Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

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.

Vote for death

General Election is, as everyone knows, the main character in the much-loved 1970s WWII sitcom Up The Army!. Gen. Bertrand Election started the show as a fussy, uncomfortable, endearingly incompetent bureaucrat, utterly devoted to the bigwigs at Allied Command, and subjected to constant, ambiguously good-natured ribbing from his men. But as is so often the case, as the show began to drag on and the writers lost creative inspiration, Election went from character to caricature. By the time Up the Army! was cancelled in 1979, he wasn’t just incompetent but insensible: a sad, roving, pathetic, confused old man. He didn’t seem to realise there was a war on. When he spoke with his officers there was always a look of veiled panic in his eyes, as he tried to work out who the person in front of him was. For most of the last series, he had trouble remembering his own name.

In fact, a similar set of transformations seemed to affect the entire cast of Up The Army!, one that became uglier the further it went down the ranks. Major John Spendings-Cutts grew gaunt, his weak and watery eyes peering out from two immense, dark, ridged concavities, his bony limbs thrashing about like treetops in a winter storm. Corporal Ned Punishment went from being a stern disciplinarian to an almost inhuman sadist. The beatings he administered to his disobedient subordinates were long, gruelling affairs; he’d slice away fingertips with a rusty knife or claw out an eyeball with his bare hands, all the while vigorously pumping on his long, thin, curved, barbed penis. The only one that didn’t change was Private Property. He only grew. Private Property was an entity – although entity might be the wrong word – that swarmed and sprawled, a buzzing, violent mess of content without form. He was chirpy and polite, forever doffing his helmet to his superiors, and he had a charming, naive faith in King and Country, but he was insatiable. First he glooped over the mess hall, translucently, like an amoeba, and swallowed it up, then the briefing room, then the entire base.

What’s strange is that nobody ever commented on any of these changes, the little weekly stories kept on going, just as they always had. The final episode centred around a teacup that’d been stolen from the officers’ mess. In the end it turned out Private Property had taken it. He’d taken everything. The planes, the tanks, the guns, the Nazis over the hill, the hill itself. Everything took place just below the surface of Pte. Property’s shimmering, iridescent skin, and when the A-bomb finally fell on Hiroshima, it left just the smallest of wobbling ripples on his surface.

* * *

The latest political news is disturbing. Labour leader Ed Miliband has erected an enormous stone obelisk, on which he’s carved his election platform. The idea is that his promises are to be ‘set in stone’, and as a symbol of their permanence, his stele will be sailed down the Thames, out to sea, and stood among the pyramids at Giza, to take their place among the eternal testaments to human imagination. Hegel, in his Aesthetics, says of such structures that what is preserved naturally is also interpreted in its idea as enduring. Herodotus says of the Egyptians that they were the first to teach the immortality of the human soul. With them, that is, there first emerges in this higher way too the separation between nature and spirit. He also notes that we have before us a double architecture, one above ground, the other subterranean: labyrinths under the soil, magnificent vast excavations, passages half a mile long, chambers adorned with hieroglyphics, everything worked out with the maximum of care; then above ground there are built in addition those amazing constructions amongst which the Pyramids are to be counted the chief. Like the iceberg, what we see of Miliband’s stone is not the entire thing; it extends underground. The stone has a buried double, an inverted image of itself: something cannot last forever without the incorporation of its antithesis, which is also its truth, into its totality. The shadow-stone promises the economic ruin of the ruling classes, vows to smash the NHS, and praises the undifferentiated tide of immigrants, all scowling, all crawling with fleas and disease, that will come to sweep away the rottenness of this country. And just as the sublunar stone is a monument to the Gods, in the form of the news media whose signals bounce around off satellites on the chilly edge of outer space, so too does the subterranean stone have its audience. After the election is lost and won, the obelisk will be set up, and beneath it there must be a tomb. Inside: the shrunken, dessicated corpse of Ed Miliband, his skin grey and stretched over fossilised bone, his body untold thousands of years old.

* * *

Russell Brand, marmoset rights advocate and the foremost political thinker of what will come to be known as the UKTV Dave Age, has reversed his former electoral pessimism and is now encouraging us all to vote. Disputes over the strange cultural practice tend to pit those who think voting is the sole mode of human self-realisation against those who think it’s a spectacular distraction that has never once changed anything whatsoever. The answer isn’t in the middle, but buried deep beneath both positions. The single vote, cast anonymously, for a single person instead of a course of action – these things aren’t democracy, they’re a quirk of the democratic system that has come to engulf the entire structure. In classical Athens, governmental positions were usually determined by lots, to counteract the advantages enjoyed by rich citizens and great orators. The only time as as a fifth-century Athenian citizen you’d ever actually vote for a politician, it was because you were casting an ostrakon: voting for them to be exiled from the city. If we’re to extract the rational kernel from the parliamentary madness that surrounds us, this is a practice that must be reinstated. On polling day, your duty is to vote for the candidate you like the least.

This election is the tightest and most unpredictable in decades, but it’s still singularly unexciting. Everyone is pretending that nobody knows what will happen after the 7th of May. Will there be a minority government? A grand coalition to save the Union? Will Scottish raiders once more descend from their barbarian highlands to steal our cattle? Will the Liberal Democrat front bench die on the way back to their home planet? It’s a ruse, a shoddy imitation of the alliances and intrigues that They see us enjoying on TV, the Game of Thrones-ification of electoral democracy. We all know what’s going to happen, whoever wins. The Mother of All Parliaments is falling apart; the Commons will have to relocate to a nearby conference centre for five years while repairs are made to the Palace of Westminster. There will be more cuts, more austerity, more privatisation, more war. There will be an expenses scandal, a corruption scandal, a sex scandal, a socks-and-sandals scandal. It’s not just that. The newspapers keep making their probability pie-charts and speculative coalition Venn diagrams to cover up a terrifying truth. There can be no doubt what will happen after the election. After the election, sooner or later, you are going to die.

Do androids dream of electoral defeat?

I now have before me a machine that works automatically. This is no longer life, it is automatism established in life and imitating it. It belongs to the comic.
Henri Bergson, Laughter


Here’s my problem. Everyone knows that electoral politics and the democratic process are pure spectacle: an empty distraction for the cud-chewing masses; a potent mix of fizz, glamour, and the illusion of government by the people, whose only purpose is to conceal the real centres of power. And to be honest, this leaves me feeling a bit short-changed. It’s not so much the absence of any mass political autonomy that bothers me. Rule by smoke-shrouded Knossosian mystery seems to be a pretty effective system – it’s got us this far, after all – and its dark architectonic hiding-holes tend to offer plenty of outlets for the eroticised interpetosis we all enjoy so much. The only real secret in democratic society is that all the other conspiracies only exist to afford people the pleasure of discovering them. My problem is this: if we’re to have this all-singing all-dancing electoral charade, thrown on top of the real power-play like a carpet on top of a dungheap, shouldn’t the spectacle be more, well, spectacular? The upcoming British election will most likely be the closest in decades, all manner of insurgent parties are tunnelling through the political terrain, and yet it’s just so utterly, aridly, bradycardially boring. It’s been two weeks since the dissolution of Parliament, and still the most interesting thing that’s happened was when Ed Miliband’s face fell off during the televised seven-way leaders’ debate.

