Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Muslim/Bad Muslim posted by lenin

As an attempt to resist negative stereotyping, this has to be deemed a failure.

I can see why it might appeal. I like the song, and I enjoy the view of people arsing about to an infectiously cheerful tune as much as anyone. And if this weren't an attempted intervention on the terrain of cultural politics, it would be sweetly enjoyable. However, it's a problem, or rather it's illustrative of a problem, a wider strategic dilemma. Because this looks like an attempt to undermine 'scary' representations of Islam by showing a happy, smiling, dancing face. It's sweet, but it's also pandering. It is also indicative of a wider approach that I think is divisive and plays into the well-known 'good' Muslim/'bad' Muslim dichotomy. How?

 Well, just take some examples from recent news headlines. We learned: That there has been a sharp increase in the Muslim population in prisons over the last decade, with Muslims now making up 27% of all prisoners in London. That Moazzam Begg has been locked up again. And that the government is spreading Daily Express-style rumours of an 'Islamic schools plot' and has put 'counter-terrorism' apparatuses behind an investigation into the allegations. One could go on, but the point is there are quite a large number of Muslims who have no particular reason to smile and dance - whether because they're poor, or because they are politicised, or because they have been criminalised. For one reason or another, they've been brought under the grid of state surveillance and sanction for reasons which bear directly on their being Muslim.

 Now, if the problem of Islamophobia is construed as being purely or primarily a public relations battle, and if stereotyping is understood as the main form of racist oppression faced by Muslims, then of course this strategy is comprehensible. Combat the negative images, demonstrate how much we heart things that other people heart, how normal we are, and people will stop hating us, discrimination will wind down, tabloid frenzies will stop working, aggressive policing will abate, and politicians will lose their power to divide and control us. If the main problem was public opinion, all this would make sense. However, I think that's a perspective that can only really make sense for a segment of relatively middle class or bourgeois Muslims (who seem, on appearance, to make up the majority of those featured in the video). If you are among those who are surveilled in universities and estates, or stopped by police, or dragged into Paddington Green, or 'rendered', then it's hard to see public opinion as anything but a subsidiary element of a struggle for political empowerment.

 It seems almost pedantic to say so, but I think that a) public opinion is not the main problem, and b) insofar as opinion means ideology, and I take the terrain of ideology very seriously, it can't be engaged in on a short-term public relations basis. I think you win ideological battles by changing the underlying coordinates within which popular judgments about issues are formed, which is a long-term strategy that requires taking and holding unpopular positions until they become popular - in other words being disagreeable, not happy, not amenable, making a fuss, and so on. Not only that, but there are clearly issues which cannot be addressed in any but a contentious manner. As such, ingratiating oneself on the basis that one isn't like 'them', the 'bad' Muslims, is surely a divisive strategy that not only does not serve the interests of those most likely to be villainised as 'bad' Muslims, but is also limiting for those who might expect to benefit from being classed as 'good' Muslims, who might themselves have to be disagreeable from time to time.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Yet another open letter to Miley Cyrus posted by lenin

My French fan club made this.  Do not.  Ask.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Against Austerity promo videos posted by lenin

The short version:

The long version:

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Eat pork or die. posted by lenin

The French fascists are buoyant.  Brimming with energy after recent electoral success, the leader of the Front national (FN) Marine Le Pen has come up with a new way of punishing the Mohammedan interlopers.  Their children should be made to eat pork or starve.  And in towns that the FN have taken control of, this will be policy.

There are three points of immediate interest here.  

First, the invocation of 'secularism'.  Of all the the possible forms of ascriptive humiliation that could be targeted against Muslims, Le Pen chose one that is based on the French ideology of laïcité.  This is a typical example of how the far right cannily exploits contradictions in the dominant ideology, imbricating itself into the 'mainstream' by operating on racist canards already popularised by the state, the ascendant parties, and the mass media.  After all, why make allowances for replacement meals if we're banning headscarves?  Of course, the fact that it also by definition targets Jewish pupils is a bonus for an organisation that, while trying to efface the most egregious manifestations of antisemitic ideology from its public image, likes to keep the hardcore happy.  

Le Pen's provocation poses a challenge to the bourgeois parties.  Either they accede, and grant her point as a logic extension of their own avowed commitments, or they rationalise, prevaricate and obfuscate.  Neither option is good for them; both are great for the FN.  The only possible way out would be to break with the ideology of laïcité and republicanism, which isn't going to happen.

