Friday, June 30, 2006



Wow, this is pretty amazing stuff. From Tony Blair:
Complaining about globalization is as pointless as trying to turn back the tide. There are, I notice, no such debates in China.
Nicked from Lenin.

(Though I still wonder do I betray a philistine incomprehension of the distinction between returning and repeating if I question whether someone of that pseudonym is best placed to decry Blair's tendency "to invoke the frisson of democratic debate precisely when he intends to steamroller something through parliament, ignore dissent, caricature opposing views and announce immediate success"?)

Thursday, June 29, 2006



Norman Geras claims Icelanders are the happiest people in the world. I have also learned, via this (PDF) report on "Measuring Ireland's Progress", that Iceland has comfortably the highest level of internet access in Europe.

So if I'm making anybody from Iceland happy, do let me know. And also let me know about the deal with your names.

UPDATE: that's not a typo, by the way - the report is on Ireland, where internet access is at 45%, compared to 84% in Iceland.



Golly this is good stuff, I think. Must read some Kierkegaard at some stage, know there's some somewhere around the house...


$437.111 Billion

That was the US military budget for 2004.

Excuse me - that was the US military budget for 2004, before including nuclear weapons research, maintenance and production, veterans expenditures and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Holy crap.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006


More Yglesias

I recently upbraided Yglesias (I hope he's recovered) for sloppily implying that the expansion of US military spending following World War Two was due to "the plausible (though perhaps mistaken) view that it needed to be very high because of superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union", and not, thus, anything to do with the military-industrial complex, military-Keynesianism or anythng like that. The reason I had the charity to think it sloppy rather than foolish was because I presumed a clever boy like him would acknowledge, if he gave it a second thought, that the reality was more complicated than Cold War orthodoxy would have it. But, to adapt Wilde, once being careless, twice is, well, worse:
it's simply a myth -- a giant one -- that "pork" projects are an important cause of "big government." Overwhelmingly, money is getting spent on big popular programs like Social Security and the Navy.

My point, of course, is that the proposition that US military spending is not, in fact, "pork" is a dubious one indeed.

While I'm quibbling with him, I'll also draw attention to Yglesias' analogy between Star Wars and US foreign policy, in which, it seems, Bush is Darth Vader, Cheney is the emperor, Iraq (or the Saddam regime) is Alderaan - Luke's home planet which is destroyed pour encourager les autres - and the hegemonic US military is the Death Star. For Yglesias the neoconservative hostility to international institutions and multilateral processes, its faith in "hard", and contempt for "soft" power contrasts with the model pursued by the US after World War II, specifically to
set up what Ikenberry calls a "constitutional" order, where interactions between countries are governed by institutions and political processes that you try to get the secondary members of the system to buy into more-or-less voluntarily.

There's a lot of truth here, but for me such an analogy might equally cast Hiroshima/Nagasaki as Alderaan, which wouldn't be quite so supportive of a clear-cut distinction between a post-1945 "constitutional order" and a Bush II pursuit of hegemony.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Marxist accountancy

A while back there, Norm linked to an article in the Independent where various people gave their view as to whether Marx was still relevant or not (which, I have to say, strikes me as rather an impertinent question coming from the Independent, but anyway). Here was Eric Hobsbawm's response:

I think there has been a substantial revival of interest in Marx in recent years, and this has been largely because what he said about the volatility and shape of capitalism was correct - even some business people now seem to recognise this. Marx is once again somebody that you can quote, and this in part is due to the end of the Cold War.

In terms of Marx's legacy, as the Chinese are reported to have said following the French Revolution: "It's too early to tell." What we do know, though, is that Marx and his disciples were massively responsible for the shaping of the 20th century, for good or for bad, and Marx was an extraordinarily important thinker.

In this era of neo-liberal globalisation, Marxist thinking is still important in showing that while capitalism is enormously dynamic, that dynamism creates crises. We need to address these crises, not by free markets, but by controlling the system or changing it altogether. Whether or not that is possible in the short term is a different story.

That's all well and good, but I have to say that, while it's certianly true that "Marx and his disciples were massively responsible for the shaping of the 20th century" it seems to me that this was probably overwhelmingly for bad rather than good. On the whole, bad people who called themselves Marxists did an awful lot of evil things in the twentieth century, whereas good people who called themselves Marxists tended to be pretty much powerless, and thus unable to do a comparable amount of good things.



Just as the capturing by capitalists of the benefits of technological advance leads to "structural" unemployment (failing corrective measures by the state) thus producing within the richest capitalist countries an economic underclass for whom the domestic economic system has no use, so too do entire nations appear more and more marginal to the international economic system. In these black holes of the Third World, urbanisation marches in tandem not, as in the classic 19th century cases, with industrialisation, but with deindustrialisation. The result: "informal", "sub-subsistence" labour. The setting: slums.

