Every morning I wake up on

The wrong side of capitalism

Who don’t count

You know when you’re playing Snakes and Ladders as a child, and you roll a number that would take you to a snake, and you say “oh, that roll was an accident, it didn’t count,” and roll again? There you have the civilized Western defense of warfare: “Oh, we don’t kill civilians, except when we do, but that’s an accident and it doesn’t count.” Or rather, in the terrifyingly cheerful words of Don Shepperd on CNN this morning:

The problem is those weapons can malfunction. You can make fat-fingered typing errors. There are still mistakes in warfare. And that’s where you get those trenches full of bodies, Kyra.

Trenches full of bodies. But, you know, Israel didn’t mean it, so it doesn’t count. The “pedantic, casuistic jesuitry” of a “useless and barbaric ruling class.”


Fears of headscarves, fears of politics

Incredibly annoying example of smug liberal racism in the Guardian last Tuesday. It was a letter, so I can’t find a link, but here’s the offending paragraph:

Our culture is tolerant of religious freedom and of the visible signs individuals choose to wear to demonstrate their faith. However, we are a secular society. Veiled and covered women are a sign of male dominance, not a sign of faith.

If nothing else, we can thank Helen Smith of Orpington, Kent, for a brilliant illustration of liberal respect for the Other as long as she is not actually Other (a point Žižek is fond of making). Troubled by the possibility of having to respect religious practices you object to? Simply redefine them so they’re no longer religious practices, and you don’t have to tolerate them.

The point being, if Helen Smith of Orpington, Kent, had stepped outside the acceptable liberal bounds of tolerance (that is to say, of disavowed intolerance), and had tried to make a genuinely universalist argument, the absurdity of her position would have become obvious. If “veiled and covered women” are a sign of male dominance, how about women in long skirts? In short skirts? In trousers? Wearing coats? Wearing nothing? In the anathematization of the veil, the gender dynamics instantiated by Western clothes are rendered invisible; Western clothes are both natural and universal, with Islamic forms of dress exceptional, singular, and oppressive. Of course, if Western liberals actually came out and said this they would be laughed at, and rightly so; but the old 19th Century Eurocentric logic remains, in a disavowed form, in liberalism’s spurious notion of tolerance.

The underlying similarity, I think, lies in liberalism’s inability to understand different sorts of differences. This can work out as imperialist universalism (all differences are to be condemned in the name of the universal), or a toothless multiculturalism (all differences are to be celebrated simply for being differences).  Indeed, contemporary liberalism swings chaotically between the two. In neither case, crucially, does the liberal ever interpret a difference as an antagonism; if all differences are equally good or equally bad, one need never confront the possibility that there are some differences on which we may have to make a political choice, that is to say, to choose which side we’re on.

As Wendy Brown has pointed out, the supposed even-handedness of liberalism, the inability to choose a side, is a kind of moralism that is really a fear of politics, a desire for political questions to somehow be decided in advance, safe from the insecurity of political activity.


Houston manifesto

Though I mostly agree with every other left-wing blogger that the appropriate response to this nonsense manifesto is either silence or a bit of mild giggling, I was interested to see this post which looks at it seriously in terms of its claim to be a left-wing document. The conclusion:

Anyway, it’s nice to see a strong liberal statement come out, and for it to clearly show once again the dividing line between socialists and liberalism.


“The Left Wing attack on ontological reality”

So the CPE is to be scrapped. Victories of this sort are strangely double-edged. Of course, the reminder of the power of political action can be an impetus for further action. But a victory like this is always partial, but the framing of the action in specific terms can lead to a demobilization which allows for the same outcome by other means. The talk of replacing the CPE with “measurements in favour of the professional insertion of the young people more in difficulty,” makes clear the danger here. As I’ve said before, the problem with single-issue campaigns is that they focus on one issue too many.

