"I'm sorry for quoting U2 in a place where poetry has been performed"
Monday, 30 August 2010
Wednesday, 25 August 2010
That said, remember this?
And then Delboy fell through the bar, I know. But still. It was a funny meme. If memes existed, which they don't.
The child took it pretty well, considering, and had that direct way of looking at the situation that the pre-adolescent often does, asking blunt questions along the lines of 'can I come to the vet's?'. But then it got a little trickier. Having lost one cat, it naturally occurred to her to worry about the other.
'Is Schrodinger alright?'
Of course, the problem is, with a name like that, it's hard to be sure.
Monday, 23 August 2010
Background: Charlie Brooker wrote about the 'Ground Zero Mosque' nutters , in which he pointed out that it's not a mosque and not at Ground Zero, although oddly he didn't do the obvious and make it clear that there shouldn't be a problem if it was either or both of those things, as it would be rather like saying that Oscar Romero is the same as Alexander VI. Anyway, here's a particularly cretinous comment from some stupid bloody wingnut.
First of all that building was close enough to have the falling landing gear of the plane Muhammad Atta was on damage it. Secondly, they said they will hold Friday nite prayers in it so of course it's a mosque. This is not about religious freedom. It's about LOCATION. Do you think the Russians would be happy about a mosque being built in Beslan near the school where over two hundred kids were raped and shot in the back by terrorists? One more thing, I seem to remember a super mosque that was supposed to be built in London just in time for the olympics. The people protested about it and now the mosque isn't being built. Rather hypocritical of you isn't it?
The governor of New York wants to meet with them to suggest an alternative site but they flat out refuse to even consider it. Their present position is "We are going to cram this peace loving, bridge building mosque down the throats of you Americans whether you like it or not."
First of all that building was close enough to have the falling landing gear of the plane Muhammad Atta was on damage it.
You're saying that these terrorists were willing to risk damage to one of their own buildings*? How evil is that! Like TOTALLY evil. We're through the looking glass here, sheeple!
Secondly, they said they will hold Friday nite prayers in it so of course it's a mosque.
Or, is it a cultural centre with a prayer room in it?
This is not about religious freedom.
Or, is it? Because it kind of sounds like you're saying that people can't use their own building to worship in their own way and use that building to promote understandings between other people exercising their religious freedom in the way they want to. So, it kind of is about religious freedom really, isn't it? Just a little bit? Maybe?
It's about LOCATION.
Hmm, don't know about you, but if I was trying to think of anywhere for people to build some hope and understanding between faiths, somewhere near an awful reminder of what happens when people have an intolerant attitude towards others might be, oh I dunno, the perfect place to put it?
Do you think the Russians would be happy about a mosque being built in Beslan near the school where over two hundred kids were raped and shot in the back by terrorists?
Hey, Floridian, have a look at this:
Here are some Terrorists:
And here are some Muslims:
P.S. Islam is the second largest religion in North Ossetia-Alania, an independent republic within the Russian Federation, not actually in Russia. But wait, you don't want the great US of A to be judged by the standards of the RUSSIANS, do you, Floridian? Why do you HATE AMERICA?
One more thing, I seem to remember a super mosque that was supposed to be built in London just in time for the olympics. The people protested about it and now the mosque isn't being built.Rather hypocritical of you isn't it?
I have to admit, I'd never heard of this story, but then I don't live in that London, and anyway it does seem a tad racist to assume that Charlie Brooker would have opposed the Mosque because he is British. Presumably the Muslims who wanted to build the thing in the first place were British as were the community groups that opposed it. Not sure this is actually hypocritical in any way at all. Hang on a sec...
Nope, doesn't seem to apply. Perhaps hypocrisy doesn't mean what you think it means?
The governor of New York wants to meet with them to suggest an alternative site but they flat out refuse to even consider it.
What, you mean they don't see why they should move from their own building just because some hysterical racists are shouting at them? They won't back down from a project whose explicit point is to combat idiotic ideas like yours? I wonder why ever not?
Their present position is "We are going to cram this peace loving, bridge building mosque down the throats of you Americans whether you like it or not."
Or, 'we're not going to let a bunch of hysterical racists stop us'? Sounds kind of, you know, courageous to me. Also, Veiled Penis Reference, too.
But anyway, in conclusion Floridian, you thought building a mosque was insensitive? Check THIS out.
