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.

Dave Williams Revisits London

 

On 20 May of this year, I visited London for the second time in my life. My initial visit was in June of last year (see the entry on this site for 7 July 2013). The journey once more was made by rail, and in the company of a group of friends. Here is a selection of the photographs I took on the day.

After arriving at Euston train terminal, the first thing we decided to do was head to Westminster in order to reprise our 2013 trip on one of the Thames Clippers, ferries providing tourists with river-borne views of the capital. The trip was longer on this occasion, extending over the distance from Westminster Bridge to Greenwich and back, 90 minutes each way. As in 2013, in the course of the cruise we passed by the Shard, the angular skyscraper that is the tallest building in the European Union, and sailed close to HMS Belfast, the 1930s-vintage warship berthed in the Pool of London in the role of a museum vessel. We disembarked at Greenwich in the vicinity of an older historic ship, Cutty Sark, the famous nineteenth-century tea clipper – one of the last of its sail-driven kind, and recently repaired following an extensive fire – now on display in dry dock. Unfortunately, we were not able to go inside the hull of Cutty Sark, as it was closed to visitors.

Later in the afternoon, I photographed the Tower of London. In one of the images, next to the fortress’s main entrance is a reconstructed medieval catapult known as a trebuchet; in another, lions modelled from galvanized wire by sculptor Kendra Haste, part of her collection of  “Royal Beasts” installed at the Tower in 2011. Moving on to the Victoria Embankment, we had a look at the Battle of Britain Monument, Paul Day’s sculpture paying tribute to the pilots who died in the pivotal aerial campaign of 1940. Nearby is Cleopatra’s Needle, the ancient Egyptian obelisk brought to this country in 1878, and among my pictures you can see one of two bronze sphinxes that flank it. The final photograph, taken toward the end of the day, shows the Houses of Parliament in fading evening light.

The UK Independence Party, Disability and Mental Health

 

Disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down.

UKIP councillor Colin Brewer

 

Four years of Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government have reduced the United Kingdom – insofar as, ahead of September’s referendum on Scottish independence, it is united – to a parlous state: afflicted by spiralling debt, mired in minimal growth camouflaged by a berserk housing bubble, and with a gross bifurcation between rich and poor growing more outrageous by the day. In the local and European Parliament elections of 22 May 2014, the lamentable response of a significant portion of the electorate (some 4.3 million voters overall) was to favour the UK Independence Party, a ragtag band of petit-bourgeois dunces huckstering the prejudices of chauvinist false consciousness as purported solutions to the crisis. In Stoke-on-Trent, on a low turnout of 23.32%, and taking advantage of a vacuum left by the decline of the fascist British National Party, UKIP garnered 17,165 votes, vanquishing the hitherto entrenched dominance of the Labour Party. It’s painful to record that the most progressive option on the ballot paper, leftist alliance No2EU, drew a miserly 177 votes, and that the Greens were outmatched by UKIP by a factor of ten to one.

Across the board, UKIP’s policies are a passel of hateful bigotries, typically bellowed out by puce-faced reactionaries who, had electoral success eluded them, might come across as more blimpishly comical than nefarious. By a large margin, most attention has been focused on UKIP’s hostility to immigration, and on its demonization of the European Union as an allegedly imperious origine du mal  (a not insubstantive charge, but one where the proposed cure of corporatist autarky is worse than the disease). Undeniably, these are the most consequential aspects of the UKIP project. As revealed by a recently published British Social Attitudes survey, indulgence of UKIP anti-immigrant propaganda on the part of the political class – hardly an anguishing exercise for Tories, and no insurmountable battle with conscience for right-wing Labourites  – has served only to rekindle racism and xenophobia. Ground has already been conceded on that front, and the results are unlikely to be pleasant. If we examine less publicized areas of UKIP policy, however, an equally noxious picture emerges. In this article, I’ll take a brief look at the Little Englanders’ perspective on issues of disability and mental health.

The UKIP manifesto for the 2010 general election called for segregated education – ghettoization into “congregate” communities in evasively abstruse UKIP  terminology – for children with learning difficulties. A committee of the Council of Europe has branded UK disability payments as “manifestly inadequate” in monetary value, but according to the manifesto they are too munificent, and should be slashed to the same beggarly level as Jobseeker’s Allowance. UKIP’s spokeswoman on disability, the golliwog-fetishizing Star Etheridge, has backed off from endorsing such flagrant cruelties, but still insists that the bromidic “red tape” of health and safety laws constitutes the chief barrier to disabled people finding work, while pitching withdrawal from the EU as a panacea for all of the difficulties encountered by the disabled community. Pinning down the opportunistic details of current UKIP disability policy is no easy task; suffice it to say that nothing good can be expected of a party whose website has reviled social security claimants as “a parasitic underclass of scroungers” who should be dragooned at the earliest opportunity into punitive workfare schemes (commencing with recipients of housing and council tax benefits, with no exemptions specified for the sick and disabled). Human rights legislation, of enormous utility to disabled persons, remains in UKIP’s sights as something to be swept away as mollycoddling nonsense.

