Sunday, 11 May 2008

Some More Shock Therapy: I have met a German terrorist

Well that's at least how Wikipedia describes Astrid Proll, who used to be in the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1960s and who gave a talk at the 1968 and All That! conference at Conway Hall this weekend. She seemed quite nice. I would never have thought her capable of robbing banks, forging documents, and being an expert car thief!

The conference was good, although a bit chaotic - the sessions were held back to back with no intervals (not even five minutes), with several going at a time in different rooms, and if you weren't there early or at least on time for each one it's likely you found yourself sitting on the floor or standing, at least in the more popular sessions, which discouraged any mid-hour drifting between talks. The following disclaimer was included in the programme:

'The Organizers warn that due to the volatility of finance capital and the spontaneous manifestations of class struggle there may be last second changes to the programme...If it turns into a complete fiasco the Organizers will be found drowning their sorrows in the Guy Debord Bar in the Foyer. Please join us."

At the end of the day they brought an enormous sack of unused bagels (which prior to that were on sale in the bar) out into the foyer for general rationing, free of charge. They even provided plastic bags for people to take them home in. I packed about 10 and strapped them on the back of my bicycle.

From the final rally, left to right: Astrid Proll, Adrian Mitchell, moderator (?), Sheila Rowbotham, Alain Krivine, and Eamon McCann.

Among other highlights were Alain Krivine (French Trotskyist politician), Sheila Rowbotham (British socialist feminist theorist), Chris Harman (editor of International Socialism) and Jean-Pierre Dutueil. There was a book fair going on in the main hall, where in addition to some funky revolutionary postcards and a copy of the Socialist Review I purchased a copy of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci. I felt very tempted to purchase a Trotsky t-shirt but then thought better. Somehow the idea didn't seem fitting. (heh heh)

At the book fair there was also a stall selling the War on Terror board game, which looks like a pumped-up version of risk, complete with an 'axis of evil' - a dial on the board which you can spin and which serves some purpose in advancing the game.

Naomi Klein is also giving a talk as part of the '68 season around London - Monday May 19, 7 pm, Friends' House on Euston Road (good old Quakers). Tickets are £7, £5 concessions (it's for a good cause!) and can be booked on the waronwant website. Full season programme can be viewed here:

A word from my mother on '68 in (ex-)Yugoslavia, excerpted and translated (by me) from an e-mail:

"In 1968 we had student demonstrations too. They were a sort of echo of the French demonstrations, but they were different in content. The young were rebelling against the betrayal of socialism, against injustice, poverty...Dad took part in those demonstrations.
We also protested to give support to the Czechs. Tito was the first foreign statesman to condemn the Russians for invading Czechoslovakia. The Czechs who found themselves in Yugoslavia were offered asylum and given all possible assistance.
We also protested against the war in Vietnam. In my high school we organized evenings of Vietnamese poetry and all sorts of other activities. We wore shirts with anti-war slogans..."

I might get more of these from other ex-Yugoslavs alive at the time, which I will duly translate and post here, so stay tuned.

I said ex-Yugoslavia because I wish to avoid any confusion with Milosevic's post-1990 Yugoslavia, a fraud and an abomination of Serbian nationalism which, despite the claims of many Western leftists (equally guilty of 'orientalism' in this case as their right-wing counterparts), had nothing to do with socialism or leftism but was a thoroughly right-wing nationalist diktatura. (And my mother is a Serb born in Belgrade, by the way. She grew up in Sarajevo.)

She also added, "Tomorrow is the election in Serbia. At the time of the last one someone said 'may the worse one win!' Well I think that will happen this time around."

On that note I must ask, what the fuck is happening to Europe at the moment? I'm talking about the Italian and British (local) elections. I happen to have recently visited two places that serve the exception to the current right-wing political trend: Madrid (Spain being one of only 2 remaining leftist governments in the EU, not counting Britain's Labour which is a hoax) and Bremen, which is the only remaining German city-state with a left-wing government. (Until a few years ago most of them were left-wing, I am told)

This is not a case of political/socialist tourism: in one case it was a friend's birthday/holiday, in the other case a wedding. I suppose you could say that it's not entirely coincidence, either. Anyhow, in terms of national governments we are basically left with two (again not counting Labour): Spain and Portugal. The Iberian peninsula, once the bulwark of Western Christianity and the Inquisition, is now the only remaining lefty stronghold. I am tempted to speculate cynically whether the simple reason is relational economics: both countries are among the least developed in Western Europe (Eastern Europe is upwardly-mobile and perhaps also still in the throes of post-Communism and therefore wary of lefty governments), and Bremen is apparently the poorest German stadt. When people are poor and can't afford the rent or pay for healthcare, they vote socialist. When they get rich, they vote in the government that will keep the immigrants out and keep them rich. Am I being too simplistic?

