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Tag: race

What’s so bad about critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a fairly small body of texts produced by a splinter faction from a minor intellectual movement within American law schools during the 1980s. The best way to understand critical race theory is to read these texts. Some of these approaches are interesting or persuasive; others are not. But there are two things to keep in mind when approaching them. The first is that these texts were put together by lawyers – who are, as a group, not to be trusted. The second forms the subject of this essay.

The movement that critical race theory broke from is critical legal studies, or CLS. Briefly, CLS argues that the law is not as it presents itself, an impersonal arbiter between equal persons, but instead exists to uphold structures of inequality within society. This is not a particularly novel insight. Anatole France put it best in 1894: ‘The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.’ You don’t even need to be particularly critical of inequality to notice this – the Chicago jurist Richard Posner writes approvingly that ‘criminal law is designed primarily for the non-affluent; the affluent are kept in line, for the most part, by tort law.’ Where CLS differs from the existing Marxist critique of law is that Marxist approaches tend to see the law as an instrument wielded by the ruling classes to enforce an inequality that already exists in society, whereas critical legal studies supposes that the discourses of law themselves produce this inequality. This is plausible; it’s worth paying attention to the complexities of power, rather than reducing it to a caricature. Still, if we wanted to be unkind, we could say that what’s really going on here is that advocates of CLS are mostly well-paid professors at prestigious law schools, and the core theoretical insight of CLS allows you to pretend that being a well-paid professor at a prestigious law school is actually a deeply revolutionary act.

Critical race theory has its own intellectual roots (more on that shortly), but its history as a movement is usually traced back to the CLS conferences of the mid to late 1980s. At the 1986 conference, a long and panicked spat broke out after participants were asked ‘what is it about the whiteness of CLS that discourages participation by people of colour?’ The following year, Harlon Dalton (Yale) presented his paper The Clouded Prism, which briefly touched on some theoretical issues with CLS (its lack of a positively articulated programme for change, along with its Marxist-inflected critique of the liberal discourse of individual rights, which is ‘oblivious to, and potentially disruptive of, the interests of people of colour’ who had fought quite hard for some of those rights), before getting to the real meat of the issue: white attendees at CLS conferences were rude to black academics; they took all the big speaking slots for themselves, and they wrote papers with Chuck Berry lyrics for epigraphs. Crenshaw (UCLA) et al describe what happened next:

Responding to the critique, another scholar of colour shared with the audience his impression that the absence of much of minority scholarship was attributable to its poor quality, and to the lack of productivity of minority scholars. Scholars of colour were urged to stop complaining and simply to write. Of course, the discussion that followed was animated. But more important than what was said was what was assumed – namely, that the arena of academic discourse was functionally open to any scholar of merit who sought to enter it. Yet the very point that the speakers were trying to reveal (perhaps too subtly, in retrospect) was that the notions of merit that were so glibly employed to determine access and status within the intellectual arena were themselves repositories of racial power.

In other words, critical legal studies was based on the understanding that the law is not a neutral and universal institution – but as soon as that critique was turned around on CLS itself, its advocates suddenly turned into the same squeamish liberals they’d spent their entire careers opposing.

* * *

The basic axiom of critical race theory is that racism is not an irrational deviation from the norm of liberal neutrality – instead, it’s a system of exclusion that operates through those norms. It strikes me that we could avoid a lot of very pointless squabbles if we could just find different words for racism-as-individual-prejudice and racism-as-structural-inequality; clearly, tacking on the modifier ‘systemic’ isn’t doing the job. But semantics aside, the approach has some utility; it’s always worth looking under the surface of things to see if they’re really doing what they claim to do.

This core theory came out of a very specific historical moment. If critical race theory’s organisational history is grounded in the split from CLS, in its intellectual history it begins as a response to the perceived failure of the civil rights movement. Thanks to decades of activism, black Americans were legally identical to whites, formally equal in a system that now claimed to operate on a racially neutral basis – but for millions, things had simply not improved. So the first generation of critical race theorists turned their gaze on Civil Rights itself. Could it be that the demand for formal equality and a neutral public sphere was itself a mask for racism?

One of the foundational texts of CRT, Derrick Bell (Harvard)’s Serving Two Masters, takes the bolt gun to one of civil rights’ sacredest cows: the victory against school segregation. He argues that a desegregated school is not necessarily a better school for black students, noting that black students are often bussed to ‘the poorest and most violent white districts,’ while at the same time black students in majority-white schools can find themselves doing less well academically, and punished by teachers more frequently, than their white classmates. In such schools, ‘the racial subordination of blacks is reasserted in, if anything, a more damaging form.’

