Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Koba the Ape


I went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  Banalities first:  A well-crafted film.  Cogent and coherent in terms of aesthetics and plot (though there is a pleasingly bathetic moment when, following lots of atmospheric shots of apes engaged in social interaction, one ape suddenly addresses another in sign language as "Maurice").  Nicely acted by the principles. 


In The Dark Ape Rises, the 'good' ape leader is Caesar and the 'bad' ape leader is Koba.

Caesar is the reasonable one, the compromiser, who wants peace with the humans.  Koba is the nasty one who can't let go of his resentment of humans, who doesn't trust them, who betrays Caesar and launches an all-out war against the humans.

Thing is, Koba is fucking awesome.  Because, unlike Caesar, he understands that when you have the oppressor on the floor, you don't help him up and dust him down.  No.  You stand on his neck.

Here's Koba, riding straight at the enemy (who are armed with rocket launchers by this point) while simultaneously holding (and firing) two machine guns instead of the reins of his horse.  Caesar never does anything this fucking spectacularly brave and principled in the entire course of the movie.

It reminds me of what Philomena Cunk once said in reference to the revolution advocated by Russell Brand.  She worried about it until she realised that it was a revolution in the mind... which is safer than a real revolution because nothing actually changes.

Revolutionaries are all very well, you see, until they actually start doing anything, or - horror of horrors - winning.  You're allowed to be a radical or a rebel or a firebrand, as long as you are a noble failure.  That's why Rosa Luxemburg - through no fault of her own, may I stress - is sentimentalised, whereas Lenin is the epitome of evil.

There's been much comment from the critiots that this film is good because there are no fully good or bad characters, and everyone means well.  Bollocks.  Koba might be portrayed as doing what he thinks best, at least part of the time, but he clearly becomes the bad guy.  He even dies the traditionally spectacular/poetically-just villain death.

Koba is certainly a bastard.  You see, he immediately turns into a psycho when he becomes a political rebel from Caesar's benevolent dictatorship.  As usual, inhabiting a zone outside moderate compromise with the status quo and the oppressors is an instant ticket into psychological instability and evil.  The radical is, by definition, an 'extremist', and the extremist is, by definition, both a fanatic and a nihilist, a dangerous utopian and a cynic, a zealot and a self-interested machiavel, a demogogue and an autocrat.

Caesar isn't the only ape in the film with a name that recalls a famous political figure from human history.  'Koba', you'll no doubt remember, was a nickname once used by Stalin.  Hence the title of Martin Amis' truculently inconsequential book Koba the Dread.

It will be noticed that, after his insurrection succeeds, Koba immediately sets about herding humans into a gulag, killing any apes who defy his authority, and locking up any potential dissidents who may be too loyal to Caesar's old regime - presumably to await show trials.  His revolt takes on the inevitable contours of any radical change - as told by the drearily predictable liberal view of politics.

Koba is, once again, the revolutionary as maniacal murderer, as traitor and tyrant, as cheerleader for slaughter, as the foaming radical who really just wants power.  This characterisation sits perfectly happily alongside the efforts made in every other bit of the script to indicate nuance and complexity - precisely because, in the mainstream liberal view of politics, the depiction of the firebrand as instant tyrant is considered a nuanced and complex view (instead of, say, a childish, smug, ahistorical oversimplification).

There is simply no need for the text to explain how and why Koba goes from his entirely reasonable mistrust and hatred of humans (see below) to his conspiracy, his bid for power, his betrayal of his old comrade Caesar.  It is so self-evident to this way of thinking that it requires no explanation.  The opponent of 'peace' and 'stability' (i.e. Things As They Are) is, by definition, also the tyrant-in-waiting.  The radical is, by definition, a psychopath.

But, until he fails to die the hero and thus lives long enough to see himself become the villain, Koba is objectively a better judge of what's going on that Caesar... or, apparently, the writers.

We're supposed to be watching a story about 'two tribes' who mistrust and fear each other, with 'extremists' on both sides who hate the other side unreasoningly.  The idea is the standard liberal accounting for inter-group rivalry and violence.  Ethnic differences + fear + extremism x misunderstanding = war.  But in this movie, the equivalence between the two groups and their responses - which we are clearly meant to take for granted - is always false.

On the human side, the warmonger characters hate the apes because they started the Simian Flu which wiped out most of the human race (a view explicitly shown to be wrong and unfair by another human character), or because "they're animals" (thus bigotedly rejecting the apes' claim to fair treatment by disputing their sentience).  That's it.  On the ape side, by marked contrast, the warmonger characters - chiefly Koba - hate the humans because they kept apes in cages (true) and tortured them (true) and mutilated them (true) and experimented upon them (true), and because they're dangerous owing to their enormous stockpile of deadly weapons (true).  The initial contact between Caesar's groups of apes and the human survivors in San Francisco comes when humans trespass upon ape terrirory (albeit unwittingly) and immediately shoot an ape without provocation, nearly killing him.

In measured response to this, Caesar decides upon a show of strength and a warning.  The apes turn up on the humans' doorstep and say "don't come back".  Whereupon the 'goodie' human character - Malcolm (played by some guy who isn't Mark Ruffalo) - goes back into the apes' forest, this time fully aware that he is trespassing and unwelcome.  Okay, he's trying to prevent an attack upon the apes by Dreyfuss (the boss of the survivors, played by Gary Oldman)... but his aim is to get permission for his team to work on the dam situated in the apes' forest, and get power flowing back to San Francisco. Malcom tacitly accepts the premise that the apes must agree to human terms or be annihilated.  He doesn't like it (you can tell because he frowns a lot) but he accepts it.  He never gives any apparent thought to challenging Dreyfuss' authority.  There doesn't appear to be any semblance of democracy in the human camp.  Malcolm certainly never raises the possibilty of asking the people what they think.  The film seems to work on the assumption that the ordinary people are a fearful mass who alternate between mindless panic and obedience to the guy with a megaphone... at least until they get too hungry, whereupon they will tear him to pieces.  (An essential corollary of the 'two tribes' paradigm is that people are 'tribal' in the worst and most racist sense of that term, i.e. a cowering mass of ignorant savages waiting on the word of the Chief.)  So Malcolm undertakes to explain to the apes that they must let humans fix their dam.

Gee, giving humans power.  What could possibly go wrong?

Let me ask you something.  If you were living in the ruins of a planet destroyed by the technology of a specific group of people, and that same group of people had kept you in cages, tortured you, experimented upon you, maimed you, dissected your kids and hunted you almost to extinction (or wrecked the ecosystem to the point where your people found it increasingly hard to survive), and that group of people was powerless... wouldn't you feel safer?  And would you think it a tremendously attractive and sensible idea to let said group of people add a constant source of electrical power to their already existing stockpile of high-tech weaponry?

