Wednesday, April 29, 2009

how would you like to be kidnapped at Bagram airbase?

When the British Home Secretary tries to claim as expenses pornographic films that her husband has watched, this is something people censure less because of the tawdriness of this particular episode, than the way in which it encapsulates the rotten complacency of the governing class.

Suppose they did a cartoon satirising this episode, showing the Home Secretary's husband watching a porn film shot in Abu Ghraib. On the one hand this would serve to underline the complacency of our governors, since complacency is complacency whether it concerns big or small things. And it would underline the personal responsibility of those who complacently or otherwise consented to such abuses. On the other hand the cartoon might tend to reduce the status of the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib to that of a stock situation, brought up for laughs.

I wanted to talk about some things from our culture. If I discuss this civilisation's "permanent collection" of images this does not necessarily mean granting them an exaggerated importance, or that the discussion concerns these images only.

I suggested that some of the impetus for Jarry's famous poster comes from the political sociology of modern life. The figures he has carefully drawn represent stylised bureaucrats. People recognise that there's something unreal about government bureaucrats. I've worked in these places and it's sometimes inevitable. People sit behind the counter. They have the job of humanising the blows struck by the great engine of bureaucracy at the public, and sometimes vice versa. Call centres have a similar function. I've worked in these too.

So, a situation presents in itself in real life in which people relate to each other immediately and mediately at the same time, or successively. One relation displaces the other, in an unsettling way, at least until the experience becomes commonplace. This is how people relate to the police or the people phoning from the call centre. This is pictured in Jarry's poster by a kind of double take. An excessive image stands in the place in which a more prosaic image is suggested.

I related this invention rather vaguely to the universal historicist cause: capitalism. This might be correct, even for a year as late as 1896, because the idea of capitalism as a decentred system, to be observed more or less indifferently, has to supplant the older popular idea of capitalism as legalised social warfare against the popular classes.

This might also go some way to explaining the strange situation of Manet, who, in the wintry sunshine of 1863, paints pictures in a similar vein and whose followers seem to have borrowed from him hardly anything at all.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

what is Badiou about?

If we consent to compare, say, Marcus Garvey with the English parliamentary reformer Henry Hunt this does not mean we're necessarily committed to a view of the world in which Europe inevitably proposes models that are subsequently imitated in other contexts. The political problems faced by humanity often reoccur, so similar solutions are often proposed. The political conjuncture out of which Latin American populism has developed might well correspond to the European future.

I mention this because if we want to understand Alain Badiou it might be useful to refer back to previous periods in which the prevalent intellectual culture was disconnected from everyday life. If it seems incomprehensible now that working men earnestly attended lectures by people like John Ruskin or William Morris it is sufficient to recall the lectures by Badiou and Zizek attended by fee paying students and future call centre workers. If we permit ourselves to assert that the prevalent intellectual culture is disconnected from the culture of everday life this does not mean we are obliged to find fault with the latter. Intellectuals are not so much expected to say the unsayable (that is, to rationally undermine the hypocrisy and cant of the establishment) as to dramatise the sublimation of language: its "becoming unintelligible". This is a social problem, and does not follow from the excesses or eccentricities of a few writers. Badiou has inherited this situation. This is not to say it doesn't affect his work.

Doesn't this follow from Badiou's quite correct assertion that the organised left, that is, the political structures of the working class, have for some time been in abeyance?

Badiou's article in the New Left Review introducing the ideas he develops in his book on Sarkozy is illustrative of the disjuncture I have mentioned between ordinary culture and a supposed elite culture that certainly shouldn't be mistaken for bourgeois culture tout court. Badiou is celebrated as an inventor of abstruse theory. This is connected, by various personal, social and historical circumstances to his political engagement on behalf of "a minority of the poor". I think both these activities are quite justifiable, but their interplay here results in a decidedly leftfield political theory.

It shouldn't be too surprising that Badiou is able to accurately criticise some of the contradictions of modern politics. The outcome of the election won by Sarkozy:

"affirmed the manifest powerlessness of any genuinely emancipatory programme within the electoral system: preferences are duly recorded, in the passive manner of a seismograph, but the process is one that by its nature excludes any embodiments of dissenting political will. "

"The underlying rationale is, of course, that of the single party: since all accept the logic of the existing capitalist order, market economy and so forth, why maintain the fiction of opposing parties?"

The interest in the essay, and one assumes the book, is the way this social critique connects with Badiou's philosophical system. It's something like a brittle crust overlaying molten Badiouism.