Still, Bell doesn’t directly advocate the resegregation of schools. His focus is on the immediate practicalities of legal work; the argument isn’t even that desegregation is necessarily bad in and of itself – just that civil rights lawyers should be able to advocate for the stated interests of their clients, even when they conflict with the doctrines of the NAACP. However, in his later work, he’s far more explicit in his rejection of the Civil Rights programme of reconciliation. In its place, he outlines a position of ‘racial realism.’ (This is by analogy with the theory of legal realism, and not the stance that racial categories are biologically ‘real.’) Realism means abandoning not just incremental change and engagement with the system, but also liberation in general, for the understanding that ‘black people will never gain full equality in this country.’ Instead of political ends, he advocates ‘racial strategies that can bring fulfilment and even triumph’ in the infinite continuation of struggle – or, more simply, ‘to harass white folks.’

Another particular Civil Rights target for CRT scholars is the ideal of race-blindness. In his 1963 debate with Malcolm X, James Baldwin expressed his hope for ‘a world in which there are no blacks, there are no whites, where it does not matter.’ Malcolm X disagreed (‘As a black man, and proud of being a black man, I can’t conceive of myself as having any desire whatsoever to lose my identity’), but one year later he too would disavow racial identitarianism for the ‘Human Family of Mankind.’ Critical race theorists have, by and large, not followed this trajectory. At points, their objections are persuasive. Alan Freeman (Minnesota) argues that using blanket gestures to simultaneously abolish the political categories of ‘black’ and ‘white’ treats these terms as if they were equivalent, rather than parts of a hierarchy. ‘The answers remain easy only so long as the theory remains divorced from its origins in the actuality of black-white relations. By abstracting racial discrimination into a myth world where all problems of race or ethnicity are fungible, the colour-blind theory turns around and denies concrete demands of blacks.’ This, arguably, is a kind of immanent critique. The original critical theorists argued that liberalism was incapable of realising liberal ideals; to achieve them, you need socialism. Here, the goal of race-blindness through universal liberation is hamstrung by race-blindness as a method, the blind assumption that it already exists.

For other theorists, however, colour-blindness is no longer a desiratum at all. Neil Gotanda (WSU) makes the stronger claim that ‘modern colour-blind constitutionalism supports the supremacy of white interests and must therefore be regarded as racist,’ but proposes an interesting remedy. Racial groups are compared to religions within a secular society: both are social constructions, rather than natural facts about a person; at the same time, both can hold meaning for those people. Gotanda argues that the state could allow and encourage ‘the positive expressions of race’ and ‘recognise black and white cultures as legitimate aspects of the American social fabric,’ while forbidding the ‘establishment’ of any one race – that is, ‘the use of either status-race or formal-race to establish domination, hierarchy, and exploitation.’ This is a strangely liberal approach; after all, the usual leftist view has been that race in general is nothing more than the calcification of various histories of domination, hierarchy, and exploitation. Still, it suggests an attractive future: one in which race is present, but, like religion, strictly optional.

But not all approaches are so equanimous. Mari Matsuda (UCLA), for instance, ends up reinventing the notion of ontologically distinct races on the terrain of legal theory. She begins by noting that a standard legal claim pits an individual plaintiff, who has been victimised, against an individual defendant, who has perpetrated harm. In a reparations case, however, the plaintiff is a demographic group, and the defendant includes the descendents of the perpetrators, or even those who have simply been assigned the same racial category. Still, it’s necessary to find those people guilty. She writes:

Of the taxpayers who must pay the reparations, some are direct descendents of perpetrators while others are merely guilty by association. Under a reparations doctrine, the working-class whites whose ancestors never harboured any prejudice or ill will toward the victim group are taxed equally with the perpetrators’ direct descendants for the sins of the past. However, looking to the bottom helps to refute the standard objection to reparations. In response to the problem of horizontal connection among victims and perpetrators, a victim would note that because the experience of discrimination against the group is real, the connection must exist.

‘Looking to the bottom’ refers to her understanding that ‘people who have experienced discrimination speak with a special voice to which we should listen,’ and that their thought and language will necessarily ‘differ from that of the more privileged.’ In other words, racial groups can be understood as coherent, homogenous units sharing a clearly defined set of interests – as ‘horizontally connected,’ and therefore a viable collective subject of law – because they appear that way from the outside. (And what if people who have experienced discrimination sometimes disagree with each other? Does the ‘scholar of colour’ Crenshaw mentions above lose his special voice for failing do differ adequately from the more privileged?) This approach is the opposite of any critical theory worth the name; instead of trying to distinguish between essence and appearance, Matsuda is transfixed by appearances, and uses the tools of theory to prop them up.