Okay, so I get that the human survivors in San Francisco are not specifically the same humans who are personally responsible for all that stuff... but the logic of the film depends upon that 'two tribes' thing I was just talking about, and thus depends upon the idea that we're seeing two groups with essentialised and generalised features who face each other across a chasm.  By that logic, Koba's mistrust of humans as a group, or a race, is entirely reasonable.  It's not how I look at humans (balls to collective responsibility - most of what's wrong with this planet is the work of a minority and their system), but it seems to be how the filmmakers do - and Koba has, quite reasonably, picked up on this facet of how his world works.

At the point where Koba tries to kill Caesar, Caesar is handing the humans access to electricity.  Caesar is himself a despot, albeit a benevolent one from 'our' point of view (i.e. he is sympathetic to humans and wants peace... or, to put it another way, he's a reasonable negotiating partner 'we' can get round the table with... because that's all 'we' ever want, right?).  When Koba shoots Caesar, it isn't like he's stepping that far out of the established ape custom of settling disagreements over status through fights.  Yes, he's violating the commandment 'APE NOT KILL APE', but then Caesar is endangering the lives of the apes by helping the humans.

Let's be honest here.  The humans, at this point, have a huge stockpile of deadly weapons, no semblance of a liberal democratic political structure, urgent needs for land and food, a miserable track record when it comes to apes, newly restored electricity and - as is soon shown - contact with other groups of armed humans!  They are, by any sane definition, a deadly threat to the apes.  It's ludicrous to pretend otherwise, even within the schema of the text.  (Outside the schema of the text, such pretence depends upon complete ignorance of how armed modern Westerners behave towards small groups whom they consider 'primitive' and who happen to live on land they want.)  Koba is, sadly, absolutely right in his judgement.  It's all very well to shake one's head and say, echoing the movie's familiar tagline, "it was our last hope for peace"... but that view depends upon the idea that a few compromisers on either side can efface that fact that one group is the long-established historical oppressor and now, once again, has access to overwhelming strength.

In the end, Apefall is just another new reiteration of a very old American story: the struggle over land, with the role of Americans taken by humans ("there's humans and then there's Commanches") and the role of 'Indians' taken by apes.  In the old days, the narrative was fairly simple and crude.  Manifest Destiny meets scalping parties.  These days we're more nuanced.  Now it's Guilt-Ridden Manifest Destiny meets scalping parties, some of whom are almost as reasonable as 'us'.

(BTW - if you think I'm being racist when I compare the apes to, say, Native Americans... well, it was the film that started it.  I'm just running with their logic.  And you should note that it is a racial logic deeply embedded in the franchise.  The original Charlton Heston movie is a 'satire' of the civil rights movement - via an employment of the 'world turned upside down' trope - in which black people are implicitly represented as apes.)

In yet another way, the idea that the two sides are balanced is untrue.  The film tries to put roughly equivalent characters on either side of the human/ape divide.  But Caesar's counterpart is Malcolm and Koba's is Dreyfuss.  So on the ape side we have a well-meaning leader, and on the human side we have a well-meaning subordinate (thus effacing the important reality of power in favour of the value of intentions - a classic liberal mistake).  On the ape side we have a psychopathic killer driven by personal ambition versus a human warmonger who is actually shown to be a well-intentioned leader.  Dreyfuss wants to save the human race and is humanised via a scene where he cries over photos of lost sons.  Thus an evil revolutionary is pitted against a misguided patriot - we even see Dreyfuss' old photos from his army days in the desert.

Even as the film strives to create a morality play about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, and there being faults on both sides, etc, it falls back into ideology.  It falls back into the classic ideological demonology of fearful liberalism: those who strive stumblingly for compromise versus the vicious zealot.

Koba is outnumbered.  He has to shoulder all the burden of radicalism, and thus become a monster, while the rest of the protagonists - even the most bastardly of the humans - get at least partially absolved.

In Ape Trek into Darkness, as always, the oppressed are held to a higher standard of morality, forgiveness and forbearance than the oppressors (or, in this case, the erstwhile oppressors).

Koba's great crime is that he refuses the onus of greater moral responsibility foisted upon him by his former oppressors (and the filmmakers).  He quite rightly tells them to go fuck themselves, and the pleas for peace they bring too late to the table, alongside their quest for back-up and juice.  And then he starts fighting against what is, as I say, by any sane definition, a proven and deadly threat (I'm sure someone, if the roles were reversed, would call it a 'clear and present danger' and authorise drone strikes against it).

I bow to no-one in my loathing of Stalin.  He was arguably the most despicable human being who ever lived.  He is a smear of blood and shit on the good name of socialism.  But he was the embodiment of class forces, and rose to power on his opportunistic co-optation of those class forces, not on a wave of charisma and evil stemming directly from his ideology or fanaticism.  He was the most ruthless and well-placed representative of the bureaucratic layer in the Soviet government which filled a gaping hole in the power structure after the Russian Civil War (which was forced on the Bolsheviks by Western capitalist aggression) decimated the Russian working class, thus gutting the soviet system.  He wasn't the bogey man.  He wasn't Bolshevism in its true and terrible form, or any such ahistorical nonsense.  He was the head of a bureaucratic state capitalist government (in which capital still existed, but as an exploitative relation between the worker and the state) which put Russia through a speeded-up and concentrated form of capitalist development and industrialisation.  Russia did in the space of a couple of decades what the European capitalist powers had taken a couple of centuries to do.  Stalin matched them point for point.  All the horrors of primitive accumulation (the early stage of capitalist development) are represented in the Stalin years.  In the West they were called the enclosures, in Stalin's Russian it was called 'collectivisation'.  It was essentially the same thing: the state-enforced destruction of feudal property and the peasantry - and its transformation into capital of one kind or another - leading to dispossession, famine, the theft of common lands, the severing of people from direct access to agricultural production, and the forcing of people into wage labour.  Stalin engineered terrible famines.  The British Empire did exactly the same thing in Ireland and India.  In Stalin's Russian you had the horrors of the Gulag; in Europe and America you had the horrors of plantation slavery, child labour and the industrial revolution.  The state owned and controlled all capital in Russia, and it was administered by a class of bureaucrats.  In rising European capitalist formations, the state played a less direct but no less crucial role in enforcing the 'rights' of private capital, and financially supporting the new system.  Both Russia and the West engaged in ruthless imperialism to acquire territory, manpower and resources to feed into the system.  If Russia was 'totalitarian', the Britain of Pitt was no democracy. Stalin was a monster because he was the dictator of a state engaged in industrialisation at breakneck speed.  All the horrors of emergent capitalism were squeezed into the tight space of the rule of one man.  Stalin is horrific because he is Russia's version of all the capitalists and prime ministers of Europe, fused into one bloated personage.  That isn't to excuse him, any more than to point out that capitalism is a systemic evil is to excuse Rupert Murdoch, but it does put him in context.  He may have been a psychopath, but millions didn't die solely because he was, and it wasn't Bolshevism that made him one.  It was the logic of capital, albeit state capital.  Industrialisation, squidged into a sliver of historical time, because - as Stalin himself pointed out - of the need for the Soviet Union to compete militarily and economically with the Western capitalist powers.  (This, by the way, is why I find it beyond comprehension how anyone can fail to see the state capitalist nature of Stalin's Russia - if it competed economically with capitalist powers in a capitalist world system, how can it possibly have been anything other than some form of capitalism?)

