The origin of the luminous phrase ‘killing moon’ is obscure (at least it is to me). Google throws up no reference other than the 1984 Echo and the Bunnymen tune, and a 1994 video game called Under a Killing Moon, ‘the largest of its era’ according to Wikipedia. Elsewhere, there are stray hints. An early draft version of Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ begins:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Changeless and deathless; above the murdering moon …
For Yeats the moon had an occult symbolism, which we can fit into a broader Romantic tradition of viewing the moon as a source of terrible beauty. This was, more or less, the lunar worship famously avowed in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948), which argued that the Romantics—and indeed poets going back into prehistory—celebrated the moon because it preserved memories of an ancient matriarchal society. In Graves’s account, prior to the arrival of male sun gods (Apollo, Christ) European societies paid tribute to a female deity associated with the moon: a ‘White Goddess’ at once ‘terrible, beautiful, inspiring, and destroying’. For Graves, all true poetry must pay homage to the Goddess and her ultimate dominion over the creative soul:
The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess … whose embrace is death.
Graves’s theory was highly influential, and for better or worse we can see it impacting on post-forties poetry in all kinds of ways (the life and work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, both of whom were White Goddess devotees, is a notable example).
While I doubt that Ian McCulloch had Graves in mind when he sat down to write ‘The Killing Moon’, it seems clear that the wider, ancient poetic tendency of exalting the moon’s dark majesty and sway over human fate is somewhere behind the lyrics of this incredible piece of music:
In starlit nights I saw you
So cruelly you kissed me
Your lips a magic world
Your sky all hung with jewels
The killing moon
Will come too soon …
I’m not trying to shoehorn this pop lyric into an orthodox study of literary influence. All lyrics set to music (from Campion to Beyoncé) are different in texture from non-musical poetry—they are less dense and allusive, and so do not lend themselves to the techniques of close reading established over the last century or so of literary discourse. But I think we can probably agree that this sort of writing is nonetheless something unique and lovely. Like the best pop lyrics, it emerges from the moment when adolescent simplicity and sincerity are perfected with a sudden flash of mature self-awareness—a Bildungsroman in a nanosecond.
More concretely, as mentioned, we can see literary presences filtering through here to a work of art that is not self-consciously literary. Even if McCulloch was not as versed in the poetic canon as someone like Ted Hughes, he was writing in the early 1980s at a high watermark of popular literacy: a time when certain historical conditions (generously funded higher education, a strong counterculture, widespread intellectualism, no internet) meant that literary pop songs happened as a matter of course, growing organically out of the social-democratic soil, as it were. ‘The Killing Moon’ with its evocative title and lyrics—not to mention its sophisticated melody and arrangement—is one of the greatest and most successful translations of the Romantic literary aesthetic into the medium of the late-twentieth-century pop song. And it manages the feat without even trying.
But what, after all, is the song about? The arresting chorus hook (‘Fate / Up against your will / Through the thick and thin’) doesn’t need much decoding. Indeed—and again, note the effortlessness—apparently this fragment came to McCulloch full-fledged in a dream, just as the melody of ‘Yesterday’ was magically gifted to another Scouse Romantic back in 1964. We don’t need to follow McCulloch’s claim that the lyric arrived direct from God to appreciate the simple profundity of lines like this: will and fate in an endless tug of war, with the earth of life churned by the footfall.
Of course, this is at bottom a song about a death wish, or perhaps just death (remember the White Goddess, her embrace):
Under a blue moon I saw you
So soon you’ll take me
Up in your arms
Too late to beg you or cancel it
Though I know it must be the killing time …
Perhaps you’ll forgive me if I move from the critical to the personal to attempt to understand the power of these lines. I don’t know why, but since (belatedly) discovering this song for the first time over the last month or so, I haven’t been able to break its dark spell. In echo of its composition, I’ve woken up many times in the middle of the night with the chorus hook ringing round my brain. Life for me is good right now, perhaps better than ever. But there is something not quite right in the night sky.
I cannot work out what is meant by the final couplet of the chorus of ‘The Killing Moon’, a song released in the year I was born: ‘He will wait until / You give yourself to him’. Does God, or the Goddess, wait mercifully for us to decide we have given up on life? And being so overshadowed by death, how are we to muster will, hope, energy in the meantime? Perhaps we are living in the killing time, sliding passively towards decay, with ingenious lovely things disappearing around us every second. Like so many others, I am finding it difficult to see a way forward right now. Political options have narrowed, the counterculture is gone, and the wisest man I knew took his own life at the start of the year. I can acknowledge the light of the morning, and savour how it makes my baby son smile. But you must believe me when I say that lately I have felt haunted by the killing moon.
Alex Niven is a Repeater editor, writer and lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University. He is the author of Folk Opposition, The Last Tape and Definitely Maybe (33 1/3), and is currently editing a book of Basil Bunting’s letters for OUP. He blogs at http://thefantastichope.blogspot.co.uk.
This is part one of two of ‘Femme Fatales, “Female Psychopaths” and Narrative “Science”‘ by Tristam Vivian Adams, author of The Psychopath Factory. Adams discussed the topic of this essay in a recent episode of Very Loose Women on Resonance FM. Read part two here.
In The Psychopath Factory I make a distinction between psychopaths and sociopaths. Ordinarily, in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and in culture more generally, the two terms are interchangeable. But sociopathy is distinctly distinguishable from psychopathy. Sociopaths fail at behaving socially; they might do or say the wrong thing, they might be awkward or just plainly dangerous and anti-social. Sociopathy requires an audience. The dominant consistency of sociopathy is that it is observable, it is about interaction – we know when someone does or says something they shouldn’t. In a sense young children are adorably cute mini sociopaths; they don’t always know what is acceptable and what isn’t – they might say something a little rude or embarrassing for parents. I would class Alan Partridge, David Brent, Larry David (the character in Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Mr. Bean as comedic examples of harmless sociopathy – they are also quite childlike, their cringey blunders stem from their social myopia and self-absorption. Nonetheless, sociopathy is conspicuous.
Psychopathy is different. It cannot be detected through behaviour; it isn’t obvious. Psychopathy is more about the inner world – being cold hearted or lacking empathy. If sociopathy is about the external social realm psychopathy is more about the inner psychological realm. More precisely, psychopathy is about how a hidden psychology is not reflected in behaviour. Take Patrick Bateman, Frank Underwood or Hannibal Lecter – they seem nice at first, charming even, but of course beneath their superficial manners lurks a truer personality: anempathic with dangerous impulses or uncaring narcissism.
It is this anxiety about the disjunct between behaviour and character that is fascinating for us. People say ‘take care’ or ‘have a nice day’ after we buy coffee from them – but how does one know for sure that they mean it? Most of the time we might expect that they do not mean it, it is just what people say – normalized psychopathy. Psychopathy is about the disjunct between external presentation, behaviour, and inner intents that we cannot fathom.
Of course, we are quite like sociopaths and psychopaths on some level. In terms of the former, we have all made a faux-pas at some point and accidentally offended someone – if not that then perhaps we failed at the minutiae of social code: manners and the ‘correct’ ways to dine (elbows off the table, don’t slouch Miss Ward…) But we are psychopathic at times too – our behaviour doesn’t always reflect our wants; we curb, temper and conceal ourselves sometimes. Haven’t we all lied a little for the sake of politeness? Further still, we may even have lied plainly and brazenly during a job interview: ‘genuinely I, myself, am personally passionate about admin’ or suchlike is now a mandatory performance – its disingenuous nature more acceptable than the truth: ‘I don’t care about admin. I just need the money.’
The at once fascinating and unnervingly relatable facet of psychopathy is this disjunct between a person and their behaviour. This, of course, leads to an anxiety about the empathy of others – sure, they seem nice, they seem genuine: but how can one tell for sure? We do not have Voight-Kampf machines in this boring dystopia of ours, instead we have Facebook, Twitter and Tinder.