* * *

As critical race theory developed, such counter-critical tendencies became more pronounced. Instead of noting that institutions have advanced racist agendas under the cover of universalism, and attempting to correct this, some race theorists started to enter a Schmittian universe in which institutional neutrality is not just unrealised but impossible, and the only task is to direct institutions towards your racial ends and against your enemies. And meanwhile, others strayed further into the reification of race.

Cheryl Harris (UCLA)’s essay Whiteness as Property does pretty much what it says on the tin: rather than a social designation, a part of a code by which people are sorted and separated from each other, she proclaims whiteness as a thing that some people get to own and others do not. How can something human be a form of property? Well, human beings themselves were property, once… Harris argues that whiteness first became established in relation to property because it previously conferred the right to own slaves; the racial line ‘determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property.’ Even today, whiteness basically stands in for the ownership of human chattel. This is a deft argument, but unfortunately it’s empirically untrue: there are black slaveowners in American history, many of whom had previously been enslaved themselves.

The argument for whiteness-as-property is basically a series of analogies – property owners are entitled to the ‘use and enjoyment’ of their property, and white people have the ‘use and enjoyment’ of certain privileges conferred by their race; property is something to which the owner has exclusive right of use, and whiteness is formed ‘by the exclusion of others deemed to be not white’… Which is a bit like saying that a dog is really a type of metrical poetry, since they both have feet. (You could also quibble: if we’re going to be structuralists here, isn’t every category based on a differential relation to all other categories?) Besides, for a radical theory this is grounded in a strangely liberal, Lockean, non-critical account of property. Here, property is simply a relation between a person and an object – one ‘has’ whiteness. Meanwhile, the leftist view, which approaches property as a relation between people, is mostly ignored.

But never mind all that: what does thinking of whiteness as property allow you to do that a less wacky account of race would not? What new avenue of thought or action does it open up? Well, you could demand redistribution or collective ownership: whiteness for all! This is not a line that Harris chooses to go down. (The closest she gets is an endorsement of affirmative action.) But plausibly, if whiteness is property, then white people would be united in their relation to private property, and black people in their shared exclusion: suddenly, racial categories are imbued with all the materiality of class

* * *

Clearly, critical race theory is capable of becoming something very silly. Personally, I tend to be quite tolerant of academic silliness, as long as it’s provocative or engaging. I like weird essays about the semiotics of paving stones or spelunking as radical praxis; I think it would be a terrible shame to reduce all thought to dead dull practicality. It means you have to sift through a lot of bullshit, but that’s where the flowers grow. And CRT is, at times, provocative and engaging. Its best feature is probably the one that draws the most complaints: why can’t you just see people as individuals? Why can’t you just imagine people popping into monadic existence, without family, without social ties, without any history, just an isolated and atomised entrepreneurial speck? As Adorno saw, this kind of individuation is actually fatal for the autonomy of human individuals: an individual is more than a free-floating data-point, maximising its utility in the market. Still, it’s hardly better to replace isolated subjects with homogenous races; both reduce the fullness of human life to one small and sordid aspect. I don’t think this kind of essentialism is necessarily inherent in CRT; as I’ve tried to show, many critical race theorists avoid it. But others do not.

The real theoretical weakness of CRT is something far more damaging, and it’s arguably a legacy of its origin in critical legal studies. The mostly-white law school gang didn’t see the law as an expression of unjust power, but as a site in its production; similarly, when the critical race theorists tried to understand why non-white people were less likely to be involved in CLS conferences, they weren’t particularly interested in explanations that ran along the lines of well, black people are more likely to be impoverished, and impoverished people are less likely to become prominent legal theorists. That kind of analysis was dismissed as vulgar Marxism: instead, the obvious conclusion was that the CLS conference was itself engaged in the production of racism.

This dynamic has been noted before – particularly by critics on the right, who argue that it leads to specious accusations of bias. If the theory proceeds by showing how supposedly neutral structures are, in fact, freighted with racial content, then a subtle enough theorist will be able to show that any structure is deeply racist. Is yarn racist? What about the sky? It shouldn’t be any kind of concession to conservatism to accept that some fairly dumb accusations do, in fact, happen. I think a lot about one particular incident in late 2018. From a celebrity academic: ‘I hope one day people will be just as concerned for Black people as they are for the institutions that harm us.’ The harmful institution in question was an aquarium: a place where children go to learn about fish. The harm they had perpetrated was in describing a sea otter as thicc.

