The Big Bag of Cans and the Spirit of Utopia


Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars… Nothing to do like an animal, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky…”

– Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia Aph. 100.

Jeremy Corbyn, as you know, headlined Glastonbury this weekend. In his star turn introducing Run the Jewels, our real Prime Minister gave a stirring speech in which he proclaimed, to a massed crowd of tens of thousands, that – despite what the Tories and the commentariat have claimed – precarity and division are not inevitable, as a people we can come together and through hope and joy build a better world for everyone.

Moments like this are important, because any transformative social movement needs more than just a sense of justice to bind its members together: it also has to make radical action fun. Traditionally, the British left has been very bad at doing this: cringing at accusations of ‘champagne socialism’ while grumpily disputing the finer points of Constituency Labour Party democratic protocols. But the Corbyn movement has a refreshing – and distinctive – sense of hedonism associated with it.

The nature of this hedonism is encapsulated in one of the key meme phrases employed by the Corbyn culture online: the image of the ‘big bag of cans’, something which for preference is to be enjoyed ‘with the lads’, ‘in the park’. Fittingly, as Corbyn gave his speech on Saturday a banner emblazoned with this phrase, depicting the absolute boy himself holding up a Tesco bag, presumably full of cans, was seen waving in the crowd (pictured above).

What does this image tell us about the Corbyn movement? Well, in my view: rather a lot. Properly considered, the image of the ‘big bag of cans with the lads in the park’ tells us basically everything about the sort of socialism young people are – through the Labour party – currently struggling to build.

1. Why the Cans?

Clearly, what is central to this image is the enjoyment of cans, which are presumably (a) ice-cold; (b) filled with delicious beer and/or cider. But why cans, specifically?

Canned beer is, for one thing, cheap. Beer sold in cans at supermarkets and off-licences is – obviously – far less expensive than draught beer sold in pubs. Generally speaking, it offers better value-for-money than bottled beer as well: craft beer is changing this, but in off-licences the norm is still that the more upmarket the beer, the more likely it is to be sold in a bottle, not a can.

Canned beer also offers drinkers all the voluptuousness of something readily available. In any given urban or even suburban centre, you will rarely be more than about five minutes walk away from being able to purchase some frosty, refreshing cans of lager. Moreover, the beer in these cans can be accessed immediately, without your needing to have remembered to bring along a bottle opener, or failing that some tweezers or something, for the purpose.

Finally, the can offers drinkers a sense of infinity. Bottles and glasses, translucent, are constantly reminding drinkers how much beer they have left. Cans, however, only dimly indicate how much beer you’ve got left based on weight, which – especially when you’re drunk – is easy enough to forget. Drinking a can of beer, one sometimes feels as if the experience could go on forever. The presence of the ‘big bag’, naturally, serves to deepen this feeling of infinity.

In short, the big bag of cans is a utopia of abundance.

2. Who are the lads?

One might assume that the ‘lads’ are gendered male, and moreover that they are likely to display a certain sort of behaviour, loud and braggish. But increasingly, common usage of the word ‘lads’ moving away from that, even becoming gender-neutral.

The lads are, therefore, most likely people just like you and I – assuming for the sake of argument that everyone reading this is a ‘fellow millenial’. The lads are young, urban-dwelling, precariously employed; through their shared class-interest, they accrue a sense of camaraderie.

Cans of beer allow this group – the lads – to have affordable fun together. The image of the lads thus makes the utopia of abundance, implied by the image of the cans, something that feels possible for us, exactly as we are now. We do not have to become some better or higher or even richer sort of human being in order to achieve it.

3. Where is the Park?

The park is the lads’ venue for enjoying cans. The park is, in a way, any green space – urban, suburban, or rural. The Glastonbury festival is, in a way, ‘the park’. But the park is also so much more than that.

Medieval peasants dreamed of Cockaigne, a mythical land of plenty in which “roasted pigs wander about with knives in their backs to make carving easy… grilled geese fly directly into one’s mouth… The weather is always mild, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, and all people enjoy eternal youth.” Fantasies of Cockaigne provided peasants respite from their lives of otherwise constant struggle and back-breaking labour.

The park, where precarious young people are able to enjoy infinite bags of freely-popping cans, is nothing less than a 21st century Cockaigne. When one hears the phrase “big bag of cans with the lads, in the park,” one imagines lying in the grass, day-drunk with one’s friends, as before you stretches the horizonless haze of an endless summer.


It is really this, I think, that the Corbyn movement promises its devotees. As a generation, we ‘millennials’ have come of age knowing that we would always need to work much harder than our parents ever did, just to keep slightly ahead of the rapidly declining living standards their economy has bequeathed to us. Our lives would be ones of endless toil in the service of our landlords, until such time as our health finally gave out, or the environment collapsed and we all boiled alive in our skins.

Against all odds, Jeremy Corbyn has changed this. Suddenly, by some strange chance, a leader has emerged – and, now, gained electoral credibility – whose politics seems able to reverse this trend. Once Corbyn is the Prime Minister – ‘officially’ the Prime Minister, that is – we expect to be relieved of the precarity and want that has pursued us for the whole of our adult lives. This is the radical promise of Corbyn’s Labour.

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For the new year


The New Year is as good a time as any to contemplate history, and where one stands in it. As 2016 becomes 2017, we all know that we stand within disaster. A disaster that is gradually unfolding, and which seems to be moving ever closer to a fevered climax, like a great wave that seems forever about to drown our village, that just gets taller and taller but never quite manages to crash against the shore. Will 2017 be the year the flood will finally come, its waters knocking us all off our feet as we stand massed gawking along the wharf? Or will the new year just bring more of the same chaotic anxiety, that we have grown used to by now?

We desperately need more understanding of the disaster which besets us at present. We need to claw our way, however painfully, to an understanding of why this state of disaster has come about, why it keeps building; and we need strategies which might help us to diminish it, to help alleviate its effects.

I’m a philosopher (although having said that, as of this year I’m an ‘unemployed philosopher’), and I’d like to think that philosophy can at least contribute to this understanding. But philosophers, even very great ones, have typically been quite bad at thinking about historical disaster. The philosophical canon is dominated by Pollyannas like Hegel or Leibniz, who thought that the world as they found it was pretty much great and didn’t need changing. And even those philosophers who did manage to take political crisis seriously – Plato and Hobbes are good examples – often ended up with a distressingly affirmative view of philosophical authority, typically imagined as a perverse intensification of whatever presently exists, as if by a sort of magic that would result in stable consistency.

Of all the philosophers, it is perhaps Walter Benjamin who takes the threat of historical disaster most seriously – precisely by representing such disaster not just as a threat, but as a reality which we constantly and have always lived through. This is the view that, at any rate, Benjamin presents in his gnomic ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, written in 1940 as he attempted – ultimately unsuccessfully – to flee the Nazis through France to Spain. Detained on the border by Franco’s police, who had been given orders to hand Benjamin (along with the group of fellow Jewish refugees he was travelling with) back over to the Germans, and having already spent three months in a prison camp the previous year, Benjamin committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine tablets. Upon discovering his body, the police were so shocked that they ignored their orders and let the rest of Benjamin’s group through. The ‘Theses’ is very much a text formed in, shaped irreparably by, historical disaster.

As Benjamin notes, orthodox philosophy of history, which he calls ‘historicism’, has typically represented history as a process characterised by progress, the Pinkerish notion that things are getting better all the time. This, he claims, has rendered history the tool of the ruling classes: history, so the cliché goes, is written by the victor. Thus historicism, which sees progress as inevitable, must always characterise whatever wretched barbarism happens to triumph as the most progressive thing that could have possibly occurred. And of course it probably helps that most of the people actually writing history, at least in the bourgeois era, have been basically quite pampered sorts who benefit from their complacently affirmative attitude towards the status quo.

Having said this, even from the privileged standpoint of the professional historian (or, of course, philosopher) there are bound to be some moments in history which seem too regressive to ignore: the triumph of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s; the election of President Trump in 2016. But to the historicist, these moments are states of exception, brief stumblings of our footsteps back down the ladder of Inevitable Progress – perhaps because beforehand, we were simply scuttling up too quickly for our own good. But as Benjamin argues, if we focus on the experience of the oppressed, history’s losers, we will see that such disasters are not merely momentary aberrations: they are the rule. Something bad is always going on, as ‘progress’ is built someone’s back will always get broken. It should not amaze us, Benjamin says, that fascism is ‘still’ possible in our own era: no more, I suppose, than a slightly more intense hailstorm should amaze a people who experience hail on a daily basis, at least in certain regions of their country.

