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Salvage Perspectives #6: Evidence of Things Not Seen
Every issue of Salvage is accompanied by a pamphlet wherein the Editorial Collective presents a synoptic overview of certain key aspects of the political conjuncture as we see it – our perspectives. The below is the editorial perspectives essay that accompanies Salvage #6: Evidence of Things Not Seen. Issue 6 went to press in late October, and in some cases, events have already overtaken the below.
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How are our crises proceeding?
Since Salvage’s foundation, the politics of late capitalism have been characterised by a three-fold consubstantial decomposition. Though readers of Salvage will be familiar with our assessment of this decomposition, it is worth a recap of its elements as we chart its development since our last issue.
First, a crisis of the accumulation of capital, having its proximate origin in the breakdown of 2007–8 and the policies adopted to shift the consequences of that crisis away from the bourgeoisie and – it was hoped – ultimately to help trigger a new cycle of profitable capital accumulation.
Second, partly in consequence of the former, an escalating crisis of representation in democratic political systems. This is most sharply expressed in what the Labour activist James Doran dubbed ‘Pasokification’ – the collapse of social democracy in its European heartlands, inextricable from its embrace of austerity, a fate only avoided by the UK Labour party due to the left insurgency in support of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This crisis of representation has not been limited to the centre-Left: ‘populism’, as a category supposedly uniting Right and Left, is a facile heuristic, but it is true that the crisis has also brought to the fore Trump and the ‘Brexiteers’ on the Anglophone Right. The crisis of representation is also visible, in more chaotic form, in the results of the 2018 Italian election, characterised by the strengthening of the hard Right as part of a politically incoherent coalition, and in somewhat more muted iteration by the results of the Bavarian elections in October 2018, which saw the ‘grand coalition’ of the establishment parties of centre-Right and centre-Left slump, with the insurgent Greens and, in particular, the fascist Alternative für Deutschland the main beneficiaries.
Third, a crisis of geopolitical order, as the US acclimatises to a world of imperialist ‘peer-competitors’. The long-term decline of the relative power of the US empire is, due to the (related and accelerating) political collapse of its bourgeoisie, exacerbated by a disintegration of its hegemonic leadership – with no serious polar competitor emerging. While the US of course remains by a long way the world’s most powerful state, we might, as we have mooted previously, and even if the phenomenon turns out to be transitional, potentially speak of an increasingly ‘apolar’ world.
There are moments when the conjunction of the three crises becomes vividly clear, as with Trump’s recent decision to impose tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminium exports. Often, however, the sound and fury of one or other of these crises can obscure the others. Thus it is when the hard centre obsesses over its narrative linking Facebook, Trump, Putin and Brexit.
At the international level, as the geopolitical foundations of traditional realpolitikcontinue to decay, so do certain niceties of dissimulation or politesse. Thus the rise of trolling as a geopolitical technique: a Saudi mouthpiece threatens Canada with a 9/11-style attack for its criticisms of human-rights abuses; Russian operatives all but wink as they explain their visit to Salisbury (‘with its famous cathedral’), where Sergei Skripal and others were poisoned; Trump declares that he will burn a disobedient country to the ground.
Fifteen years ago, Perry Anderson diagnosed public nostalgia for ‘a more decorous veil being drawn over the realities of relative power’ behind antipathy to the Bush Jr regime. The pre-Kavanaugh liberal rehabilitation of Bush, offerer of candy to Michelle Obama, shows how much further the veil had yet to fall. Those earlier rebarbative stylings of Cheney, Rumsfeld and their ilk were triumphalist, in the service of what could at the time plausibly appear an ascendant neoconservative agenda. The new undecorousness is far more widespread, a symptom perhaps of apolarity rather than unilaterialism; and in the US in particular, one not of might but, acknowledged and/or disavowed, of what Trump called ‘American carnage’ – of decline.
The crisis of apolarity thus bleeds into that of representation. Whether it is ultimately more salutary to forces of reaction or of emancipation only time and struggle will tell, but a legitimation crisis accelerates as institutional sanctimony withers, and violent power-politics are not only revealed but, often, advertised with emoji-worthy snark.
This is the new normal. Although some roll their eyes at their leaders’ wayward vulgarities, the system’s partisans accommodate to it with alacrity, as a grotesque new example makes clear. It is now more or less universally accepted that the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a conservative reformer and critic of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), was brutally murdered and dismembered by a large Saudi hit squad at their embassy in Turkey. The most telling aspect of the jostling for a new reactionary normal, however, has not been Trump’s swift and honest declaration that he is disinclined to let this murder weigh against a new $110bn arms deal – differing from his predecessors only in refusing any pretence otherwise – nor his initial blithe stress that MBS ‘totally denied’ any knowledge of the killing. It is, rather, crystalised in a 16 October 2018 Financial Timesheadline: ‘Saudis weigh saying Khashoggi was killed by rogue officers’.
There is no pretence to credibility in such a story: what was reported, rather, was the very discussion over whether or not to adopt a specific line of obvious bullshit. As in 2014, when Russia claimed that its paratroopers had ‘accidentally’ crossed the border into Ukraine, the criterion here is less believability than… to shrug, to say something, anything, to break the fourth wall with a wink, to, you know, whatever.
Liberals remain in mourning for politesse. Various journalists hitherto enthused by MBS’s PR operation and unfazed by Saudi’s mass-murderous onslaught in Yemen have been horrified into criticism by this butchery of one of their own. Some lawmakers, GOP and Democrat, still committed to kayfabe, exclaim that they are shocked, shocked. In the short term, the transgression has been deemed serious enough – not least because Turkey, barely bothering to deny that they are the fruits of spying, has released details of recordings of the murder – that the Sauds are feeling the heat. Many high-profile attendees have decided to boycott a major investment event in the kingdom. It seems clear, and hardly controversial to point out, that MBS and his ‘rogue elements’ have overstepped – though it is highly unlikely that such anathematising will last more than a few weeks. (Much less commented-upon is that Ankara seems to have so far evaded outrage over the more-or-less outright revelation that the Saudi embassy is bugged – their initial claims that Khashoggi’s Apple watch recorded audio while he was killed were quickly and simply dismissed as irreconcilable with the workings of the technology – in violation of international law.)
