Monday, 28 April 2014

'Russia On My Mind'.




It was a tremendous pleasure to find The Guardian holding forth on JG Ballard earlier this month. John Gray and China Mieville, among others, put pen to paper to mark the fifth year since Ballard's passing. I've long been a fan of Ballard and my blog has been a platform for posts on his work from time to time. Below I have reproduced Zinovy Zinik's interview with JG Ballard from 1998. This is one of many fascinating back-and-forths to be found in 'Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard, 1967-2008' (2012). It's an enthralling read and carries great insights into the work of one of the most significant writers of post-war Britain. Here we find Ballard's perspective on the Soviet Union and the Cold War, as well as more broadly his own political beliefs.

ZINIK: Has the end of communist Russia marked the end of two centuries of social engineering?
BALLARD: The end of social utopia? Yes, and many of my left-wing friends felt a distinct pain when it all ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, etc. I did so too myself, since heroic experiments have to be admired despite sometimes vast human cost. I even remarked to my ex-CP girlfriend, “Now’s the time to join the Communist Party,” only to be told by her rather bitterly that there wasn’t one to join – in the UK. (I was actually a great if partial admirer of Margaret Thatcher for her attempt to Americanise the British people.) Bourgeois life has triumphed, and the suburbanisation of the planet and the universal acceptance of the shopping mall have now virtually put an end to politics. What we have is the commodification of everything, including ideologies, and government by advertising agency – as in Blair’s New Britain.
I think we’ve now gone beyond politics into a new and potentially much more dangerous realm where non-political factors will pull the levers of power – these may be vast consumer trends, strange surges in the entertainment culture that dominates the planet, quasi-religious eruptions of the kind we saw at Diana’s death, mass paranoia about new diseases, aberrant movements in popularised mysticism, and the growing dominance of the aesthetic (which I prophesied twenty years ago). The only ballot box common to all these is the cash register, an extremely accurate gauge of consumer preference in the very short term but useless beyond the next five minutes.
All this leaves the human race extremely vulnerable to any master manipulator. I’ve remarked elsewhere that messiahs usually emerge from deserts, and I expect the next Adolf Hitler or Mao to emerge from the wilderness of the vast North American and European shopping malls. The first credit-card Buddha, at its best, or, at its worst, the first credit-card Stalin.
ZINIK: To what extent was Soviet communism unique – or was it rather yet another example fo the tyrannical manipulation of human idealistic urges and instinct for survival, too familiar to the Western mind through two thousand years of Christianity? With your childhood experience in China under the Japanese, how familiar does the proverbial Soviet horror seem to you?
BALLARD: Tyrannies usually self-destruct in years rather than decades, at least in the modern epoch, and the survival of the old Soviet Union for the greater part of the last century is a remarkable event. Stalin dominated much of that time, and he was lucky to have had so many enemies. I see him primarily as a war leader, first raging [sic] war against large elements of his own people, then leading the battles against Hitler and the unbeatable USA. Presumably the Soviet system delivered more than people give it credit for – the whole country organised like a vast internment camp, with all the boredom and dulling of hope and enterprise but an underlying sense of security.
Despite World War II, a reasonable level of prosperity reached the Russian masses, but of course the constraints of the system prevented them from ever moving beyond the subsistence level. I remember driving through Yugoslavia in 1962 and seeing a complete new town of handsomely landscaped apartment blocks, all modelled on the enlightened post-Corbusier pattern, with the ground floor divided into a dozen or so shopping units. Unhappily these concrete cells were empty, since the consumer infrastructure didn’t exist. It was a desperate place and the dirt-poor people would stare at the European cars on their way to Greece, dreams of the West in their eyes. But after a while the dream either breaks free or dies, and people settle for the third best. Six months after the end of World War II British internees were still living in my camp outside Shanghai, subsisting in their shabby quarters on a diet of American C-rations. They had been institutionalised.
ZINIK: Most of your novels deal with different types of black utopia, with the transformation of human society and human nature into something unpredictable, mostly monstrous. Has Soviet communism (as an example of social engineering gone wrong) ever been on your mind when you contemplated such transformations in your novels? What is your attitude to anti-utopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four?
BALLARD: It was difficult for a writer like myself, who began in his career in the 1950s, not to be aware of the Soviet Union, and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four confirmed one’s fears that tyrannies can play upon people’s deep-rooted masochistic needs. One could see the Soviet Union as a kind of Sadean society of torturers and willing victims.
In the same way the Nazis seem to have exploited the latent docility of their victims. Everyone who has served in the armed forces knows that there are military bases where the regime of discipline and brutality is far more excessive than it needs to be, and yet doesn’t provoke any revolt and may even satisfy some need to be brutalised. The whole socialist project may fit into the same scheme. Where socialist systems endure for decades, as in China and the Soviet Union, they do so because people unconsciously want things to get worse, rather than better.
Brave New World, a masterpiece of a novel, takes the process one step farther and is uncannily accurate in its prediction of the society we are now becoming: soma, feelies, test-tube babies. I’ve always suspected that the Soviet Union was the last of the old-style authoritarian tyrannies. The totalitarian systems of the future will be obsequious and subservient, plying us with drinks and soft slippers like a hostess on an airliner, adjusting our TV screen for us so that we won’t ask exactly where the plane is going or even whether there is a pilot on board.
ZINIK: The Soviet utopia, unlike the utopian dreams of the English sectarians of the seventeenth century, was born out of the French as well as the German idea of the collective, of the state being responsible for the individual. You have witnessed the collective dance of the ‘flower power generation’ in the swinging 60s in London, as well as French intellectuals’ obsessions with the Chinese notion of the rule of the collective. Did it affect at all your mode of thinking? Reading your novels, one comes to the conclusion that the human mind, with its innate propensity for barbarism, is always in need of some kind of irritant drug, some black territory of total anarchy, and a zone in which it could play out its fantasies, including social experiments. You once said that we live in the age that gave birth to the cross-breed of reason and nightmare. The Soviet nightmare was very much an illustration of this idea. How come you never refer to the Soviet experience in your prose?
BALLARD: If I haven’t referred to the Soviet experience it is partly because I’ve never been there, and chiefly because I’ve been more interested in the latent pathology of the consumerist West, which is where the entire planet seems to be heading.
