A life enough in itself: the revenge of the ‘values of the south’

Pier Paolo Pasolini

Translation of an essay by Amador Fernández-Savater, originally published on the Interferencias blog on 30th June 2017.


A life enough in itself: the revenge of the ‘values of the south’

In the 1970s, the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini proposed thinking about political conflict as a contest that was fundamentally anthropological: between different ways of being, sensibilities, ideas about happiness. A political force is nothing (it has no force) if it is not rooted in a world that rivals the dominant one in terms of desirable forms of life.

Whereas the homini politici of his day (party leaders, vanguard militants, critical theorists) looked toward state power as the privileged site for social transformation (one takes power and changes society from above) Pasolini warned -with poetic, seismological sensitivity – that capitalism was advancing through a process of cultural homologation that laid waste to those other worlds (peasant, proletarian, subproletarian) by infecting them with consumerist values and models ‘horizontally’: through fashion, advertising, news, mass culture, etc. This new power does not emanate, irradiate or descend from a central location, but rather spreads ‘indirectly, in the lived, the existential, the concrete’, said Pasolini.

In dress and in walking, in seriousness and in smiles, in gesticulation and behaviours, the poet decoded the signs of an ‘anthropological mutation’ underway: the consumerist revolution. Trying to halt it from political power would be like trying to hold back a flood with a firehose. It is not possible to impose other contents or other outcomes within the same framework of accumulation and growth. Rather it is the reverse: it is the mode of production-consumption that will set the boundaries of political power. One civilisation can only be stopped with another. Other ways of dressing and walking will be needed, another seriousness and other smiles, another gesticulation and other behaviours.

The political contest (the one that is not a mere game of thrones) expresses an ‘ethical clash’ between different ideas about life, or even better, about the good life. Not ideas that float around and are declared rhetorically, but rather practical ideas: made flesh, materialised, inscribed in the most everyday acts and appliances (Facebook, Uber and Airbnb are figures of desire, hence their strength). What might an anthropological view tell us about politics? What worlds are colliding today? In what ethical clashes over the good life might transformative political actions come to the surface?

The old spirit of capitalism

Let’s take a step back. Where did the idea of organising the whole of life around work, efficiency and productivity come from? According to Max Weber, bourgeois culture found its origin, its engine and fuel in the Protestant ethic (especially that of ascetic Protestantism). Through the re-conception of work as “profession” and through the theory of predestination (only in earthly success can we find signs of our salvation), a subjectivity is generated that puts money and enrichment at the centre of life, that aspires to the ‘rationalisation’ of our entire existence (the relation with time, the body, honour, the education of children), that condemns poverty as the worst of evils (‘choosing poverty is like choosing illness’), etc.

This subjectivity is not an ‘automatic reflex’ of economic objectivity, but a decisive element of ‘capitalist culture’ without which there is simply no capitalism. Only a new kind of imaginary and subjectivity (a new organisation of desire) could have sufficient force so as to break the ‘traditionalist mentality’ (which then reigned) according to which one does not live to work (this would be absurd), but rather one works to live, and if one has access to wealth (through one’s own work, or another’s, or good luck), one takes up contemplation or war, play or hunting, sleeping soundly or the sensual enjoyment of life, but it does not come into one’s head to reinvest this wealth so as to go on accumulating.

Bourgeois culture is thus born as much through the potency of a religious imaginary that it then abandons, secularising its values: the sense of individual responsibility, the self-made man, meritocracy, credit, progress, the puritanical and severe sensibility, etc. Modernity has been predominantly a ‘culture of the North’: anglosaxon, masculine, white and Protestant. But the dominion of this imaginary (live to work, invest profits to make more profits, submit all aspects of life to a regimented and systematic control, etc.) has never been completed.

The sociability of the south

According to the sociologist (of everyday life) Michel Maffesoli there has always existed, insisting and resisting, a ‘sociability of the south’. A sociability that is diffuse, submerged and hidden, hard to see but present, capable of rebelling and becoming active should it be threatened. An informal dynamic (forms of bond, of subjective belonging, of making practical) decisive in everyday life, as a substrate or a ‘phreatic surface’ of collective existence.

What does this sociability of the south consist of? First, it is a vital, a-rational, impulse. A will to live, a wish to live. But not to live in any way, but by affirming a kind of bond, a kind of existence, a certain idea of happiness: an anthropological being-together. It is also a set of wisdoms and strategies for reproducing these bonds, these forms of life.

