Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
contact: gabbaweeks[at]gmail.com (sorry, no promos/submissions, thanks) or ask
Dublin/Galway, Ireland. 27, history graduate & human rights student
HFN | Best New Punk | HFN 2012 2011 2010 2009 | HRO 2k9 | Hoover Genealogy Project | @HC4N
*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Aug 04
In this respect Islamic fundamentalism shows a certain similarity with a secular political ideology like communism. Communists too think that an integral application of prescriptions laid down by their founder should bring about a harmonious society without exploitation or oppression. By contrast, there is no similar ideology in Christianity. Christian fundamentalists think that an integral application of Christ’s precepts would make everyone good and nice, but not that it would necessarily change the structure of society.

Maxime Rodinson on Islamic “Fundamentalism”

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.

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Jul 17

Foucault and rights

"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

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Jul 16
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Jul 07
It is the core task of liberalism and social democracy to tame and restrain data capitalism gone wild, without robbing it of its innovative power and its individual and social advantages, and to retain the dignity and freedom of humanity while creating equal opportunities for all to share and participate in social processes.

Sigmar Gabriel: Consequences of the Google debate

As mentioned below, this article by the leader of the German social democrats and national vice-chancellor (in the ‘grand coalition’ with Angela Merkel’s Christian democrats) is an intriguing mixture of the radical and the mundane, albeit perfectly in keeping with the position of the SPD in German society. And, more importantly, European society - which is, somewhat snootily and inflatedly, held to be morally superior to exploitative ‘data capitalism’ (and, implicitly, the values of American neoliberalism):

"Europe symbolises just the opposite of the totalitarian idea of turning every detail of human behaviour, human emotion and human thought into an object of capitalistic marketing strategies. The dignity of a human being includes, above all, his or her right of self-determination, also and especially in respect of personal data. Europe’s idea of a market economy is not “cut-throat competition” in which the unlimited market power of one dominant party is able to prescribe the terms and conditions for everyone else wishing to participate in the markets."

However, Europe and Germany have their own form of neoliberalism, indeed one which - to perpetuate the Old World arrogance - the Chicago School is arguably just a more economistic derivation of: ordoliberalism. The distinction is perhaps more cultural than anything else, since the aims are more or less the same, just expressed differently - the German variant more explicitly in favour of legal constitutionalism, and the dignity of economic rights, rather than absolutely valorising the freedom of businesses (even if in both cases that is somewhat illusory). The argument here hinges, somewhat contradictorily, on competition - the chief neoliberal/ordoliberal aim - since monopoly power or dominance is not really “cut-throat competition” (save for some mistranslation) but rather its opposite: yet the point of the rules of the ‘ordo’ is to ensure that competition in the ‘free market’ occurs, as it were, properly.

It is an anti-trust battle, familiar to those who know America’s early-20th century history:

"Europe can use the sheer size of its market to defy what Mathias Döpfner calls brutal “information capitalism” and whose structure is dominated by a handful of American Internet corporations which, in the form of global trusts, might soon control not only the economic activities of the 21st century"

But underlying this opposition to the modern robber barons (who take our data more so than our money) is a conception of the relationship between personal and economic value which is rather more conservative, or neoliberal; to borrow from an earlier post, it is “both a liberal challenge to a creeping monopoly and a re-substitution of a core neoliberal value of enterprise”. That is part of my concern about the ECJ judgement against Google Spain (establishing a ‘right to be forgotten’ in relation to ‘outdated or irrelevant’ search results), to which Gabriel is responding here: while I agree with the concerns over privacy and that there should be limits on the power of information, it is worrying that it is based on the essentially economic value of reputation (which suggests that this ‘right’, like many others connected with property, will be more easily exercised by those with greater wealth).

The value of neoliberal enterprise is contained within the self, as an economic and market actor, who is encouraged to take risks and face the world with courage under the illusion that this represents ‘choice’ and freedom, rather than the structural requirements of the market economy. The ordoliberal framework, especially viewed from the social democratic side, offers more security - social and otherwise - as a compensatory part of the liberal constitutional state which guarantees the freedom, and indeed the imperative, to be free:

"The precept of democracy that everyone must be free to decide his own fate, the fundamental standard of any liberal constitution, must also apply in the digital age, where everyone should be able to decide for himself how much personal information he wishes to put into circulation. Wherever this freedom needs to be restricted, for example to uphold registration obligations or aid criminal prosecution, this must only be possible by virtue of law and in keeping with the constitution."

