Friday, June 19, 2009

A Straight Forward Choice

It doesn't get much more straight forward than this. Either you side with those struggling against an oppressive state, facing down armed thugs and paramilitaries on the streets - those being beaten, intimidated, threatened and shot - or you side with oppression. You don't need to support the apparent 'leaders' of the movement - in fact you can find them quite repulsive - and you don't need to have any illusions about their democratic credentials. What matters is that a genuine popular movement against a repressive state is sweeping through Iran and that it brings with it the promise of real democratic gains and the extension of liberty. Movements like this develop a dynamic of their own - and one that it is often difficult for its fundamentally conservative leaders to contain. It is clear that a wide range of political and social forces are throwing their weight behind the anti-government demonstrations including the Iranian Left and other progressive forces.

This movement, and right now only this movement, can smash the most reactionary aspects of the Iranian state regime - the legally embedded misogyny, the murderous homophobia, the stonings, the hangings, the execution of children, the repression of trade unions, the incarceration of political prisoners. With (a lot of) luck it may even go further than this - this sort of struggle can take people beyond liberal demands into a much more radical consciousness very quickly.

It's deeply depressing then to see sections of the British Left equivocating and fence-sitting in relation to the anti Ahmadinejad demonstrations - refusing to take sides (although I suspect that this refusal often masks - very thinly - a preference for Ahmadinejad). Worse still, some individuals have come out openly in support of Ahmadinejad and the reactionary regime he heads. Galloway for example - who surely now shouldn't be touched with a ten foot pole.

It's clear that this is shaping up to be a watershed moment for the UK Left and one that could have very liberating effects - whatever the outcome in Iran. It looks to me like a lot of the more noxious baggage gathered over the past few years can now be, and must be, dumped and some basic principles reaffirmed. We can ditch the apologetics, the theoretical acrobatics and the bad conscience. We can start to breathe freely again.

Some socialists have chosen the wrong side - or at best, refuse to choose the right side. This is simply the logical outcome of some of the bad politics of recent years - some became so thoroughly immersed in it that they drowned. But they are clearly in a minority. Thank god.

Robert Fisk in the Independent

Robert Fisk again

Azar Sheibani in Red Pepper

Peter Tatchell in Red Pepper

Shourideh Molavi: The Socialist Project

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Shop a Benefit Cheat

New Labour take benefit fraud very seriously. Those who falsely claim benefits are picking the pockets of law-abiding taxpayers. In 2007-08 benefit thieves stole an estimated £800 million from public funds. Shop a benefit cheat here:

(Please note: Barbara Follett, David Miliband, Ben Bradshaw, Peter Mandelson etc are definitely not benefit cheats or anything. Technically, only people who live on council estates are actually benefit cheats - not cabinet ministers or New Labour movers and shakers who are legitimately entitled to milk the parliamentary expenses system. This is simply an expression of the creative, aspirant entrepreneurial and property developing spirit that New Labour values so highly and seeks to encourage more widely amongst the country's talented and ambitious wealth creators (and, especially, amongst those that donate large sums to the Labour Party). So don't report anyone with more than one home because they are not benefit cheats. And anyone who says they are is probably a terrorist).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Human-Shaped Commodity Form

What are these human-shaped ciphers called 'celebrities'? Who, or what, for example, is 'Brad Pitt'? 'Brad Pitt', the celebrity, is totally indistinguishable and inseparable from the various media channels and market relationships through which 'Brad Pitt' circulates and within and through which 'Brad Pitt' acquires, or is invested with, a certain reality. The celebrity individual has no reality outside of the system of circulating symbolic forms which create and reproduce the celebrity entity. There is, presumably, a real, material Brad Pitt out there somewhere who bears some passing physical resemblance to the shiny, air-brushed hyper-real 'Brad Pitt' celebrity - but he is not 'Brad Pitt'. Those who meet famous people often say that they are 'smaller in real life'. There is more to this saying than a simple description of comparative size (the living, human celebrity-symbol referent vs the actual celebrity form that circulates electronically or via the publishing industry). It is an expression of a qualitative difference - the living breathing human you might actually encounter physically is, somehow, less real than the celebrity entity with which this familiar looking human being has, apparently, some vague, but necessary connection.

The celebrity is, of course, a commodity. Like any other commodity, the celebrity must have some basis in material reality - a half-obscured physical referent to which the abstract, symbolic exchange value of the commodity (the aspect of the commodity which gives it its commodity form) must be anchored. The abstract exchange value of the commodity is, in a sense, however, more real than the material object to which the commodity abstraction is attached. The use-value of any commodity under capitalism is, in the end, only of minor, secondary importance. What really matters is that the commodity can be exchanged on the market for money-capital which can then be reinvested in the commodity production process - what matters is the accumulation of the abstract social force known as capital. There is an essential meaningless - a circularity of nothingness - at the heart of capitalism. The point of being a capitalist is to accumulate capital so that you can then accumulate more capital and so on and so on. The use-value, the physical reality, of the stuff to which the exchange value of the capital-bearing/representing commodity is linked is of no importance - or, at least, is important only inasfar as it assists or hinders the valorisation, and hence the accumulation, of the capital abstraction. Capital, in fact, almost seems ashamed of, or disgusted by, the mundane physical reality of objects to which it is umbilically bound. It constantly seeks to escape from it, to shed the material vehicles through which it passes and which bear it at certain stages in its circulation, but it can never in the end become pure abstraction.

