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Veblen, Lasch, Debord: The 20th Century's Three Most Cogent Social Critics

[Contribution towards a proposed festschrift for Nina Fishman (1946-2009)]
Today is the first anniversary of the death of Nina Fishman, political historian, activist and a very dear friend of mine. Nina's personality and energy was a bonding force for a whole group of friends: through various campaigns, through numerous dinners at her home, Wigmore concerts and operas, and through the political Supper Club she inaugurated which continued successfully for over a decade. 

Nina loved politics, music, art, food and most of all people, which is to say that she was a humanist in the oldest and most generic sense of that term. That means, in short, she believed that despite the vast diversity of character and opinion, we have sufficient in common to be able to claim solidarity with all humans. Nina was not especially interested in that narrow and rather desiccated humanism that exists solely to combat religion and promote secularism (she was fairly relaxed about religion), nor was she much…

Cat Out Of Bag

Lord Young did us all a favour by telling a bald truth about the current economic situation in his recent commentsto the Daily Telegraph, where he claimed:

"For the vast majority of people in the country today they have never had it so good ever since this recession – this so-called recession – started, because anybody, most people with a mortgage who were paying a lot of money each month, suddenly started paying very little each month. That could make three, four, five, six hundred pounds a month difference, free of tax. That is why the retail sales have kept very good all the way through."This revealing revamp of Harold Macmillan's famous boast of 1957 infuriated David Cameron because it punches a hole right through his stealth strategy. The brutal truth that Young let out of the bag is that this is now indeed two nations: those who have jobs and own their homes, versus those who rent, are in low paid jobs or are not employed. This glaring inequality is not, as so many …

The Enragés of the Right

Following a link from the Open Democracy website to a Roger Scruton article about "the political class" lead me to the American Spectator site, a truly fascinating expedition that I would never otherwise have made. Scruton's article started out fairly interesting, in a Weberian sort of way, but abruptly degenerated towards the end into a shameless pandering to the Tea Party public. But the really fascinating part was reading the comments, some of which verge on the deranged.

My first experience of America was in 1970, staying with friends on New York's upper west side, where they introduced me to two utterly crucial books - Norman Cohn's "The Pursuit of the Millenium" and Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Both books are more relevant today than when first published, but I fear that much today's audience is too dumbed-down to get much benefit from either. If you want empirical evidence that the paranoid sty…

Chile Leads the Way?

The successful rescue of the trapped Chilean miners generated a most extraordinarily rich set of messages: technical, political-economic, historical, ideological, symbolic and simply dramatic. No one who watched TV coverage of the first breakthrough of the pilot shaft or the emergence of the first rescued miner from the Phoenix capsule could fail to be moved by stoic calm of the trapped miners nor the joy of the waiting relatives. The technical message is not unlike that of the first moon landing, that our technology, when applied with sufficient dedication and resolve can overcome the most extreme hostile environments.

The political-economic message is profoundly appropriate to our current world situation, namely that there's still a vital role for the State and that market forces mustn't be allowed always to prevail. It surely must have been more cost-effective for the mine's owners not even to search for those trapped by the collapse and simply to pay compensation to t…

Tea Party with Cable Guy

I haven't posted here for a while, largely because the world is getting too weird for rational commentary and I've been hiding out in the Appenines trying to pretend it doesn't exist. The Republican Party appears to have been taken over by ex-hippy, proto-fascist witches but no-one knows whether that will help or hinder it in the coming mid-term elections - that depends on what proportion of the Great American Public are proto-fascist ex-hippies.

In the UK it appears that there are only two people left standing with the cojones to say bad things about the business culture of the City and predatory finance capital - and one of them is Governor of the Bank of England! If either he or Vince Cable should fall under a bus over the next few weeks, a Kennedy-strength investigation and cover-up will be required....