Besides which, I think Rachel was quite right to look at the limitations of the defensive  way in which the anti-CPE campaigns have been articulated (as well as k-punk, see this older article from Angela of the archive). Bat proposed the slogan, “be unrealistic, demand the possible,” and this looks like it would provide a justification for a certain defensiveness. After all, the actually existing employment protection or welfare state are a fortiori possible, and so seem to disprove capitalist realism’s claim to define the possible. But I wonder if this is true. Capitalism’s spurious discourse of novelty
is always capable of declaring that the actually existing is no longer possible, that is, to render something impossible without any regard to what we might want to regard as the facts. To base our struggle on the possible, then, even something we can rigorously demonstrate to be possible, is to choose to fight on terrain dominated by capitalism.

What’s right about bat’s slogan, though, is  the distinction he implies between utopianism and revolutionism. A properly revolutionary impossibilism can’t just put forward any impossibility we might happen to like (although I’m fond of Fourier’s talk of anti-whales and anti-beavers catching fish for us after the revolution). What we need to do is find the impossible within the actual. I’m reminded of Derrida’s quasi-transcendentalism. Although it’s sometimes taken to be, like Blackburn’s quasi-realism, a kind of bad-faith transcendentalism in which we act as if there were a transcendental support even though we “know” there isn’t, this is an entirely incorrect reading of Derrida (indeed, so wrong it probably doesn’t deserve to be called a reading at all). What Derrida actually says is that the quasi-transcendental shows that a condition of possibility is also a condition of impossibility. This could be taken as a kind of nihilism, but I prefer to interpret it, as John Caputo does, as a messianic argument for the possibility of an absolutely different future. The point is, capitalist reality is no less impossible than the communist future; the difference lies in who has the power to enforce their impossibility.

I was recently reading Wendy Brown’s States of Injury, as it is one of the set books in a class I’m grading papers for. I was pleased to see that Brown (writing in 1995) makes arguments against defensive left-wing projects which have a lot of resonance with the arguments being put forward around the CPE. Amusingly, a number of the students described Brown as saying that “we should be amoral and concentrate on struggling for power.” That’s a funny way to put it, but they do sort of have the right idea.


“Fools as dull as the heavy thud of a computer on the helmet of a riot cop”

Via No More Big Wheels, an incredible statement from a group calling themselves The Sorbonne Occupation Committee in Exile. Difficult to choose the best bits to quote, but here’s some of them:

By installing their police here, they offered the Sorbonne to all the dispossessed. At this hour when we are writing this the Sorbonne does not belong to the students anymore, it belongs to all those who, by the word or the cocktail, mean to defend it.


We are fighting against a law passed with a majority vote by a legitimate parliament. Our simple existence proves that the democratic principle of majority vote is questionable, it proves that the myth of the sovereignty of the general assembly can be usurped. It is part of our struggle to limit, as much as possible, the tyranny of the majority vote.  … Once the vote has been cast for a strike until the withdrawal of the law for equal opportunity, the general assemblies should become a space of endless debate, a space for sharing experiences, ideas, and desires, a place where we constitute our strength, not a scene of petty power struggles and intrigues for swaying the decision.


They were wandering in anguish of the freedom offered but impossible to grasp, because it was not desired. A week later, after numerous occupations and confrontations with the police, their asserted impotence is finally giving place to an innocent taste for direct action. Pacifism finally becomes what it has never stopped being: a benign existential pathology.


We are referring to what did not happen in 68, the revolutionary turmoil that did not take place. By casting us in the past, some would like to extract us from the present situation and to make lose the strategic understanding of it. By treating 68 as a simple student movement, they would like to dismiss the still present menace of what 68 could have been, a savage general strike, a burst of a human strike.


The idea of democratically debating every day those who are against the strike on the renewal of the strike is absurd. The strike has never been a democratic practice, but a political accomplished fact, an immediate expropriation, a relationship of power. No one has ever voted the establishment of capitalism. Those who oppose the strike are de facto standing on the other side of the barricade, and the only exchange we could have with them is of insults, punches and rotten eggs. In the face of referendums set up to break the strike, the only thing to do is to abolish them by all means necessary.