But the problem goes deeper than the otter wars: this approach has the strange effect of abstracting critical race theory from the reality of racial injustice. After all, the wage relation and the prison system are no more centrally involved in producing racism than some obscure conference of legal scholars (or an aquarium, or a knitting circle, or whatever’s annoying you on the internet today). If you’re the kind of person who teaches at Harvard or Yale or UCLA, rather than the kind of person who works for a wage (or is unable to work for a wage), this theory is obviously very attractive. But it means that any concrete social struggle – against, say, police violence – is inevitably diluted, until it becomes just another squabble within institutions.

Critical race theory began by decrying the lack of a theory that responded to the direct needs of ordinary non-white people and offered a positively articulated programme for change. Its initial promise, per Richard Delgado (UCLA), was ‘deep discontent with liberalism, a system of civil rights litigation and activism, faith in the legal system, and hope for progress.’ On these criteria, the project has failed. It has jettisoned some of the better aspects of liberalism while retaining the worst. It began by defending the hard-won civil rights of ethnic minorities against a slightly sneering critique of rights-discourse, but soon switched to trashing those same freedoms. Its leading theorists have ended up abandoning liberation and insisting that social change is impossible. The main remedies they propose are affirmative action – which, as both its defenders and its detractors would have to admit, ultimately does far more to affect the ethnic makeup of law schools than to radically restructure society at large – and hate-crime legislation, which penalises expressions of individual prejudice without really striking against systemic racism. While CRT tends to totemically invoke the suffering of non-white people outside academia and the professions, in the end it has very little to offer them.

* * *

This is not really what most people are talking about when they talk about critical race theory.

As I write, seven US states have passed laws banning critical race theory. Politicians and pundits are lining up to denounce it in broadly illiterate terms; CRT is the font of everything evil, a threat to all liberal values. These people are not really referring to the works of Bell, Crenshaw, Delgado, etc (which they have not read), but something much more amorphous; attitudes more than ideas, a set of gestures, a certain tone. Critical race theory has turned into an umbrella term for every kind of new discursive orthodoxy around race: white privilege, white fragility, unconscious bias, intersectionality… Of course this stuff is in the schools; who wouldn’t want their children to be aware of all the important new trends? I’ve written about some of these affects before; I find most of them stupid and deeply unhelpful. And as I’ve outlined, there are theoretical failures in CRT that do pose problems for anti-racist activism. But I simply don’t accept that CRT is the source of all our present neurosis around race, or that the weird gestural politics of the twenty-first century were dreamed up in their entirety by a bunch of lawyers.

It’s true that a lot of concepts like privilege or implicit bias appear within the corpus of CRT texts, but so what? These days, they also appear in geology. Aside from intersectionality, which was first outlined in the Stanford Law Review, these are not specifically legal theories – and many of them significantly predate CRT. Go back to the primal scene: those early struggle sessions at the critical legal studies conferences are basically identical to what’s now happening within major media outlets and public institutions. But this was before critical race theory had constituted itself as a distinct approach or body of work. To adopt the vulgar Marxist position: these incidents are only an expression of something far more fundamental within the structure of society. The problem is not bad ideas, but an unjust world. If you want to understand why people are upset, and why that upset expresses itself in unproductive ways, it’s useless to play around with intellectual genealogies; you have to go to the actual source, to the empirical study of the social.

Obviously, conservatives don’t want to spend too much time thinking about actual social conditions; this is why the moral panic suits them fine. A panic means they’re under no obligation to engage with CRT as a theory; what they’ve developed is just a fancier way of railing against wokeness. (For what it’s worth, I think wokeness is actually a much better name for this thing: it makes clear that what we’re facing is not really a cohesive ideology, but a cluster of postures and affects.) But the exact same flight from theory is taking place on the left, among CRT’s defenders. Many of the people most vocally supporting the theory seem to believe that the sum total of its approach is to say that racism exists and is bad. (The Hill article I link above describes it as ‘the idea that students should learn about how race and racism has affected American society in the past and present day.’) Or, in other formulations, it’s simply an expression of the lived experience of black people. The attempts to censor CRT by law are deranged, obviously, but this has a very particular type of cruelty to it. It does incredible violence to a theory to pretend that all its conclusions are just obvious fact; you’re basically implying that no actual thought has taken place. Something similar happens when the advocates of these theories act as if it’s morally impermissible for any white person to ever subject them to critical scrutiny, because nobody asked for your yt opinion. No: if this stuff is thought, then it enjoys the dignity of critique. If it’s something other than thought, then why shouldn’t I just dismiss it out of hand?