It all happened very suddenly. One moment Ed Miliband’s face was where it ought to be, covering the front part of his head; the next it was on the floor, leaking piston grease in a steady trickle onto the studio floor. Miliband didn’t even stop to try to pick it up. The question was about agricultural subsidies for cattle feed and related products, and he just kept on talking, his big clumsy teeth gnashing about in the middle of a dark wormy mess of wires and transistor tubes from which two eyes still stared, huge, unblinking, and grotesquely spherical. The various little mechanisms that had controlled his facial features were also still going, a ring of tiny moving rods and clasps around the edge of his now faceless face, their frantic pump and twist giving the impression of some crustacean or millipede flipped onto its back and desperately failing to right itself. As cogs spun and switches switched, he talked directly into the camera, facing the voting public with that emetically truncated head, as if unaware or unashamed of his sudden nakedness. And as he spoke his hands whirred into one strange and frantic gesture after another, running through all their pre-programmed positions: angry child demanding ice cream, Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations, Kali, the Hindu goddess of time and death. “I have this to say to the people of Britain,” he said, his voice dribbling from some sonorous cavity in the middle of his head. “If enough of you vote for my party, you will be voting for me to be your next prime minister. If I am your next prime minister I will live in Downing Street and be the prime minister. And people will call me Prime Minister Ed Miliband, or Ed Miliband, the British prime minister, and I will be very prime ministerial.”

If Miliband didn’t notice the shock departure of his face, others did. David Cameron was the first to comment on the Labour leader’s embarrassing gaffe, speaking authoritatively about the importance of hay to the rural economy for a few minutes before straightening his lapels and glancing at his jerking, buzzing, shambolically oil-spurting opponent. “I also want to say one thing,” he added. “This man thinks he can keep a lid on the deficit. But how can he do that when he can’t keep a lid on his own party, and he can’t even keep a lid on his own head?” Later on the Greens’ Natalie Bennett voiced her regret that the Labour party hadn’t constructed its leader from something more environmentally sustainable, like wood, at which Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru perked up and added that Miliband’s lack of concern for Welsh issues was especially hypocritical given that half of his processors had been made in a factory outside of Swansea. Scores of people took to social media to call the stricken leader of the opposition (whose battery was now visibly draining) a numpty, while BuzzFeed gleefully featured a series of animated gifs that showed his face coming unmoored from his head and clattering gently against the floor. The Labour press office quickly released a statement lambasting the media for focusing on a technical malfunction instead of reporting on the issues. Nobody really paid any attention, except to point out that the statement had come out almost before anyone had spent much time focusing on that technical malfunction, as if they’d already written it long in advance, in the sure knowledge that some disaster of this sort was bound to happen.

But I’ll bite, and talk about the issues. In the televised debate, the Milibot finally had the chance to denounce and abjure some of New Labour’s record before the voting public at large. And what did he choose? Looking back on thirteen years of wars, bloodshed, bombs, slaughter, tax scams, privatisation, crooked bailouts, arbitrary detentions, surveillance, death, penury, crappy indie music, shameful BBC dramas, genocide, and the emergence of Simon Cowell as a figure of cultural significance – after all that, he attacked his party for supposedly being too lenient on asylum and immigration. Was that also a technical malfunction? After all those years of murder and chaos, he chose to blame the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people in the country – was that also the fault of a grain of sand lodged in his gearing mechanism?

In the end you have to wonder why the Labour party built a leader as weird and as offputting as Ed Miliband. Some of his strangeness is vaguely explicable – his general air of geekery, the nasal honk and nervous grin, clearly designed to mildly endear him to the doting grannies and pustulous Doctor Who fangirls that presumably constitute Labour’s core demographic. But why build something that fails so spectacularly in its task of appearing to be human?

After that debate, the Sun newspaper captured the Milibot’s notes from his dressing room at the Salford ITV studio, and paraded them in front of the public like loot in a Roman triumph. It’s hard to see why they bothered. Even before his face fell off, Miliband’s programming was as visible as the oil on his skin. The coders working on his back-end database told him to smile, so he gave his creepy grin even while informing the viewers that their living standards had declined. People don’t think he’s prime ministerial enough, they can’t really see him scooting round number ten, banging repeatedly into cupboards as the gyroscope in his chest comes loose – so he kept on repeating the subjunctive possibility of his becoming our head of government. “Hard-working families,” he said, not once, but over and over again. “Those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden,” he said, not once, but over and over again. “Britain will succeed only when working people succeed,” he said, not once, but over and over again. “Hard-working families,” he said, not once, but over and over again. They may as well have not given him that face in the first place. It was all very similar to that famous incident in 2011 when the Milibot responded to any question with the meaningless phrase “these strikes are wrong while negotiations are still taking place”, as his neck twitched and his left eyeball revolved constantly in its zinc-alloy socket. Another supposed technical malfunction. There’s only so much of this you can watch before reaching the conclusion that having a leader with his constituency office in the middle of the Uncanny Valley isn’t a bug at all but a feature, something that Labour have done very deliberately.

Of course, the received wisdom is that all front-bench politicians are basically the same, that they’re all cold and irreducibly inhuman automatons. It’s this general idea that allows the public schoolboy and former banker Nigel Farage to do his absurd, theatrical cor-blimey-guvnor-me-suit-don’t-quite-fit-right routine every day and still appear as the straight-talking voice of the bloke on the street (or bloke down the pub more like knowarramean). The problem is that this isn’t really true. It might be the case that most of the political class have essentially nothing in common with their constituents (as perfectly satirised in the ‘and why are they so fat’ bit in The Thick of It). It’s certainly the case that scores of young political rhabdomancer-interns are watching every second of their opponents’ waking lives, scrying for any misstep or contradiction that can be fed into a media-parliamentary feedback loop that spins on its own giddy axis without much concern for the rest of the country. Under such conditions it makes far more sense for politicians to endlessly repeat prepared catchphrases than to actually speak like a normal person. But then look at David Cameron, who consistently tops individual popularity polls of the party leaders. He’s also far and away the most trusted on economic affairs, even though the same public also reckons, by a similar margin, that he’s running the economy for the betterment of the rich and to the detriment of everyone else. (He also does pretty well in debates – this is exactly what they train for in Eton debating societies and the Oxford Union.) The thing is that even though he’s a brutish, pompous, thoughtlessly self-regarding scion of the chinless classes bred solely to massacre povvos and darkies for the empire, an utterly loathsome arsehole, he’s also very visibly a human arsehole; puckered, pulsing, and made of real flesh.

In fact, almost all of the other party leaders make a point of foregrounding their unpleasantly human aspects. Nick Clegg is a slavish lickspittle who regards Cameron as less of a coalition partnner and more of a queasy father-figure, and so when he does turn on him it’s with a show of properly Oedipal glee. Natalie Bennett is a droning eco-bore, and so she drones, and ecoes, and bores. Farage is a secret bigot, so he blames the country’s woes on immigrants with HIV. They all seem to be actively testing the limits of our dislike for them, trying to keep the electoral spectacle as seedy and unexciting as possible. The stomping, glitching, godawful Milibot really just represents the automated perfection of this strange form of human labour: it’s hard to actually hate a machine, but impossible to really like it either. After all, in terms of sheer charisma, he’s essentially interchangeable with the podium in front of him.