We are the heirs of the failure of all the “social movements.�


None of the “social movements� of recent years has achieved in months of “struggle� what the insurgents of November discretely obtained in three weeks of riots – cuts to public assistance in the affected areas were suspended, funding for local programs was reinstated. All of this without making any demands. Demanding means defining your existence in the mutilating terms of those in power.


Even their marshals have a new role, and a new name: they are now the “action division� and are preparing to confront the police if they have to.


No one has the right to tell us that what we are doing is “illegitimate.� …  Our task from now on is to give means to this struggle with no other limit but what appears to us to be just and joyful.


The dangers of reading too much Chomsky

I find myself at Le Colonel Chabert’s site every now and then by following links from various people I like, but I’m always disatisfied with the analyses she offers, and I think k-punk articulates why with his snappy phrase, “moralizing liberal socialism.” I’m not sure k-punk’s ad hominems are necessary or indeed accurate, though. Surely the problem with LCC’s moralizing of capital isn’t that it allows her to position herself as a good capitalist; indeed, she tends towards the opposite, seeming to get a certain enjoyment out of her ability to assert her complicity with capitalism. Rather, the problem with construing capital in individual, moral terms is that it underestimates the difficulty not just of attacking capitalism but of even understanding it.

Moralizing critique goes hand-in-hand with Chomsky’s understanding of ideology as propoganga, in which “the facts” are simply knowable, and the role of criticism is to simply make them known against the distortions of the media. But, contra Chomsky and Chabert, ideology is not simple lies, rather it is ideology precisely because it has the power to dictate and create the facts. Chabert’s idea of keeping ones distance from ideology in order to study its distortions from a position of relative exteriority, then, is hopelessly optimistic.

Which brings me to the main thrust of k-punk’s post, which is a discussion of the Marxist understanding of the critique of religion. I mostly agree with what Mark says, but I’m not sure he pushes this far enough. He quotes Karatani, “Whether or not we believe in religion in the narrow sense, real capitalism puts us in a structure similar to that of the religious world,” but doesn’t explicitly draw what I think is the necessary conclusion: for Marx, the critique of religion (as of ideology more generally) is not premised on the belief that religion is false. This is precisely the idealist critique he attacks, and I worry that calling for “a ruthless demolition of commodity-theology” does not clearly distinguish idealist refutation from materialist critique.

The materialist critique does not assert that religion is false; indeed, it would be almost more accurate to say that the materialist critique shows that religion is true or, better, it shows in what sense religion is true, how religion arises from and so reflects material conditions. So a communist engagement with Islam would not reject Islam, but would involve figuring out how an Islamic vocabulary can articulate communist projects (and if this is not going to just be bad faith, we shouldn’t expect our own communism to come out of the encounter unchanged).

This is where we should locate a criticism of the SWP’s current engagement with Islam (and, before we begin to criticize, we need to remember that the SWP are one of the only left groups who even have a position here worth critcizing). If engagement with Muslims remains a matter of formal alliances between pre-constituted blocks (the Muslims here, the socialists there), there remains no position from which we could engage in a genuine critique of Islam. The choices in this case remain quietist endorsement or moralistic rejection of Islam, and neither is sufficient.


Collective defense

In association with International Women’s Day, it’s also Blog Against Sexism Day. Not such a happy International Women’s Day here in the US, though, with the recent South Dakota law banning abortion with only the narrowest exemption if the woman’s life is in danger.

Back when I was an undergraduate, there was a bit of a controversy about the student union’s attempt to affiliate to the National Abortion Campaign. I wrote for the student paper, which meant I went along to pro-life meetings to report on them. It was interesting (by which I mean disturbing) to get a first-hand view of the mindset of the pro-lifers. The mawkish religiousity was unpleasant, while the enthusiasm on the part of the male pro-lifers was downright creepy (not to mention the website of one of these fuckers, who supported his anti-abortion position with statistics about the changing racial composition of Europe).