After the ecological question, this is arguably the most important development facing humanity today. This stark and sober article by Mike Davis (via Lenin's Tomb), based largely on a dramatic UN report, details the basic facts, chief among them

The global growth of a vast informal proletariat...a wholly original structural development unforeseen by either classical Marxism or modernization pundits [which] challenges social theory to grasp the novelty of a true global residuum lacking the strategic economic power of socialized labor, but massively concentrated in a shanty-town world encircling the fortified enclaves of the urban rich.

It also raises, without really seeking to answer, the question of the political consequences of the decline, relative to this group, of the traditional organised working class - can Hardt and Negri's "multitude" step in for Marx's proletariat as the historic agent of revolution? In thinking about this question one first has to wonder why Marxists gave the proles this "privileged" status in the first place.

One reason might be the idea that because the proletarian has "nothing to lose but his chains", his self-interest is in fact universal, in the sense that the pursuit of his self-interest objectively approximates to the pursuit of, let's say, some kind of Rawlsian just society - it can (sloppily, to be sure, but I like the idea) be said that the proletarian, being the lowest of the low, is (as though) behind the veil of ignorance.

But, the proletarian is not the lowest of the low becuase it has more to lose than its chains. (One might say that the unemployed and the "informal" sector don't even have chains!). Terry Eagleton gives another explanation:

The proletariat is not a potential agent of revolutionary change because it suffers a good deal. As far as suffering goes, there are many better candidates for revolutionary agency than the working class: vagrants, perhaps, or impoverished students or prisoners or senior citizens. Many of these individuals suffer more than your average worker who drives a Renault and holidays annually in Greece. I do not wish to be misunderstood here: some of my best friends are vagrants, impoverished students, prisoners and senior citizens, and I have no personal grudge whatsoever against any of these groupings. But none of them is even potentially an agent of socialist transformation, as the working class is. Unlike the latter, these groups are not so objectively located within the capitalist mode of production, trained, organised and unified by that very system, as to be able to take it over. It is not Marxism which selects the proletariat as a potential revolutionary instrument, but capitalism, which as Marx wryly commented gives birth to its own gravedigger. Radical politics is not just a matter of looking around the place, determining who is most needy or desperate, and backing them against the system. Historical materialists can leave such a strategy to guilt-stricken middle-class liberals.

This is very nicely expressed indeed, but I'm not sure how encouraging it is in the context of Mike Davis's article. An alternative view is suggested in this interesting account, from 2002, of The Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina whose "sophisticated and successful organization of what were thought of as unorganizable groups has challenged the Marxist orthodoxy", according to the author.

Monday, June 26, 2006


Surveiller et punir?

There are two kinds of atheists, ordinary atheists who do not believe in God and passionate atheists who consider God to be their personal enemy.

This echoes Woody Allen: "To you I'm an atheist, but to God I'm just the loyal opposition".

Norm says:

for both believers and unbelievers there's another issue [besides whether religion does more good than harm] that is probably more important in determining their belief and unbelief, respectively. It's the issue of the truth or otherwise of religious belief.

I find it hard to believe (!) that many believers, or at least as many believers as non-believers, have come to their conclusions as to the existence of a supreme being via a process chiefly oriented towards truth-seeking - that is, by seeking the answer to the question "is there a God?", starting out with something like an open mind. After all, more people reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no God than come reluctantly to the conclusion that there is! Desire for truth intrudes upon desire to believe.

Another thing Zizek said was that belief always operates at a distance - one does not so much believe, as one believes in believing, or one believes in the other's belief. This may explain why pro-religious arguments seem to focus on the downside of a collapse of religious belief and practice, rather than simply on the putative truth-content of religious doctrines. (Alternatively, this might be explained by the inherent weakness of arguments purporting to establish the existence of a deity).

The general idea of a god - all-knowing, all-seeing, ever- and everywhere-present, punishing and rewarding according to its will - is potentially rather horrifying. This is the stuff of Orwellian-Foucauldian dystopia. If we were forced reluctantly to accept a really terrible conclusion, would this not be it: God is alive, we haven't killed God, we cannot kill God!?

Yet it is precisely this side of God that is usually turned to by his apologists when they point to the dangers of secularism, moral decadence and the upside of religious belief - specifically, that (regardless of the existence or not of God) it is better for society that people fear the punishment, and seek the favour, of an omniscient, omnipotent being.

One of two possible consequences must follow: either 1) God is seen by believers as a Good Totalitarian or 2) this "utilitarian" defence of religion is only attractive in so far as the truth-claims of religious doctrine, in particular God's existence, are not really believed.

The converse implication of the latter might be that to the degree that one accepts the truth-claims of religion regarding God's existence, the more one would be morally obliged to resist the God.

