Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Syriza's Challenge to Europe

As the long political crisis in Greece, which has swallowed up the corrupt ruling parties and now the president, results in a snap election Syriza - the left opposition - are drawing tantalisingly close to power. If elected, however, they will not be operating in anything like a favourable environment. The long list of social and political problems Syriza aim to solve - the corruption of the Greek state; the moribund, dysfunctional domestic economy; the rise of the far right; Greece's welfare, debt and productivity crises - all restrict its very freedom to act. The most pressing issues for a future Syriza government, however, would stem from Europe.

A European order dominated by Berlin and deeply committed to fiscal retrenchment will do all it can to suffocate a Syriza government. Similarly, financial markets will flee the supposed Syriza threat to Greek solvency. Syriza's programme of debt reduction and renegotiation of its repayment schedule is modest enough. Its proposals for emergency welfare provisions and support for immigrants' rights are simply humane. Yet its ability to implement any of these simple policy ideas - ideas that will restore the dignity of Greece's exhausted, austerity-wracked population - is severely limited by the increasingly oligarchic, elitist European Union leadership. Among European elites, Syriza is seen as the same as any other "populist" insurgency: unenlightened and threatening to its vision of post-political, technocratic order. The real threat to this elite's Habermasian wonderland of liberated communication flows comes from its own attempt to disavow the deep inequalities of state, wealth, class, and region unleashed by its commitment to financial markets and conservative fiscal policy.

The power wielded by this conservative European Weltanschauung is real enough. Its institutions - including the European Commission and the European Central Bank - exercise a volatile and destructive combination of ideological hegemony and financial domination over subject populations. They are also well insulated from national democratic pressures by a Hayekian architecture of power developed over decades. Yet, the limitations on a Syriza government are not simple or objective - i.e. the vulgar obsession with there being "no money left to spend" - but are carefully constructed and imposed by European elites in the interests of a corrupt, monetised neoliberal order. They can be challenged - but that challenge can only be successful if the battle is taken up at a European level.

It is imperative over the next, crucial year that anyone who has felt any sense of moral revulsion at the impact of austerity; anyone outraged by the collapse in living standards and welfare provision; anyone who has felt cheated by bankers or financial markets; anyone shocked by the slow erosion of democracy by elites in Europe since the financial crisis of 2008 support Syriza in Greece now. Their long-term success is only possible if enough of the European public makes its support heard and felt. Syriza is shouldering an immense burden - the hope of a democratic Europe that truly defends human rights, dignity and welfare. It will take the better half of Europe to allow them the crucial breathing space in which to start the ball rolling. Syriza and the people of Greece cannot do it alone.

Friday, 19 December 2014

What does it mean if "the masses" are racist?

Nobody likes to be called a racist. And calling someone out as a racist is probably not going to win them over or encourage them to consider alternative views. But the thirty percent of Britons who describe themselves as holding negative views towards non-Brits or British minorities, however, force us to confront some uncomfortable thoughts: what if apparently tolerant Britain is full of racists? And if so, who are these racists? A  typical answer by liberal and left-wing writers is to write off racism as an elite phenomenon that simply contaminates vulnerable sections of the masses. In Bloody Nasty People (2012), Daniel Trilling's insightful account of the British far right (organised throughout much of the '90s and '00s around the locus of the British National Party), the story is told from a variant of this position:

While the BNP attracted a layer of working-class support, it kept some roots in the middle classes, the traditional bedrock of fascism. Griffin was the privately educated son of a businessman; party members included company directors, computing engineers, bankers and estate agents. The genesis of the English Defence League indicates similar foundations... The origin of this group, which was conceived of in a £500,000 apartment, and shaped by a group of anti-Muslim ideologues including a director of a City investment fund and a property developer, suggest a more complex picture.1

The model used here of a middle-class "genesis" followed by a particular method of working-class "attraction" works in a flat, linear way to show what happened to BNP and EDL support over time. However, it leaves the social dynamic which explains why working-class support could be rallied to fascistic ideas unexplored. This is partly because the metaphor of "middle-class" political actors and their "working-class" audience/supporters - who hit approval buzzers via means of poll ratings and votes - only works at a very high level of abstraction. It removes the processes through which discursive elements - say, nationalism, economic protectionism, or anti-immigrant sentiment - are articulated into a "common sense" worldview. In other words, it ignores the way ideas are changed by their use in different contexts - and how working-class use of ideas that originate in other settings will inevitably change how those ideas work, what concerns they appear to address, and what other ideas they come articulated with. A working-class racist ideology is not that same as a middle-class one. More than this, the two rarely exist in splendid isolation from one another, but exist in conflict. Racism is not a monolithic phenomenon but is in fact usually highly internally explosive.