All of this can, of course, sound somewhat fatalistic. Horror mounts upon horror mounts upon horror… and when it comes to history, that’s all there is to it (at one point in the ‘Theses’ Benjamin gives this quite famous analysis of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, illustrating this blog post above, which to him represents the Angel of History, staring back open-mouthed at a pile of wreckage that builds and builds even as the Angel himself is blown, powerless, away from it towards the future). But even if this is all history has amounted to thus far, this does not mean that we are unable to do anything about it at all.

According to Benjamin in the ‘Theses’, each generation is endowed with what he calls “a weak messianic power.” This power is messianic because it is the power of redemption; it is weak because it applies only very specifically, as the power to redeem the past which one has – oneself – experienced. As Benjamin claims, “the idea of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the idea of redemption.” But the sort of happiness that “could arouse envy in us” exists “only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us.” In short this idea of happiness, the sort that would require redemption, subsists primarily in things we have experienced ourselves as lacking. (Us ‘millenials’, then, must have a lot of weak messianic power – since we constantly experience the lack of what our parents had ‘at our age’, and so this pattern will repeat throughout our lives).

Benjamin invokes the idea of ‘weak messianic power’ only rather elliptically. But, through it, he seems to imply that we have the power to construct a better world for future generations, precisely by looking back to opportunities missed, needs as yet unfulfilled. What does this mean? Well for one thing, it implies that political activity must primarily be about resisting specific wrongs we have experienced, whether directly or indirectly, in the actual world. It cannot be about striving towards some abstraction we have dreamt up from our armchairs and sewn into the stars. For another, it means that what we build towards cannot be understood as universal: no matter what good our actions might lead to, they will not result in some final, settled state where everything is fine; only the actual coming of the actual Messiah (who I suppose would have strong messianic power) could do that. We cannot anticipate what injustices will be experienced by our descendants.

(in the ‘Theses’, Benjamin illustrates this point by relating the story of the Mechanical Turk, a puppet posing as an automaton, clad in Turkish attire and sat before a chessboard smoking a hookah. The Turk – which actually existed, and once played chess against Napoleon – was “constructed in such a way that it could respond to every move by a chess player with a countermove that would ensure the winning of the game.” Though its opponents assumed it was a robot, the Turk was in fact operated by a “hunchbacked dwarf – a master at chess” crouched somewhere within the mechanism and able to observe the action with a series of mirrors. The puppet, Benjamin says, stands for Marxist historical materialism. If it is to win the game, it must enlist the forces of theology, which “today, as we know, is small and ugly and has to be kept out of sight.” The oppressed can always, Benjamin is suggesting, make an effective countermove against the forces of history: but only if we have weak messianic power animating our actions, aiming at the redemption of the past).

So how might these lessons be applied today? For too long now, I think, organised political activity on the left has been beholden to abstractions supposed to result in a permanent, settled state where everything will (universally) be better. This is manifested, for the radical left, in the utopian moment of revolutionary communism: the idea that ‘come the revolution’ all contradictions will sort themselves out and everything will be fine. Likewise the moderate left demand that all political activity must be aimed at securing, say, a Labour or a Democratic victory in whatever election happens to be next around the corner – because only then can the corrupt, out-of-touch saps they put up for office have the power to ‘really help’ people.

But surely if history teaches us anything here it’s that all holding political office typically amounts to is the right to administer whatever injustice happens to characterise the present evil: milk-monitor stuff, only instead of stretching up your hand the highest so that teacher will award you the privilege of giving out the class’s cartons of milk you’re doing it for the right to distribute the evil. The nicest thing one can say about most long-lasting ‘leftist’ governments is that probably the right-wing alternative would have managed to do even more damage. The left must not let the goal of holding political office sideline attempts to resist the present evil wherever we might find it – the understanding needs to be that holding political power at best constitutes a helpful step towards this goal, in aid of strategies associated with our real mission.

But of course this also means that even out of office, as the left now seem to be almost universally worldwide, there is still a lot of work that good people can do – indeed, that it will be very necessary for them to do if 2017 is to be any less awful than 2016. This is where our weak messianic power comes in. This power, if indeed it really does exist as Benjamin describes it, is something we possess in the vicinity of whatever air we happen to breathe. When the fumes of evil choke this air, that is when we must, however clumsily, attempt to wield our weak messianic power to redeem it. With whatever resources we have, with the small weapons of charity or friendship or tolerance or humility (and maybe even writing priggishly sermonising thinkpieces about Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history might help)… it is difficult, and it can feel hopeless sometimes, but just so long as we can wield these weapons, I think, we are not totally helpless against whatever disaster currently threatens . Or, perhaps better: even if we are indeed helpless against the disaster itself, we will not be entirely helpless against its effects.

The power of the powerless to give the powerless strength; the ignorant helping the ignorant struggle towards something like knowledge. Walter Benjamin’s own sacrifice, in a moment of utter despair, inadvertently gifting the other refugees he was travelling with their freedom.

Happy New Year.

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Essay on Brexit for ‘piauí’

I wrote this essay in mid-July after being commissioned to do so by the Brazilian cultural magazine piauí. It appears in Portuguese here. Since the magazine have kindly given me permission to publish it in English on my blog, I thought I may as well do so; however I understand it may be of little interest considering that the destruction of the country is basically over and the news agenda has now moved on to the far more important business of the Labour party.

(apologies also for moments of over-explication; obviously, this is aimed at a Brazilian audience – an audience who may, quite realistically, be expected not to spend their every waking moment thinking about UK politics).

What does Brexit feel like?

One suggestion: it feels like being punched in the face, only very slowly. We should have seen the fist coming towards us – the referendum had been on the cards since January 2013 – but we ignored it, we didn’t spot it until it was too late, and only the horrible crunch of knuckles on teeth, the wrench of our lip splitting, the taste of blood in our mouth, alerted us to what was really going on. Nobody really thought we’d vote to leave the European Union – and now we have.

Another suggestion: Brexit feels like you’re a trapped animal, whose prison is beginning to fill up with water. You start to panic, your heart races, you scuttle around trying to look for a way out, you scurry up the walls, you make strange chittering noises in fear and in pain. Eventually, you realise that the accident which has caused your cage to flood has also blocked off the one means by which you might have been able to escape. Your best course of action would be to accommodate yourself to a reality in which you can no longer breathe. This is what it is like to be a citizen of the UK, now that the fact of Brexit has been established.

In the days following the Brexit vote, I felt like I was spending my whole time in a state of elevated sensory consciousness, a troubling high from which there was no coming down. Everything was too big, too loud, too close, and too much of it was happening at once. The Prime Minister had resigned, and it was only item two or three on the news. The pound had crashed – worse than it had ever crashed before – the economy was on the verge of collapse, and the public had just given us a democratic mandate – a mandate which we must respect, everyone insists – to compound the damage. The official opposition, far from taking the opportunity to assert its own credentials to govern, was busy mounting a bizarre, clearly futile coup attempt against its hugely popular leader. The previous week, an outspokenly pro-immigration MP had been murdered – shot – by a neo-fascist; after the Leave vote, there had been a marked upsurge in reports of racist attacks.

“I didn’t really think we’d leave,” the chorus of any number of hapless Leave voters on the news. “I just wanted to shake things up.” The world had been plunged, apparently deliberately, into stupidity and chaos. I, personally, felt like I was spiralling out of control. I couldn’t sleep, I could barely eat, I wasn’t exercising; I was just sat at my computer all day refreshing the news, refreshing social media, waiting for events to become clearer. I felt like I wanted to move forward, not in any particular direction, maybe in every direction at once, just go somewhere, do something. If I wasn’t in a relationship, I would probably have tried to have sex with a stranger. What options were left open to me? Maybe I could throw myself, hard, into a wall.

The fact of ‘Brexit despair’ is already well-established. I was not the only one who had been jolted, by the result, into this particular state of fevered anxiety: I know that these feelings are shared, almost universally across everyone I love or know, or at least amongst those people who are roughly the same age as me. Beyond the anecdotal, a poll by the London School of Economics has revealed that 55% of Remain voters “cried or felt like crying” when they discovered the result. 67% of voters under the age of 40 said they felt “angry” at the result; 72% that they were “frustrated”; 61% “disgusted”.

