A Splutter of Musketry – Britain and America’s Destruction of Iranian Democracy (Part One)

How did the CIA and MI6 orchestrate a coup d’etat in Iran in 1953? In this new, two-part essay, No Less Than Mystic author John Medhurst looks at how Britain and the USA destroyed democracy in Iran to protect their own economic and political interests, and how the legacy of this is still being felt today.
Part One coverst the pre-coup history of British and US involvement in Iran, and how this led to the events that would change the political make-up of the region forever.

 

Since 1979, British and American governments, when confronted with a political crisis within Iran, have invariably spoken of their desire to see more democracy in that country. To say these noises are hypocritical would be an understatement. The last time Iran experienced a multi-party, constitutional democracy was in 1953, when Britain and America planned, funded and implemented a military coup in the country, a coup whose sole aim was the protection of their oil interests. That democracy, however imperfect it may have been, has not returned since.

In 1908 oil was discovered in what was then Persia, one year after an agreement between Britain and Tsarist Russia to partition the country in to two spheres of control, the British holding the south and the Russians the north. The British were quick to appreciate the future use of the oil and organised a group of investors to form the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC, renamed the AIOC in 1936). In 1914, to protect its interest in perpetuity, the British government purchased a 51% controlling share of the company.

In 1919, after a world war that had severely taxed Britain’s economic and military strength, the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave Britain control over Persia’s army, communications, transport and treasury. The British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon insisted that if Britain was to assume “the mandate for Mesopotamia” it could not allow “a hotbed of misrule” to exist in this strategically vital area. In Curzon’s view the oil reserves of southwest Persia were “great assets” to be “worked for the British Navy”, and thus had to be controlled and protected.

No matter what political and dynastic changes occurred within Iran (as the country was renamed in 1935) over the next thirty years, Britain stuck to this goal.

For much of the period this meant accommodation to the rule of the man who started life as Reza Khan but ended it as Reza Shah. In 1921 Reza led a coup against the corrupt and enfeebled Qajar dynasty. With the British promising him military and financial resources, Reza quickly took Tehran, arrested the Shah’s Cabinet, and sent the Shah himself on a long European holiday. Reza then became Prime Minister. His original ambition was to follow the example of Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and secularise his country, but after opposition from Iran’s powerful Imams these plans were swiftly dropped.

Reza Khan, later Reza Shah

For a while Reza’s rule was uncertain, but the attempted return of the old Shah in 1926 united both the Imams and the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, behind him. In April 1926 they declared the formal end of the Qajar dynasty and the ascension of Reza as Shah. The Pahlavi dynasty thus began its stormy history.

Reza’s immediate clampdown on the press and trade unions, his jailing and killing of political opponents, did not disturb British policy makers, for whom the only consideration was his subservience to British oil interests, in particular the AIOC and the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement. The most radical alternative to Reza, the Iranian Communist Party (ICP), was outlawed in 1930 and most of its leaders imprisoned.

Reza’s fitful attempts to modernise Iranian society were not insignificant, especially in education, but they were driven forward by autocratic fiat and suffered badly from lack of a political base. As a sincere nationalist he made efforts to terminate the AIOC concession negotiated as part of the Anglo-Persian Agreement, and in the late 1920s he tried to re-negotiate the concession on better terms for Iran. The British were adamant that the concessions should remain unaltered. Frustrated at every turn, in November 1932 Reza declared that he was cancelling the concession.

Alarmed, the AIOC’s Chairman Sir John Cadman flew to Tehran to personally negotiate with the Shah. This produced the 1933 Anglo-Iranian Agreement, which in return for relatively minor concessions on the AIOC’s part – increased financial returns to Iran, and a promise that the appalling working conditions at the company’s notorious Abadan plant on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway would be improved – extended the concession for a further thirty-two years. The weakness of the Agreement led to discontent with Reza’s rule across all social classes.

Notwithstanding his unpopularity, with domestic opposition crushed Reza’s rule might have extended for decades if not for the outbreak of the Second World War. During the 1930s Reza had tilted towards open support for Hitler and Mussolini. When war was declared between Germany and Britain he announced Iranian neutrality. This allowed Nazi agents free rein within the country. After the German invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941 the new allies (Britain and the USSR) feared that Germany might use Iran to launch a further attack on Soviet Russia from the south.

To prevent this possibility British and Soviet troops invaded Iran in August 1941 to secure the border and the country’s oil. The Iranian army, few of whom were willing to fight for Reza, quickly disintegrated. In September 1941 Reza was forced to abdicate and was replaced by his twenty-one-year-old son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a weak and pampered playboy whom the British believed they could easily control. Yet a much greater threat to the AIOC now emerged, in the form of the nationalist politician Mohammed Mossadegh.

Mohammed Mossadegh

Mossadegh came from Iran’s social and political elite. His grandfather had played a prominent part in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, which had forced the old Shah to create an Iranian parliament, the Majlis, for the first time. Elected to the first Majlis in 1906 at the age of twenty-four, Mossadegh left the country in 1919 in protest against the Anglo-Persian Agreement. But Iranian politics were in his blood and he returned a year later to take up the post of the Shah’s Finance Minister, and later Foreign Minister. His granite integrity made him few political friends. The definitive work on his eventual downfall concluded “many rich and influential Iranians considered him a class traitor because of his insistence on judging them by the letter of the law” (Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men).

1943 saw the first relatively free elections in Iran. Mossadegh, having spent nearly twenty years in retreat at his country estate, stood for a seat in the Majlis. He returned to parliament as one of the most respected politicians in the country, known for long and principled opposition not only to Reza Shah but also to the AIOC.

The real spark of revolt against the AIOC was lit in 1946 when the workforce at Abadan went on strike. Over a quarter of century earlier, in 1919, what has been called “The first major strike of a colonised working class in the Middle East” (Frederic Clairmont, “BP: The Unfinished Crimes and Plunders of Anglo-American Imperialism”) led to the deaths of over thirty refinery workers when the army and AIOC police gunned down striking workers. This led to the formation of the Iranian Communist Party. Within a few years a national campaign led by the trade unions and the ICP for an eight-hour working day forced the government to concede the demand in the Labour Law of 1923. In 1925 trade unions led May Day celebrations across Iran.

The 1946 strike at Abadan

This working-class spirit was suppressed by Reza Shah, but not destroyed. The 1946 strike demanded not only better working conditions but enforcement of the terms of the 1933 Agreement that had promised Abadan’s workers the same social infrastructure (e.g. schools, hospitals, roads, running water, etc.) that the AIOC’s British staff and their families enjoyed in their gated and well-guarded section of the city.

The newly elected British Labour government sent two warships to Abadan in support of the AIOC, but although their presence was significant they were ordered not to fire on the strikers. Instead the strike was put down by paid strike breakers from ethnic Arab tribes long at odds with the urbanised work force.

But the political climate in post-war Iran was far more sympathetic to the strikers than in 1919. Central to this was the resurrection of the Iranian Communists, now grouped together in a party known as the Tudeh (“Masses”). Although some of its older militants had been members of the ICP, the Tudeh was not simply a recreation of that party. It was initially “a united front for anti-fascist activities and constitutional rule” (Mazia Behrooz, Rebels With a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran) that emerged from the work of “The Fifty-Three”, a collection of left academics, writers and politicians imprisoned together under Reza Shah when war broke out.

By 1945 key positions within the Iranian trade unions were usually held by Tudeh militants. After the war the party moved on to the national scene. It even had three ministers in the 1946 coalition government, driving forward legislation that for the first time gave Iran a minimum wage and maternity leave. Had the Tudeh focused on these reforming initiatives, it might have become the major social democratic grouping in Iran and the bearer of the country’s post-war aspirations for national renewal.

But the pro-Soviet faction in the party saw Iranian developments through the prism of Soviet foreign policy, and following an ill-advised flirtation with revolutionary violence in Iran’s Azerbaijan province in late 1946, the party was once again banned, losing its foothold in government and increasing its isolation from the nationalists. Because of this the Tudeh underestimated the extent to which popular energies were now focused on the fight for control of the nation’s oil reserves.

Others moved to fill the gap. In 1949 Mossadegh and like-minded colleagues created the National Front, a reformist political party whose main aim was to establish a functioning democracy in Iran and gain control of Iranian oil resources by nationalising the AIOC’s operations in the country. Even the British Ambassador, unflinchingly supportive of the AIOC and dismissive of Iranian politicians, admitted that the National Front was “comparatively free from the taint of having amassed wealth and influence through the improper use of official positions”. The impetus for the formation of the National Front arose from a re-negotiation of the 1933 Agreement, which Majlis deputies had threatened to revoke.

Mossadegh led the Front in the 16th Majlis. But the AIOC’s creatures – the Shah and his new Prime Minister General Ali Razmara – ensured that Mossadegh was kept away from the executive. Razmara restored some of the Shah’s authority, not least by spreading huge amounts of bribe money around the Majlis to support the AIOC’s continued hold on Iranian oil. The cash was supplied by Ian Milne, the MI6 Head of Station in Tehran, who ran agents within the Majlis itself.

