Sunday, 25 January 2015

Syriza is not the story

Syriza, the party of the radical left in Greece, is not the whole story - nor even the bulk of it. Syriza has been around for a while: leftover Eurocommunists and Trotskyists dissatisfied with both Third Way Pasok and the Stalinist KKE, until very recently they troubled few polls. But their organisational dynamism and openness to the social movements - and most importantly the social innovations happening on the streets of Athens - made them the perfect electoral vessel for new radicalism.

The successes of any radical politics are driven by shifts in emphasis between the Party and popular mobilisations. Syriza was the beneficiary of Athens' Syntagma movement. Yet as that mobilisation abated along with the constant rounds of strikes and near-insurrectionary protests, the movement settled into more long-termist social and cooperative projects. Provision of basic healthcare and foodstuffs - as I've mentioned before on this blog - form the organisational backbone of the social movements. Syriza feeds off of these largely urban, youth-led projects. It is from them that it must draw strength following the elections, especially as they enter the no doubt harrowing debt negotiations with the ECB that await them.

No one should doubt the Syriza leadership's economic brains however. Yannis Varoufakis is one of Europe's best heterodox economists - and a leading voice in Syriza. His account of the 2008 crisis The Global Minotaur is among the best- and truly global in scope. They will enter negotiations with this vision in mind - especially Varoufakis's proposal for a Europe-wide "surplus recycling mechanism" capable of publicly controlling the combustible flows of finance. But they as an isolated leadership of an isolated political party cannot achieve the debt reductions Greece needs alone. New mobilisations throughout Greece will be necessary. Militancy and strikes in Greece's weary organised labour movements are essential. As are the newer, non-production based social movements. The pendulum must swing back from organisation to mobilisation.

Greece will also need European anti-austerity solidarity. Syriza will no longer be engaged in national politics. The dialectical movement between Party and civil society will expand to cover all of Europe. Their capitulation will also be our failure. Yet European elites can be forced to compromise if the pressure is there. Syriza's victory in future negotiations, if it happens, will belong not only to the people of Greece but to all of Europe.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Top 10 of 2014

In 2014 the world finally spun off its axis into a suffocating vortex of incomprehension (just like the last half of Interstellar). Yet consolation was always available in the form of culture, which continued despite the progressing apocalypse. The next few posts will include some of this year's cultural consolers and a few of its challengers too - from Chekhov to Aphex Twin, the Oxford historian Selina Todd to the posthumous Vaclav Havel, Gang of Four to Gyorgy Lucacs, Nietzsche to the economist Thomas Piketty and many more.

3. Havel by Michael Zantovsky

This star-studded - and to some extent star struck - biography of the late Czech president and national playwright Vaclav Havel befits its author's CV: Michael Zantovsky is a former Ambassador to the United States and now Ambassador to the UK. In diplomacy more than other political dark arts, the face-to-face manoeuvres of the individual outweigh the grand symbolic gesture. To paraphrase Clausewitz, in the sodden turf of political warfare diplomacy is the clash of foot soldiers: charm works here like gunpowder. Zantovsky is most at home in the dazzling world of official state visits. However his subject clearly was not; hence, perhaps, Havel's need to keep people like Zantovsky close to him.

In one encounter with a surly, post-Berlin Wall Gorbachev, the naif Havel hands the General Secretary a short, plain-spoken note demanding equality between the superpower and the smaller nation, much against the advice of Zantovsky and others. Later Havel offers Gorbachev a "peace pipe" (though not of the jazz variety). Gorbachev is startled by both gestures; though, however idiosyncratically, they work. Havel, Zantovsky tells us on presumably intimate grounds, liked Gorbachev much more than Yeltsin, despite or perhaps because of Yeltsin's ebullience and fondness for a good Czech dinner. If there is a political - as opposed to purely personal - element to this we might assume it is that Gorbachev was closer to Havel in the global scope of his vision. Yeltsin exuded too much of the dirty odour of daily democratic doings; of the schemes and conspiracies that were, as the dissidents of Eastern Europe now realised, hardly the sole preserve of the ex-Soviet bloc. Zantovsky does little to explore the political dimensions of these preferences - again he is more comfortable psychologising than politicising his subject (he is a trained psychologist). He may also take Havel too much at his own "post-democratic" word. Havel's stated disinterest in politics - and his often metaphysical public ponderings - hardly mean his thought was apolitical. He was a president, after all.

Zantovsky's weaknesses are few: the prose is mostly eloquent and his satire of Communist officialdom effective, if familiar (Timothy Garton Ash would nod in approval). Still, his near perfect grasp of Anglo-American style is only slightly upset by niggling convention. The occasional definite article crops up where it shouldn't (not much of a failing for one whose first language does not use grammatical articles but perhaps some closer proofing could have been done for such a high-profile publication?) 

