Monday, 4 September 2017

The Pillar of Salt - America's Kingdom in the Middle East

In 1945, Franklin D Roosevelt, America's great war president and the creator of the New Deal, the closest the United States has ever come to social democracy, met Ibn Saud on a US Navy cruiser in the Suez Canal.  This meeting - three years before the birth of Israel  - inaugurated American policy in the Middle East in the postwar period.  That policy was built on three 'pillars' - Saudi Arabia, Israel and imperial Iran.  With the Islamic revolution of 1979, one of those pillars was destroyed.  Israel's warmongering and expansionist policies in the Territories have resulted in tensions with the second pillar.  But the third pillar has remained largely stable, in spite of the revelation that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.

The compact has been in some ways a simple one: the United States would offer security guarantees to the Kingdom and say nothing about its internal structures and policies, while American oil companies would be well-placed to benefit in the trade in Saudi Arabia's enormous oil reserves.  The point was not that America would 'take over' Saudi oil, but rather that it would have an influence on its production and trade.  And it would become the dominant power in the Gulf.

During the Cold War, American administrations - Democrats and Republicans - had a charmingly Orwellian nomenclature for referring to the United States's enemies and friends in the Arab world.  Secular Arab nationalist regimes, such as those of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Hafez al-Assad in Syria or Saddam Hussein in Iraq, were termed 'radical'.  They were seen as dangerous, hostile to the US and Israel, supportive of terrorism, close to the USSR, and their internal configuration was totalitarian.  The Gulf sheikdoms, Saudi Arabia preeminent among them, were, however, seen as 'moderate' - because they aligned themselves with the Western powers and largely supported their interests.   The distinction was always laughable.  Saudi Arabia is one of the most violently chauvinistic and religiously fundamentalist regimes of modern times.  The Kingdom executes more people every year (beheadings by scimitar are a public spectacle) than ISIS.  There is no democracy, and women's rights remain extremely circumscribed.  The Kingdom is the possession of the royal family descended from Ibn Saud - now about 5000 princes and other neo-feudal aristocrats.  Censorship and propaganda are pervasive, torture is routine, and corruption an ever-greater problem.  This delightful state was the destination for President Trump's first foreign visit in his administration.,

Malise Ruthven, a Dublin man and the godson of Freya Stark, is one of the most distinguished historians and analysts of the Arab world working in the UK.  Here is a new essay of his on the Kingdom, just published in the London Review of Books:

The Saudi Trillions


Conor

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

All Power to the Soviets! - China Mieville on the October Revolution

All too slowly, this year, I have been making my way through alternating readings on the Irish, and the Russian, revolutions.  Not all the material I have worked through has been 'radical' - no amount of huffing and puffing by Colm Toibin is going to convince me that Roy Foster's Vivid Faces is a text whose radicality matches that of some of its subjects.  But Foster, though he often condescends to his 'revolutionary generation', is learned and brings together wonderful material from memoirs, diaries, letters, and other documents by participants in the turbulent events in Ireland in the 1912-1923 era.  I have read Emmet O'Connor's short biography of Larkin, and Clair Wills's excellent account of the General Post Office both during the 1916 Rising and in its commemoration long afterwards.  I am currently reading Charles Townsend's history of the Rising.  And I have intermixed this Irish material with accounts of the events of 1917 in Russia - a short history of the Revolution by Trotskyist Neil Faulkner; John Reed's often electrifying, sometimes bewildering Ten Days That Shook The World, and Sheila Fitzpatrick's short but authoritative history.  Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin awaits my attention, and I've read back into the nineteenth century via Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers: hardly a radical account of Tsarist Russia, but a hint of intellectual background.

The book I anticipate most eagerly - friends will know that much of my life is predicated on books anticipated eagerly: alas, not always an indicator that said books will actually be read! - is China Mieville's October.  I confess I had never heard of Mieville until his name appeared in the Verso catalogue I get a couple of times a year with my New Left Review.  And so I have learned that he is a renowned science-fiction novelist, and a Marxist theorist of some capacity.   A writer of many talents.   Wonderful that he should turn those talents to give a fine narrative history of the Revolution.  Here he is in discussion with Eric Blanc, no mean writer himself:

October and Its Relevance: A Discussion with China Miéville



Conor


'To Live Free, or Die' - Remembering the Black Jacobins

Two days ago, we passed the anniversary of the start of the great slave revolt and revolution of Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, as we now call it, in 1791.   To mark this tremendous moment - one of the cruxes in anti-colonial history when 'European' ideas and values were turned most powerfully against European power - Verso published an extraordinary document addressed by Toussaint L'Ouverture and his comrades to the French colonial assembly.  In the wake of Charlotteville, I post here an earlier iteration of the idea that 'black lives matter'.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Face Down In His Own Bullshit - The Overdue Demise of Kevin Myers

Back around 1990, within a few months of each other, I purchased two excellent collections of journalism.  The first was Corruptions of Empire: for me, Alexander Cockburn's finest book.  The second was Prepared for the Worst, a brilliant collection of essays and reports by Christopher Hitchens.   These writers  both seemed to combine a number of talents - great wit, acerbic humour, strong leftwing sensibilities, wide reading, and a willingness ruthlessly to cut down and eviscerate the cant of power.  At this time, they both were writing for The Nation, a fine liberal-left magazine in America, and they offered vivid commentary on the American political scene that went way beyond the numbing boilerplate of mainstream 'analysis'.  The fact that neither was American - Hitchens was English, and Cockburn was Anglo-Irish/Scots and carried an Irish passport - seemed to allow them particular insight on political machinations inside and beyond the Washington Beltway.  And lastly they both were utterly fearless.