In February 1951 Mossadegh formally proposed the complete nationalisation of the AIOC. In March Razmara was assassinated. Without Razmara’s bribes the Majlis looked to other interests. Under great external pressure from an aroused populace, it voted to accept Mossadegh’s resolution and to nationalise the AIOC. After this the Shah had little option but to make Mossadegh Prime Minister in April 1951.

Mass support for Mossadegh was evident from the moment he took office. On 1st May a demonstration of 50,000 workers, peasants and members of the armed forces gathered outside the Majlis to support the nationalisation of the AIOC. Mossadegh sensed the national mood and reflected it.

Mossadegh greeted by protesters on 1st May 1951

Shortly after the decree was ratified, he declared:

We are nationalising the AIOC because it has systematically over several decades refused to engage in a constructive dialogue with us… Working hand in glove with the British government it has trampled on our national rights. Their conduct was one of unspeakable arrogance. Our battle for the end of the company’s domination has finally arrived and we shall triumph.

This was the beginning of an open confrontation between Iranian democratic nationalists and one of the last great remaining colonialist merchant ventures, the British equivalent of the American United Fruit Company in power, wealth, and ruthless determination to protect its profit margins. The previous year, 1950, the AIOC had made £170 million in profit from Iran, with only 12% going to the Iranian government. It had much to protect, and it was not shy in calling on its friends in the British government for assistance.

Although a hard-line anti-Communist, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was sympathetic to Iran’s desire to control its own oil resources. Unlike his more hysterical advisors he did not consider Mossadegh a Communist or a fellow traveller. However, Bevin’s health was failing and in early 1951 he was replaced by the dull political fixer Herbert Morrison. For Morrison, Iran was still “Persia”, an exotic oriental land which needed a firm guiding hand to ward off anarchy. He immediately created a “Persia Working Group” comprised of officials from MI6, the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Bank of England, to address the problem.

The Persia Working Group drew up a plan for direct British military intervention, codenamed Operation Buccaneer, to secure the Abadan facility. But plans for invasion could not proceed once US President Harry Truman made it clear that the British did not have American support. Truman, sceptical of the ability of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to make intelligent distinctions between Communism and radical nationalism, held Bevin’s view that Mossadegh was primarily a nationalist. It was clear to him, as the most revealing account of MI6 published to date concedes, that

despite British propaganda, the Mossadegh government was generally democratic, moderate, and seemed likely to succeed in establishing a middle-class hold over the state. (Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations).

Operation Buccaneer was shelved. For the Persia Working Group this meant that anti-Mossadegh operations had to go underground. This process was driven forward not just by Morrison and MI6 but by an alliance of right-wing “Orientalist” academics and FCO mandarins long accustomed to treating Iran like an imperial satrapy. Prominent amongst these were Professor Ann Lambton, Reader in Persian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, previously Press Attaché at the Tehran Embassy during the war. Lambton and FCO Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Eric Berthoud, who had worked for the AIOC for eight years before moving to Whitehall, agreed that the only way to remove the threat posed by Mossadegh was through “covert means”.

Shapoor Reporter

For years the MI6 station in Tehran had cultivated Iranians at all levels within the military and big business. The most useful of these “assets” were Shapoor Reporter, a British-Iranian businessman and close friend of the Shah who fed MI6 gossip from inside the Shah’s palace, and the infamous Rashidian brothers. The Rashidians were plugged into the highest levels of Iranian politics, business and the court. They were violently pro-British, sending their children to English public schools and keeping a permanent suite at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. MI6 paid them £10,000 a month. For this the Rashidians spread disinformation and smears about Mossadegh amongst the bazaar merchants of Tehran, whose leaders had the power to summon violent mobs on to the streets.

The Rashidians worked to the FCO’s Eastern Department and its Permanent Secretary Geoffrey Furlong. The Eastern Department now advanced the coup plan on several fronts – the academics of the Persia Working Group provided the BBC with news stories implying that Iranians were incapable of running the oil industry. The BBC worked closely with the AIOC’s information department, the Central Information Bureau, to disseminate their message within Iran and to suggest that those elements in Iranian society who had profited from the AIOC were about to lose their wealth and power. All strands of the anti-nationalisation operation ran through the AIOC’s Chief Executive in Tehran, Richard Seddon.

In July 1951 Iranian state security raided Seddon’s house and uncovered plans for the destabilisation of Mossadegh and lists of Iranians who were recipients of AIOC and MI6 bribe money. This led to all AIOC executives leaving the country in October 1951. Despite this, Mossadegh still sought a negotiated settlement with the British. But after the Conservatives came to power in October 1951, such a settlement became less and less likely. Faced with mounting evidence of the AIOC’s criminal conspiracy and of official British government collusion in plans for regime change, in October 1952 Mossadegh closed the British Embassy in Tehran.

An informal war against Iran was now declared. The new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had overseen the creation of the AIOC in 1908 and had profited personally from his own shares in the company. His instincts were strongly imperialist. When the Labour government, in its dying days, failed to land British troops at Abadan to disperse striking workers, Churchill had been aghast. In November 1951 he wrote in disgust to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, that Labour had “scuttled and run from Abadan when a splutter of musketry would have ended the matter”.

Next time, Churchill would not hold back on the musketry.

Mark Fisher on The Fall

To commemorate the passing of Mark E Smith, below is Mark Fisher’s analysis of The Fall’s Grotesque (After the Gramme), from The Weird and the Eerie (2016).

 

“Body a tentacle mess”: The Grotesque and The Weird: The Fall

The word grotesque derives from a type of Roman ornamental design first discovered in the fifteenth century, during the excavation of Titus’s baths. Named after the ‘grottoes’ in which they were found, the new forms consisted of human and animal shapes intermingled with foliage, flowers, and fruits in fantastic designs which bore no relationship to the logical categories of classical art. For a contemporary account of these forms we can turn to the Latin writer Vitruvius. Vitruvius was an official charged with the rebuilding of Rome under Augustus, to whom his treatise On Architecture is addressed. Not surprisingly, it bears down hard on the “improper taste” for the grotesque: “Such things neither are, nor can be, nor have been,” says the author in his description of the mixed human, animal, and vegetable forms: “For how can a reed actually sustain a roof, or a candelabrum the ornament of a gable? Or a soft and slender stalk, a seated statue? Or how can flowers and half-statues rise alternately from roots and stalks? Yet when people view these falsehoods, they approve rather than condemn, failing to consider whether any of them can really occur or not.”

— Patrick Parrinder, James Joyce

If Wells’ story is an example of a melancholic weird, then we can appreciate another dimension of the weird by thinking about the relationship between the weird and the grotesque. Like the weird, the grotesque evokes something which is out of place. The response to the apparition of a grotesque object will involve laughter as much as revulsion, and, in his study of the grotesque, Philip Thomson argued that the grotesque was often characterised by the co-presence of the laughable and that which is not compatible with the laughable. This capacity to excite laughter means that the grotesque is perhaps best understood as a particular form of the weird. It is difficult to conceive of a grotesque object that cannot also be apprehended as weird, but there are weird phenomena which do not induce laughter — Lovecraft’s stories, for example, the only humour in which is accidental.

The Fall, “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’ / City Hobgolbins”, 1980

The confluence of the weird and the grotesque is no better exemplified than in the work of the post-punk group The Fall. The Fall’s work — particularly in their period between 1980-82 — is steeped in references to the grotesque and the weird. The group’s methodology at this time is vividly captured in the cover image for the 1980 single, “City Hobgoblins”, in which we see an urban scene invaded by “emigres from old green glades”; a leering, malevolent cobold looms over a dilapidated tenement. But rather than being smoothly integrated into the photographed scene, the crudely rendered hobgoblin has been etched onto the background. This is a war of worlds, an ontological struggle, a struggle over the means of representation. From the point of view of the official bourgeois culture and its categories, a group like The Fall — working class and experimental, popular and modernist — could not and should not exist, and The Fall are remarkable for the way in which they draw out a cultural politics of the weird and the grotesque. The Fall produced what could be called a popular modernist weird, wherein the weird shapes the form as well as the content of the work. The weird tale enters into becoming with the weirdness of modernism — its unfamiliarity, its combination of elements previously held to be incommensurable, its compression, its challenges to standard models of legibility — and with all the difficulties and compulsions of post-punk sound.

Much of this comes together, albeit in an oblique and enigmatic way, on The Fall’s 1980 album Grotesque (After the Gramme). Otherwise incomprehensible references to “huckleberry masks”, “a man with butterflies on his face”, “ostrich headdress” and “light blue plant-heads” begin to make sense when you recognise that, in Parrinder’s description quoted above, the grotesque originally referred to “human and animal shapes intermingled with foliage, flowers, and fruits in fantastic designs which bore no relationship to the logical categories of classical art”.

