Monday, October 18, 2004

The Special Relationship

I had to link to this. Last week Guardian readers were asked to write to voters in Ohio with their views on the US Presidential candidates. Some of the replies are now up on the website, here. It's very, very funny. My favourite is:



Another respondant writes:

" ...stay out of American electoral politics. Unless you would like a company of US Navy Seals - Republican to a man - to descend upon the offices of the Guardian, bag the lot of you, and transport you to Guantanamo Bay, where you can share quarters with some lonely Taliban shepherd boys"


Sunday, October 17, 2004

Walt Brown for President!

Forget all that Nader stuff. Here's the bloke I'm rooting for in November - Walt Brown, Socialist Party candidate. I'm sure he'll coast it.

I've had a soft spot for the Socialist Party USA for a few years now. Have a look at their site, it's quite interesting. The Party was founded in 1901 when Eugene Debs' Social Democratic Party merged with a faction which had broken from Daniel De Leon's Socialist Labour Party (which is still going). The SP-USA's website has detailed information about the history of the party which is actually very illuminating about the history of the US Left as whole. In addition to Debs and De Leon, famous figures such as John Reed and Max Schactman had roles to play in the party's development. Unlike the Democratic Socialists of America ( a party founded by the Schactmanite, Michael Harrington, after he and his supporters split from the SP-USA in 1973) the SP-USA continue to organise separately from the Democratic Party.

Incidentally, Historical Materialism recently devoted an issue to the question of why a powerful socialist/labour movement did not emerge in the US in the 19th/20th Century. Very interesting.

Saturday, October 16, 2004


Dr Aleida Guevara, daughter of that Che bloke, put in an appearance on The Guardian online yesterday and had a lot of interesting things to say. Surprisingly enough the online 'chat site' wasn't immediately filled with posters from Miami or Alabama lining up to scream 'commie' at her and the posts seem to have been mostly civil and appreciative. There's a kind of summary, here, of the main points made by Dr Guevara. The most interesting things Dr Guevara had to say concerned the use and misuse today of Che's iconic image (that photo) and the place of violence in modern day political struggle.

Unsurprisingly Aleida Guevara is not very impressed that Che's image has been used to flog consumer goods. She does not, though, have a problem with the use of Che's image in situations where it could 'serve as inspiration' for people today. The astounding ability of consumer capitalism to gobble up imagery from the most unlikely places - the use of Che's image for marketing campaigns for Vodka (and that awful Madonna album) being just one example of this - has been analysed to death by various cultural critics. Che's image has been turned into a symbol which signifies, simply, some kind of unspecified, generalised idea of rebellion. The original political significance of that image of Che (inasfar as we can say that the image itself had an original political significance - but you know what I mean; the image represents Che, socialist revolutionary and guerilla fighter) has been emptied out and neutralised. In its place we have an unthreatening shell, hollowed out of specific political significance, and made safe for marketing and advertising purposes. Furthermore, the effect of the capitalist appropriation of Che's image has spread beyond marketing so that the image of Che anywhere, not just in marketing campaigns has been largely hollowed out of meaning.

However, Aleida Guevara's comments rightly suggest that despite the 'banalisation' (that's my word, I've copyrighted it) and de-politicisation of the figure of Che, the political significance of the image has not been obliterated and will never be completely lost. To many people that image of Che still does represent something inspirational (and I write as someone who wears a Che badge on my bag - a small, tasteful and discreet one you understand) and can still, deployed in the right context, serve as a highly effective symbolic weapon in the Left's imagery armoury. As long as we can be clear about what the image of Che means and attempt to convey this to people the image is still something to cling to. Even, the seeming ubiquity of the image in marketing campaigns is not wholly to be regretted - the symbol of Che still retains, at the least, a latent political significance which cannot be wholly expunged from any particular appearance of the image and. The more people see of him the more likely it is that at least some will ask who he was and seek to go beyond the generalised, non-specific idea of rebelliousness the image is employed to suggest, to find out what the real Che stood for and what he did.

The second most interesting thing Aleida Guevara had to say concerns political violence. She points towards Chile and Venezuela, reminding us that at some point, if we want to change society in a socialist direction, we will run up against the organised (and probably ruthless) hostility of the ruling class. I was going to add more here, but I'm planning a blogpost on violence, repression, terror and morality for a later date.