I admired and read them both, avidly and with the greatest pleasure.  I showed my mother Cockburn's hilarious account of being visited at his public school by his father Claud, who appeared without any socks and who spun a wonderful story of how he'd lost them to a vengeful Sikh who had shared his couchette on the train north, and she read the tale again and again.  A girlfriend and I hooted with laughter as we read 'Booze and Fags', a brilliant review by Hitchens of books about tobacco and hooch in the London Review.  Through them both, I learned of figures such as Israel Shahak, maybe the most courageous and cogent Israeli dissenting intellectual in the history of the Jewish State.  Hitchens wrote superb forensic essays on Conor Cruise O'Brien, and a tremendous defence of Chomsky.  Cockburn told tales of cooking meat on a griddle placed over the engine of one of his enormous vintage American automobiles, which allowed him to drive to a friend's barbecue and arrive with his contribution to the party ready to be enjoyed.  They both wrote excoriating critiques of the 1970s and 1980s generation of neoconservatives - Irving Kristol and the odious Norman Podhoretz.  And they both mercilessly exposed the sentimentality and moral blindness of American 'liberals' - such as Martin Peretz, 'editor in chief' of The New Republic - when it came to Israel in Lebanon and in the Territories.   My convictions in regard to Palestine were decisively changed by Cockburn and Hitchens, well before I read Edward Said.

They knew each other and were presumed to be friends. But one noticed a certain imbalance - Hitchens was fond of referring to his friendship with Cockburn, and dedicated one of his books to Patrick Cockburn's son, Henry.  But Cockburn barely ever referred to Hitchens in his writing.

Something went wrong for Hitchens.  Most obviously, 9/11 happened, and he developed a passionate revulsion against what he called 'Islamo-fascism'.  I think he invented the term.  Not that he'd ever been remotely sentimental about the Gulf princelings and their cruel regimes - he wrote an excellent essay on 'Tilting Towards Iraq' for the New Left Review just as the 1991 Gulf War was about to start, which exposed the ambivalences of the Bush Snr. regime vis-a-vis the Saddam Hussein government.  But after 9/11, Hitchens found himself in conflict with the American left, which he considered blinded by its hatred for the US government to the extent that it was prepared, if not to blame the government for what had happened, then to obsess over American involvement with Wahhabi conservatism and the jihad against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan to the exclusion of all else.  For Hitchens, this led to a break with his colleagues at The Nation and he quit the magazine.  But he found a new berth in an unlikely place: Vanity Fair, which was and is a magazine predicated on good writing on the political and social mores of the middle ground - very far from Hitchens's Trotskyist origins in England indeed.  It was a mutually serviceable relationship: Vanity Fair allowed, or encouraged, Hitchens to become a celebrity like those whose activities it often covered.   His leftwing history and his foreign and war correspondent credentials allowed Vanity Fair a thrilling whiff of cordite.   Hitchens seemed to spend more and more time attacking former friends (including, particularly nastily, Edward Said shortly before Said's death), and championing the coming invasion of Iraq.  He puffed up colleagues and allies on the Arab left, such as Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi, for their opposition to Saddam.  He hobnobbed with Paul Wolfowitz and other members of the Bush administration.

Cockburn, as this blog has noted elsewhere, had meanwhile taken a much braver course. He, too, had left The Nation, but he had moved away from power and institutional prominence, to live in northern California and to set up and run with Jeff St Clair the excellent Counterpunch website and magazine.   But Hitchens had become, as I say, a celebrity, close to power and bathing in its approval.  Hitchens had been seduced by the very blandishments of Babylon which he had once worked so cleverly to expose. He was now a 'contrarian', not a leftist. He took Orwell increasingly as his model, and saw his task as uncovering the idiocies, the delusions, and the malfeasance of the left.  But the difference was that when Orwell carved out his niche, Stalinist totalitarianism was a real and brutal feature of European and global politics.  By the time Hitchens became a Vanity Fair celebrity contrarian, Stalinism had collapsed and disappeared.  Hitchens's 'contrarianism' seemed a cynical betrayal of left dissent which served only to buttress the temples and redoubts of American capital and neo-imperialism.

Years ago, at the moment in Hitchens's career when he was starting to write in favour of atheism, the Gate Theatre in Dublin hosted a debate between him and John Waters. I hadn't the heart to go along to see it - not only because this discussion holds no interest for me, but also because it was obvious that what was going to transpire was not a 'debate' but a slaughter - the clumsy and earnest Waters was never going to lay a glove on the witty and battle-hardened Hitchens.  No Irish journalist has been as sparklingly brilliant as Hitchens or Cockburn, though some made that claim for Kevin Myers, for a while. Not any more.

Myers, apparently, had been a left-leaning student in UCD when it was based at Earlsfort Terrace in the late Sixties.  He reported on the war in Northern Ireland, and later from Lebanon when Israel invaded that country in 1978 and then again in 1982.  But what made Myers's career was his long stint at the Irish Times in the 'Irishman's Diary' column.  He gradually turned this platform into a stage where he took down cant of all sorts.  But increasingly in the 1980s and 1990s, the Hitchens turn could be noticed. Myers had always subscribed to the Conor Cruise O'Brien understanding of Ulster - that its struggle was one between a flawed but legitimate state and a virulently Catholic-nationalist gangsterism.  Now he turned this focus on the agonies of the overdogs onto his more everyday targets - feminism, Islam, Sinn Fein, the bien pensants of southern Irish life.  Increasingly, he wrapped about himself the mantle of the marginalised, the weak, the heretic.  His writing became more and more enamoured of itself.  The libidinal pleasures of style (for his admirers, at least) compensated more and more for the lack of argument and the paucity of evidence.   His targets became more outrageous - single mothers, 'illegitimate' children, black people.  He could never see Israel as anything other than a bastion of liberal values surrounded by a seething morass of Muslim fanatics.

Myers's reputation at the Irish Times was in decline after a column where he called the children of single mothers 'bastards', and he eventually left to go to the Irish Independent.  Since then he has moved on to several other media outlets.  Now he has been dropped by the Irish edition of The Sunday Times for a column where, in 'discussing' the imbalance in pay  between men and women at the BBC, he suggested that two female journalists at the station had made it onto the list of 'most highly paid staff' due to their Jewish tendency towards self-promotion and financial shrewdness.   It's notable that though Myers combined chauvinism and anti-Jewish stereotype in a noxious mix, it was the anti-Semitic trope that sunk him, and that was recognised in Britain much faster than in Ireland. In Ireland, he has been supported by the Jewish Council, and at least one former colleague at the Irish Times.   He has, in fact, been given extraordinary space in which he can plaintively apologise for his reprocessing of old anti-Semitic clichés and proclaim that his career is over and that he now lacks all means to keep himself.

In my last blogpost, on Varadkar and Macron, I cited the wonderful essay on Hitchens's aspiration to be the Orwell of his generation by Stefan Collini.  In that essay Collini, who was writing in 2003 more in sorrow than in anger, notes that Hitchens was becoming more and more like the 'bloke moyen sensuel' of the English 1950s.  Rather than writing like the international left where he had his origins, or like the sophisticates of New England where he now was working, Hitchens increasingly sounded far too comfortable in a conservative sense of his Englishness, like Kingsley Amis, 'pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic', or like Philip Larkin 'farcing away at the expense of all bien pensants'.  Collini suggests that such English nativists 'would be good company for a while, but their brand of bar-saloon finality is only a quick sharpener away from philistinism'.  Hitchens dedicated his book on Orwell to Robert Conquest, 'founder of the united front against bullshit', but Collini, comparing Hitchens to a foxhunter, fears that he will end up unhorsed and 'face down in his own bullshit'.

In truth, it's hard to have any sympathy for Kevin Myers, who has been a prominent and therefore one presumes well-paid journalist for decades, with plenty of time to make provision for his eventual retirement.  He has abused the platforms which he has benefited by, coming to assume them by right rather than understanding them as a privilege constantly to be earned.  He has spewed misogynistic bile for many years, and the support he has won from the Jewish Council of Ireland is likely to be as much predicated on his support for Israel as anything else. Neither he nor his Irish interlocutors seem to understand that his anti-Semitic remarks and his now proclaimed philo-Semitism are actually reverse faces of the same coin.   Myers, wannabe contrarian, has never been as good a hunter as Hitchens was at his best or as Cockburn was throughout his career.  He has too often pursued timid and vulnerable prey, unwilling to take on boys of his own size.  Now he lies face down in his own bullshit, and we should leave him to suffer it.

    ‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit: Christopher Hitchens, Englishman


    Conor


    Monday, 31 July 2017

    Bullshit - Macron, anti-Semitism and Israel

    One of the more insufferable frameworks through which the gormless mainstream Irish media has filtered the rise to prime minister-ship of Leo Varadkar has been the comparison to Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron.  They are all young men, they all look agreeable, and they seem to have a veneer of youthful liberalism.  It all reminds me of what a rather mordant friend of mine from Ontario said to me at school in Canada 33 years ago, about 'PET' - Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin's father: he's like a condom - he makes you feel safe while you're being fucked.

    I am not sure how safe I feel around Leo Varadkar, but it's been precisely his good looks, his immigrant father, his apparent shoot-from-the-hip no-bullshit manner, and his openness about his sexuality which have made him a liberal icon in Ireland.  Not that one has to be very radical to be a liberal icon in Ireland, of course.  But idiots like Una Mullally - a 'youthful liberal' columnist at the Irish Times - have found it hard to imagine that a gay man might also be a Thatcherite.  And the merest scratching of the surface of Varadkar's past reveals an aggressive young Tory, who marries a dog-eat-dog model of society to Victorian morality about the deserving middle classes and those who rise early in the morning.

    Here is a wonderful LRB essay by Stefan Collini, on Christopher Hitchens during the years when the latter's star was in the ascendant but his intellectual and political compass had been addled by the magnetic field of neoconservatism.   Collini analyzes Hitchens's macho 'straight-talking' bullshit particularly well.   Various gaffes by Varadkar this early in his tenure as Taoiseach - judicial appointments, his attack on Paul Murphy TD - may suggest an imminent collapse into his own bullshit in the manner Collini so brilliantly describes.


      ‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit: Christopher Hitchens, Englishman


      And at the same time, the unpleasantness of Macron is gradually being revealed.   He is not a liberal - he is a neoliberal.  He is more concerned with the freedom of movement of capital, than of human  beings, though for the French he appears to represent neoliberalism with a human face. Where have we heard of that kind of combination before, and didn't it all end in tears?

      It may be that it's in foreign policy that Macron will reveal his dark side most easily or carelessly.   As this  blog has noted before, France purports to operate as the home of Enlightenment values of democracy and brotherhood in its internal politics, but in its foreign policy it is, of course, a great power, or a former great power which still wishes to deploy its own Machtpolitik in the usual combination of the ideas of Clausewitz and Hobbes.  Macron's recent meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu exemplifies this - Macron dresses up power-politics with liberal language.  But when France's purported Enlightenment universalism is affiliated with Israel and Zionism, the mask slips rather easily, since Israel and Zionism are not to be associated with liberté, égalité and fraternité - or rather they are, but only for Israel's Jewish citizens.  That is, Israel is not a democracy, but rather, as Oren Yiftachel has been arguing for some years, an ethnocracy - a polity where sovereignty lies not with the demos but with a majority ethnos.

      So here is a critique and protest against Macron's commemoration, with Bibi at his side, of the Vel d'Hiv roundup of French Jews in 1942, written and publicised by Media Palestine.  It fixes precisely on the fact that the presence at the commemoration of Netanyahu suggests that the solution to anti-Semitism is Zionism - ethnic nationalism and racism - rather than France's vaunted Enlightenment values.