(Quite apart from anything else, if we allow Koba the Ape to stand for Koba the Dread, this does the Dread a massive favour.  Stalin was a nonentity and a workhorse in the early Bolshevik party, who played little significant role in the Russian Revolution, contrary to his own subsequent mythmaking.  He certainly never charged at rocket launchers.)

It is, by the way, explicitly capitalism that the humans want to bring back.  The dam is a symbol for holding back the tide of untamed and destructive nature (and/or time), and a vast engineering project of modernity that reshapes the natural world to human needs, and a way of providing water and power to settlements and thus making 'civilisation' possible.  By 'civilisation', in Planet of the Apes 2.2: Age of Extrinction, we are to understand capitalism.  The humans explicitly talk about wanting to bring back the life they once had.  In other words, they want our world back - the very world that caused its own downfall in the first place.  The film makes it aesthetically explicit that the return of capitalism is aimed at.  When the humans manage to get their dam working again, and thus get power to flow back to San Francisco, they celebrate in the reactivated shell of a petrol station, and people dance through a relit shopping mall.  Dreyfuss celebrates by turning on his expensive Apple rectangle for the first time in years and looking through his My Pictures folder.

It's only to be expected.  Popular movies are currently absolutely stuffed with the motif of the hero and/or the world fallen and trying to arise.  You don't need to be a particularly subtle critic to work out what that's all about (though, needless to say, it escapes most of the professionals).  It stretches from Bond and Batman recovering their mojos, to the de rigeur device of the fallen paradise that must be reclaimed (Oblivion, Elysium, The Hobbit, etc).  It is a current inflection of the perennially-popular apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic movie.  The Apeit: The Desolation of Koba is no exception.  It fits into the currently popular trope in a way similar to Game of Thrones, with its mantra "Winter is coming".  A great crisis has come or is approaching (Game of Apes manages to at least make the crisis something of our doing... though there is something to be said for GRRM's great inevitable cycles of boom and slump that helpless people get caught in).   In both, the legions of the disavowed will swamp us along with the glaciers or germs of doom.  We squabble about the political organisation of structures that will soon be rendered obsolete by waves of inexplicable and uncanny and unappeasable apocalypses that steadily approach.  The White Walkers are the unknowable shock troops of the big freeze that will paralyse the clockwork and the engines that we currently rely on.  The apes, similarly, are the post-apocalyptic hordes, resentful and out for revenge.  Again, in the midst of the biggest recession since the 30s, none of this is especially hard to parse.

Of course, by enjoying Koba's brave rebellion, I am only really doing something the text wants me to.  The moral rhetoric of the narrative may not support him (even though the facts of the plot do), but the whole aesthetic logic of the film is predicated upon him and his war.  We go to see films like this for the same reason that we recessionitizens go to see so many zombie films.  We want to see the world smashed up by the monsters in a state of riotous assembly and insurrectionary carnival.  It connects with a deep-seated desire to see the world turned upside down.  Of course, the dominant ideology demands that the carnival of the oppressed be curtailed in salutary fashion.  But even so...

I wrote here about how attractive villains are, about how they often appear to have an objectively better moral and political position than the goodies (who are often only good by default because they represent established power structures and their violence is institutionalised), about how seeing the monsters rip the world to bits can be very thrilling if you're not keen on the world as it stands, about how the villains shoulder the burden of perpetual defeat so that we can learn our lesson of obedience... but also so that we can get a charge from their rebellion against the status quo, and about how the evil objections of the villain often represent a garbled form of protest against the established order.

For instance, Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise represents - like so many villains - the distant and distorted echo of the snarl of radical anger.  He is himself thoroughly unsympathetic, as Koba comes to be when he starts murdering other apes.  However, even thoroughly unsympathetic villains like Voldemort (who, as the snobbish fuhrer of the magic-Nazis, is not someone I’d vote for) tend to represent the - to use a hackneyed phrase - ‘return of the repressed’.  And repression is political.  That which is oppressed is also repressed in mainstream discourse.  Voldemort can ascend because he takes advantage of faultlines in Wizarding society that reveal deep, structural injustice and hypocrisy, ie the ethnic cleansing of the giants, the economic ghettoisation of the Goblins, the resolutely undemocratic and unaccountable nature of Wizarding government, the enslavement of the Elves, etc.  Now, J.K. Rowling never really addresses these problems.  She occasionally has goodie characters display a bad conscience about them (ie Hermione’s patronising SPEW campaign and Dumbledore’s occasional remarks to Harry about how badly Wizards have treated other races) but the addressing or remedying of these injustices is NEVER made crucial as a precondition of saving the Wizarding World.  The Wizards never really have to face the consequences of these injustices, or change them.  Harry & Co fight to reinstate the status quo that includes all these structural injustices.  The happy ending involves no emancipation of the Elves, no change in Wizarding attitudes to giants (indeed, Rowling makes it clear that the Wizards are essentially right about the respectively servile and primitive nature of these races!)  The happy ending involves no real tackling of the deep strain of racial prejudice about bloodlines.  The happy ending involves one of the goodies being ‘appointed’ the new (unelected) Minister of Magic.  Etc.  It’s clear what this means.  The only person fighting to change the Wizarding World was Voldemort.  The baddie.  The goodies were all fighting to, a few tweaks aside, keep it exactly the same.  This is why I have a sneaking sympathy even with Voldemort.  He was, at least, trying to change things.  Like Koba, he represents the deep-seated assumption in capitalist media culture that any attempt at radical social change must be, by definition, evil: fanatical, twisted, dangerous, pathological, selfish, etc.  Voldemort doesn’t espouse values I’d embrace… but I do feel a certain kinship even for him, as a figure within the text.  Because he’s the guy who says ‘this society is broken and we need to radically change it’.  His ideas about how it’s broken are noxious, but that’s because he’s a bourgeois echo - distorted and distant - of anyone who wants radical change.  It’s like with Shinzon: he’s personally vile, but - being the leader of a slave rebellion which confronts the oppressing empire - he’s also a reflection (in a shattered mirror) of Spartacus.