Sunday, June 25, 2006



I saw Zizek give a talk in Dublin some months ago. I just don't know my Hegel, Freud, Lacan etc. well enough (alright, at all) to keep up on that score, but I always enjoy the jokes and pop-references, as well as his energetic delivery. I have no idea how seriously he ought to be taken; I do know that he does come up with exciting and entertaining ideas. This is too rare.

One of the most memorable things he said related to a critique of Rawls's theory of justice. (I think he may have attributed the critique to Hayek, but let's not worry about that). In Rawls's just society the only permissable inequalities are those inequalities that are not inherited (i.e. which are "merited" or "deserved" - not, thus, those deriving from our natural talents, which are not "deserved" in any meaningful sense) and which are to the benefit of the worst off in society (i.e. whose removal would actually damage the interests of the worst-off).

Whatever objections there might be to these principles, it would surely seem to egalitarians of any stripe that such a society, if it could be achieved, would qualify as some kind of "real" or "minimum" utopia.

But no!

Says Zizek: Rawls's just society is in fact a catastrophe waiting to happen, as any amateur psychoanalyst could have told him. Because, consider the point of view of the putative "worst off" in this society, who knows that his lower status (in whatever respect) is not only "merited" but is actually required by his own best interests! In capitalism, on the contrary, if I earn $10,000 and you earn $100,000 I can always turn around and say "hey, fuck you - everybody knows capitalism is unfair!"

Which is true in a funny kind of way. (I note that Zizek doesn't really work without exclamation marks).


Sporting aside

I have recently had reason to make a greater acquaintance of the fine Andean republic of Ecuador. Although I myself am thoroughly secular, I was nevertheless rather struck by the fact that the nominal confessional profile of this small post-colonial nation is very similar to that of my own state, the Republic of Ireland - 95% Roman Catholic, 5% others.

Well I know this is a trivial sort of a thing, but since sporting events are themselves of no great import there seems nothing wrong with taking such things as a reason for "following" a certain country's representatives - hoping, in so far as one cares at all, that they win - in contests that are otherwise of little or no interest.

At any rate I shall always wish the best of luck to Ecuador in any sporting endeavours I happen to see them take on.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006



Few things I've read inspired me as much as Václav Havel's The Power of the Powerless. It is a brilliant and beautiful essay that speaks to what it is to be human. Read it and learn something about truth, dignity and responsibility - words worth reflecting on.

I must be the only person in the world to have become a socialist (rather than abandoned socialism) partly in response to reading Havel. I think the fact that I found it so relevant to me, in my society and culture, my social and culture milieu, confirmed what Havel says towards the end of the essay:

The post-totalitarian system is only one aspect - a particularly drastic aspect and thus all the more revealing of its real origins - of this general inability of modern humanity to be the master of its own situation. The automatism of the posttotalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilization. The human failure that it mirrors is only one variant of the general failure of modern humanity.

This planetary challenge to the position of human beings in the world is, of course, also taking place in the Western world, the only difference being the social and political forms it takes - Heidegger refers expressly to a crisis of democracy. There is no real evidence that Western democracy, that is, democracy of the traditional parliamentary type, can offer solutions that are any more profound.

All this by way of saying there'll be nothing here for the next few days. Read Havel in the meantime, and re-read my stuff from this recent DC comeback. Take notes, cos I'll be checking up when I get back.

Monday, June 19, 2006


In the arena

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt, "Citizenship in a Republic", Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Since Haughey died last week people have been reaching around for the right comparison: CJH himself, being rather a Francophile, would have liked Napoleon to be mentioned. (Certainly he was suitably diminutive). He would certainly have settled for de Gaulle. Mitterand is probably more realistic, though I'm afraid Chirac might be even more so.

Away from France, Mussolini has been mentioned by hostile observers. (PJ Mara, Haughey's celebrated press secretary did once mischievously declare "una voce, una duce" after one of the heaves against Haughey had been seen off).

But I presume that when Bertie, or whoever wrote his graveside oration, decided to use the above quote, he didn't realise that it was also a favourite of someone else to whom Haughey has been compared. In fact good old Tricky Dicky Nixon went so far as to name an autobiography of sorts after it.

I guess it's just a great exculpatory quote for disgraced politicians.

(Actually I think it's harsh to think of Haughey in the same terms as Nixon, since Nixon's worst crimes related to things like Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile etc., not petty crookedness).

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Conditions of possibility

Scott McLamee on book reviewing:

Book reviews do not teach you to think. And so it was necessary to move by degrees, from what Gore Vidal once memorably dubbed "book chat" (i.e., "what’snew about this book? is it any good?") to criticism ("how do we interpret X in this book?") on to what is most suitably called critique, not in casual usage of that term, but something like Kant’s sense. To whit: "what are the conditions ofpossibility such that X can exist, in this form, such that we can comprehend it?" (You should imagine that whole question as hyphenated – as one long word inGerman, probably.)

Its "conditions of possibility". Seems like a good way to go about analysing cultural artefacts and the like.


