Dave Williams Visits Bodnant Garden


Our group’s Dave Williams recently visited Bodnant Garden in Conwy, North Wales. Established in 1874, Bodnant is an 80-acre National Trust site. It boasts many unusual plants and trees, gathered from as far afield as the Andes and the Himalayas, including types discovered in the early twentieth century by explorers who were sponsored by the Garden’s original owners.

Bodnant Garden receives 190,000 visitors annually, but without doubt Dave would have been one of the more observant among them. The present author, Mark Conlon, is perhaps Stoke-on-Trent’s least able practitioner of the art of gardening; Dave, however, more than makes up for it with his evergrowing expertise in all matters horticultural. He reads studiously on the subject, and puts in a good deal of practical spadework with the local Growthpoint project. He is, I would venture to suggest, a validation of Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.”

Dave says the following of his visit: Here are some of the photos I took during the Growthpoint trip to Bodnant Garden. I thoroughly enjoyed the outing. It was particularly pleasant to sit next to a fountain in the Garden and listen to the natural sound of running water. On the way back we stopped off for an hour in Llandudno, making for a full day’s excursion.



The Psychosis of the British Electorate

Vox populi, vox diaboli: the 'Daily Mail' enthuses over an unexpected Machtergreifung for the self-styled "party of the workers"

Vox populi, vox diaboli: the ‘Daily Mail’ salutes an unexpected Machtergreifung by the self-styled “party of the workers”


Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England.

D.H. Lawrence


Casting one’s vote for the Conservative Party, it seems, is the love that dare not speak its name. It is an act so base, so sordid, so lacking in the most elementary decency, that the present writer, Mark Conlon, has encountered no one in recent weeks willing to own up to it. And yet, on the morning of 8 May 2015, in defiance of all the polls, prognostications and tight-lipped prevarications of intent, we awoke to the dawning reality of a Conservative parliamentary majority. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in The Social Contract of the ephemeral sovereignty allotted the English people during elections, commented that “by the use they make of their brief moments of liberty, they deserve to lose it.” Rarely can his prose have resonated with such mournful truth. Those inclined to grasp at straws can take consolation in the ejection of the putrid Esther McVey from her Wirral constituency, but otherwise the Tories are back, 331 of them, emboldened that they have a mandate to “finish the job” of eradicating the last vestiges of the post-1945 social democratic settlement. Henceforth neoliberalism will reign uncontested, its victims judged unworthy of life or remembrance.

How did the catastrophe come to pass? By means of coalition, the Tories have adroitly manoeuvred the Liberal Democrats, who before 2010 stood for some residual values of social justice, into irrelevance. Deservedly, the bulk of Nick Clegg’s abject Petainists are out of their lucrative jobs in the House of Commons, though it’s improbable they’ll need to visit the food banks to which their treachery has condemned a million of their fellow citizens. Maladroitly, through an obstinate refusal to countenance coalition with the Scottish National Party, Ed Miliband has steered the Labour Party in Scotland into oblivion, while doing nothing to ignite enthusiasm for it in England. The Party under his stewardship, aside from half-hearted flirtations with rent controls and living wage legislation, remained doggedly wedded to what Tariq Ali calls an “extreme centre” ideology, whereby exponents of hard-right economic policies posture as centrists in the hope of fooling inattentive electorates. Were there an afterlife, his father Ralph Miliband would be looking down – or perhaps up – attempting telepathically to din chastening passages from Parliamentary Socialism into the head of an errant son. It’s too late now, however, to heed the call of Miliband pere to veer leftwards; already the Blairite vultures will be circling, orchestrating a return to the verities of New Labour as Thatcherism en travesti.

During the election campaign, I read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%. The book documents, in exhaustive and enraging detail, how that 1% have enriched themselves fabulously at the expense of everyone else. It is a mindboggling account of the rampant greed that, with the abetment of Westminster parliamentarians, has made the UK the most divisive polity in Europe. One wonders, if the 99% have even a dim awareness of the scale of wealth sequestration, how they possibly could have voted for politicians whose very raison d’etre is to accelerate the process. The electoral “roar of Middle England” may have been eulogized by the Daily Mail, but the vociferation of the petit bourgeoisie might have been muted if they knew quite how petty their assets are by comparison with the riches of the elite; as for those further down the social hierarchy who assented to having their pockets picked, seldom can false consciousness have breached such outer limits. At a Pathways meeting recently, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came up in discussion, and the forlorn leftist is tempted to take the title of that novel as self-descriptive. Has a form of mass psychosis taken hold, or a virulent strain of Stockholm syndrome infected the populace? Mutatis mutandis, substituting Katie Hopkins for Ann Coulter as virago of reaction, and disability benefit claimant for food stamp recipient as governmentally targeted folk devil, has the UK – or, more specifically, England – transformed into a simulacrum of its boorish transatlantic cousin?

To forestall the urge to launch into a Lawrentian invective against the country of my birth, I should of course note that the election results were skewed to a ludicrous degree by an indefensible voting system. Douglas Carswell, a Tory defector to UKIP, correctly identifies first-past-the-post as “dysfunctional” now that his currently favoured comrades have racked up 3.8 million votes but, with the exception of his own Clacton constituency, no seats. The SNP garnered barely 300,000 more votes than the Greens, yet the former is hegemonic in Scotland, the latter confined to a lone enclave in Brighton. The Conservative tally was 36.9% of those who voted, equating to 11.3 million persons out of a total population of 64.5 million, or in other words a proportion that confers zero legitimacy by the criteria of Tory trade union laws. Fully one third of those registered to vote abstained. Clearly, it is risible to suggest that this constitutes “democracy” in any meaningful sense of the term, though it dovetails well enough with Tory avidity for the reins of power, and will do so all the more when boundaries are redrawn to the advantage of Conservative candidates. Add in the influence of a press and broadcast media that are overwhelmingly hostile to progressive politics, and you are left with something closer to farce than an apotheosis at the ballot box of possessive individualism.

Porcine vulgarian Eric Pickles, local government minister in the coalition and reelected to his Essex seat of Brentwood and Ongar, tweeted that a “perfect day” had been had by the Conservatives on 7 May. It hardly requires adding that the divinely personified “markets” concur. Triumphant Prime Minister David Cameron promises that “something special” is in the offing from his administration, while Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, with utter predictability, vows to press ahead with an economic plan that thus far has cut an insufficiently harsh 10% from the wages of British workers. The “special” ingredient, rather than any Elysian Fields of prosperity situated at the distant end of an Osbornian budgetary canard, is likely to be a financial crash, of a still more shattering magnitude than that which convulsed the world in 2oo8. Meanwhile, millions will suffer grievously as intensified austerity hacks away at the NHS, social care, subsidized housing and anything else that renders life tolerable for those at the bottom of society. I fear that members of the Pathways group may be among them. None remotely deserve it, but then indiscriminate collective punishment is the whole point of waging class war from above.

