Wednesday 3 July 2013

Zizek on "liberal democratic freedom" and its inherent limitations

Yes, more Zizek, but this paragraph from a new essay in the London Review of Books underlies a key point in modern democratic socialist theory:
Only a politics that fully takes into account the complexity of overdetermination deserves to be called a strategy. When we join a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins, as with the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans – for democracy, against corruption etc. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices. When the revolt succeeds in its initial goal, we come to realise that what is really bothering us (our lack of freedom, our humiliation, corruption, poor prospects) persists in a new guise, so that we are forced to recognise that there was a flaw in the goal itself. This may mean coming to see that democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom, or that we must demand more than merely political democracy: social and economic life must be democratised too. In short, what we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself. This realisation – that failure may be inherent in the principle we’re fighting for – is a big step in a political education.
Go read the whole thing, which in parts I quite deeply disagree with and find hyperbolic (the paradox with Zizek is that he's at his most banal/wrong/perverse when he's *too* Leftist, too much of a standard line-follower), but his opinion is almost always worth your while.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Zizek on anarchism and its authoritarian elements

Asked about authoritarianism in modern anarchist movements in a 2002 interview conducted by Doug Henwood, everyone's favourite notorious Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek replied:
I have contacts in England, France, Germany, and more — and all the time, beneath the mask of this consensus, there was one person accepted by some unwritten rules as the secret master. The totalitarianism was absolute in the sense that people pretended that they were equal, but they all obeyed him. The catch was that it was prohibited to state clearly that he was the boss. You had to fake some kind of equality. The real state of affairs couldn't be articulated. Which is why I'm deeply distrustful of this "let's just coordinate this in an egalitarian fashion." I'm more of a pessimist. In order to safeguard this equality, you have a more sinister figure of the master, who puts pressure on the others to safeguard the purity of the non-hierarchic principle. This is not just theory. I would be happy to hear of groups that are not caught in this strange dialectic.
Given the spectre of the "secret master", I think it's no accident Henwood talks about Noam Chomsky in the preamble...

Wednesday 26 June 2013

The seductive nuances of "not-knowing" about mass murder elsewhere

I always love quoting books (gratuitously indulgent pseudo-intellectual I am), and to be able quote two simultaneously is highly pleasurable, although the subject matter itself is as far from pleasurable or savoury as possible.

This is from Stanley Cohen's States of Denial (Polity Press, 2005 [2001], p146), who is quoting Norman Geras' (yes, that old NormThe Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust (Verso, 1998, p96), on what could be called "purposeful ignorance" (or minimisation for that matter) about on-going genocide, mass murder, and ethnic cleansing, and its perverse relief effects:
Literal denial to your fellow citizens--who know that you know--requires further tactical collusion. You have moved from sight to insight, but your meta-insight tells you that it would be wise (for the time being, until things change, until the public wakes up, until things blow over) to play a little dumb in public. Geras nicely captures the nuances of not-knowing, even about mass murder: 'There are the people who affect not to know, or who do not care to know and so do not find out; or who do know or do not care anyway, who are indifferent; or who were afraid for themselves or for others, or who feel powerless; or who are weighed down, distracted or just occupied (as most of us) in pursuing the aims of our own lives.'
I would recommend the book as a whole, but does this passage remind you of anyone or any group of persons in particular?

Friday 10 May 2013

The Sheer Idiocy of North Korea Apologism on the Left

I probably should have written a post like this a month or so ago, but In These Times linking to a certain Counterpunch article got my goat up. I may upset some of my fellows on the Left also in writing this, but it must said and I can't help my conclusions.

The article itself is the usual pap, but this extract on the original post by In These Times caught my attention:
Would the US government and people get a little “irrational” if a foreign country that previously had killed millions of our people, sent nuclear capable stealth bombers off the coasts of New York City, Washington DC, Houston, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, there to fly around for a month in preparation for a possible nuclear attack on us? For what is called, in warped US language, war “games”?
The US may have killed 20% of the population of Korea, said General Curtis Lemay, who was involved in the US air war on Korea. If so, that is a higher rate of genocidal slaughter than what the Nazis inflicted on Poland or the Soviet Union. The Korean War may be unknown ancient history to us, but it is no more ancient history to Koreans than the Nakba is to Palestinians.
There are numerous problems with this. Firstly, virtually all of America's activities involve defensive war games with South Korea which occur annually; it is not as though this is a spontaneous threat by the US and the RoK to spook the elites of the North Korean necro-stratocracy into surrendering because they dared defy neo-liberal hegemony (or whatever model is popular this week).

