Those ‘pockets’ of left-wing anti-semitism are being filled by the far-right

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Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation for modesty might not survive revelations about his habit of joining pro-Jeremy Corbyn groups on Facebook. The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman calls such groups ‘anti-semitic’, which, although it is a blatant misrepresentation, does contain a possibly unwitting smidgen of truth.

I’ve long been a member of numerous pro-Corbyn groups and I have seen anti-semitic material posted there. The better-organised ones remove it once warned, but in some such groups memes and videos blaming cabals of prominent Jewish people for the world’s problems are rife and widely approved of. Such material mostly derives from the noxious swamp of Sputnik, Russia Today, and fake news websites which push what to a cursory scroller may look like nothing more than an anti-neoliberal elite agenda, but a closer inspection quickly identifies the same old tropes: Soros, the Rothschilds, the shady hook-nosed NWO, etc. The memes in question aren’t coming from the Left, in the sense that they didn’t originate there, but they do often meet with a depressingly positive reaction.

Nonetheless, there’s something both sly and unfair about (for example) Suzanne Moore’s comment that Corbyn himself is ‘not an anti-semite, but…‘. Similarly, Hadley Freeman’s List of evidence of Corbyn’s anti-semitist connections is a pretty empty one unless you consider all attempts to talk to groups representing Palestinians as beyond the Green Line. At least Freeman doesn’t mention Israel, unlike the spokesman for the British Board of Deputies the guy on Radio 4 two days ago, who just couldn’t stop himself. There are, to borrow a phrase, pockets within those groups which officially represent the Jewish community (often, as it were, the top pockets) which instinctively paint all criticism of Israel as anti-semitic. Their ongoing prominence in this debate muddies the waters just as much as those who are ready to shout down all talk of left-wing anti-semitism as a media plot.

I don’t doubt that many of the people on the protests outside Parliament were sincere in their concerns. The Brick Lane mural was absurdly anti-semitic, and Corbyn’s approval of it can’t be dismissed. (Unless, that is, we adopt a puerile definition of free speech, of which more later.) In downplaying the incident Aaron Bastani ignores the fact that if a prominent Tory or Ukip politician had ‘liked’ the same image, we would all be screaming from the rooftops, as we would if a Conservative candidate had shared the sort of Holocaust denial material posted by Alan Bull. Anyone who doesn’t recognise such blatant anti-semitism really shouldn’t be spouting off about the subject. As others have pointed out, there is something about Corbyn’s anti-elite populism which allows such tropes to fester, and the Left has a duty to address this.

The contemporary far-right is keen to exploit ambiguities and confusion among (nominally) progressive radicals in order to draw them towards its own ideas. As this article details, it sees satire as a tool for generating controversies and bringing non- and even anti-fascists into its orbit. As it happens, it wasn’t a deliberate ploy that brought me into its online sphere of influence, but it was a comedian who transported me there. On his (very) hit-and-miss podcast, Russell Brand recently interviewed the new daddy-waddy figure of the far-right, Jordan Peterson. I listened to the first two minutes, until it rapidly became clear that Brand’s deeply irritating habit of doing no research whatsoever meant that he was not going to be able to challenge or even to see through Peterson’s specious pseudo-intellectual rhetoric. Those two minutes were a rich seam for the far-right, because ever since then well over 50% of the videos Youtube has suggested to me feature Peterson ‘crushing’ his liberal debating opponents from Noam Chomsky to (I seem to recall) Mahatma Ghandi. If I hadn’t read certain articles alerting me to Peterson’s pernicious influence and detailing his intellectual fraudulence, I might be inclined to listen.

A related episode involved two more British comedians: Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel. Both tweeted in favour of the ‘free speech’ of a man called Mark Meechan (aka ‘Count Dankula’), seemingly unaware he is not a mere ‘comedian’, but a far-right activist. They were duped, pulled through a loophole created by widespread confusion about the difference between the right to privately express hateful ideas and using/abusing privately-owned public platforms to do so. A further example of ‘anti-establishment’ satire being used to promote deeply reactionary ideas is the character Jonathan Pie, whose material is co-written by a member of the far-right cult Spiked. Spiked’s ‘contrarian’ dogma involves total freedom for the far-right and active censure for anyone who opposes it.

If the Left is finding that some of its pockets contain noxious ideas, there’s no mystery as to who is placing them there, and how. Emptying those pockets out involves total intolerance of nazis and anti-semites and their ideas, and extreme vigilance for anyone seeking to use the Left’s own values to undermine it. Anyone posting in notionally left-wing forum about Soros and the Rothschilds, etc is either very naive or outright evil, and those who use a dishonest and self-serving notion of ‘free speech’ as a tool to smuggle in far-right ideas should be immediately exposed and, to borrow a phrase from the far-right, sent back to where they came from.

The Left could easily win a re-run of the Italian election. Here’s how.

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The results of the Italian parliamentary election are depressing not just to those of us with a progressive mindset but also to anyone who values democracy over violence as a means of governing human societies. The most likely Prime Minister is Matteo Salvini, an explicit apologist for racist terrorism*, as his party is the largest in a (ahem) ‘centre-right’ alliance led by the media oligarch, disqualified fraudster and convicted pedophile/mummified megalomaniac ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi. The largest single party is the populist 5 Star Movement, which has declared it will not enter a coalition. However, given that the notoriously incoherent organisation is led by the (also disqualified) multi-millionaire trickster/friend of Farage Beppe Grillo, who is on record as indifferent to fascism, there’s is a distinct chance that it will hoist the far-right into power.

