes) – so long as it’s effective. So why, then, is she now proposing policies which are so profoundly unlikely to advance their stated aims?

The Maternal CARE Act is incomprehensible when evaluated according to her own criteria. Under a different set, it makes a lot more sense. The findings that this procedure fails to achieve its intended result shouldn’t really be counter-intuitive: DARE doesn’t stop kids taking drugs either, and few social problems are attributable to people not being berated or lectured to enough. If these procedures have proliferated, to the extent that elements of the State now want to introduce them in legislation, it’s because their actual purpose is something very different. These are mandatory sessions in which workers are castigated for their shortcomings, told they’re responsible for some of the worst evils of the world, and subjected to hyper-surveillance and discipline as a corrective measure. It’s an upwards redistribution of power, a Taylorism for the reflexes, the assimilation of not just the conscious self but of hazy unconscious attitudes to the sovereignty of the administrative class. If the central question of policy is that of the kind of world we want to live in, the image painted here is bleak. A world of faulty machines. A world in which people are constantly being dragged down by their own evil natures, and have to be improved by an enlightened elite with its dictatorship of prods and nudges. A world in which the solution to what causes us to suffer isn’t shared struggle based around shared needs, but the same atomised self-negation that constitutes much of that suffering.

That Harris and her supporters so badly want implicit bias to be the problem, and this mode of surveillance and control to be the solution, is instructive. The desire is far stronger than their fetish for rationality or evidence; technocracy has far more to do with power itself than efficiency, outcomes, or the actual expertise of the knowledge-monopolising classes. (In the first wave of Taylorism, the savings made by firms through increased industrial efficiency were entirely swallowed up by the costs incurred by the new administrative classes.) This example can, I think, shed some further light on Harris’s truancy policy. The point wasn’t to improve school attendance by any means necessary – it was to impose state discipline, using any excuse available. It should be clear that the anti-racism in these purely managerial articulations of anti-racist politics is hollowed out and infinitely deployable. After all, Senator Harris seems willing to let black women die, if it means she gets to tell other people how it’s all their fault.

Basilisk

basilisk

The kid does nothing. He stands, and stares, and does nothing.

God, but it’s disturbing. The drummer ducks and weaves and chants, and the kid stands motionless, like a snake watching some quick warm scurrying thing through heat-sensitive pits. The flickering grin of a predator. The kid with his sharp nose, sharp chin, rosy cheeks, callous and clean, facing off against a man aged leathery by a thousand year history the kid will never understand. A new world is coming, and it’s an annihilation. No more memory, no more twine and leather drums: the future will be white, peach-pink white, and heartless. The kid claims otherwise. He was trying to calm the situation, he says, and he thought the best way to do it would be to stand perfectly still. And if you want it to be, that smirk could be awkwardness or embarrassment: a much older man is playing a drum loudly in his face, and he doesn’t know what to do, so he stands there and smirks at him, and then later he goes home. Maybe. But that’s not what we see: we see something disturbing, that bothers you in the marrow of your bones. It’s creepy. It’s unsettling. It makes you feel like snakes are coiling cold and smooth down the shiver of your spine. Anything is justified, anything at all, to make it go away.

The situation is this. A group of Catholic high school students from Kentucky gather at the Lincoln memorial, as part of an organised trip to an anti-abortion rally. (And there’s something deeply, unbearably wrong with a world in which all-boys fee-paying schools will bus children out to take part in an anti-abortion rally.) While there, they’re taunted and mocked by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, present for the Indigenous Peoples March. (I’m quite fond of that group, in a weird way; their encyclopaedic Bible knowledge, their utter sincerity. Once I had a chat with a group of Black Hebrew Israelites in New York. They told me that they were the real Jews, and I was a demonic impostor. I disagreed. One of them asked me what tribe I was from, with a gotcha smirk. Tribes are patrilineal, but my mother’s a Levite, and I told him so. In their history, the tribe of Levi corresponds to modern-day Haiti. He looked me up and down for a moment. Well, he said, maybe you’ve got some of the black man in you. Take from that what you will.) At this point, Nathan Phillips, an elder from the Omaha tribe, stands between the two groups and sings the American Indian Movement song: a wordless, pan-tribal, post-signifying chant of unity, for drums and voices. (The story goes that it was first hummed by a child at the Crow Fair. It was sung at Wounded Knee.) He’s trying to defuse tensions. At first, the students chant and dance along. Then they laugh. They appear to be mocking him. And one of them stands, and stares, and does nothing.

In a video filmed after the incident, Phillips is fighting back tears. It’s heartbreaking. I heard them saying build that wall, build that wall. This is indigenous lands. We’re not supposed to have walls here, we never did. For a millennium, before anyone else came here, we never had walls. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders, we took care of our children. We always provided for them, we taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see the energy of the young masses, the young men, put that energy into making this country really great. Helping those that are hungry. (For some reason, that very last sentence seems to go unquoted in most media reportage.) He’s a liberal, in the best sense of the word. He sees two ranks of bigots squaring off against each other, and he wants to heal the divisions. He insists that he’s standing on indigenous land, not so he can raise a discursive wall around it and mark it off as his property, but because he wants the white people and the black people to understand that they are guests, and that they should behave accordingly, with politeness. He’s a better man that I am. If I had to come up with a new categorical imperative, it would be something like this: build a world fit for someone like Nathan Phillips to live in.

We are not in that world.

Call it meta-spectacle, the spectacularisation of someone looking. Video of the incident spread almost instantly around the world. And in a mob of rich Catholic-school kids on an anti-abortion march, jeering and chanting, the focus could only narrow itself to one particular point. The kid becomes fixed, a still form in a moving picture, an object of almost universal hatred. That one. I don’t like that one. He weirds me out. It’s not a political repudiation of right-wing ideology. It’s not even revenge. It’s disgust, the mass expression of disgust, both reactive and reactionary. Thousands of people on social media, doing everything they can to find out his name, and punish him. Sample tweet: Say good-bye to life as you knew it kid because it’s about to change for good. He did it to himself. Another: You are nothing now – your future just went out the window. No college or job opportunities coming your way. You are just a piece of dust now. Not the cry of the oppressed, but the gloat of power. People so woozy on power that they don’t even notice when they don’t have it. (Snotty right-wing kids from snotty right-wing private Catholic schools often go on to snotty right-wing private Catholic colleges. You have no dominion there.) A kid grows up in the swilling resentment of some white suburb in Kentucky – and you think you can shame him out of his upbringing? Roads without pavements, deserts of empty grass leading up to peaked-roof bungalows, the latest kitchen gadgets, frog memes, and an itch – and you think you can fix it by making shitty supervillain speeches online? Of course not. Nathan Phillips wanted people to behave better. You just want to make them bleed.

