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Archive for April, 2010

The struggle against the closure of this fine department needs to be part of a wider struggle

Many have already rightly spoken in outrage that Middlesex’s renowned philosophy department is to be closed. The department is the home of our finest hub of continental philosophy and political theory in the UK. During the recent Haiti quake, Professor Peter Hallward was the number one commentator from a critical perspective in the news, reminding the viewers of both the history of U.S. intervention and disempowerment of the people by multinational agencies such as the UN. Hallward also almost single-handedly introduced the philosophy of Alain Badiou to the English speaking world. He is not alone; the department is full of interesting and enaged academics working on the cutting edge of critical thinking. The journal, Radical Philosophy, is edited mainly by academics in the department. The graduate students there are often highly influential in the political activites of the left in London. The closure is thus a clear blow—if it is allowed to happen—to the leftwing cause in Britain.

At the same time, it is important for those upset by this news to place it in perspective. Whatever party wins at the coming election, there are going to be massive, and I mean massive, job losses and departmental closures across the country. We haven’t even began to feel the pinch yet. And those who will likely face the axe before any others are the experimental thinkers, critical theorists and Marxists. Alongside creating a greater army of reserve labour and probably rehiring staff a few years on with sessional contracts that, obviously, pay much lower wages, it is inevitable that universities will also use this process to purge the troublesome amongst their midst.

There are already plans for a campaign to prevent the closure. A Facebook group has swollen almost overnight to thousands of members, and the first rally is planned for tomorrow. There are two things I would like to add immediately though as a contribution to these efforts.

Firstly,  the prevention of the closure should not be framed in the limited language of managerialism and educational bureacracy. This can be helpful for pointing out hypocricy, but does not help align the cause with a wider struggle in which RAE scores and such like will be used as criteria for the shutting down of the vast majority of other departments. Preventing this closure needs to be done in such a way that it can found solidarity across the educational sector; and bring with it the possibility of a more transformative agenda too. Dean of the School of Arts and Education is on record as advising that companies have input into university curriculums, and that student projects should deal with issues currently facing real businesses. Of course, none of this implies that said companies will actually pay students’ fees, reimburse them for their research during their studies, or guarantee a job. As such, the encroachment of this kind of thinking into academia should be a prominent part of the struggle to prevent the closures.

Secondly, the struggle needs to be linked to more general working class struggle. As some have rightly said, there is probably not much sympathy out there for philosophy departments who appear to just be pursuing their own elitist agenda. Forging links with real working class struggles against exploitation, cuts, and closures is entirely necessary

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Anti-communist history--motivated by ideology or greed?

Historian Robert Service has thrown a hissy fit about a negative review left for his new book on ‘Trotsky’ at Amazon.com. In his Guardian blog piece (I use the word blog deliberately, for it is just rambling, senile sounding babble for the most part) he seems most upset that his new Trotsky biog is not selling as well as he hoped, and blames Figes for this state of affairs. For those acquainted with Service’s work, and his seeming obsession with eliminating all trace of anything positive related to the Russian Revolution, this might signal something of the utterly cynical, properly capitalist motivation underlying his fanatical anti-communism. But is it this simple? Or, is it  rather ideology at work?

I have noticed for a long time that a surefire way to top the history bestsellers list is to release ever more explosive exposes of the evils of communism. If any existing history has even a trace of positivity left in place then that is enough to prompt a new history shattering the myths. Arguably, this process has already reached its apex with ‘Mao: The Untold Story’ which takes its own bias and manifest hatred for its subject to such absurd lengths as wrap itself up in its own contradictions and undermine any convincing basis for how a Machiavellian scumbag/bumbling clown like Mao (as the authors would have us believe) could have attained power and keep it for so long. Perhaps, recently, Service has fallen victim to the trend which he played his part in promoting. Because next to these ever more biased histories, Service’s attempt to maintain something like a front of scholarly impartiality now seems almost quaint in the anti-communist publishing industry.

