Category Archives: Politics

semiotics of utopia

It’s yer man Stan Robinson, trying to (quite literally) square away the reductive dichotomy of [u/dys]topia:

It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. As Jameson points out, it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear: one must be anti-anti-utopian.

One way of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian. It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better. Here no doubt one has to avoid Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” which is perhaps thinking and saying that things will get better without doing the work of imagining how. In avoiding that, it may be best to recall the Romain Rolland quote so often attributed to Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas. This is the necessary next step following the dystopian moment, without which dystopia is stuck at a level of political quietism that can make it just another tool of control and of things-as-they-are. The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not.

I’m not yet sure how anti-anti-utopia maps on to the critical utopia, which is my preferred formulation. (This may be one of those fundamental anarchist/Marxist lines of cleavage, I suppose.) But the theoretical details are secondary to KSR’s point, which is to do the work — and on that point we are in clear agreement.

on the contemptuousness of propagandists

Reading this piece about Isaac Levido, the new campaign manager that the Tories have employed this time round, I was struck by this quote from one of the pair of socnet edgelords in charge of their dAnK b0oM3r MeM3Z:

“You can have a quote from an economist. Or you can have a picture of a dog next to it saying ‘tax is bad’. Guess which one had more engagement,” said Guerin, reflecting on the successes of the Australian campaign.

A recurring feature of the Brexit situation, and indeed every election I can recall prior to it, is a riff wherein one is castigated for assuming that a significant chunk of the electorate is susceptible to the lumpen political signalling found in tabloid newspapers; this is to hold the electorate in contempt, you will be told, because it’s almost certainly not true.

I have long begged to differ, having spent many years on both sides of the class divide: it is a demonstrable fact that people parrot what they’re told by sources they trust, and this is as true of readers of the Same Old Statesman and Teh Graun as it is of the Daily Hate and the Torygraph. To observe this fact is not to hold the electorate in contempt*.

But to exploit that fact for the propagation not just of party-line interpretations but outright falsehoods — that, I would say, is a definite demonstration of contempt. That quote above expresses not just utter contempt but a certain gleeful malice, a swindler’s two-facedness made possible by the knowledge that the channels accessed by those you are exploiting will never carry a bad word about you, because you and others like you are in command of the content therein.

By way of analogy, then: which expresses the greater contempt, to observe and lament that smoking causes cancer, or to sell cigarettes?

* — For those more amenable to economic arguments: if propaganda didn’t work, no one would bother expending money and resources on it. See also the long history of state psy-ops, disinformation and so forth — and indeed the violent loathing that repressive states tend to have for even the most obscure writers and artists who dare to counter the dominant narrative; everyone knows that stories are the whole game. So I guess we’re fortunate that the game has yet to be reduced to a science… though that, for me at least, is the true insomniac horror of Farcebork etc., namely the prospect that they might through sheer size-of-n manage to master the art of persuasion.

nudge / hold / spin

Will Davies at the LRB, reviewing Justin E H Smith’s Irrationality:

Away from the frontiers and mythology of Enlightenment, the meaning of ‘rationality’ (and hence ‘irrationality’) becomes difficult to pin down. You can resort to the otherworldly ideas of logic and mathematics floating free from all politics and culture. But the academic study of ‘rational choice’ makes little sense once diverted from the kinds of strategic problem – war and profit – it has long been tasked with solving. When we reflect on how we actually live, it becomes all the harder to identify what an ‘irrational’ action or choice might be. Smith wonders ‘whether an anthropologist external to our cultural world would, in studying us, be able to make sharp distinctions among the horoscope, the personality quiz and the credit rating’, or even be able to tell ‘whether we ourselves clearly understand how they differ’. Equally, it isn’t clear how one would distinguish between the scientific societies of the 17th century, to which so much subsequent progress is owed, and, say, a website dedicated to picking through the evidence that vaccines cause autism. Understood purely as ‘culture’ or as ‘behaviour’, rationality becomes ritual or (as the nudgers have it) habit, and ‘irrationality’ is just a pejorative term for the habits we consider bad.

Burning the village green in order to save it

Duncan Thomas at Verso:

… the geographical unevenness of neoliberal development, in concentrating wealth in the Southern regions of England, has also seen the Conservative Party retreat to its historic heartlands. Exiled from power during the Blair years, the party clung desperately to its decimated membership and receding support. In doing so, it fostered a petit-bourgeois, “populist” nationalism incipiently hostile to large, international capital, precisely at the moment when the instruments of government through which it might seek a measure of independence from such forces had been cast aside.

As this hostility grew, the previously solid Conservative coalition between large and small capital began to disintegrate. A quarter of small- and medium-sized business owners voted UKIP in the 2014 European elections, with only a very slight majority supporting membership in 2016; over 20% of Conservative members now view big business as exploitative of common people. Rather than alienated northern workers, it was this embittered southern middle class, animated by perceptions of personal and national decline, which primarily drove the Brexit vote.

Not my Titanic, not my deckchairs.

a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist

David Graeber at NYRoB, reviewing Skidelsky’s Money and Government. Graeber’s acid prose is almost always a delight to this household, and this piece has plenty of it — though it is the exact opposite of a hatchet-job review.

On the tautology of monetarism:

The premise that markets will always right themselves in the end can only be tested if one has a commonly agreed definition of when the “end” is; but for economists, that definition turns out to be “however long it takes to reach a point where I can say the economy has returned to equilibrium.” (In the same way, statements like “the barbarians always win in the end” or “truth always prevails” cannot be proved wrong, since in practice they just mean “whenever barbarians win, or truth prevails, I shall declare the story over.”)

On the ideological origins of income tax:

… there’s absolutely no reason a modern state should fund itself primarily by appropriating a proportion of each citizen’s earnings. There are plenty of other ways to go about it. Many—such as land, wealth, commercial, or consumer taxes (any of which can be made more or less progressive)—are considerably more efficient, since creating a bureaucratic apparatus capable of monitoring citizens’ personal affairs to the degree required by an income tax system is itself enormously expensive. But this misses the real point: income tax is supposed to be intrusive and exasperating. It is meant to feel at least a little bit unfair. Like so much of classical liberalism (and contemporary neoliberalism), it is an ingenious political sleight of hand—an expansion of the bureaucratic state that also allows its leaders to pretend to advocate for small government.

And the leakage of economic assumptions into the humanities more broadly:

… by the 1950s and 1960s almost every scholarly discipline in the business of preparing young people for positions of power (political science, international relations, etc.) had adopted some variant of “rational choice theory” culled, ultimately, from microeconomics. By the 1980s and 1990s, it had reached a point where even the heads of art foundations or charitable organizations would not be considered fully qualified if they were not at least broadly familiar with a “science” of human affairs that started from the assumption that humans were fundamentally selfish and greedy.