A name was discovered. Inevitably, it was the wrong one. A family member described the result. Harassment and threats of physical violence… my parents, uncles, and aunts receive messages saying they are pieces of shit and won’t be able to protect [him] forever… people then started circulating articles of him regarding his dreams and goals of being a chef, find the college he plans on attending and proceed to blow them up encouraging them to rescind offer and calling him a racist POS. The response? Something along the lines of well, if it’s not him, then say who it is. You know his name. They go to the same school. Give your friend over to us, let him face our justice. How can anyone possibly think this is a reasonable demand? What on earth do these people think they’re doing? Is this social justice? Thousands of grown adults, claiming for themselves the power of unrestricted punishment over a child. Yes, non-white children – black children playing with toy guns in the park, refugee children sluiced into various inhuman state processing systems – tend to be read as adults. This is monstrous. And on the day that one single child is released from a migrant concentration camp because a mob of adults tried to destroy a private Catholic school student on social media, I’ll endorse it as a tactic forever. Until then, it’s sadism.

But it’s strange how few people can point out what’s happening right in front of them. The person they hate the most in the video is the one who isn’t laughing, or hooting, or chanting. It’s the one who stands silently, doing nothing at all.

A basilisk is a snake, twelve fingers long, and the most poisonous creature on the earth. You will know a basilisk’s lair, because the plants that surround it will have blackened and died. In one story, a hunter on horseback speared a basilisk, and the venom travelled up the spear, so that both the hunter and his horse were instantly killed. Most famously, its gaze itself is lethal; in later legends, it turns its victims to stone. In psychoanalysis, the gaze always belongs to the other; the gaze is the sensation of being looked at, reduced to an object of contemplation, of withering into the dead matter of the world. Mulvey and her followers can describe a pervasive male gaze that silently commands and restrains women; men sometimes protest that they don’t see anything, they’re just terrified objects too. They’re both right. The basilisk must exist, because the basilisk is the one that does the looking. Slithering beneath the earth, coiled around the strutwork of satellites in orbit, the basilisk looks. It is lonely to be a basilisk, the only creature that can never look another being in its living eyes. The basilisk structures all social relations, because it is infinitely apart from them. The name basilisk comes from the Greek βασιλεύςbasileus, meaning king.

Only: what are you doing right now? You are hunched over, cold-blooded and motionless, staring at a screen.

Of all the things to throw your hatred into, why this? Desperate boats have started to cross the English Channel. It’s fifty degrees in Australia. Before long, significant tracts of the earth will be uninhabitable, places that are currently home to millions of people. Turkish-backed militia are ethnically cleansing Kurdish lands in Syria. There’s a fuel shortage in Gaza; four lion cubs froze to death in Rafah City Zoo. Everything is going terribly; the world is terrible beyond belief. There is constant violence, brutal physical violence, corpses churned into the earth. So why do we feel such a particular unease at this one kid, smirking silently without words?

Because we do nothing, because we can do nothing. We stand, and stare, and do nothing at all.

An idiot’s manifesto

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?
(Materials brought in evidence at the trial of Barbara Bush)

chagall4

1.

Not too long after the election, I was walking downtown on 6th Avenue in Manhattan when I passed a sign, frosted into the window of a fast-casual Mexican chain restaurant, that said ‘Queso at Chipotle: not fake news.’

That sign made me an idiot.

At home, certain brands of chocolate bar are Brexity, with a chalky stodge in the bite that sticks, like the guilt you feel over your unvisited and dying relatives, implacably to the front of your teeth. An advert for HSBC bank is solidly Remain.

They made me hungry. Everything only makes me hungry for idiocy.

To say that everything is political is no longer an insurrectionary act, not now that everything really is. Every swollen mosquito of a transnational corporation has a codified set of progressive values. Every conversation in pubs or coffee shops ends up being about politics. Every online dating service promises to pair you with some stranger who shares your opinions or will fight you over them; the pretence that you’re in it for something as absurd as sex is just a euphemistic fiction. How are you meant to deal with the unacceptable politics of your extended kin at Christmas? Let some bright-eyed bores help you, with their handy online guides. Family dinners everywhere now follow the same messy form: two scripted one-person performance pieces trying to share a single stage, a discordance kaleidoscoped into infinity. Children, I hear, are constantly offering wise pronouncements on the state of the world, castigating the stupidity of our leaders in ways that seem strangely un-childlike, with none of the good sharp mockery of a playground insult, but judicious, rooted firmly in good morals and good policy. ‘Liberating ourselves, expressing ourselves at whatever cost – a form of blackmail and ultimatum.’ Chicken sandwiches, sports shoes, coffee machines, craft supplies, burritos, and sitcoms are political, sold politically, consumed or not consumed politically. Music videos are political. The personal is political.

Not me though. I’m an idiot.

As Marxists, we’re long accustomed to the practice of digging around under the foundations of things, scrabbling to find an essence which will always be ineluctably political. Domination with its leprous grimace, bubbling away under a blank façade of mere social life. We find the hidden propaganda in films and TV; the material basis of history; the networks of social relations that dominate our lives in the workplace, in the streets, or in the bedroom. Everything that parades itself to the senses is a crust over the deep subterranean well of the political. Once the political nature of things is made overt, we’ve been announcing for decades, we will all be one step closer to being free.

The well has become a geyser now, and we have never been further from our freedom.

Walter Benjamin wrote that fascism is the aestheticisation of politics, and communism politicises art. Well, we’ve politicised art; every glue-gun assemblage of hunched material, every glorified mirror in mixed or digital media, declares itself as an affront to Trexit and Brump. But where’s our communism?

It would be foolish to assume not only that there’s still something more profound beneath it all, but that what lies beneath is still more politics.

Today, to abandon the world of politics is the last, the only, and the truest political act.

2.

Yes, we know. Behind all this relentless opinion-having about politics there’s a relentless entrepreneurship of the self, which has to adorn itself with all the right stances for whatever demographic it’s targeting, and the more often you repeat them the higher your market-assigned price. (Do you support the good things? Do you oppose the bad things? Then what sort of a person are you? Hot wet indignity, the psychotic injury of someone who can’t accept that every game always has an opposing team.) Better to leave every evil in its place, so you can oppose it, than to overturn them and be left bereft.  And behind this brutalised vision of the self are the laws of neoliberal political economy, which haven’t just stamped themselves in our flesh but sealed us in, like the bindings that used to make infants’ soft heads grow into tall and alarming shapes, since before we were born. But you’ve not uncovered anything, just come back to where we started. You’re on a Möbius strip; there is no other side. And don’t you ever find it boring?

Yes, we know. Complacency is a luxury. Irony is a luxury. In this moment of crisis, in this moment of opportunity, to do nothing, to fail to have a position on the political shoes or the political sandwiches, to not preen yourself into a Good Person in a cruel world, to not talk about the latest deprivation over coffee and wine and hemlock and sewage, to let each dumb moment fall through our fingers, and not try to grab at it, to not fix its dwindling in the aspic of thought while every day people are suffering, is a luxury. May all luxuries belong to the working classes.

No, we don’t know a thing.

Sometimes my dreams are political. But in the end, it matters less that I dreamed I was consoling Barack Obama over the phone, and more that I did so in a cottage cut directly into the bedrock of a Hebridean crag, where the naked stone was livid with chilly light, where the sea glittered like needles, where titanic gulls – swift omnivorous airships, wingtips stabbing each towards its horizon, birds that could only hatch from the powdered eggshell of the moon – called out hideously overhead.

