Archive for December, 2009

There’s a quare stretch in the evenings…..

so that’s most likely that for this year, people. Happy Christmas to those inclined to celebrate the season of goodwill, to those who are not may they burn in hell for eternity.

Looking back on the year for all of 20 seconds, it’s been a fairly barren year – I see stuff I could have written but regrettably didn’t; stuff I have written, regrettably, and, happily, some stuff that wasn’t that bad at all. As ever, I plan on doing things differently in future: the road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but that’s not a decent argument agin good intentions as such. For me the hardest thing is loosening up enough to write things I’m comfortable with, and not worrying too much about my limitations, of which I’m acutely aware.

A blanket ‘thanks to everyone for stopping by’ wouldn’t make a whole pile of sense, since I’d be thanking lots of people merely for looking for photos of Trotsky. So instead I thank everyone who took the time to read something here. Even if you hated what you read, I’m still gratified that you took the time. Special thanks to those who took the time to comment or get in touch by e-mail, which is always appreciated, as I know that the sort of thing I post here isn’t really all that conducive to spontaneous comment.

Laterz.

20-09

OK, here’s my Top 20 albums for 2009.

  1. Brother Ali – Us
  2. K’naan – Troubador
  3. BK-One – Rádio Do Canibal
  4. Ryan Leslie – Ryan Leslie
  5. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
  6. Girls – Album
  7. Tanya Morgan – Brooklynati
  8. P.O.S. – Never Better
  9. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
  10. Fabolous – Loso’s Way
  11. Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
  12. Mayer Hawthorne – A Strange Arrangement
  13. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
  14. Black Eyed Peas – The E.N.D.
  15. The Felice Brothers – Yonder Is The Clock
  16. Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk
  17. St Vincent – Actor
  18. Black Lips – 200 Million Thousand
  19. Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3
  20. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night Of The Soul

Haven’t put that much thought into it, I suppose it follows some sort of order, but there’s not a great deal of difference between them – I like them all.

Unhurried Precipitation

Because it’s a brilliant song, basically.

Binding Briars

Why did the Irish government appear so deferential to the Vatican in light of the facts exposed by the Murphy Report, as with so many past revealed instances of Church-driven abuse and torment?

There are many potential reasons, but let me focus on one: right-wing governments, as they pursue policies that privilege the rich and undermine the poor, derive legitimacy and support for their policies through religious language and teachings.

There may be individual ministers and deputies who hold strong religious beliefs, but these are not necessarily the most influential actors in government. Rather, the use of religious language and teachings are mostly a calculated action on the part of people who wish to retain support from and dominion over people whose moral and ethical language comes from religion. It was in this vein, for instance, that Margaret Thatcher opened her years as Prime Minister, quoting the words of St Francis of Assisi, and during her reign in power, she approvingly quoted Jesus’s attributed remarks that you will always have the poor with you. At the same time, she portrayed herself as a champion of the poor, rejecting notions of inequality altogether, and claiming that greater prosperity for the rich automatically led to improved conditions for the poor as well. To oppose inequality was therefore to oppose the poor.

In a country where the church has long appeared all-powerful, such rhetorical extravagance is barely necessary, since church teachings already provide moral cover for whatever the state gets up to, at those moments when the church is not indistinguishable from the state. In 20th century Ireland, children from the poorest sections of society were locked up and placed under conditions of slave labour, all under the cloak of Christian charity. This sort of thing removes the need for pious politicians altogether, allowing them to get on with the business of running the country with a mien of no-nonsense technocratic pragmatism, while ‘the priests in black gowns were doing their rounds’, ‘binding with briars’ the joys and desires of the people, as Blake would have put it.

The image of ‘binding with briars’, with its voiced plosive alliteration, suggests sadistic physical intimidation and punishment, of which there has been a great deal in Ireland, but there’s more to it than that. What is being bound in Blake’s Garden of Love
is ‘joys and desires’ -which Blake conceived as infinite- in the fashioning of a unitary subjectivity, in which ‘State Religion’, envisioned by Blake as ‘the Source of all Cruelty’ elaborates its domineering power. The ‘briars’ give an indication of how this power was not merely predicated on the threat of physical intimidation: briars -thorny plants- suggest the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’s head before his crucifixion. It seems to me that there is at the very least here a duality of purpose to this image. At one level, it stands for the church’s imposition of sin on the people, with its attendant regulatory and disciplinary functions. At another, it uses the New Testament imagery to identify the people with Jesus and the church with the oppressor, i.e. in the same way as the soldiers, the agents of empire, placed the crown of thorns on Jesus, so too does the church place the crown of thorns on the people.