Second, the palpable punitive violence of the suggestion.  This is, of course, veiled in layers of plausible deniability, and mantled in the civilising discourse of the state.  It isn't as though a bunch of school bullies or a gang of fascists was randomly targeting Muslim kids and trying to force-feed them chunks of bacon.  It is instead a form of racialised biopolitics, which amounts to the state taking hold of the bodies of Muslim and Jewish children, and compelling them on pain of going hungry to ingest something which is - if they are devout - proscribed for them.  

It is one thing to regulate apparel, to tell Muslims how they might dress in school, or work.  But to regulate their diet, to compel them to ingest and assimilate into their body, on pain of not eating, something that is haraam, that is considered the filthiest meat, from what is considered the dirtiest animal in existence; and then to routinise it, as a matter of bureaucratic course, to regularly mark out as excluded those who cannot eat the meal or as capitulating those who do; this is a remarkably efficient way to make a symbolic act of humiliation both recurrent and ongoing, and effective at a deep, somatic level.  

Third, this is social sadism, but it is sadism predicated upon resentment.  The cause of resentment in this case is deviance from the dominant culture.  It is the idea that Muslims (and Jews), by being different and getting away with it, are getting something special.  It is the idea that this is just one of the many little extras and allowances given to the foreigner, the immigrant, the Muslim by the treacherous cosmopolitan elites in flagrant disregard for France's traditional secularism.  

This is not to say that difference as such is the cause of resentment.  Certainly, Muslim dietary habits might offend the parochial universalism that is integral to imperialist culture, but the question then is why don't all such deviations cause social resentment.  There is nothing particularly controversial about the 'veggie option', for example; it would be more controversial if it wasn't there.  Even airlines supply a range of meals for people with different dietary requirements: you can have Kosher, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Vegan vegetarian, Lacto ovo vegetarian, Asian vegetarian, seafood only, bland, diabetic, gluten intolerant, low fat, low salt, low lactose, and so on and so on.  People are different; they have different needs: hardly news.  Most such differences don't generate social resentment.  They have to be connotatively linked to suffering and loss for that to happen.  

And of course, there has been for some time a project on the Right to popularise the notion that white people are being cheated and oppressed.  Whether it is UKIP's Farage claiming to speak for the 'white working class', or the UMP's Jean-François Copé bemoaning 'anti-white racism', there has been a persistent project of linking the experiences of material decline on the part of certain social classes and strata with the spectre of national decline.  Nor is this practice restricted to the Right.  The fantasy of Majorité Opprimée was that the free rein given to North African immigrants, and particularly Muslims, menaced the material well-being, comfort and freedom of the French middle class, by undermining the 'values' upon which France was based - and that a particular form of nationalist feminism could save both France and its embattled middle class.  

The cumulative effect of this is that significant layers of the population link their grievance, their injury and their loss to the freedoms and allowances made for Muslims, and want evidently something more than a simple material restitution whatever that could consist of: they want punishment, denigration and humiliation.  They want their accumulated rage to be efficacious, for once; to be channelled in a terrible, cruel revenge.  They want 'payback'.  And to those, the FN offers a tantalising foretaste of what real 'payback' might feel like.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Pessimism posted by lenin

My long-form piece on austerity, drawing on Against Austerity, for the Guardian, concludes:

...The above analysis may be too pessimistic. And pessimism is a problem to the extent that one of the ways in which neoliberalism prevails is through consistently demoralising people. Yet what is ultimately more demoralising? To soberly face our situation and begin the hard, slow-burning, patient work of reconstruction, or continue to rally to sloganistic exhortations, thinking that each new protest or strike might radically shift the balance in our favour?
As the Brechtian maxim has it: "Don't start from the good old things, but the bad new ones."

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There's something about Nigel posted by lenin

This post belongs in a series of posts called The English Ideology (IIIIII & IV).

If one thing became absolutely clear in the dismal, joyless 'leaders debate' between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, it is that some things are more important to people than jobs and money.  It's not the economy, stupid.

In fact, to push the point home, it never was the economy, stupid.  'The economy' doesn't exist outside of representation and discourse, in part because 'the economy' (as a hermetically sealed, intrinsically immutable, self-sufficient space) is itself an artefact of representation and discourse. Thus Clegg, in his defence of EU membership,  summoned a discourse of 'growth' and 'jobs' as unarguable goods.  What could be bad about it?  Thus he posed as what he is: a middle-of-the-road technocrat.  And if he couldn't any longer position himself as the honest broker and the outsider, he could at least prove that Farage and his party were demagogues sacrificing British leadership, British values, and British justice to some fanatical doctrine.  Only a few years ago, this might have worked very well - but that was before his own disappearance up the Rose Garden of power, and before the repeated class injuries endured in the context of recession and austerity.

