by O on February 5, 2013
Each of the books tackles one of humanity’s great texts of literature, philosophy, science and religion, from Shakespeare to Freud to Darwin to the Bible, and enlists a leading scholar in that subject to break down the classic in a way that facilitates, deepens and enriches your understanding of it.
The collection includes the following titles, each a treasure trove of intellectual stimulation and contextual fascination:
- How to Read Beauvoir
- How to Read Derrida
- How to Read Foucault
- How to Read Freud
- How to Read Heidegger
- How to Read Hitler
- How to Read Hume
- How to Read Kierkegaard
- How to Read Lacan
- How to Read Marx
- How to Read Nietzsche
- How to Read Wittgenstein
- How to Read Sade
- How to Read Sartre
- How to Read Shakespeare
- How to Read the Bible
- How to Read the Qur’an
- How to Read the Egyptian Book of the Dead
by O on February 3, 2013
The “Theses on Feuerbach” are eleven short philosophical notes written by Karl Marx in 1845. They outline a critique of the ideas of Marx’s fellow Young Hegelian philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. The theses form a basis for the activism emphasised by Marx’s work, and this short text is perhaps best know for its ending – a Eureka for revolutionary socialism.
The theses were written in 1845, but not published until 1888 (five years after Marx’s death), with slight modifications by Friedrich Engels. The original text was published in 1924. This translation is based on the 1888 version.
Recorded as an audiobook by LibriVox.
Total running time: 0:06:37
Read by Carl Manchester
mp3 and ogg files
by O on February 2, 2013
Many have pointed out that Kathryn Bigelow’s film endorses torture. But why has such a film been made now?
Here is how, in a letter to the LA Times, Kathryn Bigelow justified Zero Dark Thirty’s depicting of the torture methods used by government agents to catch and kill Osama bin Laden:
“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”
Really? One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.
Read full article here: Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power
by O on February 2, 2013
It is with deep sorrow that we mourn the death of distinguished historian and comrade, Eric Hobsbawm. Born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik revolution, he remained steadfast in his intellectual rigour and politics until the end, and his four-volume history of Europe will remain a key reference point for the generations to come. Perry Anderson’s essay on Hobsbawm in Spectrum, offers an insight into his communism:
‘Politically,’ he says, having joined the CP [Communist Party] in 1936, he belongs to the era of the Popular Front, that pursued an alliance between capital and labour which has determined his strategic thinking to this day; ‘emotionally’, however, as a teenage convert in the Berlin of 1932, he remained tied to the original revolutionary agenda of Bolshevism.
Hobsbawm dedicated his life to the work of scholarship and is unmatched in the breadth or depth of his knowledge of 19th and 20th century history. With wisdom that only a near-centenarian could bestow, Hobsbawm reflects, via an interview from 2010 in the New Left Review, on some of the most important questions of our time and offers some parting insights:
The big problem is a very general one. By palaeontological standards the human species has transformed its existence at astonishing speed, but the rate of change has varied enormously. Sometimes it has moved very slowly, sometimes very fast, sometimes controlled, sometimes not. Clearly this implies a growing control over nature, but we should not claim to know whither this is leading us. Marxists have rightly focused on changes in the mode of production and their social relations as the generators of historical change. However, if we think in terms of how ‘men make their own history’, the great question is this: historically, communities and social systems have aimed at stabilization and reproduction, creating mechanisms to keep at bay disturbing leaps into the unknown. Resistance to the imposition of change from outside is still a major factor in world politics today. How is it, then, that humans and societies structured to resist dynamic development come to terms with a mode of production whose essence is endless and unpredictable dynamic development? Marxist historians might profitably investigate the operations of this basic contradiction between the mechanisms bringing about change and those geared to resist it.
Visit the New Left Review the read the interveiw in full.
by O on February 2, 2013
In Jodi Dean’s upcoming manifesto, The Communist Horizon, she examines the experiences of the Occupy movement and urges the left to end its accommodation of capitalism and collectively plan how to shape a world that we already make in common.
But in an era when liking a Facebook post or retweeting a link has become an easy substitution for activism, how can we take meaningful action against neoliberalism? In this new excerpt in Guernica from The Communist Horizon, Jodi Dean spells out the dangers of TMI (“too much information”) introduced by today’s communications technology.
Networked information technologies have been the means through which people have been subjected to the competitive intensity of neoliberal capitalism. Enthusiastically participating in personal and social media—I have broadband at home! My new tablet lets me work anywhere! With my smartphone, I always know what’s going on!—we build the trap that captures us, a trap that extends beyond global use of mobile phones and participation in social networks to encompass the production of these phones and the hardware necessary to run these networks.
Visit Guernica to read the excerpt in full.
by O on February 2, 2013
In memory of the late Eric Hobsbawm, who passed away last week at the age of 95, Verso are proud to reproduce here the eminent historian’s contribution to the June 1st, 1968 edition of Black Dwarf. Concerning itself with the unexpected eruption of outright class conflict in France, a society seemingly prosperous and at social peace, Hobsbawm’s short yet influential article focuses on the changes in attitude to the State, Party and Trade Unions during May ’68.