      Making no concessions to the Palestinian people’s rights


      And here is an open letter addressed to Macron from the brilliant dissenting Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, which praises his willingness to address the anti-Semitic history and legacy of Vichy, but which refuses Macron's equation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (from the Jacobin site):

      An Open Letter to Emmanuel Macron - Jacobin


      Conor

      Sunday, 16 July 2017

      No it's not anti-Semitism

      Emmanuel Macron is starting to show his real colours, and the love-in with him of many non-French liberals hopefully will be over soon.   He's been meeting Benjamin Netanyahu, and has won great favour with Bibi (and so with the most rightwing government Israel has ever had) on account of his assertion that 'anti-Zionism is the new version of anti-Semitism'.   Actually, it isn't, and we need to nail this canard immediately.   No-one better for this task than Judith Butler.  Here is her classic essay on the topic:

      No, it’s not anti-semitic: the right to criticise Israel · 21 August 2003


      Conor

      Tuesday, 11 July 2017

      Interview with Judith Butler: Worldliness, Collectivity and Dissent

      Few contemporary philosophers have engaged more with movements of dissent in America and elsewhere than Judith Butler, one of the heroines of this blog.  Here is an interview with her where she discusses the performativity of protest, activism and dissent.  I am taking it from the Verso website; it was originally published on The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture

      We are Worldless Without One Another: An Interview with Judith Butler


      Conor

      Thursday, 29 June 2017

      General Intellect in the Age of Twitter and Trump

      What are intellectuals?   Does Ireland have any?

      I've always had the sense that to be called an 'intellectual' in Ireland and in the context of Irish culture is, at best, a backhanded compliment.  It's a little like the way that the Irish Times,when it publishes a review or article by a university-based scholar, always describes the scholar not as a 'lecturer' or a 'professor' or a 'research fellow', but rather as an 'academic' - a kind of damnation by faint praise.   As is well known, even a cliché, in other European cultures, intellectuals are persons accorded a kind of significant position in society, with high access to the media, not just sequestered in classrooms.  In 1960s Germany, the Frankfurt School philosophers and sociologists - Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas pre-eminent among them - were central to the upheavals and debates of the student movements.  Intellectuals were significant in May '68 in Paris, too, though not always the ones we remember now.  But in Ireland, many people would tell you that we do not have such figures.  

      In fact, of course, we do, but they are more likely to be historians or writers or journalists, than philosophers or political theorists or literary critics.  And nowadays those historians are likely to be university-based: one thinks of Diarmuid Ferriter, who spends so much time writing for the Irish Times or speaking on the radio that it's hard to imagine him finding the time to do much else.  One also thinks of Roy Foster, at his commanding citadel at Hertford College Oxford (now replaced by Ian McBride); or Joe Lee and the late Ronan Fanning, both of whom have at times written regular newspaper columns. Among the journalists, the pre-eminent figure today is and has for a long time been Fintan O'Toole.  And among writers, well the list is endless - Heaney while he was with us, Banville, Toibin, Enright, McGuinness - repeatedly, the media would turn to writers to distill some communal reaction to a particular event: 9/11, the Iraq war, the economic crash, particular atrocities of the Troubles.  But 'writers', at least Irish ones, are all-too often not very capable of conceptual or analytical thinking: they prioritise 'experience' over the abstract.  And so, the effect has sometimes been noble, but forms of bathos have also been displayed. Notably, last year, the Irish Times sought reactions to Britain's Brexit vote from Irish writers in the UK.  A more unrepresentative and ludicrous approach could hardly be conceived, as we were treated to Foster's wailing about access to his holiday home in France, and other liberals grinding their nicely polished teeth at the ignorance of the proles. 

      Not surprisingly, then, these 'intellectuals' seem very far from intellectuals in the European sense: they are none of them theorists (Irish historiography remains notoriously empiricist or positivistic in its sense of the disinterring or making of knowledge - no room there for Foucauldian genealogy, or Hayden White's rhetorics of history-writing, or a properly Marxist history like that produced by the great British generation of Hobsbawm or Hill or Kiernan or Thompson), and they don't have the time or the inclination for that particular marriage of abstract thought and radical analysis which one associates with Deleuze or Marcuse, Said or Butler.  So we do have intellectuals in Ireland, but the sphere is oddly impoverished.

      Back in the 1980s, the biggest single effort to change that situation was launched by Field Day, and in particular by Seamus Deane, the most gifted and important Irish critic then and now.   Deane had actually heralded what Field Day for a while became, with several long-forgotten essays, published in the early Seventies, on the idea of an intelligentsia and its desirability for Ireland.  That's actually what Field Day was, in the 1980s and early 1990s at least, with its theatre productions, its pamphlets, its massive anthologies, and then later its extensive book series and the Field Day Review: it was a kind of Irish version of the interventions in the public sphere of Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Belinsky, Bakunin and the other great Russian liberals of the nineteenth century.  These Russian writers took the cultural capital their literary prominence had given them, and wagered that capital on political commentary.  Deane, Heaney, Friel, Paulin, Kilroy and their allies and contributors likewise worked in the belief that political critique could viably and effectively be launched from the zone of culture.  To make this comparison is both a measure of the honour and power of the Field Day effort, and also to note that it could no longer happen now.  It's almost impossible to imagine in early twenty-first century Ireland a comparable group of writers coming together in a civic-minded effort to organise a common public platform for radical ideas and socio-political reform or change.   This, though in many ways the need now is even greater than it was during the violent days of the Troubles.  The suppliant approach of the likes of Toibin to the plutocratic assemblies of national worthies at Farmleigh, in the early days of the economic crash in 2008 or 2009, is illustrative of the meagre intellectual resources available to us now.   

      McKenzie Wark is a writer I have known of principally as a historian of the Situationists, but he's been active in many spheres of thought and politics.  Now teaching at the New School in Manhattan, he has a new book out from Verso, General Intellects, which tries, on an international scale, to pick out and give profiles of the most interesting intellectuals or critical thinkers of the generation after the great figures that someone of my generation grew up reading.   Nearly all of the great French radical thinkers are dead, though a few figures such as Badiou or Ranciere or Cixous still do important and striking work.  In Germany, Axel Honneth heads up the Frankfurt Institut, and Habermas still contributes to public debate.  But who comes after the giants who departed in the 1990s?   Scanning that newer terrain is the task Wark sets himself, and in so doing he stakes his own claim to join the new company.  Here is an excerpt from his new book, posted on the Verso site.  We in Ireland have a great deal to learn from him.




      Conor

      Tuesday, 27 June 2017

      Prismatic Thought - 25,000 pageviews

      Comrades and friends!

      In an early masterpiece, Soul and Form, written before his revolutionary intervention in Marxism, Georg Lukács suggested that the forms of literature are like the spectrum created by sunlight shining through a prism.   In this array of beams, he suggested, critical thought and writing is like ultraviolet light.

      My hope is that this blog sometimes rises to the level of ultraviolet irradiation of the world and experience of what Adorno later called 'damaged life', whether in regard to Ireland or Palestine, or the world of ideas, politics and books, which are my principal interests.

      This blog has just attained the impressive figure of 25,000 pageviews, over its five year history.   Thank you to all of my readers, and I hope you'll keep reading!

      As indicated by the very fine contribution by Graham MacPhee, I am keen for friends and colleagues to offer guest posts.  If you are interested, please get in touch with me.

      Conor

      Monday, 5 June 2017

      Israel IS The Occupation

      Let us at last talk candidly about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which attains its fifth decade today.  The State of Israel is 69 years old.  The occupation of the Palestinian territories is 50 years old.  A long time has passed since the occupation could reasonably be described as a temporary arrangement (to borrow from Albert Reynolds), or as necessitated by Israeli security (in a typical racist logic, Israeli security always trumps Palestinian security).  The two state solution has long been a diplomatic figleaf.  It is now a 'delusion', as the Irish-American political scientist Padraig O'Malley says.

      Very substantial historical evidence shows that Israel's swift and ruthless conquest of the Territories, and of Sinai and the Golan, in June 1967, was strategically and militarily unnecessary - it was not needed to secure Israel in the short or medium term.   Israel's leaders had long shown an interest in correcting the mistakes of 1948, and completing the conquest of all of historical Palestine, but David Ben-Gurion warned of the demographic problems such conquest would bring.  He was, of course, correct - see Ilan Pappe's new book Ten Myths About Israel.  But with Ben-Gurion retired, one major retarding influence on war was removed.  Israel has in the last few days released documentation of cabinet discussion in the immediate wake of the war, showing a variety of opinion in the government (which included Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban) about 'what to do with' the 'Arabs' of the West Bank, about the desirability of 'transferring' 'Arabs' out of East Jerusalem and replacing them with Jews, about the need for a security corridor along the Jordan valley, among other ideas.

      The point, then, is there is no radical break or difference between Israel before 1967, and Israel after 1967.  The Six-Day War was every bit as much about conquering Palestinian territory, for purposes of Israeli colonisation, as it was about neutralising Gamal Abdel Nasser or defeating Arab nationalism.  Just like 1948, the Six-Day War was accompanied by mass ethnic cleansing, since Zionism has always been thirsty to accumulate land but not Arabs - a further 300,000 Palestinians were displaced, to add to the 700,000 expelled in the earlier war.

      1967 was not the first evidence of Israel's character as a highly aggressive, expansionist settler-colonial regime, but it was conclusive.  The Six Day War was a war of choice, Israel started it, had already planned for it, and has never seriously looked back. 

      Corrective reading:

      In his superb Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Norman Finkelstein offered a meticulous demolition of the classic liberal myths of 1967.  Here he is interviewed by the editors of Mondoweiss:

      Norman Finkelstein on the Six-Day-War and its myths

      And also from Mondoweiss, an essay by one of Israel's most radical and distinguished sociologists, Gershon Schafir:

      Why has the Occupation lasted this long?


      Conor

      Wednesday, 31 May 2017

      Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism - Lukacs to Jameson

      To mark the publication of two new books from Perry Anderson, Verso has posted excerpts from two of his earlier works - on Western Marxism - on its site.  These are analyses of the Western tradition and its culmination in Fredric Jameson, by a writer who himself is a major figure in that tradition.

      This blog has often proclaimed its admiration of Perry Anderson.   I first began to read him while a graduate student. It was not essays in the New Left Review that caught my eye, or indeed in the London Review of Books - by the early 1990s, when I discovered him, clearly his favoured venues - but rather a pair of formidable books which collected earlier essays stretching back to the 1960s.  English Questions brought together articles of Anderson's on British history - political history and intellectual history, including his contributions to the 'Nairn-Anderson theses', co-written with his equally brilliant colleague Tom Nairn.  A Zone of Engagement - the battlefield metaphor is apposite - collects superb profiles and critiques of international figures in the recent or contemporary history of ideas, such as Isaiah Berlin, Marshall Berman, Geoffrey de Ste Croix, Michael Mann, and Andreas Hillgruber.  The book culminates in a stunning 110 page essay on Francis Fukuyama,'The Ends of History', elucidating the genealogy of post-Hegelian philosophical history culminating in Gehlen, Kojeve, Niethammer and Fukuyama himself - an extraordinary virtuoso performance of erudition, critique and style.

      That last essay should not, in some ways, have been a surprise.  English Questions contains an essay equally exceptional though of a different kind.  'Components of the National Culture', published in 1969 when its author was under 30 years old, ranges over all the main currents in then-contemporary British intellectual culture - literary study, political theory, historiography, philosophy, economics.  Not merely this, but Anderson advances the radical idea that British intellectual culture had been shaped by a 'white immigration' - Namier, Wittgenstein, Berlin, among others - which had determined its characteristic conservative tenor in the twentieth century with its hostility to totalizing vision and its lack of a critical sociology. 'Components' shows all the virtues of 'The Ends of History' already in place - the extraordinary learning, the incisive critique, the polemical verve, the striking confidence across multiple disciplines - in a young scholar as yet without a firm academic position.