This ‘south’ originally and historically refers to Mediterranean and Latin American countries, but in the work of the author soon becomes a more movable notion regarding ‘values’ and ‘affective climates’ rather than a geographic location. In this sense, there is a ‘south in the north’, as there is also a ‘north in the south’). Cologne (lively, joyful, chatty, proletarian) would be the ‘south’ in Germany and financial Frankfurt, the ‘North’.

We can now pick out five ‘values’ (things that count) for this sociability of the south.

-first, the present: life does not stretch out ‘forwards’ (a future of salvation, or perfection) but is rather affirmed ‘now’. This certain lack of concern for tomorrow does not exclude (paradoxically) a stubbornness to reproduce and to last. The temporality of the sociability of the south is intense, not extended [extensa]: it focuses on ‘perservering in its being’.

-second, the bond: life happens in continuity with others, bound up with others, intertwined with others. Not only out of necessity, but also out of the pleasure of sharing. The most precious bond is the close one, nearby, within the reach of one’s hand (the tactile as a value). This ‘here’ does not separate us from what is ‘there’ (in the distance), but the reverse: it is through what we live ‘here’ that something from ‘there’ might resonate with us.

-third, the tragic: the assumption of the anarchy of what there is for what it is. It is not a matter of ‘solving’ or ‘overcoming’ what is given (uncertain, dark, manifold) but rather of knowing how to ‘hold it together’. A different relation then, with evil, with risk or death, which are not things to be eradicated (according to the reigning logics of control, securitization and total predictibility), but rather one flank of life (which can also be a force, a lever, if we know how to hold it together.

-fourth, the dionysian: not a life enclosed upon oneself (work, success, progress), but rather the ‘extatic’ life that seeks to go beyond itself through the enjoyment of the body, the love of the mask and disguise (appearances), fusion with the other in collective celebrations (musical, sporting, religous), etc. Excess, extravagance, dizziness, surrender, destruction: the ‘dionysian’ is the trying out of otherness.

-finally, the double-dealing: not the passion for the upright, the straightforward and the explicit, but rather for deviation, slyness, improvisation, nixers, cheek, duplicity, trickery, toying with the law and norms, informal strategies of conservation and survival (for me and mine). Not the passion for correcting and putting things right, but rather for trying one’s luck, dummying, dribbling, and outwitting.


The crisis as opportunity

Neoliberal economists make their own ‘anthropological’ reading of the world and conclude that the economic crisis of 2008 has to do with ‘insufficient geographical mobility’, ‘limited entrepreneurial spirit’, the ‘family safety net’, ‘informal work’, or ‘indifference (or even repugnance) towards wealth creation’ that are still too present in the countries of the south (the so-called PIGS: Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, none of them Protestant countries, by the way). In the reflected light of such analyses, we see the sociability of the south in action.

Might we read the neoliberal oversight of the crisis as an attempt to wipe out once and for all all these ‘cultural shortcomings’ and thereby accelerate the ‘world to come of capital’ (Laval and Dardot)? The debt crisis would in this way be the perfect opportunity to unleash the ‘creative destruction’ of all that which, inside and outside ourselves, prevents us from thinking about ourselves and acting like simple social atoms, boundless egocentric particles, machines for egoistic calculation. Customs and bonds, attachments and solidarities.

By eliminating social protections, by weakening labour rights, by promoting widespread indebtedness of students and families, by rendering people precarious, reducing wages and social spending, the goal is to promote a ‘paddle your own canoe’ and destroy everything that allows people any measure of freedom with regard to the market. All that there is between beings and makes them something more than ‘elementary particles’ in competition: links of a thousand kinds, rights won, places of life, public and common resources, networks of solidarity and support, non-market circuits of goods and services etc. The material basis of any kind of autonomy. To govern today consists of eroding that between, that dense knot of bonds, affects, mutual support.

But just when this was to be ‘extirpated’, the sociability of the south flexed and activated. In Spain of the crisis there has been a proliferation, for example, of informal micro-groups of solidarity and mutual support (family, neighbourhood, friendships) that have tempered the devastating effects of the neoliberal management of the crisis: fear, solitude and despair. A proliferation that is itself a challenge to the liberal-individualist paradigm: “each to his own”.

Just when we were told that we ‘had lived beyond our means’ and it was now time to repent and pay, the values of the south take their revenge, affirming and spreading other ideas about wealth and happiness: based more in the present than in the future, in bonds rather than in solitude, in the time available and not in life for work, in empathy and not in competition, in the enjoyment of humour rather than in guilt for debt.