Theory Turned Sideways – Eric Hobsbawm
What has happened in France is marvellous and enchanting, except of course to the Times which naturally regards a strike at the Bank of France as a conclusive evidence of the breakdown of civilisation. For us old members if the fan-club, it proves that Paris still has star quality. It is more than a place with three-star Michelin restaurants, traffic jams, cleaned buildings and the kind of dress shops which the Duchess of Windsor goes to. It can still put up the barricades, often on the very same spots where they went up in 1848, in 1871 and in 1944. It is a great moment for sentimental Francophiles. But even the most sentimental among them must wonder whether the whole business is merely a gallic freak. Does it show the way to the rest of the world? It would not be the first time that Paris has done so. I think it may do so now.
The events in France are totally unexpected and totally unprecedented. That is the first thing to grasp about them. Practically all serious observers of politics have long taken it for granted that classical revolutions will no longer happen in the advanced western countries, either because there is unlikely to be no massive revolutionary discontent, or because such discontent is likely to be confines to marginal minorities like students and blacks, isolated from the rest of the people. Exceptions were conceivable, but none of them seemed to have much bearing on the present situation. Least of all on France, which until three weeks ago seemed at peace, rather successful in its international affairs, with a stable government, solid finances, and prosperity, which means that the poor were at any rate not notable worse off that the usually expect to be. A revolution has never yet broken out under such circumstances. Yet in Paris it did. Or anyway something happened which might well have turned into a revolution.
More precisely, two things which are remarkable enough, though the second is more amazing than the first: the students rebelled and forced the government to retreat, and the workers followed their example.
Student rebellion is fairly common these days. The novelty of the Paris situation lies in a, the extent of the mass mobilisation of the students (not to mention their teachers and parents) and b, the extent of public support for them, which eventually forces the unions and the Communist Party, reluctantly, to line up behind them. In this situation there was not much the government could have done, short of starting to shoot; and it is an increasingly well-recognised fact of politics that massacring students is much trickier that massacring blacks or even white workers. Nevertheless, nobody expected that the workers would imitate the students. But they did, once again in spite of the feet-dragging of their unions and party. It was the young workers who began the occupations of factories which has since snowballed into a general strike. And though the unions have taken it over, it was and still is essentially a spontaneous, grass-roots movement.
Could it have happened anywhere else except in France? In its specific details, no. No other country has revolution as part of its national tradition, so that in certain circumstances it comes as natural to put up a barricade as to raise the red flag. The French workers may be no more revolutionary in their practical demands than the British, but their ancestors for five generations back have made revolutions, and they have a bad conscience about not making one themselves. Hence it is possible for the students, by example, to ‘put the working class traditions back into the working class’ as someone has said.
On the other hand, leaving details aside, the students rebelling against a society which offers them all its prizes, the workers forgetting about their HP debts to establish, by their spontaneous mass action, that life is more than overtime earnings and holidays in Palma: these are not French but potentially international phenomena. We knew—though the politicians didn’t—that people are not contented. They feel that their lives are meaningless in consumer society. They know that, even when they are comfortable (which many of them are not), they are also more powerless than before, more pushed around by giant organisations for whom they are items and not men. They know that the official mechanisms for representing them—elections, parties, etc.—have tended to become a set of ceremonial institutions going through empty rituals. They do not like it—but until recently they did not know what to do about it, and may have wondered whether there was anything that they could do about it. What France proves is that when someone demonstrates that people are not powerless, they may begin to act again. Perhaps even more than this: that only the sense of impotence is holding many of us back from acting like men and not zombies.
by O on February 2, 2013
The radical geographer David Harvey spoke with Fatema Ahmed for Icon magazine about his latest book Rebel Cities: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, the “right to the city” and ways in which people around the world can reclaim urban spaces. This is a longer version of an interview that was published in the September issue, ‘Restless Cities’.
Icon: You talk about how Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, has reshaped the city, Manhattan most of all. He uses the positive-sounding slogan: “Building like Moses, with Jane Jacobs in mind.” But you ask: “What do you do with the people who have to be moved on? Are you arguing for more static cities? Part of the dynamism of cities is that people move in and out.
David Harvey: But who is moved and who is priced out? I don’t see Eminent Domain [compulsory purchase being used on Park Avenue or Mayfair. I see Eminent Domain being used usually in relationship to vulnerable populations who are advantageously located and the land is considered high value and it should go into its highest and best uses, which means office spaces, or high-rise condominiums, instead of living spaces for ordinary folk. So there is a class bias – an inherent class bias – in the way in which spaces in the city are allocated and that class bias is most easily analysed through the notion of property prices and rental structures, and the rest of it culminating in simple physical displacement through Eminent Domain.
People do move on but why should we accept a system where the people who move on are the most vulnerable, and the people who stay wherever they like are the one percenters, if there’s class inequality in that moving around?