The songs on Grotesque are tales, but tales half-told. The words are fragmentary, as if they have come to us via an unreliable transmission that keeps cutting out. Viewpoints are garbled; ontological distinctions between author, text and character are confused and fractured. It is impossible to definitively sort out the narrator’s words from direct speech. The tracks are palimpsests, badly recorded in a deliberate refusal of the “coffee table” aesthetic that the group’s leader Mark E. Smith derides on the cryptic sleeve notes. The process of recording is not airbrushed out but foregrounded, surface hiss and illegible cassette noise brandished like improvised stitching on some Hammer Frankenstein monster. The track “Impression of J Temperance” was typical, a story in the Lovecraft style in which a dog breeder’s “hideous replica”, (“brown sockets… purple eyes … fed with rubbish from disposal barges…”) stalks Manchester. This is a weird tale, but one subjected to modernist techniques of compression and collage. The result is so elliptical that it is as if the text — part-obliterated by silt, mildew and algae — has been fished out of the Manchester ship canal which Steve Hanley’s bass sounds like it is dredging.

There is certainly laughter here, a renegade form of parody and mockery that one hesitates to label satire, especially given the pallid and toothless form that satire has assumed in British culture in recent times. With The Fall, however, it is as if satire is returned to its origins in the grotesque. The Fall’s laughter does not issue from the commonsensical mainstream but from a psychotic outside. This is satire in the oneiric mode of Gillray, in which invective and lampoonery becomes delirial, a (psycho)tropological spewing of associations and animosities, the true object of which is not any failing of probity but the delusion that human dignity is possible. It is not surprising to find Smith alluding to Jarry’s Ubu Roi in a barely audible line in “City Hobgoblins”: “Ubu le Roi is a home hobgoblin.” For Jarry, as for Smith, the incoherence and incompleteness of the obscene and the absurd were to be opposed to the false symmetries of good sense. We could go so far as to say that it is the human condition to be grotesque, since the human animal is the one that does not fit in, the freak of nature who has no place in the natural order and is capable of re-combining nature’s products into hideous new forms.

The sound on Grotesque is a seemingly impossible combination of the shambolic and the disciplined, the cerebral-literary and the idiotic-physical. The album is structured around the opposition between the quotidian and the weird-grotesque. It seems as if the whole record has been constructed as a response to a hypothetical conjecture. What if rock and roll had emerged from the industrial heartlands of England rather than the Mississippi Delta? The rockabilly on “Container Drivers” or “Fiery Jack” is slowed by meat pies and gravy, its dreams of escape fatally poisoned by pints of bitter and cups of greasy-spoon tea. It is rock and roll as working men’s club cabaret, performed by a failed Gene Vincent imitator in Prestwich. The what if? speculations fail. Rock and roll needed the endless open highways; it could never have begun in England’s snarled-up ring roads and claustrophobic conurbations.

It is on the track “The N.W.R.A.” (“The North Will Rise Again”) that the conflict between the claustrophobic mundaneness of England and the grotesque-weird is most explicitly played out. All of the album’s themes coalesce in this track, a tale of cultural political intrigue that plays like some improbable mulching of T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Lovecraft and le Carré. It is the story of Roman Totale, a psychic and former cabaret performer whose body is covered in tentacles. It is often said that Roman Totale is one of Smith’s “alter-egos”; in fact, Smith is in the same relationship to Totale as Lovecraft was to someone like Randolph Carter. Totale is a character rather than a persona. Needless to say, he in no way resembles a “well-rounded” character so much as a carrier of mythos, an inter-textual linkage between Pulp fragments:

So R. Totale dwells underground / Away from sickly grind / With ostrich head-dress / Face a mess, covered in feathers / Orange-red with blue-black lines / That draped down to his chest / Body a tentacle mess / And light blue plant-heads.

The form of “The N.W.R.A.” is as alien to organic wholeness as is Totale’s abominable tentacular body. It is a grotesque concoction, a collage of pieces that do not belong together. The model is the novella rather than the tale and the story is told episodically, from multiple points of view, using a heteroglossic riot of styles and tones: comic, journalistic, satirical, novelistic, it is like Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” re-written by the Joyce of Ulysses and compressed into fifteen minutes. From what we can glean, Totale is at the centre of a plot — infiltrated and betrayed from the start — which aims at restoring the North to glory, perhaps to its Victorian moment of economic and industrial supremacy; perhaps to some more ancient pre-eminence, perhaps to a greatness that will eclipse anything that has come before. More than a matter of regional railing against the capital, in Smith’s vision the North comes to stand for everything suppressed by urbane good taste: the esoteric, the anomalous, the vulgar sublime, that is to say, the weird and the grotesque itself. Totale, festooned in the incongruous Grotesque costume of “ostrich head-dress”, “feathers/orange-red with blue-black lines” and “light blue plant-heads”, is the would-be Faery King of this weird revolt who ends up its maimed Fisher King, abandoned like a pulp modernist Miss Havisham amongst the relics of a carnival that will never happen, a drooling totem of a defeated tilt at social realism, the visionary leader reduced, as the psychotropics fade and the fervour cools, to being a washed-up cabaret artiste once again.

The Fall, Hex Enduction Hour, 1982

Smith returns to the weird tale form on The Fall’s 1982 album, Hex Enduction Hour, another record which is saturated with references to the weird. In the track “Jawbone and the Air Rifle”, a poacher accidentally causes damage to a tomb, unearthing a jawbone which “carries the germ of a curse / Of the Broken Brothers Pentacle Church”. The song is a tissue of allusions to texts such as M.R. James’ tales “A Warning to the Curious” and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, to Hammer Horror, and to The Wicker Man — culminating in a psychedelic/psychotic breakdown, complete with a torch-wielding mob of villagers:

 

 

He sees jawbones on the street / advertisements become carnivores / and roadworkers turn into jawbones / and he has visions of islands, heavily covered in slime. / The villagers dance round pre-fabs / and laugh through twisted mouths.

“Jawbone and the Air Rifle” resembles nothing so much as a routine by the British comedy group the League of Gentlemen. The League of Gentlemen’s febrile carnival — with its multiple references to weird tales, and its frequent conjunctions of the laughable with that which is not laughable — is a much more worthy successor to The Fall than most of the musical groups who have attempted to reckon with their influence.

The track “Iceland”, meanwhile, recorded in a lava-lined studio in Reykjavik, is an encounter with the fading myths of North European culture in the frozen territory from which they originated. Here, the grotesque laughter is gone. The song, hypnotic and undulating, meditative and mournful, recalls the bone-white steppes of Nico’s The Marble Index in its arctic atmospherics. A keening wind (on a cassette recording made by Smith) whips through the track as Smith invites us to “cast the runes against your own soul”, another M.R. James reference, this time to his story, “Casting the Runes”. “Iceland” is a Twilight of the Idols for the retreating hobgoblins, cobolds and trolls of Europe’s receding weird culture, a lament for the monstrosities and myths whose dying breaths it captures on tape:

Witness the last of the god men

A Memorex for the Krakens

Read an extract from A Threat of the First Magnitude

You can now read an extract from Aaron J Leonard and Conor A Gallagher’s A Threat of the First Magnitude – FBI Counterintelligence and Infiltration from the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union 1962-1974 on Truthout!

In their new book, A Threat of the First Magnitude, Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher explore the ways in which the FBI was able to place informants into the top layers of organizations deemed threats to the US internal security. While these efforts — in the example of the Communist Party USA and the Maoist, Revolutionary Union — were successful, another initiative, an attempt to “flip” prominent Black activist James Forman was not. The following excerpt from Chapter 7: “The Never-Ending Campaign Against James Forman” explains.

Read more at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/43191-the-fbi-s-failed-plan-to-make-black-activist-james-forman-an-informant

RIP K-PUNK (PART 2)

In November we will be publishing a collection of Mark’s work – K-punk: The Collected Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds.

This is the second of two blogs, each containing two essays included in the forthcoming collection.

We will all remember Mark Fisher.

———-

 

This Movie Doesn’t Move Me

(13th March 2005)

As I nervously anticipate the new Doctor Who (although after McCoy, after McGann, what more can there be to fear?), it is worth thinking again about the appeal of the series, and also, more generally, about the unique importance of what I will call “uncanny fiction”.

A piece by Rachel Cooke in the Observer two weeks ago brought these questions into sharp relief. Cooke’s article was more than an account of a television series; it was a story about the way broadcasting, family, and the uncanny were webbed together through Doctor Who. Cooke writes powerfully about how her family’s watching of the programme was literally ritualized: she had to be on the sofa, hair washed, before the continuity announcer even said the words, “And now…” She understands that, at its best, Dr Who’s appeal consisted in the charge of the uncanny  – the strangely familiar, the familiar estranged: cybermen on the steps of St Paul’s, yeti at Goodge Street (a place whose name will forever be associated with the Troughton adventure, “The Web of Fear”, for Scanshifts, who saw it whilst living in New Zealand).

Inevitably, however, she ends the piece on a melancholy note. Cooke has been to a screening of the first episode of the new series. She enjoys its expensive production values, its “sinister moments”’, its use of the Millennium Wheel. “But it is not -– how shall I put this? –  Doctor Who’”’ Faced with an “overwhelming sense of loss’”, she turns to a DVD of the Baker story Robots of Death for a taste of the “real’” stuff, the authentic experience that the new series cannot provide. But this proves, if anything, to be even more of a disappointment. “How slow the whole thing seems, and how silly the robots look in their Camilla Parker-Bowles-style green quilted jackets… Good grief.’”