Blake’s work delivers important insights when thinking about the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland. We might be inclined to consider the situation in Ireland with reference to the political and legal doctrine of separation of church and state, in terms of how Ireland fell, and continues to fall, short of that doctrinal ideal. This fits in nicely with the idea, expressed by Fintan O’Toole, among others, that Ireland never undertook its own project of modernity. However, this conception of power structures is ultimately derived from precisely the same unitary bourgeois subjectivity developed by Locke, whom Blake opposed so trenchantly (‘the abyss of the five senses’).

Whilst a ‘proper’ separation of church and state might well be an improvement on the current situation, it ought not blind us to the fact that ‘State Religion’, as a force for the generation of a unitary subjectivity, operates both inside and outside the formal political realm: it is not merely a product of the interaction of what appears as two distinct, relatively autonomous entities, but of productive forces and the relations of production. For instance, there may be a formal separation of church and state in the United States, but there is still ‘State Religion’, most obviously in the deus abscondita-cum-CEO who is habitually called on to bless the rugged individualism that produces both the ghetto and the Lear jet.

In Ireland in 2009 we are confronted with a government that for many years has, on the surface, appeared fanatically beholden to neo-liberal orthodoxy in pursuit of its ends: maintaining the financial system at all costs, making appeals to the authority of the IMF, pauperising the state as it preserves the privileged position of the rich, and so on. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to look beyond the political personalities who are the public faces of this, and discern those constituencies whose interests it expresses: industrialists, financial officials, shareholders, bondholders, media moguls, in no particular order. It seems reasonable to observe that none of these groups is particularly religious, and has no discernible interest in the internal workings of the Catholic Church. So why has the government been holding back?

The explanation lies, I think, in an intertwining of the interests that control state institutions, and those that control Church institutions. Were the government to adopt an antagonistic stance toward the institutional Church, it would do away with the cloak of legitmacy it garners from Church teachings, thereby weakening its own position. I’m thinking particularly here of the persistent claims the main party lays to be ‘protecting the most vulnerable’ (though this concern extends across all parliamentary parties, as these search results demonstrate), drawing on the tradition of Catholic social justice, even as it simultaneously slashes welfare payments and community sector services and programmes. As Conor McCabe notes here: ‘try to count the number of times you hear the debate about Ireland’s economic situation within the conceptual framework of Catholic social teaching on one hand, while it is defended with neoliberal syllogisms on the other. Then, try to count the times it is NOT put forward in these terms’. One could add that there is no great contradiction between ‘protecting the most vulnerable’ and orthodox neo-liberalism: even Hayek, who had little time for the idea of ‘social justice’, thought a minimum income ‘not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the great society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born’.

Even though the Catholic Church seems to be inexorably diminishing on the back of its abuse scandals, you only need to turn on the radio to see how its ‘briars’ still bind. Discussion after discussion deals with what the Church needs to do to recover, as though its repentance and recovery were somehow a matter of grave national concern. Even most criticism levelled directly at the Church by members of the public in these discussions is in terms of how far it has fallen short of its Christian teachings, and how ‘so-called men of God’ acted contrary to their espoused ideals. The point being that politics still takes place in a framework largely determined by Catholic teachings inculcated by a Catholic education system, with its bizarre concept of ‘Catholic ethos’ (which, if it means anything at the minute, means grossly unequal access to educational facilities and segregation according to religion, gender and class, producing all manner of symbolic violence) and since this framework has served ruling elites rather well until now, it is unlikely to get overturned by them at any point soon. Or ever, for that matter.

Ruminate Against The Machine

A strong argument against the notion that Rage Against the Machine making Christmas No.1 in the UK is a positive development might include the following points:

What appears as some sort of popular rebellion is in fact a profit-making exercise for one transnational corporation, since both Joe McElderry and Rage Against The Machine are signed by Sony.

If it is a popular rebellion, it is one entirely in keeping by the X-Factor mode of participation, in which phone-ins, downloads and other expressions of consumer choice function as a stand-in for properly democratic activity. It is therefore popular rebellion as a free market ideologue might design it, in which voting takes the form of an exercise of consumer choice.

Rather than undermining this mode of participation, buying a Rage Against The Machine single as part of a campaign merely reinforces it, by presenting the possibility of a radical alternative available within this mode. It involves the same logic used by many people who openly express a preference for music falling under the category of ‘indie’ or ‘alternative’: what is intended as an expression of individual autonomy as opposed to mainstream ‘commercial’ music produced for mass consumption is merely a vanguard expression of the type of consumer disposition aspired to by mass producers.

Mass-produced pop music, by which I mean articles that can be massively produced and distributed, as opposed to music designed for the undifferentiated ‘masses’, has always incorporated the language of profit and commercialism in its presentation and marketing: witness the very idea of a ‘smash hit’, with its connotations of military targeting transposed to commerce. If you watch the X-Factor, as I do, you will be familiar with the introductory sequences for guest artists, in which the scene is set for the guest artist performance with a brief executive summary of that artist’s stratospheric sales performance – 500 Billion Records Sold Last Week Alone!