Icon: What does “the right to the city” mean in this context, and who are you talking about in New York?
David Harvey: I’ve tried to think in very simple terms, which is that those people who build and sustain a city should have a right to residency and to all the advantages they’ve spent their time building and sustaining: simple as that. And I think that the people who come into New York City at 6 o’clock in the morning to wake the city up and who live on $30,000 a year have a right to the city they’re waking up. I want a much more egalitarian right to the city than currently exists and not just a right to the existing city but a right to actually transform the city in a different kind of way. So that we don’t end up with consumer palaces for the rich and high-end condominiums with vast spaces in the centre of the city and we sell them for $30m and we end up with something different.
It ends up with the immigrant workers way out, or in inner city locations so you’ll find them one family to a room. The inequalities that are built into this system are chronic: the city needs a low-income labour force and it procures it from immigrants and from people who are forced to live in the residual housing that the bourgeoisie doesn’t want. A lot of minority groups are moving out of the New York metropolitan region entirely, to upstate New York or out to small towns in Pennsylvania because they can’t afford the metropolitan region any more.
Icon: You use El Alto in Bolivia as an example of an engaged city, where different groups have had to work out how to live together. But when you say, “You have to show up to things or otherwise you get shafted,” this implies a friction that people in older cities are no longer used to, and don’t much like. Is it possible to reintroduce it?
David Harvey: In the last 30 years we’ve been through this process of – I use Sharon Zukin’s phrase – “pacification by cappuccino”. It’s perfectly true that people have a non-conflictual life and, to the degree that they have a non-conflictual life, they avoid conflict. They disengage with a lot of what’s going round them and get very upset when conflicts do arise but it would be my observation that everyone’s been through this. Everyone gets agitated and people start talking to each other who didn’t talk to each other before and new socialities start to emerge, then things settle down and everyone goes back into their lives again and somehow there’s then a nostalgia for those moments when everyone was together and we had this great togetherness but nobody can really think of a reason to do it. That’s why a conflictual city is always a much more engaging kind of thing.
The big problem is to have a conflictual city where people are not killing each other. There are levels of conflict, which can turn into sheer horror. You don’t want to find decapitated bodies outside the front door when you go out in the morning so the conflict that goes on in some Mexican cities is just horrendous. But on the other hand Mexico City is an incredible city – in part because of the perpetual sense of explosive conflict. There are lot of people I know who just won’t move out. I say, “But isn’t it dangerous?” They say: “Yes, but it’s so great, you know.” Urban life of that sort is perpetually engaged along those lines. What was clear from the ethnographies done in El Alto was that the solidarities, which were constructed, were around conflictual forms of engagement – and that’s what kept everybody talking to each other.
Icon: What about the rate at which urbanisation is speeding up? What kinds of stresses are being applied to these new urban populations, and what questions does this raise?
David Harvey: The situation in El Alto was very special. I think we can still draw some universal lessons from it but the situation in New York was very different and also in Mumbai – I hesitate to make big judgements without knowing the specificities.
For instance, here we are sitting in the offices of New Left Review. During the period of the New Left Review’s lifetime we’ve moved from a situation where about a quarter of the world’s population is urbanised, to one where fifty percent or more is urbanised. It’s been a dramatic, dramatic reorganisation of global populations, including the sudden growth of these massive cities – São Paulo, anything up to 20 million, up to the urbanisation of China. During those years, up until maybe 15 to 20 years ago, there was hardly a single mention of urbanisation in this leading Marxist journal – and when there was it was around cultural questions surrounding postmodernity. There was the lone voice of Mike Davis who was constantly writing about these things but nobody took it seriously. And I’m kind of going, why in the face of this massive transformation of daily life, why aren’t the Left thinking about what the hell’s going on and what kind of politics is likely to come out of this – and what kinds of mechanisms of government and repression are going to be constructed around these massive populations? How is this all going to work? The Left hasn’t paid nearly enough attention to this history and this radical transformation.
These huge populations which are suddenly appearing – and this is very disruptive – they’re trying to establish a daily life under radically different circumstances to those they’ve been used to. They’ve been shunted off the countryside, they’ve been pushed in from elsewhere and the government structures aren’t there. It’s not as if the government sets up structures and then welcomes the migrants. Governments are perpetually trying to catch up. So you’re coming up with things like participatory governing, in Porto Alegre, to try to do something that’s a little bit different.
How to think about the politics and the management of infrastructures over these massive areas is a key question, which is not being looked at. The powers that be are struggling with how to set up reasonable governmental structures to deal with a city like Mumbai? How are we going to do that? The Left has not much to say about this as far as I can tell.
Icon: China is making cities on a scale we’ve never seen before. You point out that in the 20th century the United States built homes to get the economy out of slumps, but it can’t do that any more – there are just too many empty houses. Are you worried about China ending up with empty cities?
