Critical Social Theory and Cultural Commentary

Friday, 24 December 2010

Fück Christmas

Let us all join with Richard Dawkins at this festive time of year as he highlights the inherent violence of the Christian message. We are all stained with sin therefore god must send his son down to brutally sacrifice himself in order to forgive us. Yay. Humbug!

Image shamelessly lifted from B3ta.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Cablegate (lol)

The Vince Cable affair raises some interesting issues both in terms of the way today’s revelations emerged and more broadly the substance of the News Corp-BSkyB takeover deal, as well as Vince Cable’s place in government over the past few months. The Telegraph had clearly got no intention of publishing the complete record of Cables' comments with its' reporters, given its antipathy towards the afore mentioned deal, and so it therefore fell on the BBCs' Robert Peston, aided by a whistleblower, to swing the metaphorical axe. I imagine the BBC may live to regret this given the now near certainty of the deal being finalised. But, then again, maybe this is not all that surprising given recent comments by the BBC director general Mark Thompson, saying that Britain needs a channel like Fox News! And likewise, this stinks to high-heaven of Peston, a former Sunday Telegraph editor, 'getting one over' his old bosses. Whilst I'm certainly not in favour of secrecy in general I'd be very much inclined to side with the current Telegraph editors on this one. Given the moral outrage we've seen from the Murdoch Media Empire directed towards Wikileaks and Julian Assange in the past few weeks, it would certainly be difficult to have much if any sympathy if the Telegraph had manage to cover the story up. However, there is more to this story. Although Cable has survived with his job for the time being, the consensus is that this is unlikely to last much into the new year, with friend of the Tories, David Laws slated for a return. One can clearly see in the comments that Cable made to the Telegraph's reporters - whom he thought were constituency members - a clear moral unease and insecurity in the role he has played in the coalition. It has been no secret that Cable has never been the most trenchant supporter of government policy within the Cabinet, and he sought to justify his continued position there to the journalists, talking about 'picking his fights' and saying 'all we can do in opposition is protest'. He likewise talked about Cameron's secret plans to abolish winter fuel allowance, insinuating that he was fighting a valuable rearguard action behind enemy lines. Whilst this may have been the case to an extent one can't help but wonder whether any of this was really necessary in the first place for Mr Cable. He could have stopped this coalition government before it ever got off the ground, and that was definitely the opportune moment... before the juggernaut had started rolling. When he finally loses his job to the neo-liberal Laws, Cable, I imagine, will ask himself whether it was really worth compromising his principles in the first place (surely they're only good as long as they are adhered to, no?) Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end for the coalition, and he'll end up leading a backbench rebellion of Lib Dem MPs, but I think Cable may well have overestimated the influence he actually has. His own influence in government seems to have been increasingly marginalised, and its questionable whether he is really willing to lead a Lib Dem revolt, or even whether the Lib Dem backbenches have any stomach for the fight. Government patronage, with the prospect of a place on the front benches may be too much for many of them. As for the takeover deal itself I find it particularly galling how the European Commission can be so hostile towards Google yet see nothing wrong with Murdoch's dominance of news media in the UK. I think many people on the Left will likely echo my own position that its difficult to have a whole lot of sympathy with the position Cable has put himself in, having kept schtum during the past few months. Whilst I'd relish a 'war' on Murdoch this clearly isn't going to happen any time soon, and although I'd like some positive spin-off from this whole saga, unfortunately the position of the government seems like it may well have been strengthened here. We all know what a government united in its neo-liberal fervour and backed by a strengthened Murdoch Media Empire is likely to entail for the rest of us.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Follow the Money

'Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War Against Obama', Jane Mayer
Writing for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer has written a fascinating article describing how funding by Charles and David Koch has been used to promote the Tea Party movement, and deny climate change whilst obstructing pollution control and public health measures in the United States. Mayer points out the irony of Tea Party rhetoric that is directed against 'special interests' in Washington whilst in reality being directed by the mother of all corporate 'special interest' lobbying/financing campaigns (read 'corruption'). Koch industries, controlled by two of the richest men in America, the Koch brothers Charles and David (they kicked their other brothers Freddie and William off the board), has funded numerous think tanks and foundations supposedly offering neutral and impartial policy advice. Rather conflicts of interest have been their modus of operandi writ large, advancing their companies' profit margins above all else. Koch industries has been prosecuted and fined for numerous pollution offences and the robbery of Indian oil - after which they set their private investigators on members of a Congressional Committee - whilst perhaps most worryingly of all, their money seems to have had a very real effect in undermining public confidence in climate change science. Thus, there should be no doubt in any persons' mind as to who is really behind and benefitting from the undermining of serious attention to problems of climate change and conservation; the rich and powerful! I struggle to understand how anyone can care so little about the natural environment of this planet, and its amazing diversity of life. No amount of money could ever make me not give a shit about this planet. It also gets me that the only proposal our planet has for tackling climate change is 'carbon trading' with the creation of another bullshit market. WTF?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Berlusconi and Media Asymmetry