The problem for this reader is in his strengths. With over two hundred pages devoted to Havel's post-revolutionary years, the flashy diplomacy tends to dominate the nitty-gritty. The fundamental limits of democratisation in the context of deep economic liberalisation and the creation of extraordinary social inequalities, are not addressed by the book or the cadre of globetrotters who are its subject. For the real, unacknowledged subject of the book is in fact a political ideology which emerged as a kind of dissident orthodoxy to compliment the vanquished Communist one: "liberal-conservatism", which took power in all the new Central European democracies, though exceedingly narrow in its intellectual horizons, was the privileged partner of US power-play throughout the 1990s. 

In most cases the liberal-conservatives formed a kind of fringe within the broader, reformist and dissident movements. Most had begun life as scions of disinherited bourgeois dynasties (Havel himself was heir to the Lucerna and Barandov fortunes of his father) or more rarely as "papist"  devotees (as with Lech Walesa in Poland). Zantovsky, integral to the movement, is dismissive of the suppressed Trotskyists and reform Communists within Eastern Europe, as well as left social democrats and Eurocommunists beyond it. The real energy, he claims, came from the small band of conspiratorial liberals hustled together in the Balustrade Theatre, just off Smetanov Embankment in Prague's Old Town. Never mind that Havel started out as something of a left social democrat himself, the practical limitations of dissidence, which meant Marxism-Leninism could only be publicly opposed from within, pass Zantovsky by.

Whether they knew it or not, Zantovsky believes, the dissidents of 1968 - of so-called "socialism with a human face" - were liberals in nuce. This is not only revisionism; it is selective distortion of the real patterns of oppositional thought and its ideological weaponry. It risks reducing the long evolution of anti-Communist movements - both within and outside of the Soviet bloc - to a kind of "pre-history" of liberalism, which led in a deterministic fashion to the type of society born in the post-1989 world. This is a shame, as an opportunity is missed to write - from the perspective of Havel's own intellectual development - a history of dissidence true to its real manifestations. Despite his insistence on "living in truth" Havel's own truth was hardly static. It developed in the midst of a changing concrete situation, embracing the extreme social scepticism which inspired Central and Eastern European free-market fundamentalism only ever incompletely.

The backbone of Havel's thought was pristinely assembled during his decades of enforced inaction during "normalisation". Reference to Vladimir Lenin - about as significant in building the world Havel opposed as Havel was in breaking it up - is revealing: whereas Lenin's philosophy is in every sense one of action (indeed, the culmination of a legacy of thought-as-action inherited in part from Machiavelli and in part from Hegel), Havel's philosophy reflected his own material circumstances: physical inaction coupled with a profound commitment to the morality of the intellect. This was, to put it bluntly, a weakness. Havel's transcendental ontology - a "great chain of Being" in which all our actions are "inscribed" - knits all thought and action into a single, neat bundle through which each can be categorically judged irrespective of time and place. A sense of the "infinite judgement of being" hangs over his tortured self-recriminations following his arrest and the concessions extracted from him by the secret police in the 1970s. Havel realized at this time the non-correspondence of "the moral significance of an act and its practical consequences." (191) Although his friends saw no wrong in what he had done, Havel continued to reflect on the betrayal he had committed throughout his life. "Living in truth" was thus not a series of reconciliations made with the ontic, historical world as one found it; but rather morality was guaranteed by reference to the transcendentally ontological.

For Havel political morality was an immediate extension into the practical realm of this transcendental ontology. It is true, as Zantovsky argues, that the method and outlook of Havel's politics bore little relation to the workmanlike conservatism of Vaclav Klaus and his party the ODS (Obcanska democraticka strana or Civic Democratic Party). Due to ructions within the dissident elite it was not long after Havel's invitation to Klaus to join Civic Forum in 1989 that Klaus quit and formed ODS. Klaus's bullish style as prime minister inevitably jarred with Havel's aloof unworldliness. Yet on fundamental "democratising" processes - including membership of NATO, the European Union, and economic liberalisation - they would fall into line, even if for Klaus these were phrased pragmatically and for Havel as deep commitments.

It had not always been thus. In the first years of Czechoslovak democracy Havel, following his Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, had toyed with the notion of a "universalist, collective security concept" (437) which would displace both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, tackling the geopolitical asymmetries in the European state system, and developing transparent channels of diplomatic and economic collaboration between East and West. Instead, by 1993, Havel became the world's most determined lobbyist for Central European membership of NATO and the European Union, both of which would isolate Russia and render non-members like Ukraine and Belarus deeply vulnerable to any shift in the balance of regional power. The Soviet bloc's foremost "peacenik" was soon keenly supporting US interventions in Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. These were not, as Zantovsky rightly argues, simply manifestations of political expedience. As Havel put it, it was only a small step from the recognition of one's responsibility to "live in truth" to entering an international struggle in which others would be made to live in truth too: "We [Czechs] must accept our share of responsibility for peace and freedom in Europe." (434)