David Harvey: The Chinese are building whole cities and they’re looking for people to live in them – it’s a sort of pre-emptive urbanisation they’ve engaged in. Then again, there are a lot of struggles going on. Even the official reports show a doubling of incidents of various kinds and a lot of those incidents are over displacements, particularly the displacements of people who are living on the edges of cities who get shunted out. I don’t know the situation on the ground in China, but to the extent that I get reports about it, they suggests that there’s a great deal of instability and agitation among the population about urbanisation, as there is in the factories: Foxconn and the rest of it. There are movements in China, agitations and unrest, which are very hard for the Communist Party to tamp down.
At the same time, they’re also absorbing vast amounts of surplus capital and labour through this huge infrastructural investment and urban project, which is likely to produce overproduction. On the other hand, the Chinese also have a surplus in their budget so they can recapitalise a lot of this. However a lot of the municipalities are very indebted so you may see a debt crisis at the municipal level in China in the next few years.
Icon: How are older cities changing? How successful are their attempts to reinvent themselves?
David Harvey: A lot of older cities have effectively gone under. We see “shrinking cities” in Detroit and Buffalo and you see these in eastern Germany, and some Japanese cities are also in trouble. The older cities are undergoing a peculiar conversion process so that Detroit, for instance, no longer has the industrial base it once had. So they have housing that is no longer needed. One of the things they’re doing in Detroit is bulldozing housing and in some places you’re getting urban gardening and parks.
Then of course you have the management of traditional cities like London, where if you’re going to do redevelopment projects you’re going to have to knock a lot down. Or you see a city in the UK like Manchester, which is reinventing itself. It’s not a shrinking city like Detroit; it’s been radically transformed by de-industrialisation in the 1980s and 1990s and it’s being reinvented in a different kind of way. Sheffield lost 40,000 jobs in steel in about 3 years in the mid-80s so it’s had to reinvent itself entirely around an entirely different model of urban life.
So what do you do: you get the Commonwealth Games, you start to create an atmosphere of urban entrepreneurialism… The entrepreneurial city suddenly emerges, and throughout Europe this model of entrepreneurial cities, trying to turn themselves into growth poles for their region and then attracting investment from outside, has spread.
I was in Spain, maybe four years ago, and I rode the high-speed train. I was going through these cities and counting the construction cranes, in Madrid and Valencia and Seville … At the time I said, “But this is crazy,” and everyone laughed and said, “Yes it’s crazy, but we can’t do anything about it.” Now we’ve got the problem.
Icon: You point out that the history of the urbanisation is the history of indebtedness (and particularly, since Haussmann in the 19th century, the history of new financial instruments). But you’ve also said that it took you a surprisingly long time to make the link between property crises and fiscal crises, such as New York’s in the 1970s. Why was that?
David Harvey: It’s all very strange to me: why did it take me so long to figure it out? For example, the New York fiscal crisis of 1975 always assumed a great significance in my mind. It was a significance that seemed to be confined to a few people with an interest in urban questions but, if you look back at it, New York City had one of the twenty largest public budgets in the world at the time – much as California now has. So why was the bankruptcy of this entity treated in such a cavalier fashion – to the extent that, I think, the German chancellor and the French president called the White House and said, “You can’t let this happen because it will just tear down the world’s financial markets.” Why was that not registered more widely? I always took it seriously but when I took it seriously and wrote about it, people didn’t take me seriously. Part of the answer is that if you’re not taken seriously, you write about something else. I keep on coming back to the urban stuff but I’m now more confident in the argument. The evidence is overwhelming and people should be prepared to listen to it now.
Icon: What’s the most pressing thing for urbanists to be thinking about now?
David Harvey: My view of what people should be thinking about is to think about a new form of urbanisation, which is consistent with the logic of anticapitalist struggle. Capitalism is in a great deal of trouble, which means that the models of urbanisation are either in a great deal of trouble as we can see, or they will be in a great deal of trouble. We have to think about an alternative model of urbanisation that is going to take us away from the accumulation for accumulation’s sake and production for production’s sake that capital is about. One that gets us away from the kind of urbanisation that is realising the compound-growth dreams of capitalism.
Icon: How does global warming affect urbanisation? What kind of cities should we be living in?
David Harvey: If there is a serious problem, as I believe there is, with global warming and that’s it’s connected to greenhouse gases caused partly by cheap fossil fuels, which are necessary for the suburban lifestyle, we cannot diminish the use of them without actually transforming the suburbs and the suburban lifestyle. If the suburbs were poor, we’d simply say, “Get out of here; we’re going to remodel all of this.” But we’re not; we’re dealing with an entrenched interest that doesn’t want to change the suburban lifestyle even if it’s sympathetic to the question of global warming. And, to the degree that we’re told that because of global warming we’re going to have to change, when someone comes along and says global warming is a hoax and science is rubbish you’re more likely to listen to them. So you’re getting this incredible irrationality in American political life over these things.
