Decency and the English language, with a little help from Baudrillard

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I’ve been tempted to comment on the spat between Nick and Johann, but that’s been quite adequately covered elsewhere. But I do want to make a few comments on Decency, and I’ll come back to these points in greater detail later. In particular, I’ve been meaning to write about the uses and abuses of Orwell for quite a while. But for the time being, let’s take three basic points: on the apple not falling far from the tree, on the incidence of multiple Orwells, and on the linguistics of Decency.

Firstly, as has been observed on multiple occasions, the Decent Left, and especially its more ideological wing, contains a huge proportion of former leftist sectarians. This shouldn’t be surprising. People rarely outgrow completely their early selves, much as they might like to believe otherwise. A good example is the late Monty Johnstone. It is well known that, prior to becoming the CPGB’s expert on Trotskyism, Monty had himself been a Trotskyist, during the Second World War, when it was neither fashionable nor profitable. This was not only important for his hatchet work – many a Trot made himself look an idiot by debating Monty, only to find Monty knew much more Trotsky than they – but arguably played a big role in his long-term dissidence within the CPGB.

Hitchens Bros are another good example. Pete, of course, likes to paint himself as a conservative nowadays, and affects the air of an old-time Home Service announcer, but he retains an SWP streak a mile wide. As for the Dude, on reading his recent biography of Orwell I was struck by its resemblance to Cliff’s Lenin. Not stylistically – Chris is still a much better writer than Cliff – but structurally. It is in fact a book about the kind of man Orwell could have been had he been lucky enough to have the Dude around to advise him. So it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, surprising that British Decency embraces lots of superannuated sectarians, many of whom retain their sectarian habits.

Secondly, Orwell. Many of the journalistic Decents, and I’m thinking especially of Cohen and Wheen, hail poor old Orwell as their precursor. Well, there were at least five different Orwells, depending on the period, so it depends very much on the Orwell you mean. Nick claims as his role model the Orwell of 1936, picking up his rifle to go and fight fascism in Spain, but this is more than a little disingenuous. Firstly, Orwell’s actual politics of his Catalan period – his semi-Trotskyist period in other words – would instantly repel Nick. They would seem to him Chomskyan, or even reminiscent of the Nick of yesteryear. Actually, the Orwell that seems to inspire Nick and Francis (Aaro I discount as owing more to Ehrenburg) is Orwell’s wartime writing, and not even the good stuff – most of that writing was pretty lively – but the large percentage of his wartime writing that consisted in heaping abuse on those intellectuals who continued to hold positions that Orwell himself had held only a little while earlier.

Finally, the role of linguistic criticism in analysing Decency. Wheen and Cohen (who nicks his writing on this wholesale from Wheen) may not recognise the linguistic turn in philosophy, but the linguistic turn recognises them. Let’s start with the application of cant phrases. To take an easy example, when the Engageniks say “racism”, they don’t mean racism. They mean anti-Semitism, and they are so promiscuous in that allegation that it has no meaning from that source, except to mean “people we don’t like”. Similarly, if you read a Guardian article on Serbia by Ian Traynor, it’s a fair possibility that Traynor will be writing about “democrats” versus “extreme nationalists”. Leave aside Traynor’s prejudice and incomprehension – you need to understand that, when Traynor refers to “democrats”, he usually means Sonja Biserko, Nataša Kandić and the little coterie of neo-Jacobin farmhands in Belgrade who actively want the Yanks to occupy their country; meanwhile, “extreme nationalists” refers to, er, most of the population, including principled anti-nationalists who, for whatever reason, baulk at the full Imperial agenda. Now apply this to the Eustonite discourse on the need to support “Iraqi democrats”. If this isn’t an entirely platonic reference to entirely hypothetical people, it usually excludes most of the Iraqi people, including most of their elected representatives. In fact, sometimes it seems to refer exclusively to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

I’ll just conclude with Baudrillard. The linguistic turn in philosophy does not claim that there is no reality outside language. What it does posit is that language is a means for ordering cognition, and we can’t have unmediated knowledge of reality. The most we can hope for is to achieve a working approximation. Got that?