Prince Myshkin, Dostoyevsky’s idiot, sees the world from the vantage-point of infinity. It comes in his fits. At an aristocratic dinner full of cruel and vain society notables, he fucks everything up: he tries to discuss theology, he sprays spittle in the salad, he makes a spectacle of himself. He already knew he would break that Chinese vase. He knows, too, that at any moment the Bolsheviks will be breaking down the French windows to cart everyone off to a labour camp. Dostoyevsky’s novel, unlike anything else in the nineteenth century, unlike even Marx, comes with a full understanding of the fragility of the present. But the epileptic is not an excavator; his wisdom is the same as his ignorance, which is the same as his insensitivity, which is the same as his trembling. He suspects no subtleties. ‘He did not turn the coat and see the shabby lining.’ Instead he skims. Look at the grass growing, he announces, and then falls to the floor in a froth.

The Greeks used the word idiot, ίδιώτης, to denote someone who was uninterested in the communal life of the polis. A private person, a selfish person, a person who keeps themselves to themselves, which was the true sin of Sodom. But the self of the idiot is not the same as the self of the present order. An idiot is never fungible. An idiot is absented from the system of values, exchange-values and political values included. Not a separation from the tissues of the world, but an approach on a different register. Prince Myshkin does not close himself off from society; he simply doesn’t understand it. An idiot suffers from idiopathies, strange and unknown diseases. An idiot speaks in an idiolect, a strange and unknown speech. An idiot is idiothermic, warmed by a strange and unknown light.

We, too, must become strange and unknown.

3.

The idiot has started reading novels again, which were always laced with a surplus – of what isn’t entirely clear, but it’s certainly not meaning – that can only be inassimilable to politics. At first it’s hard to give up the game of making clever inferences and readings, but once they learn that literature is, like sex or the sky, fundamentally prelinguistic and pleasurable, they wonder why they ever bothered. The idiot has taken an interest in early medieval panel paintings. Specifically, forging them. They end up selling panels to galleries and museums to the tune of £800,000 before being found out. The idiot is learning to be kinder and better to other people, to work diligently and conscientiously, to always be careful stomping around after it rains in case they hear the sickening wet crunch of a snail dying underfoot. The idiot murders a high-level diplomat for no reason whatsoever.

The idiot sits in a garden filled with terrifying flightless birds, which regard you from bronze-dull eyes. In the garden of the idiot foxgloves tower as tall as cypresses. Children with wild hair – not the idiot’s, maybe not anyone’s – climb the stalks of these plants, and settle themselves into their tubular flowers, and shriek from each nectar-smeared lip that this petal-pod is theirs, and they’ll kill anyone who tries to get in, and the idiot sits in the sunshine with a very small cup of coffee and shuffles papers without reading them.

The idiot decides to believe that market ideology is only humanity’s unconscious attempt – through the scrabbling activity of conquest, and the torque of capital flows – to speed the rotation of the earth on its axis. (This frenzy for speed will be its own undoing; read Capital, chapter ten, on the working day.) The idiot conjectures that liberal inclusivity, with its constellation of oppressions and privileges, is the political expression of an ancient Atlantean star-map. The idiot knows that the Sino-Soviet split was really only a metaphor for the eternal crisscrossings of the sun (Mao) and the moon (Brezhnev), and the same story was told by the Navajo around forgotten fires.

The idiot has translated their speech into a buzzing like that of bees, but the bees can’t understand them. Bees communicate through dance, and the idiot has never been any good at dancing.

Scales creep across the idiot’s skin. They harden. The idiot’s tongue has a weltering itch all the way down its length. The idiot is turning into a lizard. Thin leathery frills web the space under the idiot’s arms. The idiot might never be able to fly, but it’s possible they could one day learn how to swoop.

4.

I’m becoming an idiot.

I’m going to delete my Facebook. I’m only going to watch cooking shows on TV, and I won’t draw any lessons from them. The radio is for sports and music. If someone offers me the Evening Standard at the tube station, I’m going to spit cold blood in their face.

When a conversation turns to politics, I’ll get up and walk away, leaving my restaurant bill unpaid, and go to jail if I have to.

I’m going to clear out all this useless mental clutter. I’ll forget the capitals of Europe. I’ll stop being proud of knowing all the countries that only border one other country, even though everyone always forgets the Gambia. I’ll let the world fade away by degrees, until all that’s left is what I can touch, and mystery.

I’m going to lock myself away in my home and expand. I’ll refuse to understand anything outside its walls, and watch the patterns of dust on the windowsill to see what they do.

I’m going to lock myself in a sensory deprivation tank and expand. My entire world will be contained in a few feet of motionless water, and I won’t be there to experience any of it.

I’m not going to have any crazy hallucinations. I’m going to let blackness settle over me, and I’ll find it neither boring nor interesting.

I’m going to lock myself in a sealed tank, and only sleep.

I’m going to sleep where nobody will be able to disturb me.

When I die, they’ll bury me deep in the ground.

 

Ram-packed: a horror story about rail privatisation

kindness-to-sheep-on-cattle-train

Despite what you might have heard, we did not collapse into savagery on the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston. There was not a breakdown of society. We did not revert to barbarism or become like beasts, we did not experience a collapse of social norms, we did not suffer from a brutal upsurge of some timeless human nature in all its frenzy, its envy, and its sanguinary gore. What we achieved on that train was the highest possible expression of modern liberal civilisation. What I saw there, among unseeing eyeballs trailing tails of slime, between its black holes and white walls, was the the truth. The realisation of a perfect idea; at long last, something that works. When the train finally slid into that dry and hungry mouth at Crewe, having experienced minor delays, and we got off to make our connections or to buy a sandwich and a bottle of Diet Coke from the WH Smiths or to wash the blood off our faces in the greasy train-station sinks, we arrived in a world made finally itself.

Start at the beginning. London dribbles in loose splats against the outside of the windows as we speed north. There are parts of the urban chimera that you can only really see out the window of a panting intercity train: the fast-coursing rivers of unused rail and mossy gravel, the heaped industrial shacks groping over each other behind barbed wire, the shockingly naked backsides of terraced houses in grimy brick and spiderweb-cracked plaster with their haphazardly placed windows and their squat forms that bloat like the buried secret of the nice stucco streetside. All these things fade, bursting against the window and trailing off along the sides of the train. London itself fades, staggering into its own twilight. Soon it will be night, and the only thing visible through the train windows will be your own guilty reflection. I am guilty. I am sitting in someone else’s seat. Of course the train is overcrowded; it’s a bank holiday weekend, and thousands are streaming out of London to get the boat from Holyhead – but more than that, this is just the way things are. See how practical questions become moral ones: if you wanted to sit down for your journey, you should have booked a seat instead of getting an open return like the feckless dilettante you are; if you really wanted that seat, you should have been on the platform early instead of wasting five minutes dithering over three types of layered salad at the M&S Simply Food in a drooling microcosm of the delayed-adulthood indecision that is already setting the coordinates for your wasted life and will make sure that your grave is unvisited and unmarked after you die. There are rules; if you can’t play by them then you have nobody else to blame. But trudging through the Gothic infinity of packed carriages, I find an empty seat. Reserved from Milton Keynes Central. And I sit down, knowing that it doesn’t belong to me and I’ll have to give it up, knowing that I am the most worthless creature on this train.

