Sunday, August 26, 2007



I came across this article by Edward Said in Al-Ahram Weekly, written shortly after the September 11th attacks. At the end of the article, most of which is fairly unsurprising stuff, after referring to the beginnings of the development of a constituency of Americans willing to take a more reflective and critical look at US policies in the Middle East, Said says this:

Perhaps this constituency may grow in the United States, but speaking as a Palestinian, I must also hope that a similar constituency should be emerging in the Arab and Muslim world. We must start thinking about ourselves as responsible for the poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, and repression that have come to dominate our societies, evils that we have allowed to grow despite our complaints about Zionism and imperialism. How many of us, for example, have openly and honestly stood up for secular politics and have condemned the use of religion in the Islamic world as roundly and as earnestly as we have denounced the manipulation of Judaism and Christianity in Israel and the West? How many of us have denounced all suicidal missions as immoral and wrong, even though we have suffered the ravages of colonial settlers and inhuman collective punishment? We can no longer hide behind the injustices done to us, anymore than we can passively bewail the American support for our unpopular leaders. A new secular Arab politics must now make itself known, without for a moment condoning or supporting the militancy (it is madness) of people willing to kill indiscriminately. There can be no more ambiguity on that score.

I have been arguing for years that our main weapons as Arabs today are not military but moral, and that one reason why, unlike the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Palestinian struggle for self- determination against Israeli oppression has not caught the world's imagination is that we cannot seem to be clear about our goals and our methods, and we have not stated unambiguously enough that our purpose is coexistence and inclusion, not exclusivism and a return to some idyllic and mythical past. The time has come for us to be forthright and to start immediately to examine, re-examine and reflect on our own policies as so many Americans and Europeans are now doing. We should expect no less of ourselves than we should of others. Would that all people took the time to try to see where our leaders seem to be taking us, and for what reason. Scepticism and re- evaluation are necessities, not luxuries.

Noble sentiments, and a corrective, perhaps, to any perception that Said was one-dimensional in his political outlook when it came to the Middle East.

Friday, August 24, 2007


"Tax and spend"

I know political slogans and attack-phrases are supposed to be meaningless and idiotic, but I've never really understood why "tax and spend" is supposed to carry such pejorative charge. Clearly taxing and spending is the very essence of government, and in so far as politics is a contest for control of the state all politicians, regardless of the level and types of taxing and spending they favour, are going to be intimately involved in the whole activity of forcibly extracting financial resources from people and allocating them to some end or another.

As I say, I'm aware it's naive of me to be puzzled when a widely-used slogan turns out to be intellectually incoherent, but this one has always seemed especially meaningless (and possibly ineffective) when compared even with other examples, such as "soft on crime", that could plausibly be thrown at left-liberal types like myself.


Growing up out of religion

Norm recently quoted Christopher Hitchens' claim that "Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud...looked upon religion as virtually ineradicable..." and rejected it with respect to Marx, on the grounds that he did in fact envisage the "abolition" of religion. The following, from the same lecture quoted in the previous post, would seem to indicate Hitchens was wrong about Freud too:

If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilised individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.
Mind you I haven't finished reading the lecture yet so I'll let you know if he changes his mind before the end.

UPDATE: Nope, he stuck to his guns and Hitchens was doubly wrong.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Of truth and tolerance

It is inadmissible to declare that science is one field of human intellectual activity, and that religion and philosophy are others, at least as valuable, and that science has no business to interfere with the other two, that they all have an equal claim to truth, and that everyone is free to choose whence he shall draw his convictions and in what he shall place his belief. Such an attitude is considered particularly respectable, tolerant, broad-minded and free from narrow prejudices. Unfortunately it is not tenable; it shares all the pernicious qualities of an entirely unscientific Weltanschauung and in practice comes to much the same thing. The bare fact is that truth cannot be tolerant and cannot admit compromise or limitations, that scientific research looks on the whole field of human activity as its own, and must adopt an uncompromisingly critical attitude towards any other power that seeks to usurp any part of its province.
- from Freud's "Philosophy of Life" lecture.


The fruits of self-restraint

I think this, from Henry Farrell, succintly expresses a key point in favour of international law:

Actors that are completely unconstrained are ipso facto not able to give credible commitments to others. This actually limits their effective ability to get things done in a world where there are other important players....This doesn’t mean that states such as the US are always going to obey international law, but it does mean that their compliance or non-compliance doesn’t flow in any simple or obvious way from their narrow self-interest.
On the other hand, while I tend to think the EU has played (and continues to play) a huge part in making war between its member-states "inconceivable" - this by normalising an enforced regime of law among nation-states - an international law-skeptic would nevertheless be justified in countering that war between, say, the US and Canada (or even Mexico) appears not much more conceivable than one between Germany and France.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Things banned by authoritarian regimes down the years - Greek edition

Although one shouldn't really be surprised at the things banned by authoritarian regimes down the years, and certainly not at the banning of works of literature, it is nevertheless somewhat, well, surprising to discover that the Greek military junta banned...Sophocles.

Also banned, and to varying degrees of surprise: Euripides, Aristophanes, short skirts, long hair, Russian, Bulgarian and sociology.

This is learned from Tony Judt's Postwar, which doesn't mention Anthony Summers' claim that the Greek generals won support from the US admninistration by funding the Nixon-Agnew re-election campaign to the tune of something like a million 1972 dollars (one possible motiavation behind the Watergate break-in). You can read a succinct review of Summers' The Arrogance of Power; The Secret World of Richard Nixon by Christopher Hitchens here.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Ne me quitte pas


In Stahlgewittern

...I felt a piercing jolt in the chest - as though I had been hit like a gamebird. With a sharp cry that seemed to cost me all the air I had, I spun on my axis and crashed to the ground.

It had got me at last. At the same time as feeling I had been hit, I felt the bullet taking away my life. I had felt Death's hand once before, on the road at Mory - but this time his grip was firmer and more determined. As I came down heavily on the bottom of the trench, I was convinced it was all over. Strangely that moment is one of the very few in my life of which I am able to say they were utterly happy. I understood, as in a flash of lightening, the true inner purpose and form of my life. I felt surprise and disbelief that it was to end there and then, but this surprise had something untroubled and almost merry about it. Then I heard the firing grow less, as if I were a stone sinking under the surface of some turbulent water. Where I was going, there was neither war nor enmity.

- from Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel (trans. Michael Hoffman), pp. 281 - 282.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


Working against the clampdown

A propos of which (and via) is another piece in the theme of work: Bob Black's Abolition of Work (1985).

This is a solid point:

Let's pretend for a moment that work doesn't turn people into stultified submissives. Let's pretend, in defiance of any plausible psychology and the ideology of its boosters, that it has no effect on the formation of character. And let's pretend that work isn't as boring and tiring and humiliating as we all know it really is. Even then, work would still make a mockery of all humanistic and democratic aspirations, just because it usurps so much of our time.... Because of work, no matter what we do we keep looking at our watches. The only thing "free" about so-called free time is that it doesn't cost the boss anything. Free time is mostly devoted to getting ready for work, going to work, returning from work, and recovering from work.
I also like this passing comment:

Like most social and political theory, the story Hobbes and his successors told was really unacknowledged autobiography.

This one, referring to the serious question of work-related death but, for me, cringe-makingly insensitive, I like less:

People think the Cambodians were crazy for exterminating themselves, but are we any different? The Pol Pot regime at least had a vision, however blurred, of any egalitarian society. We kill people in the six-figure range (at least) in order to sell Big Macs and Cadillacs to the survivors.*
But the next quote touches on a thought I've had before - to what extent is there a systemic need or tendency to create purposeless work - work that only functions as a Sisyphean burden to keep us busy and cut subversion of power hierarchies off at the pass? Black:

Forty percent of the workforce are white-collar workers, most of whom have some of the most tedious and idiotic jobs ever concocted. Entire industries, insurance and banking and real estate for instance, consist of nothing but useless paper-shuffling. It is no accident that the "tertiary sector," the service sector, is growing while the "secondary sector" (industry) stagnates and the "primary sector" (agriculture) nearly disappears. Because work is unnecessary except to those whose power it secures, workers are shifted from relatively useful to relatively useless occupations as a measure to assure public order.
And finally, one has to admire this (half-serious?) proposition:

Small children who notoriously relish wallowing in filth could be organized in "Little Hordes" to clean toilets and empty the garbage, with medals awarded to the outstanding.

*Likewise a further reference by Black to schools as "concentration camps" is, at the risk of bourgois conformism, less than satisfactory...


Feed the beast

So I've done one of these things now.

Monday, August 06, 2007



Leaving aside gratuitous antisemitism, Paul Lafargue's The Right to be Lazy is an enjoyable polemic ("a masterpiece of studied contempt" in the apt words of Dave Renton) which advocated, in 1880, a three-hour day, with the rest of our time to be spent "resting and banqueting" (although there would presumably be some time for hunting, fishing and criticism as well).

It is brought to mind by Anders Hayden's interesting account (PDF) of the 35-hour week introduced in France nearly ten years ago. Hayden suggests that, contrary to what Anglo-Saxon and French neo-liberals alike (not to mention less ideological but amply lazy media observers) would have you believe, the timidly implemented Working Time Reduction probably created about 350,000 jobs over a three or four year period, besides bringing significant "quality of life" improvements to a majority of workers, in particular mothers of young children.

Hayden's analysis does, on the other hand, support a point made here by Yglesias, which is that the better-off are of course in a better position to enjoy time-off than poorer workers - not just in terms of having money to spend on foreign trips etc., but also in having greater leverage to negotiate the structure of their time-off (it makes a big difference if your reduced working time comes in the form of a last-minute phone-call from the boss saying "we don't need you next week", just as likely to become a last-minute call the following week saying "we need you to work double shifts next week"). The innumerable variety of non-financial resources accumulated over a life of relative advantage also increase the relative value of time-off for the better-off.

Thus the 35-hour week, and the implicit value-choice it made, prioritising increased free time over increased income, is clearly likely to please post-materialist types like me more than low-income workers - but only in so far as it is implemented in the manner of a transfer of wage-income from the already employed (through wage-moderation) to those who get jobs because of it and not in the manner of a transfer from capital to labour. If the latter approach were taken (as it wasn't in France) there's no reason why working time reduction couldn't be a straightforward distributive and quality-of-life gain all round (for workers at least). All the more so given the dynamic fiscal, labour market and consumption effects of increased employment and decreased unemployment.

Coincidentally, although it was Hayden's article that reminded me of Lafargue's, Dave Renton's commentary on the latter brought me full circle:

Among Paul Lafargue's surprising admirers can be counted the [then, i.e. Socialist] current French government. In 1999 Lionel Jospin's socialists passed a new law introducing the 35-hour week. French workers already benefit from five week's paid holiday, two month's summer vacation, and a range of public holidays to make their confreres in Britain and America weep. Indeed Jospin has dropped his own hints suggesting the influence of Paul Lafargue on the new law.

And then:

it seems to me that Paul Lafargue's notion of a work-less future provides a compelling vision of the alternative society that most labour movement activists would actually like to bring about. Indeed I suspect that his utopia would be compelling to much wider layers of people, even than that.

Me too. And one last quote:

Each year seems to bring new advances in labour-saving technology, but the working week never shortens - not for Spanish-speaking workers who are now challenging African-Americans to take on the roles of labourer, driver and cleaner for white urban America; not in Russia, where life expectancy has fallen over the past fifteen years; not in France where unemployment remains at 10 per cent; and not in Britain where the gap between rich and poor has hardly narrowed in the 100 years since statistics were first collected.

It's quite a mystery really when you think about it, isn't it? Anyway read Hayden if you're interested in the details of France's 35-hour week

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?