He Who Is Kept.

November 7, 2017

Jacques Pauw was a real journalist thirty years ago. But thirty years ago it was possible to be a real journalist because there were independent newspapers like the Weekly Mail and the Vrye Weekblad. Nowadays there are no independent newspapers and so it is impossible to be a real journalist, so now Jacques Pauw is a propagandist.

But not a very good one, although he obviously has some impressive backers to judge by all the fuss made around his book The President’s Keepers. It’s a rag-bag of a book, containing some genuinely valuable information scattered like corn mixed with polystyrene packing-kernels amid rehashed material, and strident, screaming commentary which often seems presented in place of substantiation.

The gist of the interesting stuff relates to Pauw’s deep-seated anger at the destruction vested on the spy and secret police service, which Zuma bundled together as the State Security Agency and placed in the care of the corrupt, lying corporate crook Moe Shaik who proceeded to stuff up as much as he could before he was replaced by someone even greedier named Fraser who invented projects through which to siphon off the cash. (This is the congenital disease of secret services; Len Deighton’s early-sixties Billion-Dollar Brain is all about how to rook money out of secret services, and it’s no accident that Deighton’s hero is a money-laundering specialist.)

But, in the end, does all that matter? The elements which became the State Security Agency were preposterously inept even before Motlanthe/Zuma took over; look at how badly Masetlha and company handled their attempt to smear Mbeki. Zuma was a lousy prospect for running the secret services. Zuma’s administration has been essentially incapable of properly controlling expenditure or overseeing effective performance management (not only because it is incompetent, but also because nobody in Zuma’s administration cares about such things).

What is, perhaps, more curious is why Zuma’s administration should have allowed themselves to be so poorly served by what should have been Zuma’s pride and joy, his secret police and his police detective services, between which (if he abused them shrewdly) he should have been able to keep himself out of trouble and in power without any other assistance at all. Allowing them to collapse into corrupt miasmas of rubble and excrement makes no sense if you believe, as Pauw (rightly) believes, that Zuma’s main agenda is to stay out of trouble by staying in power. You’d also expect Zuma to have a crackerjack legal team primed to defend the President at all costs, and to justify any action the President takes under all circumstances — instead of which, Kemp and Hulley and the rest of them appear like a bunch of autistic dingbats presiding over a team of zoo chimps. Zuma’s legal teams have just enough competence to delay the inevitable, but not enough to accomplish anything. It’s almost as if they aren’t really working for Zuma, but for someone else.

These are supposed to be the President’s keepers? More like the President’s losers; or, to be more accurate, the bottom-feeders who endeavour to suck up the crumbs which fall away from the mess which the President makes.

The real problem with Pauw’s book, though, isn’t simply exaggeration or a failure to analyse the substantive issues. Rather, the problem is that he simply believes, or claims to believe, that South African politics is purely a question of good versus evil; good being everyone who’s against Zuma, or whom Zuma is again, and evil being everyone who supports Zuma, or whom Zuma supports. Now, self-evidently most of the people who are tied in with Zuma are crooks, and a fair number of them are indeed filthy, odious crooks. But the trouble is, there are also people who aren’t tied in with Zuma who are nevertheless filthy odious crooks, and many of them are highly politically active — and often people who helped put the Zuma system in place today, and are now slaving away for Ramaphosa.

The consequence is evident in the incoherence of the book. There is, really, no order to it, because Pauw doesn’t have the kind of structuring value-system which he could employ when he was challenging the apartheid death-squads. Therefore he rambles all over the place, throwing in information wherever he finds it, neither chronologically nor organisationally coherent.

It is, of course, scary that cigarette-smugglers seem to get away with their crimes, presumably through bribing the people whom Pauw says are corrupt. Possibly the smugglers are indeed as influential as Pauw suggests — but it can’t simply be because they are cigarette-smugglers, for there are much richer people than them who might also want to see things happen. Indeed, one doesn’t know how many of the people who get away with their crimes are doing so because they are influential, and how many of them are getting away with their crimes because much more influential and wealthy criminals want every big crook to get away with their crimes. (And, incidentally, is the big focus on cigarette-smugglers motivated by the desire of big tobacco companies to protect their own profits?)

This sounds like “whatabouttery”, the practice of defending indicted criminals by pointing at other criminals who are not indicted. Of course, it is important that people like Pauw condemn people who are criminals. But what if they are doing this in order to protect other people who are bigger criminals? And what if they don’t even understand the issues around what they are doing?

Amusing evidence of this surfaces early in the book. Pauw had his laptop stolen and immediately assumed that this was the secret police after him, because that is what is said by everybody in an official or politically-motivated position who gets robbed. Eventually it turns out to be a street-kid, although Pauw did not check on the political opinions of the street-kind. Still, this shows the paranoid fantasies of which Pauw is capable; how much of the rest of the book is paranoid fantasy?

Secondly, when he goes to Moscow on a wild goose chase, he is startled to discover that in Moscow the signs are all in Russian! And in the Cyrillic alphabet! How dare these people not use Afrikaans and write everything in Roman characters? Furthermore, he learns to his horror that it snows in Moscow, and that sometimes the snow melts and his feet get wet — how can this be permitted when Pauw is a very important tourist?

So a very-far-from-worldly-wise fantasist is the author of this book. Either Pauw has changed since the old days, or maybe he was always really like this.

He goes through the usual suspects like Berning Ntlemeza, Tom Moyane and the rest, and the usual victims such as SARS and the Hawks, quoting from all the books and newspaper articles which have been written by people who were paid to write books and newspaper articles about these things — it’s like a scrapbook. Occasionally, however, odd things surface which suggest something different. For instance, although he’s not in the book’s index, in mentioning Zuma’s rape trial he mentions how Judge Van Der Merwe condemned Zuma for, essentially, raping the woman “Khwezi”. OK, then why did the Judge find Zuma innocent, and why doesn’t Pauw find the Judge culpable, instead proclaiming that all judges are superior life forms which will save us from all corruption?

Or he happens to mention that the head of HR at Lonmin was apparently an intelligence agent tasked with setting up a rival union to AMCU and NUM at Rustenburg, a project eventually shut down (because it failed, or because AMCU itself fulfilled the same function?). He notes that here the intelligence services and big business were clearly working together from the same script, and also notes that one of the big cheeses involved in the whole affair was Cyril Ramaphosa (curious how that name keeps coming up, eh?) but then hastily backs away, because this would rather undermine his argument that there is no such thing as white monopoly capital capturing the state.

In a related matter, towards the end when (evidently in a rush) he threw everything together, he mentions the glory of the former Public Protector in using her rightly limitless powers to expose the President’s malfeasances and call for rectification. Then he contrasts this with the disgrace of the current Public Protector in using her improper and excessive powers to expose the Reserve Bank’s malfeasances and call for rectification. According to Pauw it’s OK to take on politicians, unless they are politicians who serve the interests of rich people. Perhaps Pauw could be considered the Bankster’s Keeper.

All this stuff seems fairly problematic — and there is also the fact that he hardly looks into the records of the people whose interests he wishes to promote. Thus he skates around the remarkably murky past of his SARS hero Van Loggerenberg (and doesn’t pay enough attention to the man’s nefarious relationship with an obvious spook, Walker) and he simply ignores the odious past of his police hero Booysen (ex-Soweto riot squad, ex- Security Police). These are straws in the wind, since both of these people were undeniably shafted on odious grounds, but they suggest that Pauw is happy to look the other way when people whom he defines as good (or are they defined for him by others) get into bad deals.

