Wednesday, December 21, 2005
The reason I dithered was because, while in the deepest, darkest part of Waterstones - the part where nobody goes (the politics and history section) - my attention was grabbed by a little book called 'Introducing Marxism' and I spent about 20 minutes skimming it. It was one of those cartoon books - part of a series on various thinkers and so on. You've probably seen them.
It seemed quite good for the most part - with a section on Western Marxism, the Frankfurt School and (moving via Althusser) finishing up in the realms of post-structuralism and 'Post-Marxism' (ie Laclau). The writer's post-Marxist sympathies were very much in evidence towards the end of the book - but this, in itself, didn't annoy me too much. What annoyed me was the list of ten bullet points which concluded the book. They included 3 rather awful judgements.
Firstly (and I'm quoting from memory here) the author claimed that 'class and class differences were fast dissolving in the contemporary world' - this is just mind-numbingly stupid. Of course, it's what you'd expect from a Laclau, Mouffe, Stedman-Jones fancier - but it just strikes me as obviously wrong if we are working with the Marxian definition of class (which in a book on Marxism you would suppose the author might work with). Class is not discursively constructed (one's particular identity might be, but class as a social category is not). Perhaps I missed it, but as far as I am aware the means of production, distribution and exchange remain privately owned for the most part.
Secondly, the book solemnly announced that experience has taught us that socialist change would have to come through democratic means. Well duh, yes - but what do you mean by 'democracy'? What he means, of course, is 'parliamentary democracy'. Now one can make a perfectly respectable argument (like Bernstein or Kautsky) that socialism must come through liberal constitutional means, but to conflate - as necessarily synonymous - democracy and parliamentary democracy so easily is, it strikes me, rather a school boy error.
Thirdly the book wittered on about pluralism and (I think though I can't be sure) mentioned the term 'cosmopolitan democracy' - all the familiar post-Marxist, postmodernist tosh. For the record I'm all in favour of pluralism and indeed 'cosmopolitan democracy' sounds very very nice and everything but I'd rather be in favour of the elimination of some forms of pluralism - extreme wealth and poverty for example and the abolition of some manifestations of social 'difference' and forms of 'identity'- sayyy... ooohhh... racists, serial killers, drunk drivers, stockbrokers, Jeremy Clarkson.
The pronouncement which really riled me, however, was this one:
'All revolutions turn out bad or they don't happen'.
Well, first of all, what do you mean by revolution? Wasn't the 'Orange Revolution' a revolution? Wasn't the 'Velvet Revolution' a (set of) revolution(s). Wasn't the American war of Independence a revolution? Did they all turn out badly? Or perhaps, the writer is referring to more far reaching social revolutions rather than simple 'political revolutions'? Or perhaps the writer is refering merely to socialist revolutions? It is not made clear. This is sloppy writing. But even then, how many socialist revolutions have there been? Many would argue there has only ever been one. Is it, then, permissable to look at one failed socialist revolution and to make generalisations about all possible socialist revolutions?
Secondly, to concentrate on the second part of the above statement, it seems to me that the writer is, effectively, saying the following:
'Revolutions never happen, except when they do (in which case they turn out badly)'.
Well, fuck me - revolutions never happen except when they do. That's brilliant. That's absolutely brilliant.
Of course, one should only expect such platitudinous bollocks from 'post-Marxists'. Here's a thought, though: when the 'Introducing' series commissions a new version of the book on Marxism, perhaps they should ask.. ohhh, I don't know.... a Marxist to write it?
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Ha ha ha ha ha
'There is growing unease among foreign energy companies based Latin America that they may be forced to become junior partners by a string of left wing governments.'
Owwww, the poor loves.... It's all just so unfair isn't it? Just think, those long suffering oil company CEOs probably won't be able to afford to buy their kids any pressies this Christmas.
'Venezuela has given the world's biggest oil company, ExxonMobil, until the end of this year to enter a joint venture with the state.
Failure to do so will almost certainly result in Exxon losing its oil field concessions in the country.
Venezuela's socialist government has now signed new agreements with almost all foreign petroleum companies.
After months of pressure from left- wing leader Hugo Chavez most foreign oil firms working there have caved in.
They have agreed to hand over a controlling stake of their oil interests to the Venezuelan state.