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, all the post-post-structuralist questions about the ontological status of the text “itself”, and consider the glum anecdote with which the article concludes:

Before Christmas, when it became clear that my father’’s cancer was in its final stages, my brother went out and bought a DVD for us all to watch together. Dad was too ill, and box went unopened. At the time, I cried about this; yet another injustice. Now I know better. Some things in life can’’t ever be retrieved -– an enjoyment of green robots in sequins and pedal pushers being one of them.’

This narrative of disillusionment belongs to a genre that has become familiar: the postmodern parable. To look at the old Doctor Who is not only to fail to recover a lost moment; it is to discover, with a deflating quotidian horror, that this moment never existed in the first place. An experience of awe and wonder dissolves into a pile of dressing up clothes and cheap special effects. The postmodernist is then left with two options: disavowal of the enthusiasm, i.e. what is called “growing up”, or else keeping faith with it, i.e. what is called “not growing up”. Two fates, therefore, await the no longer media-mesmerised child: depressive realism or geek fanaticism.

The intensity (with) which Cooke invested in Doctor Who is typical of so many of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies. I, slightly younger than her, remember a time when those twenty-five minutes were indeed the most sacralised of the week. Scanshifts, slightly older than me, remembers a period when he didn’’t have a functioning television at home, so he would watch the new episode furtively at a department store in Christchurch, silently at first, until, delighted, he found the means of increasing the volume.

The most obvious explanation for such fervour – childhood enthusiasm and naïveté – can also be supplemented by thinking of the specific technological and cultural conditions that obtained then. Freud’s analysis of the unheimlich, the “unhomely”, is very well known, but it is worth linking his account of the uncanniness of the domestic to television. Television was itself both familiar and alien, and a series which was about the alien in the familiar was bound to have particularly easy route to the child’s unconscious. In a time of cultural rationing, of modernist broadcasting, a time, that is, in which there were no endless reruns, no VCR’s, the programmes had a precious evanescence. They were translated into memory and dream at the very moment they were being seen for the first time. This is quite different from the instant -– and increasingly pre-emptive – monumentalization of postmodern media productions through ‘makings of’ documentaries and interviews. So many of these productions enjoy the odd fate of being stillborn into perfect archivization, forgotten by the culture while immaculately memorialised by the technology.

But were the conditions for Dr Who’s colonizing presence in the unconscious of a generation merely scarcity and the “innocence”’ of a “less sophisticated’” time? Does its magic, as Cooke implies, crumble like a vampire seducer in bright sunlight when exposed to the unbeguiled, unforgiving eyes of the adult?

According to Freud’’s famous arguments in ‘Totem and Taboo’ and ‘The Uncanny’, we moderns recapitulate in our individual psychological development the “progress”’ from narcissistic animism to the reality principle undergone by the species as a whole. Children, like “savages”, remain at the level of narcissistic auto-eroticism, subject to the animistic delusion that their thoughts are “omnipotent’”; that what they think can directly affect the world.

But is it the case that children ever “really believed” in Doctor Who? Žižek has pointed out that when people from “primitive” societies are asked about their myths, their response is actually indirect. They say “some people believe.’..” Belief is always the belief of the other. In any case, what adults and moderns have lost is not the capacity to uncritically believe, but the art of using the series as triggers for producing inhabitable fictional playzones.

The model for such practices is the Perky Pat layouts in Philip K Dick’’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Homesick offworld colonists are able to project themselves into Ken and Barbie-like dolls who inhabit a mock-up of the earthly environment. But in order to occupy this set they need a drug. In effect, all the drug does is restore in the adult what comes easily to a child: the ability not to believe, but to act in spite of the lack of belief.

In a sense, though, to say this is already going too far. It implies that adults really have given up a narcissistic fantasy and adjusted to the harsh banality of the disenchanted-empirical. In fact, all they have done is substituted one fantasy for another. The point is that to be an adult in consumer capitalism IS to occupy the Perky Pat world of drably bright soap opera domesticity. What is eliminated in the mediocre melodrama we are invited to call adult reality is not fantasy, but the uncanny – the sense that all is not as it seems, that the kitchen-sink everyday is a front for the machinations of parasites and alien forces which either possess, control or have designs upon us. In other words, the suppressed wisdom of uncanny fiction is that it is THIS world, the world of liberal-capitalist commonsense, that is a stage set with wobbly walls. As Scanshifts and I hope to demonstrate in our upcoming audiomentary london under london on Resonance FM, the Real of the London Underground is better described by pulp and modernism (which in any case have a suitably uncanny complicity) than by postmodern drearealism. Everyone knows that, once the wafer-thin veneer of “persons” is stripped away, the population on the Tube are zombies under the control of sinister extra-terrestrial corporations.

The rise of Fantasy as a genre over the last twenty-five years can be directly correlative with the collapse of any effective alternative reality structure outside capitalism in the same period. Watching something like Star Wars, you immediately think two things. Its fictional world is BOTH impossibly remote, too far-distant to care about, AND too much like this world, too similar to our own to be fascinated by. If the uncanny is about an irreducible anomalousness in anything that comes to count as the familiar, then Fantasy is about the production of a seamless world in which all the gaps have been monofilled. It is no accident that the rise of Fantasy has gone alongside the development of digital FX. The curious hollowness and depthlessness of CGI arises not from any failure of fidelity, but, quite the opposite, from its photoshopping out of the Discrepant as such.

The Fantasy structure of Family, Nation and Heroism thus functions, not in any sense as a representation, false or otherwise, but as a model to live up to. The inevitable failure of our own lives to match up to the digital Ideal is one of the motors of capitalism’s worker-consumer passivity, the docile pursuit of what will always be elusive, a world free of fissures and discontinuities. And you only have to read one of Mark Steyn’s preppy phallic fables (which need to be ranked alongside the mummy’s boystories of someone like Robert E Howard) to see how Fantasy’s pathetically imbecilic manichean oppositions between Good and Evil, Us and (a foreign, contagious) Them are effective on the largest possible geopolitical stage.

———-

Why K?

(16th April 2005)

Well, I’m still enough of a neophyte to be thrilled by a mention in Village Voice. I suppose it is ironic that Geeta describes k-punk as “cultural studies”, given my notorious antipathy to cult studs. On the other hand, though, k-punk is cultural studies as I’d always thought it should be practised (much of my hostility to cult studs stems from a disappointment when faced with the depressing, guilt-mongering reality of cultural studies in the academy).

Anyway, here is the full text that I sent to Geeta:

1. Why I started the blog? Because it seemed like a space – the only space – in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with what I think are appalling cultural and political consequences . My interest in theory was almost entirely inspired by writers like Ian Penman and Simon, so there has always been an intense connection between theory and pop/ film for me. No sob stories, but for someone from my background it’s difficult to see where else that interest would have come from.

2. Because of that, my relation to the academy has always been uh difficult. The way in which I understood theory – primarily through popular culture – is generally detested in universities. Most dealings with the academy have been literally – clinically – depressing.

3. The Ccru as an entity was developed in hostile conditions as a kind of conduit for continuing trade between popular culture and theory. The whole pulp theory/ theory-fiction thing was/ is a way of doing theory through, not “on”, pop cultural forms. Nick Land was the key figure here, in that it was he who was able to hold, for a while, a position “within” a university philosophy department whilst dedicatedly opening up connections to the outside. Kodwo Eshun is key as someone making connections the other way – from popular culture INTO abstruse theory. But what we all concurred upon was that something like jungle was already intensely theoretical; it didn’t require academics to judge it or pontificate upon it – the role of a theorist was as an intensifier.

4. The term k-punk came out of Ccru. “K” was used as a libidinally preferable substitution for the California/ Wired captured “cyber” (the word cybernetics having its origins in the Greek, Kuber). Ccru understood cyberpunk not as a (once trendy) literary genre, but as a distributive cultural tendency facilitated by new technologies. In the same way, “punk” doesn’t designate a particular musical genre, but a confluence outside legitimate(d) space: fanzines were more significant than the music in that they allowed and produced a whole other mode of contagious activity which destroyed the need for centralized control.

5. The development of cheap and readily available sound production software, the web, blogs means there is an unprecedented punk infrasctructure available. All that is lacking is the will, the belief that what can happen in something that does not have authorisation/ legitimation can be as important – more important – than what comes through official channels.

6. In terms of will, there has been an enormous retrenchment since 1970’s punk. The availability of the means of production has seemed to go alongside a compensatory reassertion of Spectacular power.

7. To return to the academy: universities have either totally excluded or at least marginalized not only anyone connected with Ccru but also many who were at Warwick. Steve “Hyperdub” Goodman and Luciana Parisi are both Ccru agents who have managed, against the odds, to secure a position within universities. But most of us have been forced into positions outside the university. Perhaps as a result of not being incorporated (“bought off”), many in the Warwick rhizome have maintained an intense connection and robust independence. Much of the current theoretical drift on k-punk has been developed via a collaboration with Nina Power, Alberto Toscano and Ray Brassier (co-organizer of the NoiseTheoryNoise conference at Middlesex University last year). The growing popularity of philosophers like Žižek and Badiou means there is now an unexpected if rogue and fugitive line of support within the academy.