*It's OK to read CiF if it's for Charlie Brooker, it's like eating a sandwich whilst you're walking.
**I just found Floridian 123's dictionary. I see the problem, because under 'Mooslem' it just says 'See terrists'
Thursday, 19 August 2010
As previously when I've done talks like this, the below is more or less what I meant to say, any resemblance to my actual, stammering and highly eclectic delivery is purely coincidental. Enjoy...
Every socialist will have heard this objection to socialism. You've got someone to agree that the current system doesn't work, that the credit crunch shows some basic problems with the system, that it's unfair that some have so much and others so little, but then you come to propose socialism as an alternative. 'Ah, but that's human nature, isn't it? You've always got to have leaders. Some people always rise to the top. People are naturally selfish/greedy/bastards.' That's why doing a speech on this topic is brilliant, because tonight we'll have the space to actually talk about why this is not an effective objection, rather than, as I usually do, to myself on the bus home.
In my experience, people believe that this is their trump card, the insuperable objection. It's all very well wanting equality, but in the end we're all a bunch of selfish buggers, right? Good point. From littering to murder we can think of all manner of examples of selfish behaviour. Indeed, the political party with the largest number of parliamentary seats is explicitly based on the politics of greed and self-interest. So how do we explain the fact that we are still socialists? There are only 2 options:
- This brilliant objection had never occurred to us before
- We think we have a good response.
Since every time you mention your politics this is brought up by someone, I think we can discount a, even if you don't credit us with the smarts to have thought of it ourselves (a point of view that implies that socialists emerge fully-formed from some kind of Damascene conversion). That leaves us with b. So what might a socialist response consist of?
There are really three aspects to the question:
- What is human nature?
- What is socialism?
- Is 1 incompatible with the aims of 2?
Some people have argued that there is no such thing as human nature at all – that humanity is some kind of tabula rasa on which all behaviours are written by social and cultural influences. I won't be arguing this, but rather that although some human behaviours can be seen as universal, the expression of those behaviours does not sum up human nature and that social factors hugely influence some behaviours and completely determine others. This, I think, suggests that human nature is perfectly compatible with our idea of socialism.
Some human behaviours are universal. Language is the most obvious example – all human cultures have complex languages. We are speaking, and because of that thinking, apes. Other candidates for universal behaviour include play, laughter, and tool use. You will notice from my examples that these are broad and general formal categories, they describe a general form of behaviour but no specifics. All humans laugh, but do they all titter? I honestly couldn't tell you. All humans speak, but clearly not all humans speak about Peter Mandelson's autobiography, or the advantages of Python over Perl.
Not even the person who has told you that socialism is impossible because we're all too nasty or selfish would agree that all human behaviour is essential to our nature. There is no gene to code for writing Star Trek fan fiction. So we're talking about defining what is essential to humanity and what is not, in general terms. We've already looked at some things that all humans seem to do independently of culture. So what kinds of things are particularly socially constructed, other than fan fiction?
First off there are social institutions – these clearly have only social roots, responding to a social set of circumstances and defined entirely by social relations. Money, schools and religions fall into this category. But more than that we are, as Aristotle so neatly put it, 'political animals' – animals that by our very natures exist in communities, that are social not through choice but because it is one of the things that define us. We can only have a concept of selfishness at all because it stands in opposition to our ideas of communal behaviour: selfishness is a feature of our political natures, usually defined in a negative way against our presumed social obligations rather than in accordance with them – that, I think, is our intuitive understanding of selfishness.
The idea of the individual, isolated human as a major philosophical idea begins with the Enlightenment and Rationalist thinkers, such as Descartes, with his solipsistic evil demon, and the Empiricists like Hume and Locke, for whom individual perceptions were the building blocks of philosophy. This isolationist tendency in philosophy is mirrored in the phenomenon of alienation that is produced by capitalist society.
It is sometimes thought that Marxism is somewhat crass, that it reduces the complexity of human interaction to an economic basis, but of course for Marxists, economics form the base of what humans are able to do, and society is the superstructure built on top of this base. One of my favourite quotations from Marx is about just this phenomenon: men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not do it under conditions of their own choosing. In other words, how our society is structured is fundamentally governed by how we put food on the table – how society produces for itself. So, what is alienation, why does capitalism lead to it, and what does this have to do with human nature?
