Why you should vote Corbyn even if you think he’s a bit of a cacker

Response to a friend who is troubled by Corbyn’s difficulties in acting as an effective leader of the opposition, is considering voting against him, and would like to hear arguments to the contrary:

The argument I would make is that I think it’s important that the pro-Corbyn forces within and without the Labour party prevail against the anti-Corbyn ones. Victory for Corbyn in this leadership election leaves the pro-Corbyn forces in a stronger position; defeat leaves them in a much weaker one (and probably facing a serious purge, further down the line). Whatever one thinks of Owen Smith personally, there’s no doubt that he will act for the PLP establishment against any further attempt to move the party towards popular democracy – that is what he is standing for, regardless of what he, personally, stands for.

On the question of competence, I find it difficult to believe that Ed Miliband was a significantly more effective organiser than Corbyn has been; remember that Blair once managed to sack Angela Eagle from a cabinet position by accident. For decades the PLP has maintained its power on the premise that managerial competence is what’s needed to win the electorate, and to govern well for the country. It has accordingly eliminated all traces of a social democratic programme, sacrificing them one by one in the name of sensible, rational, well-adjusted, realistic governance. Well, I also prefer rational governance to irrational governance – although in practice what Blairism’s wilful subordination to the news cycle gave us was more often than not that notorious “omnishambles”. But politics is about more than just keeping the machine ticking along smoothly: it is about making arguments, capturing the public imagination and desire for change, and parlaying that into real influence over the direction taken by society. Thatcher certainly understood that; I think May does, too. The best the Labour Right have managed in recent years is the Edstone. It doesn’t bode well.

I think the Brexit vote indicates very strongly that “There Is No Alternative” will no longer wash with the electorate: it’s Labour’s task now to articulate alternatives that people will passionately support, and Corbyn – whatever his flaws as an administrator – has been astonishingly successful in doing that. If Labour try to put that particular genie back in its box, then they are definitely finished. Even a split would be preferable to publicly rejecting one of the biggest surges in support any political party has ever seen in this country.

I believe that Corbyn’s role in all of this is to act as a focal point for the forces that support him, to hold his position for as long and as well as he can while the battle is raging, to groom a successor and a supporting team within the party that can take over and campaign effectively, and then to step down. I doubt he will ever be PM, although a snap election just might produce a very surprising result; even if so, I don’t think he will wish to hold the position for longer than he has to. The truth is that anyone holding Corbyn’s political line will constantly be attacked, misrepresented, undermined and betrayed; it’s no good looking for a “unity” candidate who will stand for more or less the same things but somehow be accepted by the press and right-wingers. If you want the Labour party to stand for the things Corbyn stands for, vote for him; if you want the Labour party to continue slaloming into irrelevance as the Very-Slightly-Less-Nasty-Party, vote for the other guy.

Corbyn as Orator

There is this notion among the political class that Corbyn’s not much cop as an orator; that he emits streams of well-meaning platitudes, but connects only with the already-convinced. Behind this is a set of assumptions about what political rhetoric is supposed to sound like, what its characteristic gestures and appeals should be, which is very much shaped by the culture and education of that group of people.

For those outside of the political class, their supposedly top-notch orators (Hilary Benn, say) sound equally if not more platitudinous, equally as much as if they’re speaking only to a narrow audience of others just like themselves. But of course you’re less likely to notice that if you’ve always and only been part of that audience, if everything that’s been said in public political discourse over the past decade has been addressed to people like you, by people like you.

Part of the joy of Corbyn is that he represents a tradition and a manner of address which is completely alien to that crowd – one which you get the feeling they’d hoped to have heard the last of. The vehemence of their disgust is symptomatic of something ugly about themselves that they’ve long since forgotten to hide, and it may yet be their undoing.

Of course there are better speakers than Corbyn. If you remember that clip of Michael Sheen doing his best Nye Bevan (for example), you probably wish as much as I do that the present leader of the Labour Party had that sort of poetic fury, that sort of charisma, to go with Corbyn’s unshakeable decency and conviction. But, for what it’s worth, this is a way of talking to people that doesn’t sound – to borrow a phrase of Dennis Potter’s – like a “croak-voiced Dalek” delivering the new ordinances; that constantly refers them back to their own power, instead of reassuring them that the mountebank on the stage is comfortably in charge. It has its own pattern, its own way of moving from one moral touchstone to another, in such a way that the concerns of everybody present are steadily woven together into a single shared picture. It’s not dazzling, but it makes you feel that you and your neighbour should start talking, exchanging perspectives, because you’re involved in something together, side by side.