Dating sites seem to evidence an insatiable appetite for ‘banter’. But banter is anything but honest or genuine… isn’t it more a mode of evasive social sparring: a jolly and smirking façade? In a similar vein, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that ingeniously monetise both relationships and loneliness, we project a life of holidays, achievements and Disneyesque Apple-pie positivity. We sycophantically like, love and praise yet omit our woe, bitterness, jealousy or vexation whilst, IRL meet/meat space we erect a wall of sarcastic (so-caustic) banter. This is normalized disingenuousness; to call it the lowest form of wit is too generous. Online selfhood qua self-promotion is indefatigably optimistic and ‘fun’. We gaze affectless, icy-eyed and apathetically type ‘lol’. ‘Lol’ is commonly accepted to mean audible laughter yet doesn’t this de-abbreviated acronym of laugh-out-loud also refer to silent supine apathy? The de-abbreviated acronym of ‘lol’ was originally intended to signal energy and fun, yet now it is employed in a sense closer to the older homograph of lol – signalling a lack of energy, a passivity, a lateral indifference with shades of languor, lethargy and torpor. One can pivot around the term ‘lol’. One can strafe to regard the antithesis of its accepted online textual staging, the z creeps in orphaned from its multiplied guise as comic shorthand for snoozing (Zzzzzz), in a term that cites, re-cites and makes legible the opposite of laugh-out-loud lol/lolz: narco-lolzzzzzz (can’t we, then, now, Jacques?).
Our online self is an unblinkingly positive projection, a resolute departure from our ‘true selves’. A contemporary register of this is the online dating profile that claims to adore everything: the calculated personality match trawler net pitch of ‘loves laughing, going out and staying in’. In life, it is difficult to know people for sure, because people increasingly present an edited (a shopped) version of themselves. When we type lol is it a testament to the inadvertent convulsion of hilarity or the passive placeholder of sleepy isolation and interactive avoidance? When people urge us to ‘take care now’ is it a caring personal sentiment or a void-scripted platitude or is it a vaguely authoritative reference to the stipulations of health and safety regulations (‘caution HOT beverage’)? What do others really mean and feel?
TV, Film and literature are different. We get to see multiple aspects of a character’s personality. We can read of, even in first person fiction, the inner world on one page whilst learning of the social interactions of a character on the next page that are at odds with their ‘true’ character. Film and television is particularly quick at flipping from depicting inner self to social self. Time is of the essence for the digitally twitching and attentively fickle box-set viewer. One must watch a character trick, con, and lie and know that they are doing so; if the film or show does not allow the viewer to be privy to the character’s true intent then how do they know the scene they watch is one of deceit, conning or manipulation? Film and television must show the viewer that despite a character acting one way, they do not mean it – they are lying, it is a ruse.
This is the satisfying difference between the fictional psychopaths and the polite people we speak to every day. TV and film always provide a clue that someone isn’t what they seem. The viewer is shown the disjunct between behaviour and intent. The psychopath’s disjunct is manifested in film and TV’s penchant for mirror scenes, masks and various other methods that show a character is one of façades and pre-meditated self-projection. The mirror scene trope or the mask metaphor tells the viewer in the opening scenes of a film that whilst a character appears normal they, as well as being hyper-reflexive, are hiding something. They might be charming, polite and perfectly social… but really…
The mirror scene trope in serves this purpose well. Patrick Bateman’s mirror scene in American Psycho (2000, Harron) tells the viewer that the man is all show, that what he does and says is all an act, a façade, a mask. The same trick is employed in Malice (1993, Becker). Tracy Safian, played by Nicole Kidman, stares into the mirror mimicking emotions – she is practicing her façade, rehearsing the ‘right’ ways to react, preparing her performance for when it is needed within a social context. Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) also deploys the same trick of reflectively divulging character.
Another strategy employed to convey a character’s janus faced double life is the fourth wall break. Francis “Frank” Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in HBO’s House of Cards (2013), breaks the fourth wall to tell the viewer he’s only pretending to be nice so he can get his way; as does Stuntman Mike in Tarantino’s Deathproof (2007, Tarantino). Note the smirking irony of Underwood’s preferred name ‘Frank’; he is anything but. Stuntman Mike is similar – his job is to con the viewer: he’s a stuntman, like magicians and actors his trade is deception. In comedy a more recent example can be found in Fleabag (2016). The eponymous protagonist, wrote and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, quick-fires asides to the viewer relentlessly. Fleabag is schizo-narrative, an Adderalled up oscillation of the fourth wall. The break of the forth wall is a satisfyingly plain way to show that even though a character is doing or saying one thing they mean to do another. They might seem social… but really…
Peep Show (2003-2015) depicts deceit and social performance in a different, more multi-faceted manner. The show is essentially multiple first-person perspectives replete with inner monologues. A character strolls about, forcing smiles and convivial greetings one second, but in the next moment we hear their inner thoughts – often derogatory – about the acquaintance currently being charmed or ingratiated to.
But the simplest example of this showing a character one way whilst also depicting them to be opposite is in Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme). Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, is perfectly polite – but we are primed before hand, peripheral characters explain just how bad he is. As FBI Agent Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is walked through the labyrinth of the prison holding Lector she is informed of the abhorrent nature of his crimes by Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald). The spiel is as much for Clarice’s benefit as it is for the viewer. Moments later Clarice stands before Lecter. He is softly spoken, polite and eloquent. He stands in stark contrast to both the incarcerated ‘degenerates’ in the neighbouring cells and the history of his crimes recounted moments previously.
Certain interactive antisocial behaviours in film and TV also tell the viewer a protagonist isn’t entirely what they seem to be. The opening scene of House of Cards shows ‘Frank’ Underwood killing a wounded dog with his bare hands. Right from the start, we see that despite his stately magnanimity and deep southern crooned charm Underwood is a cold man. In itself the act is sociopathic, Underwood shouldn’t kill a domestic animal quite so readily and with such ease. However, only the viewer is privy to this act – the other characters remain unaware of such behaviour. This strategy is a step away from the mirror scene, fourth wall break or diegetic priming. We see a character act in different ways in different contexts. The two-scene trick evokes their mercurial personality.
Often the two-scene trick involves the protagonist being antisocial, or nonconformist, with someone who is not involved in the main narrative thread. Most commonly this involves an out-of-hours sociopathy. By day the characters are polite conformists, but at night they indulge in whatever wants they have, be they nonconformist, misanthropic, antisocial or dangerous. These are the TV equivalents of the boring office suit whom by day talks the pseudo-Deleuzian late capitalist jargon of business speak – all abstractions and metaphors – but whose nights are antitheses whiled away feverishly fretting a Burzum din or writing atrocious modernist poetry or similar avocation.
TV and film must depict both sides of someone’s double life: the viewer must be shown how a character might seem fine at work, but after hours, when a conning charm is not necessary, they might do something unusual or ‘bad’. This is the troubling parallel between Stella Gibbons and Paul Spector in BBC’s excellent The Fall (2013-2016). Both lead, for most of the first season, double-lives. Spector is a counsellor and family man by day but a rapist and torture-murderer by night. Stella is a shrewdly demure and sensitive detective, knowing to bite her lip when dealing with institutional and personal sexism by day, yet at night she is portrayed as being sexually independent, and, in notable juxtaposition to the heteronormative machismo of the police force, bisexual. The mode commonly employed in TV and film to convey a psychopath often involves some slight slips into sociopathy, of doing something ‘wrong’, to allude or hint that their truer personality, the person behind the niceties and charm, is anti-social, non-conformist, heartless or anempathic.
But, again, is this not how we behave on a ‘daily basis’? In an office one might feign or cultivate an interest in something that, had one not had to ingratiate oneself to the many others treading water in the open-plan jungle of pointless work, wouldn’t interest one otherwise. The reflexive double lifer, the Ripleyesque pretender (‘I just love Jazz!’), is essentially a fantastic and exaggerated version of our working selves – the self that performs passionate enthusiasm for customers and clients by day but lives a private life by night, whinging about managers or colleagues, indulging in niche interests, fringe pursuits and underground cultures.