Secondly, although the war games could be seen as intrusive, so can the various examples of North Korean aggression over recent years, most notably the shelling of Yeonpyeong in November 2010. That North Korea has some sort of complaint in this area could possibly be valid, but given circumstances, it is patently ridiculous for them to be so tetchy about it given past actions.

Thirdly, we come to the civilian and military deaths inflicted upon North Korea during the initial Korean War of 1950 to '53. I shall not pass any moral or strategic judgement on US actions during this period as the Korean War is quite a sketchy area for me, and to be brutally honest, for all my interest in the current conflict, learning further about it simply does not appeal to me. So, let's just deal with abstractions and the argument.

As we're at the very blunt low bar of (pseudo-)intellectual discourse, let's do a comparison with the Holocaust: the Israeli Right (and on sadly on occasion the Israeli Left) often evoke the memory of the Holocaust to defend their aggressive military-policing towards the Palestinians (and neighbouring states), the Occupation, and the building of settlements. However, this is plainly ridiculous: however awful and, yes, unique the Holocaust was (and how we should never ever forget how apocalyptic it was not just for the Jews, but for the entire Human Condition (with my dearest respects to Levinas)), it does not negate further injustices and aggressions committed by the original victims against innocent peoples (or the descendants of the original aggressors).

This should go without saying, but although I'm pretty sure the entire Counterpunch staff, well-known for their virulent "anti-Zionism" (to the extent of hiring Holocaust deniers just to get more of that shit written) would appreciate the argument here about the Holocaust and Israeli policy, they would fail to understand that the same argument directly transfers to North Korea's actions today: no matter how bad the US military was sixty years ago, it doesn't mean you can go around threatening and throwing inter-continental shit-fits as much as you like and not see muscles be flexed on the other side. (Same as the great injustice of the Nakba not allowing for suicide bombings in homes for old Jewish people, rocket attacks on Israeli children's playgrounds, or trying to keep the Okhrana-forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion a bestseller and attempting to teach it in schools as historical fact.)

Also, to get back to the extract itself, to compare the Nakba to the North Korean death toll is a false analogy to the core. For one thing, although the forced Palestinian Exodus occurred 65 years ago, the descendants of it are still very, very much living in the shadows of the initial event: seemingly permanent refugee status across the Middle East, the 46 year long occupation, perpetual Israeli military rule, discrimination and police violence with the absolute minimal chance of legal appeal, state-sanctioned settler colonialism that continues to drive out native persons, terrible interim governments that supposedly rule in their names but really undercut, torture and kill their own people at will, and even the very denial of their historic existence by the ideological descendants of the Nakba's architects in the Israeli Right and their American supporters. This is hardly reflective in the current relational situation of the DPRK with the RK and the US, especially while the Kim crime family themselves and their closer cronies see the entirety of the North Korean populace virtually as disposable slaves, doing their bidding dare they "misbehave", upon which they and their entire family are sent to trans-generational work camps, their children's children doomed to that fate as well.

An intelligent North Korean taken out of his environment and given a moment's outrospection, will clearly and correctly see that the near-entirety of his country's problems come directly or indirectly from Kim family rule.

How far can one take this logic: should as a Northern Englishman should I forever be scornful of the French for the Harrying of the North, a genocide by any measure? I mean, for example, the Al-Anafal Campaign is still very much in living memory so its understandable most Kurds are jittery about the government in Baghdad and their own national future. The same for the ethnic Bosniaks and the Kosovar Albanians and the East Timorse and the Tutsis and all the other group victims of recent mass ethnic violence and genocide. But the idea that North Korea can use civilian deaths and war crimes committed by the US more than sixty years ago in defence of its ultra-violent erratics today is absurd and irrational.

Another quick point: would the author of the article care much if Poland placed ICBMs at its Western border and threatened immediate war (even if such a war was obviously unlikely), just in case Angela Merkel decided to distract the German populace from various EU woes by declaring the need for a little bit more lebensraum? (In all honesty he probably would.)

It is a shame that this article is not an isolated incident, but merely a sample of various odd voices that range from desperately trying to portray North Korea as a wholly-to-mostly rational actor, to declaring the entirety of North Korean agression to be just a collossol American propaganda campaign (and saying some very questionable things about the NATO invasion of Afghanistan at the same time). Hell, even Fidel Castro doesn't agree with the last one and is telling Kim Jong-un to calm down! By far the strangest attempt to stifle debate was Chris Roper declaring any personal mockery of Kim Jong-un to be "racist". Elsewhere, the so-called Stop the War Coalition demanded South Korea drop its hostilities...wait a minute, what?!

Absurdity to say the least! The idea that the (for want of a better term) "bad guy" could not possibly be the United States or one of its allies simply cannot be processed in the minds of some, and its both distressing and maddening in equal measure.