Also I am not sure if the Soviet Union was a special case. Did Russia industrialise too quickly? Did it educate its population too quickly? Did it place too great a reliance on science? Did it make a mistake abolishing religious practice? Its tragedy was that it was obliged to fight the bloodiest war in history against an advanced nation in the grip of ideological madness. But for Hitler and the Nazis, could Stalin and the Soviet leaders have maintained their brutal grip for so long?
Is a communist system inherently dependent on the creation of enemies to justify its repressions, given that communism runs counter to almost all human social tendency? If you want to destroy the economy of an advanced nation, introduce it to socialism, say American supply-siders led by Milton Friedman et al., and they may well have a point.
ZINIK: Do you see Russia as one of those zones where the Western mind can go and experience something which is unacceptable in one’s own country? How would you describe the type of society that attracts minds which are usually either bored, lonely, excited, disrespectful of moral implications, or naïve and idealistic, blind to the nastiness behind the bright façade?
BALLARD: One has to remember that despite the antagonisms of the past half-century and the threat of nuclear war, a huge reservoir of goodwill towards the Russian people exists in the West. This is quite unlike some Western responses to the Germans, who are not much liked by their European neighbours and certainly not trusted. Memories of the Franks go back a long way, all the way to the Romans, who never conquered them and, if I remember correctly, received a chilling shock when several of their legions made the mistake of crossing the Rhine and were massacred to the last man.
But Russians are perceived in a very positive light, as affable and likeable people. I have known a good number of Russians in my life: during my Shanghai childhood I had several White Russian nannies, and many White Russian men were employed as garage owners, dentists, doctors and so on, as well as foremen and drivers. They were all likeable characters. If Western visitors are going to Russia to gaze at the relics of socialism for reasons of nostalgia, that amazes me.
ZINIK: Could one speculate about some kind of energy points (‘G-spots’ in social structures) without which humankind withers and dies in passivity? Is Russia one of those points on the political map of the world, which provokes, like infection, self-destructive urges in some people? Is it possible to describe such a temperament? Do you recognise among your characters those who might be attracted to Russia?
BALLARD: I suppose, from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, there must be a reason why a huge and diverse nation with a highly educated elite should choose to enslave itself for seventy years, but it’s hard to find one. Perhaps, historically, Russia was very late in developing a middle-class, so that until the start of the twentieth century there was almost nothing between aristocracy and the rural and urban working-class, a set-up that stops the clocks, as you can see in any banana republic or oil sheikhdom. The USA and Japan are the exact opposite, almost entirely composed of the middle-class, who are intensely insistent on their civic rights, like any Whig mercantile class. I’m afraid my characters would not be attracted to Russia, since all my heroes are mavericks.
ZINIK: You once remarked that Marxism is a philosophy for the poor and that we need to develop a philosophy for the rich. We shouldn’t forget, of course, the fact that the ideas of the French Enlightenment and French Revolution are as much responsible for the creation of the Soviet utopia as they are – in a more immediate sense – responsible for the birth of the United States of America.
The cherished Russian notions of suffering and sacrifice in the name of collective welfare were historically juxtaposed in the twentieth century to those of American self-promotion and happiness. One could say the Cold War was fought over the wrong interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Do you see these two types of ideals as mirroring each other? Is the brainwashing by commercial advertising comparable to that by Soviet ideology, the living dead of American consumerism not dissimilar to the victim of the Soviet totalitarianism?
BALLARD: You use the word ‘utopia’ a lot in connection with Soviet history, but this only applies in the most abstract and notional sense. For most of the time the former Soviet Union was a dystopia of alarming durability. Having myself experienced cold, hunger and disease during the war, I can’t imagine how they could ever serve a glorious end, and there is no way in which Russian suffering is some kind of mirror image of American consumer plenty. Eastern Europeans and Russians, like people from the developing world, have always been astonished by American plenty, by vast supermarkets and shopping malls crammed to the ceiling with a king’s ransom of consumer goods.
They fail to realise that Americans themselves are not in the least awestruck by their own superabundance, and in fact take it completely for granted. They expect a refrigerator to have an automatic ice-cube maker, just as they expect a car to have a powerful heater and a four-speaker sound system. The richest society is one where everyone is a millionaire but is unaware of the fact; a state that already exists on the Upper East Side of New York.
Sadly, Russians will probably still feel poor even when surrounded by a lavish consumer culture. There are Marxist interpretations of American consumer culture, which believe that American capitalism has entrapped and pacified the working-class by beguiling them with the opium of meretricious consumer goods. But this analysis seems desperate to me and ignores the fact that the basic needs of the working-class, e.g. for personal transport and food refrigeration, are fully genuine needs, and the cars and refrigerators in question are superb functional examples of their kind.
The same applies to advertising, which people in the developing world assume Americans are brainwashed by. In fact Americans are scarcely aware of the advertising around them. Today’s Russian intelligentsia would make a huge error if they equated American consumerism with Soviet totalitarianism. They would make the same mistake if they assumed that Americans, Europeans and others in the developed world are brainwashed by the dominant entertainment culture of Hollywood films, TV and popular music. All this is merely a sea in which everyone floats.
In fact, I often wonder if people here rare really immersed in this sea at all. It forms the background to their lives, like a TV set left on in a room that no one is watching. This explains the apparent contradiction of these comments with those I made in answer to your opening question. The consumer and entertainment landscape dominates everything, but it’s nothing but wallpaper.
ZINIK: On the other hand, what about the need for an enemy which satisfies the no less acute urge for self-righteousness among us? With the end of the Cold War, what would replace Soviet totalitarianism in the role of intellectual enemy?
BALLARD: The real problem is that it (the consumer and entertainment landscape) is the only wallpaper – every other form of competition for people’s attention and imaginations has been vanquished. If people were alert and critical of their consumer environment there would be some hope that they might change or penetrate it.
Similarly, if there were a conspiracy by manipulators behind the scenes there would be the hope that people might wake up. But there is no conspiracy. This leaves people in a valueless world, wandering like aimless Saturday crowds through the great supermarket of life. Under the placid surface of their minds, dreams stir the strange phantoms and pseudo-religions that we spelled out earlier.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Dumbing Down.