Lurch, it says, to the right. Says, rightwards, lurch.
A brick through every window, rightwardly.
A lurch in the “it says”, it says so, right
here, and irreversibly the lurch
bricks up the windows, sets the world to right
by default, lurching lurching into lurch
as if by ageless right, as if the windows
were ever brick, and never broken so
it says; and you unlurching in the building,
you in your unrighted world, unsaid
in the “it says”, you say not so, you window
waiting for the brick, you ward of right:
stay broken, keep the building, hold it open;
unset the right world, unsay what it says.

The Conjuring 2: The Harry Enfield Case

[The 1970s. Everything is a bit grey and depressing, like we are in a David Peace novel or something. We are in a house, which is grimy]
Sally Hawkins: Gor blimey guvnor it is cold in ‘ere.
Teenage daughter: I am unbelievably premenstrual right now.
[Things fly around and break]
Teenage daughter (gruffly): My name…is Albert Steptoe.
BBC-voiced man: Blimey.
The Warrens: Oh hi. We are paragons of heterosexuality, plus a bit psychic. Our teeth are nice, aren’t they? Not like your British teeth.
Spooky Albert Steptoe: Grrr!
[Things fly around and break]
Male Warren: Expelliamus!
Nun with bad teeth: No, really, grrr.
Female Warren: Your name gives me dominion over you, ZIZEK. Return to hell!
Audience: aaargh. No, really.

Immanence and Objectivity

In her 1979 paper “Cognitive Repression in Contemporary Physics”, Evelyn Fox Keller describes the scientific viewpoint associated with classical (i.e. Newtonian) mechanics as based on a pair of conjoined assumptions. Firstly, that the subject of scientific knowledge is strictly separable from the possible objects of such knowledge; and secondly, that it is possible to establish a direct correspondence between what is known of each such object and its actuality. According to this viewpoint, “nature” is both objectifiable and ideally knowable by a scientific subject which stands apart from that nature in order to observe it.

We have here an operation of dividing-and-regluing very like that described by Laruelle as characteristic of philosophy (and, indeed, Laruelle would likely describe Fox Keller’s account as true of a certain philosophy-of-science, or philosophical epistemology, rather than of science itself as a practical stance). The immanent Real is split into an objectifiable domain of distinct entities, and a transcendental order of knowledge which proposes to organise those entities into a world (“the scientific worldview”, let’s say). Rather than thinking “according to the Real”, or from the premise that both “knower” and “known” are immanent to the same reality (and thus share a fundamental identity), the stance Fox Keller describes is “decisional” in Laruelle’s sense: it begins by making a cut, and by giving itself the authority to repair that cut.

Fox Keller observes that the principles of objectifiability and knowability break down in the face of quantum mechanical phenomena: they cannot be maintained simultaneously, and every attempt to do so produces metaphysical monsters in the guise of “interpretations” of quantum mechanics (as Derrida once put it: coherence in contradiction indicates the force of a desire). Her Piagettian reading of the resistance to non-classical epistemology in terms of affective positions is suggestive (in that smug “clever men in white coats are really just big babies” sort of way that has never quite seemed to go out of vogue, for reasons I could probably venture some pseudo-psychological explanations for myself), but doesn’t particularly help us resolve the problem of how to develop such an epistemology.

Susskind describes the situation as follows: in a classical system, we are confident of always being able to make a “gentle enough” measurement that the system being measured is not perturbed: the apparatus is able to determine how the system would behave if the apparatus itself were not present. This is, in fact, perfectly possible a lot of the time. Within a quantum system, however, measurement is carried out by means of operations* which participate in the total behaviour of the system itself, such that we are always observing the outcome of what I will call an effectuation. Any such effectuation is the effectuation both of a measurement and of a new state of the system. Both (classical) objectifiability and (classical) knowability are untenable under these conditions; the former because the apparatus of measurement is not strictly separable from the system being measured, and the latter because the process of obtaining information about one aspect of the system may render information about another aspect inaccessible.

This is helpful, but doesn’t go quite far enough. If we had not measured the particle’s position, we should have been able to measure its momentum (and vice versa); but this does not mean that, at some moment prior to measurement, the particle necessarily had both position and momentum (i.e. possessed some complete, if hidden, state in which both position and momentum were simultaneously inscribed). Rather, measurement-of-position and measurement-of-momentum are distinct operations that effectuate one value at the expense of being able to effectuate the other.

A thoroughgoingly immanent account of how science proceeds will be one which sees scientific theory-building, measurement and knowledge-formation as effectuations of the same Real, rather than the work of one kind of agent – the detached scientific knower – upon one kind of patient – “Nature”, etherised upon a table. That is one way of looking at the problematic with which Laruelle is engaged, and of understanding why the “quantum” has taken on such a totemic significance for him in his later work.

  • As Susskind also reminds the reader, an operator is a mathematical entity, which acts on state vectors to produce new state vectors. It does not, however, change physical reality – rather, it describes how a real-valued measurement is derived from a state vector in a quantum system. How the state of that system changes in the process of carrying out the measurement is a quite different matter. Accordingly, I have corrected “operator”, where it appears above, to “operation”. Caveat lector, as always when I’m trying out new stuff.

Solace of Quantum

Early on in Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman’s Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum, the authors illustrate a difference between the logic of predicates and sets, and the logic of observations at quantum scale. One way to look at it is in terms of modelling.

If the state space of a classical system is the set of all the states the system can be in, then a proposition about the system corresponds to a predicate P that picks out certain states as possible states of the system if that proposition is true. Susskind’s example is a single roll of a six-sided die. Let the “state” of the die be the number that is facing upwards after the roll – the state space S is then the set {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6}. To the proposition “the value of the die is even” corresponds the predicate P that picks out the subset of the state space S' = {2, 4, 6}. We have S, the state space, P, the predicate, and S' = {x ε s & P(x)}, the subset of the state space which satisfies the predicate.

The state space is thus a model for propositions about the system, which means that we can translate statements about propositions into statements about predicates and subsets. If two propositions about the system are true at once, then the states the system can be in are those which are picked out by both of their corresponding predicates. For example, take the propositions “the value of the die is even”, and “the value of the die is greater than three”. Considered separately, these correspond to two predicates, P1 and P2, which pick out two different subsets of S, S1 = {2, 4, 6} and S2 = {4, 5, 6}. The state subset corresponding to the proposition “the value of the die is even, AND is greater than three” is the intersection of the subset S1 picked out by P1 and the subset S2 picked out by P2: {4, 6}. The subset corresponding to the proposition “the value of the die is even, AND/OR is greater than three” is the union of S1 and S2: {2, 4, 5, 6}. There is thus a “primitive” or “direct” set-theoretic interpretation of propositions concerning the state of the system, based on Boolean algebra.

An important characteristic of classical systems is that they “hold still” while being observed: the state space is a static image of possible measurement results within a given reference frame, and we can combine measurements freely without that image shifting beneath our feet. You can measure both the position and the velocity of a billiard ball, in whichever order you like, since there exists a state of the billiard-ball-system that captures both of these properties simultaneously.

The way we model the state of a quantum system is necessarily different, because the state of such a system is not independent of observation: to every measurement of the truth of a proposition about a quantum system corresponds a new distribution of possible states of the system. We can lose information by measuring (for example, if we observe the velocity of a particle, we lose information about its position). The order in which observations are made is therefore significant: O1 followed by O2 may well get you a different result to O2 followed by O1, which means that the algebra of quantum observation – unlike the Boolean algebra of classical systems – is noncommutative.

Susskind makes the following eyebrow-raising statement – “the space of states of a quantum system is not a mathematical set; it is a vector space” – and then qualifies it in a footnote: “To be a little more precise, we will not focus on the set-theoretic properties of state spaces, even though they may of course be regarded as sets” (italics mine). This is a subtle distinction. A vector space is a set, or at least is not not a set – working in vector spaces doesn’t in any sense take you out of the set-theoretic mathematical universe. But the way states “fit together” in a quantum system – their way of being compossible – is not readily definable in terms of primitive set-theoretic operators like union and intersection: you need the language of linear algebra, of orthonormal bases and inner products, to make sense of it.