Flowers and sweets

Supporters of the war derided all of these predictions and projected a variety of rosy scenarios including a quick military victory, roses and sweets showered on the liberating troops, and so on.

Something about this "flowers and sweets" theme in the discourse of opponents of the invasion of Iraq annoys me. I'm sure that some people did, prior to the invasion, actually specify the form that the welcome of the Iraqi people for the invading army would take as being a shower of flowers and sweets. But this seems less important to me than the more substantive point, which was the hypothesis that the invasion would, in fact, be welcomed, even if not in the particular form of flowers and sweets.

Now, looking at Iraq since the invasion, one has to agree that AK47s and RPG rocket launchers have played a more prominent role in the response of Iraq's population to the American presence than have flowers and sweets. Nevertheless, just as the set of Iraqis who opposed the invasion and occupation is most likely not limited to those who have used AK47s and RPG rocket launchers, the set of Iraqis welcoming the invasion is, or was, presumably not limited to those who threw flowers and sweets, if any in fact did.

Now, up to this point I admit that this post could be accused of offensive clarity. Of course, I hear you say, of course they're not just talking about flowers and sweets. Rather they are saying this: supporters of the war said the invasion would be welcomed, but look! - look at the resistance that the US has met, the thousands of US troops killed. Is this the response of a people that welcomed the invasion?

But it can be significant when a certain phrase or reference is frequently used to stand in for a lot more than what it itself communicates of itself. In the semiotics of "flowers and sweets" I detect a certain evasion. It communicates the truth that many supporters of the war gave an overly rosy portrayal of what its outcome could be expected to be. But I think it evades the more specific and substantive point about the attitude of Iraq's population, in 2003 and since, towards the invasion.

I think the reason for this evasion is that there is considerable evidence that there actually was plurality or majority support within Iraq for the invasion in 2003. At any rate the polling evidence seems to show a level of ambiguity towards the invasion that was not shared by many of its Western opponents. It therefore seems significant to me that "flowers and sweets" get referred to quite a bit, but are rarely supplemented by any detailed treatment of the actual attitude of Iraq's population to the invasion.



Offensive clarity.

That's what Nietzsche accused John Stuart Mill of. Besides expressing a certain truth - if not necessarily about Mill himself (though I certainly take Nietzsche's point), at least about the possibility of being offensively clear in expressing a point or argument - I found this very funny.

Saturday, June 17, 2006



Politics (or philosophy and intellectual inquiry in general) have taken on a deep importance for me (perhaps as a substitute, or at least I hope a substitute, for metaphysical shite). For this reason I frequently feel the need to go back to first principles and justify myself, remind myself what's it all about, explain the decision to engage - in a time, a place and a milieu where such engagement is unusual. (I think I independently came up with the phrase "you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you" before discovering that Trotsky had said effectively the same thing about, funnily enough, the dialectic.) I was, thus, rather impressed by that Foucault quote when I came across it a couple of years ago.

Incidentally, I think that the fact that so many people are in fact "weighed down" by such "blindnes", "deafness" and "density of ideology" as to take little or no interest in politics amounts to perhaps the most interesting question today facing political theory and analysis.

Of course, it could just be that Foucault and I are no better than religious fundamentalists - the truth of our creed (i.e. politics) so obvious as to be inexplicable. Thus when asked why bother with politics we simply retort that those who aren't interested are the victims of the ideology of depoliticisation. On the other hand we could be right.

If the latter were true there would be consequences for the way most people see the world.


The politics of depoliticisation

Your question is: why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn't I be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves. So I can't answer the question of why I should be interested; I could only answer it by asking why shouldn't I be interested?


Not to be interested in politics, that's what constitutes a problem. So instead of asking me, you should ask someone who is not interested in politics and then your question would be well-founded, and you would have the right to say "Why, damn it, are you not interested?"

- Michel Foucault, in a debate with Noam Chomsky, 1971

Friday, June 16, 2006



One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is
so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his

So says Harry Frankfurt in his marvelous essay On Bullshit, a fine piece of analytical philosophy and articulation of an important concept. Essentially, the point is that bullshit differs from lies in that whereas the liar has an idea of a truth that he wants to conceal with a falsehood, for the bullshitter these categories are simply irrelevant; the bullshitter does not seek to deceive, strictly speaking, because he or she is utterly indifferent to the truth or falsity of the matter to which their discourse pertains. Thus, "the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phoney."

Speaking personally, the lasting intellectual benefit I have drawn from this work is this: whereas I once believed that the advertising and PR "industries" were professional lying, I now realise I was entirely wrong. They are in fact professional bullshit.

I came across the essay via this review by, the still excellent, Scott McLemee who comments:

At the risk of pitching a little of it myself, it is tempting to say that On Bullshit comes very close to defining the essence of postindustrial society. “The realms of advertising and of public relations,” Frankfurt writes, “and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.”

