March 2011

There is one concept more futile than “left unity” but the enduring dream of earnest lefty-bloggers everywhere remains the most ill-fated since the days of King Canute. Social democrats seem shocked that people who believe in overthrowing the class society might be a little riotous while socialists and anarchists seem disappointed that a bunch of people who think that a bit more tax and fewer reductions might be nice feel it’s wise to be peaceful and law-abiding. It’s not just a tactical dispute, they’re totally at odds! It’s like a germaphobe and urophiliac discovering that they’re not going to have much luck in the bedroom.

Kevin Carson demolishes the argument – much beloved of pseudo-radicals for capitalist cuckoo lands – that decrying consumer culture need be an expression of prudishness and elitism…

I think Russell, in rejecting left-wing analysis of the “culture of consumption,” throws the baby out with the bathwater. In stressing the left-wing critics’ areas of commonality with bourgeois paternalism and prudery, he neglects the extent to which the rise of the “culture of consumption” was itself part of a deliberate strategy of imposing work discipline by corporate capitalist elites. Capitalist ideologues of the post-WWI period, in their praise for the effects of consumer culture on the working class, used language very much like that of their counterparts two hundred years earlier who proposed the Enclosures as a remedy for “Saint Monday.” It’s ironic that Russell, who celebrates American workers’ choice of leisure over work and attacks left-wing critics of mass consumption for their alleged “elitism,” ignores the relationship between the two issues. Corporate elites of that period deliberately and explicitly promoted a mass consumption economy as a way of preventing the choice of leisure over work, and undertook a project of cultural engineering to equate the consumption of store-bought goods with “Americanism” and “respectability” and to equate homemade with “old-fashioned” and “rural.”

In celebrating the liberatory aspects of the consumer revolution, I believe Russell neglects the extent to which consumer culture undermined autonomy. Specifically, he neglects the extent to which the ratio of wage labor to a given unit of consumption is itself a contingent matter. To the extent that high costs of marketing and distribution, brand name differentiation, and planned obsolescence reflect a business model toward which the state artificially tipped the balance, they artificially inflate the costs of a given quality of life. Consider, for example, the quadrupled costs of brand-name package dry goods, compared to virtually identical generic bulk goods, as described by Ralph Borsodi in The Distribution Age.

In dismissing criticisms of the culture of consumption for their alleged puritanism or elitism, Russell neglects the extent to which increased dependence on wage labor for a higher volume of waste consumption also reduces the bargaining power and increases the precarity of working class life. It’s a hell of a lot harder to engage in spontaneous work stoppages of take off for Saint Monday, when you’re one paycheck away from being evicted or having the repo man take your car and washing machine.

There’s a trend for arguing as if to pass judgement on any choice is bigoted. Don’t think people should be watching, listening to or reading X? In that case you’re a snob. Think that people should avoid behaving in a certain way? Ah, you must be a puritan. Feel that it’s unwise to hold certain opinions? Why, you’re practically a fascist! If you try and force people to act according to your views, or are tiresomely aggressive in expressing them, there could be truth to this. But I fail to see how giving your advice or judgement – when your interlocutors are free to tell you where to stick ‘em – need be more pompous than telling someone who’s turned down a one-way street that they might be in error. Hell – who knows? – perhaps they’re fond of cul-de-sacs. Yet our experience of human beings should give us an inkling as to what they’d like or loathe; what inspires and fulfils or stultifies and degrades. We can be wrong, of course – and anyone who lays claim to an absolute doctrine is liable to be eejit or an arse – but, to rework a phrase, no society can be an archipeligo.

The argument deployed by our wide-eyed consumerists is that to pass judgement on someone’s lifestyle is to treat them with contempt. If you denigrate a choice you must be sneering on the chooser. Sometimes, yes, but this ignores the fact that people’s choices can be subject to environmental, subliminal pressure just as surely as they could be forced by threats, abuse or beatings. And you don’t have to be foolish to be influenced. Does anyone deny that as a species we’re vulnerable to suggestion? One doesn’t even have to scale the mounds of research; just think – why else would a goddamn branding strategist have work?

The lads and lasses – I mean, er Lords and Ladies – of the Upper House have been reflecting on the remnants of the Empire, the Overseas Terrorities. Richard Luce was good enough to raise the spectre of the Chagos Islanders; holding that their removal had been an “abuse of human rights” and saying the government should “restor[e] justice“.