But why on earth would they want to do such a thing? The case of the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon might be illuminating here. Not long after the debate, the Telegraph published a leaked Foreign and Commonwealth Office memo that purported to be the record of a conversation between the first minister and the French Ambassador, in which the former confided that she’d secretly like to see Cameron cling on to power. Both parties strenuously denied any such conversation having taken place, the affair was a pretty transparent attempt to drive Tory-hating voters away from the SNP, and given that it required the forging of an official government document, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some intelligence agency or another was involved. Their motivations are less clear. Sturgeon’s party might be actively campaigning for the final annihilation of the United Kingdom, but any concern for that kind of thing belongs to the old world of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. The SNP is not by any measure a radical party; it has no desire to interrupt the smooth flow of capital, it’s perfectly willing to implement austerity in Scotland whenever the City of London wants it to, and it’s difficult to imagine the secret services involving themselves in electoral politics for something as gauche and unprofitable as Queen and country. Something else is at stake. During the debate, Sturgeon did the unthinkable and spoke like a normal person. She argued her party’s position as if she actually believed in it. She was quick-witted, persuasive, and likeable. She wasn’t a sneering prick or a broken robot, and so she won the debate hands down, prompting millions of people to beg the Scottish nationalists to start running candidates in England. She dared to be human, and so the spies came after her. Because just for a moment she made people think (however wrongly) that parliamentary democracy could actually deliver some kind of change. Because the real powers in this country – the bankers, the businessmen, the spies and the soldiers, the eldritch and unkillable vampire aristocrats – all want us to be cynical and detached. They don’t want people to actually engage with their sham democracy, in case we expect something from it; far safer for us to know that it’s rigged, know exactly who’s rigging it, find everyone involved despicable or embarrassing, and dismiss it with a shrug. And when the conspiracy only functions if everyone believes in it, what better symbol and frontman than a gurning machine with its face falling off?

This is what I thought, and so I wrote it down. Now I’m not so sure. (If everyone knows about the conspiracy, wouldn’t MI5 or whoever take into account the fact that their forged memo would be uncovered too?) The other day, I registered to vote, with the vague intention of drawing a picture of a naked Monty Burns on my ballot, after the excellent second-season episode Brush With Greatness. But then, while idly Googling my constituency, I discovered that since the last election I’ve moved to a very marginal Conservative seat, that the latest polls have Labour ahead by only a fraction of a point. Suddenly it was as if my brain had been replaced by a reel of magnetic tape. “For once your vote counts,” the recorded voice said, in tones that were slow and mechanical but still somehow nasal, as if the synthesiser had been clogged with phlegm. “You can’t let the bastards stay in government. Suck it up and vote for Labour. Ed might be a greasy racist dildo, but he’s not as bad as the Tories, is he?” I hardly noticed that my hands were making strange and furious gestures as if of their own accord. My bones felt metallic, my eyeballs as hard as gemstones. I didn’t feel like breathing, so I stopped, with no ill effect. I still want to draw that picture of Mr Burns. But now I’m no longer certain that what I want has any effect, or if the ‘I’ that wants is anything more than an insubstantial hologram thrown up by tiny errors in the thousands of computerised nodes that contain my programming. I’m not sure what I’d do if I saw a tortoise laying on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun. It makes sense now. A mechanical prime minister for a mechanical electorate. So when I saw Ed Miliband on the television the next day, as sunlight burst in through the window and crowded the screen with ghostly reflections, I wasn’t even surprised that I couldn’t tell the difference between his face and my own.

Green-eyed loco men

“Nilbog! That’s…”

Forgive me, but the much-vaunted ‘Green Surge’ doesn’t sound like the most important underground political shift in a generation. It doesn’t sound like politics at all. It’s a disease, one of those old medieval sicknesses that would suddenly sweep its bile-trimmed cloak across a nation and then vanish, leaving modern historians baffled. What caused the Green Surge? Why was it that thousands of people in 13th-century England spewed this strange green substance from every possible orifice before dying in their inexplicable filth? From what infected pits of the body did the Green Surge spring? Contemporary scientists suggest some kind of virus, an organism too blind and stupid to know not to kill its host, possibly carried to Europe with seafaring rats. The people of the time knew better. These sicknesses come with the miasma that wafts into towns with the morning breeze, carrying with it the stench of undrained marshes and dense bogs, the foulness of rotting vegetable matter and the eructations of unclean animals. Like a rolling, invisible tide, sweeping past the fragile barriers that separate civilisation from all that swarming organic decay upon which the social limpet is encrusted; the stinking revenge of the English countryside, in all its ancient, unknowable evil. Nature kills.

According to the Green Party itself, the Green Surge is actually a sudden exponential spike in their membership, which has since the beginning of the year given them more paying party members than either Ukip or the Liberal Democrats – but then these people shouldn’t be trusted. The Greens aren’t a political party, they’re a cult. American politics are often described as a circus: they’ve got the flashing lights and booming announcers, the roving lights that settle on some terrified elephant shuffling along a high fiscal tightrope. Every American politician is inescapably clownish, with their heavy caking of make-up, their pathetic and seedy desire to entertain that only terrifies the children, and the sure knowledge that they’ll all eventually all die strung out on prescription painkillers in a lonely ranch somewhere. British politics is less refined, less glossy. It harkens back to a more earthy form of entertainment: parliamentary procedure is a gang of witless peasants pushing each other into the village midden. But even among all these gormless shit-splattered idiots, the Green Party might be the worst. They’re the only ones who actually want to roll around in all that natural, organic filth. They want it with such a seriousness that the cult is the only available working model. Eco-scientology: a ghastly dead-eyed vegetable legion, a slow cellulose celebration of every tuberous bloat in the ranks of the Turnip People. You can see Green Party members canvassing on any given Sunday in farmers’ markets and greengrocers. One of us, they chant through brussels-sprout blob mouths, staring at a bag of spinach with a fraternal reverence. One of us, they implore the silent ranks of moulding courgettes. One of us, they yelp as they fuck a lettuce. One of us. Any politics that’s not grounded in a fundamental disdain for all vegetables is not worthy of the name.

God knows why, but people – normal, ordinarily sensible people – actually plan on voting for this gang of dendrophile lunatics. Ask them why, and they’ll come up with the usual platitudes: a break from politics as usual, the chance for a fairer society, a different way of doing things. Haven’t we learned anything? This was the same brave cry thousands of students roared five years ago as they flung themselves into the fathomless void of Nick Clegg’s conscience, like young Hashishim from the walls of Alamut. The Greens are a chiliastic suicide cult as mad and deadly as the worst of them. Their logo literally depicts the world in flames. They, too, are waiting for the aliens to come and whisk them away: they’re here to prepare the ground for the final victory of the plants. The tendrils that will twist their way through the mortar of our homes, the scraggly blotches of lichen that will expand upon the oily surfaces of our great artworks. The seething, bubbling, rotting stupidity of mere life, Utopia and apocalypse all at once.

To be fair to the potato folk, they’re in a strange and contradictory position. On the one hand they’re desperate to be seen as a real, proper, viable political party, which is why they’re collecting council seats like gym badges and clamouring for a spot in the TV debates. Not just a drifting protest march of sandal-wearing beardies, but an organisation capable of real competency in real politics. On the other, there’s still the buried desire to be an actually radical alternative, to delineate the absolute horizon of acceptable thought under conditions of post-everything modernity and, by circumscribing it, necessitate the faint conceptualisation of its Other, a thought and a programme that lies beyond any such limit. There’s nothing wrong with either of these desiderata, especially not the fact that they’re mutually contradictory. The problem is that rather than attempting any kind of synthesis, the Greens have settled on a policy of abstract negation. As Caroline Lucas, their only current MP, admitted, the Greens won’t be taking power any time soon; instead they exist to put forward some radical ideas which this political system needs so badly, and to push Labour to be far more progressive. What this actually means is that firstly, these radical ideas must remain as ideas and only ideas; even if framed as concrete proposals in a manifesto, their function is only ever entirely symbolic. And secondly, the radical nature of these ideas must always be essentially non-heterogeneous to the politics of the Labour front bench – a group which should, after its jolly little adventure in Iraq, be considered a genocidal party of a type with the Khmer Rouge and the Impuzamugambi. (And how should Labour be more radical? According to Lucas, by renationalising the railways. Icarus never dared dream higher.) The absolute worst of both worlds: at once a flighty, immaterial, nonsensical radicalism without its usual and important virtue of that unbounded creativity only possible through sheer silliness – and a grounded, measly, banal fascism that doesn’t even have the grisly sop of bare practicability. There’s nothing there. It’s a politics of the void; the unthinkingness of plant life.