      If anyone thinks that I can only praise Anderson, that is not quite the case.  My disappointment in him is that he has never attended at any length to his Irish patrimony.  It's not that he denies his background in a republican Anglo-Irish family from Waterford; or that he is uninterested in or ignorant of Ireland - it's more, I suspect, that his whole career has been built on a deliberate will to complicate and alienate his inherited tradition - British and Irish - by the admixture of an exceptional range of European intellectual influences.  When asked by an incautious journalist if he was English, Beckett famously replied 'Au contraire', and I suspect Anderson would share the sentiment.  But his learning and acuity make me thirsty to see these capacities trained on Irish materials at some point.  In the same Beckettian mood, he'd agree with Adorno that one must have tradition in oneself in order to hate it properly.  That Anderson is aware of his Irish background is not to be doubted; that he has not yet shown it his analytical hatred is perhaps to be regretted.

      Nevertheless, his books on the Western Marxist tradition are one of the main strands in his own career.  Considerations on Western Marxism offers an account of the academic fate of defeated 'Western' Marxism (as compared to 'victorious' 'Eastern' Marxism institutionalised in the Soviet Union), in the post-1917 generations - Korsch, Gramsci and Lukacs, and then the Frankfurt School.   Arguments within English Marxism dramatised the debates about Marxist interpretations of British history in which Anderson was, along with figures such as Nairn, Ralph Miliband, and EP Thompson, a principal participant.   In the Tracks of Historical Materialism brought the story of Western Marxism up to the 1970s, with the structuralist moment in France, where historical materialism was replaced by what Anderson memorably referred to as the 'exorbitance of language' in thinkers such as Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida.  The Origins of Postmodernism, Anderson's study of the great American Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson, is the last movement in this quartet.

      So I am posting here, from the Verso site, sections from the first, second, and last books in this grouping.  No better reading will be found anywhere, I submit.


      Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism



      Tuesday, 30 May 2017

      Ruining the University

      Universities are one of the great inventions of that European civilization about which Gandhi expressed a wry sense of anticipation.  One of the engines of modernity, the intellectual powerhouses of culture and science, the very machinery of what creates humanity.  Unfortunately, one of the other engines of modernity - capitalism - has invested the bastions of the Western university with ever-greater success in the last 50 years or so.  I am not expressing some misbegotten nostalgia for the features - so delicately and sometimes hilariously teased open by Virginia Woolf in her glancing and brilliant essay A Room of One's Own - of the nineteenth-century university, which was largely attended by a small, aristocratic and haut-bourgeois, male, fraction of the population of Western countries.  It's been apparent for quite some time now that where, in the 1980s, defenders of the 'traditional' humanities such as Alvin Kiernan and Allan Bloom in America or Edna Longley in Ireland believed that the problem was 'theory' and the politicisation of humanistic studies, the real enemy was and is the arrival of market logic and managerial bureaucracy in the administration of universities.  In other words, the leaching of neoliberalism into every aspect of university life has vastly greater potential to damage culture and education than any conflation of 'Derry and Derrida' (Longley's witty but ludicrous and ignorant notion of Seamus Deane's literary-political project).

      Two of the best writers on this situation are Stefan Collini and Christopher Newfield.  The latter's Unmaking the Public University is one of the best studies of the attack on public higher education in America underway for the last couple of decades.  Collini, a brilliant veteran intellectual historian at Cambridge, has for some time been both analyzing and himself developing a powerful liberal public criticism in Britain. His collections of essays - Absent Minds and Common Reading - both delineate and push forward that essayistic criticism best represented in Britain by the London Review of Books, and by a proliferating range of journals in America such as the Los Angeles Review of Books and n+1.  More recently, Collini has turned his attention to the assault on the British university system by Conservative governments.  As Marina Warner has pointed out about him, Collini has ground his way through the interminable and dreary paperwork of the legislation which promises to destroy the great universities of Britain - an example perhaps of Foucault's 'relentless erudition' - and in doing so performed a major and exemplary act of critique in the service of the wide British public, precisely of the kind he earlier wrote about with such verve.  He has published his analyses in many fora, including the London Review, and also in two substantial books - What are Universities For? (2012), and Speaking of Universities, published earlier this year. 

      Here are two articles, both from the LARB, stemming from this work.  First Michael Meranze, a historian at UCLA, reviews Speaking of Universities:


      Remaking the University: The Idea of the English University

      Secondly, a review by Newfield of Andrew McGettigan's The Great University Gamble, an excoriating study of the marketisation of English higher education:

      The Counterreformation in Higher Education

      Conor

      Sunday, 28 May 2017

      The Hollowing-Out of Universities Continues

      There has been much talk on the Right in the last decade (or more) of the damaging effects on university campuses in America, Britain and even in Ireland of 'political correctness' - allegedly attempts to silence dissent by militant cabals of students and professors who deploy the rhetorics of identity politics (feminisms, queer thought, black and postcolonialist movements).  Mostly, it must be said, the accusations of 'political correctness' come from the Right and the far Right, which seek to use the liberal forum of the university institution to advance highly illiberal ideas and policies.

      But now we have more concrete examples of the truly sinister and institutionally powerful 'political correctness' being mobilized by the neoliberal or managerial university, in the age of the 'war on terror' and of Trumpism.  Karma Nabulsi, a Palestinian teaching at St Edmund Hall Oxford, has written a brilliant article for the London Review of Books, revealing the ways that British government policies pitched against 'extremism' on campuses bleed into and infect the capillary activities of university life.  At this link, you can also listen to Professor Nabulsi on audio:


      And here is an article - from Jacobin -  showing the ever-widening gap between America's small number of rich universities and its state and public systems,  where the Ivy League reproduce privilege and inequality even as public education is filleted - just in case you had any other delusions about universities as sites of liberal values: 




      Conor


      Diary - Blogging, Discontinuity, Revolution

      I've left another long gap in my blog.   This is regrettable on a number of counts.  Viewing the matter cynically, one keeps up one's readership by regular posting.  When one does not post, reader drift away and are lost.  More to the point, perhaps, there is so much to write about, or to be angry about.  Christopher Hitchens used to say that being angry was what got him out of bed in the morning - that was in the Better Old Days, before Hitchens himself became one of the expanding number of things to be angry about.  But he had a point - the only antidote to Trumpism, Brexitism, Zionism, Varadkarism and Fine Gaelism generally, the dump that is the mainstream Irish media - the only antidote to these things is 'a ruthless criticism of everything', as the young and hopeful Marx once wrote.   I've been slack in my contribution to this criticism, due to a variety of personal and work-related problems.   But, for now at least, I am back.