Cleansing the UK’s Mentally Ill, Sanction by Murderous Sanction

‘The Match Seller’ by Otto Dix: as the UK’s disabled are sanctioned into beggary, to the apparent unconcern of the wider populace, a painting that resonates beyond Weimar Germany


He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

II Thessalonians 3:10


On his blog, A Day in the Life, the Pathways group’s Dave Sweetsur has written recently about the issue of benefit sanctions, one of the morbid symptoms of the senescence of capitalism. A sanction is a penalty levied on unemployed persons, whether ones claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or the main type of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), for what Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) moralistically terms “transgressions” against the rules pertaining to their benefit claims. Where they are not pure inventions of target-driven jobcentre staff, these “transgressions” are generally of an utterly trivial nature, as a glance at the several websites documenting them will show. They can consist of nothing more heinous than spelling mistakes on a form or marginal lateness for an appointment. The consequences of being subject to a sanction, however, are anything but minor. All financial support, or a hefty portion of it in the case of ESA recipients, ceases for a period ranging from a week to a scandalous three years, plunging those affected into an existential battle for bare survival. Theoretically, hardship payments are claimable to counter a slide into abject destitution, but in practice these are scarce, and in any event are to be disbursed as loans when current benefits undergo the transition to Universal Credit. Sanctions are now handed out by the thousands, outstripping in number the fines imposed by magistrates’ courts. As a sanction also serves to remove a person from official unemployment statistics, they go a considerable distance toward accounting for ostensible falls in those totals. The topic is of such grave import that the present author, Mark Conlon, felt that it warranted a second look here.

Dave drew connections between the manifest iniquity of sanctions and Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, positing the DWP as an Eichmannesque “bureaucratic framework of oppression” implacably grinding expendable lives into dust. He articulated the shock and disbelief experienced by many when they realize what is going on in purportedly civilized twenty-first century Britain. Is it conceivable that human beings are being cast adrift without access to money, the sine qua non of existence in a capitalist society? That, to quote Aneurin Bevan’s famous Bellevue Hotel speech of July 1948, the condemnation of “millions of first-class people to semi-starvation” is once again the method by which Tories prefer to deal with economic slump? Unfortunately, from the standpoint of neoliberal ideology the answer is an unabashed yes. More, state-mandated penury is to be celebrated as both condign punishment and tough love: a just retribution against the incorrigibly workshy, and a stern exhortation to the rest to buckle down to a life of wage slavery, the strait gate which alone offers redemption from the mortal sin of profaning bourgeois relations of production. The apodictic pronouncements of the DWP make explicit what in effect is a species of Augustinian theology, whereby the supplicant “jobseeker” is expected to embrace servitude with masochistic elation, or else suffer damnation to a very real hell. Take, for example, a typical piece of sanctimony from the detestable Esther McVey, Minister of State for Employment. Speaking of the department’s plans, via psychometric testing, to “segment” the unemployed into subsets of deserving and undeserving poor, she explained that the former are those exhibiting “get up and go, the right attitude, the right teamplay.” Arbeit macht frei, indeed.

Since June 2011, stricter “conditionality” (i.e., the obligation to jump through an ever proliferating myriad of bureaucratic hoops) has reduced the sanctioning apparatus to a Kafkaesque circus of cruelty and absurdity. Campaigning body 38 Degrees characterizes as “economic terrorism” the clear intent to inflict an annihilating precarity on an already vulnerable demographic, while Professor David Webster, of Glasgow University, talks of a “parallel secret penal system” having been assembled around sanctioning legislation. The maliciousness of sanctions is so glaring that a Conservative minister, Nick Boles, was struck by unaccustomed, if transitory, pangs of conscience over what he called an “inhuman inflexibility” in their operation. All this, it is pitiful to recall, is to prevent payment of derisory sums of money, which when added up annually would scarcely fund the upkeep of an MP’s moat, much less foot the bill for the $70,000 desks favoured by bailed-out bankers. JSA is a parsimonious £72.40 per week, and accounts for a mere 0.7% of government spending; ESA rates are only nominally higher. Any rational observer can see that inevitably the policy must issue in calamity. Personal indebtedness will rise to unserviceable levels, indigent people will be driven in desperation to crime, homelessness will ensue, and families will have to assume the financial burden of supporting those who are sanctioned, whose health is likely to deteriorate to the point where medical crises place great strain on the NHS. The Medical Research Council has warned, ominously, of “a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action.”

What of the fate within this draconian setup of the mentally ill? Clare Bambra and Kayleigh Garthwaite of Durham University have conducted research in Stockton-on-Tees into the impact of sanctions on those with mental health conditions. Their findings were horrifying. They discovered that Karen, a single mother on Jobseeker’s Allowance with children aged nine and eleven, had been sanctioned for failure to apply for a stipulated minimum of jobs – no fewer than seventeen – over the Christmas period of 2013. All three were left penniless, without the means to heat their home in the depths of winter. Jessica, a heavily pregnant woman of 23 previously in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance, but guilty of the unforgivable offence of being too ill to attend a jobcentre interview, told them that she had barely eaten for two weeks following a withdrawal of benefit. Her access to nutrition was restricted to the charitable donations of a Trussell Trust food bank, augmented by leftovers supplied by her sister; no money was available to power her fridge or cooker. Evidently, for those who administer this mockery of anything that might properly be termed a “social security” system, there exists no season of goodwill, nor duty of concern for the wellbeing of unborn babies. In light of the case studies presented, one must view the following statement by the Durham academics as an illustration of scholarly understatement: “The sanctioning of people with mental health problems is a particular problem – with the stress and anxiety of income loss adding to their underlying condition.”

In evidence submitted to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Bambra and Garthwaite urged that sanctions be scrapped or mitigated for those with psychological ailments. The most recent data, from 2014,  indicates that the opposite course is being pursued. Mentally unwell ESA claimants allocated to the Work Related Activity Group – a category for those deemed capable, often on the basis of bogus or inept assessments, of working at some future point – are being sanctioned at the rate of over a hundred per day. There can little doubt, in fact, that the mentally ill are being specifically targeted. They not infrequently ignore or delay opening mail, something the DWP seemingly regards as all the more reason to send out letters and impose penalties when the instructions therein are not obeyed punctiliously. They simply may not understand the workings of a Byzantine system, but this renders them easy prey for jobcentre “hit squads” (the description of whistleblower John Longden) tasked with tripping them up at every turn. Overall, a staggering six out of ten of those sanctioned have mental health diagnoses. There have been a number of victims whose maltreatment has been so egregious as to breach the carapace of media indifference. Ken Holt, for instance, has spoken to the press about his conviction that his bipolar daughter, Sheila, “cracked” under the pressure of endless threats that she would be sanctioned for not measuring up to the demands of the Work Programme, the government’s corporate welfare scheme designed to shovel public cash into the coffers of “training providers” such as Seetec and A4E. Sheila was sectioned, suffered a heart attack and subsequently fell into a coma. Even when she was comatose, the hectoring from the DWP did not relent. She has since died.

