Category Archives: pro-situ

A night to kill a king


It was also, today, another anniversary: another less famous than once it was. Less famous than it ought to be: it is the anniversary of probably the most significant day in all this country’s history, a day with greater consequences for politics, government and religion than any other.

One day Herr Keuner was asked just what he meant by ‘reversal of perspective’, and he told the following story. Two brothers, who were deeply attached to one another, once adopted a curious practice. They started using pebbles to record the nature of each day’s events, a white stone for each moment of happiness, a black one for any misfortune or chagrin. They soon discovered, on comparing the contents of their jars of pebbles at the end of each day, that one brother collected only white pebbles, the other only black. Intrigued by the remarkable consistency with which they each experienced a similar fate in a quite different way, they resolved to seek the opinion of an old man famed for his wisdom. “You don’t talk about it enough”, said the wise man. “Each of you should seek the causes of your choices and explain them to the other.”

Thenceforward the two brothers followed this advice, and soon found that while the first remained faithful to his white pebbles, and the second to his black ones, in neither of the jars were there now as many pebbles as formerly. Where there had usually been thirty or so, each brother would now collect scarcely more than seven or eight. Before long the wise man had another visit from the two brothers, both looking very downcast. “Not long ago,” began the first brother, “my jar would fill up with pebbles as black as night. I lived in unrelieved despair. I confess that I only went on living out of force of habit. Now, I rarely collect more than eight pebbles in a day. But what these eight symbols of misery represent has become so intolerable that I simply cannot go on living like this.” The other brother told the wise man: “Every day I used to pile up my white pebbles. These days I only get seven or eight, but these exercise such a fascination over me that I cannot recall these moments of happiness without immediately wanting to live them over again, even more intensely than before. As a matter of fact, I long to keep on experiencing them forever, and this desire is a torment to me.” The wise man smiled as he listened. “Excellent, excellent”, he said. “Things are shaping up well. You must persevere. One other thing. From time to time, ask yourselves why this game with the jar and the pebbles arouses so much enthusiasm in you.”

The next time the two brothers visited the wise man, they had this to say: “Well, we asked ourselves the question, as you suggested, but we have no answer. So we asked everyone in the village. You can see how much it has upset them. Whole families sit outside their houses in the evenings arguing about white pebbles and black pebbles. Only the elders and notables refuse to take part in these discussions. They laugh at us, and say that a pebble is a pebble, black or white.” The old man could not conceal his delight at this. “Everything is going as I had foreseen. Don’t worry. Soon the question will no longer arise; it has already lost its importance, and I daresay that one day soon you will have forgotten that you ever concerned yourselves with it.”

Not long thereafter the old man’s predictions were confirmed in the following manner. A great joy seized the people of the village. And as dawn broke after a night full of comings and goings, the first rays of sunlight fell upon the heads of the elders and notables, struck from their bodies and impaled upon the sharp-pointed stakes of a palisade.
– Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations

Charles Stuart, 19/11/1600 – 30/1/1649

Flowers and their hair

Political radicals and activists are often stereotyped as people who’ve got something wrong with their lives – it’s just displacement, his Mummy wouldn’t buy him a pony… This is mostly wrong, of course, but I think it’s also partly right – and for the same reason that it’s mostly wrong. After all, everybody – with the possible exception of the young Buddha – has something wrong with their life; everybody knows the experience of loss, rejection, loneliness, helpless anger, despair. (If Melanie Klein was right we’ve already known a lot of this by the time we start saying mama.) The question is, as always, what you do with it. Your knowledge of what it’s like to be down there may fire you with empathy for all the people who are down there in real, physical terms, every day of their lives – or it may fire you with the determination to ensure that you’re never, ever going there again. And it’s not always obvious which set of eyes you’re looking through. Cue the Bill Hicks quote. (No, not the one about people who work in advertising, the other one.)

So that gives us two ways of looking at the relationship between personal sources of unhappiness and radical rage: it may be empathetic engagement (your wound, my wound, the bastards!); rather more sneakily, it may be fearful narcissism (they’ve got you, they may get me next, the bastards!) Another angle is offered by Jean-Pierre Voyer’s attempted fusion of Wilhelm Reich and the situationists. Voyer is one of those radical-left French intellectuals who went a bit weird in the 1980s and is now best approached with bargepole in hand (see also: Pierre Guillaume, Serge Thion). But he wrote some useful stuff in his time, notably Reich: How to use. From which this, slightly modified, quote stands out:

Whether the subject sinks into madness, practises theory or participates in an uprising … the two poles of daily life — contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other — are simultaneously abolished, opening the way for the unity of individual life