As for Service’s books, they are fairly uninspiring workman like tracts. At least Figes is an elegant stylist, if no less anti-communist in his more sophisticated way. Service also demonstrates a lack of clear thinking, which evidences itself in indulging such rightwing claptrap as claiming Islamism is the new Communism in his book Comrades. I suppose the question is how the likes of Service and Figes have come to totally dominate the Anglo-Saxon market for communist history? The easy answer—almost certainly true to a large extent—is ideology. That is, it suits the interests of the ruling ideology to promulgate anti-communist history. But I think it works in more subtle ways in cahoots with capitalism. The demand of the market always for new angles and spins on things promotes any publishing trend which promises to replace the old with the new. And it is here that the matrix of greed and ideology find their intersection. To a certain extent I do think that Service, Figes et al are motivated by a conservative ideology, but it is also the case that pushing this ideology has proved very lucrative—in terms of book sales and academic prestige.

From a communist perspective, the answer to all this is not to just criticise their bias or publish academic rejoinders such as ‘History and Revolution’ and ‘The Battle for China’s Past’, but rather what we need is a new generation of leftwing historians. What is needed is force. Leftwing historians pumping out new, interesting communist histories aimed at the mass market are necessary. Who, after all, are going to take the places of the Eric Hobsbawms when they are gone? Whilst the left retreats to the philosophy shelves—something I myself am certainly implicated in—the right monopolizes the historical imaginary of the general population.

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Phillip Blond, Red Tory-in-chief

Two events intervened just prior to my reading of Phillip Blond’s ‘Red Tory‘, which made me doubt the necessity of the exercise. The first was the publication of Jonathan Raban’s wonderfully enjoyable lampooning of it in the London Review of Books, under the title of ‘Cameron’s Crank‘. Whilst Raban is a bit hard on Blond’s writing skills (personally, I think the book is pretty well written; its more the dubious intellectualism at fault) he does a great job of cutting to heart of the parochial, nostalgic sentiment that prevails throughout. In the same issue of the LRB, John Gray reviews a book by Tim Bale on the Conservatives from Thatcher to Cameron, and concurs with Bale’s assessment that, in regard to the Red Tory retreat to socially conservative anti-liberalism, ‘Conservatism of this kind spells potential disaster for Cameron and his party.’ Which leads to the second point. This ‘disaster’ seems to be unfolding in front of our very eyes. With the Blond-inspired ‘Big Society’ idea apparently falling flat on the election trail, and inverse rhetoric about the ‘broken society’ also not winning over many fans, Cameron has recently decided to adopt a tougher, more conventional Conservative message, evident in the Conservative party’s billboard promising to cut the benefits of those who refuse to work.

The premature fate of Red Toryism?

With such a run of misfortune, and generally poor reviews, one might wonder if expending the energy in reading and reviewing ‘Red Tory’ is worth the effort? I would argue that it is still worth a punt, if only for the fact that with the current paucity of ideas floating about in mainstream politics—and particularly in Conservatism with Thatcherism on the wane—it is unlikely that Red Toryism will just go away. If the best method of defence is attack, I think Marxists should try to keep track of these new ideologies; particularly at crossroads such as the present in which much of the steam of neoliberalism is running out, whilst at the same time massive fiscal deficits surely spell the end of the Third Way social democratic settlement.

So what is there to learn from ‘Red Tory’? Well, if anything, the book suffers from trying to answer too many problems. Blond’s introduction catalogues a litany of complaints about modern Britain (the emphasis is always on ‘our’ country) that almost anyone could find something to agree with—or more likely, join with him in disgruntlement about. Everything from loneliness, to promiscuity, to the financial crisis, to the democratic crisis—to all of these Blond has an answer: Red Toryism. What is it to be a Red Tory? Apparently, it involves returning back to a local ‘associative economy’, where the different classes get along, everyone knows their place, the rich look after the poor, and everyone is joined together in common virtue (and belief—although he keeps a low profile in expounding this last point).