Continued in part two here.
This is an edited extract from Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s Specters of Revolt: On the Intellect of Insurrection and Philosophy From Below (out now). He will be speaking at Five Leaves bookshop, Nottingham (UK) on 16th March (more details/FB event)
The Ferguson Revolt Did Not Take Place
Black people desire to determine their own destiny. As a result, they are constantly inflicted with brutality from the occupying army, embodied by the police department. There is a great similarity between the occupying army in Southeast Asia and the occupation of our communities by the racist police. The armies were sent not to protect the people of South Vietnam but to brutalize and oppress them in the self-interests of the imperial powers.
—HUEY P. NEWTON, “A Functional Definition of Politics” (1969)
We don’t need anybody to agree with our tactics, right? We’re disrupting business as usual. That is the whole idea. We’re not going to stand in a corner and protest, because nobody pays attention to that. We are going to disrupt your life. You are going to know that business as usual in America and the world is not going to continue while black people —unarmed black people —are literally being shot and killed by law enforcement in the street every day.
—MISKI Noor, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (2015)[ii]
The Ferguson revolt did not take place; the Baltimore revolt is proof.[iii] The Ferguson revolt did not take place because it has occurred and is still happening in different ways in other places. In so many uprisings, from Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 to the many North American slave revolts of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the race riots of the 20th century, from Springfield, Illinois in 1908 to Watts, Los Angeles in 1965, to current insurrections in Ferguson 2014 and Baltimore 2015, to the Black Lives Matter disruptions at the Mall of America and Minneapolis airport in Minnesota in December 2015, there is always some part of the event that expresses disaffections carried over from the previous ones. Revolts are nodal points in the elaboration of a transformative “politics” that exceeds them. To historicize revolt by marking its beginning and its end is to cut it off from itself, to misunderstand it. In particular, the fixation on the end of revolt disguises that old quotidian hope for a retour à la normale.
Riot and revolt are difficult to predict. And yet, as soon as they break out, the reasons for their occurrence are easy to see. The hardest part of processing riot and revolt in an intellectual register is always: not why they happen, but why they do not happen (until now). They are difficult to predict because of the remarkable capacity of societies to bear the unbearable, to suffer the insufferable.
Historians have a difficult time with the continuity of discontinuous events. But we can find a close connection between any two coordinates in the history of black revolt in North America. In the recent examples of Ferguson and Baltimore, the linkages are clear (i.e. killer cops, poverty, racism). Yet, historical accounts always want to identify the start and end dates of each uprising, especially because discrete and isolated events can be treated as local aberrations, not expansive fabrics of discontent.
What if Baltimore does not begin with the case of Freddie Gray? What if Baltimore does not end in Baltimore (which we discover when it is taken up again in six months, in one year, in two years, in another city)? Each revolt is itself, as Deleuze and Guattari claimed, “an unstable condition that opens up a new field of the possible.”[iv]
But what exactly is possible here beyond the possibility of posing old questions in new ways? First of all, the whole question of revolt is thoroughly imbricated with selective concerns about violence. Violence pervades and disfigures everything from the start. Every revolt, every riot, is haunted by the figure of violence. On April 28, 2015, The Wall Street Journal declared that “violence breaks out” in Baltimore.[v] That is the basic treatment: “Violence breaks out” whenever black people revolt against racist violence. For The Wall Street Journal, there is no violence when the cops kill black people, there is no violence on Wall Street, let alone any consideration of the violence of capital more broadly. The article could have been written by the Baltimore Police Department, and the fact that it wasn’t is indicative of the depth of the problem. Bakunin’s basic understanding of revolt from 1872 far exceeds the understanding from The Wall Street Journal in 2015. Bakunin said: “To revolt is a natural tendency of life. Even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it. In general, the vitality and relative dignity of an animal can be measured by the intensity of its instinct to revolt.”[vi] Contrary to racist caricatures of insurgents as wild animals, revolt is —for the human animal —a modality of indignation, a measure of dignity.
Nonetheless, ideological and idiotic depictions of “violence” remain effective and reliable mechanisms for the disqualification of the critical content of revolt. Georg Lukács explained that “the radical and mechanical separation of the concepts of violence and economics” are the result of the fetishization of economics as a nonviolent and legal field, and the fetishization of violence as always outside economy and law.[vii] Revolt exposes the “invisible” violence of economy and law, challenging that separation. Economy and law establish themselves as the normalization of the non-violent order, so anything that opposes them is identified and condemned as violence and disorder. Voltairine de Cleyre had it right when she observed the violence of the social order: “watch a policeman arrest a shoeless tramp for stealing a pair of boots. Say to your self, this is civil order and must be preserved… Aye, I would destroy, to the last vestige, this mockery of order, this travesty upon justice!”[viii] What the revolt invites, encourages, and makes possible, is to worry less about “violence” to capital (its inanimate objects and commodities), and more about the violence of capital. A broken window, looted food, a burning bank, a burning car, are violence from the perspective of property law. From what perspective, however, is the police killing of Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Abner Louima, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Jamar Clark, and so many others, called violence? So many others indeed: On August 9, Michael Brown became the 668th person killed in the US by the police in 2014, and he was far from the last. Police killed over 1,000 people in the US in 2014, and in between every killing you do hear of, there are hundreds of others you don’t. Someone is killed every day by police in the US. In fact, it’s usually several each day.[ix]
It is therefore necessary to reject all efforts to reduce each revolt to the stories of the murdered individuals who trigger them. We all know that the “Arab Spring” was not about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who lit himself on fire in December of 2010. We must try instead to see the violence in the conditions that made self-immolation appear sensible to Bouazizi. Can we ask, as Bouazizi’s sister asked: “What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this?” Treatments of particular cases matter, but even “justice” in a verdict, as sug- gested by the indictments of the six officers responsible for the death of Freddie Gray, resolves none of the everyday violence of capital and law.
Everyday violence indeed, and one which it is necessary to confront as an overwhelmingly racist violence. Angela Davis points out: “The sheer persistence of police killings of Black youth contradicts the assumption that these are isolated aberrations.” She refers to “an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extralegal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes.”[xi] In light of this everyday violence, which is of course not the only form of violence, revolt is patient, revolt is kind. Revolt may even appear too moderate, too restrained, and too peaceable.
Professional academics are typically part of the problem. We need less intellectual analysis of revolt, and more consideration of the active intellect of revolt, revolt as analysis itself. Can we only hear the demos when it speaks in ballots? One participant in the Baltimore revolt answered in the midst of the uprising: “They tell us when we ‘vote’ we are being heard. No THIS is an example of us young people being heard!”[xii] That revolt does not need to speak through experts, elections, figureheads, and analysts is a lesson that even the most sympathetic political scientists are slow to learn.
Academics can be helpful only if they possess a deep and abiding understanding —as did Socrates and Jacques Rancière —that intelligence is not the private property of professionals. Discourse in the form of text can be useful indeed. Rancière’s beautiful book, Hatred of Democracy, diagnoses the hatred of democracy that hides behind the professed love of democracy.[xiii] I propose the following variation on Rancière’s theme:
Those who condemn the riots secretly love them — the purported hatred of the “violence” of the riots conceals a special love for that “violence.” They love the riots they condemn, for their own reasons, most of them racist. The riots are made to serve as evidence for what liberals and conservatives already think about politics, race, class, and capital.[xiv] This is particularly clear with the media, but can also be seen throughout society (universities included) in the surrounding conversation.
Deleuze and Guattari claimed that what “we institutionalize for the unemployed, the retired, or in school, are controlled ‘situations of abandonment’.”[xv]275 This is also true of impoverished black communities throughout the US. Institutionalized abandonment and everyday violence are always more the causal factors of revolt than the personal immorality and intellect of participants.