This means that Venezuela, which has the world's largest petroleum reserves, now calls the shots in what the foreign guests can and cannot do.
In addition, the companies which have signed the new contracts - such as Chevron, BP, Shell and Total - will in future be presented with much higher tax bills by the government.
In the case of Bolivia and the apparent shift to the left there following elections on Sunday, it is possible that the new government will decide to follow Venezuela's example and renegotiate oil and gas contracts with foreign investors.'
Monday, December 19, 2005
Worth A Look
First of all, it looks like Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has won the presidential election in Bolivia. Morales wasn't expected to get an outright victory - but it looks like he has. This could mean big things for Bolivia - there's some doubt about the strength of MAS's determination to turn its radical rhetoric into action, but my feeling is that the positive example of Chavez's Venezuela on the one hand and the disappointment of Lula's Brazil on the other should help guide Morales and his supporters in the right direction.
A very short article in Green Left Weekly sets out the immediate aims of the MAS.
There's an interesting essay on ZNet focusing on the media's treatment of Harold Pinter and John Le Carre. In Pinter's case the media consistently describes the playwright's political statements as 'rants' or evidence of 'adolescent' 'rage' or 'fury'. I suppose this isn't really very surprising - it must be very difficult for high-earning newspaper columnists to work out what on earth there is to get angry about in the world today.
Our earnest, but rather excitable little friend, the squealing boy-wonder, Johann Hari is taken as a case in point by the writers of this article. A few days ago Hari bashed out a rather lazy article about Pinter- no doubt he was in a rush to get back to his bedroom where he was gluing together some new Airfix model fighter-bomber aircraft. The writers quote him and add their own comments:
'Pinter does not deserve the Nobel Prize - The only response to his Nobel rant (and does anyone doubt it will be a rant?) will be a long, long pause.' (Hari, The Independent,December 6, 2005)
It is significant that Hari described Pinter's speech as a "rant" before it had even been delivered - the label exists independently of the work, indeed of the author, in question. To subject power to serious, rational challenge is by definition to "rant". Hari commented:
"Ever since Pinter was a teenager, he has been relentlessly contrarian, kicking out violently against anything that might trigger his rage that day."
This is the standard, Soviet-style assertion that critics of power are afflicted by psychological disorder, with the concocted 'sins' of power randomly selected as a focus for neurotic ire.
The article also includes a link to this rather interesting interview with Pinter in 1999.
Also on ZNet is an article which asks a very good question: remember the Anthrax scare in the US in 2001 - well, it's all gone a bit quiet hasn't it? Why is that?
"The anthrax attacks of 2001 are now so out of memory that it's hard to recall the panic and fear caused by the appearance of those first envelopes, spilling deadly powder and containing threatening letters. But according to a LexisNexis search, between Oct. 4 and Dec. 4, 2001, 389 stories appeared in the New York Times with "anthrax" in the headline. In that same period, 238 such stories appeared in the Washington Post. That's the news equivalent of an unending, high-pitched scream of horror."
And yet, as soon as it became clear that the bio-terrorists were probably not sinister, bearded Middle Easterners and, in fact, had procured their supplies of anthrax from US government facilities, the whole thing quickly dropped from view.
'If, as an editor of a major newspaper, you were to draw a single conclusion from this horrifying episode [the Anthrax attacks - the deaths, the injuries, the near-misses], it might be: Despite what we've heard, the greatest WMD danger to Americans comes not from impoverished Third World or rickety Middle Eastern rogue states, but from the arsenals and weapons labs of the two former Cold War superpowers. But nothing in the media coverage since then has indicated anything of the sort. While, prewar, reporters prowled Iraqi nuclear facilities, wrote major pieces on Iraq's "Dr. Germ," and brought down whole forests of trees in the service of WMD programs at Iraq's Tuwaitha or North Korea's Yongbyan, or on gassed dogs in Afghanistan and the Iranian bomb that also wasn't, the Soviet and American weapons labs, the Soviet and American Dr. Germs, the Ames anthrax strain, and the anthrax killer hardly took out a tree or two.'
Finally - when Santas attack!