Now, there is no shame in not understanding Baudrillard. Alex Callinicos, the Greatest Living Philostopher Known to Mankind, doesn’t understand him. Nor does Johann Hari. Then you have the dumbed-down version from Wheen. What all these characters in common is that none of them seem to have read, or understood, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Rather, they prefer the weasel argument of referencing the title and taking it absolutely literally. What Baudrillard meant was not that there wasn’t a war – his essay dealt with the gap between the actual war experienced in the Gulf, and the simulacrum of war experienced by the media audience in the West (or better, the global North).

Now, let’s apply this to Decency. Orwell, let’s remember, picked up his rifle and went to Catalonia to really fight fascism, putting his life on the line in the process. During the Balkan wars, there was a segment of the commentariat who thought that “fighting fascism” was coterminous with writing op-ed pieces calling for the bombing of the tribe they had decided to be the epitome of evil. The laptop bombardiers of Farringdon were, in a magnificent vindication of Baudrillard, virtual warriors playing at fighting a virtual war against a simulacrum of a foreign nation. This might have been amusing, but it was intensely aggravating for those of us who went out to the Balkans and tried to do some useful work, only to be derided as “appeasers” or even “Chetnik fascists” by people whose only contribution had been to hold forth over lunch at the Gay Hussar.

And so it goes. We hear endless calls to “fight fascism”, “show solidarity”, “support democrats” and “take sides”. What this seems to boil down to is “write columns in the Observer” and “slander the people we used to agree with”. Hear that? It’s Baudrillard chuckling, and Orwell spinning in his grave.

12 Comments

  1. Ryan said,

    August 10, 2007 at 2:54 am

    “Actually, the Orwell that seems to inspire Nick and Francis (Aaro I discount as owing more to Ehrenburg) is Orwell’s wartime writing, and not even the good stuff – most of that writing was pretty lively – but the large percentage of his wartime writing that consisted in heaping abuse on those intellectuals who continued to hold positions that Orwell himself had held only a little while earlier.”

    Yeah, but unlike the DL brothers, Orwell was always forthright about having held such opnions, and offered far more in the way of qualifications. Plus, there’s kind of a difference between “we might get invaded you retards” and the “gallant little Bosnia/Kurdistan” line from the Decent mob.

    The Decent meaning of “racism” is more nebulous than you say. They are very much against racism in the eighties Rock Against Racism sense, i.e. against the BNP and colour prejudice. That’s just not exactly a current issue, and obviously doesn’t make much sense in an Iraq context.

    The real point, which you’re leading to, is that the Decent Left love, love their buzzwords, buzzwords mostly drawn from the supposed glory days of the thirties, the sixties and the early eighties…

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 10, 2007 at 8:03 am

    Yes! That’s what’s missing in analysing DL discourse – buzzword bingo!

  3. Phil said,

    August 10, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    those of us who went out to the Balkans and tried to do some useful work

    Hmm. Throughout that period I took my lead from the actual work being done by Workers’ Aid for Bosnia, and subsequently Workers’ Aid for Kosovo. But I sense that’s not what you’re referring to.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 11, 2007 at 10:50 am

    You would be correct. What guided me was the idea of supporting workers and whatever anti-nationalist forces were available. My experience of the British left about that time, and I know this is a sweeping generalisation, was that either they weren’t interested in doing practical work, or they were influenced by some dodgy Croat chauvinists who were doing the rounds. I reckoned there were useful things to be done, though they probably stood no chance of success.

  5. WorldbyStorm said,

    August 11, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    This is intriguing, what did you do there?

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 12, 2007 at 6:51 am

    It was all very low-key stuff, mostly finding people who were serious anti-nationalists and trying to help out. Didn’t add up to much in the end, but I felt it was the right thing to do. Not least because these were the kind of people nobody in western Europe was interested in. In Croatia for example the serious anti-nationalists were pretty old and pretty Stalinist, and not coffee-drinking intellectuals. Not much glamour there.

  7. Andy Newman said,

    August 12, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    Through a strange twist of fate I was in Budapest during the war visiting an Italian friend of mine who is a member of PRC and formerly PCI.

    The city was temporarily flooded with thousands upon thousands of Serbian refugees, a few of whom joined the English speaking anti-war group that my friend had established. These refugees were then stranded in Hungary, unable to get visas to anywhere else, unable to return to Serbia (who closed the border), and not entitled to any benefit in Hungary. Almost every western embassay had thousands of Serbs queueing outside (me and my ex-wife needed to visit the British embassy while we were there, and there were literaly no serbs there wanting to come to the UK. interesting.)

    The plight of these tens of thousands of Serb refugees was of no interest to anyone in the Western news media – as they were the wrong sort of refugees, and when I returned to Hungary with work some two years later there was an article in the Budapest Sun, describing how tens of thousands were still in camps.

    I wrote an article about it for Socialist Review at the time but it got spiked. Perhaps becasue it made the point of the Serb refugees being very nostalgic for Titoism, but I don’t know – I never got feedback why they didn’t like it.

    Anyway that is an aside. My main point is to agree about the interesting role of these older “Stalinists”

    Hungary was important as it had just joined NATO only a few weeks before the war, the northern Vojvidnia province of Serbia and the Serb city of Novi Sad have sizeable Hungarian populations, and the only geographically plausible way to invade Serbia is via Hungary.

    The opposition to the war built upon the anti-NATO campaign that had just finished (sadly defeated), but anti-NATO graffiti was very common in working class areas.

    In Budapest the “Munkas Part”, or Workers Party, who were mainly elderly, impoverised working class supporters of the old communist regime, and decidedly unglamorous, played an important part in the opposition. Particularly by not capitulating ideologically to the prevailing nationalism and neo-liberalism.

    (Incidentally the most remarkable thing I saw was a spontaneuos and furious demonstration of 5000 Chinese outside the US embassy after the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed). I don’t know whay there was no similar outraged reaction by the Chinese in London.

  8. Phil said,

    August 12, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    either they weren’t interested in doing practical work, or they were influenced by some dodgy Croat chauvinists who were doing the rounds

    Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. I started reading seriously about Yugoslavia in the early 80s, when Branka Magas and Peter Gowan were still using pseudonyms. I remember the impression developing (in those few groups that took an interest in the region) that something a bit weird was going on among our Serbian contacts – we started to hear about how recruits to the JNA shouldn’t expect to use any other language than Serbo-Croat, or how a single poorly-substantiated rape case in Kosovo signified the imminent extermination of Kosovar Serbs. All very odd and a bit alarming. Still, at least when Milosevic came to power we weren’t entirely surprised.

    I understand Branka has gone back to her roots in the last decade or so, but I certainly wouldn’t say she’d made the journey from socialist to Croat chauvinist by the time of the Kosova conflict. I was a lot more surprised – and disappointed – by Gowan’s political journey in the same period.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 13, 2007 at 7:40 am

    Well, Branka is interesting in her own right. Her own evolution looks inevitable in retrospect, but that’s the great thing about retrospect.

    Actually, I’m a lot more exercised about the Guardian types. It’s a bit like the Middle East – I find I get on better with Israelis, even rightwing Israelis, than diaspora Zionists, and goyishe “friends of Israel” are worst of all.

  10. Ciarán said,

    August 13, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    I just found a review by Chris Hitchens of the last Harry Potter book, for the New York Times, here.

    Naturally he seems to spend more time writing about Orwell than Rowling, and throws in an accusation of anti-semitism along the way. And this in a review of Harry Potter?! I guess his reviews rank right up there with the SWP’s style.

  11. ejh said,

    August 18, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Just a brief pedantic note – seeing as the question keeps being raised in relation to the Hari/Cohen spat – to observe that although Orwell did indeed go to Catalonia to fight fascists, he did not, in fact, fight any fascists there. He did his fascist-fighting in Aragón.

  12. August 20, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    […] we brought Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum to bear on Decency. Old Baudrillard got plenty of things […]


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