John Palmer, the Earl of Selborne, didn’t echo his demand. He admitted the expulsion was a cruel and harmful one but couldn’t bring himself offer more than the empty concession that “we have to accept responsibility“; one that “will never go away“. So, we accept responsibility for their suffering but don’t try to alleviate it? This whole penitence routine is easier than I thought! Rambling on, Palmer regretted that the Islanders are “deeply suspicious of the designation” of their land as a marine protected zone. This, he said, “is not helped by Wikileaks“. Well, yes – they exposed the designation as a sham. His complaint has all the merit of a cartoon villain’s. They’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling nerds.

Donald Anderson, in contrast, did a splendid job: denouncing the expulsion of the islanders; brushing off the lies that have obstructed their return and dredging up Nick Clegg’s support for their oft-foresaken cause. His words were for nought, however, as Lord Howell, a Minister of State in the Foreign Office, made it clear that his partners – who’d once pledged to seek a fair deal for the Islanders – could no longer give a fuck.

There are, Howell claimed, reasons of “feasibility and defence security” that make an Ilois return impossible. The islands have, it must be said, been of supreme importance for the U.S. military. Where else would they have landed “extraordinary rendition” flights? How else could they have stored illegal cluster bombs? Nonetheless, however damn convenient it is for them, I don’t see why we should support their often foul and criminal endeavours at the cost of justice as a principle and as a reality for the Islanders. As for “feasibility”? Feck off. We went to war, it’s claimed, to save the few thousand dwellers of the Falkland Islands but we can’t devise a scheme by which these people can go home?

The U.S. army is, of course, the biggest obstruction: not so much a stumbling block as a bleedin’ wall. In the past they’ve insisted that the isles are crucial as, for one thing, terrorists might use them. Why? For what? Surfing? It was on the basis of these protestations that the Law Lords  – darkly hinting at this “current state of uncertainty” – blocked the Islanders’ return in 2008. One might guess that they’re in mind for the Liberal Democrats and Tories, too. It’s far easier to devastate a few hundred poor folk than vex a superpower. I’m not keen on living in a nation that accepts this, though. Or beneath the kind of statesmen who call eachother “noble” and display such cowardice.

Is violence justified at protests? Heavens, I need that debate like I need a warthog’s tusk inserted in my rectum. The ethics of direct action (which, of course, needn’t be violent) depends on its consequences. You could be as noble and impassioned as a Shaolin Monk but if you haven’t been judicious in considering your deeds you’re merely self-indulgent. On the theme of self-indulgence, I’m going to regurgitate an old (and short!) post of relevance…

The cream-brick suburbs of my home plays host to an exciteable contingent of anarchists. Their Class War stickers light up lampposts, and half-torn No Borders leaflets wave with grim futility. A rather more pugnacious group, however, has indulged in a spot of neighbourhood redecoration. On a wall by the side of a public footpath a message is scrawled in big, black letters. “ANTIFA PATROL AREA,” it roars, “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED“.

The area, I’m pleased to say, is not a fascist bastion. Sweaty Colonel Blimps wither each election night, and the skinheads rub decidely unswastika-d skulls with miracle hair-grow creams. The message, then, will only serve to frighten poor, bewildered souls who won’t know ANTIFA from ADAM. It just looks threatening.

Now, I’ve no idea who daubed the warning; might have been a group or just a lone, eyebrow-twitching tough. Still, they’ve provided a handy reminder that direct action has to be rational: you’ve got to know, in other words, what action’s needed and where to direct it. Ensuring that people feel unsafe within their own communities ain’t the best way of turn’ ‘em off the BNP.

Simply murdering Afghan civilians wasn’t quite enough for U.S. soldiers in Bravo Company. A long and horrifying piece in Rolling Stone makes clear that their bloodlust was sated in e’er more creatively barbaric ways. They’d photograph their victims; mutilate their bodies. One Staff Sergeant is described as wielding a carcass like a puppet. Another hung onto a digit sliced from a teenager’s corpse. “He was proud of his finger,” a friend muses.

What’s also sinister is how unbothered troops seem to have been about this gleeful savagery…

Far from being clandestine, as the Pentagon has implied, the murders of civilians were common knowledge among the unit and understood to be illegal by “pretty much the whole platoon,” according to one soldier who complained about them. Staged killings were an open topic of conversation, and at least one soldier from another battalion in the 3,800-man Stryker Brigade participated in attacks on unarmed civilians. “The platoon has a reputation,” a whistle-blower named Pfc. Justin Stoner told the Army Criminal Investigation Command. “They have had a lot of practice staging killings and getting away with it.”