It hardly requires saying that a government capable of this degree of callousness  – as George Monbiot puts it, one with a parliamentary frontbench that “can rock with laughter as it truncates the livelihoods of the poorest people of this country” – is catastrophically lacking in empathy. Its leader, David Cameron, while presiding over mass hunger and an upsurge in food banks, can announce without irony that his eleven-year-old daughter will be going on “hunger strike” in opposition to the sacking of a brawling right-wing celebrity from the BBC. It would not baulk for a moment at the liquidation of all social security provision. Since the Labour Party introduced sanctions with its Clintonesque “New Deal” retrogressions, a detail of history to which Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves is unembarrassed to advert, it would be naïve to hope that a Labour administration might fundamentally alter things. With much of the population benumbed by propaganda scapegoating “scroungers” and the supposedly numberless hordes of benefit fraudsters, or at such a nadir of political consciousness as to look to poujadiste racists for solutions to an unfolding crisis of capitalism, the outlook for mentally ill people without jobs (that is to say, the majority) is exceptionally bleak.

Hannah Arendt, in a 1951 letter to Karl Jaspers, suggested that evil resides in “making human beings as human beings superfluous.” That is exactly the principle on which the sanctioning regime operates: it declares the frail and the fallible, those not able to conform to the dictates of an apparatchik machine – those who fall, as one might phrase it, outwith the Volksgemeinschaft of self-reliant citizens – to be unfit to live. It’s one reason I don’t consider as gratuitous the parallels drawn by Dave Sweetsur between the fascist nightmare and what’s occurring today (a worry that Dave, ever the scrupulously fair-minded liberal, has expressed to me). Certainly Dave is not alone in making the comparison. Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), in vigils held outside Downing Street and Parliament, has combined antiausterity protest with commemoration of the Holocaust. Disabled rights activists Black Triangle borrow their name from the badge that denoted “asocial” prisoners (including the mentally ill) in Nazi concentration camps. In 2012, The Guardian newspaper revealed the Coalition’s predilection for eugenics in a report on the £166 million in foreign aid given to India to expedite forced sterilization of the poor in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Whatever the present differences in scale and overt savagery, when a government broadcasts its contempt for human rights, and its intent to abolish the Human Rights Act after the 2015 general election, one can only fear a descent into worse forms of barbarism. One begins to glimpse what the much trumpeted “longterm economic plan” might have as its endgame: elimination of uneconomic Untermenschen.

To conclude on a personal note. Today I’ve turned 50 years of age. It’s dispiriting, to choose a mild adjective, to have spent 36 of those years – longer, if one dates the birth of neoliberal governance to the Callaghan administration of 1976 – under a darkening shadow of political reaction. It was obvious from the start that the neoliberal project (Thatcherism, monetarism, supply-side economics, call it what you will) was a bid to conduct an extirpative long march through the institutions of social democracy. It was impossible, however, to predict how far it would go. I am the last person to wax nostalgic about the era of my youth, the 1980s; we were still, as Marx would have it, in prehistory, and a pretty coarse and nasty one at that. Nonetheless, it was at least a prehistory in which workers, after a century of struggle, had won a modicum of dignity. Disqualification from unemployment benefits was rare, denial of all state assistance beyond the parameters even of Thatcherite immoderation. The “enemy within” was the National Union of Mineworkers. Thirty years on, with organized labour vanquished, and under the cloak of fiscal discipline, the enemy is the unemployed and the disabled, and by extension everyone in the country not insulated by wealth against the potential misfortune of unemployment or disability. If I were to indulge in a middle-aged cri de coeur, it would be the hope that, in the time left to me, the tide finally turns against a capitalist triumphalism that is dragging nearly all of us down to perdition. The victims of sanctions, together with all the other victims of neoliberalism, surely deserve no less.

A New Year’s Message


It is amazing that this monster interest has not devoured the whole of humanity. It would have done so long ago had not bankruptcy and revolution acted as counter-poisons.

Napoleon Bonaparte


On behalf of our group, the present author, Mark Conlon, wishes visitors to this blog the best for the coming year. Apologies are in order for the relatively few articles published over the past twelve months, a paucity due in part to the fact that I experienced an episode of poor health. I hope to be a little more productive in 2015. Thanks to all those who’ve found the entries sufficiently engaging to merit return visits to our site. I’d like also to thank my fellow Pathways members for continuing to make our meetings educational, comradely and, not least, consistently good-humoured. I should mention that Caroline Hufton, an NHS support worker who normally joins our sessions, has fallen ill in recent weeks, and that we wish her a swift recovery.

Only right-wing observers, or the incurably Panglossian of outlook, can draw comfort from British history as it unfolded in 2014. A chance for Scottish independence was missed, and the challenge of an abjectly racist anti-immigration party, UKIP, was met by the established parties with a doubling down on reactionary rhetoric and policy. Even the isolated instances of progressive change were not altogether what they seemed. To take one example, it was announced early in the year, to considerable ballyhoo in the media, that payday lenders, the likes of Wonga and QuickQuid – companies whose very names reek of vulgarity and ethical murk – were to be more tightly regulated. On closer inspection, one finds the legislative constraints, scheduled to come into force next month, to be modest in scope: newly formed super-quango the Financial Conduct Authority, starting as timorously as it means to go on, will limit charges to a mere 100% of the principal borrowed, while permitting punitory “rollovers” to continue. Financial Times journalists may grieve over a reduced presence of predatory “entrepreneurs” on the high streets of the nation, but the remaining  extortionists will continue to batten on the desperate and destitute. As wages are driven below subsistence level, and the safety net of social security gutted, there is unlikely to be a shortage of such customers.

The national debt, meanwhile, continues to soar as vertiginously as any payday loan, requiring a subvention into bankers’ coffers of a billion pounds per week in interest payments. Not that one would know it as coalition politicians crow over trivial and often fraudulent reductions in the deficit, and duplicitously conflate the two indices. Given the astronomical sums involved in the bailout of the financial sector, austerity imposed on the poor, as draconian as its reach has been, was never going to rein it in. A government serious about doing so would address as first priority the corporate tax avoidance that robs the Treasury of prodigious amounts of revenue annually, but action on that score seldom extends further than verbal platitudes. Austerity thus stands revealed, behind all the gaseous preachments about fiscal responsibility and the Big Society, as rancorous class war from above, a mechanism for funnelling money from a hard-pressed citizenry to a plutocracy already bathed in unwonted privilege. It has produced the Britain we now inhabit, a land of unimaginable extremes of wealth – alone among G7 countries, the rich here have become richer as a result of the 2008 crash, with billionaires doubling in number – where derogation of the lower orders can never go far enough to sate the sadistic impulses of the ruling elite. We are promised only more of the same, leading an organization as politically conservative as the Institute of Fiscal Studies to voice misgivings about the socially acidic impact of “colossal” spending cuts still to come.

Inevitably there will be those plunged into mental ill health by the realization that, in order to head off starvation, they are obliged to petition Wonga and its usurious brethren. They will then discover that government policy toward them is one of malign neglect. No expense is spared in funding the vital priorities of imperialist intervention and royal ceremonial, but money for basic psychiatric care cannot be found. For the shameful statistics regarding curtailment of mental health services over the course of the present parliament, and details of the deceitful governmental framing thereof, see the entry for 29 November 2014 on A Day in the Life, the blog written by our group’s Dave Sweetsur. I would just add the telling codicil that, according to a survey conducted for the July 2014 issue of Pulse magazine, one in five GPs report that patients on their books have harmed themselves, and in some cases taken their own lives, because non-pharmaceutical treatments have been rendered defunct or absurdly difficult to access. The Pathways group emerged in 2007 out of a thriving and multifarious programme of therapeutic activities offered by the NHS at that time. As budgets have contracted, not only has this range of activities been devastated; from our perspective the ethos of mental health provision has shifted, from what at its best was a relationship of solidarity between service users and staff, to a situation where the latter appear anxious to divest themselves of their “clients” at the earliest opportunity.

It’s estimated that 90,ooo children have been homeless in the UK over what for them will have been a distinctly unfestive Christmas period. Here in Stoke-on-Trent, there have been reports of kids scavenging in bins for food. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, in an interview with the cravenly deferential BBC, dismisses the Corporation’s exiguous coverage of such matters as “totally hyberbolic” (as opposed, presumably, to his own properly meiotic commentary on them). When not lolling on an upholstered House of Commons bench in a seemingly drug-addled torpor, or factoring illicit narcotics and prostitution into GDP calculations, he claims to superintend the fastest growing economy in the world. Whether or not we take him at his devious word, he undeniably has helped engineer one of the most morally bankrupt societies on the face of the globe, and one in need of revolutionary antivenin on a truly Napoleonic scale. The residents of the New Era Estate in London, battling with success to defend their homes against acquisition by a rent-gouging asset management firm, have demonstrated that people have more power than may be apparent in a country where official discourse is bounded within strict doctrinal parameters. In 2015, let’s hope they use it.



Musicians and Mental Illness, Part Two: Richard Pinhas

Richard Pinhas, bibliophile and Gibson guitar devotee, photographed by Patrick Jelin in 2013

Richard Pinhas, bibliophile and Gibson guitar devotee, photographed by Patrick Jelin in 2013


I’m trying to make things audible which usually aren’t. Making the cosmos audible. Making the strongest music ever possible in its inner intensity would be the ideal key.

Richard Pinhas


“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.” This claim of philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-95) and psychiatrist Felix Guattari (1930-92), referring to their joint authorship of a 1972 book subtitled Capitalism and Schizophrenia, might lead the uninitiated reader to suspect them of perpetuating the misconception of schizophrenia as a manifestation of split personality. That would be mistaken. Their approach to the condition is, nonetheless, idiosyncratic. They go on to state: “It’s nice to talk like everyone else, to say that the sun rises, when everybody knows it’s only a manner of speaking.” Typically for representatives of modern Continental philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari strove not to talk like everyone else, and certainly to forgo writing like them. It would be unjust, however, to dismiss them out of hand as mountebanks of Parisian high theory, as Lacan-style obscurantists or trite contrarians in the mode of Jean Baudrillard. Eventually, with perseverance, a starkly provocative picture of mental illness coalesces from the dense thickets of their poststructuralist prose, one that makes even R.D. Laing’s romanticization of psychosis appear decidedly tame.

Remarkably, in the 1970s the arcane theses of Deleuze and Guattari infiltrated the domain of popular music via the output of a French rock guitarist, Richard Pinhas. Pinhas was born in 1951. He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Gilles Deleuze’s supervision, earning a doctorate at the age of twenty-three before concentrating on music with his group Heldon – in the view of the present author, Mark Conlon, one of the most intriguing ensembles in the history of rock. (The band’s name is lifted from Norman Spinrad’s futuristic novel The Iron Dream. Like Robert Calvert, the subject of my first article exploring links between musicians and mental illness, Pinhas is heavily influenced by science fiction.) In an unusual instance of cultural cross-pollination, Deleuze contributed a spoken part to an early Heldon song, the Nietzsche-quoting ‘Le Voyageur’ – another luminary of French philosophy, Jean-Francois Lyotard, was present in the studio when the piece was recorded – and Pinhas’s music is suffused with Deleuze’s thought. As a philosopher who presumably has little patience with the Kantian adumbration of music as mere sensation without conceptual foundation, Pinhas has written on the musical applicability of Deleuzian theories in a 2001 book, Les larmes de Nietzsche. The relationship was reciprocal: information provided by Pinhas on synthesizers, for example, fed into Deleuze’s speculations. Latterly, Pinhas has pursued his musical investigations under the Deleuzian moniker of Schizotrope, working with cyberpunk novelist Maurice Dantec, who declaims unpublished Deleuze texts in some of the project’s recordings.

An explication of Anti-Oedipus, or of its 1980 sequel A Thousand Plateaus, is no straightforward matter. It’s all too easy to find oneself floundering in an alien linguistic landscape of folds, rhizomes and deterritorialized flows. Even a schematic summary nevertheless must scandalize orthodox medical opinion. A prejudicial evaluation of schizophrenia, of the sort that has held sway since Eugen Bleuler first demarcated the term a century ago, is stridently rejected, with Freudianism no less than biological psychiatry berated for holding to it. As in the work of the philosopher-physician Georges Canguilhem, a hard-and-fast distinction between normal and pathological is erased. A key concept is the body without organs, derived from a diatribe of surrealist poet Antonin Artaud, his banned 1947 radio broadcast To Have Done With the Judgement of God. Deleuze and Guattari posit as illustration a Miss X, who is convinced she lacks a brain and stomach. Artaud hypothesized that a body of this kind might attain freedom, but to a doctor such convictions would be indicative of severe mental disturbance; the resulting diagnosis in all probability would be one of schizophrenia, as in fact it was in Artaud’s case. Artaud, and similarly “deranged” authors like Jakob Lenz and Daniel Paul Schreber, figure by contrast as unqualified heroes of this abstruse Gallic offshoot of antipsychiatry, deployed as exemplary foes of the internalized repression that, in the words of Spinoza – another cynosure of the Deleuzian pantheon – leads men to “fight for slavery as they would for salvation.”