To take the last question first – from a Marxist point of view, any society will emphasise certain human characteristics over others, according to how it is organised. Theft, for example, is a big issue in capitalist societies, where most things are held as private property and therefore taking most things without asking, or paying: food from a supermarket, a train journey without a ticket, burglary, are seen as theft. A society which does not hold most things to be private property would of course not have such an obsession with who owns what. Alienation is not a conscious product of capitalism, but a result of the way people relate to each other under this form of production, and I will argue is a big factor in why people make the 'human nature argument' against socialism, although they may not be aware of it.
Of course at this point many people cry foul over Marxist argument, as with the related idea of false consciousness: 'how can you tell me that what I think I'm thinking isn't at all what I'm thinking! I know I'm selfish sometimes and I'm not a capitalist, you're being very presumptive about being able to determine my psychological motivations here!' And it's important to distinguish between what we can say about the general forms of capitalism and the motivations of individuals. What we can say is that the way in which our society produces for itself means that the individuals in it are alienated in certain ways. This doesn't tell us how any individual will choose to act but it does tell something of the general ways in which people relate to each other.
So what is alienation? There are several possible ways of approaching it, but one which most people will recognise is that sense of disconnectedness from those around us, sometimes focused on the workplace, at other times more difficult to place. Alienation can be in the pointless meeting you've got to attend, or when watching the telly and realising that there is nothing on that was made with you or your tastes in mind. At these moments we feel disconnected from those we work with, disconnected from the culture that we should be able to identify with.
But alienation goes far deeper than this – consumer culture is itself a form of and response to alienation. Capitalism produces commodities at a rate far outstripping any previous mode of production, and the defining way that it achieves this is mass-production. Mass-production in a capitalist system forces redundancy (because capitalists compete with each other to generate profit and need to maintain growth in order to increase those profits) – resulting in endless iterations of objects and the idea of artefacts as inherently disposable. A good example of this is the iPhone, which although only launched about 5 years ago has gone through 4 iterations, each marketed as utterly superior not only to its competitors but also to the model that preceded it. So we come to think of objects around us as impermanent, transitory and without substance.
Mass-production creates millions of identical objects. When we see Toy Story, for example, the toys in it are instantly recognisable. Each Mr Potatohead or Barbie is after all identical to all the others. The result of this is that even the objects of play that we are presented with as children are throwaway – if my son has an Optimus Prime and his friend has an Optimus Prime, they have two completely identical toys. There is no uniqueness to the objects we purchase.
Mass-production places the actual making of objects, from the morning Weetabix we eat to the cars we drive, outside of most of our objects of experience. If I work on a production line at Toyota, I will may have a part in the making of the car I drive, but I will have had no part in making my Tesco's pizza. Most of the objects of our experience are obtained with no intervention from ourselves other than the exchange of currency. We are alienated from the things around us because we have no direct connection to them.
Perhaps most importantly, mass production places us in a position of powerlessness in relation to many of the objects that we own. If I need a table, it is still possible for me to go down to B&Q (other builder's merchants are available) and buy the wood I need to make it, and thus create an object purely for my own use. But I cannot put together a mobile phone or a computer in the same way. If I want a commodity I may be able to choose between different suppliers, but I cannot relate to the object as anything other than a commodity – it is produced to be sold more than it is produced to be used.
The wider system of capitalism alienates us from people around us. At work we are often in competition with our workmates, we are keenly aware that there are only so many jobs and more than that we in most cases have no control over our economic lives. We do not set our own wages, or our own hours. We do not choose who we work with or the way we approach our jobs. The lower the pay you're on, the more likely this situation is to be true. More than this, because capitalism is a very particular mode of production, where things are made not on the basis of need but on the basis that they will be sold, there is a sort of creeping tendency to assign everything a monetary value. Indeed, as capitalists have sought to find new markets to expand into, new arenas of profit, we have seen the creation of markets in water, in pollution – effectively parcelling up the air we breath, and even in government itself, through PFI and PPPs.
So capitalism is not only an economic model but one which defines the way society works and affects the way we relate to the people around us. The essence of capitalism is competition and private wealth. These are the driving motors of capitalism and why the logical endpoint of capitalism is Gordon Gekko's famous comment that 'greed is good' – it is somewhat telling of course that what was intended as an indictment of the relentless pursuit of profit was enthusiastically taken up as a slogan.
What effects might the profit motive have on human behaviour? In the USA people are paid for their blood donations. This means that blood is donated by people who are in need of money quickly, and is looked down upon socially. Another effect is that the blood is more frequently found to have infections – the only major illness outbreak resulting from transfusions in the UK, where blood donation is voluntary, came from a batch of blood bought from New York. Bringing in the profit motive can undermine the idea of public service itself, not just by changing the motivation from those involved in delivering it from public duty to personal enrichment, but by changing the general public perception of the nature of the service. Revelations about the levels of pay in the top levels of the NHS, or major charities like Oxfam, affect how people think about those organisations and reduce the public's support for them.
Just to briefly sum up, then: what does all this suggest? Well, along with the idea that we are animals whose nature is shaped by the social forces we encounter, and the idea that the social forces produced by capitalism do not simply encourage greed, but also alienation and commodity fetishism, there is the undeniable public-spirited side to human nature that is revealed in the reaction to inroads to public-sector work being made by the profit motive. Capitalism has no choice but to encourage the profit motive, and with it the selfishness, alienation and greed that characterises it.
One of the questions I started this talk with was: what is socialism? It's a difficult question to answer, because socialism envisages a world without an exploiting class, one in which the workers enjoy real economic and political power – which of course unfortunately also means that we cannot say what a lot of it will look like, since the decision is not ours to make. As revolutionary socialists, we look forward to the day that we are no longer needed. What then, the question should perhaps be, does socialism offer? Socialism offers the opposite to capitalism. It is fundamentally co-operative, food is put on the table not by competing consumers but by the agreement of all, by workers who are in control and where there is no class of people profiting from the work of others. Since human nature is to be sociable, adaptable and co-operative, and since capitalism makes us so unhappy and unfulfilled, not only is human nature not incompatible with socialism, human nature will actually benefit from it.
Update: This may be of use.
Tuesday, 17 August 2010
The Guardian's sub-heading on their piece about the response to the donation is slightly odd:
Armed forces charity delighted to accept book proceeds but opponents of war say it will not change their views on former PM
I love the 'but' there. I assume the Graun weren't actually expecting Stop the War to pack up on receipt of this announcement, with a collective 'Oh, that's alright then' and a shrug of shoulders. The consensus building is that this is 'guilt money', which is a politer word than 'blood money' I suppose, but in the context of Blair almost certainly inappropriate. As one of the anti-war protesters interviewed by Sky says: Blair couldn't even say sorry at Chilcott, in fact he insists he has nothing to feel guilty about.
This may or may not be how Blair actually feels of course, but let's assume that it is for the moment. If it's not guilt then what is it?
To me it's a symbol of one of the uglier successes of Thatcherism: the return of philanthropy. In the nineteenth century, capitalists who'd grown fat on the suffering, poverty and dangers they exposed their workers to would build a park or a meeting hall with some small portion of the wealth they'd expropriated, and in return for the generosity of foisting their opinion of what the working masses needed on them, the amenity would have their name on it somewhere and an official expression of gratitude would be made.
This kind of patrician attitude began to wither after the second World War as a more egalitarian consensus was gradually formed. This phenomenon has come to be known as the 'end of deference' and it was brought about in an era where workers gained huge increases in standards of living, unions were strong and the modestly redistributive economic model of Keynesianism was in vogue.
Thatcher of course changed all that. Capitalists were now, in an Orwellian turn of phrase that operates in stark contrast to the way economics actually works, 'wealth creators', and over the next two decades ideas like 'society', 'public service' and 'equality' were chipped away at, undermined, until shows like Dragon's Den and Secret Millionaire could appear on our screens without shame.
Blair shows the brazen apotheosis of the return to philanthropy. With one gesture he seems to believe that his calumny can be mitigated, that people will remember that he's a 'pretty straight guy'. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the squandered lives and resources on misbegotten imperialist adventures, the antagonism, hostility and nationalistic fallout, these are as nothing, because he has the thing that makes everything go away, that makes it all better. 'Here's some money.'
*I wanted to call this piece The Book, The Thief, His Life and Their Millions, but he's only a thief in the sense of having stolen hundreds of thousands of people's lives, which of course makes him a murderer. And 'murder' doesn't scan.
Saturday, 14 August 2010
Friday, 13 August 2010
Thursday, 12 August 2010
I'm speaking on human nature and socialism next week. Could be interesting. I'll post up the gist of it afterwards. Not done one of these for a while so it'll be interesting to see if I can remember how to speak to a room half-full of very argumentative people. Come along if you've got nothing better to do, why don't you?
I've not finalised what I'm going to say yet, but it'll probably have a bit of Vygotsky, a bit of John Molyneux, a splash of Wittgenstein, and some Toy Story 3 for good measure.
Monday, 9 August 2010
As a Marxist analysis this makes sense, and puts Toy Story firmly within the tradition of mainstream Hollywood cinema and particularly in children's features.
Where I think it is not complete is that it rather ignores the reason why so many people have been critically admiring of it. As a criticism it looks at the fundamental structure of the narrative and characters rather than the plot.
The thing about Toy Story 3, and what makes it a blub-worthy* film, is that it is a coming-of-age tale, or perhaps more specifically a rite-of-passage movie. The story is of the toys coming to terms with the loss of their owner, because the owner has outgrown them. Of course, as adults we recognise our own experiences of finding oneself too old to play, of having to put away childish things. In Toy Story 3, Andy does so without regret but with a sense of loss - which I know I could identify with. And as with Andy there was one toy which I didn't want to leave behind me, and which has survived all the moves back and forth around the country more or less intact, though usually just stuffed in a box somewhere and never actually out on display.
For Lenin, our attachment to toys is a symbol of our sick late-capitalist culture, where we attach affection and recognisable cultural tropes to inanimate, mass-produced objects - things incapable of returning our love and identical to the playthings of millions of others around the world. There is some truth in this of course, but not a whole truth.
Humans, I think we can all agree, are natural anthropomorphisers. You can see this in the polytheistic societies of ancient Greece, the medieval anthropomorphic personification of Death, and in what Daniel Dennett calls 'the intentional stance' (the idea that we adopt towards people an expectation that they will behave as though they have beliefs and desires and that this is a stance that can be adopted towards non-human things as well, on occasion). So in the way in which people play with toys Pixar have it right - especially as children we simply do bestow inanimate objects with intentionality and personality. The fact of the means of production of these objects is not relevant as an object of conscious experience to the child playing with them.
Some Marxists deny that there is any such thing as 'human nature' and of course human nature is a lot more flexible than is sometimes assumed.** Nevertheless there are some behaviours that humans engage in pretty much universally, and one of these is play. The actual form of play is culturally determined, but the act of play is not (although the extent to which play is encouraged or denied is - the point here is that given the opportunity, children play, by themselves and in groups). In American and other late capitalist cultures the form of play is recognisable in Toy Story and therefore provides the familiar cultural context to the theme of maturity and loss to engross an audience in the story.
Some reviewers have pointed out the comparisons with Winnie-the-Pooh in this theme. Winnie-the-Pooh offers a similar, though notably less commodified theme when Christopher Robin tells Pooh that he will have to go off to school, and won't see so much of him any more.
Vygotsky, in his essay on play, says that
play is such that the explanation for it must always be that it is the imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires. Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action. The old adage that children’s play is imagination in action can be reversed: we can say that imagination in adolescents and schoolchildren is play without action.Play therefore is fundamentally developmental, and the leaving behind of a particular way of thinking, which is to say a way of life. This acknowledgement of change and loss is the heart of Toy Story 3, regardless of the bastardised culture that it finds expression in.
Judging from the scale of its box office it seems to do this rather well - although the extent to which people identify reasons for seeing it with this portrait of change is of course arguable - but I do think that any analysis of the film that leaves out this dimension to the story has missed something fundamental.
* I should probably add my personal attitude to Toy Story briefly. I have a great deal of fondness for a lot of the Pixar films (Up and Wall-E especially) but I have no great memory of the first 2 Toy Story films. I went to see Toy Story 3 and enjoyed it a lot, but not, if I'm honest as much as Up or Wall-E. Still had a (manly) tear in my eye at the end though.
**I don't just mean 'God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve' type moronicism, but rather that without a considered critique of the role social institutions have played in our development we have not really begun to approach what that nature might consist of and are instead lazily applying culturally loaded ideas like 'humans are naturally greedy'. For a good discussion see here.
N.B. I've edited the bit on anthropomorphisation slightly as I realised that the whole paragraph had become somewhat sidetracked into human nature a bit prematurely.