So perhaps one sort-of good thing about this recent law is that this fucked-up mindset is crawling out of the woodwork where we can get a good look at it; witness this sexist asshat whose nonsense was brought to my attention by anthrochica. Anthrochica also gets annoyed with men who are able to casually dismiss the limited reformism of the Democrats because they don’t have to deal with the consequences of the Republicans’ slightly (but, in cases like this, crucially) more reactionary politics. This got me thinking: obviously, for supposed anarchists to treat individual non-voting as some kind of positive political action is to fetishize the vote in a precisely non-anarchist way. But there’s more than that. Simply moving from individual non-participation to collective non-participation is not enough; regrettably, a sufficient anarchist position is more difficult still. Non-participation remains the politics of the privileged if it is not at the same time collective action to defend those who are under attack by the system we refure to participate in.

What would such collective action look like in this case? I’m not sure; I was vaguely hoping that an organization like the AMA (the nearest thing I’m aware of to a Doctors’ Union) would have the guts to unambiguously say it would defend doctors who performed abortions, but this doesn’t look likely. Here we have one possibility, which largely, to me at least, serves to makes it clear how big a challenge we are actually facing.


Taking leave of the past gaily

Benjamin after a comment of Marx’s:

Surrealism is the death of the nineteenth century in comedy.

— The Arcades Project, N5a,2

When did the 20th Century die? I was thinking in the early ’90s, with the end of the Cold War; put perhaps it was earlier, in 1968, with the death of the final attempt to redeem Marxism-Leninism (is there any mileage in an analysis of contemporary Leninist groups as undead?), which would make the 20th Century very short indeed. Or perhaps the US administration’s current imperial adventures are the death-throes of the 20th century, which means the century will probably run for an even 100 years. In any case, it’s difficult to see any gaiety here. Can we identify anyone enacting the death of the 20th Century in comedy?


“I’d make Coretta Scott King mayor of all the cities”

Tzuchien quotes a great piece of utopianism from The Coup:

And if we win in the ages to come
We’ll have a chapter where the history pages are from
They won’t never know our name or face
But feel our soul in free food they taste

Retail clerk - “love ballads� is where you place this song
Let’s make heaven right here
Just in case they wrong

Another great utopian track, of course, is ‘If I Ruled the World’. Listening to it recently, it made me wonder about cockaignes, those impossible countries of luxury and idleness. They’re usually understood in terms of a simple version of Bakhtin’s carnival, where the central trope is inversion: the master becomes the slave, and the peasant a king. But I wonder if there isn’t something more subtle going on in the incoherence of the cockaigne. Perhaps the point isn’t so much inversion as an impossible, mad, insatiable juxtaposition of different elements. Hence Nas combines that the faintly foolish and personal with the eminently serious and political, as if there were no distinction between the two:

I know it sounds foul but every girl I meet’d go downtown
I’d open every cell in Attica send ‘em to Africa.

I wonder if part of this incoherence is an attempt to illustrate what Foucault called “the stark impossibility of thinking that,” an enactment of the way in which revolution would have to not only reorder the empirical distribution of things, but overflows the basic conceptual grid that makes this empirical order possible.


Paging Dr Fanon

Jessica has new quality from Fefe Dobson. Interesting title, “As a Blonde,” given that Dobson is black. Explicitly, the lyrics position “blonde” as simply a difference of no intrinsic importance, another alternative for Dobson comparable to her desire to “try a different lipstick on.” But the way the fantasy of being blonde is figured suggests something more is going on, something involving privilege. The blonde Fefe Dobson would “never have to watch [her] weight,” for instance, and further:

Wave my magic wand
As a blonde
Will I get whatever I want?
I’ll be ever so enticing
Down a lot of ice cream
Never even wipe my face

The track’s got a great Ramones sort of feeling to it, too.