Similarly, in Koba and the Deathly Humans, Koba is the only one fighting to radically change the status quo, the only one with a practical grasp of what needs to be done to keep the apes safe from the danger they clearly face, and the first one with the guts to pick up weapons and fight.  If he has to trick the rest of the apes into following him, that just shows that the filmmakers are working on the same assumption about the 'ordinary' apes as they made about the 'ordinary' humans: they're sheep.

The passivity of the masses is a theme right the way through the film.  There are a quartet of Alpha Males (of different styles) making all the running.  The climax of the film depends upon two seperate sets of Alpha Males duking it out between them.  (Incidentally, the only women in this film are... well... incidental.  Malcolm has a girlfriend who is there to give people antibiotics and look sad and be supportive; Caesar has a mate who is there to have babies, be ill and then get better - much to his relief.)

It's possible that the Alpha Males, the submissive Beta Males and the Obedient Females are there on both sides as part of the declared strategy of showing the humans and apes mirroring each other, of showing how much they have in common.  If so, its not really exceptional in terms of being reactionary and reductionist and biological determinist - these sorts of assumptions are widespread, especially in narrative culture - but it is noticeable how they do it without so much as whispering about evolution or common descent.  Presumably this is from fear of incurring the wrath of America's Christian Creationist hordes (just goes to show how seriously they take ideological sensitivities when they sense box office impacts). 

On a related issue, I personally found it irritating how undecided the filmmakers were about how to present ape culture.  On the one hand they want the apes to be 'advanced' and human-like in their social organisation, yet they also want them to act like stereotypical apes.  So you end up with a mish-mash.  The apes are shown to have a literate culture, with written words and sign language alongside the few who can speak, and with a school for the little 'uns - complete with anachronistic lessons in chalk on an improvised blackboard (insert blackboard jungle joke here).  They have midwives, buildings in their settlement, etc.  Yet they have none of the broadly egalitarian social structure that you tend to see in real hunter-gatherer groups untouched or unmenaced by exterior threats.  Of course, they're apes rather than human hunter gatherers... but then, with such intrusions of human social structure into the apes' society (including such wholly anachronistic ones as school and the nuclear family), why not also bring in egalitarianism?  The answer lies in the overarching view of people as 'tribal' in the negative sense.

It's this view that ultimately underwrites all the stuff about Koba the demagogue, swaying the apes to become his whooping pawns in a race war.  If people - hairy or smooth - are hierarchical, sheeplike, aggressive, fearful, passive, prone to obedience, naturally separated into Alpha Males and their subjects... and if they're prone to this because of their essentially apelike nature... then no wonder attempts to rebel against the status quo always end up with someone like Koba taking charge and becoming the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss.

This is the logic of the work, and it has never been more necessary for the capitalist culture industries to peddle this message than at times of crisis.  If you think I'm being paranoid, then you're missing neoliberalism's skill at regulating opinion using marketised ideology.

I hear that Andy Serkis (who plays Caesar in this film via motion capture) is going to be doing a CGI/mo-cap version of Animal Farm.  Another retelling of that simplistic fable that puts an allegorical revolution into the world of the beasts, showing the inevitable course of that revolution from liberation to tyranny, from the charisma of the leader to the totalitarian rule of the dictator.  In the film I just saw, the animal/tyrant is indirectly named after Stalin.  In Animal Farm, the animal/tyrant who represents Stalin is called Napoleon.

Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin.  The inevitable gravediggers of revolution* - as long as you ignore all context and look upon them as ahistorical bogeymen.

You see, you animals, where trying to change the world gets you every time? 

*It's actually a bit more complicated than that in the case of the real Julius Caesar.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Force Decides

Israel is currently killing hundreds of people in Gaza.  As they do from time to time.  To make something Abba Eban once said true by simply inverting his meaning: the Israelis never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace.  Though even that is too kind to them.  As even White House senior staff acknowledge, the Israelis don't want peace.  Give them everything they've ever wanted, and it still isn't enough - because what they say they want isn't what they want.  What they really want is to continue the war until they have finally completed the work that David Ben-Gurion left unfinished, and eradicated the Palestinians.  The mindset of Israel is genocidal, and becoming more openly so by the day.

It is now clear to a great many people that what happened to the Native Americans as a result of the institution and independence of the United States of America was a scandal, a holocaust and a tragedy.  The idea is so commonplace it's become a sentimental truism in pop-culture.  Well, Israel had not done very much that America didn't do in the process of getting where it is today.  Israel has shaken off its origin as a colonial possession of the British Empire.  Israel has ethnically cleansed huge swathes of land of the original inhabitants, and then claimed this land for itself.  Israel has repeatedly started wars for territory.  Israel has herded the original inhabitants of its land mass into tiny, racially-segregated reservations.  And so on.  And yet the obvious - that 'what happened' to the Native Americans was terrible - doesn't seem anything like so obvious to a great many people when you're talking about the Palestinians.  People seem able to get past the fact that Native Americans did some godawful things to Americans, putting it - rightly - in the context of the Native American's fight against territorial displacement and dispossession.  Yet Hamas is said to be responsible for the rampage of destruction and slaughter Israel is currently visiting upon the civilians of Gaza, because some people in Gaza have a few relatively meagre weapons which they occasionally have the temerity to use against the nation holding them in a massive concentration camp.  Context be damned.

Clearly, we are more than capable of holding nuanced attitudes to the question of killing people - the problem is that the proper nuances are usually provided for us by people in power.  The nuance allows us to see the sad necessity of killing that is accepted - with a sigh and a tear - by the official goodies, and the utter incommensurable evil of the official baddies.  Sometimes 'we' are even allowed to be the baddies - as long as it was a long time ago, and we're all very sorry now, and nobody defends it (though we all still continue to benefit from it, and do the same things to other people now), and as long as no comparisons are drawn with anything happening today.  We can see that the Native Americans had a context for scalping people, as long as nobody is loopy enough to dare suggesting that perhaps Palestinians have a context for rockets.

Generally speaking, I'm very much against killing people.  Why?  Well, aside from the fact that it simply doesn't appeal to me, I'd be tempted to invoke a somewhat traditional ethical idea going back to Aristotle, which is that morality is about the good and enjoyable and fulfilling life... with the added Socialist wrinkle that everyone should have such a life, and no good life that is dependant upon the curtailment of the lives of others is ultimately justifiable, because the fundamentally social nature of humanity means that the more socially involved we are, the better.  Killing someone is pretty much the ultimate way of curtailing their potential for development, self-creation, enjoyment, and the leading of a good life... which is, by definition, a social life, in society, in which one's contact with others helps them to also lead such a 'good life'.  We end up at the basic question: why is 'good' good?  And we might get somewhere by re-framing the question slightly, making it: why do we want 'happiness'?  And, while I don't pretend that it's a perfect answer, we can probably fall back on a tautology (sometimes tautologies are allowed, via a materialist version of the ontological argument): 'happiness' is what we call that state of being that humans seek.