The new spirit of capitalism

Even more difficult. According to certain authors, we might be making the passage today towards the overcoming (intensification, radicalisation?) of the old ‘spirit’ of capitalism whose origins were studied by Weber.

For example, according to Franco Berardi (Bifo), the bourgeoisie still “lived in bonds” (with a community, places, physical goods, a working class it could not get rid of, the relation between value and labour time). However, financial capitalism is much more abstract: it does not identify with any place, with any population in particular, with any kind of labour, with any rule, even if its decisions have (devastating) consequences on places, populations, workers, etc.

Elsewhere, according to Christian Laval and Pierre Dardot, this logic of infinite accumulation of capital has today become a ‘subjective modality’. What does this mean? Well, the ‘homo economicus’ (defined by prudence, steadiness, equilibrium in exchanges, happiness without excesses, balance in strivings and pleasures) has been replaced by the ‘entrepreneur of oneself’ (defined by competition and constant self-transcendence living in risk, going beyond oneself, assuming a permanent disequilibrium, never resting or stopping, putting all one’s enjoyment into self-transcendence). One expression summarises, according to the French authors, the subjective type of today’s capitalism: “more, always”. The enjoyment of limitlessness.

In this transformation we will surely have to re-evaluate the resistance presented by the ‘sociability of the south’, when for example capitalist culture no longer demands the repression of the affective/passionate, but rather its complete instrumentalisation in the service of the logic of profit: the instrumentalisation of the intimate. But without doubt the affirmation of a ‘life that is enough in itself’ remains absolutely subversive (more than ever?). A life that does not seek to extract and accumulate “more, always”, but that is lived in the enjoyment of caring and sharing, as closely as possible, all that has been given to us, here and now.

The insurrection of the sociability of the south would consist in affirming politically this other idea of happiness, this subterranean potency, this sea swelling beneath.


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Suits You, Sir?

Image result for el roto traje

By Estelle Birdy

Many years ago, in the dark distant past, I worked for an organisation. The organisation (a business organisation, rather than a shadowy spy organisation) shall remain nameless. However, it was the type of organisation that might have been more than a little involved in economic and political ‘shock therapy’ in South America. Of course, I didn’t know this until much, much later but I hated this organisation and its management style, so maybe the Universe was telling me something all along.

Anyway, all of that is by-the-by. All of us, the founding team of this organisation in Ireland, were young (ish), no more than mid- twenties. We were mostly graduates with some work experience behind us. There were some really great people working there. One day, we were all having a chat, on a break, when someone said something like, “I would never dream of leaving work on time”. I thought this must be a joke, naturally enough. But no! The initial statement was followed by a raft of statements from others like “Oh no! I would never either! That would be awful! I have never in my life left work on time” As no one had actually had a very long life at this stage, it probably wasn’t that big a statement. Nevertheless, I thought I’d been dropped into a parallel universe, where people thought handing over your labour for free was the done thing.

So across-the-board was this declaration of intent, that I didn’t feel in a position to disagree with and say something like, “What in the name of God are you all talking about? Are you all taking hard drugs?”. So, I just stayed silent. In fairness to this particular organisation, during the start- up phase, there was a lot of extra time required and they paid proper overtime rates. If they hadn’t been paying, I wouldn’t have been working.  It seemed, however, according to what they were saying, that most of my colleagues would have done, and would have been only delighted to do so.

In the intervening years, I worked in several areas (flexible and resilient see?) most notably in recruitment. I had a lot of success in recruitment, which I attribute to liking and getting to know people pretty well. When I was in recruitment, the first time around, I made my way into fairly senior roles. So a lot of the time, I would have been meeting with senior management type people. When I was interviewing these kinds of people, ostensibly highly successful career people (if measured by the standards of patriarchal capitalism), they would fall over themselves to tell me how they wouldn’t think twice about working through the night, working seven days a week, never taking a lunch break, whatever it took, “to get the job done”. Now, if we were talking about Firefighters or Cardiac Surgeons, working in occasional life-or-death emergency situations, I’d have said “Fair play, well done lads”.  Sadly though, we aren’t talking about those kinds of workers.  We’re talking about, Accountants and mostly, although not exclusively, men.  Correct me if I’m wrong here, but no one has actually ever died for want of a Balance Sheet? Much as I admire the work accounts people do, because I can’t do it at all myself, I don’t think any of us genuinely think that a spreadsheet should ever keep you up all night, right?  In the case of these be-suited maniacs, with titles like Manager and Director, they wouldn’t even be getting paid for any of these extra hours. They had been led to believe, by some unknown entity, that offering their labour was not the same as someone offering their labour, on a building site, or in a restaurant, not dressed in a suit. Not alone that, they felt it would be shameful to even utter the words that they wanted to be paid for any and all work that they did. There’s a reason some workers always want to know what the hourly rate of pay is. That reason is, that that is the intelligent way to look at things!