To engage in a coherent critique of power relations in contemporary society, according to Voyer, was necessarily to think differently and live differently. Your own life would be the prism through which you would see the crushing, distorting, disempowering might of the totality – and one result of a sustained, active critique of the totality (a.k.a. practising theory) would be that things would get a bit strange for a while. (Have I actually read this stuff? I hear you cry. Well, I know I’ve read Reich: how to use at least once and found it worthwhile, but glancing at it now the vines of Voyer’s grandiloquent self-regard seem to be trailing rather heavily across the path of his argument. Knabb’s eccentric-seeming case study, on the other hand, is as lucid, thought-provoking and unsparing as most of what he writes, which is to say, very.)

Where does this leave the angry political blogger? Not, I think, engaging in the practice of theory, and not really looking through the eyes of love. More and more, I feel that when I post angry I’m posting, in part, to sustain and relish my own anger. It’s a bridge between personal and political (anger is always personal), but it’s a bridge in the form of a knot – all I’m doing is feeding myself reasons why I can go on feeling angry.

And – returning to the Rorschach analogy in the previous post – those reasons aren’t necessarily there. Does Charlie Falconer hate poor people? It would certainly suit my personal distempered vision of New Labour to suppose that he does, but I know that in reality he almost certainly doesn’t; he probably thinks the working class is perfectly sweet, when he happens to bump into it. My guess is that when he commends policies which seem to incarnate contempt for Labour’s historic constituency, he’s doing it not because he feels that contempt himself but because he hasn’t thought about it. Which doesn’t make him any less dangerous, but makes him harder to fulminate against. I think that’s a gain, in an odd way.

Another example is the case of Blair’s ‘idealism’. The other day I attended a seminar addressed by Giancarlo Aragona (the Italian Ambassador) and Steven Haines – an interesting speaker who was on particularly good form. Haines’ answer to one question from the floor struck me. An International Relations lecturer asked him where he’d place Bush and Blair on the classic idealist/realist spectrum: I mean, they may like to present themselves as idealists, but can they be really? (We could hear the footfall of Chomskyan dietrologia on the stairs – idealism? Halliburton, Iraqi oil, Paul Bremer’s missing millions, and you talk about idealism?) Haines was having none of it: the Foreign Office and the MoD were mostly staffed by realists, he said, and they certainly didn’t think Blair was a realist. I think this is exactly right: sometimes what you see is what you get. We may not share Blair’s ideals or his view of the appropriate ways to act on them, but the idea that he doesn’t have ideals or that he’s not acting on them is unsustainable. Which makes him rather less evil and rather more strange. I think that’s a gain, too.

So do me a favour, gentle readers (apparently there are seven of you now, which is nice). From now on, if you see me doing the blog equivalent of shouting at the TV or trying to set the world to rights over one pint too many (you know what’s wrong with the world? I‘ll tell you what’s wrong with the world!)… don’t encourage me.

(And if you recognise the howlingly obscure quote in the post title, give yourself a Shinylet me know in the Comments. I’ll give you a clue – there’s a connection with my last post but two.)

My demands, my angels

Peter Campbell on Samuel Palmer:

Palmer and his friends, meeting together in Shoreham, called themselves the Ancients. Like the Pre-Raphaelites who came afterwards and the German Nazarenes in Rome who had gone before, they were a brotherhood of artists – the first of the kind in England – who wished to renew art from medieval sources. The Ancients didn’t live communally, as the Nazarenes had done, and, unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, who were supported by Ruskin, had no critical backer. … Not all the Ancients were painters or engravers; it seems that they were as much a society of like-minded aesthetes as a school with a single visual aesthetic. There was no manifesto. In what is recorded of them, mainly in memoirs written years later – stories of night-time walks in the countryside round Shoreham and recitations from Macbeth and The Mysteries of Udolpho – the impression is of a group getting high on ideas rather than serious art workers. William Vaughan notes … that Palmer’s son ‘darkly remarked of certain early notebooks by his father’ – he later destroyed them – that ‘they showed “a mental condition which, in many respects is uninviting. It is a condition full of danger, neither sufficiently masculine nor sufficiently reticent.”’