First division. The people left standing, their long line like manacled captives searing through the middle of the carriage, are giving me strange looks. A healthy-looking couple, her hair tied back in a sheer ponytail, his cut short, both of them dangling big hiking rucksacks knotted with strange straps and harnesses, glare. Aleady they want me dead. They know I have no real right to be sitting down and I only got where I am from sheer blind luck. Second division. Out in the vestibule, little eyes peer and scowl behind doors that intermittently hiss open and shut. Third division. In the seat besides me, a balding navy-suited creature reading the Financial Times will sometimes almost-accidentally jab me with his elbow as he lobs peanut M&Ms into his mouth. I hear the flickering neck-snap crackle of candy shells breaking, the damper meatier crunch of masticated peanuts, the slurp and slobber of liquefying chocolate as it gums up the unholy inside of his mouth. He wants me dead too; he knows I don’t belong in that chair, and he hates the fact that to an imaginary observer he might appear to be somehow on the same social plane as an indolent impostor like myself. And me? I hate every one of them, the athletic young couple, the accusing eyes from the vestibule, my peanut-eating neighbour; they’ve seen my shame, and I want it to sprout tendrils and strangle them all.

At Milton Keynes the first skirmishes break out. The platform is packed, and grunts of open hostility greet the people trying to move into the train as others move out. Toes are mangled underfoot, epithets hissed. I give up my seat when the shadow of a tall skinnyfat beardo hovers over me, brandishing his ticket. (It’s hard to tell in the flurry of fake-apologetic winces and grimaces that pass between us as mandated by law – so sorry, no I’m sorry – but for a moment he appears to be wearing my face.) As the train insinuates through rotting late-summer fields I slide into the aisle’s frozen conga. I don’t feel any more solidarity for the seatless as I join their ranks. They certainly don’t seem to feel any for me. At the end of the carriage I see an old man leaning on a stick, stoically mashing his gums. The passengers around him stare into their laps. Not my problem. He should have bought a proper ticket.

Behind me, things are not going so well. A newcomer, short and brutal in a floral print dress, seems to have been allocated a table seat that’s currently being occupied by a family of four – fat gregarious husband, patient hijabi wife, children sucked face-first into their iPads – who also have a valid reservation. The Miltonian still expects them to move, children be damned. She’ll call a conductor. She’ll tell the authorities. When threats don’t seem to work, she leans down, arse bumping against elbows on the opposite row, to grab one of the small children from his seat. The kid screams and flails for his iPad. The husband roars and stands, swings a big broad wobbling punch, catches the aggressor just under her collarbone, and she staggers. The whole line of patient standing-room travellers tilts; I’m knocked forwards into someone’s sweaty shoulderblade. What happens next seems to coruscate in time. In the chaos of that sudden motion a sleek black camping knife tears through the fabric of the big healthy hiker’s rucksack, waiting, mechanically erect. His girlfriend, standing behind him, is knocked forwards, and it jabs deep just under her chin and comes out again, followed by a halting piss-stream of blood. There’s no sound. ‘Whoa,’ he says, noncommittally, as he rights himself; he still doesn’t know what’s just happened. She crumples dead. This carriage is not safe for me. As the first screams rise, and the panic of people crammed immovably in place spreads, I duck and sidle out back to the vestibule. My voyage begins.

This was not, as I discover, the first death. They might have all started like that – accidental – but the killing made too much sense to end that way. In the rubbery intestine between carriages a sprawling clot of people has formed, a pearl around a corpse. The body flails helplessly as the train lurches from side to side, still being kicked and pummelled furiously by an inner ring of maddened passengers; it’s already too disfigured to tell what its age was, or its sex. I don’t ask what crime the victim committed. I already know: they didn’t have the proper reservation. I move on, squeezing past the murderers. Sorry, I say. Sorry, they mutter in reply. The train is a linear Gormenghast, a sucession of reclusive bubble-worlds, each of them with the same decor and the same grisly violence, each brutally different. In the little restaurant car, children run and scream through the burst contents of bags of crisps and other people’s luggage. There’s blood crusting under their nails. They turn dagger-sharp eyes to me, and I move on. In the quiet coach bodies dangle silently from the overhead rail, mouths yawning in wordless screams. I bump my head against one with a barely audible thwock, and a lone impatient tut sounds out from somewhere behind me. I move on. I journey for a very long time, for what feels like years, pushing politely past the killing and the dying, fighting when I have to, fleeing when I can. I’m looking for something. A space where I can catch my breath, just a breath of air that’s not been made humid by sweat and frenzy. No luck. There are, I hear someone whisper, plenty of seats up in first class; you just need to buy a £12 upgrade. Impossible. By this time I’ve seen it myself: the drinks trolleys barricaded against the entrance, the sloping pile of corpses abutting it, every poor mangled idiot still gripping his credit card. And behind them, painted in grime and ichor on the frosted-glass sliding door, the face of the god: bearded, smiling warmly, the faint outlined suggestion of a nude woman clinging behind him on his kiteboard. Not a god who might save us. Richard Branson is a god who has already come to deliver us all.

I soon realise that this isn’t mere anarchy. This is the train responding creatively to its crisis, in the only way a privatised British rail service knows how. All the normal rules of decorum are still in place, the rules that let thousands of people travel amicably across the country while speaking as few words to each other as possible, the rules that give the reservation ticket its magical power and are inscribed in tiny polite jargon on its back – it’s just that the rules that ensure peace are being enforced by increasingly violent means. We are all good and valued customers, and we all have a right to be on this train. It’s just that there’s not enough room for us all. How else can we process our abstract equality? The marketplace of violence will sort everything out. Here, cloistered on a speeding train, we have spontaneously generated the most perfected version of the neoliberal utopia: thousands of subjects, all imprinted with its rational doctrines, working things out. The system is fair, I know it is – because in every carriage I cross, each bristled knotted carpet strewn with blood and viscera, the seated passengers are tapping placidly at their phones, leafing through the g2, idly munching Jelly Babies or nibbling at supermarket sushi, as if nothing were happening at all. Not my problem, their eyes say. They should have bought a proper ticket.

There’s so much I don’t remember.

Not the murder and the bloodshed – I will remember that forever – but more basic facts. Why was I going to Crewe? Why did I leave London and its nurturing stink? I paid, I think, twelve hundred pounds for my ticket. Sometimes I can’t help the vague disquieting feeling that there was someone else with me, that I was idly chatting in my stolen seat to someone important, someone that I knew but can’t now remember, until we reached Milton Keynes and everything started to become the same as it had always been. On this train everyone is only alone. Sometimes, as I edged my way through cacophonous carriages, I’d put a hand against the windowpane and try to look outside, at scenes that felt wrong. Were we moving? Sometimes there seemed to be deserts outside, sloshing dunes in the blue twilight, running like water from vast buried scales, beneath this train gritted still by a million chattering grains of sand. Sometimes I saw the sullen fields of England crisscrossed by tracer fire, paratroopers tumbling strangled from invisible planes, and over the horizon Coventry burning. Sometimes the darkness outside was lit by a tiny pinprick of the noonday sun, burning cold to the faint peripheries of this faraway solar system, where the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston ploughed through sterile Hadean rock that had glittered lifeless for four and a half billion years, and under contellations unseen by humankind. At one point, I briefly locked myself in the bathroom, shortly before a furious minor tribe ripped out the door. I sat shivering on a toilet seat that pathetically begged with a coprophage’s masochism: ‘Don’t feed me wet wipes or sanitary products – they make me feel very poorly.’ I tried to connect to the onboard WiFi, and instead of a username and password, it asked me for the true name of God.