All of this is well documented elsewhere, by myself and other readers of Blond’s work. However, in order to extract some more interesting insights from ‘Red Tory’  Blond’s personal story of why he broke from the left acts as a  general lesson in where the left has gone wrong. Not for the reason that Blond’s rejection of the left is to be endorsed, more for the fact that his original affiliation with it signalled all that in my opinion has been wrong with the left since the 1980s. This is a telling quote:

I hated Scargill, yet still sympathised with the miners… What I liked about socialism was its concern with social justice – the idea that our society should be ordered according to principles of equity, goodness and fairness… I could never for the life of me understand why some despised those who differed from them by virtue of social class… And I agreed with the ethical critique of unrestrained capitalism.

Despite the fact that Blond does not have much time for Rawls in Red Tory, he mostly concurs on the categories: justice, ethics, fairness, etc. Everything, that is, other than working class empowerment and action. What ‘Red Tory’ amply demonstrates is the utter uselessness of these notions for advancing a radical, leftwing political cause. At a time when many on the left still call for ‘global justice’ and ‘fairness’ (to use the Lid Dems favourite term, if we can even consider them as left) Blond’s comfort with all these things, whilst proposing an arch-socially conservative vision, demonstrates their  ambivalence. The same goes for his endorsement of the environmental agenda, which he counterpoises to the destructive and irresponsible tendencies on the left, epitomized by the likes of Scargill.

It is probably also worth pointing out that Blond does have some good points. For instance, he correctly points to the dissolution of the basis of Third Way style social democracy; he understands that reform in how we vote for Parliament is unlikely to make much difference; and he recognizes the limitations of the state for empowerment. And yet all this is recuperated into a mostly incoherent diatribe that answers few questions immanent to our contemporary social reality. The undercurrent of nationalism and localism is clearly at odds with his feigned concern for immigrants and internationalism. His defence of capitalism is premised on some extremely suspect idealised notions of what capitalism should be, subtracted from any substantial political-economy or empirical studies.

It is hard not to conclude reading ‘Red Tory’ that Blond is simply trying to will back into existence the lost world of warm beer and cricket matches on the village green that John Major once spoke of as the epitome of Britishness. Radicalism, for Blond, means a return to an organic social order; one which arguably never existed, or was only ever kept stable by the patriarchy, racism, nationalism and elitism he is willing to credit the left as having undermined. Since his lost world is one that probably never existed in the first place, nevermind in the 21st century, it is more than likely that these ideas will play the role of rose tinted gloss for a whitewash of the expected privatisations and anti-immigrant purges the Tories will soon be calling for.

The lost world of the Red Tory future

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Is railing against BNP nazis the best use of the left's time during the election?

An interesting debate unfolded on my Facebook wall a few days ago. After posting a comment to the effect that the radical left is wasting its time with gratuitous tit for tat anti-fascist rallies, rather than expending its energy on attacking the liberal-left parties (Labour and Liberal Democrats), I was accused of aping earlier Stalinist follies from the 1940s.

Whilst historically speaking that argument is highly suspect, in any case one has to look at present conditions and not simply bask in the comforts of tradition. The question for me, at least, is with the limited energies and numbers of those on the left, is anti-fascism a good use of our time? My answer is no. Further, I would even say it is counterproductive to the cause—it confirms the liberal media and elite’s perception of a valid role for the radical left, which is, predictably, a total dead end as far as overthrowing capitalism in the 21st century is concerned.

I would give the following reasons for ceasing all anti-fascist activities.

1) In present conditions, groups such as the BNP and EDL have no supporters within mainstream government. They are not the militant wing of fascist tendencies within government. In fact, they are reviled by the elite. The kind of racism one finds within the liberal parties it truly awful—scapegoating immigrants and so forth—but is qualitatively different to BNP style racism. As such, they do not pose any real threat. A victory for one of their candidates would certainly make a local community more unpleasant, but that is about it.

2) There is no transformative potential in anti-fascism. Anti-fascism is a static affair that adopts an entirely defensive posture. Its activities have no transformative potential for the properly revolutionary aim of overthrowing capitalism. There have been, in the past, periods in which it has played a vital roll in the struggle; today it merely saps energy.