If you want to see all the problems I’m talking about in exaggerated form, go to China. There’s no question whatsoever of the significance of urbanisation to China’s macroeconomic project right now and there’s no question about the environmental consequences of the form of urbanisation they’ve taken hitherto. I mean, people remember that they had to stop the traffic going to Beijing for 2 weeks before the Olympics. The Chinese are very aware of it, so they’re taking up the question of air quality and water quality. What in Britain is a slow creeping set of problems, in China is dramatically posed. The Chinese also have the possibility of saying, “Well, we’re going to find an anticapitalist version of this.” I doubt they’re going to do it, but they still have the possibility of doing it.
Visit Icon to read the interview as originally published.
by O on February 2, 2013
Writing in Libération, Jacques Rancière talks about populism and French politics today.
The People Are Not a Brutal and Ignorant Mass
Not a day goes by without the risks of populism being denounced on all sides. But it is not so easy to grasp what the word denotes. What is a populist? Despite various fluctuations of meaning, the dominant discourse seems to characterize it in terms of three essential features: a style of speech addressed directly to the people, bypassing representatives and dignitaries; the assertion that governments and ruling elites are more concerned with feathering their own nest than with the public interest; a rhetoric of identity that expresses fear and rejection of foreigners.
It is clear however that there is no necessary connection between these features. The republican and socialist spokesmen of former days were certainly convinced that there was an entity known as ‘the people’ that was the course of power and the prime interlocutor of political discourse. This does not involve any kind of racist or xenophobic sentiment. No demagogue is needed to announce that our politicians think more of their career than of the future of their fellow citizens, or that those who govern us live in symbiosis with the representatives of big financial interests. The same press that denounces ‘populist’ tendencies provides us day after day with the most detailed evidence of this. On their part, heads of state or government who are called ‘populist’, such as Silvio Berlusconi or Nicolas Sarkozy, steer well clear of propagating the ‘populist’ idea that elites are corrupt. The term is not used to characterize any well-defined political force. It denotes neither an ideology nor even a coherent political style. It serves simply to draw the image of a certain people.
For ‘the people’ as such does not exist. What exists are diverse and even antagonistic images of the people, figures constructed by privileging certain modes of assembly, certain distinctive features, certain capacities or incapacities. The notion of populism constructs a people characterized by the fearsome combination of a certain capacity – the raw power of a large number – and a certain incapacity – the ignorance ascribed to the same large number. For this purpose, racism, the third feature, is essential. It is a matter of showing those democrats always suspect of ‘idealism’ who the underlying people truly are: a mob inspired by a primary drive of rejection, which targets at the same time those in power, whom it denounces as traitors out of a failure to understand the complexity of political mechanisms, and the foreigners that it fears from an atavistic attachment to a context of life threatened by demographic, economic and social development. The notion of populism presents an image of the people elaborated in the late nineteenth century by thinkers such as Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Le Bon, frightened by the Paris Commune and the rise of the workers’ movement: that of ignorant crowds impressed by the sonorous words of ‘agitators’ and led to extreme violence by the circulation of unchecked rumours and contagious fears.
Is this epidemic unleashing of blind crowds led by charismatic leaders really a contemporary phenomenon in countries such as ours? Whatever the complaints voiced daily about immigrants, and particularly ‘young people from the estates’, they do not find expression in mass popular demonstrations. What is called racism today in our country is essentially the conjunction of two things. On the one hand, forms of discrimination in employment and housing that are practiced to perfection in aseptic offices. On the other, government policies that are in no case the consequence of a mass movement: restrictions on immigration, refusal to provide residence papers to people who have worked and paid taxes in France for years, undermining of nationality by birth, double penalty, laws against the Islamic scarf and the burka, official targets for expulsions from the country and the dismantling of travellers’ camps. The aim of these measures is essentially to render the rights of a section of the population precarious in terms of both work and citizenship, to constitute a population of workers who can at any time be sent back where they came from, and of French nationals who are not assured of keeping their status.
These measures are supported by an ideological campaign that justifies this restriction of rights by the evidence of failure to exhibit certain features that characterize national identity. But it is not the ‘populists’ of the Front National who have sparked off this campaign. It is rather certain intellectuals, supposedly on the left, who have found the unanswerable argument that ‘these people are not truly French because they are not secular’.
Marine Le Pen’s recent outburst is instructive in this respect. All it does, in fact, is condense into a single image a sequence of discourse: Muslim = Islamist = Nazi, which lurks almost everywhere in supposedly republican writing. The ‘populist’ far right does not express any specific xenophobic passion emanating from the depths of the popular body; it is a satellite that turns to its profit the strategies of the government and the campaigns of distinguished intellectuals. The state maintains the permanent sense of insecurity that blends together the risks of crisis and unemployment with those of ice on the roads and formamide, to culminate in the supreme threat of the Islamic terrorist. The far right gives flesh and blood to the standard portrait found in ministerial decrees and the prose of ideologists.
And so neither the ‘populists’ nor the people as presented by ritual denunciations of populism actually match their definition. But this is no worry for those who wave this phantom about. The essential thing for them is to amalgamate the very idea of a democratic people with the image of the dangerous crowd. And to draw the conclusion that we must all place our trust in those who govern us, any challenge to their legitimacy and integrity opening the door to totalitarianism. ‘Better a banana republic than a fascist France’ was one of the more sinister anti-Le Pen slogans in April 2002. The present harping on about the mortal dangers of populism aims to give a theoretical foundation to the idea that we have no other choice.