At first sight, one might be forgiven for seeing consolidation, economic at least, as the dominant theme of the recent moment. ‘The Return to Growth’, of historically fairish levels after a torpid decade, has dominated the business press. Indeed, as the FTreported earlier this year, the Eurozone’s annual rate of GDP growth reached 2.5 per cent in 2017, and the US figure some 2.7 per cent. At the start of the year, OECD forecasts for 2018 were even more roseate, pencilling in global growth of 3.9 per cent. Capital spending, the truest measure of bourgeois confidence about the future, also enjoyed an upturn in the US, the Eurozone and the major East Asian economies. In the words of one Morgan Stanley functionary, ‘it’s going from synchronised growth to synchronised capex’. Have we passed through, then, the time of ‘global imbalances’ and ‘productivity crisis’ toward a new boom?
First, one must register the extraordinary measures taken over a decade to restore, for a few successive quarters, levels of growth that are high but far from unprecedented. The ECB created some €2.3 trillionin quantitative easing to spare the distressed financial system in the past decade, a sum dwarfing by vast factors the continent-transforming Marshall Plan. The US Federal Reserve spent a somewhat higher amount, $3.7 trillion. The Bank of England provided a mere £445 billion, quadruple the annual expenditure on the NHS. Add to this years of near-zero interest rates, and the return to roughly the annual average growth rate of capitalist economies looks rather less sparkling. One would expect, given the fiscal firepower brought to bear, at the very least a renewedtrentes glorieuses.
The imbalance between remedy and recovery has sparked genuine fear in sections of the bourgeoisie and its more perspicacious organic intellectuals, that the current period of growth presages another crisis. The IMF has warned that some of the localised growth projected to result from Trump’s tax cuts will dissipate quickly. The threat of an international trade war clogging the economy and exacerbating tendencies toward ‘deglobalisation’, notwithstanding an emerging stock-market sense that the US is currently ‘winning’ against China, is, for ruling-class prognosticators with a systemic optic, cause for alarm. And there are financial ‘imbalances’ across capitalist states, with some systematically running current account surpluses while others are in debt, increasing the chances of financial turmoil.
More worryingly for the managers of capitalism, the ‘fundamentals’ do not look particularly strong. SocGen’s notorious ‘permabear’ Albert Edwards may not have surprised anyone in predicting that things are about to go ‘horribly, horribly wrong’. But when so orthodox a neoliberal as Larry Summers declares an age of ‘secular stagnation’, the concern can’t be dismissed as ‘bearish’. The IMF’s World Economic Outlookfor October 2018 lauds the ‘steady expansion’ since mid-2016, but laments that the pace is both slower and less balanced than expected only six months earlier, and may have peaked in some major economies, revising global growth estimates down. It warns not only of increasing risks to that growth, but, with understated vatic melancholy, that ‘the potential for upside surprises has receded’.
US GDP recovery has been weak relative to previous crises and, according to a paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve, the rate of employment growth comparatively sluggish; no new ‘boom’ vectors appearing on the horizon. This points to a problem in the underlying rate of investment. As Nick Srnicek has pointed out, the most profitable firms today tend to be the large data platforms which, having low costs of production, invest little and hoard record amounts in offshore tax evading schemes. This is a dramatic illustration of capitalism’s secular crisis: the tech saviours of the system epitomise the problem.
Magical Thinking and the Alt-Centre
Squatting ranine atop this apparently resurgent growth, we find the Donald. One remarkable feature of his tenure so far has been the weakness of the liberal ‘resistance’. The talk of impeachment, palace coups, longed-for Deep Throats and smoking guns, has largely played itself out, though the occasional anonymous op-ed, some insider side-eye or the dying of John McCain can still occasion raptures and schmaltz from those who cling grimly to the belief, per Clinton 1, that there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed with what’s right with America. The strategy of appealing to national honour and constitutional tradition against un-presidential vulgarity has proved fruitless. This much could have been, and was, predicted.
As to the secret conspiracy that everyone knows about – that Putin wanted Trump to win in 2016, and put his troll factories to work towards that end – every iteration of the investigation to uncover the Truth™ builds up not momentum but apathy, bad faith and magical thinking. The reaction to the discovery of Russian-promoted social advertising designed to reduce the turn-out of likely Clinton voters was telling in this respect. The adverts, targeted at young Black men, related to Clinton’s comments about ‘super-predators’ from the 1990s, a period of astonishing rise in US incarceration rates, one effect being the loss of voting rights by one in ten Black men. Yet liberals, with oblivious chutzpah, described not only as dirty tricks but as ‘voter suppression’ this advertising that told people about Hillary Clinton’s actual political record.
Those clinging to the ‘It was Russia wot won it’ narrative have a sophisticated opponent in the political scientist Thomas Ferguson, known for his ‘investment theory of politics’, according to which traditional democratic theorists underestimated the material costs of democratic organisation. Unless citizens were well-organised and able to pool massive resources, the state would fall under the control of business alliances, for which parties would be effective containers. This described, to a tee, the state of party competition in the US until 2016. Had the race been, as the major party grandees would have preferred, Jeb Bush versus Hillary Clinton, the orders of battle would have been predictable. The Bush dynasty would have lined up supporters from sections of banking and finance, as well as firms traditionally close to the Bushes, such as oil, chemicals, coal, mining, paper, and the major parts of the defence industry. Clinton, meanwhile, would have on-side sections of Wall Street, telecommunications giants and silicon valley, media giants, universities, and some big donations from the unions.
But something unprecedented took place. The funding cartels broke down. On the Democratic side, Sanders unprecedentedly ran a competitive primary campaign based on no major business donations. On the Republican side, Trump combined his own pocketbook with money from a number of small donors – albeit many fewer than Sanders – and attacked the Washington-Wall Street establishment from the right. In the resulting contest, Trump benefited from ‘dark money’ and, collaterally, from some business financing of the GOP congressional campaign, while Clinton assembled the broadest business coalition since Lyndon Johnson. Yet, largely because Clinton lost support in key Democratic rustbelts where the rate of unionisation had plummeted under the Obama administration, the funding cartel actually lost control.
There is, as touched upon in previous issues of Salvage, precious little evidence for any significant effect arising from Russian campaigns, or ‘fake news’. One study by Ohio State University found a weak correlation between belief in ‘fake news’ and defections in 2016, but had one major shortcoming: while controlling for such factors as age, gender, and race, it omitted to control for the impact of Clinton’s campaigning. On the other hand, the breakdown of the major parties and their representative strategies of linking voters to business clients had been prefigured in the shocking collapse of voter turnout just two years previously. This signalled the beginning of a major crisis, and the end of hopes that Obama could resolve the underlying problems from the mandarin centre.