However, occupied and tyrannised people - like people who are refugees inside the tiny bits of their own country left to them, held under constant siege inside a massive concentration camp, subject to racist laws and persecutions, economically subjugated and constantly harassed, and periodically massacred - have the right to organise their own defence.  Not that many of the rockets do much damage in Israel, certainly when compared to the wholesale slaughter and destruction rained down on Gaza.  Israel, you see, has some pretty effective warning and defence systems against the rockets (unlike people in Gaza), partly owing to that pesky $3 Billion of 'aid' the Americans send them every year, despite the fact that they are an Apartheid state in clear breach of international law.

Ah yes, international law.

Bourgeois morality rests upon the polar twins of consequentialism and universalism, waxing and waning, and combining.  At the crudest level, consequentialism is invoked when we need to justify something horrible; universalism when we want to condemn the evil of those we are attacking.  China Mieville, in his work of theory Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, has adapted the ideas of the Bolshevik legal theorist Pashukanis and various postmodern writers.  For Mieville, international law is a never-ending oscillation between consequentialist and universalist arguments (Mieville adapts the categories of 'Apology' and 'Utopia' developed by Koskenniemi), with imperial force always lurking in the background as a way of enforcing whichever kind of politico-legal-ethical argument is currently being employed.  This gets at something built-in to bourgeois morality, in all its legalistic nebulousness.  Such principles - consequentialist or universalist - tend to get cloaked either in mystical obscurantism, or somewhat impoverished (i.e. market-based) notions of 'rights', or universal 'maxims' (whether encoded as 'categorical imperatives' or whatnot) that are not really all that universal.  The bourgeois revolutions undoubtedly had their virtues (or should that be 'Virtue'?), but their ethics tended to be universal in letter rather than in spirit, and consequentialist to the extent of considering the consequences for national bourgeois class formations.

Even so, bourgeois civilisation has offered some laudable moral insights and principles, and certainly improved - if only at a rhetorical level - upon the morality of, say, the Roman Empire, or the automatically inherited dictatorship of certain inbred families.  As Terry Eagleton has observed (following Benjamin), the task of the historical materialist is always to ask, again and again, "with a kind of faux naïveté" why such laudable bourgeois ethical ideals must seemingly always be deferred, compromised and betrayed, why bourgeois civilisation can never make good on them in practice.  Bourgeois morality, we might puckishly suggest, is always very nice in theory but can't work in practice because of... well, we wouldn't want to say (following the high-handed transhistoricalism of the parrot-talking anti-communist) because of 'human nature'.  We'd want to suggest that there is something in the very structure of bourgeois civilisation that generates universalising ethical ideals that can never be met, precisely because of that same structure.

As Marx pointed out, it is the nature of the bourgeois mode of production that it must always be based upon exploitation (directly or indirectly coerced wage labour, extraction of surplus value... and he's clear that this is wrong, even if - as Norman Geras observed - he doesn't always know that he is), and thus the curtailment of freedom for the many.

But, as an initially revolutionary movement overthrowing older forms of class society, the bourgeois revolutions depend upon offering freedom as an achievable goal, and even - so to speak - believing this promise itself.  This is a perennial feature, but we see it begun and demonstrated perhaps most dramatically at those moments of bourgeois revolution, when the rising middle class enlists the much-needed numbers, sinew, passion, energy, grievance and courage of the poor and the peasantry, and does this by espousing the great universalising bourgeois promises of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité.  (As I say, we might puckishly want to add Naïveté to that list.)  Or when they declare "all men are created equal", very much meaning the 'men' and very much not meaning the 'all'.

This is an interesting issue in itself.  The contradictions - and the attempts to resolve the contradictions - give rise, dialectically, to new material and ideological forces.  Modern biological racism, for example, is partly a response to the fact that the bourgeois revolution in America rested upon both universalising promises (i.e. the Declaration of Independence, etc) and upon slavery.  The inescapable, in-born, auto-segregating factor of skin colour can be used - when integrated into a new theory: modern racism - as a 'get out clause', a codicil of the promises of the new society.  Pre-bourgeois societies in which slavery obtains - pre-C20th Tsarist Russia, for instance - don't need to explain why some are serfs and some are not.  That's just the way it is.  There's no document, signed by people who extol 'Liberty', which says "all men are created equal".  So there is no need to wriggle off that hook.  The hook simply isn't there.

And here we see the fundamental nature of bourgeois morality.  It is self-righteous and self-exclupatory.  And it is based on the assertion of power and, ultimately, force.  This is the wider meaning of Marx's comment (adapted for the title of Mieville's book) that "between equal rights, force decides".  Marx isn't offering that as a 'maxim', but as a critique.

Marx saw - even if he never developed this in a book of his own called Ethics, the way proper philosophers are supposed to do - that the constant oscillation in bourgeois morality between universal mysticism and pragmatic consequentialism is directly bound up with the nature of the system.  It relies upon relative freedom for the majority, because the freedom of the boss to hire and fire is the flip side of the worker's relative freedom to buy, move, pursue a career, seek higher wages elsewhere, etc...  so a universal declaration of rights is always useful.  At the start, it helps to define emergent bourgeois culture in opposition to feudalism, to rally the support of the masses to the libertarian cause of the new middle classes, to open society for job markets and commodity markets, etc.  At the same time, real human freedom is limited by the bourgeois conception of liberty as being the liberty to enjoy ones 'rights' in the market of life, by the conjuring trick that allows bourgeois culture to pretend that it has few enforced relations between people by relying upon the enforced relations between people and property (which is actually a social relation between people).  This is why the whole idea of 'universal human rights', while undoubtedly a great improvement on previous ways of looking at life and worth defending on its own terms, nevertheless seems designed to limit the idea of freedom.  Similarly, the corrective consequentialism comes in to limit the scope of such universal principles within the bounds of brutal pragmatism and 'realpolitik'.  It must happen that way, because the actual consequences of the bourgeois ideas of inborn freedom (and natural rights and universal liberty, etc...) would, if actually and sincerely pursued to their logical conclusions, make the oppression built into capitalism untenable.  If you really believe the declarations of universal liberty, it becomes hard not only to justify owning people with different coloured skin and using them as farm machinery, but also to justify forcing huge numbers of people to work for the profit of others, or to justify the unpaid domestic labour of women, the nature of education as preparation for the job market, the exploitation of less-developed economies for the benefit of imperialist powers, homelessness, unemployment, and sundry other moral obscenities that bourgeois civilisation rests upon as normal, everyday practice.

