Past imperfect: a reply to Dave Renton

Dave Renton is writing again: the comrade is notable, perhaps, for having the most consistent record of continuous publication of anyone in the SWP opposition over the recent period of wanton unpleasantness. We suspect he has probably suffered more than his fair share of unpleasantness on his own account, for precisely that reason, which makes it all the more remarkable that this material remains thoughtful and required reading for anyone in the midst of the SWP crisis, or biting their nails on the sidelines.

A gaggle of leftist trainspotters as hardened as we in the CPGB, however, couldn’t miss the target of one particular bit of faint praise:

On the existing British Left there are of course many examples of Marxist groups which prosper on the basis of a similar idea that the age of interpretation is over. One of the most effective of the Marxist websites (and the least effective of our parties) turns out on close inspection to be a project for the recreation of 1895-era Social Democracy, i.e. the moment when Engels died, before Marxism suffered its first crises (imperialism, syndicalism, the first world war) and had for the first time to be rethought in order to make itself relevant again.

Let’s be honest: the comrade is not talking about the Spartacist League here. It’s us, the CPGB; I could quibble over ‘least effective’ (and, of course, we are not a ‘party’) – I mean, if a crew our size can publish to the same schedule as Socialist Worker the best English-language paper on the left, I’d call that pretty effective. Why, you could almost confuse us with one of those nimble Shoreditch start-ups that are supposed to save the British economy (provided you don’t ever observe the editorial process at work).

It’s the 1895 thing that gets me. My comrade Ben Lewis doesn’t help matters with his taste in tweed waistcoats, of course, but that’s more of a 1900s affectation. The comrade has missed the point of our intellectual obsession with revolutionary social democracy – a historical epoch in the workers movement stretching from the 1870s to the end of the First World War, with its mortal blow struck in 1914.

Dave’s concern in his piece is the absolute intolerance of the SWP’s ruling clique for ‘endogenous development’ in the IS tradition. “The age of ideas is over, having ended in approximately 1979,” he notes acerbically, the significance of the date being the theory of the ‘downturn’ propagated by Tony Cliff in preparation for a significant ‘turn inward’. Instead of this ossified sectism, we should return to the iconoclastic spirit of ‘classic’ Cliffism, the febrile unorthodox post-Trotskyism that bequeathed Alex Callinicos the ideas which he now subjects to the strictures of the revolutionary priesthood.

What he identifies as valuable in the work of Cliff and his comrades is their willingness, amid the total theoretical disorientation of post-war Trotskyism, to at least attempt to face reality squarely.

But there’s a sleight of hand in his argument. Wikipedia tells me that Ygael Gluckstein “probably” first assumed the nom de guerre of Tony Cliff in 1959. The occasion was his short book on … Rosa Luxemburg. Not Nasser, or Gaitskell, or any other figure of Cliff’s own time – a German revolutionary whose corpse was dumped in a Berlin canal forty years earlier. ‘Prelapsarian’ Cliffism was itself an archaeological project – there was something that, as the canon hardened into Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky, had been lost somewhere, and it was necessary to dig it out.

It gets ‘worse’! A full year before its author finally relented and allowed a full and official translation,  the first English renditions of any of Georg Lukács’s History and class consciousness appeared in International Socialism. Lukács himself may have been alive; but he had buried his classic work, whatever its faults (which are legion), for decades.

So what the hell are we up to? We face a problem – similar in some respects to that faced by Cliff, Mike Kidron and co, as well as the other variants of heterodox leftism of the post-war era – today, which is the loss of our historical memory. This memory is lost in two ways. Version one: today’s conditions are so vastly different from yesterday’s that confronting the deep history of our movement is a waste of time. This is an obviously philistine position, beloved of sub-anarchist types whom, in the best instances, one must call naive. Version two: the exact problem identified by Renton in the case of Professor Callinicos – the history of ideas is over, the canon is complete, it is merely our duty to soldier on in the one true cause. This is a far more insidious problem: if Callinicos is asked why the German revolution failed, after all, he has piles of dead trees with Chris Harman’s name on them; Lenin and Russia are ‘covered’ by Tony Cliff, of course, and so forth.

Both of these debilitations are stubborn things to treat. The first version because capitalism itself engenders a systematic ‘short memory syndrome’; the more things change, the better hidden is the fact that they stay the same! The writers in various ‘libertarian’ theoretical journals who believe the end of the 1970s changed the world absolutely forever are simply among the snottier ranks of the offspring of Thatcher. It’s nonsense, but a story told far outside our ranks.

The second, because – how easy it makes things! If only the collapse of the Second International in 1914 was down to something as straightforward as Kautsky’s incorrect grasp of the dialectic, or some specific timeless recipe of party organisation being observed only by Lenin and his comrades… For that matter, if only the descent of the USSR into hunger, slaughter and barbarism was attributable to that same ‘recipe’… Things would be incredibly simple. “The solution of historical materialism”, as Engels says somewhere, “would be as easy as an equation of the first degree.”

