Friday, 10 November 2017

Reflections from Damaged Life - Writing My Free Time

Adorno has a short essay entitled 'Free Time'.  It is one of the places where the grumpy old mandarin shows that he perhaps has a sense of humour.  He  notes how when the 'giants of the culture industries' are interviewed in the weekly magazines, their interviewers never fail to ask them about their 'hobbies'. 

Adorno is horrified at the idea of a hobby.  He points out that the idea of 'free time' or 'leisure time', is a confection of industries which seek to market our private or even intimate lives.  I like to imagine him being interviewed by a callow journalist, who eventually enquires: 'And so, Herr Doktor Professor Adorno, what do you do with your free time?  Have you any hobbies?'  Teddy recoils from the question, almost  like Lady Bracknell reacting to Ernest Worthing's admission that he'd been born in a handbag.  'Hobbies??????'  And he explains, in exasperation no doubt, that he regards the whole notion of 'free time' and 'hobbies' as an expression of the capitalist reification of domestic and personal life, and that he does what he does with the utmost seriousness.

I am not sure if I always manage to write in my 'free time' quite so seriously on this blog, but I hope that the material I put up on it is of some interest some of the time, and so that it justifies its title.  I am delighted to report that just in the last few minutes the blog has recorded its 30,000th pageview.  Brilliant news!

Onward and upward!


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Resurrecting the Revolution - In the Spirit of Lenin, Trotsky, Kollontai

November 7 brought the centenary of the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in 1917, when the Bolsheviki decisively seized power in Russia, nine months after the February Revolution and after a long hot summer of Menshevik ambivalence and war-making  and attempted reactionary counter-revolution.  Verso marked the anniversary with a battery of excellent and interesting  material on its website, from a tremendous roster of writers: Alain Badiou, Sheila Rowbotham, Tariq Ali, China Mieville, Slavoj Zizek, Rochelle Ruthchild.  Here it is!

China Miéville on the Russian Revolution

And four articles from Jacobin -

China Mieville - an excerpt from his October:

Alexander Rabinowitch on Bolshevik strategy:

How the Bolsheviks Won

Ronald Suny on the revolution in Baku: 

And Kevin Murphy on the radicalization of the Petrograd Soviet:

All power to the Soviets!


Monday, 6 November 2017

That Letter - the Balfour Declaration

On November 2, 1917, Arthur James Balfour, Britain's Foreign Secretary,  wrote the letter below to Baron Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Britain:

This is the notorious 'Balfour Declaration', which is one of the crucial documents and statements in the history of Palestine, and which represented a very significant victory in the story of Zionism.

Zionism is best understood as an ethnic nationalism, much like the ethno-nationalisms that were taking form in eastern Europe in the middle- to late-nineteenth century at the moment of Zionism's  birth.  Unlike the nationalisms of Russia,  Poland, Germany, Zionism was not in possession of, or  anywhere near, a recognisable  national territory.  One possible location for a 'national territory' was Palestine, home then to a small but ancient Jewish community and long yearned-for in the Judaic tradition.   Palestine at this time was an Ottoman province, but Britain now committed itself to facilitating a 'Jewish national home' in anticipation of the collapse of the Turkish empire.

Zionism, a century ago, and in our own time, has always offered itself as an ally or instrument of imperialisms.  In the era of the Balfour Declaration, Zionists had already sought aid from Tsarist Russia, from France and Britain, and even (paradoxically) from the Ottoman Porte.  In each case, the movement sold itself as useful to those great powers: Zionism would bring its  financial resources to the bankrupt and tottering  Turkish empire,  in return for land purchases in Palestine; it would 'solve' Russia's 'Jewish problem' and its revolutionary instability, by removing or luring away the Jewish radicals who contributed so much to Russian dissent; it would set up a bastion of Western values in the Middle  East, and guard Britain's access to the Suez Canal, and the route to India.  Most recently, of course, Israel has allied itself to the last remaining global power, the United States (especially since the 1967 war), and taken an eager part in America's proxy struggles with the USSR and then its real  struggles with Arab nationalism since.

We can see the future of Zionist exclusivism already in the Declaration - its reference to the  'non-Jewish communities in Palestine' adopts the Zionist terminology of 'non-Jews' to discuss in negative terms all other potential national identities or national communities in the territory.  The seemingly anodyne nature of the reference is also undercut by observing only their 'civil and religious rights'.  No Palestinian Arab political sovereignty is even imaginable, let alone desirable, in this vision.  The discourse of what Baruch Kimmerling called 'politicide' is already in place.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Here are some essays on the Declaration and its centenary, taken first from Jacobin - Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Middle East Studies at Columbia:

After Balfour

Now from Mondoweiss: Jonathan Cook


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Whither the intellectuals? A Critique of Pierre Bourdieu

I've been reading about intellectuals for all of my adult  lifetime.  In Ireland, to be called 'an intellectual' is a quasi-insult: composed half of grudging admiration,  and half of acidic revulsion at someone who is interested not only in the world but in thinking of it conceptually.  Irish literature and cultural life have mostly privileged the empirical and the expressive.   Two of the greatest Irish writers wrote devastating critiques of intellectual pretension in the eighteenth century: Burke's great counterblast at the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) argues that France's ailments come from its governance being taken over by the philosophes or their bastard brood, martyrs to abstraction who prefer to plan for a fantasy-rationalist polity than assist a real organic people or serve a venerable traditional authority whose appeal is inscribed in the hearts of human beings.  Swift, in Gulliver's Travels (1726), portrayed the 'projectors' of Laputa as desiccated, inhuman, and narcissistic, dwelling on an airborne island whose cloud-like condition reflects their vacuous inability to connect their ideas to reality or put them into practical usage.

The paradox, of course, was that Swift and Burke were themselves intellectuals: steeped in learning, supremely gifted writers,  capable of the most subtle thought,  and in command - whether by virtue of the Deanship of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, or membership of Parliament in London - of prominent platforms ideally suited to the dissemination of their ideas.  