Luckily the best minds (well, me) have identified a potential escape route out of this nightmare. It starts from the realisation that, despite its appalling result, the governing Democratic Party (PD) still got more votes than Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or whatever it’s called this fortnight. The Left got more support than the Right and would easily win a possible post-horsetrading second round of the election in a couple of months, providing three conditions were met:

  1. Salvini and the other fascist leaders will have to be physically eradicated. Italy has both a proud tradition of doing this, and an explicitly anti-fascist constitution. Nobody since 1945 can pretend they don’t know what fascists are, and that it is necessary to use all means necessary to eliminate them. An amendment to the Constitution could then introduce a 100% electoral threshold preventing the political participation of such groups. Then there are the Lega’s fellow travellers in the Nazi groups Casapound and Forza Nuova (last seen posting threatening messages on their front doors of their political opponents, a la the Mexican narco gangs with which they have so much in common). According to this ‘hey, let me introduce you to my new best friends in the Casapound’ article in the Guardian, there are hundreds of thousands of (almost exclusively male, overwhelmingly filgi di papà) members of such groups. That’s frightening, but their numbers can be used against them. Simply pack hundreds of them at a time onto rickety dinghies with a maximum capacity of 12 persons (including crew) and push them out into the Mediterranean. Perhaps their alt-right comrades could rescue them when the inevitable happen, and then carry them off to Libya where they would quickly find they actually have rather a lot in common with Isis. Then, and only then, we could, as the Casapound has proposed, bomb Libya.
  2. The voting age in Italy is 18. As is the case elsewhere, it is believed that by that age citizens have reached a sufficient level of maturity and responsibility to make considered decisions about how society is run. However, in these elections millions of people did not make a mature and responsible voting choice. They voted instead for an inchoate ‘anti-political’ political party led by a comedian and convicted drink-driver who uses his blog to spread buffale (fake news) about vaccines, immigrants and much more besides. The anarchist collective Wu Ming several years ago nailed Grillo’s role perfectly. His cult is based around ‘a chaotic programme where neoliberal and anti-neoliberal, centralist and federalist, libertarian and authoritarian ideas coexist’. It feeds parasitically on genuine anger about austerity, and has held back more radical forces such that Italy had no equivalent to the Spanish indignados or the Occupy movement. Its vacuity and naivety has meant that it has acted as a placeholder for the fascists, and in 2018 no one who voted for it could have done so in the belief that its leaders’ promise not to enter a coalition with anyone including the far-right was sincere.
    Unless, that is, they lacked a basic political education, and had developed their understanding of the world on social media, never acquiring the mature relationship with serious adult media which is essential to basic citizenship. Now, as it happens, the exam which all Italians (at least those who finish school) take at 18 is called the Maturità. It seems obvious to me that M5S voters, with their puerile understanding of the world, would benefit from the introduction of a compulsory reschooling phase** during which their would obtain an adequate appreciation for the importance of democracy and their responsibility for perpetuating it. Once they had completed such a course of study, their right to vote should be restored, provided that they take a legally-binding oath to read an actual newspaper at least twice every five years.
  3. The third thing that would reverse the tide of shit that has overrun Italian politics is to ban anyone with the name Renzi from taking part in election for a period of at least 10,000 years. The same goes for anyone (including Gentiloni) who thinks that half-heartedly repeating a neoliberal mantra of ‘crescita, crescita, crescita’ (‘growth, growth, growth’) as if they were praying for rain is a meaningful response to a world in turmoil.  Their replacements could – anzi, must – explore new and radical ideas: degrowth, a universal basic income, and much more. They could even start to face up the challenges of a collapsing climate***. This would be far better than allowing the Left to be constantly hijacked by egomaniacs much more concerned with their own power than improving society. It would mean that the the intellectual vacuum inside the PD (of which the M5S’s vapidity is a contorted and witless pastiche) could be filled with the ideas and spirit necessary to combat the simplistic prescriptions of the fascists. What will in reality happen, of course, is that (although concerted pressure from further left will hopefully have a meaningful influence) the PD will move in a more avowedly anti-immigrant direction. In the words of W-B. Yeats, “i migliori perdono ogni convinzione, mentre i peggiori/ sono pieni di appassionata intensità”. A more inspiring quote for today comes from an anonymous source: “L’unico fascista buono è il fascista morto”.

*The BBC’s Italy correspondent on this morning’s Radio 4’s Today Programme chose to refer to the Lega as an ‘anti-illegal immigrant party’, conveniently omitting to mention that in the attack in Macerata the racist terrorist didn’t ask for the documents of the Africans he tried very hard to shoot dead. Thus did a BBC journalist (whose name I didn’t catch) out himself as a fascist and therefore a terrorist sympathiser. Of course, the Macerata attack didn’t draw nearly as much attention in international and on social media as it would have if had the victims had been white. Maybe, given the almost-universal level of indifference to their fate, #siamotuttisalvini should have been trending worldwide.
** There is irony in the fact that so many M5S supporters are teachers. Well, “teachers”.
***Only joking. That would be of course be ‘political suicide’. Much easier instead to blame outsiders for changing weather patterns and failing crops. Human societies have been doing that for thousands of years.

What to say to Italians to stop them voting fascist

italian-flagMy family and I recently became economic migrants, emigrants from a country (Italy) where there are fewer job prospects and where working conditions are generally atrocious. Brexit notwithstanding, at least in London there are jobs, even some with decent conditions, and the public transport and rubbish collection systems work, while the referendum has certainly revealed an extremely unpleasant undercurrent of hostility to foreigners and the status of many who’ve lived here for decades is still entirely and appallingly uncertain, the UK is not, unlike Italy, right on the verge of electing an electing an explicitly fascist government.