In the light of this, it becomes a little clearer why Laruelle mobilises a metaphorics of “quantumness” – of vectors and matrices, superpositions and complex conjugates – as a way of undermining or circumventing the static philosophical architecture of “Being”: the claim he’s trying to establish is that non-standard philosophy is in some sense to standard philosophy as quantum mechanics is to classical mechanics…

Laruelle: from identity to inclusion

I think of Laruelle’s notion of identity as working a bit like the way inclusion functions work (with some caveats, which I’ll raise at the end). Here’s how.

The identity function on a domain is the function which sends every value in that domain to itself: f(x) = x.

Every function has a domain (which identifies the kinds of values it accepts as inputs) and a codomain (which identifies the kinds of values it produces as outputs). We can write this as follows: f : A -> B means “f has the domain A, and the codomain B”, or “f accepts values of type A, and produces values of type B”. The identity function IdA : A -> A is the function f(x) = x for the domain A; that is, it accepts values from the domain A as inputs, and send every value in that domain to itself. Similarly, there is an identity function IdB: B -> B which is the function f(x) = x for the domain B; and so on.

An inclusion function from a domain A to a codomain B, where A is a subset of B, is almost exactly like the identity function on A – it sends every value in A to itself – except that the codomain is B rather than A. So it is the function f : A -> B where f(x) = x.

For example, there is an inclusion function from Z, the set of integers, to R, the set of real numbers, which just is the identity function on Z except that the codomain is R rather than Z. It sends every integer to itself, but to itself “considered as” a real number (since the integers are a subset of the reals). We might say that every integer has a “regional” identity as an integer-among-integers, mapped by the identity function IdZ : Z -> Z, and an “integer-among-the-reals” identity as a real number, mapped by the inclusion function f : Z -> R. Both functions are identical in terms of their inputs and outputs, but they have different meanings.

Now, it seems to me that for Laruelle, the Real is “like” (but see caveats below) a sort of global codomain that absolutely everything has an inclusion function into, since all “regional” domains are just subsets of this codomain. So for absolutely anything you like, it has both a “regional” identity (mapped by the identity function on its regional domain) and a One-in-one identity (mapped by the inclusion function from that domain into the Real).

When we consider everything in the aspect of its One-in-one identity, we can consider juxtapositions that aren’t otherwise possible. For example, let M be the domain of men, and F the domain of women. If we know that there is a common codomain (H, the domain of human beings) of which both M and F are subsets, then we can consider the identities man-among-humans and woman-among-humans as potentially overlapping, able to be combined or mutually transformed in various ways that the identities man-among-men and woman-among-women seemingly are not.

The Laruellian principle of unilateral identity-in-the-last-instance with the Real can be understood as something “like” a global generalisation of this move from identity to inclusion.

Now, there are two caveats to be raised here. The first is that, in set theoretic terms, a global codomain is impossible, because of Russell’s paradox – “the One is not”, as Badiou says. Accordingly, we have to pass from something like a set into something like a “proper class”; and functions are defined between sets, not between sets and proper classes. So at the threshold of the Real, the mathematical analogy breaks down, as we should probably expect it to.

The second is that Laruelle himself is quite emphatic that the kinds of ordering and partitioning operations that sets and functions between sets enable you to perform, belong to the domain of “transcendental” material – language, symbolisation, the material through which the force-of-thought has its material effects. The real, being One, is non-partitionable; and, being foreclosed to thought, is not indexable or schematisable in the ways that the set-theoretic mathematical universe is. (The move to the “quantum” is I think intended as a move outside the set-theoretic mathematical universe; I’ll talk a bit more about that some other time). “Regional” domains may be structured and more-or-less set-like, but that is both their prerogative and their weakness with respect to the Real (or its weakness with respect to them, since it underdetermines them). We must not picture whatever structures we can imagine being stabilised, held fixedly within an underlying global order of structure that is just like them only somehow bigger.

The problem then is that a global generalisation of the move from identity to inclusion takes us beyond what is structurally thinkable, or at least beyond what is thinkable using the tools we use to think about and within regional domains. This prevents us from setting up any particular regional domain (e.g. “physics”) as a master-domain against which all the others can be relativised. We have in Laruelle something like an anti-totalitarian thinking of (or “according to”) totality.

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