My own reading was determined in particular, by my encounter - begun around 1988 and still underway - with the work of Edward Said.  Said was  most famous as, on the one hand, a brilliant literary critic, and on the other  hand, a powerful advocate for Palestinian freedom.  But his real concern, in many ways, which straddles these two areas, was the status, function, and moral-political responsibility of the intellectual.  For  all that  his most famous book, Orientalism (40 years old next year) was an erudite reading and critique of the philological, political, artistic, historical representation by the West of the Arab Middle  East since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, one of the book's underlying themes is the intellectual.   The movement of the book goes in two directions.   From Sylvestre de Sacy to Bernard Lewis, there is an accumulating and devastating reading of the established Western intellectuals and their discourse about 'the Orient', which is lambasted for the inhumanity hidden behind or secreted within its supposed humanism.  This is a long and trenchant naming of names, a scorching description of the trahison des clercs.  But within and parallel to, and because of this reading, there is the gathering coming-to-consciousness of the radical Palestinian intellectual.  Said quotes Gramsci, in the Introduction to Orientalism: 'The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is "knowing thyself" as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.  Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory'.  When Said then moves on to analyze the 'nexus of knowledge and power creating the "Oriental" and in a sense obliterating him as a human being', we realise that the whole book constitutes not only his effort to encourage his readers to 'unlearn the inherent dominative mode', but also his  own trajectory through the same process.

But Said's finest book is not Orientalism, not for me, anyway.  It is The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), an extraordinary collection of the essays he was publishing in the late 1960s and in the 1970s.  It is  not an exaggeration to say that this book stands, along with a few other lonely beacons such as Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Richard Ohmann's English in America, or Noam Chomsky's American Power and the New Mandarins, as a manual for academic-intellectual insurrection.  The  book's theme is intellectuals, but this time explicitly, and while it contains superb readings of writers as different as Conrad, Hopkins,  Mann and Massignon, the real undertow is the fate of putatively 'radical' criticism once it is institutionalised.  So we get tremendous manifestos for 'worldly' or 'secular' criticism or 'critical consciousness', or angry but insightful threnodies for the decline and emasculation of radical theory that seems to accompany its supposed refinement,  elaboration and adaptation into method.  Most powerfully, Lukács's great theory of reification-and-totality is followed from its beginnings on the streets of Budapest in 1919, as part of the weaponry of revolution, to its sad declension into a technical device in classrooms at the Sorbonne and at Cambridge in the hands of Lucien Goldmann, and even Raymond Williams - the latter a great critic Said  knew and admired.

With and through Said, I encountered a much wider literature on intellectuals - work by Chomsky, Edward Shils, Alvin Gouldner, Regis Debray, Julien Benda, Karl  Mannheim, Foucault, and Gramsci himself.  At the end of his life, Said's most frequent intellectual model was that of Adorno,  and I've often thought that the move from Lukács as rebellious exemplar to Adorno as resigned but recalcitrant is one of the major motifs of Said's intellectual career.   Final essays such as 'Travelling Theory Reconsidered', and the magnificent 'On Lost Causes' (both collected in Reflections on Exile) show how Minima Moralia gradually overtook History and Class Consciousness as the great motor of Said's project.

In the last decade of his life, Said, who had been one of the  most important American respondents to the new French thought of the 1960s and 1970s, became overtly and bluntly scornful of the pretensions of 'Theory'.  But one figure in the French pantheon with whom he struck up a personal friendship, if not an intellectual alliance, was the great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  Bourdieu wrote prodigious books and studies of various elements in French life - about education, maybe in particular,  but also about other strata or formations such as the civil service elite and the academic intellectuals.  He also wrote magnificent studies of the working poor of France - La misere du monde - and a wonderful sociology of cultural taste: Distinction, one of the most ruthless critiques of Kantian aesthetics to be found anywhere.   Bourdieu, in fact, wrote a great deal about culture high and low, and elements in his sociology of the cultural field, and of the positions and position-takings of activists in the field of culture bear comparison to Said's ideas of the worldly and institutional 'affiliations' which permit texts - even the most abstruse literary texts - to maintain their persistence as texts.  Bourdieu's arguments are in reality much more concrete and developed than Said's in this respect, and could be used to concretise and buttress Said's more Gramscian musings.

Bourdieu's sociology of French academics, translated as Homo Academicus, makes for salutary reading for those of us who grew up in the 1980s and were trained to revere and read the likes of Derrida, Lacan, and  Foucault, as the giants of French thought.  For Bourdieu showed us briskly that there was and  is a deep gulf between the intellectual prestige of 'French thought' as mediated through the Comparative Literature and  English Departments of great American universities, and the status accorded to those thinkers in their home country.  Derrida and Foucault, though admired and read, never attained the status in France that they did in America,  and other major French philosophers, with huge reputations in the Anglosphere - Deleuze is the obvious example here - were left in respectable  but hardly glamorous academic positions in the middle ranks  of the French scene.

Bourdieu was not a Marxist, though he was unquestionably a man of the Left.  He was bracingly sceptical of the Anglo obsession with French thinkers, even as he became lionised as one himself.   Here is a reading of him, posted on the superb new site set up by Jacobin.   Catalyst is a forum for more extended or scholarly treatments than what one normally sees in Jacobin - high as the standard of writing there  is.  For some of Catalyst's content, one must subscribe.   But this essay by Dylan Riley, professor of sociology at Berkeley, is free:

Bourdieu’s Class Theory: The Academic as Revolutionary


Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Academic Freedom in the Shadow of Colonialism and Capital

At Trinity College Dublin, on September 11 and 12 last, a conference was held on the situation of academic freedom and freedom of speech, in the context of the ever-increasing corporatisation and marketisation of higher education in Ireland, America, Britain and Europe.  Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions dissent on campus was taken as a test case.  It was organised under the auspices of the excellent and long-running M.Phil. in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict at TCD. though I had a hand in it too.  Here is the conference blog:

Conference: Freedom of speech and Higher Education: The case of ...

The conference was a great success, with superb papers delivered on many aspects of dissent in the neoliberal university, and two brilliant keynote talks by Dr Steven Salaita and Professor  Kathleen Lynch (UCD).

