Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Howard Jacobson is the worst living writer

Linger but a while, dear reader, on these words – and forgive me my presumptive apostrophising, but the fact, crude as it may be, yet remains: you are my sadly anonymous reader, and I am the great and lauded novelist Howard Jacobson, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, once the winner, fêted by the literary establishment for my wry and incisive wit, my charming, bittersweet empathy, my deft dabbings of sentiment, my scarf, my beard, and all my other many enlivening qualities. I’ve read Ulysses. By this point you might already feel an exhaustion, or a poison bulge of resentment suppurating in the back of your throat; you may long for me to get to the point. But I beseech you, put this aside. Learn, as King Solomon is said to have learned, that all things must pass. I’ve also read Middlemarch. The point may never arrive, or it may only come in the final sentence. What a life this might be if we could grow beyond humanity’s unfortunate predilection for the pointed! No more blades to cut and wound, nor razor-wire to keep us apart from one another, only soft, sagging flesh, or the generous shade of trees, which I adore, oaks especially. Did I, perchance, mention that I’ve read Ulysses? It is, in many ways, the point (there it is again) of apotheosis of the grand Victorian humanist novel, and might you discern something of Leopold Bloom in my humble self? Reader, perhaps you may. A learned toleration, a mournful libidinality, a gentleness and goodness that so faintly lingers from a time now past. How I yearn for a world of peace and unity! But, malheureusement, that is not the sphere on which we have sprouted. So in the meantime, please allow me to nurture this seedling of a scintilla in your intracranial folds, let it grow and take root: we must shoot the proles and nuke the Gaza Strip.

There’s something uniquely repulsive about Howard Jacobson’s weekly columns in the independent. His books are bad, but they’re bad in the normal way, the way in which basically all recent capital-L Literary novels are bad. Like Donna Tartt, or Jonathan Franzen, or Haruki Murakami, or Karl Ove Knausgård, or that one that you quite like. The way in which any lingering (post-)modernist concern for the questions of what a text is and what its possibilities might be are shunted aside in favour of minute observations about family life and sexual neuroses occasionally jumbled up with flatulent pronouncements on the Human Condition. It’s a little like a return to the traditions of 19th century realism (an era in which, as now, the only actually worthwhile English novels were shoddily produced, amateurishly written, and shamelessly pulpy), but more than that it’s the dying pant of the novel as a dominant literary form. Howard Jacobson’s particular shtick is that all his novels are a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male; it’s like Philip Roth on benzodiazepines. Shoddy but not unusual. But as a columnist, he’s the absolute worst in Britain, and very possibly the world.

This isn’t something I say lightly. As you’d expect from a class of people who, looking out at a planet full of constant horror, mostly see the chance to have a correct or profitably offensive opinion about it, the professional commentariat is a gallery of monsters and imbeciles. Katie Hopkins, circling the drowning refugees in her speedboat as she cackles through plasticky gums. Jeremy Clarkson’s jeans, which have long sunk into his skin and colonised his organs, so that he’s now just denim all the way through, entertainingly calling for the mass extermination of this week’s despised minority. An army of broadsheet bores, endlessly droning in the imperative mood, telling the public and the government and the opposition what they should and shouldn’t do, as if having a column in a daily newspaper confers some kind of spiritual leadership. Simon Jenkins. Jonathan Jones. Me. But Howard Jacobson isn’t satisfied with the usual conventions of the bad opinion column; he’s a Booker-winning novelist, deigning to bring his subtle art to this most debased of forms – mostly by draping run-of-the-mill reactionary opinions in the kind of sanctimonious waffle that makes you wish for the sleek, punchy polemicism of a Richard Littlejohn or a Melanie Phillips. Howard Jacobson could write two thousand words on how a square has four sides, tack on some class chauvinism or virulent anti-Palestinian rhetoric, and produce something virtually indistinguishable from his usual output. Howard Jacobson is Britain’s worst living writer.

It’s sadly not possible to go through every single one of Howard Jacobson’s terrible columns, but luckily in the last month alone he’s managed to produce some of his stupidest crap to date. I’ll start with the fluff. Exhibit A, a column from the 18th of September, titled ‘I don’t understand this ‘LinkedIn’ and the way it evokes memories of childhood rejection in me.’ This is a late contribution to the genre of Old People Vocally Infuriated By The Internet, and has apparently come to us through a wormhole leading to the year 2006, when it was last acceptable for apparently serious newspapers to print sentiments along the lines of ‘What’s all this Face-Book nonsense? Why don’t you just read an actual book, with your actual face?’ It also bears a strange resemblance to the slogan t-shirts still sold (but to whom?) in Camden Market and souvenir shops, the ones with messages like ‘Forget Google – ask my wife!’ or ‘You looked better on Facebook’ – although these at least have the virtue of brevity. In his essay, Jacobson describes receiving an (almost certainly automated) email from some unknown person inviting him to use the social networking service, and while he refuses, he’s still wracked by guilt, by ‘the idea of someone hanging on, anxiously eyeing the mail every morning, wondering if you received the original request, wondering if you’ve responded yet, wondering if you ever will’ – which is naturally bound to bring a Proustian reminiscence of ‘all the rebuffs and repudiations one’s suffered – in my case a half a century of unrequitedness.’ Jacobson isn’t just confused by what the website does, he can’t even work out its name – but because he’s an award-winning writer, he’s befuddled in a profoundly literary way. ‘Never having heard it spoken, and possessing no instinct for cyber semiotics, I couldn’t make out the word the letters added up to.’ Eventually he decides it’s ‘a Finnish translation of the name of a princess from One Thousand and One Nights […] the Princess Link-a-din.’ A simple two-word phrase is too much for him, which raises the unsettling implication that this lauded men of letters is actually functionally illiterate.

Jacobson’s inevitable prescription is to log off. ‘Only deconnect,’ he says (see what he did there?). ‘Out in the free, uncompromised world of the unlinked no hell-troll can hound the mildest Corbyn sceptic.’ Which is a strange way of framing things, given that earlier in the month Jacobson had written an article neatly slotting the then-leadership candidate into his grand overarching mythos, a kind of fantasy world in which the political Left, and in particular the Palestine solidarity movement, is motivated solely by a foaming hatred of the Jews. (And what about those anti-zionists who, like myself, happen to be Jewish? In his novel The Finkler Question, we’re represented in the title character’s former incarnation as a greedy, egotistical Shylock character, cynically deploying his Jewishness to curry favour with pro-Palestinian Gentiles while in fact pathologically hating his own people. In Kalooki Nights a similar figure, a cartoonist desperate to expunge his unwanted Jewishness onto the page, discovers to his horror that the people commissioning his work are overt antisemites. In other words, we’re just self-haters. In which case, Howard Jacobson is just another cop putting fences up around the borders of Jewish identity.) The point, when he gets round to it, is this: let’s say Corbyn is not himself an antisemite – although of course it’s not ‘possible to guarantee the complexion of another’s soul’ – but why does he spend so much time hanging out with people who are? Why does he want to boycott Israel but not Hamas? It’s a boring and boorish smear, cribbed directly from our more frenzied tabloids; what Jacobson does, in his inimitable style, is add insufferability to stupidity. ‘The offence you take at any imputation of prejudice is the hollow hypocrite’s offence,’ he says to Corbyn, ‘and your protestations of loving peace and justice, no matter who believes them, are as ash.’ A solid effort, but it could be improved by using the full phrase, beloved by teenage poets for decades, ‘as ashes in my mouth.’ The Booker Prize comes with an award of £50,000. There’s no justice.

Jacobson never outrightly states that Palestine solidarity is driven by antisemitism (he’s far too literary for that); he just occasionally wonders, or considers, or innocently questions the motives of this or that person, again and again, in column after column, a lone man in a small cell farting out little insubstantial clouds of suspicion until the accumulating stink fills the room. From his attack on Corbyn: ‘The truism that criticism of Israel does not equate to anti-Semitism is repeated ad nauseam. Nor, necessarily, does it. But those who leave out the “necessarily” ask for a universal immunity. Refuse it and they trammel you in the “How very dare you” trap.’ How very dare you indeed. When footage emerged of a young Queen performing a Nazi salute, Jacobson did all the requisite forelock-tugging – ‘I know she is good for the Jews. How do I know? I just know’ – before, in the last two paragraphs, saying what he really sat down to say: British Jews like Howard and I shouldn’t be worried about the be-swastika’d upper classes, but we should be terrified of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the political Left (where antisemitism ‘goes by another name’). In 2009, immediately after a war that killed nearly 1,500 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis, Jacobson wrote a column with the title ‘Let’s see the ‘criticism’ of Israel for what it really is.’ Within, amid the usual self-inflating pontification, he described comparisons between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto as ‘the latest species of Holocaust denial.’ In 2011, he wrote a kind of open letter to his fellow author Alice Walker, begging her not to join the aid flotilla to Gaza that would shortly be subjected to murderous State piracy in international waters. In particular, he focuses on the fact that the flotilla was carrying ‘letters expressing solidarity and love’ for children in Gaza. This offends his egalitarian instincts. ‘Not, presumably, for Israeli children. Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already. So what about solidarity?’ What really grates Jacobson about the anti-occupation movement is its certitude, the way they’ve entirely made up their minds – how gauche, how unsophisticated; they should, like him, airily flit between parties, make a big show of holding them up to equal scrutiny, before inevitably fluttering to rest on the side of the nuclear-powered colonialists rather than the people they’re occupying.