The oscillating employment of universal and consequentialist justifications is not rigid, even or schematic.  The forms of argumentation (or should I say, of ideology) are not mutually exclusive.  Ideology simply doesn't need to make sense, as long as it seems to be sense.  You get the two styles blended, or employed simultaneously by the same - or different - people, ignoring the fact that they clash.  Or you will get one bourgeois employing a universalist argument against another bourgeois who wields a consequentialist one, or vice versa.  Or one issue gets argued about, or agreed upon, using different versions of one type of argument, or two types, or whatever.  An Abolitionist might condemn slavery on the universal grounds that the slave "is a man and a brother" (negating the existence of the female slaves, by the way) against an upholder of slavery who offers a consequentialist argument, i.e. "if we free them, the slaves will slaughter us in our beds".  Or an Abolitionist might employ a consequentialist argument - "if we don't free them, they will slaughter us in our beds" - against a proponent who offers the universal word of the Bible, in which God explicitly tolerates the keeping of slaves.  The rise of biological racism offers a fusion of the two styles.  The idea that black people are inherently 'inferior' can be seen as universalist, because it is ostensibly based on eternal and fixed patterns of human nature.  But it can be developed in a consequentialist way, via the claim that because the black people are incapable of anything much besides labouring for their white superiors, to free them would thus be to condemn them to useless starvation... which would, of course, be terribly wrong.  This is an argument still to be occasionally heard today in new inflections (c.f. Fox News' hero Cliven Bundy and his views on "the negro" having been ruined by being taken out of the cotton fields and given welfare dependency as a substitute).  

The same argument was the ideological basis for colonialism because it supplied a rationale that was brutally pragmatic and realistic, while also seeming to be attenuatedly altruistic.  We all know the contours of the argument.  "Give them independence and they'll starve out of sheer stupidity," says the Marshal of Solos.  It's basically a rearguard re-tooling of the argument from the start of the colonial project, that the 'natives' are not entitled to their own lands and resources because they're not able to make proper use of them.  You can give this a universalist spin in various ways - i.e. "they're inherently inferior" and the related claim that "the superior have the right to dominate the inferior" - alongside the basically consequentialist argument - i.e. "if we don't step in, loads of land and resources will go to waste".  (You can "make the desert bloom" for instance.)  Or you can modify the basis of the argument using a consequentialist logic of stages, development and progress.  "We happen to be more advanced than them..." (whatever that means coming from colonialists and conquerors) " it's our duty to teach them and help them, and bring them civilisation".  The boons you supposedly bring can be consequentialist - i.e. "trade, technology, a better life" etc - or universalist - i.e. Christianity, or whatever.  Pretty much all these arguments have been used against the Palestinians at one time or another, by the way.

You see the point?  The merry-go-round goes on and on, with infinitely possible permutations.  Every developing need of bourgeois civilisation can be met by some ingenious fusion or opposition of these two obliging moral styles.  That's the whole point: that the merry-go-round need never end.  There will always be a moral point to debate, a moral claim to evaluate, a justification to ponder.  Debate can be eternally contained and assimilated.  Meanwhile, nobody ever has to admit that they're doing anything wrong.  There is always a point-of-view.  It works like international law - or like bourgeois law in general - in Mieville's conception.  The debate never ends.  It isn't supposed to.  The process of constant interpretation and reinterpretation of the law is an industry in itself.  And the basis of legality is the idea of the market actors debating their competing 'rights'... until, of course, between equal rights, force decides.

We're often told that terrorism is a weapon of the powerless.  Actually, as Chomsky has said, most terrorism is perpetrated by the powerful, as long as we don't two-facedly redefine terrorism to mean something other than 'violence against civilians in the pursuit of a political objective'.  By that definition, Israel's actions in Gaza are clearly terrorism, which makes the United States into the aiders and abetters of a 'rogue state'... if not a 'rogue state' itself... though I dislike the term 'rogue state' because it implies an otherwise hunkydory international order from which a state deviates.  But that old oscillation of universalist and consequentialist moralising can be brought into play.  Israel (an explicitly racist state) is "the only democracy in the Middle East" (never mind the Apartheid).  Israel must defend itself.  In Gaza, civilians supposedly have rockets in their bomb shelters.  And so on.  

The problem isn't that there are no universally applicable moral principles.  I think there probably are, as long as we limit 'universal' to mean something like 'transhistorical to human cultures'.  I'm not personally one to discount that, though we have to be very careful about what we identify as transhistorical or universal.  Neither is the problem that there are no good arguments to be made about morality based on consequences.  Of course there are.  Trotsky said "the ends can justify the means as long as something justifies the ends".  Nor is the problem even that you can't mix the two.  You can.  The universal right to resist occupation (formally recognised by the UN) presumably entails consequentialist justifications for violent acts in the cause of liberation.  And the idea that liberation is an inherently good thing may trace back to one of those permissible transhistorical principles.  Freedom from exterior domination is a pre-requisite for any society to allow all its citizens to achieve the 'good life'... even if that doesn't always follow from such freedom.  The problem is that bourgeois civilisation rests upon either mystical ideas of the universal or employs the most cynical form of brutally pragmatic consequentialism.  Universal arguments become so decoupled from society that they can be mustered for either side by appeal to mystical entities.  Consequentialist arguments can be mustered by either side too, with 'good' defined by the needs of whichever powerful person is currently speaking, and with the violent force of nation states always lurking in the background, ready to decide the issue.  The UN recognises the universal right to resistance, and the impermissability of acquiring territory by war, and then permits Israel to go about its nasty business for decades, while states such as Iraq or Iran get held to more urgent account because of the priorities of the United States.  The problem crystallises in that phrase: 'humanitarian intervention'.  A perfect illustration of the cynical, opportunistic marrying of spurious universal and consequentialist arguments, ultimately nullified by the priorities of Empire, and the brute reality of imperial force

The moral question of intervention in Iraq was 'settled' by force.  The universalists on both sides squabbled back and forth - "we have a moral duty to help the Iraqis!" vs. "it's wrong and illegal to invade without provocation!" - and the consequentialists on both sides squabbled back and forth - "it'll be good for the Middle East!" vs. "it'll be bad for the Middle East... and for us!".  Pretty much the only people saying anything like "Iraqis should be given the chance to free themselves and create their own new society!" were the far Left.  Of course, the turn of history made mincemeat of such hopes, though the Arab Spring showed the essential correctness of the argument...  But, of course, as we know, that all went wrong too.  But why?  Because imperial force was allowed to decide.  In Egypt, a popular rebellion ended the decade-long tyranny of a US-backed dictator... until a US-backed coup overthrew the resulting new government, instituted a junta, and started executing people wholesale.  A familiar story to anyone who knows the history of American foreign policy.