In the Baltimore revolt of 2015, there was an early celebration of a black mother, Toya Graham, who discovered her son participating in the uprising. She chased him down in the street, grabbing him and hitting him in the head, scolding him loudly. Forget the National Guard, said her fan club, send in the moms to tame the revolt. Graham knows well what the police do to young black men like her son, but she was not applauded for concern over his well-being. Rather, she was applauded for berating and beating him in the streets. The message in her celebration was clear: Black people in revolt are like out-of-control children, and what they really need is the paternalistic power of containment.
Meanwhile, capital hides behind the scenes of revolt, staying aloof and quiet. But what of the peculiar silence of capital? Even those who acknowledge the class dimensions of the problem often do not acknowledge that capital has nothing to offer impoverished communities that face a dilapidated opportunity structure with no future.
Over 63% of Baltimore’s population is black, but the median income of the black population ($33,000) is roughly half that of whites in the city. Maryland is the richest state in the country, which exacerbates the already abysmal conditions of life for the poor. Young black men in Baltimore were unemployed at the star- tling rate of 37% in 2013. Compare that with 10% unemployment for white men of the same age. One-third of Maryland residents living in the state’s prisons come from the mostly black communities of Baltimore.[xvi]
Impoverished black people in the US don’t need to be taught how to stand up for themselves. Everyday life shapes and informs the knowledge and experience of the disaffected, and indicates that “the field of the possible lives elsewhere.”[xvii] You cannot simultaneously reproduce everyday life and transform it. Revolt understands that basic logic.
Thinking about May ’68, Deleuze and Guattari argued: “There can only be creative solutions. These are the creative redeploy- ments that can contribute to a resolution of the current crisis and that can take over where a generalized May ’68, amplified bifurcation or fluctuation, left off.”[xviii]
Baltimore 2015 takes over where Ferguson 2014 left off, keeping Ferguson (and Springfield 1908 and Watts 1965) on the list of unfinished business. But the creative solutions and redeployments that Deleuze and Guattari call for may still be premature. Creativity is a productive activity, but there is still much to abol- ish. Perhaps the abolition of racism calls for creative solutions, and perhaps abolitionists need to get more creative. Yet, we cannot create new worlds without transformation, and transformation implicates abolition. Hegel and Marx understood well that there is an abolitionist force in the negations of transformation. The abolition of old forms of life, political institutions, and social structures implies the creation of new ones, implies creativity. There is always an abolition of old understandings in the creation of new ones, even if, in Hegel’s sense, the new understandings carry forth much from the old. And there is always an abolition of the present state of things in the construction of a new state of things, even if some things stay the same.
Those who condemn the revolts actually love them because they get to condemn a “violence” that justifies the violence they defend, the violence they love. Critics of revolt do not, therefore, fear the violence, but rather the transformative potentialities of revolt, its abolitionist (and creative) content. Their wager and hope is that nothing they love will be abolished, that the present state of things will be defended against every revolt. And if the existing order is maintained against revolt, as it often is, that existing order will be haunted by the specters of future revolt. Defenders of this present capitalist society know well that surviving a revolt is not busting the ghosts, is not laying them finally to rest. The conditions that give rise to revolt, left unchanged, also leave the abolitionist impetus in place. If the imprecators of upheaval tremble, perhaps they know: Efforts to realize abolitionist dreams continue on where previous ones leave off. Nothing is over and done.
[ii] Noor, Miski, “Interview on CNN with Carol Costello about the Black Lives Matter Protest Planned for the Mall of America” (12/22/2015), accessed January 11, 2016, http://archives.cnn.com/trANSCrIPtS/1512/22/cnr.02.html .
[iii] This short chapter is a détournement of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s shorter essay, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place” in Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader, ed. Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001).
[iv] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 209.
- [v] Calvert, Scott and Maher, Kris, “Violence Breaks Out in Baltimore After
Freddie Gray’s Funeral,” accessed May 6, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/violence-breaks-out-in-baltimore-as-freddie-gray-is-laid-to-rest-1430169131 .
[vi] Bakunin, Mikhail, “On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx,” accessed January 7, 2016, https://www.marxists.org/reference/ archive/bakunin/works/1872/karl-marx.htm.
[vii] Lukács, Georg, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: The MIt Press, 1988), p. 240
[viii] de Cleyre, Voltairine, The Votairine de Cleyre Reader (Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press, 2004), pp. 71-72
Reuters, “Peddler’s martyrdom launched Tunisia’s revolution (1/19/11),” accessed January 8, 2016, http://af.reuters.com/article/libyaNews/idAFLDE70G18J20110119?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0&sp=true
[xi] Davis, Angela Y., Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), p. 77. 271 Ibid.
[xii] The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary (New York: Research and Destroy, 2015), no page numbers
[xiii] Rancière, Jacques, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London and New York: Verso, 2006).
[xiv] In short, liberals and conservatives hold in common that procedural and electoral politics and reform are sufficient, that racism is a shrinking or minor difficulty, that socio-economic class positions are more-or-less negotiable through hard work and upward mobility, and that capital is either neutral or good, respectively.
[xv] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 211
[xvi] Malter, Jordan, “Baltimore’s Economy in Black and White,” accessed January 8, 2016, http://money.cnn.com/2015/04/29/news/economy/baltimore-economy/index.html
[xvii] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 211.
The first mistake in analysing the travel ban is thinking its primary aim is to ban travel. It won’t work. It isn’t intended to work. The Trump administration is not aiming to institute effective policy. It’s aiming to communicate. If you understand communication as the primary aim of the ban, it has worked and will continue to work. If you try to counter it by proving it’s inefficient, unjust and unconstitutional, you’re not addressing it, as it’s not intended to be any of those things.
To tackle it, you have to understand it as communication and out-communicate it. This is a culture war and a meme war. You establish a narrative about immigration. Within that narrative you lay down a solution that you know you can meet. You reach power, you implement the “solution” you’ve seeded over the previous decades. The resolution is extremely satisfying to those who are emotionally invested in the narrative. The issue is not about policy; it’s about storytelling.
For well over 30 years political “realists” on the soft left have thought concerns about immigration policy were really about immigration policy. In worrying about, and pandering to, “legitimate concerns” on migration they have validated the hard right’s narrative of immigration being one of the major challenges facing administrations in the US and Europe. Every attempt to steal that ground has actually just been acquiescing to it, adding credence that the narrative is valid. Triangulation has not, and cannot, work. They will never be able to create a satisfying resolution to that narrative because they don’t fundamentally believe in genocidal racism — although their objections are more economic than humanitarian. They do, however, believe in their own political superiority and right-to-govern, and will pander to genocidal racism in the mistaken belief they’re seeing it off. In doing so they have validated the story told by the hard right. They have created the conditions whereby the narrative has reached its dramatic high-point and can only be resolved by decisive, public, unashamed and totalised genocidal racism.
They have also, in their infinite intellectual superiority and strategic nous, handed the fascist right all the (literal, infrastructural) tools needed to implement these high-camp public displays of genocidal racism. Britain has concentration camps for migrants. They were built by the Labour Party. The United States has the tools for absolute surveillance of migrants. They were (partly) built by the Democratic Party. Indefinite house arrest: Labour. Drone strike assassinations of your own citizens: Democrats. Fire to fight fire, with plenty of petrol cans as spare capacity.
This is why supposed pragmatic support for Clinton was so dangerous – it has allowed the right to legitimise the narrative. This is why Blairite triangulation on immigration was strategically idiotic as well as morally disgusting. Any capitulation to TINA (There Is No Alternative) is taking the brakes off any narrative the right might choose to implement. The solution is not to address the inefficiency of Trump in implementing spectacular versions of your own racist border policies. It’s to develop a counter-narrative of similar vision and resonance, and, despite its seeming popularity (or otherwise), to hammer away at it for decades until it becomes a vision of the world that people buy as credible, humane, beautiful. A pole of attraction that resonates more than a promise on immigration, carved in stone.