The political crisis of the Washington establishment can thus not be seriously addressed, still less remedied, by James Comey’s prissy countersubversive zeal or even by Mueller’s grimmer-faced iteration. Certainly, the investigations have tended to keep Trump on the back-foot, disoriented and bellowing into his feed, caused divisions in his executive team, and have led to the expulsion – for now – of Steve Bannon from the inner core. But this will come to nothing if the Democrats continue to systematically demoralise their base, as they just have with their feeble campaign over Brett Kavanaugh’s overtly politicised nomination for the Supreme Court. The hard-Centre seems incapable of addressing its own problems. Some Democratic by-election victories run on a hard-Centre ticket have been touted as proof that Continuity Clintonism can prevail, against any evidence of anything but the contrary at a systemic level.
Meanwhile, the Democrat establishment scurries to distance itself from a post-Sanders wave of unusually, if variously, progressive insurgent candidates at various levels, including most prominently Julia Salazar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This, via various levels of mediation, is an institutional expression of increasing radicalisation, including in militant worker action, particularly expressed in a wave of teachers’ strikes across the US, and, at a more subterranean level, the country’s ongoing prison strike. Inflated hopes for the electoral wave have already been disappointed, but momentum remains, as do historically unprecedented opportunities for a serious political impact – as with the increasing mainstreaming of demands for, for example, universal healthcare, including, recently, from Obama. There is an unusually healthy and thoughtful debate on the US far-Left over how to relate to such candidates and the Democrats more generally (Salvage, in brief, considers that it would be a mistake, particularly in the current moment, to consider these questions of principle rather than of tactics). It seems perfectly clear, however, that Democratic power-makers will continue on their current course. If the US economy continues just long enough to stave off a renewed downturn, the breakthrough they have been predicting is not at all certain, including at the forthcoming midterms. And that is not the only factor to consider.
The grotesque spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the US Supreme Court, even if considering only his statements and public demeanour, illustrates the collapse of traditional norms of institutional propriety. Salvagemourns them not at all, and their passing should be an opportunity, but US liberalism is utterly unable to embrace or instrumentalise it – unlike the shrewder Right. The Democratic leadership’s hopes for the midterms have largely rested on being the beneficiaries of (very real) loathing of Trump, sharpened now by disgust at Kavanaugh’s investiture, rather than any particular enthusiasm for their own agenda. Such justified hatred will have an impact. But it is telling that after the Republican triumph with regard to Kavanaugh, they too are excited by the mobilising impact this fight is having on their base, which would by contrast be a much more concrete and positively invested invigoration, and are predicting that it will benefit their own showing at the forthcoming elections.
Very soon after these words appear in print, the midterm results will be in. At the time of writing, the prediction of the bullish Republicans, that they will block the mooted ‘Blue Wave’ and not only keep hold of the Senate but slap down the predicted Democrat takeover of the House, is all too plausible.
The Emergent Silicon Sovereign
A core tenet of the liberal response to the three interlocking crises is that, in some way, the blame lies with social media. Thus their inflation of real symptoms and factors, glossed as fake news, opinion silos, filter bubbles, as beyond the power of the sensible, grown-up politics of the past. Such recalcitrant phenomena have, in this model, allowed uneducated and propagandised masses of opinion to form in isolated lifeworlds, so that politics becomes infotainment and idle libidinal stimulation. The new liberal consensus, that we are living in a ‘post-Truth’ era, is startling not so much for what it claims about the present, but its implication about the past and its relation to ‘truth’. As though the Cold War print empires and their allies within the liberal state had hitherto perfected a Habermasian utopia of communicative rationality. As though no one had, until this point, thought to manipulate opinion with entertainment and public relations techniques. As though the liberal state would never have thought to lavish an audient electorate with downright lies.
One can at least see in this ‘sour grapes’ theory of communications a topsy-turvy version of a real change: the transition to surveillance capitalism, with its attendant libidinal economies and nano-politics. The hullabaloo around the particular, now defunct, detachment of bullshit artists, Cambridge Analytica, reveals something more important. Facebook, most of all, reliesupon the trading of its users’ data. This is not an aberration – it is the business model. Since this data is collected by stimulating ceaseless interaction with the platforms, on their terms and on the basis of their protocols, this means that screen-time monopolises more and more of the daily lives of citizen-consumers. The platform giants, though loathe to admit it, have become media giants, with their filtering algorithms lending them tremendous editorial power – this can, of course, be purchased by interested parties, and is effectively harnessed by those best able to manipulate the algorithms in their selection of content, and harness hashtagged hype.
The silicon oligarchs, knowing us by the numbers better than we know ourselves, thus find themselves with a fusion of economic and ideological power that towers above that of old masters like Rupert Murdoch. In some respects and to a certain extent (and mindful of the breathless boosterism that always accompanies such discussion), the internet, with its ‘cloud’ logic, displaces traditional modes of sovereign power with algorithms operating in place of centralised authority, and with networks criss-crossing borders and territories. Yet, of course, these forms of power are predicated on almost forgotten physical infrastructures sited within and developed by the centralised sovereign power of state military apparatuses. States, no less than corporations, are able to outsource their dirty work under the rubric of ‘participation’: just as Yelp reviewers can micromanage staff at restaurant chains, amateur data enthusiasts can help NATO streamline its bombings, as during the Libya campaign.
The rupture that the internet represents for embedded state-media configurations is thus only a transitional problem which exacerbates an existing crisis of authority. Hegemonic practices will adapt to this new terrain, and, short of major social upheavals, emerging coalitions of state and capital will stabilise the governing centre. In all likelihood, political professionals – tomorrow’s Mandelsonian spinners – are already closely studying the complex libidinal and digital economies of shitstorms, wokeness, alt-reaction, the manosphere, and the rest. They will be learning the new rudiments of their trade from the platform giants. (Facebook’s hiring of ex-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg would come as little surprise in this context, but for his unparalleled unpopularity among young – tech-consuming – British).
For the time being, however, the aleatory processes of platform capitalism have, spilling beyond immediate control, created opportunities for subaltern political forces as well as their enemies, even if these are highly conditional and bring their own sets of problems, about which there is much more to be said. Trump is one manifestation of the Twittergeist, but so in different ways are the Corbyn surge, the Sandernistas, and of course – more on this to come in our next issue – #MeToo. The entitled cry of protest from the hard-Centre against this new terrain is, per Wilde, the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. But the image will, nonetheless, materialise.