The unabashed enthusiasm these men had for killing isn’t likely to be workaday among U.S. and NATO troops. On the other hand, and at the least, the casual attitude the whole platoon displayed towards the lives and deaths of Afghans isn’t likely to be rare. It’s not as if they were deployed in a barbaric bubble. A pattern of killings, shrouded by misinformation, points to callousness that spreads from the armed force’s roots throughout its structure. The exceptional decay of some branches suggests the rotting at its centre.

Let’s revisit – why not? No one else will! – the twelve boys their forces slew and tarred as gun-wielding insurgents; the pregnant women they mowed down and claimed had been deceased for hours; the children they bombed and duly libelled as guerrillas. If these and other cases, and the lies puffed out to obscure them, had been treated with genuine rigour then the psychopathic gunmen might not have rampaged so freely. Soldiers might have been discerning with their trigger fingers. A respect for human life – as something other people will see as of consequence, even if you’re too depraved to think the same – might have endured. This is wholly fanciful, I know. They haven’t seemed to care.

Stephen Walt discovers that the history of regime change should lead us to not merely err on the side of caution but to make for it post-haste…

A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) “has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945.” Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.

There are some things that every generation’s had to fail at. It’s like the eternal boyhood dream of being a footballer. Sure, it’s enormously unlikely to succeed, but it’s not impossible and it’d be a glorious thing! Well, it’s like a schoolboy trying to be a footballer and snapping a few thousand legs, perhaps.

Forgive a little detour into ‘net-based nerdery.

Anyone who’s spent five minutes on this little sliver of the internet that’s not devoted to pornography will know of those odd creatures dubbed the trolls. Devilish rapscallions, they scurry through the comments sections of the larger blogs and spew insulting, snide and otherwise inflammatory posts. They delight in the frustration and offence that this provokes; feeding off impassioned, humourless responses. They’re an object of deserved rivelement, of course, but there are also folk who, rather than slaying them with the blade of wit or mallet of deletion, engage trolls in long, wearying battles that they’re far too mean and nimble to surrender. These, who I know in turn as frightened villagers, are ardently devoted to protecting the homesteads that are their egos and fear and detest the brutes who wish to do them harm. Possessed by paranoia, they end up not merely warding off trolls but lighting torches, seizing clubs and marching off to destroy – er, I mean debate - anything, however harmless, that intimidates them. Meanwhile their homes become frozen and dilapidated.

All of which is to say that fretting about how your self or your opinions are perceived make you and them seem weak and insecure and, thus, is just as self-defeating as chopping an arm off to distract you from a headache. It’s no replacement for self-awareness.

Yep – thought so. The Tories have decided that the best way to justify an intervention into Libya is to stress the “risk” Gaddafi poses to the British people. Or, in practice, to make grim references to Lockerbie. Kenneth Clarke has been chatting with the Guardian

We do have one particular interest in Maghreb, which is Lockerbie – if other people want to get rid of the curse of Gaddafi, the British people have reason to remember the curse of Gaddafi – Gaddafi back in power, the old Gaddafi looking for revenge, we have a real interest in preventing that.

An unhinged assumption and unhinged speculation. Well, that’s very reassuring. One might hope the justice minister would have some understanding of the consequence of an appeal but, then, it’s long been clear his Ministry has scant regard for justice. One recalls the blithe dismissal of a new investigation. Ah, what would have been the point? There only seems to be a fucking war depending on it.

The Grauniad hangs Clarke’s statement in a queer ol’ frame…

…his remarks suggest British ministers recognise they now have a direct security interest in Gaddafi’s removal in light of Libya‘s involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 259 people on Pan Am flight 103 and 11 on the ground in the Scottish town.

They “recognise” they have a direct security interest? Should be “think”, shouldn’t it? Otherwise one might infer not that they’ve come to an opinion – a generous assumption in itself – but that they’ve acknowledged an evident truth. That’s as balanced as a sapling in a hurricane.

