Monday, May 24, 2010

the weak link

[Sorry, this video link is no longer active.]

Stathis Kouvelakis concisely lays out the situation in Greece, the stakes and choices, in the context of a new neoliberal austerity offensive in Europe and beyond.

Additional online resources:

Audio podcast of the panel "Eurozone in Crisis: Reform or Exit?" at Birkbeck, in which Costas Lapavitsas, George Irvin, Costas Douvinas, Stathis Kouvelakis and Alex Callinicos analyze the structural background and political option of exit.

RMF (Research on Money and Finance working group) Report on the Eurozone, in which Costas Lapavitsas and collaborators analyze the EU's center-periphery dynamics and the structural contradictions behind the sovereign debt crisis.

Monday, May 17, 2010

abysmal globalism

Climate, Globe, Capital:
The Science and Politics of the Abyss

by Iain Boal

“At least the war on the environment is going well”
-- North Berkeley bumper sticker 

The brief interlude between 1750 and 1950 AD - the two hundred years between Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the Teller-Ulam thermonuclear weapon – when modernity’s clerisy declared that the future lay wide open under the sign of progress, is now over. Whatever the high functionaries of state or the managers of global trade say at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP 15), their speeches will be delivered over the corpse of Enlightenment optimism. Ironically, it is the scientists who, after waging a long war against Christian catastrophism in order to establish a deep secular past and by implication an open and contingent future, will be officiating in Denmark as priests of doom. 
Not that for those two centuries all talk of apocalypse was confined to the pulpit. Far from it. Even in the rosy dawn of enlightened optimism, reflected in William Godwin’s anarchist utopia – he was of the generation born in the 1750s - a reactionary counter-narrative was being forged in the halls of official knowledge. Thomas Malthus, the world’s first paid economist (in the employ of the East India Company), launched a frontal attack on Godwin’s political science and his vision of an ample world adequate to human needs.

Economics, as defined by Malthus and taken as orthodoxy ever since, is the science of “choice under scarcity”. However, the primary cause of that scarcity - the brutal clearances and enclosures of land that dispossessed the commoners and cut them off from their means of subsistence - was not a topic for polite discussion either in 18th century drawing rooms or in today’s business schools.

Paradoxically, at the same time as it assumed scarcity, the science of economics also assumed infinitude, that is, the bottomlessness of nature as sink and sewer. And for most moderns and all capitalists, until very recently, a reservoir without limits, though patchy and uneven, wherein lay their opportunities and the signs reading “Development”. It is a striking fact that Thomas Huxley, a leading scientist, “Darwin’s bulldog” and no stranger to the role of scarcity, could make this statement, in a paper presented at The Great International Fishery Exhibition in London in 1884: “The cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea-fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems be useless.”

It is this fundamental contradiction that now threatens the equations of resource economists, not to mention life on earth. Endless growth may linger as an abstract ideal, but capitalism’s material waste – the ‘externalities’ dumped in land, ocean, and atmosphere – is a large turkey coming home. COP15 is the sound it makes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

the struggle at middlesex

The Attack on the Humanities in British Universities: A Report from the Front Line.

By “Joe Jack-Toe”

Over the last couple of weeks, events in the British Higher Education sector have made me think again about the writings of Jean-François Lyotard, in whose work education was an important theme. Dense and abstract though his work is, it returns to me with a renewed and practical significance. Towards the end of his life, in the 1980s (once he had turned away from the earlier positions of, for example, his book on Libidinal Economies, which intimate that the forces of capitalism, in breaking up the old order of things, might in some ways start to allow the forces of the id to speak) Lyotard worried about the effects of the capitalist organisation of society on education, on our intellectual life, and on philosophical thought – and, of course about the effects of such a transformed world of thought on our social life. In The Inhuman and The Differend he envisioned capital as a totalising “monad in expansion,” a system which sought to extend its monological regime of discursive process throughout all spheres of human action, chaining desire, inquiry, and even the forces of anguish within a system of the production of “novelties” which can never amount to the true “event” of a radical break with what is. Such a regime of novelty echoes Benjamin’s vision of the capitalism of the Arcades – always producing new fashions, but only in order to ensure that nothing fundamentally changes. For Lyotard, such a regime, deeply entropic, involves a kind of a flattening of human potential, the death of what real “thought” might be. 