Despite what you might have heard, I said, we did not collapse into savagery on the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston. But if I’m honest, I don’t know what you might have heard. As the train finally slid into that dry and hungry mouth at Crewe, having experienced minor delays, I found myself cowering in another vestibule. Most of the others were dead; the screams and gurgles, at least, had faded. And above the bins, behind blood-smeared glass, was a screen showing live CCTV from throughout a clean and orderly privatised train, resplendent with soft comfortable inviting empty seats. The god’s eye view. Onscreen, the only people left standing, or cluttering up the vestibules, were the ones who obstinately refused to sit. There, on one seat, with his hand on his companion’s knee, hunched over an open copy of René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, scrolling through his phone between its pages, was myself. I remembered the man who had taken my seat at Milton Keynes, the one that looked for a moment exactly like me. He was arriving at his destination. I had no idea where I had ended up. I still don’t know where I am. As the doors pinged and hissed and opened, I stepped out of the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston, and into the truth.

The iron law of online abuse

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You could call it something like Cohen’s Law – named, of course, for Nick Cohen, the seething thing in the middle pages of the Observer – or the Iron Law of Online Abuse. It goes something like this: every single pundit or journalist who goes on a moral crusade against left-wing social-media crudery will have, very recently, done the exact same things they’re complaining against. They will have used insults, personal attacks, expletives, epithets, or unpleasant sexual suggestions; they will have engaged in bullying or spiteful little squabbles; they will have indulged in some form of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia; they will have encouraged political repression, violence, or censorship; they will have threatened to contact someone’s editor or boss or the police or otherwise have conspired to ruin their life. Chances are that they won’t have been very good at it, but they will have been mean; they will have used invective. This is always – always – true.

Nick Cohen gets the honours, firstly because he’s just awful, and secondly because he’s such a luminously dumb exemplar of this tendency: in column after column he condemns the vicious epithets suffered by MPs and public figures, grouching for civility and good, clean, open debate – but, when he’s not play-acting at high-mindedness, he compares socialists in solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution to sex tourists, flings antisemitic stereotypes at anti-Zionist Jews, and apostrophises Corbyn’s supporters as ‘fucking fools.’ This week, three young men with a podcast were monstered by the right-wing press, their names and faces revealed to an audience of frothing reactionaries, for posting a photo of Yvette Cooper MP in a first-class train carriage without her consent, and calling her a ‘bellend.’ (Cohen’s Law: the same publication, so primly outraged by the epithet that it had to render it as ‘bell**d,’ itself puts out material in which migrants are compared to rats) The publication of the photo had already been subjected to a comradely critique from within the left for its misogynistic overtones; the podcast account had apologised and taken it down. It was only afterwards that the reactionary press seized on the incident as part of its war of extermination against all left-wing thought, and moderate liberals happily joined in. If you don’t uncritically support a Daily Mail smear campaign, they said, you’re an abuser. How did Cohen respond to all this? With a personal insult about the appearances of the three men, of course. The Law is never wrong.

My point here isn’t to simply condemn the hypocrisy of Cohen and his ilk, although their hypocrisy is stunning. I’m certainly not trying to uphold the principle that they themselves fail to meet – don’t be rude, don’t be nasty, demolish ideas and not people, never find inventive ways to mock your enemies. As I’ve said before, there’s a great virtue in well-crafted nastiness, and there are few better measures of a good writer than how well they rise to the challenge of magnificently crushing somebody else. But when it comes to the question of online abuse, the left is forced to fight on strangely uneven territory. No wonder, then, that it’s the favoured terrain for anti-socialists. In Britain and in America, whenever a positive, hopeful, emancipatory left-wing movement makes electoral successes, it’s immediately dogged by claims that its supporters are behaving intemperately online. And it’s usually true. You will find supporters of any movement saying deeply unpleasant things on the internet. (All this stuff is, for some reason, usually treated as the voice of a rampaging, uncensored id, humanity’s oldest and worst instincts from the vicious dawn of the species suddenly re-amplified by technology; what it actually is, of course, is the voice of a rampaging, censorious superego.) But the goal of the accusation is always to present online abuse as a peculiarly left-wing phenomenon, or to make innuendoes towards some kind of complicity between the socialist left and the Nazi alt-right in their shared fondness for being mean online. This red-baiting tactic should be recognised for what it is: one of desperation. Most voters have better sense than to care too much about what’s happening on Twitter; it’s instructive that the latest round of deeply stupid recriminations in the UK only emerged after the June election made it impossible to continue arguing that Corbynism is inherently unelectable. The point isn’t to actually win on these grounds: it’s a delaying tactic, an attempt to set leftists against each other, to draw us onto unforgiving terrain, to have us all talking, interminably, about online abuse

So let’s talk about online abuse. What actually is it? A man who called a Tory MP a ‘backstabber’ and said that ‘austerity has murdered tens of thousands of disabled people’ was accused, by that MP, of abuse. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who quoted Engels in referring to the Grenfell Tower massacre as ‘social murder,’ was implicitly accused of inciting abuse. Someone who accused a Labour MP of ‘xenophobia’ for pandering to anti-migration sentiments during the EU referendum debate was told in turn that what they were doing was abuse. There’s a rhetorical legerdemain here. Legal definitions exist for domestic abuse and workplace abuse; these things have workable meanings. Online abuse has none. The term ‘abuse’ is amorphous and pullulating: it means death or rape threats, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, obsessive stalking, menacing messages and intimidation – but it also bundles up all those evils with critique, invective, any form of political anger, any form of negativity. These things are all forms of hate, and it’s forbidden to hate, even to hate what is evil. If someone tells a member of a government that routinely destroys lives that they are, in fact, destroying lives, this is abuse: it’s basically the same as making a violent death threat. If you call someone a ‘warmonger’ just because they want to start a war, this is abuse, and for that reason alone, the war must go ahead.

Socialists are continually called upon to condemn all abuse. We should be careful about doing this; the term is fundamentally deeply dishonest. It has a way of inverting actual power relations: the powerful, the corrupt and chrematistic and condescending, become the victims of a population half-starved and lied to. You can forget, almost, that the people being abused might also be killers. Movements to end mass social slaughter and build socialism in its place are delegitimised by political anger of any kind, but the engines of the vast structure of repression always remain respectable in their monstrosity. If there is racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or transphobia, then that is what it should be called, and that is what should be condemned: we should oppose it wherever it appears, and especially within our own movement. But nobody should ever feel obliged to condemn the act of not respecting your betters.