The CPGB is obsessed with this period in history because it is unavoidable, and because it is not remotely as simple as made out by the just-so stories peddled by the various strands of ‘actually existing Leninism’, or their simple anti-Leninist inversions. We confront a very different world than existed in 1895, for the greatest part because of the experience of those years, of the greatest achievement of the Second International, the USSR, and its ultimate disastrous failure. Understanding this different world, bizarre as it seems, is inseparable from the archeology of the early 20th century; we must explain convincingly both the unprecedented and hitherto unsurpassed strength of the revolutionary workers movement as it faced the slaughter of the Great War, and its failure of nerve in 1914, and its failure to complete revolution after the war. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the rest – Stalin, Hitler, the Marshall Plan – follows directly from there.

Perhaps there are those, as Dave suggests, who “desire to return Marxism to its pre-1914 fall” – we are certainly not among them. After all, as he writes, ” the SPD and the other original Marxist parties went over to social democracy under the pressure of great historical processes (the bureaucratisation of the unions, the availability of political democracy, the failure of revolutionaries at key moments to win majorities)”. That blade cuts both ways, however – the early, iconoclastic days of the Socialist Review Group and International Socialists gave way to today’s SWP, to the dried-up bureaucracy and the recent crisis. I do not blame the theory of the permanent arms economy for the Delta debacle – that would be stupid. But still. The SWP has failed the same more recent historical tests as everyone else – it now appears that it has failed them worse than some. You cannot put twentieth century Marxism back into the womb – but Alex Callinicos will not fit back there either.


Abuse of privilege of the week

Your thin privilege makes Lucy feel like a shit feminist. Which is unfair!

Bonus points for no actual evidence being offered to back up the point except that, er, some people disagreed with her on Facebook. Which is clearly equivalent in oppressiveness to the whole bloody history of racism or whatever. Does a thick body have to come with such thin skin?

Update: As pointed out in the comments, the author has deleted the offending page. Which is more sensible, I suppose, than having written it in the first place; but less sensible than honestly admitting that you were confusing your personal fragility with a political issue, and thus resolving to wean yourself off the self-perpetuating slave morality.

Which is all over the latest torrent of verbal diarrhoea on the same blog. Learning from mistakes is an expression of skinny patriarchal privilege!

Update update: well, she went and deleted the whole blog. I thought my little crusade against this kind of bullshit would be harder than this. I will simply note that, where once there was a blog post urging me to check my skinny privilege, there is now merely a message from WordPress: “sorry, you are looking for something that isn’t there”. In so many ways…

“Mostly harmless”

Three people are members of a far left group. Two are put under heavy internal pressure concerning writing they produce outside the organisation’s purview, on personal blogs (and one of these is additionally heavily criticised for contributions to the ‘party organ’). The third receives a little in the way of collateral griping. After the group’s annual conference, all three leave. One of them becomes irreconcilably hostile to his erstwhile organisation; a second mounts political criticisms without ostracising his erstwhile comrades; the third remains broadly in solidarity with them, but from a more forgiving position outside organisational discipline.

This is dog-bites-man stuff, of course, but the organisation in question is the Platypus Affiliated Society, a semi-academic post-Trot group operating mainly out of Chicago and New York, and so there is inevitably an odd twist: the level of hostility of their ex-comrades is entirely inversely proportional to the roughness of the ride they got when they were ‘on the inside’. There circulates an open letter, calling on people to “disengage” from Platypus, on the basis that they want to ‘destroy the left’; this is being put about by Ben Campbell, who was a member for a few months, before leaving for apparently personal reasons in April and immediately launching a crusade against the egg-laying mammal. I cannot say that his campaign is being particularly successful, since the list of signatories is full of people who already hated Platypus anyway (only obvious exceptions are the hipster-communists Jodi Dean and Bruno Bosteels).

I am in an odd position vis a vis Platypus, really. Some disclosure is necessary – my better half is a member of theirs; I am friends with others of them; I attend their reading groups in London when I can. On one level, that ought to put me in a better position than, say, Richard Seymour to divine whether my girlfriend has joined – as Campbell’s letter believes – a weird pro-imperialist personality cult; on the other, I have a ‘vested interest’ in that not being true.