At root Havel's transcendental guarantee of morality was blind to its own presuppositions. The abstraction "civic democracy" became a powerful and enduring justification for liberalisation, privatisation and inequality once re-contextualised by historical forces. In this the rigour of Havel's moral thought - standing in such sharp contrast to the free market conventionality of his peers - merely gave deeper, albeit eccentric, thrust to Czech capitalist development. In his reconstruction of the "aura" of existentialism - or what Theodor Adorno called the "jargon of authenticity" - Havel was very close to a kind of philosophical common sense of the age. Although he critiqued the "divesting" of people "of their innermost identities" by the domination of cynical thought systems, he failed to account for that identity's formation in historical time. He reified the subject as the spiritual monad of resistance to the domination of the objective world. By the hypothetical designation "post-democracy" Havel meant an age of spiritually empowered individuals which would supersede the crass sectional interests characteristic of both the Soviet bloc and liberal democracy. Yet this fantasy of freely self-empowering individuals ignores the part played by the structures of power in constituting those very individuals.

Havel is ultimately a tribute to the naivety and idealism of the first postcommunist governments and their "pre-history" in the twilight years of the one-party state. For all the achievements - artistic, intellectual, and political - of that generation, not even a mind as supple and probing as Havel's could prevent the atrophy of that movement under the pressure of strict alignment with the United States and the verve with which the marketisation of daily life was to be pursued.   

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Top 10 of 2014

In 2014 the world finally spun off its axis into a suffocating vortex of incomprehension (just like the last half of Interstellar). Yet consolation was always available in the form of culture, which continued despite the progressing apocalypse. The next few posts will include some of this year's cultural consolers and a few of its challengers too - from Chekhov to Aphex Twin, the Oxford historian Selina Todd to the posthumous Vaclav Havel, Gang of Four to Gyorgy Lucacs, Nietzsche to the economist Thomas Piketty and many more.

4. Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

Read the article I wrote for New Left Project on Piketty, Stiglitz and liberal reformism here

Thomas Piketty, a Parisian economist, was plucked from data-churning obscurity last year in the wake of his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It is not difficult to see why: here Piketty combined a lifetime's devotion to data analysis with generalising, sweeping insight. There is both elegance and statistical weight to his much-cited formula that, where the average annual rate of return to capital (in the form of profits, dividends, interest, rents, and more) exceeds the level of growth in an economy for a long time, a "force of divergence" will concentrate wealth in fewer hands. Written in the form r>g (where r is the rate of return and g is growth of output), Piketty thus has a formula which demonstrates what is happening to wealth in especially, but not exclusively, the advanced capitalist economies. Piketty explains the divergence as a result of slowing growth, itself caused by dwindling population growth. He explains that, in conditions where returns to capital are high relative to growth rates, the owners of capital "need save only a portion of their income from capital to see that capital grow more quickly than the economy as a whole." (25) Wealth for the very rich will therefore increase very quickly while income to labour will stagnate with growth. Inherited wealth will come to dominate wealth earned "meritocratically" through hard work and achievement.

As I recently explored in an article for New Left Project, this analysis has put fire in the bellies of reforming, though ideologically quite "bourgeois", liberal economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. Together they are turning their collective ire on inherited as opposed to earned wealth in a perceived showdown between meritocracy and plutocracy. Piketty himself, in his penchant for rationalism and the "cadastral survey", has clear sympathies for the ideals of the bourgeois republic. Good data, he claims, will save us all from the woes of bad distribution. 

His fatal flaw, however, is in the failure to deeply contextualise the historical data which he so ably surveys: Where, after all, did the great leaps forward of nineteenth and twentieth century growth rates come from? What happens to the capital that the wealthy do invest - why is it not generating growth? Or why, in the advanced capitalist west of the twentieth-first century, might growth be tailing off? As I suggest - following Wolfgang Streeck in the New Left Review - western capital may be confronting insuperable barriers to its future expansion. Without the high growth rates which funded the distributive losses to capital of the era of democratic suffrage, can capitalism in the west continue to afford democracy? Or, put in Marxist terms, with declining growth rates since the 1960s, and with the developmental fruits of increasingly competitive markets being captured by emerging economies as opposed to the old western industrial juggernauts, capital in the west must find a way of increasing its "rate of exploitation" (s/v, the ratio of surplus value to variable capital) through intensification of labour or it must find newly monopolisable commodities (hence the scramble to commodify, through patents and branding and intellectual property, ideas as opposed to physical goods as such).