Actually there are three people currently talking sense - David Marquand's article in the latest issue of Renewal is a very lucid account of where we're stuck. …

Sampling Reality

I've been writing a book, tentatively called "Mind Out Of Matter" which puts the case for a revived materialist philosophy and sociology, taking in the latest findings of neuroscience and information theory, together with some outside-the-mainstream ideas from philosophers such as Spinoza and Santayana. My goal is to help "legitimise" the emotions as essential, biological and inescapable components of reason - that is, to rescue them from being treated with suspicion by rationalists and fetishised by romantics. The whole work, in two parts, is still under revision, and I'm having a tough time finding a paper publisher given the book's uncategorizable nature. 


I've therefore decided to release the earlier part, which covers some new ideas about information theory and neurophyisiology, as a separate work via the web, free of charge, just to get the ideas out there. You can download this abridged work, called "Sampling Reality" under a Creativ…

An Algebra of Xenophobia

I start from the paradoxical axiom, that:

    "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who believe there's only one kind of people in the world".

The proposition is then that I belong to both kinds.

OK, it's a variation on a very old logician's joke, but playing with it for a while can illuminate a few political truths. People of the second kind might be humanists who believe that we are all of the same species and all have the same rights, regardless of skin colour, religion, culture and so on. The people who wrote the UN Charter of Human Rights were believers of  this sort (but so also were the Jacobins). However people of the second kind might equally be religious or secular pessimists who believe that all humans without exception are greedy, violent, egotistical, thoroughly bad lots: they long for the end of the world or the extinction of our species like a few Deep Greens or extreme …

To Avoid Confusion

It's come to my attention, thanks to the wonder of Google, that there's another site called Caustic Comments out there on the interweb, and what's more it's a fundamentalist Protestant site connected with Dr Ian Paisley. Now I don't intend to change the name of my blog, but to avoid any confusion, mine is the one that's just as rude about Protestants as Catholics. No Popery (or potpourri)! John Knox was a numpty!

Koan for Cocker

A throw-away line of Jarvis Cocker's in a Guardian interview, "I would like to believe in an afterlife; it makes things more palatable. But I'm not banking on it" struck me as neatly encoding a fundamental linguistic/philosophical truth. Take Cocker's observation and replace the word "afterlife" with anything at all and the sentence retains its sense: 

I would like to believe in an orange bluebell.
I would like to believe in an effective mayor of London.
I would like to believe in intelligent life on another planet.
I would like to believe in a free market.
I would like to believe in a Lib/Lab coalition.

We're all free to believe in any of these things, and we would all be wise not to "bank" (unfortunate word perhaps) on their existence. Precisely because there is no afterlife IT DOESN'T MATTER IN THE END, or to put it another way IT'S ALL MATTER IN THE END. 

Cool Rulers?

"The Blair government has embarked on a more radical program of reform of British institutions than many expected, but it is a program that seeks to cut out  dead wood from both the left and the right; welfare dependency as well as hereditary peers, entrenched anti-business attitudes as well as social exclusion. To the extent that the New Labour project involves demolishing the legacy of World War Two and the post-war consensus, Cool might seem to be an appropriate ‘branding’ for the party. Certainly the Tories appear to think so, and their choice of a new spin-doctor  suggests that the main priority for Tory strategists is not currently to produce vote-winning policies, but to rebrand  themselves as the ‘Naturally Cool Party’. This is not quite as daft as it sounds, since a Tory party with softened social policies might be able to attack New Labour from a libertarian direction - perhaps even by promising to legalise drugs, though we wish lots of luck to the person who first trie…

Left for Dead

I don't believe that the LibDem/Conservative coalition is a sham, and that Cameron will shortly cast off his mask and emerge as a blood-thirsty tyrant. The bad news is that even so, next week's package of emergency cuts will mark the final demise of the British Left.

We have just lived through a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Left, with neo-liberalism revealed as completely bankrupt, banks and "market forces" universally detested and a feeling in the air that structural change  was finally possible. Yet the Left has failed so comprehensively to grasp this opportunity that the Right's agenda of devastating cuts predominantly loaded onto the public sector has prevailed. Everyone talks as if the deficit is the only important problem, that immediate cuts are necessary. I feel desperately sorry for the BA cabin staff who are set to be the first victims. Any sort of halfway sensible Left could have told them that now is not the time for a showdown, but instead …

Beckenstein

The most amusing episode of the post-election limbo days was that spat between Alistair Campbell and Adam Boulton of Sky News. Who'd have thought that I'd ever be rooting for Alistair Campbell to pick a fist fight... and win it. That Peter Capaldi would definitely have clocked him. The less amusing side of the affair is that it made me wonder whether Sky News is revving itself up to become a Fox News for the UK. 