Not that Howard Jacobson’s prejudice is limited to the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: he has plenty of scorn for the poor and tactless here at home. Take another piece, also published in the last month, on lad culture at British universities. For Jacobson, the problem with sexual assault on campus isn’t the sexual assault, it’s the fact that it’s happening on campus. The problem is that universities are no longer for the elite, but have been invaded by a tide of oversexed oiks. He looks back fondly on his days as a student at Cambridge, when everyone at university was shy, scrawny, studious, celibate, and not ‘interested in the carnivals of the proletariat.’ In his telling, over-serious middle class boys never rape anyone, only the feral underclasses. Jacobson and his dweeby cohort were, he says with all apparent seriousness, just like Paul Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers – a strange citation, given that Morel wasn’t exactly a standard-bearer for good sexual ethics. ‘Where have men of this sort gone?’ (They’ve probably all escaped to Link-a-din.) He continues: ‘In the case of those of us who studied literature, the books we read turned us inward and kept us civil. It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them. I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get there.’ Besides his thoughtless class hatred, Jacobson betrays an incredibly impoverished attitude to literature – the idea that it exists to turn us into kinder, milder, gentler people, that great art ought to be a kind of primitive Xanax. (Should someone tell Howard Jacobson what DH Lawrence actually got up to? Maybe instead of Sons and Lovers he should have read Women in Love, which towards the end features another wealthy and bookish young man attempting to strangle his girlfriend to death.) He ends with a defiant insight: ‘Sex is better when it’s mutual and, better still, when the parties to it pause occasionally to read a book together.’ Midway through the act? Maybe he’s freakier than I thought.

Unlike the best tabloid columnists, real masters of their craft, Howard Jacobson never entertainingly rolls around in the muck of his own hatred. Instead, against all the evidence, he insists that he’s a good right-on liberal – a socialist, even. After all, how could anyone be prejudiced when they have such a profound love of words? Even if it’s a love that he expresses in the same way Paul Morel expresses his love for Miriam: by imposing himself on them. But the real question isn’t why Jacobson is so bad; it’s why people still seem to respect him despite his total worthlessness. If this is how our heroes write now, then literature ought to be put out of its misery. In a way, Howard Jacobson really does perform a trenchant and incisive critique of our society – but it’s not in the things that he writes, it’s in the reaction to them.

One last one. Jacobson’s most recent column, published over the weekend, is another ebulliently witty broadside against any and all criticism of Israel. This time, his ire is drawn by a Spanish clowning troupe who protested by stripping naked in front of the apartheid wall near Bethlehem, inadvertently upsetting some local residents. Cue the usual whinging about the fiendish complexity of the situation, and how ‘meddlesome’ it is for anyone other than Howard Jacobson to take a moral stance. But before he gets there, a brief detour on the virtues of staying shtum when you don’t have anything of value to contribute, in this ‘age of immoderate opinion unhampered by knowledge.’ Jacobson quotes Wittgenstein, or, at least, a scrap of Wittgenstein he picked up somewhere else: ‘I don’t grasp what philosophical problem concerning language and reality the sentence “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” addresses – but I am going to employ it, anyway, against those who don’t know their arses from their elbows and ought to shut the fuck up.’ Physician, mate, heal thyself.

GOP 2016: Give Iran the bomb

I watched the latest Republican debate on a glitchily illegal stream from a dull and unassuming corner of north London. The debate was long, lasting roughly four thousand years; when the victor poked his head up from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the vast and mighty empire he had sworn to protect was long extinct, remembered only in Chinese textbooks and a few quirks of heraldry. And the time difference didn’t help; by the time it finished I was utterly exhausted, feverish and all but insensate. It’s hard to talk about what happened during the debate, when I can’t really be sure that any of it had happened at all. For instance, I could swear that at one point the CNN moderators had let eleven wild hogs loose onto the stage, and announced that the Republican nomination for President would be given to whichever candidate first wrestled their animal to the ground. Mike ‘Gabagool’ Huckabee bullishly nutted his hefty porker of an opponent in the back of the head: a meaty thump as two thick craniums collided, echoing with two sets of identical, frantic squeals. Rand Paul, caprine and trembling, faced his pig with hollowed cheeks and hungry eyes; they seemed to weave circles around his podium, fleeing and pursuing at the same time. Donald Trump’s pig just took a place by the man’s side, reared up onto its back trotters, and started oinking along to his speeches. I looked from pig to man and man to pig, but it was impossible to say which was which. That was when I realised that the fatigue had got the better of me: for the last twenty minutes, I had been watching the debate with double vision.

So much of the debate was like that. Did Ted Cruz really try to bolster his arguments by referring to an editorial cartoon? Did Jeb Bush really say that his brother had kept America safe by referring to 9/11? Was there really a long period in which everyone was fantasising about live brain harvesting? Were the candidates really asked what they’d like their Secret Service codenames to be? Did John Kasich really say Unit One? Did Rand Paul really say Justice Never Sleeps? Did Carly Fiorina really say Secretariat? Secretariat? But all I had to do was look on Twitter, and there it was. Once, political candidates spoke entirely in soundbites for the evening news, and that was bad enough. Now, their campaign teams are busy at work as the debates take place, frantically pasting their quips and dribbles onto stock photographs and dumping them online, to be shared and faved by the faithful. As the Situationists knew, any large enough collection of images creates a miniature reality, and these worlds are not required to make sense. Each candidate stood in the centre of their own pocket universe, each fundamentally identical, each identically insane. For someone with an interest in any of these lazily arranged gargoyles, it must have all made perfect sense. For me, it was like staring into a black hole.

It wasn’t really taking place in Simi Valley; we were on the ramparts of Elsinore. A new staging, the worst in history, in which everyone was trying to be Hamlet. First, the ghost of Ronald Reagan, clanking before the gates in his Air Force One-shaped armour, blood and senescence dripping from its joints, finally lifting his visor before his children to reveal a black maw, flesh dripping in streaky rivulets from fang to void. He wasn’t an entertainer who turned into a politician, he was entertainment itself, forgetting everything that precedes it, annihilating everything it faces, politics included. And then the ghost vanishes, and the play begins: eleven Hamlets all at once: they feign madness, they spurn words for bloodshed, they blankly dispatch their one-time friends, they cynically condemn women to a needless death, they dance with poisoned swords. But it’s all idiocy, and the result doesn’t matter: outside, the armies of Fortinbras have taken the walls.

It’s easy to say, with a dismissive shrug, that the Republicans are crazy. But they’re not, and the truth is far worse: they’re all pretending to be crazy. In the pre-debate, the warm-up freak-parade before the main event, each lesser candidates jostled to be crazier than the last. One of them (Lindsay Graham? Bobby Jindal? Does it matter? A beast with four heads and one voice) announced that Iran would only respect America if it started unilaterally ripping up international treaties. Another said that the Iranians would only be cowed by an American president who could bite the head off a newborn baby. Look at me! I’m crazy! I want to nuke the Sun! I’m even crazier! I repeatedly run at electrified fences! I shit the bath! I eat rocks! Early in the debate proper, Rand Paul responded to the idea that the nuclear agreement with Iran should be immediately cancelled by saying ‘I don’t think we need to be rash, I don’t think we need to be reckless.’ It was a weird moment: vaguely sane sentiments coming from the mouth of someone named after a woman who tried to turn psychopathy into the highest moral virtue, whose utopian New Sodom could only exist, even in fiction, with the help of a perpetual motion machine. There was no applause. The crowd stared, with the ravenous confusion of ten thousand starving hyaenas. Faced with the prospect of a weaponised Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina insisted that she had ‘a lot of faith in the common sense and good judgement of the voters of the United States of America.’ Meanwhile, the candidate that the voters of the United States of America have said they prefer – by double-digit margins – proudly thrust a steaming bowl of turds towards the camera. ‘I’m rich,’ he announced. ‘I’ve gone potty in many countries, all over the world. I could make a potty as big as the moon, if I wanted to.’

The other candidates knew better; their Howard Beale shticks were immaculate. They ranted about mass deportations, wars of extermination, burning flags, burning everything, the end of the world, and then insisted that Iran must not be allowed to enrich plutonium, because it’s ruled by a fanatical doomsday cult. (Honourable exception: Ben Carson, who just mumbled about nothing in particular with the breathy, halting affectlessness of a six year old child trying to read a phone book, and should probably give up rhetoric for his far less demanding day job as a paediatric neurosurgeon.) For all that they claim to love the American people, the thing these people actually addressed was an ugly caricature, and, like fast food or architecture, politics tends to create the people that it panders to. Driven by packs of bankers and witless condescending liberals from plywood mansions to breeze-block slums; bloated on imperial superprofits and dodgy credit; taunted by a myth of Rugged Individualism, deserts and danger, big leprous skies and the open road, as they teem like farmed salmon in the sluices of human history’s most advanced and uncaring bureaucracy; convinced that there’s nothing beyond America’s shining shores but threat and violence and, somewhere, a little gremlin of an ayatollah laughing at their ignorance. A creature that needs pills to fuck and foreign wars to not mind. It craves death, not in the sense of any flouncy romantic void, but megadeaths, irradiated zones, mutilated corpses on live TV. It doesn’t want a president, it wants a holy madman, a barbarian warlord, and a hug.

But it’s not enough to blame the voters. This is the eliminationist impulse of the terrified metropolitan liberal classes, every bit as vicious and bloodthirsty as the proles they despise, but less willing to cop to it: democracy doesn’t work, gas them all and bring in some drab rational middle-managers to return the country to prosperity. But in fact, the feigned frenzy of the Republican Party is just an American version of the administrative technocracies already imposed on much of the rest of the world. It’s not that the political right has gone insane; insanity has come to function as an effective substitute for politics. Case in point: Donald Trump. Earlier in the race, he said of the the Vietnam War veteran (and good friend of Ukrainian neo-Nazis) John McCain – who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down during an attack on civilian infrastructure in Hànội – that ‘he’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.’ Normally this would have ended his campaign; the one solid law of American politics is that you do not criticise The Troops. But his surge carried on unabated. He didn’t even have to apologise. This isn’t even liberal democracy any more: everyone involved is just form, blank and total, without any possibility of content; language without signification, madness without a psyche. This holds across the spectrum: Hillary Clinton, a blinding-white astral demon made of chicken gristle and wax-paper, doesn’t even pretend that she’s running for any reason beside her own personal hunger for power. She wants to rule the world; it’d be hers by birth, only she wasn’t born, she emerged like a lizard out its egg from the cold undeath of money, fully formed. Her entire campaign is less advertising than a judicial sentence. We have been condemned to four to eight years of Hillary Clinton, because it’s her turn now. There’s not much that’s good about the Republican party, but at least they’re from this planet.