Translated from French by David Fernbach. Visit Libération to read the original article.
by O on February 2, 2013
An extract from A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain by Owen Hatherley
The reason why this is all able to occur is easy enough to discern; it’s there in front of you, everywhere you turn in Poplar, with that air-traffic alerting light flashing on and off the pyramid at the top, winking mockingly at you. Canary Wharf, like the first City, is breaking its banks, and spreading bankster colonies all over the borough of Tower Hamlets. As we have grown to expect, the financial crisis they triggered (Lehman Brothers and AIG did their naughtiest things here) has not led to any noticeable contrition or humility. From Poplar we could make our way into the Isle of Dogs itself, to peruse its glass and steel, or to jeer at the way that the kitsch of the ’80s still sits around it, dating the place horribly; we could walk around the mean, low-ceilinged shopping mall that sits under the central phallus of One Canada Square, the pyramidal erection dubbed at the time ‘Thatcher’s Cock’. We won’t, however. We ’ll head away from this Thatcherite landscape with its Fosterian Blairite appendages to a much purer space of New Labour, just to finally give them their due, for their most large-scale experiment in the planning of a wholly new, tabula rasa district of the capital.
I ought to be brief, or as brief as possible, on the subject of the Olympic Site.
Being based south of the river I try and avoid the place, but architectural correspondents who live and work in East London, like Douglas Murphy, Kieran Long or Oliver Wainwright, have all written superb and detailed indictments of the place, have buried it time and again, although admittedly without managing to shame the Olympic Delivery Authority into the hoped-for mass resignation. By the time you read this it may all be over, the fireworks, the pageants, the unmanned drones, the stationing on-site of US missiles, the enormous police and army presence, the medals or not-medals, the terrorist attacks or notterrorist attacks. That doesn’t matter. It’s all about the Legacy. Ken Livingstone admitted as much several times – the point was not to have a sports event in London, the point was to extort some funding for the redevelopment of a massive swathe of derelict London, a light-engineering swathe along the river Lea that had long since gone to seed, a typical stretch of Thames Gateway post-industry.
And why not? Many writers have mourned the demise of the Lea Valley, London’s last great wilderness. I remember it well, the paths along the outfall sewer, the random collections of industrial waste, the abundant and unusual bird and plant life; there are still a few similar spaces on the other side of the Thames, and practically dozens outside of London. Nonetheless, there was a uniqueness to the Lea Valley Zone, and the effacement of it by an enormous project of speculation and imposed redevelopment is hard to conceive as a victory for the people of London. Just imagine, though, if the GLA was the GLC, a well-funded, powerful body able and willing to stand up to the City and the government, and they proposed to redevelop this area. Imagine that they too used an Olympics as a pretext, and connected the new suburb to the DLR, the Jubilee Line, Crossrail and even the railway to the Continent. Imagine that the country’s most famous architects were hired, by subterfuge or otherwise, to design its public buildings, while an immense landscaping project provided a new public park. Imagine that a rigorously planned new housing development with a secondary school as part of it was an integral part of this new district. I can’t say I’d protest. More than that, I can say I’d be the first to hail the bloody place as everything London desperately needs, especially impoverished, overcrowded, overstretched East London. I’d be declaring Ken Livingstone the greatest living Englishman, the man who used running, swimming and shot-putting as the pretext to build a magnificent new city for the masses of London. It isn’t a particularly useful thought experiment, as this isn’t what is happening. All of the above features in Olympian Stratford in some manner, but all of it is coming into being as an act against London – the creation of yet another security-obsessed, enclosed, gated enclave set up to mock the idea that we could become more rather than less equal.
The new Stratford is really several different sites, all of them distinct, fitting into a larger plan. There is the redevelopment of Stratford High Street into a series of speculative high-rise towers; there is the ‘town centre’, a huge enclosed Westfield shopping mall; there is the Olympic Village, a housing development to accommodate the athletes, their PAs and associated bureaucrats; and there is the Olympic Site itself, a flowing park dotted with sports facilities by various architects. They don’t fit together terribly well, but all of them are in their own way extremely ambitious. The biggest, although in design terms by far the worst part, is Stratford High Street. Under the laissez-faire jurisdiction of the London Borough of Newham, a half-dozen or more towers have sprouted atop an already congested and miserable thoroughfare. Lower buildings, of so poor a spatial standard and build quality that they resemble clumsily re-clad council estates rather than new buildings, occupy the spaces in between. The towers are nearly all by the same firm, Pseudomodernists Stock Woolstonecroft, who were surely as surprised as anyone when they were essentially allowed to build an entire Mini-Manhattan of buy-to-let hutches with catchy names – Aurora! Icona! Each tower is clad in multiple tacky materials, the usual trick for hiding the fact that there ’s no orientation to the sun, no double-aspect flats, and a whopping great big dual carriageway just below your pink aluminium balcony.