Of course, times change and I left recruitment the first time, in 2006. When I returned, I found that there was a new phenomenon; these same types of ‘successful’ men were now often saying to me that they wanted jobs where they did not have to work all hours that the universe sends; where they could have a family-life, maybe work from home, part-time, play sports, see their friends.  Some of them, had already left their jobs and taken time out. The very fact that these people exist, I’ve met them, is heartening but also a tragic indictment of the system that we are all forced to endure. People are, quite literally, breaking down. They are being broken by the system. If I posted an ad for a Part-Time job of any kind, I would immediately be inundated with hundreds of applications. People desperate to get a break from the pressure. With no scientific backup whatsoever for this claim, I put this phenomenon of people wanting, en masse, to turn their backs on this inhumane system, down to 3 things; women kicking down doors for the rest of us, Millenials not giving a fiddler’s fart for employers wishing to strap them to their desks, and IT people knowing stuff the rest of us don’t and consequently, getting to do whatever the feck they like.

Back in the day, I’d meet women who had, quite literally, clawed their way to some semblance of seniority in organisations, by playing the patriarchal game. They too said things like, “I’ll work all hours” because they had to say these things, to get recognised for their work at all. Once they got to the top though, some of them realised that they’d been cheated by the system. An appalling vista now lay before them. However, through their sheer visibility, they made it possible for many other women to enter the work force and we are now, making a difference. You know all that lip-service that the Men- in- Suits pay to the importance of Emotional Intelligence? We women are just doing that on the daily lads. It’s called having some cop-on and actually caring about people and the world. Millennials, they’re another group the Men-in-Suits pay lip service to. They’re awfully important you know? They need autonomy. So, the Men-in-Suits offer them slides at work, a beer fridge and round the clock Quinoa-based meals. Meanwhile, Millennials are changing the face of work and they’ll only buy your bullshit for a short while, before they set up on their own in bean-bag filled, shared work space. IT people, I don’t know what it is you are actually doing; numbers and stuff? Just keep on doing it, in your combat shorts and flip flops, from your bed… whatever. Thanks to these 3 groups, in my opinion, I now had men coming to me saying they wanted out of their jobs where they had to work round the clock. They had seen that there was another way, and they wanted a piece of the action. Feminism and having some cop on, raises all boats equally, I find.

Having said all that, the old ideas about work have not gone away. For every one organisation with some interest in us all living in a functioning society of care, there are twenty that still seem to think that it’s a badge of honour for an employee to work 60 hours a week, for no extra pay. For every person who tells me they want to work for a smaller portion of their waking hours in order to have a fulfilling life, there are many others who tell me “I’m a Manager so, of course I don’t get paid for working those hours! I’m on a Management Salary!” Really? You’re on a Management salary, are you? Does that make you no longer a worker? Are you telling me, my friend, that you would be away from your family and/or friends and your house, with the mortgage that’s breaking your back, even if you weren’t getting paid at all? Or are you a worker, just like any other worker and if so, why are you allowing yourself to go along with this abuse of yourself? This wage theft? It’s as if these people have been programmed to think that it is somehow shameful to expect to work and get paid for it.

And listen up women, Millenials and IT workers! Freezing your eggs so you can have someone painfully re-insert them into your hormone destroyed body, once you’ve worked until you’re dead inside, is not a ‘Company Benefit’! Getting all of your meals at work, doing your yoga classes at work and being given a slide and a giant ball to sit on, while wearing a kaftan, doesn’t change the fact that you spend nearly all your waking hours at work!