Anyone interested in Che will find this New Left Review article on Che in the Congo a good read. Che comes out of it very well. The lasting impression I got from the article was of a dignified and highly moral man deeply disillusioned over, and upset by, the corruption of Congolese guerilla 'leaders' such as Kabilla (who seem to have spent most of their time living the high life outside of Congo, visiting brothels and drinking themselves stupid) but who, nevertheless, refused to give up on the struggle he had committed himself to in the Congo until it was absolutely the only option. Interestingly, the article suggests that Guevara may have suffered some form of mental breakdown after the severe strain of the Congo campaign.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Grand Hotel Abyss

Here's is a quick plug for Grand Hotel Abyss - a new blog created by 'Mahagonny'. It's well worth a look. Mahagonny's a Marxist with particular interest in Adorno and Hegel. You may have seen him pop up on various blogs before. In particular, there's an interesting post on Marxism, liberalism and the language of rights.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Iraq's Horror

There's a very upsetting article in today's Independent about the uncovering of a mass grave in Iraq. Investigators have been unearthing a mass grave in northern Iraq, and have so far removed 120 bodies from the grave which may contain as many as 300 corpses. The Indie reports that the victims are believed to be Kurds murdered on Saddam's orders in 1987 and 1988. The evil brutality that must have occurred at the hands of Saddam's henchmen is brought home with a shocking description of two of the corpses - the Independent reports that, amongst the bodies, "excavators found the body of a mother still clutching her baby. The infant was shot in the back of the head and the other in the face."

You have to wonder what kind of human being could shoot a baby in the back of the head and its mother in the face. It's no surprise, however, that such evil took place under Saddam's regime.

I have to admit that every time the atrocities that took place under Saddam are described it shakes me, and I find myself having to re-evaluate my opposition to the war. It's not an easy evaluation to make - and I'm immediately suspicious of anyone who says that they've never even for a minute wavered over the issue.

However, there are some things that I need to remind myself of after reading this article. Firstly, it is wrong to regard what happened in Iraq as some sort of totally 'home-grown' and self-contained evil, which can be understood without giving consideration to the global political context in which all nation states operate. The evil of Saddam's regime did not take place in some kind of vacuum. It is all too easy for apologists for the war to present a picture of the Iraqi regime in terms of some inexplicable, radical evil which can be isolated from the rest of the world in terms of origins and counterposed like some kind of self-contained entity to its political opposite - the good, democratic West. In reality the West had everything to do with the existence of Saddam's regime.

The US's support (along with other Western countries) for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war is well known. From 1982 the US "actively supported Iraq, supplying billions of dollars of credits, US military intelligence and advice, and ensuring that necessary weaponry got to Iraq." (see here for source). Export of military-use equipment and the provision of financial backing for Iraq continued througout the 1980s. Much of this equipment was for use in so called 'WMD' production. In 1985 Reagan "approved the export to Iraq of biological cultures that are precursors to bioweapons: anthrax, botulism, etc" There were "over 70 shipments of such cultures between 1985-1988". In 1988, the US voted against a UN Security Council statement condemning Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja (an act of mass murder much referred to by Blair and Bush while drumming up support for the war). In addition, it's widely believed that the Iraqi regime at least thought that the US had given it the nod to go ahead and annex Kuwait in 1990. It would have been an extremely reckless act for Iraq to go against the wishes of its US backer knowingly and deliberately.

Remember, then, that in 1987-1988 when the horrific murder of this mother and child whose bodies were found in a mass grave took place, the US (and other liberal democratic states) were supporters of the Saddam regime. I am not arguing that there is moral equivalence between the thugs who pulled the trigger on the victims in the mass grave on the one hand and Western leaders on the other. However it is surely the case that some degree of responsibility for these people's horrific deaths lies with the financial, economic, political and military backers of the Iraqi state. They knew what Saddam was doing and, at the very least, turned a blind eye.

Confronted with such facts some supporters of the war claim that 'that was then, this is now'. They argue that while the West may have been in some way complicit in Saddam's evil in the past, a line should be drawn under the whole affair - the present day governments of the US and the UK are a different bunch of people and acted on humanitarian motives long overdue, when they invaded Iraq. Apart from being factually untrue in terms of the 'different people in charge now' argument (Donald Rumsfeld anyone?), it is beyond naive to imagine that the military actions of the US and UK were driven by anything than the same realpolitik that drove them to back Saddam in the 1980s. If you really believe that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by humanitarian concerns then I can only look at you in disbelief. The invasion of Iraq was driven by the same amoral, hard-nosed concerns (which leave little room for niceities like concern for human suffering - or, at least relegate these concerns to a position of secondary, very minor significance) that drove the great powers to arm Saddam in the first place. It's simply more of the same.

If you want to break the circle of human suffering and realpolitik then you cannot support this war. Flying into the arms of Western imperialism dressed up as 'humanitarianism' merely lends further support to the beneficiaries and string-pullers of the ghastly political system, which in a previous guise exported 'crop duster' equipment and chemical weapons components to Saddam and which will do similar things again, should it be in the interests of the powerful to do so. It's the same old system - the same old political cynicism - just with a different mask.