      I've been reading, all-too slowly, about the history of the Russian Revolution.  I've whipped with great pleasure through A People's History of the Russian Revolution, by Neil Faulkner.  I am reading, much more slowly, John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World - reading it slowly is foolish, because the book moves at a breakneck pace, and one should read it breathlessly.   I have a short history of the Revolution by Sheila Fitzpatrick waiting to go.   We live, of course, in the centenary year of the great Revolution, but its commemoration is a mixed affair.   Western historians are either blissfully hostile, or, if they are sympathetic to the Revolution, adopt a modest and qualified tone.   Fitzpatrick is a distinguished liberal historian who negotiates very well towards the latter pole.  Here in the LRB (March 30), she reviews the state of play:

      Sheila Fitzpatrick


      No greater contemporary inheritor of the radical spirit of the Revolution than Tariq Ali.   Here are two articles of his, one a list of further reading, the other his take on the legacy of Lenin (from Jacobin)





      Let no-one doubt that the Revolution was also a profoundly important moment for women and for feminism:



      More to follow!

      Conor

      Tuesday, 7 March 2017

      Women's Resistance - The Theory and the Practice

      In preparation for tomorrow's International Women's Day, and global women's strike, I am posting three articles here.  The first, from the Verso site, is an interview with Judith Butler, maybe the pre-eminent radical philosopher now active in the Anglophone world.   I've written about Butler several times already - in celebration of her winning of the Adorno Prize and the unholy flak she faced when she did so, as a brave anti-Zionist Jewish intellectual, in particular.   But while I began reading Butler properly only in the last decade, when she wrote increasingly about Palestine and the Middle East, it must immediately be admitted that her career extends at least another decade further back, to Subjects of Desire (1987), her study of French Hegelianism, and then to Gender Trouble (1990), her groundbreaking and career-making account of gendered identity not as an essence or mere biology, but as a constantly reiterated performative function.  This problematic has not fallen away from Butler's thinking since those early books, and in this interview, which was made by Jean-Philippe Cazier to honour the publication of a French translation of her book Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly and first appeared at the Diacritik site, we find her re-thinking the nature of demonstration and public politics in performative terms.

      The second and third articles on on notable examples of women's struggle in two widely separated parts of the world, Argentina and Palestine.  In each region, women's battles grow out of particular or local difficulties, but, via protest and representation, will achieve global resonances tomorrow.  The article on women in Argentina comes from Jacobin; that on women and the fight for Palestinian rights and independence comes from ElectronicIntifada.

      First, Butler and Cazier:

      Acting in Concert: a conversation with Judith Butler



      Next, Veronica Gago and Augustina Santomaso on the situation in Argentina:

      Argentina’s Life-or-Death Women’s Movement



      Lastly, Sofia Arias and Bill Mullen on Palestinian women:

      ON 8 MARCH, STAND WITH WOMEN OF PALESTINE


      Conor

      Sunday, 5 March 2017

      Global Women's Strike - Mass Protest on International Women's Day, March 8, 2017

      Next Wednesday, International Women's Day, in over 40 countries women will march in protest, agitating for reproductive rights, and against violence in the economic, domestic and institutional spheres.  In Ireland, the particular focus for the strikers will be the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which disgracefully equates the right to life of a foetus to that of the woman who bears it.

      To mark this great event of mass protest and agitation, I am posting an article on the strike, from Jacobin, and also the LRB spring lecture by Professor Mary Beard, the brilliant English classicist based at Cambridge, which is on 'Women in Power'.  First, on the strike - Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya explain its meaning

      What the Women’s Strike Means


      And then Mary Beard, from the London Review of Books website:



      Conor

      Saturday, 25 February 2017

      Power, Alienation and Truth - Chaplin and Chomsky

      Here are two excellent essays from the Jacobin site, just to cheer up your weekend.   Firstly, a wonderful discussion by Owen Hatherly of Charlie Chaplin, and the early admiration of him and his politics by the Russian revolutionary film industry.  Hatherly's work will be familiar to many readers of the Guardian, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books.   Here he reveals the contradictory and at times strange effects of the love of Chaplin displayed by film-makers such as Kuleshov, Barnet and Pudovkin, where pro-Bolshevism is wedded to the industrial-technocratic values of Taylorism and Fordism.   This movement received the intellectual reinforcement of the great literary critic and theorist of literature as alienated language, Viktor Shklovsky, who saw in Chaplin's jerky movements a version of the actions of the industrial worker.

      Charlie Chaplin in Moscow 



      Moving from Shklovskian 'ostranienie' to a different form of alienation, Daniel Geary, a historian working at Trinity College Dublin, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Noam Chomsky's great essay 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', first published in the New York Review of Books in 1967, at the height of America's war in Vietnam.  Chomsky's essay, which would receive an even more formidable iteration in 1977 in his Huizinga Lecture, 'Intellectuals and the State', took the world of American policy-formulation as its subject and turned it inside-out, in the manner of all great critics: he presented American liberals with a radically alienated vision of the intellectual scene with which they had thought they were so familiar.  This essay was essentially a manifesto for the extraordinary life of dissent which Chomsky has led ever since, and which he has always believed is open to any ordinary person endowed with some curiosity and a moral imagination.  'The Responsibility of Intellectuals' is reprinted in American Power and the New Mandarins, also published in 1967, Chomsky's first openly political book, and also the place where you'll find 'Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship', an overwhelming indictment of mainstream American social science and its complicity with the war in Indochina.  'Intellectuals and the State' is collected in another superb volume, published early in the Reagan era, Towards a New Cold War.  Chomsky is not infallible, as Geary points out, but what a bracing example he offers to us all, as he nears his ninetieth year.  Here is Chomsky's article, and then Geary's re-reading of it:


      A Special Supplement: The Responsibility of Intellectuals



      Truth to Power


      Conor

      Tuesday, 21 February 2017

      Performing the Revolution - Tariq Ali on the Communist Manifesto

      Yesterday - I should have written about this before enthusing about WJT Mitchell and Robert Darnton - was the 169th anniversary of the publication of Marx and Engels' Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), probably the greatest and most influential political pamphlet ever written.   Like the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916, the Manifesto is a tremendous piece of performative writing (in JL Austin's famous phrase) - its being read brings into existence that to which it refers, it does things, it makes things happen (in this case, on the most epic of scales), and this goes a long way to explaining its enduring power and haunting effect.