This is an important issue because the key to the fate of Palestine lies in the working class of Egypt, the largest (and most recently radicalised) working class in the Middle East.  The military junta in Egypt has redoubled the siege of Gaza by re-tightening the border - a border the Egyptian revolution threatened to weaken, thus weakening Israeli control over the besieged Palestinians, and thus also American-imposed 'stability' in the whole Middle East.  As I write this it is being reported that Egypt is trying to broker a peace deal or ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.  Hamas has supposedly 'rejected' the deal.  As usual, the media reports within the ideologically-policed parameters of the thinkable.  Apparently you can have a 'truce' or 'ceasefire' or 'deal' between a massively powerful military power and the hostages they're dropping bombs on.  Quite apart from anything else, the 'deal' being offered will inevitably mean nothing to the Palestinians beyond 'more of the same'.  The deal will allow the Israelis to step back a bit (thus hopefully allowing the protests - which make them look bad - to die down).  Hideous normality will resume.  They can carry on attacking the Palestinians a bit, keep on holding the population of Gaza hostage and under siege, keep on with the Apartheid, keep on with the blockade, keep on with the economic subjugation, keep on with the relentless theft of land for new Jewish 'settlers', keep on with the control of water, keep on with the relentless and humiliating inspections at checkpoints, keep on arresting people for protest... etc etc etc.  The 'deal', as far as the Palestinians are concerned, will just mean 'more of the same'.  It always does.  It will mean ' back to how things were last week... apart from the hundreds of us that are now dead, or bereaved, or maimed'.  It always does.

And the consequentialists and universalists on both sides can go back to the debate.

Meanwhile, the only thing that will ever break this endless, genocidal situation will be the resistance that the Palestinians are condemned and demonised for ever daring to show... joined by the organised, militant resistance of millions of workers all across the Middle East.  We saw it start in Egypt, and get suppressed.  We saw it start in Libya, and the 'humanitarian interventionists' of NATO jumped in to co-opt and control it (odd how we never hear the humanitarians advocating NATO airstrikes on Tel Aviv on the grounds that "we've got to do something!!!").  

It will, ultimately, come down to force.  The force of resistance.  We in the imperialist countries need to actively work to prevent our rulers from intervening.  A decade of protest, activism and agitation led to widespread public anti-war sentiment that finally penetrated the Commons to the point where that vote about intervening in Syria was defeated.  We forced them to back down.  (This, incidentally, is why we have to fight through these centenary years to stop the Tories rewriting the history of World War I until it becomes a narrative of patriotic glory and heroism in the name of a noble cause.  If many of us have failed to see the ideological utility of such a rewrite, the staunchly neo-con Tories certainly haven't.  The connection is more then just general.  WWI was partly an imperialist scramble for the Middle East.)  One of the reasons Israel wants to descale its most recent murderous attack is probably the worldwide protests, part of the growing public revulsion at their antics, visible despite the near-blackout in the mainstream (corporate) media. Combined with popular resistance in the Middle East, popular resistance in the West to empire and 'humanitarian intervention' will be key.

Force will decide, one way or another.  But not, in the end, between equal rights.  Because the desire of the many to lead good lives, uncurtailed, self-creating, happy, with the free development of each being a prerequisite for the free development of all (and vice versa) should trump the desire of the few to rule, plunder and kill.

ADDENDUM, 20/07/14: Far from backing down, Israel has since launched a ground assault on Gaza.  

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Othering Thursday

Someone called 'Bright Coat and Bravado' (you can guess their favourite Doctor), posted this on tumblr.  Here's a snippet:

I have a serious problem with  the “Cartmel Masterplan”. It’s not really about Looms, if you’ll believe that. It’s about The Other.

I can’t fucking stand the idea that the Doctor - or anyone - is “destined for greatness”. 

I posted the following off-the-cuff response (which I reproduce here, opportunistically, because I quite liked it when I read it back):

On the whole, I love the Cartmel era, and have a lot of affection for the Virgin New Adventures… but I don’t like the idea of the Doctor as the recycled ‘Other’.

I don’t like the idea of him being ‘exceptional’ for his society.  Much as he is bound to be exceptional from a human standpoint, I think that should always be because of what he does rather than what he is.  I like the idea of him as someone who failed in his home context - “…scraping through with 51% at the second attempt” - and being a bit rubbish, a bit of a dilettante, a bit of a second-rater, a bit of a fartaround.  Probably because I feel like one of those myself.  But that’s okay.  I hate the winners vs losers view of life.  I hate the idea that one’s worth is determined by one’s ‘success’ in the competition of life, in carving a niche for oneself in a hierarchy.  I still more hate the idea of those kinds of judgements being made without taking into account the fact that some people start off at higher rungs and with greater advantages.  The Doctor should be someone who started off at such a high rung but who proved unsuited for it because of his infinite distractability, his vagueness and his inability to ‘play the game’… and also because of the moral sense - and the imperative to be a social actor - that he acquires from his involvement, from his breaching of the walls of the enclosed and reactionary envelope of Gallifrey, from his adventures and researches and friendships ‘out there’ in the muck and strife and pain of the universe.

The transformation of him into the reincarnation of a godlike founder figure from mythological pre-history injects a 80s/90s ‘epic’ sensibility into a 60s/70s ‘rebel’ storyline.  It is a post-defeat rationalisation overwriting an artefact that originated at a time of struggle.  The Doctor-as-drop-out-from-the-ruling-class is an (admittedly imperfect) artefact of 1969.  It gets renewed - even intensified - in 1976.  And then it gets downplayed and downplayed until - interestingly enough - Holmes gets his hands on it again at the end of the Trial in 1986.  But in the run up to the ‘long-90s’, Cartmel et al lay the groundwork for a potential vitiation of it.  Even as that crew take the show to angrier and bolshier territory than its has visited for quite some time, they’re also utiling an affect from various cultural strands that bigs the Doctor up and fetishizes him, and his ‘power’.  I criticise Moffat (and RTD) for this… but the truth is that Cartmel & Co. started it, or almost started it.  Thankfully it only partially and intermittently materialises on TV.  They took out the “more than just a Time Lord” line, and the “brief glimpse of his birth” line makes its way into the novelisation of ‘Curse of Fenric’ but not the broadcast show.  The NAs, being purely made of words, can allow these tendencies to come out to play in a way that the TV show itself seemed to reject.