As a demonstration of this point take UKIP, whose leadership and membership is, much more than the BNP ever was, a party of the professions: founded by an LSE professor (Alan Sked); led by a former commodities broker (Nigel Farage); their support base being initially rural, elderly, and well-off. Yet, as Robert Ford and Matthew J. Goodwin show in their exhaustive book Revolt on the Right, UKIP's growth as a party has been fuelled by their ability to invade working-class constituencies and build support among poorer voters. The social and economic transformations of the last thirty years have

hit particular groups in British society very hard: older, less skilled and less well educated working-class voters. These are the groups we call the 'left behind' in modern Britain... as Britain has been transformed, the relentless growth of the highly educated middle classes has changed the strategic calculus [of the mainstream parties]. Both Labour and the Conservatives now regard winning support from middle-class swing voters as more important than appealing to these struggling left behind voters... The emergence of UKIP changes the game...2

Two things are striking here: first, the explanation of working-class support for UKIP - i.e. that a liberal, cosmopolitan elite is being challenged by a conservative and 'left behind' mass - is based on largely the same assumptions made by the right themselves: Bruno Megret, "a key Front National strategist", was responsible for recasting the BNP's rhetoric and image during the 2000s in terms of a conflict, in his own words, between "nationalism and cosmopolitanism, between identity and internationalism."3 This is odd enough for an account that purports to critique popular support for the radical right (be it UKIP or the BNP). Second, it frames both the "working class" and "middle class" as relatively stratified social actors with discrete political opinions based upon some identifiable social and economic interests. If UKIP attracts a good deal of "working-class support" it must be because UKIP is coming to represent the real (or at least apparent) self-interest of the working class. On the other hand, Trilling's strategy of viewing support for the radical or extreme or even fascist right as emanating from declasse, ex-working-class or lower-middle-class voters who cannot be assumed to represent the interests of some "authentic" proletariat simply won't do either. This leads to an interminable cycle of attributing views to classes in a static, expressive way. Both are in a sense victims of class determinism: they see class interest as emanating from some material or ideal conditions and attempt to make ideas and ideologies hang on those interests, in one or other direction.

Trilling does however provide an excellent example of what happens to relatively homogeneous communities when placed under extreme market pressures. Becontree in Barking and Dagenham is an estate of 100,000 people, with some 27,000 homes built to house workers at the local Ford factory. It is the largest of its kind in the world and was at one point entirely council owned. Yet when the Thatcher government introduced the Right to Buy schemes in which council-housing started being sold-off; when Ford began mechanising or internationalising production; and when the Big Bang of finance and property speculation in the nearby City, leading to rising house prices, kicked in, people started selling up. Private landlords scooped up family homes, divided them up very cheaply into flats, and rented them out to as many people as they could fit in them. The urban poor - often immigrants - in the process of being shipped out of the centre of London due to spiralling housing costs, ended up moving out to places like Becontree, where a newly-minted rental sector awaited them in the form of the privatised homes that had once been the preserve of privileged Ford workers. Thus the social and ethnic composition of the estate radically altered under financial pressure and privatisation at the very same time as employment in the local factory was dwindling. Racial tensions rose. This area became a prime stomping ground of BNP "community activism" and in 2010 BNP leader Nick Griffin contested the seat for Barking and Dagenham. His party was defeated not by the Labour establishment but by local and national anti-fascist social movements.

Processes of this kind have been theorized by the French philosopher Etienne Balibar, who describes in his essay 'Class Racism' the way in which the working class, which is fundamentally "heterogeneous and fluctuating" since new workers must constantly join it or leave it for higher social ranks, attempts to protect itself from the instabilities of capital processes by making of itself "a 'closed' body".4 In long-standing industries notions of social heredity are invented on the part of working-class communities. Fierce commitments to industry or to union or indeed nation are turned into transcendent principles that structure daily life and give it meaning. Precisely because of the threat posed to social and material stability by capitalist creative destruction, factors that promote social cohesion are privileged. Not only does the working class exist in a contradictory relationship - a relationship of tension and struggle - with other classes "externally"; it is also constituted "internally" by contradictory identifications.