During the debate the biggest issue was (of course) Iran, and the deal that had just been agreed that would prevent Iran from building any of the nuclear weapons that it wasn’t building anyway. This incensed most of the candidates, who seemed to think that eliminating Iran’s nuclear capacity was only worthwhile if it took place in the context of eliminating Iran as such. Which raises the question: what’s the point of making sure Iran can’t have the bomb, if we’re then just going to give it to Mike Huckabee, or Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton? Watching the debate as it ended, as the streets outside me filled with cars and chatter, normal people with something to live for, my head throbbed and my teeth chattered and the parade of lunatics onscreen seemed to turn to me and hiss vague personal threats through secret corners of their mouths obscured by the blurry low-resolution feed and I thought: give Iran the bomb. Not that it matters, but the country is a plateau of stability in a region turned to jelly by successive waves of imperialism; surrounded by Isis on one side, the Taliban on the other, and Saudi Arabia across the Gulf, Iran may as well be a Denmark on the Caspian. Not that it matters, but an Iran with an independent deterrent, safe from attack and invasion, no longer cowed in the shadow of Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, might be the only thing that can save the human species. Not that it matters. Give Iran the bomb, because when the sun came up all I could see was a mushroom cloud, the flash before the devastation, and if we all go out together and the fire laps from pole to pole, I don’t want it to be because of Donald Trump.

Building Norway: a critique of Slavoj Žižek

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration – the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This language isn’t just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people – children included – can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; it’s only once bodies wash up on beaches that there’s an imperative to act. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj Žižek’s essay on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: ‘The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe…’ What comes next is even more unsettling: Žižek compares the European response to the crisis to Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief, though – Europe is displaying ‘a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on learning we have a terminal illness.’ Migrants aren’t just a flood; Žižek resurrects a far more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer, a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction; he’s not himself making the comparison; it’s something that could be very plausibly dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, there’s no Freud, Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, there’s nothing that could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true. Clearly Žižek doesn’t agree: what The Non-Existence of Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal man’s take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

Žižek’s argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised like this. The migration ‘crisis’ currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time, migrants display an ‘enigmatically utopian’ demand: they don’t just want to arrive somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to camp in squalid conditions in Calais are ‘not satisfied with France’ and demand Britain instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a good life for themselves and their children in Norway – but, Žižek insists, ‘there is no Norway, not even in Norway.’ Life isn’t fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the invaders, but the ‘standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism’ – to insist that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is ‘merely the obverse of anti-immigrant brutality,’ because it accepts that the defence of one’s way of life is in contradiction with ‘ethical universalism.’ But rather than demonstrating that this is a false opposition, however, Žižek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the (nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. ‘Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals?’ After indulging in this airily speculative rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, Žižek finally gets down to some serious prescriptivism. Europe must ‘reassert its commitment’ to the dignified treatment of refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it ‘must impose clear rules and regulations,’ through a strengthened central European authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the world that produce migration. ‘Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.’ And they must be backed up by brutal state violence.

There is a lot that’s deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the primary problem is the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the master-signifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? Žižek’s essay seems to be as uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we should at least be open to the idea that their ‘values’ and ways of life will not be too different from those of bourgeois Europe.

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Žižek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also – isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all.’ Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented – but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Žižek can only articulate the European ‘way of life’ in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that Žižek has deployed himself – see his discussion of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of course, even if all this weren’t the case – so what? Must anyone who doesn’t embody a certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants’ crisis is happening now? Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does Žižek perform this total abandonment of theory? His ‘straightforward’ approach results in some highly uncomfortable formulations – take, for instance, the line that ‘refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely.’ Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of ‘price’ with ‘economy.’ A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself situated within some greater and more general economy – one that, under conditions of capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of economy as such, Žižek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources. Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on Žižek’s essay. A properly Marxist critique doesn’t just look at what a text says, but what it does, and to whom it’s speaking. Žižek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun throughout, but who is this ‘we’? Only and always the settled Europeans. It’s never once considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they could be reading the London Review of Books. When Žižek uses the vocative case, when he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do, it’s even more obvious who he’s talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is, to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence of Norway isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on ‘radical economic change,’ this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Žižek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.

Why zionism is antisemitism

Nearly one year ago, the Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin was captured by Hamas fighters in Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, in the middle of Operation Protective Edge. He was taken a few minutes into a ceasefire declared unilaterally by Israel, without any participation from any Palestinian groups: under the terms Israel had negotiated with itself, its soldiers were still permitted to search for so-called ‘terror tunnels’ during the ceasefire, and this is what Goldin had been doing. His capture triggered something called the ‘Hannibal Directive’: a secret policy that requires Israeli forces to do anything possible to prevent its soldiers being captured (and then becoming the object of a media crusade, to be released in a costly prisoner swap), even if it means putting the soldier’s life at risk. The IDF insists that this does not mean it will intentionally try to kill captured soldiers, but the world learned exactly what the Hannibal Directive looks like in Rafah. Almost immediately, the town was blanketed in indiscriminate air and artillery strikes. A brigade commander on the ground was recorded yelling into his field radio: ‘Stop the shooting! You’re shooting like retards! You’ll kill one another!’ He didn’t seem to understand that that was the point. Hadar Goldin’s body was never found, but it’s assumed that he died in the bombardment. So did 190 Palestinians.

The Israeli army claims that it operates on a principle of the utmost respect for human life, and does everything possible to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties. If, for the sake of argument, we take them at their word here, the picture it reveals is horrifying: Israel loves and cherishes the Palestinians, it will do anything to protect them, but at the same time it’s willing to sacrifice hundreds of Palestinian lives in the hopes of killing just one Jew.

Imagine if any other country operated like this. There’s a word for this kind of behaviour: it’s antisemitism.

This isn’t a facetious point: there’s something very strange about the way the official mouthpieces of the zionist project behave towards the figure of the Jew as such. There’s a constantly repeated line, that anti-zionism is just a veiled form of antisemitism – but if you look at it closely, it becomes something highly unpleasant: if an insult to Israel is an insult to all Jews, then it follows that we’re all united, borg-like, behind the Jewish state, and that we’re all complicit in whatever it does. If this position were articulated by a Gentile, we’d rightfully accuse them of antisemitism. But this is how Israel expects us to behave. Why do they get away with it? Netanyahu describes himself as the leader of the Jewish people, empowered to speak on my behalf. The Jewish people have been around far longer than Benjamin Netanyahu, or the State of Israel for that matter. I never asked for him. Whenever Jews are attacked somewhere else in the world, some Israeli minister commands us all to flee to historic Palestine and shelter under his nuclear umbrella: the dream of state zionism is of a Europe without any Jews. Did they dream it themselves?

What does it mean to be a Jew? Over the centuries, Jews in every corner of the world have led any number of different modes of life; there’s very little to unite the Jewish experience beyond the Tanakh (some Jewish communities split before the composition of the Talmud) and the fact of being in exile. From Sinai to Babylon to Persia to Brooklyn, we’ve spent far more of our history pining after the Land of Israel than actually living in it. Throughout, this loss has been felt as a critical gap between how things are and how things ought to be, a recognition that things have gone wrong; this is why Jewish thought has always tended towards the Utopian. This is why Jews practice circumcision: there’s something missing. This is why the Torah begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beit, a square missing one of its sides. This is why Kabbalah envisages a God that isn’t almighty and all-powerful, but fractured, broken and weak, a God that must be repaired. This is why Jews are commanded to dedicate themselves to tikkum olam, the healing of the earth. Throughout Jewish history, there’s been the vision of a better world, a Messianic return to Zion: it’s what animated Jesus Christ, Baruch Spinoza, and Karl Marx. For almost all of this period, the idea that the Messianic gap could be closed by simply sending thousands of armed men to the Levant to boot out the existing inhabitants and set up a Jewish state would have not just been premature, but ridiculous.

At the same time, Jewish thought – in Europe at least – has consistently veered towards universalism: the resolution of differences and the global confraternity of all humankind. (Again, see Christ, Spinoza, and Marx.) In the Tanakh, the Jews are forever backsliding; they’re perversely eager to worship any old object as long as it’s not the God of their forefathers. The idea of a separate Jewish identity in Europe has always been more of a European fixation than a Jewish one. For Europe, its Jews were a constitutive other; Christendom could define itself (and unite itself) as that which was not Saracen, not Indian, and not Jewish. (The situation was slightly different in the United States, in which the role of the internal other was largely imposed on the Black population.) European Jews served an important sacrificial function, acting as a collective pharmakos: in times of crisis, they would be exiled or massacred, a mass catharsis restoring the metaphysical separation between within and without. This is why, despite the fervent Christian hope for a grand conversion of the Jews, actual Jewish converts were treated with such suspicion: Conversos and their descendants were a primary target of the Spanish Inquisition; secular, integrated Jews were often the first to be slaughtered in the Nazi genocides. Behind the violence there’s a desperate thirst for identity: the antisemite needs to Jew to constitute himself; Europe is not Europe without its Jews.

Jews have lived on every continent, for hundreds of years, but zionism arose in 19th-century Europe. This is because zionism is not, in terms of its ideological content, a particularly Jewish project, but a European one. This was a period when national groups within the great multi-ethnic empires – Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman caliphate – were increasingly agitating for self-determination along strict ethnic lines, while at the same time other European states were brutally capturing and colonising areas of land elsewhere on the globe. Early zionism, with its demand for a Jewish national homeland outside of Europe, wasn’t much more than a combination of these two tendencies. Zionism was simultaneously a hypostatisation of Jewish difference, and assimilation by other means. The Jews would finally become just like any other respectable European people: we would colonise like them, ethnically cleanse like them, and set up a perfect imitation of the despotic European ethnic state in the Middle East. This is how we got to where we are today, with Jews messing around with tank battalions, repressive state infrastructures, the systematic dispossession of a colonised population, and other such fundamentally goyische inventions.