Who does Brexit despair typically effect? Well, I suppose I would say: ‘people like me’. By which I mean: people who are young, typically urban-dwelling, liberal or leftist, well-educated – from middle-class backgrounds – and poor – crucially, we are (in general) poorer than our parents were at an equivalent age, and we have little if any prospect of getting any richer. We are the children of the financial crisis – the events of 2008 have marked our identities indelibly.

We were raised, I think, to seek security: this was always the message we had hammered home to us at school, that if we worked hard, and went to university, we would probably avoid ever being unemployed, the bare minimum for us would be a steady – if unfulfilling – job. By 30, we would probably own houses, have pensions, and be solidly partnered or married, with the prospect of children. But all of this seems impossibly distant to us now. As soon as we started university, or maybe as soon as we graduated, all possibilities of long-term security seemed to vanish. And even as the economy – however slowly – mended itself, the free-market ideologues in the Cameron government made sure that this security would not, for people like us, ever return. Pick any career that you might conceivably wish to pursue – I mean wish to pursue because you are motivated not solely by money. Think journalism, academia, technology, teaching, medicine, the arts. Well, it is almost certainly the case that you will never, in this world, experience a moment where you can both pursue this career successfully, and have a chance to stop and catch your breath – unless of course you are one of the lucky few, so blessed that your life almost seems like it must be inhuman. At best you must keep constantly running forward, just to stay in the same place.

This, at any rate, is how I have experienced adult life. Largely out of a fear of stopping entirely (which is mostly a fear of never being allowed to start again), I have never stopped working at my chosen career – academia. I finished my PhD thesis in three years, but I have, to be honest, ruined my health: my muscles ache all the time now; I walk with a limp; I have developed psoriasis all over my scalp and thighs; an acid reflux problem has eroded all the enamel on the back of my teeth – I can’t afford the dental work I need to stop my front teeth from collapsing. My whole physical existence in the world is characterised by constant low-key pain. And still I can’t stop, still I am in no way established as an academic, still I cannot even secure interviews for anything more lucrative than temporary adjunct teaching work. The vertigo of inertia still threatens.

Having grown up through experiences like these, I am not sure that we ever really can be secure – even if we obtained our goal, I am not sure that we would ever feel like we had really, properly achieved it – I mean to the extent that we can relax. Home ownership, having a pension… these are not the sort of things that I will ever really think could possibly be ‘for me’. Maybe having children is, I can see that: but then I think this is possibly just a quirk of my own life history, resultant from my partner having been a nanny, when we first met, and my having enjoyed helping her take care, on occasion, of the little girls she looked after.

So what do we look for, what do we pursue? Why do we bother working at all? Generally speaking, I think, without the prospect of security we have picked ‘experience’. We will never have enough money to be prosperous, but – and in particular, with the safety net of the private property that our parents do own – we have enough to try and be interesting. And so we live in a way that allows us to accumulate experiences, of whatever sort. We spend our money on going out, going on holiday, on frivolous luxuries, on supporting ourselves through doomed forays into the creative arts, on studying for Master’s degrees that will make us less rather than more employable. And, of course, a lot of this involves taking advantage of the freedom of movement that our EU citizenship provides: for our parents’ generation, Eastern Europe in particular was like another, alien world – for us, the whole continent is just part of our back-garden, and it feels quite natural for us not only to go travelling there, but to live there as well (for instance, as an example from personal experience: I met my partner, also a UK citizen, while we were both living in Berlin).

This is, I think, a large part of what we are despairing over. Denied security by the powers that be, we have swapped it for experience: but now the possibilities of experience, too, are being eroded. And this is not necessarily just about freedom of movement, either: the prospect of a new financial crisis also looms – and, with it, still fewer opportunities, even to make enough money to explore the world. The trapped animal is clawing at the sides of its prison, desperately trying to find some way to burrow out, as the water starts rising, with increasing rapidity. It shakes and mewls and whines, somehow hoping that this might stave off its doom.

“This is just bourgeois moaning,” my friend David tells me when I discuss this with him, increasingly belligerent despite our being only two pints in. “Your despair isn’t real: you’re just afraid that you won’t be able to move back to Berlin whenever you want to. But, for one thing: that’s fucking ridiculous anyway. You have a PhD, you could easily get a job there. And then even if they did take away our freedom of movement, you’d still be allowed to go. And moreover: we probably won’t even end freedom of movement anyway. As if the Tories would allow that, given that it goes against the interests of their constituents – which it does, since it disproportionately effects middle-class people. You need to think of the people who voted Leave. As if the young people who voted Leave ever saw moving to Europe as an option to begin with. Freedom of movement was a bad thing for them, and they’re the ones who would be more effected by another financial crash anyway.”

There is an element of this to our Brexit despair, of course. It is a despair that has, in many ways, been produced by our privilege – both cultural and educational. It was because of our privileged class background that we were able to exist in this ‘open’ way towards Europe in the first place – which allowed us to benefit from it, which thus allows us to feel the loss of our EU citizenship precisely as a loss. The people who voted to Leave were, a lot of them, not nearly as lucky as we have been. And if there really is another crisis, then it’s these young people who will be – in particular – fucked: not just ‘moving in with your parents’ fucked but homeless, can’t feed your family fucked.

Having said that: I think that the sources of Brexit despair probably do go deeper than this. For one thing, it still exists amongst British people I know who have dual citizenship with other EU nations; as well as amongst EU migrants I know, many of whom have spent a significant amount of their lives in the UK, hence identifying with Britain in some important way. The despair isn’t just about whether or not you or I as individuals can leave the UK, or are free to explore the world or live our lives however we might wish to or whatever; it is about what the Brexit vote says about Britain, about what the UK has become.

What does Brexit say about the UK?

To understand what Brexit says about the UK, we have to understand what people were actually voting for. The EU referendum campaign was a messy, amorphous, undefined thing – as my friend Sam Kriss has observed, you might as well have just given everyone a ballot paper that said ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, with no question on it asking them what they were saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to. Do you want to reject reality? Vote No. Affirm it? Vote Yes. This, then – according to Sam – is why Brexit won: because more people wanted to reject rather than affirm whatever presently exists. To my mind however, there are at least two things that people actually voted Leave to achieve. They wanted to limit immigration, and they wanted to ‘Take Back Control’ (as the Leave campaign’s slogan went) from the European Union.

Certainly, one can sympathise with this desire to take back control from the EU. The EU is a corrupt, anti-democratic, technocratic hell-organisation, whose overarching purpose is to promote and preserve a neoliberal consensus across its member states, often using economic violence to enforce this consensus. It is entirely appropriate to look at the EU and think: this is an organisation that needs reform; to look at its recent actions in Greece and Portugal and think: someone needs to send a strong message to this organisation, that it cannot carry on treating its member states like this. Hence, the ‘left-wing’ case for voting to Leave the European Union, voiced at the outset of the campaign by the likes of Aaron Bastani and Paul Mason (although Mason – it should be added – did not actually support a Leave vote).

This desire to ‘take back control’ expresses a form of alienation: the EU is a distant, inscrutable thing with a law all of its own, which we do not understand, which we cannot hope to shape in any way. The instinct to take back control is the instinct to bring the law back down to earth, to make it something that we are freely – hence, potentially transformatively – oriented towards. Thus, to close the democratic deficit that exists between member states and the EU. This is the instinct behind ‘Lexit’; it is also, interestingly, the instinct behind a lot of the traditional right-wing case to Leave the European Union, the cause that has existed since the Tory right were defeated by John Major over Maastricht – the EU of ‘banana-straightening’ fame, who exist solely to impose a bizarre canon of arcane rules and regulations, needlessly bulldozing over good old-fashioned British common sense.

But in the context of the referendum campaign, this was not in fact what ‘taking back control’ turned out to amount to. Technically, the EU referendum was about considering the option to Leave against David Cameron’s ‘renegotiated’ EU deal, a package which was almost entirely focused on limiting immigration – in particular, attempting to disincentivise immigration to the UK by limiting the sorts of rights and benefits that EU migrants can claim here. Hence, the EU always figured within the referendum debate as an organisation which specifically prevents the UK from controlling its own borders – and this is what, in the context of the Leave campaign, we needed to ‘take back control’ from.