Immigration has been the main theme in the Italian election debate, and the direct involvement of the extremist Northern League in a terrorist attack on Africans has received the full approval of their political sponsor, the mummified, mafioso, pedophile, tax-skiving Bond villain Silvio Berlusconi, a creature whose political views and history of corruption on every conceivable level make Donald Trump seem like Joni Mitchell. There is a chance that not only will Berlusconi’s coalition win most seats, but that he, who, given his multiple criminal convictions is unable to serve in government, will choose Matteo Salvini, the genocidally racist leader of the Lega Nord, as Interior or even Prime Minister.

Who am I to tell Italian how to vote? Well, I lived and worked in Rome until two weeks ago, and my wife and baby daughter were both born in the country. (No one in Rome suggested that my daughter was using up resources destined for those who’d been there longer, or that she should go back where she came from. Che strano.) Many of my friends are Italian and/or still live in Italy, although none of them will have considered voting for the far-right. Or at least I should bloody well hope not. This post is offered in a spirit of solidarity – I know that millions of Italians are out on the streets and arguing with their colleagues, friends and neighbours, trying to provide an antidote to the racist poison broadcast nightly on the TV news. Cioè, spero bene.

Although I spent the first week after the Brexit vote listening to this, I’ve come to accept that, regardless of the catastrophic consequences of their actions, many who voted for it were not expressing affiliation with a far-right agenda. The utter contempt and profound cruelty with which the Cameron/Osborne government treated the bulk of the population generated a predictable response in which many thought they were taking part in a new peasant’s revolt rather than a faux-rebellion led by a former stockbroking fascist backed by billionaires. Thus there are reasons excuses for having voted for Brexit, and even (to a far lesser extent, and although I would happily spit on anyone who actually voted for him) Trump.  This is not to make excuses for my own country’s racism, but to stress that there are no excuses for voting for the euphemistically-referred to ‘centrodestra‘ (centre-right, which includes the fascists). As it happens, Farage’s best friend in Italy is not Salvini, but Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement. While Spain had the indignados, Italy had this group of ingenues, a movement based on a deeply naive opposition to not just corruption but politics per se. Grillo is a master manipulator, and egomaniac and a trickster, and the fact that his blog has been called Europe’s main source of fake news is largely responsible for a situation where even people who see themselves as progressive will tell you with a straight face that vaccines cause autism and that George Soros has a plan to flood Europe with Muslim immigrants. As for the movement’s stance on racism, its leaders declaration that ‘Anti-fascism is not my job’ and his welcoming of members of the even-more-nazi-than-the-nazis Casapound movement has been reflected in the party’s response to the attack in Macerata, which lies somewhere between pathetic and complicit.

The country wouldn’t be in this situation if the governing Partito Democratico had any courage or principles, instead of being unhappily married to a half-hearted and discredited form of neoliberalism, one which involves repeating the mantra of crescita (growth) like they’re invoking rainfall. The Left has at last tried to remake itself, but often seemingly on the basis of personal ambition rather than principle. (The smaller left parties have declared they won’t form a coalition with the PD, but hopefully that’s just electoral posturing.)  The widely-despised gurning former PM Matteo Renzi’s insistence that he should continue as leader of the ‘Left’ is suicidal – or rather homicidal, given that his political career will no doubt continue. And speaking of murder, there is also his cowardly response to the attempted massacre in Macerata. Few will vote PD with any enthusiasm, but let’s hope that as many as possible do. Anyone who argues that the parties are ‘all the same’ on this occasion could only be speaking out of profound ignorance of undiagnosed sociopathy.

In previous elections over the last year or so I’ve used this space to share translations of phrases which might persuade people with a vote not to vote for the right.  It worked well in the case of the French elections (ahem…) and I regret not doing so before the German ones. This time it’s not all that tongue-in-cheek. The possibility of a fascist victory is extremely terrifying and very real. One hopes that the Italian State, given that it has an explicitly anti-fascist constitution, will refuse to allow a government including Salvini and Giorgia Meloni (aka the blonde Traini) to take power; failing that, there will need to be a popular revolt involving extreme civil disobedience to resist such a prospect. In the meantime, anyone who has a vote, wherever they may be, needs to be warned of the consequences of voting for the right. The phrases that follow are not polite ones, but I find it impossible to think of those who might knowingly allow the return of fascism in the country that invented it with anything other than contempt.

  1. You do know that Italy is a country of emigrants, right? Sai che l’Italia è un paese di emigranti, vero?
  2. Do you think that countries such as the US and the UK should deport all their Italian immigrants? Credi che paesi come gli Stati Uniti e il Regno Unito dovreberro mandare via tutti i loro immigrati italiani?
  3. Will you be happy to see the Italian tourist industry collapse overnight? Saresti contento/a di vedere l’industria turistica crollare di un momento al altro?
  4. Do you think it’s necessary to shoot all foreigners, or just the black ones? Are you planning to go to the Colosseum and murder all the tourists? Pensi che bisogna sparare a tutti gli stranieri, o solo ai neri? Hai intenzione di andare sotto al Colosseo e uccidere tutti i turisti?
  5. Salvini is a terrorist, Berlusconi is a pedophile.  Salvini è un terrorista, Berlusconi è un pedofilo.
  6. What attracts you most about the Arancini coalition: the terrorism, the pedophilia, the fact that one of its leaders has blonde hair, or just the fanatical racism? Cosa ti piace di piu del cosidetto centrodestra: il terrorismo, la pedofilia, i capelli biondi di una dei leader, opurre solo il razzismo fanatico?
  7. Would you vote for Isis? Votaresti per Isis?
  8. Have you perhaps considered voting for a non-fascist party? Che tipo di stronzetto sei, cazzo?!

