The recently deployed portable steel barricades now used by police in London are called by their inventors the ‘Iron Horse‘. Nothing particularly surprising about that: the lexis of armament-builders is replete with cod-medievalism, presumably in the pursuit of some chivalric burnish for the grim and impersonal tasks of securitisation, sterilisation and repression. It gives one some pause to consider what squalid private fantasies about nobility in the service of the state sustain those behind the barriers. Unwittingly, though, it recalls a different ‘Iron Horse’, the name Allen Ginsberg gave to a soldier-packed train he boarded in 1966, and to the poem he wrote about it. Ginsberg doubtless chose the name – much like the makers of the portable barrier – because of the halo of associations that surround it: the knightly warhorse, the unyielding martial dignity of ‘iron’, the historic speed and mobility of horse-mounted combatants. (The designers of ‘security solutions’ being, I assume, the humourless sort, the bleakly amusing ironies of naming a wall designed to prohibit free movement after a horse must have failed to present themselves as serious flaws.)
Ginsberg’s poem is shot through with the voices of soldiers, and tense with fear. Part of that fear comes from Ginsberg’s precarious position – Jew, queer, anti-war agitator, communist, poet, Buddhist – in short, everything unamerican and subversive, and the sense that to speak the obvious truth in the fever of war is to risk one’s life:
A consensus around card table beer – "It's my country better fight 'em over there than here," afraid to say "No it's crazy everybody's insane – This country's Wrong the universe, Illusion."
Though, outside the sense of personal risk, some of Ginsberg’s anxiety dwells in the obscure sense that events are propelling themselves ineluctably towards disaster, as unstoppable as the train, that he can intervene only belatedly and in futility, carried along in the wash toward continual war:
Too late, too late the Iron Horse hurrying to war, too late for laments too late for warning – I'm a stranger alone in my country again.
The sensation that Ginsberg describes – ‘The whole populace fed by News / few dissenting on this train, I the lone beard who don’t like Vietnam War’ – is one familiar to anyone who thinks against the paranoid pabulum oozing from just about every medium of contemporary analysis, which can be heard more-or-less replicated as political certainty in daily conversation. To sustain such dissent can be difficult and tiring. Worse, it can collapse into a hard-nosed illuminism, convinced of one’s own special insight and contemptuous of the capacity of the ‘ordinary’, unthinking person. Ginsberg does not do this, though it may account for the fantasies of quiet withdrawal from the world, which nourish the later parts of the poem and remain sweetly and obviously unattainable. Instead, Ginsberg uses the wavering and uncertain convictions of the soldiers surrounding him to underscore the both the pervasiveness of war propaganda and, oddly, the not-quite-total conviction with which it is repeated:
Soldiers gathered round saying – "my country and they say I gotta fight, I have no choice, we're in it too deep to pull out, if we lose, there's no stopping the Chinese communists, We're fighting the communists, aren't we? Isn't that what it's about?"
The power in Ginsberg’s poem here is simply to record the hesitancy and catch in the questions asked, refusing to entirely abstract the political question away from the individual speakers (‘the bright talkative orphan farm boy / whose auto parts father wanted ‘im to grow up military’), and thus to overtly simple answers, all the while aware of the Iron Horse as pursuing an immovable trajectory, ‘too late’.
This seems far away from the steel barricades of the Metropolitan police: no lightning attends them as they race southwards, and they seem as stolid and immovable as the officers behind them. But we have been on a war footing recently, with the government casting around for suitable enemies, both foreign and domestic. (One question that underlies so much of Ginsberg’s work, for which he never quite finds an adequate answer, is what purpose the transition to a state of permanent war serves for the United States.) So much of this is theatre, but it is a theatre of justification: one which nebulously invokes temporary crises of security and public order to justify a series of permanent repressive measures. Such a logic – attempts at permanent restructuring under the guise of temporary belt-tightening – is hardly unfamiliar to anyone following the desperate machinations of the UK government since 2008.
Yes, Total Policing has arrived in the metropolis, and with it the sense that sundering the link between political conviction and effective action is at the heart of the strategy. In a veritable triumph for democracy, it is now permissible to hold any stripe of opinion within the private walls of one’s skull, but to act on that conviction is to act under the threat of discovering precisely how thin those walls are. Much, too, might be written on the appearance of steel walls, containment, police violence and judicial victimisation under the rubric of the ‘state of exception’ – equally, one might argue that, as the state has always had the monopoly on the use of violence, such situations are not deviations from the norm, but simply moments in which the disjunction between the formal operation of the law and the actual practical, political uses of violence becomes explicit. The usefulness of the ‘state of exception’ is not to describe this disjunction (which is permanent), but to note those moments at which the formal operation of law becomes suspended. We should not be overhasty in its use: exception no longer takes the dark form looming on the horizons of Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, but is now visible and now invisible, temporary, targeted, and above all, technological. I hope to return to this question of exception, law and technology in the coming weeks, because I am convinced that it is here, and in its latent question of personal agency that the most interesting diagnosis of our current situation lies:
There's nothing left for this country but death Their faces are so plain their thoughts so simple their machinery so strong –– Their arms reach out 10,000 miles with lethal gas Their metaphor so mixed with machinery No one knows where flesh ends and the robot Polaris begins...