Hierarchy, in the end, is what it all boils down to. Once, writers were more up-front about this kind of thing. The great English reactionary Edmund Burke, writing against the horrors of the French Revolution, lingers over the violation of Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber, in dark and gushing prose. ‘A band of cruel ruffians and assassins rushed into the chamber of the queen and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly.’ This is the essence of the confounding of ‘all orders, ranks, and distinctions’: in normal times, pointed weapons should be used to dispatch the people who didn’t even have a bed; for these sans-brolottes to attack a queen’s mattress is an inversion of the natural order worse than massacre of peasants by violence or poverty in history.

Today, there are no armed assaults on the Queen to condemn. Instead, there is a sociology of the term ‘abuse,’ a subject-capable-of-being-abused, a subject-capable-of-abusing. The primary determining factor is, of course, class, in all its articulations. This is where Cohen’s Law is important.  After all, the only people more profoundly unpleasant on Twitter than right-wing Labour MPs, who take a perverse delight in mocking and blocking their own constituents, are some of my colleagues in the media. Often, the same people who are obsessively demanding that leftie snowflakes put aside their trigger warnings and toughen up will turn into a fainting nineteenth-century prude the moment an unkind word is sent in their direction. An unknown and unimportant person who calls a journalist or a politician a prick online is engaging in abuse; she is part of the bloodthirsty mob; her actions are immediately concatenated with every evil and prejudice imaginable. If the journalist or politician calls her a prick back, this is a delightful little piece of vulgarity, a witty rejoinder, a cutting put-down, an artist enjoying the varied fruits of their craft. They can write articles demonising some of the most vulnerable elements of society, and this is just a reasoned opinion; they can create policies that materially harm thousands of people and cement the power of the ruling class, and this is just a necessity of government. If an ordinary and powerless member of the public sends an email full of racial invective, it’s (quite rightfully) condemned – vile, hateful, sickening abuse, utterly unacceptable, drivel from the lowest dregs of humanity – but if professional writers build up a vast archive of work that delegitimises (to take a purely random example) the rights and identities of trans people, it’s part of a debate. Confront the magazine writer with the terms used to describe the anonymous emailer, and you too will be engaging in abuse. The prejudice is very rarely the real source of the objection. It’s the rudeness, the social impropriety, the talking back to your betters.

Nobody should be surprised that the great and the good also behave badly online. The internet is a close, dark, humid void that sits in the palm of your hand, and it’s full of everyone you could ever have a reason to hate. It’s an open-plan bestiary, where the monsters of ideology shudder and crawl and tear into each other with strange serrated claws, scattering viscera in every black and boundless direction, but unable to ever kill or to ever die. The only way to live there is to grow grim keratins yourself. I don’t begrudge Nick Cohen his personal attacks; if they were actually any good, and if they didn’t stray into dishonesty and antisemitism, I might admire him for them. Invective can be vital and creative and fun. But for so many people they’re accompanied by an unbearable sanctimony. It’s sometimes claimed that the left has decided that our ‘moral purity’ gives us the right to attack anyone we like. It might be true. But these centrists, who have twisted their lack of principle into an obscure virtue, claim for themselves a much more destructive right: primly appalled, they can do whatever they like to destroy another person, because they were rude first. The language of respected opinion leaders collapses into infantile babble: a leering spectacle, children’s heads stitched to hulking adult bodies. He started it. I’m telling on you. A game of osctracisms and recriminations, all of it far more vicious and unpleasant than a good sharp ‘cunt.’

Buried in all of this is the expectation that those who occasionally inform the people who do wrong that they are doing wrong will stop, if they’re just hectored enough. This will not happen. One way to fix the ‘abuse’ problem is methodological and technological; this is the one that’s already being put into place. I have a blue tick on Twitter; I can swear at Nick Cohen all I like, and sometimes do. Most users, however, will be subjected to automated moderation if they say anything to him that the algorithm decides he might not like. The effect is to entrench the existing class system, to tear out the throats of the voiceless, and create a world safer for idiot men and their gusts of opinion; there’s less unpleasantness on Twitter, but only for the people who keep writing columns about how unfairly they’re treated on Twitter. The other way to fix the problem is harder, but it might actually work: to start building a world that is not sustained through perpetual cycles of immiseration and malice, in which the mutual recognition of all human subjects replaces the scraping respect for authority, and in which we could decide to enjoy being extravagantly mean to each other if we liked, without any harm ever being done.

Why won’t you push the button?

Nuclear war is not only fabulous because one can only talk about it, but because the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry, psycho-rhetoric, and the most cursory, the most archaic, the most crudely opinionated psychagogy, the most vulgar psychology.
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)

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Imagine if a politician openly promised, during a campaign, that they would be willing to burn people alive. They come to knock on your door, bright and smiling in a freshly crinkled rosette: unlike my opponent, who doesn’t care about your security and the security of your family, I will personally subject someone to sixty million-degree heat, so that their fat melts and their bones are charred and their eyeballs burst and their bodies crumble into toxic dust. I will torture other people by burning their skin, I will torch their flesh away and leave them with open wounds bubbling with disease. They will die slowly. I will poison others; their organs will fail and they will shit out their guts in agony. I will do this to people who have done nothing wrong, to families, to children, to their pets; one by one, I will burn them to death. For you. For your security.

This is what the bomb did to Hiroshima. This is utter barbarism. Even saying that you would do it is utter barbarism. Of course, the nuclear deterrent only works if you say that you’re prepared to use it – which just demonstrates that we shouldn’t have it, that the whole logical structure of nuclear deterrence is abominable. Any tool whose mere existence forces you to say the unspeakable is not worth having; a hammer that causes you to make death threats is not fit for purpose. Anyone who threatens the world with blinding destruction in unspecified circumstances is simply not responsible enough to hold power. There is no situation in which the use of these weapons is ever justified – never, not in the most tortured hypotheticals of an undergraduate ethics seminar, not in the most Boschian secondary worlds inhabited by right-wing fantasists. If a nuclear attack on Britain has already been launched, retaliation will save nobody; it would just be the final act of spite in a long spiteful history. Nobody would accept a politician who threatened from the podium on live TV to personally burn one person to death, so why should we accept the idea of burning millions?

But what’s strange about the moral case against nuclear weapons – they cause horrendous suffering, must never be used, and should not exist – is that it doesn’t work.

We saw this on Friday night’s Question Time debate, as a parade of questioners took Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to task over his refusal to say that he would ‘push the button’ and initiate an attack. Theresa May has said that she would press the button in a first strike; Owen Smith, during the last leadership contest, said the same thing. This seems to be a fairly popular decision; the thoughtless destruction of everything that exists plays well with the British public. More than that: it’s demanded; according to the eldritch nostrums that structure British political life, if you’re not willing to promise horrendous genocide with the breezy psychopathy of some ancient khagan drinking from the skulls of his enemies, you can’t be trusted to keep us safe. The appetite for murder is incalculable. After Corbyn ruled out a first strike, one member of the public – red-faced, ageing, some sad retired insurance salesman comforting himself in his flabby decline with thoughts of the fiery extermination of humanity – demanded to know if he’d use Trident as a second strike: the British people demand death from beyond the grave; he’d die gladly if he knew that a few million innocent Iranians or Koreans went too.