I have today published a report which I wrote up on the conference, with help from my comrades Ronit Lentin, David Landy and, most especially, Paola Rivetti.  It's on the excellent Mondoweiss website - warmest thanks to all at Mondoweiss, particularly Allison Deger and  Adam Horowitz.   Here it is:

Steven Salaita keynotes conference on academic freedom in Ireland


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Again, and with feeling and rigour - No, it's not anti-Semitic

Bills seeking to restrict or ban activity campaigning for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel or Israeli institutions in protest at the Occupation (now in its 51st year) are currently being processed by both Houses of Congress in the United States.  Here is a video, recorded by Jewish Voices for Peace in August, where Judith Butler returns to the fray, demonstrating with her usual rigour and sympathy, that BDS activity has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

Video: Judith Butler on BDS and Antisemitism


Remembering Che in Ireland

A few days ago, it was announced that An Post, the Irish postal company, had published a stamp commemorating Che Guevara on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.  I heard no critical commentary in Ireland, and it was notable that the stamp uses the now-widely recognised image of Che made by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick.  But then suddenly the airwaves were full of angry protest - from a Cuban-American radio presenter based in Miami.  No-one seemed to be asking why the Irish postal system should be answerable to the whims of a Batista-ite radio jock.

Che was not an angel.  But he and his image remain inspirational for resistance movements everywhere.  Verso posted on its website a reading list on the Cuban Revolution.   Here it is:

Cuba: A Reading List


Monday, 25 September 2017

Revolution in the Revolution - Lenin, Lukacs, Della Volpe and Lowy

As we move ever closer to the centenary of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, it becomes ever more important to consider it seriously, with sympathy as well as rigour.  In mainstream culture this is not easy to achieve - in Dublin's leading bookstore, Hodges Figgis, the table of books on the Revolution is mostly filled with the work of reactionaries such as Orlando Figes (revealed to have written his own Amazon reviews), or sentimental tracts about the Romanov dynasty.  Worse, the evidence seems to be that in neoliberal Russia there is official interest in a consolidating figure such as Stalin, but not in the great intellectuals of the Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky - this trend is itself merely another form of reaction.

Here are some resources, culled from the Verso website, which open up a plurality of views on the Revolution, and on radical Marxism in its wake:

Georg Lukács During War and Revolution

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Pillar of Salt - America's Kingdom in the Middle East

In 1945, Franklin D Roosevelt, America's great war president and the creator of the New Deal, the closest the United States has ever come to social democracy, met Ibn Saud on a US Navy cruiser in the Suez Canal.  This meeting - three years before the birth of Israel  - inaugurated American policy in the Middle East in the postwar period.  That policy was built on three 'pillars' - Saudi Arabia, Israel and imperial Iran.  With the Islamic revolution of 1979, one of those pillars was destroyed.  Israel's warmongering and expansionist policies in the Territories have resulted in tensions with the second pillar.  But the third pillar has remained largely stable, in spite of the revelation that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.

The compact has been in some ways a simple one: the United States would offer security guarantees to the Kingdom and say nothing about its internal structures and policies, while American oil companies would be well-placed to benefit in the trade in Saudi Arabia's enormous oil reserves.  The point was not that America would 'take over' Saudi oil, but rather that it would have an influence on its production and trade.  And it would become the dominant power in the Gulf.

During the Cold War, American administrations - Democrats and Republicans - had a charmingly Orwellian nomenclature for referring to the United States's enemies and friends in the Arab world.  Secular Arab nationalist regimes, such as those of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Hafez al-Assad in Syria or Saddam Hussein in Iraq, were termed 'radical'.  They were seen as dangerous, hostile to the US and Israel, supportive of terrorism, close to the USSR, and their internal configuration was totalitarian.  The Gulf sheikdoms, Saudi Arabia preeminent among them, were, however, seen as 'moderate' - because they aligned themselves with the Western powers and largely supported their interests.   The distinction was always laughable.  Saudi Arabia is one of the most violently chauvinistic and religiously fundamentalist regimes of modern times.  The Kingdom executes more people every year (beheadings by scimitar are a public spectacle) than ISIS.  There is no democracy, and women's rights remain extremely circumscribed.  The Kingdom is the possession of the royal family descended from Ibn Saud - now about 5000 princes and other neo-feudal aristocrats.  Censorship and propaganda are pervasive, torture is routine, and corruption an ever-greater problem.  This delightful state was the destination for President Trump's first foreign visit in his administration.,

Malise Ruthven, a Dublin man and the godson of Freya Stark, is one of the most distinguished historians and analysts of the Arab world working in the UK.  Here is a new essay of his on the Kingdom, just published in the London Review of Books:

The Saudi Trillions


Wednesday, 16 August 2017

All Power to the Soviets! - China Mieville on the October Revolution

All too slowly, this year, I have been making my way through alternating readings on the Irish, and the Russian, revolutions.  Not all the material I have worked through has been 'radical' - no amount of huffing and puffing by Colm Toibin is going to convince me that Roy Foster's Vivid Faces is a text whose radicality matches that of some of its subjects.  But Foster, though he often condescends to his 'revolutionary generation', is learned and brings together wonderful material from memoirs, diaries, letters, and other documents by participants in the turbulent events in Ireland in the 1912-1923 era.  I have read Emmet O'Connor's short biography of Larkin, and Clair Wills's excellent account of the General Post Office both during the 1916 Rising and in its commemoration long afterwards.  I am currently reading Charles Townsend's history of the Rising.  And I have intermixed this Irish material with accounts of the events of 1917 in Russia - a short history of the Revolution by Trotskyist Neil Faulkner; John Reed's often electrifying, sometimes bewildering Ten Days That Shook The World, and Sheila Fitzpatrick's short but authoritative history.  Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin awaits my attention, and I've read back into the nineteenth century via Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers: hardly a radical account of Tsarist Russia, but a hint of intellectual background.

