Splinters: December – short essays on the here & now

This month: The dimensions of the smirk... Johnson and I... A matter of choice... Spectres 2... The unravelling of the Reithian BBC, Pt.2.

Splinters collective
2 December 2019, 2.38pm
Theo Inglis. All rights reserved.

Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Title page. | Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.


Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.


by Leonie Rushforth

One of the least promising questions put to Corbyn and Johnson during their first General Election confrontation on national television produced one of the shortest and most memorable answers. What present would each give the other for Christmas? Corbyn’s 3 word answer was A Christmas Carol, while, with the dismissive insolence characteristic of the Prime Minister and his closest allies, Johnson smirked. Along with the audience and I imagine most people watching, he clearly took the point – the comparison between himself and Scrooge, ruiner of Christmases – and, equally clearly, Johnson’s smirk rejected this as tired and predictable.

The smirk, however, is an interesting expression, a reaction to a moral authority it first has to recognise before dismissing it. And perhaps in Johnson’s effrontery there was evidence of the Etonian schoolboy who had read A Christmas Carol at some time in the course of that expensive education and recalled in it something more significant than a sort of Disneyfication of Dickens’s protagonist.

Here, half way through his awakening, is Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Present and two children:

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
"Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds.

John Leech
A Christmas Carol, Ignorance and Want, John Leech, 1843, Wood engraving | Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.
"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!"
"Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.
"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"
The bell struck twelve.

Corbyn’s naming of Dickens’s brilliant novella was perhaps a much more serious proposal that would be in keeping with the – for some unaccountable and provocative – moral authority he has acquired, and which has attracted slanderous hostility. Because the story Dickens tells about Scrooge is crucially about redemption – from hard-heartedness, from the incapacity to feel the responsibility of human relation. As Johnson’s house master at Eton himself understood, Johnson regards himself as one ‘free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.’ What Scrooge’s dreams teach him is that there’s no freedom in being thus free and only joy in being bound into human connections.

Scrooge wakes on Christmas Day after the visits of the three spirits of Christmas, liberated from contempt:

He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears.
“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath. “I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”
He had frisked into the sitting-room, and was now standing there: perfectly winded.
“There’s the saucepan that the gruel was in!” cried Scrooge, starting off again, and going round the fireplace. “There’s the door, by which the Ghost of Jacob Marley entered! There’s the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present, sat! There’s the window where I saw the wandering Spirits! It’s all right, it’s all true, it all happened. Ha ha ha!”
Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!

And a long way from a smirk.


Johnson and I: on the Uses and Abuses of Inarticulacy

by Iain Galbraith

I have never considered myself articulate. Indeed in my younger days I was mostly lost for words, my raised hand hiding an open, empty mouth. In order to speak it was necessary to know who was speaking (it took a while to find out it could be anybody, and that "I eat pencil sharpeners" was not a lie). And who, if anyone, was listening?

The gift of speech was evidently a mixed blessing. Ageing, I am more inventive in covering up (and uncovering); the hiding hand has become a ghostly presence in the writing. For instance, I could easily read out the five sentences preceding this one in ten seconds, making fluent sense. But beneath the flow a subversion broods: undercover interrogators have questions and want answers. Even if I tried I could not escape their demand that I reflect on the contradictory dimension of the sentences' emergence: reading them aloud may take all of ten seconds, but writing them took at least half an hour.

How evident, then, is the discrepancy between the integrity of the product and the torturous difficulty of its making? Is the cleft visible in the text? Should it be? Is this gap itself productive, even if imperceptible? I would say it was fundamental to the reader's experience, and that the finished text is the site of my accountability. It would be useless for me to pretend that the disquiet my sentences have contended with no longer existed on paper. Shameless too. (Brackets, on the other hand, expose all. Painfully visible on the page, they are a sure sign that the tissue has torn and that something wants to sew up that rent, contain the damage, and move on to whatever is beyond).

When I read these sentences I can see that the continuing dialogue between my wish to speak and the excruciating lack I tongue-tie into my writing is the sine qua non of composition (though not obviously of composure). The whole thing is a struggle(,) to be sure.

At the same time, I know I share this struggle with everyone for whom the inarticulate state, this absence of lightness and facility, is something it seems we must simply "get over". Or not: concealing and pointing up elisions and ruptures are actions that can make sense in various ways. For better or for worse, gaps are significant features in the landscape.