Coalition looks like it might prevent the Tory Right from fulfilling its revenge fantasies, so it would be quite convenient for them to have a malign goblin chattering from the sidelines whenever any LibDem-tainted compromise comes before parliament.  I'm sure they're constructing a Glenn Beck replica somewhere in an attic, perhaps using stem cells from Norman Tebbit and Play Dough. Just need to wait for a thunderstorm... Igor, fetch the jump leads.

The Vatican's Travails

I recently finished Henri Lefebvre's "Critique of Everyday Life", the 1991 Michel Trebitsch translation of which has just been republished in three paperback volumes by Verso. I'd been aware of this work's reputation since the '60s when it was a major influence on Guy Debord, but had never until now read it, and I was quite bowled over. Parts of it read badly now, as overly-pious Marxist rhetoric (it was first published in 1947) but there are other parts that display a brilliance unmatched by any current social critic. Most surprising of all is the lucid and poetic prose in which much of it's written, and nowhere more than in the odd essay that concludes Vol 1 called "Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside". In it Lefebvre describes his relationship to the Catholicism of his youth, provoked by a visit to a small country church. You really should read it all, but I'm quoting a few of the more powerful passages here as my modes…

Ghost in the Party Machine

I just read a thought-provoking review of Roman Polanski's "The Ghost" by Michael Wood in the LRB. Wood didn't think it was a  great movie, though he believes as I do that Polanski is a great director. What set me to thinking were two throwaway lines in his review: the first was that "Polanski has said that he is not interested in politics, and I believe him"; the second, about the movie's principal character Adam Lang (a Tony Blair figure) was that unlike everyone else he feels at home on the grim island because "he is a politician, he is indifferent to places: he brings himself along, so what more could he want?"

This triggered queries as to what politics means nowadays, and what it means not to be interested in it. Perhaps there are now three totally disjoint populations in the land:

1) those who are not interested in politics, which means in practice that they are only interested at worst in themselves, or at best in their families and fri…

Inequality Drives You Mad

Having watched the Election 2010 debate on TV last night, there remains no doubt in my mind that all three of the major UK parties are still wedded to economically illiterate neo-liberal policies - from which they can only be briefly and reluctantly budged, and to which they will revert as soon as the threat of economic armageddon recedes far enough for them to turn on the feel-good rhetoric again. In an extract from his new book "Ill Fares the Land" in the latest New York Review of Books, Tony Judt accuses the Left of a total failure of nerve on both sides of the Atlantic: "Social democrats today are defensive and apologetic. Critics who claim that the European model is too expensive or economically inefficient have been allowed to pass unchallenged. And yet, the welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidized education, or reducing public provision of …

Systematically distorted communication

Systematically distorted communication, originally uploaded by dick_pountain. To celebrate our forthcoming election fun

Election 2010

My initial enthusiasm for New Labour after they drubbed the Tories in 1997 didn't last very long: it suffered a deep wound over the Bernie Ecclestone affair and then a took a fatal head shot from Blair's promotion of the Iraq invasion (I don't take the attitude that he was Bush's poodle: he pushed rather than followed Bush). Since then I've remained in a state of quiet fury as the party proved entirely incapable or unwilling to throw off the ideological mantle of Thatcherism that it donned in order to be returned to power.

Again, I don't take the orthodox Left line that New Labour entirely wasted its term in office. As I ride the 29 bus, free thanks to my Freedom Pass, past the eye-catching green tower of the new University College Hospital it would be deeply dishonest to claim that New Labour wasted all my tax pounds. No, what has infuriated me for the last 10 years is that while spending on worthwhile projects like these, the party has absolutely refused to …

Cox on the Box

I'm feeling an addict's first twinges of withdrawal now that Brian Cox's excellent BBC 2 science series Wonders of the Solar System has finished. I'll admit that I didn't warm to the series as soon as I should have, put off by press descriptions of Cox as the "Rock-Star Professor". His Jamie-Oliver-like elfin cuteness put my back up at first sight too, portending a torrent of Disney-fied gush and wonder, and I expected that the content would be a rehash of every other astronomy series of the past 20 years. I couldn't have been more wrong. 