Economics aside, there are several interconnected ways one could explain the recent rise of the Right. It may be a little too comforting to think that the British election, and in particular the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London, is a reaction against Labour - though there is certainly some of that involved. The fact is that turnout has gone up - by a whopping 10%. Several hundred thousand more Londoners voted this time around, compared to the 2004 election. And the turnout is up on all sides - by sheer numbers, even Ken Livingstone got some 200,000 votes more than in 2004. It's just that the conservative vote has increased more - by about half a million votes. (See results on London Elects)

One way to look at this - and I think the last two Italian elections support this view - is that we are witnessing the decline of government as such. Basically, the social and political structure of the world we live in is disintegrating. Nobody can govern, left or right, and every election the people just elect whoever is in the opposition, whoever hasn't fucked up this time. They come to power, fuck up, and the likelihood of them staying in power for another term or so only depends on how badly they fucked up. But to be even more dismal, one has to take into account the increasing convergence of mainstream political parties at the centre. I don't think this is an indication of the will of voters, but rather the result of a simple realization on the part of mainstream politicians: right-wing voters will vote right-wing anyway or abstain, and left-wing voters will vote left or abstain. If the election is critical (as the London Mayoral one was), they will vote for the mainstream candidate (Ken or Boris) rather than their true (left or right) preference, which they can list as second preference anyway. Which pretty much leaves the voters in the middle to be fought over - those who switch sides, or who have no strong left or right commitment. Swing voters, in other words.

What makes this dismal is that this middle may well be a relative minority of voters - but it is enough to capture a sufficient number of them to win. In other words, for those of us who do have a definite left/right committment, the mainstream candidates aren't particularly after our votes, deep down - because they know that when it comes to the crunch we will not vote for the mainstream opposition. Sure, they will do lip service to whatever agenda they are meant to support, but ultimately what they are after are those voters who switch sides. In the simplest terms, Ken is after swingers who are thinking of voting Tory or who may have voted Tory last time around, and Boris is after voters who are thinking of voting Ken or voted Ken last time around. Each is after the other's game, the left is playing right, the right is playing left. They eventually meet in the middle.

In dialectical terms this can be characterized as the articulation of a hegemonic or universalized particular; rather than being what Laclau calls a 'chain of equivalences' or some shared content or thing in common between various political orientations (the universal as a constitutive lack), the case is one of a particular (the interests of a minority of 'swing' voters who are mostly, presumably, middle class, white, British, and probably wealthy or reasonably well off) which becomes universalized and comes to dominate the entire field of particulars; not through the common denominator of shared values but through a dichotomic electoral mechanism which invariably functions in such a way that those who tip the balance are those whose will is actualized by the power elite, overshadowing or even extinguishing all other particulars - not in the electoral process itself (because in the end it makes little difference who is elected) but in the actual affairs of state, in what governments do between elections. Regardless of who is elected, the political programme enacted is almost exclusively that of the balance-tippers, the side-switchers, the swing voters.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

The Good News from Newsweek: Shock Therapy is Good For You

I recently bought a copy of Newsweek - figured it would be something like the Economist, which I do read now and then for informational purposes. Not so. Compared to the Economist, Newsweek is a shameless neoliberal capitalist propaganda tool, believe it or not. Or inversely, compared to Newsweek, the Economist seems an objective, balanced, non-partisan news source. In the most recent issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria, who is the paper's international editor, saw it fit to include (as cover story) an excerpt from his book, The Post-American World.

One has to be suspicious whenever a token 'intellectual' of vaguely Third-World descent in the service of a global superpower engages in self-flagellation in the name of that superpower. The good news that Zakaria wants us to know is that although there are other big global players coming on the global economic-political scene (China, India, etc), America will be OK. The reason: low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, the spread of democracy and American ideas, etc. And in the final flourish we are told of this 'rise of the rest' that it is 'one of the most thrilling stories in history' as 'Billions of people are escaping from abject poverty...'

Say no more. Billions of people? There are only six billion of us, dude. Are we counting other planets? Where Zakaria's figures come from is of course not worth the asking, as this is not a scholarly journal or a serious publication in any sense (nor is Zakaria's book it would seem), and no sources are cited. Hey I'm not asking for footnotes, but sometimes it's enough to say "According to..." Billions? Give me a break.

Well, according to Mike Davis's acclaimed book Planet of Slums, which does cite sources, lots and lots of sources, including various UN bodies, the IMF, and World Bank (far from being bastions of lefty scholarship), the urban population in proportion to the rural has skyrocketed in recent decades, within the urban population the number of those living in slums is on the rise, income disparity between rich and poor everywhere (except perhaps in Scandinavia, although this is not discussed) is on the rise, and any reversal or slowing of these trends is nowhere in sight.

All this is the result of the process that Zakaria describes in these pompous, celebratory terms: "For 60 years, the United States has pushed countries to open their markets, free up their politics, and embrace trade and technology. American diplomats, businessmen, and intellectuals have urged people in distant lands to be unafraid to change..."

