Friday, February 26, 2010

Anarchy is not Chaos

Colin Ward not only "believed that anarchist principles could be discerned in everyday human realities and impulses" (Obituaries, 23 February)—he was also a remarkable identifier and chronicler of them. Back in 1994, having allayed the dean of the faculty's concerns that "Britain's most famous anarchist" would incite the students to riot, I arranged for Colin to spend a period as a guest lecturer at the University of Humberside.

On the night before one of his lectures, we were sat in a pub where an Irish jam session was taking place. As the 20 or more randomly assembled and un-led group of musicians successfully made the transition from one jaunty tune to another, Colin turned to me and noted: "That's anarchism."

I've used the example ever since when needing to challenge the widespread tendency to confuse "anarchy" with "chaos."

Dr. Stuart Wilks-Heeg
School of Sociology and Social Policy
University of Liverpool

Today's Guardian letters.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rambling Man

Will Self goes on and on and on about In Our Time. Does the LRB pay by the word?

Good spot by Will Rubbish.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Two fascinating articles from last month's History Today dealt with subjects dear to our hearts here at C&S (and I don't mean booze and women).

James Nicholls explores attempts to reform the drinking habits of the British people(s) over the past five centuries:

In Britain, concerns over drunkenness go back a long way. The first Licensing Act, passed in 1552, required alehouse-keepers to acquire a licence from local justices on the grounds that ‘intolerable hurts and troubles’ arose from drunkenness in ‘common alehouses’. The following year rules were introduced strictly limiting the number of wine taverns that could open in any one town. This legislative distinction between common alehouses and more exclusive wine taverns reflected a long-standing social stratification of drinks in Britain. Lack of native viticulture made imported wine an elite drink,while ale, and later beer (made with hops,which were only widely used from the 15th century),were associated with more popular drinking cultures.

Social distinction played a key role in early licensing law, but many early complaints against drinking framed the issue in terms of national identity. In 1576, the poet and courtly aspirant George Gascoigne,who had fought in the Netherlands,wrote a pamphlet describing drunkenness as ‘a monstrous plant, lately crept into the pleasant orchards of England’. For Gascoigne, drunkenness was not an indigenous trait but the result of recent contact with heavy drinking north Europeans. Furthermore, its spread demonstrated how fashion could become entrenched as tradition if not swiftly checked. Thomas Nashe made a similar claim in his verse satire of 1592, Pierce Pennilesse, observing that drunkenness was ‘a sin that ever since we have mixed ourselves with the low-countries, is counted honourable’, but which previously had been held in the ‘highest degree of hatred’.

While the drinks industry were notoriously supporters of the Tories, at least they weren't supporting fascism, unlike the Taittingers in France, as revealed in this article by Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle, which tells the story of the murder of police informer Laetitia Toureaux in 1937 and her involvement with the fascists of the Cagoule movement.

The Cagoule’s leaders and backers in Paris comprised a number of prominent Frenchmen, such as the distinguished naval engineer Eugène Deloncle, Eugène Schuller, the founder of the cosmetics company L’Oréal, and the industrialist Pierre Pucheu. Most of them hailed from the wealthy 16th arrondissement. The Cagoule also had branches in major French cities, most notably Nice, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and Pau.

The real goal of the Cagoule was to break the power of the French trades unions and to overthrow the newly-elected Popular Front government of socialist leader Léon Blum and install in its place an authoritarian regime allied with Mussolini. The organisation received funding from Schuller, as well as the tyre manufacturer Michelin, the aperitif maker Byrrh and the oil company Lesieur.

During 1936 and 1937 the Cagoule committed a series of crimes that included two bombings in Paris, at least seven murders and the destruction at Toussusle-Noble near Paris of several aeroplanes bound for anti-Franco forces in Spain. They incited public riots and on more than one occasion attempted to assassinate Blum. The Cagoule also formed militias throughout France, amassed huge stockpiles of weapons purchased through arms dealers in Belgium, Switzerland and Italy, trained terrorists and built underground prisons. They sought to make their crimes as high-profile, gruesome and thus as frightening as possible in order to destabilise the government by showing it incapable of maintaining security.