Corbyn and His Discontents
Does British politics present another arena of consolidation? On the surface, it might have seemed so until recently. Opinion polls, for what they are worth, indicate a remarkable continuity in the blocs relating to the two electoral upsets of the beginning of the cycle of crisis: a roughly fifty-fifty split of ‘Leave’ versus ‘Remain’, and a forty-forty-ten split of the electorate: Conservative-Labour-Other. The near-miraculous character of the June 2017 election result has now been ‘priced-in’.
Or has it? On the one hand, at the time of writing, even by its own don’t-know-where-to-look standards, May’s government is embarrassingly weak and rudderless, caught between various utterly contradictory pressures. The nature of the Tory party as a coalition of spite directed with almost as much cathectic energy inward as outward and downward has rarely been so clear. The Prime Minister continues to insist, convincing no one, that she can construct a Brexit deal that will satisfy the headbangers and deranged ideologues to the right of her party, the anguished capitalists around and to the left, and the petulant parochialists of the DUP. From the perspective of the catastrophic state of the Tory Party, the Labour Party should, in fact, be doing better than it is, as its own anti-Corbyn wing says, though hardly for the reasons they adduce.
Key in acting as something of a brake on Corbyn’s momentum has been a recrudescence of attacks on his leadership. These tend to circulate three, often contradictory, tropes. The first is that Brexit is unconscionable and Corbyn is in some sense responsible for it, having throughout his political career consistently advanced left critiques of the EU. The second is that Corbyn is a traitor in league with Russia, a strange and rather desperate attempt to reanimate Cold War binaries and/or link Corbyn to the other ‘populist’ in Washington. The third is that Corbyn is an anti-Semite either responsible for, or reflecting a trend towards, increased racism against Jews in the UK.
In combination, these constitute a fantasy Corbyn, a dark ‘populist’ who can be placed in the bestiary of Trump and Farage, not so much on account of concrete political affinities, as on the basis of the ‘mob’ they each supposedly summon into existence, and the projections of the liberal unconscious that this ‘mob’ is made to bear. As if the Cameronite centre-Right, and the business-led duller-than-royalty Remain campaign didn’t bear primary responsibility for calling and flunking the referendum campaign. As if the firmest allies of Russia’s oligarch class were not concentrated in the hard-Centre and its City of London apologists. As if rising anti-Semitism was not in part predicated on a generalincrease in racism driven by state race-making policies such as Prevent, escalating border controls, and the ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants.
Corbyn was rightly embarrassed by having defended the anti-Semitic Mear One mural, and his extensive steps to address this and repair the damage were appropriate – rather than, as some of the headbanging ‘Against the Witch-Hunt’ critics on the Left suggested, pusillanimous. The now-deposed soft-Left localist mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, was right to have the mural painted over. But the campaign against Corbyn, including within his own party, has vastly, enthusiastically and derangedly extended beyond any possible reasonable grounds of good faith or sense, and degenerated into the most cynical virtue-signalling and poisonous false accusations of racism, including outraged gestures at supposed motes in Corbyn’s eye from those, such as Margaret Hodge, with pus-encrusted beams in their own. The hard-Centre has abetted filthy attempts by the Right, whom all research suggests are far more anti-Semitic than the mean, to represent Jew-hatred as a unique problem with the Left. This revival of Fantasy Corbyn, a niche kink of the British media and the legacy politicians, is consanguineous with that movement. For the Right, it is useful for turning out the Tory vote; for the hard-Centre, including many in the Labour Party, it restores their deep and committed lack of curiosity about the reasons for Corbyn’s popularity, and reaffirms the proud, provincial obtuseness of the British commentariat.
Corbyn, of course, is not above criticism. His leadership, in attempting to lead a constellation of class and other alliances into the state and change the balance of power therein, is unusually historically conscious of the intrinsic limitations of such a project short of social movement. Nonetheless, leading the Labour Party, or indeed any major electoral organisation, is not only an opportunity but a job that brings its own demands. Corbyn must navigate, not only a hostile media and busines class, but also his own backbenchers, and the right wing of the Labour vote. He must deliver on electoralist terms, first and foremost, and only secondarily on the campaigning, movement-based terms more congruent with his politics.
Hence his triangulations on, among other things, tightened border controls and police numbers. Corbyn will be well aware that immigration numbers don’t bear the relation to unemployment and poverty that the anti-immigrant Right claims, as the government’s own Migrant Advisory Committee recently reaffirmed, in what of course should have been, and of course was not, an end to the ‘legitimate concerns’ discourse about immigrants depressing wages. Corbyn at his best is quite overt on such points. Nonetheless, under his leadership, if with more than a whiff of his own discomfiture, Labour is moving toward tighter border controls.
Corbyn will know better than most politicians that years of official research, coming above all from the Home Office, has failed to detect a significant correlation between police numbers and violent crime. Nonetheless, with spikes of violence in the news, he is campaigning for ten thousand more police. (Beyond this, smaller-scale triangulations include attempting to appropriate nationalist sentiment and kitsch for a left-social democratic project, by offering to make St George’s Day a bank holiday.)
Salvagecan only, rather exhaustedly, repeat yet again its position that the task of the Left must be to offer critical solidarity to the Corbyn projectfromthe Left, to pushit left. On the one hand, this means taking to task its real political shortcomings, failures and compromises, while abjuring too-quick-off-the-mark denunciations of ‘betrayal’, always keeping in mind the political context – improving, but still, after the decades-long onslaughts of neoliberalism, including ideologically, hardly fertile ground for genuinely radical change.
On the other hand, and currently a more pressing concern, it is imperative that that support is, precisely, critical. It is perfectly understandable, given the splenetic attacks on Corbyn, that the urge to defend his project can become more reflexive than critical or nuanced. It is genuinely painful, for example, to hear some Corbyn-supporters defend the Labour Party rowback from a commitment to free movement by an at best incoherent, at worst bad-faith elision of the historical fact that capitalism has often sought to move workers from one place to another for its own endswith the current political demand for the rights of workers to free movement in the face of reactionary opposition thereto, and thus to insist that ‘free movement’ is not a ‘progressive’ demand. Salvagewould remind those eager to cite capital’s partial support of the movement of (some) workers as a reason to waver in supporting it that the left commitment to the principle of free movement is less about being in favour of people moving per se, than of being vehementlyagainst stopping them from having the choice to do so, and all of the security apparatus such a stopping entails.