This allowed the debate to become dominated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, encouraged by the likes of Leave figurehead Boris Johnson – at this point, still cynically angling for the Tory leadership – and UKIP leader Nigel Farage: the man who had, during the Cameron years, pretty much single-handedly made Euroscepticism and xenophobia part of the national political conversation again. On both sides, there was the assumption that immigration was a problem, that present levels of immigration were somehow ‘unsustainable’, that we needed to limit it; that the problems that our economy is presently experiencing could be blamed in some way on immigration from within the EU. The only question, really, was how much immigration needed to be limited, what ‘sensible levels’ of immigration were. Indeed, probably the only major political figure who didn’t pander to UKIP’s setting of the debate was the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, latterly (and, to be honest, almost certainly not uncoincidentally) blamed by his own MPs for not putting in a ‘strong enough performance’ during the campaign.

So, this is what Brexit says about the UK: Brexit says that the UK is becoming increasingly racist, xenophobic, and closed. It is becoming the sort of place that is not welcoming to strangers, to new things, to heterodox cultures or values. Anti-immigrant sentiment has become normalised in the mainstream political debate – to the extent that you need to express ‘concerns’ about immigration to appear, to the media, electorally credible. And this has, of course, trickled down to the streets as well: reports of racist and xenophobic accounts have ceased to be exceptional, and have become everyday.

In short, I think, Brexit despair results in no small part from the fact that Britain is becoming the sort of place that ‘the likes of us’ – the educated, the cosmopolitan, the young, who are experiencing Brexit despair – would no longer wish to affirm, that we find ourselves unable to identify with. And that, simultaneously, the moment in which our estrangement from Britain as it now exists has been confirmed – the vote to Leave – has cut us off from something else which we could have looked to, to form something like an alternative identity, based on our European citizenship, or on some notion of (a more open, a more liberal) ‘Britain within Europe’. Hence, this despair is resultant from a sense that we have now become alienated from the political community in which we are forced to exist – and will continue to be forced to exist in for the foreseeable future. If not a literal prison, then Britain is a weight that we have had tied to our legs, that we are forced to drag along with us at all times: our British identity has become nothing other than disabling, an obstacle to be negotiated around.

“But think about the people who voted to Leave in Clacton,” my friend David again, referring to the impoverished seaside town about twenty minutes on the train from where we are, represented in parliament by Douglas Carswell, the UK’s sole UKIP MP. “They were already alienated. And their alienation is much worse.” I’ve barely even said anything, but I know that I’m being accused. Where is my solidarity?

Post-Brexit, the news has regularly wheeled out segments treating us to the startling sight of ‘working class’ people who voted to Leave – the typical version of this segment involves the reporter visiting a ‘deprived’ area with a high Leave vote, where they will then set about looking for the palest, most wretched, most withered-looking individual in town to hold up as a freak, to get them to spout the most incoherent, formally contradictory nonsense possible about how immigrants are taking their jobs (especially the ones who don’t have jobs), about how we need to send them all home, back to their own country (especially the ones who were born here), about how Britain needs to be for the British (the white British) once again (for a document that mingles this style of reportage with serious and enlightening reflection, see this from Novara media). These people are clearly the victims of generations of exclusionary government policies, which have failed to provide for their communities in even the most basic way; which have failed to give them jobs or proper healthcare or access to good education, or to anything that might give their lives meaning.

So I do not want to dispute that anti-immigrant sentiment has been able to gain a foothold in the UK as a result of the way in which people – including working class people – feel alienated from their political community: aware that they need to ‘take back control’ from something, a lot of people have (mistakenly) settled on immigrants – hence, the EU – as the object which they need to overcome (as opposed to say, the Tories’ destructive economic policies). What I do want to dispute is that this alienation is something solely experienced by members of the traditional working class, hence that it is these people – the jobless, the uneducated, the 11-childrened, the unwashed – who can now be blamed for what has happened. Brexit didn’t happen just because it was voted for by a bunch of idiotic povvos with clownishly false consciousnesses: a lot of middle-class people voted for it too – in particular older people, and people who live outside of major cities. The focus on the traditional working classes – which has resulted, I think, because a lot of experts were surprised that these people voted at all, whereas we always knew the elderly were Eurosceptic – has, aside from threatening to turn into a freak show, in many ways let these other people off the hook.

Why did the UK vote for Brexit?

The alienation of the working classes is primarily economic. The middle classes, no matter where they live, are not alienated from the economic system: they can afford healthcare, education, good houses. They have professional jobs, they go on holiday. But in the UK, the provincial working and middle classes share a form of alienation: a distinctive form of cultural alienation.

This cultural alienation can be seen all around us, just not in the places that ‘people like us’ – educated, cosmopolitan, young people – would ever seriously look. It is as if it is under every rock. It is manifested in the facebook statuses that your mad aunt posts, or your friends who never left your hometown. It is the world described in the Daily Express newspaper, where we are supposed to be constantly under threat from refugees, gay people, even ghosts. It can be overheard in provincial pubs, in queues at the shop, at bus stops. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown encountered it when he met Gillian Duffy, the moment which arguably derailed his 2010 general election campaign.

Isolated in the provinces, where their thinking and experience can pretty much spin frictionless from reality, these people have developed a radically different understanding – to how ‘people like us’ have – of how the modern world actually is. They think that people can earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a year on state benefits if they ‘choose’ not to work; they think that a majority of five year-olds can’t speak any English; they think that heterosexual marriages are about to be banned. They aren’t typically religious, but they are credulous to reports from psychics and past lives. They are drawn to conspiracy theories. During the referendum, a pamphlet circulated from Hemel Hempstead’s UKIP branch claiming that a vote for Remain would mean that the National Health Service would be privatised, the British Army disbanded, and that we would abolish the Queen. The Brexit campaign has been described as the bastion of a new, ‘post-facts’ politics. This is really what this means: cultural alienation has allowed these people to inhabit an entirely different symbolic order from their largely urban, culturally unalienated fellow citizens.

It is this alternative, ‘mainstream’ reality that people in the provinces have voted overwhelmingly to reject. Hence why the likes of Boris Johnson – once head boy at Eton, England’s poshest private school – and Nigel Farage, a millionaire former stockbroker – can plausibly describe their campaign as being about “kicking out the elites.” Once the elites are gone – the mainstream understanding of the world which you are alienated from – you will be allowed to believe whatever you want about Muslims, about gay people, and about what ‘black-eyed ghost children’ might be about to do to your dog.

All of this is, thus, about ‘taking back control’. And specifically, I think, it is about trying to ‘take back control’ by severing Britain from the modern world, the world that has left the provinces – either economically or culturally – behind. Sometimes I think that the most telling misconception that these people have is that Britain is a “small island” – you will hear this line repeated a lot – or that it is “too full.” Britain is just an island, but it is in fact a fairly large one, and it is by no means full: it is for instance only marginally more densely populated than Germany. This is, incidentally, why most people will tell you we can’t afford to take in any more immigrants: that we just don’t have the space for them, there aren’t enough houses, not enough schools, enough hospitals. But this is a logistical issue: the correct response ought to be to expand our capacity, to build more. Brexit, by contrast, will shrink the economy, make us smaller.

But then, ‘smaller’ is, I think, exactly what these alienated people want. Alienation, indeed, typically manifests itself in a feeling that the alien structure is too big, too huge to understand: just think of the sort of institutions described by Kafka, the great writer of alienation – his portrayal, in ‘The Great Wall of China’, of the imperial court as something so vast that, even if the emperor wanted to communicate with you (you personally), it would take the whole of the messenger’s lifetime just for him to exit the innermost palace – and that is nothing compared to the insurmountable distance he would have to travel in order to actually reach you in the provinces. Hence, it seems quite natural to attempt to overcome alienation by shrinking the structures we are attempting to grapple with: to make them small enough to seem familiar, so that we can understand them.

This is really, I think, the same logic that – during the Cameron years up until the Brexit vote – informed austerity (I mean that it was, as it were, austerity’s libidinal appeal). The state is too big, it is ‘out of control’, so we must shrink it to get it back under control. Brexit is austerity as foreign policy: since Britain is too full up, we must sever it from the global bloodstream, shrink it to a healthy size. This is the same sort of common sense that made leeching, to the medieval imagination, seem like it ought to be an effective form of medical treatment.

Call this a drive towards ‘closedness’. These people, the Brexiters, want to suck as much energy from reality as possible – they probably would have honestly preferred it when there had been nothing in existence at all. They want to live in a country that is as closed to the world as they are; they want to cordon themselves off from it, to be pure and clean, just on their own. This is the end-game of Thatcher’s “there is no society, just individuals and their families” – these people are the ‘atomised individuals’ you hear about; and their only wish is for a world in which they can be still more atomised, where nobody can touch them, where nobody can hold them to account. Hence why these people are also closed to facts, and indeed to the whole practice of reason-giving in the context of a debate – they will not listen to anything that contradicts their worldview. For the bigoted relative who you foolishly attempt to argue with on facebook, everything will resolve into a “well that’s just my opinion, isn’t it?”