There was a good piece in The Guardian by Frank Furedi on the effects of Gove's reforms on the way philosophy is being taught in colleges and sixth forms across the country. As I fell for philosophy as an A-level student I can't help but take an interest in the substance of the reforms. From what Furedi writes these reforms are not a step forwards:
 
Tragically, the draft philosophy syllabus offers an intellectually inferior version of the old. Some of the most intellectually stimulating questions of the existing curriculum disappear, such as that on free will, as does political philosophy. A new compulsory philosophy of religion topic – which counts for 50% of the AS course – suggests a reorientation towards the teaching of RE.
What's most disturbing is that the text disappears, to be replaced by an online anthology of extracts. Why? According to the draft syllabus, to provide "greater clarity on the content so that teachers are clear about what they need to teach". The impulse to remove a teacher's capacity to make judgment calls threatens to turn what has been an exciting intellectual adventure into an exercise in box-ticking. In line with this pedagogical orientation, the assessments have been revised to cater for a more intellectually light curriculum.
The revised assessment appears relatively indifferent to the integrity of philosophical knowledge. The draft says the methods of assessment "focus clearly on the core skills of philosophy". The language of skills and instrumentalism dominates this syllabus. The draft responds to the question, "Why choose philosophy?" with the answer: because "students will develop and refine a range of transferable skills". Philosophy, which originally meant the love of wisdom and which many regard as a guide to life, is now rebranded as the bearer of transferable skills.
 
Of course, I'm not at all hostile to the teaching of philosophy of religion (or as a subject in itself), but I am suspicious of any attempt to depoliticise philosophy in this way. I would view moral philosophy as the vital component, with political philosophy as a continuation of ethics by other means. That's no reason to leave out the God question, of course, and there's no reason why they can't be taught alongside each other. Some would argue that these changes are towards the more juicy end of philosophy of religion. That's not the key problem. It's the depoliticisation coupled with dumbing down (in the form of the raised dependence on extracts) which I'm opposed to. The emphasis on the philosophy of religion may be a crude attempt to supplant politics with moralism. This is the grass-roots impact of Gove's neoconservative agenda.

The tension in education policy has always been between the impetus for critical thinking and the need to churn out well-equipped consumers/workers. The enlightened citizen is far from the ideal of educational policy. If you swing too far towards the latter you end up with high-performing automatons and no innovation. A populace can be too deferential and obedient to the point of stagnation. And, of course, you can run into serious trouble if you find yourself with excess innovation. It could be argued that that was precisely what happened in the 1960s when the post-war generation began to question the Establishment and its authority on a whole series of questions. Education policy will oscillate within this spectrum to try and strike a balance of opening a space for innovation in one area while closing such a space elsewhere.

Far from anything new, we can now properly situate Gove in this bipolar shuffle and this is no matter of speculation. Before Michael Gove was an MP he worked for The Times as a columnist (writing at £5,000 a month for a column he churned out in an hour) and he was not shy about his views on a lot of issues. On the tuition fees set by the Blair government Gove wrote "Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all to the good." A good education is conceived of as a commodity and, in Gove's mind, it is too readily available to the lesser classes. It's a vision in line with the view taken by Allan Bloom, a fellow neoconservative, that the masses are to be moulded by the ideas of the few great men. The bewildered herd are to be kept in check.