Yet again, however, Balibar's theory of class racism can only grasp the detail of racist thinking - its complex origin and its synthesis of different prejudicial, 'biologizing' or 'ethnicizing' elements - up to a certain point: it conceives of class ideologies as being all-too-whole, almost pre-packaged as they "interpellate" individuals into a discourse that entirely precedes their own involvement. In this conception, the working class doesn't so much construct its own racial discourse as enter into one that pre-exists it. He takes a trans-historical and decontextualised view of racism as emerging necessarily where there is both "an unbridgeable gap between state and nation" and "endlessly re-emerging class antagonisms."5 However, were there not, in Third World liberation movements, many examples of nationalisms that emerged in the context of a faltering state and endlessly re-emerging class antagonisms that precisely did not result in racism? Nationalism is conceived solely as an enemy of the class struggle - and racism is the "internal excess" which follows from it.

Racism is not a single phenomenon that we can isolate in an abstract way from its position of enunciation. Balibar is right to draw a connection between nationalism and racism, though not even ruling-class nationalism is always explicitly racist. The presence of nationalism in public discourse is, in the advanced West, very often a sign of a reactionary current: it would be absurd for the Conservative Party to rename itself the British Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats to come out as the United Kingdom Liberal Democratic Party. They assume that we don't need to be told; that we are all confident enough to not need reminding of their origin. Not so the British National Party or the UK Independence Party. See also that peculiar cultural phantom the "white working class". As specific class fractions experience the vulnerability of a "de-centring" process of immigration and economic and social decline, the implicit is made explicit. What we all implicitly assumed before - that the ruling class is white and British - emerges in discourse; indeed ethno-national identity comes to overdetermine all other elements in the position of enunciation. Ethnicity is fetishized, fixed as the unifying characteristic of the group.

What is it that ultimately allows a variety of different outlooks to be unified under a single party banner? The answer is not, and cannot be, class. UKIP is not popular because racist ideas are inherently popular with either working- or middle-class voters. UKIP supporters differ in a variety of ways from their leadership. Indeed, as Owen Jones has argued, much of UKIP's popular base has views that are diametrically opposed to the long-term, libertarian goals of the leadership. Yet simply telling them that Nigel Farage was privately educated won't make any difference. What is happening between leadership, membership, and popular base here can only be described according to a theory of "articulation". This means that, through impermanent, contingent connections forged between different ideological elements, a social bloc is developing under the banner of UKIP. This social bloc has inherited imperial ideas about deserved British eminence and its generosity to the outside world; Thatcherite ideas about the ethnic and national superiority of the British and of the supreme suppleness and lasting political depth of the British Union; economic-corporatist concerns about working-class prosperity from the 1950s; and libertarian or anti-state social theories from the hard Tory Right. It doesn't take much to see that this set of articulations between very different, even opposed, ideological elements will exist in a state of internal tension and conflict.

From this perspective, ideological elements have no class basis as such. They can be adapted through a process of articulation - through building connections between different ideas - in order to form a social bloc. This is why working-class and middle-class racism do not appear in the same way: racism is adapted to suit its context. Yet it must also be articulated with other ideas - national sovereignty; economic prosperity; the virtues of the community - if it is to form a coherent, pan-societal bloc. That very process of articulation rests, however, on a series of internal tensions which can be negatively exploited by its enemies. Whatever careful balancing act is currently being achieved by UKIP, it can almost certainly be unbalanced by carefully placed blows. Yet, if we would like some more progressive formula of politics to inherit the ground UKIP eventually vacates, there must be a positive, progressive articulation ready to take its place rather than one that simply attacks the right - and the masses - for their racism.

1Trilling, Bloody Nasty People, Kindle location 2590-96
2 Ford & Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, 2014 Kindle location: 491-500
3Trilling, Bloody Nasty People, Kindle location 924
4Balibar, 'Class Racism', in Class, Race, Nation, 212
5Balibar, 'Class Racism', in Class, Race, Nation, 214

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Five Unexpected Walks in Italy, Germany, Slovakia and more

Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily, Italy

Charles Darwin famously walked around his garden in order to think more intensely. With his body occupied in routine activity - the familiar garden path providing no distractions - he could devote himself entirely to his work. Perhaps this was typical Victorian dualism: with the body's coarseness occupied the mind is free to labour. But I think in many ways Darwin's extreme purposefulness is quite atypical. I suspect most people walk precisely in order not to think. Walking is at once a means of access to real novelty and at the same time a means of mental escape - both in their way a type of distraction. Walking lends the mental urge for distraction a physical excuse. The fastidious German philosopher Immanuel Kant built a short walk into his daily routine, a route he followed everyday of his adult life. Kant was a stickler for routine, reason and order, yet there is no doubt that his walks were a means to relax. Walking is generally a reason not to do any mental work, a way to shut mental things out and let everything else in.

"Only walking manages to free us from our illusions about the essential," writes the French philosopher Frederic Gors. When we choose to walk we grab something small from the world. Unlike the thoroughly utilitarian Darwin, when we walk we grab a small piece of time and make it useless. I think this is an exceptional thing. All the more so when you don't have to walk or you have no definite, cast-iron purpose for walking. So many good walks start with "Why don't we...?"

Culled from old notebooks, these are mostly walks that filled up some spare time. They are little, revelatory distractions.

Outer New Town, Dresden, Germany

Why is Germany so jolly? From the Black Forest to Berlin; from Bavaria to Saxony - walk into any shop and the same trilled "Hallo!" greets you from behind the tills. The joy of Dresden's gentrified, shop-strewn Outer New Town is the ample opportunity it provides for so many greetings. After arriving at our hotel we spend a rain-splattered February afternoon dipping in and out of its "craft-shops" and "eco-cafes" - all to a conspicuously jolly chorus.

Dresden's origins are humbler than those of some German cities: for a long time it was a backwater in the eastern marches of the Holy Roman Empire. Only from the sixteenth century does it garner familiar if delayed accolades of cultural flourishing under an obligatory "wise king", namely Frederick Augustus I the Strong. Unfortunately Augustus III the Fat, one of his successors, would be responsible for frittering away the territory not only of Saxony but of much of Poland too. Simon Winder, author of Germania, says that the catastrophes of Augustus III the Fat might be a better metaphor for Germany's twentieth century experience than the more professional and militaristic Frederick the Great. That would suggest, however, that the 25,000 civilians who died in the Allies' firebombing of Dresden in 1945 had only their avarice - and their metaphorical portliness - to blame.

"It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground," Kurt Vonnegut, who was there in the firebombing, speculated on a return visit. This begs the question again: Why are Germans - Saxoners above all - so jolly? Is it a defence mechanism or has the Wirtschaftswunder worked its amnesiac magic so perfectly? Whatever the reason we silently congratulate each of them as we pop in and out of boutiques and funky Wurst-selling cafes. In the Outer New Town you escape some of the "fragile crispness" (in Winder's words) - the delicate, awe-inspiring beauty - of the reconstructed Old Town, which lies to our south across the Elbe. No wonder the city's alternative cultural life has migrated to this cosy, forgetful quarter, hidden from the gaze of the startling skyline just over the river: here both the amnesia and the Wirtschaft are at their liveliest.

Island of Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily

Once a Greek city-state to rival Athens, Ortigia juts out into a wild Mediterranean sea. With its  walls making a mighty defensive effort against both storms and tides alike, this marooned button of land envelops visitors in a cosy, classically adorned refuge.

It is too late to go home and too early to go for drinks. So we walk along the sea walls as spectators to the blind fury of the waves. Watching them roar inexhaustibly in the dark is like hearing the wind howl past an upstairs window while you are safe inside. You have an irresistible feeling of nature tamed - until, that is, you get splashed. Then you retreat to some bar and smoke Gauloises and listen to the fine drumming of the rain on the window-sill.

Marjan Hill, Split, Croatia

We arrive in Split in the early morning on a ferry from the island of Korcula. On a claustrophobically hot day we walk up the side of a huge, woody hill - a great, dry rump of kindling strewn all over with "No Fire" warnings - to the city's west. This is the Marjan of Split, scooped like a sand castle out of the Adriatic, a proud, beaten chest of a peninsula towering above the city.

The Marjan is a symbol of Split resistance to fascism and of its patriotic identity. In the War partisans made its name their chorus, the star player in an anti-fascist anthem with cameos from Tito and even Joe Stalin himself. "Zivila sloboda, Hrvatskog naroda!" they sang to their fascist occupiers: "Long live the Croatian nation!" It is a point of particular pride, it seems, that the Roman emperor Diocletian built his palace in Split - though its labyrinth of alleys has been home to a gloriously ramshackle pile of markets and dwellings as long as anyone can remember. The hill remains relatively uncluttered, however; surprising in a city so choked with life it seems to spill into the sea.

Halfway up a small chapel as dry and sun-baked as the hill itself sits in a hollow, a half-decipherable dedication in Croat to one side and a baby pine spreading its thin limbs over it for meagre shade. Inside its parched old stone is coloured by a lone daub of kitsch: 1980s Jesus - the god of rock himself, surfing a lightning-bolt - hangs cheaply framed a little too high for inspecting eyes or fingers. The scraped-bare altar looks ready for a sacrifice.