The Olympic Village itself would be entitled to look down its nose at such things. Although the development was widely ridiculed for the fact that the athletes’ dormitories were so small that it would be difficult to sell the flats on, even in the country with the lowest space requirements in Europe, this publicly-funded development has been bought up in toto by Qatari Diar, who can presumably knock through the partitions in these concrete framed blocks. They are as uniform and ordered as Stratford High Street is chaotic and headstrong; mostly of around eight storeys, often masonry clad with expensive materials, with individual plots let to some fairly respected architects. The result is uniform in a rather scary way. From the Westfield car park, it resembles the peripheral estates of the late Soviet Union, which also stood in public squares at eight-to-ten storeys, and which were also often surrounded with an indeterminate kipple. Nearly every architect has taken the same approach to softening that sense of regimentation, and unfortunately it’s the biggest cliché in the contemporary architect’s book – the barcode façade, the staggered fenestration that apparently makes a big building look less monumental, which of course means that you do not perceive that bigness as a virtue, but rather as something that the designers are embarrassed about (to see how it’s done, take a trip to the Brownfield Estate). Only one architect has tried to have a bit of fun with his very limited parameters – Niall McLaughlin, who has covered his eight storeys in prefabricated panels taken from casts of the Parthenon Frieze, an elaborate and almost amusing joke about the dichotomy here between prefabrication and craftsmanship. Next to all of this is a very large, AHMM-designed City Academy, so that wealthy parents don’t have to worry about their kids mixing with the most multiracial and multicultural place that has ever existed in human history. Who knows, they might have learnt something. As there is a school, so there is a local shopping centre. There was and is already a big covered mall in Stratford, the deeply unlovely Stratford Centre, an overdeveloped and overscaled brick-clad monolith that one of the Olympic site ’s public sculptures is specifically designed to hide. You can’t quite hide it from
Westfield Stratford City itself, though, as it is directly opposite. The Westfield is a typical example of the Mall as it is now practised. There are ‘streets’ outside as well as enclosed passageways, and there is an office-block skyline on top to try and make it look more like a place. Inside is an unpretentious consumption factory, which has made none of the AA-student deconstructivist gestures that the cousin mall in Shepherd’s Bush condescended to provide for the roving eye. It’s just a big mall, like every other big mall, but with a few little concessions to contemporary taste.
On the lowest level is the ‘market’, where dun-coloured tiles let you know that you’re somewhere homely; lots of boutique chain shops, the Guardian-reader sort that you might otherwise see outside the Festival Hall or inside St Pancras International. This bit is obviously for the residents of the Olympic Village; the rest services and/or leeches on the more workaday tastes of East London and Essex. On the way to the toilets, a wall features several photographs of old East London Markets, an appeasing of the slain ancestors that is even more profoundly evil than in Bluewater.
What of the Olympic site itself? Everything is dominated by the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a shocking pink entrail laterally curved around an observation tower, famously commissioned by Boris Johnson in the toilets of a fundraising dinner from steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who provided the metal in return for the monument being named after him. There’s a faintly sick irony in this ex-industrial zone being overlooked by an edifice dedicated to a prolific downsizer and asset-stripper of factories, but that aside, there are buildings to enjoy, if you can keep from your mind the town-planning abortion that has been wreaked upon Stratford. You can enjoy the way that Michael Hopkins’s velodrome manages to be far more impressive and flowing a space than Zaha Hadid’s similar, but far more expensive Aquatics Centre, with its ungainly temporary wings. You can admire the economy of steel members in the Olympic Stadium itself. There’s a good brick substation by Nord. If you think that’s enough, good luck to you. Counterfactuals aside, when sticking to the neoliberal orthodoxy it’s hard to imagine that this could have been different. Some of the buildings might have been better, the social condenser for the new suburb might not have been a big box mall, there might have been more ‘affordable ’ housing, but hold them to their own terms and that’s about all you can really throw at the GLA or the ODA. This is why they are not fit to even begin to speak about their forebears in Poplar. They conformed, they fell into line, and they even seem to feel proud of it. Someone else has to fight for the forces their Party once claimed to represent. In the meantime, there’s a ready-made, enclosed yuppie New Town here just ready to be used as a post-apocalyptic film set. Dystopia for rent. No DHSS.
by O on February 2, 2013
In the below video, watch Tariq Ali read a poem for the late Alex Cockburn on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
by O on February 2, 2013
In a recent piece for In These Times Slavoj Žižek reflects on the outcome of the Greek elections on the 17th of June, analysing how Syriza, the radical left coalition, came close to smashing the entire set of the European Union’s crockery. Dismissing the EU’s austerity measures as nonsense, Žižek says:
So why does Brussels impose these plans? What matters in contemporary capitalism is that agents act upon their putative beliefs about future prospects, regardless of whether they really believe in those prospects. And, as we also all know, the true aim of these rescue measures is not to save Greece, but to save the European banks.