On the political side of things, the story is a little more complicated. Platypus exists to defend a peculiarly precise sub-variant of hyper-Hegelian Marxism, in which (crudely speaking) our time is an epoch characterised by regression, in which the left – by failing to play its role as immanent critic of bourgeois society – has died. Without the left, the only likely future is barbarism. It’s a heady brew of Lukacs (commodity-reification theory), Adorno (the regression stuff, mostly); Moishe Postone (a more interesting case, in that Postone’s argument that the proletariat is internal to capital as a social relation is ‘turned on its head’: for Postone, this is explicitly an argument against the ‘traditional Marxist’ focus on the working class as historical agent, but for Platypus quite the opposite) and the Sparts (from whom they pick up, mainly, a suspicion of post-New Left identity politics and so forth). Their primary form of intervention is getting leftwing activists and academics onto a panel discussion, and asking them strange questions (“acutely symptomatic conversation”, goes the jargon) in the hope that the subject’s ‘voice will crack’ and be confronted with the deadness of his or her leftism. Perhaps – exactly how remains unclear – a better, more historically conscious left will emerge from this process.

I have serious problems with all these figureheads, of course. I am not a Hegelian Marxist; I believe Lukacsian reification theory is inherently idealist and obfuscatory; I like Adorno as literature, but he is at one with Lukacs where Lukacs is hopeless; Moishe Postone can only build his case for ‘reconstructing Marx’s mature critical theory’ by discarding more or less all of Marx barring the early sections of Capital and convenient parts of the Grundrisse, resulting in plenty of windmill-tilting and a completely distorted view of Marxism. As for the Sparts, well, they’re the Sparts.

I find them a little harder to shrug off than that, however; we may quibble over the word ‘dead’, but the left is at least undead, shambling through old rituals for the sake of it. They partially identify some of the problems that have brought us here – the rise of gesture politics, the depoliticisation of ostensible Marxism (for example, the rise of an ‘anti-imperialism’ that consists mainly in a load of pseudo-arguments for ‘rooting for the underdog’ in liberal style), the complete failure to deal with the collapse of the USSR.

As an aside, I equally derive a certain amount of pleasure from certain facts of it existence. Platypus is contemptuous of gender/race/whatever tokenism, yet nevertheless is an organisation with an unusually healthy membership balance on all these matters. After talking at their convention this year, I was immediately accosted by a 19-year old Chinese-American woman who argued my ear off for about an hour; this sort of thing never happens, ironically, in groups that bureaucratically engineer such outcomes. It demonstrates a strength of Platypus – it is exceptionally good at ‘cadreising’ people, educating its membership pretty effectively in what is (after all) a highly abstruse catechism of outsider-Marxist theory. (Perhaps the Labour Representation Committee could learn a lesson here, instead of blindly imposing a sort of PC version of the Tsarist Duma’s curia system on 100 or so mostly aging mostly white mostly men?)

The questions nevertheless remain: is Platypus a cult? is Platypus pro-imperialist? And is it a threatening opponent of the left, an enemy within to be shunned like state agents and so forth?

In the first place: my judgment is that Platypus is not a cult. It does not exhibit any of the classic cult behaviours. Contacts in the group’s periphery are immediately bombarded with the Platypus reading list, a great wodge of material spanning Hegel, Kant, Marx, Lenin and the esoterica of 20th century Hegelian Marxism. For an organisation recruiting mainly from students, it has an education programme more worthy of academic accreditation than much of what their charges will be studying in an official capacity. Cults recruit soft – and then go in hard when it’s too late.

Its members are capable of independent argument without reference to the works of the ‘chief pedagogue’ every five seconds. Ex-members, in several cases at least, remain friendly and are not arbitrarily excommunicated (treated better, in other words, than Richard Seymour is by the SWP). Leaked internal emails have Chris Cutrone loudly asserting his pre-eminent authority (“this is a guru-led organisation. Get over it!”); something he would not need to do if he actually had the kind of absolute authority ascribed to him by Campbell. This does not mean it will not become a cult – organising around a full philosophical rather than political programme tends to produce cults, thanks to the inherently fissile nature of philosophy. But we can call off the deprogrammers for now.

The pro-imperialism tag has more justice, although it has to come with caveats. Cutrone recently outlined the Platypus ‘position’ on imperialism (a sign of sorts that external pressure is taking its toll, since Platypus is not supposed to have ‘positions’). He focuses on Iraq, and it is essentially the Alliance for Workers Liberty position, with one or two differences of nuance – “we don’t support the US in Iraq, but we don’t call for it to withdraw from Iraq either.” Since the question actually posed by the Iraq (and other) misadventures is whether we consent to them – ie, whether or not we are prepared to actively campaign for their interruption – the AWL and Cutrone alike find themselves on the same side for practical purposes as Hitchens & co, albeit without the overlay of crass bloodlust. Still, what we have here is not an American antideutsch, as has been suggested, but rather a very traditional form of third-camp slippage. It should be (and is easily) challenged in polemic, not placed inside a cordon sanitaire.

As to whether or not Platypus is a threat, to be avoided like carriers of the dreaded lurgy – it isn’t, which is ultimately a problem for them. Speaking on a Platypus panel is an odd experience – a lot of people ask you questions that aren’t really questions, but have been grammatically tortured into a question sort of shape. The result is that voices rarely, to my mind, ‘crack’ – such questions can be answered any which way you like. And they are. A well-made polemical point is not so easily batted away.