This dangerous shift in Jewish identity would not be possible without some kind of violence. Early zionism was fixated on the idea of a ‘New Jew’: while Jews in the diaspora were sedentary, spiritual, intellectual, and the objects of state violence, the New Jew would be an active, tanned, muscular agricultural fascist, the subject of state violence, a creature virtually indistinguishable from the porcine Gentile peasants who had so brutally suppressed the Jews over the centuries. The birth of this figure required the erasure of all Jewish history up until its creation. The past would be prologue, a brief coda between the Kingdom and the State of Israel, expressible only as that period in which the Jews allowed themselves to suffer. Diaspora could only ever mean suffering; the Jew in exile – in other words, the Jew as such – became an object of near-pathological loathing. Every antisemitic slander was repeated: the Jews really were weak, ugly, etiolated, usurious; the goal of zionism was to put a spade in one hand, a rifle in the other, and turn them into something else. With bullets and bloodshed they would get rid of the cringing Jews of the past:  it was an article of faith among those zionist pioneers that, before long, all Jews would become the New Jew.

Of course, this was impossible. The problem was that, alone among the European settler-colonial projects, the Jewish state was a colony without a metropole. Unlike any other imperialist outpost of the 19th century, it didn’t have any mother country to support its wars against the natives. And when the zionist project first emerged, the attitude of a great many Jewish populations – especially those Jews already living in Palestine – was one of total hostility. Zionism had to effect a dual colonialism: it had to seize, with violence, the land of Palestine, while also seizing the Jewish diaspora. It goes without saying that there can be no equivalence between the two: the Palestinians have suffered immensely, from bombs and missiles to house demolitions to the everyday indignities of living under occupation, while the diaspora Jews have been given free holidays. But the colonisation of the diaspora Jews has been total. Despite the fact that many Jews outside Israel are deeply ambivalent about the entire project, every major mainstream Jewish body is explicitly zionist. In Britain, every Jewish youth movement tries to instil zionist values, every Jewish newspaper assumes a zionist readership, every university Jsoc agitates against the boycott movement. The Board of Deputies of British Jews coughs up the Israeli line on any given issue, the synagogues plant JNF pine trees to poison the soil of Palestinian farmers to mark barmitzvahs. The idea that any facet of organised Jewish life might be entirely indifferent to the State of Israel is now absurd. Israel spends millions providing young Jews from around the world with subsidised Birthright tours of the country, to emphasise the deep and organic connection between the Jewish people and the Holy Land. But if this connection really were so deep and so organic, why would this vast ideological operation even be necessary?

The Israeli state doesn’t regard diaspora Jewry as its progenitor, or as a community in which it is embedded; it sees us as a colonised population under its command. Our leaders are its hostages. Our institutions are its instruments. It imposes its taxes: we have to give to the JNF, volunteer in its army or on its kibbutzim, sign its petitions, share its propaganda. We have to dive gleefully into the supermarkets and fill our trolleys with houmous to break the boycott. We have to suffer, out here in the desert, trapped with a strange people, so that it can have its reason to exist. We are unable to speak, and so the state of Israel will speak for us: it knows what we want better than we do ourselves, and what we want is war. Jews in the English-speaking world are commanded to buy holiday homes in Eilat; Jews in Continental Europe are commanded to pack up their belongings, abandon their homes and identities, and become Israelis. (The Hebrew word for migration to Israel, aliyah, has echoes of the German Aufheben: to go up, but also to cancel out.) When Jews refuse to submit, when we break ranks to speak out against Israeli atrocities or the mad, antiquated idea of zionism, there’s the terror of a slave revolt; the fury that rises against an anti-zionist Jew is far more terrible than that which faces any ordinary Gentile antisemite. Israel barfs the history and diversity of the Jewish people in the face of the world, all sparkles and tapestries, but when we’re alone together it grabs us close by the lapels and hisses through bloodstained teeth: know your place.

If being a Jew isn’t just about kvetching and chicken soup, if it means living with the ambivalence of otherness and the hope for Utopian justice, then Israel is not a Jewish state. The idea of a Jewish state is, once stated, already contradictory and meaningless. In practice, it’s a monster. A state that tries to erase Jewish history, Jewish subjectivity, and Jewish life is not something that has anything to do with any Judaism I recognise. There’s a word for this kind of behaviour. It’s antisemitism.

Fragments against the ruin

1. Syriza are an anti-austerity party, and they have an excellent record when it comes to opposing austerity. They opposed the measures put forward by Greece’s creditors in February. They opposed the plan of agreement drawn up in June, and put it to a referendum. They opposed the harsh and punitive measures suggested by Germany over the weekend. Wherever the threat of austerity emerges in Greece, Syriza are on hand to heroically oppose it. They’ll oppose the sunset, they’ll oppose the locusts as they come in their chattering thousands to strip green islands to naked rock, and when they wheeze their dying breaths, cold and emaciated on soggy mattresses, they’ll oppose that too. Despite their pleas for an alternative, they’ve never approached austerity as anything other than a deterministic inevitability. It might be time to question how much value there actually is in ‘anti-austerity’ politics: it’s a formation in which opposing something has come to function as an effective substitute for actually doing anything about it. Anti-austerity movements scream their refusal to participate in the grand, stupid mechanism of austerity – and then do so anyway. These things are not opposed to each other.

2. In this context, the strange farce of the referendum starts to make a twisted sort of sense. The population of Greece overwhelmingly voted against austerity measures demanded by the Troika, only for the government of Greece to then almost immediately submit a set of proposals that mirrored them in every detail. In fact, Prime Minister Tsipras wrote to his creditors conceding to almost all of their demands before the referendum had even taken place. But the referendum was never intended to actually decide anything; after all, the plan of agreement to be accepted or rejected was no longer even on the table. It was always, explicitly, to be a gesture of rejection, something purely performative, which for some reason Syriza thought might help them negotiate a fairer deal.

3. Its ‘no’ was a pure ‘no’; there was no indication what the result of this rejection would be, because there was never to be a result. This isn’t far from what Hegel describes as ‘abstract negation’. Abstract negation is the form of negation based on an eternal and static binary of true and false or being and nothingness: under abstract negation what is negated is cast into pure nothingness. The act of negation, rather than producing a new state of affairs, instead simply cancels out everything; in the end, it doesn’t really matter what is being negated. Hegel’s complaint isn’t that abstract negation is too destructive, but that it isn’t destructive enough: abstract negation always fails. It sees the nothingness into which it condemns that which is negated as an absence that precedes any particular negation, while the dialectic recognises that any particular negation will continue to express the content of that which is negated, as ‘the nothingness of that from which it results. A negation built on stasis will remain static; without any process of sublation, the negated object will slowly achieve a kind of zombie rebirth, crawling on skeletal hands out the abyss of its own cancellation. This is how 61% of Greek voters managed to reject austerity, only for their government to then triumphantly impose it as the culmination of their democratic will.

4. Most journalists don’t know much about Greece, but they have been to Oxbridge, which is why it’s hard to read anything on the situation without some reference to Sophocles or Aeschylus. What would Thucydides make of the European bond market? Isn’t Tsipras a modern Priam of Troy? This is nonsense. There is a text that can help us understand what’s happening in Greece, but it’s not from some cartoon antiquity. In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs we meet Severin, a sick and sensitive young man, exhausted by Northern civilisation, an admirer of the free sensuality of Greece. He seemingly wills a portrait of the goddess Venus into life as Wanda, an impish and imperious woman; the two draw up a contract in which Severin agrees to be her slave, and enter into a relationship. Theirs is not, as it’s been described, a sado-masochistic relationship, but one between masochists: Wanda, too, wants to be dominated and humiliated, and because Severin is unable to do this for her, she soon begins to lose her love for him. The identification of masochism as an inverse of sadism is troubled from the start: Fifty Shades aside, sadists don’t tend to write contracts with their victims. Sadism is mechanical and automatic, from the distant burning cruelty of the stars to the bloodstained fury of all wild animals; de Sade’s grotesques don’t draw up contracts, they just do whatever they want. Laws and agreements are functions of a willed, deliberate masochism. (As Deleuze writes, the masochist ‘aims not to mitigate the law but on the contrary to emphasise its extreme severity.’) In the end Wanda, now disgusted by her slave, falls for a brutish, Byronic, ‘barbarian’ Greek. First she rejects Severin, then she declares her love for him, makes him agree to put aside his masochism and enter into a ‘normal’, sadistic relationship – and then ties him to a bed, whereupon the Greek suddenly appears, to ‘whip all poetry from him.’ This Greek is a walking dildo; he dies before long, and for all his displays of dominance he only really existed to satisfy Wanda’s masochistic desires. Freud, with whom the idea of masochism as an inverted sadism originates, was still troubled throughout his career by the idea of a ‘primary masochism’. By the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle he was ready to admit its existence, but his death drive is still fundamentally ambiguous: on the one hand it’s a desire to return to an inorganic stillness, on the other it’s just a redirection of the universal sadistic impulses against the self. In fact, this ambiguity goes back to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905; at the same time as he describes masochism as an inverted sadism, he also connects sadism with cannibalism. The Bemächtigungsapparatus, or structure of domination, exists only to serve the desires of another, ‘ontogenetically prior’ impulse – but, syntactically, it’s never clear whether this prior impulse is cannibalism or masochism. (After all, in actually existing BDSM relationships, the real power always belongs to the submissive partner: theirs is the limit that must not be crossed.) In the end, it’s far easier for Freud to imagine that we want to eat each other than to think that, when surrounded by a universal and impersonal sadism without subject, the immediate human response is to want to give in to it. The German response to Syriza’s desperate, humiliated proposals – to reject them, and insist on something even harsher, even though it may well end up harming them – has been strongly criticised, but in a way Greece’s creditors are only following the blank and impersonal laws of capital. Their sadism is the sadism of the unliving. Solidarity with Greece shouldn’t imply sympathy for Syriza: they could have got out of this dually-masochistic contract if they wanted (throughout the referendum period it was assumed that Greece was drawing up secret plans for an exit from the Euro; now it’s been revealed that beyond a few tiny committees, they really weren’t); instead they’re bringing in austerity as the fulfilment of their own desires.