To illustrate the mistake of enacting austerity measures as the main strategy to combat the crisis, Paul Krugman often compares them to the medieval cure of blood-letting. That’s a nice metaphor that should be radicalized even further. The European financial doctors, who are themselves not sure about how the medicine works, are using the Greeks as test rabbits and letting their blood, not the blood of their own countries. There is no blood-letting for the great German and French banks—on the contrary, they are getting continuous and enormous transfusions.
Why is Syriza important in the middle of this?
Syriza is not a group of dangerous “extremists.” Rather, it is bringing pragmatic common sense to clear the mess created by others. It is those who impose austerity measures who are dangerous dreamers, who think that things can go on indefinitely the way they are, just with some cosmetic changes. Syriza supporters are not dreamers—they are the awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare. They are not destroying anything, they are reacting to a system that is gradually destroying itself.”
He goes on say why Syriza would be a credible governing alternative:
Some have argued Syriza lacks the proper experience to govern, and this should be admitted: Yes, they lack the experience in how to bankrupt a country, in how to cheat and to steal. This brings us to the absurdity of the European establishment’s politics: They preach the dogma of paying taxes—and against Greece’s institutional corruption—and put all their hopes on the coalition of the two parties that institutionalized that corruption in the first place. The New Democracy victory was the result of a brutal campaign full of lies and scare-mongering—the politics of fear at its purest, drawing a picture of Greece with hunger, chaos and police state terror in the case of the Syriza victory.
Žižek highlights what this means:
There is an (apocryphal, for sure) anecdote about the exchange of telegrams between German and Austrian army headquarters in the middle of WWI: the Germans sent the message “Here, on our part of the front, the situation is serious, but not catastrophic,” to which the Austrians replied, “Here, the situation is catastrophic, but not serious.” This is the true difference between Syriza and others. For the others, the situation is catastrophic but not serious; they want to continue with business as usual. For Syriza, the situation is serious but not catastrophic, since courage and hope should replace fear.
Visit In These Times to read the article in full.
by O on February 2, 2013
Stuart Jeffries gives an overview of the mainstreaming of Marx in today’s Guardian, featuring Verso authors Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Owen Jones and Slavoj Žižek as well as the new edition of The Communist Manifesto.
Class conflict once seemed so straightforward. Marx and Engels wrote in the second best-selling book of all time, The Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”…Today, 164 years after Marx and Engels wrote about grave-diggers, the truth is almost the exact opposite. The proletariat, far from burying capitalism, are keeping it on life support.
Jeffries interviews Jacques Rancière, philosopher, radical social historian (and Ségolène Royal’s favourite thinker) to shed light on the ‘new Marxism’:
Aren’t Marx’s venerable ideas as useful to us as the hand loom would be to shoring up Apple’s reputation for innovation? Isn’t the dream of socialist revolution and communist society an irrelevance in 2012? After all, I suggest to Rancière, the bourgeoisie has failed to produce its own gravediggers. Rancière refuses to be downbeat: “The bourgeoisie has learned to make the exploited pay for its crisis and to use them to disarm its adversaries. But we must not reverse the idea of historical necessity and conclude that the current situation is eternal. The gravediggers are still here, in the form of workers in precarious conditions like the over-exploited workers of factories in the far east. And today’s popular movements – Greece or elsewhere – also indicate that there’s a new will not to let our governments and our bankers inflict their crisis on the people.”
Jeffries takes on the critique of “the new communism” advanced by Alan Johnson recently in World Affairs (and critiqued here). Speaking of Badiou, Žižek, Rancière et al, he wrote: “A worldview recently the source of immense suffering and misery, and responsible for more deaths than fascism and Nazism, is mounting a comeback; a new form of leftwing totalitarianism that enjoys intellectual celebrity but aspires to political power. The fear, says Jeffries, is that these:
nasty old left farts such as Žižek, Badiou, Rancière and Eagleton will corrupt the minds of innocent youth. But does reading Marx and Engels’s critique of capitalism mean that you thereby take on a worldview responsible for more deaths than the Nazis? Surely there is no straight line from The Communist Manifesto to the gulags.
These been the most proeminent critics to the current state of affairs and their writings don’t merely represent a throwback to past failures but rather a valid alternative for the present failure. The Marxism Festival (which starts today in London and is the biggest for over a decade) is attracting more young people than ever, who are more than capable of critically engaging with communist theory old and new. Alongside the “old left farts” in attendance are young leftists of all types, a new generation who have realised that a “less absurd, more just” world is possible. But what might such a world look like?
“It is extremely unlikely that such a ‘post-capitalist society’ would respond to the traditional models of socialism and still less to the ‘really existing’ socialisms of the Soviet era,” argues Hobsbawm, adding that it will, however, necessarily involve a shift from private appropriation to social management on a global scale. “What forms it might take and how far it would embody the humanist values of Marx’s and Engels’s communism, would depend on the political action through which this change came about.”This is surely Marxism at its most liberating, suggesting that our futures depend on us and our readiness for struggle.