So I think we may risk the suggestion that Gove doesn't mean well when he guts the humanities of innovative capacity. Even the A-level course I took in philosophy, which Furedi foolishly romanticises, actually had political content in the second year. At AS we looked at epistemology, ethics, tolerance, and aesthetics, then at A2 we looked at moral philosophy in greater depth and finally political philosophy. That meant normative and meta for moral thought. Then we moved onto reading JS Mill. On Liberty has its flaws (which the English are impervious to conceding) but the students could at least develop a perspective on its content. So we could then decide whether or not we buy into Mill's utilitarian brand of classical liberalism. You would think Gove would be for this sort of thing. Instead we find the syllabus is being debauched even more than it already had been.
 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Censorship isn't the whole story.


The debate on the issue of pornography has long been framed in terms of censorship, a simple dichotomy, one person for it, another against it, and no other possibilities in sight. It long has been this way since the video nasties scare which swept the UK in the 80s and the American culture wars of the 90s. Prohibitionism has its conveniences in a narrow spectrum of discourse. It is simple: aye or nay. It is the common ground set for liberals and conservatives to strike blows against one another. After all if there were no such ground how could they wage such battles. Feminists have been split over this question going back decades. It was always a last ditch argument given that the ban on pornography would fail just as the bans on drugs (not forgetting alcohol) and gambling have failed. This was true decades ago and it is even more true today.
 
The issue still rears its head from time to time. Last year there were Conservative proposals to set limits on internet porn, albeit with through the means of consent. David Cameron wants an opt-in system instead of the opt-out status quo (a perfectly fine system) we currently have. So, of course, at The GuardianLaurie Penny comes out against the opt-out system and reiterated her position on censorship. Likewise, back in August 2013 Richard Seymour produced a polemic attacking Cameron's proposal at the New Left Project. It is very easy to find such articles and the arguments are wearily predictable. This is the case because it is hardly a matter of serious contention. Whether or not we have an opt-in or opt-out system really doesn't matter. In any case there are bigger and tougher questions to ask ourselves. For those of us who love ideas, the real game in the hunt is still out there.

Back in March Autostraddle reported the beginning of Porn Studies, the first peer-reviewed academic journal on porn, which I found to be a welcome development. About a dozen days earlier the Huffington Post ran an article on the campaign to legislate against pornography. Predictably, feminist critics of porn like Gail Dines and Julie Bindel were on the chop block. It wasn't long ago that Caroline Lucas, a politician of tremendous fortitude, appeared on the BBC to bemoan the low-shelved soft porn of lad mags. As much as I respect Lucas I found the debate to be at the level of futile gesture. It doesn't amount to a radical commitment to argue that the magazines be shelved slightly higher to be out of the way of children. We are in dire need of a serious discussion on pornography outside of these comfortable and incestuous oscillations.

Even that famously feminist journal Cosmopolitan waded in last year with an interview with feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino. The commitments of feminist pornographers, such as Taormino, extend to gender equality and social justice. The pitch is certainly appealing: "Feminist porn is ethically produced porn, which means that performers are paid a fair wage and they are treated with care and respect; their consent, safety, and well-being are critical, and what they bring to the production is valued." Yet there is room for criticism here if we prod deeper. She says feminist porn "seeks to empower the performers who make it and the people who watch it." Note how progressives have ceased to speak of 'taking power' and now prefer to talk about 'empowerment'. This relates to a key issue (one of many) overlooked all too often.

When asked about sites such as RedTube and YouPorn Taormino said "What most people don't realise is that most so-called 'free' porn on the internet is not really free, its blatant copyright infringement illegally uploaded on tube and bit torrent sites." This is where we realise that this particular approach really only confirms property relations and doesn't challenge them. For all the niceties of Taormino's progressive comments, it would seem she has no time for the potentials of decommodification online. She even demonstrates nostalgia, at one point, "I don't really consider [YouPorn and RedTube] amateur sites because most of the content isn't actually amateur. They are basically destroying the old economic model of the adult industry." Yet the next moment she heaps praise on the internet for its roll in allowing a space "for people to control the means of porn production" and refers the reader to MeetTheMayhems.com, LiandraDahl.com, and MakeLoveNotPorn.tv.

These sites practice profit-sharing in a cooperative model which stands in contrast to the bog-standard method of cranking out dollar bills. The extraction of surplus value in pornography comes down to the production of footage, which used to be potentially without limit, until the advent of the internet, and as long as willing performers can be found. The pay grade for successful pornstars may dwarf the wages of waitresses, but it is still exploitation. The creation of spaces within the market for alternative forms of production is not to be dismissed as an aim. Much like fair trade goods and organic food, feminist pornographers pledge to contest the forces of the market on their own terms. Unlike other goods, pornography has the capacity to reproduce a certain form of sexual relations endlessly. In other words, there is no guarantee of feminist pornography prevailing over its competitors. It boils down to free-choice and this is a problem for the Left.

Cockburn on Spain.