Fair disclosure: I loved the Cartmel masterplan at the time (and all the stuff that goes with that term… i.e. the manipulative, amoral, chessmaster Doctor, and his grimdark adventures, and his mythological origins, and his power, and his way of saying things that Merlin said in Excalibur, etc, etc, etc)

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Déjà bloody vu

I was going to do this post all over again... (this is what we do with Palestine: say the same bloody things over and over again, because the same bloody things keep happening over and over again)... but Richard Seymour has already done it for me, very succintly.

(EDIT: I originally posted a screencap of Seymour's tweet of a screencap.  But Seymour has now posted the original screencap itself on his blog.  So it seems only fair to remove my screencap of his tweet and just link to him.  Not that he needs hits from me.)

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A Presumptious Dilettante's Five Belated Eggs

The more I think about it, the more I think a humble, sympathetic, non-domineering, non-entryist engagement with the anti-oppression movements springing up around issues of gender identity (i.e. Trans issues) is going to be absolutely crucial for the Left in the coming years. 

This isn't just a moral imperative.  Sure, the Left must stand with the oppressed.  Always.  By definition.  Otherwise why bother being on the Left?  Otherwise, what does 'The Left' mean?  But it's also a tactical imperative.  The system must be attacked at its weakest points.  The righteous and rightful rage felt by many on the axis of Trans oppression is absolutely one of the system's weakest points.  It hits people where they live: in their bodies.  Bodies are oppressed, disciplined, punished, curtailed, invaded, wounded and even dissected by capitalism... and it behoves the Left to realise that this happens in arenas outside the sites of direct capitalist production.  This is one of those things that everyone formally 'gets' and then puts to one side.  That's not good enough.  Capitalist oppression is total, hegemonic, far-reaching and omnipresent.  It is intimately and demonstrably bound up with oppression along lines of personal identity, bodily autonomy, bodily identity, sexual identity, gender, sexuality, and race.  This is why intersectionality is a crucial concept that's only going to get more crucial.  The task will be to relate all these issues to class.  Not so that they can be subsumed, assimilated and/or digested, but so the analysis wielded by the Left can be enlarged, educated, made stronger and more inclusive.  That is an end in itself - if we know what our ultimate goal really is.

The good news is that class is as intimately bound up with these things as the Left thinks it is.  The bad news is that we have to stress the importance of class without playing 'issue trumps' (i.e. our preferred axis of oppression is more crucial or 'primary' or 'causal' than yours... and, by the way, how dare you stress the issues that hit you where you live before the issues that we think of as theoretically more important???). 

But there is more good news.  We can stress how capitalism, and thus class exploitation along lines of work and wage exploitation (which is basically just another way of saying 'capitalism'), generates and exacerbates such oppression... for the simple reason that it bloody does; it's the currently regnant form of class society, and we can adduce powerful facts to show how the structure of class society generates sexism, female oppression, gender essentialism, the reduction of people to categories, the reification of socially constructed categories into hegemonic 'facts of life', etc. 

That's why this is so good.  There isn't anything in there that constitutes new and startling revelation, but it's a great little summary/primer/starting-point, from the perspective of a totally 'on-side' Marxism.  I found it so anyway - speaking as someone who personally embraces the elderly Goya's maxim "I'm still learning".

One (related) crucial issue to remember... and here I'd proffer the great work of Silvia Federici... is that the oppression of women is not an optional extra with capitalism, nor is it a by-product of capitalism.  It is certainly generated and exacerbated by capitalism (part of the argument the Left needs to make) but is also a precondition of capitalism, intimately bound up with the creation of capitalism, and partly capitalism's parent. 

The oppression of women existed before capitalism, because capitalism is a form of class society built on top of previous forms of class society (in Europe, feudalism)... just as the capitalist states are forms adapted from pre-capitalist states.  And the rise of capitalism in Europe was absolutely and fundamentally bound up with the further domestication, persecution and economic subjugation of women (see Federici, among others).  There really is very little wiggle room here to say that one caused the other.  They are two sides of the same coin.  And 'causality' or 'primary position' loses its meaning in a truly dialectical (i.e. a truly Marxist) analysis.  Besides, its an academic question.

LGBTQIA+ oppression is, once again, related.  (BTW: please forgive my using the long acronym as shorthand if you don't like the 'lumping together' effect, or if you're on the other side and worry that trying to be that inclusive accidentally implies that anything not covered is, by definition, not included... and also, please don't construe my raising of LGBTQIA+ oppression as an afterthought.)  LGBTQIA+ oppression is intimately connected with the issue of women's oppression, and not in the sense of being a 'product' or 'by-product' or 'side effect' of it, but rather as another aspect of the suffocating enforcement and reification of gender that class society entails, relies upon, and by which it is partly produced.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Victory of the Icon 4

At the time, the liberals and the left thought of World War II as a battle between civilisation and barbarism, between progress and reaction.  This is still the mainstream view today.  But the leaders of the Allies did not think this way, if they were honest.  For instance...

The Churchill who demanded a no-holds-barred prosecution of the war was the same Churchill who had been present during the butchery at Omdurman, sent troops to shoot down striking miners in 1910 [this is probably not true], ordered the RAF to use poison gas against Kurdish rebels in British-ruled Iraq [this is arguable], and praised Mussolini. He had attacked a Conservative government in the 1930s for granting a minimal amount of local self government to India, and throughout the war he remained adamant that no concessions could be made to anti-colonial movements in Britain’s colonies, although this could have helped the war effort. ‘I have not become the king’s first minister’, he declared, ‘to oversee the dismemberment of the British Empire.’ He told Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta, ‘While there is life in my body, no transfer of British sovereignty will be permitted’.

In the Second World War, many - probably most - ordinary people thought of themselves as fighting the evil of fascism, but

the motives of the rulers remained very different from those of their peoples. This was shown in the conduct of the war.  Between the fall of France in the spring of 1940 and the Allied landings in southern Italy in 1943 most of the fighting by British armies was in northern Africa. Why? Because Churchill was determined to hang on to the area with the Suez Canal and the oilfields. His worries were not just about Germany but also the US, as was shown by a bitter diplomatic tussle between him and Roosevelt over Saudi Arabia. 

The invasion of Italy was itself a consequence of Churchill’s obsession with re-establishing British hegemony in the Mediterranean.  He refused pleas from both Russia and the US to open a second front in France at the time when the most vital battles of the war were being fought in western Russia. Instead he claimed that Italy and the Balkans constituted ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’—despite mountainous terrain which was bound to mean bloody battles and a very slow pace of advance.

Churchill’s refusal to concede the principle of independence for India meant that in 1942, while the decisive Battle of Stalingrad was taking place, thousands of British-led troops were brutally crushing demonstrations in India instead of fighting the Nazis, and that an Indian ‘liberation army’ was formed to fight on the side of Japan. It also led to a famine which killed three million people in Bengal.

The quotes are from Chris Harman's, A People's History of the World.