Elsewhere John McCain claims to have evidence of Gaddafi’s involvement with the bombings. If he does I’d welcome it but the repulsive fraudster’s reputation doesn’t offer hope. Salon notes that his desire to avenge Lockerbie was not in evidence as he schmoozed with the tyrant in the past few years. Perhaps, as with many things, he’s quietly forgotten it.

If the mangled Mickey Rourke of the Maghreb was guilty then our government’s with him has been far more noxious than Megrahi’s freeing. They didn’t merely fail to arrest the sod, they actively befriended him. One could build a rationale around snaffling his nukes, I guess, but how about the time after he had relinquished them? If you’d just disarmed a murder suspect would you have him round for tea?

Talking heads are justifying the Middle Eastern War MK3 on the basis of Libyan involvement in Lockerbie. “What involvement?” You might ask. Good on you for asking! Bill O’Reilly, that most gaseous of bullfrogs, is demanding “payback” for the bombings while the Liberal Ed Schultz asks us to “look at the tape…of flight Pan Am 103” and cries, “Do you need any more evidence?” Er, yes – you can’t work out who gunned down JFK from the Zapruder film, nor who shot J.R. from the momentous episode. Rambling on, Schultz tells us that Gaddafi has “[n]ever proven his innocence”. I think you’ve got that backwards, E-Man.

David Cameron has made use of with this motif as well. Bulking up the claim that “taking action in Libya is in our national interests” he’s proffered the dark suggestion that, “The people of Lockerbie, 100 miles from here, know what [Gaddafi] is capable of.” As this was delivered to a Tory conference I rather think that – as with Bill O’ to his cantakerous fans – he was grasping for justification that transcends concern for Libyans – lots of folk remain unbothered – and stokes the paranoia of the parochial.

This is crooked on more levels than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Vile as the malformed Mickey Rourke of the Maghreb may be, if he poses a threat to us why was the government so friendly with him? And, besides, while his credentials as a terrorist look sound there’s no good evidence against him or any other Libyan where the Pan Am bomb’s concerned. That’s not to say it wasn’t them – as far as I’m aware it could have been – but we’re not justified in merely presuming guilt. I wrote earlier that this conflict is no Iraq (as notes of optimism go this was a bit like claiming that a race is safer than Le Mans, circa 1955). Still, this could have potential as its “Saddam Hussein is linked to al-Qaeda”.

Robert Black will keep up with developments, I’m sure.

John Derbyshire, an Anglo-born columnist with views so cheerily unpleasant he could leave a trail of ruined, gravy-splattered family dinners halfway across the land, once came up with a splendid term: “Blithe Nihilism. The belief that life is pointless but one needn’t dwell on it. This, it seemed to me, was absurdism for the English: cynical, aloof and, of course, immensely suspicious of French philosophers. A terrific post by Phil at the Gaping Silence brings this idea to mind again and makes me realise the Bible of Blithe Nihilists is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I wonder if, for Adams when he was writing Hitchhiker, the cynicism and erudition and wordplay was basically all there was – not in the sense that it was all he could do (we should all be so limited), but in the sense that he didn’t believe there was anything else that mattered. Bear in mind that he was only in his mid-20s when Hitchhiker went out – still very much in the “after Cambridge” stage. Being erudite and good with words is quite a big deal if you’re a student, and can have real rewards. Get to Oxford or Cambridge, and it’s easy to form a world-view which basically says that clever people get privilege, very clever people get lots of privilege and really clever people run the world. Coming down from Cambridge (in more ways than one), to discover that boring ordinary people in boring ordinary jobs were doing quite nicely thankyou, while clever people like oneself were scraping around to make ends meet… well, I found it a bit of a shock myself, and I wasn’t even a star at Cambridge. The world of Megadodo Publications and the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is a world where knowledge and intelligence confer power, but only on people who are willing to misuse them. To some extent that mentality seems to have stuck, for Adams – there’s a cold wind blowing through a lot of his later work, from Mostly Harmless to The long dark tea-time of the soul: a mood not just of “this is all there is” but of “yes, this is all there is, you don’t have to keep asking”…

There’s also affection for the world, despite its senselessness. The delightful riffs on everything beneath, er – many suns show one can enjoy one’s  lives without quite knowing what it’s for. Some of Hitchhikers ideas – Arthur mourning for the earth through the loss of hamburgers; people clinging to their towels in the face of all the world – are even compassionate. I’m not sure that Adams wouldn’t have stabbed pens into his thigh before admitting to it, though.

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