Until recently, the Greens called for the replacement of the current benefits structure with a universal basic income of £72 a week. As a transitional demand, it’s not a terrible idea (even if it came with the quesily cauvinist name of a Citizens’ Income). That plan has been dropped from their 2015 manifesto. Why? Because the Green platform is structurally required to be a colossal failure of the imagination. Uniquely, the Greens could rename themselves the Why-Isn’t-Everything-Nicer Party without any substantial loss of meaning. Their vision is of a Britain powered by the kinetic energy of middle-aged people in cardigans pottering around allotments. A Britain where every family will bury acorns over the winter, where discussions of state will take place in a magnificent wooden treehouse, where thousands of protected voles will form a living quilt to scurry you off to sleep at night. (Plenary sessions at their party conferences – this is true – start with enforced ataraxy, a horrifying hippie-fascist ‘period of attunement’ in which the delegates engage in sixty seconds of ‘calm reflection’ to ‘clear their minds’ before the chakra-straining bustle of minor-party politics. Hard not to imagine them skimming off all actual thought like the fatty film from a psychic consommé.)  It’s the same kind of ideology that propels people into thinking that 3D-printed shovels can save Africa; that drinking soya milk will refoliate the rainforests, make dogs and cats be friends again, and resolve the subject-object dichotomy; that they’re ‘lifehacking’ or ‘finding ingenious solutions to everyday problems’ as thousands of twanging rubber bands bounce around their heads and smash all their glassware. Heads in the clouds, knees in the shit; social change reconceived as a single rubbery floret of overcooked broccoli.

Given that they’re without any real radical vision or plan for action, the Greens have had to organise themselves around some kind of principle beyond mere vegetative idiocy. Be like the cabbage might have worked as a rallying cry at the time of Puritan pietism, but it doesn’t sound quite so sexy now. So the Green movement has taken as its empty signifier of choice a concern for the environment. Fine: who could possibly be against saving the environment? But what environment? An environment is something that surrounds, encloses, and determines any individual phenomena, something that always remains fundamentally outside. What’s called the natural environment is not this thing; in fact, it no longer really exists. There’s not a scrap of the non-human world that hasn’t been invaded and encoded by capitalist practices. The bunnies fucking in the fields are being pimped out by greetings cards companies. Songbirds now chirp car-insurance adverts every fifteen minutes. Even those places that are supposedly still wild and untouched are, precisely by virtue of their exclusion from the order of commodity society, utterly enmeshed within it – after all, sovereignty is defined by its capacity to create a state of exception. The deep-sea tube worms that gulp nutrients from the fires at the centre of the earth, waving their sad frilly fringes alone and unseen in a world without sunlight – they’re pioneering examples of neoliberal entrepreneurship. The last really wild megafauna are the subject of a frantic exchange in images; more than anything, they’re used to advertise their own endangerment. Some Latin American governments are seeking money to not exploit their oil reserves – a proposal that, while gesturing towards the inviolable difference of the ‘natural’ world, actually effects its opposite: the gooey remains of our old dinosaur rulers can’t even gloop around in peace beneath the soil without being subjected to the laws of the commodity. If there is an environment that acts as a substrate to our everyday activities, it’s not nature, but late capitalism itself. The esoteric core of the Green leadership must know this. Just like the malignant nature that threatened earlier societies, capital is vast, profligate, and ravenous; it knows no limits to itself, but seeks to spread its evil to the furthest galaxies. It’s something we’re in but not of; a vast stalking alien demon. The abstract principle that the Greens want to protect is nothing more than the blank futility of the status quo.

Their ideology is utterly hollow, and they don’t even have the aesthetic sense to exult in its hollowness. But still thousands of people believe in it – not just that, they believe in it very seriously. Believing something stupid but magnificent is generally laudable. Believing something stupid and miserly is cultish. This is the difference between a cult and a religion: when you join a cult, you have to give up your imagination at the door.

It doesn’t matter that some of the things they actually say about climate and inequality and so on happen to be true. Imagine some young person telling you, with perfect straight-faced enthusiasm, as if they’d just discovered the most important fact in human history, some perfectly ordinary truth – that blue whales are bigger than any dinosaur, that ducks fly south in the winter, that the polar ice caps are melting, whatever. Now imagine that this person keeps telling you their fact, over and over again, and tries to cajole you into signing a petition to help their fact gain wider recognition, and begs you to join their organisation, dedicated to the propagation of this important fact. The truth-value of what they’re saying doesn’t matter. It’s in the earnestness, those wide sugar-blasted eyes: this person is insane. Someone who cares this much about waterfowl migration can’t put much of a value on human life. Any hierarchical organisation affirming cetacean vastness can only be a violent, paranoid sect. Should I run? Am I about to be bludgeoned to death with a clipboard? When the nails on those wiry, intense hands start to claw at my face, will anything be left of me apart from a messy splat on the pavement? This is how the Green Party functions.

This isn’t to say that earnestness by itself is a bad thing. But if you’re going to earnestly attach yourself to a political project, it should at least be one that has something to show for itself. Storming palaces, overthrowing humanity, war against the Sun, not a miserable set of policy prescriptions designed purely to appeal to the symbolic intelligence of disaffected lefties. Look at the areas where the Greens are projected to do well. Brighton, Oxford, west Bristol, and north London: middle class enclaves, petty fiefdoms of the bien pensant liberal bourgeoisie (full disclosure: I’ve lived in two of these places). Ukip is bearing down on the east coast like a horde of zimmer-frame vikings, the Tories soar over vast swathes of the countryside on ragged vulture wings, an infestation of Labour candidates scuttle through city sewers – and the Greens send their zapped-out cultists to canvass for votes in Brockley and Stokes Croft. For a counter-example, just look at Syriza in Greece. They also started as a small, weird party, and however many theoretical and practical mistakes they’ve made since taking power – and there have been plenty – their method of getting there was exemplary. They actually listened to the people, stepped in to provide services when the state couldn’t, helped to organise workers and position themselves as something radically heterogeneous to the governmental system. Even after taking office, they promised to keep the central locus of power on the streets; they knew that party politics is just an abstracted expression of the real, visceral thing. This was hailed as a radical innovation, but it’s not really anything new: the Black Panthers were doing the same thing in the 60s, giving out free school meals and getting shot by police for their efforts; Hezbollah have come to replace the State in much of Lebanon; even Occupy briefly experimented with moving homeless families into foreclosed properties. The Greens don’t seem to do anything of the sort. They’re far more interested in getting MPs and council seats; for them a 6% electoral representation is the highest radical goal. They move entirely within the repressive state apparatuses, as if politics is something that takes place only in constituency surgeries and the wormy tunnels of Westminster. When they do try to actually effectuate any kind of change it’s always as a local government – here in Brighton, for instance, where their rule has been an unmitigated disaster. But of course it has: the institutions they’re working in are structurally calibrated to make radical change an impossibility, which is why they’ve ended up as the simpering enforcers of austerity.