5. Among a few of Syriza’s defenders, there’s a complaint that left-wing critics seem to want Greece to fling itself into uncertainty for the sake of a few old Marxist orthodoxies. From our armchairs in the insulated north, we leftier-than-thou dilettantes demand that an entire country ruin itself, just so that we can get the vicarious thrill of resistance. But the ruin is already here. We’re living in it. The deal that Greece has agreed to will enforce mandatory privatisations, automatic spending cuts, and a mechanism to ensure that all these measures are locked outside the realm of politics. The anti-austerity party has delivered the forces of austerity a far more total victory than the old ND-Pasok coalition ever could – they, at least, had to deal with a strong domestic opposition. This ruin is all of Europe’s. In his pre-referendum speech, Tsipras made constant, fawning references to ‘European ideals’ betrayed by the EU, but of course Europe has never really existed. It’s a spur of Asia with unwarranted pretensions, and because it has no geographical reality, it’s had to invent a cultural one. In the years after the collapse of the Mediterranean world, Europe and Christendom were almost identical concepts; after that, Europe was defined by white skin and a habit of imperial massacre elsewhere in the world. Now, Europe is best defined as the place where they implement austerity. Any movement that tries to change this will have to start by abolishing Europe altogether.

6. After the fall of the Roman empire, locals plundered its grand ruins for stones to build homes and churches. For some reason this is generally treated as a terrible philistinism, but in fact it’s determinate negation in action: the cancellation of something already cancelled in order to build something new. It’s better to have a house than a ruin. In Greece, there are still factions willing to oppose the destruction of the country, including the KKE, the Greek Communist Party, and PAME, the All-Workers Militant Front. These groups have consistently warned against Syriza’s brand of capital-friendly anti-austerity politics; there are plans for strikes and demonstrations; the resistance continues. Of course, it’s not enough to simply negate the disaster, and expect it to then be done with. Against the blank and useless negationism of Syriza, it might now be necessary to turn the ruins into a proper structure: to be not against austerity, but for communism.

A Rihanna ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ video roundtable

The following is the transcript of a roundtable discussion held at the offices of Damply Media in Brooklyn, to discuss the cultural importance of Rihanna’s new single ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’. The discussion brought together some of the leading thinkers in their fields for a unique evening of lively debate. PANTOPHAGIA PULPH is a digital sibyl, feminist scholar, literal goddess, and visiting professor at the Jersey Turnpike School of Media and Dentistry, and it’s not her job to educate you. ALAN GORKENBLUM is a respected economist noted for his work in developing nations, his occasional columns in the New York Times, and his influential 1994 paper ‘Could Death Squads Be Good For Freedom?’. PENCIL GLEASE is a radical leftist philosopher and the author of over fifty books, including ‘Why Breakfast Cereal Is Communism’, ‘Why Boy Bands Are Communism’, ‘Why Disneyland Is Communism,’ and ‘Why Capitalism Is Communism’. THE GHOST OF GEORGES RIBEMONT-DESSAIGNES, moderating the discussion, is a sad, tattered, howling spectre, barely capable of speech, his vague form clammy with sadness and regret. HELENA BIBBS is, despite all appearances, an adult woman.

ALAN GORKENBLUM: First of all, I’d like to thank Moist Media for inviting me to-


ALAN GORKENBLUM: I’d like to very damply thank Moist Media for inviting me here to speak. Now, from what I can gather, the video under discussion today concerns Ms Rihanna’s personal experiences with an unscrupulous accountant, who squandered her money on wasteful programmes and led to her credit rating being downgraded. In the video, this fictionalised accountant is subjected to various punishments – his wife is kidnapped and murdered, and he is then murdered himself – which of course as a liberal I don’t condone. But it seems to me that the central dynamic here is the relation between debtor and creditor, and frankly it’s extremely encouraging to see youth culture finally expressing the important message that debts must be paid. For too long we’ve allowed the culture to become infested by socialistic ideals. But as Ms Rihanna says, you need to ‘pay me what you owe me’ – and this is a message that the current leadership in Greece, for instance, would do well to heed. In order for rational, sustainable relations to exist between human individuals in a free market, it is absolutely necessary that the consequences of debt non-payment be as, uh, cutting as possible. You know, the last time I was in Athens I spoke with a very well-educated taxi driver, who told me that the only way his country could ever get itself out of its current situation is if they remove the ridiculous restrictions preventing student agitators from being hacked apart with axes. So it’s a very positive sign that this kind of sensible message is being broadcast to young consumers.

THE GHOST OF GEORGES RIBEMONT-DESSAIGNES: Art is a cold wound. We will consume you.

HELENA BIBBS: ok so, i agree with everything you said and whatever, but can we just talk about how great RhiRhi is in the face of aaaallllll those haters? just look at her, you’ve got Maxine Fulgerswitch in Good Crockery Magazine saying that her video was sexist pornography worse than slavery and she’s just like, bitch idgaf, cactus emoji, i’m out here jus’ doin’ me while you get like two likes on your insta pics of some totally basic doilies? and this is so important, if your feminism doesn’t include a true luxury bitch murder aesthetic then don’t nobody give no shits about your backwards-ass praxis. but that hair! such an inspiration, it’s like, yaaasssss, slay, slay queen, slay me, i want you to tie me to a chair and, heart emoji, take a knife and draw it across my throat so the blood comes pouring out all wave emoji over my shitty basic-ass frock from H&M. can you imagine if rihanna actually ended your worthless life? it’d be everything. i think i’m actually in love with her. omg we need to die together. i’m coming for you. i’m coming.


PANTOPHAGIA PULPH: So first up, I’m not here to educate a bunch of crybaby white het cis binary ablebodied men about Black women, and about how this is the only worthwhile artwork ever produced because it shows a Black woman killing white people. If you want to learn about this video, you need to pay me.


PANTOPHAGIA PULPH: Nobody asked you to speak. How is this helping me? Stay dead.

PENCIL GLEASE: Before I start, if this is a start, if it is possible to ‘start’ under the condition of a discourse already dependent on the structural possibility of its having-been-started, I would like to say a few words on the enigmatic nature of this verb, ‘to start’. For how can I speak of a video, of something which ‘to start’ appears as pure blackness, pure void on the screen, unless I can start the video, set in motion the chain of inscriptions and reinscriptions on the graphical substrate of pure absence? As in Joyce, the church is founded immovably upon the void. Now, the word ‘start’, as we all know, derives from the German stürzen, to fall, to fling, but into what? Into precisely that absence. So to start to speak about ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ means not to institute a relation on the level of tangibility, to find a reference to any determinate object, but the very opposite. Before I started, if I have indeed started, I had a metaphysical relation to the object, to that void of meaning into which I am about to leap, but in the condition of having-started-ness I find myself permeated by that object in my discourse’s necessary condition of permeability, a permeability that defies definition or direction, that obliterates itself and in which I am obliterated. To start something is to institute a primordial lack, which is why in all metaphysics the creation of the Universe is experienced as a hollowing-out of the spectral univocity of absolute uncreated Being. In this way the universal dialectic can only be read as a progressive dismantling of the ontic, as the slow degradation already present in this verb ‘to start’. As such, in its possibility of being started, this video embodies a truly transcendent revolutionary hope.


PENCIL GLEASE: Yes, precisely.


PENCIL GLEASE: I think one thing that we can all agree on is that this video is extremely important to politics. We are all serious intellectuals, we enjoyed watching it, and things can only be good if they reinforce our categories. Certainly at this point we’ve exhausted anything that can meaningfully be said about this film.

ALAN GORKENBLUM: I can only echo the title of the song under discussion: It’s Good To Have My Money. Uh, smiley face emoji.

PANTOPHAGIA PULPH: Yeah. Give your money to women. Greece needs to give its money to Angela Merkel.

HELENA BIBBS: i dont fear death. ive seen the face of god

Please join us for our next roundtable discussion, in which we’ll be talking about snails.

Why you’re not leaving London

So you’ve decided to leave London. You’re leaving because the millionaires are being priced out by billionaires. You’re leaving because every high street is boxy, bland, and identical. You’re leaving because the Tories are in charge. You’re leaving because the weather is shit. You’re leaving because it’s the enemy of all human life. You’re leaving because those two dull syllables, Lun and Dun, rattle like bones in the hollow where your heart used to be. You’re leaving because you want a walled garden and a ten-minute drive to the countryside and the space to really express yourself creatively. You’re leaving because people live in shoeboxes. You’re leaving because the cops murder people (not people like you, of course) and get away with it. You’re leaving because the culture’s been dead for a decade. You’re leaving because you have the beautiful soul – and before you go, you’ll write a short essay on London, so you can tell a city of millions why you’ve grown beyond it, why you’ve elected to flee while everyone else sinks flailing into the ooze. Who do you think you are? In the face of all this heaped stone and misery, a tattered arabesque plunging death-heavy through the centuries, are you really a free person who can choose where to go? Did you really think London was just a place, like any other place? This city’s stuck to the inside of your lungs. Waxy London plasters your veins and dribbles viscous from your nostrils; its fumes take root in your hair and the pigeon shit will never go from under your fingernails. Did you really think you could just leave?

