Just got around to reading this review essay, of a book by sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity. It sounds a bit beyond my reading comprehension (“demands that you have a theory graduate seminar or two under your belt”) and I don’t know if “molar hierarchies” derive from chemistry or dentistry; but the above quote, seemingly from the book itself, is a very lucid summation of what Foucault discusses in his last two lecture series.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the Scottish referendum result and what it says about how we as individuals ‘take sides’, and make political choices which, crucially, feed back into our sense of community. First, on the empirical side - because this may not be evident in the news reporting focusing on party politics or national emoting: there was a strong class gradient in the voting, as measured by opinion poll ‘social grade’ (60/40 amongst the ABs) and the fact that the four districts that voted Yes have higher unemployment rates, as well as gender (women more likely to oppose) and age (over-65s the strongest No voters, by a ratio of nearly 3:1).
My pessimistic reading of the result - and this is somewhat undermined by the fact that 45% did vote Yes overall - is that the populace of an advanced capitalist society, when posed a direct question about the structural underpinnings of it, are unlikely to choose the more radical option in the face of what the establishment terms - and creates - ‘uncertainty’. Everything being so interconnected, individual freedom and security so limited and circumscribed in economic terms, by employers and by the government, means that the risk is too great: except for the voter moved by a greater cause, or with much less invested in the current system (the over-65s, naturally, were particularly concerned about pensions). The narrative that the Scots ‘bottled’ it, that it was a failure of national will, seems to me distasteful in respect of perceived practicalities (not to mention reasonable disagreements about the role of sovereignty) but does express in some sense the ethical demand of parrhesia, the ‘courage of truth’.
Of course what this ‘truth’ entails is, eminently, debatable. Foucault, the Enlightment sceptic and anti-rationalist, notes more than once I think that what he is looking at in discussing parrhesia is how the truth was perceived, as a part of discourse, not so much what it actually was. At the same time relativism is irrelevant, because parrhesia is not about stating a truth, but the truth, at least in the context of that particular discourse, its subjects and political organisation. It is ultimately about power (and knowledge). It’s also about how democracy works, or is supposed to work, in a social setting ultimately defined by who speaks and how.
Like I said before, I have my deep historical and cultural scepticism of nationalism, and ‘independence’ so defined. I’m also aware that there was a broad swathe of non-nationalist support for independence, from the Scottish Greens to the Radical Independence Campaign group of leftists, against the opposition of the centre-left insofar as it is represented by UK/Scottish Labour and (some) of the trade union movement. If I knew more about the particular political, economic and social circumstances of Scotland I might be more willing to venture an opinion (though it still wouldn’t really be my place). It comes back to the Irish experience: I don’t see our establishment as any better than the British one, while our left is still as much of a social and political minority as it was before independence, if not more.
There is that seductive idea, however, that self-determination represents a genuine kind of democratic being (though the category of self-determination is I think inevitably awkward). That even in defeat, the referendum, in the words of one academic, has created Scotland as a ‘more serious polity’. That this creates a demand for more democracy, for more genuine political interaction, that will be irresistible. But what shape will this discourse take - what shape can it take? The satirist Armando Iannuci has a piece in today’s Guardian putting a very positive gloss on this, though not without using some well-worn if equally well-tailored clichés about political behaviour. In one of the more original parts, he notes:
"In a world where we can now source anything online, download anything we want to see from any country in the world, and where we can pick and choose individual tracks, whatever programme, whichever individual item we need from whatever outlet – in this complete shopping basket world, they must be asking why on earth they’re being forced to pick one party and its entire list of policies, rather than their own playlist of ideas. It simply doesn’t make any kind of sense."
Normally I would object to this as a kind of libertarian naivety (though it is hardly disingenuous as that). Party politics won’t just disappear because of the internet - they are a fundamental part of organising group interests into bargaining positions, and significantly giving them some measure of distance from powerful private interests. The alternative of governing by marginal preference is, in fact, the marketplace, and even if theoretically equality could be assured, there is the question of how opinions are developed reciprocally, and intersubjectively. Still, a true kind of ‘computational politics' is an interesting mental goal, and it does express the idea that freedom of choice, in the true parrhesiastic sense, ought to be a constituent part of our political self, as it is supposed to be elsewhere.