The crucial point of ordoliberalism, however, is that the market is a constructed entity - one which can be corrupted by social factors (greed, power, even innovation) yet similary corrected by a socially-minded economic policy:

"Economic policies are currently facing the vital challenge of “updating” the social market system to meet the requirements of the digital age. Fundamental elements of this system are at stake: the doctrines of freedom of contract and free competition threaten to become an illusion where the disparity between the economic objects takes on absurd dimensions, when monopolists with new kind of feudal arrogance try to evade the rule of law and refuse to provide important information. The classical concept of ownership starts to crumble when free offers destroy markets firmly based on the payment of goods or when unlawful copying and unauthorised access to content expropriate the copyright holder. Regulatory processes are therefore needed when unregulated markets and self-indulgent market actors threaten to cause considerable damage yet a second time in the wake of the financial market crisis."

Again, it is a classic neoliberal contradiction that “self-indulgent market actors” threaten the stability of a system which itself exists to indulge and further market actors’ self-interest. And, rather more explicitly in ordoliberalism, the system also exists to regulate their behaviour; hence

"The Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Federal Cartel Office are examining whether a company such as Google is not abusing its dominant market position by systematically driving out its competitors and dominating an “essential facility”.

(The latter being this exciting-looking building - in English its name sounds like the German for potato, Kartoffel, but of course in German its name is different). Those actions aren’t necessarily to be criticised - rather the opposite - but they do emphasise the shared focus of ‘liberals and social democrats’ in, naturally, protecting capitalism from itself, and by extension, also protecting a particular vision of society. This concluding part may just be rhetoric, but what rhetoric!

"The innocent, “fun” phase of the Internet is over. We see things more clearly now. The perils of the digital revolution loom, on the one hand, in authoritarian or even totalitarian tendencies which are inherent to the opportunities offered by this technology and, on the other hand, in the threat posed by new monopoly powers undermining laws and regulations. It is the future of democracy in the digital age, and nothing less, that is at stake here, and with it, the freedom, emancipation, participation and self-determination of 500 million people in Europe. Once again it is the job of committed democrats to reconcile technical and economic progress with political and social progress. If the source of the danger of digital totalitarianism lies in the loss of human autonomy, then our political answer must start right there. The fight for democracy in the digital age is a fight for human self-determination."

The neoliberal or ordoliberal view is of course opposed to totalitarianism, as its greatest fear, insofar as it threatens the individual rights crucial for free economic activity. At some level too, perhaps, it is afraid of all revolutions; the digital age becomes a battle for the soul of the citizen, between Silicon Valley utopia and a stable social order, between disruptive freedoms and market freedoms; not between left and right, but with not being left behind. Understanding this anxiety of the centre is thus essential to understanding our society today and any possibility of change.

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We have to formulate a new set of rules for work if we are to prevent “click workers” from becoming day labourers void of all rights in the digital world. We see how employees are exposed to unprecedented surveillance stress when their PC monitor, a camera or even sensors carried on their bodies constantly monitor and report their productivity. We see how work is losing its fixed base, how the boundary between work and leisure is becoming blurred, how long-lasting contractual relationships to a single employer are becoming a thing of the past and how permanent jobs are being replaced by “projects” advertised or even auctioned on the web so that the fastest and cheapest tenderer gets the contract, i. e. all do the work but only the winner gets paid. The technical possibilities of destroying decent work can be extended indefinitely. The critical question is whether we want to allow this to happen and whether we want to live in this kind of world. We need to encourage further debate on this issue hand in hand with the trade unions.

Looking back on Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit, we can draw new confidence that the digital age which started in humble circumstances but with a grand idea will remain open for innovative ideas that can positively change people’s work and lives. To achieve this aim, we need entrepreneurs with the same qualities as could once be found in utopia-driven California, namely a keen sense of the human desire to be liberated from undignified dependence. It is up to European politics to re-formulate the democratically legitimised regulatory and market conditions of the digital age and to establish relevant regulations, even if this involves a struggle, with the force of a crystal-clear analysis along with the interventionary power of a vast economic region.

Sigmar Gabriel: consequences of the Google debate

This article by the German vice chancellor and leader of the centre-left SPD is interesting in a lot of ways, and I’ll do another post on it shortly, but I just wanted to pick out this section. I’m usually conflicted these days between cynicism (or perhaps realism) regarding social democrats and their ability or willingness to effect change, and optimism (or again, perhaps wishful thinking) that some combination of radical aims and moderate means can be effective. The above in a way echoes some of the radical left concerns with digital alienation, though (and note the emphasis on fitting the solution within the ‘fairness’ of economic exchange) the social democratic raison d’etre is, or should be, concern for labour.

The language, particularly in the second paragraph, is what I find most interesting - it’s translated from German (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, or FAZ, the NYT-equivalent), presumably, so some stylistic affectations may be peculiar to their discourse - and continues throughout the piece. There is a very particular notion of freedom - fitting in with the ordoliberal schema - and its place as a balance between social and economic forces. Totalitarianism is evoked, and servitude - “undignified dependence” - yet the rallying cry is far from libertarian, and instead more Hegelian and world-historical: “a struggle, with the force of a crystal-clear analysis along with the interventionary power of a vast economic region”.

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Jul 02
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Jun 23
Asked which powers the state should be given, Fox said: “The whole area of intercept needs to be looked at. We have got a real debate, and it is a genuine debate in a democracy, between the libertarians who say the state must not get too powerful and pretty much the rest of us who say the state must protect itself.”

Isis threat justifies greater surveillance powers in UK, says Liam Fox

This quote from the former British defence secretary is kind of astounding, in the way it openly articulates a neo-Orwellian worldview of libertarians v. “the rest of us”. Of course, I’m sure this is standard for the discourse in the US and elsewhere (it’s not like Ireland hasn’t had a few phone-tapping scandals), but this is just so naked. He is also quoted, however, with the friendlier phrase “duty of the state to protect its citizens” - see, we’re doing this for you - but it seems the mask slipped momentarily.

It’s also strange because the starting point of Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics is that this principle, of the state protecting itself, or raison d’État, the ‘police state’, went out of fashion in the 18th century as a form of the art of government. Or more precisely (since clearly, and increasingly, we know that state surveillance has continued growing) it was opposed by the principles of liberalism and, specifically, law (“juridical reason”). Additionally, the idea of the unlimited sovereign was inimical to economic liberty, thus causing the “self-referring-state” to be replaced by a self-limiting one based on a complex balance of interests.

Again, the history of the 20th and 21st century state is enough to show that isn’t completely true, but it seems remarkable that the classic liberal position has been relegated to the ‘libertarian’ extreme - perhaps because the argument for civil liberties in the internet age has been taken up most enthusiastically by those with the greatest commitment to its new freedoms. Meanwhile, the threat of terrorism has cowed traditional liberals and, crucially, state surveillance and authority now appears to coexist fairly comfortably with the neoliberal economics of technocapitalism. In the midst of this, too, is a failure of the law (and parliamentary politics) to effectively regulate or oversee what power advances.

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Jun 19

Couple of graphs I did up of all the European elections for Dublin, using the data from ElectionsIreland.org and with a particular focus on left/environmental candiates. The main thing to me is the progression of the constituency from a four-seater with (apart from in 1984) a 50-50 split between Labour/Greens/Workers’ Party/Sinn Féin and Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil, to a three-seater divided up between the right (Fine Gael), the centre-left (Labour, currently independent Nessa Childers) and the further left of Sinn Féin or the Socialist Party. There’s also the continuing decline of Fianna Fáil and the squeezing of first the Greens and then Labour by ex-party independents (McKenna and Childers) - interestingly Ryan’s vote share this year was the best since McKenna’s winning the seat in 1999 - as well as the brief irruption of the left-of-Labour Workers’ Party/Democratic Left (the latter a split from the former, then folded into Labour by 1999, with the same candidate - Prionsias de Rossa - winning for each in ‘89 and ‘99).

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Authenticity, Aspiration, Ming


Here’s an astute piece from Richard of the blog Hired Knaves, as usual compellingly laid out and very difficult to argue against, on Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, who remains a perplexing political figure in Ireland. He is now also a challenge to the left in the desperately necessary reconceptualising of its politics.


That kind of jarring contradiction should lead us to ask what an oppositional figure should be. That is, I think, the greatest source of my uneasiness here: that the picture of authenticity, in the establishment sense of an act of gatekeeping, marked by pinstripe suits and breakfast meetings in the Mansion House on Dawson Street, is simply inverted, that is, turned into the little guy making good, whose sign is tweaking the noses of those in power. Authenticity here suggests an implicit but really felt connection between the representative and the constituents. The trouble comes when authenticity must sit together with aspiration. I guess the left’s aspiration here would be that Flanagan will serve as a kind of surrogate Paul Murphy, articulating a left-inflected oppositional voice in a broadly internationalist context, but that hardly seems like what will happen. Actually, Murphy’s efforts to connect everyday hardships with local, national and European levels of venality seem to me just as authentic an engagement with politics as Flanagan’s. We have rightly thrown out the explanation that the rural is less acutely aware of the contemporary situation than the urban as nonsense—charges of a split vote in Dublin aside, what then explains the failure of Murphy’s bid? Was one candidate less authentic than the other? Or was one’s aspirations more in line with the public? In which case, what are they?


This is a very interesting post that I wanted to respond to mainly just on one technical/electoral point: comparing Ming’s vote with Murphy. In relation to each candidate,separately or together, I think you have to take into account the Sinn Féin vote, if not the ‘broader left’ vote in general. Thus Ming got a poll-topping 19% in Midlands-North West (MNW), closely followed by the Sinn Féin candidate on almost 18%; while in Dublin, Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan topped the poll on nearly 24%, with Murphy on 8.5% and Smith on 6.77% - roughly equal proportions overall (37%/39%) which is remarkable in itself, although you have to factor in the further vote in Dublin for ex-Labour independent Nessa Childers (10%) and arguably also, at least in part, the Green Party’s Eamon Ryan* (12.5%), as representative of centre(-left) political strands absent from MNW (the Greens’ Mark Dearey, with a base in the east coast north of Dublin, received a tenth of Ryan’s share, 1.47%). On the basis of those figures, I would argue that Boylan was the ‘authentic’ equivalent of Ming for the urban working class, as Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party was in 2009, and Mary Lou McDonald for Sinn Féin before that in 2004 - an alternating seat for the left-of-Labour constituency, for which Murphy, as Higgins’ co-opted successor, never really had a chance of beating the SF surge. On the other hand, the surprisingly successful Childers, who beat out Ryan on Murphy’s transfers, could also be seen as representing some of Ming’s anti-establishment profile, albeit of a milder form directed within the system at the Labour hierarchy rather than the system itself, so much (although arguably Childers has, at least rhetorically, a better grasp of the social democratic critique that the populist left merely tries to supplant). And the big issue, then, is that the range of clearly left-identified but non-SF candidates in Dublin - Murphy, Smith, and in paler shades Childers - equal or surpass Ming’s vote which is far more ambiguously ‘left’.

The other issue is the actual Labour vote: 7.36% in Dublin, 4.94% in MNW. It would be higher in Dublin without Childers, I think, despite the core Labour voters’ disapproval of her ship-jumping - and constituency-hopping: the northern half of her previous East constituency was merged into MNW. In 2009, the Labour candidate in the then North West received 5.8%, so this year’s result is partially reflective of the party’s existing weakness in the north-west region, married with a collapse in its previous strength in the eastern part. That is to say, if there is a increase in the ‘left’ vote in the north-west it has (understandably enough) bypassed Labour and gone either to SF or Ming. In that respect, the abortion question is important: there were snide remarks at Labour being bested by Catholic right-winger Ronán Murphy (5%) - who yet didn’t manage to capitalise on the 10-12% of the general population sharing his extreme opposition to abortion, in the most conservative part of the country. However, 5% is not a neglible figure to build a base on in a four-seat constituency, as evidenced by previous left candidates in Dublin (Joe Higgins took as little as 5.5% as recently as 2004, one election prior to winning a seat); there is also the question of Labour’s role in pushing Fine Gael towards some kind of legislative action after the Savita case, which of course occured in Galway. Ming may have supported - but not been in a position to actually further - more radical action as a TD, but his EP alternate declared himself pro-life; while Labour’s sins on socio-economic issues may outweigh its actions on liberal-social ones, those relative votes may still be an indication of a conservative constituency.

*One might also see Ryan as the complete inverse of Ming: whereas one advocates environmentalism in the context of relatively orthodox politics and economics, the other defends degradation as a community issue in the context of opposing dominant supranationalism; one is smooth, urbane and instrumental in (fatally) transforming a party of protest into one of government, the other has created a politics of protest out of noisily rejecting the normal mechanisms and expectations of parliamentarianism.

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Jun 10

Social Democracy’s Not Dead (Yet)

"Why did German social democracy finally come over, albeit somewhat late, but fairly easily, to these theses, practices, and programs of neo-liberalism? There are at least two reasons. One, of course, was a necessary and indispensable reason of political tactics. You can see that as long as the SPD, under the leadership of the old Schumacher, maintained the traditional attitude of a socialist party - on the one hand, accepting the system of the state, of the constitution and juridical structures of the so-called liberal democratic regime, while, on the other, rejecting in theory the principles of the capitalist economic system, thus adopting the task within this legal framework, seen as sufficient for developing the basic role of essential freedoms, of simply correcting the existing system in terms of a number of distant objectives - it could have no place in the new economic-political state that was being born. It could have no place for it precisely because the new state was the opposite of this."

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979 (2008), p. 90

There has been a lot said recently about the ‘death of social democracy’ in Europe, or at least in the peripheral bailout countries where centre-left parties are suffering electorally for their participation in austerity governments, but it’s hardly a new idea. Of course, for the revolutionary left social democracy has always been anathema and apostasy, dating back to its 19th-century origins. The simplest and most wounding critique is that social democracy, particularly its most successful post-war variant, was simply a concession by capital against the threat of communism, and with the global victory of market liberalism the idea is dead in the water.

This analysis has never fully convinced me, for two reasons. The first is that it is, on some level, a naive historicism - like any claim that 20th century progress represents mere accident or aberration. The other, more fundamental reason is that it downplays the agency of the labour struggle in wresting power from capital and, more crucially, changing people’s ideas about the relationship between the state, economy and society. Of course, the pendulum has swung the other way with neoliberalism and the defence of the critique would probably be that notwithstanding its (limited) achievements the era has come to a close and capital is now firmly in the ascendent again - thus fitting the Piketty thesis, somewhat ironically given his own limited prescriptions for change.

In turn, the other issue which occupies me is what exactly is neoliberalism? Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics has been somewhat revelatory in this regard, because he takes neoliberalism out of the capitalist-conspiracy mode that it’s usually popularised in, and more into the philosophy of government. Crucially there is the distinction he draws between American and German neo-liberalism (or ‘ordoliberalism’ in the latter case, and now applicable more widely to Europe) not so much perhaps for their actual difference in content - the globalised form contains elements of both - but in the cultural concerns which animate them. Thus the strong, interventionist state is usually admitted by critics of neoliberalism as a form of hypocrisy on the part of ‘small government’ advocates, but in the European context it reflects a deeper tradition of state involvement in society.

Understanding the extent to which the state has been ‘ordoliberalised’ through budget deficit rules, public sector reform and thus a whole range of ways of limiting traditional social democratic discussions, seems essential to me to assess the latter’s prospects. It doesn’t preclude a revolutionary critique - ordoliberalism is not really any ‘better’ than neoliberalism, or even fundamentally different except in how I believe it better explains the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideas into the European ‘social’ market economy - except to say that revolution remains a fringe minority position amongst a populace increasingly blocked from achieving basic left-wing goals.

Foucault’s second, more complicated reason for the co-option of social democracy by neoliberalism is ultimately that “socialism lacks an intrinsic governmental rationality” - roughly speaking, a mode of government - replacing it instead with “conformity to a text”. Thus he asks:

"Is there a governmentality appropriate to socialism? What governmentality is possible as a strictly, intrinsically and autonomously socialist governmentality? In any case, we know that if there is a really socialist governmentality, then it is not hidden within socialism and its texts. It cannot be deduced from them. It must be invented."

and goes on to add, perceptively

"Socialism is not the alternative to liberalism. They do not exist on the same level, although there are levels at which they come into collision which other, where things don’t go well together. Hence the possibility of their unhappy symbiosis."
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