Ideology and lunatics

Wednesday, 27 July 2011 

OK. Here’s how it works: mass-killers of children who aspire for the return of the Knights Templar do not currently represent a significant social force in society. So whatever they do, no matter how horrific, has no political meaning. End of story.

As to what those who do have some weight in society (or think they do) choose to do with the actions of a madman is another matter, and that’s all that we are really dealing with here.

When the news of the Norwegian killings first broke, and the geniuses on the right ignored the description of the gunman, and decided that Islamic fundamentalists were now peroxiding their hair, there was some grim merriment from other commentators at their embarrassment. But now that the pendulum has been interpreted as swinging the other way, we have others doing much the same thing.

It does not help that, like many lunatics, he had some theories on how the world works – in fact quite a lot of them – and wrote a 1,500 page (!) manifesto to spray them out. Given that this means we are talking about three quarters of a million words, it’s no surprise that the scope is pretty wide, and even includes a little known political figure from the other side of the globe.

That someone would take philosophical guidance from John Howard is amusing enough. That others would find meaning when that someone happens to be clearly a lunatic is even more amusing, in a sick joke type of way. For those that insist on doing so, they clearly have a bit of a problem. For to try and place some meaning on how Breivik interpreted Howard, or Gandhi or Locke or Burke, whom he also quotes, assumes that there is some rationality that would make such a connection meaningful. Given that his actions are irrational, even in terms of its own goals, that is clearly not possible.

The argument seems to be that Howard’s views, while not directly related to those of Breivik, have irresponsibly contaminated the violently susceptible. The first problem with this, as we have seen as the right recovers its poise, is that this argument can be used to cut both ways, either used to blame those who bang on about the problems of immigrants, or immigrants themselves who make others do so. The second problem is that if public debate is to be determined by what lunatics might make of it, we may as well not have any, just in case.

Finally, it simply isn’t how ideas work. Ideas only have power in as much as they are picked up because they describe the reality of those that do have some social weight. What we have at the moment is political commentary whose ideas aren’t especially being picked up by anyone, who must instead look to a madman to help make their point. Says it all really.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 27 July 2011.

Filed under Media analysis

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43 responses to “Ideology and lunatics”

  1. Dr_Tad on 27th July 2011 8:59 am

    Well, I disagree. In part because I don’t think Breivik is as “lunatic” as you suggest, and in part because I am not concerned to talk about ideas “contaminating the violently susceptible”, which is a silly liberal argument.

    Breivik may be at an extreme end in terms of the exact tactics he pursued, but the history of fascist movements is one littered with violent adventures that look “nutty” to outsiders. That’s part of the way they see of building their movements which, by their nature, are made up of softer elements, a harder core, and at least a few people willing to really go out on a limb. There is always a tension inside such movements between “legal” and “illegal” (extra-state) methods. Part of the internal flux of such movements is the need to harden up and inspire the cadres, and that can have a logic whereby a fringe internal current decides to engage in a spectacular adventure to (1) advance its own agenda and (2) advance the movement through a change of direction, especially if it is seen as being at an impasse in terms of its more moderate activities.

    This is just a banal observation about how fascist movements operate.

    I think the significant point is that the argument for Breivik’s kind of politics has been given legitimacy by the mainstream political debate, and that the political class (and their mates in the MSM) should have the finger pointed at them. The far Right, while still relatively marginal in Europe, has grown and is seeing a chance for rapid advance in the context of economic crisis. But the way that mainstream politicians, themselves battling with decreased social weight, have mobilised anti-Muslim, anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigrant tropes to bolster their standing has legitimised the far Right’s ravings (in much the way that Gillard’s anti-refugee politics have given Abbott legitimacy).

    Notably, much has been made of how Breivik doesn’t seem to be a classical anti-semite. But this is precisely because modern fascists have to deal with the context of a state and media that push a different form of nationalism and scapegoating to what they did in the past — one centred on Islam as the key threat to a Western cultural identity.

    TBH, most of his rantings that I’ve scanned through are not so far from the mainstream of far Right propaganda in the West — indeed he seems to have lifted massive chunks from other, more “respectable” ideologues… and that includes the quotes about Howard, Pell & Windschuttle.

    ‘Nuff said.

  2. kymbos on 27th July 2011 9:11 am

    Surely this reflects the bankruptcy of the Left, PS!

  3. Dave on 27th July 2011 9:22 am

    I don’t understand why what Brievik did was ‘mad’. He systematically decimated the future leadership of Norwegian social democracy, his sworn enemies as a fascist. Horrific, sickening and depraved, but quite reasonable given his ideology.

  4. Michael on 27th July 2011 10:12 am

    I think the link to Howard is exceedingly trivial, but the right have been slowly turning up the rhetoric and in the case of the US right, they are barely staying within the bounds of sanity. The real problem is that the mainstream moderate conservatives are happy to stay silent during these adventures into extremism which makes them culpable.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 27th July 2011 11:01 am

    Surely the starting point for determining whether something is politically significant would be an assessment of what is the current state of social forces in society, and what relation that act has to it.

    Starting with the writings (or meanderings) of a murderer seems to me to be looking at the issue upside down. Just because someone claims they are something politically significant, doesn’t mean they are.

    What made Hitler a political leader was not his mystic appeal or the power of his arguments, but the balance of social forces in Germany at the time and the use such forces could make of what otherwise would have been merely a crank. It was that starting point of the analysis of German society that enabled Trotsky to identify the threat that was posed by the Nazis, in contrast to others who started with, and unsurprisingly dismissed, what were otherwise incoherent ramblings.

    The very nihilism of the actions of Breivik highlight how little he represents in Norwegian society. Only by the broadest imagination could the random murder of people outside government buildings and children on a political camp be called a ‘strategy’. It more represents the random lashing out of the deranged than a bid for power.

    More broadly the increasingly shrill tone of the right is a sign of their increasing detachment and irrelevance from society rather than any real shift in society itself. Whereas as others see this indicating the growing force of the right, I see it as exactly the opposite. Abbott’s mouthing off is a sign of the Liberals’ current demoralisation and disorientation than a sign of their growing confidence.

    Finally, while there is obviously some rhetorical connection between those who target immigrants and Breivik, I certainly can’t see it as ‘legitimising’. I can’t think there would be any meaningful section of society that would regard what Breivik did as having the slightest legitimacy.

    The main point here, and very much one of the emerging themes of this blog, is that as politics hollows out and becomes detached from society, it becomes seen in its own terms as a ‘battle of ideas’ rather than a reflection of real social relations in society.

    Kymbos, I would never say such a thing!

  6. Paul of Berwick on 27th July 2011 3:14 pm

    To quote your article: “The second problem is that if public debate is to be determined by what lunatics might make of it, we may as well not have any, just in case”

    I don’t mind the debate. But its the tone of the debate. Have you listened to Alan Jones, to the way the Abetz, Joyce, et al speak at public rallies.

    Can we then, draw parallels with the tone of the political debate leading up to the Gifford’s shooting (Palin’s cross-hairs anyone)?

    Have we moved on from civil public debate, to words that inflame lunatics to action?

  7. Dave on 27th July 2011 4:37 pm

    I am generally in agreement with your analysis there except for, ‘I can’t think there would be any meaningful section of society that would regard what Breivik did as having the slightest legitimacy.’

    I suggest you peruse the comments section of Andrew Bolt or Tim Blair’s blogs to see that the general line of argument from the Right is that Brievik only “went too far” or was “forced to do it because of multiculturalism”.

    To my mind a line has been crossed here, which is most probably what Brievik intended through his ‘propaganda of the deed’. The Right are acting defensively over this because while sharing Brievik’s analysis they are only differentiated from him by their lack of a ‘will to power’.

    ‘More broadly the increasingly shrill tone of the right is a sign of their increasing detachment and irrelevance from society rather than any real shift in society itself. Whereas as others see this indicating the growing force of the right, I see it as exactly the opposite. Abbott’s mouthing off is a sign of the Liberals’ current demoralisation and disorientation than a sign of their growing confidence.’

    With a majority opposed to the Carbon Tax and Islamophobia rife in the Western msm I find this to be a pretty brave position…

  8. Grant Dewar on 27th July 2011 5:50 pm

    @ dave
    “He systematically decimated the future leadership of Norwegian social democracy, his sworn enemies as a fascist. Horrific, sickening and depraved, but quite reasonable given his ideology”

    Absolutely agree this was deliberate act of terrorism in the old fashioned 19th and 20th century usage. That is the use of terrorist acts to target entire populations.

    The injection into the commentary of the far right by that clown beck by descibing the assasination targets as’hitler youth’ furthers the ramping up of far right wing rhetoric about the liberal and centerist stances taken by those in main stream parties of both the left and the right.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 27th July 2011 8:15 pm

    I still think commenters are looking at this backwards, seeing social reality through the prism of rhetoric.

    It reminds me of how the right used to talk about Islamic politics after 9/11, using Al Qaeda to delegitimise the politics of dreary Islamic clerics, rather than seeing that the very nihilism of 9/11 was a clear sign of their social isolation.

    I especially think this “guilt by association” of ideas is especially tricky for the left given sometimes quite significant atrocities that were committed under so-called left wing ideas (that Pol Pot was a commie, right?).

    Let’s put it this way: if I strapped dynamite to myself and walked into the News Ltd. buildings screaming “Death to the hate media!” as I blew myself up, should I be considered the responsibility of Bob Brown?

    Lunatics cannot be used to define the limits of public debate, except by those that wish to constrict it. It is interesting that as soon as politics is considered purely in the realm of ideas, the inevitable result is to blame ideas for the ills of the world, and therefore attempt to restrict their dissemination.

  10. Dr_Tad on 27th July 2011 10:39 pm

    TPS, I’m surprised you quote Trotsky the way you do, because two of the clearest things I got out of his writings on the rise of fascism in Germany were (1) the central role of capitalist crisis in creating a space for the rise of such forces and (2) the subjective element in Hitler’s success.

    I am certainly not suggesting that the far Right is currently anything more than “relatively marginal” (as I said above) but if factor (1) is happening then it becomes more important to address factor (2) and isolate these scum (including ideologically) before they can look like a more serious proposition to a ruling class scrambling to impose a solution on its people down the track.

    The problem with the mainstream Right and “liberals” like Peter Hartcher is that they are seeking to isolate Breivik’s politics from their own “reasonable” anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and nationalist articulations by doing the same thing you are doing, writing it all off as the actions of a madman. Worse, some of them are being given mainstream space to justify his project (or at least aspects of it).

    We have to consider that real and powerful social forces (the ruling class and its state) have to date found it mostly useful to cover the weakness of the political class with a heightening of right-wing rhetoric. The guilt here is not “by association” but through legitimation.

    I wonder if the implicit and unmentioned element in your general analysis, the ruling class and the state, needs to be brought out here rather than just talking in the negative about the problems of the political class? Otherwise your argument remains one-sided and unconvincing as the material situation shifts in the crisis.

    Finally, I wonder where this concern is coming from about “defining the limits of public debate”? Who’s doing that here? Seems to me the Right, despite their defensiveness, are getting a good old run.

  11. Dr_Tad on 27th July 2011 10:42 pm

    PS On Pol Pot… The Right will have a go at Marxists no matter what we think (and I’m the kind of Marxist who thinks the only coherent analysis of the Communist bloc is as bureaucratic state capitalisms) so we have to be able to show what makes us politically different from what tyrants like him did. I don’t think calling him a lunatic or madman explains the social basis of what his regime did at all.

  12. The Piping Shrike on 28th July 2011 12:50 am

    There was also a third element in LT where he talked of the dead weight the Stalinists had made the German wc, that required a razor to be taken to it, but also enabled it to happen. So it wasn’t just the crisis, or the subjective element, but the balance of social forces that mediated between the two, that surely would also need to be considered here.

    In this case, I think if there is any ‘subjective’ response to the crisis, in the context of a weakened political system, it is more anti-political and/or nihilism, which I see actions like this as being, no matter how much they are dressed up in the language of the past, fascism or, in the case of Al Qaeda, a bogus anti-imperialism. That weakening of the political system ultimately comes from the decomposition of traditional institutions of organised labour around which it was oriented.

    The unreasonableness of anti-immigration rhetoric comes from the position itself, and does not need to rely on the actions of someone like Breivik. Indeed basing it on the actions like Breivik, whose justifications are wholly incoherent, seems to me a very shaky ground for a critique. Anti-immigration and Islamophobia can be quite comfortably confronted in its own terms.

    I can’t see how Breivik’s actions have been legitimised. Who found it legitimate?

    I really can’t compare the current aggressiveness of the right (and the press) to that such Australia saw under the Cold War. Remember the days when you would lose your job for being suspected as a left-winger? How balanced was the press then?

    Absolutely agree on Pol Pot, but then starting from his rhetoric was not very enlightening either.

    Ultimately my concern here is not the general analysis on the state or the rc, but a focus on Australian politics and the decomposition of the old critique of society and the state. There is nothing (very little) implicit here, I really am making it up as I go along!

  13. Riccardo on 28th July 2011 1:07 pm

    The other thing to not lose sight of is that some errant and abhorrent behaviour is mental illness (diagnosed or otherwise), some is just ‘pure evil’ in the way any preacher of religion would tell you, while the amount that is the rational, calculated and coherent outcome of political or ideological thinking is small.

    In those countries that have the latter, it would defined as an insurgency.

    But Norway has no insurgency.

    9/11 had much more in common with left-radicalism of the late 60s and early 70s. These guys (from what I understand) drank and womanised and had only as much Islam as the different Red Army factions and so on had socialism – not a whole lot. These weren’t exactly textbook examples of a working class uprising, seizing the means of production and the commanding heights yadayada.

    Have you noticed too, the positive media coverage in the west about Egypt, Tunisia and so on hardly mentions that the people involved will be nearly 100% muslim, whether by faith or by identification?

    The muzzies turn into good guys, apparently, when getting rid of bad leaders (some of who were tacitly supported by the western establishment, becoz though they were bad leaders, they were implicitly leaving Israel alone. But when they start growing the beards long again, putting on the turbans, shouting Allahu Akhbar and so on, they will go back to being bad guys again.

    I also detect a little bit of Marxist thinking in the idea that you have a ‘thinking class’ – intellectuals – who provide the fertiliser (metaphorically of course) for the otherwise unthinking actions of lesser mortals.

    So this Norwegian guy writes his tome, it’s incoherent but thankfully for him, there are some ideas in there because the Bolter and Piers and co are over here, on the other side of the planet, stitching ideas together for export to people like him.

    The same was/could be said about Hitler, he didn’t have to think, because Nietschze and Heidegger and co did his thinking for him, Wagner wrote his music and so it goes.

    The deranged, by this line of reasoning, don’t need to do the hard work of being crazy, while they are some hard thinkers helping them.

  14. Riccardo on 28th July 2011 1:11 pm

    Max Frisch in his play Biedermann und die Brandstifter also went for the idea of a culpable intellectual class who made Nazism possible, without which they would have been empty-headed thugs who wouldn’t have conceived of the idea of mass murder themselves.

  15. Dr_Tad on 28th July 2011 5:40 pm

    The unreasonableness of anti-immigration rhetoric comes from the position itself, and does not need to rely on the actions of someone like Breivik. Indeed basing it on the actions like Breivik, whose justifications are wholly incoherent, seems to me a very shaky ground for a critique.

    If that right-wing rhetoric was not so framed in terms of “clashes of civilisations”, “cultural wars” and “national security” then you might have a point. But the state and ruling class have a use for a militaristic tone because they (like the hard Right) are trying to maintain the settlement around the national state, as opposed to allowing some kind of class conflict to rise to the surface. In the end if you can’t defend the nation from fragmentation internally, rallying it against the threat of an external “other” (even one present internally as a 5th column) may be a rational strategy.

    To then not expect some (sane but politically extreme) people to ramp that up to its logical conclusion would be odd, no? After all, the state is doing some pretty nasty things to prop up these hollow politics, so why shouldn’t the far Right have a go? And I still don’t see what’s so “incoherent” about Breivik’s ideas, really, given that the ideas of the Right naturally have to combine rational and irrational notions. I’d be worried if they seemed rational to us!

  16. The Piping Shrike on 28th July 2011 6:01 pm

    But Breivik’s ‘manifesto’ is an incoherent ramble. There is much about what you say about the state I can agree with but we have here a problem of cause and effect. Just because someone whose actions were clearly irrational, even on its own terms (was he taking power? was he trying to generate support for his own cause by killing kids on an island?) claims to get inspiration from somewhere, does not form the basis of deciding the validity or otherwise of what he quotes – anymore I would draw conclusions about Gandhi and Orwell whom he also quotes.

    I would have said the key point about the right’s use of “clashes of civilisations” and “cultural wars” is how unconvincing and weak it is. It always leads to the question of what culture, which civilisation? – which the right have difficulty in answering, especially after the Holocaust.

    I think the basic difference comes down to the fact that I don’t believe in a ‘battle of ideas’. It’s what goes on in social reality rather than some people’s heads that ultimately counts.

  17. Dr_Tad on 28th July 2011 7:54 pm

    TPS, how very Feuerbachian of you!

  18. The Piping Shrike on 28th July 2011 8:00 pm

    Somebody has to be.

  19. Riccardo on 28th July 2011 8:39 pm

    Listening to Richard Woolcott of all people on 7:30 reminded me that it is in fact the desparation of the mainstream Right that people like Abbott are in, waving their arms about and frothing at the mouth.

    The Left need to toughen up.

    We seem to lack for a Keating to give them a good socking to. We lack for a Whitlam who could wear the badge of arrogant with pride. There are no Barry Jones left who might vest at least some of the policy with a veneer of intelligence. No Tom Urens who might fill a town hall with passionate activists.

    Abbott is not performing well at all – Gillard is failing badly though and making him look good.

  20. The Piping Shrike on 28th July 2011 9:08 pm

    Precisely because the left have lost their mojo, the right have as well. They have nothing to be against.

  21. dedalus on 29th July 2011 10:43 pm

    Great thread. Agree with Ricardo that the crazy people act as proxies for the cunning people who feed them the propaganda. Shrike, you’re probably right that the Norwegian shooter couldn’t mount a coherent argument in his missive. Haven’t read it, but I’ll take your word for it. Don’t regard that as much of a point though. Most journos etc wouldn’t write any better, and many far worse. Lastly, re Ricardo’s point about the left needing to lift their game, I couldn’t agree more. What we need is a left wing shock jock. Amazing one of the low rating am stations don’t realise there’s a yawning gap here waiting to be filled. Us lefties are far too polite and even handed.

  22. The Piping Shrike on 30th July 2011 12:50 am

    The point of the incoherence of Breivik’s spiel is that there is no point, neither in what he says or what he did. So making spurious links to argue that a mainstream Australian politician somehow bears responsibility for the actions of a lunatic, er, a decade later and on the other side of the world, is bogus.

    The point of the lack of left-wing shock jocks is interesting, but the answer seems to me fairly obvious. The left is so bound up in its constraints and scared of the ‘destructive power’ of ideas, it is incapable of shocking anyone, or even giving a mild fright.

    Take the prevailing left view that Breivik’s actions show how important it is to be responsible what you say in case it could be taken the wrong way by a madman anywhere else in the globe, an idea that may seem radical because it is targeting right-wing politicians, but is in reality deeply conservative. How could a shock jock possibly emerge from that sort of thinking?

  23. Charles on 30th July 2011 10:34 am

    So the events of the last few days doesn’t fit in with you basic theses “that politics is irrelevant”, so you decide to have spray over those that are pointing out the hate crap from the mad right (of which Australia has it fair share, and brought forth the man that has profited most from it) has gone a little too far.

  24. The Piping Shrike on 30th July 2011 1:27 pm

    Funny, but to some, trying to pin a massacre of kids in Norway on mainstream right-wing politicians like Howard sounds like the left are quite capable of doing their own “hate crap” as well. Give us a break.

  25. Graeme on 30th July 2011 10:08 pm

    Just how big a step is it from ‘those asylum seekers deserved to drown’ (something I’ve heard in person and not just on SBS docos) to wanting to eliminate those politicians perceived as ‘soft’ on the ‘aliens within’?

    I trust you are not suggesting the (mild) debate about calling Breivik an ‘extremist’ rather than a ‘terrorist’ is just a logomachy between tired ideologies.

    If words are to have core meanings (without which political discourse is futile) then slaughtering civilians for a political or military cause is a terrorist activity. Whether the ’cause’ is sustainable or adapted to its ends is a categorically different question.

    But we in the west of course are incapable of terrorism, only ‘lunatic’ extremism, because only people like us have lives precious enough or emotions developed enough to feel terror.

    Of course its lame to link Howard to a Norwegian massacre: as Mumble would say it commits the fallacy that Down Under matters. But dehumanisation is a necessary first step to breaches of human rights and atrocities. The dehumanisation of asylum seekers started under Labor policy (for pragmatic reasons) but was ramped up under Howard and subtly extended to the easy target of muslims generally, for both political purposes and to reinforce his government’s international agenda (one can hardly get away with invading two muslim nations of no threat to Australia if their inhabitants are seen as equally human).

    Finally, shouldn’t we leave it to the Norwegian courts to decide if the perpetrator of this massacre is criminally ‘insane’? Rather hard to judge from this distance.

  26. The Piping Shrike on 30th July 2011 11:54 pm

    In words or ideas that may be not much of a step, but in deeds and social reality it is.

    Political discourse is futile unless it is linked to social reality, otherwise words are just words. Pseudo-revolutionaries can go around threatening the end of the capitalist system, but it means nothing unless they reflect something real in society. Similarly Neo-Nazis in Australia in 2011 can say the same thing as Nazis in Germany in 1933 with every difficult consequences for the same reason.

    I see this ‘debate’ even worse than a logomachy. Consider this; we have just had an election with Labor proposing the most anti-immigration platform since it abandoned the White Australia policy 40 years ago. Any objective reading of the current political reality would see that those who want to support immigration have never been so ineffectual. So what do we have instead, attempts to link the actions of a Norwegian killing kids on an island on the other side of the world to the words of mainstream Australian politicians to try and shut them up that way. I see this as a bogus attempt to make up for what is not happening in political reality. While some use Breivik to claim that this debate is too vigorous, I see it the current left-right argy-bargy over Breivik as covering up a debate that is now dead on its feet.

    I notice also that those who are making this link between mainstream politicians on the right don’t seem to want to include Labor in this is as well. Why not? Labor believes too much immigration is a problem, and now thinks that Big Australia conflicts with a Sustainable Australia. If immigration needs to be reduced as Gillard claims, doesn’t that suggest the ones here are already putting a strain on resources and are a problem? I’m sure I can make some sort of bogus extrapolation from that as well. Funny how those so sensitive to the power of words seem not to want to include Labor in that.

    I will leave it to psychologists to decide on the state of Breivik’s mind, but for political purposes there is no rationality in what he did or says and his actions qualify as irrational – even on its own terms. What was he trying to do again? Kill 20 year olds on the hope that Norwegian Labour wouldn’t have a leadership in 20 years time and to start an uprising across Europe. How did that go?

    Not every random lashing out is a political act just because someone ascribes political reasons to it. You would first not start with his words but ask what social force does he represent, where are we now in Norway that determines whether this represents something politically significant or not. Again just because someone claims to do a political act, and kills a lot of people in the process, does not make it so!

  27. Charles on 31st July 2011 1:15 pm

    “The Piping Shrike on 30th July 2011 1:27 pm

    Funny, but to some, trying to pin a massacre of kids in Norway on mainstream right-wing politicians like Howard sounds like the left are quite capable of doing their own “hate crap” as well. Give us a break.”

    Probable about as silly as trying to pin the world trade centre on every Muslim. By happy for you to point me to the links where you railed against that.

  28. The Piping Shrike on 31st July 2011 1:55 pm

    I think regular readers of this blog would know my view on this even long after it happened. This is all getting a little BS, don’t you think?

  29. Dr_Tad on 1st August 2011 11:33 pm

    Back to the “social reality” thing, TPS, because perhaps by jibe about Feuerbach didn’t capture the true source of my discomfort with your line of argument here.

    On this blog you’ve wonderfully exposed the lack of social base for the traditional conservative and Laborist projects as a key feature of the crisis of the political class. But ideas also reflect more fundamental social structures, such as capitalist social relations and their expression not just in “the economy” but also the state.

    The political organisation of capitalism within national (state) structures provides the basis for the kinds of ideas and actions that Breivik and the less clearly fascist Right retail, without them having to be organised in a large and/or coherent collective movement. The Right can always rely on a basis in the class structure of society (and its institutions of domination) in a way that the Left cannot.

    The point about the far Right is that even when it is small it rests on a reaction to the contradiction between an idealised national unity and the way that such an ideal cannot be lived up to because capitalism creates dynamics and pressures that undermine it.

    I see the implicit threat in Breivik’s actions not in the strength of fascist organisation in Europe/Norway (although it seems pretty clear that such forces have made gains in recent years) but in the way that the capitalist crisis provides them with a space to grow precisely because they can benefit from the contradictions I’ve noted.

    For some kind of new Left to emerge also requires the exploitation of those contradictions, although in a way that seeks to transcend the subordination of politics to the capital relation, and which therefore must pose a solution to the crisis that is not “national” in the same sense as bourgeois politics is.

  30. Riccardo on 2nd August 2011 9:11 am

    We’ve been waiting for the ‘new left’ for a long time, and had several false dawns.

    As I see the fundamentals underlying the social realities as TPS is always pointing out:

    -Australia’s economy is not a real problem, and its growing pains aren’t easily solved by a socialism vs free market paradigm.

    -politicians have spent 3 decades parcelling off economic problems to non-elected officials here and abroad. So now we have non-elected monetary policy, non-elected international trade and currency policies, non-elected wage setting and if the Tea Party-style nutters here had there way, non-elected fiscal policy too.

    -the net result is politicians have little influence over the economy, so any talk about it is false, and harks back decades to a fight we once had about it

    -the cat is out of the bag with social policies. The Right like to pick fights with totems like abortion, homosexuality, other sexual things. But they know these debates are a sham because there is nothing they can do about them now (except the Taliban-style elements within the Right like Abetz and friends)

    -most environment debates are shams. Murray Darling ‘environment’ flows are code for South Australian water, while ‘irrigation’ flows are code for especially NSW, and also Victorian water.

    There isn’t an elephant in the room. There are dozens of them. The Right don’t really know how to handle the rise of China, because they don’t want to embarass their business friends while talking about a totalitarian regime that 30 or 40 years ago was easy to denounce.

    The left don’t really know how to handle the rise of militant Islam either – the human rights abuses of abusive regimes can be hard to reconcile with genuine fights for sovereignty and justice against the US imperialists who are undoubtedly in the region for oil and influence.

    So if the new left start believing in
    -no longer fighting over petty day-to-day economics (a turf the right enjoy fighting on)
    -understanding the true human rights issues with Islam
    -socking the Right over kowtowing to China
    -sticking to science with the environment, not picking and choosing which bits they like
    -rubbing the Right’s nose in the actual popular support for sexual freedom, and pointing out their views are minority views.

    then maybe the new left stands a chance in the 21st century

  31. fred on 2nd August 2011 8:06 pm

    The problem is that the actions of Breivik are on a continuum that has as its close neighbour and is directly related to a range of views and opinions of several prominent and powerful right wing ideologues.
    To draw the conclusion that the difference between Breivik and these RWDBs [to use a handy acronym] is merely one of degree and not kind is not unreasonable because we can see those links in the writings of Breivik.
    He tells us that he admires, in part or whole, the words and ethos of people like Costello, Howard and a couple of other Australians of that ilk. Meanwhile US commentators are noting a similar association of praise for the RWDBs of the US and the British are noting the same for the same in the UK.

    Breivik is on the right edge of a spectrum, the questions are how far right in relation to accepted so-called legitimate respectable rightists eg Howard/Jones/Bolt, how wide is the gap, and how much of Breivik’s actions are derived from the context and legitimation of his views by those accepted etc pundits?

    That is a link to Pure Poison.
    It has an article related to a website on which some net commenters have made comments that come awfully close to calls for violence. The website is the Liberal Party website.
    Is this acceptable?
    Meanwhile Jones has made calls for the dumping overboard of Gillard and Brown in a sack, Hockey ‘understands the anger’ of a climate change denialist who makes a statement about guns and Gillard.
    Is this acceptable [I mean Hockey’s answer]?
    Jones and the riots at wherever, Howard and children over board etc.
    Are these acceptable?
    And then repeat the above for the US and UK examples along the same lines that form part of Breivik’s world view and the context to his actions.

    Houston, we have a problem.

  32. The Piping Shrike on 3rd August 2011 6:00 am

    Dr T,
    The main problem I have is with the second para (not its beginning obviously!):

    On this blog you’ve wonderfully exposed the lack of social base for the traditional conservative and Laborist projects as a key feature of the crisis of the political class. But ideas also reflect more fundamental social structures, such as capitalist social relations and their expression not just in “the economy” but also the state.

    As understand it what you are arguing is that while it is very well looking at the crisis of the political class due to social changes, ideas also relate to more fundamental structures, such as the state.

    But I don’t see that you can look at one without the other. Otherwise you have political ideas relating to the state and nation in an abstract way that is ahistorical over time and geography, without looking at the specific political conditions at the time. This leads to drawing direct links between the Nazis in Germany in 1933, Breivik in Norway and mouthing off right-wing histrionics in Australia – that confuse social reality.

    It is that very crisis in the political class that gives the reaction to the far right groups a different meaning than in 1933. Then you had a stalemate between a highly organised labour movement, but incapable of taking power, and a right, demoralised by military defeat, but still with a broad social base that needed a solution in an economic crisis. The Nazis were a real social force because they were used in that context as a means of cutting through that impasse.

    What do we have now? A hollowed out labour movement with little effective political presence, but which in turn is undermining a political system that was built around it and draining both the left and the right of its social base. The state may have a real social base in society, but not the political forces that would have mobilised active support around it. In that context, the far right is more nihilistic than looking to take power and an exaggeration of its importance is more liable to give the state an opportunity for some much-needed moral authority to deal with it – such as Howard had when dealing with Port Arthur. If Bryant had issued a right-wing manifesto (indeed the issue of gun control became a rallying call for the right) he would still not have hesitated for a minute.

    Without accounting for that mediation between society and the development of ideas at any point, we are more stuck in the realm of ideas than the social reality of now. So links become through merely what people say or wrote rather than how they relate in society and we can draw connection between what is said by Australian politicians and what is written by a gunman who has little relation with Norwegian society, let alone with one on the other side of the world.

    Finally, fred, to get more mainstream, there’s no doubt that the right are becoming more strident (although linking poor Honest John to a crazed gunman in Norway isn’t exactly lowering the temperature either). But the question that should be asked is this: does it represent a resurgence of the Right, or a hollow, if noisy, response to its weakness? Again, what I have been arguing in this blog suggests the latter.

  33. Dr_Tad on 3rd August 2011 1:35 pm

    But TPS, where have I been comparing 2011 to Germany in 1933? In fact I keep repeating that the far Right is still relatively marginal. But then so was German national socialism early in its career. It was laughed at by people who said it had no base. But then the playing out of the capitalist crisis, including the failure of the mainstream political institutions to be able to impose one solution or another, allowed it to grow a base and fill the vacuum. Should we wait until 1932 levels to get worried in new circumstances of crisis?

    I also don’t disagree with your general point about mediations, but unless you are arguing there is no working class or capitalist class (not just that the usual political parties are weakened organisationally and in their links with their social bases) then I think you end up leaving the deeper social relations and structures out of your analysis. At times you almost seem to stray into implying that because of these disconnections there are effectively no classes.

    I think Gramsci (who I’m aware you’re not a big fan of) describes such a situation well:

    “At a certain point in their historical lives, social groups become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’.”

    There is a consequence to the breakdown of the “normal” mediating political structures that cannot be explained without reference to more fundamental social contradictions. I think the weakness in your analysis is that you bend the stick to the mediating factors and they end up being described in a way that appears autonomous from those social relations. Just because the unions and ALP are weak doesn’t mean that the pressures created by the capitalist crisis don’t play themselves out in various other ways from below. For example, in Spain the collaboration by the mainstream reformist institutions in imposing austerity has provoked a radical movement in the squares that is in many ways “anti-political”, but a different kind of anti-politics to the sort that various politicians have retailed because it comes from below. In Greece, on the other hand, the greater resilience and organisation of unions, Left parties and social movement organisations means that the struggle is channelled through somewhat more traditional avenues (and that the square movement there has not been as “anti-political”).

    BTW, I’m not opposed to being strident in general. I just think most of the Australian Left picks the wrong targets and for the wrong reasons.

  34. The Piping Shrike on 4th August 2011 6:00 am

    The Nazis entered an impasse, not a vacuum. On the left the labour movement was highly organised and had strong social links to the main left parties, on the right, Nationalist/Catholic parties had a strong social base, especially in the rural regions. It was the strength of the major parties and their strong roots in German society, but the stalemate it produced, that was crucial in the Nazis coming to power when sections of the social base of the Nationalist Right swung to the Nazis to cut through the impasse (although it was starting to wane when they took power). That is, the strength of the right made the Nazis possible and the strength of the left made it necessary (as far as its business supporters were concerned). What on earth has any of this history to do with any western societies today?

    Of course, classes still exist today, but not, I would argue, with any political expression. The loss of political expression of organised labour has removed the basis for the anti-union agenda of the right.

    This is new. I don’t think we can automatically assume that what comes next will bear any relation to the old. That’s why what happened in Egypt was interesting (Spain less so) because the move for freedom took place without any real connection with either the left or right, or even what has been a ‘third way’ in the Middle east for the last three decades, Islamic fundamentalism.

    In Australia we have had what has been a formal left and right but in reality has been a farce. A labour movement that spent much of the last century being the main instigator of a colour bar that made it a parody of a workers movement, and a right that couldn’t even get it up to have its own flag. Watching this unravel, as in my home state, is also informative – and much funnier.

  35. Dr_Tad on 4th August 2011 8:51 am

    And fascists now won’t be able to take power unless there is a position of impasse rather than simply a vacuum, either. You’re still arguing with someone else on that one.

    But your argument seems to presume that we cannot get back to a situation of a stronger, better organised and more confident working class (with related political expressions). I’m not convinced about your extreme claims for the novelty of the current situation at all.

    To say about Egypt that “the move for freedom took place without any real connection with either the left or right” is to describe similar situations in the past. Look at Portugal in 1975, where the old organisations of the Left were tiny and marginal and the movement came from low-level military officers before spreading through the workers’ movement. Yet very quickly the old Left was able to reinvent itself and gain mass support in order to demobilise the revolutionary movement.

    I think there is a myth on the Left (reformist and revolutionary) that rebuilding the Left must come from the existing parties and institutions. This leads them to be despairing about the possibility of any kind of Left revival. If that is the case then the Left is doomed, but it’s just a myth.

    The Left rebuilds (even when it has crap politics) when there is confident struggle from below, which is not initially dependent on ready-made political expression in the form of parties and unions. But an organised Left ends up being the beneficiary because nature abhors a vacuum — even if the end result is a crap Left like in Portugal rather than a Left that can articulate some kind of serious anti-capitalist program that can gain traction through being concrete.

    I think you seriously underestimate the way that revival of struggle could end up allowing the ALP to rebuild and continue its project of serving the working class up to the bourgeoisie.

  36. Riccardo on 4th August 2011 11:52 am

    Why would you want to rebuild an 1890s party, Dr Tad?

    We don’t do widespread shearers’s strikes, Sunshine Harvester plants, coal mines where workers have to mine in the dark or pay for a candle.

    But we do have a large underclass, with a large confluence of drug abuse, mental illness, and family violence. Will an ALP represent them? Or will the declining unionised workforce continue to nominate a class of permanent bureaucrats to vote at conference?