It is just for this reason, too, that Brexit is not exactly a matter of false consciousness. It will be economically disastrous, it will damage the working classes immensely: but it will probably deliver exactly what these provincial, middle-class Brexiters really want. They can take the economic hit; they are willing to pay good money to be this isolated.

This is also why we are right, I think – to return to ‘people like me’ for a moment – to feel such despair over the Leave vote. Whilst there may well be an element to the Leave vote of the working classes kicking back against austerity, the primary drive behind it is a worldview of closedness, isolation – provincial British nihilism. This worldview now stands triumphant over us all; even with Theresa May – rather than the Brexit true believer Andrea Leadsom, her closest contender for the Tory leadership – as Prime Minister, it will set the political agenda for years to come.

Snip, our link to Europe will be severed. Crash, the economy will come collapsing down. Puff, our opportunities to make a life away from our parents will disappear. Slump, we will be forced to drag ourselves back into our parents’ spare rooms, unable to afford a place to live of our own. Back, for the most part, to the suburbs, where there is nothing, and where nothing is to be preferred. Back into the gilded prison, of the houses we grew up in, the homes which will become our tombs.

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On our duty as members of the Labour party in the era of the present crisis


This piece was originally posted on medium by the left-leaning journalist Gawain Sprout (The Guardian, The Telegraph, Blood and Soil); following a twitterstorm, it has been deleted. Having screengrabbed it in order to mock certain central passages on twitter, I here reproduce it in its entirety.

We are all of us, reading this, members of the Labour party. The Labour party cannot be escaped: it is everywhere, an as it were sacred duty that forces itself upon us at all times, in each and every one of our actions. I don’t just mean everyone ‘on the left’ here, or even everyone in Britain. I mean every single member of humanity. If you are a human being at all, it is necessary to posit that you are a member of the Labour party. Thus Labour’s fate, is our fate – it is something that, as a species, we all share.

Why does the Labour party exist? Well, technically, the Labour party was founded in 1900 out of the Trade Union movement – this is what you will read in party histories. But this is not the real reason why the Labour party exists. The Labour party in fact exists to save creation from itself, to redeem the whole created, material world. What existed before the Labour party – and, what exists outside of the Labour party today – tends by itself inevitably to one thing: Tory-ness. Creation is destructive, selfish; it is posh, and elitist. Every objective tendency in creation seeks to brutalise immigrants, to lock up the homeless; the natural order of things wants a less favourable deal for working families; a better one for bankers. Creation wants to privatise schools, and healthcare; it wants to sell off every single one of the state’s assets. Creation hates women, and queers, and all members of ethnic and religious minorities. Creation wants to pursue short-sighted energy policies that will surely, in the long-term, spell environmental disaster; creation is enthusiastic about leaving the EU. Creation is war, it is death, it is plague – and it is constantly coming up with new evils to inflict upon itself.

It is into this rotten, Toryish creation that the Labour party must step: the Labour party must reach into this Tory world and alter its causality, it must strive to bring about the better, when every fibre of existence outside of Labour conspires only for the worst. With its policies, the Labour party must push back against Tory inevitability – at a minimum, Labour must make itself a dam, shoring up existence against the worst that Toryism can do; for preference, it must seek to win from the world the sort of real gains represented by things like the creation of the NHS – the sort of gains that somehow manage to make the world, in a lasting and long-term way, both quantitatively and qualitatively less Tory.

Hence, the Labour party is not a ‘political party’ in any usual sense of the word. What it does cannot be considered, strictly speaking, political – membership of the Labour party is not a political decision, it does not express a political choice or orientation: it is far too fundamental for that. To be an ethical agent as such, to act in the world in a way that attempts to bring about what is good for oneself and for others at all, is – always already – to act as a member of the Labour party.

This is why the fate of the Labour party matters.

This is why what happens to the UK Labour party is literally the most important thing in the world.

The Labour party, one hardly needs to point out, is presently in crisis. There are, perhaps, a great many complicated reasons for this crisis, or at least for the exact way in which it has manifested itself. But in truth, the conflict in the Labour party can really be boiled down to one thing: strategy. Given that we have inherited, as members of the Labour party, a sacred duty to redeem creation, how do we then bring this redemption about? That is the issue that currently threatens to cleave the Labour party in two.

Historically, the members of the Labour party (that is: the human race as such), have always answered this question with one voice, thusly: one redeems creation, by convincing it to vote for you. In order to act transformatively on a bad, Toryish creation, one must present to it a Labour party programme that it is willing to endorse at the ballot box. Only through compromising with evil, can one win the sort of power over it necessary to enact real change.

Of course, achieving this sort of compromise is very difficult – it requires some real, powerful magic to discern what the inscrutable, inhuman, Toryish order of things desires; it takes genuine cunning to work out how best to present a Labour inflection of this desire. That is why, historically, only very few individuals have ever really managed the trick – Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair… and the majority of these individuals ended up being consumed by the very Toryism that they had, once, dedicated their lives to holding back.This can quite easily be seen with the figure that Blair cuts today: a hated, despised thing, his brain frazzled by the power of the magic he was once able to so readily conjure, overloaded by the affinity it was his duty to establish towards the bad order of things. Blair appears on the news wide-eyed, frantic, gibbering about why he has no regrets about plunging the Middle East into Apocalyptic tumult; half-mumbling bizarre rants about why Labour need to make it clear that, if elected, they would unleash the Zohar Virus upon an unwitting mankind.

It is, in part, thanks to the example of figures like Blair that Labour members have become convinced that getting reality to vote Labour is not – or at the very least, is not by itself – sufficient to redeem it from itself. Labour has historically attempted to establish a dialogue with reality, confident that once it does so, its tendency will win. The example of Blair, however, shows the dialogue seeming to go the wrong way: it turns Labour Tory, not creation Labour.

Hence, the alternative strategy that is today manifested within the Labour party, within the human species, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps, the consensus amongst Labour party increasingly goes, the way to win genuinely transformative power over creation is not to attempt to meet it halfway at all. Perhaps, so the Corbyn story goes, one ought to attempt to win power by simply stating, to reality, what you think it should be like, with no attempt at all to appeal to it beyond that. And maybe, then, reality will, somehow, simply accept your programme: it will see that it represents a better vision of what it ought to be, than its present Toryness, and it will transform itself accordingly.

Of course, as all clever London-based journalists like me are able to work out, the problem with this strategy is that it will simply never work. Though the Canary-reading dullards who increasingly seem to comprise a clear majority of the human population are unable to see this, the Corbyn strategy is really just nothing more than wishful thinking: reality is utterly evil, destructive, and racist – so we have absolutely no reason to think that it could ever want to be better than it already is. Corbynism is simply, wilfully, deaf to this fact. Hence, Corbynism will ultimately leave reality to its own devices – through it, Labour members will become beautiful souls, spinning frictionless from the evils of how reality is.

But if Corbynism were the only problem here, then really the crisis would be very simple to solve. All we would need to do is oust the heresy of Corbynism from the party, or perhaps just wait for it to fail – then we could revive the old strategy, and set about attempting to get reality to vote for us again. But Labour’s issues run deeper than that. Because, accompanying the loss of faith in the party’s old methods, has also come the loss of the ability to reproduce them.

Of course, there are still plenty of Labour members – especially, prominent ones, the sort of Labour members who have taken the sacred rites and been inducted as MPs – who continue to strive to apply the old methods to creation. But at some point, subsequent to the retirement of Blair, the knowledge of how to do so was lost. Who knows how this happened, or why: but the problem is clear. The compromise strategy requires some sort of ability to listen to the inhuman, Tory order of things – it requires some sort of insight into what reality desires. Only then can one pitch one’s electoral programme accordingly. This is just what the current ‘moderate’ wing of the Labour party seem unable to do. The old lore that allowed Blair to so effectively resonate with the desires of the electorate is gone – reality has, for his successors, fallen dumb.