The argument seems to develop like this:

Badiou sees the French public and the capitalist state as mutually determining. The election results demonstrate the public's consent toward their government and political system. The political system is integrated with the capitalist system. The capitalist system molds public opinion:

"We should not underestimate the role of what Althusser called the ‘ideological state apparatus’—increasingly through the media, with the press now playing a more sophisticated part than tv and radio—in formulating and mobilizing such collective sentiments. Within the electoral process there has, it seems, been a weakening of the real."

The mutual determination of public and state might be thought of as a "virtuous circle". It is at least consistant with formal democracy. Nevertheless the foreign policy advocted by the french government is entirely cynical:

"a total consensus reigned on Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan (where French forces are fighting), Lebanon (ditto), Africa (swarming with French military ‘administrators’). Public discussion of alternatives on these issues was on neither party’s agenda."

and blame for domestic problems is fallaciously attributed to:

"ill-intentioned elements of the population—currently, foreign workers and young people from the banlieue."

In effect Badiou has described a political impasse - an "essential conservatism" - and the negative externalities that follow from it. The central problem, for Badiou, appears to involve the authenticity of the electorate and their failure to acheive a universal view of events. It appears that the system of mutual determination constantly recirculates "sad passions", hence the emphasis on fear. At the same time this means the system is abstracted from reality as a whole.

In the theory of avant garde art an abstracted status quo is negated and subsumed by an original form of art. In demonstrating the abstraction of the political status quo Badiou is able to apply the rules of this theory of art to politics. The regime itself understands in what direction its negation lies:

"What is haunting the regime, under the name of May 68? We can only assume that it is the ‘spectre of communism’, in one of its last real manifestations."

from which follows the conflation of disparate popular struggles with "communism" as a "transcendental invariant" and the real avant garde. This is to give history a strange reeducation camp flavour, easily refuted by enquiry into the events involved, for instance the first stages of the Chinese revolution, the Spanish civil war and so on.

The deficiencies in the argument as a whole follow from the failure to recognise the electorate's real economic interests. This allows a wholesale denigration of parliamentary politics, and by implication the customary right of political franchise. What is perhaps a temporary conjuncture is taken for a transhistorical "invariant". The right to vote has been useful in the past and probably will be again. The theory of avantgardism is a strange modern phenomenon that ought to be analysed properly before serving as the basis of some kind of neo-maoism.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hobsbawm's alternatives

We ought to be able to show some generosity toward distinguished historian Dr Eric Hobsbawm, who has lived through so many decades of turbulent history and has consistantly supported the working class (even if they're now renamed "a minority of the poor"), as well as intermittantly supporting the bureaucratic elite who used to rule the Soviet Union.

Dr Hobsbawm argues in last week's Guardian that "the basic idea that dominated economics and politics in the last century” is that there are “two mutually exclusive opposites: capitalism or socialism.” and:

"We have lived through two practical attempts to realise these in their pure form: the centrally state-planned economies of the Soviet type and the totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy."

Is the current social, political and economic structure of Britain really the result of a "practical attempt to realise" a "totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy"? Dr Hobsbawn is referring, presumably, to government policy from Thatcher onwards. Clearly the policies undertaken in this period are consistant with each other but was the goal really the triumph of the free market? We ought to ask for whom these policies were carried out, irrespective of their democratic mandate. Britain's political structure is intertwined with its economic structure, in which power is fairly concentrated. The post Thatcher governments inherited a good deal of corporatist legislation apparently related to welfare state provision and a semi socialised economy through some kind of social contract. The "socialist" parts of the British economy have been relentlessly attacked, corporatist legislation restricting free trade has not, where it is in the interests of big capital.

The monopolistic structure of big capital and its relationship to the government apparatus largely explains the current crisis and why the governments response has been anything but "a practical attempt to realise" a "totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy".

Dr Hobsbawm asks "Have we really got away from the assumption" that "the growing chasm between the super-rich and the rest doesn't matter that much, so long as everybody else (except the minority of the poor) is getting a bit better off?" He doesn't think we have. If I was super-rich I don't think I'd think it mattered, even if I wouldn't demand "we" thought it too. The important point surely is how it came to be that "everybody else (except the minority of the poor)" got a bit better off and if this is likely to be a continuing trend. The principal driver of this ameliorative trend has been house price inflation. The prices have inflated because the market is not at all free and was not intended to be so. The continuance of house price inflation will eventually work to make "everybody else" worse off as housing stock becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Dr Hobsbawm is right that what's needed is "a progressive policy". Better policies could be formulated than those which are on the table, and better policies could be formulated that most people would approve. We ought to ask whether there's any force in play capable of instigating such a progressive policy. There isn't. The likely trajectory of current policy follows from this abdication.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

the WKD craze

As I think I said Rabbiter is only good for pointing out problems. The analysis unfortunately has to be cast into the habitual form of critique. Hence this thing borrows from an institutionalsed culture of critique whose trajectory does not necessarily coincide with the goals and methods of critique per se; but then neither does the culture of everyday life.