The book I anticipate most eagerly - friends will know that much of my life is lived within the imagined aura of books anticipated eagerly: alas, not always an indicator that said books will actually be read! - is China Mieville's October.  I confess I had never heard of Mieville until his name appeared in the Verso catalogue I get a couple of times a year with my New Left Review.  And so I have learned that he is a renowned science-fiction novelist, and a Marxist theorist of some capacity.   A writer of many talents.   Wonderful that he should turn those talents to give a fine narrative history of the Revolution.  Here he is in discussion with Eric Blanc, no mean writer himself:

October and Its Relevance: A Discussion with China Miéville


'To Live Free, or Die' - Remembering the Black Jacobins

Two days ago, we passed the anniversary of the start of the great slave revolt and revolution of Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, as we now call it, in 1791.   To mark this tremendous moment - one of the cruxes in anti-colonial history when 'European' ideas and values were turned most powerfully against European power - Verso published an extraordinary document addressed by Toussaint L'Ouverture and his comrades to the French colonial assembly.  In the wake of Charlotteville, I post here an earlier iteration of the idea that 'black lives matter'.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Face Down In His Own Bullshit - The Overdue Demise of Kevin Myers

Back around 1990, within a few months of each other, I purchased two excellent collections of journalism.  The first was Corruptions of Empire: for me, Alexander Cockburn's finest book.  The second was Prepared for the Worst, a brilliant collection of essays and reports by Christopher Hitchens.   These writers  both seemed to combine a number of talents - great wit, acerbic humour, strong leftwing sensibilities, wide reading, and a willingness ruthlessly to cut down and eviscerate the cant of power.  At this time, they both were writing for The Nation, a fine liberal-left magazine in America, and they offered vivid commentary on the American political scene that went way beyond the numbing boilerplate of mainstream 'analysis'.  The fact that neither was American - Hitchens was English, and Cockburn was Anglo-Irish/Scots and carried an Irish passport - seemed to allow them particular insight on political machinations inside and beyond the Washington Beltway.  And lastly they both were utterly fearless.

I admired and read them both, avidly and with the greatest pleasure.  I showed my mother Cockburn's hilarious account of being visited at his public school by his father Claud, who appeared without any socks and who spun a wonderful story of how he'd lost them to a vengeful Sikh who had shared his couchette on the train north, and she read the tale again and again.  A girlfriend and I hooted with laughter as we read 'Booze and Fags', a brilliant review by Hitchens of books about tobacco and hooch in the London Review.  Through them both, I learned of figures such as Israel Shahak, maybe the most courageous and cogent Israeli dissenting intellectual in the history of the Jewish State.  Hitchens wrote superb forensic essays on Conor Cruise O'Brien, and a tremendous defence of Chomsky.  Cockburn told tales of cooking meat on a griddle placed over the engine of one of his enormous vintage American automobiles, which allowed him to drive to a friend's barbecue and arrive with his contribution to the party ready to be enjoyed.  They both wrote excoriating critiques of the 1970s and 1980s generation of neoconservatives - Irving Kristol and the odious Norman Podhoretz.  And they both mercilessly exposed the sentimentality and moral blindness of American 'liberals' - such as Martin Peretz, 'editor in chief' of The New Republic - when it came to Israel in Lebanon and in the Territories.   My convictions in regard to Palestine were decisively changed by Cockburn and Hitchens, well before I read Edward Said.

They knew each other and were presumed to be friends. But one noticed a certain imbalance - Hitchens was fond of referring to his friendship with Cockburn, and dedicated one of his books to Patrick Cockburn's son, Henry.  But Cockburn barely ever referred to Hitchens in his writing.

Something went wrong for Hitchens.  Most obviously, 9/11 happened, and he developed a passionate revulsion against what he called 'Islamo-fascism'.  I think he invented the term.  Not that he'd ever been remotely sentimental about the Gulf princelings and their cruel regimes - he wrote an excellent essay on 'Tilting Towards Iraq' for the New Left Review just as the 1991 Gulf War was about to start, which exposed the ambivalences of the Bush Snr. regime vis-a-vis the Saddam Hussein government.  But after 9/11, Hitchens found himself in conflict with the American left, which he considered blinded by its hatred for the US government to the extent that it was prepared, if not to blame the government for what had happened, then to obsess over American involvement with Wahhabi conservatism and the jihad against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan to the exclusion of all else.  For Hitchens, this led to a break with his colleagues at The Nation and he quit the magazine.  But he found a new berth in an unlikely place: Vanity Fair, which was and is a magazine predicated on good writing on the political and social mores of the middle ground - very far from Hitchens's Trotskyist origins in England indeed.  It was a mutually serviceable relationship: Vanity Fair allowed, or encouraged, Hitchens to become a celebrity like those whose activities it often covered.   His leftwing history and his foreign and war correspondent credentials allowed Vanity Fair a thrilling whiff of cordite.   Hitchens seemed to spend more and more time attacking former friends (including, particularly nastily, Edward Said shortly before Said's death), and championing the coming invasion of Iraq.  He puffed up colleagues and allies on the Arab left, such as Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi, for their opposition to Saddam.  He hobnobbed with Paul Wolfowitz and other members of the Bush administration.

Cockburn, as this blog has noted elsewhere, had meanwhile taken a much braver course. He, too, had left The Nation, but he had moved away from power and institutional prominence, to live in northern California and to set up and run with Jeff St Clair the excellent Counterpunch website and magazine.   But Hitchens had become, as I say, a celebrity, close to power and bathing in its approval.  Hitchens had been seduced by the very blandishments of Babylon which he had once worked so cleverly to expose. He was now a 'contrarian', not a leftist. He took Orwell increasingly as his model, and saw his task as uncovering the idiocies, the delusions, and the malfeasance of the left.  But the difference was that when Orwell carved out his niche, Stalinist totalitarianism was a real and brutal feature of European and global politics.  By the time Hitchens became a Vanity Fair celebrity contrarian, Stalinism had collapsed and disappeared.  Hitchens's 'contrarianism' seemed a cynical betrayal of left dissent which served only to buttress the temples and redoubts of American capital and neo-imperialism.

Years ago, at the moment in Hitchens's career when he was starting to write in favour of atheism, the Gate Theatre in Dublin hosted a debate between him and John Waters. I hadn't the heart to go along to see it - not only because this discussion holds no interest for me, but also because it was obvious that what was going to transpire was not a 'debate' but a slaughter - the clumsy and earnest Waters was never going to lay a glove on the witty and battle-hardened Hitchens.  No Irish journalist has been as sparklingly brilliant as Hitchens or Cockburn, though some made that claim for Kevin Myers, for a while. Not any more.