Though it will seem strange to some (especially those who are more familiar with his earlier works, or with the reputation he gained from these) to enlist Lyotard as a philosopher of “critique” in this way, such real thought, for the later Lyotard, was a matter of the agitation of that which cannot be spoken within a particular regime of discourse, the differend, that which fundamentally disagrees with the system, but which returns on it from outside, like the repressed, in the name of a certain freedom and liberation. This, argued Lyotard, was the importance of philosophy, of art and of intellectual work more generally, standing for that which has not yet been homogenised by the systems of capitalism, harnessed to its production of cheap thrills and petty innovations, and to the flattened, repetitive, and numbing spectacle of its realm of (media) representations. Thought – philosophy – was the pulse of a freedom which stood out against this realm, and which opened up the possibility of something else. The institutions of education and academic life were a vital part of what fosters such thought.

Lyotard thus bemoaned what he saw as the erosion of such a freedom of thought under the pressures of the marketisation of intellectual life. Since his death those pressures have only multiplied. He noticed the pressure, for example, on academics to continually publish in order to have their research quantified and graded by the state in order to ensure the continued influx of research funds, and noted that this leads to an impoverishment of thought where “novel” and publishable ideas are churned out rapidly, yoking thinkers to a mode of time usage which does not allow the space for properly new, radical or substantial ideas to develop. In this, he saw academia becoming a machine for churning out books and papers, and for keeping the funds flowing through Universities and publishing houses, rather than a means to think through issues of deep import. In the UK, Lyotard’s observations have been prophetic in terms of the unfolding implementation, since he wrote, of the “RAEs” (Research Assessment Exercises) which have been running periodically to assess, measure and then reward or punish Univeristy departments’ research outputs.

The discussions of education and philosophy in Lyotard’s late texts thus have a continued, and even increased significance for us today, where the logic of neoliberalism has only intensified under the regime of globalised capital, in spite of ostensibly “left-of-centre” governments such as that of the “New Labour” party which replaced the Conservatives in Britain in the 1990s. Under New Labour, and under the logic of marketisation, quite aside from the submission of research to quantifiable outcomes, the government has abolished student grants and introduced tuition fees. Universities have increasingly been asked to run as businesses rather than as public institutions, and, worse than this, such marketised education has increasingly been the object of manipulation through the ideologised manipulation by governments of the parameters within such a market is to function.

The questions of the nature of thought and education in the capitalist milieu comes back to me particularly strongly, however, in the light of current events in British education, and in particular within the University in which I work, Middlesex University. Readers of scurvy tunes may well be aware (to some extent at least) of the current controversy which has sprung up at Middlesex. On the 26th April, the University announced its perplexing decision to close its Philosophy department, a decision which shocked both staff at the University and the international philosophical community. The philosophy department at Middlesex can hardly, it would seem, be thought of as a failing department. In the recent RAE it was the department in Middlesex with the highest-rated score, and one of the top Philosophy departments in the country. Middlesex was formed in the 1970s first as a “polytechnic” institution (the Polytechnics in England were primarily vocational colleges and though they offered degrees did not have the prestige of a “University” education proper) and only in 1992 obtained the status of a University, so does not have many departments with serious academic research credentials, and Philosophy is the one beacon of real excellence which the University has. Its academics (Peter Osborne, Peter Hallward, Eric Alliez, Stella Sandford and Christian Kerslake, for example) have truly international profiles and their Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy – along with the journal Radical Philosophy which is largely produced at Middlesex – is probably the most important centre of “continental” (non-analytic) philosophy not only in Britain but in the English language. The CRMEP is also a key hub within the intellectual life of the humanities in London, with frequent and high-profile events bringing important scholars from around the world into the city. Philosophy at Middlesex has one of the largest Philosophy MA programmes in the UK and a healthy turn-through of PhD students (in fact, more PhD students complete with the Philosophy staff than the rest of Middlesex’s School of Arts and Education combined).

The closure has caused widespread protest, both within the university and also beyond it. The students on the course have occupied one of the buildings on the Trent Park campus and set up a Facebook site(now with over 11,000 members), a petition (with close on 15,000 signatures) and a campaign website. Staff in the University bombarded the School’s Dean, Ed Esche, with emails. Statements of support have come in from international intellectuals of the highest stature, such as, for example, Alain Badiou, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, and Michael Hardt. They also came from faculties across the UK and beyond, from the American Philosophical Association Executive Committee, the British Philosophical Association, and many, many other individuals and groups. Talks have been organised by the occupying students on campus, with speakers such as Tariq Ali (Sat 15th May) and Tony Benn coming up. A conference will be held at Goldsmiths, co-organised with the ICA, entitled, “Who’s Afraid of Philosophy?” on 19th May.

