Tuesday, March 28, 2006

An extract from a poem by Seamus Heaney, 'Weighing In', from The Spirit Level:

To refuse the other cheek. To cast the stone.
Not to do so some time, not to break with
The obedient one you hurt yourself into

Is to fail the hurt, the self, the ingrown rule.
Prophesy who struck thee! When soldiers mocked
Blindfolded Jesus and he didn't strike back

They were neither shamed nor edified, although
Something was made manifest - the power
Of power not exercised, of hope inferred

By the powerless forever. Still, for Jesus' sake,
Do me a favour, would you, just this once?
Prophesy, give scandal, cast the stone.

Two sides to every question, yes, yes, yes....
But every now and then, just weighing in
Is what it must come down to, and without

Any self-exculpation or self-pity.
March 2006: labour in the world.

The United Kingdom
: Major strike over cuts in pensions to local government employees under the LGPS (Local Government Pensions Scheme). Other government employees, those not covered by this scheme, are not facing a similar axe. Over a million public-sector employees are having their pensions reduced or being forced to work longer. UNISON, TGWU, NUJ, NUT and other unions are working together on this strike, which is supposedly the largest since the General Strike.
Thatcher, when she introduced a compulsory secret ballot for trade union decisions, was roundly opposed for interfering with the internal functioning of unions. And it’s true that she did this as a move to defeat working-class organization and militancy. But in the long run, it may have backfired, and accomplished more good than harm. Unions have in recent years swung back heavily to the left, even though their membership has shrunk in an age of casualization. And the legitimacy of the left-wing dominance of many unions, achieved through the most democratic means available, is not under a cloud. And in cases like the present strike, where the ballots have unambiguously turned out a vote for sustained industrial action, the extent to which the real and represented interests of public-sector workers coincide is much clearer than it would otherwise have been. The consensus seems to be: strike. And all the best to it, too. The whole wide world is watchin’, as Dylan once wrote.

France: Violent labour protests, involving the burning of cars and massive demonstrations, protesting the Villepin government’s decision to pass a law making it easier for employers to fire new hires in the first two years of employment – a form of ‘flexible employment’. This has tied in, once again, as in May 68, but perhaps more comprehensively in terms of actual interests, with student protest. Students are among those directly affected by the government’s decision, so the Sorbonne is occupied, and the occupation continues as I write (28 March) – so well over a fortnight, at the least. It’s interesting, the way radical movements invoke their past through oblique coded references – the student occupiers of the Sorbonne are circulating pamphlets, redolent with Situationism, soixante-huitard Maoism, and articulations of Marcuse with post-structuralism. May 68 is invoked, time and again – but, in a revealing turn of phrase, not as the revolution that happened, but ‘that which did not’.
I feel ambiguous. There’s a thrill when one reads passages like this. Legitimacy belongs to those who believe in their actions, to those who know what they are doing, and why they are doing it. This idea is obviously opposed to that of the State, majority and representation. It does not submit to the same rationales, it imposes its own rationales. If the politicizing consists in a struggle of different legitimacies, of different ideas of happiness, our task from now on is to give means to this struggle with no other limit but what appears to us to be just and joyful. This is an excerpt from a communiqué from the Sorbonne Occupation Committee in Exile (murmurs of ’68? A nod to Marcos and the Zapatistas? The language resonates..). It’s thrilling because in the middle of a difficult, meaningful struggle, the philosophic basis for a challenge to the hegemony of the French state and its apparatuses, as well as the apparatuses of global capitalism, is being articulated. It need not refer directly to the issue at hand in formulating its poetics: the point is that a poetics is being spoken, written, invented, as the movement continues. The colours and smells and feels of the occupation, of the labour protests, are invoked, in what is effectively an appeal to an international, virtual, online audience. There is a refusal of logics that many of us have thought, in moments of despair, to be hegemonic to the point of drowning the possibility of any kind of counter-hegemony. Something is opening here, and it is welcome.
But there is an unease, too – perhaps that is unavoidable in a time when the openness of the future seems, for once, demonstrable? – as I read lines like this. The scorn for the procedures of ‘democratic majority’ is more than a sneer at the vacillations and compromises of ‘bourgeois’ democracy. The principles of democratic voting, representation, and collective consultation, replaced in this radical discourse by a poetics of invention and affirmation, were not ‘granted’ by ‘capitalist democracy’, but wrested by patient and strategic deployments of all kinds of oppositional power – working-class, feminist, minority. The easy contempt and dismissal of these in the Sorbonne communiqué worries me. All that space given to the general assemblies paralyses us and only serves to confer legitimacy on paper to a bunch of wannabe bureaucrats. Well, yes, this can often be true. But is the answer as simple as this – It is part of our struggle to limit, as much as possible, the tyranny of the majority vote? That this vote can often be tyrannical, and run counter to the democracy it supposedly embodies, is not in question. Yet should we not also worry, especially given some of the historical trajectories of the Left, about the concrete accountability of movements, however radical and democratic in principle, to real, embodied interests and opinions? Even if this causes delays and fumbling and bickering, given the history of the Left, it seems to me necessary and unavoidable to institute and maintain mechanisms of accountability to something that has more flesh than a spectral idea, a logic of poetic invention, a conceptually watertight philosophic agenda. I’m not suggesting for a moment that that is what is actually happening in France now – it’s just that communiqués of this sort (and this is precisely their strength, their wonder) do and must always provoke arguments and tensions of the kind I’ve just mentioned.