'A group of 40 people dressed in Santa Claus outfits, many of them drunk, went on a rampage through Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, robbing stores, assaulting security guards and urinating from highway overpasses'
Jim Jepps has produced a report on Morales' victory at the Socialist Unity Network site.
Monday, December 12, 2005
Franz Ferdinand Are Not That Good Really
I came to this conclusion today, after having given the subject some fair amount of deep and profound thought. I think that Franz Ferdinand are, in fact, distinctly average. Sure they produce some toe tapping, upbeat, jangle pop - it's fine as far as it goes. It's just not that good is it? It's all hype and advertising if you ask me.
I'm going to push the envelope a bit more (yeah, I know, but I like to live on the edge etc) and say that it's appropriate to regard the band as little more than a slightly upmarket Status Quo. The similarities are there. Think about it. Both bands produce the same kind of fundamentally bland, middle of the road pap and deliver it with the same slightly self-satisfied, asinine grin. They're both fundamentally unthreatening - liked (or at least tolerated) by everyone from little boys to OAPs. Moreover, just as for Status Quo, every Ferdinand song sounds the bloody same. In fact, I'll go further (hold on to your seats) and say that every Ferdinand song pretty much sounds the same as every Status Quo song - the same da da doo doo, da da doo doo rhythm ad infinitum*.
Besides there are loads of much much better jangle pop/retro-new wave type bands out there - the wonderful Interpol, Futureheads and Editors for example. None of these bands are particularly ground breaking or original** (Editors are clearly Joy Division inspired), but they do produce music at least 10 times as interesting as Franz Ferdinand's.
Not that it matters of course. I'm just tired of those over-exposed (they get everywhere don't they?) be-suited guitar-pop-by-numbers goons with that perpetual 'don't you just love us' grin on their faces.
Just call me Princeps.***
* That's Latin that.
** I'm not saying that ground breaking or original work is necessarily to be valued more highly than derivative work, I hasten to add. What's the point in the continual search for paradigm breaking music? It's just a kind of fetishism of the new - the pursuit of newness for its own sake. Plus, 'ground-breaking' music is usually unspeakably awful - unlistenable shite.
*** A ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha etc.
Friday, December 09, 2005
A Meme Thingy
So here we go.
Seven Things to do Before I Croak
- Have my own mini-library complete with leather armchair and brandy decanter.
- Visit San Francisco.
- Write at least 1 book (and have it in my library).
- Grow a Zapata moustache.
- Become a rock god.
- Learn to speak French properly.
- Destroy Clarkson. Destroy him utterly.
Seven Things I Cannot do
- Get on a plane without large quantities of valium. I'm a bit like Mr T.
- Go a day without coffee.
- Do the moves to 'YMCA' properly.
- Eat cucumber without a feeling of mild nausea.
- Listen to Robbie Williams' 'Angels' without a feeling of mild nausea.
- Believe in a god. The existence of Clarkson and Williams is sufficient evidence of God's non-existence. Although this also raises problems for the theory of evolution.
Seven Things That Attract me t' Girlfriend
Sorry, I am not doing this bit. It would be yucky and wrong. I do quite like her funny accent, but that's all you're getting.
Seven Things I Say Most Often
- Hang on.
- Sorry, I'm taken.
Seven Books That I Love
- The Great Gatsby.
- Tristram Shandy.
- Phillip Pullman (none of your Harry Potter shite).
- Peter and Jane, Series 3 (Intermediate level).
- Iain Bank's 'Culture' novels.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- See Spot Run.
Seven Movies I Love
- Near Dark (vampires driving around in a camper-van - better than it sounds).
- Fight Club (save us from Swedish furniture).
- Dawn of the Dead (mmmm).
- Withnail and I (as long as you don't watch it with some film-bore banging on about how fucking great it is or, worse, quoting chunks of it).
- How to get Ahead in Advertising.
- Angel Heart (delightfully horrible).
- Police Academy 5 - Assignment: Miami Beach (perhaps the finest film ever made).
Seven People I Want to Join in
If you don't mind, I don't think I'll nominate anyone. If someone with a blog would like to be kicked this meme however, I'll happily oblige.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
The programme is horridly, horridly compelling. If you've not seen it, it's a show in which various 'entrepreneurs'* pitch their ideas to 5 investment financiers. Their aim is to convince one or more of the financiers ('the dragons') to hand over a large amount of dosh (up to 100k) in return for a stake in the business. This being an 'X-Factor', 'Pop-Idol' reality TV age, the panel of dragons ritually humiliate most of the 'entrepreneurs' that come their way - pulling apart their inventions, their 'business plans' and so on.