Silvio Berlusconi... the man is a caricature of himself, a stereotype of the reactionary, robber-baron, arch-bastard villain of the left. His hero is Napoleon Bonaparte (yes, he even bought his bed), he's been involved in just about every scandal and gaffe possible, yet still managed to hold on to power thanks in no small part to his control of the country's media and judiciary, as well as 'allegedly' buying off the legislature in this weeks crucial vote, after his own followers had finally grown sick of his antics. His chosen tactic of survival at present involves picking off (some would dare say 'buying') members of opposition parties and attempting to co-opt them into his government, whilst appealing to the need for 'strong government' to remedy the economic instability that the PM and his cronies have helped create; benefitting as ever from the chaos that the Italian electoral system throws up. Whilst the outside world seems to have a morbid fascination in seeing just how long he can actually last in the face of mounting popular revulsion towards him, the reality for Italians (and 'others' living in Italy) is very different. Italian politics is portrayed by the rest of the world's media as a joke and decidedly inferior due to the inherent character flaws of the Italian male, exemplified by Berlusconi. Thankfully, they got some revenge when a twitter feed being displayed on giant TV screens at the EU summit in Brussels was hijacked today, with 'tweets' of abuse from Italian users labelling him a 'Mafioso' and a 'Paedophile'. In an environment when politicians and businessmen seem to be increasingly impervious to any kind of rational criticism it pays to remind them just how we really feel, and make their lives as uncomfortable as possible, something that established media are unable and unwilling to do given their corporate ties. It therefore falls to forms of new media to provide a tool with which an alternative political discourse can be disseminated. Of course what I have in mind hear is something a little more high-brow than simply throwing abuse at Berlusconi, as fun as that may be. The video below by David Harvey is the best example I've come across of a new media presentation that seeks to portray a complex political message (the financial crisis and Marxist critique of capitalism) in an accessible and easy to understand manner.

N.B: For anyone interested further in the Berlusconi phenomenon, here's a recording of an interesting lecture by Stephen Gundle called, 'Berlusconi in Historical Perspective'.

Monday, 29 November 2010


The unfolding wikileaks revelations detailing the 'frankness' of American diplomats are interesting beyond the immediately apparent scandalous front page stories and geopolitical fallout because they expose fundamental issues in the conduct of international diplomacy and political discourse, that mainstream media and government are not at all keen for us to talk about. Elite reaction to the revelations has unsurprisingly been to emphasise their criminality and the endangerment of international stability, as well as perceived American interests. However, we should leave aside issues of legality here because secrecy should never be a cover for illegal and immoral behaviour on the part of government. Revelations such as these should shatter the myth that the modern democratic state and its agents are some kind of dispassionate arbiter of the collective good (aka 'national security'/'the national interest'), producing rational, scientific policy. The use of language in these communiques should highlight to anyone who reads them, the broad sweeping assumptions our politicians and bureaucrats have of the world, that are far from being objective, but rather, advance specific ideological interests. The documents confirm the charge of hypocrisy that has so often been leveled at American foreign policy... America cannot live up to the image of benign moral righteousness it seeks to project to the rest of the world. The truth is that it wouldn't be a difficult thing for diplomats to use restrained language and provide policymakers with a more balanced range of opinions. And its not actually that difficult to not lie. Politicians could always practice what they preach, no? I don't think its unrealistic moralising to expect that people can and should behave in a more honest way. Diplomacy is meant to be a skilled, restrained way of conducting oneself... is this not what we mean when we say that such and such a person is being 'diplomatic'? It should not be an aggressive, corrupt, duplicitous 'game' that it is cloaked by unnecessary secrecy. If wikileaks has endangered the internal stability of Yemen by exposing the lies their government have told the population about the presence of the American military on its soil, then this is something they should have thought about in advance; especially the Americans, it seems obvious that there was a good chance of this getting out at some stage anyway. These kinds of repeated American military interventions in the region wouldn't be necessary if all the talk about democracy and human rights was lived up to. America has spent the entire post-1945 period doing its level best to support corrupt, autocratic regimes, impose itself on the region and generally piss everyone off. Chickens coming home to roost methinks.