You’ve been chewed up for too long, head-first in the cold shit; finally, like the lukewarm thing you are, you can feel yourself about to be spat out. But before you leave, you’ll plunge one last time into the centre of London, down to the Embankment, to hear the music of white vans screeching along the A3211. In Gordon’s Wine Bar, a long rocky trench off Villiers Street, bodies push and writhe in their untold masses. Like a newly dug grave, filled with earthworms. Pale and clammy people push against each other, steal lighters, slop Fat Bastard Pinot Noir on their ginghams and chinos, and roar their bewilderment into the darkening sky. There are tables and chairs and patio heaters here, somewhere, but all you can see are sweat-stained shoulders and haircuts floppy on top and buzzed at the back. Somewhere in the general mêlée a fight breaks out: three pink-shirted men are rounding on a blue-shirted man, smashing bottles over his head, but nobody’s paying much attention; elsewhere Mark from Lloyd’s can’t decide whether to remodel his bathroom or divorce his wife, Cressida at Moody’s thinks the coke’s starting to hit, and tiny blameless creatures are trampled underfoot.

You’re not like these people: you’re a writer, journalist and/or creative, and they disgust you. Out to the choking Phlegethonic churn of the river, where Cleopatra’s needle, dense with slave-scrawled hoeroglyphs, reminds you that this city has always been in league with ancient and pagan evils. Its blasphemous point finds echoes all around you; the sky bristles with cranes. In a thousand building sites from horizon to horizon, bloated men swing giant slabs of concrete in diminishing circles, building homes for nobody to live in, vanity chasing greed. It’s all too much: you duck underground. On the Tube the lustful are fixed rigid at fifty miles an hour; this is where the anonymous and the unloved go to stare at a spot just above each other’s heads. You take your seat and watch your hairline recede in the opposite window, knowing that millions of other arses have been planted in this same fold of scratchy fabric, that the people around you look out on exactly the same sights as you do every day, and that none of them will ever know your name. There’s a form for these things. You write in to the ‘Rush Hour Crush’ section of the free morning papers. Silver fox weeping openly on the 10:22 to Euston – fancy a drink? Pale, harried redhead beauty chewing her nails on the District line: I want to add myself to your list of miseries, buy you a drink? Dead pigeon with gleamingly exposed ribcage sprawled on the tracks at Canada Water. Coffee some time?

It doesn’t end. Beyond the crumbling walls of old London, in the outer circles of the Underground zoning system, the suburbs plod, miles of limp terracotta and chicken-shop spleen. Nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will. Further yet the sodden bog of greenbelt. You crossed it once: the train companies took their gold, and you arrived broken and penniless in front of King’s Cross station. It was all a stupid mistake. Fuck London. You’re right to leave.

But where will you go? You decamp to Brighton, wander too far on the wrong side of Old Steine, and realise: my God, this place has no architectural idiom whatsoever; it’s nothing, it’s just London by the sea. You flee to Vienna, and the rent starts rising steadily around you, the ground rushing up to meet the sky, and you’re buried in it, your mouth stopped with dirt and cement. You can fuck off to San Francisco, and as you’re drinking overpriced cocktails in a Mission bar, you’ll hear some tech twat wheeze down his phone to meet him on the roundabout by the Old Street BART station. But surely that can’t be right? You left London because it lost all character, because London had become nothing more than a vast buildup of global capital. A trading floor in one skyscraper has more to do with Shanghai and Singapore than with another in the building across the road; London is where the globe-girdling flows of finance coagulate and disperse again. But if this city is no longer anywhere in particular, if its geography is defined more by money and its infinite gradations than anything as crude as ordinary space, then how could you possibly achieve anything by leaving? London isn’t the name of a place that exists within strictly defined limits. London is the entire planetary order.

Remember your sins, as you turn the wrong way down Friedrichstraße to find yourself staring, shellshocked, at the Charing Cross Road. As you heave yourself panting up to the Griffith Observatory, pause to take in the view, and stagger backwards as the Shard drives itself like a dagger into your eyeball, and the hollow round banshee’s mouth of the London Eye howls you home. As you come out the Metro at Saint-Germain-des-Près, and someone thrusts the Evening Standard in your face. Think on your sins. The homeless people you ignored. The change you pretended not to have. The friends you betrayed. The enemies you cursed. Your careless fucking, summer sweat and strange skin, holding each other close so the eyes aren’t in focus, slick sliding nails and over too soon. The banknote clenched hard as you snort up £50’s worth of rat poison and laundry detergent. You have lied, cheated, lusted. blasphemed. You have killed. Did you really think we would ever let you leave? Don’t you understand? You’ll never get out of London, not for all eternity. Don’t you know where you are? This is where you belong. You’re in Hell.

If I’m so bad, why don’t they take me away?

Vivek Chibber is the most controversial figure on the Left today – or, at least according to Vivek Chibber he is. The latest kerfuffle is, once again, over his attacks on postcolonialism. Chibber’s stated goal is to rescue Marxism from what he sees as an empirically incorrect perspectivism embedded in postcolonial theory – essentially, the idea that ‘our capitalism is different.’ Part of this programme involves, with the tedious weight of inevitability, a defence of Enlightenment rationality. This is a boring dispute, and I’m not really going to go into it. The more interesting aspects of his critique are those that slip and tremble in those strange spaces between the great tectonic monoliths of politics and ontology. Chibber wants to reclaim the universal: the idea that behind all the squirming differences of the world there is a level of understanding in which all things are essentially the same, and can all be described according to a single principle. But the way he goes about this is very odd.

Disputes between universalism and particularism go back to Spinoza and Leibniz, and beyond. The question runs like a zigzagging fissure throughout recent thought, opening up sudden chasms within formerly continuous areas of the intellectual landscape. On the side of the Universal there’s Hegel, Deleuze (in his plane-of-immanence univocity-of-Being mode), and Badiou (at least in terms of the political, with his reference to the figure of the ‘generic’); the partisans of the particular include Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida, and Spivak. There are convincing concepts on both sides here, and even if the politics envisaged are seemingly irreconcilable, this ought to indicate something for those of us who know our dialectic: what’s being presented is ultimately a false choice.

There are some aspects of Chibber’s argument that are worthwhile. The idea that we can have solidarity and even some level of understanding of lived experiences that are not exactly the same as our own really ought to be a truism: however arbitrary language may be, it’s still grounded in the commonality of the Symbolic. When Chibber characterises subaltern studies as a kind of contemporary Orientalism, one in which the colonial other is always an irrational, occulted mystery, his critique does seize on something important, even if it’s slightly unfair. I certainly agree that Marx is not just ‘another white male philosopher’. (Although I’m not sure if anyone of any significance is really disputing this. It’s an argument that’s been made, but from what I can tell it’s mostly made on Twitter rather than in the academy, and usually alongside other claims that are so bafflingly untrue – the idea that Marx was suspiciously silent on the question of slavery, for instance – that they indicate the operation of some unspoken fixation or agenda.) It’s a shame, then, that the central portion of Chibber’s argument is not just wrong and non-Marxist, but fully horrifying.

A dominant – and strangely unacknowledged – influence on Chibber’s line of thought is of course Jürgen Habermas. Habermas has charted an interesting course, from the would-be saviour of Frankfurt School critical theory to his current post as the official rubber duck lookalike of the European Union. Taking cues from a theorist so unabashedly enthusiastic about the European project – one that future historians (if any are allowed to exist) could only ever regard as one of history’s greatest evils – doesn’t generally make for a good critique. Elsewhere in the world the oceans are only poisoned by oil slicks; on Europe’s fortified seasides, the waves roll bloated corpses against the holiday resorts. In some cases, Chibber even doubles down on some of Habermas’s more profoundly stupid innovations. Habermas argues for socialism as the actual realisation of the liberal ethos – the problem with liberalism isn’t its principles, but the contradictions that prevent it from being able to actually put those principles into practice. Chibber puts a new gloss on this, going beyond slightly dodgy immanent critique into what amounts to an outright surrender to existing conditions: what we think of as liberalism isn’t a unified project but the result of extended class struggle. This is not particularly controversial in and of itself, but for Chibber those ‘positive’ elements within liberalism are not heterogeneous to liberalism itself. In other words, the good society isn’t a promise yet to be realised; it’s here, now, and we’re living in it. Exactly how this position can be reconciled with the scum-soaked pit of shit and misery that constitutes life in the twenty-first century is yet to be seen.

The really scary stuff only appears late in Chibber’s lecture, but it’s what really constitutes the core of his project. For Chibber, there are certain ‘basic human needs’ that are not conditioned by class or culture, that have to do with the biological core of our being, and that are exactly the same everywhere in the world. It’s on this level that we can all understand each other, and it’s from this base that we can build a solidarity that cuts across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As with Badiou’s invocation of the ‘generic’, this is a political project that insists on the stripping-away of all that is not essential; those elements that are lost in returning to this common core of our species are ultimately ephemeral epiphenomena. Even provisionally accepting that this kind of operation is even possible, it’s founded on a fairly dubious assumption – that what is the same between people is ontologically essential to them, and what differs between them is not. Race and gender might be constructed, but it’s this kind of formulation that can – without ever meaning to, but by slipping down the rungs from ontology to normativity – allow for the idea that being black or a woman is somehow a deviation from the norm.

What are these basic human needs? In his works Chibber gives a few examples: the need for shelter, for security, for dignity, liberty, and personal well-being. These are the things that define what it is to be human, across time, space, and culture. But if this is a universal essence, it’s a strange kind. The need for shelter is here a fundamental part of the species; but of course shelter itself is not. Nobody is born with a roof bolted to their heads. If well-being, rather than the need for well-being, were basic to existence, there would be no need for well-being. All these needs in fact describe a lack – what’s essential to all humanity isn’t in us at all; our basic properties consist of those things we don’t have. In a way, Chibber’s stripping-away of epiphenomena is really incomplete: he’s retained an extraneous need, when what he could have said is that the basic nature of humanity is to be exposed, vulnerable, wretched, persecuted, and sick.

This is a decent (if uncreative) reading of Beckett, but it’s not Marxism.