One of the few good critical voices of the situation is in this interview with Korean-American social justice activist Hyun Lee at the New Left Project, which does point out some highly relevant problems with US and South Korean tactics (such as ignoring some important requests that aren't that difficult to enact, and often adopting a policy of merely waiting for the regime to collapse even though at this point it is obviously a closed, self-sustaining totalitarian system), but it still doesn't negate North Korea's blatant displays of aggression and warmongering. It also speaks of North Korea's supposed desire to "normalise" relations, but this is impossible given that technically the Korean War is still going on given that what brought it to an end was only a ceasefire, not a peace treaty, and that given that both the DPRK and the RoK both claim territorial sovereignty over the whole of the Korean Peninsula, the conditions for that treaty being drawn up, signed and enforced are extremely unlikely to materialise in the near future (note that this fact is rarely mentioned by "normalisation" proponents). The entirety of North/South and US relations exists in an uneasy grey area, but its the only possible way to operate in the circumstances.

It seems likely that North Korea is doing might be termed a traditional "hazing" of the new South Korean president to see how he or she reacts, and tensions have already started to drop with North Korean missile positions dropping back. However, the overall question of North Korean aggression and the sorry responses to it remain.

Just to be clear: in no way am I directly defending United States (or South Korean) foreign policy as a whole or even on this one particular issue. My main focus is discourse, and how the current Left-directed discourse is substantially not only not to scratch, but embarrassingly wrong, ethically wrong even. That I "want war" or that I am a "warmonger" (a "banned word" surely at this point?) is an offensive idea to me. Truth is, North Korea should be able to have as many nuclear weapons as they like (as dangerous and potentially illegal as it is), and show them off as much as they like (same view on Iran's alleged-but-disproven-but-not-really-evidence-sketchy-but-indicators-there nuclear weapons program for that matter), but that doesn't mean they shouldn't expect counter-shows of strength or further (smartly applied hopefully) sanctions (but of course not direct offensive military action). That's basic geopolitics.

My own position can be summed up by renowned trade union activist Eric Lee, writing on the always excellent Workers Liberty website, who ends his great brief statement on the matter thusly:
Socialist Worker and the Morning Star are struggling with the Korean crisis, but for socialists it is actually not very complicated.
It could be summed up in just six words — “no to war, no to dictatorship”.
No to war — meaning that North Korea must cease its threats and return to negotiations based on UN resolutions.
And no to dictatorship — meaning, down with the Kim regime, and for a united, democratic and socialist Korea.
Indeed. I think any sane and rational socialist of any stripe should be able to agree with that. It seems a sorry, sorry tragedy that a large chunk of the Western Left has virtually given up on what Tony Benn described on the back of Vol. 36 (2000 edition) of Socialist Register as the core foundations of socialism: "Equality, human rights and internationalism." Instead certain patriarchs (or pariahs rather), who are very much inexplicably worshipped by left-wing activists young and old alike, take great pleasure in declaring the so-called "pristine, innocent" qualities of North Korean culture, of a state run by verifiably the worst regime currently existing on the face of the planet today, and not only that, but it being a military structure officially ruled eternally by a man who is dead, based upon running the entire country as a vast, semi-deindustrialised meta-concentration camp (Pyongyang being I guess the "deluxe en suite" given its privileged position). It doesn't matter how many times you play basketball with them, those are the facts.

To reiterate: I am not asking my comrades to support American and South Korean foreign policy without question; I am just asking them to be rational, factual, humane and ethically consistent when discussing this topic. That is all I want.

Monday 24 December 2012

Unpublished uni newspaper article

Here's an unpublished article I wrote for my independent university newspaper a few months back (I think the Views editor didn't print it either because it was too long or too in-depth, or because I used the "c-word" a little too causually in front of her on one occasion (some people are so touchy)) on domestic violence campaigns and the modern feminist/neo-feminist and so-called "mens' rights" movements in general.

Looking back on it now I think I endorsed Stephen Pinker's scientific-humanistic optimism a little too readily, but, other than that, I'm pretty happy with its general message, and it's a shame it didn't see the light of day until now.

Violence Against Whom? The Nature of the Language of Domestic Abuse 

“Violence against women!” yelled some comparative literature major in the square behind her table. “Help stop violence against women!” I stopped, thought for a second, and then carried on. Violence against women? She obviously meant, but shortened for time, male violence against women, a phrase which had been on posters scattered around by the same group.
  Admittedly a problem even in modern society: looking at the raw data a year ago, I worked out that some 75% of incidents of domestic abuse consisted of male-on-female situations. However, this still meant that some 25% of incidents involved a female-on-male situation (this goes without counting incidents amongst gay couples, for which I wholeheartedly apologise for a lack of clear data). Now, let me clarify: I am firmly and will be for the foreseeable a male feminist, but I am also a men’s liberationist. As far as I’m concerned, sexism can and does hurt men as much as it does women in society. This does not make me a “men’s rights activist” (MRA), a movement that largely exists as an outright anti-feminist (and often homophobic and racist) “masculinist” bloc (although there are a few good guys scattered amongst the ranks). Nor do I in anyway sympathise with the unabashedly misandristic neo-feminists who see nothing but evil and domination in the male sex. I am a realist, not a demagogue or an ideologue. Looking at the same data, I also noted that male-on-female incidents dropped 60% from 1995 to 2007, but only 40% for male-on-female. There is a clear discrepancy, but it also shows contrary to both neo-feminists and MRAs that there is no “epidemic” of domestic violence on either end, but rather it has been in sharp decline.
  Stephen Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, goes into to detail about these declines, not just recently in domestic violence, but also in warfare, civil strife and violent attitudes, linking them together into an overall cultural-biological evolutionary trend towards a more harmonious humanity.
  Some say many abused men are ashamed to report violence administered by a woman, which in turn accounts for the discrepancy, and that may be so. I don’t feel the problem is largely as the MRAs say that women dominate and control the domestic violence process, but rather that men beaten by women feel they lose part of their male identity if they report their feminine abuser, an obviously damaging notion that has more to do with how men see and respect (or disrespect) themselves and other men rather than with the supposed insulting “essence of innocence” of women. Indeed, tales abound of 16th Century English and French “battered” male spouses being led around on a donkey backwards or strapped to a cart through the townships. They were treated with extreme jest and scorn for they were not the expected dominators of their wives, but rather had become weaklings under the foot of that stupid chattel beast woman (as they were popularly considered in the “old school” patriarchal society). It is pretty safe to say that such expectations are still embedded in a substantial part of the modern male psyche. It could also be said that some men feel it is more “just” that a man beats his wife rather than the other way around (even if they themselves are disgusted by such an idea). However, this does not entail there is a corresponding “female violence against men” problem.
  So, concluding my thoughts, there is violence committed against women by men, but that isn’t “male violence”. That suggests there to be some sort of essence of “maleness” about such violence, and such an idea I find absurd and have shown it incoherent in the face of evidence. The same can be said of the reverse proposition. None the less, notions of patriarchy are still around in modern Western society, but they hurt men as much as women, given that we men are forced by those same notions to suppress our emotions, go to war, be wounded and die, and take on unfair responsibilities automatically we otherwise would not―and by default demean women by tacitly admitting them weak, cowardly and irresponsible. We may, as Pinker says, be evolving away from such brutalities, but we still need to work towards the prophecy as a societal whole.

So it begins...

Finally got around to starting it properly. I've tried before, but I usually just, well, forget I have a blog. But over the last year or so, the need for one has become greater than ever as the need to vent my views on the suspecting and unsupecting public alike grew with the events of the Arab Spring and the Libyan and Syrian Revolutions, the Occupy movement, the failures of the Left and the resurgence of the Hard Right, Ed Miliband shifting Labour back to the centre-left, the cuts continuing to bite and claw at the general populace, and the various controversies over the Obama Administration mounting up, amongst many others.

Now given it's Christmas time, and I was bored and directionless, I decided it was time to at last do a bit of foundation work. This blog, launched today on Christmas Eve, I guess is an early present to myself, pretentious as it sounds.

The blog name was originally going to be "Left Contrarian" because, well, that's what I virtually am. But I decided that it was too open for misinterpretation, and perhaps too confrontational, so I was left with a nameless vision, until Boris Johnson yelled "lefty tossers" at some rightly displeased activists and the name stuck in my head, and, well, here we are. I am a "lefty" (although I use the term tongue-in-cheek) and I am a bit of a tosser in real life. Suited me down to the ground.

Most of the stuff I'll blog about will probably be current political and international events, but will definitely also include philosophy (particularly that "fruity" Continental stuff), progressive rock and heavy metal music, any fiction I happen to read (mostly non-fic these days), and anything else I have on my mind, including silly-funny bullshit that may possibly only amuse me.

There are going to be plenty of editing mistakes in the first dozen or so posts as I work out to use the Blogger freeware, and there'll always be spelling and grammatical errors galore (hell, well I do read the The Granuaid). I'll try my best to be honest and clear, and avoid bullshittery, fallacies, bad linkage, hyperbole, and smarm.

So, let's begin...