N.B: Its also interesting to note how the whole Iran issue has been spun already. The Iranians themselves have latched onto this, accusing the US government of being behind the wikileaks releases, and trying to downplay them. Whilst I think this is a bit far fetched, the anti-Iranian consensus revealed by the leaked documents has certainly been leapt upon by Western media, and strengthens the hand of the American right and Israel, in their unending clamour for war.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Ed Miliband: 'I'm a Socialist'

This is hilarious. He says he is opposed to public ownership, but wants to bring about social justice. When asked about his backtracking over the student protests against tuition fees he responded with: "I said I was going to go and talk to them at some point. I was tempted to go out and talk to them", but: "I think I was doing something else at the time, actually". This may be down to a genuine fear of being 'kettled' by the police but is more than likely just him being spineless in the face of media criticism. Talking about the 'people's party' is complete nonesense if he doesn't even have the balls to 'talk to them at some point'. He also said his concern was for the 'squeezed middle classes', and said he wouldn't be attending any Trade Union protests... even more entertaining as he relied upon union votes to get elected as Labour leader. This all brings to mind a good article I read on the BBC website by Brian Wheeler yesterday, highlighting what has been a major bugbear of mine for some time now; namely the constant employment of the word 'progressive' by douchebag politicians. Language is very much reflective of the dominant power structures in society, so we shouldn't after all be too surprised to see someone like David Cameron using a word that has always had such leftist connotations. It reflects the dominance of neoliberal market ideology in Western politics, as evidenced in the whole New Labour project in the UK. It also demonstrates the de-politicisation of politics, with mass media, spin doctors and a culture of soundbites used to render political language banal and devoid of any intellectual merit, a la the 'newspeak' of George Orwells' 1984. Still, this annoys the hell out of me.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Art Meets Music, Meets Science

Tristan Perich: 1-Bit Symphony

Tristan Perich: 1-Bit Symphony (Part 1: Overview) from Tristan Perich on Vimeo.

This is pure genius! The description from the creators website:

1-Bit Symphony is an electronic composition in five movements on a single microchip. Though housed in a CD jewel case like his first circuit album (1-Bit Music 2004-05), 1-Bit Symphony is not a recording in the traditional sense; it literally "performs" its music live when turned on. A complete electronic circuit—programmed by the artist and assembled by hand—plays the music through a headphone jack mounted into the case itself”.

North Korea: Part Deux

Lionel Beehner and Nuno Montiero have written a good piece for the Guardian on what they see as North Korea's Schellingesque strategy of brinkmanship. The story goes as follows; emboldened by a successful nuclear test in 2009 North Korean hardliners (flatliners?) feel free to provoke the South in a win-win scenario. An aggressive response from the South strengthens their hand domestically whilst anything else can easily be spun as a victory for the North's bellicose behaviour. South Korea and America are hamstrung in this regard and the best they can do is try to stay calm and wait it out. This is of course easier said than done as public opinion in South Korea demands an increasingly tougher stance (the South Korean defence minister seems to be the first casualty of this). We do know that this attack was premeditated as the North warned the South beforehand that it would respond to its annual military exercises; a warning that seems to have been ignored, and this seems to be a big part of the problem as noted by Beehner and Montiero. However, this is not the whole story. Whilst the North may feel upstaged by the recent G20 summit in Seoul, North Korea has been getting increasingly assertive for some time now. Leaving aside scary questions of just who's really in charge and power struggles inside North Korea, the North does have a consistent agenda of sorts through all this. They've consistently been hostile towards South Korean President Lee Myung-bak since he came into office with a tougher stance towards the North, rolling back the successful 'sunshine policy' of engagement between the two countries. They want direct negotiations with the US. They couldn't have been clearer on this point and they have sought to use their nuclear programme as a bargaining tool - understandable for a regime that doesn't want to appear to be weak and conceding ground on all issues, but has no other form of leverage. Much to North Korea's anger American policy has been one of intransigence - 'give up your nukes then we'll talk', 'we don't want to reward bad behaviour'; etc. This shows a startling lack of concern for the position of the North Korean leadership, which is exacerbated by their other consistent need: food aid (made worse by recent floods). Yes their recent actions have resulted in this being cut off, but its obvious that the regime places its own survival and strategic policy above all else, pushing food for its population to the bottom of the list. Confrontation has been placed ahead of cow-towing for aid on the priorities list: something which says a lot about who the regimes' real audience is: the military and other rival top brass who can make their life uncomfortable. So what does this all mean? Well for a start, despite all the talk in the media about the internal politics of North Korea being some kind of unknowable and mysterious dark force, the truth is quite the opposite. North Korea's internal power politics and their effects have been on show to the world for some time now and they've made it that way. Yes, we don't have an intimate knowledge of all the players and personalities, but the message has been a fairly consistent one: the regime is desperate to survive so can't appear weak but wants to talk. The ham-fisted response of America and South Korea has completely ignored this basic but essential point. The basis for any kind of progress in negotiations is to have an understanding of where the other person is coming from. The South Korean and American position is at best ignorant and displays an arrogance rooted in a sense of moral superiority that blinds them to any other alternatives. We all know the North's leadership has greatly wronged its population, and is a million miles away from Western-style democracy and capitalism, but this is no excuse for ignoring it. The response to intransigence is usually intransigence reciprocated, are we really still surprised by this?