8. I teach Philosophy, Religious Studies and Critical Thinking at Orpington College. It is a Further Education college, which means that its primary intake is 16-19 year olds. This is difficult and challenging work, but the students are in the main excellent, and far more willing to enter into discussion than undergraduates. So I don’t at all regard this position as secondary or lesser than a “proper” academic post.

 

RIP K-PUNK (PART 1)

11 July 1968 – 13 January 2017

RIP K-PUNK

 

In November we will be publishing a collection of Mark’s work – K-punk: The Collected Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds.

This is the first of two blogs, each containing two essays included in the forthcoming collection.

We will all remember Mark Fisher.

———-

Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)

(11th May 2015)

So it was to be a re-run of 1992, after all. It seems that even elections are subject to retromania, now. Except, this time, it is 1992 without jungle. It’s Ed Sheeran and Rudimental rather than Rufige Kru. Always ignore the polls, wrote Jeremy Gilbert late on election night. “You get a better sense of what’s going on in the electorate by sniffing the wind, sensing the affective shifts, the molecular currents, the alterations in the structures of feeling. Listen to the music, watch the TV, go to the the pubs and ride the tube. Cultural Studies trumps psephology every time.’”

Contemporary English popular culture, with its superannuated PoMo laddishness, its smirking blokishness (anyone fancy a pint with Nigel?), its poverty porn, its craven cult of big business, has become like some gigantic Poundbury Village simulation, in which nothing new happens, forever… while ubiquitous “Keep Calm” messages, ostensibly quirky-ironic, actually function as They Live commands, containing the panic and the desperation…

England is a country in which every last space where conviviality might flourish has been colonised by a commercial imperative…. supermarket check-out operatives replaced by crap robots… unexpected item in bagging area… every surface plastered with corporate graffiti and haranguing hashtags… no trick missed to screw every last penny out of people… exorbitant parking charges in NHS hospitals (exact amount only, no change given), all the profits going to private providers…

Everything seen through a downer haze… “Mostly you self-medicate”… comfort eating and bitter drinking… What’s your poison?

The suburbs are hallucinating, England is hallucinating. Monster Ripper and Smirnoff, Brandy Boost, oversized glasses of chardonnay at Wetherspoons monday club, valium scored for a few quid in the pub , the stink of weed drifting from portakabins, red eyes and yellow bibs. The pharmaceuticals industry is one of UK Plc’s biggest success stories (along with arms dealing and loans companies) as prescriptions for anti depressants are kept on repeat.(Laura Oldfield Ford)

Time for one more, Nigel?

Time, gentlemen, please…

There is no time… Time is on your side (yes it is)…

In any case, Shaun Lawson is to be congratulated – if that is the word – for what turned out to be an astonishingly accurate prediction of how the election would go. My attempts to refute the parallels with 92 in my last post were as much wishful thinking as anything else. I suppose at some level I knew after the BBC Leaders Debate how things would go – which is why I found watching it so dejecting. (Another rhyme with the past: Ed’s stumble at the end of his interrogation by the petit-bourgeoisie was a minor echo of Kinnock’s tumbling into the sea in 1983.)

Don’t fear…

It seems that the very thing which gave us hope – the possibility of vacillating Labour being pulled to the left by an alliance with the SNP – might have been what motivated Tory voters to come out in such numbers in England. (Another echo of 92: fear as a hyperstitional force.) The truth is what many of us have long suspected: Labour lost this election five years ago, by failing to challenge the Tories’ narrative. Yet this failure wasn’t about the wrong leader, PR strategy or even policies; it is ultimately rooted in Labour’s disconnection from any wider movement, and this is in turn rooted in the wider emergence of capitalist realism. Blairism may have won Labour three elections, but the unfolding of its logic could well lead to the destruction, in the not so far distant future, of the party. As Paul Mason acidly summarises, “Labour no longer knows what it is for, nor how to win power.” With Blairism, Labour knew how to win power, but in acquiring this knowledge, it forgot what it was for.

That existential quandary is bitterly ironic given that there is a large proportion of the population in England – I still believe it is the majority – which feels it has no party which represents it. I maintain that the shift to UKIP is ultimately much more to do with this sense of disenfranchisement and despair than with any intrinsic tendency towards racism or even nationalism in its supporters. Everyone has chauvinistic potentials of one kind or another which can be activated by particular sets of forces. Ultra-nationalism is a symptom of the failure of class politics; or, class politics emerges through the ultra-nationalist lens in a distorted and displaced way.

As Paul Mason also points out, a return to Blairism will certainly not win back those Labour supporters who turned to UKIP. In England, as in Scotland, it was Blairism’s taking for granted and abandonment of its working-class base that produced the sense of betrayal which led to so many former Labour supporters losing patience with the party on Thursday. In Scotland, the response to betrayal took a progressive form; in England, it assumed a reactionary mode. Partly, this is because there was no progressive outlet available in England. Working-class English voters alienated from Labour’s Oxbridge elite were left with a choice between a UKIP that deliberately talked up its appeal to working families, and an array of small left-wing parties to whose message they were not exposed and which had no chance of being elected. UKIP were also practically forced on them to by a political media so decadent, so boring, that it counts Nigel Farage as a charismatic flash of colour. Hence what Tim Burrows calls “the curiously mediated entity of Farage, a man whose direct manner, coloured tweed and pints of ale seem made for meme-politics. UKIP are more popular on Facebook than Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together.”

Don’t despair…

It would be easy to fall into despair about England after Thursday; it would be easy to conclude that the country is full of selfish, mean-spirited and stupid individuals. Yet we have to remember that most people’s engagement with politics is quite minimal; thinking in political terms, framing everyday life in terms of political categories, is now a minority pursuit. This is not a moral or intellectual failing on the part of the electorate: it is a consequence of a neoliberalism which has largely succeeded in its aim of disabling the mechanisms of mass democracy. Overworked and told they need to work harder, busy, but sill feeling that they can’t get everything done, many are too drained to care. (Too knackered to think, just give me time to come round… ) How many Tory voters are committed Conservatives, really? Mostly, they are jaded and detached, maybe voting out of fear as much as self-interest (and self-interest is often experienced as fear).

Capitalist realism is not about people positively identifying with neoliberalism; it is about the naturalisation and therefore the depoliticisation of the neoliberal worldview. The Tories’ pitch is in tune with this ambient neoliberalisation, with its apparently commonsensical emphasis on choice, opportunity and the dignity of labour, and its emotional appeal to negative solidarity. To break out of this, you need a repoliticisation, and this requires a popular mobilisation, just as we saw with the SNP.

The Tory success depended upon a popular de-activation (the days of Thatcher’s rallies are long gone). There was no enthusiasm for either of the two leading parties. The only party that could call on massive popular enthusiasm in the UK was the SNP. That popular enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that capitalist realism is set up to prevent emerging – is the rushing in of something that, for a long time, there hasn’t seemed to be any glimmer of in England: the future.

Don’t be depressed …

What hope for a country where people will camp out for three days to glimpse the Royal Couple? England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire. (William Burroughs)

So we shouldn’t take the Tories’ victory as a sign that we are totally out of sync with the majority of the population in England. As Jeremy remarked to me on Thursday, it is not as if the equivalent of Syriza or Podemos had lost. (Although that was part of what was so devastating – our expectations were low, but reality contrived to go even lower.) Given the serious weakness of Labour’s offer, given the ferocity of the attack on Labour from the right-wing media machine in the UK, given the failure of supposedly neutral popular media such as the BBC to offer the public an adequate account of the banking crisis and its aftermath, it is actually surprising that the Tories’ victory was not even more comprehensive. Those who voted Tory aren’t necessarily indifferent to the suffering of the poor, or to the plight of the vulnerable – most merely accept (why wouldn’t they) the capitalist realist story about there being “no money left” and the need for “difficult choices”. No doubt, their acceptance of this is somewhat self-serving; no doubt, it depends on keeping those who suffer out of sight or in their peripheral vision.

But it is also a fundamentally depressing and depressive outlook. There is a connection between capitalist realism and depressive realism. The idea that life is essentially drudgery (and that therefore no one should get a free ride) is a depressive conception of fairness (if I have to be miserable, so should everyone else), which has a particular traction in a burnt-out post-protestant culture like England’s… (England is the oldest capitalist country, don’t forget…)

All Cameron offered was more of this depression: a vision of a man chipping ice off his windscreen and going to a job he hates, forever. Yet Labour not only failed to offer a narrative about how the economy had gone wrong, it also failed to offer any positive vision of what society would look like if it had its way. I’m convinced that even the most minimal sense of this might have been enough to have inspired people to reject the Tories. Yet the fact that Labour couldn’t offer it was not some mistake (a few more focus groups and meetings with advertising people, and they’d have been there!). It was one more symptom of the way in which the party has been completely colonised by capitalist realism.