The UKIP leader, for his part, adopted a moral idiom.  He spoke the language of exasperated social resentment, in this case against immigration and EU bosses.  (This is the classic right-wing populist gesture, identifying an occult collusion between an empyrean elite and the wretched, and fecklessly poor. )  With this language, supplied in large part by the popular press and think-tanks such as Migration Watch, he was able to undermine the seemingly commonsensical nature of Clegg's interpellations.  Don't bang on about the 'benefits', he said: mass immigration from poor countries in the south and east of Europe is hurting ordinary working people and it's not fair.  Of course he also played the numbers game, casting doubt on Clegg's figures.  UKIP are good at the numbers game, precisely because they understand that it is a purely rhetorical exercise.  The right figure is that which a) efficiently demonstrates a point, b) tells people what they expect to hear and confirms their 'worst fears' (even if they derive an obscure pleasure from it), and yet which is c) time- and effort-consuming to track down and rebut.  The right figure is just an element of a morality fable.

To expand on the morality a little bit, Farage, recently asked about the contribution of immigration to jobs and growth, claimed that, after all, money isn't everything.  This essentially boiled down to his saying, "I would rather have a bit less money than live next to a bunch of foreigners."  The cri de coeur of any privet-hedge-hugging white petty bourgeois: that was his exalted position.  The Cruddasite centre-left, predictably, wet themselves.  A Labour shadow minister gushed to the Guardian that this was a hammer-blow against "the tyranny of the market".

You can see the logic of this: in principle, neoliberalism favours compulsory competition at every level, whereas Farage is suggesting that British workers be protected from at least this form of competition, the kind that comes from peripheral flotsam of overseas.  For Blue Labourites banging on about 'faith, flag and family', such exclusionary identity politics really is the only alternative to 'the market' - and therefore, somehow the task must be to incorporate such attachments into a progressive articulation, (cf. 'UKIP of the Left').  However, as we ought to have learned from Mrs Thatcher, there is nothing at all new in the egoistic calculations and desiderata of a particular class being commuted into the idiom of a moral common sense.  And what UKIP favour is not, in fact, protection of workers from competition, but the protection of small business from EU regulations such as labour laws, environmental restrictions and so on.  What UKIP wants is a more aggressively competitive, Atlanticist capitalism.

And Farage's morality tale is fairly cliched, folkish stuff.  The British people, so long the repositories of common sense, the temperate yet stalwart defenders of liberty, the inheritors of the Magna Carta and the tradition of common law, the possessors of the best justice system in the world, at some point allowed themselves to be led astray by an out-of-touch political class, and joined an "expansionist, imperialist" superstate-in-becoming.  (The mere fact that he could say this about the EU, uttering those words comfortably, and then just as comfortably reference the Commonwealth, as if Britain doesn't know anything about being an empire-state, is a tribute to the pervasive power of the ideologies which he draws on.)  They have surrendered their liberty to a foreign power.  Their laws are no longer made in the mother of all parliaments.  They have regulators and bureaucrats breathing down their necks, forcing them to sell only bananas of a particular curvature, and only in metric measurements, and only under certain conditions, and ideally in competition with Polish or Spanish fruit sellers.  They have the 'madness' of open borders to half a billion people.  They are no longer sovereign, but are exposed to unaccountable political and cultural flux.  Their renaissance can only come when they coalesce and, through the agency of UKIP, overthrow the Westminster elite and put common sense back on the agenda of government.

There remains, then, something to be said about Farage's plausibility in all this.  His performance showed that he not only knows what he's doing, but more importantly that he looks like he knows what he's doing.  He has the look and manner of a corporate salesperson - all those patently phoney spontaneous 'quips' and 'asides' that he keeps up his sleeve - yet this is actually what many people want and expect from their politicians.  In contrast to upper crust establishment figures like Clegg and Cameron, he sounds like a perplexed outsider, and even his years as a commodity trader, can be invoked as a source of 'real world' authenticity.  And they can be harnessed to homely little platitudes, which he is an absolute master of: "In the real world, the customer is king."  No such thing has ever been the case, but we are so used to hearing it that it sounds vaguely like it might be true.  Finally, he has a way of not reeking too badly, in public performance anyway, of the kind of twitchy, sweaty, moonbat racism that characterises his party as a whole.  He instead articulates the polite, aversive racism of a certain 'British' common sense, and in so doing manages to sound quite 'reasonable': we can have a few foreigners, but only if they can pay their way, and only if they're here to work, and only if we can deport them when we don't like them, and only if they aren't too culturally dissimilar.