In his Molecular Revolution, Guattari goes so far as to invoke a “schizo-revolutionary” politics. Franco Beradi writes, in a memoir of his friendship with Guattari: “Schizophrenia is the exploration of semiotic territories by a non-subjectified flow of assemblages that are not fixed on a definitional refrain. Thus, it does not ossify any model of interpretation and is not identified as a closed subjectivity.” Cutting through the sort of baroque jargon satirized in the notorious Sokal hoax, we are presented here, then, not with any temperate plea for tolerance and understanding, but with a valorisation of schizophrenia as privileged insight, a species of Laingianism ad abundantiam. The fundamental contention is that, in the same way Marx saw capitalism as a stage in the destruction of metaphysical illusions about economic reality, so schizophrenia can function as a “difference engine” shattering the psychic chains of the Oedipus complex and the nuclear family. Schizophrenia, in short, is liberatory “desiring-production” rather than aberrant flouting of cognitive norms. The assertion, it should be cautioned, is balanced barely at all by acknowledgement of the distress caused by schizophrenia, but that is symptomatic of postmodernism’s demotion of truth in favour of grandiloquent proclamation. Notwithstanding Deleuze’s pro-Marxian averments – an unfulfilled philosophical undertaking was to have been called The Grandeur of Marx – classical Marxists can have no real truck with the notion, though it’s worth noting that Antonio Negri, chief exponent of the heterodox current of Italian autonomist Marxism, has been considerably more receptive.

How are these “schizoanalytic” ideas transposed into music by Richard Pinhas? Characteristically, through an uncanny – in this cerebral context, we can have recourse to the Freudian term unheimlich – imitation of Robert Fripp’s infinite-sustain guitar technique, the instrumental mimesis being particularly indebted to the British guitarist’s tape-loop experiments with Brian Eno. Like Fripp, Pinhas is a formidable technician, his fluency bolstering the argument in A Thousand Plateaus that there is “no imagination outside of technique.” In keeping with the extremity of the concepts underpinning his art, Pinhas takes things further than Fripp customarily does, sculpting blocs of massive, glacial discordance. These volatile guitar lines are often laid atop relentless machinic rhythms, generating the paradoxical impression of simultaneous flux and stasis noted in a BBC review of the 2002 solo disc Event and Repetition. One could reach into Deleuze and Guattari’s toolkit and tenably call the effect one of hybridity, or alternatively an amalgamation of “smooth” (continuously varied) and “striated” (regularly pulsed) space. In the last couple of decades, Deleuze’s philosophy has become influential in the field of electronica, with Achim Szepanski’s record label Mille Plateaux actually taking its name from the second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Pinhas not only arrived there first, but in my estimation his music underscores Deleuzian motifs less problematically than glitch and minimal techno, genres diametrically at odds with the Boulezian serialism held up by Deleuze and Guattari themselves as germane to their thinking.

Richard Pinhas confesses to experiencing bouts of depression, and in one interview speaks of having been treated for bipolar disorder. His interest in the Deleuzian approach to mental states hence runs deeper than academic dilettantism, and it’s obvious that he distinguishes Deleuze’s oeuvre from the fashionable trahison des clercs of postmodernist writing in its more burlesque and frivolous forms. Les evenements of May 1968 would have been formative for someone of his generation, and the political pronouncements of this electronic guerrilla – I borrow the cognomen from the title of the first Heldon LP – remain intransigent in a radical soixante-huitard vein. He has said, in an untimely (in the Nietzschean sense) meditation on the age of corporate despotism: “We should stop strengthening the system and so work and consume the least possible and most of all cultivate our minds.” One can scarcely imagine a greater and more admirable contrast with conformist pop stars, who betray little evidence of possessing a mind at all. Pinhas shows no signs of mellowing with age, having collaborated in recent years with corrosive noisemongers Merzbow and Wolf Eyes, and jacking up the volume of his on-stage concerts to an assaultive 116 decibels. He denounces neoliberalism as a “cancer” heralding technocratic fascism, and looks on Desolation Row, a 2013 album with cover art limning capitalist globalization as hubris on the scale of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, as a weapon in the struggle against it. To echo my concluding thoughts on Robert Calvert, there is scant justification here for freighting a diagnosis of “mental illness” with negative connotations.

Furiously Seeking the Reality of War

Brad Pitt with director David Ayer on the set of "Fury"

Brad Pitt with director David Ayer on the set of “Fury”


Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.


After our meeting at Hanley Library on 28 October, members of our group made the short trip to the local Odeon for our annual cinema outing. Having settled on war thriller Fury as movie of choice, the present author, Mark Conlon, was accompanied by our newest recruit, Alan, and by longtime Pathways participants Sara Cooper and Dave Sweetsur. Although Alan is a student of the war film, and indeed has lent me several examples on DVD, Dave confesses to a blind spot in his cinephilia, which otherwise is all-embracing, in that he is no aficionado of the genre. Following my reviews on this site of Looper and Captain Phillips, I’m consequently emboldened to venture for a third time onto his critical terrain. As a group we found Fury to be an absorbing spectacle, and an enjoyable day was had by all. Criticism, however, should strive toward the analytic in preference to the artlessly impressionistic, and as this is something made well-nigh impossible by the sensory overload of the contemporary movie theatre, where the sotto voce register appears extinct, I’ll attempt herein a more objective assessment of the film.

Fury is set in April 1945, during the apocalyptic Gotterdammerung of the Third Reich. Scripted and directed by David Ayer, it depicts men of the US 2nd Armored Division as they advance against fanatical last-ditch resistance through a ravaged Germany, with the plot centering on the crew of a Sherman tank, the eponymous ‘Fury’ of the title. ‘Fury’ is commanded by Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a tough and frequently ruthless sergeant played by Brad Pitt (who is too old for historical verisimilitude, though this is rationalized by means of hints that he is a First World War veteran). The story is taken up at the point where the crew, who have been a tight-knit band since they initially fought the Afrika Korps years earlier, have had one of their number killed in action, and are allocated as replacement pacific greenhorn Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a typist who hitherto has never been inside a tank. Ellison’s first task in his new position is the nauseating one of scouring shreds of his predecessor from the compartment in ‘Fury’ where he must reside as machine-gunner and radio operator. The narrative unfolds through savage streetfighting, a fraught liaison with German female civilians, and a nearly fatal skirmish with a monstrous German Tiger tank, to a sanguinary finale in which the stranded ‘Fury’ fights desperately to hold an important crossroads against Waffen SS troops. The main dramatic tension resides in the degree to which Ellison’s decency will be eroded by the exigencies of war, and conversely the extent to which it might survive and influence his hard-bitten comrades in arms.

Prior to our viewing the film, Dave Sweetsur informed me that critic Mark Kermode had summarized Fury as an admixture of Peckinpah-like ferocity and cumbersome philosophizing (“metaphysical ramblings” to quote Dave’s email on the subject). This is a judicious reading. The Peckinpah comparison seems to me compelling, with Fury impressing almost as a gloss on that director’s epic of Eastern Front barbarism, Cross of Iron. Both films display a fetishistic attention to authentic military detail, and are portrayals of male bonding through extreme violence, with the feminine cast brutally aside. Fury could not be more explicit about it: within minutes of the rendezvous with civilian cousins Irma and Emma, a sexually charged domestic caesura between episodes of hypermasculine combat, the women are obliterated in an artillery strike. Each movie concerns soldiers sickened by warfare – Collier’s crew reveal themselves as traumatized by the carnage they witnessed during the encirclement and destruction of German troops in the Falaise pocket the previous summer – who simultaneously are consummate killers. Even the closing montage of grim wartime photographs comes across as something of an homage. Since this is the film world of 2014 rather than 1977, Ayer’s characters eschew referencing Clausewitz in favour of homespun apercus on the ignominy of war, of which one prominent example is quoted at the head of this article, but the world-weary sentiments are similar. It comes as little surprise to learn that David Ayer is slated to direct a remake of The Wild Bunch.

What to make of the ideological complexion of Fury? It would be simplistic to dismiss the work as merely an outgrowth of a culture of militaristic belligerence. Geoff Pevere is overly harsh when he assails the film, in a review for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, as a regressive “blood and guts fantasy of macho purification” (see the issue for 17 September 2014). With its downbeat tone and graphic gore, as bodies are mashed beneath caterpillar tracks and immolated occupants of brewed-up Shermans shoot themselves in the head, Ayer’s creation is unlikely, unless desensitization has gone further than one suspects, to have recruits flocking to the US army. From the opening scene of a German horseman riding through a funereal landscape of wrecked armour, and meeting his demise in grisly fashion at the hands of a knife-wielding Collier, the bloodshed is surely too unsanitized for that. To the film’s additional credit, the adversity imposed on civilians by the war, whether as refugees or victims of the terminal spasms of Nazi zealotry, is vividly delineated, rather than featuring peripherally as collateral damage. By the point Collier is shown committing the war crime of shooing an unarmed German prisoner, forcing Ellison into complicity with the murder to rid the latter of his moral scruples, it’s clear at least that Fury is no patriotic flag-waving exercise in the manner of Saving Private Ryan, with protagonists who ultimately do the right thing in conformity with Spielbergian notions of liberal decorum and all-American probity.

Nor can Fury, thankfully, be convicted of an outright falsification of the historical record a la David Ayer’s earlier screenwriting effort, U-571, a cinematic sin of distortion of which the director has publicly repented. It is constructed by way of compositing actual events – among other sources, it borrows from the battle of Crailsheim – in a reasonably plausible way, at any rate up until the histrionic climax of the drama. This is not to say that rewriting of history is entirely absent. A preamble to the film explains that American tanks suffered disproportionate losses against heavier German opponents, but does not mention a numerical imbalance that was weighted decisively in favour of the former. The Tiger tank, the fearsome 56-ton behemoth that wreaks havoc on Collier’s unit of Shermans, was in fact rarely faced by American forces; only three such encounters are documented, one of which involved unmanned Tigers loaded onto a railway car. Most examples on the Western Front were met by British and Canadian troops, and the majority overall by the Soviets, whose crucial role in defeating the Nazi war machine, in vast mechanized clashes such as Kursk that dwarfed anything that could have been recreated in Fury, remains the elephant in the room for US cinema. One would derive no inkling from the film that, in the very month it is set, US and Russian armies converged from west and east to meet on the Elbe, and that it was the Soviet Union, not the United States, that undertook the conclusive battle to capture Berlin and end the fighting in Europe.

Fury, then, is a conflicted product of the capitalist culture industry, with predictable vices but not devoid of virtues. A goodly number of hoary genre tropes are present and correct, from Ellison’s naïve rookie to the drawn-out death of Collier’s grizzled veteran, and the most level-headed way to approach the film may be to take these as pointers to its fundamentally traditional nature, its status as an old-fashioned action yarn, as opposed to the coded apologia for imperialism espied by Geoff Pevere and other hostile critics. At the time of the Blitzkrieg that overran France in 1940, Italian philosopher Galvano Della Volpe – who, incidentally, was also a film theorist of note – wrote a curious essay on the allure of tanks, Estetica del Carro Armato. Though scarcely sympathetic in any political sense to the Nazi armoured columns rampaging across the country, he could not help but be seduced by the aesthetic qualities of the steel beasts. The article was published, anomalously given its author’s Marxist leanings, in the fascist journal Il Primato. Regardless of the intentions of its creators, the imposing images of tanks in Fury likewise seem to accomplish an evasion of political categorization: you can read into them whatever you wish, from the Tiger as evil avatar of Nazism and Sherman as symbol of antifascist liberation, to the Shermans as harbingers of the Abrams tanks that rolled into Baghdad in 2003, or anything in-between. We in the Pathways group interpreted the film in a progressive light, but no doubt there will be others who do not.

Fury is all too traditional in making virtually no allusion to class, and in this respect is patently inferior to Cross of Iron, which emphasized the divide between officers and rank-and-file soldiery. At a time when there was intense discussion in the armed forces about what a post-war society should look like, the crew of ‘Fury’ are apolitical to a man. When they describe confinement to the cramped innards of a tank as the best job they’ve ever had, one might argue that they’re passing obliquely mordant comment on the wage slavery that is the standard peacetime lot of such men, but in truth it would be a grasping at straws. There is no room in this film for a conception of the Second World War as class struggle, or Nazism as class-based movement rather than atavistic thuggery with a facile resemblance to present-day strains of terrorism. In the end, as Collier and his loyal companions fight a suicidal delaying action against a counterattacking SS battalion, Peckinpah’s nihilism and inchoate class rancour are thrown overboard in a preposterous turn to the religiose and martyrological. At the expense of dramatic credibility, Ayer crassly interpolates his Christian beliefs by having the previously cynical Collier suddenly disclose himself an expert in quoting scripture. (Shia LaBeuof, who plays ‘Fury’ gunner and uncloseted religionist Boyd “Bible” Swan, has characterized Ayer as a “full subscriber” to the faith.) After scores of German attackers have been mown down, only Ellison escapes from the sacrificial bloodbath, his deliverance courtesy of the equally dubious device of a merciful SS trooper who opts not to betray the American’s hiding place to his vengeful Kameraden. This feeble denouement comes perilously close to undermining the more realistic material that precedes it.

Today is Armistice Day, marking the hour in 1918 when the guns at last fell silent – though hardly, as Fury loudly reminds us, for the final time. Unsurprisingly for a production that cost $68 million to make, Fury is far from an unequivocally anti-war film. At heart, as the persona of Norman Ellison transmogrifies from peaceable to bellicose, it’s perhaps just the opposite. Nonetheless, its visceral depiction of the horrors of war ought to give pause to any politicians who see it. Regrettably, as evidence mounts daily of the sociopathic, not to say psychopathic, mentality of the political cabal ruling over us, its members’ terrifying lack of empathy for human suffering, only the most wildly optimistic could suppose that it will. Our group’s Sara Cooper was outraged by the harrowing sequence in which a German captive, despite pleading pitiably for his life, is executed by Brad Pitt’s character in cold blood. The twenty-two ministers of David Cameron’s warmongering cabinet, one imagines, would sit through Fury in its entirety and not turn a hair.

The Prison as Neoliberal Madhouse

An American Konzentrationslager: Wallen Ridge super-maximum security prison in Virginia, a 700-inmate experiment in the propagation of insanity


Jails and prisons have become the final destination for the mentally ill… it’s the most pressing issue facing psychiatry today.

Psychiatrist Steven Lamberti


At the Pathways session on 15 July 2014, the present author, Mark Conlon, together with other members of the group, watched a disturbing television documentary. An investigation in the BBC’s veteran current affairs series Panorama, ‘Bedlam Behind Bars’ addressed an especially reprehensible aspect of America’s neoconservative devolution, namely the hyperbolic growth of US prisons and their role in the criminalization of the country’s mentally ill citizens. It was originally broadcast on 11 July, and we’re grateful to Darren, one of our recent recruits, for bringing his recording of the show to the meeting.

Reporter Hilary Andersson discussed the plight of more than a million psychiatrically disturbed prisoners immured in a carceral leviathan from which, on the evidence of the programme, all vestiges of humanity have been obliterated. Viewers were shown a young bipolar inmate in a Michigan prison, Tim Souders, jailed for the heinous offence of stealing paintball guns. He was seen heading into solitary confinement as punishment for an infringement of prison rules. In the middle of a heatwave, the water to his cell was disconnected, and he was shackled to a concrete slab. Within a day, he had become delusional. After five days, he was shifted to another cell and again chained down, this time stripped of his urine-soaked clothing. He strained to feed himself slices of bread flung onto his bare chest. Eventually, death resulted from dehydration and the excessive temperature. Moving on to Chicago’s overflowing Cook County Jail, we glimpsed a fraction of the 30% to 50% of inmates, totalling possibly 30,000 per year, assessed as having significant psychological ailments. The jail, along with Rikers Island in New York, is effectively one of the two biggest psychiatric facilities in the United States, even if not officially classified as such. The sheriff in charge, Tom Dart, conceded that it is no place for those with mental health diagnoses, and it was impossible to disagree after hearing of detainees assaulted by his own officers, or left to languish in squalid cells for twenty-three hours a day. And so it continued through a litany of hideous malfeasance, from pepper spray-assisted cell extractions ruled “cruel and unconstitutional” by a federal judge, to frigid isolation cells and recourse to leg irons and belly chains in a panopticon-like suicide unit in Houston’s Harris County Jail. By the end one was thankful that, in the era of dumbed-down media and dwindling attention spans, Panorama has been truncated in length from an hour to thirty minutes. As with Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, sometimes concision is preferable to a surfeit of horror.

‘Bedlam Behind Bars’ was a cogent indictment of institutionalized savagery, but nevertheless it may be useful to have some context beyond the programme’s largely ahistorical and wholly apolitical examination of its subject, not to speak of the Corporation’s tiresome insistence on “balance” via prison administrators’ insidious defence of the indefensible. (For much of the information that follows, I’m indebted to Alan Elsner’s book Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons, a critique all the more damning for being written from a standpoint of irenic reformism.) It is a sorry tale indeed. The US imprisonment rate, which for most of the twentieth century hovered around a normative 0.1% of the population, began in the mid-1970s to soar to grotesque levels. A landmark was reached in 2008 when it passed the 1% mark; since 1980, it has risen by a colossal 790%. As psychologists Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo (of Stanford Prison Experiment fame) put it, a “runaway punishment train” has been set in motion, one that has overtaken in punitiveness such exemplars of penal enlightenment as China, Iran and Thailand. A “war on drugs” rhetoric, bolstered by zero-tolerance policing and rigid “three strikes and you’re out” legislation, furnished the alibi for a sweeping incarceration of those deemed surplus to requirements in the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes of ascendant neoliberalism. In his memoirs, Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, summed up the paradigm thus: “At the Reagan Justice Department, my predecessor and I carried on a continuing crusade… arguing for tougher and more effective sentencing, stressing the protective rather than the ‘rehabilitationist’ model of penology, and pushing for construction of additional prison space so that convicted criminals could be kept away from society.” To state it in language less redolent of the banality of bureaucratic evil, prisons expanded to become, to quote Angela Davis’s fine polemic Are Prisons Obsolete?, “a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.”

All this, a tightening “culture of control” as penologist David Garland characterizes it, would have been bad enough merely as state-orchestrated repression. Worse, in a process the Wall Street Journal dubbed in 1994 an emergent “prison-industrial complex” – a counterpart to the bloated “military-industrial complex” identified by Eisenhower – prisons have morphed into privatized businesses, or what Mike Davis more piquantly terms “hell factories” in a 1995 scrutiny of the phenomenon in The Nation. The trend has been exacerbated by budgetary constraints in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Crony capitalists such as the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group pocket government fees for running institutions dedicated to wringing profits from wretchedness and despair. GEO, in its former incarnation as Wackenhut, issued a statement fulsomely priding itself on “a turnkey approach to the development of new correctional and mental health institutions that includes design, construction, financing, and operations.” Translating from corporate cant, what this means is that staffing ratios and per capita inmate spending are drastically cut, while prisoners toil, across a vast range of jobs from clothes manufacture to computer assembly, for wages of less than $1 per day, a resurrection of the “contractual penal servitude” of the 1820s and slavery in all but name. After drudging for their nominal remuneration, they have insult piled on injury through being charged preposterous sums for accessing substandard medical services. “There is no way to justify handing convicted criminals free health care while law-abiding taxpayers are required to make co-payments for health services,” thundered Republican Senator Michael F. Nozollio, touting his sponsorship of 2002 legislation designed to impose on felons charges of $7. “By revoking this policy, we will bring justice to both the criminals who thumb their noses at the law and to the law-abiding citizens struggling to pay for their own health care.” No matter that some of those billed will be in custody because they cannot afford bail, or that others are incarcerated for transgressing laws that would not be on the statute but for the avid lobbying of GEO and its ilk.

US penal doctrine is deeply entwined with race and class: one in three black and one in six Hispanic men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives and, with rare exceptions, only the poor find themselves behind bars. There are more African-Americans in prison than there were slaves in the antebellum South. Increasingly, however, prisons function too as substitute asylums; as the latter were emptied from the 1960s onward, prisons assumed the task of inoculating society against the “deviancy” of people who could not adapt themselves to the iron-cage “rationality” of a capitalist economy. An assertion of Michel Foucault, that asylums, factories and schools are all cognates of the prison, is being verified more palpably than Foucault foresaw. It hardly needs emphasizing that prisons are ill-suited to serve as surrogate sanatoria. Rape, with the posttraumatic symptoms that arise from it, is rife, perpetrated by inmates and wardens alike. Prisoners whose reactions are slowed by psychotropic drugs may struggle to obey orders with the mandated alacrity, but often dosages are increased with the aim of enforcing conformity, a vicious circle whereby shambling wrecks of human beings – victims of what sardonic prison argot calls the “Thorazine shuffle” – are handed ever harsher punishments for falling short of the brisk deference demanded. Those harder punishments include solitary confinement, something that in short order can corrode the psyche of even the mentally robust. Psychiatric professionals, where they exist, typically ally with prison officers in taking an antagonistic stance toward those ostensibly under their care. At the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, currently being sued on behalf of inmates by the American Civil Liberties Union, a psychologist’s treatment plan for a suicidal prisoner comprised three words: “Encourage behavioral compliance.” The method of compliance chosen was to use Mace to asphyxiate the man in his cell. The worst conditions prevail in the seclusionary “supermax” facilities that proliferated in the 1990s, where an almost total lack of human interaction seems calculated to induce psychological turmoil, up to and including florid manifestations of psychosis. Then there is death row, a setting so depressing that many elect to escape it by waiving appeals in favour of the desperate “volunteerism” of embracing execution.

Where America leads, Britain as piteous lapdog generally follows, in this area by adhering to the US template of populist “law and order” asperity generating a plentiful supply of convicts ripe for exploitation in pursuit of the sacred goal of shareholder value maximization. Britain’s prison population is at a record high of 85,000, housed, or perhaps one should say warehoused, in 126 institutions, with more serving life sentences than in all other European nations combined. The sharp rise in numbers is entirely due to stricter sentencing rather than an escalation of crime (in Foucauldian terminology, a discourse of punitive reason has become detached from actual illegalities). In November of last year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, not content with the morbidly tyrannical prisons-within-prisons of such “close supervision centres” as the notorious Woodhill in Milton Keynes, introduced a gruelling regime of solitary confinement throughout the system. The practice was castigated by the United Nations in 1990, and declared unconstitutionally torturous by the US Supreme Court as long ago as 1890, yet is championed by Grayling as a counter to what he ludicrously portrays as the “frills” of liberal governance. Even when not subjected to this ordeal, the default status of inmates is now a “basic level” of obligatory prison uniform and deprivation of personal possessions. Grayling’s bibliophobia has occasioned greater press coverage, but arguably these dehumanizing moves are more ominously contemptible than his restrictions on reading matter. Predictably, they contributed to a leap in cases of suicide from 30 in 2013 to 42 in just the first six months of 2014. No fewer than 23,183 incidents of self-harm occurred in 2013, a statistic in unabated expansion since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to office in 2010. In an act of Oedipal horror, a prisoner at HMP Nottingham recently gouged out his own eyes. As highlighted by the chaotically violent Glen Parva in Leicestershire, a “toxic environment” in the estimation of the Howard League for Penal Reform, little effort is made to ameliorate conditions in young offender institutions. The Chief Inspectorate of Prisons found our local specimen, HMYOI Werrington on the outskirts of the Potteries, to be weak in preventing self-harm and bullying, but vigorous in conducting forcible strip searches.

At present, approximately 15% of this dismal gulag is privatized, but that will only increase when policy is steered by a mania to transfer public revenues – in this instance one flinches from saying “assets” – into private hands. It might have been assumed that scant leeway existed for an aggravation of conditions, but corporate involvement is demonstrating otherwise. A cloacal purgatory of violence and illicit drugtaking in consequence of being placed at the tender mercy of Serco, HMP Doncaster, in advice offered by the Howard League’s Frances Crook that is sure to fall on deaf ears, “should no longer be left in the hands of a multinational which puts shareholders’ interests before public safety.” G4S, which also manages the lethal “security” apparatus guarding Israel’s West Bank settlements, obliges inmates at HMP Oakwood to wait five weeks for a mental health referral after slicing an astonishing £10,000 from the standard cost of a year-long prison placement; occurrences of self-harm topped 600 last year, in comparison to 56 at the similarly sized, state-run Wandsworth. Because insufficient profits beckoned, A4E has just unilaterally torn up its contract to provide education in London prisons as a participant in the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS). Denied education, “offenders” are herded into menial and repetitive work as a super-exploited proletariat, in what amounts to a particularly obscene species of post-Fordist outsourcing. Average earnings are £8 a week. Unlike the riots that regularly erupt at private prisons, this is not hushed up as a dirty secret. On its website, which features encomia from legal aid despoiler Kenneth Clarke and the head of the Confederation of British Industry, G4S rhapsodizes as follows on the advantages of a literally captive labour force unencumbered by sick pay, holiday leave, trade union membership or the ability to strike: “We have a dedicated workforce with a variety of skills which can work around business’ needs with the minimum of bureaucracy.” No mention of a minimum wage, it is to be noted, but the definite assurance of minimal “bureaucracy” (i.e., workers’ rights). I.G. Farben and the ideologues of Arbeit macht frei could not have boasted of a rapport more unabashed in its amorality.

Prospects for enlightened reform are bleak. What is referred to in government circles as the “prison estate” – remove the first “e” from “estate” and you have an example of Freudian parapraxis – is, to borrow a phrase from the prison letters collected in George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, the most “terrible, ugly machine” the ruling class has at its disposal, and unlikely to turn prettier at a time of indurate political reaction. Georg Ruschke and Otto Kirchheimer, the forefathers of radical criminology, pointed out in their 1931 study Punishment and Social Structure that reforms are constrained by the “heuristic maxim” that, in order to deter crime, circumstances in prison must be grimmer than those endured by the “lower strata” of the working class in the outside world. As the labour market under neoliberalism is relentlessly degraded, and poverty deepens, correspondingly prisons can be expected to become sites of ever fiercer disciplinary coercion. Quite transparently, the objective is to decant into prison as many as possible of the scroungers, troubled families and feral underclasses (the various labels of priggish contumely are interchangeable), where surplus value can be pumped out of them under compulsion, or they can simply be forgotten about. They will be joined by mentally ill prisoners guilty of no offence save that of overburdening an NHS buckling under endless fiscal austerity. Meanwhile, corporate crime on a breathtaking scale goes unchastised, confirming Bertolt Brecht’s mockery of bourgeois notions of criminality – “robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one” – to be no less incisive today than it was in the age of the Wall Street Crash.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who had first-hand knowledge of the brutalities of Tsarist imprisonment, wrote in his 1862 novel The House of the Dead: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Given what we know from the Stanford Prison Experiment of the implacable tendency of a carceral milieu to make rabid authoritarians of the jailors who control it, and abject victims of inmates, I would contend that a society disfigured by prisons has forfeited its claim to be considered civilized, even before factoring into the equation that prisons under capitalism have their raison d’etre in sustaining inequities of power and property. For prisons to have become moneymaking enterprises, and a repository for mentally ill people whose confinement is a source of profit, is monstrous beyond words. When we viewed the Panorama documentary, I was struck by the fact that the programme drew spontaneous cries of outrage from Pathways members. A situation readily perceived by the mentally “ill” as repugnant is, by contrast, regarded with equanimity by its political overseers, or reckoned by them to be not nightmarish enough. A section of the “normal” populace, moreover, revels in callow fantasies of battling “crime” – the ideological and socially constructed nature of which is rarely questioned – with retributive sadism. I was left wondering whether our whole codification of sanity is fundamentally askew.

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