I’ve seen it for myself: Corbyn’s thugs are getting even younger, and becoming much more dangerous

Difficult as it is to write, I’ve come to believe Ben Goldsmith. He recently gave a shocking account, much derided on social media, of how a West London social gathering he was attending was rudely gatecrashed by a gang of Corbynista hoodlums, fresh from commemorating the Grenfell tragedy in their inimitably rowdy fashion.  Like most, I doubted from the lack of evidence that events actually took place in accordance with his retelling of them, but now I’ve seen up close how the Momentum faction operates and just how young some of its firebrand activists are, I feel inclined to believe that he may have been telling the truth.

Here’s what I experienced. I’d ask that you reserve judgment of me and my story until you’ve read what I have to say and seen the photographic evidence for yourself. I’m not by any means what anyone would regard as a Tory and I wouldn’t fit comfortably into any meaningful definition of a ‘centrist’. I’m a Labour Party member, I voted for Corbyn in 2015 and I’ve read the Guardian religiously all my life.(Possibly too religiously, if my shrine to Aditya Chakrabortty is anything to go by.)

As it happens, this whole furore started because of newspapers. I’ve recently been trying to vary my media diet (with mixed results), and so when I happened upon a copy of The Times in a local (Islington) café, I started to peruse the news section. Now, I’d be put out if anyone took me for a regular reader, but I was still entirely unprepared for the (in my opinion) utterly unwarranted response of a very young person who was sitting nearby. She or he (it’s getting hard to tell the difference nowadays!) wasn’t wearing any visible insignia of allegiance to Corbyn’s sect of ruffians, but from her age and rebellious demeanour it was clear that she had been seized by some sort of radical fervour.

You may feel disinclined to doubt my words. We do after all live in an age of fake news and highly sophisticated ideological manipulation. I can only urge you to believe the evidence of your own eyes; the following photos constitute an absolutely accurate and unadulterated record of exactly what happened. 

Happy new year, fuck the Tories.

Corbyn has spent his career challenging ‘the will of the people’. What changed?

Here is a brief list of policies of Britain’s democratically elected government that the backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn opposed on the basis of his principles:

  • The Falklands War
  • The invasion of Iraq
  • The Poll Tax
  • Trident
  • Post-2008 austerity

Additionally, throughout his backbench career Corbyn espoused and actively supported laudable causes in which both the general public and his party leadership showed little interest, including climate change, Palestine, an equitable peace settlement in Northern Ireland, Latin American solidarity, and LGBT rights. All of the above have been minority concerns in mainstream British politics for most of the last thirty or so years.

So Corbyn’s own career as a politician is an embodiment of the principle that the people can be wrong, that in any case its will can be misrepresented, and that it is the role of politicians to shift the voting public round to their point of view. Some people get involved in politics in order to pursue their self-interest; many on the right espouse a politics of self-interest in order to justify their own greed. We had been led to believe that Jeremy Corbyn believes in politics as a means of changing the world for the better for ordinary people, particularly for those whose interests are usually marginalised. 

That Brexit was a right-wing scam carried out in order to remake the country in line with the interests of Robert Mercer, Rupert Murdoch and Aaron Banks and in keeping with the ideological zealotry of Daniel Hannan, Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage is now undeniable. It was never a case of exit, stage left. The mantra that the Brexit vote is an inviolable embodiment of the ‘will of the people’ is thus cynical and unprincipled. Labour has a moral and political duty to convince its supporters who voted leave that they were duped, and to persuade them that the EU, far from being the cause of their woes, was merely used as a scapegoat by self-interested businessmen and ideologically-motivated politicians. In the face of decidedly unpropitious international circumstances, Corbyn supported the people of Nicaragua against deeply reactionary imperialist right-wing forces in the 1980s – he needs to use his very real political influence to oppose those forces in the UK in 2018.

Elephants speak out against GOP: ‘We no longer wish to be associated with such a repugnant organization’

A representative of the elephant species has spoken out in the most strident terms against the US Republican Party, calling it an immediate threat to all life on the planet and to the human race in particular. He also asked that the GOP find another symbol to represent its brand.

‘It has long been a source of considerable embarrassment for the elephant community to be associated with the Republican Party’, said the spokeselephant at a press conference held in one of the larger rooms of the Washington offices of the WWF. ‘We were no supporters of Richard Nixon, and very few of us were in favor of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. However, the spectacle of these last few months has, as we elephants like to say, taken the tusk’.

‘Not only have the nont exactly mammoth-brained sons of the Republican President boasted of hunting elephants and our fellow protected species’, he continued. ‘We have also had to suffer the indignity of becoming associated in the human mind with the most grave offenses against basic human and non-human morality. Without wanting to dwell on their actual enthusiasm for putting child sex abusers into positions of political responsibility, the venality demonstrated by Republican congressmen in serving the requirements of their superrich paymasters with regard to tax reform has been beyond scandalous. They have no concern whatsoever for the effects on your society or your economy’.

‘It’s also necessary to address the, if you’ll excuse the pun, elephant in the room. The Republican Party is an organisation which has, for the last few decades, dedicated itself to telling outright lies about the causes and consequences of environmental catastrophe, particularly with regard to the climate. Their greed and corruption is such that they ignore very real catastrophes and actively seeking to censor discussion of the topic, going so far as to ban the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ from government documents’.

‘This issue is one very close to the hearts of all elephants, given that we are a species whose continued existence is threatened. We therefore request that the Republican Party cease forthwith to use our bodies as symbols of their organisation. We would also like to point out the irony of a species usually considered, in human terms, mute, having to raise these issues in the absence of an appropriate level of concern among humans with regard to their own future. We, as elephants, find the Republican Party odious and repugnant; you humans must heed the warning of your intellectual Noam Chomsky, who quite correctly called it the most dangerous organization on the planet today’.

The elephant said that he was aware that given the long association of the GOP with his species, it may not be easy to disassociate the two in the public mind. As a gesture of goodwill he deposited a pile of elephant dung on the stage, suggesting that it would make for a more apposite symbol of what the Republican Party stands for.

Republican Party Chairperson Ronna Romney McDaniel was unavailable to comment as we went to press. Her secretary explained that Ms McDaniel was busy meeting some oxygen industy lobbyists and then had a Sandy Hook-themed NRA Christmas party to attend.

The elephant species is around 55 million years old.

The ghost of Ayn Rand is haunting the streets of my hometown, wearing a hi-vis vest and carrying a chainsaw

I grew up in Sheffield in the 70s and 80s. Its cheap bus fares, theatres, museums and art galleries, its network of well-stocked libraries and its abundant green spaces made me into the person I am and gave me an abiding sense of respect for the value of public provision. I went to primary school in an area of the city called Greenhill, where they taught me how trees, by absorbing carbon dioxide and thus ensuring we have enough oxygen, help us to breathe.

I don’t live in Sheffield now, but all my family do, including my nieces, who all go to school in Hillsborough which they walk to and from along tree-lined streets. Those trees have attracted national attention recently because the local council is bowing to the demands of a private company and allowing a huge number of them to be cut down on the flimsiest and most selfish of pretexts. Although the trees represent £11.4 million in purported value*, there’s no way for Ferrovial (the transnational corporation which has, via its subsidiary Amey, bought up large parts of Sheffield City Council) to monetise it, and it costs to maintain them so they might as well chop them all down**.

Although some legal systems insist on granting them the same status as human beings, corporations don’t actually live and breathe. They do think, after a fashion, but they have only one obsessive thought: how to accumulate more wealth. They achieve this in large part by externalising their costs. PFI, the secretive and essentially deeply corrupt system of which Sheffield’s deal with Amey is part, has had a devastating impact on the wages and conditions of public servants. The rationale for the whole scheme is not just that the private sector is more efficient, but also that it grants access to global financial markets. Thus it represents not only a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, but also the exposure of essential public services to the whims and storms of the global market. Not quite by chance, it’s also accompanied by a lack of democratic transparency. Whether it be in Sheffield in relation to trees, or (my former London borough) Haringey with regard to housing, voters are not allowed to know what exactly has been agreed in their name.

Modern corporations are by definition psychopathic, in that nothing else matters to them but short-term self-interest. The possessors of great wealth have not always been so single-minded in the attempt to turn everything of public utility into private wealth. Centuries ago, feudal landlords created country estates like Chatsworth by turning commonly farmed land into symbols and sites of their power and wealth, thus depriving peasants of access to food and forcing them to move into cities to get jobs in factories as wage labourers. They sculpted the landscapes of their estates to demonstrate their command over nature, but at least they kept most of the trees standing. In the case of Sheffield, some local nabobs donated their land to the city, making it into one of the greenest in Europe. Some notable figures also funded the construction museums and art galleries.

For previous generations of capitalists, acres of trees not only stood as signs of wealth. They could also be pulped and transformed into physical money. The American writer Thomas Pynchon’s ancestral family fortune was made and then lost in paper, described in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ as ‘the wholesale slaughtering of trees’, ‘producing toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word’. Before that they were fur traders, ‘still for the living green against the dead white’.

Nowadays capitalism, if it can still be called that, has entered a new phase, not that of the dead white but rather the flat white of the service economy, serving principally the needs of corporations. About twenty years ago I spent a year working in a corporate environment, in the technical support area of a software giant in Dublin. At the time I thought that computers were somehow exciting – I hadn’t yet realised that I was essentially working with hyped-up stationery. One episode stands out as emblematic of such organisations and how they operate. The company in question had a new piece of utility software for a brand-new version of the Apple Mac tantalisingly close to readiness, but the end of quarter was closing in and the programmers weren’t going to make the deadline. That didn’t stop the company from selling thousands of packages of the new version at a software trade fair in France – the problem came when the purchasers arrived home and to their horreur – zut alors! – discovered that the box contained a note explaining that the actual software wasn’t quite ready yet, but do please accept this database accounting programme as a temporary replacement. I have rarely felt so relieved not to speak better French, because my francophone colleagues had to explain to several thousand really, really, really fucking angry customers that they would have to wait just zat leetle bit longer. The enraged Mac enthusiasts weren’t exactly mollified when, a couple of weeks later, the actual disc arrived and turned out to be full of bugs which (I forget the exact technical details) shat all over the insides of their beloved iMacs. In order to save time, the company had curtailed the testing stage. Fortunately, things ended well, as the share price of Symantec (which was the name of the company) rose at the end of the quarter, so everyone was happy, except the people who actually wanted the software. They’re probably still vert de rage two decades later.

Nowadays if you need some software – say, Microsoft Word – you can just download it, but while in the intervening years you could do so for free, Silicon Valley has found new ways to make its products pay. Such programmes are now available for a yearly rent. Tech firms are thus the cutting edge not just of technology but also of new forms of buying and owning and the legal architecture that underpins them. In the book ‘I Hate The Internet’ Jarett Kobek nails one major inspiration for the ideology that inspires such innovation:

Ayn Rand [is] probably the most influential writer of the last fifty years. She wrote books about how social welfare recipients were garbage who deserved to die in the gutter. She was well regarded by very rich people unwilling to accept that their fortunes were a combination of random chance and an innate ability to humiliate others. Ayn Rand’s books told very rich people that they were good, that their pursuit of wealth was moral and just. Many of these people ended up as CEOs or in high levels of American government. Ayn Rand was the billionnaire’s best friend.’

Jonathan Freedland calls this ‘the age of Ayn Rand***’. She is worshipped, and her adolescent take on neoliberalism advanced, by hugely influential figures including Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, Peter Thiel and Jimmy Wales in the US and Sajid Javid and Daniel Hannan in the UK. The Rand cult is not the only source of such ideas – Thatcher and Reagan were devotees of Friedrich Hayek, whose doctrine, with its antiregulatory zeal, has come to dominate global politics over the last forty years – but it is an emblematic one.