N.B: Also consider the fact that the day before the shelling of Yeonpyeong South Korea said it would consider allowing the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on its soil. A practice that ended almost twenty years ago. Something about fuel and fire...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Threat Narratives: The Nuclear North

Having actually taken the time today to read Siegfried S. Hecker's report for the Centre for International Security and Cooperation on his 'Return Trip to North Korea's Yongbon Nuclear Complex', I find it both amusing and disturbing in equal measure how this has been reported in the world's media. Reading Hecker's nuanced and educated (former Los Alamos boss) account of the complexities of the North Korean nuclear programme, and developments therein; together with his conclusion that rightly sees high level engagement with North Korea as the only conceivable course of action, its plain to see how media reporting and the response from leading officials (Adm Mike Mullen) serves an agenda that seeks to portray a heightened sense of threat and justify bellicose national security policies. Hecker notes that whilst North Korean capacity has been enhanced in terms of highly-enriched uranium production via means of light-water reactor technology, it appears to have scaled back or potentially abandoned plutonium production. This does not mean that a nuclear weapons programme has not been abandoned by the North, who's leadership clearly believes it benefits from the leverage of having a nuclear arsenal; but it does demonstrate that the programme has moved very much in a different direction - towards the technologies associated with civilian nuclear power. Yes these may be still used for nefarious purposes, and critical observers will point out that the increased level of sophistication may point to heightened threat if North Korea has other such facilities hidden from prying eyes. But all of this seems to miss the point here. North Korea has nuclear weapons already and won't give them up any time soon. Yes their arsenal may become more sophisticated in coming years, but this is in all probability unavoidable. As Hecker points out military strikes against North Korea are out of the question. And, as the North Koreans pointed out to Hecker they are only doing what they said they were going to do but weren't believed (insert here orientalist attitudes about North Korean inferiority). Hecker himself hints that North Korean nuclear aspirations in terms of both power (electricity) and prestige (power) are legitimate and understandable... a refreshingly realistic (note not 'realist') attitude for such an establishment figure to take. This should not be about zero-sum power politics and grandstanding, but rather trying to reassure a paranoid regime that the (western) world is not out to get them and that a peaceful nuclear programme is worth far more to them (and crucially their population).

N.B: Another interesting aside to this story, as mentioned by Hecker, and ignored by everyone else, is Pakistan's involvement in the (recent) history of North Korean nuclear development. Pakistan seems to be pretty much the biggest exporter of nuclear technology around violating just about every treaty going whilst the US does and says nothing...funny how that works...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Fight the Power!

'The Party Game Is Over. Stand and Fight', John Pilger

I agree with John Pilger's sentiment that our political system has become subservient to corporate greed in its entirety.

"This is not to say parliamentary politics is meaningless. It has one meaning now: the replacement of democracy with a business plan for every human activity, every dream, every decency, every hope, every child born".

Says it all really.

N.B: The only thing our politicians' corporate paymasters understand is their balance sheet...hit them in the pocket where it hurts. Its what they're doing to us. This is ultimately a battle of ideas as much as anything else though, and capital has done its work well. I don't see much changing anytime soon. Our economic ways will likely only change when that change is forced in the aftermath of the looming ecological catastrophe that ceaseless consumption will thrust upon this planet.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Austerity Agenda

'To Choose Austerity is to Bet it all on the Confidence Fairy', Joseph Stiglitz
The most erudite account I've come across of why the neoliberal austerity agenda is so fundamentally flawed. The American Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz writing for the Guardian highlights the historical successes of Keynesian theory vis a vis economic recovery. Time and time again increased public expenditure has provided the escape from recovery, whilst austerity has resulted in increased unemployment, a shortage of demand for goods and services, lower tax revenues and decaying infrastructure. Con/Lib policy in the UK is being driven by the same mistaken ideology of rolling back the state that got us in such a mess in the first place.

Interesting Articles

'The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved', Hunter S. Thompson
Thompson's classic article on Ralph Steadman's website. Entertaining read.

'Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots', Sean Wilentz
The New Yorker's Sean Wilentz charts the historical continuity between extremism in the Republican Party and organisations such as the John Birch Society during the '50s and '60s with the likes of Glenn Beck today. Especially interesting is the role played by Beck in pushing to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list a book by Willard Cleon Skousen, a man who was thought too extreme for even the craziest of crazys during the Cold War. Wilentz worryingly concludes that even during the volatile atmosphere of the Cold War there were always members of the Republican Party prepared to stand up against the extremist currents in their party, something which is lacking today.