      Here is Tariq Ali - commentator, film-maker, street-fighter - on the Manifesto - from the Verso website:


      Tariq Ali: Introduction to The Communist Manifesto


      Conor

      American Psychosis and the Yellow Press - WJT Mitchell and Robert Darnton after Trump's First Thirty Days

      Critical Inquiry is one of the finest, most stylish and most important literary/cultural critical journals in the English-speaking world - here's its website: Critical Inquiry - Official Site  Published out of the University of Chicago, it's long been edited by Bill Mitchell, himself a brilliant critic of both literary and visual culture.  Here he is, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in an essay which was originally given as a lecture at the University of Geneva, just before Trump's inauguration:

      American Psychosis: Trumpism and the Nightmare of History

      I first discovered Robert Darnton, one of America's great cultural historians and a major scholar of eighteenth century France, through his wonderful collection of essays, The Great Cat Massacre (1984), and then his classic study of The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995).  This book, which builds on Darnton's earlier study, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), is a superb account of the chapbook and pamphlet literature of the streets, which - by way of satire, polemic, pornography, and critique - helped to undermine the Bourbon monarchy.  Long on the staff at Princeton, Darnton now is University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard.   Here is Darnton's personal website, which contains online or pdf versions of many of his essays and reviews: Home | Robert Darnton  And here he writes about the history of the late nineteenth century 'yellow press', a notorious earlier instance of the creation of 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' - an essay from the New York Review of Books:



      The True History of Fake News


      Conor

      Sunday, 19 February 2017

      Armed Insurrection - James Connolly and the European Context

      Of all the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, James Connolly, the great labour leader and agitator, was the only one with military experience.  It was, after all, as an underage recruit to the British Army that Connolly first came to Ireland.   But it's also worth remembering that later in life, during the First World War, and as the pressure for an Irish uprising grew ever stronger, Connolly wrote extensively on insurrectionary history and techniques, preparing the way for the struggle to come.

      As WK Anderson pointed out in his excellent James Connolly and the Irish Left (1994), Connolly's principal self-identification was as a revolutionary, and all he did was contributory to that goal and purpose.  He was not a militarist, and he was sceptical of the 'physical force tradition' in Irish republicanism.  But Connolly was no pacifist, either, and recourse to force was always one of the options at the disposal of the revolution as far as he was concerned.  

      The interest in armed doctrine and ideas in Connolly is mirrored in the geo-tactical ideas of his great Italian contemporary Gramsci, whose thought - as Edward Said noted many years ago - is suffused with the metaphors of military action: territories, blocs, mutual siege, civil conquest, war of manoeuvre and war of position.   I am posting here links to Connolly's essays on earlier uprisings, side by side with an essay on Armed Insurrection, 'a work of illegal propaganda written by a collective of Comintern military and political specialists', including Ho Chi Minh and Palmiro Togliatti, and now reissued by Verso: 

      Saturday, 11 February 2017

      Remembering Red Vienna

      In January, I was fortunate enough to visit Vienna - to my shame, this was only my first visit to a German-speaking country and city.  I spent five days walking the city - visiting the Hundertwasser apartment building and museum, taking the tram back and forth on the Ringstrasse, absorbing the decadence of Klimt and Schiele at the Belvedere.  I also went out to the Zentralfriedhof, where, on an icy afternoon, I could wander quietly among the graves of great composers - Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Gluck and a whole dynasty of Strausses - and see how Austrians remember their presidents, including Kurt Waldheim.  The massive graveyard embodies formidable historical lessons for a callow denizen of the western islands of Europe - there is a large plot and commemorative apparatus of statues, walls, and gardens for the Red Army, which liberated Vienna in 1945, and there are two large Jewish plots, one of more recent vintage, the other older, with graves going back at least to the nineteenth century.  I spent some time wandering the near-wilderness of the latter, picking my way among headstones still tilted or smashed from Nazi-era vandalism.  Walking the perimeter of this section, which contains the graves of various Rothschilds and of Arthur Schnitzler, I paused silently to look down one of the many tree-lined corridors - a deer stood looking at me, vulnerable and beautiful.

      I should have been reading Musil, and learning from Carl Schorske's classic study, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, but my satchel held other books.  One can't always co-ordinate one's reading with one's location.  But in this often immaculately-preserved city, with its wonderfully efficient public transport and overwhelming imperial architectural and cultural legacy, it is hard not to be forced to think historically just as one trudges the streets.  Even as I note that Vienna was the birthplace of both Adolf Hitler and Theodor Herzl, and is now home to an increasingly right-leaning political culture, it's good to be reminded that the political dispensation has not always been conservative.  Here is an essay, taken from the Jacobin website but originally published in German at LuxEmburg, which shows the other side of the story: 



      Conor

      Class War and Ideological Vision in the United States -

      Mike Davis: MacArthur Fellow, former truck driver, genealogist of catastrophe - surely if ever there was an historian equipped to dissect Trumpian America, it is he.  So, here he is on the Jacobin website, wielding the scalpel as only he can:

      The Great God Trump and the White Working Class


      And also from Jacobin, a rich article from Alexander Livingston on the background to the vision of Steve Bannon, perhaps the leading ideologue of the Trump Administration.  Livingston reminds us of how important it is to take Trump's confederates seriously, to trace their inheritance within strains of American political tradition, and not simply dismiss them as sui generis ignoramuses: 




      Conor