One thing that distinguishes the spectacle of the X-Factor from that of Top of the Pops is the explicit significance given to commerce. With Top of the Pops, the fact of a record making the top of the charts was celebrated as the felicitous and spontaneous triumph of a particular song in the nation’s hearts. With the former, making the top of the charts is an expected outcome, in which the choice of song, performance, and appearance of the singer(s) are relentlessly analysed as necessary elements in a defined business project. In one sense then, the X-Factor is more ‘honest’, in that it scarcely seeks to deny the cash exchange that determines ‘X’, whereas in Top of The Pops, the chart appears as simply part of the natural order. (Although, on X-Factor, the charts are presented as external territory to be colonised by the singer(s), whilst in reality the domain of the charts is largely defined and controlled by the same interests that define and control the programme itself.)

The upshot of this being that if the RATM campaign is merely a matter of restoring respectability to the Christmas Number One, of restoring ‘real’ music in a way that one might campaign for real ale, it is missing the point: the X-Factor is about maintaining the Christmas Number One, and whatever form the sales charts might take, as mechanisms for selling music in keeping long-established commercial rhythms.

Against all this, however, I would make the following points:

It’s true that you are boosting the profits of a major corporation by downloading the track. However, you are contributing to the profits of major corporations whenever you download almost any track: you pay for the computer, the broadband, the equipment used to play the track, you visit the site or application for downloading, the site owner uses the information for data mining and customer segmentation purposes, and so on. Even when music appears as ‘free’, it involves a series of transactions, often in terms of getting paid in music to subject yourself to advertisements. Half a million downloads is a drop in the ocean for the corporate profits that accrue to the music, music technology and related industries every year.

Now if you want to get economistic, you might argue that it is better to do nothing than give your money to the corporation, since you are simply transferring power to the corporation. But that rests on the assumption that profits simply translate directly into more power, regardless of the conditions in which the corporation exists and generates its profit. It does not account for any of the other effects generated by the purchase of the particular product, nor does it account for the fact that the accumulation of capital by one corporation in particular is not necessarily a positive development for corporate power in toto.

Looking at what the other effects might be requires us to look at what the particular product is, and what meanings its purchase produces. In this light I would briefly note the following.

First, regardless of the content of the track itself, there is the brute disruptive effect to business as usual. The X-Factor business model was subjected, at the very least, to a momentary loss of power and lustre. A space is opened up in which this power is contested. People start to discuss and question the basis of the X-Factor’s power, something they would not have otherwise done.

Let me introduce an example of disruption internal to a corporation, where the normal elaboration of corporate power leads to its own disruption. The context is the role of ‘charismatic leadership’, which bears some relation to the figure of Simon Cowell on the X-Factor.

Organizations may confer power, status, wealth; may meet needs for affiliation and belonging; may bolster self-esteem—yet, at a fundamental level, the issue of control, of order and ordering, it not resolved. The play of power is intrinsic to this process of order and giving orders. The relationship is characterized by a latency which holds within it the ‘indestructible reversing of a command’, ‘a sting’ (Cooper 1983 : 214). Cooper cites Canetti (1962) as saying, ‘What spurs men on to achievement is the deep urge to be rid of the commands once laid on them’.

Hence, the rewards a company can offer, while they undoubtedly attach meaning to behaviour and experience, are in themselves insufficient to sustain individual coherence, particularly when considered in temporal terms. Here the necessary ambivalence of performance, the immediate and the prospective, bound in the moment of participation, acknowledges the discontinuity which is, in the day-to-day, concealed by acceptance.

At a recent management development course for middle management where the theme was ‘Your Future with the Company’ two of the three senior managers who were due to speak on the first day were, in effect, fired the day before the course. Apart from the problem it gave the course organizers, the contradictory messages it sent to the participants produced some remarkable effects. Many managers present found it difficult to sustain a coherent view of the company’s attitude to them or theirs to the company. The fact that the men who had been dismissed were both popular and not seen to be ineffective in their work caused confusion and cynicism. The participants could not sustain their definitions of reality in the face of two conflicting versions of their corporate destinies.

-The Making of the Corporate Acolyte: Some Thoughts on Charismatic Leadership and the Reality of Organizational Commitment – Critical Management Studies: A Reader by Christopher Grey and Hugh Willmott (eds)

If I might apply the observation to the X-Factor: the definition of reality, as developed by the X-Factor judges, as structured by the Christmas Number One and the sales chart, and as expressed by the Miley Cyrus cover, cannot be sustained when there is a conflicting version: music that deals with the racist elements of authoritarian state power. To the extent that the RATM track causes confusion and cynicism, it disrupts the processes that lead people into identifying with the corporate form as exemplified by the X-Factor. This is a good thing. Representing corporate power as wholly unimpeachable, that regardless of what you’re doing you’re playing into the hands of corporate overlords, is simply doing the work of corporations for free. This is not to say that corporate power can be dismantled through the purchase of consumer products, of course, but it bears remembering that to envision corporations as embodiments of pure power is to issue guarantees for their continued prosperity.