Of course I think these reflections say something about our human condition, but presumably it is equally true that no two persons negotiate inarticulacy in the same way. Some do it by talking the talk, their eloquent pronouncements rolling easily off their silver tongue, their self-consciousness buried along with their conscience under the concrete sarcophagus of bluff.

At election times especially, we are invited to observe our politicians' uses of articulacy. With his signature cavalier displacement of truth, for example, the UK prime minister incumbent at the time of writing has repeatedly managed to weaponize inarticulacy: the blustering, gesticulating gallant barely disguises the ignominious loser. His inarticulacy, however, has less to do with tarrying at the threshold of speech (he is, after all, assured beyond doubt of his entitlement to "speak out" and has accordingly written "many millions of words"), than with his blundering affectation of ignorance of the gap between his utterances and their potentially – and indeed actually – calamitous consequences.

For while poetry may survive "in the valley of its making" as "a way of happening, a mouth", as Auden wrote, it is evident that words in politics, or their absence, can have an immediate social and physical force. But between his words and their effect is a distance the person in question will not acknowledge or imagine. Isn't it always the others who suffer, the "letterboxes" and "piccaninnies"?

Perhaps not always. When the gap is revealed, especially in the case of someone who has persuaded himself he can ignore the very concept of a rent in the fabric, the result can be shocking. This morning I decided to empty the organic refuse. I took the biodegradable bag from the bin and needed to lift it to about chest height for it to clear the rim. But suddenly, far from anything 'being in the bag', I discovered the bag was a tube – with a discontinuity in the place where the bottom should have been. It was a fairly large bag, and there I stood, my mortification exposed for all to see as a week's-worth of potato peel and vegetable parings and an obnoxious, viscous, fatty substance mixed with stinking fish heads and the rotting exoskeletal cases of a supper of prawns poured over my shirt and trousers, garlanding the tops of my slippers. Cave lacunam, Boris! But it's too late for warnings now.


A matter of choice
by Christos Tombras

You are five years old. You have just discovered the ancient game of Go. I cannot know who introduced you. Perhaps you heard about it at school. Or was it your father? Perhaps your grandfather? I like the idea. Let’s imagine that it was your grandfather who was very proud when you showed that you share his interest in Go.

Now your teachers are proud of you, and your family too. You like the attention, of course. But most of all you like that you can make the grandfather proud. Go is interesting. You are really good at it. Your ability to secure your stones and territory and quickly grasp the dynamics on the board helps you to advance your play to professional levels. Soon you find yourself at the top rank of your team. Then you are declared the top player of your local area, and then you become the best in your league. If it was chess we would say that you are now a grandmaster. In fact an international grandmaster.

You are on top of the world. You are still young. In your country, South Korea, Go is very respected and good players are widely admired. You can look forward to the future, to the years and years of pride and wisdom ahead of you. Your grandfather is not with us any more. But he still lives in your memory. You are thinking of him after every victorious milestone, and of the pride he would have because of your success.

* * *

And then these people come to you with a challenge. They are respectful, young people from abroad. They say they have developed a computer program, Artificial Intelligence. It can play Go. These people readily admit they do not know how to play Go themselves. They cannot appreciate the skills and insights needed to design a winning strategy and play it successfully. They lack the conceptual tools necessary to appreciate the sheer complexity of the game. They do admire you and your successes, but they cannot share your pride. It’s because they are very proud of their software. They want you to play against it. It will be worth the effort, they reassure you. Its ability has already been demonstrated. But they want to see how high it can reach. Will you accept the challenge?

You are the world Go champion. You have not forgotten how hard it was for you to reach that height. For all the talent, you still have scars from the effort. But also you cannot forget your grandfather’s smile either, a beaming smile at any small step you took. There is nothing to stop you. You are about to accept the challenge. You are vaguely aware of how much is at stake. For them, a lot: money, scientific reputation, fame. But more is at stake for you.

* * *

You may be able to see it now. Your pathway leads to a new unknown territory. You will play against the computer. You might win this battle. In fact you are certain you will win it. But you know something else already: it is not going to be over that easily. The war will continue. It will go on until a clear winner is declared. Guess what. A clear winner will be declared, and it won’t be you.

Your pathway will be interrupted by those newcomers who did not know how to play Go but had the audacity to suggest that their artificially intelligent computer did. They will be very proud of their software’s successes, and yet their creation will not be able to share their pride.

Everything is much clearer now. You knew something about Go that their computer could never learn. You knew that playing well would make your grandfather proud. It would make your whole country proud. You knew, for you it was never just about Go. Go was always standing for something else.