The Tories quickly abandoned the “Big Society” after the 2010 campaign, but the concept did actually point to what neoliberal culture has corroded: the space between “individuals and their families” and the state. In addition to its clunky and uncommunicative name – it was a kind of anti-meme – the problem with the “Big Society” was that, in the Tories’ hands, it was a transparent ruse to dismantle the welfare state. To resocialise a culture that has been individualised to the extent that England has demands massive resources – it requires time and energy, the very things that capital (especially the contemporary neoliberal, English version of capital) strips us of most thoroughly.

Real wealth is the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy. This is Red Plenty. We, and they, have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops, its teargas, all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block Red Plenty. The attack on capital has to be fundamentally based on the simple insight that, far from being about “wealth creation”, capital necessarily and always blocks our access to this common wealth. Everything for everyone. All of us first.

Labour has allowed election after election to be fought not on the Red terrain of resocialisation, but on the Blue territory of identitarian community, with its border guards (we’ll have as many as you!) and barbed wire fences (they will be as high as yours!). The genius of the progressive forces which have seized the SNP, meanwhile, was to have moved from the Blue of identitarian community – and the nationalism of colonised peoples is of course very different to the nationalism of the colonisers – to the Red of internationalist cosmopolitan conviviality.

Red belonging offers something different to traditional forms of belonging (faith, flag, family – so many corrupted forms of the commons, as Hardt and Negri have it). Jodi Dean has movingly described how the Communist Party in the US

gave some Americans the feeling that the world was of one piece, their work meaningful as the work of a class, their struggles significant as part of a global struggle to liberate collective work from those claiming it for their own private profit. For desperately poor and barely literate immigrants, communism is a source of knowledge and power – the knowledge of how the world works and the power to change it.

The sense of belonging here could not be reduced to the chauvinistic pleasures that come from being an insider in any group whatsoever; it was a special sense of involvement that promised to transfigure all aspects of everyday life in a way that, previously, only religion had promised to, so that even the dreariest task could be imbued with high significance.

Even those engaged in the boring, repetitive work of distributing leaflets or trying to recruit new members as the official line changed, or chafing against the smugness of higher ups, experience their life in the party as intensely meaningful.

As opposed to the essentially spatial imaginary of Blue belonging – which posits a bounded area, with those inside hostile and suspicious towards those who are excluded – Red belonging is temporal and dynamic. It is about belonging to a movement: a movement that abolishes the present state of things, a movement that offers unconditional care without community (it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, we will care for you any way).

But don’t hope either …

“There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”, Deleuze writes in “Postscript on Societies of Control”. He was no doubt thinking of Spinoza’s account of hope and fear in the Ethics. “There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope”, Spinoza claimed. He defines hope and fear as follows:

Hope is a joy not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.

 

Fear is a sorrow not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.

Hope and fear are essentially interchangeable; they are passive affects, which arise from our incapacity to actually act. Like all superstitions, hope is something we call upon when we have nothing else. This is why Obama’s “politics of hope” ended up so deflating – not only because, inevitably, the Obama administration quickly became mired in capitalist realism, but also because the condition of hope is passivity. The Obama administration didn’t want to activate the population (except at election time).

We don’t need hope; what we need is confidence and the capacity to act. “Confidence”, Spinoza argues, “is a joy arising from the idea of a past or future object from which cause for doubting is removed”. Yet it is very difficult, even at the best of times, for subordinated groups to have confidence, because for them/ us there are few if any “future objects from which cause for doubting is removed”.

“Class disadvantage is a form of injury inflicted on the person at birth”, David Smail explains.

The confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister speaks not so much as a current possession of power (on some measures the union boss might possess as much) as of a confidence which was sucked in with his mother’s milk.

(Even if the milk he fed on was unlikely to have come from his mother.) The welfare state was supposed to be a structure which removed some of this doubt, while the imposition of precarity is a political project designed to remove the confidence that the working class had attained after years of struggle. (See Jennifer M Silva’s heartbreaking Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty – a book to which I shall certainly return in future posts – for an account of the devastating impact of precarity on the emotional lives of young working-class men and women in the US.)

Whereas hope and fear are superstitious (although they may have some hyperstitional effects), confidence is essentially hyperstitional: it immediately increases the capacity to act, the capacity to act increases confidence, and so on – a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous spiral.

So how are we to rebuild our confidence? While the conditions are difficult – and in England, they are about to get much more difficult – we can still act, and act imminently and immanently. How?

Socialisation beyond social media

The answer of course is that many groups are already doing what is necessary. But these processes will become more powerful when they are logistically coordinated (which is not to say “unified” – unity is a strategic weakness, not a strength) and bound together by stronger common narratives and fictions. Jason Read’s essay “The Order and Connection of Ideology Is the Same as the Order and Connection of Exploitation: Or, Towards a Bestiary of the Capitalist Imagination” explains why narrativisation is so important. In his account of two neo-Spinozist thinkers, Frédéric Lordon and Yves Citton, Read reminds us that “our desire, our loves and hates, are already shaped by narratives, by scripts inherited through television and books. We enter into a world already scripted, and, as Spinoza argues in his definition of the first kind of knowledge, our life is defined as much by signs and images as things experienced.”

This means

that the scenarios that we imagine, the stories and narratives that we consume, inform our understanding of reality, not in the sense that we confuse fiction with reality, but that the basic relations that underlie our fictions shape our understanding of reality. It is not that we confuse fiction with reality, believing everything that we see, but that the fundamental elements of every narrative, events, actions, and transformations, become the very way that we make sense of reality. Fiction exists in a permanent relation of metalepsis with reality, as figures and relations from one constantly inform the other.

This is why the intensification and proliferation of the capitalist technologies of reality management and libidinal engineering in the 1980s was not merely some happy coincidence for neoliberalism; neoliberalism’s success was inconceivable without these technologies. It is also the reason that direct action, while of course crucial, will never be sufficient: we also need to act indirectly, by generating new narratives, figures and conceptual frames.

By first of all imposing a particular set of narratives, figures and frames which it then naturalised, capitalist realism hobbled what Jason Read identifies as the “particular power of humanity (and the linchpin of our emancipation)”: “our faculty to reorder differently the images, the thoughts, the affects, the desires and the beliefs that are associated in our mind, the phrases that come out of our mouths, and the movements that emanate from our bodies.” Cultural Studies was also based on this account of the capacity for reordering (which it derived partly from Spinoza, via Althusser). The reordering of images thoughts, affects, desires, beliefs and languages plainly cannot be achieved by “politics” alone – it is a matter for culture, in the widest sense.

Seen from this point of view, the locking of popular culture into repetition that I describe in Ghosts Of My Life – and which Simon Reynolds also describes in Retromania – is therefore a very serious problem. Popular culture’s incapacity to produce innovation is a persistent ambient signal that nothing can ever change. Sometimes, it can seem fiendishly difficult to account for what has happened to popular culture, but the explanation for its sterility and stasis is ultimately quite simple. Innovation in popular culture has overwhelmingly come from the working class. Neoliberalism has been a systematic and sustained attack on working-class life – the results are now all around us.

Furthermore, the incursion of capitalist cyberspace into every area of life and the psyche has intensified the processes of de-socialisation. This is not to say that there are no progressive potentials in the web, but these have almost certainly been overrated, while the impact of cyberspace in de-socialising culture and subjectivity has been massively underestimated. Here I merely rehearse Bifo’s account of semiocapitalism and Jodi Dean’s critique of communicative capitalism, but it is important to operationalise this critique.

Blogs and social media have allowed us to talk to ourselves (but not to reach out beyond the left bubbles); they have also generated pathological behaviours and forms of subjectivity which not only generate misery and anger – they waste time and energy, our most crucial resources. Email and handhelds, meanwhile, have produced new forms of isolation and loneliness: the fact that we can receive communications from work anywhere and anytime means we are exposed to work’s order-words when we are alone, without the possibility of support from fellow workers.

In sum, the obsession with the web, its monopolisation of any idea of the new, has served capitalist realism rather than undermined it. Which does not mean, naturally, that we should abandon the web, only that we should find out how to develop a more instrumental relationship with it. Put simply, we should use it – as a means of dissemination, communication and distribution – but not live inside it. The problem is that this goes against the tendencies of handhelds. We all recognise the by now cliched image of a train carriage full of people pecking at their tiny screens, but have we really registered how miserable this really is, and how much it suits capital for these pockets of socialisation to be closed down?

Knowing someone in this life feels as desperate as me

Some folk in Plan C have been talking about consciousness raising, and for many reasons, I believe that it is a crucially important to revive and proliferate this practice (or range of practices) now. Consciousness raising is partly about the discovery and production of subjugated knowledges, but it is also about the immediate production of socialisation, of forms of subjectivity antithetical to the always/on-always lonely mode of contemporary capitalist individuality.

Consciousness raising opens up the possibility of living, not merely theorising about, a collective perspective. It can give us the resources to behave, think and act differently at work (if it makes any sense to talk about being “at” work any more), where capitalist realism has become second nature. The roots of any successful struggle will come from people sharing their feelings, especially their feelings of misery and desperation, and together attributing the sources of these feelings to impersonal structures, albeit impersonal structures mediated by particular figures to which we must attach populist loathing.