But if it’s that easy, why so much hostility? In this scenario, there is one version of leftism which is not opened up to criticism – the Platypus version. There develops a sense that one is a kind of museum piece, being intrusively investigated by a gaggle of inquisitive schoolchildren on a day trip. There is no hidden agenda with Platypus, really – all the ‘scandalous’ stuff is on their website – but the idea of one is compelling for real reasons.

My view is that this is a pretty paralysing situation. The chosen mode of intervention almost precludes really putting the ‘dead left’ under political pressure; it equally carries some subliminally off-putting baggage. Platypus could become a old-fashioned far-left group, by taking its opponents on directly in polemic; or it could become a mundane academic project, with all the collegiate chumminess that implies. The comrades are horrified at the prospect of either, and their practice is perched between the two; but they are stuck there, like a man hanging off a cliff by his fingertips. They can’t hold on forever. In this predicament, also, their own theory will stagnate, because it is insulated from critique – and God knows that reading list could do with a cull, stuck as it is in the baleful circularity of Hegelian Marxism. For all the talk of death and destruction, the platypus is – like the human – mostly harmless.

Meanwhile, the corpse continues to decompose. There is no injury any hundred-strong group of Marxist students could inflict on the left that it has not already inflicted on itself.

The graveyard of irony, pt. 94

I must admit a lingering fondness for Radio 5 Live’s saturday morning panel show, Fighting Talk. I’ve gotten out of the habit of listening the last six months or so, admittedly, but it’s perfect for an inconsistent prawn sandwich sort of football fan like me, normally pretty amusing in a low level way and littered with comedy sound effects.

Now it’s in trouble…again. For people who have better things to do on a saturday morning, the show puts four sports journalists, comedians or whatever against each other in best-pundit-wins battle, with points awarded on an avowedly arbitrary basis by jocular chain-smoking Ulsterman Colin Murray. At the end of the show, the two contestants out in front compete to ‘defend the indefensible’ – mount a case for an utterly inappropriate proposition in 20 seconds or less. Wikipedia’s random examples, which are as good as any, are: “I’d gladly drink a pint of Maradona’s liposuction fat for Comic Relief”; “Cricket has been cheapened now common people and ladies have jumped on the bandwagon” and “I believe the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race should take place in Iranian territorial waters”.

On Monday, Bob Mills was asked to argue that he would be able to cure Clare Balding’s lesbianism. He may have made a good case, or not; it might have been funny, or not. Some of us will never know, because as soon as the shriek-o-sphere had its inevitable collective hernia, the BBC panicked and edited the offending bit out of the podcast. You can still hear Colin Murray disclaiming the segment thus:

We don’t mean what we’re saying. The point is to defend the indefensible. I’m going to get it tattooed across my forehead, because every week, someone complains.

It really is very, very simple, isn’t it? It’s a concept so simple that even Colin Murray, a man who apparently thinks a forehead tattoo will get a point across on radio, can understand it.

Julie Bindel can’t.

“If I were to count the number of times I have been told by a man that all I need is “a good seeing to” to turn me straight I would be dizzy,” she complains. “If anyone is in any doubt that the discussion of Balding was rooted in sexism, remember that it was also suggested on the programme that she should be made to present racing coverage topless, and Mills joked that Balding was a “horse woman” who “appreciates power between her thighs”. Please!”

In fact, the exact reverse is the case; the routine is based exactly on modern right-on liberal mores. The whole point of that little rhetorical quarantine – indefensible – is to produce, if you’ll forgive me, a ‘safe space’ where the unreconstructed maleness of sports fandom can deprecate itself; the whole thing is dripping with irony. Bindelite feminism wouldn’t know irony if it offered to give her a good seeing to. It doesn’t reinforce sexism any more than it challenges sexism – it takes sexism out of the garage, kicks it around the park for 20 seconds and puts it back. No harm, or good, is done. Neither is the point of a saturday morning sports panel show, surely.

I note that she doesn’t bother to quote the ‘defence’ of the notion that Balding should present the racing sans brassiere…it would be a tougher sell, after all, seeing as the defendant was Martin Kelner, erstwhile Guardian colleague and resolutely right-on beta-male, who walked the liberal line with admirable precision.

In any case, if the Clare Balding jokes are sexist, then the aforementioned proposition about oiks taking over cricket is presumably offensive to about 99% of the show’s audience. It’s amazing that nobody complained! But then, nobody would; just as none of the substantial Liverpool crowd raised more than a good-humoured middle finger to the scouse-baiting jokes on the same broadcast. Only people who are, in effect, paid to take offence at meaningless things can be bothered.