I've just been flicking through the pages of The Devil's Decade (1973) by Claud Cockburn, in which he has a chapter on the Spanish Civil War, entitled The Battle for Spain: Triumph of the Right. This is not so surprising as Cockburn was a Communist agitator in the 1930s and covered the Spanish revolution and its fight for survival. He was not totally exceptional as a British aristo abroad fighting for a cause which seemed insane to the ruling-classes of the day. Here's an excerpt I quite like:
 
Outside Spain, the event was noted with generally calm incomprehension. A general election had taken place, a shift to the Left had been registered. 
Europe north of the Pyrenes was in the main ignorant of the state of mind of the Spanish working people; was indifferent to it; and would in any case have found it unintelligible. 
Those whose business it was to observe the course of events found it impossible to convey their nature and significance to populations cocooned in their political habits. Some tried to translate Spanish into French or English by seeking comparisons with the mood of revolutionary Europe in 1848 or of the Paris Commune of 1871. The translation was rough indeed, the analogy distant. 
It was justified in one sense only: in Spain now, as in those great European explosions of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of people - in Spain millions - were motivated and propelled by a good hope that the moment had come when man could remake his world; that he could master his circumstances; that liberty could cease to be an empty word, and work be no longer a dreary one. They did not accept that Utopia must be a sick delusion. 

These words must have been bittersweet for Cockburn who had seen the defeat of Spain's revolutionaries by Fascism first hand. It was a defeat which the Western powers had colluded in (along with Stalin) to stomp out an alternative vision of society. It would be four decades until Spain was emancipated from the jackboot of Franco's regime. It's an important lesson in the dark times in which we as leftists live. Many years later in the final years of the twentieth century Claud's eldest son Alexander Cockburn would write: "These days we're shy imaginers of Utopia. We know we live in the age of iron, lamented by Hesiod and Ovid. All the more reason not to lose heart. There is abundance, if we arrange things differently. The world can be turned upside down; that is, the right way up. The Golden Age is in us, if we know where to look, and what to think."

Orwell on Private Property.

 
In August of 1944 one correspondent asked a famous English journalist "Are the squares to which you refer public or private properties? If private, I suggest that your comments in plain language advocate nothing less than theft and should be classed as such." The journalist was none other than George Orwell. When faced with such bourgeois casuistry Orwell had just the right response.
 
If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft. In his zeal to defend private property, my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so. 
Except for the few surviving commons, the high roads, the lands of the National Trust, a certain number of parks, and the sea shore below high-tide mark, every square inch of England is "owned" by a few thousand families. These people are just about as useful as so many tapeworms. It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling-houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he can actually farm. But the ground landlord in at own area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces: that is literally all that he does, except to draw his income. The removal of the railings in the squares was a first step against him. It was a very small step, and yet an appreciable one, as the present move to restore the railings shows. For three years or so the squares lay open, and their sacred turf was trodden by the feet of working-class children, a sight to make dividend-drawers gnash their false teeth. If that is theft, all I can say is, so much the better for theft.
 
It's an admirable response precisely because it accepts the premises of the question and rolls them upside down. Orwell's pen left behind cutting sentences with the historical perspective so neglected in English society: where intuition and common-sense are the prime virtues. Class is the unspoken reality we all live with and here Orwell cuts to the bone and to the marrow. This is not the same gent fetishized and sanitised by the liberal intelligentsia and conservative commentariat alike.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Boss Needs You, You Don't Need Him!

Autocritique: Islam, Europe & Democracy.


My very first blogpost was an article on the British refusal to let Geert Wilders enter the country and to be received by Parliament where his film would then be shown. Later Mr Wilders was allowed into the country, to great controversy, given his own views of Islam as a ‘fascist ideology’. At the time I took the line that it would be much better if Lord Nazir Ahmed didn’t push for Wilders to be blocked from presenting the film. Rather Lord Ahmed should’ve challenged him and defeated Wilders in his claims about Islam, it’s not as though the film’s message is difficult to refute. He equates terrorism with the Quran pushing aside the collapse of Arab nationalism which led to the emergence of radical Islamism. Never mind the legitimate grievances of Muslims, not only the atrocities committed against Muslims in Palestine and Chechnya, but in former Yugoslavia as well. Nothing to do with the hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq either.
 
It still seems clear that if Geert Wilders had been allowed to enter then he could have been defeated in debate. I think that would have been constructive. My stance on this particular issue is not a part of a general position on free speech. It’s not a reflection of any bias towards the reactionary Right in its bid to further marginalise Muslims in Europe. So I would maintain the position I took up to that point. But I should reassess the following claims and implications in my article: 1) Lord Ahmed has a responsibility to adequately represent British Muslims, 2) the assumption that the Muslim population of Britain is a problem community; 3) any implication that if we don't listen to Wilders we'll have fascism on our hands. It's these aspects of my article which I wish to address here.

1. As Lord Ahmed was never elected we shouldn't hold him to the responsibilities of an elected representative and, in actuality, we should be opposed to the position he holds. It's not that Lord Ahmed poses any threat to democracy, it's that the UK doesn't have much of a democracy in the first place. We're a constitutional monarchy and, principally, I would favour a secular republic with a much more democratic form of government. So we should be asking deeper questions and not presupposing a present existing democratic system. We should ask why British Muslims don't have enough representation and head from there. Ahmed could not pose as such a representative even if he wanted to. Nevertheless, I would add that Lord Ahmed welcomed Israel Shamir to Britain and he has little ground to stand on to block Wilders from coming here.

2. It is the case that British Muslims are too often put on the spot to defend their religion. The expectation is that the British Muslim community have to prove themselves as loyal citizens. Instead of a presumption of innocence and loyalty, we have a presumption of guilt and disloyalty. I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't always immune to the mass hysteria which came with the 'War on Terror'. Actually the Muslims in the UK have nothing to prove. The 'clash of civilizations' thesis is a farce which was spawned by a mediocre squirrel-scholar. The facts are that the major allies of the US and the UK in the Muslim world have long included authoritarian regimes and continue to do so. The 'clash' is a convenient narrative. We claim to back democracy in Iraq while we support theocracy in Saudi Arabia. Muslims and non-Muslims alike are right to be critical of this.