It seems that there is an idea abroad that if you wear a suit or something similar and are perhaps desk based, that you should no longer think of yourself as a worker. Certainly, if your employer gives you a title like Manager or Director, you must cease, immediately, thinking of yourself as a worker. In this way, you can be divided from all others who are workers. People like bus drivers, retail workers or nurses. You don’t need a union, because you aren’t a worker. Never mind that you get up at the crack of dawn and leave your home and family, perhaps to do something you love, perhaps to do something you don’t care about. Either way, you’re different. You may very well be earning considerably more than a bus driver (or you may not) but I think you should think carefully about what your role is. We can assume that you are, like most of us, a fair- minded person who expects to work for the money given by the employer.  Your labour is, after all, all that you have to give. You exchange your labour, whether you get a great buzz out of that labour or not, for something. Money, usually. For every hour you work, you are exchanging your labour for some kind of monetary compensation, or at least you should be.  If you’re earning €80K per annum, no one’s going to argue that that isn’t good money. If you work a 40 hour week, you’re earning €38 Gross per hour of your labour. That goes down to €25 Gross per hour if you’re doing that 60 hour week you’re so proud of. Still nice money but not that nice anymore, is it?

Every time you don’t take your lunch break and stay at your desk, your wages are being stolen from you, whether if you are working in a suit, a cool T-shirt or a boiler suit.  Every time you cross a workers’ picket line, you weaken your own position as worker, even if you’re wearing a suit. Every time you start work early and stay late, you’re handing your labour over for free and getting abused, just like any other worker, even though you’re in suit. If you’re so generous with your labour and happy to give it away for free, why not next time, give your three hours per day for free to the fella setting up his tent along the canal? Or the Women’s Aid Shelter? Voluntary work is voluntary work; your big multinational employer does not need or deserve your free labour.

The upshot is, if you work for money, you are a worker. Whether your work involves you wearing a suit, smart casual (which apparently means Chinos, i.e. worse than a suit) a swimsuit, or not a damn thing. Don’t work for free, don’t separate yourself from other workers and don’t fool yourself that you’ll get that you’re being ‘looked after’ by your employer when they freeze your eggs for you or get you that ball pit to play in. Work should always be a fair exchange and no work should ever keep you away from the people you love and care about without proper compensation.  Stop acting the goat.


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Our ‘Friends’ In The North

DUP MP William McCrea (right), sharing a stage with notorious loyalist murderer Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright in 1996, in a public show of support for Wright, on the grounds of ‘free speech’.


Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, today.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Good Friday Agreement, one of the main reasons Labour under Blair was able to secure that agreement was because it was not, unlike the Major government that preceded it, beholden to unionist MPs for support.

May’s deal with the DUP effectively steamrollers that whole edifice: the British government can no longer adopt a convincing pretence of impartiality, let alone act impartially (there is no such thing) with regard to politics in Northern Ireland.

This deal -whether the DUP forms part of the government or not- has taken place months after assembly elections in which unionist parties, for the first time, failed to secure a majority of seats. What’s more, a majority of people in Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit last year, whereas the DUP did support it, with the lure of Saudi money.

The wholesale contempt for the North was crystal-clear in an election campaign in which Jeremy Corbyn was pursued relentlessly for his supposed IRA links, and for being supposedly equivocal in condemning ‘all’ bombings.

In all this, the entire history of British state support for loyalist paramilitary violence and murder was almost completely ignored; implicitly, Britain gets to kill whomever it wants. Explicitly, Theresa May declares she wants to get rid of human rights legislation that ties this Britain’s hands.

People in Britain, educating themselves on who the DUP are now that they have come into national view, are right to point out the history of DUP associations with loyalist paramilitaries. They are right to point to the endorsement the party received from the combined loyalist groupings in advance of the elections just past.

But they should also be wise to the effects that May elevating the DUP will have on loyalism. Loyalist paramilitaries will take all this as a sign that they were right all along: that their campaigns of terror -including the murder of 836 civilians from 1969 to 1994- were fighting the good fight, in defence of the same Britain that Theresa May claims to defend.

It is to this Britain -militarist, jingoist, anti-democratic, vindictive- that May -or whoever succeeds her-, that the Tories and the DUP will appeal in the months ahead (as well as homophobic, creationist and thoroughly corrupt, the DUP are also deeply Islamophobic).  They have nowhere else to go, and their appeal ought to be viewed as their conscious and considered response to the democratic revival that Labour’s surge represents.

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On Democracy in Britain

I hope very much that Corbyn’s Labour Party wins. Observed from afar, the campaign feels like a decent country of tens of millions, forever submerged, contending with a death grip of greed and military jingoism.

Friday night’s spectacle, on Question Time, of belligerent and pompous middle-aged men demanding Britain remain willing to incinerate millions ought to be seen as an excellent argument for getting rid of nuclear weapons. They bring forth genocidal urges in the population of the state that maintains them. They promote haughty indifference to the needs of other human beings, whether at home or abroad. Even though its manifesto proposes to maintain nuclear weapons, a Labour victory would provide some relief from this.