Myers, apparently, had been a left-leaning student in UCD when it was based at Earlsfort Terrace in the late Sixties.  He reported on the war in Northern Ireland, and later from Lebanon when Israel invaded that country in 1978 and then again in 1982.  But what made Myers's career was his long stint at the Irish Times in the 'Irishman's Diary' column.  He gradually turned this platform into a stage where he took down cant of all sorts.  But increasingly in the 1980s and 1990s, the Hitchens turn could be noticed. Myers had always subscribed to the Conor Cruise O'Brien understanding of Ulster - that its struggle was one between a flawed but legitimate state and a virulently Catholic-nationalist gangsterism.  Now he turned this focus on the agonies of the overdogs onto his more everyday targets - feminism, Islam, Sinn Fein, the bien pensants of southern Irish life.  Increasingly, he wrapped about himself the mantle of the marginalised, the weak, the heretic.  His writing became more and more enamoured of itself.  The libidinal pleasures of style (for his admirers, at least) compensated more and more for the lack of argument and the paucity of evidence.   His targets became more outrageous - single mothers, 'illegitimate' children, black people.  He could never see Israel as anything other than a bastion of liberal values surrounded by a seething morass of Muslim fanatics.

Myers's reputation at the Irish Times was in decline after a column where he called the children of single mothers 'bastards', and he eventually left to go to the Irish Independent.  Since then he has moved on to several other media outlets.  Now he has been dropped by the Irish edition of The Sunday Times for a column where, in 'discussing' the imbalance in pay  between men and women at the BBC, he suggested that two female journalists at the station had made it onto the list of 'most highly paid staff' due to their Jewish tendency towards self-promotion and financial shrewdness.   It's notable that though Myers combined chauvinism and anti-Jewish stereotype in a noxious mix, it was the anti-Semitic trope that sunk him, and that was recognised in Britain much faster than in Ireland. In Ireland, he has been supported by the Jewish Council, and at least one former colleague at the Irish Times.   He has, in fact, been given extraordinary space in which he can plaintively apologise for his reprocessing of old anti-Semitic clichés and proclaim that his career is over and that he now lacks all means to keep himself.

Back in 2003, the English critic and intellectual historian Stefan Collini wrote a wonderful essay on Hitchens's aspiration to be the Orwell of his generation.  Collini, writing more in sorrow than in anger, notes that Hitchens was becoming more and more like the 'bloke moyen sensuel' of the English 1950s.  Rather than writing like the international left where he had his origins, or like the sophisticates of New England where he now was working, Hitchens increasingly sounded far too comfortable in a conservative sense of his Englishness, like Kingsley Amis, 'pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic', or like Philip Larkin 'farcing away at the expense of all bien pensants'.  Collini suggests that such English nativists 'would be good company for a while, but their brand of bar-saloon finality is only a quick sharpener away from philistinism'.  Hitchens dedicated his book on Orwell to Robert Conquest, 'founder of the united front against bullshit', but Collini, comparing Hitchens to a foxhunter, fears that he will end up unhorsed and 'face down in his own bullshit'.

In truth, it's hard to have any sympathy for Kevin Myers, who has been a prominent and therefore one presumes well-paid journalist for decades, with plenty of time to make provision for his eventual retirement.  He has abused the platforms which he has benefited by, coming to assume them by right rather than understanding them as a privilege constantly to be earned.  He has spewed misogynistic bile for many years, and the support he has won from the Jewish Council of Ireland is likely to be as much predicated on his support for Israel as anything else. Neither he nor his Irish interlocutors seem to understand that his anti-Semitic remarks and his now proclaimed philo-Semitism are actually reverse faces of the same coin.   Myers, wannabe contrarian, has never been as good a hunter as Hitchens was at his best or as Cockburn was throughout his career.  He has too often pursued timid and vulnerable prey, unwilling to take on boys of his own size.  Now he lies face down in his own bullshit, and we should leave him to suffer it.

    ‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit: Christopher Hitchens, Englishman


    Monday, 31 July 2017

    Varadkar, Macron, anti-Semitism and Israel

    One of the more insufferable frameworks through which the gormless mainstream Irish media has filtered the rise to prime minister-ship of Leo Varadkar has been the comparison to Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron.  They are all young men, they all look agreeable, and they seem to have a veneer of youthful liberalism.  It all reminds me of what a rather mordant friend of mine from Ontario said to me at school in Canada 33 years ago, about 'PET' - Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin's father: he's like a condom - he makes you feel safe while you're being fucked.

    I am not sure how safe I feel around Leo Varadkar, but it's been precisely his good looks, his immigrant father, his apparent shoot-from-the-hip no-bullshit manner, and his openness about his sexuality which have made him a liberal icon in Ireland.  Not that one has to be very radical to be a liberal icon in Ireland, of course.  But idiots like Una Mullally - a 'youthful liberal' columnist at the Irish Times - have found it hard to imagine that a gay man might also be a Thatcherite.  And the merest scratching of the surface of Varadkar's past reveals an aggressive young Tory, who marries a dog-eat-dog model of society to Victorian morality about the deserving middle classes and those who rise early in the morning.

    And at the same time, the unpleasantness of Macron is gradually being revealed.   He is not a liberal - he is - of course - a neoliberal.  He is more concerned with the freedom of movement of capital, than of human beings, though for the French he appears to represent neoliberalism with a human face. Where have we heard of that kind of combination before, and didn't it all end in tears?

    It may be that it's in foreign policy that Macron will reveal his dark side most easily or carelessly.   As this  blog has noted before, France purports to operate as the home of Enlightenment values of democracy and brotherhood in its internal politics, but in its foreign policy it is, of course, a great power, or a former great power which still wishes to deploy its own Machtpolitik in the usual combination of the ideas of Clausewitz and Hobbes.  Macron's recent meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu exemplifies this - Macron dresses up power-politics with liberal language.  But when France's purported Enlightenment universalism is affiliated with Israel and Zionism, the mask slips rather easily, since Israel and Zionism are not to be associated with liberté, égalité and fraternité - or rather they are, but only for Israel's Jewish citizens.  That is, Israel is not a democracy, but rather, as Oren Yiftachel has been arguing for some years, an ethnocracy - a polity where sovereignty lies not with the demos but with a majority ethnos.