That’s why “No Borders” is not just a utopian slogan but a political vision that it is vital to pursue. No one is illegal, no borders. No one is illegal, no borders. No one is illegal, no borders. Create the world by changing all expressions of political vision into long-sighted narratives of who humans are and what we can be.
“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.
All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. It goes without saying that the Fascist apotheosis of war does not employ such arguments.
“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”
—Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (full text here)
Huw Lemmey is a writer based in London.
Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Richard Gilman-Opalsky about his new book Specters of Revolt. Here is a 12-minute excerpt of our conversation and the transcript is below. –John Tintera
Richard Gilman-Opalsky on Specters of Revolt [transcript]
I really want to turn our understanding of revolt upside down. I want to invert it, to turn it upside down. Rather than looking upon it as a lowly emotional outburst, I want us to see it as, in some ways, the high point for politics, for our ethical commitment to others on earth.
And within that, there is also a kind of historical concern that my book takes up and that is the idea of the revolt as not being over when it’s done. This gets to the whole title of the book Specters of Revolt and its meaning.
This is why I wrote the book within the context of a hauntology—being haunted. Societies are haunted by revolts because often times something happens—a revolt, an uprising takes place over a weekend or it goes on for two weeks—maybe if it’s a very intense thing it can go for three or four—and then it’s over and people say, “Ah, it’s over but nothing happened.”
I think this is a fundamentally flawed historical understanding of each individual revolt. A revolt is always taking up the unfinished business of previous uprisings. It’s never really over. Once we stop seeing it happen it doesn’t mean it’s done. It’s only finished when the grievances it reacts against are thoroughly resolved – when the conditions that gave rise to it are transformed.
That’s why I look at these more recent revolts within the US as continuations of a long history of revolts that go all the way back to the slave revolts. In fact, in the introduction of the book, I talk about the famous slave revolt of Spartacus in gladiatorial times.
When we don’t have a revolt, we always know, and I believe people in positions of power know full well…there’re a couple of examples in the book that I use to illustrate this…that until the society really does transform and address the conditions that give rise to revolt, times in between revolt are really “ante-revolt” – they’re times before the next one.
We’ve started to see a new wave of black revolt, within the US, in response to police brutality, police killings of unarmed black men across the country. We saw uprisings in Baltimore, in Charlotte, in Ferguson among other places. The book is really about trying to treat these revolts with the dignity they demand and, I think, deserve. And trying to take seriously that, contrary to the typical caricature of revolt as irrational and violent, that they’re actually full of exceedingly thoughtful content. And that they’re more a reaction against violence and various forms of violence than they are themselves violent.
Quite a long time ago, I had taken up, for a book that was published in 2008, the example of the Mexican Zapatistas who made a revolt in Mexico on the inauguration day of NAFTA. This was in 1994, early into the post-Cold War period, when people were saying that the old revolutionary politics is dead and that it was time for a tombstone to be placed above everything under the heading revolution, transformation, criticism of capital and capitalism, and all the rest. Because the old Soviet Union and the communist projects of the 20th century were now dead and buried.
And then come, out of the mountains of Chiapas, people with virtually no power, out of the mountains, and that indigenous population threw into question the neo-liberalism of the early ’90s.
Really, ever since that moment, I have been interested in what we might call revolutionary alternatives to revolution. Not the old 19th-century idea of revolution where people storm the Bastille, take the state, and govern it from above, but different ways of challenging the existing situation from below.
In the years after that, I had thought, written, researched, and taught about social movements and all kinds of challenges that were coming from everyday people. What usually was the case was that students and readers saw this as a highly impractical theoretical debate because we didn’t live in a world of revolution. We lived in a world of acceptance, of acquiescence, of conventional politics, and failure.
So when 2008 came around and we started to see uprisings throughout Greece, Europe, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and in the inner cities throughout the US, finally, at long last, it was much easier to say, “You see. This is not a pure theory trapped up in text or philosophy. This is the actual practice of people everywhere. Whenever they can do it, whenever the conditions are there they do rise up and always have.”
Events in the world have forced me to take up the question anew. For myself and for a whole generation of people, there was a big question in the early ‘90s. And that question was, is there anything else; is there nothing but global capitalism of one form or another, is there anything else? Is there any other way of thinking about and against this newly consolidated power of capital?
In the ‘80s, really throughout the whole Cold War period, the idea that dominated was, there’re two systems. That was the Cold War ideology. There’s the system of capitalism versus the communist system. Of course, we knew for a long time — across the disciplines in the social sciences and humanities — that the Cold War ideology was a fake. It was a fraud; it was a lie.
Many of the philosophers I read, many of the sources I used, demonstrated that that period was a period not between capitalism and communism but; rather a period of contest between two forms of capitalism; state capitalism, bureaucratic and administrative capitalism, on the one hand, versus the free market deregulating capitalism of the US. And that was the capitalism that won at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.
In that period of the early 1990s, people were generally convinced that now there was no alternative, not even an alternative within capitalism of one form against another. It was just the victory of neo-liberal free market global capitalism and nothing else.
The indigenous rebellion in Mexico–the revolt of the Zapatistas, which in many ways was a failure but in other ways was a success–showed those of us who learn from revolts… (that’s the kind of scholar I always have been, one who didn’t want to teach revolt but rather to be a student of it and learn from it) the Zapatistas taught us that there were still new ways of thinking against the situation.
As I said, some of it was a failure but some of it was a success. What it did was spark what I call in the book, the “insurrectionary imagination.” It didn’t directly and immediately solve problems, but what the Zapatistas did do was they unjammed the insurrectionary imagination, which is the title of the third chapter of Specters of Revolt.
They got us thinking in a very big way, open and creative, about the possibility for challenging the power of capital. The interest in human psychology, in social psychology, that the health of the human person in our society, for me, comes out of a really long tradition of what is sometimes called critical theory—thinkers like Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and other sociologists and theorists.
What they tried to do is understand the political situation and social situation—the reasons why we accept the unacceptable; the reasons why we tolerate the intolerable. Not from the old merely political and economic point of view but also from the point of view of human psychology, and the position of the person within the society, and why it is that we think the way we think about ourselves and the world.
Why it is that we can call certain things totally unacceptable—for example, growing inequality, brutal exclusions, mass incarcerations, incredible levels of violence associated with poverty and racism. Why we can say that those things, on their face, that they’re totally unacceptable and then continue to accept them as if they weren’t.
Psychology, when fused with political theory and the social sciences more broadly can help us to explain some of the human conditions, I think, on levels that earlier political scientists and theorists, either neglected or often times didn’t have the tools to undertake.
Buffoonery is almost an extended phenotype of dictators, and in times and places in which seriousness, judiciousness, and integrity reign, the buffoon assumes his rightful place near the bottom of the social order, ranting on street corners or sending out misspelled newsletters. It is not the buffoon who should be feared, but the social conditions that permit him to rise above the ridicule that is his natural state. Can one speak of physiognomy here? It doesn’t seem a coincidence to me that Trump, like Franco, like Hitler, is a flaccid, wimpy man with little hands and a grating voice. After Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” moment, the saggy sycophant Nigel Farage, whose constantly gaping mouth recalls one of those plastic coin purses you squeeze to get open, called Trump’s words “typical alpha-male boasting.” Who but goons like Farage or Giuliani could bestow such a title on an erectile-challenged flesh-sack in badly tailored suits whose greatest pleasure is eating Hershey bars in the dark?
It smacks of, but isn’t, hyperbole to say that the popularity of Trump has answered definitively the question of how authoritarianism happens. Strangely, the sight of the real thing renders obsolete the numerous, often ingenious models put forth by thinks as varied as Hannah Arendt and Walter Lacqueur – not because their conclusions are incorrect, but the idea that an explanatory model is needed is fallacious. For much of the population, abjection is inherently pleasurable, and prevarication indistinguishable from truth. The abstention from immediate judgment, the search for right, the broader questions of human destiny that involve the need to understand, listen, compromise, and forgive –– everything, in short, implied in wisdom and conscience –– is an annoyance, and in some way profoundly alien to most people’s natural condition.