Second, there is the overturning of the linear time that underpins the mechanisms -the Christmas Number One, the weekly sales chart- according to which the X-Factor delivers its final product. Barbara Ellen, in the centre-right Observer, defending the ‘taste of the people’ against the ‘laziness’ and ‘snobbery’ of Rage Against The Machine, made the following complaint:

Wow, man, deep. Or it would have been if Rage’s song hadn’t first been released in 1992. Note to Mr Morello: if you’re trying to make a point about “the cutting edge”, instead of using a song that is nearly 20 years old, perhaps you should get off your backside and produce something that is – what’s the word again – oh, yes, new.

Leaving aside the fact that Tom Morello released a record this year with The Coup’s Boots Riley which (in my view, anyway) far surpasses anything produced by Rage Against The Machine, Ellen’s comment reveals precisely why, if your intent is to throw a spanner in the works, it is a very good idea to dredge up a song from 1992, because it questions the notion that there is something intrinsically good about putting your nose to the grindstone and producing ‘new’ stuff for the purposes of ‘family entertainment’. One notes in passing that most of the performances on the X-Factor TV programme, including the single that went to number 2 are covers of old songs. Therefore using an old song in its original form perfects the logic of the X-Factor as it subverts it: why bother making a new cover version when you can come up with a perfect version of the original?

Monday Monday

New Statesman – The Tories have declared class war

I keep asking which economists agree that it is sensible to cut public spending in the depths of this recession. Not a politician, but someone who actually has a background and training – and probably even a doctorate – in economics. Perhaps even a distinguished professor or two. The Nobel Prize-winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz apparently agree that it is a dumb idea.

There’s a small island just to the west, sir. You might be familiar with it. Full of bogs.

But the rules don’t apply to Ireland, since ‘charm, culture, energy and engagement have always been part of who we are, but so too have ambition, determination and achievement’ and ‘working for each other and as a nation we can rebuild our country’, as the Newstalk editorial puts it, are more than enough to compensate for all the other stuff.

Peek-a-boo

Paul Krugman had some thoughts on the life of Paul Samuelson. Michael Perelman’s 2007 book The Confiscation of American Prosperity had an interesting detail on Samuelson, in the context of how the American right-wing, via powerful foundations, sought to wrest full control over the discipline of economics:

Samuelson’s Keynesian-oriented book had become the most popular introductory book in the United States after the right wing succeeded in pressuing schools to withdraw support for Lorie Tarshis’s earlier textbook. The Veritas Foundation was a leader in this effort . A commentator in the right-wing Educational Reviewer asked: “Now if (1) Marx is communistic, (2) Keynes is partly Marxian, and (3) Samuelson is Keynesian, what does that make Samuelson and others like him? The answer is clear: Samuelson and the others are mostly part Marxian socialist or communist in their theories”.

Later, long after becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for economics, Samuelson recalled, “having tasted blood in trying to root the Tarshis text out of colleges everywhere, some of the same people turned toward my effort”. Samuelson succeeded at defending his work, but at a serious cost. In a 1977 lecture, Samuelson described how he felt compelled to go to great lengths to make his book less controversial:

if you were a teacher at many a school and the Board of Regents of your university was on your neck for using subversive textbooks, it was no laughing matter. Many months were involved in preparing mimeographed documentation of misquotations on the part of critics and so forth. Make no mistake about it, intimidation often did work in the short run…My last wish was to have an intransigent formulation that would be read by no one…As a result I followed an Aesopian policy of paying careful attention to every criticism of every line and word of my text…In a sense this careful wording achieved its purpose: at least some of my critics were reduced to complaining that I played peek-a-boo with the reader and didn’t come out and declare my true meaning. (Samuelson 1977, 870-22)

Ironically, Samuelson has a long history of antagonism to Marxian ideas, but tarring him with such labels was effective. Many of the leading Keynesian economists in the United States soon learned to shield themselves from the taint of socialism. Either because they succumbed to the anticommunist climate of the day or because they feared they had no chance of stimulating the economy through productive government spending.

I would shy away from any parallel between the situation in the United States of the 60s and 70s and present-day Ireland, not least because the situation of economics in Ireland at the moment, and how economic questions are in turn represented in political circles and in Irish media, with particular ideas maintaining dominance, is in part a product of the victories won by the American right during that period and beyond. There is no well-funded horde of economic flak merchants out to intimidate Irish economists so that their writing falls into line with the interests of big business, because there is simply no need for such a thing, any more than Ireland needs cloud seeding to ensure more rain. And the media usually just jumps into line with the same interests, in the quiet moments when it does not serve these interests relentlessly.

At the same time, there’s no direct line to be drawn between the red scaremongering of the past driven by big business interests in the US and, for instance, the declared fears of an Irish tax fugitive billionaire, who as early as 2000 saw Ireland on the path to a communist state, and whose radio station, North Korea-style, issued hourly exhortations for across the board reductions in living standards in the run up to the recent budget. Ireland already had a rich tradition of anti-communist paranoia, established and maintained by the Church, in collaboration with its partners in government.

An Open GOAL?

Chavez’s revolution has turned into a cold shower | Irish Examiner

Chavez’s revolution has turned into a cold shower

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I READ with increasing despair the recent ravings from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Despite having the spoils of an €80 billion oil boom over the past 10 years his so-called revolution has rendered his unfortunate people poorer than ever.

His latest rants have included attacking his fellow-citizens for singing in the shower, and getting fat, and he is now planning to enlist the help of Cuban technologists to “zap” clouds in order to increase his country’s annual rainfall.

Not only are the poor of the developing world abandoned to their struggles with extreme poverty, they are also cursed to endure the indignities of being governed by inhumane and inept leaders.

John O’Shea
GOAL
PO Box 19
Dun Laoghaire
Co Dublin

It’s one thing to play fast and loose with the facts when you’re writing to the newspaper in your capacity as random asshole punter, but it’s another thing entirely when you’re doing so as the spokesman of an aid organisation. So why is Kevin Myers’s hero saying such untrue stuff about Venezuela? In its The Chávez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators, the Center for Economic and Policy Research has the following to say about how Venezuela has fared with Chávez as president. It says, in its Executive Summary:

  • During the current economic expansion, the poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent. These poverty rates measure only cash income, and do not take into account increased access to health care or education.
  • Over the entire decade, the percentage of households in poverty has been reduced by 39 percent, and extreme poverty by more than half.
  • Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. This represents a large reduction in inequality.
  • Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person more than tripled from 1998-2006.
  • From 1998-2006, infant mortality has fallen by more than one-third. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12-fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access.
  • There have been substantial gains in education, especially higher education, where gross enrollment rates more than doubled from 1999-2000 to 2007-2008.
  • The labor market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3 percent to 7.8 percent. During the current expansion it has fallen by more than half. Other labor market indicators also show substantial gains.
  • Over the past decade, the number of social security beneficiaries has more than doubled.
  • Over the decade, the government’s total public debt has fallen from 30.7 to 14.3 percent of GDP. The foreign public debt has fallen even more, from 25.6 to 9.8 percent of GDP.
  • Inflation is about where it was 10 years ago, ending the year at 31.4 percent. However it has been falling over the last half year (as measured by three-month averages) and is likely to continue declining this year in the face of strong deflationary pressures worldwide.

Does John O’Shea have high standards or what?

The answer is probably what. Regarding the other stuff, Chávez said you shouldn’t spend too much time in the shower because you need to conserve water. And since singing in the shower means you spend longer, you shouldn’t sing. Something like that anyway. This is the sort of thing that we in Ireland might call a joke. I have no idea what he said about getting fat, but no doubt obesity is a growing problem in a country with rising consumption. The ‘cloud zapping’ is otherwise known as ‘cloud-seeding‘, as this article explains. And apparently they’ve also tried it in China, Australia and the United States. Oh, and Israel too. Does it work? How the hell should I know. But has O’Shea ever denounced its use in the US? Probably not. So what’s the beef with Chávez? How the hell should I know.

What I do know is that the facts that GOAL receives millions of Euro each year from USAID, its biggest state donor with the exception of Ireland, accounting for about one-seventh of total grant income in 2007 and that the work of USAID and its OTI in Venezuela has led to a deepening of the counterrevolutionary subversion in the country, and that the CIA uses the name of USAID to distribute funds and contracts to third parties (it’s in Spanish, sorry) in Venezuela in order to strengthen opposition against Chávez, may have absolutely nothing to do with it at all.

I also know that in the only Latin American country in which GOAL operates, Honduras, there was a coup in which the democratically elected leader was ousted, and one human rights monitor described the

militarized state with a defined and systematic practice against those who oppose the coup and anyone who takes a position other than that human rights means singing songs, while at the same time torturing and detaining people and raping women

And! USAID does stuff in Honduras too, as Narco News reported in August, when the coup was underway:

Millions of dollars in USAID funding still flowing to Honduras | | the narcosphere

So where could this USAID “elections assistance/good governance” money actually be going in that case?

Well, the USAID’s Office of Inspector General provides one hint in an audit report released this past June.

The Consortium for Electoral and Political Processes (CEPPS) was awarded a $1.8 million cooperative agreement [by USAID] that is in effect from September 30, 2008 to January 30, 2010. The purpose of the agreement is to provide technical assistance to (1) the Tribunal Superior Electoral (TSE) to effectively and transparently carry out its new decentralized vote management responsibilities and to mitigate allegations of fraud; and (2) and civil society organizations to provide oversight through campaign finance monitoring, domestic election observation, and parallel vote tabulation. …

Worth noting is the fact that TSE is the Honduran government entity charged with overseeing the nation’s elections (Honduras’ FEC of sorts) — and it is now under the control of Roberto Micheletti and company’s illegal coup regime. In addition, TSE was one of the government agencies in Honduras that played a key role in setting up the bogus legal justifications that led to the kidnapping and exiling of the democratically elected president of Honduras — Manuel Zelaya.

But try as I might, as I peruse the GOAL newsroom, I can’t find any reference to the Honduras coup. Reader, if you find some way of filtering out Google results that filter out the other John O’Shea, perhaps you can come up with something suitably redeeming.

Micturating Dissent

This last while I’ve been finding it hard to write here. Of course, there never was a sustained moment when I was able to eke out a time or find a space to write free from the interruptions of paid work and the duties of home. I’m not complaining, mind, mainly because I don’t have the time.

This morning I had the shuffle function working on the iPod, and up popped Piss Factory as I was running up one Connolly Station platform to make my way across to another so that I could get a train across to Pearse, preparing myself for another day of interruptions, messages, and manipulation of symbols. This morning that song hit my thoughts like acid, the shifting rhythms of a percussive piano and the jazzy guitar drift, with Patti Smith’s 16-year-old girl, her pungent voice, her freely associated stream of images mocking, railing against the factory disciplinary rhythm and the minds and bodies it has shaped.

The job is ‘inspecting pipe’, but the place makes piss, not pipes. To call it a piss factory isn’t simply a matter of saying that what gets made there is useless: it’s only through the production of pipes, and their inspection, that plumbing and sewage systems can function, and it is through these systems that piss, and the act of pissing, acquires its particular meaning in modern society. Without plumbing and sewage, we would have an entirely different conception of piss. Therefore it is not just that the factory produces piss, in that it enables people to go to the toilet in a defined way, but that it also produces the meaning of piss.

Pissing on something, of course, has been an expression of contempt since forever. The factory also produces piss in that sense too: its rhythms and its discipline produce the gush of mocking resentment from the 16-year-old. The track has no percussive instruments other than the tinkling piano, whose rhythm ebbs and flows like someone taking a piss. And then there is the idea of piss denoting youthful ebullience, as manifest by the boasts, in ‘full of piss and vinegar’. Also, there is piss in the sense of ideas without consequence or bearing, as in ‘full of wind and piss’. We can add to that the idea of piss as waste: as in pissing it -whatever ‘it’ is: youth, money, talent, time- all away. All these things are produced in the Piss Factory.

There are a few lines in the song that resound hellishly in light of the current mood. You may hear similar things at work, or on the radio. The idea that one should be grateful for a job, in the place of occupying the ranks of the army of the unemployed, is pushed incessantly by state broadcasters, business shills.

Forty hours thirty-six dollars a week
But it’s a paycheck, Jack.

Is what you hear here the narrator coming to terms with her ‘job in a piss factory inspecting pipe’, or is she really sending up, or maybe lamenting, a kind of masculine stoicism on display by others, in the face of humiliating compulsion, of subordination to the factory process? This sort of response is also, we can presume, a product of the Piss Factory.

What this reminds me of is Blake’s Chimney Sweeper, which I’ve written about before:

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

In which the child, engaged in the cleaning of chimneys -another system designed to dispose of another kind of waste- is conditioned to produce the response adequate to keeping the system working as intended, in the process disciplining other children who might be inclined to other ideas: ‘if all do their duty they need not fear harm’.

In contrast, however, to Blake’s Chimney Sweeper, Patti Smith’s sixteen-year-old is considerably wiser to her predicament:

You could faint in the heat
But these bitches are just too lame to understand
Too goddamned grateful to get this job
To know they’re getting screwed up the ass
All these women they got no teeth or gum or cranium

She can see the psychobiological ravages of the labour process in a way Blake’s first Chimney Sweeper cannot. I would note in passing here that the mix of slang ‘ass’ and medical terminology ‘cranium’ in dealing with industrial production also echoes Blake’s own poetic vocabulary. And yet for all her insight, even though she sees how she has been shaped, to the point of herself identifying with a machine:

But me well I wasn’t sayin’ too much neither
I was moral school girl hard-working asshole
I figured I was speedo motorcycle
I had to earn my dough, had to earn my dough

She is still there, in the factory, doing her job. Listening to her talk about her experiences, and aware of Patti Smith’s own trajectory, and temporarily oblivious to the fact that ‘I got’ is not necessarily past tense, you might be inclined to conclude that the account is retrospective, and that the girl has conjured an escape from the Piss Factory. Yet even though she’s talking about having to ‘earn her dough’ in the past tense, as the song ends she’s still in the factory, hiding away her ‘desire’, dreaming of heading off to the city to become a big star. And given the frantic intensity of her exertions, going above and beyond what is required of her, pushing her productivity to absurd limits, subverting the manufacturing process at least to the extent that it disturbs her fellow workers, you might start to wonder if even this desire is itself a product of the Piss Factory. That is, even the idea of the escape route to individual freedom and affirmation may be just one more factory product.

