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.

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