You are now considering retirement from Go. At some point in the future Go will have become a thing of your past. It is going to be difficult. You will have to find a new pathway, something that can hopefully make you, and those around you, proud again. It’s far from certain, but at least you can try. While the poor computer will be condemned to conquer challenge after challenge, to reach new heights, to break new ground after new ground, without ever having the slightest notion about why it has to do all this. The poor AI software will always remain in the dark, oblivious to all that was at stake.

You are Lee Se-Dol. You will find your way. It will be difficult perhaps, but not impossible. At least you are given the choice.


Spectres 2 – the “future” in the era of its planned obsolescence

by Samir Gandesha

The spectre of fascism is due not simply to economic insecurity nor simply to cultural anxieties or the loss of privilege. It is actively produced by the authoritarian populist translation of economic insecurities into cultural anxieties, against the backdrop of the prospect of ecological collapse.

In the absence of political parties and movements that could offer genuine alternatives to the neoliberal dispensation of deepening and crushing inequality and austerity, it has led to the transformation of Simmel’s social “stranger” into Carl Schmitt’s political “enemy”. In part, the continuity between twentieth and twenty-first century fascisms is to be located here.

Financialization is only putatively challenged by authoritarian political discourses grounded in a charismatic appeal to authenticity – discourses that transform the people into a mass. A global order, dominated by the ever-more abstract and accelerated operations of finance capital, leads to ever more pronounced forms of anxiety and insecurity, producing an “ontological need ” for connection to authentic Being, expressed in the form of homogenous collective identities.

To summarize, contemporary fascism can be regarded as a militantly anti-liberal-democratic way of addressing the nature of the crisis of capitalist social relations. Collective identities and cultural traditions are reinvented and mobilized in such a way as to confront and indeed undermine formal democratic institutions and rule of law, by way of an appeal to supposedly patriarchal, “authentic” collective identities, themselves nurtured and sustained by a Social Darwinist vision of an unforgiving struggle for survival among competing races and individuals.

* * *

Such a mobilization tends to reinforce new colonial forms of primitive accumulation or accumulation by dispossession via redoubled colonialism based on the “financialization of life”, central to which is intensified financial investment in resource extraction. The precise manner, however, in which this logic plays out depends on the historical circumstances of any given society as well as its synchronic, which is to say, structural location within global capitalism as a whole.

In contrast, though, to Mussolini’s attempt to build a “New Rome” or Hitler’s 1000-year Reich, which, above all, centered on a distinctive temporal politics, a politics oriented to colonizing not just space but the future – today the “spectre of fascism” responds to the ecological limits of capitalism, and existing property relations within which the future itself simply becomes unimaginable.

If twentieth century fascism, in part, offered a solution to the economic slump via an acceleration of the extraction of absolute and relative surplus-value by smashing independent trade unions and other working class institutions, today fascism centers on a deepening of resource-extraction on the very precipice of massive deskilling of labour and widespread automation and employment of robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, to wit: the prospective obsolescence of humanity itself. Such a logic entails what Achille Mbembe calls the “becoming Black of the world,” the creation of “abandoned subjects”:

There are no more workers as such. There are only labouring nomads. If yesterday’s drama of the subject was exploitation by capital, the tragedy of the multitude today is that they are unable to be exploited at all. They are abandoned subjects, relegated to the role of a “superfluous humanity”.

Take as our definition the classic account of fascism – a reactionary mass movement comprised of an alliance between industrial capital and the petty bourgeoisie against the working class and its political organizations, in the context of imperialist rivalries and capitalist crises of over-production – and it is far from clear that what we face today can in any straightforward way be described as “fascism” in this sense.

Today, after the defeat of organized labour, there’s precious little resistance to the extraction of surplus value from living labour. This drives growing colonization, militarism, jingoism and ultimately war against peoples – Indigenous peoples in particular especially in North America, India, Brazil – and the very planet itself.

So, far from having to confront the revolutionary force of organized labour, at least not in Europe and North America, today fascism emerges from the phenomenon of accelerated global migration flows, resulting from the economic, social and political violence (new forms of primitive accumulation) attendant upon globalization and global climate change.

It also responds to the increasing ontological insecurity of citizens of these states whose fear in an age of massive, irreversible climate change, is increasingly mobilized against pariah peoples. Such mobilization is based on the recognition that, under the late form of neo-liberalism, the line between the citizen and migrant, parvenu and pariah, in other words “genuine” and “superfluous” humanity, is coming to be increasingly blurred.