India: Murmurs. Merely murmurs. But a Business Standard report, from January, seems unnerved. ‘…the sight of 400 Toyota Kirloskar workers blocking the entrance to the Deputy Labour Commissioner’s office in Bangalore before a scheduled “peace” meeting between the management and the unions on Monday was unnerving.
‘For it brought back fears of another Black Monday in July last year when protests by Honda Motor employees took a violent turn.’
These euphemisms make me mad. The ‘violent turn’ so coyly mentioned was this: the police at Gurgaon brutally beat up protesting workers, locked them up, and the government looked on. This escalated, and the campaign by the workers, which had initially begun because of the harassment and humiliation of employees by employers, came to be backed, with some success, by the Left. The Business Standard regretfully notes: ‘Apart from the dispute in Honda, there were several other examples of industrial unrest in 2005. And in each of these cases, the management had to beat a hasty retreat.’ Instances mentioned are Tata Motors and Apollo Tyres. One could add to this the defeated, but powerful, strike by airport workers recently, and the 60-million strong countrywide Left-organized strike last winter.
What is happening here? In general, the work-days lost due to strikes in India have gone down considerably, with the spread of casualization and flexible employment, and the expansion of an already overwhelmingly dominant un-unionized sector, because of the shrinking of the organized working class. But over the last couple of years – interestingly, since the assumption of power by a Congress-led coalition backed by the Left – industrial militancy seems to be on the rise. Part of the reason for this is the increased radicalism of the organized Left on a national scale (despite the repressiveness and corruption of the Left Front ministry in West Bengal, whose politics often seem directly at odds with those of the Politbureau). Part of the reason, perhaps, is that the (temporary) decline of the RSS, reflected in the prolonged crises of the BJP, have shifted, for the moment at least, the terms of political discourse. Social conflicts have displaced the politics of Hindu identity from centre-stage for the moment, though the question of which of these political fields has deeper roots and greater resilience is still open.
Perhaps this can be said about the Manmohan Singh government, disappointing though it is on so many counts: real contradictions are visible again in the practice of government and politics, and this is for the better. As opposed to a Hindutva-managed coalition government whose right-wing reaction was uncomplicated and forceful, the political mobilizations and initiatives embodied in the decisions of the current government flow from divergent ideological streams, and are juxtaposed in uncomfortable relationships. We have an uneasy and hesitant articulation of mild social progressivism (protection for victims of domestic abuse), very minimal welfarism (the Employment Guarantee Act), continued economic neo-liberalism (the desperation to strike deals with the US, the commitment to whittling down public welfare and security in the pursuit of increased economic growth) and anti-communalism. To a limited extent, the state has emerged as a battleground of contending political interests and commitments, as a democratic state should. In the reign of the BJP, contrary to this, state, party, and government meshed in frightening ways – Gujarat exemplified this. I am uncomfortably reminded, as I write this, that this elision of the functions of different political apparatuses has achieved near-full form in West Bengal, where a government that describes itself as left-wing rules with an arbitrary, corrupt and reactionary politics. West Bengal will not witness Gujarat-like slaughter, because the CPM, at its worst, cannot compare with the RSS. That does not, however, make its rule defensible.
Labour politics seem to be headed in an uncertain upward trajectory for the moment in India, then, though this of course is part of a story of general decline and confusion. Whether or not unions and movements will devise more imaginative and far-sighted strategies is an open question. It’s a difficult job to accomplish.