I am a Marxist and a humanist. As such, I believe that ‘the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.’ This means that racial inequality must never be a side issue, a minority concern, something orthogonal to the major issues in the world: the struggle for each is the struggle for all. At the same time, this means that I have to disagree with any approach that tries to break this unity apart, and for the most part CRT is such an approach. But there’s a kind of recognition in disagreement, even vicious disagreement; something missing in both censorship and canonisation. In 1898, the last year of his life, Alexander Crummell – one of the great American intellectuals, and a lifelong mentor to WEB DuBois, now sadly forgotten – wrote about the ‘denial of intellectuality in the Negro.’ Isn’t the same thing happening now, on both sides of the CRT panic? As a child, Crummell personally overheard the racist senator John C Calhoun declare that ‘if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being.’ A hideous test, obviously – and, as Crummell points out, a rigged one too: Calhoun and his class were sent to white-only universities to learn the classics, but then expected ‘the Greek syntax to grow in Negro brains, by spontaneous generation.’ Still, Crummell became the first black person to earn a degree at Cambridge, and the first black American to learn the Greek syntax. (He beat William Sanders Scarborough by nearly a quarter-century. But obviously he was not the first black person to learn Greek: the black people who actually lived in ancient Greece may have got there first.) He understood very well that the same classical tradition that had been used to justify racism could also be a tool of liberation in black hands. He was also an imperialist, an advocate for ‘devoted racialism’ and the white-nationalist colonial project in Liberia. He’s a testament to how even great thinkers, even those who aim for liberation, can end up reproducing, in an inverted form, the worst and most repressive aspects of their age. Ultimately, I think critical race theory does the same thing; it is neither critical nor radical, but a capitulation to unfreedom. But if you genuinely believe that CRT is good and important, then trying to strip it of its intellectual quality should be something far, far more offensive than simply disagreeing with it.

Canción de Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White skin, black squares


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

Yes. Yes you can, absolutely, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it didn’t work, then, did it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the many


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

Some things are higher than principle.

Please, please consider voting for Labour on Thursday.



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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vote Labour.


The war against the Jews


The Jewish community in the UK is under attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savages, savages, barely even human

It is worth noting that tribal peoples tend to feel that it is they who depict and we who symbolise.
Thomas McEvilley, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief


What does capitalism actually look like?

There’s a standard leftist answer to this question, from the great repertoire of standard leftist answers: we can’t know. Capitalism has us by the throat and wraps itself around our brain stem; we were interpellated as capitalist subjects before we were born, and from within the structure there’s no way to perceive it as a totality. The only way to proceed is dialectically and immanently, working through the internal contradictions until we end up somewhere else. But not everyone has always lived under capitalism; not everyone lives under capitalism today. History is full of these moments of encounter, when industrial modernity collided with something else. And they still take place. In 2007, Channel 4 engineered one of these encounters: in a TV show called Meet the Natives, a group of Melanasian villagers from the island of Tanna in Vanatu were brought to the UK, to see what they made of this haphazard world we’ve built. (It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone trying the same stunt now, just twelve years on. The whole thing is just somehow inappropriate: not racist or colonial, exactly, but potentially condescending, othering, problematic.) Reactions were mixed.

They liked ready meals, real ale, and the witchy animistic landscapes of the Hebrides. They were upset by street homelessness, confused by drag queens in Manchester’s Gay Quarter, and wryly amused by attempts at equal division in household labour. They understood that they were in a society of exchange-values and economic relations, rather than use-values and sociality. ‘There is something back-to-front in English culture. English people care a lot about their pets, but they don’t care about people’s lives.’ But there was only one thing about our society that actually appalled them, that felt viscerally wrong. On a Norfolk pig farm, they watched sows being artificially inseminated with a plastic syringe. This shocked them. They told their hosts to stop doing it, that it would have profound negative consequences. ‘I am not happy to see the artificial insemination. Animals and human beings are the same thing. This activity should be done in private.’

I was reminded of this episode quite recently, when reading, in an ‘indigenous critique of the Green New Deal‘ published in the Pacific Standard, that ‘colonists were warned by word and weapon that a system of individual land ownership would lead to ecological apocalypse, and here we are. What more could you ask from a system of truth and analysis than to alert you to a phenomenon like climate change before it occurs, with enough time to prevent it? That is significantly more than colonial science has offered.’