Why do I like it? I think there are several reasons. Firstly, there is, let's face it and get it out of the way, something horridly watchable about these kinds of confrontational reality TV shows. I don't go out of my way to watch programmes like X-Factor (in fact I think I've only seen about half a show - bow down to my moral purity thou wretches), but I have to admit that if it's on TV when I'm in the room, I'll end up watching it. Anyone who says they really don't like and would never enjoy 'reality TV' is a liar - a fucking liar, I tell you. I think it has something to do with our deeply social nature - we have a natural interest in human interaction, we are curious about other people and the more dramatic these interactions are and, I am tempted to say, the more curious the people involved, the more fascinated we become. I'm not saying that it's necessarily a healthy thing that people are interested in Carol Thatcher's uninhibited farting habits - only that it's understandable.**
There are, however, other attractions which I think I can more easily reconcile with my socialist conscience. The second attraction is that many of the pitched 'business ideas' are really very interesting in themselves. Most of the pitchers*** bring along models, mock-ups, mechanical prototypes and so on and these are quite often highly ingenious things. I think the attraction here, then, is that the pitchers on the show often demonstrate impressive human creativity and imagination - it's fascinating to see what the human mind can think up (even within the very limited conceptual and practical boundaries of 'business projects'). Many of the pitchers have worked away in their back garden shed for hours and hours, producing beautifully designed and intricately fashioned working prototypes of dog poo picker upper machines and so on. I find it quite a heartening testament to human abilities - and remember that these ideas and contraptions have, usually, been produced with little financial input since that is exactly what the inventors are seeking. In other words, human innovation and inventiveness is not necessarily reliant on market incentives - the discipline of the market does not itself generate inventiveness and innovation - more often than not, it simply dictates whether or not the fruits of this inventiveness are developed in to consumer goods.
The third, connected, attraction is, perhaps, that the show helps to confirm some of my lefty antipathy towards market forces and business in general. Time and again the more socially useful innovations - those that you might think in themselves would benefit large numbers of people are roughly dismissed by the dragons, while the ideas and inventions which succeed in attracting investment are usually relatively pointless ones in the bigger scheme of things. What matters, of course, is what sells, what will make a quick buck - not what might actually benefit society or improve people's lives in any significant sense. For example, in an episode 2 or 3 weeks ago an inventor came in with a cheap, easy to produce, easy to install, but ingenious device for regulating the amount of water in each flush of a toilet. This device he announced, if installed widely in homes, businesses and so on would drastically cut the amount of water we consume every day. The dragons were not interested - since most homes' water consumption is not metred there is no incentive for consumers to buy and since (for some reason I forget) most water suppliers have an interest in us using as much water as possible, they would not be interested either. One of the dragons, furthermore, remarked that the product was 'a dog' because in order to work it properly toilet users would need to watch their crap go down the toilet in order to work out how much water to use - consumers, apparently, cannot be expected to carry out such a highly unpleasant task (I watch mine go down all the time - it's just politeness isn't it - you don't want to leave a floater in the bowl for your housemates). It's not just that they turned away this invention - the dragons were cruelly contemptuous about it. 'I'm not interested in saving the world' remarked one 'I'm a businessman'. Of course, he was absolutely right - in business terms the 'product' was 'a dog'. What I am trying to say, here, is that the pattern of success and failure on the show demonstrates the peverse rationality of capitalism.