Argentina: Factory occupations continue, well into their third year by now. Zanon factory seems to be doing well. Over 300 factories are under worker control. Will it spread, will it collapse under weight and inexperience, will it stay static? The future’s opened, just a crack, but it’s opened. Peronism, socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, workerism: strange bedfellows, but bedded together they seem to be, in this suddenly new world. The occupations are revolutionary by any standards, but they persistently explore the possibilities of the law and of democracy, turning these into positive, affirmative arrangements, pushing for recognition and stabilization through them – for instance, pressing successfully to get the law to recognize the legitimacy of expropriation of factories and the establishment of worker control.
Factory occupations: the strangest reversal of one of the most persistent logics of capital. Everything tamed and organized under the reign of capital repeats its own shape, but in radically bloated, disfigured forms, forms that can appear only as monsters to the interests of capital. The worker who is committed to his job, who under the scrutiny of manager and employer is the best kind of slave, picks up her tools and gets to work when employers no longer require her services, and are trying to dispense with them. And in the process, starts thinking about better ways of organizing work, more justice in the regimes that regulate her labour. Democratic voting. Equalized wages. Work safety. The abolition of private, personal profit. Accountable distributions of the wealth produced. The relations of production, to reverse the terms of an old Marxist speculation, can no longer be contained, in their trajectory, by the forces of production – employers, managers, assembly lines and workshops. Justice, in hesitant, half-articulated, but immense forms, creeps over day-to-day management, and there’s a darkness on the edge of capital’s horizon.
But, after all, only a small darkness, only a small blot. This must not be forgotten. This isn’t victory, even temporary, or anything like it. To repeat: the future’s opened, or at least a dream of it has. But dreams can disappear at a moment’s notice: the twentieth century demonstrated that with chilling effect. How can vigilance be maintained in the middle of a dream? By accepting the paradox, and by pushing it forward and onward.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Here's a dead document. A murmur of the past, a disaffected ghost wandering in a dank and blind darkness.

To secure for all the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

This is as adeqate a definition of socialism as we have ever had. Marx certainly never came up with anything as adequate as this. And it was once the official line of a party. Stranger still, many of this party's leading figures, and thousands of its workers, actually believed it and worked to make it true. This was once clause 4 of the Labour Party's constitution, adopted in 1918, and axed seventy seven years later by Blairite New Labour. Of course, at one level this was only words. The Labour Party, such as it was, never really lived up to this clause. In practice it was often authoritarian, corrupt, venal and unprincipled. But words, before they're erased, can act as a bad conscience, and in this case the bad conscience of the Party was embodied in people who pushed, tirelessly, for the actualization of these words through lives committed to their organization. People who felt, and had reason to feel, that their party could be different, that it could be what it had promised to be. People who, before they left or were hounded out by Blair's masquerading corporate mafia, represented Left Labour, a fraction that no longer exists.