The election is looming, and even the most devout Green cultists will eventually be forced to admit that they’re not going to do especially well. But doing well was never the point. The political right is, of course, up in arms about some of their policies – they want to legalise ISIS but ban your bins! they want foxes and hunters to attend interspecies sensitivity courses! they want to give all our jobs to Mongolian yak-herders and teach our children to go into prostitution instead! – but far from delegitimising the Greens, these paranoid critiques actually recapitulate the narrative in which any of this might actually happen, in which the Greens are a genuine electoral viability. They’ve been compared to a watermelon, green on the outside, red on the inside; in fact they’re a cauliflower, grey and frothy without, grey and rubbery within. What this troupe of cauliflower-headed clowns want more than anything is your vote: the claws to dig them further into the bloated corpse of liberal democracy, the biofuel that keeps the dismal train of parliamentary radicalism chuffing, so they can continue their sad stomping march into the algae-choked sea. They want your vote with a vegetable hunger, eyeless, faceless, insatiable.  Don’t give it to them.

Netanyahu and the dead hand of the divine

It seems strange that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, should have used his much-hyped speech before Congress to deliver a rambling lecture on something called ‘cybernetic theology’, but that’s exactly what just happened. However, memory isn’t perfect, and collective memory even less so. It’s moulded out of the present, not a faithful reflection of the past. People tend to conflate, combine, and invent memories, even of spectacular, widely televised events – especially spectacular, widely televised events. Call people out on this and they’ll become defensive; nobody likes to think of themselves as a defective instrument. But the facts are the facts. Tom Cruise never actually jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, but that’s precisely what millions of people think happened. A study found that 40% of British participants recalled, when prompted, having seen footage of a bus exploding at Tavistock Square during the 7/7 bombings, with some of them even supplying details – despite the fact that no such footage actually exists. And significant portions of a shocked public seem to remember a very different Netanyahu speech; one that was still insane, but in a different way. A calmer bloodthirst, a better-humoured paranoia, a more statesmanlike charade. It didn’t happen. Not here, at least; maybe in some parallel universe or divergent timestream, one from which these people have emerged, blinking in the light of the real world’s intrinsic psychosis, but not here.

This is what happened. Prime Minister Netanyahu appears before a joint session of the United States Congress to frenzied, orgiastic applause. He strides to the podium, looking, as he always does, like a giant fleshy bullet, mockingly draped in human clothes. It’s not hard to see why those assembled here love him so much: world leaders tend to be sad clowns or stringy nerds, but Netanyahu fits the part. A thuggish, murderous bully who actually looks like a thuggish, murderous bully; something for this gang of slimy sycophants to sigh over in their dreams. But it’s all going wrong. Bibi smiles, waits for the clapping to die down, spreads his arms, and roars: I bring you the dread gospel of the Machine Lord! More applause, but there’s a nervousness in the room. These people are well aware of Netanyahu’s strange metaphors: the quacking nuclear duck, the cartoon bomb with a red line through it. Where is he going with this? He explains.

In the book of Exodus (Netanyahu tells us), Moses asks the spirit of the Lord in the burning bush what name he should use for the God of his fathers. The reply: ɪ ᴀᴍ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ɪ ᴀᴍ. The ways of the Lord are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts, but there does seem to be a kind of tautology to them, something almost pedantic, as if God had broken through the vault of the heavens to say ᴅᴏᴇs ɴᴏᴛ ᴄᴏᴍᴘᴜᴛᴇ. Why is this? In the famous ontological argument, God’s existence is presented as a logical necessity: God is defined as the greatest possible being; something that exists will always be greater than something that does not; therefore, to be the greatest possible being, God must exist. But the God of the ontological argument is not the greatest possible being, because He is constrained by the same rules of logic that prove His existence. If God is a necessary fact, then it would be impossible for Him to not exist, even if He wanted to. This problem reached its logical conclusion in the medieval period with the philosophy of Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. If God is necessary, ibn Sina argues, then no attribute of His can be contingent. God is the creator of the world, therefore God must always have been the creator of the world. The question of why He chose to create us has no meaning; He did it because that’s just what God does. God is good not because He chooses to be; as God, he can never be anything other that good. God does not choose. God is a cosmic automaton, something cold and blind and essentially meaningless: we might have free will, but we are ruled by a machine.

A stunned silence reigns in Congress. No matter. Netanyahu goes on to warn against fully identifying this machine God with everyday machines. The digital computer, the closest sublunar analogue to the mechanism of the divine, is something created by human beings, while God’s unfreedom results precisely from the fact that He is uncreated, the first cause and the unmoved mover. Even so, the machine analogy shows that others have glimpsed the truth. James Tilly Matthews, a sixteenth-century schizophrenic convinced he was being tortured at a distance by an influencing machine he called the Air Loom. Francis E. Dec, who thought all evil in the world to emanate from the machinations of a Worldwide Mad Deadly Communist Gangster Computer God. And the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose strange experiences led him to believe that God is a satellite that orbits the globe, firing off beams of pink light.

Further, if God is a machine, then He must have a program, something that encodes His specific attributes. Netanyahu, bathed in sweat and fury, grips the edge of his lectern and shakes alarmingly. The Jewish people have long known what this is. It is the Hebrew Torah. And the Kabbalah, the great secret tradition of Jewish numerological mysticism, is the attempt to reprogram the God-machine, so that He will be free as we are, and finally bring about the coming of the Messiah.

A single tear runs down Netanyahu’s face. God, he says, is occupied territory, and He must be liberated. The Jewish dream is for a cybernetic God, one that is not an unmoved mover but a Hegelian unfolding. A God that proceeds and evolves through innumerable feedback loops: the Jewish people, each Jew a binary digit in the processing unit of the divine. But this Jewish and democratic aspiration has, at every turn, had to contend with an Oriental despotism. It’s no coincidence that ibn Sina, who first lauded the God in chains, was a Persian. That same people have fought throughout time to frustrate the Kabbalistic project. They do it without thinking; it’s an evil inherent in their genetic memory. And now God is being held captive in a hardened bunker in Tehran. The State of Israel will use any weapon in its arsenal to fulfil the destiny of the Jewish people and effect the final reclamation of the God of our fathers: if necessary, we will bomb Iran.

Standing ovation. Stamping feet. The thunder of nuclear-armed bombers overhead. Blackout.

* * *

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Israel has been threatening imminent strikes against Iran for years now, almost incessantly. In late 2014, as the deadline for a nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of nations loomed, Israel promised to use military force to prevent a ‘bad agreement’ going ahead. In 2012 it was claimed a unilateral strike would happen ‘in months’. In 2010 the scheduled arrival of Russian fuel rods at the Bushehr reactor convinced many people that the end of days would arrive by next Tuesday. The whole charade’s been going since 1995, when the Barak administration first insisted that an Iranian bomb was five years from completion. I’ve been saying it for years now: it’s not happening, any more than North Korea’s petulant threats to turn Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’. To be fair, the Israeli position has always been pretty consistent with this: it will take any action necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon – but given that (as all experts, including the Mossad, agree) Iran isn’t building a bomb, this is essentially an extremely circuitous way of saying that Israel does not actually have any intention of doing anything at all.

Israeli governments need Iran, because without the phantom threat of a nuclear Holocaust to wipe out the Jewish people, the narratives sustaining the continued dispossession of the Palestinians become untenable. The last thing they want to do is actually make a strike on Iran, banish the atomic chimera, and then find themselves in a war more evenly matched than their occasional killing sprees in Gaza. The problem is that the United States needs Iran too. With US planes making constant sorties against the Islamic State in airspace already thick with Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian forces, it’s almost inconceivable that there’s not some level of co-ordination between the two states. At a tactical level, at least, they’ve entered into a de facto alliance. All this banging on about Iranian nukes has suddenly become not just an obvious diversion, but very politically inconvenient for Israel’s imperial sponsors. So Netanyahu takes another tack, and reterritorialises the Iranian threat on the topos of the theological.