    So here is a critique and protest against Macron's commemoration, with Bibi at his side, of the Vel d'Hiv roundup of French Jews in 1942, written and publicised by Media Palestine.  It fixes precisely on the fact that the presence at the commemoration of Netanyahu suggests that the solution to anti-Semitism is Zionism - ethnic nationalism and racism - rather than France's vaunted Enlightenment values.

    Making no concessions to the Palestinian people’s rights

    And here is an open letter addressed to Macron from the brilliant dissenting Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, which praises his willingness to address the anti-Semitic history and legacy of Vichy, but which refuses Macron's equation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (from the Jacobin site):

    An Open Letter to Emmanuel Macron - Jacobin


    Sunday, 16 July 2017

    No it's not anti-Semitism

    Emmanuel Macron is starting to show his real colours, and the love-in with him of many non-French liberals hopefully will be over soon.   He's been meeting Benjamin Netanyahu, and has won great favour with Bibi (and so with the most rightwing government Israel has ever had) on account of his assertion that 'anti-Zionism is the new version of anti-Semitism'.   Actually, it isn't, and we need to nail this canard immediately.   No-one better for this task than Judith Butler.  Here is her classic essay on the topic:

    No, it’s not anti-semitic: the right to criticise Israel · 21 August 2003


    Tuesday, 11 July 2017

    Interview with Judith Butler: Worldliness, Collectivity and Dissent

    Few contemporary philosophers have engaged more with movements of dissent in America and elsewhere than Judith Butler, one of the heroines of this blog.  Here is an interview with her where she discusses the performativity of protest, activism and dissent.  I am taking it from the Verso website; it was originally published on The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture

    We are Worldless Without One Another: An Interview with Judith Butler


    Thursday, 29 June 2017

    General Intellect in the Age of Twitter and Trump

    What are intellectuals?   Does Ireland have any?

    I've always had the sense that to be called an 'intellectual' in Ireland and in the context of Irish culture is, at best, a backhanded compliment.  It's a little like the way that the Irish Times,when it publishes a review or article by a university-based scholar, always describes the scholar not as a 'lecturer' or a 'professor' or a 'research fellow', but rather as an 'academic' - a kind of damnation by faint praise.   As is well known, even a cliché, in other European cultures, intellectuals are persons accorded a kind of significant position in society, with high access to the media, not just sequestered in classrooms.  In 1960s Germany, the Frankfurt School philosophers and sociologists - Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas pre-eminent among them - were central to the upheavals and debates of the student movements.  Intellectuals were significant in May '68 in Paris, too, though not always the ones we remember now.  But in Ireland, many people would tell you that we do not have such figures.  

    In fact, of course, we do, but they are more likely to be historians or writers or journalists, than philosophers or political theorists or literary critics.  And nowadays those historians are likely to be university-based: one thinks of Diarmuid Ferriter, who spends so much time writing for the Irish Times or speaking on the radio that it's hard to imagine him finding the time to do much else.  One also thinks of Roy Foster, at his commanding citadel at Hertford College Oxford (now replaced by Ian McBride); or Joe Lee and the late Ronan Fanning, both of whom have at times written regular newspaper columns. Among the journalists, the pre-eminent figure today is and has for a long time been Fintan O'Toole.  And among writers, well the list is endless - Heaney while he was with us, Banville, Toibin, Enright, McGuinness - repeatedly, the media would turn to writers to distill some communal reaction to a particular event: 9/11, the Iraq war, the economic crash, particular atrocities of the Troubles.  But 'writers', at least Irish ones, are all-too often not very capable of conceptual or analytical thinking: they prioritise 'experience' over the abstract.  And so, the effect has sometimes been noble, but forms of bathos have also been displayed. Notably, last year, the Irish Times sought reactions to Britain's Brexit vote from Irish writers in the UK.  A more unrepresentative and ludicrous approach could hardly be conceived, as we were treated to Foster's wailing about access to his holiday home in France, and other liberals grinding their nicely polished teeth at the ignorance of the proles. 

    Not surprisingly, then, these 'intellectuals' seem very far from intellectuals in the European sense: they are none of them theorists (Irish historiography remains notoriously empiricist or positivistic in its sense of the disinterring or making of knowledge - no room there for Foucauldian genealogy, or Hayden White's rhetorics of history-writing, or a properly Marxist history like that produced by the great British generation of Hobsbawm or Hill or Kiernan or Thompson), and they don't have the time or the inclination for that particular marriage of abstract thought and radical analysis which one associates with Deleuze or Marcuse, Said or Butler.  So we do have intellectuals in Ireland, but the sphere is oddly impoverished.

    Back in the 1980s, the biggest single effort to change that situation was launched by Field Day, and in particular by Seamus Deane, the most gifted and important Irish critic then and now.   Deane had actually heralded what Field Day for a while became, with several long-forgotten essays, published in the early Seventies, on the idea of an intelligentsia and its desirability for Ireland.  That's actually what Field Day was, in the 1980s and early 1990s at least, with its theatre productions, its pamphlets, its massive anthologies, and then later its extensive book series and the Field Day Review: it was a kind of Irish version of the interventions in the public sphere of Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Belinsky, Bakunin and the other great Russian liberals of the nineteenth century.  These Russian writers took the cultural capital their literary prominence had given them, and wagered that capital on political commentary.  Deane, Heaney, Friel, Paulin, Kilroy and their allies and contributors likewise worked in the belief that political critique could viably and effectively be launched from the zone of culture.  To make this comparison is both a measure of the honour and power of the Field Day effort, and also to note that it could no longer happen now.  It's almost impossible to imagine in early twenty-first century Ireland a comparable group of writers coming together in a civic-minded effort to organise a common public platform for radical ideas and socio-political reform or change.   This, though in many ways the need now is even greater than it was during the violent days of the Troubles.  The suppliant approach of the likes of Toibin to the plutocratic assemblies of national worthies at Farmleigh, in the early days of the economic crash in 2008 or 2009, is illustrative of the meagre intellectual resources available to us now.   