An example of how Pauw exaggerates importance is when he prints a mysteriously-acquired tape of Glenn Agliotti, a minor drug smuggler involved in the Kebble case, boasting to some other junior gangsters about his awesome power and influence. Pauw admits that Agliotti is a fluent liar and fantasist, and yet insists that on this particular instance whatever he says should be taken seriously, because it serves Pauw’s pretense that minor gangsters are in charge of the Zuma administration.

He also notes how sinister it is that Agliotti got off on the Kebble murder charge. What he doesn’t say is that Agliotti got off because of a plea-bargain which he made with the Scorpions who were trying to use him to destroy Police Commissioner Selebi. And who was the sleazeball who made that sordid deal which went wrong (even though yet another dodgy judge eventually sent Selebi down on fabricated charges)? Who but another of Pauw’s heroes, Prosecutor Gerrie Nel, now chief legal officer for a white supremacist movement. (And one doesn’t have to be PAC to notice that, to an even greater extent than demography would predict, Pauw’s heroes are white and his villains black.)

Talking about cops, it’s interesting that while Pauw exults in Selebi’s fall and in the orchestrated destruction of Commissioner Riyah Phiyega’s career (even though Pauw isn’t able to find much that she actually did wrong) he is much quieter about Bheki Cele, even though, unlike the others, he actually had to resign after being caught orchestrating a corrupt business deal worth several hundred million rand, and even though most of the problems with the police which Pauw identifies started on Cele’s watch. But Cele is now a big supporter of Ramaphosa; can this be why Pauw flushes away all the excrement he left behind him?

The core of Pauw’s hero-list is, of course, all those wonderful journalists like himself who expose these things. But he does admit there are a few problems. He mentions a big problem back to front, starting with the disinformation around the “SARS rogue unit” which never was, disinformation peddled by the Sunday Times through obviously corrupt journalists. Then he mentions the disinformation peddled by the same paper and the same journalists a bit earlier, around getting rid of the Hawks boss in Gauteng, General Dramat, and the same paper and the same journalists going after the IPID boss Robert McBride, and, eventually, the same thing having happened way back when going after the Hawks boss in KwaZulu-Natal, General Booysen.

He admits that there is a problem with journalists and a newspaper being used by organised criminals to destroy the state’s investigative services. However, he then says that this is all right now, because the Sunday Times has a new editor, and one of the journalists involved, Hofstatter, has moved on (though he still writes for the paper, oddly enough). But the other lead journalist involved, Mzilikazi wa Afrika, also wrote the newspaper’s commentary plugging Pauw’s book! In other words, Pauw is happy to collaborate with notorious fabricators and propaganda peddlers when it suits him to do so.

Or is he just a fabricator and propaganda peddler himself? Or did he even write the book, or just sell his name to the writers of the book in exchange for money to salvage his ailing Riebeeck-Kasteel restaurant? Apparently there are free copies of the book being circulated (interestingly, the book is produced by the apartheid propaganda organisation Naspers, now called Media24 and the largest company on the JSE by virtue of its Chinese investments — but there is no such thing as white minority capital, is there?). Therefore you can decide on the value of the book without giving any money to Pauw or his backers.

But the book alone will not give you the full story of what the book is really about, or where it comes from.

 

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Klein in a Bottle.

November 6, 2017

Not so very long ago, Naomi Klein, former Wall Street journalist turned celebrity leftist, was the bright shining hope of the world. Her books The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, which revealed the horrifying truth (which had been kept secret for so long) that capitalism exploits workers and harms the environment, were on every leftist’s bookshelf, crowding out Marxist theory because her books were enormously expensive.

Not everybody quite believed this, of course. Alexander Cockburn’s review of The Shock Doctrine pointed out that what Klein was representing as her own brilliant idea was something which had been around since Marx at least, and probably since Rousseau and Blake (and some of it went back to Savonarola). Also, the revelations about the link between CIA torture, CIA mind control and capitalism had been traced in the 1960s when the facts about the CIA’s experiments with hallucinogens and sensory deprivation started coming out — and the political implications came as no great surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to what happened in any fascist or quasi-fascist seizure of power in the twentieth century.

Of course, said Cockburn, it was good that someone was saying all this stuff again given the terrible drought of leftists in the twenty-first century. However, Klein is particularly mistaken in claiming that this “shock doctrine” is something relatively new, most particularly on display in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, based on the CIA ideas of the 1960s fused with the neoliberal triumph of the late 1970s. In fact, argues Cockburn, to say this is to pretend that the disastrous twenty-first-century neoliberals, the Bushes and Blairs and Berlusconis and their descendants, were something novel and something which can therefore be fought against as dangerous innovators. Instead, he remarks, they are very much within a long continuum of capitalism stretching back at least to the eighteenth century, and to fight against them you have to fight against the system which created them; it isn’t enough to vote out Bush. The long dark Obama era demonstrated that Cockburn was right and Klein wrong.

Now Klein has come up with another book. Unlike its three major predecessors, and like her journalism, it is very short on research and is unreferenced. Her argument is that we are in a big big crisis, due to Trump, and therefore we must do everything that we can, as fast as possible, to challenge the rise of whatever it is that we are supposed to fight against in Trump, and Brexit, the two official foes of the official liberal ruling class of the Western world.

The book is called No Is Not Enough. This is a weird title. Who ever thought that no was enough? When, in politics or anywhere else, has rejection been the be-all and end-all of activity? Perhaps, though, this is a sign that Western political thought has really lost its sense of self-worth and become no more than a knee-jerk resistance to right-wing initiatives which in themselves are not properly understood.

Manifestly there must be something positive towards which any political movement must mobilise its adherents. This is true of every political movement which can ever aspire to have any adherents for any length of time. So, then, what is the positive thing which Klein has hitherto provided? In the main, she has complained about the misbehaviour of big business and of Republicans, contending that it would be nicer if there were fewer sweatshops and more non-franchised coffee shops, that it would be better if capitalism did not entail using the government to frighten people into pursuing policies which harm their interests, and that it would be good if someone would do something about global warming. Effectively, this is nebulous reformism. It is the politics of hipster liberalism, wishing to carry on with one’s current life without change, but also without guilt or unpleasant news on the television or the social media, and without right-wing propaganda blaring in one’s ears.

Does this new book represent anything different? Ninety-nine percent of the book’s critique is an attack on Donald Trump and some of his Cabinet. This is not exactly courageous stand-taking; everybody who would purport to be on the left obviously opposes Trump. He is a very easy target to attack, and in attacking him it is easy to ignore the extremely odious and terribly powerful people who oppose Trump in order to put themselves in power and implement policies which are as destructive as Trump’s, but perhaps more coherently assembled and more effectively propagandised, and hence more dangerous in the long run. Ignoring such people’s existence — or worse, effectively allying oneself with them, as in South Africa where the same kind of sand-in-the-eyes leftism has been used to legitimate support for the richest and most right wing people in the country under the pretense of saving the nation from Zuma — is a suicidal policy.

So if the book were simply a criticism of Trump then it would be (in effect) propaganda for the kind of system which Trump represents. By claiming that the only problem to be addressed is this nasty chancre weeping pus on your cheek, you are ignoring the fact that your big problem is actually that you have syphilis. Fortunately, there is a 1% of the book in which Klein does mention that the opposition to Trump, in the person of Hillary Clinton, was a corrupt liar campaigning for the special interests of gangster capitalists. Also, she mentions the existence of that gangster capitalism and points out that it essentially runs the socio-economic system of the United States by remote control.