The mudslinging aimed at Corbyn with regard to the IRA is intended to stem any potential flow of older voters from Tory to Labour. Most younger voters in Britain, in the words of that lad’s mother, ‘don’t give a shit about the IRA’. Perhaps it is also supposed to sway men with memories -distant and not-so-distant- of singing ‘No surrender to the IRA’ in the pub after a football match.

It is also a means of shifting the focus away from discussion of actual policies, and from the possibility that matters such as funding and priorities for health and education ought to be decided democratically. This is clear from the response of Conservative politicians to the murderous atrocities in London last night. By seeking to make ‘security’ and ‘extremism’ the over-riding concern, the intention is to dampen deliberation and dissent with regard to vital matters in which the Tories and their backers currently hold the upper hand.

The use of the spectre of terrorist violence is not peculiar to Britain. But it is something common in other countries too. The ETA bogeyman was frequently raised in connection with Podemos in Spain, based on an even more tenuous connection than that of Jeremy Corbyn meeting Gerry Adams. People in the Republic of Ireland, too, are well accustomed to the IRA being brought up with dreary regularity any time the government of the day finds itself backed into a corner on any matter that might cause political embarrassment.

It is a way of browbeating people into not thinking about or discussing politics. “It’s all very well for you to want to safeguard the NHS, but hand it over to someone who has consorted with murderers? Really?” And, in the wake of an atrocity such as the one in London last night, this urge tends towards suspending politics -democratic politics- altogether. Talking about how the NHS is being destroyed is transmuted into an act of being in league with terrorists.

The influence of the military is palpable. Let’s recall how Army chiefs made their presence felt when Corbyn was elected Labour leader, muttering darkly about the possibility of taking action to rectify things if he ever got into power. If, as is often claimed, there is some British tradition of ‘fair play’ -though I have not seen anything there that I haven’t seen in other countries- it isn’t a tradition observed by the British establishment, which has no qualms resorting to any means, including murder, as we have seen in Northern Ireland, to achieve its ends. Unsurprisingly for those of us who have witnessed the effects of loyalist paramiltary violence, which killed 836 civilianscivilians, not members of the IRA or any other organisation- in the 25 years from 1969 to 1994, the entire controversy over Corbyn and his supposed links to the IRA in recent days has included little or no consideration of how the British State colluded with loyalist paramilitaries.

Most people do not want to be associated with terrorist violence, and may feel uncomfortable getting into an argument over it. How does one even process a claim such as that of Theresa May this morning, that there is ‘too much tolerance of extremism’ in Britain? There is nothing to debate here. It defies rational consideration. Willing the incineration of millions of people in other countries, or murdering hundreds of people out of loyalty to the Crown is not entertained as ‘extremism’, of course, even though it is certainly tolerated, when not encouraged. These facts have no part in any debate, because the whole point is not to have any debate. The overall intent is to suggest that those who ‘tolerate extremism’ are her opponents -and opponents of Britain- in the upcoming elections.

Democracy, if it means anything, entails facing down authoritarian threats from any quarters. The actions of the ruling Partido Popular, following the Atocha bombings in Madrid, led to its ousting days later in the elections as it became clear that the party had sought to manipulate public responses to the atrocity for its own electoral ends. The Tories deserves to be exposed in this light for what they are doing right now, and kicked out come Thursday.

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A note on the ‘classist’ Leo Varadkar

‘There are no longer social classes, only levels of consumption’ – El Roto

A Waterford Whispers article bears the headline ‘Leo Varadkar Becomes Ireland’s First Openly Classist Leader‘.  The joke is that all previous holders of the office of Taoiseach were of the same disposition, but just kept it in the closet.

It’s worth thinking about what ‘classism’ really is. To me at least, it seems to mean prejudice towards members of an identified social class, or towards that class on the whole. No doubt that such attitudes really do exist, with real effects on how people are treated. Certain accents or clothing that reflect class background are felt as synonymous with stupidity or laziness, for example. Other accents may be heard on occasion as bearing hallmarks of privilege and class condescension that have little to do with the speaker.

But it’s possible to have a system of class domination and exploitation without any outward signs of classism. One example is the State.

The liberal State proclaims a society without classes by separating the political realm from the economic realm. Everyone is proclaimed equal before the law, and a relation of explotation and domination -having to produce a profit for someone else in order to live- is made appear a contract freely entered, a matter of choice and an expression of freedom. Thus the ruling ideology across many capitalist societies proposes that we live in a ‘classless society’, or that ‘we are all middle-class now’.