The French police had been tracking the operations of the Cagoule throughout 1937. The previous year they had succeeded in infiltrating the organisation and were aware of the Cagoule’s activities. The interior minister Marx Dormoy also knew that the Cagoule had gained the support of some of the most powerful men in France, including Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun and former war minister who, through intermediaries, had been in contact with leaders of the Cagoule, and from industrialists such as Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, head of Lesieur; Pierre Taittinger,who owned the Champagne house of that name and was to run the Paris municipal council during the German occupation; Jean Coutrot, founder of the sinister secret business lobby X-Crise; and Schuller’s protégé and future son-in-law André Bettencourt. They knew also that the Cagoule had infiltrated the ranks of the police and garnered some support in the armed forces.

On the night of November 15th, 1937 the Cagoule overreached itself in a disastrous effort to provoke a Communist uprising on the streets of Paris that, the Cagoule leaders hoped,would force military intervention and the downfall of Blum’s government. If all went well, it might even lead to a military coup that would end the Third Republic. But the plan went awry as the Cagoule troops spent a night roaming the Parisian streets searching for the non-existent uprising while the Communists prudently stayed at home. The fiasco, however, finally gave Dormoy and the police the opportunity to make a plausible case that the Cagoule was a real danger to French security.Over the following weeks the French police swooped on the Cagoule and arrested those among its leaders who did not flee to their safe houses in San Remo, Italy, and San Sebastian, Spain. They also uncovered and destroyed many, although by no means all, of the weapons stockpiles the Cagoule had amassed throughout France.

Beware Greeks Bearing Axes

Also spotted in the NYT, this amazing article about the discovery of tools on the island of Crete, which pushes back the history of Mediterranean maritime travel by 100,000 years.

Stone tools found there, archaeologists say, are at least 130,000 years old, which is considered strong evidence for the earliest known seafaring in the Mediterranean and cause for rethinking the maritime capabilities of prehuman cultures.

Crete has been an island for more than five million years, meaning that the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. So this seems to push the history of Mediterranean voyaging back more than 100,000 years, specialists in Stone Age archaeology say. Previous artifact discoveries had shown people reaching Cyprus, a few other Greek islands and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

The oldest established early marine travel anywhere was the sea-crossing migration of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia, beginning about 60,000 years ago. There is also a suggestive trickle of evidence, notably the skeletons and artifacts on the Indonesian island of Flores, of more ancient hominids making their way by water to new habitats.

Even more intriguing, the archaeologists who found the tools on Crete noted that the style of the hand axes suggested that they could be up to 700,000 years old. That may be a stretch, they conceded, but the tools resemble artifacts from the stone technology known as Acheulean, which originated with prehuman populations in Africa.

Keeping Up with the Taylors

The New York Times reports that Americans are slowly catching on to the pleasures that are Thinking Allowed and In Our Time. The editorial also provides a useful link to the Open Culture site. Worth a gander.

Friday, February 05, 2010

It's Shakey. Let's Boogie!

The Bars - Say It Isn't So.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

An Open Book

Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates, by John Gerassi, 2009, Yale. 318 pp.

Central to Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of existentialism is the concept of Bad Faith, the idea that humans avoid taking responsibility for their actions by pretending they have no choice in how they behave. This can manifest itself in a range of behaviours, such as making excuses for misdemeanours by blaming their genes, their upbringing, their parents, their gender, by finding all sorts of extenuating circumstances that shift the cause for their actions away from themselves. What these behaviours all have in common is that each constitutes an attempt to turn subject into object, to deny that the source of the action in question lies in the free choice of the individual by making the individual itself nothing more than an object at the mercy of forces outside of its own control. Sartre spends many many pages of his first masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, trying to explain why humans should want to adopt such a position and drawing out the ontological pre-requisites for such an attitude to even be possible. Despite the intimidating jargon taken from phenomenology and Hegel, as well as a few neologisms of Sartre's own thrown into the mix, Being and Nothingness is not an impossible work to understand, and despite the willful misunderstandings that Sartre's work has received at the hands of certain analytic philosophers (and from much lesser lights, such as Clive James's dismissive ignorance), existentialism is not a difficult philosophy to grasp. If you can understand why an individual's subjective experience is itself proof of free will, you can fairly quickly disentangle the intricacies of Sartre's early thought.

Sartre attempted to derive an ethical theory on the basis of the ontology outlined in his book. He argued in a lecture, published in English as Existentialism and Humanism, that to adopt the attitude of Bad Faith was in itself morally wrong since to do so is to deny human freedom, and this is to deny the very essence of what it is to be human. To be human is to be free, and to deny that is to deny our own humanity. In the series of interviews with John Gerassi that make up Talking with Sartre, we see this philosophy in action. Sartre attempted in his own life to be totally transparent, to hide nothing, to deny nothing, to make no excuses for himself. Before this sounds like a bad plot for a movie starring Ricky Gervais, let me add that transparency does not mean being rude or feeling obliged to express every single thought one has regardless of how they affect others. What it does mean is to be honest with oneself and with others about oneself, so that there is no privacy, nothing hidden, no deceit or attempt to create an impression in the minds of others that is different from who you actually are.

In conversation the impact can be quite brutal, particularly if you aren't ready for it. These are not interviews in which Gerassi comes to his subject with a sense of awe or deference. It helped, no doubt, that Gerassi's parents were part of Sartre and Beauvoir's circle (Gerassi's father, Fernando, was a painter who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and who became the character Gomez in Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy; his mother, Stepha, had been one of Beauvoir's best friends at the Sorbonne and became "Sarah" in the same trilogy) and Gerassi himself later became accepted too. Interviewer and interviewee thus know each other very well and have established a high degree of trust between them, which was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Sartre authorized Gerassi to write his biography, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century. It also helps explain why Sartre does not bridle at the sometimes aggressive tone of the questioning. Gerassi's own history as an activist and revolutionary in the anti-imperialist struggles of the 1960s lend the questioning a sense of urgency: Sartre, while not on the defensive, is frequently taken to task by Gerassi for not having done enough or gone far enough for a particular cause. He is taken to task, for instance, for not having followed Gerassi's father to Spain to fight, instead holding the view that Fernando had betrayed his artistic commitment in deciding to go (Gerassi senior was in fact one of the last generals to leave Barcelona. You can read his story here.) Sartre struggles to explain his position on this occasion, and on many others throughout the interviews, but very rarely does he make excuses for himself or try to shift the blame onto circumstances. Each position he adopted seems to have been carefully thought through—cynics might say every desire was given retrospective justification—and only on occasion is he caught out saying, "What else could I do? I'm a Bourgeois, after all."

The interviews in the book took place between November 1970 and November 1974, with the subject matter in each interview going back and forth from past to present. Thus, at the same time as we learn about Sartre's childhood (b. 1905) in Paris and La Rochelle, we get Sartre's opinions on contemporaneous events, such as Mao's cultural revolution and the Munich Olympics massacre. The language sometimes seems somewhat stilted even though conversational. There's a good reason for this, I think. Sartre admits that he did not become political or develop any sense of society until the end of the war, having experienced life as a P.O.W. in a German prison camp, the kind of place where there was very little privacy or dignity (in an interview elsewhere I recall him recounting an epiphany when he and Beauvoir decided to go skiing in the mountains one Sunday and were amazed to find that hundreds of other people had also decided, with comparable free will, to engage in the same activity). The turn to Marxism that Sartre's philosophy subsequently underwent as he tried to reconcile it with existentialism meant that he had to do an awful lot of catching up in terms not just of acquainting himself with the reality of workers' lives but also of learning the language of Marxist philosophy. Spend long enough working with and thinking in abstractions, and eventually they end up seeming more real than the entities they're supposed to be referring to. A typical exchange might go something like

Gerassi: Hi, Sartre, I'm early today.

Sartre: Yes. You caught me coming back from the tobacco kiosk.

Gerassi: Really? Did you get a chance to talk to the Masses?

Sartre: Yes, I did. I spoke to them about the need for the Black Panthers to develop a revolutionary strategy that reflected the decomposition of the proletariat.

Gerassi: Very good. Did they seem receptive?

Sartre: Not particularly. The Masses said they had to go home because their cystitis was playing up.

I exaggerate for comic effect, but the absence of self-awareness that usually accompanies similar such exchanges will be familiar to anyone with experience of ultra-leftist organizations, and Sartre and Gerassi's own apparent ease with the executions of counter-revolutionaries in Cuba suggests the sort of latent sociopathy one often finds in those high up hierarchical organizations used to pushing people around checkerboards by the thousand.