Yet, of course, the major condition of Farage's ascension is Cameron's declension.  Cameron enjoyed a very brief period of grace, as a kind of post-Thatcherite liberal.  By 'post-Thatcherite', I do not mean that Cameron rejected Thatcher's legacy, but that he operated basically on the same terrain secured by Thatcher, as do all the dominant parties now, while abjuring certain of the specific ideology and policy thematics that defined Thatcherism as an 'insurgent' political project.  He came across as an undogmatic, competent 'entrepreneur', comfortable with Britain's multiculture, and here to manage the country like a business gone awry.  Even his poshness wasn't necessarily a drawback.  Even as it poured execration on the poor, the dominant culture has learned once again to venerate dominant class values.  And, precisely as a toff and thus someone with a certain 'traditional' mien, he even effectively tapped into the ideology of 'fair play'*, an old theme of British nationalism, which returned like so much nostalgic kitsch in the aftermath of the credit crunch.

There has always been a widespread belief among certain social classes, particularly the middle class, that if Britain is not actually a meritocratic society then it is at least not far from being one; that, at any rate, there is no structural impediment to it being so.  It doesn't matter that 'meritocracy' is conceptually incoherent.  In its common sense understanding, it means 'fairness', which in its turn means whatever the dominant social norms prescribe.  In Cameron's earliest phase, he made it clear that 'fairness' would mean the bankers and the rich paying 'their share' toward clearing Britain's debt (no such thing happened, of course), while the poor would be weaned off the welfare teat and 'encouraged' back into work.  'Everyone' shares the costs, even if 'everyone' only includes those whom the greater number of the British middle class blamed for the crisis - reckless bankers and the feckless poor, those who either would not or could not keep a disciplined budget.  There will be tough times but if we all tighten our belts and grit our teeth, we can get through this and the good times will return.  Traditional British fair play.

Well, few people believed for very long that this government was overseeing a fair and equitable settlement of the crisis.  Real incomes, and living standards, have declined year after year.  Nor has stagnation given way to buoyant growth.  We are left with neither fairness nor efficiency.  Somehow the invocation of the spirit of the Blitz, of empire, of the years of British grit and global power, did not help.  And then, along comes Nigel.  He does not evoke the spirit of social compromise, of 'fair play', of mutual sacrifice.  He tells us that it's not fair, that we have sacrificed too much, and that at any rate, some things matter more than money.  He comes in the spirit of common sense insurgency, of a folkish Britishness long repressed by the parliamentary elites.  He articulates the sense of loss, of having been cheated, of injury, experienced by polyglot social layers, and in response urges the recovery of lost British potency as the means of redemption.

Nigel Farage won the debate with Nick Clegg, hands down.  And with that, signalled that a highly authoritarian, exclusionary form of 'Britishness' is winning too.

*I am indebted, for this part of the post, to discussions with persons who shall remain anonymous.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Against imperialist intervention in Ukraine posted by lenin

I think it's worth pausing, and reflecting on the fact that the EU has applied sanctions.  

Well.  Don't make the EU angry.  You wouldn't like them when they get angry.    Raaaahhhrr!  EU SMASH!  

And yet - and yet - Russia continues to 'defy the international community'.  Such rare valour.  Such nose-thumbery.  Such bare-faced insouciance.

I don't want to be misunderstood.  I am obviously happy that the US and EU are not flexing serious muscle, that the dire warnings of neocon expeditions are looking so utterly threadbare, that Obama is specifically ruling out "a military excursion in Ukraine".  I just think that the futile pretence at scolding the Russian Federation by applying a few paltry sanctions to "Putin allies" is inherently hilarious and ought to incite torrents of deprecatory laughter.

Still, if you think that the major issue in Ukraine is imperialism, then the response of sections of the British Left to the situation is bizarre indeed.  Because it wasn't very long ago that Russian troops in unmarked uniforms occupied key positions in the Crimean peninsula, and started the process that led to the 'referendum' for secession.  There could hardly be a clearer attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, and it will have reverberations beyond Crimea, inasmuch as those secessionist tendencies already being expressed in other parts of the south and east of Ukraine will be accentuated while simultaneously the nationalist reaction in the west will be bolstered.  If you want to know how it came to be that a popular movement against a thuggish government of the oligarchs, resulted in a right-wing nationalist government with fascists in leading positions, you need as part of your explanation the role of Russian imperialism in supporting Ukraine's stupendously wealthy ruling class.  Whoever does not want to speak of Russian imperialism should be equally silent on Ukrainian fascism.  You see, Lindsey German was right after all: it's a messy situation that imperialist intervention will only make worse.