For Marx there is something like a universal solidarity, as in his famous slogan that ‘the working men have no country.’ But where Chibber makes a major and bizarre misstep is in ontologising this universality. In Marx what unites people is not some mysterious quality locked in to every human being, the navel and core of their existence, but the most ephemeral of all ephemera: capitalism itself. International proletarian solidarity is a unique creature of the capitalist mode of production; it emerges because capitalism (as Chibber correctly points out) is universal, not out of some pre-existing universal substance that gloops beneath the phenomenal appearances of things. This universality need not be homogeneous. The forces of capitalism act in different ways on different people – wage-labourers and artisans, queer and disabled people – because these people are different. This is not to say that there can be no solidarity and no processes of overdetermination, but these are fleeting unities formed out of the false and imposed unity of capitalism.

There is a real universal, but it’s not subject to the tyranny of the Same. Marx does, it’s true, refer in his ‘humanist’ works to something called ‘species-being’, but it’s not a ‘being’ in the usual, ontological sense of the word. Species-being is bound up with the process of production: the human capacity to change and remake the world, a capacity that is itself coded by that which is produced and changed. Species-being stands for the unfettered and continual realisation of human potential, with new potentialities opening with every new realisation. Returning to species-being does not for Marx require the stripping-away of everything but the essential, but the creation of vast and unknown realms of possibility and difference. This is not so much being as becoming; an ontology of continual flux. (Here, as in so many other areas, Marx and Nietzsche are not just compatible but exhibit an almost spooky level of correspondence.) This is where Chibber’s divergence from Marx is most striking: for Marx, communism means freedom from alienation and an opening up of the infinite possibilities that constitute our being. Chibber, meanwhile, presumably wants to see a world in which dignity and well-being are available to all, but because in his cosmology human beings are eternally defined by the fact that we lack these things, for him communism can only be a total estrangement from what we really are.

Notes from the demonstration

It’s strange, but the same people who insist that voting is a sham and won’t change anything are often the ones who also maintain that your radicalism is inauthentic unless you get out in the streets and exercise your right to protest. Usually I find all this boosterism to be faintly ridiculous: the right of governments to peacefully ignore street demonstrations is by now a cherished part of our liberal democracy, and the people who put so much stock in these charades betray the same naive faith in the essential goodness of the capitalist state as those who think that non-voters instantly waive their right to an opinion. But we live in exceptional times. When I saw Prime Minister David Cameron go on TV to announce his plans to divert the asteroid 4179 Toutatis onto a collision course with Earth that would almost certainly wipe out the entire human species, I felt that the time for inaction was over. Something had to be done. So I went down to Saturday’s mass #StopTheAsteroid demonstration in central London, hoping against hope that something, anything, might happen. Life itself was in the balance.

They say that for a few days before the collision, Cameron’s Comet will be visible in the daytime sky, a tiny, tumbling sparkle hovering over the Thames between Wapping and Rotherhithe. It’ll stay there, static, fixed to the rotation of the Earth, sweeping through the distant void in perfect time with our planet’s slow decaying churn, until suddenly that glimmer bursts bright to swallow us all. I tried to imagine that scene as I crossed the river. The day was muggy and overcast; arthritic ripples trailed over the water’s surface. I wondered if the asteroid would appear as a hazy dot of light through those suffocating clouds, the way the Sun does sometimes, or if our shitty weather would leave us blind until the very last moment. In my head, people brought out deck chairs, or held hands as they crowded together to watch. Of course, it won’t happen like that: the government’s confirmed that most of us won’t even get the day off work. When the impact comes I’ll probably be doing something stupid; spasmodically failing to recover dropped change from a sandwich-shop floor, or fumbling for a roll of toilet paper that isn’t there, or suddenly realising I’ve missed my stop on the train, something like that. It won’t matter, not really. (I know I’m supposed to say if the impact comes. The parliamentary opposition keep telling us they can fight this. I’m not so sure. There’s something very inevitable about an asteroid.)

I could hear the protest before I could see it. A low babble, rising to a chant as I approached the Bank of England: ‘Fuck off back! To the void! We don’t want your asteroid!’ I was slightly early, but there must have been tens of thousands of people already clustered in the intersection before the Bank of England, heaped like dead spiders between the solemn stones. Loud festival drumming blasted from one crevice in the tangle of alleys around us, whistles shrieked from another. A few slimy geezers in leather jackets were pushing their way through the crowd with their elbows, thrusting Trotskyite papers into the hands, prams, or orifices of anyone who wasn’t paying sufficient attention. All entrances to the Tube had been chained shut; one was being repurposed by a troupe of young people in combat trousers and luridly painted gas masks, who had clambered on top to stage a Carnival Against The Comet. I watched for a few minutes: the comet, represented by a big papier mâché sphere on a stick, was turned away from Earth by three women in clown costumes representing Peace, Positivity, and Popular Participation. Elsewhere, various blocs were hoisting their standards: I saw one from Lewisham Teachers Fighting The Asteroid, another from Queer And Questioning Teens Oppose The Tory Meteor, and even two iron-eyed old ladies hoisting a banner for the Committee to Abolish Outer Space, which I had thought was just a myth.

The biggest contingent, or at least to begin with, was the badgers. The government had announced shortly after being elected that it would be rolling out a badger cull across the country, supposedly to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and so several thousand of the creatures had come in to central London to join the march. A mercury stream of badgers rushed between our legs and made frenetic circles around the edge of the protest, a dizzying stream of black and white indignation. Whenever the badgers took a pause you could see, between bulging eyes and snuffling snouts, the slogans daubed in mud or marker pens on their coats. Some of the badgers had opted for general anti-asteroid sentiments, in what might have been an attempt to emphasise the continuity of struggles, but most of them had (reasonably enough) chosen to take the opportunity to ask that they not be trapped and shot to death. Let me be! one said. I’m TB free! Some marchers were unimpressed. ‘It’s just identity politics,’ I heard one young man sneer. His satchel was dotted with Che badges. ‘When the asteroid hits, the badgers are gonna get it as bad as the rest of us.’ (Meanwhile some small scuffles broke out as a few protesters accidentally trod on the surging carpet of badgers running beneath them, while some especially pushy humans found a badger sinking its incisors deep into their ankle until the bones snapped – although I heard later that all this was a factional dispute between the badger bloc and some dregs of the Socialist Workers Party.) But for the most part the big badger debate took a back seat – most of what I heard was a gleeful whispering about which left-wing celebrity had been spotted where: Owen Jones spotted showing his bum from the balcony, Michael Sheen handing out placards to new arrivals on Threadneedle Street, or Russell Brand doing some impromptu swing-dancing with a few activists from Cheerful And Attractive A-Level Students Don’t Like This Asteroid Very Much. Everyone wanted to take a selfie with someone famous. After all, it might be the last chance they’d ever get.

After much hooting and piping, this swarm of people uncoiled itself from around the Bank of England and set off towards Westminster. Off we drifted, down Fleet Street, where kale-eaters in Itsu and Chinese tourists in waterproof ponchos stared at us in uncomprehending bemusement, through the Strand, where I saw one shopper turn to another and say ‘disgusting, they should bring out the water cannons,’ past Trafalgar Square, where the audience at a fenced-in festival called West End LIVE were entirely undisturbed by our last-ditch effort to save humanity, down Whitehall, where cops had encased the Cenotaph in protective plywood to stop the glorious dead being defaced by the ungratefully alive. We chanted. ‘We hate Tories, yes we do, and we hate their comet too,’ or ‘Get your comet out my face, send it back to outer space,’ or ‘Tory cunts are full of shite, and so’s their fucking meteorite.’ A float rolled by, crammed with speakers leaking euphoric drum and bass anthems from five years ago, DJ Fresh’s Gold Dust and so on, while the people surrounding it dipped and bobbed with that close, nervous energy of white people confronted by music without drugs. We marched in threads and clumps. Passing a glimpse of the river I was suddenly struck by the sheer dense claustrophobic vastness of London, the way it bloats for seething termite-mound miles in all directions. There were millions of people out there, not paying attention, as if the world weren’t ending. Where was the BBC? I felt fury growing, the sweet sting of vomit at the back of my throat. Forget the cops, forget the Tories: these people were the real enemies. The standers-by, the flatulent cud-chewers, the open-mouthed morons. They should be coming out to join this very important march against the bad asteroid. We shouldn’t be letting them live peacefully: we should be breaking the plate glass, dragging them off their injection-moulded plastic chairs as the crumbs of soggy falafel still fall from the corners of their mouths, out into the streets, to face revolutionary justice. Instead we just trundled on, a leisurely daytime stroll that was no more significant for the fact that it was being undertaken by two hundred thousand people. Maybe, I thought, we get the meteor we deserve.

The fact is that a lot of people in Britain passively support the destruction of all life on the planet. It’s something the whole country can get behind: it shows that Britain isn’t a spent power, and plus there’s the fact that 4179 Toutatis is named after a god of the ancient Britons. The policy might be mad and stupid, but it seems prudent and sensible. The asteroid is headed for a close approach with Earth anyway, on a course set from the beginning of time; what difference does one rocket nudging it towards our planet make? It’s just doing what needs to be done. It won’t be pleasant, but it’ll solve the debt crisis. The asteroid is all that gives them hope. Meanwhile there are the others, people who make it their speciality under the capitalist division of labour to take part in protests. When the asteroid comes, thundering towards the surface of our world with the full force of cosmic inevitability, they’ll be there, shouting at the asteroid to fuck off, willing it to turn away with llobbed fireworks and slogans and screams. For them, too, the asteroid is the only meaningful thing left.