This question goes to the heart of Blake’s own political concerns. Saree Makdisi’s superb ‘William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s‘ describes Blake’s differences with bourgeois radicals such as Tom Paine, in whose company he is often placed, in the following terms:

The difference between the bourgeois discourse celebrating the manufacturing process and that of the conservatives of the old order is that the former imagines the opening up and development of a realm beyond production in which it ought to be possible to be free from the rule of necessity, whereas the latter does not. For bourgeois discourse, the realm of freedom is of course that of politics, and also that of culture-that realm in which an independent consumer can choose a unique mode of self-fashioning and hence self-identity-both defined by the logic of consumer choice (choice of products, choice of representatives). This depends upon the possibility of being able to open up just such a realm, in which autonomous organisms can make choices, in which, in fact, there can be not only an autonomous organism in the first place, but the possibility for making choices based on sensory input and the rational choices enabled by the regulation of the five senses.

But if, as Blake’s work insists, the organism making these choices is seen as a product of the system which also produces the objects of consumption from which it chooses, what we are left with is no longer autonomy and freedom, but a closed circuit of production and consumption, producer and consumer, organism and organ, all generated by the same continuous process as parts subservient to the requirements of a larger whole composed by them. In other words, if the principle of homogeneous equivalence is extended from the products of this process -that is, commodities- to its producers, the exteriority fantasized by middle-class writers-and the fantasy of the realm of cultural and political freedom -is threatened with annihilation. If the logic of the reified object is extended to the logic of the reified subject, it becomes difficult to imagine a realm within this process which might avoid or evade the laws of the commodity and hence the rules of necessity; in other words, it becomes difficult or impossible to imagine genuine freedom within such a social system.

So the 16-year-old girl in the Piss Factory, who imagines genuine freedom through a unique mode of self-fashioning, may conceive of herself as an autonomous organism, but at the same time her organism is being fashioned by the system in which she is compelled to produce. The far-off destination of New York, with the affirmation that may come from being a big star, is one more element of what flows from the factory, since it comes into view via the laws of commodity and the rules of necessity. When confronted with countless reports about how young people nowadays are only interested in becoming celebrities, as opposed to pursuing real careers, the right response, following Blake and Patti Smith, ought to be: what is it about the conditions in which they live that maintains this interest? And how much are marketed dreams of celebrity, and of escape through adulation, really part of a broader disciplinary process?

Things appear to have gotten worse since the early 1970s. Mark Fisher, in a New Statesman article on Reality TV, serves to highlight the gap between the search for escape in the shadow of rock’n’roll, and celebrity aspiration in a post rock’n’roll era:

New Statesman – The age of consent

The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den are themselves
synergies of a sort, between business and the dominant new mode of
entertainment this decade, reality television. Reality TV is flat with
the anti-cultural imperatives of business: cheap to make, it does
ideological work even when it is not giving guru status to dull
business people. It fits in with capitalism’s anti-mythic myth: the
idea that we have liberated ourselves from the dangerous illusions
allegedly propagated by art and politics.

In an age falsely
presented as post-political, abstractions are eliminated, and the
personal, the biographical and the emotional come to the fore. “Tell us
how you feel” becomes the ubiquitous demand, as calculating business
and a hugely amplified sentimental interiority become the only two
faces of “reality”, the cynicism of the one using the alleged
authenticity of the other as its alibi.

…….

The
X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, Cowell’s other vehicle, could be
dismissed as irrelevant fluff, but the sad truth is that, with the end
of Top of the Pops and the rise of multichannel TV and niche
narrowcasting, they are now the closest thing we have to a public space
in entertainment. Yet it is a space where it feels as if punk never
happened, and indeed, neither did rock’n’roll. It is the return of Tin
Pan Alley, with eager young hopefuls dutifully performing songs written
before they were born and being required to show deference to banal
corporate megastars on the make. It is a world that is, oddly, both
entropic and changeless, where the audience is never challenged, and
people are always given what the marketing machine anticipates they
want.

We have simultaneous veneration of the boss and the manufactured illusion of escape to keep us where we are.

But we can still learn from the Piss Factory. At the same time as one might be inclined to cavil about how her desire may be shaped and maintained by the conditions in which she works, one is obliged to ask what else does the girl have but desire? It is only this desire that maintains the possibility of escape, that allows her to keep her bearings, to refuse to lose, to refuse to back down. It’s her desire, which, in its refusal of the boss who says ‘you do it my way or I push your face in’, ultimately keeps her alive.