    We have a large group of ‘symbolic analysts’ middle class people who work with abstracts, so the rich man knows how much money he has, or what is company is doing, or whatever.

    They can see the hollowness of the rich man’s paradigm – but can’t see a permanent bureaucracy of pseudo-unionists doing anything about it except dabbling in property development with the rich man (and breaking the rules while doing so).

    We have other sectors of society changing – farmers requiring to become small-to-medium agricultural businesses and no longer peasants – and some of them can’t make the change. These people find the lunar right appealing but what will the broad left offer them? They could have offered them permaculture cooperatives, profitable landcare or control over their own windfarms – yet all of this has been turned around and against the left by the right just being shrewder.

    We have a larger and larger retail and service workforce, but a union that’s more interested in telling their members not to terminate their pregancies or marry their gay lovers.

    Give me an ALP I can vote for, not the pre-federation version.

  37. Dr_Tad on 4th August 2011 12:51 pm

    Riccardo, you misunderstand me.

    I don’t want to rebuild the ALP, but I am not writing off its ability to regenerate itself on the basis of rising class consciousness. It is because I see Laborism as an obstacle to winning a better society that I’m concerned that we read too much into superficial signs of its decline.

    This is the problem with reformism: It has social roots that exist whether or not reformist parties exist or adequately represent class interests.

  38. charles on 4th August 2011 9:43 pm

    “The Piping Shrike on 31st July 2011 1:55 pm
    I think regular readers of this blog would know my view on this even long after it happened. This is all getting a little BS, don’t you think?”

    Yes; politics in this country passed that point with children overboard.

  39. Graeme on 6th August 2011 2:16 pm

    He’s a political criminal, no? An act of terror and mass murder. In a tradition of the Oklahoma bomber and others. To say he has no al-Qa’ida behind him, no ‘base’ (no pun intended, it’s a Shrikean concept) seems beside the point. His writings, as I’ve read them, albeit in part not whole, aren’t insane (and the lawyers now affirm he is not criminally insane). His method strikes me as at least as effective for his cause as bin Laden’s (whose were no more rational from a military point of view; more like a prolonged suicide operation to drain
    US resources).

    Isn’t the question why for decades now such explosions of calculated rage have almost exclusively come – in the west – from the far right, when 30 plus years back they were more likely from the left? The left is weakened ideologically, but more tolerant than it was. The right is more ideologically prosperous, but grows cancers because of it.

  40. dedalus on 6th August 2011 6:26 pm

    What. “The right is more ideologically prosperous?” Hello! I would have thought a main difference between left and right is articulation. Unpack any short sentence by a shock jock and you will find contradictions, bent logic, deceptions. But wait. They’re the very elements to be used, are they not, when you consider that the audience of a shock jock is basically inarticulate. The point is that Jones, Bolt et al manipulate this audience, and with consummate skill. There, unfortunately, is the right’s power. By contrast, us of the left bend over ourselves to be even-handed, nuanced. Thus is explained the contempt in which we’re held by our opponents. We oppose unreason with reason, forgetting that this is no philosophical debate. Our precious reason is largely ineffectual, really, in a world of shouters.

  41. Riccardo on 6th August 2011 7:20 pm

    I’ve seen David Chalke several times talking about his Australia Scan longitudinal surveys, and he always makes the point that Australia is MUCH less educated than the educated class imagine. Majority of adults alive to day did not finish high school, and small minority went to university.

    So those very skills – of developing objectivity, nuance, evenhandedness, evidence and so on – that are only taught in upper high school and university – were just not acquired by the majority of the cohorts alive today. Hence News Ltd write their tabloids for Year 9 level education, simple words and sentences, and have Terry McCann types saying “What his means for you” or that idiot Suter or whatever his name is they get on for foreign affairs.

    One of my favorite reads – the Hawke Government – comes at this from a similar view.

    The left were, and should have stayed, outside the tent. But Hawke brought them in, and people like ACF, Womens Electoral Lobby and so on were neutered by being sat on commmittees, given plum university jobs, and so on. Neutered and made useless, like the industrial wing of the ALP before them.

    So while you had Bob Brown still coherently saying “Don’t cut down trees” you had all sorts of former outsiders, now insiders, saying “Let’s wait for the findings of the resource assessment study blah blah blah”.

  42. dedalus on 6th August 2011 8:20 pm

    “Left” is a ridiculously pejorative epithet in the minds of the right, just as recourse to a word like “epithet” shows how hopeless the whole debate has become in the minds of the left. The left is filled with anxiety about not speaking in cliches. Cliches are what people understand, given the absence of clear argument. Cliches speak to held positions. Mainstream media understand this simple truth.

    At all costs we must avoid clear argument and speak in cliches. The trick is to identify the right’s weak points and attack them mercilessly, using the right’s tools.

    Misrepresenting their position, or embroiling their luminaries in some concocted scandal or other, would be a good place to start.

    We have our intellectuals to debate the finer points, but as the previous commenter has implied, leave them outside the tent where they can do no harm to the greater cause.

  43. Riccardo on 8th August 2011 10:51 pm

    If you read the above about Alan Jones – not the gay stuff but how it claims he doesn’t really think deeply about anything much, and that it’s not the message, but who’s giving it.

    The Right is very shallow – but the Left has left he way open for it.

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