So why has the University decided to close this seemingly thriving department? The reply, to Philosophy staff, was that the department made no “measurable” contribution to the University. They stated, rather bizarrely, that courses at Middlesex are expected to contribute 55% of their income (beyond what they spend directly on their students) back to the centre of the University, whilst Philosophy in the coming year would only be able to contribute 53% – a shortfall of a whole 2%! Lyotard’s nightmare of what happens to thought (and education) when it is yoked to the logic of capital here is taken to its most perverse extreme.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I started this “blog” in February 2010, after a visit to my native country – a short skip back behind the walls of Homeland Security. The face of the regime had certainly changed, but the course remains distressing. The scurvy tunes, written “through the estranged and alien optic of exile,” launched the bad notes of my distress.

Around the discordant rantings of a mask named Jehan Alonzo, I played, posting polemical ripostes and a plunder of images. In the days of Millennium Challenge and America’s Army (the Pentagon war gaming exercise and US Army’s wildly successful online “multiplayer first-person shooter,” respectively), even the subversive refuge of “serious play” can be made to generate weaponized toys for domination.

Nevertheless, my ludic mischief gave me short relief, and so I persisted. Flares, stains, ciphers, signals and tunes stacked up. From these critical and parodic figurations sobering constellations emerged. At least seven of them, circling, probing:

    the deeper meanings and legacies of Hiroshima;

    the enforcement functions of state terror since 1945;

    the dirty “war on terror” and the problems of enjoyment;

    tea partiers and American pseudo-democracy;

    the stalled project of revolution;

    the politics and blocked promise of art;

    the liberation of nature and the difficult outlines of freedom and necessity.

Those familiar with my work will recognize the problems that have concerned me for years. Playing through the disturbances of re-encountered homeland, I returned to my pack of obsessions.

And as I grappled with them yet again, the site seemed to grow on its own, tracing a reflection that edged along in several directions, archiving a process of thinking in and through images, as well as concepts and the playful stuff of language. Across posts, critical propositions and running analyses have begun to link up into sustained arguments. Along the way, some political positions were marked out and elaborated.

On this foundation, I now want to open up the project to a more collective and polyphonic participation. Let the positions so far registered be taken as editorial stance. Let the constellations indicated serve as topical problematics. All else is open. I now invite, and will solicit, contributions from friends and comrades, and their extended networks.

(I’ll continue to toy with JA, since his voice and imposture amuse me. But hereafter I’ll initial my texts, hoping thereby to reassure friends who feared I’d gone off strangely.)

Be invited then, to help me shift this thing in the direction of an online magazine – a critical commune relentlessly aimed at the given, and thinking beyond it in a spirit inclusive of serious play. It won’t be artful all the time, but neither will it count for tenure. Let these stay processural notings, given freely – short-form essays broadcast in defiance of proprietary hoarding of ideas. If the experiment fails, so be it. The struggle continues, if not by this wager, then by others.

Gene Ray (GR)

On the images: The homepage image is the originary ground zero, north of Alamogordo, New Mexico – in a barren stretch of desert the Spanish named La Jornada del Muerto, the “Journey of Death.” There, on 16 July 1945, the scientists, techno-administrators, brass and grunts of the top-secret Manhattan Project came down from Los Alamos to detonate the Trinity test shot, the first atomic explosion. The terror bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed with all haste, just as quickly as technically possible. The photo, taken by Elliott Erwitt, shows the site as it appeared in January 1965.

JA’s visage qua avatar is Seiji Fukasawa’s photo of a wristwatch pulled from the rubble of Hiroshima. Its hands, arrested by the blast, tell mutely of a passage to a new time of terror. The still unfolding meanings of that moment, both stoppage and threshold to a new mode of enforcement, are a mirror to the concept of humanity and its ruined myth of progress. In that mirror, every face is unhappily reflected and politics takes on the urgency it has never, since then, for one second relinquished or relaxed, whatever collective denials, disavowals and twisted rationalizations obscure it. In the threatened terminations of that catastrophic demonstration, however, there still pulses a latent political imperative: in ways yet to be actualized, that blasted moment of terror promises to make humans and abolitionists of us all.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

another default is possible

The general strike and demonstrations protesting the misery plan masquerading as “bail-out” yesterday were massive and robust. The several hundred thousand who impressively filled the streets and Syntagma Square are constituting a political force that today is the real locus of democracy in Greece. 

Protests like these helped to bring down the dictators in the early 1970s and more of them now can topple a pseudo-democracy that has failed the country. As PASOK leads the IMF Trojan horse through the gate of Parliament, the unions and groups are gathering for renewed protests this evening.

There are many possible resolutions to this crisis. By no means is the official immiseration plan a “done deal,” as the capitalist media now acknowledges. Even the Wall Street Journal recognizes that default could follow from determined resistance.

Greece faces hard times, but who will have to bear the brunt of the pain? This is a political question that will be decided by the struggle now unfolding.

Who should pay? Whose dignity is to be sacrificed? Why should the banks and creditors, the politicians and major tax-evaders escape the plight they have dumped on the country through corruption, negligence and opportunism?

These are questions of justice and community, and the usual glib mix of lies, platitudes and neoliberal clichés is not going to satisfy a people awakened and stirred.

A real political moment has been opened in Greece.

Default would mean renegotiating everything. But who can be trusted to negotiate for Greece? Certainly not PASOK or New Democracy.

So it’s also time to question the form of democracy, and, if necessary, to change it. Not just the ruling government, then, but government as such is at issue.

Whatever Greece gained under the sign of Europe now comes at the price of immiseration, and there are no guarantees that ostensible benefits will survive the bailout – as any honest analyst admits.

If the Euro founders and the project of “Europe” breaks up, as Merkel in Berlin is whining, then junk this neoliberal, technocratic Europe and let’s see what real democracy can put in its place from below.

These are days for solidarity and focus.

In the fog and tear gas of struggle, we hope comrades will act with all possible care and compassion. We understand the rage and frustration, and the economic terrorism behind it. And we can see the everyday context of state repression and provocation, falling hardest on immigrants and autonomist young people.

The deaths of three employees at Marfin bank is a shock that hits us, too. The loss of three lives is terrible, and a real disaster for their families and loved ones. While we doubt this was intended by any comrade, we’ll also refrain from shifting all blame onto the bank’s chairman, who insisted with threats that his employees stay at their desks on the path of a massive and angry protest. The bank’s negligence was in any case well summarized by an employee, in a letter that has circulated widely.

There is, always, an ethics of struggle, and we hope there will be searching reflections and discussions of appropriate tactics and strategy in this one. We also hope solidarity and realism will keep those debates, when they happen, from becoming divisive.

As far as we can see, this is above all a struggle for dignity and the meaning of democracy. Dignity and real democracy are worthy aims that are not beyond reach in Greece. In the context of Europe, no struggle now is more important, and the hype and spin of mediatized wedges driven from above should not be allowed to distract or divide it.


Letter from a Marfin Bank employee, in Greek original on Indymedia Athens and translated on Occupied London.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

watching greece

Watching, observing from abroad – these “posts” issue from the wordy distance of this position and have often underscored it – one is staggered by the crudity of European hypocrisy regarding Greece.

Greece: one in five Greeks already lives below the poverty line, and yet the Greeks as a whole work more and longer than their European neighbors, the fabled Germans included. Now these same people are routinely and thoughtlessly blamed for their collapsing economy – their plight attributed to, among other chauvinist clichés, a purely fictional laziness undeserving of European “rescue.”

What garbage! This national economy was ruined not by “the Greeks” – the men and women who live and work there – but by the corrupt political class that administrates it and the tax-evading Greek ruling class that, along with the raiders of international capital, have plundered it for decades.

In this tired trope of “blame the victim,” we should be scandalized by the two extra months per year that public sector workers earn, thanks to the struggles of their unions, etcetera, etcetera.

To save the Euro, if this grace in the end is extended, those lazy Greeks will have to break their unions and lower the cost of their labor-power – and should be grateful to their masters and administrators for the opportunity to do so. Tame and demoralize those working people! Austerity, and more of it, quickly!! 

Hearing and reading what, obviously and crudely, is being said and written between the lines, addressed to, directed at, “the Greeks” and their “self-made crisis,” by the amplified voices of “Europe,” by the very voice of arrogant administration, of managers, custodians and mouthpieces of exploitation, the neoliberal technocracy that deems itself qualified to issue directives from above and is shocked if obedience does not immediately follow – hearing and reading and watching, one knows whose side to take.

But where is the international solidarity with the Greek men and women on whom a fraudulent austerity is being foisted and forced, as if it were natural necessity?

What to say, what can be said, by an outsider, observing? I admire and am inspired by Greek resistance, by this determined, visible refusal to accept administered fiat. Too bad others elsewhere don’t follow their example; if more of us did, the rule of pseudo-democracy could begin to open up and change.

There is evidently no solution for Greece within the constraining logic of the EU and Euro, other than the neocolonial dependency of the IMF debtors prison. Such is the global power of capital, against which other logics are necessary.