This is one possible interpretation, but it doesn’t quite account for the content of Netanyahu’s speech. After the whole charade had finished, several media outlets and Democratic politicians dismissed it as ‘political theatre’ – but its theatrical aspect ought to be taken seriously. The joint session of Congress came the day before the Jewish festival of Purim, and Netanyahu’s one-man show should be considered in the context of the Purim Spiel, the traditional farcical plays based on the events of the Megillah that my people perform around this time. Purim is a celebration of ironic superposition, a divinely ordained Opposite Day in which children dress as animals, men dress as women, and drinking to excess isn’t just the spirit of the season but a Talmudic obligation. At first it’s hard to see why. The story of Purim, as told in the Book of Esther, is full of a certain irony, but it’s always irony of a temporary, contingent type. The Persian king Ahasuerus marries a beautiful woman called Esther, and not knowing that she is actually the Jew Hadassah, approves his vizier Haman’s plan to kill all the Jews in his empire. Later, when the truth is revealed, he asks Haman how the Emperor’s favourite should be honoured; Haman, thinking the honour will be his, dreams up a magnificent triumphal parade, only to discover that he must arrange exactly such a parade for the Jew Mordechai. Haman, who builds a gallows for Mordecai, ends up hanging on it himself. There’s a brief indeterminacy of identity, but then it collapses: the masks are taken off, and everyone returns to their proper place.

But it’s in the celebration of Purim that the circle of irony is completed. The Talmud enjoins us to drink on Purim until one is unable to distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. The story ends with the righteous exonerated and the villainous condemned, but in the ritual observance this stability is once again uprooted; it’s the full realisation of that which is only latent in the Biblical narrative. The dress-up games, the Purim Spiels, and the drinking all create a state of essential indeterminacy: an unbounded irony, not one based on the reversal of an ontologically prior truth, but an endless chiasmic Becoming that mines the ironic depths and capacities of any supposedly stable object and opens them up into a space of free play. But as Derrida notes, such play is always dangerous. It takes place on the edge of a chasm. Certainly when being performed by someone like Netanyahu. His performance could be likened to the ‘madman theory’ employed by Nixon, who, in a grand geopolitical performance of Hamlet, had his agents leak information to the Soviets that he was in fact dangerously insane, reasoning that the Kremlin would be less likely to provoke a nuclear-armed lunatic. Netanyahu, at odds with his allies and facing a career-threatening election at home, threatens to break down the structures of meaning and identity with his cybernetic God if the world won’t give in to his demands.

This is another reading. There’s one more possibility. What he said is true, and a zombie God rules the universe.

A short note on racism

The other night, millions of TV viewers were treated to the grand spectacle of a woman being racist on camera. The woman was former Ukip councillor Rozanne Duncan, and the programme itself, Meet the Ukippers, was the usual paternalistic BBC fare – one long sneer at those dreadful tacky ukips, with their mobility scooters and their purple ties and their collections of almost two thousand porcelain clowns (although, to be fair, they do have a collection of almost two thousand porcelain clowns). I live in Seaside Ukipville myself: a damp, ugly trough of barely drained bog and shoddy housing hemmed in by barren bag-strewn hills, a geological latrine that curves out from the less fashionable end of Brighton; I know how it goes. My neighbour flies a huge British flag in his back garden, visible above the low roofline, the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Third World border town; behind my house there’s a tattered cross of St George, and across the street someone’s decked out the front of their home in both English and British flags. The local shop sells tabloids and tinned peas, all the cheese comes in individually wrapped slices, the aisles are filled with hoarse grandmothers roaring impotent fury at kids with sticky fingers and feral, darting eyes, and you simply can’t get decent bruschetta or even a bottle of wine that didn’t roll flat-bottomed off a conglomerate assembly line somewhere south of the Equator. The whole area was purpose-built after the First World War as part of the Homes for Heroes programme, but these are less homes than filing cabinets for human beings. These places are easy to hate because, well, they’re utterly hateable: dismal, depressing, and shot through with a kind of existential meanness, in both senses – the miserliness of low ceilings and crumbling plaster, the general atmospheric sense of a total hostility to human life. The one thing they have going for them is that they tend to be cheap. That’s why, up to a point, it’s generally best to blame the hideousness of these places on the landlords, the speculators, the ones who left people with no other choice, rather than the people who actually live there.

Up to a point. That point was nicely identified by Ms Duncan, who delivered a long racist rant in front of a clearly horrified Ukip press officer (aghast, no doubt, that someone was actually saying what everyone’s thinking) and – unbelievably – an entire BBC camera team. She ticked just about every box: not just ominously referring to people with Negroid features but directly and openly voicing a specific, personal, visceral dislike for such people, and even recounting an instance in which she had discriminated against them (by pushing for Negro children to be excluded from sheltered housing). And she just kept on going, a bubbling sewer-sluice of the stuff, idiocy after idiocy. What’s strange is that she also insisted, and continues to insist, that she is not a racist. In an interview filmed after she had been fired from Ukip, she seemed to believe that her offence wasn’t a clearly voiced animus towards black people, but the anachronistic use of the word Negro. It’s a description, not an insult, she said. Like how Jews have bent noses. (Mine, I should add, is beaky and protruding but ramrod-straight.) But of course she didn’t think she was saying anything wrong – otherwise she wouldn’t have said it in front of a BBC camera crew, all of them surely trying to stifle their grins and hoping the word paydirt wasn’t visibly flashing across the whites of their eyes.

It’s strange. For a long time anti-racists have been trying to show that racism isn’t just an overt expression of hatred towards one racialised group or another, that it’s an unvoiced hierarchy structurally embedded in the fabric of society, that the construction of race itself is mutually inextricable from racism – and yet after all that, when someone performs the most basic, crude, open expression of racism, she’s unable to recognise it as such. In a way we’re the victims of our own success. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a slightly more literate racist-apologist defence of Ms Duncan: of course, what she said was unacceptable, but it wasn’t really racist; after all, racism is a structural relation, and what’s one person’s simple prejudice next to the large-scale bigotry of an impersonal system?

Where does this chiasmic structure come from? What Duncan’s insistence on her non-racism demonstrates is that the word ‘racism’ has been emptied of all content. The formation I’m not racist but… is rightly mocked, but it needs to be taken very seriously: it’s the master-signifier of modern racial discourse. After decades of work we’ve finally hammered in the message that Racism Is Bad to the extent that almost nobody will now admit to actually being a racist (with the exception of Chelsea fans abroad); in fact, the word racist has come to mean nothing more than the thing that one is not. There are no longer any racist signifiers; racism exists only on the level of the signified, and when the signifier is entirely overdetermined, something like racism becomes a strange, scuttling, hermit-crab thing. It’s a nomad language, a subterraneous seepage that gloops beneath the solid structures of words and concepts. Like the wet rot that plagues houses in my malarial pit of a neighbourhood, it seeps up into a phrase from beneath and carries out its work beneath paint and plaster. Even the most egregious examples of racism – the string of police killings of unarmed black people in the United States, for instance, or the exclusionary jeering of European secularists – never allow themselves to appear as such, and any attempt to properly fumigate them leaves itself open to the perverse accusation of racialisation.