It’s not that the substance of this claim is entirely untrue (although it should be noted that many indigenous nations did have systems of private land ownership; land wasn’t denatured, fungible, and commodified, as it is in today’s capitalism, but then the same holds for European aristocracies, or the Nazis for that matter). Non-capitalist societies have persistently recognised that there’s an incredible potential for disaster in industrial modernity. Deleuze and Guattari develop an interesting idea here: capitalism isn’t really foreign to primitive society; it’s the nightmare they have of the world, the possibility of decoding and deterritorialisation that lurks somewhere in the dark thickets around the village. ‘Capitalism has haunted all forms of society, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes.’ Accordingly, the development of capitalism in early modern Europe wasn’t an achievement, but a failure to put up effective defences against this kind of social collapse. You can see something similar in the response of the Tanna islanders to artificial insemination. What’s so horrifying about it? Plausibly, it’s that it denies social and bodily relations between animals, and social and bodily relations between animals and people. The animal is no longer a living thing among living things (even if it’s one that, as the islanders tell a rabbit hunter, was ‘made to be killed’), but an abstract and deployable quantity. It’s the recasting of the mysteries of fecund nature as a procedure. It’s the introduction of what Szerszynski calls the ‘vertical axis,’ the transcendence from reality in which the world itself ‘comes to be seen as profane.’ It’s the breakdown of the fragile ties that hold back the instrumental potential of the world. When people are living like this, how could it result in anything other than disaster?

This seems to be the general shape of impressions of peoples living under capitalism by those who do not. These strangers are immensely powerful; they are gods or culture heroes, outside of the world. (The people of Tanna revere Prince Philip as a divinity.) At the same time, they’re often weak, palsied, wretched, and helpless; they are outside of the world, and lost. In 1641, a French missionary recorded the response of an Algonquian chief to incoming modernity. One the one hand, he describes Europeans as prisoners, trapped in immobile houses that they don’t even own themselves, fixed in place by rent and labour. ‘We can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere, because we set up our wigwams with ease wheresoever we go, and without asking permission of anybody […] We believe that you are incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves.’ At the same time, the French are untethered, deracinated, endlessly mobile. The Algonquians territorialise; everywhere they go becomes a home. The Europeans are not even at home in their static houses. They have fallen off the world. ‘Why abandon wives, children, relatives, and friends? Why risk thy life and thy property every year, and why venture thyself with such risk, in any season whatsoever, to the storms and tempests of the sea?’ And this constant circulation is a profound danger. ‘Before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Gaspesians live much longer than now?’

There’s something genuinely fascinating in these encounters. Whenever members of non-capitalist societies encounter modernity, they see something essential in what’s facing them. (For instance, Michael Taussig has explored how folk beliefs about the Devil in Colombia encode sophisticated understandings of the value-form.) But it seems to me to be deeply condescending to claim that this constitutes an explicit warning about climate change, that the methods of ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ are the same as the physical sciences, and to complain that ‘Western science has a lot of nerve showing up just as we’re on the precipice of a biospheric death spiral to brandish some graphs.’ The argument that the transcendent vertical axis estranges human beings from the cycles of biological life, with potentially dangerous results, is simply not the same as the argument that increased quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide will give rise to a greenhouse effect. It’s not that there’s nothing to learn from indigenous histories, quite the opposite. (I’ve written elsewhere on how the Aztecs – definitely not the romanticised vision of an indigenous society, but indigenous nonetheless – prefigured our contemporary notion of the Anthropocene.) But the claims in this essay set a predictive standard which ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ will inevitably fail; it refuses to acknowledge their actual insight and utility, and instead deploys them in a grudge match against contemporary political enemies.

Most fundamentally, the essay doesn’t consider this encounter as an encounter between modes of production, but an encounter between races. In the red corner, white people: brutally colonising the earth, wiping out all biological life, talking over BIPOC in seminars, etc, etc. In the blue corner, indigenous folk, who live in balance with the cycles of life, who feel the suffering of the earth because they are part of it, who intuitively understand climate atmospheric sciences because they’re plugged in to the Na’vi terrestrial hivemind, who are on the side of blind nature, rather than culture. This is not a new characterisation. The Algonquian chief complains that the French believe he and his people are ‘like the beasts in our woods and our forests;’ the Pacific Standard seems to agree.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but indigenous peoples are human, and their societies are as artificial and potentially destructive as any other. Being human means – Marx saw this very clearly – an essential disjuncture with essence and a natural discontinuity with nature. Ancient Amerindian beekeeping techniques are as foundationally artificial as McDonald’s or nuclear weapons. When humans first settled the Americas, they wiped out nearly a hundred genera of megafauna; the essay is entirely correct that ‘indigenous peoples have witnessed continual ecosystem and species collapse.’ Indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and social relations between humans and nonhumans are the mode of expression of their social forms in agrarian or nomadic communities. (Although some American societies were highly urbanised, with monumental earthworks, stratified class societies, and systemic religious practices. All of this is, of course, flattened under the steamroller of pacific indigeneity.) They are not transcendently true. They can not simply be transplanted onto industrial capitalism to mitigate its devastations.