Josef Stalin is supposed, erroneously, to have said, "the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is just a statistic." It isn't of course. It's a million tragedies. Sartre freely admits his failure to either reconcile existentialism, his philosophy of the individual par excellence, with Marxism, or to complete his promised Ethics. The first of these he intended to achieve with his massive Critique of Dialectical Reason, a work that attempts to situate the individual within history, as understood by Marxism. Sartre regarded this as an attempt to save the individual, to demonstrate that there is a small margin of freedom, a glint of light, beneath the overwhelming economic forces that carry societies, states, classes, and history along. It is another intimidating work that rewards reading, a Marxist version of Mancur Olson's Logic of Collective Action, if you will. It remained incomplete, as Sartre was overtaken by the force of history himself. His use of speed for 40 years of his life on a routine basis had destroyed his health and ruined his eyesight, making completion of the work impossible. But Sartre had also witnessed the "Events" of 1968, in which many of his cherished Marxist ideas were thrown into doubt by not just the New Left but by the feminist and black power movements that undermined the primacy of class as the principal determinant of social structure, change, and history (when asked by the students occupying the Sorbonne what he was doing there, Sartre received a round of applause for his canny answer: to learn). Unable to bring himself to completely align himself with anarchism while nevertheless cherishing the anarchist implications of his philosophy, he went from being a fellow traveller of the Communists to a defender of Maoism, the form of Marxism that, as he understood it, came closest to a nonhierarchical Marxist organization; the cultural revolution, in his view, was a radical casting into doubt of the right of the Communist Party bureaucracy to legislate for the people. Putting lawyers, writers, ballet dancers, and assorted bureaucrats to work in the fields and factories could not but help them gain some empathy for the struggles of the peasants and workers. I wouldn't mind seeing it myself.

Sartre had also been moving towards a more "situational" ethics, recognizing, at last, the impossibility of legislating for humanity as a whole, as he had once tried to do in Existentialism and Humanism. Rather than espousing a kind of modified Kantian categorical imperative, he increasingly returned to the specificity of each individual event, situation, occasion. To generate an ethics on that basis requires once more that we recognize and value the importance of each individual, a message explicit in Sartre's early philosophy. Arguably it was necessary for Sartre's thinking to go through the detour of Marxism to achieve the more sophisticated, socially aware form that it acquired toward the end of his life; ironic, even, that Marxism should be responsible for this dialectical Aufhebung. Sadly, however, that detour also meant that Sartre did not live long enough to see his project through. We can only speculate as to what his third masterpiece might have looked like.

Talking with Sartre offers a warts and all profile of Sartre. He is candid about his many love affairs, sometimes, perhaps often, to his detriment. Some readers might reflect that it is easier for some people to be candid than others. In the preface, Gerassi recounts how he turns up for lunch with Sartre and Beauvoir on one occasion after breaking up with a girl and clearly upset:

Sartre looked hard at my face through his walleyes, then said: "Well, I envy you. I have never cried for a woman in my life."

Beauvoir was crushed. Sartre sensed it, so he quickly tried to explain. "When Castor [Beauvoir] and I decided to have what you call an open relationship, we realized that passion inevitably leads to possessiveness and jealousies. So, as you know, we decided that our relationship would be 'necessary' but that we would be free to have others, which we called 'contingent.' That demanded that we eliminate passion, the kind of hard emotions which often manifest themselves with tears. But I now realize . . . well, I envy you—you can cry at forty, and I never have at seventy."

I could see that Beauvoir was suffering deeply. Obviously, she had often shed a tear for her lover, Sartre or another, and obviously was hurt that he had not.

Even in the most transparent of relationships, some compromises are more painful than others.

In 1976, the three-hour documentary Sartre par lui-même (Sartre by Himself) featured Sartre, Beauvoir, and a number of close friends covering similar ground to that in Gerassi's book. The text of the documentary was released in English in paperback, but it's very difficult to find now. The video itself is out there on VHS with English subtitles, I believe, and a special 30th-anniversary 2-disc edition came out on DVD in 2007, if your French is up to it (I had to follow the conversation with English text in hand). If not, then Gerassi's book is a fine alternative, offering an intimate and representative introduction to Sartre the man, the writer, and the philosopher. And a fascinating read, to boot.