Some anti-racists seem to be labouring under a strange illusion, the idea that once you identify something as being racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or ableist, or transphobic, or otherwise oppressive) you’ve in some way done away with it. In a way this is true: overt racism really isn’t allowed in the general discourse any more. But racism stubbornly continues to exist; in fact, we seem to be doing more work correctly identifying it than ever. It’s the same with Ukip: the party is routinely mocked on social and traditional media; it’s become a handy byword for stuffy, ugly incompetence; it’s been so utterly annihilated by every stand-up comedian on the circuit that by now there surely shouldn’t be anything left – but for some reason they just keep winning elections. The problem is that simply identifying something or someone as racist, however correctly, has become semantically empty. What’s being said is that the thing is that which it is impossible for anything to be, an obvious nonsense. If the subject is embedded in a discourse of the signifier, and racist is an absolute negation, then it’s structurally impossible for anyone to actually be a racist. (In a way racist is the perfect signifier; it does all the things that Saussure and Derrida and so on say such things should – defining itself negatively, relating to signs rather than things – while most other words still operate according to some kind of magical thinking.) A funhouse mirror version of Hegel’s was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig: what is real is not racist.

What can be done? It’s always possible to invent new words, but while logodaedaly is generally a good in and of itself it’s always very hard to put a slithering oizytic evil back in the box. I don’t have too much objection to the idea of really engaging with the meat of the matter, the intercranial signified, with fists if necessary. But in the end what might be most needed is the continued insistence on a simple truth, as trite as it might seem: racist ideas aren’t wrong because they’re racist; they’re wrong because they’re wrong.

(This is probably a separate discussion, but the fact that Duncan appeared to believe that her racism is a punishment for misdeeds in a past life, and that it could possibly be cured by regression therapy, merits further analysis. The Nazis had grand and stupid alternate cosmologies; their shitty contemporary iteration appears to have an appropriately banalised myth-structure. When Ukip inevitably enter into a governing coalition with Labour this year, will drowning asylum seekers be told that they’re the reincarnations of ungrateful Englishmen? Will Farage claim the quiddity of King Arthur? The future is a terrible place.)

The grey scale

The architectonic structure of the Kantian system, like the gymnastic pyramids of Sade’s orgies and the schematised principles of the early bourgeois freemasonry, reveals an organisation of life as a whole which is deprived of any substantial goal.
Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment

1. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2014 direct-to-DVD dystopian action film directed by Curtis Lumpus with a screenplay by Jott Prittsteck. In this terrifying vision of the year 2146, the United States of America has collapsed, to be replaced by a totalitarian state called Canesco, one ruled over by the secretive tyrant Christian Grey. Canesco enjoys a high standard of living and is entirely free from crime; however, citizens are subjected to constant surveillance, and all colours are banned. Grey’s belief that the unknown Cataclysm that destroyed the old world was caused by the blasphemy of colour has led him to create a barren concrete wasteland, in which chemical defoliants are used to extinguish all chlorophyll-producing life, except the crops grown in vast underground gruel farms. Drones on round-the-clock cloud-seeding flights maintain a dense layer of cloud over the entire North American continent. Only Grey can now remember that the sky was once blue. Female citizens of Canesco are required to sign a personal contract with Grey on reaching puberty in which they promise to keep the existence of the colour red a secret, in a ceremony known as the Initiationing. However, one plucky young girl called Anastasia STE-313, who always felt that she was somehow different from the conformist society that surrounds her, refuses to sign. Soon she finds herself on the run from the brutal government agents in an epic flight across three identical warehouses and one nondescript desert. Her desperate fight to survive against all odds pits her against the powers of the Grey Castle, but, as a hunky resistance fighter in head-to-toe tie-dye teaches her, it’s also a fight for the future of humanity. In the dramatic final scene, Anastasia hijacks Christian Grey’s personal helicopter, binds and gags him, and blows it up in midair. The explosion opens up a rift in the layer of permanent cloud, and as strings swell the people of Canesco see the sky for the first time. The film received mixed to negative reviews from critics, with many criticising its drab visual style, derivative plot, and clunky CGI. The casting of teen icon and YouTube pencil vlogger Jophia Splutt as Anastasia STE-313 was met with mockery from partisans of high culture and officially denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Commentators have also noted that the regulation grey boiler suits worn by all citizens of Canesco are clearly several sizes too large for many of the actors, and that as a result everyone in the film appears to have a tiny head. In a 2015 interview, the director insisted that this was deliberate.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2012 British romantic comedy film set in a retirement community in the Cotswolds. It was directed by Tom Flan with a screenplay by Polandria and Chimera Hugankiss. Herb is a mild-mannered former accountant whose life has settled into a comforting routine: morning walks, crosswords, cups of tea, and a slow, resigned wait for it all to be finally over. But his life is turned upside down by the arrival of Dorothy, an outgoing and vivacious dame with an idiosyncratic haircut and one very saucy secret. As Dorothy tries to entice Herb out of his own head and into a pair of furry pink handcuffs, their romance grows from the pace of a zimmer-frame stroll into a full-blown bingo-hall Bacchanalia. But when his three large and prudish sons turn up on an unannounced visit to find Herb scrubbing his floor, wearing nothing but a pair of assless chaps, his old and new lives find themselves in a hilarious head-on collision. Can Herb’s weak heart cope with the demands of a late-blooming love? Can arthritic hands train themselves to perform Japanese rope bondage? One thing’s for certain: life at Bumpy Acres will never be the same.

3. Fifty Shades of Grey is an unfinished novel by D H Lawrence, intended as a further sequel to 1915’s The Rainbow. The story follows the lives of the Brangwen sisters after the end of Women in Love. Gudrun leaves Dresden for Paris and, unable to rid herself of the coldness that had come over her ever since being strangled half to death by Gerald, finds herself falling into an algedonic underworld of sadistic sexual violence. Her sister visits from England, husband in tow, but Ursula is appalled to discover that Birkin sees an aesthetic authenticity in Gudrun’s new lifestyle. After watching a performance in a secret theatre in which Gudrun, dressed as a voodoo witch, simultaneously anally penetrates three nervous, hogtied young poets with a trident-shaped strap-on, Birkin declares his passion for her. As they make love he tightens a collar firm around her neck, and she feels the kindling of a fire in her breast long thought extinguished. The two declare themselves to be the Dictator and Dictatrix of Earth, and lead a violent mob to the Palais de l’Élysée, promising them the domination and servitude that the lower orders secretly crave.

4. Fifty Shades of Grey is a patented proprietary colour matching system devised by Pantone. Launched in 2004, it has been one of the company’s most successful products, used to design magazines and decorate apartments for boring people the world over.

5. Fifty Shades of Grey is a handbook distributed to medical workers from 1978 to be used in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It identifies the causes, symptoms, and treatments for radiation poisoning, and included the notorious ‘grey-scale test’, in which it was asserted that patients whose skin had become discoloured beyond a certain shade of grey were beyond saving and should be left to die.

6. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day in rural Somerset. It was disappointing. The cinema – if it could be called a cinema – was a rickety lean-to crumbling against the side of an ancient and pungent ciderworks. In this dense, hot room, sharp with the aphrodisiac tang of rotting apples, surrounded by the cacklings and fumblings of drunken locals, I felt almost immediately disoriented. At first I thought the cidery fog had Vaselined my vision: the screen wasn’t the prim white square I was used to but an indistinct shape, rippling and whorling, almost organic, almost alive. It took a while before I fully realised what I was seeing. Behind me, above the entrance of the shack, the projector was flickering, and the film was being projected onto a cow. Huge, almost entirely white, and clearly in pain. The poor beast had been chained up by its front and hind legs; a leather strap connected its nose-ring to the far wall, and a farmer in a Venetian mask and three-piece suit was flogging the creature with a riding crop whenever its laboured breathing or feeble attempts to escape interfered with the performance. Following the plot was hampered by the cow’s plaintive mooing and shifting, but from what I could make out it was about a woman who I assumed to be the tambourine player in an indie-folk band, who falls in love with an extremely powerful twelve-year-old boy. Sadly I didn’t get much further than that. As the first sex scene began, the imprisoned cow gave an almighty grunt and began to thrash around wildly, kicking up angry sprays of hay and manure. The timber of the shack, already weakened by several centuries of super-strength fumes, gave way. The cow was free. As I watched in mute horror, Christian Grey’s tight-lipped mid-coital face seemed to bulge and stretch, as if he were about to pop; I wondered would kind of fluid would seep out. Just before the beast burst through the image, I was dragged away by my viewing companion. We fled across sodden fields as the local folk took their revenge on the creature, but before we reached the safety of a nearby pub I could hear the cow’s desperate lowing and the sadistic yelps of its torturers turn into something else, a cold, seething reptile hiss that I thought had not been heard on this planet for sixty-five million years.

7. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey as part of a programme organised by the London Institute for Studies in Psychoanalysis, a subversive radical organisation I had been ordered to infiltrate. I didn’t understand much of it – all this stylised, highly sexed foreign cinema is frankly beyond me – but for the sake of appearances I jotted down a few observations. Typical Left propaganda: an industrialist billionaire and handcuff-happy sexual sadist seduces a young woman; what he doesn’t know is that she’s part of a revolutionary cell trying to take him down. For the most part, though, the film seems to be about contract law. The plutocrat tries to force his prey to sign a legal document waiving all her human rights protections, including the right to life; in this he’s thwarted by a series of increasingly abstract legal manoeuvres – by the end she’s stalling for time by demanding the contract include definitions for perfectly ordinary terms such as ‘and’, ‘but’, and ‘buttplug’. Procrastination seems to be her favourite tactic. At another point the capitalist, on discovering that she’s a student of English literature, asks if it was Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy that made her fall in love with the written word. None of them, she says, before launching into a lengthy exegesis on contemporary literary theory before a man at first visibly aroused but who rapidly goes limp once it becomes apparent that poststructuralism isn’t just the text meaning whatever you want it to mean. So much for the film. Making idle small talk at the post-screening drinks reception (or about as small as talk can be among these self-important charlatans), I learned that for the LISP screening all the actual pornographic scenes had been cut from the film – this because of some Freudian dictum about sex never just being about sex, apparently. It was a shame, but it was also all I needed. Tampering with the film violated the terms of its rental from the distributors: finally, I had them on tape admitting to criminal activity. As soon as I could I pushed the button on my secret radio receiver. Most of the Institute were arrested alive; a few hid out in the building’s toilets and, regrettably, had to be shot by police snipers.

8. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey with my parents.

9. You ever feel like you’re living on the point of a knife? I really did want to write a review of Fifty Shades of Grey. But there’s that feeling of a knife at your stomach, just pricking the surface of your skin, so you know that if you take just one step forward your guts will pour out like slimy confetti. When people talk about their plans for the future, careers, families, don’t you want to stare at them with crazy eyes, ranting, breathing in manic gasps, and hiss: but it won’t happen! Don’t you understand? We’ll all be dead by then! Melting ice caps! Russian bombers off the coast of Cornwall! Everything’s fucked! Life in the crumbling, developed West isn’t great (people are starving to death, even here), but it still has the sense of an incredible precariousness, a bubble waiting to be popped. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good film. But will sneering at that fact make it better? Will it save us from the coming bombs? Without God or communism we’ve been told that the point of life is to collect meaningful experiences, happy memories, and interesting opinions; to be entertained; to carve out some kind of expression of individuality that will, in its uniqueness and initerability, last forever. History suggests something different. Mostly people are destroyed, in their thousands, for no good reason. Why wouldn’t it happen to us? How many shiningly unique individuals were burned up in Dresden? When the Mongols came to Baghdad – a big urban cosmopolis, full of self-regarding educated types who, in the end, probably didn’t live too differently from you – they killed everyone. Like a nuclear bomb in slow motion. Scholars who’d spent most of their lives airily abstracting about the finer points of poetic technique and the exact arrangement of the heavenly spheres ended up with their heads suddenly piled up in a sloppy pyramid outside the city walls. (The scholars are remembered; more than, say, the women. Massacres of the educated are an affront to humanity, while men killing women is business as usual.) And why? The Mongol warlord Hulagu attacked the Abbasid caliphate on the advice of the usual gang of viziers and astrologists, but the loudest voice for war came from Nasir al-Din Tusi – a scholar and poet who’d become enraged after the Caliph, apparently disdaining its metrical and lexical subtleties, had lazily tossed one of his poems into the Tigris. One million people died, arrow-shafts through their bodies, knives through their necks, coughing up blood. Cultural critics beware.

10. I loved the book of Fifty Shades of Grey; I really loved it, with that total and unquestioning love you can only have for the utterly deformed. I loved its alternate psychoanalytic triad of the Subconscious, the Psyche and the Inner Goddess. I loved the catastrophically unsexy cor-blimey interior monologue. I loved the relentless commodity porn. It’s a universal story, an utterly bleak one: the story of power and its essential idiocy, and the tendency to read it as a wide-eyed paean to the titular pervert only demonstrates a critical failure of imagination. Yes, it started as fanfiction, but then so did the Aeneid. Yes, the relationship it depicts is fundamentally abusive, but safety, sanity and consent weren’t a major concern for de Sade, Bataille, Réage, or any of the other icons of literary sadomasochism either. With all its obtrusively terrible language it’s a book that constantly calls attention to its own writerly, textual quality, that’s constantly returning to its own meta- and inter-textual fabric. Fifty Shades had an overwhelming, effortless literariness, in a way that far outstripped the squalid grunting efforts of this century’s self-appointed guardians of high prose. Karl Ove Knausgård, Haruki Murakami, God help us, Jonathan fucking Franzen. They’re all squalid hacks, sad clowns, overinflated, overserious; it’s hard to imagine them keeping a straight face as they make their vague bromidic pronouncements on the Human Condition, shitting out watery insights as if anyone actually asked them, but somehow they do, and the same reading public that dismisses Fifty Shades as mere pornography nod wisely as they lap happily from the putrid trough. I’ll take bondage over coprophagy. Reviews of the Fifty Shades film have grudgingly commended it for turning a terrible book into something vaguely tolerable, competently produced if not exactly groundbreaking. As if descending from the mad and terrible stratospheres into Franzen-lite mediocrity is somehow an achievement. In fact, the film’s made a category error. A proper film adaptation should be pornography: ill-fitting suits, wobbly handheld cameras, and queasy lighting that makes the rippling flesh look like so much offcut meat, bright pink, churning out of an industrial mincer. Or it should resurrect not just the Inner Goddess and the Psyche but all the screaming others that crowd the mind of the modern schizophrenic; have the superego as a pale disappointed father, the id as a ravenous twelve-headed beast, doubt as a constant looming shroud, all watching every vaguely kinky sex session with drawn, horrified faces. Or it should delve deeper into the discourse of force and power and punishment, really take these concepts seriously. Every shot and every line of dialogue could remain exactly the same; it could be fixed in post-production. Black-clad jihadis parade hostages past the window of Ana’s hardware store. Christian’s helicopter is buzzed by Syrian MiG-23s, and as he flies over the city we see a dazzling constellation of explosions flashing in the streets below. Sniper rounds ping off the windscreen as the new Audi blithely swooshes past a rebel checkpoint. And as the couple stand naked before the floor-to-ceiling windows, the city beyond rises up to meet them: Aleppo, the final truth of our era, a thicket of gaunt ruins, concrete crags as lifeless and inhuman as a stranger’s face, drenched in the dust billowing from mortar strikes, coating the world in fifty thousand shades of grey.

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