Wednesday, 28 November 2012

For A Left With Some Sense

Nina Power, on "the pessimism of time":
As we defend those who await trial, or write to those in prison, or sit in courts, job centres and universities as futures are crushed all around, time may be all we have left: time in which to abolishtheir notion of time and replace it neither with Clark’s tragic present, nor Fukuyama’s ‘ideology of the future’ but with a life in which nobody seeks to make time measurable at all, for all time.
The left has truly no future, when it deals, thus, not only in the imagined futures against which Clark would argue, but in unimaginable futures, "in which nobody seeks to make time measurable at all, for all time." Even when read, carefully, in the context of the article in which it appears, this is, literally, non-sense. It is not possible for us even to imagine a life in which time is not measured, or is immeasurable. What, then, is gained here by invoking it, above and beyond the credentials of being of the left?

Never has Clark's argument in favour of "plain" speaking been more necessary. "Plain" speaking need not be banal, he says. He is right. For, nothing is as banal as nonsense.

There is, as Power reports, a vacuum where the left ought to be. With conditions, in Greece for instance, so ripe, left-wing politics has so far been devastatingly ineffectual. One has the sense that the Greek people were yearning to vote to reject the bailout-government they (almost didn't) vote to accept. But, if it is understandably difficult to place one's trust in an imagined future, it is sheer nihilism to throw in one's lot with an unimaginable one. The left must begin to talk sense.

Monday, 26 November 2012

An Answer to Question Time

Bill Readings, writing on Lyotard, tells the story of Herzog's film Where The Green Ants Dream, in which a group of Aborigines clashes with a mining company intent on setting up shop on Aboriginal land. The matter goes to court, which sits to establish who owns the land in question. The court is not lacking in impartiality; the Aborigines have a chance of a fair hearing. Except that they do not. Because Aborigines do not have a concept of land ownership. They claim the right to determine that the stretch of land is not mined for profit, but not on the basis of any sense of proprietorship over it. The impartiality of the court cannot therefore show impartiality to the Aborigines; the justice of the court cannot do them justice.

The courtroom in Herzog's film stages what Lyotard calls le differend, that is, an event in which the difference between two positions is inexpressible, inaudible, invisible. The Aborigines are silenced, not because the court is unjust, but because the court is just. Justice for the owners of the land at the center of the dispute between the Aborigines and the mining company is necessarily injustice for the Aborigines. It is not, then, simply that the Aborigines cannot be heard - they are given full and ample time to make their case - but that a fundamental difference between the Aborigines and the mining company cannot be heard. That is le differend.

And that is what unfolded last Thursday evening, in the studio - the Palace of Westminster, no less - for the BBC's Question Time, which staged an event in which the difference between the perspective within which debate in this country occurs and another perspective, that of Owen Jones, was inexpressible, inaudible, invisible.

Do not mistake me: it is not that Jones was silent - of course not; nor is it that he was incoherent, or ineffectual in what he said - on the contrary, what he said was articulate, uplifting, inspiring. But the difference between what he said and what was said by everyone else seated at the table with him could not make itself heard, except, for one glorious moment, in the muffled raucousness of a woman at the back of the room. "Madam, don't shout out from the back. Let him [Charles Kennedy] speak," insisted David Dimbleby, in that moment giving as much airing as was going to be given to the defining aspect of the whole programme, that is, the absolute impossibility of the difference between Jones' position and that of everybody else being given the floor.

Charles Kennedy, into one of whose long and vacuous answers the woman from the back was shouting, did not complain about the interruption. "This is the home of free speech," he said, to a round of applause from the audience (minus one, perhaps). And there it is: le differend. You cannot shout out because you must let others speak; you cannot answer because the question did not anticipate you; you cannot speak because you are free to do so. But only by shouting out and for the entire duration of the show, only by refusing to answer a single question that was asked, only by reneging upon everybody else's freedom to speak, would it have been possible, last Thursday evening, for where Owen Jones was "coming from" to enter the fray. As it was, the only dog in last Thursday evening's fight was neoliberal capitalism, with its grotesquely shameless mascot in the woman from Dragon's Den. And neoliberal capitalism is a perspective in which freedom of speech, above all else, is enshrined, with the result that nothing can be said against it because we must always "let it speak." (David Dimbleby, it must be admitted, is truly worth the job of overseer of all of this.)

The woman at the back shouted at Charles Kennedy when he refused to support a fellow liberal democrat's claim, reported by Dimbleby, that the government cap on welfare payments is immoral. He doesn't make claims about morality or immorality, Kennedy replied; he leaves that to the Anglican bishops (rather careless of Kennedy, if only given that he described himself as a Catholic). But, he added, his liberal democrat colleague was "perfectly entitled to her view." And there it is in a nutshell: insofar as anything remains of right and wrong in a neoliberal capitalist society, it remains in this generosity, this openness, this tolerance, this fairmindedness, this spirit of debate, that makes everyone entitled to their view. But Owen Jones neither wanted to be entitled to his view, nor considered anyone else to be entitled to theirs. Owen Jones, you see, was dealing in a much more fulsome currency of right and wrong than that which flows through the society he finds himself in.  But Owen Jones, for that reason, could not but fall outside the terms of generosity, of openness, of tolerance, of fairmindedness, of the spirit of debate. "We've heard a lot from you," said Dimbleby to Jones. "Please answer the question," said Dimbleby to Jones. But Jones was not nearly as time-consuming as others at the table; and he was much more direct in his answers than they were in theirs. What Dimbleby's impatience was confusedly responding to was Jones' lack of generosity, of openness, of tolerance, of fairmindedness, of the spirit of debate, Jones' refusal to allow that everyone's entitled to their view. 

"What was significant about bbcqt last night was to see an ideological apparatus rendered visible and actively challenged," tweeted KPunk. "Ideology is about what we are made to think the Other thinks. Many share Owen's views, but ideology functions to make us think we're alone." But this is not quite it. The ideological differences were perfectly visible on Thursday's Question Time; we could have written the scripts for everyone there, with Tory making a case for cuts, Labour warning of the dangers of cuts, Liberal Democrat saying nothing at all of content, and the woman from Dragon's Den spouting the most ill-informed, unthought-out, individualistic, will-it-and-it-will-be-so, of drivel. What was not rendered visible was the paradigm within which these ideological differences are played out: neoliberal capitalism, which, far from being an ideology, is now the epoch, the era, the time in history, within which ideological differences are possible.

When it is a question, as it was for Jones, of reneging upon the entitlement of others to hold their views; when it is a question, as it was for Jones, of undermining our right to free speech; when it is a question, as it was for Jones, of making claims for moral right and wrong; then it is a question, not of showing up that the Other thinks as we think, but of showing up that it doesn't matter that the Other thinks as we think because we're all thinking the same, especially when we think we're alone in what we think, especially, that is, when we would invoke the "freedom to think," the "entitlement to hold our view," in defense of what we think. Ideology-critique is a smoke screen, which forms into shapes like Charles Kennedy, Yvette Cooper, David Dimbleby, Ian Duncan-Smith, and the woman from Dragon's Den, but never ever into shapes like Owen Jones, which cannot be heard except, in the rarest of moments, indistinctly, in a muffled shouting out of ungenerosity, unopenness, intolerance, close-mindedness, and outright refusal to enter the spirit of debate.