Such mass-produced bull has vast resources at its disposal: “There are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who — with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth — dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.” In other words, bullshit is not just an irritant. It is a form of professional expertise. If it vanished overnight, the economy might collapse. A sobering thought, perhaps beyond the limits of satire to handle.

McLemee's remark about the economy collapsing if it weren't for bullshit might have something to do with the points I made about capitalism in these posts. I think "beyond the limits of satire to handle" nicely captures the insanity of a sytem that would cease to function if people didn't buy shit - didn't some Senator in the US, after 9/11, describe shopping as "the new patriotism"? (Or maybe it was Bill Clinton).

Anyway, just from this little synopsis you can probably glimpse what fun it is reading a piece of serious analytical philosophy interspersed with the word "bullshit".

Thursday, June 15, 2006






Oh sweet Jesus Trinidad & Tobago, keep it going...


Ireland - Getaway Island

I once upon a time said that regarding the US and torture: "all one needs to ask oneself is this: has there been over the last couple of years or so (is there even now?) any very serious concern at the highest levels of the Bush Administration that torture should not happen on its watch?"

My answer was no. It still is.

The same is entirely true of the recurrent controversy in Ireland as to the alleged involvement of Shannon Airport - and thus of the Irish government - in the US practice of "extraordinary rendition" i.e. the extra-legal "rendering" (as opposed to extradition) to (ususally Arab) countries with well known records of domestic human rights abuses of prisoners (often simply kidnapped from third countries in the first place).

Vincent Browne's column in yesterday's Irish Times gives the essential points. Firstly the most focused-upon question - whether the US has transported such prisoners through Ireland - is little more than a distraction. (Browne notes that the government's constant refrain that there is no evidence that the US has in fact done so is true enough - unsurprisingly, given that the government clearly is not interested in finding such evidence, and has resolutely refused to do anything that might risk turning up such evidence. This may or may not be about to change.)

As Browne says:

it has been established beyond question that Shannon has been on of the "stopover points" for flights on their way home from ventures that have involved the kidnapping of suspects and their transportation to centres where they have been tortured, or at least subjected to cruel and degrading treatment.

It seems fairly clear that the people on these returning flights are effectively making their getaway after kidnapping people and handing them over to be tortured. Browne says that Ireland's facilitation of the getaway "is itself a crime".

I've long felt that in a well functioning international legal system Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld would be facing charges on the question of torture if of nothing else. (Of course, and I hasten to add, a well functioning international legal system would be extremely busy indeed). I'm not sure whether Ireland's complicity in the "extraordinary rendition" circuit would or would not be enough to place our government in the dock.

At any rate it is conscious complicity in criminality, morally criminal initeself, and ought to be good enough reason for anyone not to vote for them. But then, as Browne points out, one can have little confidence that the opposition would stand up to the US either.


Negating my own negation

In this post I boasted about how historical materialists are less likely than liberals to offer unthinkingly naive "idealist" explanations for historical phenomona.

I also made reference to "the lack of any strong socialist or Marxist tradition in the States, and the consequent colonisation by 'liberals' of the space where there should be a 'left'" [emphasis added].

Contradiction? Hypocrisy? Tautology, even? Nope. Dialectics.



Turns out Hitler's original title for Mein Kampf was Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.

Catchy, eh? Curse the publisher that changed its name.

Fans of Father Ted may be reminded of the episode where Ted won the "Golden Cleric" award (for being the best priest in Ireland) and decided to pen a venomous acceptance speech subdivided into sections on "Frauds", "Liars" and "People Who Really Fecked Me Over Down the Years".

Via the excellent Scott McLamee.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006



Yes, Squire Hockey, the most interesting Irish politician of the last forty years or so, finally kicked it. As I commented over at Crooked Timber:

The best Haughey story in the obits is Ben Dunne’s evidence to the tribunal. Dunne, head of Dunnes’ Stores, Ireland’s Walmart if you like, was hanging around with Haughey and percieved that he was a bit down. Happening to have three cheques for £75,000 made out to fictitious names – for some other purpose – he decided to give them to CJH. Well, obviously these were a nice pick-me-up for Charlie, but his legendary response to Dunne distills something about the man:

“Thanks, big fella.”

Nice Phoenix magazine style obit:

In line with every other media outlet we may have given the impression that Charles Haughey was a degenerate old chancer whose naked ambition was matched only by his willingness to play 'hunt the trouser snake' with the ladies. We now realise he was, in fact, a golden-tressed chieftain who defeated the British, won the Tour de France and warned U2 not to record their Pop album. We may never see his like again. And all of us are the poorer for that. Except perhaps Ben Dunne.

Via Back Seat Drivers, who also note that the Moriarty Tribunal, which spent so long chasing Haughey's financial tail, can be expected to describe his death as "a good PR move" and part of a campaign of "asymetrical warfare".

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


The resistance/"resistance" in Iraq

Now, I have very little sympathy with the Iraqi resistance/"resistance". This remains the case even though I acknowledge that there are different strands in it, including some very much opposed to Al Qaeda/Zarqawi-type attacks on random civilians. I've no doubt some have decided to fight the US out of wounded nationalist pride or in response to American crimes in Iraq, but I still agree with Marc Mulholland that

the Iraqi insurgency in fact is inspired by Sunni supremacism. It is a ventriloquism of nationalism, not the real deal. It cannot acquire broad popular support outside a sectarian faction. It is thus wholly reactionary.This is not even considering its strong Islamist colouring.

Nevertheless, it seems a woefully underreported fact that, at least up until fairly recently, Pentagon estimates indicated that 80% of attacks were targeted at coalition troops. (See, for example, this report - via Lenin, relating to the four months preceding January 20 of this year. Or in general his "dossier" on the resistance: if you chase down the links they seem fairly credible in this regard). This really did surprise me. If I didn't keep in touch with Lenin's Tomb I would undoubtedly have continued to agree with what Jeff Weintraub wrote in March 2005:

One long-term trend in the operations of the Sunni Arab 'insurgency' in Iraq, which was clear even before the January 30 election but now seems to be accelerating, is that the targets of its attacks are overwhelmingly Iraqi Shiite Arabs

(Of course Weintraub's comment refers to a different period than that of the above Pentagon report, but it seems doubtful that the figures were so different as to justify his claim that the targets of the resistance/"resistance" were "overwhelmingly" Iraqi Shiites. Nor, I would imagine, has Weintraub expressed any change of mind as to who exactly is, or was until recently, targeted.)

One reason for the distorted view of who has been targeted is that 75% of those killed in the relevant period were Iraqis. This, of course, is because attacks on Iraqis, especially Iraqi civilians, are far more likely to be "successful" than attacks on foreign troops. And it is entirely natural that attacks that kill people win more attention than attacks that don't.

But this seems to have led to a distorted picture of the overall strategy of the resistance/"resistance". In particular it seems to have left many of us with an excessively grim view of its jus in bello record.

(One might add the caveat that Pentagon figures are likely to be a lot more exhaustive in recording attacks on coalition troops than attacks on Iraqis of any stripe. On the other hand the Pentagon clearly has no stake in portraying the insurgents as more scrupulous in jus in bello terms than they really are. Another caveat is that it seems very likely that attacks have recently shifted towards intra-Iraqi fighting - but this can no longer be seen as overwhelmingly Sunni on Shia violence).



You know this whole thing Zizek says about how the button in a lift for closing the door quicker is actually a placebo, in that it doesn't make the door close any quicker but just let's the person blow off steam (and is this not the perfect description of our depoliticised liberal democracy etc.)?

Well, the last lift I was in didn't have a button meant to close the door. Do they usually?

Also, does anyone know if there's any truth in that bit from Fight Club where he (Tyler Durden, not Slavoj Zizek) says that the oxygen masks that are supposed to drop down when your plane has to crash land are there just to get people high so as they will calmly accept their fate?

Monday, June 12, 2006


It's the military-industrial complex, stupid!

I feel that one of the benefits of a broad commitment to "the materialist conception of history" is that it prevents you from writing silly sentences like this:

Defense spending [in the US] got very high due to the plausible (though perhaps mistaken) view that it needed to be very high because of superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union.

Now, because that sentence's author, Matthew Yglesias, is not a silly person, I'm sure he would acknowledge, if he thought about it (and the great benefit of blogging is that there's no shame in not thinking about it), that that's a fairly silly (because so woefully, and significantly, inadequate) attempt at an explanation of the expansion of US military spending in the postwar era. Why this is so is hinted at in Yglesias's next two sentences:

When that threat receeded, spending got lower, but there was a lot of
political resistance to these cuts so they were modest in scope. Once the
deficit crunch alleviated, spending started going up again even though nobody had any particular antagonist in mind.

I'm tempted to ascribe some blame also to the lack of any strong socialist or Marxist tradition in the States, and the consequent colonisation by "liberals" of the space where there should be a "left", but I suspect that would be reading too much into it, since even Dwight Eisenhower could probably have put Mat straight. But I'll get on that particular hobby-horse at a later date.

UPDATE: Looking at this post again I'm a little concerned that its title may be a bit hackneyed. Is "it's the x, stupid!", like "x-gate" (as in affixing "-gate" to every new scandal), so terribly old as to provoke groans? Also, the use of exclamation marks always makes me somewhat uncomfortable, though I think it appropriate in this case.

Just saying.


More thoughts on capitalism - state intervention

In comments to my "reasons to be socialist" post, Chris Young asked:

By "capitalism" how broad a set of alternatives do you mean to mark out. I mean, wow, a lot of things go by that name, including versions that involve quite a bit of state intervention in order to help the market function more smoothly, often with the explicit goal of improving human lives, rather than improving profit. Since all modern economies seem to be managed to a greater or lesser extent with these goals, at least officially, this should make some difference, no?

Oh it makes a tremendous difference. Unsurprisingly, I find the Swedish, or even the French (unemployment and all) socio-economic model very much preferable to that of, say, the US. I suppose I should say that there is no such thing as an exclusively capitalist economy. The Keynesian/welfare state means that every economy now has a capitalist ("private") sector and a non-capitalist (state) sector - as well as what might be called the "social" sector, wherein all sorts of goods and services are provided by neither the state nor profit-seekers.

Nevertheless, any state intervention that merely, as Chris says himself, "manages" the capitalist economy will not escape from the logic of capitalism as I have described it. It can to some degree "harness" the capitalist economy in order to direct it towards human needs. But I contend that the state remains caught in capitalism's logic - partly because of the power of capitalists in society, more fundamentally because the state remains dependent on the succesful operation of the the private economy for its own fiscal resources.

In fact Keynesian/welfare state interventionism actually proves my point. I say that in capitalism technological advances will tend to increase unemployment if total levels of production remain static.

I also say that the alternative within a predominantly capitalist economy is to expand production exponentially in order to prevent such unemployment. And this is precisely where the Keynesian state comes in. Following the crisis years from 1929 to 1945, mass unemployment was, for economic and political reasons, unacceptable, thus the state intervened to maintain full employment, effectively displacing the contradictions of the economic system into the political system. Hence, instead of labour-capital clashes in the economic sphere, conflicts over education, health and welfare in the political sphere.

The state, under pressure from working class (and other popular) mobilisation (through the institutions of representitve democracy or otherwise) and in order to solve the collective action problem posed to capitalists by their interest in low wages on the one hand and their need for consumers to buy their goods on the other, sought to guarentee, through various redistributive measures, full employment and some minimal level of equality. But this could be successful only by systematically and exponentially expanding production (and, necessarily, consumption), without which unemployment will tend to increase.
The problem is that the pursuit of economic growth, above, or as a precondition of, all other goals is not without its downside, very obviously in terms of ecology, but also in terms of the construction of a better, more humane and fulfilling society.

If we could construct a democratically controlled economy, thus one that would be oriented towards human needs rather than profit, technological advance could be experienced as the liberation it rightly should be. We could then choose between expanding production (if we felt our material needs were still inadequately sated) and/or reducing, in an equitable manner, the time we spend working (if we wanted extra free time more than we wanted extra expensive shit).

I'm not sure if this has answered your point exactly, Chris, but it has at least allowed me to write more stuff I wanted to. And even if it doesn't convince you through it's argument, I think my use of italics is pretty persuasive.

Sunday, June 11, 2006



I also meant to add that the ecological consequences of capitalism's functional need for permanent "economic growth" may be disastrous, so it's perhaps understandable that they are more often discussed than the anthropological consequences of the system of productionism-consumptionism.

In any case, these seem pretty good reasons to be socialist, i.e. to favour the subordination of the productive system to democratic control of some kind.

So, where is my thinking wrong (as opposed to fuzzy, ill-defined, underargued etc., which it surely is) here?

(I should also point out, lest anyone be misled, that the title of the last post was a reference to the Ian Dury song, not indicitive of previous posts).


Reasons to be socialist, part three

Capitalism is an economic system that is oriented towards profit - not towards the satisfaction of human needs.

So far so platitudinous. Just because capitalism is not designed to satisfy human needs, that does not mean it does not in fact do a reasonable job of doing so. Defenders of capitalism would argue that the pursuit of profit, inadvertently as it were, ends up satisfying human needs. In so far as he saw the bourgoisie as fulfilling some kind of historical mandate to "revolutionise the instruments of production" and thus laying the material foundations for communism and the "abolition of labour", Marx agreed with this in a roundabout kind of way.

But the organising principle of a system clearly matters in terms of what its outcomes are likely to be. (One can make an analogy here with the question of motives and the war in Iraq - just because the war was motivated by, say, a desire to control Middle Eastern oil, does not mean it did not, say, liberate Iraq from the Baath. Nevertheless one would want to have some idea of what the motivations were in order to make any good predictions about what US policy was likely to be and how things were likely to turn out. As a matter of fact I think this is something too often neglected or evaded by left-supporters of the war).

The fact that capitalism is a system oriented towards profit means that the development of labour-saving technology, which in a rational system directed towards the satisfaction of human needs and desires would be experienced as the gradual liberation of humanity from the burdens of material reproduction (as, that is, what Herbert Marcuse called "the pacification of existence") is in fact experienced as unemployment, poverty, social exclusion, degradation.

This much is fairly obvious when you consider the fate of workers made redundant (in more ways than one) by machines - the Luddites being perhaps the classic case. Since technological innovations (i.e. the "instruments of production") are in the hands of profit-seekers, since the criterion for their use is profit and not human needs and desires, they are used not to shorten the working day for all workers but to lay off some so as not to have to pay their wages.

Of course, one alternative, within capitalism, to technological advances being used to replace wage-labourers, is using them to expand production.

There is thus an inbuilt tendency towards incessantly expanding production in capitalism - even beyond human material needs and desires (or at least autonomously determined desires, to get a bit Marcusean again). This is because the alternatives are this: 1) static production (in which case technological advance will allow capitalists to produce the same amount with less wage-labour - thus structural mass unemployment, poverty etc.) or 2) constant expansion of production regardless of human needs (since the same amount of labour will produce ever more as technological advances increase productivity).

Thus the alternative to the "immiseration of the masses" is permanent expansion of production. Thus the imperative of "economic growth". Of course expanded production can only be maintained with expanded consumption - hence the manipulation of desires is a functional necessity of the system, hence the expansion of commercial propaganda i.e. advertising. There may be anthropological consequences to this system of productionism-consumptionism. More ususally discussed, though not in quite this analytical context, are the ecological consequences.


I wouldn't mind synthesizing her

I mentioned the question of middle class guilt playing a role in Marx's conversion to revolution.

Francis Wheen's biography certainly indicates that Marx always remained very concerned with middle class repectibility. Loyal fans of DC may remember being directed towards a comments section where I compared hiring a maid to, ahem, "employing" a whore. There, my antagonist asked "Do Socialists and/or Marxists not employ maids?".

He could have scored a very nice rhetorical point if he'd only known, as I did not, that Marx himself did indeed have a maid, despite his sometimes dire penury (only offset by subventions from Engels, themselves coming out of the surplus value expropriated out of the workers in Engels' cotton factory in Manchester - it sort of sounds like I'm taking the piss here but I'm not). Apparently he was partly motivated by a certain "status anxiety". Not only this, but in a typically dialectical manoeuvre he may even have "synthesized" my maid-prostitute parallel by putting a bun in "the help's" oven - just to be clear, I mean by impregnating her. (I think there's an article by Terrell Carver floating around contesting Wheen's claim.)


Middle class guilt

"All that metaphysical shite" also gave the impression that I'm ridden with middle class guilt, which, again, is true.

Middle class guilt is an interesting category. Just as interesting is the derision it usually connotes - middle class guilt is usually seen as somewhat pathetic, isn't it? I'm not quite sure exactly what the implication is - presumably either a) the middle class are not unjustly privileged, or, if they are, ought not to worry too much about that, or b) the middle class are unjustly privileged but feeling guilty doesn't do anything to advance justice.

Well, instead of guilt let's talk about shame.

I was fascinated to learn recently that Marx had described shame as a revolutionary emotion. (Has anybody investigated whether Marx was driven by his own middle class guilt?) I learned this from Sartre's notorious/celebrated preface to Frantz Fanon's Les damnés de la terre. Although the preface is in some respects rather rancid stuff, legitimising anti-European terrorism - since all Europeans were complicit in, or beneficiaries of, colonialism (and even those imprisoned for resisting their government's imperialism were "simply choosing to pull your irons out of the fire") - it works as a primal scream against injustice, born out of anger and, yes, shame. (I am reminded of Dylan's stunning 1963 song Masters of War).

Anger and shame - yes, that's precisely right. Or maybe: guilt, then shame, then anger. Sartre refers to Marx describing shame as a revolutionary sentiment. He must be refering to his 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge. Marx says that the despotic government of Germany ought to cause Germans

to hide our faces in shame. I can see you smile and say: what good will that do? Revolutions are not made by shame. And my answer is that shame is a revolution in itself; it really is the victory of the French Revolution over that German patriotism which defeated it in 1813. Shame is a kind of anger turned in on itself. And if a whole nation were to feel ashamed it would be like a lion recoiling in order to spring.

Shame: "an anger turned in on itself" and thus "a revolution in itself".


Moving on

Phew, glad to have gotten all that metaphysical shite off the top of the blog. Rather gave the impression, I think, that it had been all about me venting my existential strife.

Which it is, of course, but I don't want people to know.


The Official Blogpost of the 2006 World Cup

Good to see the Yanks taking an interest. Especially since one of them is co-editor of The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone whose life will, like mine, be centred on events in Germany* for the next month or so. (It has little enough to do with football as such, by the way - the book, I mean, not the World Cup, which does - and is a superb resource for info and insight into countries you know nothing about but have suddenly developed a football-inspired fascination with.)

Can't say I agree with him that the US will knock out the Eye-Talians in the group stage, but watch this space, as they say, or in fact your television.

*At the risk of going all Basil Fawlty here, the expression "events in Germany" makes me feel like a 1930s editorial writer. I should also say that I'm grimly tickled by the fact that Iran's first game is in Nuremburg.

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