The point of a celebrity - the function of 'Brad Pitt' - is to act as a vehicle assisting the circulation and accumulation of capital. The point of a celebrity is to sell (or provide a selling point) for magazines, films, cosmetics or any other saleable thing so that the surplus can be reinvested in the selling of further magazines, films or cosmetics (via the celebrity form). The physical reality of Brad Pitt the human is, for 'Brad Pitt', merely a slightly irritating and embarrassing thing that, unfortunately, always seems to tag along like an annoying little brother following its older, teenaged sibling - it would be done away with entirely if it were possible to do so. But capital must always have some basis in the mundane, dreary world of the real.

The celebrity commodity continually seeks to break loose from the material human being to which it is attached. It wants little to do with it. It is embarrassed by it and seeks to obscure it. The celebrity commodity is variously airbrushed, electronically tweaked, stylised and abstracted in an attempt to escape the breathing, sweating, farting being that carries it - the lumbering, oafish thing that transports the celebrity commodity from photo-shoot to film premier. But the problem for the spectral celebrity commodity is that it is necessarily intertwined with the biological being above and around which it hovers - 'Brad Pitt' needs Brad Pitt to survive.

The celebrity commodity has a peculiar physicality. It is the physical human form of the celebrity that provides it with its saleabilty and with market differentiation. To be sure, this is differentiation within a strictly limiting set of boundaries - all celebrity commodities must look roughly similar in order to circulate efficiently within the system of celebrity commodities (it should be easy to swap one 'Angelina Jolie' for one 'Nicole Kidman' on the front cover of Elle or Heat or to substitute one 'Brad Pitt' for one 'Matt Damon' as the leading actor in a film without very much friction and their broadly similar appearances assist in this process) - but they must also be sufficiently different that consumers may, on occasion, choose between them in the market. It is the physical appearance of the celebrity commodity which provides it with a brand recognition factor. This tragic reality - the utter reliance of the celebrity commodity on the fleshy creature it abhors - is transformed into a rage against that animal being. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are starved, injected, pumped, moulded, carved and beaten - the reproduction and improvement of 'Brad Pitt' and 'Angelina Jolie' involves a regime of violence against the material beings that always accompany them. The exaggerated physicality of the celebrity - the image that slavering Heat editors (in their radically cynical, anti-human activity) pore over for evidence of cellulite or acne - is accompanied by the constant reshaping and remaking of that physical form so that its appearance becomes more and more unreal, more and more symbolic and as close to the unreal image of the celebrity commodity that it is possible to get a human body.

The celebrity, then, is a bundle of paradoxes. It has no function other than as an appendage to the process of capital accumulation and no meaning or significance other than as a vehicle for capital at a certain stage in its circulation - and yet, celebrities are also the focus of wish-fulfilment and projection on the part of great swathes of the population. They are invested with all kinds of concentrated, intensified meanings and significances on the part of the voyeuristic-oppressed consumers of the celebrity commodity and yet in order to function properly they must function without meaning other than the circular, sui generis logic of accumulation for accumulation's sake. The celebrity seeks to escape from the human being that bears it but cannot since it is essentially parasitical on a living person without which it cannot survive - and, more than this, is, in a more fundamental sense, deeply reliant on the physicality of the human bearer that provides the celebrity with the basis of the image-shape necessary for market exchange and circulation. Because of this, and because the physical attributes of the human bearer cannot be totally obscured or re-represented (through a process of air-brushing, computerised retouching and reshaping etc) in the various media manifestations of the celebrity commodity, the human bearer must be subjected to a regime of violent, physical punishment and brutal remoulding through botox injections, liposuction, surgery and starvation diets. The physical dismemberment and reconstruction of the physical form of the human bearer is a necessary part of the celebrity commodity's continual attempt to transcend and escape the material being that carries it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Spot of Shoegazing

Lush: Superblast (1992)

Curve: Clipped (1991)


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Harry Shutt: a Crisis of Overaccumulation

There are some really good articles in the Economics section in Red Pepper right now including one (about which I might blog another time) by Stuart Holland, the architect of Labour's left-wing 'Alternative Economic Strategy' in the 1970s and 1980s . As far as I can tell this is the first time Holland has surfaced in the UK since about 1985 which is interesting. Might there be some return of the AES (or some neo-AES) in the offing? Suddenly the idea of total nationalisation of the financial sector (which is still very much on the cards) and the nationalisation and socialisation of the 'commanding heights of the economy' under a left-Keynesian, dirigiste programme doesn't seem quite so dated or quite so far beyond the bounds of 'realism' anymore. Strange times. For me, however, the most interesting article is the interview with Harry Shutt . In the course of this interview one of the best and clearest accounts of the crisis in terms of overaccumulation of capital (although this particular description isn't used) is put forward. I'm slightly puzzled by the solutions and alternatives that Shutt puts forward at the end of the article which seem, to me, to be in awkward tension with his emphasis on capitalism's inherent and systemic tendency towards periodic chronic crises. Nevertheless here's the explanation of the crisis:

"In order to understand Shutt’s explanation for the crisis, it is necessary to take a brief detour through Marx. According to Marx, capitalism is a system of accumulation. Profits are made but can’t all be consumed by owners. Extra profits need to be recycled through the market. ‘The only way you can successfully recycle them is to either expand your existing business or diversify into another business,’ says Shutt. ‘It all depends on the ultimate consumer, consuming more and more. It has to grow, growth is built in.’ The problem is that as profits are invested into the market, generating more profits that in turn have to be reinvested, production expands until it reaches a level that can no longer be absorbed by consumers. The market is glutted, and recession results. But the destruction of capital and jobs creates pent up demand for the whole process to begin again in time.

That, in brief, is the business cycle. But Shutt’s argument is that western political leaders have, for years, based their economic strategy on avoiding or limiting the downside of the cycle, a doctrine encapsulated in Gordon Brown’s famous boast of an ‘end to boom and bust’. Credit expansion has been fuelled, household debt recklessly encouraged, state services privatised, financial institutions subsidised and regulations banished all in order to find profitable outlets for a burgeoning ‘wall of money’ generated by the system. A high rate of growth is needed to maintain this process, but can’t be sustained because of the weakness of demand in the economy.

The consequence is that money, frustrated in its search for productive activities to invest in, has turned to speculation. ‘When you get to the point that you can’t actually make profits by producing more stuff – organic growth – profits get recycled into speculation,’ says Shutt. ‘In other words, you start placing bets that certain assets will increase in value.’ And once speculation takes hold, it becomes advantageous to bring even more money into the market, because that pushes up the value of assets. Hence, the ‘leveraging’ by speculators – the borrowing of more and more money to speculate on financial assets.

‘Over the last 30 years you’ve had a progressive postponing of the evil day,’ he says. ‘1974/5 was the first financial crisis since the second world war, then you had the 1987 crash, which was inflated away by pumping lots of money into the banks. Then it was shifted offshore. We’ve had the Mexican crisis, the East Asian crisis and the Russian crisis. The big one was the dotcom bubble eight years ago. And since then, we’ve been building up to this one.’

What the prolonged amassing of this huge surplus of capital cum fraud-driven credit bubble, means, according to Shutt, is the inevitable crash – the inexorable end of the business cycle – is going to be far more severe that it would otherwise have been. ‘I think we are looking at negative growth, for an absolute minimum of two or three years and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s five or ten. That would be a depression,’ he says.

It’s not a cheering prognosis – a protracted downturn of several years with the likely side effects of military conflict and scapegoating of minorities. But Shutt hasn’t finished yet. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, or if there is, it’s very dim. He believes that that this slump will be much more difficult to emerge from than in previous downturns because traditional engines of growth are no longer available to drag us out. Remove debt-fuelled consumption and property speculation from the equation, and you are left with anaemic subsititues such as the internet, the service sector and green technology. The arguments of centre-left Keynesian commentators that the answer lies in re-regulating the financial sector and encouraging consumer spending, ignore the fact, says Shutt, that the demand for capital – the availability of new profitable productive activities to invest in – is in long-term decline, and consumer spending power has been exhausted.

‘It is easy to say that we’ll emerge from the slump eventually, but to quote Keynes, “in the long run we are all dead”,’ he says. ‘In other words there has to be a huge contraction in the meantime and the impact on livelihoods and lives is likely to be intolerable. The fundamental misconception of mainstream commentators is that people can and should be induced to consume more when they’re already ‘maxed out’ on credit. In practice it is right and necessary that they should now be forced to rebuild their personal balance sheets, which means saving rather than spending. Only once they’ve done this, probably after several years will they be able to start spending again. This pinpoints a fundamental weakness of capitalism. In order to function it requires the perpetuation of unsustainable levels of consumption in order to absorb the endlessly expanding stock of capital.’"


Saturday, January 10, 2009

London Gaza Demonstration Pictures

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Rick Wolff on the Economic Crisis

'You can't have real political democracy without economic democracy underpinning it'.

Rick Wolff is a US socialist economist. He's also a passionate and pretty funny speaker. He waves his arms around, he has a winningly dry sense of humour and, best of all, he speaks with a heavy Noo Yawk accent like the wise guys in 'Goodfellas'. Unfortunately the picture quality isn't great and the camera shakes around quite a lot - nevertheless, the sound quality is good and I found it a really entertaining lecture.

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