Labour's been funded now, as we all know, by some of the richest men in the country. The party that was created to represent and fight for an enormous and exploited working class is now run by the purse-strings of Lord Sainsbury. Secret meetings, clinking champagne glasses, deals that are eagerly grasped and signed, old school ties. This is the time for nightmares. Nightmares where the faces of the most powerful people in the world weld into a single face, into a single, grinning, triumphant muscular contortion. Blair. Bush. Berlusconi. Behind the spin doctors, behind the screaming headlines, the same monster of many faces. Blair. Bush. Berlusconi. And so many more.

Two of my closest friends in London spent years working for the Labour Party. Through its compromises and its rightward turns, they found it in themselves to believe that it was possible to make this a party of genuine democratic socialism, that it was worth fighting for, to use a cliched phrase, the soul of the party. And that it was possible to be in this organization while keeping one's principles, personal and political, intact. History was open. The future was open. Through Wilson and Callaghan, through the nightmare of Thatcherism, they worked to give democracy some meaning, to argue, with reason and patience, that being socialist could mean something inside this organization. There was, above all, there must have been, the sense of being within a movement, within something living and pregnant with possibility, despite all the abuses and betrayals and compromises that dogged its history. And there is no headiness to quite compare with that.

Needless to say, the time came when these hopes of the Party died. New Labour had no place for people like this. For visions like this are the most dangerous of all for a party that has decided to move to the Right. Preachy, bombastic, 'loony-left' manifestos can be endured. What cannot be endured by a party like this is people working, strategically and ethically, working responsibly towards a durable justice. There were hundreds, thousands of people in Britain who believed in this vision, who worked to give it flesh. They're gone too, and those that aren't will go. There has to come a point when staying will be impossible, when living with oneself in this organization, in this grotesque parody of social democracy, will be beyond endurance.

Something new will be born from this. Something that's already moving and murmuring, not sure of its shape or its size, its form or its meaning. Something that could be ugly, something that could be beautiful. Something growing from despair, something growing from hope. Something that may be defeated, something that may win. And both the defeats and the victories could end up being reversed. History doesn't die. No, not even when it's been murdered.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Has any rock musician invoked the powers of lament as powerfully as Bruce Springsteen? I was listening, just now, to 'Something in the Night', a track from Darkness on the Edge of Town. There's this terrifying wail that begins the song, a long, many-toned howl of lamentation that flattens my veins and freezes my blood. And punctuates the song, again and again. Then there are these words:
When we found the things we'd loved
They were crushed and dying in the dirt.
We tried to pick up the pieces
And get away without getting hurt.
'Factory', another song from the same album, vocalizes another sense of loss, another source of mourning.
Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain.
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.
Lament. Lament gives Springsteen his force: the force of mourning, and also, peculiarly, the redemptive anger and energy that bleeds out of it. The Ghost of Tom Joad (his best album, I think) is a lament for the American working class and its lives and deaths. Its most moving moments, though, come in invocations of landscapes of sky and wind and forests and springs, of friendship and love that lie 'where pain and memory have been stilled / There across the border.' A lament which seeks to regenerate. A voice and music which, for this very reason, will never deny or understate loss.
Lament as regeneration, and as force. The young man who feels 'so weak I just want to explode / Explode and tear this town apart / Take a knife and cut out this pain from my heart' decides, when the moment of decision arrives, to do something else. Weld his losses together and do something unexpected. Something new.
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground.
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing
but lost and brokenhearted.
He strides off into the storm, looking for his promised land.
And all of this comes from sadness, from loss, from mourning. From lament.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

How is power legitimated? How are the most brutal, routinized acts of mass repression normalized and naturalized? It never ceases to amaze me that a state which has over a half-century practised torture and genocide in the pursuit of imperial goals and profits, a state in which racial segregation was institutionalized till into the second half of the century, where there has been a history of witch-hunts, where elections have been rigged and most of the lower-income population votes with its feet, can be held up as an exemplar of democracy. How does this work?

This is not to claim any status of particular evil for the United States, just to point to the constitutive violations of democracy and human rights that its statecraft and politics, national and international, are composed of. Of course brutal regimes cannot be compared easily on a scale of ten. The postwar and post-colonial world teems with examples: Iran of the Ayatollahs, Pinochet's Chile, Fujimori's Peru, the Taliban's Afghanistan, apartheid South Africa, Suharto's Indonesia, Pol Pot's Cambodia. But the point is that if anyone were to get up and systematically argue that Pol Pot or Pinochet were benvolent democratic heads of state, they'd be hooted out of the hall. The same doesn't happen when Condoleeza Rice or Rumsfeld make speeches about the United States' role in making this a freer world. Or, to take another pertinent case, it doesn't happen when someone defends Israel's apartheid wall.

How does this really work? The crude answer is that power justifies all, but that still begs the question - how? 'Hegemony', in the Gramscian sense, describes the situation well, but there are micro-strategies still to be explained.

Take popular cinema. Take an example of a film that's actually much more sensitive and intelligent than one would have expected, Spielberg's Munich. The film is a tortured condemnation of Israel, a state with which Spielberg has often claimed solidarity. The Mossad agents who set out to avenge Munich and track down Palestinian terrorists are, most of them, men with a conscience, capable of moral complexity and self-doubt, and this comes through even as Spielberg peels away the layers behind which their pathologies, and their state's pathology, rest. The film ends with the central protagonist, used by his state to commit murders his conscience cannot rest with, refusing Israel, refusing to commit himself to it any more. It ends with the moving invocation of an alternative, cosmopolitan, hospitable Jewishness against the hardness and closure of Zionism. And none of this can be faulted - the fact that the Mossad agents are men with consciences and not depraved monsters only enriches the film and makes it more complex. (Though the idea of Mossad agents risking their security and agenda in a desperate rush to save a little Palestinian girl from dying accidentally in one of their assassination attempts is, frankly, laughable.) Spielberg, to his credit, tries not to demonize the Palestinian terrorists he shows either. But they are, clearly, fanatics and nothing more. Their grievances are real, their longing for a home movingly portrayed. But they are walk-ons, cardboard figures, they are not people with children and fears and self-doubt and psychological complexities. They want their justice, and nothing will deter them. They are single-minded, they suffer from none of the weaknesses the Mossad agents do. And so, despite Spielberg's major advance upon the simple Manicheanisms of Hollywood, and his attempts to pierce the human truths of the Israel-Palestine predicament, he cannot. The adversaries are not made of the same human flesh and hearts, though the discourse of much of the film tries to affirm that they are.

Constantly, in media much cruder than Hollywood, which on the whole is far more sophisticated than Fox News, the same discursive trajectory emerges. Who are the people you will allow doubt, guilt, self-revulsion, self-questioning, the richness and openness of divided selves? Which side are they on? And who will emerge, on the other side, as Manichean-minded, ruthless, single-minded, the embodiments of the simplicity and horror of undivided selves? The CIA agent can be a man with kids and mortgages and fear and guilt, he can be a victim too. Not so the suicide bomber, who must only be a suicide bomber and nothing beyond, who must be reduced to the one function that defines and delimits his humanity. Why is Vietnam, the one imperial war which can be subjected to any kind of generally acceptable internal critique in mainstream American media, the subject of a 'debate', while 9/11 is the act that defies understanding, the act that can justify the substitution of war for debate and argument? It's the same logic at work.