For better or worse? Needless to say, income disparity between the richest and poorest in the United States is officially closer (in terms of ratios) to that of developing nations than other developed ones (i.e. Europe, Canada, Japan), and is also on the rise - no exception. But perhaps what Zakaria means is that billions of people are escaping abject poverty, as opposed to just poverty or even destitution or slum life, starvation, or something worse. Perhaps he just means that things are changing, that's all. No harm in that! White lies! In other words, while some people are going from merely 'wealthy' to 'filthy rich', others are migrating from 'abject' to other kinds of poverty, better or worse.

But never mind all that - the global economy is growing, global trade is increasing, and as Zakaria jubilantly reminds us, isn't it great that these days stock markets no longer plummet in response to disasters and wars but rather the opposite - they soar! (on account of defense spending, etc - part of the phenomenon that Naomi Klein calls 'disaster capitalism', spread by the technique of 'shock therapy'; See the shock doctrine video) Growth, growth, growth! So we don't have to avoid wars and disasters, and can in fact cash in on them! America is no longer first - the world's largest Casino is in Macao (no democracy there) rather than Las Vegas, Zakaria tells us, The Mall of America is no longer even in the top ten, the largest ferris wheel is in Singapore (a dictatorship) and only two of the world's richest people are American - so that should at least make all the poor people in those other countries ('the rest' as Zakaria lovingly calls them) happy, even if they're still poor. At least somebody gets to spend lots and lots of money in the name of their national pride.

As for the low unemployment and low inflation in the US, an article in the latest issue of Harper's is definitely worth a read for anyone interested - 'NUMBERS RACKET: Why the Economy Is Worse Than We Know' by Kevin Phillips, which documents the the rise of 'polyanna creep' or doctoring of calculation methods in federal accounting and labour statistics by successive US governments since the Kennedy administration. An example: American officials often cite a figure they call 'core inflation' - which doesn't exist anywhere else and which, on account of volatility in prices doesn't include - get this, folks - food and housing. So when they say 'core inflation' rather than simply 'inflation' what they're really saying is 'we're not telling you the truth'. Similarly, US unemployment statistics do not include many categories included by other governments, and among them are 'discouraged workers': people who have been looking for a job for a long time and haven't found one yet, basically, aren't counted as 'unemployed'. They don't exist. The real numbers, Phillips points out, are actually much higher, and the day of reckoning grows near. Fie on you, Fareed.

A Note on Balibar, Cosmopolitanism, and Immigration

Yesterday I went to a lecture by Etienne Balibar at King's College, 'Towards a Diasporic Citizen? Internationalism to Cosmopolitics'. I have also been in Balibar's masterclass at Birkbeck College this week (two more sessions to go next week). I plan to write more about this at some point, but for the moment only a note on a point I raised during the discussion and which Balibar did not take to all that well. My suggestion was that the failure of the universal rights of citizenship addressed to the individual in the great proclamations of our times (i.e. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and the severe restrictions on free circulation may stem from Marx's formulation that in bourgeois (capitalist) society, only capital has individuality and is independent; while the real human being has no individuality and is dependent on capital.

Of course there are various reasons why rights fail in their implementation and why free movement and circulation is restricted. But in the end, they are all trumped by capital. Example: as a matter of official policy and immigration law, if you invest $100,000 in the U.S. economy, you get a green card automatically. It doesn't matter who you are or what passport you hold. The usual restrictions don't apply. In the UK, the story is similar, though even less formal, but still a matter of official policy and law - here the Russian and Middle Eastern millionaires who buy up houses in Hampstead simply claim what is known as 'undomiciled' status, which is a way of saying "I'm filthy rich and I want to come and buy a house and live in your country", and the UK government just nods and says 'OK'. In fact, following the resurgent boom that put the City back on the map and made London Europe's (if not the world's financial capital), Peter Mandelson, a key figure of New Labour, was noted as saying "We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich."

What all this amounts to is that aside from all categories of immigration and citizenship, and all restrictions and borders, the underlying assumption beneath all the various forms of exclusion that categorize humanity in the eyes of immigration authorities is that the immigrants, the huddled third-world masses knocking on the doors of developed nations, have no money. If they do, or in the case of those few who do, it doesn't matter what nationality they are, where they come from, what passport they hold. So yes, Marx was right. It can all be reduced to one primary distinction. Only capital is independent. The universal rights addressed to individuals are ours to have in the measure in which we have access to capital - often not only as a matter of practice, but as a matter of law and official immigration policy.

My corollary point was that Deleuze and Guattari's formulation in Anti-Oedipus expresses precisely the paradox of the border: the idea that capitalism through its process of production strives continually toward its limit (globalization, full development of means of production, accumulation of capital) but at the same time expends a massive amount of energy to avoid reaching this limit - one might say, because it would be a step further toward socialism; because while the accumulation of capital requires free circulation, it also requires the restricted circulation of labour; therefore the border must be maintained at all costs, even while it is continually chipped away.