My flip-flops, which were cheap and have been worn all week, feel like they're melting in the sun. My feet are caked in the hill's dust. Hardly anyone has made it up the Marjan today. Nobody - not even the guard - is in the zoo. One enraged chimp bears his teeth at us from his tiny cell. A bear lolls sadly from her pit. The pines ripple with heat. The hill's neglect may be benign but that of the animals is not. Up here - the zenith of Croat patriotism - are some angry, abandoned animals. Below tickets are being frantically sold for the next ferry.

Zdiar Village, Tatra Mountains, Slovakia

The day after accidentally climbing the highest mountain in the Tatras we decide to take it easy. It's May but it's cold and there is snow predicted for the weekend. We visit some local caves and have lunch but find we still have a few hours of light left in the evening. When we get back to Zdiar we decide to walk out of the village and through some woods around the feet of the nearby Belianske Tatry mountains.

The path follows a small, icy stream out of town and through the thin edge of a spruce wood. Half-built bridges are placed at intervals, bark-stripped log piles expectant at their sides. Squat hills roll up suddenly and fall away again. The stream meanders occasionally around them but mostly just drives straight down a long, wide clearing. Finally, as the hills funnel us into a narrow valley, we cross the stream and clamber up a stony path, half-sunk into the hillside. Tree stumps from the storm of 2007 - in which three million cubic metres of forest were wrenched up - lie everywhere, their wrecked trunks still scattered around them.

Beyond these stubbly woods we arrive at a remarkably smooth intersection of grassy slopes, a hut at the very deepest point with wires feeding out of it and back up the hills. Here and there a slumping metal tower of pulleys and wheels meets these wires, ready to send them back down. We are at an abandoned ski resort tucked into the lower slopes of the mountains. We make for the highest point, where a faux-Alpine lodge is lit up in the dusk, Mambo No.5 playing over the loudspeakers to nobody in particular. We look around for someone to sell us something but there's no one. And so we cross the road and begin the descent back into Zdiar, which snakes in a single line of hotels and penzions back to the south.

Vinohrady, Prague, Czech Republic

A studiously well-mannered neighbourhood, Vinohrady feels a lot like some scenery leftover from a Chekhov play: all sleepy bourgeois charm underlain by unspoken anxiety. You wouldn't know how near the centre of Prague you are as you flit between its tree-lined rows of apartment buildings. True to its origins as a nineteenth century village it has an innate suspicion of unruliness and a keen appreciation of its own provincial splendour.

Nevertheless, it was where we chose to live and I had a deep affection for it (one that manifested itself as much in the form of frustration as pure enjoyment). I would make sure to walk through at least some part of it everyday. So I suppose it fulfilled the same function as the aforementioned Darwinian garden: a familiar scene divested of distractions, devoted to pure routine. Except Vinohrady is no garden paradise, not really: it is perched precariously on a hilltop, bordered by grungy, ex-working class rival Zizkov to its north; the congested New Town to its west; and on its south the sprawl of smoggy Vrsovice and Nusle. Thus the villagey intimacy is often broken by an element of the strange or unexpected, the possibility of danger: call it the equivalent of Chekhov's gun, then. Every minor alteration in a frame so familiar has the power to focus the attention: a new scrawl of graffiti here; some police tape there. Some droppings of fallen plaster here; a smashed window there.

Once on our road the body of a dead taxi driver sat in his car for several days before residents finally noted the smell. A very Chekhovian detail that (I read somewhere that Chekhov liked to read newspaper headlines out-loud, their removal from context heightening their absurd potential). For a few hours a forensics team milled around in white boilersuits and closed the road to traffic. Later some flowers arrived in the spot where the car had been. We hadn't noticed the body; but we did notice those flowers. Like probably everyone else who heard about the dead taxi driver we were strangely, selfishly comforted by the fact he hadn't lived on our road. Indeed, he wasn't even Czech but foreign, possibly Ukrainian. What a relief then. Life could go back to normal.

The whole year passed like this: the pleasure of a familiar break in the trees where the sun crept through; this or that particular facade with its pastel yellow or myrtle; the woman who smoked a cigarette and talked to her neighbour at half past eleven every day; the trams just audible as they shunted up Francouzska; the weather slowly improving and the layers of coats and scarves departing; the walk from my flat - much quicker by tram - to IP Pavlova metro, via the breezy Namesti Miru and down Jugoslavska, out of Vinohrady and into the bustle of the New Town.