3. There is no likelihood of a Fourth Reich popping up in the next few years. Nor was there such a possibility in 2009 when I was writing of the need to ward-off the BNP threat. There is a long-term threat of neo-fascist groups which we have to deal with. Geert Wilders is a manageable threat – just another political whore – as containable a toxin as Nigel Farage (until quite recently). The opposition to his arrival only served to strengthen his Janus-faced persona as a defender of freedom and advocate of banning scripture. He defends individual freedom, except when you want to migrate (if you're a Muslim), if you want to wear a veil, if you want to read the Quran, and so on. The threat we face is twin-headed, humanitarian liberalism and cultural nationalism converge. Wilders is not a fascist, he actually comes from the market liberal tradition; yet he is increasingly aligned with proto-fascists and has now climbed into bed with Marine Le Pen.

The battleground is not just a marginal one which we can block off easily. It is a matter of challenging and undermining the status quo, where we find even progressive liberals effectively take the side of nationalists and reactionaries. The very people we would expect to guard the liberal flame of human rights and civil liberties are no longer trustworthy. Just as the social democrats of most European states have now become the enemies of what is left of social democracy. The difference is that this isn't a matter of preservation (as there was never much there in the first place).

Victims of Porn.

 
In The Whole Woman (1999) Germaine Greer situates pornography as the "sexuality of the information revolution". If this is the case then we face serious questions. In a more recent debate Greer said "Sex is a blood-sport", she went on to suggest that pornography actually promises to regulate the potential mess of sexual relations. It has no capacity to reject you, nor to disappoint, or to fail in its purpose as an aid to masturbation. After all masturbation is easy compared with building healthy and fulfilling relationships. Pornography enters not as a substitute, but as a means of shifting the problem around. Perhaps too crudely, Greer puts this down to the fear of commitment among men. She notes "Women are not the point of pornography". Instead it is the "flight from women, men's denial of sex as a medium of communication, their denial of sex as the basis for a relationship". On these grounds Greer claims "The victims of pornography are men not women."
 
Somehow I doubt that the masculinists of this world in their campaigns for men's rights will bear this in mind and add 'Defeat the Porn Industry' to the agenda list. Though it wouldn't surprise me if someone out there already has jumped onto this, I suspect they have other priorities. After all A Voice for Men posted an article on 'male vilification culture' (a counter-term for rape culture) featuring this line "Possibly, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the concept of the penis as a machine emerged." Perhaps rape denial could take a back seat for once. Your guess is as good as mine.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Chomsky on Pornography.



This is one of the more maligned of Chomsky's interviews on YouTube. My own view is that we need a more sophisticated debate on pornography, as an industry, and economic model, rather than falling into the dichotomy between free-choice liberalism and moralistic calls for censorship. I don't think Chomsky's perspective falls into either of the above, but I think it falls short of acknowledging the complexity of the issue at hand. Even if we eliminated conditions of degradation and humiliation it wouldn't rule out the possibility of pornographic production beyond such conditions.

Cultural Criticism of Rap


 
Rap has persevered in the decades since the decline of its predecessors, the end of what used to be called Black music, in the 1980s, in conjunction with the predominance of pop music, which had been manufactured and sanitised to maximise sales. Only once the music scene became totally dominated by music which had no relation to anything outside of its bubble do we find rappers could lay claim to authenticity. The success of so-called 'Gangsta Rap' comes down to its drawing upon a certain view of the lives led by the Black American under-class. The fact that these rappers then go on to celebrate their success in a rags-to-riches narrative meshes well with the false promise of meritocracy. We now live with the worst of both worlds, where it seems no one is pushing boundaries far enough.


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

"Better to burn-out than fade away..."



I could have written a piece for the twentieth year since Kurt Cobain killed himself. I have no time for the debate over whether or not Cobain did kill himself. I think it's much more important that we remember Cobain's work and not his death. Especially, as the man's suicide note stated "It's better to burn-out than fade away" and there may be something in that. In regards to mortality we shouldn't despair so much, finite lives make their mark and in the case of great artists they have their own piece of eternity. For the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind's release I posted an article (see extract below) drawing upon Fred Pfeil's observations of Kurt Cobain's swipes against repressive masculinity.

The example of choice is the music video of In Bloom in which the band are introduced on an Ed Sullivan-esque TV show as "three fine young men from Seattle" complete with combed hair and matching sports coats. The video is shot in grainy black-and-white to give it the feel of the early 60s, the days before there was such a thing as MTV, Heavy Metal or Punk Rock never mind Grunge.  The effect is a Brechtian distance, the verfremdungseffekt, the point of which was to encourage the audience to take a critical view of the events on stage. So the trio bob about cheerfully as the crowd of pubescent girls get all hysterical as the quiet opening line stands incongruous to the scene "Sell kids for food, weather changes moods". The immediate subject of mockery is the "one" who "knows all our pretty songs", who likes to sing along and shoot his gun but "knows not what it means"; later adding "We can have some more, nature is a whore". The position to be ridiculed is that to comprehend these lyrics is to "shoot a gun", e.g. to possess a phallus.