Godwin’s Law escapes the internet…again

Apparently there’s only so much nationalism one nation can take. UKIP’s lovably demented leader Nigel Farage found himself the wrong end of a small but vocal protest, which gathered 50 or so Scottish left nationalists around some, for the most part, whimsical chants (“Nigel, you’re a bawbag, Nigel you’re a bawbag, na, na, na, hey!”). All too much for our Nigel, who was clearly put out of sorts by the experience. He said:

If anybody from Ukip says anything on Facebook that is in any way homophobic or mildly racist you guys jump down my throat and demand that I condemn them and expel them from the party, which of course I do. It is about time Scottish nationalism was put under the same level of scrutiny. It has long been known in Scotland that there are some elements of Scottish nationalism and the SNP that are deeply unpleasant. This needs to be talked about.

He is perhaps being ignorant, or perhaps a little cheeky, to blame this altercation on the SNP – who are, after all, a very sensible bourgeois party of devolved government, whose fairly workable (as these things go) plan for Scottish independence consists effectively of turning Scotland into a cosmopolitan corporate tax haven on the model of pre-crash Ireland (but do try to avoid those dastardly housing bubbles, Alex). Add in the pseudo-social democratic guff, and you have what amounts to tartan Blairism. No, this is almost certainly the work of the SNP’s decrepit left bag-carriers, the splintered and mutually biliously hostile remnants of what was once a thriving Scottish far-left.

Or, as Farage seems to believe, ‘fascist scum’. I have no love for the Scottish left (after all, how can I love you if you don’t love yourself?); and we in the CPGB had a long running habit of referring to the Scottish Socialist Party as ‘national socialist’ in a deliberately provocative way (for anyone still labouring under any illusions – no, we didn’t consider Sheridan and McCombes to be a Hitler/Goebbels double act in waiting; Hoxha’s Albania would be a more likely model for an ‘independent socialist Scotland’), but accusations of fascism are pushing the boat out just a little. Farage’s outburst looks more like the famous Nazi Tourette’s of fruitcake American rabble-rouser Glenn Beck; or former arch-bigot of Canterbury George Carey’s comparison of himself and other homophobic clergymen to the victims of the Nazi genocide.

Nazi comparisons are a useful indicator of how degraded political discourse has become. Godwin’s law has spread outwards from Usenet to the web, and finally to ‘real life’ (although the paranoid delusions of a Glenn Beck stretch the word ‘real’ beyond all reason). What used to be the last resort of those on the wrong side of a debate – indeed, on the wrong side of history – has become the first. Welcome to the club, Nige – you old bawbag.

Still, it has to be said that if there is one force that eased the transition of Nazi comparisons from the net to the flesh-and-blood interactions of political actors, it is the far left. The Socialist Workers Party’s insistence on labeling every gang of far-rightists as “Nazis” has long stretched beyond parody – the NF, the BNP, the French National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party, David Irving: all are supposedly Nazis. Except UKIP, for some reason, to whom different rules apply (God only knows what they are, if every other far-right populist party in Europe qualifies for the brownshirt slur). We note another of the chants employed by the Scottish demonstrators – “UKIP scum, off our streets” – is a barely rephrased Anti-Nazi League/Unite Against Fascism shriek of rage.

There are two models for contemporary politics. One is exemplified by the typical parliamentary debate which sees David Cameron and Ed Miliband pretend to disagree about things. The other would be a putative debate between, say, Weyman Bennett and Nigel Farage, in which each can accuse the other of leading the country down the road to Auschwitz. Perhaps there is a helpful book that the combatants could read, in order to land a few genuinely killer blows instead of just screaming at each other? Hmmm…


Breasts and boosterism

More fun from the feminist-o-sphere, which has emerged briefly from the disturbing recesses of rape culture to discuss a matter of even greater importance – Angelina Jolie’s tits.

Jolie, as readers of either insert-scandal-sheet-of-choice or the Guardian cannot fail to have noticed, has gone public after having a preventative double mastectomy, when it turned out she carried a gene which gives her a frankly terrifying chance of contracting breast cancer. The decision to have the surgery is hardly more than ‘human interest’ grade news; a bit of a no-brainer for anyone in the same situation who values, you know, continuing to be alive and stuff. No, it was the decision to go public, for the purposes of (what else?) ‘raising awareness’, that caused everyone able to stifle a yawn to plunge into boosterism about the run of the mill actress’s ‘courage’.

Almost everyone, that is. There’s always something a little fishy about sleb advocacy, which is often as narrow and blundering as it is well-meaning; and sometimes, when an individual utterly misses the point from a position of invulnerable saintliness, then somebody else will see their temper snap. Enter Ruth Fowler, writing for CounterPunch.

What exactly has she done that deserves praise? She wrote about an invasive, often brutal medically (un?)necessary procedure which 56% of women with breast cancer in the US choose to undergo. Hands up everyone in the US who hasn’t heard of breast cancer and mastectomy! Anyone? Umm, anyone….?