It’s for the Greeks and no one else to decide if this “Europe” is worth the misery that is its price – or whether, relying on their own impressive inventive resources, they might not instead rethink and reorganize the bases of their collective autonomy. For the others, for the rest of us, isn’t it time to remake “Europe” and everything else, from below?

Another general strike and day of protest has been called for May 5...

Here's the EU’s own statistics on working hours and work intensification in Greece.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

on enjoyment and enforcement

In the police states of “actually existing socialism,” security agencies infamously kept files on everyone, cradle to grave. Blackmail and banal corruption were systematically insinuated into everyday life by the state, in order to produce informers – compromised, pliable individuals caught in webs of dependency, suspicion and impotence. A particular form of prohibitive control: a specific social relation and its corresponding subjectivity.

In contemporary capitalism (Todd McGowan, Yannis Stavrakakis and others propose), such old-school prohibition societies have been transformed into societies of “commanded enjoyment.” Enjoy! is the new directive. Discover and express yourself, by freely spending your money! No money? No problem, buy on credit! This command seems to reverse the basic bourgeois values of personal self-discipline, of saving and delayed satisfaction, of not spending what you don't have.

But in fact, even in economies of relaxed credit, the imperatives of lifelong commodity consumption – of the restless exploration of identity through the purchase of products and the auratic fantasies that surround them – demand the internalization of work discipline and all the integrations it implies. Overall, avid consumers have to work longer to earn more, and the crisis that reasserts this rule only proves it. (Think Greece, right now.)

Accommodation and resignation are thus the price of interpellation into the commodity world. To enjoy what feels like freedom, we structure obligatory social constraints on the inside of our subjectivity, as the new forms of dependency, discipline and limit. It works, because our commodity fantasies do deliver a partial enjoyment that keeps us seeking and buying, and therefore accommodated. The given doesn’t give all it promises, but it apparently gives more than anything else on offer.

Yes, enjoyment seems to be one key to our social reality. But, as this singer of scurvy tunes keeps insisting, enforcement is its necessary shadow: state terror takes new forms today. Moreover, these forms are vastly more powerful than the crude forms of old.

Online social networking suffices to make the point. Through the games of self-display played on Facebook and blogs (this one not excluded), we compile archives that are probably more revealing than the Stasi files of the East German police state. We enthusiastically publish our desires and fantasies, in words and images that always say more than we intend.

We hardly think about this organized indiscretion, this voluntary abandonment of inhibitions, which we moreover perform for free. But in fact, our habitual self-exhibitions and our interactions with other self-exhibitors silently accumulate in digital form, on distant servers we are hardly aware of.

There, they merge with the other accumulated traces of our movements and purchases, now become objects of data miners and hackers, actual and potential. In the first instance, of course, we are induced to profile ourselves for the attentions of marketers. But the state – and let’s not forget that the Internet originated as a project of the US Department of Defense – has access to all of it, as the “war on terror” has taught us.

So, yes, enjoy! And in so doing, archive your history, memory, and fantasy life. It’s fun! This is the carrot of late capitalist governmentality and industrialized virtual culture, and Lacan and Foucault, as well as Adorno, can help us to grasp it.

But don’t forget the stick! Powers of terror and enforcement have not withdrawn from the scene – they have expanded in unprecedented and qualitative ways. In the nuclear global regime of national security-surveillance states, techno-power overwhelms politics and ethics through the fatal knotting of war machine, science and state.

For enjoyment and enforcement go together. Integration and administration are increasingly internalized into the forms and structures of contemporary subjectivity: by enjoying in the approved ways, we largely police ourselves.

But no system attains the totalization it aims for. At all the points where the repressed returns, where the real exposes the failure of systematic enjoyment to deliver what it promises, rebellious subjectivities and uprisings incessantly break out.

We’ve already imagined, in film and fiction, where these developments tend: our self-compiled archives will be linked to terminator robotics. Nano killer-drones will be dispatched to eliminate subjects in revolt – eventually, for this is the immanent logic of exceptional security, preemptively.

If we know this, and keep mouse-clicking anyway, is this form of disavowal an aspect of our enjoyment? Probably. The forms of our sociability expose us, and silence doesn’t get us out of this circle.

Enforcement, at bottom, is necessary because the current system of enjoyment is antagonistic in specific and unsustainable ways: socially and ecologically, the limits of capital accumulation loom.

The radical response, faithful to “what is still now and then called humanity,” is to politicize these erotics.