These are points with which any leftist can fundamentally agree. These are also points, however, which direct attention to a far more important problem than the problem of having a preposterous ignorant sociopathic gasbag in the White House, or even the people who helped to put that gasbag there. The solutions to that problem — the control of the system by a corrupt and largely invisible ruling class which uses that control to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else — are different from the problem of the wrong guy winning an election.

But this is the problem which Klein complains about. She endorsed Bernie Sanders as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. Undeniably Sanders was a less odious candidate than Hillary Clinton; arguably, he was the least unpleasant prospect of all the figures who sought to stand for President in either the Democratic or Republican Party. However, Sanders is a right-wing figure, a military hawk, a Zionist and a supporter of most of the conservative policies pursued by the Democratic Party down the decades. His populist attacks on corrupt banks were unusual, but they also almost certainly led nowhere, since he had no mass base behind him and any attempt to implement an anti-trust law against the banks would certainly have been blocked by all parties. His claims to be a socialist are certainly as fraudulent as Hillary Clinton’s claims to be a feminist. Klein claims that the mere uttering of such terms is a good thing — but in both cases the term could be used safely because it had been drained of all practical meaning.

Furthermore, Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton for the Presidency. Klein criticises Clinton, but it is clear that she preferred Clinton over Trump. Therefore she was prepared to vote for the system and to call on others to do the same. What is the point of criticising the system if in practice you refuse to challenge it? This seems like the same sort of ineffectual hipster politics characteristic of Klein. It also explains why Klein spends so much more time criticising Trump than criticising the system which allowed Trump to rise, or, for that matter, criticising representatives of the system like Obama and Clinton who happen to use rhetoric which resembles Klein’s own rhetoric, but whose agenda is essentially the same as that of Trump: the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and through the degradation of the planet and its resources.

So Klein’s “yes” is a very small one compared to her “NO”, and it is also a very unappealing one. She tries to gussy this up (whatever that phrase means) with references to the victories which have been attained over neoliberalism and “Trumpism”. These victories include a massive populist revolt in Argentina against corrupt neoliberalism which eventually led to a slightly less reactionary ruling-class family taking power and pursuing a slightly less corrupt version of neoliberalism. There is also the massive populist revolt in Greece against corrupt neoliberalism, in which the Greeks boldly voted for the party which pledged not to implement corrupt neoliberalism, after which the party implemented corrupt neoliberalism. On the whole, Klein’s poster boys for the New Politics are neither attractive nor credible.

Victories over “Trumpism” appear similar. Her thesis is that Trump’s victory has ushered in a series of extreme-right movement, such as UKIP in Britain, or the BJP in India, or Duterte’s Presidency in the Philippines. She fails to notice that Duterte, for all his violence and populism, is rather different from Trump and his agenda, that UKIP is an insignificant party (the anti-EU vote was essentially a Conservative victory) and the BJP has been around since the 1930s in various Hindu incarnations.

Meanwhile, her evidence of victories over this nonexistent fascistic united front include the stitched-up victory of the vicious reactionary neoliberal Macron in France and the victory of the xenophobic reactionary populists in Holland (where she praises a “Green” party which committed itself to supporting the European Union in its current neoliberal form). It seems obvious from this that Klein is trapped within the confines of the status quo, like a cockroach in a corked bottle waiting for the ammonia to be dripped in. Since that status quo is essentially neoliberal and reactionary, her campaigns against neoliberalism and reactionary politics appear wholly cosmetic.

Indeed, she went on a lot of marches in the United States to protest against Trump. Good for her; it is good for the legs and the lungs, assuming you don’t breathe too much of the city air. These marches, however, were mostly organised by the Democratic Party and were essentially calls for the installation of Hillary Clinton as President, so Klein was marching against her own professed principles and policies. The purposes of the marches were to mobilise specific interests, such as technology professionals and women, who normally tend to support the Democrats. Of course one may try to take advantage of such campaigns to challenge the system. There is little sign, however, that this happened, and Klein certainly did nothing to pursue that.

In the end she does come up with a call for the masses to rise up in what she calls the “Leap”, a call for a transformation of society on Utopian grounds. At last! Someone who will save us! Indeed, she says that this has happened before — when big oil spills happened in 1969, the people rose up and called for someone to do something about the environment, and lo, someone did and the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and the Clean Air Act passed. Klein says that this kind of triumph of the people can be done again. Erm, well perhaps, but shouldn’t we remember that the person who answered the call of the people was President Richard Nixon, saving the environment in his spare time when he wasn’t murdering hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese and overthrowing Latin American governments.

Her other inspiration is Standing Rock, where the evil government wanted to run a pipeline carrying Canadian tar-sands oil through an Indian reservation (this being government land the pipeline could travel free there). To further save money they wanted to run the pipeline slap through the local lake. And there the people rose up and said NO! Hurray for the people! Oh yes — except that the government rose up and said PISS OFF!, violently chased the Indians and their supporters away, and built the pipeline slap through the local lake. So she is celebrating the disastrous failure of weakly-supported single-interest campaigns to attain anything positive.

Her Leap is no leap. It’s a vague call for someone to do something, something nice, something like a higher minimum wage and more windmills and solar panels and child-minders and fewer police shooting black people. It has no political support worth mentioning  and no capacity to develop any. It is the feel-good politics of hipsterism, incapable of accomplishing anything and devoid of any potential to build the political analysis — the class analysis, especially — which it completely lacks.

And there we leave Klein in her bottle. A Klein bottle is a three-dimensional Moebius strip, a bottle with no actual inside or outside. As a result it’s difficult to see how to get out of the bottle. On the positive side, it cannot actually be build in the real world, any more than can Klein’s mythical politics.

 

 


At Last, the Creator Reads the Mars Trilogy.

November 6, 2017

Kim Stanley Robinson has written a great deal of future history. Most of it centres around two things: the decline of the American capitalist empire in the early twenty-first century, and the rise of alternatives to capitalism in the solar system in the ensuing centuries. In a sense, then, his work is rather like the 1980s work of Bruce Sterling (think Schismatrix), albeit considerably more sophisticated and less pretentious.

The gist of his work is that the near future is going to be bad, because of capitalism, but after capitalism everything will be all right, because of technology. If this sounds simplistic, it isn’t — not altogether, because the only way that the technology can become unfettered is by getting rid of capitalism as an exclusive and overarching dominant concept — that is, by getting rid of what we now call neoliberalism, although Robinson’s ideas were formed in the 1970s and he doesn’t quite talk that way. He also isn’t particularly interested in postmodernism, even though he is interested both in art and in Fredric Jameson, the man who attempted to Marxise postmodernism (although he may have only succeeded in postmodernising Marxism).

But although the Creator has admired books like Icehenge and Pacific Edge and The Memory of Whiteness, all of which are set in this Robinsonian future history, the Creator never yet read the Mars Trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. It was all just too much. The Creator used to fantasise about being a science fiction writer, and the problem with Robinson was that he was just too good to serve as a model; it was impossible to do as well as him, let alone better. And these three texts were supposedly the very best of them all. Let them alone, lest you become depressed. Anyway, there are other things out there to read.

Anyway, the other day the Creator was at a Bargain Books, which is the only place where one can obtain remotely affordable texts off-line, and came across a copy of Blue Mars. There was nothing else worth getting in the shop apart from ridiculously expensive South African ruling class propaganda, so Kim Stanley Robinson was a perfect means of counteracting this. But, having bought it, it seemed right to read it. And the Creator saw that it was good.

The trouble was that Blue Mars is the third volume in the trilogy, and a great deal of it was obviously heavily dependent on knowing what had happened in the earlier two. Vaguely remembering that there was a lot of Robinson in the bookshelf, the Creator went into the dark crevice where such books are kept, and discovered that Red Mars and Green Mars were side-by-side with all the Robinson books which the Creator had actually (more or less) read. The trilogy had been looming untouched for a decade. Perhaps the Creator had unconsciously been putting it all off until the last volume manifested itself.

OK, so what’s it about? Ostensibly, the colonisation of Mars. The Americans send a man to Mars. Then the Americans and the Russians get together and send a hundred colonists to Mars to set up things so that actual colonisation can get going. Presently the colonisation gets going, and that, of course, is where the trouble starts. By the end of Red Mars, the trouble is in full swing, because the corporations — “transnationals”, Robinson calls them — are taking over and using Mars both as a source of income and as a way of scoring off each other — corporate war by other means — and because profit and military power are involved, they grow increasingly intolerant of the hippy-dippy society which the scientists, engineers and psychologists evolved in the early decades of colonisation. And so something has to be done, and the corporations decide to kill off all the trouble-making colonists and start all over again with nice corporate clones and zombies who will do what they are told.

Green Mars deals with the failure of the corporate project. As might be expected, they manage to kill off just enough of the troublemakers to make the survivors bitter and resentful, and therefore the survivors are gradually able to keep the flame of resistance alive as Mars is flooded with drones — especially because the cheese-paring bean-counters whom the corporations put in charge invariably skimp on things like healthcare and social services, because this is the Great Frontier and everybody should be a Rugged Individualist, or else get nabbed by the corporate police and dragged off to the torture-chambers (and of course Rugged Individualism doesn’t apply to the bean-counters or to the billionaires who drop in from time to time to check that their investments are generating sufficient short-term profit at the expense of the people and environment of Mars. Anyway, in the end everybody gets pissed off enough to launch a revolution — which is only possible because the Earthies get a bit tangled up in a slight environmental problem they face — the sudden six-metre rise in sea-level as a result of the collapse of the whole Antarctic ice sheet.

Blue Mars is probably the most boring of the trilogy texts; having succeeded in winning independence from Earth, the Martians have to create a new society, and of course they fail; what they create is a collage of old societies, and meanwhile, because capitalism is defeated and discredited and hence humanity has the opportunity to achieve the goals which Marx wanted them to accomplish and which capitalism always stifled, there are new kinds of society and new technological systems appearing everywhere, and therefore there is no simple ownership of the mode of production, and therefore not even a Marxist can figure out what is going on. While nothing clear or coherent is happening, what is clear is that the future is as bright as the new fusion “gaslights” illuminating and heating the outer worlds, and as new as the asteroidal generation starships roaring off. to colonise new worlds and spread humanity’s genius and screwups to the stars.

So that’s the technological side of the trilogy, which is in itself interesting, with its tension between huge “Pharoanic” projects to provide Mars with the water, nitrogen and heat it needs to be terraformed, and the small-scale, “ecopoetic” transformations which are supposed to do the same thing, but in a nice way, of course. It all runs by machinery anyway; the question is only how big it is.

And who’s in charge, and what their motives are, and that raises all the human questions which are what makes the trilogy really interesting.

The First Man On Mars, John Boone, is one of the First Hundred, the unacknowledged ecopoetic legislators of the world called Mars. Virtually all of the story is told through members of the First Hundred, who witness the gradual transformation of Mars, which happens according to their wishes or against their wishes, depending on whether they are Reds who want to keep Mars pristine and inhabitable only inside pressurised buildings, or Greens who want to turn Mars into a second Earth (no prizes for guessing which side wins, although it is the Reds who often appear the more interesting figures, apart from the autistic scientist-hero Sax). The First Hundred can witness the development of Mars (which spans two centuries) thanks to the convenient invention of a life-prolonging DNA auto-repair treatment — although this means that they live to become both mythic heroes and to witness the death of almost all of their dreams, and to become crotchety oldsters in a world of youth, the world of the “Accelerando” which Robinson represents as the speeding-up and perfecting of humanity’s mission to dominate the solar system and itself.

Boone, however, the mythic American hero of the frontier, is killed right at the start of the first volume of the trilogy, by thugs egged on by another American — a Mission Control administrator jealous of the celebrity status of astronauts — who believes that he can turn Mars into an American paradise if only the problematic Boone were out of the way. So for the rest of the book, as the reader follows Boone’s blundering attempts to understand what is going on and formulate an appropriate liberal response to the radical circumstances of terraformed, corporate-dominated Mars, it is already written that Boone will fail, and the catastrophe of 2061, the failed revolution against the capitalists, is already written into the book from the beginning.

But the revolution wins in the end — the revolution for freedom, that is; freedom from not being punished for interfering with corporate interests, freedom to develop your own lifestyle, but not freedom to keep the water down in the aquifers, or the carbon dioxide in the icecaps; that freedom is lost along with 2061, when the massive civil war shatters what remains of Red Mars and leaves the corporations who win the war paradoxically free to dump nitrogen from Titan to beef up the atmospheric pressure and fly space mirrors to reflect heat onto the planet. (The mirrors are eventually moved away after the Revolution and become Venetian blinds for Venus, cooling it down until the atmosphere freezes out.) The whole intellectual conflict, between individual freedom and social restraint, and between political need and economic necessity, and between the way we used to do things in the good old days and the way these uppity young troublemakers want to do it now, is beautifully played out and makes the text probably the most interesting and sophisticated science fiction sequence ever written.

Technically and historically, of course, it’s not about Mars at all; it’s about how we could turn the human race, on Earth or anywhere else, into a bunch of happy campers, all well-fed, relaxed and living the way we want to be, if only we could get capitalist acquisitiveness out of the way. It’s apparent throughout the text that there’s always plenty of resources — generated by robots which can build anything to any amount at any time. Only greed and envy keep the resources from being spread around. Technology and social science and democratic debate can resolve all problems.

Yes, but will they? The depressing thing about the book is that it’s twenty-five years since Red Mars was conceived, and we ought to be going to Mars by now; the First Hundred set off in 2020 on the Ares. Boone ought already to have returned by now to the last hurrah of American governmental space imperialism. He hasn’t, and we aren’t doing any of this. We don’t even have fusion power, which is absolutely essential for the bulk of the projects which are bustled through space.

Nor have we got the cash and the impetus to go into space. Instead of gigantic Energias boosting space shuttles two at a time into orbit, the Energia and the space shuttle have both been closed down and there is no sign of any serious replacement. This is partly because Robinson assumes that the end of the Cold War would also mean the end of the arms race, the end of global conflict, and therefore the military and aerospace industries are obliged to plug for a huge space boondoggle in order to preserve their corporate identity — one of the first corporations to dominate Mars is Armscor, which of course no longer exists in our real world except as Denel, a stumbling relic of apartheid South Africa’s techno-fetishism. But Armscor died because the global war machine opposed its competition; Robinson simply underestimated the corruption and self-destructive nature of capitalism, being a traditional Marxist who, like his mentor Fredric Jameson, has a poisoned, guilty admiration for what capitalism was (but seems to be no longer).

Robinson, indeed, also has a Good Capitalist, a man who recognises that the world cannot continue going to hell in a handbasket forever, that sooner or later the handbasket must arrive in hell, and rather than have that happen, decides to throw in his lot with the enemies of corporate capitalism and trust that he can do a deal with them by working along with the Martian resistance to corporate capitalism. It is, of course, possible that people might pretend to do that sort of thing, but in fact the experience of corporate capitalists working with revolutionaries in South Africa is not exactly encouraging. Meanwhile, Robinson’s corporate capitalist is something of a combination of Egon Musk and Howard Hughes — suggesting that Robinson is desperately buying into capitalism’s own fraudulent image of the risk-taking, edge-living entrepreneur. We don’t see much of that stuff in the real world.

Robinson’s wonderful world of a new bright future does include trifling sacrifices which have to be made for freedom  — like the corporate warriors who reprogram city environment maintenance systems to hyperoxygenate the atmosphere under the domed cities. In one spectacularly horrible scene, some of Robinson’s heroes find themselves facing this crisis, and when a fuse is lit their living bodies burn like torches (Robinson helpfully reminds us of what happened to the early Apollo astronauts in an oxygenated space capsule). But this isn’t the problem. The problem is that this future isn’t going to materialise. We aren’t going to Mars, and we aren’t even going to build Mars on Earth. What we seem to be building instead is a cesspool filled with barbed wire.

 


So This Is Freedom? They Must Be Joking!

November 6, 2017

The politics of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave are beyond belief as well as beneath contempt – like the politics of most similar countries, of course.
The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are both, of course, the same party; the party of wealth, privilege, power and disdain for anyone who lacks these things. Both are also parties of global military violence and domestic economic oppression (which, when challenged, often morphs into global economic violence and domestic military oppression). The difference between them is one of style, and to some extent of constituency which determines that style, plus the fact that there are different market segments seeking to appeal to them. This style, and those different market segments, determine who votes for the different halves of the party – rather like the ANC and the DA in South Africa, although here it’s three-quarters and one-quarter, or at least has been since 1994 when the first polls were held.
But still, this recent Presidential primary election season has gone beyond the usual joke, beyond the usual surrealism, into something which makes one begin to believe that perhaps the Satanic deity which created this world to torment us is beginning to manifest itself in all its hideous clarity.
The primary nightmare is being constructed around Donald Trump, the ex-bankrupt real estate and casino tycoon, who decided to stand for the Presidency as a potential Republican candidate. Since many Americans either passionately love or passionately dislike the rich, this could either be a problem or an advantage. He’s not, of course, the first billionaire to stand for the Presidency — anyone remember Mitt Romney? However, the issue about Trump is not that he is a billionaire at all; the issue around Trump is that he is a racist and a misogynist.
There is a degree of truth in this. Trump wants to keep out the illegal Mexican immigrants, so that makes him a racist (since he doesn’t want to keep out all those illegal British immigrants who come flooding into the country, smelling the place up with their spiceless food). He also wants to keep out the Muslims, merely because they are shooting back at the Americans who shoot at them. Trump has also said some rather unpleasant things about female journalists, usually the blow-dried, overgroomed, excessively made-up right-wing ones on TV shows who try, without much competence or conviction, to make fun of him.
So he doesn’t like brown-skinned people or women. That should make him unelectable. However – and here’s where it gets complicated – it isn’t actually clear that Trump doesn’t like brown-skinned people or women. He certainly claims to dislike people who come into the country and steal jobs and women and all of the usual xenophobic rubbish which one hears from all conservative politicians (most of them pretending to be liberals), many of whom have no difficulty getting elected or re-elected. His hostility to Muslims is based entirely on the fact that the United States happens to like going to war wuith Muslim countries, and seems to have no basis in any religious prejudice of his own (although he is happily exploiting anti-Muslim prejudice in others, just as Clinton and Bush and Obama did). Similarly, he dislikes anybody who opposes or challenges him, regardless of gender (like any CEO, that is) and therefore abuses and despises female journalists who serve other people’s agendas. Soi, basically, Trump is a nasty person, but not unusually nasty.
Of course, then, that’s politics. One does what one can to make one’s opponents look objectionable; George W Bush was depicted as an inebriated simian miscreant, John Kerry was depicted as an irresponsible coward, Barack Obama was depicted as a weakling and (worse still) a black — and, of course, all these things turned out to be true. Yet there was nothing novel about any of these points. And there is nothing novel about Trumpitude except for the fact that he is unusually brash about his odiousness — which many people, not all of them Republicans, find refreshing. Much better to be sold a plate of shit than a plate of shit labelled “Chocolate ice cream” — although it makes little difference if you are still forced to eat it at gunpoint.
Turning to the Democratic Party side of the aisle, a Titanic Struggle was waged between the Socialist Monster Bernie Sanders and the Shrieking Harpy Hillary Clinton. Sanders is a socialist in the sense that he wants to see a little more regulation applied to the major banks — in other words, he’s a socialist like Winston Churchill was a socialist when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Accusing Hillary of being a harpy makes a little more sense, since the Harpies were monstrous female creatures which killed people, and Hillary has certainly killed a lot of people. However, almost nobody is talking about that; instead they are accusing Hillary of being in league with the banks, just because she was on a retainer from Goldman Sachs, how unfair can you get, shame.
Like most Titanic Struggles, this one was fixed from the start; Hillary was always going to win, because she was the Chosen One of the sponsors of the Democratic Party; the conflict between Obama and Hillary in 2008 was more even-handed because the sponsors liked each of them equally. Sanders was always going to lose, because he isn’t wrapping himself in the bloodstained dollar of global aggression. Oddly enough, he actually supports American global aggression (he’s a big fan of Zionist aggression, for instance, which is American aggression by proxy) but rather than appropriate that he prefers to talk about other things, like how awful the bankers are. He is, thus, a populist, seeking to pretend to serve the people, one who possibly intends well in some ways but generally will serve the interests of the ruling class in whatever minor sense that he holds power. (This is approximately what we saw with Obama, although Sanders is more effective at playing the populist game than Obama was because Sanders has some limited understanding of what the people want.) This is why, when Clinton eventually racked up enough delegates to win on a first ballot at the Convention, Sanders immediately cast aside all his valid criticisms of Clinton and became a Clintonista; you gotta Get With The Program.
This is, therefore, a bizarre situation. One party is nominating an anti-politician who is almost certainly going to lose, not because they want to lose, but because pressure from grassroots is forcing them to nominate someone whom they really don’t like and who doesn’t actually stand for their principles. One party is nominating a career politician, a complete insider who is ludicrously pretending to be an outside, who is widely despised, notoriously corrupt and dedicated to principles which her party professes to oppose (although it actually supports them). Both are committed to values and policies which make their country’s name stink throughout the world, and one of them is even acknowledged as such by the media (because he represents a challenge to the individuals and groups which control the media). His likely competitor represents no such challenge, being entirely in thrall to those individuals and groups.
What’s bizarre about this? The ruling class remains in charge. Assuming that Clinton wins, there will be no problem controlling her. If Trump wins, the ruling class can accommodate themselves to his blustering manner and presumably they will have no difficulty in making him do what they tell him.
But still, one gets the impression that the system is losing control of the democratic charade, putting forward much more blatantly ludicrous and odious people than usual. Furthermore, the public is no longer deceived in the same way that it was. Granted, the public is still trying to elect a leader who will serve them, so they are still utterly deluded. But they are also trying to counteract the lies which they are told by the establishment, with a different set of lies. These lies are provided to them by their masters, but are cunningly packaged to appear to challenge the lies they have been told in the past. Those who can remember the lies of the past will recognise that these lies are valueless – but fortunately the whole tenor of contemporary culture is aimed at forgetting everything in the past, especially the lies which we have been told.
As a result, informed people know that the situation is just as bad as it has been for decades, and that it is more conspicuously so than before. But uninformed people do not know this, although they doubtless have a vague notion that the situation is indeed bad.
In the real world, too, there is no alternative to the promotion of bad policies. Clinton stands for everything bad about the Obama administration and is resolved that nothing good will materialise. Trump stands for a rhetorical fantasy of corporate power and reactionaries saving the world through violence and willpower — arguably fascistic, but then all contemporary politics are fascistic. In the end, then, both are committed to pursuing policies of national suicide to the bitter end — which will be the destruction of far more than that odious country stretching from sea to shining sea, from the halls of Montezuma to the plains of Abraham.
Can this be challenged? Can the United States rescue itself from a situation in which the leader of the state must inevitably be a hypocritical liar, simply because the ruling class will not permit any other category of people to hold the post, and because the policies pursued by any leader of the state must oppose the interests of the people who vote for that leader, so therefore the leader must lie and distract? It seems impossible to challenge this in the United States, partly because of repression, partly because of media disinformation, and partly because of more than a hundred years of conformist brainwashing which has turned even the people who think of themselves as radicals into goose-stepping, unthinking supporters of a ghastly, suicidal status quo.
And this is the Land of the Free, this is the country which rules the world on the basis of its claim that all alternatives to it are worse — that anyone who doesn’t knuckle under to the supremacy of Uncle Sam is a clone of Kim or Castro. This is the country from which our own media draw much of their material and virtually all of their ideological dogma. Looked at closely, the situation doesn’t bear thinking about. Maybe the end of the world will not be such a bad thing after all, if it draws down the curtain on this long global nightmare.


Dowling’s Good Bad Book.

May 19, 2016

Finuala Dowling is one of the more interesting writers working within the white community in South Africa at the moment, largely because she is working for her own amusement rather than seeking to fulfil the expectations of a market in return for cash. Therefore it is possible to read her work without devoting too much time to identifying the familiar political buttons being pressed by the writer so as to manipulate the reader, and which are so irritating when one reads, say, Deon Meyer.

But since she is serving herself rather than market, it is natural that she should draw on her own life. Although Dowling’s life has been interesting enough to be worth writing about, it also leads to a certain repetitious self-consciousness — even self-indulgence — in her works. Also, where she is making use of painful memories, there is a certain manifest difficulty in what she is producing, a degree of blockage and distance between the creative writing and the material being utilised. This blockage is probably not artistic but is likely to be produced by Dowling’s own sense of hurt and loss.

This was already present in Home-Making For the Down-At-Heart, where she was writing about the dementia and death of her mother. She had already written most of a volume of poems about this, and the novel seemed to be a way of addressing the issue in a sustained way. The poems were usually short vignettes depicting her mother’s bizarre behaviour or utterances. The novel was a sustained depiction of decline and death (seen from the perspective of a person who had her own problems with coming to terms with daily life.)

However, both of these volumes managed to evade the essential horror of the issue by exploiting the dark, ironic humour which could be derived from living with someone who has lost touch with reality. As a result, although Dowling was managing to make the painful episodes of her life appear entertaining for the reader (and not so painful as to be difficult to read, which would have been commercial suicide) it’s a moot point whether the end product was therapeutic. Perhaps art shouldn’t be therapeutic.

So is this true of her most recent book, The Fetch?

Well, the work is interesting because it is an attempt to break out of the Hout Bay Bohemian-suburban environment which is the setting for her earlier novels. Instead it is set in Slangkop, an imaginary village across False Bay from Hout Bay, making it the mirror-image of her hometown. Daringly, in a sense, there is a tough, no-nonsense, elderly black person who acts as foil to the central character, a naïf librarian who stumbles into the inner circle of both the village’s only aesthete and the village’s only hippie.

But these characters are distinctly stereotypical and their interactions are not coherently motivated; nobody seems to have any real desire to do anything other than fulfil their role as defined by their status in the book. They bounce between each other like billiard-balls, remaining completely unaffected by being bounced (as when the hippie is obliged to adopt an abandoned baby). It is not really possible to engage with these characters as people; the problem isn’t so much that Dowling is trying to appeal to her audience, as that she needs these characters to provide a background for the central feature of the story which is the relationship between the librarian and the aesthete. Therefore, although the characters are supposed to be human, they are actually mechanical dolls.

The trouble with Slangkop itself is that it is not a realised place. There are occasional references to location and to events, but it is not a community; there is none of the subtle interaction between people which exists in small towns. Everybody is isolated, but this is not social commentary, it is rather a lack of development. Again, a place was needed to provide a background for the relationship between the central character and the aesthete, but it is not described in a way which would make the reader want to visit it, let alone believe that it exists.

The narrative is a series of vignettes, often stylised (as with the lone baboon which has lost its troop, which is obviously a metaphor for the doomed male homosexual character). The book is similarly fragmented into episodes which appear arranged to show the innocence of the central character and the way in which harsh reality crushes it. She does not understand the world, but the more she tries to engage with it by falling in love with the aesthete and then becoming his dogsbody, the more she is setting herself up to show that the world is not prepared to conform to her expectations.

This is a fair enough point. Of course, it is a very old story, the story of the romantic young person who imposes her own values on the world and thus manages to kid herself that she has attained her goal, when she is simply living in a fantasy. The person who tries to risk all for love — and it is always tempting to give in to the deliriums of desire — is going to be disappointed in the object of the love, because nobody is as perfect as a fantasy partner. The more the lover gives to the object of desire, the more the lover surrenders, the greater the eventual disaster is likely to be when reality breaks in. It is well resolved in the book; the aesthete is (of course) bisexual and runs off with a beautiful boy, and the beautiful boy is (of course) a psychopathic manipulator who steals all the aesthete’s money. It is a familiar white middle-class Cape Town story, and the bulk of it is the story of Dowling’s own disastrous marriage.

And then what? Dowling makes the librarian a rather hapless figure (actually everybody in the book is rather hapless, but she stands out in this respect), easily threatened by dangerous urban women her age in expensive outfits which they are more willing to take off than she is. This is slightly Jamesian (and in a way perhaps Dowling is trying to be a bit Michiel Heyns). For a contrast to this we therefore need a corrupt but fascinating central character, which it seems likely that the aesthete is meant to be. But in the book, he isn’t; unlike the corrupt milieu figures in Heyns’ Invisible Furies, Dowling’s aesthete isn’t sufficiently strongly constructed to bear the weight of being a tragic hero.

It seems likely that he is loosely modelled on some of the figures at the English Department at UCT where Dowling studied, some of whom tried to fulfil the role of being life-artists and big frogs in tiny artistic ponds. Slangkop, however, cannot provide a background like this because nobody there cares about aesthetics or life-artists, and the aesthete is thus suspended in a void; only his parties and his journalism exist to impress anybody (and what pitiful accomplishments these are, getting an article published somewhere or getting some pretty people to come and drink your whisky). Nothing that happens seems unusual or interesting enough to justify making this person the centre of attention. Therefore his fall, and his subsequent death from AIDS, appear both inevitable and insignificant; since the central character is no longer in love with him and nobody cares about him, and nothing he has done suggests that the planet is losing a giant talent or intellect, however much compassion Dowling pours into the last part of the text it still amounts to very little impact.

Again, perhaps this is part of the problem. Dowling seems, on one hand, to be offering a kind of tribute to her ex-husband. On the other hand, her ex-husband was himself a master of illusion, creating the impression of being a giant talent on the basis of very little accomplishment, so this is a fair representation. But it’s in a sense sad and squalid, and it’s never quite clear in the text whether the aesthete is indeed a no-talent, delusional loser, or whether he is indeed a great talent gone to seed and ultimately to waste.

Perhaps, then, Dowling is torn between the artistic need of the text and the truth of the material which she is dealing with. But still more important is the problem that she is dealing with her own sense of pain and loss, making it difficult for her to engage with anything; on one hand the other characters in the work are foils for the aesthete and the librarian, yet on the other hand if the aesthete and the librarian’s interaction is made too powerful then this opens all the wounds of her marriage. Thus if the book had been more of a success as a narrative, it might also have been horribly painful for its author — and maybe she wasn’t ready, or even able, to go there.

Maybe the moral of the story is that Dowling made a mistake in trying to do this in the first place. It’s an honourable failure; the book is reasonably well-constructed and written with Dowling’s customary skill and there is a lot of potential there, even if it has its trivial and manipulative side. But it does seem to be a failure, and the failure does seem to arise from trying to exorcise a ghost who simply won’t go away however much Dowling tries to drive him out.


The Force is the Last Refuge of the Incompetent.

January 12, 2016

Matthew D’Ancona, the dishonest right-wing journalist, says that the Star Wars narrative is a myth, or mythos, or legend, or whatever, for our time. Although this sounds like the kind of drivel which is always said about anything which looks remotely like fantasy, and although the source is almost guaranteed to generate bullshit, let us not dismiss this instantly. Let us examine it for a moment, and then dismiss it instantly.

A myth is a way of accounting for the mysteries of the world. Usually it is in some way actionable — either as a warning, or as an example to be followed, although usually not completely literally. It is never completely banal or meaningless.

So, assuming that Star Wars is a myth, what does it constitute? Well, there are heroes and villains. This is not like the Iliad, where there are no such simple differences. Instead, the heroes are impossibly good, although occasionally outfitted with clunky minor negative qualities in an unsuccessful attempt to stop them from being saccharine. The villains, meanwhile, have all the tropes of evil apart from one — namely, motivation. The villains are evil for the sheer joy of being evil, a collection of Saurons obsessed with power for its own sake. This does not really provide us with any example for acting in the real world — instead, what it does is to confirm the propaganda mythos of the Western imperialist states, most particularly the United States, under which everybody except “us” is evil, and it is not necessary to comprehend evil because they must simply be blown up.

The universe is exciting, but in a wholly innocent way; it is there to be explored, but (except when the evil Empire is involved, when menace is always present) there are no consequences arising from this exploration. There is little to be learned from this exploration. Rather, what must be learned is a simple series of techniques (somehow not available to everyone) by which one may use the “Force”, along with a few talismans like “light sabers”, to become invincible. Of course this “Force” may be used for evil, and that is what the Empire is doing, so therefore by conquering the Empire one is also purifying the basic nature of the universe.

All this sounds childish — in the most precise sense; it is the fantasic response of a bullied eleven-year-old boy to his objective circumstances; if only I had a gang to join, if only I weren’t picked on, if only Dad understood me more, if only Mom were a little more indulgent, if only I didn’t have to go to school, hey, look at that pretty frog sitting on that log! It is no accident that the original Star Wars was consciously aimed at prepubescent children (though with a few nods to older people so that their parents — and the reviewers — could sit through it) and that is why the central characters are so young, and consciously presented as even younger than the ages of their actors. And that is why so much of the second trilogy (which is the first trilogy in the narrative — like some Soviet technology, Star Wars is crude but far from simple) also features children. (However, the second trilogy is much more sexualised, not because this is integral to the plot but because of cultural changes among Western youth over thirty years.)

An important point here is that the story being told in the original Star Wars was very much a Cold War narrative. The story being told to the U.S. public was that a gigantic and loathesome Soviet Union had nearly taken over the world, and that the United States stood as a lone and feeble paladin against this vast, expanding monster. It was a crock of shit borrowed by Harry Truman’s spooks and thugs from the Second World War narrative developed by the Roosevelt administration (and even then it was deeply flawed). It was intended to scare the people into obeying their leaders, and it succeeded and the result was the Miltown-tranquillized 1950s, and this is the period to which Spielberg and Lucas were referring, a time of placid, unthinking obedience and confidence in one’s own rectitude.

As such, then, Star Wars is not a myth or an epic. It is an appealing but false story told to children to make them docile and perhaps educate them to comply with their parents’ commands. It is, thus, a fairy-tale.

This is not to condemn it. Fairy stories are not necessarily degraded or despicable. However, they have their limitations.

One of the most positive things about the original Star Wars, a feature which to some extent survived in the sequel but gradually disappeared over time, was that the backstory was told only through brief and casual allusion. The point about a fairy story is that you have to suspend disbelief except in certain crucial cases where elements are introduced to generate plausibility. If the story is of such a kind as to make the child ask “But why did that happen? Why did she do that? What did he want?” then the story is failing. (This, by the way, is different from a slightly young child asking “Why?”, where this word is code for “I’m bored and want to change the subject”.) There is nearly nothing of this in the original Star Wars because the action is carried along at speed with minimal explanation and therefore minimal demand for plausibility, and above all, minimal opportunity to ask why something is happening. More to the point, the gaps in the plot are plugged with references to a backstory in which one may assume that someone out there is in charge without being expected to ask who, or to what end.

Unfortunately, this backstory came to dominate the narrative. Just as while the Galactic Emperor was simply a flicker in the distance he was a genuinely scary figure, but shrank into pathetic pretense when he appeared in the flesh, so the crass, ill-conceived bricolage of the story of how the bad guys overthrew the Old Republic detracted from the fairy-story without providing any genuine mythology to take its place. Clumsy Oedipal imagery didn’t help much, and the ghastly racism entailed in the treatment of aliens like the Ewoks and Jar-Jar showed how little real taste Lucas, and to some extent even Spielberg, really possessed when they were not guided by masters like Eisenstein (whose genius in Alexandr Nevski Spielberg plagiarised to create his storm troopers). The problem is that when Lucas was working within a childish framework his project functioned well; outside that framework, the attempt to turn fairy-story into myth failed.

Moreover, when adults, who should have discriminatory capacity, are told that they, too, should believe in fairy stories, there is something wrong. It is perhaps no accident that Star Wars appeared at the beginning of the neoliberal era, when the whole of society began to rely, ideologically, on complete claptrap instead of partial claptrap. It is certainly no accident that Ronald Reagan immediately took up Star Wars imagery for his campaign to remilitarise and depoliticise American society, in his “Evil Empire” speech, going full circle back to the roots of the movie in Truman-style politics.

This is the basic problem. The most recent Star Wars work is, in a technical sense, simply a collage of imagery from the earlier Star Wars movies. There are vaguely interesting ideas — part of the story is set on a planet littered with the wreckage of the previous war, for instance — but none is developed, nor are they related to the action in the way that the fragmented backstory was in the first Star Wars. For no apparent reason, the current bad guys (who are allegedly a sort of fascist movement) have adopted all the trappings of the previous bad guys, the Sith regalia, the storm trooper armour, and even Darth Vader’s silly shuttlecraft.

There is no backstory here, or none worthy of the name; just unmotivated evil which must be fought against. It is the triumph of stupid authority; do what we tell you, fight against the enemy, although without having to make any obvious sacrifice yourself (but respect those mercenaries who are paid to sacrifice themselves on your behalf). We have seen this in the various wars launched by NATO countries against demonised enemies from the Taliban to the Islamic State, and the fascist tropes of the most recent enemy are similar to the Islamofascist tropes used to justify the invasion of the Middle East in pursuit of oil.

This introduction to a fresh trilogy has nothing fresh about it — except for one thing; it is no longer intended for children. Or, to be precise, in the modern American visual culture, it is no longer possible to discriminate between works intended for children and those intended for adults. (The most popular movies in America, and some of the most popular in the world, are based on comic strips for teenagers, and it is solemnly pretended that these pitiful pretexts for garish computer-generated special effects are serious, message-laden narratives.) The central characters in this work are young adults in their late teens or early twenties — immature, of course, but not dependent on others and not willing to learn from anything except their Jedi and Sith masters. The heroine is sexy, the hero is hunky, the villain is rather reminiscent of a youthful, callower version of Snape in the Harry Potter movies. There are vague sexual tensions between the three, never properly explored, of course. So the narrative is no longer a fairy-story — or else it is a fairy-story for what passes for grown-ups in the modern world.

And this is the problem: the narrative is not a narrative for grown-ups. It is a child’s story, a battle between a good which has no merit and an evil which has no credibility, with evil bound to lose because it is supposed to in the comic-books, and with no real plausible representation of the world at all, not even the distorted and symbolic representation of a child’s vision. The logical contradictions and farcically inept emotional manipulation are not excused by any merits on any other level, nor can you write it off by saying that this is not intended for grown-ups. It is the triumph of the people whom Hunter S Thompson rightly defined, in his depiction of the Clinton years, as the New Dumb.

Perhaps the coming of a fresh Clinton provides the perfect background to this horridly ill-conceived, clumsy, brutalising and wretchedly unimaginative movie.


Je Suis Going To Be Sick.

November 28, 2015

Recently a bunch of hooligans with guns and bombs murdered a bunch of people. However, that happened in Yemen, the hooligans were employees of the United States, and the victims were dark-skinned people, and no Western imperialist press was present, so nobody noticed or cared.

However, another bunch of hooligans with guns and bombs murdered a bunch of white people in Paris, and the fucking heavens must fall because of this. Every imperialist government has instructed every puppet government in the world to pee in its collective panties in fright at the horrid fact that brown people can kill white people. Everybody is instructed to improve the situation by expanding secret police powers, suppressing the rights of minorities, controlling the free movement of individuals, and eliminating what remains of freedom of speech, for only thus can we preserve what Barack Obama calls civilization.

The most nauseating expression of this is the “Je suis” movement, in which we are supposed to identify with Parisians who got blown up or shut down (but not, of course, with any brown or black-skinned people who get blown up or shot down, or even with white people if they are not authenticated as worthy victims by the NATO High Command). This is modelled on the “Je suis Charlie” movement, in which everybody in the world was urged to identify with a bunch of racist journalists who got gunned down in Paris for writing viciously anti-Muslim screeds and scrawling viciously anti-Muslim cartoons. Granted, nobody should be gunned down for such things, just as Muslim clerics should not be blown to tatters for making viciously anti-American speeches, but nobody official in the West bothers about such latter things.

Why did those people get killed in Paris? Impossible, actually, to say what the motive of the attackers was, because we don’t actually know who was responsible. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility, which means very little even if you think that the Islamic State is a simple homogeneous entity, which it isn’t.

However, the French state is violently Islamophobic, imposing petty insulting restraints on Muslims seeking to display their religion’s cultural side and more serious restraints on Muslims criticising those cultural restraints and the political agenda of the French state in Africa and the Middle East. It’s been this way ever since the eight-year genocidal war against the Algerian people, during which Algerians in Paris were murdered by the French police and dumped into the Seine with very few of the kind of people currently engaged in French elite politics going “Je suis un harki”.

More to the point, the French state’s foreign policy is unambiguously supportive of NATO imperialism; it attacked and destroyed Libya, it invaded Mali to suppress a popular uprising, it has fomented mass murders of Muslims by Christians in the Central African Republic which it also invaded, and it has fomented mass murders of Shi’ites by Sunnis in Syria in pursuit of the American political agenda of imposing an American-compliant regime in that luckless state. All this seems like an extension of domestic Islamophobia, and creates the impression that France is a violently anti-Muslim country, although in practice this is probably not the case (the French government simply wishes to do whatever the Americans tell it to do, and whatever the French electorate can be fooled into thinking is a good idea, and doesn’t think responsibly).

So does this mean that open season can be declared on French civilians? Obviously not — they may be predominantly Islamophobe, they may have voted for a government which is brutally repressive at home and virulently aggressive abroad, they may be greedy and selfish and foolish, but shooting or blowing them up is not going to change any of this.

Assuming that the Islamic State, or some element of it, was responsible for the attacks in Paris, what was the purpose? To discourage the French state from attacking Muslims? This is hardly likely. Indeed, the immediate response of the French state to the Islamic State’s violation of international law in an attempt to discourage French involvement in Syria was to attack Muslims by violating international law, bombing a city in Syria (and probably killing lots of Syrians, but there is of course no “Je suis Raqqa” movement). This was as predictable as the consequences of blowing up the Russian airliner earlier in the month, or the terrorist bombings in southern Lebanon. Why bother to do such things? Unless you are attacking someone who is at a tipping-point, like the Spanish when al-Qaeda blew up some railway trains and persuaded the Spanish to stop supporting aggression against Iraq, any such attack can only be part of a long-term attempt at regime change, as in South Africa, and there is no prospect of that in France. Otherwise you are just walloping a wasp’s nest.

More to the point, since France is quite sympathetic to the goals of the Islamic State (destroying all vestiges of democracy in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon), is one of Saudi Arabia’s big supporters, and has done what it can to help them get what they want, France is the last country that the Islamic State ought to be attacking; attacking Russia and Hizbollah makes some sense politically although given the steely resolve of their governments it’s a complete waste of time, but attacking France is politically incomprehensible.

However, it’s entirely possible that the attacks in Paris (and, indeed, the Russian airliner bombing) were not actually carried out by the Islamic State — thought of as a state, that is. It doesn’t take much to launch such attacks, assuming that you aren’t afraid of dying or spending the rest of your life in a horrible prison. It’s perfectly possible that many Muslims are unaware of the real interests of the Islamic State just as must Westerners are unaware of the links between the Islamic State and the Western secret services and covert governments. Therefore some people might have run off and attacked Paris without much more agenda than the desire to blow away a couple of Crusaders. Moreover, since they, like so many of the “jihadis”, were recruited by Western intelligence agencies to support their war to overthrow the Syrian government, they might actually have been acting, wittingly or unwittingly, on Western orders.

But the pretense is, of course, that These People are All Out To Get Us, whoever”these people” or “us” may really be, and therefore we are all supposed to stand tall, and stand with France as it bombards Arab civilians, suppresses civil rights in France, and generally behaves exactly like a caricature of Russia in The Guardian, except that The Guardian is immensely impressed with France and wishes to remind us that absolutely nothing that is happening in the Middle East has anything to do with Europe or America.

It’s all a pretense. The French are apparently trying to use this situation to suck up to America by bombarding Syria and pretending that they are going to help take down Assad. But the Americans are increasingly realising that they aren’t going to be permitted to take down Assad or Hizbollah or Iran or, in fact, do almost any of the things that they want to do in the Middle East. The French don’t have the power or the political will to do any of that, either. So in the end all that will happen will be to put a few more “anti-terrorist” laws on the Western European statute books which will be used against leftists (those same leftists who are trying to suck up to Western European governments by making anti-Syrian propaganda) and a few more billion euroes and pounds will be spent on useless armaments and incompetent secret policemen. In other words, nothing of substance will change anywhere.

And our ruling class wants us to side with these horrid, incompetent, deluded scum. Include me out, comrades. If ISIS was a real organisation and not simply a front body for Western imperialism in the Levant and Iraq, it would be tempting to support them. As it is, all that needs to be done is to remind everybody that all this has been done already by Israel in its terrorist and aggression campaigns in the Middle East. For the moment that has still turned out all right, at least for the Israeli political and economic elite. Considering most of Israeli society, however, it hasn’t turned out any better for them, than it’s going to turn out for the NATO countries who are consciously imitating them.