My anarchist buddy Ted says I should've brought up the fact that the songs Polly and Rape Me were really about highlighting atrocious violence towards women. Originally, the two tracks were to be paired together, played back-to-back, in memory of a teenage girl, who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. Fortunately, the girl escaped and the rapist Gerald Friend was arrested and is currently rotting in prison. Far from being works celebrating violence against women, as they have been confused for in the past, the songs are very much anti-rape and ultimately life-affirmative.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Believing in 'White Genocide'.


Above I've attached a video from Liberty GB chairman Paul Weston which was produced last November and has since become a favourite among white nationalists. Here he reels out questionable statistics in order to buttress the claim that the demographic changes taking place can constitute 'genocide'. The claim that the birth of non-white children in European counties amounts to 'white genocide' has become a trope of the Far-Right. Recently, I was fortunate to stumble upon a critique of the lie of 'white genocide' at Debunking Denialism.

I've covered Liberty GB before, which was formed in huge fallout from the attempt to build a parliamentary wing for the EDL. The line used to be that the struggle is cultural and not about race. In this video Weston comes out. He states that cultural and civic nationalism, which Liberty GB claimed as it's position, will not work without (as he implies) forced repatriation. However, we should note that the 'culturism' of this organisation was always about the characterisation of Muslims as non-racial. And yet Liberty GB has never been able to shut up about the 'white race', which would mean the problem is not just cultural; in fact it defines Muslims as non-white by implication. This is all very revealing of the loaded language of culture, race, and nationalism.

The appeal to white racial consciousness is vital to fascism because it presupposes a harmonious collaboration between classes as 'white people' are a multi-class formation. In advancing race consciousness over class consciousness the objective is to hold together capitalist society in spite of its immense contradictions. All systemic failures can be pinned on 'external threats', whether it is the trade unions, the Left as a whole, or Muslim migrants. This is no secret. Paul Weston is overtly calling Liberty GB a "counter-revolutionary party". Liberty GB frames multiculturalism, gay liberation, feminism, and 'political-correctness', as flanks in a war waged by "cultural Marxists". Of course, the "cultural Marxists" were the Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt school. The same old paranoias are reasserted in new forms. All of this was fundamental to Breivik's manifesto incidentally.

Notice Weston names Lebanon, as he has also mentioned Yugoslavia, taking the side of the Christians over the Muslims. Not coincidentally the Maronite Christian factions included fascist groups, just as Serbian identity was heavily defined by an Orthodox Christian background. Liberty GB takes the side of both, as well as 'white' South Africans, and the Israeli occupation as an outpost of 'Western' civilisation. Unsurprisingly, Weston has said in the past that "Islam is worse than Nazism". So it's clear what he takes to be the necessary course of action and what he sees as the 'lesser evil'.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Europe's problem with Muslims.


Now Marine Le Pen has stated that there should be no 'special treatment' for Muslims (and by extension Jews) with school meals. Either they eat pork, or they starve. This isn't to be understood as in isolation. As some of you may have read the Danish have banned halal and kosher slaughter on the grounds of animal rights. Of course, this is just another event in a long procession of bans in Europe. The French government banned the veil in public places, the Swiss government banned minarets, then there was the Cologne ruling against circumcision in 2012, and the 2013 ban on halal and kosher slaughter in Poland. This is at the same time as we've seen calls for the Qur'an to be banned from Dutch politician Geert Wilders. He has found common cause with other self-described 'counter-jihadists' such as Le Pen. We've had a recurring debate about whether Islam is compatible with 'Western' culture. Britain routinely has a debate over whether or not to ban the veil, with similar debates on halal meat and circumcision taking place with less frequency.

We should ask ourselves some stark questions about all of this. No Muslim country has invaded or occupied a 'Western' or European state in recent decades. To the contrary, the UK and the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and occupied leaving more than a million people dead. The vast majority killed have been civilians and no doubt most of them have been Muslims. The French were totally on board with the NATO intervention in Libya which left thousands dead, just as they also wanted to bomb Syria as US allies Turkey and Israel had already done. This is at the same time that the governments of the US and Western Europe continue to support dictatorships across the Arab and Muslim world. So the idea that there is a 'clash of civilisations' is somewhat absurd, mainly because it's rightists who want such a war. As for European Muslims, here's an excerpt from Yehouda Shenhav:

I would like to go back for a minute to what was known in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century as the "Jewish problem," and to the debates of Jewish emancipation. The debates were originally stirred by a Prussian government effort to extend an identical status to all Jews under its rule; in 1841, it released a draft law concerned with the need for maintaining "the wondrous essence" of the Jews without "intervening with the Christian state." Bruno Bauer wrote that, in a state where Christianity was the official religion, Jews could not be truly emancipated. Religious freedom necessitates the privatization of religion and eschewing it away from the public sphere, but Judaism, being a religion of (public) law rather than of faith, cannot be reduced into a "private religion."

Just as Judaism is a public religion Islam can be understood in these terms as well and liberal societies cannot easily integrate such religious groups into atomised chambers of individual rights and freedoms. The pre-Enlightenment communitarian values of Judaeo-Islamic culture reach beyond the limits of individualism, as such an identity and tradition cannot easily be relegated to a private space. This is where multiculturalism entered as a liberal option of opening up a space for newly settled cultures within the liberal framework. But this has been a beleaguered idea since it first appeared. This is how we are to understand the calls to ban the veil, minarets, and so on. It's no coincidence that the anti-Muslim racism of today can easily overlap with anti-Semitism. This is what bans on circumcision and halal slaughter demonstrate so well. The European fascist parties now have a new means of reinstating old anti-Jewish measures as a programme for defending 'our culture' from imaginary Muslim hordes.