In another country, in another century:

The “Hamburg Theses” are assuredly the most mysterious of all the documents produced by the Situationist International. Many such documents had a wide circulation; others were often reserved for a discreet audience.The “Hamburg Theses” were referred to several times in situationist publications, but without a single quotation from them ever being given … They were in fact the conclusions (kept secret by agreement) of a theoretical and strategic discussion bearing on the whole of the activity of the SI. This discussion took place over two or three days early in September 1961, in a randomly-chosen series of bars in Hamburg, beween G. Debord, A. Kotanyi and R. Vaneigem, who were then returning from the fifth Conference of the SI, held at Göteborg from the 28th to the 30th of August. Alexander Trocchi, not present in person at Hamburg, would later contribute to these “Theses”. Quite deliberately, with a view to preventing anything which might have given rise to external remarks or analysis from circulating outside the SI, nothing was ever put on paper regarding this discussion or its conclusions. It was agreed that the most simple summary of these conclusions, rich and complex as they were, could be delivered in a single sentence: The SI must now realise philosophy. Even this sentence was not written down. The conclusion was so well hidden that it has remained secret up to now [1989].

The “Hamburg Theses” had a considerable significance in at least two respects. Firstly, because they mark the main turning point in the entire history of the SI. But equally as a form of experimental practice: from this point of view, they were a striking innovation in the history of artistic avant-gardes, who until then had all given the impression of being only too eager to explain themselves.

The conclusion stated evoked a famous formulation by Marx in 1844 (in his Contribution to a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). It meant that, from that moment, we must no longer accord the least importance to the ideas of any of the revolutionary groups which still survived, heirs as they were of the old movement for social emancipation which had been crushed in the first half of the century; and that we could therefore count on nobody but the SI itself to begin another era of challenge to power, recommencing from all the starting points of the movement which had been constituted in the 1840s. … the “Hamburg Theses” marked the end of the SI’s first period – the search for a genuinely new artistic terrain (1957-61); they also fixed the point of departure of the operation which led to the movement of May 1968, and what came after.

A condition full of danger, perhaps. A group getting high on ideas rather than serious art workers, definitely – but what a group, and what ideas.

Guy Debord, 28/12/1931-30/11/1994

Bernard, Bernard, disait-il, cette verte jeunesse ne durera pas toujours

PS The birthday game (introduced to me by Chris Dillow), takes me to page 200 of the 1997 Internationale Situationniste anthology (from which the passage translated above was taken), and thence straight back to Debord (the only other possibilities are Joergen Nash, Attila Kotanyi and Helmut Sturm). I can’t find any personal connection with anyone who was born on Debord’s birthday, but I can say that John von Neumann and Linus Torvalds have both had considerable influence on my life. Not as much as Debord, though.

PPSThat Bossuet quote was one of Debord’s favourites, but it’s a bit sentimental – it’s not the outlook of a true revolutionary. Let’s face it:

Les avant-gardes n’ont qu’un temps; et ce qui peut leur arriver de plus heureux, c’est, au plein sens du terme, d’avoir fait leur temps. Après elles, s’engagent des opérations sur un plus vaste theatre. On n’en a que trop vu, de ces troupes d’élite qui, après avoir accompli quelque vaillant exploit, sont encore là pour défiler avec leurs décorations, et puis se retournent contre la cause qu’elles avaient défendue. Il n’y a rien à craindre de semblable de celles dont l’attaque a été menée jusqu’au terme de la dissolution. Je me demande ce que certains avaient espéré de mieux? Le particulier s’use en combattant. Un projet historique ne peut certainement pas prétendre conserver une éternelle jeunesse à l’abri des coups.

Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978)

Keep the masses from majority

Geoff Hoon made some unusually revealing statements about Labour Party democracy today on The world this weekend.

Essentially, the Hoon line is that there is – and should be – no such thing. Hoon was asked whether dissenters from the leadership could draw legitimacy from the Labour conference, which had passed motions critical of the New Labour clique now running the party. In other words, do Labour MPs have any right to express the democratically-agreed views of the Labour Party, if these differ from the positions of the New Labour leadership? He replied:

[left-wing MP] was elected on the Labour Party manifesto, as was I. He is bound to deliver that manifesto, as am I.

Time was, it would be generally recognised that party conference decisions were binding on the party as a whole, the leadership included; a Labour Prime Minister who wanted to set aside conference decisions would have many critics and few supporters. Conference’s role has long been advisory at best – one of the first priorities in the construction of the New Labour machine was the marginalisation of the party’s formal democratic structures (party conference and the National Executive). Now, apparently, we’re into a new phase. Not only does the leadership have every right to ignore what the party says; the party has no right to speak. Party policy is leadership policy; what the party itself thinks is sublimely irrelevant.