    McKenzie Wark is a writer I have known of principally as a historian of the Situationists, but he's been active in many spheres of thought and politics.  Now teaching at the New School in Manhattan, he has a new book out from Verso, General Intellects, which tries, on an international scale, to pick out and give profiles of the most interesting intellectuals or critical thinkers of the generation after the great figures that someone of my generation grew up reading.   Nearly all of the great French radical thinkers are dead, though a few figures such as Badiou or Ranciere or Cixous still do important and striking work.  In Germany, Axel Honneth heads up the Frankfurt Institut, and Habermas still contributes to public debate.  But who comes after the giants who departed in the 1990s?   Scanning that newer terrain is the task Wark sets himself, and in so doing he stakes his own claim to join the new company.  Here is an excerpt from his new book, posted on the Verso site.  We in Ireland have a great deal to learn from him.


    Tuesday, 27 June 2017

    Prismatic Thought - 25,000 pageviews

    Comrades and friends!

    In an early masterpiece, Soul and Form, written before his revolutionary intervention in Marxism, Georg Lukács suggested that the forms of literature are like the spectrum created by sunlight shining through a prism.   In this array of beams, he suggested, critical thought and writing is like ultraviolet light.

    My hope is that this blog sometimes rises to the level of ultraviolet irradiation of the world and experience of what Adorno later called 'damaged life', whether in regard to Ireland or Palestine, or the world of ideas, politics and books, which are my principal interests.

    This blog has just attained the impressive figure of 25,000 pageviews, over its five year history.   Thank you to all of my readers, and I hope you'll keep reading!

    As indicated by the very fine contribution by Graham MacPhee, I am keen for friends and colleagues to offer guest posts.  If you are interested, please get in touch with me.


    Monday, 5 June 2017

    Israel IS The Occupation

    Let us at last talk candidly about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which attains its fifth decade today.  The State of Israel is 69 years old.  The occupation of the Palestinian territories is 50 years old.  A long time has passed since the occupation could reasonably be described as a temporary arrangement (to borrow from Albert Reynolds), or as necessitated by Israeli security (in a typical racist logic, Israeli security always trumps Palestinian security).  The two state solution has long been a diplomatic figleaf.  It is now a 'delusion', as the Irish-American political scientist Padraig O'Malley says.

    Very substantial historical evidence shows that Israel's swift and ruthless conquest of the Territories, and of Sinai and the Golan, in June 1967, was strategically and militarily unnecessary - it was not needed to secure Israel in the short or medium term.   Israel's leaders had long shown an interest in correcting the mistakes of 1948, and completing the conquest of all of historical Palestine, but David Ben-Gurion warned of the demographic problems such conquest would bring.  He was, of course, correct - see Ilan Pappe's new book Ten Myths About Israel.  But with Ben-Gurion retired, one major retarding influence on war was removed.  Israel has in the last few days released documentation of cabinet discussion in the immediate wake of the war, showing a variety of opinion in the government (which included Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban) about 'what to do with' the 'Arabs' of the West Bank, about the desirability of 'transferring' 'Arabs' out of East Jerusalem and replacing them with Jews, about the need for a security corridor along the Jordan valley, among other ideas.

    The point, then, is there is no radical break or difference between Israel before 1967, and Israel after 1967.  The Six-Day War was every bit as much about conquering Palestinian territory, for purposes of Israeli colonisation, as it was about neutralising Gamal Abdel Nasser or defeating Arab nationalism.  Just like 1948, the Six-Day War was accompanied by mass ethnic cleansing, since Zionism has always been thirsty to accumulate land but not Arabs - a further 300,000 Palestinians were displaced, to add to the 700,000 expelled in the earlier war.

    1967 was not the first evidence of Israel's character as a highly aggressive, expansionist settler-colonial regime, but it was conclusive.  The Six Day War was a war of choice, Israel started it, had already planned for it, and has never seriously looked back. 

    Corrective reading:

    In his superb Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Norman Finkelstein offered a meticulous demolition of the classic liberal myths of 1967.  Here he is interviewed by the editors of Mondoweiss:

    Norman Finkelstein on the Six-Day-War and its myths

    And also from Mondoweiss, an essay by one of Israel's most radical and distinguished sociologists, Gershon Schafir:

    Why has the Occupation lasted this long?


    Wednesday, 31 May 2017

    Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism - Lukacs to Jameson

    To mark the publication of two new books from Perry Anderson, Verso has posted excerpts from two of his earlier works - on Western Marxism - on its site.  These are analyses of the Western tradition and its culmination in Fredric Jameson, by a writer who himself is a major figure in that tradition.

    This blog has often proclaimed its admiration of Perry Anderson.   I first began to read him while a graduate student. It was not essays in the New Left Review that caught my eye, or indeed in the London Review of Books - by the early 1990s, when I discovered him, clearly his favoured venues - but rather a pair of formidable books which collected earlier essays stretching back to the 1960s.  English Questions brought together articles of Anderson's on British history - political history and intellectual history, including his contributions to the 'Nairn-Anderson theses', co-written with his equally brilliant colleague Tom Nairn.  A Zone of Engagement - the battlefield metaphor is apposite - collects superb profiles and critiques of international figures in the recent or contemporary history of ideas, such as Isaiah Berlin, Marshall Berman, Geoffrey de Ste Croix, Michael Mann, and Andreas Hillgruber.  The book culminates in a stunning 110 page essay on Francis Fukuyama,'The Ends of History', elucidating the genealogy of post-Hegelian philosophical history culminating in Gehlen, Kojeve, Niethammer and Fukuyama himself - an extraordinary virtuoso performance of erudition, critique and style.

    That last essay should not, in some ways, have been a surprise.  English Questions contains an essay equally exceptional though of a different kind.  'Components of the National Culture', published in 1969 when its author was under 30 years old, ranges over all the main currents in then-contemporary British intellectual culture - literary study, political theory, historiography, philosophy, economics.  Not merely this, but Anderson advances the radical idea that British intellectual culture had been shaped by a 'white immigration' - Namier, Wittgenstein, Berlin, among others - which had determined its characteristic conservative tenor in the twentieth century with its hostility to totalizing vision and its lack of a critical sociology. 'Components' shows all the virtues of 'The Ends of History' already in place - the extraordinary learning, the incisive critique, the polemical verve, the striking confidence across multiple disciplines - in a young scholar as yet without a firm academic position.