3) Anti-fascism leads to complacency. With such a clear enemy as the BNP (hated not just by the radical left, but much of the left and centre of the political spectrum) a certain moralising complacency can be allowed to prevail at the expense of making those hard choices that face the radical left. Since we on the radical left currently face a crisis of both communicating our ideas and attracting people to the cause, the hard thinking that needs to be done around these issues is obviated by investing in tribal warfare with the far-right. I won’t deny the fun of it; but particularly around election time, the sentiment which still prevails around most of the left and labour movement (vote for Lab or Lib Dems as a lesser evilism to keep the Tories out) should be the target of our ire. Unless we can shift most of the left and its natural constituency away for this kind of thinking there will never be any change.

4) Anti-fascism in ineffective. I haven’t seen any proof, or indeed, any logical arguments, for showing why anti-fascist rallies are effective. Surely it just demonstrates that there is a militant core opposed to them who can make a lot of noise too? In terms of denting support for the BNP, I have serious doubts it does much good.

So all in all, I think this obsession with the BNP is an entirely unproductive use of our mental and physical energies. Much better to focus on the illusions of the mainstream. Time to ‘no platform’ Nick Clegg!

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Has 'climategate' simply exposed the normal workings of science?

For the last month or so I have been studying the work of Thomas Kuhn; author of the (in)famous ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions.’ The angle I have been taking in an article I am working on focuses upon the disciplinary procedures of scientific communities. In ‘Structure’ Kuhn uses the words ‘mass persuasion’ and ‘force’ to describe how the paradigm (or ‘disciplinary matrix’) is enforced. For him this is a necessary part of science to allow the requisite agreement amongst communities of practitioners to focus on  ‘puzzle solving’ within that paradigm.

The only problem I have with his thesis is that either for wont of thought, or more likely a deliberate professional decorum, Kuhn does not describe many of these disciplinary procedures. All he gives the reader to go on are the fact that after every revolution in science textbooks are re-written to reflect the new paradigm, and give the impression that the existing paradigm is simply a smooth continuation of the former paradigm. In such ways, according to Kuhn, scientific texts render invisible their discontinuities and decisionistic moments. But are textbooks the only place that ‘committed communities’ enforce their paradigm?

The example of ‘climategate‘ (the hack into the emails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia) perhaps demonstrates how the taxonomy of these mechanisms could be extended. One of the things people were most shocked by was the unit’s director, Phil Jones, attempting to manipulate the peer-review process to keep out climate sceptic’s papers. Now, in this situation, there is an intersection of politics and science that places a level of scrutiny upon the scientific discipline that it is not normally subject to. For those of us in academia, however, the idea that the reviewers and editors of academic journals are not driven by some ideal, objective pursuit of truth is hardly surprising. We all find that for our own work we end up targeting the kind of journals we imagine would be sympathetic to the work; we seek to conform to what we imagine the editors will look favourably upon. Of course, one might retort, that is in social science; surely the periodicals and practitioners of hard sciences should seek to reflect the objective nature they study?

The more you read of maverick and non-conventional scientists, though, the more your faith in this is shaken. For instance, it has been reported that in the current climate in which intelligent design theorists have been attempting to undermine evolution, that scientific papers with even vaguely critical reflections upon evolution have been finding it hard to get published. Likewise, in Lee Smolin’s ‘The Trouble With Physics’ he reports the same thing amongst the string theory community, which militantly polices its critics and look down upon any theoretical theorists working in another avenue.

Reading Kuhn makes you appreciate that these instances are not exceptional.  They are, in fact, necessary for the very practice of science. Phil Jones’ fate was sealed not by any particularly unusual practice, but simply by the normal practices of science being exposed violently under the gaze of the public eye, where they look more like the actions of a concerted conspiracy rather than the everyday workings of the discipline.

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On the Guardian website yesterday George Monbiot published a piece called ‘What links the banking crisis and the volcano?’ One not acquainted with Monbiot’s work might presume that the Guardian had become a place for publishing quackish conspiracy theories about evil bankers hedging bets on eruptions and smuggling briefcase nukes to Iceland. But no, this was a—supposedly—serious commentary on the ills of modern society.