This has been on my mind frequently in recent years as I have watched the European and American left stagger from failure to failure. Is it possible that the values of the left simply do not possess the same robust appeal as those of the right, particularly of the extreme right? It has been said many times, with reference to Trump’s unforeseen triumph in the primaries, that the Republican party thought its base cared about fiscal conservatism, low taxes for the wealthy, open markets, and all the rest, when in fact, what drove them all along was racism, xenophobia, and hatred of government. If Klaus Theweleit is right, and fascism must be understood in part as an erotic phenomenon, then the apparent irrationality on the part of the Trump voter in his full-throated advocacy of a farrago of half-baked “positions” that change by the day and range from the impracticable to the impossible must be dismissed as irrelevant: what matters is the feeling of being with Trump, the highly pleasurable relinquishment of intellectual responsibility and the submission to a messianic illusion of a return to “greatness,” the precise definition of which is ever elusive.
In ‘The Stars Down to Earth’, Adorno analyzes the resort to astrology as a response to the generalized inability to comprehend the real economic and political forces determining the conditions of life. Since the time of its writing, the knowledge demands of conscientiousness have grown incalculably while esteem for intellectual and humanistic values has plummeted. As a result, events such as the 2008 economic crash, the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, or the relation between free trade and prosperity are submitted to the judgment of people ignorant of the criteria distinguishing fact from belief. To proffer a few statistics about Trump supporters:
66% believe Obama is a Muslim, and 61% believe he was born outside the United States.
40% believe Ted Cruz was born in the United States, though it is a matter of public record that Cruz is from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
54% believe whites suffer more racism than blacks, while only 19% believe that blacks suffer more racism than whites.
This list could be extended ad nauseam. But it is unfair to cast the blame on Trump’s followers alone, as though they were the benighted, Duck Dynasty-watching, Oxycontin chewing underbelly of an otherwise well-informed society. 73% of Americans cannot correctly state the aims of the Cold War; 30% can’t place the Pacific Ocean on a map; 40% believe God created the earth and man fewer than 6,000 years ago; and only around 17% have the necessary literacy skills to correctly read and interpret a bus schedule. The percentage of Americans who report not having read a single book in the past year has quadrupled over the past four decades, and only 28% have read ten or more. One shudders recollecting that Twilight and The Art of the Deal are also books, and may therefore count toward the attainment of this milestone of virtue.
In this situation, the will of the people impends not upon the real contents of political reality, but upon the hyper-simplistic daydreams of the ill- and uninformed, who have made politics into a folk religion whose Bible is filled with stories of September 11, Welfare Queens, Benghazi, and the War Against Christmas.
The idea, if not the reality, has long been that at some point, an educated left would find the Rosetta Stone that would allow it to minister to the masses in a language they could understand, piercing the veil of ignorance and manipulation, exposing false consciousness, bringing together the workers and the intellectuals, etc. But of that small portion of the left not swallowed whole by neoliberalism, the greater part seems to have confused political action with “taking a stand,” particularly on social media platforms that can track these simulacra of rebellion for the sake of better curated “ad content”; and far-reaching concerns about global justice and oppression have crumbled in the face of recondite disquisitions on the arcana of identity politics and thinkpieces about the racism of Vice Principals.
In his diaries, Gombrowicz observes that for all their prattling on about workers, liberals’ true heritage is the nobility, and this is more and more evident to me every time I return to the States. The anger, resentment, hatred, and nihilism that fuel the authoritarian right (a term I use freely because, just today, the hardly un-representative Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, has declared, “We need a Donald Trump to show authoritarian power”) have, for many of my left-leaning acquaintances, the inevitability of climatological trends: as they drink craft cocktails or flat whites or stand in line for the best ramen or whatever gastronomical trifle is now the rage, they may hear the murmurs of the barbarians in Slidell, Peachtree City, or Benton, but these people are as strange to them as residents of another planet.
My mother is a nurse who for a time worked in home health care in the marrow of Trump country. Her patients were poor white pillheads who lived off public relief and only left the “holler” once or twice a year. One day, while my mother was changing out a tracheostomy tube or something similarly exquisite, the family matriarch turned to her and said, “Did they ever catch that man what shot Kennedy?” It is not shocking that people like this know nothing about the world –– what use might such knowledge be to them? Whether they descended from farmers, whose livelihood was ravaged by agribusiness, or from steelworkers in the many mills in the nearby city, the last of which closed in the 90s, at some point they were expelled from an economic order that is unlikely to invite them back in. Perhaps the Mexicans, who only appeared in the last twenty years, didn’t “take” their jobs; but the Mexicans have jobs, they don’t, and it would stand to reason that if the Mexicans weren’t there, those jobs could be theirs. It may also be true that “objectively,” black Americans continue to suffer grotesque economic inequality; but access to “objective reality,” which is in fact a kind of consensus, requires a cultural fluency rooted in a system of customs and privileges that millions of people find profoundly alien.
Ignorance in itself is not incompatible with democracy, so long as a society is sufficiently unified as to make common interest a reality. This was possible, perhaps, in America until the interests of capital diverged from those of the nation, and “a rising tide lifts all boats” yielded to the temptations of the virtue of selfishness. Theoretically, a strong left might have opposed these developments, but as Steinbeck remarked, the poor in America have always conceived of themselves as temporarily embarrassed capitalists, and true progressive ideals have never held much sway there. Now, the two halves of the country Lincoln yoked together by force are once more coming asunder, and the Democrats have stuck their heads in the sand while Republicans have fanned the flames. At present, only 29% of Americans believe an armed revolt may be necessary in upcoming years to stave off government tyranny, with another 20% undecided on the matter –– presumably, Trump will draw support from many of these voters, and thankfully, there are not enough of them for him to win. But the mere presence of such a figure on the world stage is terrifying, and there is no sign of political will on either side of the aisle to repair the ideological rifts that made his ascension possible.
One in five CEO’s have high levels of psychopathic traits! It is a common headline. Bankers have no empathy, are greedy narcissists or egomaniacs. But such vilification misses some important, perhaps uncomfortable, subtleties and similarities. Considering that the laissez-faire finance industry is essentially a state-funded gambling racket where initiated gamblers can play to win with the money of others, such demonisation is understandable. But, how different are we to these Savile Row-suited silhouettes? We can take some general outlines of so-called corporate psychopathy in turn.
Narcissism first. Greed, egomania, attention seeking, vanity and a grandiose sense of self-worth seem apt descriptors for such Gordon Gekko types. But today we live in a world of normalised narcissism. Taking an unsolicited selfie to share with hundred or thousands of strangers is now a perfectly accepted public activity. Yet, in the late 90s and early 00s (before the dawn of ‘smartphones’) if I was to walk into a local pub and take photographs of myself I’d have garnered some strange looks – in that context I’d look, well, a little crazy, unhinged. I’d have appeared as narcissistic to the point of delusional. Today, however, such practice is normal, we don’t bat an eyelid. The same can be said for other aspects of social media. We don’t hesitate to share our organic, locally-sourced, dairy and gluten free lunch with hundreds of followers, or tweet that our train is late, or that it is raining where we are. Does the world need to see my avocado on toast? Of course! Just Do It. Because I’m Worth It. How self-centred, how utterly narcissistic, it is to share every opinion piece we look at (or even read) with the hundreds of follows we have? The term, narcissism of questionable validity today – because distinguishing narcissism from normalcy is like slicing fog. We are way past what Tom Wolfe called ‘The Me Decade’.
At the time of writing, six weeks have passed since the EU referendum and what have we learned, in that time? That ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (whatever that means), that ‘we’ve got our country back’ (the same), that ‘we’ve regained our sovereignty’ (ditto, because we’d never lost it) and ‘taken back control of our borders’ (you get the picture). We’ve been told that to categorise every Leave voter as an uneducated, xenophobic hick is offensive and wrong (but that every Remain voter was a spoilt middle class brat), and that people were sick and tired of answering to an unelected elite; Nigel ‘Breaking Point’ Farage has told us this, as has Boris ‘Piccaninnies’ Johnson, and Michael ‘Had Enough of Experts’ Gove, and we should believe them, exclusively educated and powerful as they are, because they’re evidently superior to us. And we should believe Theresa May too, unelected leader though she is, because, well, the disenfranchised have spoken, haven’t they? They’ve had their voices heard, and now they want something to be done, although no-one has any idea of what that might be. It’s just, well, y’know; British values and all that. Freedom from Johnny Foreigner and his wily ways. Straight bananas, health and safety gone mad, that sort of thing.
So, what will be your abiding memory of the last days of June 2016? Will it be of Farage, declaring ‘this is our independence day’ and that ‘this was a revolution without a shot being fired’, or will it be of Jo Cox and her shattered family, or of the fact that many countries on the planet have their own independence day and it usually signifies independence from Britain? Or will you remember Nige in Brussels, little man with his little flag, scion of Dulwich College, son of a wealthy stockbroker, telling the gathered grandees that they’ve ‘never done a proper job in their lives’? Or will it be of the Lithuanian representative, cringing at those words, the man who was born in a gulag, everything in his early life militating against the highly respected and successful heart surgeon that he would become? Perhaps you’ll remember Nige and his Breaking Point poster; the immigrant-descended, immigrant-marrying heroic defender of Britain’s borders using an image of Syrian refugees attempting to enter Slovenia from Croatia to illustrate the threat to Lincolnshire of eastern European agricultural labourers?
Or maybe you’ll remember Bojo; loveable, bumbling, zip-wire, man-boy Boris on the morning of the result, giving his speech before dashing off to post his Daily Telegraph column, for which he is paid a quarter of a million a year (a sum which he describes as ‘chickenfeed’), his speech in which he declared that nothing would change, that everything would stay the same? Because he was speaking for the downtrodden, wasn’t he, him and his mini-me Michael, defending the zero-hour-contracted, the rent-crippled, the sacked, the struggling, the stigmatised? They were his people, weren’t they, in that summer of 2016; it was his concern for the deracinated that drove him to join the Leave campaign, not slavering opportunism, no, not monstrous self-promotion. Alexander Boris De Pfeffer Johnson, indicting the elitist establishment; how that hypocrisy must’ve stung him, hurt his very soul, because the beneficiaries of his validation of UKIP’s carnival of hate, and of Brexit itself, will be the working classes, not his political career, even though the man who has insulted almost every country on earth has now been promoted to Foreign Secretary (what larks! What jolly japes!).
Or maybe it’ll be Cameron’s jaunty little tune that you remember, as he abandoned the country that he ‘loves so much’ to the wreckage that he made of it. Maybe you’ll remember the immediate spike in hate crime; of the Polish family labelled as vermin, of the black children spat at, of the grocery shops with non-British-sounding names above their doors fire-bombed. Maybe you’ll remember the 350 million a week promised to the NHS, a figure denounced by its author the very day of his triumph. Or the puerile squabbling of those who should’ve been able to put their differences aside and provide the coherent opposition that a well-functioning democracy needs. Odds are you won’t remember Scotland or Northern Ireland in all of this, because neither Leave or Remain thought them important enough to mention.
And the memories, now, are they helping you in any way? Are they illuminating the place where you are now, this length of time on from the ‘historically democratic event’? Perhaps they’re helping to heal the familial rift, the generational breach, that has occurred with the realisation that those dearest to you harbour thoughts anathema to your own, which you in fact find repellent, which they were encouraged to express, and that they voted for an upheaval, the negative consequences of which they won’t be around to see or suffer. Perhaps the memory of Farage’s union jack shoes scurrying across the stately home lawn towards Rupert Murdoch – no unelected elite, him – is a balm across this wound. Maybe those shoes are helping you to cope with the realisation that, well, some of the Leave promises were a teensy bit exaggerated; that it might be, in fact, further austerity that will support the ailing NHS, rather than the 350 million that isn’t given to the EU every week. That maybe there won’t be control of immigration after all, because the free movement of labour is a precondition of involvement in the single market, and that maybe immigration of labour is a good thing anyway; and maybe it works two ways, and that the freedom to live and work and study in 27 other countries is, actually, quite a good freedom to have, or was. Maybe the promised gains are, really, losses. But never mind that because Marie Le Pen and Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are happy for us, and you’ve got to keep the neighbours sweet, haven’t you? Even if they’re not, y’know, ideal.
And the memories, now, are they anchors against the uncertainty of the future, as Britain goes forwards into 1952? Perhaps they’ll help when Scotland secedes, and when Northern Ireland starts to bleed again, because after all, this is freedom from tyranny, isn’t it? When it’s recognised that the collapse of public services is due to underfunding and not to the presence of foreigners, and that rents are unaffordable not because of demand but because of exploitation by the rapacious empowered by inequality, maybe the recalled image of Nigel’s little flag will pull you through, even when that flag has to be re-designed (and not by a vexillographer, no, because we’ve had enough of experts). Repeat the phrase ‘the voters have spoken’ because that’ll gloss over, maybe even deny completely, the bitter tatters of the country you live in, rent by self-serving monsters masquerading as our selfless betters. ‘Britain is great again’, ‘we’ve got our country back’; repeat these phrases, and let them, and the memories, be what we’ve been told to believe they are; emblems of national pride, and most definitely not national fear, or national disgust, or national shame. Definitely not that.
by Johanna Isaacson
This is an edited extract from The Ballerina and the Bull: Anarchist Utopias in the Age of Finance (out now).
By 1986 punk was not just a battle cry, it was a scene that requir
ed institutions like show spaces and record labels. In this context we see the rise of the Gilman Street Project, an all-ages punk musical venue in Berkeley. The club opened soon after the closing of Mabuhay Gardens and The Farm, two important punk venues in the area. You could join as a member by paying $2 per year, and membership came with rights to participate in decision making. The rules included: no drugs, alcohol, violence, misogyny, homophobia or racism, and no major label bands were permitted to perform there. Says Zarah of her introduction to Gilman at 14 years old:
Gilman was dirty, it was small, but it was impressive because of how many people were there. I was meeting lot of people right away (people my age). I was in love with the place form the first time I saw it, even though it was, you know, gross.
For Eighties teenage Bay Area punks, Gilman was a semi-utopia: a creative, social space where they could come-of-age in ways not permitted in family and school institutions.
Alexander Kluge calls this kind of DiY institution a “counterpublic sphere,” a place that redefines spatial, territorial, and geopolitical parameters, reflecting new transnational boundaries while remaining subject to the constraints and logic of dominant post-Fordist forms of production. In this counterpublic sphere, the Gilman punk could experiment with residual temporalities, such as DiY artisanal production, without ever leaving the home of modernity — the sphere of universal, fungible commodity production. In this elastic sphere, people like Robert Eggplant, creator and primary writer of Absolutely Zippo, could find a viable way of life that was social and at times ecstatically political:
When I first came to Gilman (yes shortly after I came to punk) I was faced with something that I never encountered in my previous subculture groups, (that being rap and metal). There was more in the atmosphere than music. (Yes even more than liquor and sex). It was politics.
I interviewed JD Taylor—author of Island Story: Journeys Around Unfamiliar Britain—about the motives behind his extraordinary 4-month bike tour of the UK. Dan explains that the bicycle was secondary–what was important was to get out of London and see the parts of the island that have been written out of the story—JT
Listen to the interview here, or read the full transcript below:
JT: When you set out on this journey, what did you expect to find?