    If anyone thinks that I can only praise Anderson, that is not quite the case.  My disappointment in him is that he has never attended at any length to his Irish patrimony.  It's not that he denies his background in a republican Anglo-Irish family from Waterford; or that he is uninterested in or ignorant of Ireland - it's more, I suspect, that his whole career has been built on a deliberate will to complicate and alienate his inherited tradition - British and Irish - by the admixture of an exceptional range of European intellectual influences.  When asked by an incautious journalist if he was English, Beckett famously replied 'Au contraire', and I suspect Anderson would share the sentiment.  But his learning and acuity make me thirsty to see these capacities trained on Irish materials at some point.  In the same Beckettian mood, he'd agree with Adorno that one must have tradition in oneself in order to hate it properly.  That Anderson is aware of his Irish background is not to be doubted; that he has not yet shown it his analytical hatred is perhaps to be regretted.

    Nevertheless, his books on the Western Marxist tradition are one of the main strands in his own career.  Considerations on Western Marxism offers an account of the academic fate of defeated 'Western' Marxism (as compared to 'victorious' 'Eastern' Marxism institutionalised in the Soviet Union), in the post-1917 generations - Korsch, Gramsci and Lukacs, and then the Frankfurt School.   Arguments within English Marxism dramatised the debates about Marxist interpretations of British history in which Anderson was, along with figures such as Nairn, Ralph Miliband, and EP Thompson, a principal participant.   In the Tracks of Historical Materialism brought the story of Western Marxism up to the 1970s, with the structuralist moment in France, where historical materialism was replaced by what Anderson memorably referred to as the 'exorbitance of language' in thinkers such as Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida.  The Origins of Postmodernism, Anderson's study of the great American Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson, is the last movement in this quartet.

    So I am posting here, from the Verso site, sections from the first, second, and last books in this grouping.  No better reading will be found anywhere, I submit.

    Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism

    Tuesday, 30 May 2017

    Ruining the University

    Universities are one of the great inventions of that European civilization about which Gandhi expressed a wry sense of anticipation.  One of the engines of modernity, the intellectual powerhouses of culture and science, the very machinery of what creates humanity.  Unfortunately, one of the other engines of modernity - capitalism - has invested the bastions of the Western university with ever-greater success in the last 50 years or so.  I am not expressing some misbegotten nostalgia for the features - so delicately and sometimes hilariously teased open by Virginia Woolf in her glancing and brilliant essay A Room of One's Own - of the nineteenth-century university, which was largely attended by a small, aristocratic and haut-bourgeois, male, fraction of the population of Western countries.  It's been apparent for quite some time now that where, in the 1980s, defenders of the 'traditional' humanities such as Alvin Kiernan and Allan Bloom in America or Edna Longley in Ireland believed that the problem was 'theory' and the politicisation of humanistic studies, the real enemy was and is the arrival of market logic and managerial bureaucracy in the administration of universities.  In other words, the leaching of neoliberalism into every aspect of university life has vastly greater potential to damage culture and education than any conflation of 'Derry and Derrida' (Longley's witty but ludicrous and ignorant notion of Seamus Deane's literary-political project).

    Two of the best writers on this situation are Stefan Collini and Christopher Newfield.  The latter's Unmaking the Public University is one of the best studies of the attack on public higher education in America underway for the last couple of decades.  Collini, a brilliant veteran intellectual historian at Cambridge, has for some time been both analyzing and himself developing a powerful liberal public criticism in Britain. His collections of essays - Absent Minds and Common Reading - both delineate and push forward that essayistic criticism best represented in Britain by the London Review of Books, and by a proliferating range of journals in America such as the Los Angeles Review of Books and n+1.  More recently, Collini has turned his attention to the assault on the British university system by Conservative governments.  As Marina Warner has pointed out about him, Collini has ground his way through the interminable and dreary paperwork of the legislation which promises to destroy the great universities of Britain - an example perhaps of Foucault's 'relentless erudition' - and in doing so performed a major and exemplary act of critique in the service of the wide British public, precisely of the kind he earlier wrote about with such verve.  He has published his analyses in many fora, including the London Review, and also in two substantial books - What are Universities For? (2012), and Speaking of Universities, published earlier this year. 

    Here are two articles, both from the LARB, stemming from this work.  First Michael Meranze, a historian at UCLA, reviews Speaking of Universities:

    Remaking the University: The Idea of the English University

    Secondly, a review by Newfield of Andrew McGettigan's The Great University Gamble, an excoriating study of the marketisation of English higher education:

    The Counterreformation in Higher Education


    Sunday, 28 May 2017

    The Hollowing-Out of Universities Continues

    There has been much talk on the Right in the last decade (or more) of the damaging effects on university campuses in America, Britain and even in Ireland of 'political correctness' - allegedly attempts to silence dissent by militant cabals of students and professors who deploy the rhetorics of identity politics (feminisms, queer thought, black and postcolonialist movements).  Mostly, it must be said, the accusations of 'political correctness' come from the Right and the far Right, which seek to use the liberal forum of the university institution to advance highly illiberal ideas and policies.

    But now we have more concrete examples of the truly sinister and institutionally powerful 'political correctness' being mobilized by the neoliberal or managerial university, in the age of the 'war on terror' and of Trumpism.  Karma Nabulsi, a Palestinian teaching at St Edmund Hall Oxford, has written a brilliant article for the London Review of Books, revealing the ways that British government policies pitched against 'extremism' on campuses bleed into and infect the capillary activities of university life.  At this link, you can also listen to Professor Nabulsi on audio:

    And here is an article - from Jacobin -  showing the ever-widening gap between America's small number of rich universities and its state and public systems,  where the Ivy League reproduce privilege and inequality even as public education is filleted - just in case you had any other delusions about universities as sites of liberal values: