2017 End of Year Review No.1

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To cap off 2017, Manchester Review of Books contributors have written a ‘Top 5’ of things they have read over the year.

The brief was very open. This could be new books, or books they have just got around to, a 17th century manuscript, a strange fanzine, a newspaper article, or a mix of all of them.

I am going to write about five clusters of reading that have emerged over the year. I can see them, in little piles, from where I write, by empty coffee cups and notebooks. Here goes.

Cluster 1. The first version of A Book of the Broken Middle came out early in January 2017, so I put away the theology. However, I carried on reading around the 17th and 18th centuries. Peter Linebaugh (et al) The London Hanged, Many Headed Hydra and Albion’s Fatal Tree (Verso) Christopher Hill and an anthology of writing from the Stuart time called Divine Right and Democracy (Penguin). Much of the latter was new to me.

This was a good place from which to begin Cluster 2, which includes Roberto Unger’s political trilogy (Verso). I personally disavow party-line orthodox Marxism completely for a kind of Marxism that focuses on structural conditions without fetishising them, or simply taking historical tropes – what Unger calls the ‘society as artifact’ – as their basis.

‘What is assembled now?’ is the question to ask, not ‘what did Lenin say?’ or which party might one align oneself with today. This might seem like post-Marxism, but actually it tallies with writers such as David Harvey, who I have also been re-reading.

Our time consists of what Unger describes as ‘…the tedious, degrading rhythm of history – with its long lulls of collective narcolepsy punctuated by violent revolutionary seizures.’

This, ultimately, is the thing we have not yet broken away from, despite the unwarranted leftist jubilation all around.

Unger is very sceptical of the social science tendency to revisit what he calls ‘frameworks’ as though they were neutral or transparent realities, or as models to be applied to any situation. One can see this happening in everyday discourse too, as 1917 is compared to 2017, for instance.

Unger’s response – he is so tentative that he calls it a ‘proto-theory’ rather than a theory – is what he calls ‘false necessity’. Unger’s work at the most basic level simply urges us to try something new.

We are at another conjunctural point in history in which we have a real opportunity to do that, but the left and right are rushing back to old dogmas and then rushing forward screaming them at each other without any space for examination. Nothing new will emerge from this. No great break in the old cycles is possible if this continues:

‘The stubborn, mysterious cycles represent a permanent insult to societies whose official culture claims to base fundamental social arrangements upon the wills of free and relatively equal citizens and rights holders rather than upon blind drift or coercive authority.’

I have become increasingly tired and irritated by writers such as Negri and Agamben over the last few years, writers who project revolution into the most unlikely places. Agamben tried it on with monasticism in the last one of his I read.

Owen Hatherley is another, capital ‘M’ Modernism is defended because, er, 1917. The left is losing its sense of negation, history is being described as a positive force – and tellingly, a positive force made by those who explain it.

The ‘degrading rhythm of history’ will perhaps reveal itself, but only if it is possible to break through this collective narcolepsy. Unger provides food for thought along these lines. I will add to this a return to André Gorz, who is also in Cluster 2.

Of course, the rise of fascism is the real problem. Next to this, leftwing naivete is almost irrelevant. This brings me to Cluster 3. I have been doing most of my thinking along these lines by re-reading Seize the Time by Bobby Seale (Arrow) Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver (Panther) and Black Skin, White Masks by Fanon (Grove Press).

For a direct Brexit context I have gone back to Roger Hewitt’s brilliant, troubling, White Backlash (Cambridge). Contested narratives about the working classes being responsible for the Brexit vote make more sense with this book to ground the current false consciousness in earlier, similar sentiments.

I have also gone back to Paul Gilroy’s work on the 1980s riots in Britain that centred on issues of policing and race. It is important to side with his critiques of leftwing perspectives which fail to break out of their trance-like obsession with capitalism.

Gilroy’s critique of the ‘interpretative frame’ is crucial to revisit now, and it tallies in some ways with what Unger has written. The ‘interpretative frame’ reproduces pathologising criminal representations of black youth, but it also lacks any complexity, for instance, in the 1980s ‘it couldn’t imagine that victims of racism might be racist themselves.’ Going back to Cleaver and Seale gives you the historical and ethical grey zones too.

Again, we are losing our sense of negation if we lose our ability to hold contradictions such as these in our analysis. The ‘interpretative frame’ changes, as does racism, morphing into newer, more virulent strains, like a kind of cultural super-flu. The interpretative frame needs constant checking.

Revisiting Gilroy’s ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’, published in The Socialist Register in 1982, a year after the 1981 riots in Britain, is crucial to this work of reframing.

Gilroy described the ‘potent imagery of youthful black criminals stalking derelict inner-city streets where the law-abiding are afraid to walk after sunset’ and how this ‘has been fundamental to the popularisation of increasingly repressive criminal justice and welfare state policies.’

We can now add to this the rightwing spectre of ‘the radicalised’, the lurking jihadi, an explosive body belt strapped to him at all times. One way in which the last decade presents only difference and blinding glare is in the evidence of white testimonies to radicalisation as almost a form of leisure, almost as a form of cultural capital, and on the opposite side of the break of ‘radicalisation’ as an imposed badge of stigma for non-white subjects. Language, as Raymond Williams knew, is important to weigh.

One can see the left taking radicalisation at face value in places, rather than seeing it as a tiny hard core of horrible truth, with a vast affective cloud around it. Gilroy explains that:

‘At best, a lingering environmentalism makes a causal link between crime and unemployment or the deterioration of the inner-cities. At worst, discussion of crime becomes subsumed by the idea that the rule of law, and therefore the Nation itself, is somehow under attack.’

In 1982 this meant the constructed tabloid of black criminality, an ‘enemy within’ to add to the other internal enemies of trade unionism and socialism. Now, and in 2011 this means an enemy within plugged into an enemy without, as well as the threat of an enemy without, which in 1982 was the IRA, rather than Isis.

It is important to see this in terms of discourses that affect policies and policing and it is as important to note the weakness of leftwing analysis in 2017, as it was in 1982:

‘The left’s failure to appreciate how the racism of slump and crisis is different from the racism of boom and commonwealth, has meant that they have not grasped how notions of black criminality have been instrumental in washing the discourse of the nation as white as snow and preparing the way for repatriation.’ 

And now, of course, Brexit. In 1982 John Lea, Ian Taylor and Jock Young focused on the police and the far right, missing, because it was outside the sphere of their habitus, the systematic racial harassment. We must begin to think through fascism in Britain via media discourses of radicalisation, Tottenham Man Dem, 2011 and the most excluded and stigmatised, rather than through campus factionalism and left sectarianism. The left seems to have forgotten that the prime targets of fascists globally are the ethnic other, and we have seen spikes in anti-muslim sentiment and anti-semitism. Of course the fascists want rid of communism too, but most of the left merely fantasise about being communist in the first place, and then fantasise about opposing fascism.

What all of this means for the purpose of this article, is that after starting the year with the rag end of my reading for my last book, all of this new reading, starting with Unger, is beginning to add up to something I will commit to paper.

I have also started all sorts of things that I have thrown aside. I tend to gut books first these days, then go back and read them fully if I think I really should.

Because of this, I always have books around that I can pick up if I discard something. This brings me to Cluster 4, poetry. Well-known and not, old favourites and new to me: John Ashbery, Richard Barrett, Pete Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Osip Mandelstam, Drew Milne, Jeff Nuttall, Claire Potter, Adrian Slatcher, Michael Symmons Roberts and Nelly Sachs.

I have also explored Celan, Miroslav Holub, Mayakovsky and Pound much further than before, but they were explorations, rather than readings.

Cluster 5. Books on art, including the Monuments Are Not To Be Trusted catalogue from Nottingham Contemporary, various things by John Roberts, books on postcards and postcard collecting, and a really big pile of Viz.

– Steve Hanson

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