This text is drawn from the Introduction to the author's forthcoming Spectres of Fascism (Pluto).


The unravelling of the Reithian BBC, Part 2

by Rosemary Bechler

My last Splinter looked at John Reith’s binding mechanism for social unity, modelled on Matthew Arnold’s notion of culture. Arnold cultivated a national ‘best self’ aimed at avoiding social anarchy by its careful extrication from controversy, especially political. Given the decline of earlier forms of authority such as the church, the rising middle classes were to govern by transcending partisan considerations. Their education would enable them in turn to “mould and assimilate the masses below them.”

Arnold’s method of ‘disinterestedness’ treated social classes as if they had no distinct interests (although it is the conflicts between interests that make them classes). In Arnold’s lexicon, the aristocracy, rising bourgeoisie and working class acquired tribal nicknames (Barbarian, Philistine and Populace). Social conflict was reduced to a series of psychological imperfections within each tribe’s soul, thereby bypassing the question of their social relations.

Social inequality, in the same way, could be bridged within the hierarchy by emphasising and psychologising the loyal bond between the royal family and everyone else’s ‘little platoons’.

The Kings Speech

Above all, maintaining social order would not have to rely on repression and force – but could be achieved through the skilful formation of ‘public opinion’ arising from what seemed to those targeted to be their own individual choices. As John Reith put it in his manifesto for a new BBC constitution:

Broadcasting… carries direct information on a hundred subjects to innumerable people who thereby… will after a short time be in a position to make up their own minds on matters of vital moment, matters which formerly they had to receive according to the dictated and partial versions and opinions of others… A new and mighty weight of public opinion is being formed… I have heard it argued that …[broadcasting] is fraught with danger to the community and the country generally… that a state of ignorance is to be preferred to one of enlightenment…. To disregard the spread of knowledge, with the consequent enlargement of opinion, and to be unable to supplement it with reasoned arguments… is not only dangerous but stupid.”
John Reith, Broadcast over Britain (1924).

Remarkably, this form of ‘concealed authoritarianism’ has survived war and loss of empire. But now, on all sides, what Reith so painstakingly put together is coming apart at the seams.

* * *

Take our pact with the monarch. Much has changed since the King’s Speech Punch cartoon. We might cite a dysfunctional royal family mirrored in dysfunctional ordinary families; highly aggressive ‘conservative values’ alongside feminism; a fake Queen’s Speech; racist attacks on a ‘black’ princess; a 'defenestrated Andrew'; and a royal couple either too quick to believe or too ready to break the essential pact with the public, in which they get to perform our ‘best selves’ as long as we have maximum tabloid access into their private lives. Their impossible wish to be the ultimate bourgeois couple while retaining ultimate celebrity status, is arguably undermining both.

But every chapter of ‘A Social History of British Broadcasting’ offers a fresh chance to ponder a Reithian construct now in terminal disrepair. To sketch a few:

– Reith fought the state long and hard for permission for the BBC to appear independent by conducting political debate under the improbable conditions of ‘balanced controversy’ and ‘absolute impartiality’. This removed a lot of politics now making a raucous return, thanks also to new technologies erasing any remnant of Reith’s hardwon media monopoly.

– King George addressing “our worldwide family” personally as individuals and friends in Xmas 1934 was another Reithian triumph, this time imaginatively uniting empire and nation. Contrast Theresa May’s apology to Commonwealth leaders in 10 Downing Street last year for the way her Home Office treated members of the Windrush generation – let alone the uncertain past and unpromising future of Global Britain.

– Reith’s indefatigable manufacture of ‘we-feeling’ opportunities for national unity was dogged by its dependency on a prevalent mythic version of an English way of life. His educated south-east National Programme was a continuous source of grievance to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the North or West of England, for rendering them invisible. Yet arguably the centre held until the unravelling of this imagined nation led directly to an English Brexit.

– Brexit spells the return of everything Reith’s BBC was designed to expunge: divided nations, politics, controversy and class conflict, working class and trade union voices, regional dialects, anger. Gone are the days, if ever they existed, when the one o’clock bulletin ADVICE TO WORKERS on the General Strike could be “Do all you can to keep everybody smiling. The way to do that is to smile yourself.” Reliance on British comedy – that last resort – was however recently deployed to lay another Reithian ghost to rest: BBC English or ‘received pronunciation’. What exactly are we to make of this? And which ‘we’ ?

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData