Cruising the information superhighway

Tom Tomorrow cartoon from 1993 about cruising the information superhighway

That Fredric Jameson essay reminded me of something. I couldn’t find it on the interwebs anymore, but the advantage of twenty years or so of copying over unsorted crap from computer to computer is that it can still be available in your backup temp directories. That’s a 1993 Tom Tomorrow cartoon making one of Jameson’s points much more succinctly.

Intersectionality is just another word for solidarity

I’m always leery of arguments like this, that want to dismiss the different axises of oppression various groups of people struggle with in favour of some vulgar marxist idea of the working class and not asking too many questions. Too often this has been used by alter kakkers to just dismiss any struggle that doesn’t fit in their century and a half old ossified world view:

Where people on the left should be focussed on what unites us, us here referring to the working class rather than the left in general (lol, as if that’s going to happen), as workers -the foundations from which we can build the new society- we now see attempts to stratify through definition the working class under the guise of intersectional analysis. An intersectional analysis is a useful tool to have in one’s box if one is studying Sociology or writing academic papers but in the real world it doesn’t translate well, not well at all. In fact one of the reasons that I began my abstention from generalised political activity was the emergence of this approach -along with the increasing popularity of privilege politics- as I saw early on that the praxis that would develop from this approach would inevitably see a return to the embarrassing ‘hierarchy of oppressions’ which permeated the radical politics of the 1970s/80s (before my time -I’m not that old!).

He may not be that old, but his criticisms are. There’s always been a tension within socialism about how to define the struggle. Rightwing socialists tend to define it narrowly, purely as the struggle of the working classes against the bourgeois and anything that isn’t directly related to that struggle as a distraction. Depending on the decade — or century — you’re talking about this could mean feminism, civil rights, gay rights, or today, intersectionality and online activism.

The leftwing has always defined the struggle much more broadly. There’s a long and proud tradition within socialism and communism of not just fighting for the rights of (white) working men, but also recognised from the start that you can’t build a classless society when half the population is still powerless because of their gender, that it’s immoral to let the welfare of the British worker depend on the continuing exploitation of the Indian worker. So there’s always been a strain in socialism that defined the struggle much broader than just defending workers’ rights, that strived for an utopia for all people.

That is intersectionality pur sang and the thing about it is that it works both ways. There’s always a tendency to assume that these causes always distract from your own, much more worthy and important one, but intersectionality also gets you allies. That’s what happened in 1984 when at the height of AIDS paranoia stoked homophobia a group of London gay men and lesbians reached out and supported the South Wales Miners Strike:

Both groups were canny enough to understand that they struggled against the same oppression. The gay and lesbian activists recognised the police violence and oppression the miners were subjected to from their own experiences with them and believed in solidarity enough to not just recognise it, but take action. And the miners reprociated, send delegations to Gay Pride, supported them in their struggle. It was of course mocked by the establishment — now the perverts support the pits, as The Sun put it.

But you might say, gay liberation, strikes, those are real political actions, real causes, not frivolity like what I’m talking about, but that was far from the mainstream view back in 1984. So many socialists for so long saw homosexuality as a capitalist perversion, not as part of their struggle, not something that could be easily portrayed in terms of class struggle. And that’s why this bloody cartoon included in the post annoys me so much:

cartoon by RednBlackSalamander

Not just because it’s a lazy cheap shot and doesn’t understand that in 2015 it’s really hasn’t been possible for at least a decade to pretend that that online space is less important than offline spaces. No, it’s because I’m old enough to know that all the examples of worthy causes given here –take back the night, ending rape culture, lgbt rights — would have been ridiculed and dismissed as fauxtivism and middle class vanities not too long ago. It’s breathtakingly ignorant.

Now AW Hendry started his post by mocking the Sad Puppies, which is how I stumbled upon it, thanks to Mike Glyer’s sterling work rounding up Puppy related material. He used it as his example of how people waste time with online activism and throughout his piece the unspoken assumption is made that online doesn’t matter and economic considerations should be much more important than cultural fights like this. What this misses is that, even apart from the simple fact that quite a few of us now live our lives as much online as in the real world, online follows you home — ask Zoe Quinn or any other SWATting victim. What he also misses is that the struggle over the Hugos is more than just the misplaced vanity of a few rightwing culture warriors: as Kameron Hurley explained, the Hugos meant she got $13,000 more in her post-Hugo book advance.

Not the highest of stakes perhaps, but for your average struggling writer that is a large chunk of money. I also have the suspicion for at least some of the ringleaders, this kerfuffle is a way to help themselves to some of that sweet, sweet wingnut welfare. People like Tom Krautman or Dave Freer may seem dangerously unhinged to normal people, but they’d fit in well with Vox Day’s old haunt, Worldnet Daily. Voxy himself of course is trying to establish his vanity press as a serious rightwing proposition and arguably does all this for the publicity. Which means for him at least it’s not the winning that’s important, it’s keeping the fight going, the better to keep fleecing suckers.

How the SWP leadership tried to cover up rape

I’m glad Sandra isn’t here anymore to see how her party, the Socialist Workers Party, deals with accusations of sexual harassement and rape (as reported by Laurie Penney):

This week, it came to light that when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against a senior party member, the matter was not reported to the police, but dealt with ‘internally’ before being dismissed. According to a transcript from the party’s annual conference earlier this month, not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.

Lenny isn’t impressed either, both by the waqy the central committee handled the original accusations and now has tried to stop criticism of its attempts at covering it up:

This is the thing that all party members need to understand. Even on cynical grounds, the Central Committee has no strategy for how to deal with this. A scandal has been concealed, lied about, then dumped on the members in the most arrogant and stupid manner possible. The leadership is expecting you to cope with this. This isn’t the first time that such unaccountable practices have left you in the lurch. You will recall your pleasure on waking up to find out that Respect was collapsing and that it was over fights that had been going on for ages which no one informed you about. But this is much worse. They expect you to go to your activist circles, your union, your workplaces, and argue something that is indefensible

Richard Seymour is right to put this despicable affair in its proper context, that of a failing, undemocratic, unsocialist party ruled by a nomenklatura of central committee members and hacks, lurching from crisis to crisis, with no real answers to contemporary crisises other than what can be gleamed from the moldering manuscripts of the party’s founder, Tony Cliff. That the CC would cover up sexual assault was only a matter of time, as the leadership has been busy for years if not decades creating the very atmosphere in which these attacks thrive.

The SWP has always been dedicated to the principle of democratic centralism, in which policy and ideological decisions are supposed to be taken by the leadership as a whole, then directed by the central committee, with no room for base politics once these decisions have been made. This is of course rife to abuse and it has long since degenerated into a mockery of socialist democracy: the central leadership is free to think out and dictate policy on its own whim, with no democratic oversight whatsoever, as all room for debate has been removed from the party except for during ritualised conventions.

Sandra, though an active member of the SWP for years, was quite aware of these failings, summing them up as the party being ruled by a generation of professional activists convinced it’s still 1973 and the revolution is right around the corner, but she was equally convinced that flawed as it was, the SWP was one of the few, if not the only political organisation capable and willing to remake the inequalities in our society. But, no matter how cynical she was, I don’t think that she expected the leadership to be as clueless and evil as to coverup sexual assault; nor would she have wanted to stay in such a party.

Why UK politicans should stop whinging about the ECHR

One of the more persistent nuisances in British politics is the eagerness in which the government of the day launch populist attacks against the European Court of Human Rights when it rules against them. Whether it’s a Labour or a ConDem government, whenever a ruling goes against them, British sovereignty is endangered by faceless Strasburg Eurocrats and how dare they overrule parliament as the ultimate will of the people. Never mind that Britain has voluntarily chosen to be subjected to the court, or that it doesn’t do anything different from what the UK’s own courts do, i.e. examine government decisions to see if they were made in compliance with the law and if necessary condemn them. That’s an integral part of any true democracy, to have an independent judiciary which can protect the ordinary citizen from governmental abuse of power: parliament to make laws, the government to execute power and the courts to uphold the laws. This is neither new nor controversial, but because this is an European court it’s easier to whip up resentment against it.

Which, to be perfectly clear, is just a special case of the general political resentment against the independent judiciary both Tories and New Labour have had for decades. This was something of a bête noire for Sandra, who as both a trained lawyer and a socialist could get incredibly angry about the way the law was treated, especially by New Labour, busy creating a flood of mostly unenforcable new laws while ignoring existing laws and jurisprudence. She thought that a government so packed full of lawyers should know the limits of the law and what it could and couldn’t do and why it is dangerous for any government to ignore and disrespect it.

In the case of the European Court of Human Rights the damage populist outbursts against it don’t limit themselves to Britain, but far abroad. Though in the UK the ECHR is only mentioned in the context of British court cases, these are only a vanishingly small percentage of its workload; much more important is the role it plays in countries like Russia, countries where the domestic courts are often unable or unwilling to enforce domestic or European legislation both when it’s against the state’s interests. AS Oliver Bullough explains:

The ECtHR’s intray is, as Cameron said, bulging. There are 15,000 pending applications from Turkey, 13,000 from Italy, 12,000 from Romania and 10,000 from Ukraine. But it is Russia that provides the most. Some 40,000 cases from Russia were outstanding by the end of last year, which is more than a quarter of the total.

Russian courts have been reformed since the end of the Soviet Union, but there may as well not have been. Despite efforts to bring in jury trials, transparency and so on, some 98 percent of cases still end in a conviction. In some regions – such as Krasnodar in the south – if the state prosecutors open a case against you and take you to court, you will 100 percent of the time be found guilty.

As it happened, while the British press was fixating on the government’s failure to get Abu Qatada out of the country, these two rulings on Tuesday, April 17 were quietly demonstrating the full range of work that the court does to provide justice for Russian citizens let down by their own court system.

At one extreme, there was a finding in favour of a Chechen woman whose husband had been killed by Russian soldiers. At the other extreme, the court was protecting the rights of those same Russian soldiers against the Russian state. It is hard to imagine how a day’s caseload could be more indicative of the legal nihilism that Russia has sunk into or the importance of Strasbourg in opposing it. In both examples, Russian officials delayed, obfuscated and failed to do the duties they were supposed to do, until the ECtHR slapped them down.

Seen in this context, the concerns British politicans have about the court are revealed for the petty nonsense that they are, but their rhetoric does a lot of harm nonetheless:

The torrent of decisions has not gone un-noticed by top officials. A court decision last summer forcing Russia to give paternity leave to servicemen provoked Alexander Torshin, then acting speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, to propose a new law that would guarantee the supremacy of Russian courts over the ECtHR.

“I think that, with its new practices, the Strasbourg Court, departing from the bounds of the European Convention, has moved into the area of the state sovereignty of Russia, and is trying to dictate to the national lawmaker which legal acts it must adopt, which thus violates the principle of the superiority of the Constitution of the Russian Federation in the legal system of our state,” he wrote in an article in the government’s own newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

He then listed other countries that have had trouble with the court over the years – Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Austria – using their efforts to find a way to square their own legislation with the court as justification for his own bill.

Although the bill has not got anywhere since it was mooted in July, his article was a clear sign that criticism of the court in western countries where it does little work is amplified in Russia where its work is crucial.

In other words, Cameron and Clegg, like Brown and Blair before them, give cover for authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere in Europe with their petty, party political posturing, potentially allowing one of the few ways in which such governments can be held to account by their own citizens to be neutered. For those of us on the left this should be an incredibly dangerous development, even if we’re often skeptical of the use the courts and the law are put through, as they’re still one of the few ways in which ordinary people can fight back agains the state and without them our own struggles will be that much harder.

Union support for UK Uncut

Further confirmation that the supposed gap between the great mass of lawfully protesting DecentOrdinaryFolk and the StudentRadicals of UK Uncut is not as great as certain career opportunists might want us to think, here’s a letter of support for UK Uncut signed by various union and NGO bigwigs:

UK Uncut have played a significant part in changing the terms of debate around economic policy in the UK and have been praised by politicians and the media for doing so.

Indeed UK Uncut played a key role in ensuring that more people were at the march on Saturday than otherwise would have been. At all times they acted in a way which complemented and supported the TUC march.

However, in taking the type of peaceful action which UK Uncut routinely undertake on Saturday, targeting Fortnum and Mason on this occasion, they were treated in a political and deceptive manner by the police which sends an ominous message about the right to protest.

It would appear activists were misled by the police about not being arrested when asked to leave the Fortnum and Mason building, after which they were held for a significant length of time, their clothing was confiscated and they have been denied the right to protest in the near future.

This situation has now been seized on by the media and politicians to further threaten the right to protest. UK Uncut activists have been blamed for damage they did not cause and this story has become a substitute for discussion of the real issues raised by UK Uncut and the TUC march in general.

Christ, what a wanker

You could set your alarm by it, it’s so predicable: that moment in every large scale protest movement where the opportunists start to concern troll their more radical allies, usually echoing rightwing propaganda when doing so. With the 2001-2003 protests against the War on Afghanistan and the War on Iraq, it was ANSWER, a smallish antiwar organisation that had taken the lead in organising protests when most liberals were still wringing their hands on whether or not they could trust Bush to run their war, that suddenly was the bogeyman when more respectable organisations and people finally jointed the antiwar movement. It supposedly had ties to groups that supposedly had ties to groups that supposedly had ties to terrorists and there were some *gasp* communists amongst its members and of course the people attacking ANSWER were not McCarthyites, but surely we should not let such a controversial group lead our antiwar protests, think of what it would look like to Middle America… The result was a divided and weakened American antiwar movement that found it that much harder to oppose these wars, but at least various centrists and liberals had shown how serious they were.

In the fight against the ConDem cuts we’ve now reached the point where both the Labour Party and the TUC are on board and helping to organise mass demonstrations like the March 26 demos in London, which had some 500,000 people marching, as well as saw more radical groups repeating the same tactics that had been used in earlier protests, including the early student protest: attacking and occupying shops owned by tax cheats and other symbols of the economic order that had fucked up Britain and made the cuts “necessary”.

With Labour and the TUC now directly in the picture, it was therefore inevitable that the professional pearl clutchers would start to doubledown on condemning these “childish vandals” and Oxbridge student activists (an old favourite) and accusing them of trying to hijack the movement, contrasting them to the thousands of real working people trying to have a decent, peaceful, lawful protest and who disapproved mightely of these antics. None did so more pompously than Anthony Painter, who ended his sermon like this:

The group’s retail outlet of protest choice is TopShop. Instant gratification consumerism has a mirror image in instant gratification politics. The dopamine rush of credit card financed prêt-a-porter fashion finds its corollary in the jejune fantasies of the retail activist chic. Meanwhile, those who are really hit hard continue to suffer.

I hope the TUC continues marching. I hope it gives voice to the voiceless in every village, town, and city in the land. UK Uncut owes a lot of apologies. Without trading Martin Luther King quotes – a glib game as we have seen – better instead to respect and understand his legacy. We can overcome. But only if we are wise. A small minority were not only unwise on Saturday. They were downright dumb.

(Oddly enough this appeal to end senseless violence and concentrate on lawful ways of protest does nothing so much as make me want to punch his smug, fat face in — childish, I know.)

Thing is, as anybody not gripped by tabloid hysteria knows, this supposed divide between ordinary folk decently protesting and evil anarchists just does not exist. Take the eighties squatters riots in Amsterdam for example, huge violent affairs in which the city centre was the battlefield between hardcore anarchists and riot police, whole streets ripped up to throw at the police etc etc, yet support for the squatters movement was never greater. That’s because quite a few ordinary, non-political people could actually see for themselves that the squatters had a point, that it was a scandal that private landlords let buildings rot away when so many people could not find housing at all.

The same goes for UKUncut and its occupation of Fortnum: for all the tabloid hysteria, plenty of people have no problem seeing the same rich bastard that caused the crisis that might cost them their own jobs suffer a bit. You can’t split the uncut protestors into two groups of supposed vandals ruining it for everybody and decent, hardworking ordinary people just wanting to have a meaningful protest. Criticising a particular kind of protest is of course legitimate, but demonising them and the people who undertook them will only serve your opponents cause. What somebody like Painter does is helping to divide the anticuts movement, which doesn’t help anybody but the ConDems. If you worry more about policing what those on your side are doing than what you can do to put the pressure on the real enemy, you are the enemy.