Isn't it sufficient to juxtapose the marketing material for the alcopop WKD with the lying apologias for government PFI projects to establish a connection?

There's no mystery as to why people like icepop flavour vodka drinks. The marketing of WKD stands out not because it's original but because it represents an especially egregious example of a trend that's been fairly widespread over the past few years.

It's meant to be a "wicked" drink. People like how its commodified. It isn't marked up with the sticky fingerprints of human activity. Capitalism has subsumed the efficient market and now throws up these products as efficient for their purpose as a cruise missile is to its. WKD is meant to be superior to the previously available and all too human pub drinks, like factory produced lager, because it appears more commodified. You get to participate in a made up imperative that's meant to supercede the always imperfect human capacity to exercise discretion. Participation in a baseless imperative is reimagined as participation in revocable evil: "wickedness", hence the devilry aspect. It is a cynical product that invites you to participate in its cynicism.

An emptied Experience circulates round an Innocence that's meant to have ritualistically subsumed a now generalised pig ignorance.

It is as if Adam and Eve, lead away to a life of perpetual toil, had at least the satisfaction that they could no longer be held up to ridicule by God; or that they were afforded the pleasure of being allowed to refrain from condescending the subsequent inmates in Eden; and Eve with hen night devil horns.

Monday, April 06, 2009

underworld with ghosts

"If we imprudenty imagine all secular authority to cohere as a unified bloc, it appears that even as they put down demonstrations by force they dream up demonstrations."

Look at the eyes of the people dancing, and those who have not been hired to dance. The T-mobile dancers fairly radiate the grace of their election. The bystanders seem self-conscious. They aren't in on the thing.

The ideas of neoliberalism were constructed on the traditional common sense of the middle classes, which became the common sense of the salaried working class. Society was nothing but an endless grid of hard working families. The political issues of capitalism and the state became moral issues. A moral sensibility developed which validated actions that validated this picture and anathematised actions discrediting this picture.

They were decent people, mainly, who didn't think about consciously constructing their own culture.

The point I am trying to make is that getting paid took on a significance beyond the significance of getting paid. It came to signify the excellence of whatever was paid for in the absence of reasoned inquiry into the goals and methods involved (c.f. our soldiers in Iraq).

The same sense of grace became attached to certain blatantly commodified commodities, like McDonalds and WKD, which conversely did not pay but had to be paid for.

I meant to describe the culture on which late Thatcherism was superimposed. Some of this is a cruel exaggeration.

...a whole society of T-mobile dancers, responding to orders relayed through loudspeakers, by the bleeding Mysterons.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

crisis memo (3)

This is another bailout memo. In light of some of the pitiful clucking directed against yesterday's protestors in the media, I thought it might be worth summarising the issues:

1. The dynamic process underlying the growth phase has been the transfer of notional wealth from labour to capital.

This process has subsisted alongside a more or less consistant division of output. This distribution is hard to change because of political and technical structures that are hard to change.

2. The first process eventually impacted on the structure of the real economy - the costs of socially necessary debt became unserviceable - hence the first process ground to a halt.

This has a deflationary impact on notional capital wealth since capitalists ought to seek to diversify away from insecure unprofitable investments.

This is mitigated by a tendency for capitalists to hold on in anticipation of a further social/political change allowing the first process to continue - i.e. the breakdown of the "homeowner democracy" - or for want of suitable alternative investments.

3. Political power, however, is unduly influenced by banking interests and financialised capital (e.g. the car industry). The banks, through incompetence and systematic fraud are bust if notional wealth is allowed to deflate.

Hence governments are compelled to redistribute money to the finance sector to attempt to counteract the effects of the free market

This is the precise opposite of a fiscal stimulus per the Keynesian/Kaleckian model in which money is redistributed in favour of labour. Here money is redistributed in favour of capital. It has the likely effect of further reducing demand and increasing inflation.

4. The whole point is to carry through a wave of proletarianisation at the expense of damaging the real economy. Big capital may be able to survive, and even profit from this situation by cannibalising small capital.

The general public - the working class, the salaried middle class and the petit bourgeoisie such as it exists - would be better served with piecemeal solutions to the various problems brought up - bank fraud, savings recovery, winding up of the banks, measures against precaritisation. It is surprising that nothing much has been organised.