Although the Little Red Book of the technocultural revolution, TED Talks, provides the comforting sense that corporate interests can be persuaded to act in the interests of humanity and the planet, with the innovative shift to a digital, virtual paper-free economy a symbol of this potential for environmental responsiblity, there’s nothing sustainable about an economic system which is wholly subservient to the ideology of self-interest. Such a form of capitalism is much more corrupt and infinitely more destructive than any prior phase. It dictates that everything that does not serve private interests has no value and must be destroyed.

The concept of ‘seven generation stewardship’ urges humanity to weigh all its decisions with an eye to the needs of people in 150 or so years. Instead, here in the UK, we have continual bursts of shock doctrine austerity wrecking the life chances of our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children ad infinitum: no libraries, no galleries, no social or economic security, no public transport, no trees. Our Government barely seems to think more than a day or two ahead, or to the next Daily Mail front page. According to this ultra-short-term, grab-what-you-can ideology, trees resemble people, indeed entire populations: they’re too expensive to maintain. Permanent austerity is therefore a response to environmental collapse, one which represents the priorities of elites far more articulately than any number of photos of David Cameron with huskies. It is a war against not only the very notion of public provision, but human existence itself.

Sheffield owes its development to the industrial revolution,  and the industrial revolution owes a lot to Sheffield. Its confluence of rivers and hills created boundless energy. A visit to Shepherd’s Wheel, Forge Dam or the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet convinces you that such forces can be sustainable on a small scale, but once the wheel started turning the momentum was unstoppable. We created forces of which we quickly lost control. The driving force of capital accumulation demands acceleration far beyond anything the planet, our bodies and our mind can contain. Trees fall for the same reason our children can’t keep their eyes off our iPads. It’s a vapid conceit to kid ourselves that this mode of interacting with the world is more sustainable: it is produced and promoted by the same dynamic as that turning the Arctic into an oil field. We can have ipads and smartphones like the one I’m using to write this (made of plastic derived from oil and hand-manufactured by slaves in China); but no trees. We can have the internet, but we must in return wave goodbye to a stable climate. This is the faustian pact of unrestrained capitalist development. Culture, from music to books to art galleries, survives only as a medium for advertising and other forms of corporate promotion. All that is solid melts into air, and we end up paying for oxygen. As Karl Marx wrote, ‘Accumulation: This is Moses and the Prophets!’ – ones worshipped by politicians such as Michael Gove, who called the felling of trees in Sheffield ‘bonkers’ but who will search in vain for ways to stop it. Successive governments, at the service of private interests to whom his ideological devotion is total, have sacrificed democracy to corporate power. Despite Gove’s sentimental pretences, that ‘bank holiday from cynicism’ in the words of Oscar Wilde, he has no more respect for trees than he does for experts. This is a man who tried to abolish the teaching of climate change in schools. For those of his persuasion nothing, not even the planet, can stand in the way of the market. The fact that it is fixed in favour of corporations is by-the-by. Roberto Saviano was right to call the UK the most corrupt country in the world. He, a veteran of exposing the mafia at very great personal risk, knows la materia: globalised, financialised corruption covered up by legal omertà. Unlike those who stand in the way of organised crime in Palermo or Acapulco, the heroic protectors/protestors of Sheffield’s trees are threatened not with death (although the forces they are combatting are not averse to using violence) but with jail and/or destitution.

This is not a conspiracy theory. No single human being or secret committee is in charge of the global market. Abstract forces are increasingly convinced that they can keep growing only if they can dispense with human beings. They believe that they can survive without the physical world. Their barely human servants, from Gove down to the austerity-bound councillors who voted for privatisation, are just doing their bidding. Increasingly computers have become self-aware, making decisions for us without our even knowing it, unerringly following the guidelines programmed into them. Capitalism is thus an out-of-control driverless juggernaut,crashing down the street at full pelt, uprooting and destroying everything in its path, from democracy itself to ancient oaks and elms. There is no utility software which can resolve its malfunctions.

*I understand why desperate campaigners come up with such figures; personally I think that framing the issue in such terms is a mistake. Doing so capitulates to the priorities of the other side.

**I am by no means an expert on the tree issue, these people are.

***Or, to give her her full name, Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand

Britain First is a terrorist organisation

Although definitions of terrorism vary and often conflict, you’d be hard-pressed to find any that didn’t contain the notion of political violence combined with the threat of further political violence. Just before the Brexit referendum, a member of the British parliament, Jo Cox MP,  was shot and stabbed to death by a political activist. We know he was a political activist because he had been photographed campaigning with the group Britain First, and it was the name of that organisation that he shouted as he murdered her. In court he shouted slogans calling her a traitor.

Of course, there are no documents proving that Thomas Mair was a formal member of Britain First. In much the same way, there doesn’t seem to be such as thing as an Isis membership card. Both organisations seem to recruit principally via the Internet, where affiliations are notoriously fickle and rarely formalised. Mair’s proximity to the leadership of Britain First is much more remarkable than that of any number of European-grown Islamic terrorists is to the leading figures in Isis. No media outlet automatically absolves Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi when one of his distant disciples ploughs a truck into pedestrians in Catalonia or shoots up a Parisean theatre. Much like both Isis and the EDL, Britain First is an online operation spilling onto the streets. Those who create its violently hateful propaganda are responsible when someone responds to their exhortations to murder ‘traitors’.

Yet somehow, in the furore about Trump’s retweeting of three fake videos posted by one of the group’s leaders, the terrorist angle hasn’t been mentioned. This is odd, given the irony that in supposedly making a statement against terrorism, Trump was promoting it. He won’t face any action by Twitter, as he is their number one star player. Given that Twitter more or less did the decent thing by removing and decredentialing other far-right hate preachers a couple of weeks ago, a concerted campaign to get Britain First removed from the platform might succeed, and would cause huge embarrassment to Trump – or, given that he seems immune to such emotions, his cause.

It’s also important to expose Nigel Farage’s links with BF. Although he has now denounced them as neofascists, Golding et al were very open in the past about their connections, even boasting in this video of attacking anti-UKIP protestors on his behalf. Anyone who was unfamiliar with Britain First but who still finds Farage’s shtick amusing also needs to be reminded that in the wake of the referendum he boasted that it had been won ‘without a shot being fired’. We don’t need to delve into his apparent family history in the National Front to see that his disassociation from the explicitly nazi movement is disingenuous at best. If Trump hadn’t come across Britain First before, it’s no thanks to Nigel Farage, who surely has Golding and Fransen among his email contacts, along with Robert Mercer and Julian Assange. In any game of Six Degrees of Separation starting from any figure in the international fascist movement, Farage’s name won’t take too long to crop up. His comment about the referendum was an implicit statement of allegiance with a terrorist organisation which murdered an elected MP in order to stop her campaigning to help people fleeing war. The name of that terrorist organisation is Britain First.

My days in a far-right troll cult

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.jpgIn Sheffield as of 1987 anyone walking through the shopping precinct in the centre of town ran a gauntlet of left-wing newspaper sellers. The 14-year-old me often generally managed to avoid handing over 30p or so of my hard-earned paper round money for Socialist Worker, but on occasion I found myself buttonholed by some garrulous and well-presented young people pushing a publication called ‘The Next Step’. None of them appeared to be local, and they were, by comparison with their competitors, refreshingly unconcerned with whatever workers’ struggles were going on in South Yorkshire at the time. I didn’t get the ideological distinctions between the Revolutionary Communist Party, as they were called, and the Socialist Workers, but I suspect that the way they responded whenever I asked about such things – they were more than happy to slag off their rivals on the left – appealed to my disaffected sensibilities and inchoate contrarian instincts. I started going to meetings at which they pressed a copy of Lenin’s ‘What is to be done’ on me, and also made me shell out for a copy of a book called ‘Moral Panics’, which I did read and found splenetically entertaining if sometimes puzzling at the level of basic logical argumentation.

Although I had trouble keeping up with their sometimes contradictory-seeming political arguments, they were at least friendly, relatively unpatronising and certainly socially useful. They took me to the Leadmill to see a band who later turned out to be Deacon Blue, and got me properly drunk, all the time shouting in my ear about stuff I really didn’t know much about. I do remember that one of my new comrades, taking issue with a stranger’s St George’s badge, began shouting at him about Northern Ireland and started a dancefloor ruckus. We also took a trip to London to the gay pride carnival, or as it was at the time, demo, where I had a distinctly Life of Brian moment upon seeing a banner from the Revolutionary Communist Group. I asked the natural question, only to be told that they were ‘wankers’. Then the general election came around, and we suddenly stopped being the RCP and turned instead into something called the Red Front, under which monicker we went banging on doors in search of people to disagree with. Our campaign ended with 277 votes, which was considered a victory as at least it was more than the possibly dead bloke from some basically defunct version of the Communist Party had received. Eventually other aspects of teenagehood took over and, despite some tugging on their part (I think I still owe them £1.75 for the Lenin book, which they were keen to get hold of), I succeeded in drifting away.

From then on I kept an occasional eye on what they were up to but maintained my distance. I remember joining all my fellow delegates in turning my back as an RCP member spoke up at NUS conference, but I don’t remember why. Although I was living in Ireland at the time, I was vaguely aware that they were ubiquitous in the UK in the mid-1990s, standing on street corners looking slick and pushing subscriptions to their magazine Living Marxism. It had entertaining covers and contained articles written from a consistently libertarian standpoint, with elaborate arguments that would sort of persuade you that whatever you had thought about (to choose a not-entirely-random example) the environment was wrong, but with an uncanny feeling that you were the victim of some sort of trick or part of a game that wasn’t actually all that much fun to play. After it became clear that they were prepared to perpetrate full-on atrocity denial in order to promote their wilfully exasperating view of the world, it was very hard for anyone to take anything they said seriously. Few would have expected them to continue to deepen their influence in British life, but it seems they are far more determined and cunning than anyone might have thought.

Given their relatively rapid en masse shift away from the left, there’s been a ongoing mystery of why they do what they do, particularly since (through their website Spiked) they started selling their contrarian punditry to corporations and the right-wing media. From my own experiences and from having followed their development through articles such as thisthis and this, I suspect they are a bit of a sect, but one in which the personal bonds override and yet (if we consider their commitment to the politics of self-interest) determine their collective ideological stance. The members of the core group, largely unchanged for the last thirty of so years, have managed to cave out steady careers in the media, with a shared ideological bent seemingly determined by the desire not just to provoke but to (as we now understand it) troll. Their contrarianism far surpasses anything I might have identified with as a teenager, and at times their adolescent desire to scandaliser la bourgeoisie would put even Marilyn Manson to shame.