In Parliament Square there was a stage, and speeches. Caroline Lucas came out to remind everyone that seventy-five percent of the British people didn’t vote for this asteroid. Owen Jones came out to say that the Tories would probably blame the total human extinction caused by their asteroid on immigrants and welfare scroungers, and that this was unfair. Jeremy Corbyn came out to ask why the Conservatives didn’t just go and live on the asteroid if they thought it was such a good idea. Charlotte Church came out to implore everyone, black and white, straight and queer, welfare recipients and CEOs, to come together to let the government know that we oppose their asteroid. ‘If we work together, someone or other said, ‘if we have faith in ourselves and our communities, we can and we will stop this asteroid!’ The crowd roared. Further up Whitehall, a couple of Class War insurrectionists in black bandanas were blasting gabber through portable speakers and setting fire ‘to let’ signs in a big circle, putting the purifying fire to their property of property. The Palace of Westminster was within puking distance, and we were in the hundreds of thousands; I couldn’t understand why nobody was rushing the gates to actually overthrow the government. Even if they had cops with sniper rifles on the roofs, they couldn’t shoot all of us. What would it matter, if we only have twelve months until the asteroid wipes us out anyway? This could all end! It was as if we were all resigned to the inevitability of the impact. Like we didn’t really want to live. I watched Russell Brand stumble around the stage, his eyes popping queasily, his shirt hanging in expensive rags. ‘Eeeuuurbbuhuh,’ he said, his head lolling in circles. ‘It’s systemic, yeah, a systemic asteroid, it’s this proper gestalt entity that’s the totality of everything threatening people today,’ he shrilled, his fingers twitching like faulty machinery. ‘Nnnurghh,’ he continued. ‘It’s like, oooouuuueeergh.’ If we don’t want to live, can you really blame us?

It was the cops that worried me the most. They were nowhere to be seen. When cops baton-charge a protest march, when they kettle the stragglers, when they snatch people from the crowd and cram them into trucks, it’s not pleasant – but it shows a level of respect. When their riot helmets and visors turn them into glassy robots, blank creatures of the faceless State, it’s because they’re ashamed to show their faces. Far worse for them to lounge in twos and threes at the sidelines, trusting the organisers to lead a protest that’s peaceful and responsible and entirely within the law, knowing that the demonstrators don’t pose any threat to anything. Even when the speeches gave way first to earnest men strumming acoustic guitars and singing about how the people can push back any asteroid, and then to nothing, after the scheduled protest finished, the self-satisfied daytripping contingent started to dribble back home, and only the militant and the badgers remained, the cops did nothing. Instead the sky darkened, and it began to rain. Now I know why it’s so damp in this country; now I know why fascism is so entrenched in our daily life. A crowd that would have kicked back tear gas canisters and struck body armour with the sticks off placards melted to nothing in the summer rain. Raindrops are miniature cops; the water here is liquid police. And Britain is an island.

(The left put the first person in space. Once we had our own grand projects. Now all we can do is feebly oppose the asteroids of our enemies, mount a rearguard action in defence of a planet we don’t even like. I don’t know why I’m writing this down. The government’s just announced £1.3 billion of funding for the rocket that’ll divert the asteroid’s orbit; it’s not like there’ll be anyone to read this in twelve months’ time.)

Eventually, just before dusk, the sky opened out once more – and I thought I saw a cold light twinkle in the dimming to the east. I stood and stared in the middle of the pavement, while patrons in the noisy shisha bar beside me, underlit in purple and orange, puffing rolling blooms of apple-scented smoke, stared themselves at me. Horns honked, men spat, women screeched, and something like life continued the way it always does, all buzz, all turn, all busyness and worry, all gas bills, box sets, pension plans and nights out, schmoozing at mosque and crying at home – but there it was. Something at once very distant and very near, like a pinprick through the fabric of the firmament, torn to reveal a mote of blinding-white truth beyond. The singularity. Pure speed and pure intent, crystallised in a fixed and shining speck. It wasn’t the asteroid, of course. Just a passenger plane, in its lazy final swoop down towards Heathrow. I realised my mistake as soon as I turned away. But it won’t be long. It won’t be long at all.

Cheeky Nando’s, or, what went wrong?

Americans, apparently, don’t ‘get’ what a cheeky Nando’s is.

Of course, you know what a cheeky Nando’s is. It’s when you’re hanging round the centre of town with the lads, just doing the usual, great bants all round, but you get proper peckish and you say ‘lads fancy a Macca’s’ but then your mate Cresty who’s a top notch lad and always on form with the suggestions goes ‘nah lads, I got it, let’s get a cheeky Nando’s’ because he’s a ledge and you go and Snapchat your meal and it’s well banging. Top.

Except sometimes you start to forget things. You know you’re in the centre of town, but how did you get there? What town? You don’t remember waking up in the morning. Haven’t you always been here? It’s England; this could only be England. Soot-stained bricks chipped to bleeding red. Trees in wire mesh. Chewing-gum and plastic pigeonshit grit. Not a big town, nothing here is big enough to be in a big town. It isn’t anywhere. The roadsigns tell you nothing: this street is marked ‘This Street’, across the road ‘That Street’ plunges down to Costa Coffee and payday loan infinity. The centre of town might stretch out forever. You could pick a direction and start walking, up the road past the JD Sports, past the Co-op with its petrified pears gleaming against the window, past the multi-storey car park that bloats in the afternoon mist, keep walking for weeks and years without ever seeing green fields or even houses, until eventually you’d round the globe and arrive back here again, still on this damp Wednesday that never ends and never began. The sky is bright. You can’t find the sun.

Here, under the awning of a glassy shopping centre. The squad smoke cigarettes and talk and smooth back their hair. You know these people. These are your friends. Tim, who got a swastika tattooed on his earlobe because he’s a total ledge. Paste, who lost his leg to a shark attack because he’s a right geezer. Buzz, whose left eyeball dangles on its nerve from a festering socket. J.B., a flayed heap of rags and lacerations, tottering on legs stripped to bone, breathing in bubbly gulps, pig’s trotters stitched to his wrists, gold nails bristling from his frail, heaving, ragged carcass. ‘Oi oi,’ he says. ‘Bants o’clock.’ Finally Cresty, whole and immobile, staring at nothing in particular. Inside his chest the blackboard scrape of rusting machinery. Proper lad. You’re having fun.

But you’re so hungry. You know what to say, lads fancy a Macca’s, but the words won’t make their way past your lips. Just a gasping whine. ‘Please. I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.’ It’s not like any hunger you’ve ever known. Correction: it’s the only hunger you’ve ever known. Visions swirl of you bursting into the battery farm, tearing chickens from their cages and ripping through their necks, burying your face in all that purple screeching food. You’d pull the creature apart from its cloaca. Feel the metal tang of blood smeared from ear to ear. The hunger’s not an absence, it’s something you need to expel, a tight shining dead ball of weight in the pit of your body, a cluster bomb. Everything is so heavy; your limbs tremble, you can hardly move. You want to tear yourself out of your own skin, just burst right out, gleaming and skeletal. You want to fuck the Earth bloody. You need to eat.

‘I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.’ There are other things you should have noticed. Like the women: shouldn’t there be women, somewhere? You have a vague sense that this is why you’re here, because there might be women. Shouldn’t there be people? You’re in the centre of town, but the streets are empty, and silence roars eternal fury in your ears. Shouldn’t there be cars? Somewhere, somehow, everything has gone terribly wrong. Your friends are talking, muffled honks drowned out by the void; you don’t understand them. All you can see is the flesh stretching and rippling around their mouths, the moist meaty flick of tongue, the haze of saliva that hangs motionless in the air after it’s sprayed from between two teeth. These faces, the ones you’ve known for as long as you can remember, the ones you’re poured all your secrets lies and braggadocio into, breaking out into a fit of incalculable otherness. What are these creatures? Who sent them? What do they want?

It all falls out at once, ladsfancyaMacca’s. Cresty’s head swivels towards you. He opens his mouth. You’re in front of Nando’s. You were there all along. There are things you can remember. Cheeky Nando’s. Extra-hot peri-peri chicken breast on pita with chips and a Coke Zero. Off the wall. Nutter. Your parents dead in bin-bags. Yeah love I’ve been to Nando’s before. Soldiers sweeping down your street helicopters plunging in flames. No shame in lemon and herb mate nah but shall we get a highchair for you while we’re at it. The laughter of women as you crouch naked penis shrivelling knees tucked to chest like the terrified child you’ve always been inside but thought you’d grown hide to conceal. Cheeky Nando’s with the lads. The sky a swollen bleeding pantophagous cunt. Bit expensive but it’s a good laugh. The radiation containment zone now covers the entire mainland United Kingdom north of Wakefield and south of Inverness. The state of emergency is a temporary measure. Fun is mandatory until the crisis passes. And flailing for something to be, desperate to rearrange the rubble, you chose to hang round the centre of town with the lads, to watch the stunned chickens on the conveyor belt twist heavy heads with round staring psychotic eyes and look out on a world they had no hope of ever being able to understand, and you laughed because you were better than them. You built this place. Cheeky Nando’s.

Nando’s is painted black. The name red. The menu chatty. The door obsidian. No sign of life inside. No inside to begin with, just a haze of images rising faintly through the glass, pictures of plates crowned with food, pictures of young men crowded round plates crowned with food, pictures of greying bones and tattered flesh. You turn to Cresty. ‘Say it,’ you whisper. Cresty blinks. ‘Just say it. Just say nah lads let’s just get a cheeky Nando’s.’ Cresty seems to dither. ‘Cheeky Nando’s. Please. So this can be over.’ Cresty’s jaw clangs shut. Whatever the test is, you’ve failed. Your fists bang against the window of Nando’s, a flailing spasm, and the glass doesn’t give, as thick and as solid as rock. And in another world, under another sky, on an ocean that flings cold salt-spray through the heat, on currents that will carry it charging from a cloistered past to a brighter tomorrow, the Portuguese ship slicks up the coast. Sails surge, timbers creak. The ensign whips in the wind, the captain struts through the sunshine. And in the suffocating darkness under its boards, six hundred men and women in chains and terror, and twenty crates of peri-peri peppers. Top.


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