It’s striking how sharply the inhuman vastness of nuclear war contrasts with the pettiness and finitude and awfulness of the people who demand it. The first question on nuclear weapons came from one Adam Murgatroyd, who looks exactly how you’d expect, some simpering Tory ponce with his slicked-back hair and his practised raise of an eyebrow. ‘It’s disconcerting,’ he later told the press, ‘that we could potentially in six days’ time have a prime minister who wouldn’t be prepared to protect British lives over someone else’s life.’ Imagine the air poisoned, the soil dying, the biosphere eradicated, the grand flailing tragedy of humanity and its aspirations put to an abrupt stop, the families huddling their loved ones close as the shock wave hits, knowing they’re about to die – and all because some limp umbrella of a man wanted a leader who’d make the right kind of nationalistic hoots about defence. Now I am become Adam from the BBC studio audience, destroyer of worlds.

We should consider the questions of the atomic age in fear and trembling. Instead we get the blearing idiocy of common sense, always pointing us to the wrong and most monstrous answer. The process of thinking about the red button has become as automatic as the button itself.

Nuclear war is unthinkable, in the most literal sense. It has no end and no interpretation; it is invisible, ungraspable, unconscionable. There is a significant cultural industry dedicated to depicting nuclear war precisely because it’s impossible, because we’re trying to find ways to depict a looming absence of everything, a nothing that can never be depicted. (This is why Derrida considers the real literature of the nuclear age to not be works that directly imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but the texts of Kafka, Mallarmé, and Joyce – the writing that comes closest to touching its own finitude and destructibility.) The death drive, Kristeva writes, is not represented in the unconscious, because the unconscious can not admit negation – only, as Freud puts it, ‘contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength.’ Instead, Kristeva writes, there is a ‘hiatus, spacing, or blank that constitutes death for the unconscious.’ Death is in the cadence of the psyche, the pause that gives regularity and reason to its articulation, the silence against which it expresses itself. Nuclear war is the death of politics and administration, the emptiness in which politics speaks. This is why petty, stupid bureaucrats, small people with small concerns, who mostly fuss about which type of coffee plays best with the focus-group voters, have to occasionally declare that they would take on the titanic task of wiping out all of human history. They have to announce their fidelity to the interior non-substance of our political discourse, which is the death of every living thing. Then they’re allowed to go on and talk about parking spaces and healthy eating and cutting taxes and aspiration. Everything is in its unplace, all policy is properly situated at ground zero, where the bombs will fall.

This silence is not pure unsignifying madness: it’s the final home of rationality. The sense in which we talk about reason – pure objectivity, emotionlessness, abstract numerical calculation, a kind of ratio that would have seemed very strange to, for instance, the medieval Europeans who helped first define it – is a product of the nuclear age. It’s well known that game theory, in which human decisions are modelled according to the assumption that everyone is a calculating and atomised individual who only wants to maximise their utility – was first taken up as a praxis to model the Cold War nuclear standoff, and was only then applied to all areas of social and economic life. But the most basic relay mechanisms of nuclear weapons by themselves enforce a post-politics. Paul Virilio notes that, as the warning times for a nuclear attack and a possible counter-attack shrunk from fifteen minutes to ten minutes to one, the effect was that of ‘finally abolishing the Head of state’s power of reflection and decision in favour of a pure and simple automation of defence systems… After having been the equivalent of total war the war machine suddenly becomes the very decision for war.‘ Somewhere, various sets of computer systems analyse the likelihood of an unprovoked strike and try to pre-empt it; when the end comes, it won’t be for explicable political goals, but out of a pure uninflected machine-reason, and none of us will ever know why. Reason and madness lose their distinction here. See Nixon, the shit Hamlet with his ‘madman doctrine,’ threatening to unleash the powers of apocalyptic calculation; see the tortured but valid syllogisms by which every democratic British leader has to make gruesome threats against the world. This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

Just like austerity or the massacre-by-inaction on Europe’s waters, the logic of nuclear weapons is not some pre-Kantian pure reason without a social or epistemological substrate. Nuclear weapons are, first of all, weapons in the class struggle. The greatest vector for socialism has always been war – in war, the ruling classes arm and mobilise the proletariat, tell them that they have the power to build the fate of nations, and then send them off to die; it’s only a matter of time before these workers decide that this power could be put to better use, and the people taking the most principled stand against these senseless wars have always been Communists. War between the powers became too great a threat to power itself. Nuclear weapons abolish this: abstract mobilisation, the disappearance of territory, the omnipresence of the front. Working classes win by striating and reinterpreting space – building barricades, occupying squares, cutting off the flows of production and exchange at crucial points – and under the global sovereignty of the bomb there is no such thing as space. Instead, our role is simply to die, in endless billions. But it all makes sense; every step is perfectly rational. It’s a death you can trust, to keep you and your family safe.

Corbynism or barbarism, part II

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I’m going to be voting for Labour.

This is a new experience for me. It’s not that I haven’t voted Labour before: I did in 2010. Posturing and frightened in a low, scuzzy student block in Leeds, I pulled myself out my personal bathysphere of weed stink and late-teenage ripeness to plod over under crows and clouds and do my duty and keep out the Tories – and afterwards I felt deeply ashamed. It was like having one of Gordon Brown’s hairs stuck in my mouth; it was as if his grease had started oozing through my skin. I felt suddenly complicit in everything – the wars, the privatisations, the ASBOs and ID cards, the scudding lies and shabby gloss of New Labour Britain. Five years of Tory government acid couldn’t burn off the guilt. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever do it again, and when I had the chance two years ago, I didn’t.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s not that they were just as bad as the Tories; the government had been a half-decade horror. a cast of seepy flesh-bubbles bloating out the mire, some murderous gang of ninnying imbeciles and swill-fed ponces that had, for all the usual reasons, decided theirs was the right to go about making life quantifiably, measurably worse. I hated them and I wanted them gone. But I couldn’t vote for Labour. I couldn’t stand hearing Ed Miliband’s voice on the radio, because it was the honk and bleat of someone who was basically just like me, another nice left-wing Jewish boy from North London, a bit clumsy, a bit gangly, a bit insecure – but one who didn’t indulge in my purism, or my nihilism, or whatever it was that made me refuse compromises and triangulation and any attempt to make common ground with established power. Any student of history knows what power does to the commons. I would not settle for the least worst option; I would not pick sides in the stupid intra-capitalist squabbles of electoralism. I knew that a Labour government would materially reduce the suffering and deprivation of millions of people – but I also knew that once you let that turn into an ethical duty to vote, anything beyond the minute reduction of suffering is lost, and worst of all, the suffering of others (migrants, asylum seekers, the global working class) becomes something utterly hideous: a worthwhile price. When I voted for some tiny Menshevik party I didn’t really like and whose name I can’t even remember, it didn’t help anybody. But who says our capacity to help, to do politics, to be engaged, has to be bounded by the form of the vote?

