Soft Nationalism and Luxury Communism: Comments on #PoliticsLive

You don’t have to tell this masochist twice when you say Ash Sarkar and David Starkey are going to have it out live on the BBC’s #PoliticsLive show.

Sarkar is always good for a wonderfully contorted facial expression when confronted by the sort of eloquent idiocy that is plastered all over our mainstream media and Starkey is, to my mind and for so many reasons, the final boss of that subset of “bad” (but good for ratings) TV panel guest. (If you’re not familiar with Starkey’s work, feel free to subject yourself to some of his early 2010s controversies here, here and here.)

The first topic up for discussion was an obvious one but it was very revealing, I thought. Discussing yesterday’s arrest of Julian Assange on the ominously ambiguous charge of “computer-related offences“, Starkey damned Assange outright — and his parliamentary supporters in the Labour Party by association — as enemies of Britain, taking the all too predictable position of being wholly in favour of the British government’s sovereignty and its right to secrets.

It’s that sort of “soft nationalism” regularly vocalised by the centre-right in this country. They won’t engage in the nationalism of “imagined communities” but they will put their complete trust in the apparent infallibility of government to always know best and do no wrong.

Sarkar, by contrast, argues that Assange’s revelations, particularly those revealed during the Iraq War, were blatantly in the public interest and were instrumental in informing the British public about the atrocities being carried out by the state in their name. It allowed — or should have allowed — the British people to hold their state to account.

There’s a predictable back and forth about this with Starkey always deflecting the point of public interest back onto Jeremy Corbyn’s consistent support of apparent enemies of the state, but Sarkar keeps coming back to the same point: “Should we [as a nation] not hold ourselves to higher standards?”

Starkey’s response basically left my jaw on the flaw: “Now, this is a very interesting point — not if it’s self-destructive to do so.”

This is fascinating to me — if deeply depressing — and this is surely the epitome of contemporary nationalist realism. Here is the ideology of frenzied stasis at its most damagingly impotent.

What does “self-destructive” mean here? It means “change.”

Starkey’s argument is that we shouldn’t try to improve our lot under any circumstances — and certainly not outside of the rules and regulations provided to us by the state in its infinite wisdom — because that would mean the destruction of what we have now; the infallible and unerring status quo.

Later adding fuel to what I imagine was a substantial fire in the green room after the show, #PoliticsLive broadcast a (horribly edited) film made by Sarkar in which she travels to Bologna to interview Bifo about the influence of Autonomia and 1970s communist movements in Europe on the post-2010 student politics that have transformed (and are continuing to transform) UK politics.

(It was here that I learnt that Sarkar started university the same year that I did, in 2010, provoking that weird feeling you get when you see someone the same age as you on TV, making you wonder what you’ve doing with your life.)

Bifo and Sarkar are both relatively clear in their definitions of communism. For Sarkar it is “to hold [stuff?] in the commons unmediated by a state which also at its heart is democratic, is libertarian, has an emphasis on individual as well as collective human flourishing.” Bifo likewise emphasises the anti-statist point, saying:

Communism as the political force of a national state is very bad, is the worst thing I can imagine. A communist is those who understand that the national state is nothing. What is important is solidarity among people. This is the best thing I know.

(It is from within this very framework that I understand patchwork as being communist, in being anti-statist and grounded on solidarity amongst peoples, but I can’t say I rate Bifo’s analysis — as its presented here anyway — much beyond that principle.)

When we return to the studio, things obviously go about was well as you’d expect when you announce anti-statist sympathies on a politics show that uses the Houses of Parliament as its backdrop.

However, Starkey is the most revealing character here again, despite predictably damning communism with as much fervour as he damns Assange and (one can only assume) everything in his life he doesn’t like. He denounces communism as “an attempt at the reconstruction of mankind” — as if that’s such a bad thing; as if that’s not always already happening by nature of time.

He then goes on to ignore everything that Sarkar says about how dumb state communism is and instead insists that the ways in which the sort of social change communism — and, by extension, Novara Media’s brand of “fully automated luxury communism” — calls for can only ever be brought about through violence and authoritarianism. Sarkar’s counter, of course, is that these changes — technologically speaking at least, such is the foundation of her Marxian luxury communism — are happening whether we like it or not and they warrant a proper thinking about if we’re to respond to them in a way that benefits all of us.

What’s interesting here, to me, is the way in which Starkey denounces a multiplicitous politics of the commons as authoritarian whilst also holding onto his infallible view of the state. As far as WikiLeaks is concerned, Starkey is vocally authoritarian on matters of state sovereignty. It begs the questions: Why do we never talk about the kind of authoritarian stasis that his soft nationalism (often violently) represents?

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