The fourth reason I like it is that the dragons are clearly, clearly a bunch of odious, self-important tossers. These are the 'success stories' of capitalism. This gang of speculators - most of whom made their fortunes out of gambling other people's money on stock markets or as widget floggers, or as 'gift experience' sellers (fuck knows), or as second hand car salesmen - these deeply unimpressive people are the 'winners' of our society. Why are these toads lauded while people who really are impressive and really do work hard to provide essential things (nurses for example) are ignored. The deluded self-regard and pomposity of these arseholes (although to be fair, the female dragon, Rachel Elnaugh, is marginally less narcissistic than the others) is really quite amazing. The nastiest of the dragons, (and yes I'm fairly sure that they are asked to ham it up for the cameras a bit, but even so) Theo something, continually refers to his wonderful abilities and 'business acumen' - he often reminds any jumped up pitcher that he is the successful one, not them, so they really ought to listen to his wise pronouncements. Another dragon, Peter Jones, frequently refers to himself in the third person. One week, he turned down a particular idea - a pole-dancing get fit business - because he felt that if he, the great Peter Jones (well, have you ever heard of him before?), was to invest in this project it would be 'all over the newspaper headlines the next day' that Peter Jones had got himself involved in pole dancing and he would be a laughing stock. I he sure about that, do you thing? Would his name really be splashed across the headlines? The conceited self-importance of the dragons is quite breathtaking.
The fact is that these people are, fundamentally, worthless. I suppose I like it that the show confirms all my prejudices about the types of people who 'succeed' in business.
Finally, I think that there is quite a subversive element to the show - it's not deliberate - it's an accidental subversiveness. The show quite explicitly demonstrates the parasitical nature of financial speculation and, perhaps, more widely, hints at the parasitical workings of the capitalist market in general. When the pitchers ascend the stairs to the dragons' lair they are faced, at the top, by dragons seated in throne like chairs (the symbolism would be so much more satisfying if the pitchers had to descend - as if into the Pit where various enthroned satanic majesties awaited them). At the side of each throne, on a small table, is a pile of banknotes - 100k - over which each dragon presides. Here we are confronted by the power of the capitalist investor. He/she has access to the dosh - the pitcher doesn't. The pitcher has the ideas, the inventiveness and so on, but without the dosh this inventiveness cannot be developed - the dragons have the capital. In order to realise his or her dreams the pitcher has to dance like a performing monkey in front of this row of tyrants in the hope that they might toss some of their money across. What does the dragon bring to the arrangement? They contribute nothing except their money - stored up, accumulated power. In return for handing over some of their capital, the dragons expect to be repaid their initial investment plus a handsome profit. What do they do, while this profit is being produced****? Nothing - they're sitting on their arses watching other hapless dancing monkeys perform for them.
* I refuse to deploy that word without scare quotes.
** A very very bad example I know.
*** Yes, I know - but I can't think of another suitable term except 'contestants' - but that makes it sound like Blankety Blank.
**** Of course this is not to suggest that the industrial (or otherwise 'productive') capitalist is a victim in this arrangement. The borrowing capitalist produces profit by pumping out surplus value from their workers - the direct producers. Many of the 'business ideas' mooted in the Dragons' Den, incidentally, are founded on the employment of Chinese or Malaysian cheap labour.
Another essay which immediately caught my eye focuses on the systematic distortion of information by the institutions and processes of neo-liberalism today - 'The Cynical State', by Panitch and Leys. They devote a section of their essay to the continuing undermining of academic autonomy and the distortion, in particular, of the discipline of Political Science in this age of academic 'consultancy work', corporate funding and government report writing contracts. There is, they conclude, a general 'de-politicisation of political research' - a climate in which 'few social scientists are serious critics of public policy' since they nearly all appear to accept the neo-liberal premises and assumptions upon which these policies are founded. They accept these assumptions, of course, because they're all scrabbling for consultancy work with government agencies and for funding from research bodies like the ESRC whose criteria for dishing out the dosh are explicitly 'business oriented'. This essay, I have to say, rings very loud bells.
Telling government and business what they want to hear seems to be a sure-fire strategy for raking in the research funding in Political Science. What Panitch and Leys don't remark upon is the emergence of (highly lucrative) 'post-war reconstruction studies' and so on at universities. These courses seem, to me, to be thoroughly unreflective about their own political and philosophical foundations. They tend to accept the premises of 'humanitarian intervention' unflinchingly, swallow neo-liberal economics pretty much whole (how do you 'reconstruct' a 'war-torn' economy - why you privatise and de-regulate, of course) and don't seriously question the seriously questionable assertions of modern liberal theory when it comes to 'state-building'. Of course, if they did, then they might not be able to ignore, quite so easily, the fact of just how deeply implicated in the project of Imperialism these ways of thinking are.