OK. So now, thanks to Jolie, we’re MORE aware. And guess what? There are really, really expensive tests you can get which tell you beforehand how likely you are to get cancer and die! Hands up who knew about that one? Oh, quite a few of you? Mainly the ones who can afford it, am I right? The ones who can’t afford it – well what good is knowing that there’s a test out there only privileged rich people can get?

Ouch. Fowler’s piece is guilty of the distasteful habit of privilege-baiting (although Angelina Jolie is a better fit for privilege than many), and on the whole probably a little bit more obnoxious than it needs to be (yes, yes, pot kettle black); but the core message is absolutely on the money, or rather lack of money. The problem is not that people are ‘unaware’ of breast cancer, or common treatments for cancer (which traditionally involve cutting the affected bit off), but that (in the US, at least – and give Jeremy Hunt a couple more months…) there is no public healthcare; that making a big deal about what is possibly not the right solution for all women in a similar situation will lead to unnecessary surgeries and treatment (a lot of women end up corralled into unnecessary breast surgery).

Unfortunately, Fowler dared to break the sacred circle of sentimental boosterism. In particular, her piece has received a reply from Sharon Smith in the US version of Socialist Worker. And if you thought Fowler was obnoxious…oh boy! One of my pet peeves with feminism (pretty much all sub-schools suffer from this particular syndrome) is that it tends to interpret all critical commentary as ‘patronising to women’, which is of course itself patronising to women, who are perfectly well capable of deciding their own allegiances without some professional ideological caste to speak for them. So I will say no more than that, if I were Ruth Fowler, I would find Smith’s article patronising to the point of inciting homicidal rage. In any case, it is diversionary, schoolmarmish and intellectually moribund.

Smith’s first complaint is that the CounterPunch strapline – “Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits” – is sexist, because it contains the word ‘tits’. Fowler is oh so graciously absolved of guilt on this particular point:

Fowler’s article never actually mentions the word “tits.” But like smirking adolescents, the editors insert it … in their contemptuous title.

It is a little disturbing that the very idea that a woman would use the word “tits” is considered so exceptionally unsisterly that it is safer to assume that some sniggering oaf on the editorial team put it in for a laugh. Really? How divorced from actual womankind are some of these people? And while Fowler’s article does, indeed, not use the word ‘tits’, it is sarcastic and venomous in tone, and far more aggressive than the strapline – be it hers or the ghost of Alexander Cockburn’s.

“Using boob jokes to introduce an article about undergoing a double mastectomy to prevent a potentially deadly disease constitutes a descent from sexism to misogyny,” hectors Smith; but the boot is on the other foot. Calling boob jokes ipso facto sexist, and off colour jokes about fatal diseases ipso facto worse, is merely devaluing the words sexist and misogynist – especially as the ‘boob joke’ in question appears to be, er, the use of the word “tits”. If that alone is enough to prompt a giggle from comrade Smith – before the humourlessness bulkheads slam shut, at any rate – then that is her problem, not those of us who are no longer school age. (I note in passing that “boob” occurs frequently in Smith’s article, sometimes in a pseudo-humorous context, from which I deduce that it is not a sexist word for a mammary gland, unlike the T-bomb. Perhaps there is a helpful chart us mere mortals could consult?)

As far as Fowler goes, there is a lot of diversionary huffing and puffing:

Fowler ridicules Jolie for “your elaborately reconstructed chest and your incredible bravery in submitting to top-end, essential preventive treatments in order to avoid a painful and abhorrent death,” as if Jolie endured multiple surgeries over a period of months as a colossal act of narcissism.

Had Smith actually bothered to read the article – rather than stared at it just long enough to find a couple of ‘scandalous’ quotes to rip out of context – then she might have noticed that Fowler’s whole point was not that having surgery was narcissistic, but that making an empty and grandstanding gesture out of it was. As it happens, I would disagree (far be it from me to impugn the motives of Lara Croft!), but there is a real point here, which Smith misses: in making a public stand on her mastectomies, Jolie makes her mastectomies public property. She wants them to ‘mean something’, but that something is fatuous. Fowler objects: she says the main issue is lack of access to healthcare, and she is not prepared to let the saintly aura of Jolie’s gesture get in the way of making the point. All to the good.

Smith is caught in no man’s land – on the one hand, this supposed r-r-revolutionary socialist believes, of course, in equal access to healthcare, free at the point of use. On the other, her hopeless entanglement in bureaucratic-sentimentalist moral reflexes means she has to advocate it via defending a vacuous philanthropic gesture on the part of a grandstanding sleb. “It should not be difficult to understand why millions of women who, facing an epidemic of breast cancer, breathed a sigh of relief on May 14 upon reading Jolie’s honest and eloquent account of removing her breasts to save her life,” runs by far the funniest line in the whole piece. Which millions of women would these be, who are relieved to hear a distressing story about pre-emptive cancer surgery? Presumably they are the same ones who find the word “tits” mortally offensive.