What I’m trying to get at is that democracy needs to become more of a ‘bottom-up’ process (cliché, I know): beginning in the way we think and express ourselves, before we become individuals - neoliberal subjects - making our ‘choice’ at the ballet box which, however noble, is constrained by the very complexity and inequity of our society. I’ve ended up voting Yes to every Irish EU referendum I’ve been eligible for, even the dodgiest ones, because I didn’t see an effective alternative (as a democratic exercise in the context of the rest of the EU’s governmental procedures, they’re a bad joke) and I think there is still considerable value in the European project and its institutional form, even if the latter in particular is increasingly flawed in relation to economic over political freedoms.
In my thesis, which was largely about that latter issue, all I could conclude was that it was an irresolvably political challenge (against the context of law, which I was of course writing in) that has to begin with awareness of the existing restrictions on genuine democratic choice. As to what the progress to an alternative would involve, I don’t know and I haven’t found anyone else who really seems to either. Of the two polar extremes of the left, anarchism is too small, too laborious; revolution too grand, too far-fetched; a happy, workable medium is perhaps encouraging some everyday activity that rejects the petty tyrannies and grand illusions of neoliberal life in favour of humanistic (pace Foucault) discourse. Parrhesia is a useful tool towards understanding the latter, although it’s important to remember it does not itself define democracy (in fact, it opposes and restricts it in some sense by placing an ethical value on some voices above others) nor truth. Only we can do that.
If Scotland votes no (Which I have a suspicion they will) it would make more sense for the UK just to ‘come out’ as a federation and have Westminster act as a proper federal parliament.
A devolved/regional parliament for all of England wouldn’t make much sense when it represents almost 84% of the UK’s total population, or 53 million out of 63 million people. Which I think puts in perspective the accusation that ‘Britishness’ is primarily/solely about ‘Englishness’ - indeed according to that table Scotland (8.4%) has a smaller population than half of the English regions. It’s difficult to get that from a map because of the different population densities, not just in Scotland but also (to lesser extents) in Wales and Northern Ireland.
I agree a federal system - with parliaments for each of the English regions - would be a good idea, combining regional autonomy with the economic scale of the UK as a whole (and without overindulging in cultural nationalism as a basis for political decision-making), but within the borders of England I think it runs contrary to assumptions about the unitary state, or parliamentary democracy, somehow?
"May 1st 1707 wasn’t a day of liberation for either party. The English might have celebrated it as the day they’d finally subdued their rebellious neighbours. But that wasn’t quite it. Their welcome for the incorporation of Scotland was matched by the contentment of the Scottish ruling class, its own imperial ambitions having come to naught, at the prospect of joining in the Empire’s plunder of the world while keeping its “own” lower orders in check.
Thus it is that the independence campaign – perhaps to an extent unappreciated outside Scotland – has not been fought on the basis of national pride and liberation but mainly on the proposition that Scotland would be a more just and decent society freed from entanglement with England.
This hope may prove futile in an independent Scotland. The notion of Alex Salmond and his party as radical crusaders for a more equal society is fanciful. And the same pressure from global capitalism will press in on independent Scotland as on Scotland as part of the Union.
The difference might be that the referendum campaign has mobilised more people in grass-roots political action than any other issue in a long, long time, while creating an excited expectation of social and economic change for the better.”
This is a good piece by Eamon McCann which starts by asking if Northern Ireland would be perceived as much of a loss to British party leaders (no - aside, of course, from the Unionist politicians who consider themselves British and sit in Westminster). But the point in the second paragraph above is I think very important and expresses something which I knew but hadn’t (and probably still haven’t) fully internalised. Or rather it was a motive I already knew but got obscured by the rhetoric of a campaign which often seemed to be opposing Scottish independence (and its emotional and cultural appeal) to ‘British nationalism’, whatever that is, with its imperial and Tory cloak. Except, of course, it’s not that simple.
As an irish person I am deeply sceptical of nationalism, and the concept of national self-determination, while at the same time having to recognise that it’s foundational to my ‘national’ identity. And I’m not someone to really disown that, although I know a few, seeing the Tricolour as my flag despite its association with republican terrorism, and the Republic (twenty-six counties) as my political home despite the myriad ways in which it has yet to live up to true republican ideals. But there’s a big difference between accepting where you are and even being proud of that position, and committing to that as a political and philosophical choice when in fact it has only been a fait accompli from long before your birth (admittedly the same argument applies a fortiori to Scots and the Union).
If I had to vote on Irish independence, say in some alternate 1914 when instead of parliamentary Home Rule legislation, a plebiscite on full independence were offered to an electorate beyond over-30 property-owning males, would I say Yes? As you can surmise, it’s a rather drastic counterfactual, and just on that basis I could refuse to answer. I might also borrow from another constitutional tradition and plead self-incrimination, because honestly I’m not sure. Let me unpack this:
For a start, half my family is Protestant - but (as I know thanks to my parents’ interest in family history) certainly not Anglo-Irish gentry. On one side of that, my grandfather’s, were rural schoolteachers, a bicycle shop owner and small farmers. On my grandmother’s, migrants from the western extremity of Wales who worked for several generations in the maritime industry in the harbour town where I still live, then called (effectively from its construction, or at least of its piers, til independence) Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire (the old name, from the fort of a medieval king). The latter especially, I always assume although I don’t know, must have been Unionists when it came to the ‘Irish question’. And I’m certainly not bereft of Protestant privilege, even if from relatively modest forebears: as it happens, both my Catholic and Protestant grandfathers were the first in their families to go to university, with all their children (five and three respectively) becoming educated professionals.
Of course, my family history is not necessarily determinative and (depending on the rules of counterfactuals) I may have had different, independent opinions on the merits and demerits of British rule when it was in question for Ireland. Actually phrasing it like that makes the end result seem entirely obvious - the legacy of ‘foreign rule’, the oppression of Catholics by Protestants in Ireland and England - but my point is I doubt many of my contemporary relatives woud have seen it that way, and regardless of whether I’d have agreed with them or not, it creates some cognitive dissonance to see them as part of a rejected tradition. Of course, that is the passage of history, often for the good (like American slaveowners, perhaps, or any such injustice - although then we return to the issue of reparation). But still, I can’t help feeling that, more so than my immediate background (which seems quite unremarkable in truth), that legacy pushes me towards subtlety in considering issues of nationalism.
The other objection is that nationalism, and independence as the over-riding goal of same, has been in many ways a political failure in Ireland since 1922. It never resolved until quite recently, and then only in part, the question of accommodating the Unionist and Protestant tradition in the north-east of the island (this, at least, is not a problem Scotland appears to face, although the tradition itself extends and originates there). More importantly, the pre-eminence of a nationalist party stifled political debate along class or left-right lines, with the unitary Sinn Féin only splitting over strength of attitudes to nationalist goals and a certain degree of class interests, between larger and smaller farmers. Hence this kind of criticism can be made of Scotland’s putative de Valera and his party:
"Former Labour minister Brian Wilson – no friend of Salmond, it has to be said – says “the most remarkable fact” about the SNP’s time in power is the lack of a social imperative.
“The SNP is Scotland’s Fianna Fáil: Big tent, non-ideological, populist, everything to be resolved though constitutional change, unembarrassed by where the money comes from since Scottish millionaires are, by definition, part of the same, big happy family as the rest of us,” he says.”
I don’t think cultural identity is unimportant, but I dislike it as the animating fact of political discourse. The objection that that’s not the case for much of the independence movement may be true, but then why independence? The 21st century, the era of globalized decision-making, hardly needs another nation-state. What it needs is more solidarity and effective democracy within existing structures; to which, of course, many will reply that they are simply broken. Scotland is then on the road towards being 'post-sovereign'. And that is where I come round again to having sympathy - but also renewed scepticism - about a new polity rising above Salmond’s conservative nationalism with its own kind of democratic, independent politics. Paul Mason argues that young Scots are embracing independence as an alternative to the domination of Westminster politics by free-market economics, in a more positive mirror to the rise of UKIP within England; somehow I doubt scepticism of the free market is, in general, anything more than inchoate if held at all. Independence is less important than interdependence.
"“The Labour movement is like no other movement. Its strength lies in being like no other movement. It is never so strong as when it stands alone. Other movements dread analysis and shun all attempts to define their objects. The Labour movement delights in analysing, and is perpetually defining and re-defining its principles and objects. The man or woman who has caught the spirit of the Labour movement brings that spirit of analysis and definition into all his or her public acts, and expects at all times to answer the call to define his or her position. They cannot live on illusions, nor thrive by them; even should their heads be in the clouds they will make no forward step until they are assured that their feet rest upon the solid earth.
“In this they are essentially different from the middle or professional classes, and the parties or movements controlled by such classes in Ireland. These always talk of realities, but nourish themselves and their followers upon the unsubstantial meat of phrases; always prate about being intensely practical but nevertheless spend their whole lives in following visions.
“When the average non-Labour patriot in Ireland who boasts of his practicality is brought in contact with the cold world and its problems he shrinks from the contact. Should his feet touch the solid earth he affects to despise it as a “mere material basis,” and strives to make the people believe that true patriotism needs no foundation to rest upon other than the brain storms of its poets, orators, journalists, and leaders.”
James Connolly, Workers Republic, January 1916, quoted in Conclusion to “The Failure of Irish Republicanism, 1907-1927”
Very interesting interview with a French, Jewish, Marxist scholar of Islam via the New Inquiry’s Sunday Reading list. I also downloaded this PDF of his 1967 article in Les Temps Modernes, ‘Israël, fait colonial?’ (‘Israel, colonial fact?’; later published in English as “Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?’). It’s 87 pages in French, so it’s going to take me a while if I ever finish it, but I managed Merleau-Ponty in the same organ, and I could do with the practice. I’ve read the preface, though, where he describes his insistence on his piece being placed in neither of the ‘partisan’ camps of Arabs and Zionists in the journal’s special issue.
There a couple of other pieces on that list, a short piece on attitudes within Israel and a longer article on Hamas, both from the LRB, that I found interesting. If that term applies - the only one more obscene would be ‘useful’, since what use are we as global bystanders? It’s an eminently sufferable, privileged problem that betrays its own lack of sympathies, but I find myself continously frustrated at the stream of bitesize condemnations on social media that ignore or reject all attempts at historical or political contextualisation. Of course, how do you contextualise the killing of innocents, even their futile representations? Israel may be very much in the wrong now, but how did it get there? How can its course be altered?
I get the sense sometimes that for the left the existence of Israel as racist - even fascist - terror state is to be taken as a current fact without much thought to the internal and external pressures that brought it to such extremes. The history and continuing significances of Zionism and anti-semitism, as two diverse but mutually supporting ideologies, require understanding. It’s not just about the Holocaust and its aftermath, the overworn justification of ‘self-defence’ - Jewish settlement in Palestine was occurring during and before (less so during, especially as the British colonial government restricted immigration towards the end of the 1930s), with not dissimilar tensions and even open conflict well before 1948.
Arthur Koestler’s Thieves in the Night (the title being the description by the existing Arabs of the Jewish settlers, who arrived at their purchased land under cover of darkness to protect it from attack) and Leon Uris’ Exodus both vividly describe that period, culminating respectively in the 1938-9 Palestinian uprising and the 1948 Israeli war of independence. The former, especially, very much changed how I view the conflict; even if the story is told primarily from the Jewish perspective, its not hard to read with hindsight the mistrustful attitudes towards Palestinian Arabs. Equally, from what is reported now of Israeli treatment of the occupants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there is a cold line of logic than runs through the establishment of a Jewish state in a hostile environment.
That at least seemed to be the conclusion of the late Tony Judt, whose 2003 piece offering an alternative between an “ethnically cleansed Greater Israel” and a binational state I posted earlier without comment. With the former, a situation we seem to be coming ever closer to,
"Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah."
Outside of Israel, support is maintained only by political expediency and the logical contortions of propaganda; within Israel, however, 95% support for the war is measured in between existential concerns for security and an increasingly racist, intolerant public discourse. Not seeing a choice in their interactions with Palestinians, at least not one compatible with the continued and expanded survival of the Jewish state, Israelis seem not to comprehend how global sympathy for Palestinians can be separated from support for Hamas, for Islamic fundamentalism, from the worst possibilities of anti-Jewish hatred. In turn, after fighting against propaganda that linked the two for so long, I feel many in Europe (or Ireland, at least) are unwilling to consider the extent to which anti-semitism remains a factor in ‘anti-Zionism’.
That the Israeli state, with the support of the majority of its people and encouraged by the pressure of the most conservative in its society, are pursuing increasingly extreme policies in defence of a territorial Jewish identity, does not mean we have to condemn that goal - only that we reflect on it, having consideration for its origins and the threats against it as well as the suffering consequential on it. We had to do the same in Ireland - in a conflict which, while painful and drawn-out, thankfuly never reached the same extremes of violence - in understanding Unionism and its siege mentality, as well as its deeply rooted sectarianism, before a (far from perfect) political agreement could be made with Irish nationalists and republicans. One can blame Israeli politicians for not dealing as productively with Palestinian moderates, for worsening the situation, but again the motivation for advancing the Jewish state has to be considered.
Lastly, the idea that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will allow popular global opinion to transform Israeli politics, to force change in the manner of South African apartheid, is something I’m also sceptical about on reflection. The internal political dynamics of South Africa seem so different - huge demographic pressures surrounding race, far beyond anything in Palestine; the lack of a justifying ideology similar to Zionism, or an identity as historically resonant as Jewishness; and the lack of a terrorist threat on the scale genuinely experienced in Israel - unless one were to equate the black Communist fundamentalist revolutionaries behind the ANC with Hamas, which seems unlikely. That said, there doesn’t seem to be a better option, while ‘apartheid’ appears an increasingly valid comparison, so maybe those differences won’t prevent it becoming an effective way to force change - as long as, I suppose, it is recognised what is fundamental to the conflict.
"So there are two approaches: the revolutionary approach, basically structured around traditional positions of public law, and the radical approach, basically structured around the new economy of governmental reason. These two approaches imply two conceptions of the law. In the revolutionary, axiomatic approach, the law will be seen as the expression of a will. So there will be a system of will-law. The problem of the will is, of course, at the heart of the problems of right, which again confirms that the fact that this is a fundamentally juridical problematic. The law is therefore conceived as the expression of a collective will indicating the part of right individuals have agreed to cede, and the part they wish to hold on to. In the other problematic, the radical utilitarian approach, the law is conceived as the effect of a transaction that separates the sphere of intervention of public authorities from that of the individual’s independence. This leads to another distinction which is also very important. On one side you have a juridical conception of freedom: every individual originally has in his possession a certain freedom, a part of which he will or will not cede. On the other side, freedom is not conceived as the exercise of some basic rights, but simply as the independence of the governed with regard to government. We have therefore two absolutely heterogeneous conceptions of freedom, one based on the rights of man, and the other starting from the independence of the governed. I am not saying that the two systems of the rights of man and the independence of the governed do not intertwine, but they have different historical origins and I think they are essentially heterogeneous or disparate. With regard to the problem of what are currently called human rights, we would only need to look at where, in what countries, how, and in what form these rights are claimed to see that at times the question is actually the juridical question of rights, and at others it is a question of this assertion or claim of the independence of the governed vis-à-vis governmentality."
The Birth of Biopolitics, 41-2
"Governing properly will mean that one is able to govern by utilising two resources. First phobōs (fear). Those who govern must make fear reign over those who are governed, and they will do this by demonstrating their strength (bia, the text says). This material strength must be effectively present and visible, and this fear will ensure good government. But at the same time, and this will be the second means of governing, the governors must show aidōs (that is to say, a sense of decency and respect). This aidōs is not directly the respect that the governed owe to those who govern them, but this aidōs (respect) must be, as it were, an internal relationship of the governors to themselves, their respect for their obligations, for the city, and for the laws of the city. Aidōs will mean that one is able to submit to the laws like a slave (he uses the term douleuein). Being a slave of the law, wanting to constitute oneself as a slave of the law will characterise the aidōs (respect) of the governors with regard to themselves, the city, and its laws. And this respect will then bring about the respect that others – the governed – may have for them. So “aidōs” should be understood as a virtue which characterizes the relationship of the governed to the governors, but which also and especially characterizes the attitude of the governors towards themselves.”
The Government of Self and Others, 273-4