JD Taylor: I had been writing a lot about politics in Britain, and I was expecting that the decreases in the standard of living would really stand out. I expected that the recession and unemployment would have caused a kickback reaction of people starting to demand a more democratic way of life. That hadn’t happened and I was quite surprised by that. It made me come to realize that perhaps what is most instrumental is not what is external, but the internal and state of culture and politics, particularly the rule of fear. I sensed that people were very afraid.
When I set out, I wanted to find out why people weren’t doing more to take their communities into their own hands…why people weren’t shocked that their children/grandchildren were going to have a much worse quality of life than they have. I sensed a confusion and inertia about what could be done. I felt like people were very disempowered.
But at the start of it, I was just completely open. I was almost confused by my own country.
JT: I see. It wasn’t first and foremost a travel journey. It was really about connecting with people and trying to get out into their nooks and crannies and test this theory.
JD Taylor: Yes. When I set out the bicycle was almost the cheapest and easiest way to get around, but I could have been quite happy walking or taking the train. What was most important was to go to places that I felt people hadn’t heard from or talked about for a long time. Somewhere like Burton. London just dominates politics and the media so much—the stories and the people from the rest of the island are made to feel provisional.
It was a research project, I suppose. It was also my own way of trying to understand my own island—I felt that I knew more about Europe or the United States than I did about the North of England or Wales. So I wanted to go out there and just talk to people and find out how they felt, what they thought, and why. I felt the best way to do that would be to just go on my own [laughs] with a tent and just talk to people and ask them, what is life like here?
JT: You’re a native Londoner?
JD Taylor: I am a native Londoner. I am from South London, and I’d not travelled at all around the West of Britain. I had some family in Leeds in the North of England, but that was it, everywhere else was a complete mystery. I couldn’t name more than about five English Counties—counties of Wales and Scotland were a total mystery; they might as well have been in Egypt or Peru. I felt almost embarrassed that I didn’t know more.
JT: What stands out to me in the book is you seem to have a narrow set of questions, which is what you’d expect from a sociological project like this. But at the same time, your observations about the countryside, and the towns, and the highways and byways really come through, so was that unexpected that you would fall in love? There’s a real romance that comes through as a reader.
JD Taylor: Yeah, that’s really well observed. I didn’t expect to get that much from the landscape if I’m honest, but I think a few days in I began to start reading something in the landscape.
I came across this really remarkable quote by W. G. Hoskins and he says that “Most of England is a thousand years old; in a walk of a few miles one can touch nearly every century in that long stretch of time.” As always, I began to think, “Well how could one read the landscape now, and how could one appreciate what was there rather than just being about the motorways, the freeways, and the shops and supermarkets, and then I began to realize that people are produced by the landscape as well. The landscape isn’t just buildings; it’s not just trees and fields. It’s the kind of people that inhabit it and speak in these dialects.
People didn’t really want to talk to me about politics because that was a domain where nobody really felt that they had any agency, but they wanted to tell me about their communities. They wanted to tell me about local myths and about beautiful spots that one could travel to in a day. This information became so much more compelling that in the end the politics and the landscape become completely interlinked. The landscape was something that people loved a lot more and I began falling in love with it through their stories.
JT: One thing that comes through again and again is you have an interest in the built aspect of what you’re observing, so here is another car park, here’s another disgusting supermarket, here’s another drab building. Maybe you could elaborate more on that? How did England strike you in terms of the built aspect not just the landscape aspect?
JD Taylor: I wanted to communicate just how ugly so much of the island has become. I felt it was necessary. Because up until, maybe about I suppose 70 or 100 years ago, so much of the landscape was fields and forests; there were far fewer roads. Up until 200 years ago, most of the population of the island were farmers, or craftsmen, or fishermen and these ways of life gave people immense satisfaction. I found that out when I talked to their children or talked to people that were still holding on to their farms and I did meet a few of them.
I wanted to almost report the damage that had been done in this quest to shuttle people into the cities to make the industrial revolution. I felt it was necessary to let people know that we’ve really damaged the place and that was regrettable, but also it’s reversible; we can rewind the landscape. We don’t need all these supermarkets, and we don’t need all these roads. People don’t really want them either, but they have never been consulted in the changes that happen to their community.
JT: You also bring in a lot of history, history that I did not know about – earlier rebellions 5, 6, 700 years ago. How did you come upon that knowledge? Is that part of the school-book learning when you’re a child in England, or is that more specialized knowledge that you’ve picked up as an adult?
JD Taylor: The knowledge I found about the island’s rebellious history was a mixture of things that people told me in odd places like pubs and supermarkets and a mixture of my own research. Generally, we’re not educated in our own history here in Britain, beyond the First and Second World Wars.
People don’t really know that much about the countryside. They certainly don’t know anything about the Neolithic settlement of the island, the farming population there, and the different migrations there. The struggles that have taken place on the land – people demanding fair rights, democratic representation is not something we’re educated in. I don’t know how to exactly give a reason why.
Some of it I found out myself through reading. People directed me to books as I was travelling. I was blogging along the way and so even if they weren’t able to put me up in their homes they would send me information for the blog. But in other places people would talk to me. I was in a supermarket in this rural part of Wales, and I was talking to a man there who was helping me put through my groceries. He started telling me about the “Rioting Rebeccas” who were a bunch of Welsh men, agricultural laborers, and they dressed up as women and would go around burning down toll gates and attacking the gentry, about a hundred-and-fifty years ago—dressed as women and dressed in costume!
JT: Why was that?
JD Taylor: It was a protest against their poverty and their low wages. I never would have found out about it had he not told me, when I was having a quite casual conversation with him about the area.
JD Taylor: These histories are there and people often know about them. People are grateful to share them because it’s not common knowledge even though it concerns the commons, the common people.
JT: Right there is an example of this living oral-history.
JD Taylor: Yeah.
JT: Was that a common occurrence, where you’d pick up old stories that had been handed on?
JD Taylor: In different places, yes, it almost reflected how, I don’t know, politically beleaguered a certain region was. In the Northeast of England, where there had been a lot of coal mining and the famous miners’ strike of 1984-1985, people would often tell me in pubs, if I stop them by on the street, and talking to people by the roadside they would tell me things about the miners’ strike, or where mines had been, or about their grandparents and how they struggled and also the difficulties of these different jobs.
There was no history in some places. At first there was a great absence; it’s like people only really lived in the present and that was certainly true of the Midlands in the South of England, which are relatively more prosperous than the rest of the island. There, there wasn’t really any kind of awareness of how people had lived up until about 60 years ago. I found that just as strange, just as interesting as these areas where people could tell me about life 500 years ago.
JT: Amazing! What was your biggest take away from the journey?
JD Taylor: Wherever you go people are generous and kind, they’re wise and intelligent, and they’re willing to help strangers and to help friends. I didn’t expect that. To be honest, I thought my bicycle was going to get stolen. I thought I’d probably get run over. I thought I might get attacked. I expected bad things. I expected xenophobia and reactionary views.
What I found instead was progressive ideas about the future; people that were concerned about their children and grandchildren. People have a great deal of ecological awareness and maybe not enough hope. That really struck me—how disappointed people were with the way things have become, with the government that we’d gotten in ’10, the way that we live, working far too much, not spending enough time with our loved ones.
It was a common story—people wanting a better life and not yet believing it’s possible, and it left me with a lot of questions at the end. I was quite ambivalent, I guess. I knew that I’d met so many good people that really wanted and deserved a much better quality of life; collectively want to be much more democratic and equal, but at the same time no one had any clear idea about how that would happen.
I wondered if people would have been feeling similarly 500 hundred or 1,000 years ago, or if this is something that really is specific to our moment—the commons being dispossessed, wanting a better life, and people giving up on politics and politicians.[Interviewer’s note: I spoke with Dan a few weeks before the Brexit vote on June 23, 2016.]
You can hear Dan in his own voice by clicking here.