There is a bigger problem here than what we make of Angeline Jolie’s tits: we have on one side a liberal writer for a left-liberal website, and on the other, Ruth Fowler for CounterPunch. Just kidding! On the other, a Marxist writer for a Marxist paper. Yet it is clear which of the two is more credulous, more restricted to Guardianista ideology (the Graun is on the sharp end of another of Fowler’s put-downs), more trapped by the fear of offending anyone or slaying a sacred cow – and that is the Marxist. It’s a sorry state of affairs. Why this particular sort of Marxist ends up being that particular sort of degraded liberal is a question that will have to wait for another day.

It’s not the future – it’s a load of fucking shit for twats

I. Those who can condense their thoughts into 140 characters or less do not have any thoughts. For the 95% or so of the population who do have thoughts, Twitter does no favours, chopping up any discourse into chunks that the very technical design of the site demands be taken out of context.

II. Twitter is thus a discourse of thoughtlessness. This is most obvious in the periodic storms of outrage that set it ablaze, like the proverbial prairie fire. For there to be a prairie fire, more than a spark – Jan Moir, Jeremy Clarkson, Liam Stacey or whoever – is needed. The prairie has to be dry. These outrages take hold because twitter is thoughtless: and thus it increasingly approaches its ideal form, a seething swamp of busybodies, curtain-twitchers and copper’s narks.

III. Behind thoughtlessness lies the dominant ideology. This is a general point, but it needs particular emphasis here. Ideology abhors a vacuum – what is not said by the subject is said, instead, by the Subject. Chomsky, for all his faults, understands that it is more difficult for him to make a simple point in the accelerated world of bourgeois TV news than a reactionary political opponent, because the latter has all the dead inertia of common sense behind him. Twitter is more accelerated still; it is something like a supercollider, which will maybe allow keen observers to measure the weight and behaviour of a single particle of pure ideology.

IV. On Twitter, no-one can hear you scream – unless you are a celebrity. It is tempting to view the logic of ‘followers’ as a mirror reflection of the market. In truth, the market no longer behaves this way, if indeed it ever did. It is better to think of it as a staging of the ‘pure’ categories of classical political economy, a frictionless world of un-ideas exchanged according to an anarchic but efficient principle of distribution. Of course, Marx has shown that the ‘pure’ categories of political economy do not produce a society of equal petty producers, as perhaps Adam Smith imagined, but lead instead to the concentration of capital; and, more importantly, that capitalist society was and is constantly shaped by factors extrinsic to the abstract logic of capital. The first ‘critique’ is visible in the accretion of attention to those who are a good source of outrage (Joey Barton’s a reliable one) and those who most promiscuously spread it (Stephen Fry). The second is simply the manner in which attention in the wider world is replicated in the swamp.

V. Is Twitter due for a bout of ‘primitive accumulation’? In fact it is no doubt already happening, and the scale will only increase with its prominence as a form of cultural discourse. Dynamically-generated web content is ripe for certain skilled ‘proletarians’ to manipulate – trends will be manufactured, to the inevitable benefit of one or another power-that-be. Corporations will rake the money in – purveyors of CIA or equivalent black propaganda will struggle to stifle a laugh at how easy it is to touch a nerve among this uniquely thoughtless population.

VI. Twitter is not a threat to the mainstream media. Nobody, apparently, has told the media. The agenda for public discourse is still largely set by the press; and part of the press agenda is recycling this absurd myth that we live in an age of unmediated communication with one another. This puffs up the image of Twitter, causing the likes of the Guardian to fawn ever more cravenly before it.  The Guardian is on the brink of winking out of existence, largely because its incompetent management have not found a way to screw money out of the internet – thus trends on the internet and in new media appear before it as an awesome, conquering force. The Guardian discourse on Twitter is akin to the sense of wonder experienced by the luckless earthling at seeing a vast alien spaceship, just at the moment that it lets rip with the death ray.

VII. Any leftist who recycles the r-r-revolutionary credentials of Twitter is thus exposed as an opportunist cretin. The opposite case – that Twitter is an obstacle to revolution – is closer to the truth. It represents an area whose dominant  ideology is structurally bourgeois, in which everything that happened more than five minutes ago is already ancient history. The left cult of Twitter is simply the penetration of this ideology, and the collapse of historical time, into the forces whose purpose in society is to fight that ideology and preserve that historical memory.

VIII. The actual consequences of ‘Twitter politics’ are amply demonstrated in its flagship intervention: the Egyptian revolution. The eyes of the West were fixated on the tweets of the Tahrir Square protestors. When Mubarak fell, these elements were swept aside: the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology venerates the social forms of the first millennium AD rather than the third, have been the main beneficiaries, thanks to their disavowal of infantile faddishness in favour of long term, patient work among the masses.  There is still no substitute for this work.

IX. The contemporary left is repressed. It is a case for psychoanalysis. The collapse of the USSR, and the concomitant catastrophe that befell a global left that was not able to make whatever distance its parts may have taken from the failed experiment in ‘socialism in one country’ real in the minds of the masses, could be confronted in a principled way. Yet it is much easier to just repress the trauma – “that was the old world, with old conditions! Now we have new movements like Occupy and UK Uncut!” The model thus becomes precisely those movements who make a virtue out of the absence of any obvious history, and hinge their appeal on novelty. Their novelty is utterly false, and founded on the fact that predecessors to these movements failed so completely and radically that even their failure is lost to historical memory. The ideal medium for the outpourings of such oafish elements is one where success is rapid but shallow, and nothing is thought, and nothing is remembered. Step forward Twitter. Their ideal ally is one desperately aspiring to a prelapsarian condition, before memory and before knowledge. Step forward the opportunist left. All those genuinely concerned with making revolution should bear in mind that we have far more to learn from the Muslim Brotherhood than UK Uncut.

X. There is a certain tendency to dismiss this sort of critique as ‘technological determinist’. In fact, it is not. Twitter determines nothing – it is determined, instead, by the dominant ideology. Those who view it as a neutral medium for communication, on the other hand, are guilty of a metaphysical separation of form and content, in which form is viewed as a kind of jug into which content is poured, and from which that content is poured into your brain. The relationship between form and content is rather more complex than that: the form of Twitter, certainly, marks it out as a transmission belt for ideology.

XI. Twitter is limited to twitches, yelps and other unconscious reflexes. The point is, in Trotsky’s words, to ‘learn to think’. (That should be the end – but the author will permit none of these theses to fit into 140 characters.)

Trigger warning!

I want to begin with a definition. There are many different varieties of identity politics – by which I don’t mean feminism vs LGBT vs black vs Asian and so forth; differences exist here, but they are functionally identical. Rather, there are distinctive trends in the academic literature, such as it is; serious principled divisions on matters historical, philosophical and so forth (which, tellingly, tend not to add up to much in the ‘real world’). I have not found one I agree with, but some books and academic papers I’ve encountered in this line of things over my long march through the institutions have enlivened things in a seminar room, and others still have at least not left me spitting my own teeth out with rage.

But there’s one particular variant that I’m going to call “bureaucratic sentimentalism” (serendipitously, BS for short), which has two premises: firstly, it is ‘sentimental’ in the sense that political questions are judged in that very American, post-war way, according to the shrink’s question of cliché immemorial – “And how did that make you feel?” The ambiguous old women’s lib slogan, “the personal is political”, is presented in its most absurd form, as a kind of hedonic calculus. Political rectitude consists in being ‘inclusive’ to the most diverse experiences of oppression. As with many things that seem, on the face of things, to be terribly progressive and liberal, this is necessarily bureaucratic – it throws up a need for a kind of police force, to manage what is said and done according to the calculus.

The trigger warning serves this kind of politics right up to you in a sesame bun. For those not in the know, a trigger warning is a kind of puritanical cross between NSFW and one of those comically helpful BBFC summaries (“rated PG for infrequent language and mild threat”). ‘Properly’ used, it goes above an account of some horrific trauma or other potentially disturbing content, with the official purpose being to prevent a ‘trauma trigger’ – a pathological psychological response by somebody who is exceptionally vulnerable to the particular subject.

The problem of trauma triggers is a real one of live interest to those in the psychological and psychiatric line of work, of course. This is a pretty nasty world, in which many people experience more horror in an afternoon than anyone should have to face over their whole life. The human mind’s coping mechanisms, like most of its other mechanisms, are bizarre, and often fail in ways that cannot easily be predicted and require serious and sober academic study, not to say sensitivity and attentiveness on the part of mental health practitioners dealing with traumatised patients.

In the hands of the low-rent bureaucratic sentimentalist blogger, however, the trigger warning is not a serious matter. It is an affectation.

Take, as the classic example, a bureaucratic feminist blog which carries a shock story about some case of sexual violence. The inevitable trigger warning is supposed to warn off traumatised rape victims. Just think about that for a second. Imagine you are a traumatised rape victim, and you happen to be sent into psychological chaos by accounts of rape. The internet, as a whole, is not going to be a friendly place; but just about the worst place you can go is this kind of feminist blog, where it is rape for breakfast, rape culture for lunch and rape denial for tea. In reality, the trauma trigger set are not the audience for accounts of traumatic violence. They know well enough what it is to be a victim. The audience is, in the first place, people who share the BS political outlook in some form, and in the second, those who do not, and thus need to be confronted with their insensitivity.

And such is the audience, equally, of the trigger warning. It is about establishing a shared experience of disgust at the particular horror, with a collective self-affirmation at how seriously everyone is taking things.  This frivolous sentimentalism has the bureaucratic impulse as its obverse: the duty to police writing, in the name of an absent third party.