Here lies the danger of considering class as an ‘identity’: a person from a working class background may arrive to a position of power and influence, and still consider themselves proud to be working class, even if they live off the rents that come from being a slum landlord, or from hosting a radio show that defends established power at every turn.

A more typical experience would be for someone from a working class background, who, on reaching a point of material satisfaction and status, disregards the network of social supports that allowed them to reach this point, and considers that they must be in possession of something special that the system has recognised. An example of this would be working class children who are selected at an early age to go to grammar school, and then, upon reaching a middle class profession as adults, look upon the system of selection as something that must be good, since it recognised them as worthy.

When ‘working class’ appears as nothing but an identity proclaimed by an individual and is happily greeted as such, rather than the expression of a class consciousness with the abolition of class society at its heart, we might well be free from ‘classism’, but certainly not from class exploitation and its effects.

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On the ascent of a ‘son of an immigrant’


Though the international press story of  ‘a gay son of an immigrant‘ will be viewed primarily through the lens of LGBT rights, it is important to point out that Leo Varadkar’s election as Fine Gael leader, and his elevation to Taoiseach, does not mark any kind of progress for immigrants to Ireland.

As minister at the Department of Social Protection, Leo Varadkar called for parents working in Ireland whose children are living overseas to be paid less than those whose children are living in Ireland.

He did this to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment. The amount of money ‘saved’ by doing so, even if it were not a violation of any commitment to equality, is trivial. He openly admitted he was doing so in response to public resentment towards ‘Europe’.

The Department of Social Protection is rife with arbitrary bureaucratic measures that target people on the basis of their nationality. For him to do such a thing as minister amounted to a vicious attack on some of the most marginalised people in Irish society. It is worth stressing, however, that in doing so he was continuing along the path set out by his predecessor at the department, the then Labour Party leader Joan Burton. Burton’s former advisor, Ed Brophy, recently wrote in the Sunday Independent that

‘a standing joke among Labour ministers and advisers in the last government was that one of our under-appreciated achievements was to make a social democrat of Leo. While this was facetious, his liberalism is for real’.


Varadkar’s ascent to Taoiseach will bring no small amount of self-congratulation in elite political and media circles in Ireland. They will see it, and present it, as one more chapter in the story of a new, outward-looking and tolerant country with equality of opportunity, and treat it as yet more cause for glorification of a State that, by their lights, cannot be racist.

But this story excludes, for example, the Citizenship Referendum of 2004. Its function was to strip certain people of rights and the formal status of citizen, on the basis of their parents’ nationality. The son or daughter of two immigrants to Ireland, born in Ireland in the present day, has no automatic right to citizenship. Hence they have very poor prospects of ascent to the pinnacle of political life in Ireland, even if luck has it that they or their parents do not get deported.

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The Left and Identity Politics

Adapted from last night’s Twitter.

Eric Hobsbawm

I realised this past few days that I haven’t a notion what people are talking about regarding ‘identity politics’. I mean, I hear all these people talking about it but they never bother to specify what it is.

So I decided to do some reading. OK, it was one article, but it was interesting considering current controversies. It’s Identity Politics and the Left, by Eric Hobsbawm, from New Left Review 217 in 1996. Hobsbawm was (among other things) a historian of nations and nationalism, a communist, and a Jew who was witheringly opposed to Zionism. Those things seem to have some bearing on what he defines as identity politics, but also, on what he defines as the Left.

It’s a 20-year-old article but Hobsbawm is pointing out that identity politics has already been around for 30 or so. He highlights the emergence of three variants of identity politics in the 60s: ethnicity, the (post suffragist) women’s movement and the gay movement, and ponders why these have become central.

One surface reason is to do with elections: ‘constituting oneself into such an identity group may provide concrete political advantages’. But a deeper factor is an ‘extraordinary dissolution of traditional social norms, textures and values’, following a weakening of the nation state, and a weakening of class-based political parties and movements. ‘Men and women’, he says, ‘look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting.’ Citing Orlando Patterson, he states that they ‘choose to belong to an identity group’, predicated on ‘an intensely conceived belief that the individual has absolutely no choice’.