Since then things have become immeasurably worse, but that’s not why I’m voting for Labour. Britain is not just sliding into fascism; we’ve landed. This has become a deeply ugly place. Our Prime Minister – gurning, grimacing, parochial,  incompetent, rhadmanthine, segmented, arachnid, and inhuman; the Daily Mail letters page given chitinous flesh; a zealous ideologue for the doctrines of smallness and stupidity and dumbfuck blithering hatred; a vicar’s daughter distilling all the common-sense peevishness and resentment from the dingy grog of the English national spirit; a leader who doesn’t so much impose austerity as embody it, in every word or gesture that seeks to foreclose on all possibilities and draw the furthest boundaries of the sunlit world no further than your respectable lace curtains – instructs the public to give her more power, to paint over a divided country with a false unity in Parliament, so she can exercise her supreme will. The loyal Tory press responds with terrifying outbursts against all enemies: ‘Hang The Lot,’ ‘Boil The Traitors Alive,’ ‘Insert The Pear Of Anguish Into The Anuses Of Our Enemies So That They May Be Disembowelled From Within,’ ‘Readers Agree: It’s Time To Crush The Heads Of The Remoaners Under A Large Millstone,’ ‘Where Are Our Common-Sense Torture Kennels In Which The People We Don’t Like Are Torn Apart Shred By Shred By Starving Dogs?’ All the anti-establishment energies that fuelled the Brexit vote have been effortlessly consumed by the administration: the people had their say, and (given that this is all out of the Schmittian playbook) they will only get to have it once; now it’s the role of power to implement it, and the will of the people as refracted through this government is for total centralised power with anything that could be called political extinguished. This is fascism: a simple, easy, descriptive term for what it is we’re living under.

But I’m not voting against Theresa May. I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s easy, very easy, to be against something. I was against Labour in 2015, and I still don’t think I was wrong. But being purely against – anti-fascist, anti-liberal, anti-racist, anti-sexist – means never being let down, and never being vulnerable. The horrors of the world descend on you, and you oppose them. But it’s not enough. There needs to be some positively articulated shared object, something that can be affirmed. It means losing some cynicism, giving up some of the invulnerability of ironism, attaching the boundless subjective I to a thing of history, that could get swept up with every other fragile thing and destroyed. But without that attachment nothing can be done. This is why so many socialists still see a value and an importance in maintaining some kind of attachment to the old dead Soviet project – people who know full well that there were famines and purges, mass deportations and mass shootings, and who are repulsed by all suffering, but who know that, whatever its failings, the Soviet project was our project. Socialism is not an abstraction or a negation; it’s the real attempt to build a better world in this one, and it demands our fidelity. It won’t be possible unless we’re prepared to do more than oppose the evil. Demands are made on us for the sake of a liberated existence, and the first is that we be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable, and that we accept that our faith might be disappointed.

To be for Jeremy Corbyn is dangerous, and the possibility of disappointment is high. His ideology is not the same as mine; his policies, while good, are disarticulated; his leadership, while inspiring, has not been effective; most of all, the Labour Party might be the worst vehicle possible for a programme of genuinely egalitarian change. It doesn’t matter. If he loses, the suds and mediocrities of the party’s right wing will be relentless; if they manage to force back the leadership, they will go to work destroying absolutely anyone who still holds the belief that life can be made better, burying the idea in its fringes for another generation or more, rooting out the seeds of utopia wherever they’re planted. The Labour party will be refashioned into something that once again proposes Tory policies using Tory methods and with priorities, just as the Tories skid further into authoritarianism – but while the Tories will just flatly tell us that they do evil because that’s how things are, Labour will still be begging to have a go on the torture kit so they can make things better. And people might believe them. After all, it won’t be quite as bad as the alternative.

Corbyn stands for a refusal to accept something that’s just not quite as bad as the alternative. Corbynism means not just electing the least fascist, the least liberal, the least racist, and the least sexist. The Labour right, the Tories, the Lib Dems, and Ukip are all partisans of a restricted imagination and a penny-pinching common sense; Corbynism the possibility of something actually good, the possibility of a way out. It points beyond itself.  Jeremy Corbyn did something quietly incredible, and which has nothing to do with his actual performance as Labour leader: he acted as the signifier that brought together a collectivity, he formed a point of unity for everyone who wanted a radical and transformative social change, even if they didn’t agree on what it should look like or how to bring it about. He gave the left a space to assert itself openly in British politics, in surprising numbers. This – the collective, not the man – is what’s important, and what’s feared, and what our enemies are desperate to crush.

After all, it wasn’t meant to be like this. There is a programme now for Western politics: it’s what we saw last year in the United States, and what’s unfolding right now in France. Wets versus Nazis, the collapsing liberal order against the embodiment of its own internal collapse, reiterated over and over again in every country, politics as a looping gif, the juddering replay at the end of the world. No hope, no possibility, this or the abyss. The radical left still has a role to play: its role is to lose. You thought you could have something better, and it turns out that you can’t: now choose. Centrists are obsessed by the idea that radicals secretly prefer the fascists to themselves; as soon as the hope for anything better is extinguished they demand that everyone on the left loudly announce how much they prefer the status quo to the remaining alternative. We have to pick sides in what is essentially a family squabble among reactionaries. Isn’t Hillary Clinton better than Donald Trump? Isn’t Mark Rutte better than Geert Wilders? Isn’t Emmanuel Macron better than Marine Le Pen?

Yes, of course they are. However badly things are going, they could always get worse. But the final collapse of liberalism is a situation in which liberalism seems perversely comfortable. Anti-fascism is only one half of what the world needs; it also needs a positively articulated vision of how it can be improved, and the centrists have nothing: lower business rates, softer racism, friendlier faces. Of course it’s necessary – urgently, frantically necessary – to defeat the Nazis, not least because it buys us more time. But it’s not enough, it’s a stopgap for the symptoms. Almost all the advanced capitalist societies are tilting in the same direction, and these Nazis didn’t come from nowhere. They are entirely immanent to the liberal political order as it stands; their racism and violence and hatred comes from a society which is already racist and hateful and violent. The fascists gain their energy from the failure of liberalism, and liberalism gets to stave off its failure thanks to the threat posed by the fascists. Both are the living undeath of the other. The whole order is monstrous, decrepit, shambling, and lifeless; it has to go. To struggle for a better world isn’t a luxury in a time of rising fascism, it’s the only thing that can save us.

I’m voting for Labour. It’s not perfect, of course it’s not. And Labour are unlikely to win. Corbynism or barbarism doesn’t represent a fork in the road, but something much harder; barbarism surrounds us everywhere, and Corbynism is attempting to wrench us out of it; it’s hard to pull an entire planet out of the swamp it’s made for itself, it’s hard to lift something up when it’s already slipping down, it’s hard to tear yourself away from a brutal and stupid reality. But it can be done. Something like Corbynism was never meant to happen. The narrative failed here: where there should have been a brief entrancing spark of hope followed by another grim round of which-is-worse centrism-or-fascism, that spark refused to be snuffed out. It’s burning lower than I’d like, but it’s still there, and while it is, I’m voting for Labour.

Corbynism or barbarism, part I, written during the last Labour leadership election, is here.

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