Slowly but surely throughout the series Cox used the existence of the other bodies in our solar system as a framework on which to integrate all the latest findings in terrestrial geology, geography and biology, but in such a subtle fashion that you hardly noticed him doing it. He did plenty of whizzing around the world in helicopters, jet fighters and submarines to keep the Top Gear crowd watching, but never for the …

In Memoriam: Charlie Gillett

Charlie Gillett, a great musicologist, DJ and evangelist for grown-up popular music has died at the age of 68 of a rare auto-immune disorder. I knew Charlie briefly in the early 1970s when we both wrote for Bob Houston's short-lived but excellent music magazine Cream - we shared a taste for obscure rockabilly, free jazz and US soul music of the "golden age" (before the accursed Philly Sound).  His book on rhythm and blues, The Sound of The City is still the definitive explanation of the roots of the post-war revolution in popular music. 
But Charlie meant more still to me for his radio show "Honky Tonk" which ran every Sunday from 1972 through 1978 on  BBC Radio London. I looked forward to that show throughout the week, and the sheer quality and originality of his choices helped to keep me sane during the depressing and disillusioned days of the early '70s. I first heard Elvis Costello and Ian Dury thanks to Charlie, whose role as a pre-punk prophet has yet …

Photo Shopping

By chance I caught a BBC Radio 4 programme that I'd never heard of called "You and Yours" yesterday (listen here) and it covered the most extraordinary story. The seaside town of Whitley Bay, Northumbria, has a blighted town-centre typical of the area in which 49 shops are currently derelict. However an enterprising estate agent there had the brilliant idea of pasting a life-sized photograph of a luxury delicatessen over one of the shop windows, and it's been so well received that others will soon follow. People say it makes the place less depressing, and it may even slow the crumbling of property prices.

You could hardly make this story up - the "Society of the Spectacle" reveals its actuality, and completely without embarassment. Perhaps we should carry on further down this road, pasting photographs of palaces and hospitals onto derelict warehouse, and all of us going around in smiling Johnny Depp masks. Modern digital photo technologies should keep such …

Facing Up to the Falklands

In today's Observer Nick Cohen offers a lucid and dignified confession (here) that most of the British Left, himself included, were wrong in 1982 to oppose Thatcher's military expedition to liberate the Falkland Islands from Argentine invasion. He goes on to discuss the US neocons' support for Argentina in that conflict, and explains clearly how the Left bamboozled itself with an anti-imperialist rhetoric that had more to do with visceral hatred of Thatcher than with common sense (what was the Argentine junta doing if not imperialism?) The Left has never recovered from the political damage it suffered then.
The main point of his article is that the current spat over Falklands oil is unlikely to lead to war, but that if it does the Left should support Britain, and that he believes that this time the Obama administration would too. I applaud this display of realism but must confess to one nagging suspicion. His entirely-correct line of reasoning vis a vis the Falklands campai…

Predator: the Next Installment

In a previous post here I expressed my admiration for James K Galbraith's 2008 book "The Predator State", in which the US economist describes the way a cabal of politicians, bankers, businessmen, bent union officials and downright gangsters hijacked the social democratic state institutions created in the aftermath of World War II. The levers that Roosevelt's New Deal invented with which to regulate the economy, in these corrupt hands became shovels with with to loot the public purse.


When I reviewed this book for Political Quarterly (Volume 80 Issue 3, pp443-5, July 2009), for an instant I wondered whether its argument represents some sort of paranoid conspiracy theory, perhaps because I'd just been reading James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. However Galbraith's sober and lucid arguments, illustrated with impeccably sourced statistics, soon convinced me otherwise. Events since then (only a year ago) have further reinforced that conviction, that Galbrai…