Hobsbawm emphasises a negative, exclusive dimension to identity politics: not them, us. We are Insiders, they are Outsiders. One example he provides is ‘Unionists and Nationalists in Belfast’. There’s something worth reflecting on here, which Hobsbawm doesn’t appear to consider in his example. Irish nationalism normally encompasses Irish republicanism. But republicanism as a political ideology is not exclusive in its claims. In certain expressions, which have had varying levels of prominence over time, it means a republic for people in Ireland, not a republic that is Irish in essence. That is, it draws on universalism, not particularism. More of that later.

(Reading this, I did wonder how much of this is influenced by his holiday home getting burnt down, reputedly, by Welsh nationalists.)

Hobsbawm continues: ‘identity politics assumes that one among the many identities we all have is the one that determines or at least dominates our politics: being a woman, if you are a feminist, being a Protestant if you are an Antrim Unionist’. Whether it is adopted by individuals depends on the context: ‘paid-up, card-carrying members of the gay community in the Oxbridge of the 1920s who, after the slump of 1929 and the rise of Hitler, shifted, as they liked to say, from Homintern to Comintern.’

Hobsbawm contrasts the particularist, exclusivist character of identity politics, as he defines it, with the universalism of the Left. The latter embodied ‘great, universal causes through which each group believed its particular aims could be realized’. But he recognises that identity politics also manifests itself within the Left. For him, the ‘proletarian identity politics’ of ‘Militant ‘economist’ trade unionism’ was a factor in the rise of Thatcher, since it ‘antagonized the people not directly involved in it to such an extent that it gave Thatcherite Toryism its most convincing argument’.

The Left ‘is universalist: it is for all human beings’. ‘It isn’t liberty for shareholders or blacks, but for everybody’. Against this, ‘identity groups are about themselves, for themselves, and nobody else’, since ‘they are not committed to the Left as such, but only to get support for their aims wherever they can’, and since ‘’whatever their rhetoric, the actual movements and organizations of identity politics mobilize only minorities’. Hobsbawm advances these claims as ‘pragmatic reasons to be against identity politics’.

‘The decline of the great universalist slogans of the Enlightenment’ has ‘saddled’ both Left and Right with identity politics. As a remedy, Hobsbawm proposes citizen nationalism, which he calls a ‘comprehensive form of identity politics’, ‘a common identity’. It’s interesting to encounter this post-Podemos, post-France Insoumise, and with Corbyn’s Labour Party in election campaign in flow. These have all sought to mobilise, in different styles, a Left citizen nationalism, seeking to contest the nationalism of the Right.

Some thoughts on all this. First, Hobsbawm’s conception of identity politics relates mainly to representation: the building of parties and the formation of governments through representative elections. Second, he has little to say about how ‘the great universalist slogans of the Enlightenment’ have been used to suppress and exclude. He was no longer with us when the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’, which addressed the murderous racism of the US state repressive apparatus, was countered with the phony universalism of ‘All Lives Matter’. It would be interesting to get his thoughts on this morning’s news, in which the mayor of Paris has called for a black feminist festival to be banned, claiming that it was ‘prohibited to white people’, and the prefect of police promising to protect the ‘rigorous compliance of the laws, values, and principles of the republic’ – the republic being one of the ‘great, universal causes’ (according to Hobsbawm). However, he was around for French colonialism.

Hobsbawm does not have much to say in this article either, on how the Left’s claims to be for everyone in theory often fall a great deal short in practice -and nothing on the initial revolutionary outlook and activity that drove the 60s movements that he focuses on. A ‘Homintern vs. Comintern’, between public and private spheres, did not apply here.

It’s worth pointing out that universalism predates the modern Left. For example: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)’. But you could hardly say the Catholic Church has operated ‘for everyone’, whatever its claims. So, we can’t presume that claiming to embody a given set of ideals means that you act according to them. From this perspective, ‘identity politics’, specifically the post-60s movements cited by Hobsbawm, have narrowed the gap in many cases between image and reality regarding the Left’s claims to universalism. Still, Hobsbawm is against ‘identity politics’.

All this may seem to bear a very dim relation to the criticisms levelled at ‘identity politics’ in contemporary controversies. There are some echoes, though. Consider this Jacobin article, proposing, against ‘liberal identity politics’, ‘a unified “we”’, ‘beyond the regulation of the logic of identity’. The trouble with this, I think, is that the universalist logic of the State -which ends up featuring in ‘citizen nationalism’- also regulates. It produces ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups, with the latter having to fight for recognition and for freedom from oppression, usually under adversity. To allow such struggles to be lumped together as forms of ‘identity politics’ can only reproduce the phony universalism of the State.

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