So, going back to those bodies in the mass grave - what are we to make of it? Of course, Saddam's regime was unspeakably evil and the people directly responsible for the killing should be strung up by their heels. Should we, in the light of such unimaginable horror as the deliberate shooting of a baby in the back of the head, have supported the war? It's a difficult decision to make, but I think we were right to oppose it. For one thing the bastards who killed this baby amongst thousands of other innocents would not have been in power were it not for the good 'democrats' and 'humanitarians' in Washington and Whitehall. For another, we cannot reasonably expect the ex-backers of Saddam to sort out all the horror while acting on the same cynical political and economic motives that drove them to export arms to him (and which continue to drive them to support repressive governments like that of Colombia for example to this very day) in the first place. The circle keeps going round and round.


I've linked to two more sites today - Reasons to be Impossible and Counago and Spaves. This is mainly because these two sites have linked to me and said nice things etc. This does seem rather mercenary I admit. There must be some etiquette about linking to others - if anyone knows what well-brought up bloggers do in terms of linking please let me know.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Monthly Review

Unfortunately, I've not had time to write a detailed blogpost in the past couple of days and I don't today either. So instead, I'll just point towards a few articles on the current internet edition of Monthly Review . This US-based Marxist journal is always worth a look, is highly readable, and each edition usually contains a couple of absolute gems. In some ways the politics of MR are not quite to my liking. The journal (or at least the views of some key commentators) tends towards 'Guevara-ist', perhaps even Maoist views in its position on Third World 'liberation movements' and seems to have more faith in the ability of peasant/non-proletarian movements to fight for socialist change than perhaps it should. Indeed the Journal is highly sympathetic towards Cuba and it sometimes displays a (fiercely critical) sympathy for China (or at least for the aims and revolutionary practices of Maoist China). I don't have any sympathy at all for authoriatarian China and the position of some MR contributors on China, I think, are completely wrong and, indeed, damage the credibility of the journal. I'm a lot less hostile towards Cuba, which although far from a democratic socialist state, has done remarkably well for an isolated, economically backward and poor Carribean Island. No-one could expect an island like Cuba to build socialism on its own. Nevertheless, I think MR should be a lot more critical of the shortcomings of Cuba which are plain to see.

The current edition of MR contains a fascinating overview of the life and work of the socialist economist Paul Sweezy (a founder of the journal) who died earlier this year. There's also a detailed analysis of the aims driving the US war on Iraq and an account of the way in which the US ruling class and its overseas allies attempted to obscure the grubby motives behind the war. Perhaps the comrades at Socialists for the New American Century might learn something from this (though I doubt it).

Finally, there's a well-written and thorough (though perhaps rather pedestrian) restatement of the need for, and possibility of, socialist transformation. This article runs through all the familiar shortcomings, failures and inadequacies of capitalism, before showing that the organised urban proletariat remains the only class capable of bringing down this unstable, unjust and inefficient politico-economic system and building socialism in its place. As you might imagine the views of modern day ultra-leftists such Hardt and Negri are given short shrift here.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Society of the Spectacle

Is there any better representative of the crass, moronic stupidity of 21st century consumer capitalist culture than Heat Magazine? Probably not. We exist ( I was about to say 'live') in a culture of celebrity, advertising, image and artifice. It's a culture in which passive consumers shell out for glossy, undemanding magazines so that they can gawp at pictures of plastic, semi-fictitious creations called 'celebrities' doing not very much - going to the shops, pushing a pram, drinking in a cafe, kissing a boyfriend. It's experiencing the world at a distance - contemplating the 'lives' of celebrity super-commodities who live for us. The 21st century consumer never has to engage with the world himself/ herself because he/she is presented with a ready-made commodified simulation of life which can be consumed in bite-size easy-to-digest chunks through the pages of glossy magazines or by watching Big Brother. Guy Debord's claim that modern capitalist society has become a world of 'spectacle' was never more true than today.

Debord and the Situationists argued that the alienation fundamental to the capitalist mode of production had permeated all areas of social existence. Marx and Engels, of course, first developed the idea of alienation and commodity fetishism under capitalism. Marx and Engels showed that production under capitalism was performed not to satisfy immediate human need but in order to produce commodities to exchange on the market. The worker is alienated from his/her products, alienated from the activity of producing, alienated from his/her own self. Furthermore, under capitalism relations between people assume the form of relations between things. Under market exchange relationships produced goods appear to possess intrinsic mystical properties and seem to become autonomous powers in themselves. The work process and the workers themselves feel that they are dominated by the goods they produce rather than feeling themselves the master over the things that they have created.

Whereas Marx tended to confine commodity fetishism and the experience of alienation to the workplace, the Situationists argued that these things under modern capitalism had now permeated all society - throughout all aspects of human existence. The commodity form has conquered all aspects of human life. As Sadie Plant puts it, 'Leisure, culture, art, information, entertainment, knowledge... and every conceivable aspect of life is reproduced as a commodity: packaged, and sold back to the consumer. Even ways of life are marketed as lifestyles, and careers, opinions, theories, and desires are consumed as surely as bread and jam' (Plant, 1992: 11). The spectacular world was, for Debord, the 'moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life. It is not just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see - commodities are now all there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity' (Debord, 1990: 42). As Plant goes on, (quoting Debord) 'this absolute realisation of commodity relations produces an entirely inverted world, in which everything "that was directly lived has become mere representation", a "dull reflection" of itself' (Plant. 13). Bang on! We don't live under consumer capitalism - we merely consume a commodified representation of life. Our whole existence is defined in terms of the commodities we consume. At the most obvious level, an example of this is that many people's identity seems to be bound up with the clothing labels they wear - they are consituted as people through their choice of brand name and 'brand image' which goes along with it. Think also of the way in which we avidly consume soap operas - we watch prepackaged, thrice weekly 30 minute chunks of simulated social life as a kind of stand in for the social interaction which perhaps we do not experience in our 'real lives' (or which we can not experience so easily and passively - life does not come in 30 minute chunks with easy to follow narrative storylines, beginnings, middles and endings).

But living life through the commodity form is not satisfying and cannot be - indeed it is essential to the system of consumerism that we never are satisfied. The increasingly meaningless and absurd commodities that we are encouraged to consume embody alienated social relations - the act of consumption merely reproduces our alienation as consumers. Commodities are always presented as desirable, glamorous, existing in a glossy, perfect world far removed from the hum-drum reality of our daily lives. In addition, we are encouraged to desire what we see in the commodity system as a whole - indeed individual commodities do not make much sense, or at least lose their glamour, outside of the unreal world of this totality. As Plant comments, 'it is the spectacle as a whole that is advertised and desired. The lights, the opportunities, the shops, the excitement: the attraction of capitalist societies has always been their glamorous dynamism, the surfeit of commodities and the ubiquity of choice they offer' (Plant, 24). But once we actually get hold of one of these commodities, remove it from the unreal advertised world in which it seems to exist (in juxtaposition with other commodities seeming to embody glamour, happiness and so on) and take it home we are, sooner or later, disappointed. The commodity cannot but fail to realise the promise it seems to offer us in the advertisement or in the shop. Our dissatisfaction with this particular commodity is, however, never translated into dissatisfaction with the commodity system as a whole - new and brighter commodities have appeared to us, encouraging us to try again or to make up for the disappointment of the recently consumed commodity by consuming another. The promised land is unattainable but we keep searching.

In the society of the spectacle even time and space is commodified and converted into intrinsically dissatisfying representation. In the spectacle, 'time is advertised and consumed as free time, time out, time to drink tea, eat chocolate, invest, and retire. Measured quantitavely in units of production and consumption it is spent, wasted and saved'. It is 'sliced into saleable units' (Plant, 28). Time seems to shed its free flowing, dynamic uncontrollable nature and instead becomes a quantifiable 'thing' which we can cut up into chunks, package and sell. Time seems to stop - under consumer capitalism we seem to have arrived at the 'end of history'. Life can never be any different - it is and always will be spectacular. Space is commodified too. Travel is made easier by tourism, but the commodification inherent in tourism and selling holidays, turns all places into equivalent undifferentiated things -'the peculiar characteristics of places are lost in the dissemination of commodity equivalence' (Plant, 28). Plant adds that, 'As the recent development of theme parks, reconstructed villages, architectural pastiche, and the hertitage industry shows, both history and space become objects of contemplation: geographical areas are increasingly places to look at rather than live in, and although it is possible to go anywhere, there is less and less reason to do so.' (Plant, 28).

Within this spectacular world of theme parks, shopping malls, soap operas and Heat magazine all possibility of meaningful engagement and indeed of meaningful living is systematically excluded. For Debord and the Situationists, the Spectacle, however was not unassailable - it was possible for humans to reject the spectacle and to create for themselves an unalienated, uncommodified form existence beyond capitalism - as, indeed the students and workers of May 1968 in Paris attempted.

I like to picture a time when the offices of Heat magazine will be stormed and, like the Reformation iconoclasts smashing idolatrous images in churches, the enemies of the spectacle will smash the spectacular images of consumer capitalism, ripping up and throwing photographs of fallen celebrity-icons from the office windows onto bonfires below, like so much rubbish.

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