Rates of return - including interest, dividends, and other financial wealth indicators - may, as Piketty argues, be stable; but profit rates for US manufacturing firms have experienced no steady increase since the 1960s (with the brief exception of the post-Plaza, post-recessionary Clinton boom in the US). Uneven development of the global economy and competition from rising regions have sapped the life out of the "base" of a growing number of western economies (as argued by Robert Brenner in his book The Economics of Global Turbulence, the data from which I rely on here). Though manufacturing is far from the be-all-and-end-all of economic vitality, advanced western economies - and the US in particular - have been forced to bear the brunt of manufacturing decline. Since the 1970s the US in particular has attempted to secure its hegemony, often by trying to maintain a strong dollar; expand financial dominance; intensify domestic consumption without increasing wages, and ultimately by disastrously committing to the "asset price Keynesianism" that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. In the face of the failure of all projects undertaken so far, the advanced western economies must invent yet another new means to assert their global dominance and to coordinate hegemony.

Not, then, a generalised or generic "crisis of capitalism" (one of the great theoretical myths developed from the closed, abstract model of capitalism used by Marx); rather a crisis of western led capitalist development manifesting itself as a breakdown of US hegemony.

The pattern of US manufacturing decline will result in ever deeper financialisation of the "real" economy and the further concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. With western industry fundamentally uncompetitive, yet with torrents of investment still pouring in from exporting countries, the US in particular is forced to develop ever deeper credit markets to fund consumption in the midst of declining overall compensation to labour. "Neoliberalism" remains the catch-all given to precisely the kind of project that seeks to guarantee western power through financial hegemony; the only problem is that - despite the hearts it has won among policy makers and intellectual elites; despite the unprecedented string of victories it has won against organised labour; despite its command over global financial markets - it keeps failing to secure long-term stability in the declining west. By the standards needed to rejuvenate and secure western hegemony against growing international competition, neoliberalism has not been radical enough. The harsh reality is that any rise in the federal funds rate - and a consequent increase in the real rate of interest - will curb domestic consumption. Not only this but such a move will increase US reliance on imports, increase the strength of the dollar in a glut of foreign investment, and ultimately further undermine US industrial competitiveness. Although the US economy grew by five per cent in the last quarter of 2014, even the Economist accepts this is the product largely of a drop in oil prices and "faint" signs of wage increases. A 1.2 per cent growth in median income last year does not bring any relief to families who suffered a loss of income of eight per cent between 2008 and 2011. This is hardly a convincing uptick in overall compensation to labour. No doubt, in such conditions, finance will fill the gaps that wages cannot. The model has not changed, even if the number of jobs is increasing.  

The overriding question for western elites is: can the west lead through financial hegemony and low domestic growth alone or can it finally unburden itself of the immense amounts of over capacity in its economies and by what draconian, anti-democratic measures?  

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Top 10 0f 2014

In 2014 the world finally spun off its axis into a suffocating vortex of incomprehension (just like the last half of Interstellar). Yet consolation was always available in the form of culture, which continued despite the progressing apocalypse. The next few posts will include some of this year's cultural consolers and a few of its challengers too - from Chekhov to Aphex Twin, the Oxford historian Selina Todd to the posthumous Vaclav Havel, Gang of Four to Gyorgy Lucacs, Nietzsche to the economist Thomas Piketty and many more.

9. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov (dir. Katie Mitchell) at the Young Vic, London

here for my post.

8. La Boheme by Giacomo Pucini at Prague State Opera

Mercifully bawdy, this opera by Pucini was amiable and exciting in all the right ways. Sort of like highbrow panto. Fuelled by cheap sekt (at least for us), we took our seats on upper balcony of the faded neo-rococo auditorium. Helpful subtitles kept us informed of the goings on far below. The building is the real star, however: much-loved and in need of a paint job, it nevertheless emanates a special charm, part glamour, part dysfunction. Originally opened at the end of the nineteenth century to cater for Prague's German minority, it feels a lot like something out of a Stefan Zweig piece or Grand Budapest Hotel for that matter.. Unsurprising, then, that the first performance here was of Wagner's The Master-Singers of Nuremburg. Things couldn't get more Dual Monarchy if they tried. Surrounded by the biggest road in central Prague as well as the central train station, its exterior balcony is also a fantastic place to watch the seething city pulse by. Prague in a nutshell then: glamour on the cheap with echoes of a vanquished past and a little hint of danger.

7. Ivan Lutterer, Photography Retrospective at Prague Museum of the Decorative Arts

Lutterer's photography examined the abandoned and forgotten. Action is suggested, incipient, but never actually present. There is a feeling that a quiet world is about to disappear for good, that a disturbance will soon wake the world up. But in capturing the moment before the change he prompts a longing for the disappeared world of the past. A quietly devastating collection.