In the last general election, the signs were already there, for instance in the form of big rocks: the dogwhistle racism of the ‘Edstone’ was a clumsy gesture convincing to no-one. And, since Miliband’s defeat, things have only really gotten worse: interim leader Harriet Harman’s hard line against the right of welfare recipients to continue to eat; Corbyn challenger Owen Smith’s desperate attempt to establish his working class credentials by denying the existence of cappuccino. The Labour moderates are, as it were, rehearsing the old formulas, the old spells that were once, in very different conditions, successful – but they lack the vitality to really cast them. Whatever magic persists in their words is destined to explode in their face.

And so, the Labour party has been torn apart by a debate concerning two strategies: one of which can never work in theory, and the other of which will never – at least by these people – be made workable in practice. It is imperative, of course, that the crisis is resolved – because, until this happens, Toryism will be left unmolested to its worst excesses; there will be no possibility of anyone achieving what is good or right for this world.

Now, the simplest way for this impasse to be resolved would be by one of the two strategies being shown to have a chance of success – thus, that the theory stating that the Corbyn strategy can’t work is in fact flawed; that the empirical evidence does not in fact suggest the moderates are bound for failure. This is, of course, desperately unlikely – hence, I think, the interminable nature of the crisis.

There could also be some third strategy that emerges, one which is indeed genuinely workable – both sides of the argument could then, quite happily, adopt this strategy. But this prospect is utopian – we can dream it as a formula with which to solve the impasse, but if such a strategy did in fact exist, I mean even as a mere logical possibility, then it would probably already be available to us.

Luckily there is, I think, an additional way in which we might solve the crisis. Call this the thinkpiece alternative. It is my alternative, and this is really where journalists become so imperative, because what this alternative consists in is: we all write, read, consume, and share, endless navel-gazing blog posts about the future of the Labour party. We all attempt to form some really hard-hitting, powerful questions for one or the other side to think about; we all strive to get to the heart of why Corbynism is wrong, or why anyone opposing him is really just a Tory, and we share these thoughts and interventions on the blogging platform, medium. Whilst no one of these pieces will, in truth, be able to do this as effectively and as graciously as possible; whilst each individual writer will, in some sense, prove themselves intellectually unrigorous and dishonest; whilst the sole immediate effects of almost every single one of these pieces will just be for everyone to get more and more mad at each other, for the debate to become more and more toxic and internal and polarised, over time, the process will complete – and, through it, we will haved obtained every single possible perspective on what the Labour party is, and why it is like that. And then, having read and shared all of these pieces, each and every single one of us, we will all have been able to form a truly holistic understanding of the Labour party, and its crisis. Then, and only then, with this understanding of Labour having been obtained, will the stage be set for its resurrection – thus, for the real possibility, once again, of this Tory creation’s redemption.

[My readers will, I think, be interested in what I have to say about this piece. It is my view that it is confused from the start. For Sprout, the present Labour crisis is of such pressing importance because he is – like most of his ilk – professedly unable to separate the possibility of ethical action as such from membership of the Labour party. But it is far from clear that this is indeed the case, I mean that it is really true for human beings. If one could find some way to act rightly, towards the good, against the wrong, outside of the context of the Labour party, then one could perhaps ignore this interminable debate about the party’s future entirely. Of course, that does not mean that it is not incredibly difficult to see this possibility – I’m a little hazy on what it might mean myself. But perhaps, in truth, the Corbyn movement represents its first shoots. Sprout considers Corbynism wishful thinking because he sees it, as he does everything, wholly confined to the context of the Labour party. But perhaps this is a mistake. Perhaps the instinct behind Corbynism is somehow extra-Labourian, perhaps it does not need the Labour party and its logic to be successful. – TW]

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Hi everyone,

I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from this blog post earlier today. Sorry if you wanted to read it either again or for the first time: I’ve had to take it down because of an exciting publication opportunity – look out for it in a much more famous publication coming soon!

Sorry for selling out,


UPDATE: An edited version of the original post is now available from the New York Times.

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In Defence of the Lesser Evil


Yesterday, on his blog ‘Idiot Joy Showland’, my good friend Sam Kriss, who is younger and more famous than me but doesn’t have a PhD, posted a piece entitled ‘Learning to live after Bernie Sanders’. Here, Sam attempts to put into perspective what Bernie’s loss to Hillary might really mean for the left. Key take-home point: over the course of the campaign, the left mistakenly built the possibility of a Sanders presidency up into an end in-itself, but Sanders never really stood for the real aims of the left – in large part because taking control of the state as it presently exists is antithetical to these goals. So the left shouldn’t feel defeated by Hillary beating Bernie, because we should never have really cared anyway. We should continue to strive, instead, for the complete abolition of presently-existing conditions.

Fine: the idea of having a ‘good’ president of the United States is utopian, and moreover: it’s not even all that appealing a utopia (it’s the utopia of the fucking West Wing, for God’s sake). If we’re going to be utopian, let’s push that utopian instinct as far as we possibly can. Let’s strive for six impossible things before breakfast! But bound up in Sam’s argument here is a critique of the idea of ‘voting for the lesser evil’. And this is something that I really want to take issue with.

Nowadays, we can’t seem to avoid the lesser evil, our housemate democracy’s irritating boyfriend who monopolises all the kitchen space and manages to get a puddle of his piss somehow behind the toilet bowl. It’s there in the EU referendum, where we have to vote for neoliberalism as faceless technocratic bureaucracy in a most likely vain attempt to stop everyone’s weird dads from voting for neoliberalism as racist banter and total financial collapse. It’s there in Hillary vs. Trump, where America will have to vote for a meglomaniac war criminal in a most likely vain attempt to stop everyone’s angry dads from voting for a turd-eating rodeo clown who thinks he is a successful property developer. And, of course, there are elements of it in voting for Bernie Sanders, or Jeremy Corbyn – “tiny diminished evils,” as Sam suggests, but nevertheless, in their ultimate alignment to our present political system, still somehow in complicity with what is evil and bad, against the right and good.

In the piece, Sam’s line on the lesser evil is as follows: there’s no point in voting for the lesser evil over the greater evil, because – precisely as evil – they are the same.

“Of course one of them is better than the other; you can even pull out your utilitarian calculator and work out which one it is – but these are not fungible quantities, but endlessly different, and therefore the same… Say two million excess deaths under President Clinton – from financial predation, from disease, from war – and ten million excess deaths under President Trump – all those plus racist violence, malfeasance, and incompetence – and there’s your moral case for voting for Clinton. It’s not nice, it never is, but you vote for the lesser of two evils, refining the selection process again and again until you find something good. Except you never will; there’s a sameness beyond magnitude. This is where the evil comes from: quantification, ethics as a series of numbers, human life as a data-point. The least bad option, which represents the systematisation of evil, is always worse than the worst.”

But of course, as Sam surely realises, those two things are precisely not the same: ten million deaths really is worse than two million; Trump’s racist violence really is worse than Hillary trying to engage millenials with memes. If you had the chance to prevent eight million deaths, wouldn’t you do that? Even if it meant sullying yourself with the brutely quantitative logic of evil itself?

This claim is, of course, so obvious that it must surely be point-missing: it does not speak to what Sam really means. Sam’s point is really that voting for the lesser evil can’t be considered a political goal as such: politics has to take place outside of the nexus of the state, it must always strive not just for the sake of the eight million, but also for the leftover two.

“Vote for Clinton to stop Trump; save the eight million, nobody will blame you. But the task isn’t to stop this or that person from becoming President, but to find the President itself, that lifeless shambling thing with so many bodies, and put something pointy through its heart.”

Again, this is, to a certain extent, all fine, good, and ideologically correct. Capitalism is a vampire and we need to destroy it utterly, not just put a reverse-vampire in charge of the castle. But let’s face it: Sam’s understanding of the role that radical political activists play here, in relation to our vampiric ‘President’, seems a little one-sided. For the President is not just a lifeless shambling thing that happens to exist elsewhere, that is killing millions in the abstract, that we must – as radical heroes – enter the castle to kill, on behalf of others, the terrified villagers who are not us. We’re already in the castle, we were born there, and we are, each of us, the terrified villagers ourselves. The President is looking for us, each of us personally – he (or she – yasss queen), wants to kill us, exactly us as individuals, ruin our lives, crush our hopes and dreams, drink our blood, eat our bones.

We are not, for the most part, heroic revolutionaries camped out in the jungle, battling with heart and with cunning against the generalissimo’s militias. We are brittle and weak individual human beings struggling against poverty, against mental illness, against structural violence, against our poor physical health. Struggling to find, against all odds, a real life, meaning, and a home. We are diseased rabbits running in fear from the poacher. Given the choice, wouldn’t such rabbits prefer to be chased by the poacher with the bad leg, whose gun frequently jams, and whose kindly daughter has been known to take in the most wretched amongst the rabbits and nurse them back to health? Would such rabbits really sack off the chance to avoid being chased by the robot poacher with an assault rifle – if they could – declaring that it was really, in truth, all the same, since they are still running terrified from something?

Leaving the EU will mean a large number of my friends and colleagues will lose the right to be here, it will give succor to racists and xenophobes, it will trigger a recession which, if it is anything like all the other recent recessions, will ultimately be used by those in power to seize more of it for themselves. A vote for Hillary is a vote for presently-existing conditions, horribly unsatisfactory and impossibly unjust; but a vote for Trump is a vote for things as they presently exist if only they could be imagined to be worse. Ed Miliband was a lesser of two evils if ever there was one, the cartoon spokesperson for late-period New Labour’s distinctive brand of demented, cloth-eared idiocy; but if he was now in charge instead of Cameron, things would definitely seem less hopeless. For precarious people, it means a lot, feeling relatively more healthy and secure, knowing that of the various predators that might have enslaved you, the cuddliest one ultimately won. It might not be a goal worthy of the name, sure – it might not feel radical and good: but in a world which has already crippled us simply for existing, this is what voting for the lesser evil can mean. A leg up, for those who need it most – or at least not the willful conflagration of the ladder.

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Milk scheme


I used to have an idea for a ‘milk scheme’. The milk scheme involved me, every morning before college, going into the Sainsburys next to the bus station, and buying exactly four of the hefty, four-litre bottles of whole milk. And then when I was buying the milk, every day, I would say to the person at the check-out, “always good to start the day with a cold glass of milk.” And then I would pack the bottles into my school bag, all except for one of them, which I would unscrew the top off and start drinking from, deeply and hungrily, and it would go all down my chin.

“Always good to start the day with a cold glass of milk.” I would start out saying this very cheerily, like I was genuinely enjoying the milk, and it was having on me all these beneficial, health-giving effects. But then over time, after weeks and months of doing this, after all the staff there had become familiarised with me as the “milk guy”, I would start to look tireder, sicker, more exhausted. I would step up to the checkout with one of the bottles already mostly empty, and milk stains all the way down my front. I would become pale and bloated with the milk. I like to imagine that my skin would have started oozing with it. For some reason I imagine that it would have taken on a purple hue.

But still, I would always greet them with, “always good to start the day with a cold glass of milk.” A little milk-sick would escape from my mouth. I would stagger away from the checkout, drinking now from a fresh bottle of milk, covered in it.

And then one day I would just stop. I would stop going in and buying the milk, and they would think I had drunk myself to death, on milk.

I never actually did the milk scheme, never even tried to put it into action. But when I was about 18 or so, I thought about doing it a lot.

I don’t know what this means.

I guess I want to know, in a way, how far I could have pushed myself with it.

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Charlie Hebdo and the Muslim Pastry Threat


I’ve been saying this for a while, but: if we really want to understand right-wing politics today, we first have to understand baking. In a recent editorial, Charlie Hebdo – the racist, right-wing ‘satirical magazine’ – asks what the causes of the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels are. Were they caused by police blunders? Immigration? The long-term effects of colonialism or ghettoisation? No. Charlie Hebdo is utterly disparaging of any suggestion that they might be. What actually caused these attacks, Charlie Hebdo thinks, is the Muslims’ attitudes to our baked goods.

For Charlie Hebdo, there is a giant conspiracy insidiously working its way across Europe, seeping into our democracy through every pore. On the one hand you’ve got, of course, the Muslims – Charlie Hebdo’s favourite gaggle of pantomime villains. I’m not sure how many Muslims Charlie Hebdo thinks there are: it might be a lot (and they do seem to be everywhere), or it might just be two or three. There’s definitely a girl Muslim (clad in a veil), and I think there’s a sort of Dick Dastardly Muslim doing most of the plotting, and a slightly detached sidekick Muslim always ready to snigger when the Dick Dastardly Muslim’s home-made bombs blow up in his face.

At any rate, the Muslims hate our western pattiserie. This must have started out as jealousy. The Qu’ran having banned all sweet baked goods, the Muslims envy our croissants, stare green-eyed at our macaroons, and this has led to their developing a terrible, black hate for every pastry, every cupcake, every turnover, every pie they see. They want to snatch them from our open, honest western mouths while they’re still fresh out of the oven, throw them to the ground, and see them turned to crumbs beneath their feet!

Thus, the plot: the Muslims are working to take over our baking institutions, which they will do in two distinct stages. First, Charlie Hebdo claims, the Muslims will take over our baking at an elite level, in the context of the university. The magazine points to the example of Tariq Ramadan, who they describe as a “professor of pies who is also a pie-maker”, currently a guest lecturer at Sciences-Po. In his work Ramadan, a Muslim, addresses the issue of pastry in secular western democracies, given its particular religious connotations; he thinks that European public discourse needs to do more to promote savoury pies in order to help a growing Muslim population assimilate. On paper there is nothing, Charlie Hebdo admits, ‘wrong with this’. Ramadan has a particular view informed by his religious convictions, and he is working, quite peacefully to promote it. What Charlie Hebdo is more concerned about is what they perceive as the knock-on effect of Ramadan’s being given a public platform. Over time, Muslim pie-scholars like Ramadan will create an intellectual space in which it becomes impossible to speak up for sweet pastry over the savoury, lest one be seen as ‘Islamophobic’. Croissants, brioche will become un-PC, and all we will be left with is meat pies and brown bread.

Having thus taken control of our discourse around baking, the Muslims will then descend upon our bakeries themselves. As old white bakers die or retire (possibly in mysterious, unsolved circumstances), Muslim bakers will emerge to replace them. Suspiciously pious, these bakers will refuse to bake anything un-Islamic. Suddenly, all sweet patisserie will be unavailable. And not just that, either: you won’t even be able to get the savoury pastries which contain ingredients prohibited in Islam either! No more bacon sandwiches for you, no more pork pies. But of course, Charlie Hebdo says, the PC left won’t mind, because there are still plenty of options available: you can still have beef in your pie, you can still have chicken, you can still have fish.

Which brings us on to the other participant in this conspiracy. Because aside from the Muslims, the other key perpetrator here is of course you. All of you, hapless, PC white secular folk, who refuse to speak out for your culture against the Islamic peril! Who are playing right into their hands! Charlie Hebdo wants to wake you to race-consciousness. Stop being so afraid of being labelled a racist, just because you want a croissant, or a bacon bun! Stop being so afraid of being labeled Islamophobic, just because you tear Muslim womens’ veils off their faces while they are out with their children! Stop letting your white guilt prevent you from refusing to give that swarthy-looking fellow with the bomb belt directions to the bus station!

The consequences, if we don’t all start acting like swaggering Rod Liddle arseholes, will be dire. Having assumed control of our bakeries and baked goods, the Muslims will be able to launch the most terrible terrorist attack in the history of the world. On a certain day, giant birthday cakes will be delivered to every major transport hub in western Europe: every airport, every railway terminal, every busy metro stop. Unable to resist the lure of the beautifully-decorated cake, oozing with sugar and cream, whoever is in charge that day will place the cake in whatever the busiest, most central, most prominent area of their station happens to be. And then, just as everyone is gathered round singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to no-one in particular (I don’t know, maybe the person in charge will lie and say it is their birthday, so enamored are they by the cake), all the terrorists will burst out of the cakes and mow everyone down with AK-47s, before detonating their suicide bombs.

Admittedly, I’ve somewhat exaggerated the emphasis that Charlie Hebdo places on baking in relation to the Islamic terror threat. But baking and baked goods continually recur in that editorial as an image, and I think this is illuminating.

The causes of the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris are of course terrifyingly complex – and any possible solution that might be worked out, still more so. In order to find one, we’re going to need to ask some deep existential questions about who we are as a society, and almost certainly we’re going to have to do some things that we don’t like. In short: we might have to stop eating the sweet thing. If we keep on doing so, it’s going to make us throw up. I’m sorry but mummy knows that’s what’s going to happen darling.

The liberal right, exemplified by Charlie Hebdo, can’t countenance this. They want to keep on eating the sweet pastry. Of course, Charlie Hebdo have been victims themselves, so perhaps in their case this mentality is understandable – although that doesn’t make their cartoons any less racist, or their editorial line any less dangerous. It can’t possibly, the line of argument they pursue goes, be our fault. Western, liberal, secular society – despite what those PC academics say, it’s the best in the world. No: it’s clear, that for the liberal right, what’s happening here is that Islam, as a religion, is evil; and so anyone who subscribes to its tenets must be evil too. Thus, Islam has no place in western society. It’s not the sweet thing. Actually the problem is them plotting to take the sweet thing away from us. They’re threatening our way of life! Don’t give in! Start a war, get police to arrest small children at their schools, throw bacon at your local mosque…

Charlie Hebdo’s response to the Brussels attack isn’t just fascist, it’s also incredibly infantile. Although maybe those are just two sides of the same coin.

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President Lisa


One day – this much we know – Lisa Simpson will be president. Of course, it is Simpsons canon that her reign comes right after Trump’s, so maybe this moment will be eight years from now. But on the other hand, who even knows how long Donald Trump will hang on for? When Trump becomes president, will he scrap term limits? After he builds that wall, will he, like that other great wall-builder the First Emperor Qin, spend all of his time consumed in his quest for the secret to eternal life? And with modern science, who knows how successful he will be?

One thing, I think, is clear: whenever Lisa Simpson becomes president, it will be too late. Lisa Simpson started out as a bright, sensitive little girl but as The Simpsons has dragged on and on she has become something other than that: Lisa Simpson has become something rather closer to God. There is no topic under the sun, no political or religious controversy or anything like that, to which Lisa Simpson does not have all the answers. Though born of the rank, giddy idiocy of her father, Lisa is the pure light of reason – the Donny Do, to Homer’s Donny Don’t. The hope of President Lisa is therefore a Messianic hope: the hope that reason itself will one day sweep down from heaven and illuminate the Dionysian irrationalism of American public discourse, kill all the monsters and win over all the swing voters. The hope that we would finally have a president who would do what we already know is right for everyone, who would sort out the schools, and reform the healthcare system properly, close Guantanamo, and stop all the drone strikes, and pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices, and everyone will thank her for it, and Fox News will close and we will never have a bad president again.

But the Messiah always comes too late. In truth Lisa Simpson does not have all the answers – she only seems like she does, because she’s the mouthpiece for the views of her creators. The real life Lisa Simpson would be like that little girl who appeared on Andrew Neill recently, telling him that since he doesn’t support the sugar tax, maybe he wasn’t educated properly enough in health and well-being. She’s exactly right, she’s completely internalised all the values she’s ever been lectured on, and she’s got all the relevant stats about seat-belts in front of her. But she’s also horribly, deeply wrong. She’s got all the rules, but none of the understanding. She can’t think critically about how they might ever be applied in real life – because she’s eight, of course she can’t do this, she’ll have to have lived in the world for a bit longer first.

President Lisa, of course, will not be eight; she will be thirty-eight (this is what we’re told in the show). Perhaps, we can imagine, by the time little Lisa Simpson has progressed from the second grade, to Harvard, to whatever position she is supposed to have held prior to becoming president, she will have gained a depth of wisdom to supplement her know-it-allness. But still her presidency will come too late. She’ll have all the answers… but what are answers? Responses to questions which have been ossified as facts: responses to questions which someone asked a long time ago, which hang around as ‘knowledge’. And that’s the crucial problem, really. Leadership isn’t about possessing all the answers and acting on them accordingly, it isn’t about making reality conform to some schema you’ve drawn up in advance. It’s about thinking on and through uncertainty.

This is why the Messiah always comes too late: the Messiah brings with them the divine law of God, the absolute and final canon of correct ideas. But where was this canon when we were struggling, suffering, living? And besides which, now you’ve got here, everything has changed: this law doesn’t apply anymore, this one is something no one has thought acceptable for decades. The Messiah can get lost! In truth human thought does not need a canon of absolute, unchanging correctness: indeed we probably don’t need to know anything at all, or at least not in the overdemanding, philosophical sense of ‘knowledge’. Rather, all we need is to be able to reflect on the things we don’t know (or that we believe we don’t know, that we are unsure about). This is what human problem-solving capacities are all about.

So what’s the lesson? President Lisa is a mirage. The best president won’t be the Simpsons character who knows everything; it will be the Simpsons character who knows nothing, but is nevertheless capable of recognising their idiocy and reflecting on it. I’m ready for Donny Don’t in 2016.

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Adorno’s Lesson


“… if you were to press me to follow the example of the Ancients and make a list of the cardinal virtues, I would probably respond cryptically by saying that I could think of nothing except for modesty. Or to put it another way, we must have a conscience, but may not insist on our own conscience.” – Theodor Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy lecture 17 (Adorno 2001, p. 170).

The quote given above is I think the key take-home point that Adorno wants to establish in his 1963 lectures on moral philosophy: he spends these lectures engaged in the ruthless critique of moral philosophy (especially Kantian moral philosophy) in order to tell us, in the final lecture, that we are not really, under presently-existing conditions, formed in such a way that we can, in truth, tell the difference between right and wrong.

This is a lesson that, I think, would be borne out from the ethical experience of most intelligent, reflective individuals. We are constantly, the vast majority of us, attempting to act in such a way as to make the world a better place. But for all our good intentions, we frequently end up, inadvertently, making it worse. This is a problem that seemingly infects all of our action, both individual and collective. Even the most mundane consumer decision – one’s choice of coffee, for example, or the server hosting your blog – might end up making one complicit in corporate greed, oppressive labour practices, and environmental devastation.

Regardless of how much everyone would like everything to turn out for the better, things just seem to get worse and worse; we are the powerless pawns of history, our actions controlled according to the laws of a game the point of which is utterly beyond us, the rules of which we can never hope to understand. Yesterday’s attacks in Paris are the sort of event that really brought this sort of feeling home. Just in that word, ‘Paris’, you must know the sort of horror I am talking about here.

Under such conditions, the temptation can be to assert one’s old certainties over the dangerously new, uncertain scenario that one is faced with. And this is a temptation that, it seems, in the wake of the attacks, social media immediately succumbed to. For atheists, this was an attack that showed how dangerous religion was; for racists, this was an attack which showed how dangerous refugees are; for sarcastic left-twitter Brits, this was an attack the response to which showed how fucking stupid British journalists are (and so on and so forth).

The thing is, I can understand this response. I can even sort-of understand the response of our governments, who have responded (and will continue to respond) by ramping up ‘security measures’, designed to contain the terrorist threat. The events in Paris are fucking terrifying, and part of their horror, at least for western people, is precisely that they are so close to home: I’m sure I’m not the only person who would rather avoid major population centres for the near future. This might have been London which got attacked, it might have been Berlin. When we’re terrified, we want something secure, and safe, that we can hold on to: we want the rock that will keep the tigers away; we want to already have, within our grasp, the knowledge that can look the threat in the eye and show everyone the way, finally, of alleviating it. Ban religion! Ban immigrants! The bad men will go away.

But at least part of Adorno’s lesson – and I would not say I fully understand his moral philosophy, I’m not sure anyone does – but at least part of the lesson is, I think, that can’t really have this sort of knowledge; at the very least we can’t already have the knowledge of what is causing the bad thing to happen and who is, ultimately, responsible. An event like Paris is troubling and new – and in its troubling newness, it distorts our old certainties: it throws them into flux. If we do not recognise this fact, and just stick with some now (thanks to the event!) outmoded explanation for it, we will precisely fail to understand the threat, and our actions will only serve to perpetuate the conditions within which it emerged.

This is, I think, where modesty – as an intellectual virtue – can come into play: the ‘modest’ observer of historical events will be able to be receptive to them in their historical specificity; they will not cling fast to old certainties but will be able to discard them when necessary. In short, the modest observer is perhaps someone who is able to form a hot take on the events, but they will not insist on their hot take. If their take does not match up to the facts, they will abandon it. In putting forward their perspective in a modest and open way, the modest observer will afford us new avenues of understanding: ones which will help us to respond, in solemnity and compassion, to the horror that we are exposed to. If we are successful in doing this – although of course it is a horribly difficult tightrope-trick to manage (and just look at how often Adorno, who is incredibly self-assured as a writer, fails in doing this) – perhaps there really does lie the hope of our building a better world, together.

Or perhaps I’m just as awful as everyone else too, because I’m trying to articulate a perspective on these events through someone I’ve just done a PhD on, so obviously this is just some old certainty that I’m clinging to in order to compensate for the fact that I know nothing about anything at all.

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