Saturday, October 4, 2014

False Real Life (2002)

Book Review from the July 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Martial arts gyms haven't seen such high memberships since the Bruce Lee-inspired Kung Fu craze of the 1970s. Boxercise and Tae-bo are increasingly catering for people who want to get fit but are bored of treadmills. Real Fight Clubs and White Collar Boxing are becoming hugely popular. Thai kickboxing and Ultimate Fighting (a no-holds-barred fighting tournament combining kickboxing and submission wrestling) now have their own slots on Sky TV. David Bowie, we hear, boxes three times a week.
A popular movie starring Brad Pitt has been a part of this trend. Here we review the book that inspired the film: Chuck Palahniuk's first novel, Fight Club (Vintage, £6.99).
I don't think Fight Club is that good a novel. I enjoyed it, but I don't think it really stood up to a re-reading, nor did it strike me as the work of art that, say, Crime and Punishment is. The historian Eric Hobsbawm says that it was only in the 1830s that literature and the arts began to be overtly haunted by the rise of the capitalist society, which he described, echoing Marx, as “that world in which all social bonds crumbled except the implacable gold and paper ones of the cash nexus”. You could argue that Fight Club is just the most recent, and one of the least impressive, additions to the trend in literature that began then. Another commodity in the cultural supermarket. That said, the reason I liked Fight Club so much in spite of its failings was because it succeeds precisely where other political novels fail. To quote the situationist Raoul Vaneigem: “Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984 and Touraine's Cinqieme Coup de Trompette push back into the future a shudder of horror which one straight look at the present would produce … Compared with my present imprisonment, the future holds no interest for me.”
And that's what Fight Club is. A straight look at the present and the possibilities inherent in it. At the heart of the book is the notion that life under capitalism is so unbearable, so alienating, that we need to put cigarettes out on our arms and get into fights just to make sure that we are, in fact, still alive. Compared with the mind-numbing horrors of the office and factory, where we stare at the clock and wish our lives away a minute at a time, almost any “really lived” experience is better than nothing. Outside of the pages of Fight Club, we can readily see this in everything from bunjee jumping to football hooliganism to Jackass TV.
The nameless protagonist of the book is an ordinary white-collar worker who goes along to his doctor because he can't sleep. His doctor says that that's nothing. If he wants to see pain, he should see the cancer patients getting by. And so he does. He goes along to all the different support groups he can find, and pretends to be suffering from the same condition as everyone else. Brain parasites, testicular cancer, etc. And he finds that he can't get by without the experiences he has there. Sharing thoughts and feelings, then crying into the cleavage of some fat bloke who's dying of testicular cancer, is a “really lived” experience, and it makes our hero feel alive for a change. He says:
“This is why I loved the support groups so much, if people thought you were dying, they gave you their full attention. If this might be the last time they saw you, they really saw you. Everything else about their chequebook balance and radio songs and messy hair went out the window. You had their full attention. People listened instead of just waiting for their turn to speak. And when they spoke they weren't telling you a story. When the two of you talked, you were building something and afterward you were both different than before.”
He surrounds himself with death and pain in order to feel alive. Going along to support groups becomes, as he says, “the only real thing in his life”.
Before the fight clubs, the protagonist is the perfect worker and consumer. He goes to work in an office, he keeps his head down, he has a five-year career plan, and he is obsessed with getting all the right things for his perfect little flat, the perfect sofa, the perfect shelving unit, a set of nesting tables. “One day you own all these things,” he says. “The next they own you.” Then, when his whole flat gets blown up one day by a gas explosion, and all those things are destroyed, he turns to his newly found friend and alter ego, Tyler. After a night's drinking, Tyler takes him out into a car park and says: “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”
Shortly afterwards, Tyler starts Fight Club. The protagonist finds that he has never felt so alive, not even during his support groups. From then on, consumerism is no consolation compared to the experience, the “real life” thrill, of fighting another man in a pub basement. Eventually, what the Fight Clubs achieved for the individual, Tyler aims to achieve for society as a whole through his 'Project Mayhem'. Project Mayhem, as it says on the blurb on the back of the book, is a sort of “revenge on a world where support groups have the corner on human warmth”. It is also about “hitting rock bottom”—individually in the Fight Club, and collectively as part of Project Mayhem—where there is no longer anything to lose. Only once you've hit rock bottom, says Tyler, can you be reborn. Like Jesus's crucifixion.
The main character says:
“It used to be enough that when I came home angry and knowing that my life wasn't toeing my five-year plan, I could clean my condominium or detail my car. Someday I'd be dead without a scar and there would be a really nice condo and car. Really, really nice, until the dust settled or the next owner. Nothing is static. Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart. Since fight club, I can wiggle half the teeth in my jaw. Maybe self-improvement isn't the answer … Maybe self-destruction is the answer.”
Is self-destruction the answer? David Lodge, in his novel Nice Work, has one of his characters say this: “All the Victorian novelist could offer as a solution to the problems of industrial capitalism were: a legacy, a marriage, emigration, or death.” To my mind, no more modern novelist, including Palahniuk, has come up with any other solution. And that's no surprise, because it's very unlikely that there are any other solutions for the individual worker. Under Lodge's category of death, for example, we can put self-destruction, and the many forms this can take, from the extremes of a bohemian or anarchistic lifestyle, say, through to the slow suicide of alcoholism, to the young murderer who Oscar Wilde praised because it was better to be someone rather than do something.
Project Mayhem's aim is the destruction of society. Its aim is to make society hit rock bottom so that it can be reborn. We don't learn much about the society that is expected to blossom from this destruction, but the few visions we do get seem primitivist in nature.
But what is it that the fighters are experiencing that is so painfully missing from their everyday lives? Of course, what a “really lived” experience is can only have meaning in relation to its opposite—which is the role of the worker in capitalist society. The worker becomes a cog in a machine, alienated both from themselves and their human nature, from their own productive activity, and from their fellow humans. This alienation makes them a slave in the factory or office, passive in their role as consumer, apathetic in the face of their exploitation and slave status, and, as Marx pointed out, quite ignorant and idiotic generally.
What is being compared is the poverty of everyday life under capitalism and the tendencies to be found in that same everyday life which we believe can only flower into a full and authentic human existence in a socialist society.
Raoul Vaneigem's book The Revolution of Everyday Life reads like a critique of Fight Club, and examines in detail how and why genuine attempts at communication and liberation can descend into nihilistic destruction, as it does in Fight Club. Indeed, the influence of Situationism and its analysis and tactics is evident throughout the novel, none more so than in the following extract, where the narrator explains to us the appeal of fight club. In fight club, the people are involved and there because they want to be there, not because they have been thrown together by a commuter train. They are participants in something they are creating themselves. There is an honesty about no-holds-barred combat that you could never get huddled in an office, where we smile at people who we'd much rather spit in the eye. Here's how it is explained in the novel:
“Fight club is not football on television. You aren't watching a bunch of men you don't know halfway round the world beating on each other live by satellite with a two-minute delay, commercials pitching beer every ten minutes, and a pause now for station identification. After you've been to fight club, watching football on television is like watching pornography when you could be having great sex.“Fight club gets to be your reason for going to the gym and keeping your hair cut short and cutting your nails. The gyms you go to are crowded with guys trying to look like men, as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or an art director says….“Your aren't alive anywhere like you're alive at fight club.”
What about Project Mayhem? I won't detail everything that Project Mayhem does, suffice to say that it culminates in a massive explosion that will blow up a huge skyscraper, and takes in smaller acts along the way, such as putting “Drunk drivers against mothers” stickers on cars. (As an aside, Palahniuk is actually a member of a sort of neo-Situationist group, whose pranks have included protesting outside pornography shops, complaining that their material is too expensive to be enjoyed by children.) What must be said however is that, whatever Palahniuk may have had in mind artistically when creating Project Mayhem, it must be stated clearly that the things he describes can in no way form the basis of a genuine revolutionary, working class organisation.
Project Mayhem, although arguably inspired by Situationism and some more primitivist strands of anarchism, is decidedly fascist in organisation and terrorist in tactics. The members of Project Mayhem are expected to obey Tyler's instructions without question, and do not even know what the aims of any specific action are. Tyler argues that Project Mayhem is like a gun: all it does is focus an explosion in one direction. In a way, that's what we want to do too. Revolutionary organisations aim to focus the explosive power of the working class against the capitalist system as a whole. The point, however, is that this cannot be achieved by a self-appointed elite. The explosion must be self-organised, and self-focusing. To quote Vaneigem again, a highly hierarchical army may win a war, but not a revolution. An undisciplined mob can win neither.
So our answer is different. The answer is not Project Mayhem. The collective solution to our collective problem is not terrorism—it is the escalation of the class war, and the end of the class war, and all classes, with the establishment of socialism. The desire to live, as Vaneigem says, is a political decision.
Stuart Watkins

Obituary: A. Young (1971)

Obituary from the January 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have learned of the death recently of Albert Young, of Walthamstow, at the age of 64. Comrade Young represented a remarkable association with the socialist movement. His grandfather was an active member of the Social-Democratic Federation. His father, Percy, and his uncle, Byron Young, both joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain about 1906. Byron was a well-known speaker for the Party for several years before he emigrated to Australia in the nineteen-twenties, and Percy remained a member since 1945, first in the old Leyton Branch and then in Hackney.

A lively, forceful person, Albert Young kept a stall in a London market (the family were craftsmen brushmakers). He was always anxious to expound and discuss socialism, and there must be many people who remember chance meetings with him in art galleries or on trains, and the comments on society thrown out as he sold things from his stall. His special interest outside the Party was in art; he was a talented amateur painter, and went out in the country whenever possible to find subjects for landscapes. In 1968 he had a serious operation, and was able to go out very little thereafter.

Our condolences go to his family. Their socialist tradition is carried on by Albert's son, who is a member of the Party—the fourth generation.

That Word "Unity" (1944)

From the January 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard

That word "unity" has a charm of its own. Ethically it symbolises an idealist condition and appeals to the gregariousness of human beings. Having this fine appeal, it is continuously used by all sorts of unscrupulous people and bodies as a cloak. We have appeals by vested clerical interests for "Christian" unity, capitalists and their Labour and Communist allies clamour for "National" unity, federationists seek "European" unity; we have got the term United Nations, and prominent statesman are clamouring for "world" unity. The charm of the "idea" of unity has produced phrases which have become of daily use, such as "there's safety in numbers," "we sink or swim together," and many other common expressions of speech. All this indicates the "social" (not Socialist) aspirations of human beings, and challenges the Victorian conception of "it's every man for himself." Capitalism being a class-divided society, Socialists can only concern themselves with what matters to the Working Class. That automatically rules out any plea for "national" unity. Realising the reactionary role of religion, Socialists cannot be concerned about "Christian" unity. Socialists seek to establish a new system of society World Wide, and this rules out talk of "European" unity, and understanding the basis of the profit-making system, with its competing combines, we cannot see the possibility of "world" unity. Is then ours a policy of despair? No! nor is it a policy of "snare." The question of "unity" has come to the front by the recent application  for affiliation to the Labour Party by the Communist Party. As Socialists we are always interested in anything applying to the working-class and parties and groups thrown up by them. This does not pledge us in their support. A group or body or organisation may be entirely working-class but that does not make it Socialist; it often is reactionary. The Socialist's question about Unity is, Will it help abolish the wages system and establish Socialism? If it will not, then it is futile except for political crooks to use as a tool.

In my days of youthful exuberance I worked for "unity." Some thirty-two years ago the Social Democratic Party decided the time was ripe for "Socialist" unity, and along with the Clarion movement (cyclists, not Socialists), a few of the I.L.P. and odd bits here and there, we established the British Socialist Party. There occurred a brief hectic period, and during the middle of the war of 1914 this "united" party split. From thence until the end of war a United Socialist Committee was formed representative of B.S.P., S.L.P., I.L.P. for "anti-war" purposes. Twelve months after the war, arising out of the Russian revolt, the leading members of the S.L.P. formed the Communist Unity Group, and in 1920 this coterie, plus the B.S.P. and odd groups round and about, formed one of three parties calling themselves Communists. In a short while a further conference was held in Leeds to unite the uniters, and the result was the brew—C.P.G.B. Ere a few years had passed these united Communist parties began to split on the continent, and in Russia itself the "Trotskyist" section was eliminated. Soon the British Communist Party began to clamour for unity. They drafted a programme (without consulting anybody else), then circularised other bodies asking them to unite—on a programme set out by the Communist Party itself. In the industrial field they played similar games. They brought about the split in the Miners' Union and the Garment Workers' Union, and established break-away unions which they cynically named United Clothing Workers' Union and United Mineworkers of Scotland. Later came the extended forms of Unity, in Popular Fronts and People's Conventions, and a whole series of groups and societies, ostensibly legitimate bodies, but in reality tentacles of the Communist Party.

Whilst addressing an outdoor meeting prior to the war the question put was, "Why don't you Socialists unite?" That is a question which must be answered. Let us try to answer. Before Socialists can unite we must be sure they are Socialists. If they are Socialists they will have a clear conception of fundamental principles. The tragic history of the workers' parties and groups (excepting S.P.G.B.) has been one of futile reformism. Every effort to achieve unity was foredoomed to failure. Time, energy and money has been continuously wasted in fruitless groupings and re-groupings. The thousand and one stunts, reform measures or immediate demands have not had the slightest unifying effect, but has merely bred bitter chagrin and disillusionment. This does not mean that Socialists do not want unity, They do, but it must not be chimerical or ephemeral, but must be solid and lasting. Such unity can only come about on the basis of correctness in theory, which will ensure correctness in practice. In no other way is Unity possible. The growth of Socialist knowledge is a guarantee of a united working class, therefore spread Socialist knowledge.

Cooking the Books: Green Economic Policies (2014)

The Cooking the Books Column from the October 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Green Party held its annual conference at the beginning of September. According to the BBC, ‘the Green Party have sought to position themselves to the left of Labour and the Lib Dems by adopting policies such as the renationalisation of the railways, and curbing private NHS work’ (BBC online, 5 September).
Being more radical than Labour and the Liberals is easy enough and it is true that in her speech as their leader Natalie Bennett did seem as if she might have been speaking at a Labour Party Conference in the days of yore.
The Green Party, she told the BBC, is ‘the party of real change, the party with plans and policies for how to transform our economy so that it works for the common good … What we really have to do is rebalance our economy. At the moment, wealthy individuals and particularly big multinational companies aren't paying their taxes and aren't paying adequate wages. Britain is a low-wage economy. We have to allow people to get a decent return on their labour.’
This is to assume that the economy - which is capitalist - is something that a government can manipulate or mould at will, but the evidence of all past governments that have tried to do this is the opposite. It can’t be done. Rather than governments being able to change the way capitalism works it’s been the other way round. Governments have to dance to capitalism’s tune and that means putting profits first.
The Green Party may not like capitalism in its present form and want to ‘rebalance’ it, but they still see no alternative to capitalism as a system of production for profit based on wage-labour and are resigned to working within it. It is true that the sort of capitalism they envisage would not be dominated by tax-dodging multinationals but one in which the profit-seeking enterprises would be small and eco-friendly. But there is no more chance of an eco-friendly capitalism than there is of going back to small-scale capitalism.
Transforming the capitalist economy so that ‘it works for the common good’ is precisely what cannot be done. Capitalism is a class-divided society driven by the imperative for those who own and control the means of wealth production to make a profit. It can only function as a profit system in the interest of those who live off profits.
All governments have to take this constraint into account and frame their policies so as to give priority to profits and profit-making. This means that they have to back off from taxing the rich too much – to pay, for instance, for ecological measures or higher wages and benefits – in case they reduce the incentive to pursue profits and so provoke an economic crisis.
Derek Wall, once a Green Party spokesperson (in the days before they had a Leader) once put this rather well:
‘A Green government will be controlled by the economy rather than being in control. On coming to office through coalition or more absolute electoral success, it would be met by an instant collapse of sterling as 'hot money' and entrepreneurial capital went elsewhere. The exchange rate would fall and industrialists would move their factories to countries with more relaxed environmental controls and workplace regulation. Sources of finance would dry up as unemployment rocketed, slashing the revenue from taxation and pushing up the social security bills. The money for ecological reconstruction – the building of railways, the closing of motorways and construction of a proper sewage system – would run out’ (Getting There, 1990, p. 78).
The answer is not to steal Labour’s abandoned clothes but to get rid of capitalism and its production for profits and working for wages.