Over the last decade we've witnessed the legitimation of anti-Muslim hatred across Europe in various forms. The actions Breivik undertook can only be understood with this background. The Far-Right used to claim Communism was the Jewish plot to destroy European nationhood, now they claim the Left (and the Jews, no doubt!) are working to flood Europe with Muslims and impose Islamic law in order to destroy 'Western' civilisation. This was the essence of Breivik's ideology: multiculturalism, feminism, and 'political-correctness', are a "cultural Marxist" affront to European nations and their traditional culture. I've covered the growth of this theory among neo-fascists before. It should concern all of us, especially as anti-Muslim hatred is increasingly normalised by the very same liberal intelligentsia who are meant to be the custodians of liberal democratic values.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

"You mean like North Korea?"



As I've written about Bill Gates before (back when he was blubbering about 'creative capitalism') I couldn't help but find this clip quite interesting. He seems to be saying inequality has brought us great advances, while also suggesting that the situation hasn't worsened in terms of growing inequality. He scorns distributional efforts, but says he's for certain tax increases (though he claims to be in the dark about Scandinavian tax precedents). He shows his true colours in his obnoxious denial of Microsoft's record of avoiding tax (which you can read about here). We know he's for health-care reform in the US and he's against a raise in the minimum wage. Meanwhile he makes it clear that his preferred method is charitable gestures. On this matter some have been inclined to question his interest in genetically-engineered seeds to be distributed in the developing world.

Once more Finkelstein speaks inconvenient truths.


I've written about the Cuban missile crisis in the past and how close the world came to annihilation in those days in October of 1962. It's astounding that the world still hasn't woken up to the perpetual danger we face from these weapons.  It's not even the threat of a mad regime which we face. It's quite likely that these weapons could just go off at any time as human incompetence can always be relied upon.

"If you believe in free-speech, you believe in free-speech for people you dislike."


I've been thinking about the limits of free-speech for quite some time. The case of Robert Faurisson and the position taken by Noam Chomsky is instructive. I suspect the only clear limits on speech are where such speech could encourage violence, and that in itself is still an area of debate, it is at least closer to a clear line. Under this measure statements which call for people to be killed may be restricted, but not statements which are merely offensive.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

In memory of Charles Keating.


I actually missed the news that Charles Keating had given up the ghost. The old man will be remembered as the brain behind the savings and loans crisis. Let alone his attempt to have bank regulator Bill Black murdered. Above I have embedded the video of Black's having his say about this man and his dealings and his personal crusade against his adversary. What will be forgotten by many is that Keating was a good swimmer and as a right-wing Catholic he actively campaigned against pornography (among lots of other things). He saw smut everywhere and wanted it all censored. So when Gore Vidal came to write Myron (1974) he decided to be sensitive to such concerns and used 'Keating' as a euphemism for shit.

Putin's Asia.

My latest article for Souciant focuses on Putin's foreign policy in West Asia. Here's an excerpt:
Last year, many commentators in the West were aghast at the Russian stance on the Syrian civil war. It was in early 2013 when Russia and China presented a united opposition at the UN Security Council to intervention in Syria. Then it was flabberghasted at the Russian opposition, in the summer of 2013, to Obama’s proposed ‘punitive measures’ (e.g. indiscriminate bombing). This was after Assad’s use of chemical warfare, which led to Putin pledging more military hardware as a gesture of support. The proponents of ‘humanitarian interventions’ will pretend that Vladimir Putin succeeded in deterring the Americans.
In reality, the US government would have gone ahead whatever the UN Security Council concluded if it had really wanted to intervene. It certainly didn’t stop when the UN opposed the occupation of Iraq. The sudden capitulation may have been more symptomatic of any clear strategy in Washington than anything else. The Sino-Russian veto was a convenient pretext not to directly intervene and watch the conflict play out.
The US non-strategic proposal of ‘punitive measures’ was a lot like Israeli airstrikes against Syria in early 2013. Nothing constructive could’ve come of it, and probably nothing good was intended. Once again, there was no great loss in waiting it out in the absence of any willing military collusion. In the United Kingdom, parliamentary debate on Syria opposed the government’s stance and – for the first time since 1782 when the British conceded American independence – the country had to rule out getting involved.
In the end, Obama decided not to pursue punitive measures and hold back until Assad had rid his regime of chemical weapons. The US government may well have concluded that it would be best to draw out the conflict for as long as possible, due to the various forces tied up in the country, thereby ensuring long-term instability. Everyone is playing the Syrian game right now: militants, Iranians, and so on. As long as there is no unanimous victor, there is no impetus to bomb.
Putin backed the move to clean Syria of chemical weapons for the very opposite reason: if the secular nationalist regime can survive, then there is the possibility of a stability beneficial to Russian interests. This is the crux of the matter. The US has a vested interest in regional instability, which keeps its opponents busy, whereas the Russians have an opposing interest in stability which may allow them to assert their influence. On Syria, these interests ultimately converged, and settled on chemical weapons.