The LRB piece linked to above refers to this teenage aspect, the way their rhetorical insistence that everyone ‘act like grown-ups’ seems to betray an adolescent mindset. (It also mentions that Frank Furedi’s dependence on newspaper articles for his source material suggests that his reputation as a serious academic is not entirely deserved.) They continue to have a fixation on the young, with their successive front projects such as the Manifesto Club, the East London Science School and WorldWrite (of which our erstwhile election candidate is now director) aimed directly at teenagers. Now that schools are up for grabs by anyone with enough cash, regardless of their ideological proclivities, they seem to be enjoying more direct access to young minds. The prominence of Brendan O’Neill as a steadfastly obnoxious commentator for my new-not-favourite newspaper The Telegraph has (re)alerted many to the dangers of their project, which now seems to dovetail with certain aspects of a hard-right agenda*, particularly outright climate denial and the abuse of the notion of ‘free speech’ to legitimate hate speech. This site has also written this week of the insidious influence they also seem to enjoy in sections of the BBC. (This excellent Tumblr blog Twitter feed is also extremely informative on such matters, with an very useful primer to countering their bullshit available here.) Of course, it’s something of a provocative exaggeration to call the Spiked/LM/RCP crowd a far-right troll cult, just as it’s completely absurd to call the #metoo phenomenon a ‘moral panic’ and a ‘modern day Salem’ or claim that misplaced hysteria over climate change caused the Grenfell fire. But from my experiences as an impressionable young person subjected to their influence, combined with the fact that their current agenda is so close to that of the global far-right as to make very little meaningful difference, this is not a group of people who should be allowed anywhere near schools.

*To the extent that he now seems to be styling himself after Mike Cernovich. O’Neill’s entire Facebook profile is well worth a chuckle. Who on earth, apart from those with an uncontrollable need to publicise themselves, keeps their Facebook account public?!

The left should stop hoping that the right will play by the rules

The next Prime Minister of Italy may well be Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time premier and tycoon who is in many ways the prototype for Donald Trump. Although Berlusconi was banned from elected office for life in 2015, he is currently appealing to the European Court of Human Rights on a technicality. He is being represented by the same British law firm which includes Amal Clooney. After all, everyone has the same human rights, even if (as in the case of Berlusconi) they’ve been convicted of tax fraud, wiretapping political rivals and paying for sex with underage prostitutes, and are planning on forming a government with the political descendents of Mussolini.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the US are falling over themselves to condemn Senator Al Franken for the incident in which he groped a colleague in 2006. A few weeks ago condemnation of Harvey Weistein was universal. No one claimed he had been set up or that the charges were ‘fake news’. On social media many progressives are proud that they condemn all wrongdoers, no matter which side of the political divide they line up on. They are waiting in vain for the right to reciprocate and/or congratulate them.

The abstract principle that everyone has the same right before the law and must enjoy the same access to justice is a fine one. Similarly, it is of course essential that those who have done wrong must be brought to justice and the hypocrisy of those who only pay lip service to universal principles when it suits their political agenda exposed. It is noble of liberals and the left to stand up for such principles.

However, there’s clearly a problem: the right is neither grateful nor impressed. If Berlusconi is successful, he will pay off his lawyers, bribe his way back into power and set about ripping the constitution and the rule of law to shreds. (Italy’s recognition of the European Court of Human Rights may well be at stake.) In much the same manner, no Republican in the US will turn round and thank Democrats for preserving the human rights of all Americans by berating itself for ‘allowing’ some of its leading figures to get away with abusing women. The idea that the right-wing will suddenly learn a valuable lesson about hypocrisy and renew its commitment to democratic values is morbidly mistaken.

Right now all over the world the right is abandoning its commitment not just to the rule of law, constitutional precepts and human rights, but to the very notion of a shared reality. There is no fact or value that they will not deny whenever it is expedient to do so. Whether this takes the form of Michael Gove in the UK decrying the work of experts, politicians in the US rejecting out of hand careful research documenting the pedophilia of a Republican senatorial candidate and the overwhelming evidence of regular sexual abuse by the President, or right-wing pundits from Fox News to the Telegraph openly lying about climate science to protect corporate interests, the savage nihilism of the new global right-wing movement is beyond anything we have encountered in the age of democracy – with a couple of notable exceptions.

That doesn’t mean that the right will not, drawing upon seemingly inexhaustible reserves of cynicism, use the tools of democracy, including the media and the courts, to suit their purposes. At this moment they are busy weaponising every element of our civilisation to attack liberal values and entrench their power. That includes not just the notion of women’s rights in order to purge opposition politicians and liberal celebrities, but also movies, computer games, children’s cartoon characters and other cultural icons, from Ghostbusters to Gamergate and Pepe the frog to pizza and cow’s milk. Their commitment to literally building up their armories is no accident – what we are witnessing is the equivalent of a psychopath grabbing everything he can as a tool to beat his victim to death. (The most powerful weapon nowadays is, of course, the Internet.) That means they will happily employ the notion of free speech and the discourse of human rights when and where it suits them. No Republican or fascist will ever insist that those rights also be granted to their political opponents, and they will never turn such weapons on themselves.

This does not mean that we abandon our commitment to honouring universal values. Rather it’s a question of priorities. Just as the right to free speech does not mean that everyone can demand access to mass and social media audiences, liberals and the left must not prioritise causes established and exploited by the far-right. With the very real threat of fascism bashing down the door of democracy, this is not the time for human rights lawyers to be defending budding autocrats like Berlusconi, and in much the same way, while it’s right and necessary to condemn the Louis CKs and Harvey Weinsteins and Al Frankens of this world and disown anyone who casts aspersions on their victims, the left must not spend so long howling in the desert at its own hypocrisies that it lets the real enemy off the hook. Democrats did not facilitate abuse by those men in the same way as the Republicans are for Moore and Trump.

In the meantime, while doing all they can to expose and annihilate the far-right agenda, US progressives would do well to study Italy’s dismal history of vapid and hapless post-Berlusconi governments to learn an instructive lesson in how mere neoliberalism managerialism, committed to no values beyond GDP growth targets, inevitably leads back to yet more right-wing populism – or something even worse.

(Based around a conversation with @ChiaraLiguori.)