6. Slav Epic, Alfonz Mucha, at Veletrzni Palace, Prague

The strangest but perhaps most ambitious single cycle of work I saw this year was Mucha's Slav Epic. It had to make the list for sheer ambition. In March I wrote:

"Though the ideas at work in Slav Epic - mostly self-conscious paeans to banished medieval wisdom - are very different to the earlier Paris work, the system of techniques remains the same. Thus the Slav spirit was to be articulated with more or less the same skill-set as his commercial period. Ecclesiastical interiors are rendered with the same lilting intricacy as the floral backgrounds of his Parisian street adverts. The adjustments of scope and scale, of symbolic and theatrical tropes, can hardly conceal the continuities. This is especially true of his recurring fetish for highly stylized, very white human bodies. Slav Epic, for all Mucha's attempts to juxtapose Slavdom with Germanic culture, unfolds in just as racially exclusive a world as anything more deliberately "Aryan". Not only is there no variety of skin colour (except in the case of the typically marauding Turks at Sziget), there's also little noticeable variation in the body-shape of the dramatis personae. Indeed the thing is composed entirely of easily transferrable and identifiable types - from steely youths to wizened kings, it all feels a bit Tolkien. Given that it ranges over hundreds of years, Slav Epic's cast is suspiciously homogenous."

5. Kazimir Malevich retrospective at Tate Modern

A reminder not only of Malevich's Suprematist shocker Black Square but also his painterly and experimental prowess. Also, brilliant contextualisation by Tate. Barmy in the best sense. In September I wrote:

"Malevich's defining work, The Black Square on White Background, is frequently described in punctuational metaphors: that is, as either exclamation mark or full stop. In this sense Malevich's key work of visual abstraction is quite often grasped in representational terms. More accurate than the punctuational image in this case, however, is the aforementioned syntactical one: that is, the injunction of the avant-garde. Black Square amounts to a kind of visual correlative to Mayakovsky's "Throw them overboard." (The pair collaborated in 1914 on, of all things, some cartoon satires of the German army). So imposing is the legacy of Black Square that the Tate has chosen to offset it by screening an off-kilter American staging of the opera which inspired it, Victory over the Sun (the stage backgrounds designed by Malevich). Thus "The Icon" (a pointed title for the room; one Malevich would probably approve of) is relatively marginalised in an exhibition which builds teleologically towards it. In the midst of such distraction (fuzzy Californian accents from on screen Futurist antics puncturing any air of reverence), Black Square can paradoxically be approached with fresh attentiveness. Its world historical importance is not foisted on the spectator by the gallery but rather left to hang dangerously in the suitably cacophonous air."

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

2014 Top 10

In 2014 the world finally spun off its axis into a suffocating vortex of incomprehension (just like the last half of Interstellar). Yet consolation was always available in the form of culture, which continued despite the progressing apocalypse. The next few posts will include some of this year's cultural consolers and a few of its challengers too - from Chekhov to Aphex Twin, the Oxford historian Selina Todd to the posthumous Vaclav Havel, Gang of Four to Gyorgy Lucacs, Nietzsche to the economist Thomas Piketty and many more.

9. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov directed by Katie Mitchell at the Young Vic

One of Chekhov's most celebrated plays, The Cherry Orchard sees an aristocratic Russian household and its various hangers-on tumble into disaster as their estate is bought up by a rising rural bourgeois and scion of Emancipated serfs. Springing up everywhere in the work of Chekhov are the complex interactions of class in the social imaginary of modernity. This is why Chekhov, the exemplary son of mercantile traders, remains so widely staged (second only to Shakespeare): for anywhere fallen under the spell of market-based modernity, nothing exports so well as the point of contact between age, class and time.

Katie Mitchell's staging at the Young Vic received largely positive write-ups, but it was a mixed review in the Telegraph that was most attentive to it:

... at times you can't see the wood for the trees. What is being said? Why does it matter? Some characters speak with their backs to the audience and mutter too. The naturalism becomes so studied as to risk looking artificial, the lack of ostentation tips into its opposite, something showy. There's a lot of bustle, but little that moves you.

True, the naturalistic staging is itself almost hyper-real. It is at the same time almost a parody of social realism by means of that genre's paraphernalia: the crumbly walls; the unmade bed; the thinning curtains. And sticking out like a sore thumb in this setting are the sudden, off-stage jolts (of a steam-train or a blackout or a chainsaw), which serve not only to remind the audience that this is all a construction but also to menace the characters themselves with their own vulnerability. These elements of the spectacular cut through the traditional naturalism in an effort to create the very peaks of dramatic tension that naturalism itself is supposed to disavow. Thus the pervasive atmosphere of gloom in Mitchell's production of a play which Chekhov himself insisted was a comedy. In this sense the production stays close to the question of form Chekhov himself was asking: how, in a modern context, to shape dramatic effect? Some critics complained that Mitchell's production leaned too heavily on the tragic (Stanislavski did the same); yet the ambiguity - the movement between tragedy and comedy - is structural and integral to the play's probing of the difficulties of staging modern drama.