Hoon’s view of democratic procedure within the parliamentary Labour Party followed similar lines: for the parliamentary party to assert itself against the leadership would not only be ill-advised, it would be illegitimate. Specifically, Hoon was asked about the possibility of a leadership challenge. He replied:

recently, at a general election, [Blair] received the overwhelming support of the British people

It’s hard to ignore the fact that this is a bare-faced lie: even if we assumed that every single Labour voter was moved by a burning desire to give Blair his or her support, that would still only account for 23% of the British people. There’s also the inconvenient, but well-documented, fact that many Labour voters gave the party their vote despite Blair. But this is secondary. The real question is whether the Labour Party exists as an organisation, capable of formulating and expressing collective viewpoints as to its policies and leadership. The Hoon line is essentially that it doesn’t exist, or that it exists but should be treated as if it doesn’t. Not the Labour Party but the New Labour clique has been anointed by the electorate, on terms set out in the party manifesto, and its word should henceforth be law.

I think Hoon’s remarks are revealing and significant – and significant in part because they reveal far more than a better-briefed (or more intelligent) member of government would have done. Through long repetition, the critique of New Labour’s ‘control freak’ tendencies has acquired the kind of familiarity that breeds contempt, but Hoon’s comments show just how serious a matter this is – and how destructive it can be. The founding of the Labour Party was a major advance in the history of British democratic representation. Many previous leaders had done their best to hobble Labour Party democracy or stifle its voice, but nobody before Blair had set about dismantling the machinery with such nihilistic gusto. What Hoon’s remarks signal is that Blair’s project of organisational vandalism is more or less complete: the Labour Party has been destroyed.

Not that Blair would put it quite that bluntly, or for that matter as bluntly as Hoon. But then, eight years down the track, it’s not glad confident morning in anyone’s book; the first generation of New Labour hacks and Old Labour fellow-travellers is a distant memory. These days, you really can’t get the staff. It’s the time of the apparatchik: the time of maximum contempt for ordinary party members, with minimum justification. And so we have Hoon: the fourth-year plodder who gets appointed as a prefect (for want of alternative candidates) and promptly starts holding forth about the selection criteria: they don’t take just anyone, you know. I don’t expect they’d want you

Once, the Labour Party was built, and the building of the party was a major advance in the history of British democratic representation. But now…

Maintenant c’est joué. L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas. Elle n’existe pas.
Il faut construire l’hacienda.

Under marble Millichip

Surprised to find that a week’s gone by since I last posted here. I’m working on a lengthy (aren’t they all) post on the ethics of war, which will probably go up both here and at the Sharpener.

In the mean time, have a look at this fascinating take on the Glazer affair. I should say that it’s not about football. I was a Red at primary school, & would be now if I was anything – they’re now my local side, ironically enough – but by and large I really don’t give a monkey’s about football.

This is interesting stuff, though. Here’s Jamie’s conclusion (slightly edited):

Some pro-Glazer sentiment is pure cap doffing feudalism […] but other Glazer supporters reach towards a more developed conservatism: the idea that the club – the nation, effectively – is an organic, essentially mystical entity whose ownership follows natural laws and where the role of the fans is simple loyalty.

By contrast, the anti-Glazer camp tend to hammer at the details of the deal, their patriotism motivated by a sense of active responsibility for how the club conducts itself and of the rights and liberties that should attend “citizenship”.
You can imagine the same kind of discussions in the taverns of late fifteenth century Florence, when the Medicis moved to end the city’s mixed constitution and take the city private under the leadership of Lorenzo the Magnificent. See also the Putney debates.

(The club/nation analogy isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound – it’s developed further here.)

I think that last sentence struck me most forcibly. See also the Putney debates. But, but… surely Putney is finished business? We can argue about the Diggers – about Burford, even – but not Putney; Rainborough’s line was radical then, but it’s been common sense for a century or more. We’re all democrats now.

What was borne in on me as I read Jamie’s piece is that this is a half-truth at best. It’s true that certain important battles were won, in the name of liberty or democracy or equality; it’s also true that life went on, and those power relations which weren’t extirpated tended to revive and perpetuate themselves. In this century, it’s entirely possible to believe oneself a staunch democrat – to believe sincerely in equality before the law and government by the people – and come out with something like this:

So, you fear that your new owner will run you solely for a profit? Well, tough. In any case, I don’t see what the worry is about. Is it really in the interests of a man trying to run a commercial empire to have a floundering team, uncompetitive at the highest level?

“He’ll take good care of the team – that’s all you need to worry about. Of course you can trust him – look how rich he is! Besides, who asked you? The club was up for sale, he bought it, end of story.”

