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.

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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.


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