The ‘indigenous critique’ suggests that, rather than some form of class-based mass programme to restructure our own mode of production, the solution to climate catastrophe is to ‘start giving back the land.’ (Here it’s following a fairly widespread form of reactionary identitarian discourse on indigineity.) Give it back to whom? To the present-day indigenous peoples of North America, who for the most part have cars and jobs and Social Security numbers, who have academic posts and social media, who do not confront capitalism from beyond a foundational ontological divide, but are as helplessly within it as any of the rest of us? (And meanwhile, what about Europe or China? Where are our magic noble savages?) Is ancestry or identity an expertise? Is living in a non-capitalist society now a hereditary condition?

Some indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and so on persist, long after the modes of production that gave rise to them have vanished. As we all know, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. But they’re also an artefact of modernity, which ceaselessly produces notions of wholesome authentic mystical nature in tandem with its production of consumer goods, ecological collapse, and death. Unless this relation is established, beliefs are all we get. ‘Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other.’ Think differently, see things differently, make all the right saintly gestures, defer to the most marginalised, and change nothing.

This racialisation is particularly obscene when you consider who else has made dire warnings about the environmental effects of private ownership in land. The encounter between capitalist and non-capitalist society didn’t only take place spatially, in the colonial world, but temporally, during the transition from feudalism. And the same critiques made by the Ni-Vanatu, and the Algonquians, and many more besides, were also expressed by insurrectionaries within Europe. Take just one instance: The Crying Sin of England, of not Caring for the Poor, the preacher John Moore’s 1653 polemic against primitive accumulation and the enclosure of common land: this would, he promised, lead to catastrophe, the impoverishment of the earth, the fury of God, the dissolution of the social ties that keep us human, the loss of sense and reason, the decoding of all codes. The ruling classes, ‘by their inclosure, would have no poore to live with them, nor by them, but delight to converse with Beasts; and to this purpose turn Corne in Grasse, and men into Beasts.’ He, too, saw things as they were. And he was right. Here we are, in a world in which the ruling classes have disarticulated themselves from society in general, in which cornfields are swallowed up by the desert, in which people pretend to be like animals in order to be taken seriously. The solution is obvious. Find the descendants of John Moore, and give back Norfolk.

Policy break: maternal mortality


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.

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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.

Writing and identity

There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility. I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others… As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death


0. To write feels like violence. All of us are mortal, but the text can survive long after its author: who are you, fleshy and contingent thing, who wants to live forever? To write is to stain clean paper, press sticks in smooth clay; in some sense always, to deform the world. To write something down is to turn the limitless possibility of what could be into the dead presence of what turned out to have been. A line in Beckett’s Molloy which I always find myself returning to, because it speaks what it isn’t: ‘You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till everything is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Writing obscures the ghastliness of what is, which is speechlessness; it weaves a flimsy veil of presence around the eternal nothing. Writing is a lack, but the lack is not in words but the world that surrounds them.

1. One form of the discourse in question, an instance: Don’t write thinkpieces about Beyoncé (or whatever) if you’re not a black woman. You will not understand the subject-matter, not properly, it will be a waste. It isn’t for you. (As if the commodified culture-object is ever really for anyone.) The really notable thing here is where the demand is placed. What’s needed – and what’s generally articulated – is a critique of the journalistic economy and its deeply unequal hiring and commissioning practices, the thorny nexus of social practices that create a class of profession writers that generally looks like the class of the bourgeoisie from which it is mostly drawn. But what can often occur with it is a metaphysics of the text: illegitimate writing is not even itself, but an absence, the absence of everything else that could have been there instead. Any one person writing means another who can’t; the sin is in its having been written, the fault belongs to the writer as such. But while most writing really is inexcusably bad, the one mark in its favour is that the possibility of writing is limitless. It’s the industrial complex of writing that is restricted, along with the number of people who can sustain themselves in this fairly shabby trade: here, as everywhere, the task is to reproduce in the economy at large the infinity that already exists in the economy of language, to abolish the distinction between the professional writer and the public they serve or negate, to make sure that nobody will ever go hungry again.