The name of Nietzsche is raised once (by the drunken Pischin: "My daughter tells me he says it's possible to forge banknotes!"), though only to gently satirize the narrow horizons of the rural landowner for whom the next payment is all. Yet it was Nietzsche who declared that the "rebirth of tragic man" - dead since Socrates and disdained by modern passivity - was possible only through violent sacrifice: "The tragic man affirms even the harshest of suffering." The critic Gyorgy Lucacs displaced Nietzsche's "tragic" problematic onto a class terrain, in which the possibility of tragic drama is limited by its particular, bourgeois setting. In "The Sociology of Modern Drama," Lucacs argued that the intersections between classes had become as important as the confrontation of men of the same class in traditional drama: "Because men collide who come from different situations, value judgements must necessarily function as importantly, at least, as purely individual characteristics." The structure of modern society has created a complex dramatic environment in which different worlds - and the worldviews [Weltanschauungen] that support them - collide. This intensifying complexity of social perspectives means that, rather than individuals locked in conflict with each other, we have sets of social values embodied in particular characters. Because of this complexity, and the structuring presence of the social, it also became possible to question the notion of the "heroic" act, of the self-propelling individual, central to traditional drama. Herein lies the challenge to both the dramatic "hero" and the dramatist: as Lucacs asks, "How can man achieve a tragic action? Is it indeed he who achieves it?"

Chekhov goes further even than Lucacs in suggesting that class perspectives do not simply "collide"; indeed they may even - at the level of the imaginary - cross-pollinate. As so often with Chekhov it is parody that provides the formal grounds for exploring this cross-pollination. Having purchased the estate from the family the rural bourgeois, Lopakhin, shakes his fists at the heavens and invokes the names of his ancestors, once serfs under the Ranevskys. His moment of victory is at the same time the play's tragic dénouement. Lopakhin is an archetypal "practical man", though invested by Chekhov with a keen sense of ancestral pedigree. As Lucacs again puts it: "The world of drama is one where "past" and "future", "no longer" and "not yet", come together in a single moment." At a very fundamental level the impulse of Lopakhin is to vanquish this set of historical encounters as so many demons. "You," he tells Mme. Ranevskaya, who helped raise him, "helped me forget all that history."

Lopakhin is right in a perverse way: Mme. Ranevskaya longs to find a place outside of history - a place, that is, of shelter in memory; in a collective, familial project which opposes the martial imperatives of progress. "Here you are," she says to the cherry orchard in which she played as a child, "again and again and again." The orchard is for the Ranevskys a symbol of childhood and innocence; the realized force of nostalgia which acts as a shelter from history. If the message is that the orchard must go, must be destroyed by the forward march of time, it is not delivered with any zeal. Indeed, it is with deep regret that the Ranevskys leave the stage to the likes of Lopakhin. "You're necessary in a way," the student radical and romantic Trofimov tells Lopakhin. Yet Lopakhin - the practical man of commerce, releasing himself from the bondage of the past by his own ingenuity - mirrors the student radical Trofimov with his belief in progress. "All our philosophical chat has only one purpose... namely to distract," Trofimov says, preferring action to words in an echo of the Marxist dictum: "Until now the philosophers have only interpreted the world... the trick is to change it." Our sympathies, however modern in form, gesture towards the nostalgia of the aristocratic, familial project; towards a constructed inheritance with an emphasis on perpetual youth and innocence, sheltered permanently from history itself. The Ranevskys are the image of a vanquished antiquity, the stain of the past in the present.          

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Strange Parallels Between English History and Islamic Fundamentalism

John Wesley: Despite the sober image Methodists were often accused of fanaticism 

There is an interesting parallel between society in England during the Industrial Revolution and the growing popularity of different kinds of religious reaction today. Though the causes are different in both cases the world - or at least a segment of it - witnessed the destruction of a pre-existing social hierarchy and the creation by force of a new one.

Though initially limited to England - and even then spread unevenly across the country - the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, determined by a developing social division of labour and the ability of competitive English capitalists to incorporate new forms of technology, would have a profound impact on the shape of the capitalist world in centuries to come. By comparison the long downturn of the world market since the 1970s, propelled by western manufacturing decline, has seen the power of global capital transferred definitively, if again unevenly, into US-controlled financial markets. The long era of postwar state-led growth, financed in the Third World through import substitution-based development, was forcibly cut off with certain regions better placed to participate in this change of emphasis in the order of global capital than others. The losers in both historical events were numerous but two require particular attention: on the one hand, the English artisans who experienced mass proletarianisation in the wake of the adoption of new, industrial manufacturing techniques; on the other, the Arab world, which has experienced collapsing income from oil revenues and a clutch of collapsing, debt-encumbered states.