In the harsh conditions of cyberspatialised capitalism – conditions that, as Jennifer M Silva demonstrates, have produced a “hardening” of the self, especially in the young – consciousness raising can produce a new compassion, for others and for ourselves. Neurotic-Oedipalising capitalism responsibilises, harshly blaming us, while – in its therapeutic mode – telling us that we have the power as individuals to change anything and everything: if we’re unhappy, it’s up to us to fix it. Consciousness raising, meanwhile, is about positive depersonalisation: it’s not your fault, it’s capitalism. No individuals can change anything, not even themselves; but collective activation is already, immanently, overcoming individualised immiseration.

So I present below a number of strategies, practices and orientations, starting from the most immediate (something groups can do right now) and moving towards the more remotes. The list is of course not exhaustive; and I can’t claim credit for coming up with any of the strategies myself. The point is to share them, add to them, elaborate them.

The chief obstruction to all of these steps is what, in a trenchant and clear-eyed analysis, Ewa Jasiewicz calls “time poverty”:

Our time is under attack. Work will be intensified, worse paid, and more casualised – if we don’t have it, we’ll be working to have it; mandatory and supervised job searches and workfare will see people forced to spend their time locked into coerced, computerised distraction. A real, diverse, working class self-representative movement needs to include people facing and living these experiences, but how will that happen when we’re too tied up working?

 

Access to time and our own labour is key and will determine participation and the ability to organise. If we can’t have our own time to organise, we can’t organise, we can’t meet each other, we cannot find each other. Work and the benefits regime – which is work under different conditions and profit margins – are key sites of struggle. Solidarity will need to step up if we are to win workplace disputes and strikes, refusals of workfare and support for people getting sanctioned, so that people have more control over their time and labour.

 

All our commons are under attack. The condition of time poverty and its roots – intensification of labour, welfare repression, criminalisation and incarceration – have to be recognised as major obstacles to movement, diversity and power. These obstacles need to be tackled if we want to overcome the ideology of wage labour as a determinant of human value on a popular level.

The problem is that, in order to struggle against time poverty, the main resource we require is time – a nasty vicious circle that capital, with its malevolent genius, now has… This problem is absolutely immanent – writing this and the other posts I have completed this week has meant that I have fallen enormously behind on my work, which is storing up stress for the next week or so.

The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #Itsnotyourfault We must try to do everything we can to politicise time poverty rather than accept blame as individuals for failing to complete our work on time. The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time” properly. However, we can use the scarce resources we already have more effectively if we work together to codify practices of collective re-habituation (setting new rules for our engagement with social media and capitalist cyberspace in general for example).

Anyway, here goes:

  1. Talk to fellow workers about how we feel This will re-introduce care and affectioninto spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated. It will also start to break down the difference between (paid) work and social reproduction on which capitalism depends.
  2. Talk to opponents Most people who vote Tory and UKIP are not monsters, much as we might like to think they are. It’s important that we understand why they voted as they did. Also, they may not have been exposed to an alternative view. Remember that people are more likely to be persuaded if defensive character armour is not triggered.
  3. Create knowledge exchange labs This follows from what I argued a few days ago. Lack of knowledge about economics seems to me an especially pressing problem to address, but we could also do with more of us knowing about law, I suspect.
  4. Create social spaces Create times and spaces specifically dedicated to attending to one another: not (yet more) conferences, but sessions where people can share their feelings and ideas. I would suggest restricting use of handhelds in these spaces: not everything has to be live tweeted or archived! Those with access to educational or art spaces could open these up for this purpose.
  5. Use social media pro-actively, not reactively Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events like Thursday. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. Facebook can be useful for discussions and trying out new ideas, but attempting to debate on Twitter is absurd and makes us feel more stressed. (He says, thinking of the time when, sitting on a National Express coach, perched over his handheld, he tried to intervene in an intricate discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy – all conducted in 140 characters.)
  6. Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda Again, this follows up from what I argued in the Communist Realismpost. Capitalist realism was established by constituting the figure of the lazy, feckless scrounger as a populist scapegoat. We must float a new figure of the parasite: landlords milking the state through housing benefit, ‘entrepreneurs’ exploring cheap labour, etc.
  7. Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption Capital has to be seriously inconvenienced and to fear before it yields any territory or resources. It can just wait out most protests,but it will take notice when its logistical operations are threatened. We must be prepared for them cutting up veryrough once we start doing this – using anti-terrorist legislation to justify practically any form of repression. They won’t play fair, but it’s not a game of cricket – they know it’s class war, and we should never forget it either.
  8. Develop Hub struggles Some struggles will be more strategically and symbolically significant than others – for instance, the Miners’ Strike was a hub struggle for capitalist realism. We might not be able to identify in advance what these struggles are, but we must be ready to swarm in and intensify them when they do occur.

Summer is coming

The Lannisters won on Thursday, but their gold has already run out, and summer is coming. What we saw in the debates dominated by Nicola Sturgeon was not a mirage – it is a rising tide, an international movement, a movement of history, which has not yet reached an England sandbagged in misery and mediocrity. Comrades, I hope (ha!) for the sake of your mental health and your blood pressures that you didn’t see the right-wing tabloids over the weekend (tw for class hatred): middle England crowing over its “humiliation” of ‘”ed” Ed. Well if they think Ed was Red, wait until they see the coming Red Swarm. Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….

———-

Choose Your Weapons

(12th August 2007)

People are often telling me that I ought to read Frank Kogan’’s work, but I’ve never got around it. (Partly that’’s because, Greil Marcus apart, I’ve never really tuned into much American pop criticism at all, which in my no doubt far too hasty judgement has seemed to be bogged down in a hyper-stylized faux-naif gonzoid mode that has never really appealed to me.) The -– again, perhaps unfair -– impression I have is that, in Britain, the battles that Kogan keeps on fighting were won, long ago, by working-class autodidact intellectuals. No doubt the two recent pieces by Kogan that Simon has linked to are grotesquely unrepresentative of his work as a whole (I certainly hope so, since it is difficult to see why so many intelligent people would take his work seriously if they weren’’t), but it’’s hard not to read them as symptomatic, not only of an impasse and a malaise within what I now hesitate to call “Popism”, but of a far more pervasive, deeply-entrenched cultural conservatism in which so-called Popism is intrinsically implicated.

Remember, in the immediate wake of 9/11, all those po-faced Adornoite proclamations that there would be “no more triviality” in American popular culture after the Twin Towers fell? There can be few who, even when the remains of the Twin Towers were smouldering, really believed that US pop culture would enter a new thoughtful, solemn and serious phase after September 11th -– and it’’s surely superfluous to remember, at this point, that what ensued was a newly vicious cynicism soft-focused by a piety that only a wounded Leviathan assuming the role of aggrieved victim can muster -– but would anyone, then, have believed that, only six years later, a supposedly serious critic would write a piece called “Paris [Hilton] is our Vietnam“…’ especially, when, in those years, there has, like, been another Vietnam. What we are dealing with in a phrase like “Paris is our Vietnam”’ is not trivia – this isn’’t the collective narcissism of a leisure class ignorant of geopolitics – but a self conscious trivialization, an act of passive nihilistic transvaluation. Debating the merits or otherwise of a boring heiress have been elevated to the status of a political struggle; and not even by preening aesthetes in some Wildean/ Warholian celebration of superficiality, but by middle-aged men in sweat pants, sitting on the spectator’’s armchair at the end of History and dissolutely flicking through the channels.

The end of history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

At least the “Paris is Vietnam”’ piece laid bare the resentment of resentment that I have previously argued is the real libidinal motor of “popism’” -– “we love Paris all the more because others hate her (but luckily we loved her any way, honest!)’” But this latest piece Simon has linked to is, if anything, even more oddly pointless and indicative. Unlike the pleasantly mediocre Paris Hilton LP, the ostensible object of the piece, Backstreet Boys’’ single “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”’ is actually rather good. Practically everyone I know liked it. The problem is the idea that saying this is in some way news in 2007. No word of a lie, I had to check the date on that post, assuming, at first, that it must have been written a decade ago.

The article makes me think that, if the motivating factor with British popists is, overwhelmingly, class, with Americans it might be age. Perhaps those a little deeper into middle age than I am were still subject to the proscriptions and prescriptions of a Leavisite high culture. But it seems to me that popists now are like Mick Jagger confronted with punk in 1976: they don’’t seem to realise that, if there is an establishment, it is them. Even if the “Nathan”’ with whom Kogan debates exists – and I’’ll be honest with you, I’’m finding it hard to believe that he does – his function is a fantasmatic one (in the same way that Lacan argued that, if a pathologically jealous husband is proved right about his wife’’s infidelities, his jealousy remains pathological): for popists to believe that their position is in any way challenging or novel, they have to keep digging up “Nathans”’ who contest it. But, in 2007, Nathan’’s hoary old belief that only groups who write their own songs can be valid has been refuted so many times that it is rather like someone mounting a defence of slavery today -– sure, there are such people who sold such a view, but the position is so irrelevant to the current conjuncture that it is quaintly antiquated rather than a political threat. There may be a small minority of pop fans who claim to hold Nathan’’s views; but, given the success of Sinatra, the Supremes, Elvis Presley and the very boybands that popists think it is so transgressive to re-evaluate, those views would in most cases be performatively contradicted by the fans’ actual tastes. (Kogan does grant that the problem is not so much fans’ tastes as their accounts of them – but the unspoken assumption is that it is alright, indeed mandatory, to contest male rock fans’ accounts of their own tastes, but that the aesthetic judgements of the figure with which the popist creepily identifies, the teenage girl, ought never to be gainsaid.) (The other irony is that, if you talk to an actual teenager today, they are far more likely to both like and have heard of Nirvana than they are the Backstreet Boys.)