2. Instead, a general trend within those discourses that claim to have justice as their aim is the selective and demographic apportioning out of the field of human understanding: black writers may and must write about black celebrities, music, and their own experiences; women writers may and must must write about lifestyle trends, feminism, and their own experiences; trans writers about their own experiences; Muslim writers about their own experiences; disabled writers about their own experiences. In one avowedly intersectional-feminist online publication, female writers are given an ‘Identity Survey,’ a monstrous questionnaire in which they’re asked to list every horrifying experience they had ever survived, and are then told to turn it all into short, shareable, fungible articles for $90-a-day wages. I was raped, I was in an abusive relationship, I had an abortion, I suffered; a strip-mining of saleable identities, a kind of primitive accumulation across the terrain of trauma. Meanwhile the universal subject, the one that need not suffer to be heard, remains white and male. The right of black women to write about Beyoncé is important. But they must also be able to write about deep-sea ecology, Kantian philosophy, writing itself, and what they do not know – and while there are many who do precisely this, the under-representation of writers of colour, queer and trans writers, and other marginalised people on the topics of oceanography, German idealism, deconstruction, and ignorance is significantly more marked. Overwhelmingly it is white men who are afforded the privilege of being other than themselves, of not having to continuously say ‘I’ – not least because the validity of their self-identity is already assured, because the world is already in their image. And while the ability to declare oneself in the face of a world that would prefer you not to to is essential, the dogma that writing must and can only be a self-declaration resigns marginalised people to this condition. My critique here is very limited: within this discourse it has become the case that it is the presence and particularity of the ‘I’ that legitimises writing, that makes it appropriate or inappropriate, that makes it either it either presence itself or the lack of something else. And this is not helpful.

3. If there must be a rule, then it should be that we must not only write what we know. If we don’t write an ignorance other than ourselves, in the end all that remains is a mute, gnashing, helpless, final I. There is no writing that is only legible to and can only be created by people occupying a particular subject-position; there are experiences that are unique and incommensurable, even incommunicable, but if this were the case here there would be no possibility of writing: everyone who could understand would already know.

4. Derrida notes in Plato’s Pharmacy that ‘the speaking subject is the father of his speech […] Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father. His father who speaks for him and answers for him. Without his father he would be nothing but, in fact, writing.’ There is no speech without its anchor in the person that speaks and her physical presence, but in writing – the ‘breathless sign’ – the author is always simply not there, even if she has an active Twitter account. It persists without its creator; what faces you is the text, something entirely different. I speak and say ‘I’ and you know who says the word, but the written ‘I’ is always indeterminate, a tangle of lies and fantasies and ironies and pretences, a person just like you half a world away, the person that you are yourself, an immortal and changing thing. If you speak and someone interprets what you say in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is a misunderstanding. If you write and someone interprets what you’ve written in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is literature. The demand that any text be legitimised by the self-identity of its author is the demand for a text that behaves more like speech. And not just any speech. The writing that responds to this demand is ‘testimonial’ or ‘confessional’ writing, and the place in which one testifies or confesses is in a court. In a courtroom logocentrism holds sway; the preference is for a speaking person, whose truth is guaranteed by a spoken oath, who is present to speak for and answer for their own speech. The discourse here is not one of justice, strictly speaking, but the law. It is the law that, first of all, demands to know who a person is before deciding what to do with them. These are not opposing concepts, necessarily, but they are not the same. The law can be deconstructed. Justice cannot.

5. Whose voice is allowed to speak? Only yours. In Beckett’s novels the reader is lost and confused, stranded in a mire of words that seem designed to be inhospitable and to exclude, accompanying something that speaks its unquestioning I-say-I while forbidding any identification – until you realise that the strange tormenting voice that is mentioned sometimes, the one that tells people what to do, the one that is constantly trying to bring itself to an end but is never able to stop speaking itself, is the same voice that’s been in your head the entire time as you read. It’s shocking, but there’s a sense of joy at the same time. What distinguishes real writing from a legal deposition or a laundry list is its occasional capacity to provoke a kind of joy, even in evocations of sadness, loneliness, misery, loss, repression, and horror, the sheer pleasure of something entirely alien and entirely intimate, of a voice that is nobody’s and everyone’s and yours, there with you in your solitude, of language in the infinity of its play and substitutions, a moment of the freedom that’s still to come.

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