UKIP members such as Godfrey Bloom are well known for their bovine misogyny, but some venture beyond mere bumptiousness into the realms of the genuinely sinister. Useful idiots like Star Etheridge, who are not repelled by any notion of humanitarian “do-gooding” – and are actually women in this ideological enclave of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche – comprise a semi-respectable veneer behind which lurk truly obnoxious characters. Colin Brewer, for instance, a former UKIP councillor in Cornwall, has advocated the euthanization of disabled babies. Such children, in his reckoning, are akin to deformed livestock, and are the offspring of parents who are “breeding like rabbits” due to a wanton plenitude of state support. (Brewer has a fondness for bestial analogies, which may have diverted him from reaching for the expression “useless eaters” as justification for his sentiments.) Geoffrey Clark, a UKIP candidate in elections for Kent County Council, is of an equivalent mindset, although he would limit the homicide to compulsory abortion in cases of Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. These archaic stances – Brewer, with his penchant for infanticide, would find himself more at home in ancient Sparta than contemporary Britain – are compounded by a fundamental antagonism to the NHS, with UKIP bent on accelerating the Tories’ privatization drive. Under UKIP tutelage, the NHS in any case would become unsustainable owing to the party’s commitment to a highly regressive erosion of the tax base.

With regard to mental health conditions, the sympathy of UKIP activists is strictly rationed. Star Etheridge let slip her philanthropic mask when she declared, no doubt after deep ratiocination, that “retard” ought to be considered more of a contextually permissible word than a universally proscribed affront to human dignity. Paul Clapp, a UKIP councillor in Cambridgeshire, casually employs “mentally ill” as a slur in his pettifogging quarrels with fellow council members. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), in the view of learned contributors to the UKIP message board, is nothing more than “psychobabble” cunningly crafted to keep “lefties” in the public sector jobs to which they are not entitled. Homosexuality, on the other hand, certainly qualifies as a psychiatric infirmity in the estimation of Dr Julia Gasper, a UKIP parliamentary candidate in Oxfordshire. Addressing the readers of an online site for gays, she held forth in the following manner: “It’s a shame that most of you are completely mad and need to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Just ring up your GP, tell him your symptoms and ask for help.” She omitted to add that UKIP would like to see them, and other patients, charged for the privilege of consulting a GP. (Dr Gasper’s doctorate is in English Literature rather than medicine, though one would be hard pressed to divine it from her careless prose. Presumably she is not the most acute exegete of Christopher Marlowe, Oscar Wilde or E.M. Forster.) UKIP’s leader, oleaginous Thatcherite Nigel Farage, has declined to censure one of his MEPs, Roger Helmer, who rants in similarly delirious fashion on the theme of homosexuality as psychopathology.

To the enlightened mind, all of this must appear absurd, wicked and more than a little unhinged, not to mention replete with ominous historical precedents. The present author, Mark Conlon, not generally given to invoking supernatural assistance, will make an exception on this occasion. May a god help us – not the authoritarian Christian patriarch of UKIP imagining, but perhaps one decreeing the fate of political parties in accordance with the principle of quem deus vuit perdere, dementat prius – should the proponents of such grotesqueries ever be in a position to implement them.

Dave Williams Documents the Changing Face of Stoke-on-Trent

 

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has embarked on a long-term programme of regeneration of the Potteries. The Pathways group’s Dave Williams captured in the above photographs a part of the changes, the demolition of Hanley’s 1960s-vintage bus station and an adjoining multi-storey car park. A new station has opened nearby, designed by the firm responsible for the Eden Project, Grimshaw Architects. Dave comments: “Over a number of weeks I took a picture each day as they demolished the car park and old bus station. Here are a few of the pictures. After years of looking at the car park as you wait for a bus, suddenly it’s gone.”

May Day presents itself as a good occasion on which to publish the photos. The nature of the local redevelopment is not without serious problems, both conceptual and practical, of the sort that architecture critic Owen Hatherley damns as vapid, gentrified “pseudomodernism” in the midst of urban ruination; it has also been marred by crass financial scandals. It seems best, however, to refrain from expressing any Cassandra-like prognoses of doom: just as it’s to be hoped that the working class movement emerges revivified from the crucible of neoliberalism, so too there are grounds for optimism that Stoke-on-Trent, a predominantly working class city, can rise again from the tribulation of Thatcherite deindustrialization.

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