Which is why George Clooney's new film, Syriana, is such a welcome step. Within the giant web of the military-state-corporate entanglements that structure the politics of the Middle East and tie these to America, the film delves into four situations, in both the United States and the Middle East, and describes the ways in which these work themselves out both through the articulation of political power on a giant scale, and in the micro-physics of real people's lives and experiences. Clooney as the CIA assassin who emerges as a tragic figure dying in a failed attempt at self-redemption, is particularly striking, and unusual. The Pakistani migrant labourer who is sucked into the world of suicide terrorists is potentially the richest character in the film, though it's true to Hollywood in the sense that this is the most imperfectly realized of the four converging plot-lines. But he is a young migrant labourer with a fresh face whose father loves him dearly, who's been made redundant by a corporate oil merger affecting jobs in both the Middle East and the United States, and who fears his death. The kind of figure it is risky to flesh out in Hollywood in these terms. If Clooney is returning mainstream Hollywood to the possibilities of a progressive left-liberal politics that McCarthyism first, and the Reaganite 1980s second, had all but eroded, this is something to be excited about. I haven't seen Good Night and Good Luck yet, but from all accounts it works fantastically well. These are minor blows against the edifice of self-legitimation that American mainstream political culture is built on. But they do good and not harm, and in Bush and Haliburton's America, that's reason enough for celebration.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Cromer Street. Again. Late afternoon. Quieter today, no racist tramps outside the church, people about their business, walking through the streets, running their shops, kids stalking past in bad imitations of hoods. Before the road ends, a huge scaffolding locked into a tall building. There's work happening here, something's being built. The usual notices are up. SCAFFOLDING ALARMED - I always have a good laugh at that. CAUTION - MEN AT WORK OVERHEAD. That's another one. Something's coming up here, and a closer glance at the billboards tells me what it is. It's a 'creative arts centre', advertising ACTIVITY FOR HEALTH. It's called COSMUR, and the words explore inspire create are emblazoned in a melange of colours - yellow, green, red, orange - on a large piece of cloth pressed tight to the scaffolding.

Down on the street, someone's taking COSMUR's exhortations to heart. Carrying them out.

By the foot of the giant scaffolding is a giant yellow garbage carrier, an ugly barrow heaped with refuse. Bottles, wrappers, half-eaten food, used toilet cleaning fluid containers, discarded clothes - all signatures of the roads walked and trails left by people in the neighbourhood. And here's someone burrowing in their trails, hungrily, eagerly, big-eyed with hope. An old man, in his sixties but older. Short, wheezy, stumping around on rocky legs. A face a few days short of a shave, lips moving to no particular tune, eyes gleaming to no particular light. Black coat spattered with dust, old white shirt open at the neck. A weatherbeaten bicycle leans against the bin, his means of escape. He's licking his lips, peering around the street with hurried breaths as he goes about his work, to make sure no one's checking on him. I, on the other hand, stare rigidly ahead, and steal glances at him whenever I think he's not looking. A strange game of street etiquette we play, he and I.

He's scrabbling around in the bin, sniffing and feeling his way through the garbage. I don't know how good his eyes are, for his hands move over the same objects two or three times. After a while, there's a stifled exclamation of triumph, and he pulls out an old, torn sweater, black and striped with red, I think but can't quite remember. He casts a quick, wheedling glance of triumph at the street, makes sure no one's looking (I turn my back, for that second. Voyeur that I am, I turn back the instant I think I can). He scuttles to his bicycle, mounts it, and totters off back Cromer Street. I turn back, and follow him slowly. The old man, his trophy slung across his hunched shoulders, sways and wheezes his way down the empty street. He passes the church. Passes its big wooden doors. Passes the statue of the crucifix by its side. And moves on. The crucifix remains where it is, locked to its prisoner with his tortured body, his upturned face, and his mangled flesh, silhouetted against the fading light. My co-observer of today's human comedy. Of the entrepreneurship of the very poor. The sign explore create inspire, COSMUR's banner, flutters and cackles in the wind that has suddenly turned fierce, crackles and spits in the day that has suddenly turned very, very cold.

Sweet Jesus, see to it that nothing happens to him on his way back. See to it that he gets home safe. That his rag keeps him warm, unhurt, and alive.