Villeins ye are still and villeins ye shall remain, in other words. Old myths die hard – and they perpetuate themselves by clothing themselves in new language. Of course, this isn’t a new insight. We’ve known for some time that people who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life – without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints – have a corpse in their mouth. But the problem goes deeper. In A dream of John Ball, William Morris wrote:

I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name

Revolution could be a live term; for that matter, so could socialism or workers’ control. They could be living terms, capable of inspiring the right people (and alarming the right people), but they aren’t – any more than democracy can be enlisted against the power exercised by Malcolm Glazer. There will be challenges to the position of Glazer and people like him, and they will return to the terrain sketched out by Rainborough in Putney – but the word that strikes fear into the bosses won’t be democracy, and it won’t be revolution either. We shall need new terms – which means, first and foremost, that we will need to look to be new battles, new tactics and new organisations.

Which in turn means that we need to know how to wait. “We are in a battle between two worlds: one which we do not recognise, and one which does not yet exist.” Thus Vaneigem in 1961; Gramsci and Matthew Arnold both said something similar (thanks, Ellis).

Things will get worse before they get better – and we may not know ‘better’ when we see it. But I think we can be confident that it will come.

Centred on conservation

There’s a really fascinating review of a new biography of H.V. Morton in the last London Review of Books. Morton was a travel writer between the wars; his big thing was ‘undiscovered England’, which he wanted to open up to those people who could get there by car. A deeply class-bound project, of course: this was the golden age of middle-class motoring, after car ownership had spread outside the upper class but before it became a mass phenomenon. (I wonder if the cycling clubs had a Morton?)

Anyway, the biography – and the review – quotes from Morton’s diary, which shows just how class-bound his work was. Here’s a quote from 1941:

I often ask myself why I love England so much. There is so much I detest about her: our Labour leaders, the crude, uneducated, spoilt lower classes, the Jews. And yet how small a thing this is compared with the grand sweep of history which is England, the green fields, the quiet rivers, the dark woods and the chalk downs, a lovely country inhabited by a race that is true and good at heart, brave and resolute, and, as human beings go, honest.

(I do like that “as human beings go”. Cheers, H.V.!)

I could stop here, really, it’s such a perfect summary of a certain kind of reactionary patriotism. “The grand sweep of history” and the fields and the rivers, good. The people who actually live here, well, mostly bad, quite frankly, what’s a chap to do? Harrumph. But I don’t think this amounts to saying that patriotism is necessarily reactionary and elitist, even when it has blood-and-soil overtones like these. Martin Kettle, describing Anthony Sampson’s funeral, writes:

Later we stood again and sang the most English of songs – the real national anthem – summoning up our arrows of desire and our chariot of fire, pledging again an unceasing mental fight till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem references are pretty cheap these days – national anthem? no thanks! – but I think those lines do capture something. Something about the importance of place, and how being on the Left doesn’t necessarily mean having “no home but the struggle” – attachment to place and attachment to the status quo aren’t synonymous. “Green and pleasant land” is a cliche, but it’s not meaningless – there is something genuinely fulfilling and restorative about wild and rural landscapes. The same goes for some city landscapes, where they’ve been allowed to go wild or get old. Nature is a resource, I’m suggesting – culturally and politically as well as in economic terms. And history is a resource – the history of human management of land, or the history written into buildings. There are many social relations which need to be changed. There are many buildings which need to be preserved, not to mention rivers and trees.

Which brings me (from the sublime to the ridiculous) to Tessa Jowell, who has recently suggested that some listed buildings could be pulled down after a “a perfect virtual moving image” has been recorded – one of those VR walkthrough things that architects use, presumably. (No, I am not making this up.) The story concludes with a quote from Peter Cook (not the genius), who endorsed the idea and added: “It is beyond what I would have ever thought of, and I am usually thought of as wild.”

Well, yes and no, Peter. One or two of us thought of you – in your role as the public face of the Archigram group – as the single person most responsible for ripping off, recuperating and publicising some architectural ideas put forward in the early 1960s by Constant Nieuwenhuis and the Situationist International. They were flawed ideas at best, predicated on an odd sort of tarmac-the-world techno-utopianism – the SI abandoned them quite rapidly, and Constant himself followed suit before very long. Archigram’s jazzed-up and watered-down variations on Situationist themes did little more than make a certain kind of ‘radical’ architectural brutalism look alternative (which it really wasn’t) and frivolous (which it certainly isn’t). (For more on this, and on divisions within Archigram, look here.) You could argue that, however ‘wild’ Cook may have looked back then, he was cutting with the grain all along. He certainly is now.

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