The once-challenging claim that for certain listeners, the (likes of) Backstreet Boys could have been as potent as (the likes of) Nirvana has been passive-nihilistically reversed –- now, the message disseminated by the wider culture – if not necessarily by the popists themselves – is that nothing was ever better than the Backstreet Boys. The old high-culture disdain for pop cultural objects is retained; what is destroyed is the notion that there is anything more valuable than those objects. If pop is no more than a question of hedonic stim, then so are Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Reading Milton, or listening to Joy Division, have been re-branded as just another consumer choice, of no more significance than which brand of sweets you happen to like. Part of the reason that I find the term “Popism”’ unhelpful now is that implies some connection between what I would prefer to call Deflationary Hedonic Relativism and what Morley and Penman were doing in the early Eighties. But their project was the exact inverse of this: their claim was that, as much sophistication, intelligence and affect could be found in the pop song as anywhere else. Importantly, the music, and the popular culture of the time, made the argument for them. The evaluation was not some fits-all-eras a priori position, but an intervention at a particular time designed to have certain effects. Morley and Penman were still critics, who expected to influence production, not consumer guides marking commodities out of five stars, or executives spending their spare time ranking every song with the word “sugar”’ in it on live journal communities that are the cyberspace equivalent of public school dorms.

Whereas Morley and Penman (self-taught working-class intellectuals both) complicated the relationship between theory and popular culture with writing that –- in its formal properties, its style and its erudition, as well as in its content – contested commonsense, Deflationary Hedonic Relativism merely ratifies the empiricist dogmas that underpin consumerism. More than that. Owen Hatherley has astutely observed that, in addition to reiterating the standard Anglo-American bluff dismissal of metaphysics, the Deflationary Hedonistic Relativist disclaiming of theory (“‘we just like what we like, we don’’t have a theory’”) uncannily echoes the dreary mantras of the average NME indie band: “we just do what we do, anything else is a bonus’”, ‘the music is the only important thing”. In the UK, the rhetorical fight between “Popists’” and indie is as much a phoney war as the parliamentary political punch and judy show between Cameron’’s Tories and Brown’’s New Labour: a storm in a ruling class tea-cup. In both cases, the social reality is that of ex-public schoolkids carrying on their inter-House rivalries by other means. In the case of both indie and Popism, there is a strangely inverted relationship to populism and the popular. While the “Popists” claim to be populist but actually support music that is increasingly marginal in terms of sales figures, the indie types claim to celebrate an alternative while their preferred music of choice (Trad skiffle) has Full Spectrum Dominance (you can’’t listen to Radio 2 for fifteen minutes without hearing a Kaiser Chiefs song). In many ways, because it was attempting to analyse a genuinely popular phenomenon, Simon’’s defence of the Arctic Monkeys was more genuinely popist than all of the popist screeds on Paris Hilton’’s barely-bought LP -– but of course much of the impulse behind them was the ultra-rockist desire to be seen thumbing one’s nose at critical consensus. Witness the genuinely pathetic -– it certainly provokes pathos in me -– attempt to whip up controversy about the workmanlike plod of Kelly Clarkson, on a blog which, in its combination of hysterical overheating and dreary earnestness, is as boring as it is symptomatic –- though, I have to confess I have never managed to get to the end of a single post, a problem I have with a great many “‘popist’” writings, including the magnum opus of popism, Morley’’s Words and Music.

Much as he occasionally flails and rails against popist commonplaces (see, for instance, his recent –- I would argue unwarranted –- attack on Girls Aloud), Morley is as deeply integrated into Deflationary Hedonic Relativist commonsense as Penman is excluded from it. What was the strangely affectless Words and Music if not a description of the OedIpod from inside? All those friction-free freeways, those inconsequent consumer options standing in for existential choices… Yet Morley is still a theorist of the ends of History and of Music, still too obviously in love with intelligence to be fully plugged into the anti-theoretical OedIpod circuitry. Even so, Ian’’s silence speaks far louder than Morley’’s chatter, and, after my very few dealings with Old Media, I’’m increasingly seeing Ian’’s withdrawal, not as a tragic failure, but as a noble retreat.

All of UK culture tends to the condition of the clip show, in which talking heads -– including, of course, Morley – are paid to say what dimwit posh producers have decided that the audience already thinks over footage of what everyone has already seen. I recently had dealings with an apparatchik of Very Old Media. What you get from representatives of VOM is always the same litany of requirements: writing must be “light’”, “upbeat” and “‘irreverent’”. This last word is perhaps the key one, since it indicates that the sustaining fantasy to which the young agents of Very Old Media are subject is exactly the same as the one in which popists indulge: that they are refusing to show ‘reverence’ to some stuffy censorious big Other. But where, in the dreary-bright, dressed-down sarky snarky arcades of postmodern culture, is this “reverence’”? What is the postmodern big Other if it is not this “irreverence’” itself? (Only people who have not been in a university humanities dept for a quarter-of-century -– i.e. not at all your bogstandard Oxbdridge grad Meeja employee/leisure-time popist –- could really believe that there is some ruthlessly-policed high culture canon. When Harold Bloom wrote The Western Canon it was as a challenge to the relativism that is hegemonically dominant in English Studies.) I’’ve quickly learned that “light”, “‘upbeat’” and “irreverent”’ are all codes for “thoughtless” and “mundanist’”. Confronted with these values and their representatives -– who, as you would expect, are much posher than me – I often encounter a cognitive dissonance, or rather a dissonance between affect and cognition. Faced with the Thick Posh People who staff so much of the media, I feel inferiority –- their accents and even their names are enough to induce such feelings -– but think that they must be wrong. It is this kind of dissonance that can produce serious mental illness; or –- if the conditions are right -– rage.

Anti-intellectualism is a ruling-class reflex, whereby ruling-class stupidity is attributed to the masses (I think we’’ve discussed here before the ruse of the Thick Posh Person whereby make a show of pretending to be thick in order to conceal that they are, in fact, thick.) It’’s scarcely surprising that inherited privilege tends to produce stupidity, since, if you do not need intelligence, why would you take the trouble to acquire it? Media dumbing down is the most banal kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Simon Frith and Jon Savage long ago noted in their NLR essay, “The Intellectuals and the Mass Media’”, which Owen Hatherley recently brought to my attention again, the plain common-man pose of the typical public school and Oxbridge-educated media commentator trades on the assumption that these commentators are far more in touch with “reality”’ than anyone involved in Theory. The implicit opposition is between Media (as transparent window-on-the-world transmitter of good, solid commonsense) and Education (as out-of-touch disseminator of useless, elitist arcanery). Once, Media was a contested ground, in which the impulse to educate was in tension with the injunction to entertain. Now –- and the indispensable Lawrence Miles is incisive on this, as on so many other things, in his latest compendium of insights -– Old Media is almost totally given over to a vapid notion of Entertainment -– and so, increasingly, is education.

In my teenage years, I certainly benefited far more from reading Morley and Penman and their progeny than from the middlebrow dreariness of much of my formal education. It’’s because of them, and later Simon and Kodwo et al, that I became interested in Theory and bothered to pursue it in postgraduate study. It is essential to note that Morley and Penman were not just an “application”’ of High Theory to Low Culture; the hierarchical structure was scrambled, not just inverted, and the use of Theory in this context was as much a challenge to the middle-class assumptions of Continental Philosophy as it was to the anti-theoretical empiricism of mainstream British popular culture. But now that teaching is itself being pressed into becoming a service industry (delivering measurable outputs in the form of exam results) and teachers are required to be both child minders and entertainers, those working in the education system who still want to induce students into the complicated enjoyments that can be derived from going beyond the pleasure principle, from encountering something difficult, something that runs counter to one’’s received assumptions, find themselves in an embattled minority. Here we are now entertain us.

The credos of ruling class anti-intellectualism that most Old Media professionals are forced to internalise are far more effective than the Stasi ever was in generating a popular culture that is unprecedentedly monotonous. Put it this way: a situation in which Lawrence Miles languishes, at the limits of mental health, barely able to leave his house, while the likes of Rod Liddle swagger around the mediascape is not only aesthetically abhorrent, it is fundamentally unjust. Contrary to the “‘it’’s only hedonic stim” deflationary move that both Stekelmanites and Popists share, popular culture remains immensely important, even if it only serves an essential ideological function as the background noise of a capitalist realism which naturalises environmental depredation, mental health plague and sclerotic social conditions in which mobility between classes is lessening towards zero.

A class war is being waged, but only one side is fighting.

Choose your side. Choose your weapons.