Beyond a Boundary
In international affairs, on which Corbyn has tended to receive the most calumny, his positions are nowhere near as exciting as claimed by his enemies. Indeed, the shambolic and shameful Tory attempts to represent him as an agent of the Czech secret police during the Stalinist era fell apart not least because his politics on this have always been impeccably opposed to the Iron Curtain regimes. Nonetheless, these positions often illustrate a deadlock of British imperialism – as, at least as vividly, do those of his opponents. For example, in response to the poisoning in Salisbury of the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the paths pursued by both Labour and the Tories demonstrated the interlocking crisis of representation and geopolitics.
Salvageclaims no expertise in chemical warfare adequate to make watertight claims of Russian responsibility, from which even the British chemical-warfare laboratory at Porton Down balked. But Salvageshares with other patrons of mid-market restaurants the desire not to be exposed to nerve agents, and as with Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi case, to imagine on the basis of the evidence available that the Russian state did nothave a hand in the attempted murders requires a degree of mental acrobatics going beyond the bounds of reasonable doubt – to which impression the cheerful trolling of that state’s mouthpieces only adds. (‘Don’t choose Britain as a place to live,’ one broadcaster on Russia’s Vremyanews show advised ex-spies, eyes a-twinkle. ‘Something is wrong there. Maybe it’s the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with grave outcomes there.’)
Corbyn’s response to the poisoning – initial hesitance to point a finger, insisting on multilateral institutions as the appropriate venue for the investigation – was seized upon as evidence that he remained a Red under the Bed eager to sell Britain out to the Kremlin. At core, though, the case exposes the hollowness not primarily of Corbyn’s position but of May’s. Putin, not for the first time, seems to have bumped off an enemy on the territory of a weaker third party. No amount of bluster from Gavin Williamson or Theresa May (who as Home Secretary blocked a public inquiry into a previous murder of a Russian dissident on grounds of ‘diplomacy’) can hide the realities of British decline. The UK is in no position to do more than try to talk tough, Williamson pathetically whining that Russia should ‘go away and shut up’. It is Corbyn’s characteristic refusal of even this embarrassing last-ditch option that is the source of the attacks against him.
His response to the Skripal case, as indeed his tergiversations about Assad’s slaughter in Syria, reflect not Stalinism but Bennism. As a young backbencher, Corbyn was among the most consistent in condemning the oppressive regimes of Eastern Europe – just, indeed, as he was in supporting motions against anti-Semitism. His political flaw is not that he rejects the ‘rules-based’ international order, but that he believes in and cleaves to a version of it that does not and cannot exist: a ‘rule of law’ wherein the strong are constrained and the weak have a voice.
Perhaps more fundamentally, his flaw is one of the British Left, which, simply inverting the imperial nostalgia of its domestic enemies, still struggles to find a useful way to relate to global struggles wherein the United Kingdom is not a, or the, major malefactor. Its repertoire of ideas and actions extending back to the Movement for Colonial Freedom, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the better years of Stop the War, it rightly defends the principle of anti-imperialism. Yet what beyond that? In the era of long-term imperial decline, where defence spending has been cut and will be cut further, wherein the ‘special relationship’ is abruptly rather less special, the imaginary of the British Left remains more attached to the coordinates of empire than it realises.
Imperialism and the Camp of Campism
No better example of this intellectual impasse could be found than with regard to the US-led airstrikes on three sites in the spring of 2018, in response to a chemical attack. These strikes were according to James Mattis ‘a one-shot’ and indeed incurred no fatalities. Less so the 15,065 US strikes on Syria under the rubric of combating not Assad, but ISIS, which by July of this year have claimed at a minimum 6,259 lives, according to the tracking website Airwars: this is less than the destruction wrought by Russia’s aerial campaign to maintain its client regime in power, but hardly insignificant. As Salvagehas pointed out previously, the US is fighting a war in Syria, but not against Assad.
The use of chemical weapons by the latter, this time in the working-class periphery of Damascus, needs no special strategic logic, no invocations of ‘but who really benefits?’ to be parsed. This was, according to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, a UN body, the 35th confirmed chemical attack. None of these have led, as claims of WMD in Iraq did, to a regime-change war, any more than did the use of Sarin gas on civilians in April 2017, for which the OPCW declared the ‘Syrian Arab Republic [i.e. the Assad regime]’ responsible. If these are false flags, who on earth would continue to wave them for so little success?
The fantasies by which Syria-truthers absolve their favoured Ba’athists and their international backers of responsibility for chemical massacres are of interest less in themselves than as an extreme symptom of the inability of the Anglophone Left tout courtto begin to grasp new conditions. Two previous historical periods of imperialism are implicitly invoked in their positions: the Cold War itself, seen as a battle between imperialist and anti-imperialist camps; and the unilateralism of Bush II, when it was common to speak of ‘Empire’ in the singular. Today’s campists seem just as unaware as are the neo-Atlantacists attacking Corbyn that the Soviet Union collapsed a generation ago. Neither Russia, nor the Assad regime, nor even China, can remotely plausibly be considered ‘workers’ states’, of even the most degenerate or deformed kind: they are perfectly formed oligarchic capitalist ones. The assertion that ‘the main enemy is at home’ cannot mean that there are no enemies abroad: for the slogan to work, it must be equally utterable in Aleppo and St Petersburg as it is in London or Washington. (It is discomfiting to suspect that were something like the October revolution to occur in Russia now, we could expect, and not only from the Right, dark whispers along the lines of ‘Who funded #sealedtrain?’)
Part of this confusion derives from the more recent of the two phases, that of liberal interventionism and the war on Iraq. Beneath the surface, the instances of Iraq and Syria are diametric opposites. There was a war for regime change in Iraq but not weapons of mass destruction: in Syria there are weapons of mass destruction but no war for regime change. The superficial comparison has reinvigorated a stream of Left geopolitical commentary that is in its telos identical to small-c conservatism, that prizes ‘stability’ above solidarity, and hence insists that ‘Assad has won in Syria’. There is truth to this claim, but only if one qualifies what one means by ‘won’, and indeed by ‘Assad’.
The military opposition to the regime has been wiped out, except for one enclave around Idlib. This victory, of sorts, took the best part of a decade against an ideologically incoherent, operationally divided, intermittently armed rebellion. It belongs not to Assad himself, but to his international backers, Russia and Iran, their militias and their airpower: surely this is obvious when rebel forces negotiate directly with Russia, and Russia, Iran and Turkey jointly attempt to decide what goes on in the country? Half the Syrian population has been displaced, and the regime is busy enacting laws to seize their property: does this really seem like a situation that will become ‘stable’?