Patti Smith’s own thoughts about Blake, in this regard, are instructive:

I was reading William Blake as a child. Songs of Innocence was next to Winnie the Pooh and Black Beauty. And I learned things — about chimney sweeps and the terrible child labor of his time. I could see he cared about children. The second way I came to Blake was as a painter: I studied his work and palette. More recently, I’ve studied Blake the man. And what I learned was that this was a man who had visions as a child, who was ridiculed and even beaten for having these visions. But he maintained those visions his whole life. Wherever they came from, whether he animated them from within or they were from God, William Blake held on to his vision. He never got a break in his life. His work never sold. He lived in poverty. When he spoke out, he nearly lost his life. He could have been hanged for insurrection.

What I learned from William Blake is, don’t give up. And don’t expect anything. Like when you were asking me, did I deserve a record deal? Don’t expect it. I have a great life. I’ve seen dark times too and have had, in certain times of my life, nothing. No material things, not much prospects — except my own imagination. But if you perceive that you have a gift, you already have life. Everything else is, as they say, gravy.

“My Blakean Year” is not any specific year. It’s more of a time. It could be a week, a decade. Also, there’s the line in there: “Throw off your stupid cloak, embrace all that you fear.” That’s the one thing in our country — I know we have a horrible deficit, all of these horrible things happening. But the worst thing the Bush administration has done is instill huge amounts of fear in our people. That is deplorable. We have to replace that fear with awareness and a determination to make things better.

To which I would modestly suggest that our awareness of our world, and how it is shaped by the way we are compelled to do what we do, is still dominated by the idea that what matters is that a person is, as Blake described it,

‘Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass: & obedient to the Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science’.

and that this stupid cloak needs to be thrown off, and pissed upon.

Fraud

Regrettably I don’t have that much time to be writing stuff these days. But I must make time to say a few words on the RTE Prime Time Investigates programme on social welfare fraud last night.

The first thing is the context in which it was broadcast: a couple of nights before the formal announcement of cuts in social welfare payments. This context was explicitly incorporated in the report – the reporter confronted one person who had been charged with fraud with the claim that if it wasn’t for fraud of an estimated figure of €2bn, there would be no need to cut the social welfare budget.

The second thing is the focus on immigrants. Roughly half of the people doorstepped were immigrants. The programme managed to give the impression that when it comes to welfare fraud, the proportion of immigrants engaged far exceeds that of the general proportion. But the people doorstepped by the programme were people who had already been investigated for welfare fraud. I suggest that it is easier to catch immigrants on account of the fact that they are already subjected to specific targeting measures not applied to the general population. In the closing sequence of the programme, brief shots were shown of all the people identified by the programme as fraudsters -this on the back of readily available information: to call this ‘investigation’ is hyperbole- while the reporter summed up the general importance of cracking down on welfare fraud. The denoted message here was obvious: these people featured are broadly representative of the people engaged in welfare fraud. Of the ten or so shots, four were black Africans, and another two or three were Eastern Eurpoeans. The connoted message was just as obvious: here are the people responsible for your child benefit getting cut. One detail which might strike the casual viewer as minor, but a vital component to the complete message delivered by the programme, was the moral stance adopted by the reporter on behalf of ‘the Irish taxpayer’ as he approached immigrants who had already been found out by the authorities. ‘The Irish taxpayer’ is a fairly common figure of political media discourse, and its use does not always entail an opposition between Irish taxpayers and people who are not Irish taxpayers, but in this context, it certainly does. So the denoted message here was that the immigrants in question were defrauding a taxpayer who was specifically Irish.

Unfortunately I do not have access to the programme today, but I would like to remark on other apparently minor detail. There was a graphic employed at one stage, with pins stuck in border areas, showing how welfare claims had gone up 98, 99, 100%. This is hardly remarkable in areas where lots of young men were previously employed in construction, but the implication was that there was widespread fraud being conducted by cross-border ‘welfare-tourists’. No doubt such people exist to some extent, but there was no investigation of the real extent, only conjecture. Ed Walsh, a well-known advocate of eviscerating the public sector and cutting ‘the extraordinary gulf’ between Irish welfare benefits and that in other countries (see here, comprehensive critique here)- in this context cited the case of Drogheda, where welfare claims had doubled. You need to be standing a long way off to see Drogheda as a border town. If someone can correct me on my account of this, I shall delete this paragraph. You could also read Michael Taft’s post on the details of the ‘border town’ phenomenon.

All in all the programme consisted of mobilising popular prejudice against immigrants, with a strong dose of tried and tested barbarian-at-the-gates border phantasmagoria, in the service of a state that preserves the interests of the rich as it slashes the wages and welfare payments of people on low incomes, driving them into deeper precariousness. I suggested on Twitter last night, the chief error for the doorsteppees -none of whom appeared to live in conditions of conspicuous opulence- was in not having sponsored a flagship RTE programme.


I on Twitter

December 2009
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