Now I hardly think state 'sovereignty' is a thing to be treated with holy veneration.  There are already far too many countries in my opinion, and at least a few of them could stand to be invaded and annexed by neighbours.  Still, this is the international order that we live in: the primary power which any state claims is the exclusive right to final political control over a bounded territory which it administers.  And, oversimplifying, one of the primary of imperialist states is that it routinely abridges or cancels that right within its 'sphere of influence'.  If the United States sends troops into a country and starts overseeing votes on this and that, which does happen sometimes, we on the Left tend to call it imperialism and oppose it.

And the consequences of said 'sovereignty' being breached are usually not negligible.  After all, if you have a country that is potentially divisible by two or more factors, then the fastest way to catalyse that division is for at least one imperialist state to intervene.  So, Russian military intervention in Crimea would be, I think, a thing to take very seriously and even oppose.  And if it turns out - and we may wish to look into the history here - that Russia has some sort of past habit of militarily and politically dominating Ukraine, then this should make it all the more urgent to oppose what it is doing.

However, there are some on the British Left expressing a degree of sympathy for Russian imperialism's claims in this, despite in other respects not being fans of Putin or the ruling class he fronts.  Forget the grim old tankie polemicists and their formulaic bombast.  They'll be saying the same things until doomsday - just fill in the proper nouns.  Consider instead the indomitable Irish socialist Eamon McCann, who did once leaflet against Russian imperialism in Czechoslovakia, but who now argues in favour of siding with Russia on this issue.  This piece has been shared as the top article on the Stop the War website, and I see that  John Rees, of Counterfire and Stop the War, has lauded the piece as a great blast against the 'Russophobes'.  I doubt that this position commands the support of the majority of the British Left, but nor is it the view of a marginal grouping.

So, let's consider the argument.  The crux of it appears to be that the territorial wishes of the population in Crimea are being fulfilled.  Whatever the problems with the referendum, the incorporation of Crimea into Russia has a democratic mandate.  Setting aside everything that is ridiculous about a rigged ballot conducted under military occupation, McCann is probably right that the majority of Crimeans used the ballot to express their real preference.  But since when was that the end of the matter?  The majority of residents of the Malvinas, and Gibraltar, wish to remain British.    The majority of Israelis probably favour conserving a Zionist territorial entity.  Probably the majority of people in Northern Ireland still favour British rule.  The majority of people in the southern United States once favoured secession, I hear.  I am not claiming that pro-Russian attitudes among Crimeans represents the same type of phenomenon, but there is nothing sacred in a majority.  Do we have no interest in the politics of nationalist belonging?  And even if you decide that you can't oppose the annexation of Crimea 'because it's what the people want', I see no imperative reason to actually support it.

The wider argument, though, is that NATO has been encircling Russia for years, that it has been driving eastward into Ukraine, and that the Russian Federation's actions - while no less self-interested than those of Washington - are essentially reactive.  This, essentially, is the case that Stop the War's political leadership has been making since the beginning.  But, setting aside arguments over 'who started it', this is simply to describe an inter-imperialist rivalry.  And, moreover, it is one in which the Kremlin has scored a number of significant successes in recent years - including, for example, winning the war in Georgia, and helping its man get back into power in Ukraine after the first 'Orange Revolution' went sour.  Since when did we have to choose sides in such rivalries?

This brings me to my last point.  What is all this for?  I can well understand the need to explain (not exaggerate) the role of the US and EU, and to place Russia's actions in a geopolitical context of inter-imperialist rivalry.  But why is it so necessary, now, to soft-sell Russian imperialism, or even take its side?  Recently, in a rather cantankerous piece, Andrew Murray took issue with my critique of Lindsey German's appalling article about Ukraine.  I don't think it deserves an exhaustive retort, but in it he informed readers that the difference between the leaders of Stop the War and people such as myself is that the former are oriented toward action (while - I think this is strongly implied - the latter merely enjoy pontificating about outré sexual kinks and splitting the left).  Now I too occasionally yearn for the simpler, hesternal days of 2003.  But I have to wonder in what nostalgic fug one could fail to notice that the military action here is being undertaken by the Russian Federation, about which Stop the War proposes to do nothing, while the risk of US or EU military intervention is palpably negligible.  So what 'action' are Stop the War actually proposing?  To what practical end?  You can't hope to make the slogans and positions of a previous conjuncture relevant again by sheer rhetorical exertion!

That seems to me to be the problem.  Of all the problems besetting Ukraine, the threat of a US-led intervention is at present not as close to the top of the pile as are a right-wing government with fascists in it, and Russian domination.  That can change, but in the meantime it leaves a certain model of 'internationalism' predicated on exclusively opposing 'our' imperialists looking somewhat redundant.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Gramsci, Machiavelli and the 'modern prince' posted by lenin

Peter Thomas is invaluable:

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