This leads to another question, one urgent to pose but very difficult to answer. What, as the twenty-first century approaches its quarter-point, would a socialist foreign policy look like? What might be its boundaries under capitalism – a left social-democratic foreign policy? Is such a thing even conceivable?
One baseline aim might be to prevent inter-imperialist rivalries, such as those currently swirling around Syria, from reaching thermo-nuclear levels. Mattis was clearly aware of this danger, the largely symbolic US strikes targeted to avoid hitting Russian positions, but relying on such calculations to avoid apocalypse would be unwise in the extreme. It is necessary to restate proletarian internationalism as an attempt to preserve the world, as best one can, the better to inherit it.
Many efforts to forge foreign policies of the Left tend to reinforce quasi-campist misprisions: mustering entirely appropriate opposition, say, to British support for the Saudi war on Yemen, but seemingly unable to grasp that other states, such as Russia, China or Iran pursue just as ruthless a conception of their own interests; or advocating a muscular Cold War-style social democracy, apparently unaware that today even the US president is not an Atlantacist.
The choice of what to ‘support’ seems often based on whose ‘geopolitical necessity’ is considered legitimate, rather than on challenging the very notion of such necessity itself. The left demand to ‘support the Kurds’, for example, referring to the post-national liberationist formation in north-eastern Syria, seems unaware that this is already US policy: there are three US airbases and thousands of US troops in ‘Rojava’, aiding the PYD administration. The brutal Turkish invasion and occupation of Afrin, the westernmost canton of ‘Rojava’, which the US did not deign to oppose, shows the folly of banking on imperialist powers to protect any form of radical transformation.
What does confronting the main enemy at home look like when it is not the main one perpetrating massacres abroad? What, in other words, can the British Left say about Syria? Our main enemy has thus-far failed to commit to accepting by 2020 more than 23,000 of the 5 million external Syrian refugees, refuses to grant a flag to the only private rescue boat attempting to save refugee lives in the Mediterranean, and maintains one of the largest networks of immigration detention centres in Europe. We might start there. Ensuring that Assad and Russia’s propaganda-machines do not entirely erase the real history of the last decade in Syria, and that the Syrians in Britain are welcome in our campaigns in solidarity with them are likewise valuable, even if intangible, aims in themselves.
A Brexit Bestiary
In the short term, the Skripal poisoning and Syria airstrikes played rather in Theresa May’s favour: presenting a facade of nationalist strength with no real pressure behind it has always been her forte. This, and the attacks on Corbyn, temporarily distracted attention from the central question upon which she continues to founder: the relationship with the EU after Brexit. But Britain is distracted no more: indeed it is agog at the slow-motion car-crash of her ‘negotiations’ and red-toothed Conservative Party autophagy.
Here there is barely a facade of consolidation. With each negotiation, the UK has conceded on every material point or acquiesced in ambiguous resolutions that will become future concessions: the question of the Irish border has been repeatedly kicked into longer grass, and looks set to be again, but on the timetable for negotiations, the substance thereof, and the totemically important divorce bill, the Brexit secretary was coldly handed his own head on a platter. The widely vaunted ‘bespoke’ Brexit deal, in which even Labour pretends to believe, is consistently dismissed by EU negotiators, who continue to hold the strong cards.
As the deadline draws near, urgency increases, and the odds on a no-deal Brexit grow officially shorter. May is stuck. It remains possible, maybe even likely, that a Chequers-manquédeal might emerge on the back of ill-tempered EU indulgence and, perhaps, rightist Labour MPs, casting anti-Corbyn spite as ‘the national interest.’ Yet as Britain’s Brexit secretary threatens the EU with rejecting his own side’sproposal of an extended transition period, the form of a deal is ever harder to envisage.
The forces behind the British state’s capitulations and convolutions are well known: May’s inner-party coalition depends upon having committed herself to a ‘hard’ Brexit, leaving both the customs union and single market. This is a project that, though congruent with the logic of the Home Office reactionaries with whom May has been in sympathy, is unacceptable to the traditional pro-business Tory leadership, with whom May is also in sympathy. The risk of a hard Brexit without a bespoke deal, at least for the City of London, is a source of ongoing panic to the Treasury. The EU will not try to prevent a hard Brexit, but nor, on present indications, will it concede anything but a standard deal for market access, such as is offered to the US. And, though it opposes a hard border in Ireland, its only compromise solution on this issue remains to admit the north into the customs union after Brexit, something May’s Unionist allies vehemently reject. Proponents of the hardest of borders to protect Ulster from gay marriage and abortion rights, they invoke the image of tariff divergence over the Irish sea with the apocalyptic thunder of St John.
Indeed, the Democratic Unionist Party is in the unenviable position of subscribing to a form of nationalism with glaringly contradictory desiderata. To be out of the customs union as part of a dynamic world-trading British capitalism, and yet also effectively part of a single market in the north and south of Ireland as the essential condition for capital accumulation in the six counties. They will oppose a hard border, but demand that ‘Ulster’ remain British to the bitter end. Even the Lord God of the Free Presbyterian Church, being a bitter Loyalist, has been unable to resolve that deadlock. Salvageproposes the solution evidently escaping the big man upstairs: Britain should accede to the papists, withdraw from the island of Ireland and allow a unified Irish republic to manage its own affairs. For those who need it in slogan form: Britain out of Ireland; Ulster out of Britain; Britain out of business.
Beyond such vexed and no-longer-contained national spectres, Brexit has taken on a more generally fantastical character. Of course, this was always true of the extropians of the Tory Right, for whom ‘independent’ Ukania will now master the seas and trading winds, and bring best British product to grateful former colonies. Alas, Britain has little to send forth, and the former colonies are ungrateful, indeed frankly embarrassed by the approach. Neither is China coming to the rescue, despite being serenaded from Philip Hammond and Mark Carney. The post-referendum interregnum has revealed, however, that this dreamwork is also characteristic of much of the liberal centre-Left. Fantasies about continued membership of the European Union, of reversing the result by staging an astroturf ‘youth’ movement, or defending some emaciated ‘internationalism’, or contemptuously refusing to hear any criticism of the EU whatsoever, has become for some a marker of cultural – and to no small degree class – distinction. The sprawling range of business-funded Remainer pressure groups exists, for the most part, to give this ideology its material articulation.
At the time of writing, estimates of 700,000 marching for a ‘People’s Vote’ are being promoted by the ‘remain’ press: the largest march since the demonstration against the invasion of Iraq. Photos from the demonstration show placards that read ‘I heart the EU’, ‘If loving EU is wrong, I don’t want to be right’. It remains to be seen if anybody on the demonstration can yet explain what exactly is the difference between a ‘People’s Vote’ and re-running the Brexit referendum. It is a remarkable achievement of the pro-EU campaigners to have coalesced such a large number of people around such a confused, contradictory and conservative demand: let’s vote again to leave things as they were. (At the time of writing, Salvageis yet to note a single placard indicating a changed-heart ex-Brexiteer; in fact, as we rush closer and closer to B-day, it is noteworthy that the regretful Leave voters invoked in much remainery appear to be absent from the ‘People’s Vote’ coalition.)
This is a context in which a re-run of the Brexit referendum – ‘Accept the government’s deal and leave’, or ‘Remain’ – would be an unmitigated disaster whatever the outcome. Meanwhile, a referendum which split the Leave vote into ‘No deal’ and ‘Accept the government deal’ would never make it past the electoral commission – except perhaps with an alternative vote system, in which case the government’s deal would likely, without mass enthusiasm, win out, and ‘Remain’ certainly would not. In this context, Corbyn’s call for ‘a real people’s vote’, a general election, seems to Salvagethe only defensible response. Rather than polling the electorate on the same single issue, enraging one half and disappointing the other, it seems more sensible, not to mention meaningful, to do so rather on whose vision for post-Brexit Britain most excites them – or even, as it may be, un-excites them least. What know they of Brexit who only Brexit know?
Both Brexiteers and Remainers obscure the underlying reason that states and trans-state organisations like the EU exist: the problem of capitalist crisis. The EU serves to arrest and reverse the decline of the postcolonial capitalist states of the Old World, exhausted through two world wars. The UK’s accession to the Common Market and then the EU was a strategy for managing its own relative decline and the stagnation of its post-long boom business model. Today’s dilemmas are not the same as they were in 1973, when Britain joined the Common Market. The crisis unfolding since 2008 has overwhelmingly been a crisis of the old Euro-American ‘core’ economies, where rates of investment, growth and profitability have been far lower than in the erstwhile ‘peripheral’ economies. The EU is now subject to its own crisis tendencies, with the gross deformities of its increasingly centralised and undemocratic political structure feeding back into its economic stagnation by means of German-orchestrated ordoliberalism. Had the UK been a member of the single currency, it would be far more exposed to these crisis tendencies than it has been.
As such, what most Brexiteers and Remainers are avoiding is the fact that the UK has no good options. Certainly this is true if the issue is posed, as, if often disavowedly, it so often is, as a choice between two factions of the Right; or between different, more-or-less savage ways of organising Britain’s integration into neoliberal globalisation.
Not of its choosing or categories, this is not terrain on which the radical Left can take a particularly rigorous ‘interventionist’ position. When, for example, some of the most serious Lexiters, such as Costas Lapavitsas (of whom Salvageis on record as being a great admirer), imply that too much fuss is being made, that there’s no reason Brexit should even be all that difficult, it is not a particularly persuasive tack. There is no cost- or disruption-free way forward, and the Left must be honest about that.
The Labour Party Left, particularly in the leadership, can hardly avoid engaging with the issue, of course. There are those, including some on the good-faith Left, for whom Labour’s continuing policy of specifics-evasion on the question of Europe is an unconscionable betrayal, who demand to know Labour’s exact ‘position’, what it ‘would do’, what it ‘calls for’, with more exactitude than its ‘six tests’ allow. To them it could reasonably be pointed out that constitutionally, it is not the job of the Opposition to perform this task, but to hold the Government to account; that legislatively, it makes little sense for the Labour Party to dot is and cross ts on a proposal they do not have the power to make law; that institutionally, any proposals they put will be in the context of rapidly shifting political and governmental discussions and events not of their making, and so cannot, with any seriousness, be anything other than revisable suggestions; and that strategically, if the aim of the Labour Party is, as it should be, to effect Brexit in the context of a fundamental reconfiguring of the British economy, retaining maximum credible flexibility to respond to what is a Tory crisis is crucial. All of which, it is true, cannot amount to much more than one and a half desultory cheers for the Labour position. The point is that for the Left, it is currently hard to avoid a sense that, balancing everything, it is anything other than a least bad option.
One reason why Labour’s position continues to be relatively conventional, with Corbyn’s support for a ‘bespoke deal’ and ‘acustoms union’ likely, whisper it, to collapse into admission to ‘thecustoms union’ on the EU’s terms, is that as yet the Left is too nascent in growth and development to find a creative way out of what is a fundamentally right-wing deadlock. The Corbyn/McDonnell economy would, if put in place today, still depend on Britain having the fullest possible access to its largest overseas trading market.
However, while this may be hard to avoid, if the Left fails to rethink the whole question of Europe outside the existing terms of the Right’s debate, then it will be a reinvigorated far-Right that, at some point down the line, will monopolise any initiative on that question. And the British Left has long and painful experience of reactionaries profiting from its abdications on Europe.
The Industrial Front
Earlier this year, into the picture of deadlock in the UK burst an unaccustomed event: a nationwide strike. In February and March 2018 workers – not solely lecturers – at sixty-four British universities enforced three successive weeks of strike action. Not, at the very least, since the firefighters’ strike of the early 2000s has the UK witnessed such widespread industrial action, with an impact on as many citizens. The cause of the strike was a gratuitous and ill-thought-out attack by the employers’ federation, Universities UK, fattened and impudent after years of government policy to privatise the sector, on pensions provision. UUK undoubtedly bit off more than it could chew, but the outcome was far from a full-scale victory for the workers: this fundamentally defensive strike did not preserve the status quo, but achieved hazy promises of inclusion in a joint commission to revise the calculations behind the pension valuation. A balance-sheet is necessary.
First of all, the sector in which the strike occurred is significant. The idea of lecturers and other university employees going on all-out strike considered as a kind of incongruous joke – one popular in the right-wing press – betrays deep ignorance of what has happened to British universities in the past two decades. First under the Blair-Brown government, then under the Tory-Liberal coalition, a single constant has been that higher education must be made a commodity, paid for by those who receive it, provided in ‘competitive’ conditions. This is less a matter of funding – the pseudo-market created by the most recent Tory higher education bill actually stores up huge liabilities for the future – than of the creation of subjects. Students become debt-laden consumer-entrepreneurs, disciplining their supposedly lazy and over-privileged lecturers into providing something ‘the economy’ will actually need.
The consequent erosion of both the conditions of work and the educational standards of UK universities, as well as the exorbitant salaries their ‘leaders’ decide to pay themselves, lies behind the support for the strike. Universities combine two sorts of works, often in the same life-cycle: one grouping of permanent staff who retain elements of professional autonomy, a logic of non-commodified work, etcetera, which they understandably seek to defend; and hourly-paid staff, employed in conditions suffered by the rest of Britain’s precarious working class, and conducting much of the teaching work. The strike thus brought together old and new forms of labour – such forms as are even more visible in other, profoundly encouraging events such as the Uber or Deliveroo strikes – in one struggle.
Both the turnout for the strike ballot – 58 per cent – and the majority it obtained – 88 per cent – were remarkable. This was an unintended consequence of the Tory anti-union measures, that render a strike ballot on under 50 per cent turnout illegitimate: activists were forced to make great effort to get the vote out, and thereby build networks for the strike. The militancy, size and persistence of the pickets, in freezing conditions, were unprecedented on campuses, as was the level of student support. The employers showed signs cracking by the end of the first week, but the most important moment came in the second week, when ACAS, the conciliation service at which UCU and employer representatives had been holding talks, presented a deal that was then offered to UCU members. This deal, which implied that strikers would have to make up their lost work for no pay, was rebuffed by a rank-and-file revolt such as the British labour movement has not seen for decades. Scenes unfamiliar to both participants and observers, of mass meetings of hundreds on pickets rejecting the employers’ offer and solidifying further action, played out across campuses. The strike continued for a further two weeks, with the eventual offer accepted by a two-thirds majority of the union membership.
What is the meaning of this result? First, the sheer process must be acknowledged. Not only thousands of strikers, but an entire generation of students, has gone through a school of struggle. It was not uncommon to be asked by students on strike day, ‘What’s a picket line?’ They now know, and they may use that knowledge in the future. This alone is a positive outcome. The strike also demonstrates not so much the treachery as the irrelevance of the existing UCU Left organisation – tireless activists on some campuses, they were virtually absent from others. They have essentially become a generation worn down into a ‘broad Left’ officers’ group. New and more vibrant methods and personnel will now surely come to the fore. For all this, the eventual acceptance of the deal speaks of a separation between a – growing – militant minority and the wider membership. It is entirely possible that the forms of nano-politics and online mediation are interacting here with older dilemmas in the labour movement. In this sense, as much as any other, the UCU strike has been instructive.
One swallow does not a summer make. But the appearance of a swallow, certainly of course if it does turn out to be a portent, but, crucially, even if not, is a beautiful sight.
Not that summer comes now as an unmitigated pleasure.
2018 saw a global heatwave, with temperatures in Europe unprecedented since the culturally legendary summer of 1976. Such events, climate scientists warned, in their increasingly exhausted and browbeaten tones, will become far more likely as climate change continues, and climate instability increases. How can one end a synoptic overview of politics other than in the thrall of this particular anguish?
This month, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put out a landmark report warning that ‘we’ have twelve years to avert climate catastrophe, by ‘limiting’ temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. The report provoked global headlines and alarm, as it absolutely should, but also, unfortunately, some Bad Hope, of the kind against which Salvage, out of fidelity to emancipation, has set its face. ‘It’s bad news folks’, read the headline of one Independentarticle on the report, ‘but maybe this new climate change report will galvanise some real action.’ Let us be absolutely clear: it will not. Not from those currently in a position to make change happen, not with anything approaching adequacy, and not at any systemic level.
It must be allowed, and it provides a scintilla of hope of a better kind, that some of the reporting on this issue is shifting to the more militant tone necessary and appropriate. Too much, though, still remains captivated by that liberal magical thinking, the notion that this is a debate, that the enemies of life, here, are being foolish, must be convinced. There is, too, an appalled but libidinal investment in the sheer ‘stupidity’ of Donald Trump: in, say, the gasps of outrage as if he has been gotcha-ed when he announces on 60 Minutesthat he is not a denier (he was, he was, we’ve caught him lying!), that the climate is changing, but that why is unclear, and that changing as it is ‘it’ll change back again’.
As if with that statement Trump is not, with the thuggish political savant-ism so typical of his operations, performing quite deliberately and effectively. Climate change is, as Rebecca Solnit has argued, violence – and this kind of speech act is the microaggression of which such violence is deep grammar. To argue with it is to try to persuade a flag.
This is made clear in the most important official statement on climate change released in the last few weeks, which is not, for all its anguished expertise, that of the IPCC. It was, rather, something slipped out – though subsequently noticed and, thankfully, quite widely reported – and buried in a 500-page environmental impact statement issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to justify Trump’s decision to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles built after 2020. Such action would, the report allows, increase greenhouse gas emissions – but, it argues, there is no point opposing this, because it would be behind an insignificant portion of the – globally cataclysmic – four degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures the report predicts in the next seventy-five years.
The administration, in other words, knows that anthropogenic climate change is occurring, that it could impact it, that it is likely to lead to far worse scenarios than any officially being discussed, and it will do nothing. The most generous possible reading of this is as a kind of nihilism: that nothing canbe done (and whither now the celebrated Promethean gumption of the conservative?) and so nothing shouldbe done. Après nous, le déluge. Even bleaker, and to Salvageconsiderably more plausible, is that this represents not powerlessness alone but embrace of the death-drive. That – deep, disavowed, confused, no doubt – the Trump administration and the segment of the ruling class for which it speaks are eager not only for the profiteering the end enables but for the end itself. Behind the lubricious, lingering gusto with which Trump threatened North Korea with ‘fire and fury’ comes the whispered response, De te fabula narratur: it is of you that this tale is told.
Either way, whether out of lack of caring about cataclysm, or out of caring for it far too much, this, not ignorance, not short-sightedness, not error or uncertainty, but such a staring keen-eyed into the abyss – then drilling for oil within it – is the politics that we face. Climate chaos is not just coming: it is here. How bad that chaos might be, who will instrumentalise it for what ends, and who and how many it will kill, are not givens. It is worth fighting even when it is too late. The world cannot be saved, but enough of it might, perhaps, be salvaged.
Salvage Editorial Collective, November 2018