In the piece Monbiot links the chaotic complexity of the banking crisis to the complexity of the aviation industry affected by the eruption. Thus, he is implicitly saying, we need to roll back the complexity of both systems to make ‘us’ more resilient. He then goes on to make some extremely conservative statements where he advocates the “decommissioning” of the airline industry and approvingly writes that the state sector is currently being pared down (i.e. cuts), encouraging the same of the private sector. Whilst this is not completely without precedent in Monbiot’s  oeuvre (he previously called on Obama to ‘Let Detroit Die‘) it does signal a new level of viciousness and desperation to both his attacks on all forms of technological progress and working people. To approvingly consider the state sector being pared down as a positive thing in a time of recession is just the kind of standard Toryism his father Raymond Monbiot would approve of.

Are volcanic eruptions and banking crises both just uncontrollable forces of nature?

On another level too, there is an extremely bourgeois sentiment structuring the piece. Since the start of the economic crisis, nearly every Western political leader and banking chief have talked up the complexity and global interconnectedness of the crisis. They throw their hands in the air and attribute the events to a force of nature beyond any one person, corporation, or government’s control. And yet, as time has gone on this portrait (that Monbiot iterates) of a butterfly effect starting in the US housing market and spreading uncontrollably across the world has turned out to be a lot of bunk. Lots of people (bankers) made huge sums of money out of both the pre-crisis boom and the crisis itself. We now know that government worked more or less in collusion with them during this time. We also know that it was not just a chaotic butterfly effect but the practices of multinational corporations in financial centres across the world. In other words, as opposed to the bourgeois sentiment that treats the crisis as an uncontrollable force of nature, the serious Marxist analysis seeks to explain exactly who the class and institutional actors were; that is, explain who benefited and why, and relate that to the political economy of the fluctuations in the relationship of capital and labour.

The kind of doomladen, apocalyptic quasi-leftist rhetoric espoused by the likes of Monbiot is a serious impediment to  rebuilding a radical left in this country. For all those who have followed his arguments for some time now, although they are often window dressed with a shallow anti-capitalist posture, in reality they are mostly aimed against the working classes: as both producers and consumers. A serious leftwing revival requires ejecting toff entryists from its midst, and clearing the ash cloud of ideological conclusion their punditry introduces into the debate.

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Ever since the end of the Cold War, academics, pundits and various ideologues have been declaring the end of left and right as meaningful political positions. From Martin Jacques’ folding of the CPGB’s ‘Marxism Today’ magazine and founding of the Demos thinktank; to some contemporary environmentalists’ belief that their cause transcends traditional political categories; to Frank Furedi’s belief that one’s level of risk tolerance now replaces other considerations; to Philip Blond’s recent advocacy of Red Toryism; what unites all these positions is the avowal of not only the meaningless of traditional political positions, but also the sense that new categories are in need of being appropriated. Which is to say, these advocates see the end of left and right not as something to be mourned, but to be actively endorsed and taken advantage of.

They must all be disappointed with how things have turned out. Because twenty years on these categories still serve to define most of the terms of meaningful political debate. They morph and twist into different shapes, but remain highly informative indicators of one’s politics. This should give the left some limited cause to celebrate; because it is my belief that affirming the left-right split is itself a leftwing position. Declaring that there is a irreconcilable antagonism at the core of society, which divides into a binary separation, where one can authentically hate the other side, is opposite to all conservative demagoguery regarding ‘national unity’, us all being ‘in it together’, locked in organic, primordial communities and so on.

This is a theme I intend to explore in the coming days with reviews and readings of key texts that make the claim to move beyond left and right, starting with Philip Blond’s ‘Red Tory’ (which I am still awaiting from Amazon) and then Frank Furedi’s ‘Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right.’ As you might imagine, I intend to repudiate in the strongest terms possible the kind of politics these texts advocate; but I also want to do so in a coherent and if possible not overly polemical way in order to build this into a consistent piece of research which I can publish as an article.

Any other ideas of books, articles and so forth I should read, please let me know.

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