The social symptoms of these changes were and have been both contradictory and explosive. They are also far from being neatly analogous. Yet in both we see a clear strain of social and political reaction mediated at a fundamental level through the language, thought modes and institutions of religion. The question of religion's place in the Industrial Revolution boils down to this: Were religious traditions swallowed up by industrial modernity? The answer is an almost overwhelming no. In fact new religious practices and beliefs developed concurrently with the Industrial Revolution. Before the first stirrings of any labour movement capable of representing the needs of the working class arose there were Wesleyism, Southcottism, new strains of Calvinism and old Dissent. As the new technologies and industrial techniques displaced the older social hierarchies that had made life bearable for the skilled artisans of the guilds, pre-existing beliefs were reanimated and rearticulated to meet the harsh new realities confronting working people. Some, like the followers of Joanna Southcott, were truly esoteric, thoroughly at odds in their evangelical zeal with the traditional sobriety of English public life.

Perhaps the most influential, however, was Methodism, with its radically Protestant emphasis on universalism - the idea that God was for the salvation of all - which inspired a missionary project along with its tendency to try to cleanse the human person of contamination by the technological world. It is important to emphasize the extent to which Methodism was not simply an elite reaction launched by the church to capture the gullible and disenfranchised. Instead it was a positive project borne out of dissent that offered deeply attractive answers to people whose fate seemed unavoidably constrained by the new world being constructed by capitalism. Methodism was above all a mode of dissent within and subordinate to existing, broader institutions, reflecting a society lacking the strength to establish new, autonomous organizations of its own. As EP Thompson put it:

As a dogma Methodism appears as a pitiless ideology of work. In practice this dogma was in varying degrees softened, humanized, or modified by the needs, values, and patterns of social relationships of the community within which it was placed. The Church, after all, was more than a building, and more than the sermons and instructions of its minister. It was embodied also in the class meetings: the sewing groups: the money raising activities: the local preachers who tramped several miles after work to attend small functions at outlying hamlets which the minister might rarely visit.

Historians like EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm widely and very publicly debated the impact of new religious movements on the radically changing social world of the 19th century. We have seemingly forgotten their lessons. Their arguments remain crucial, however, for understanding the power of religious reaction today. "Chiliasm [the notion of God's 1000 year reign on Earth] has always accompanied revolutionary outbursts and given them their spirit. When this spirit ebbs and deserts these movements, there remains behind in the world a naked mass-frenzy and a despiritualized fury." What Thompson calls a "reactive dialectic" nevertheless experienced its apogee in the movement for manhood suffrage of the Chartists and later the trades union movement. It is not that Methodism - which was in many ways a wicked, puritanical ideology aimed at destroying the notion of bodily pleasure - led directly to socialism and trade unionism. Rather, Methodism was a very important and widespread phenomenon generated by modern industrialisation as a violent reaction to it. Nevertheless, its disappearance as a historically significant phenomenon could not take place until the working-class movements - based on commonality of social interest as such - could assert themselves much later. In any event, it was in the midst of appalling reaction (during the Napoleonic Wars and the Pitt government's suspension of habeas corpus) that these religious movements took place. Lacking the material conditions and the ideological resources to build an adventurous and bold working-class movement, new forms of religious reaction filled the void.

The parallels with the Arab world and the Middle East more generally should be obvious. Indeed the extension of jihadist operations into Africa - in the form of Boko Haram and so on - are further proof of this. Although the Arab world is the "weak link" in the chain of the world market, the states of the African core are nevertheless its most chaotic depository. They do not yield revolutionary scenarios such as Tahrir, yet they are nevertheless profoundly volatile. Whereas the movements organized around Tahrir were informed and shaped by a long, if marginal, tradition of secular trade unionism, other states necessarily find those secular resources out of reach. This should not be read, however, as an apologia for the necessity of religious reaction. It is quite simply a sober historical assessment of the forms taken by social anxiety in extremely volatile situations where no fuller articulations are able to take root. If you want to stamp out Islamic jihad, it is first necessary to establish the grounds for a socialist critique of global capitalism. There can be no doubting the comfort offered to the uprooted, the disenfranchized, and the dispossessed by the daily, community-based activities of religious zealots. Global disorder simply reproduces their conditions of existence. An intensification and expansion of the security state merely crystallizes their isolation. Tellingly it was only with the thaw of the 1830s - and the onset of the Parliamentary Reform era so long agitated for by radical militants and Luddites alike - that the new trade unionism could emerge in Great Britain.

What the history of the Industrial Revolution in England tells anyone interested enough to look is that the popular politicisation of religion - not religion as the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world" but as a mobilizing and organizing force - is not the last but indeed the first resort of those whose loss of existential stature in the grinding onslaught of technological modernity compels them to oppose it. The same goes mutatis mutandis for Islamic jihad: these are not reactionary cruelties conjured from the cumulative wisdom of some imam's head. Neither in fact do they arise phantom-like from the teachings of the Prophet to suck the life from the world's impressionable young. This is just idealism masked as ideology critique. There is - dare I say it - a dialectical interaction between bodies of religious thought and the processes of technological modernity. Reaction is not the echo of a vanquished past but is in fact conjured by modernity. The supposed absolute contest between secular enlightenment and religious reaction is a fantasy. The real struggle that develops out of the dialectic of modernity is one between forms of political representation which, on the one hand, seek to establish the domination of one group over another and those, on the other, that seek a lasting recognition of difference mediated first by common interests.         

Friday, 9 January 2015

Top 10 0f 2014

In 2014 the world finally spun off its axis into a suffocating vortex of incomprehension (just like the last half of Interstellar). Yet consolation was always available in the form of culture, which continued despite the progressing apocalypse. The next few posts will include some of this year's cultural consolers and a few of its challengers too - from Chekhov to Aphex Twin, the Oxford historian Selina Todd to the posthumous Vaclav Havel, Gang of Four to Gyorgy Lucacs, Nietzsche to the economist Thomas Piketty and many more.

10. Gang of Four - Entertainment & Solid Gold

Not released during 2014 or even during this century, Gang of Four's first two albums were nevertheless essential listening this year. Moving back to Britain in July was something of a sensory and informational overload: suddenly I was woken from the mute, balmy slumber of life abroad by a turf war waged with the molten flak of decades of unsold consumer goods. It was like a Hieronymus Bosch painting sponsored by Matalan or one of those video-reels of the 1970s. Tory MPs hunted down disabled people for the metal parts of their wheelchairs, vital apparently for "paying down the deficit." Social welfare claimants were forced to perform improv at sundry rural Fringe festivals for the amusement of bored shire folk. The homeless were forced to invest the goods they got from food banks in dubious entrepreneurial schemes intended to help them innovate their way out of destitution. The semi-apocalyptic din of Coalitionland that I had happily ignored for years was suddenly intensely close and personal. Gang of Four were the soundtrack to this rude awakening: not for the detached observer, they revelled in the chaos, and like divers excavated little oil-black pearls out of it. "Show me a ditch," they chant, "and I'll dive in it."

Gang of Four's martial swing - an almost funky guitar strut driven to maddening speeds - evokes the authoritarian style of British politics in the 1980s. It heralds the hip-swivelling self-certainty of the turn to right-populism during the Thatcher years, a turn that utterly crushed both moderate and more radical varieties of Labourist social democracy. It is the sound of old means of understanding and organising the social world - punk, Dr. Feelgood, disco, left-wing politics - crumbling as a maniacal, consumerist gaiety usurps them. "Things all look a whole lot better for the working classes," Jon King sings on Gang of Four's 'I Found That Essence Rare'. One is returned irresistibly to footage of Thatcher occupying some oversized machine - a tank or a bulldozer - the self-conscious symbol of violent national renewal, of a return to great things via the irresistible force of "creative destruction."

In a year characterised by centenary hero worship, this style has been excitedly reappropriated, with a galaxy of nobodies queueing up to "remember the sacrifice" - without, of course, ever questioning the causes of that "sacrifice" and the senselessness of such a terrible collective death sentence. Unsurprisingly a burst of intolerance has emerged in the prevailing mood of death and nostalgia. Gang of Four's music stands as a powerful incitement to challenge such popular self-righteousness. "Just keep quiet, no room for doubt," they sing. "All this talk of blood and iron is the cause of all my shaking.... The fatherland's no place to die for!"

Gang of Four take the alienated protagonist of modernism and plunge him (normally it's a him) unreconstructed into a fragmenting social environment: "How can I sit and eat my tea, with all this blood flowing from the television?" the affectless narrator of '5.45' complains. These weak manifestations of a first-person subjectivity - in effect, men we are invited to watch flail in the grip of micro-practices of power - are cut across yelped slogans, which sometimes function as dim reminders of struggles now taking place elsewhere, out of view of the atomised individual: "Guerilla war struggle is a new entertainment." Yet some of Gang of Four's best songs are mimetic - personifying those who are active participants in the creation of this new, paranoid world.

Here the domestic scene is penetrated by supposed military virtues, as if the retreat from public life by Britain's TV-sozzled masses has resulted in the internalisation of values once championed by the outward face of Empire: "Discipline is his passion/Order his obsession/Now he says there's none." In a sense Thatcher redoubled, through our collective relegation to the privatized domicile (famously there was no such thing as society only families and individuals), the very metaphorical domestication of the post-imperial British (no longer to rule the waves). Thatcher's rebellion against "decline" merely resulted in the destruction of the agon - the public marketplace of ideas - that had supposedly fuelled British inventiveness in the first place. What is left is a simultaneously commodified and militarized daily life bound up with a growing conviction that what is "out there" is dangerous; that we are victim to a total social breakdown epitomized in such prosaic phenomena as late-running trains: "Outside the trains don't run on time." 2014 found a privatized Britain getting ever twitchier - and not only over late trains.