Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Doorstepping: Is it Really Worth It?






The Labour doorstep is a hallowed thing among Party activists and it's long been rumoured that Corbyn supporters don't bother with it. To be fair, it's often not an enthralling thing.

You meet somewhere in a huddle, get very briefly briefed, and led briskly around a few streets, gamely knocking on doors, and often unwarmly met (if at all) by suspicious residents. And normally the best you can expect is to have a nod and a "Yeah, I'm Labour, don't worry."

The worst aren't even the hostiles, who normally have means of shooing you off, on four legs and with bared teeth. That prize is reserved for a particular type of enthusiast who comes armed with enemy literature and rails against the sundry deceptions of the local Greens. Or at least that's the case in the Labour seat of Oxford East.

My doorstepping days only go back to the era of Milifandom and bacon sandwiches. Back then it was all about stopping Nigel Farage in Thanet. Now, in Oxford, the local MP is standing down. There's no candidate yet to replace him but it's safe to say the Lib Dems will gunning to unseat his successor. The Lib Dems almost snatched it off Labour in the weird days of Cleggmania and with their recent surge in Remain towns can count on a huge number of Labour waverers swapping sides. For the first time in my life I'm doorstepping where it officially, definitely Matters. Where getting out the Labour vote, and persuading reluctant voters, is the difference between having a Labour MP and not having one.

I almost didn't go. It's unseasonably cold and there have been blasts of icy rain all week. But it got to five, I shut up work, and traipsed off into the hostile climate.

Ten of us met at Cowley Road Tesco and buzzed diligently around Princes Street, receiving our orders from serious young men with clipboards (serious young men are a common sight in Oxford, but these have an additional sense of purpose). The best I had were a few startled students and shy nods. A man gave me a ten minute standing lecture on Herbert Morrison's "big mouth" - apparently still reverberating in this man's head all the way from the 1950s.

My final call as it reached seven o'clock was a tidy terrace near the start of Headington. A nice woman answered and looked relieved that I wasn't one of the local Labour councillors who she knows by name. "Didn't want to have to tell her..." she said, trailing off with a faint chuckle.

She continued more firmly: "I'm more or less Labour in the locals. I always vote. Never voted Tory before..."

My eyes obviously told a story.

She hesitated, "But I just like Theresa May."

I mock-fainted. "No, don't say that!"

"I just think she's done quite well with this whole in out thing."

She seemed curious about me. "You all know more than me, you do your research.  We just get it from the telly. What do you think?"

I thought about my answer and said, "Well, I think you can't trust her. She was Remain, now she's Brexit. She wasn't going to have an election, now there is one. I think she's very well protected by her rich friends."

She worked in a school, she said. And she knew Labour was for families and hospitals and schools. "But I'm leaning towards her just because I think she's doing well."

And then the dreaded moment happened. The question that haunts doorstepping veterans across the land. "And what do you think of that..." she paused, as if the name might upset me. "...Jeremy Corbyn?"

So I took a small breath and said carefully, "To be honest, from the bottom of my heart, I think he'd make a fantastic prime minister. He's unflappable. All the attacks he's been under, he's never once lost his cool. He's principled and his heart is in the right place. And he's spent his whole life fighting for us - for schools and hospitals. And all the things we need. He's never turned his back on anyone and he's never bowed to the pressure. I think he'd be great."

We spoke for a few more minutes and I asked her, when the day came, to bear us in mind. And I promised her that now there was an election, she might see a different side to him.

"Yeah, I'm going to look more closely. I know the cuts and everything. And I'm going to see."

And that was it. She was Tory when I arrived and still Tory when I left, if a little more open and certainly happy to have talked about it. That conversation won't be the end. She'll be thinking about it as she watches the news the next few weeks. It's up to everyone now to persuade her that we need an Oxford East Labour MP and - above all - we need a Labour government.

I waved goodbye to her and her daughter (who had crept curiously round the door but kept being pushed back inside). I genuinely hoped she would come round. There isn't much time.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Corbyn or Bust

Labour members must make an asset of their unconventional leader

As unlikely as it sounds, Labour members must finally make an asset of Jeremy Corbyn and they have no more than a few weeks to do it.

Not one member of the Labour Party, nor its MPs, nor anyone on the broader left or in the Labour-supporting public wanted an election right now. So for once, in a strange way, we're united. The polls point to a catastrophe for the left and Labour in particular. No doubt that's why we've got this election - despite everything Theresa May has said to the contrary. 

But another election is less than eight weeks away and the potential results are stomach churning. There is a grizzly effectiveness to the Tories' realpolitik. They've calculated that they won't be stronger at any other point in the electoral cycle, and have done what electoral logic demands. 

So we need to be equally calculating. Labour can't win a majority - under this or any other leader. Brexit has shifted the landscape - already deeply unfavourable to social democracy - towards the right. Scotland was already gone. In these conditions we need to urgently prioritise - identifying regions where we can win and concentrating our efforts there. The north of England, London, and Wales. 

Yet even in those places we face a massive challenge. Years of neglect have whittled down Labour's vote in the north. The breakup of Britain threatens Labour's identity as a national party. Even in left-leaning London, a low turnout and resurgent Lib Dems pose problems. 

Labour's message should prioritise unprecedented investment in the north. Jeremy Corbyn's promise to invest half a trillion pounds in new job-creating industries is a powerful message in a climate where -mercifully - the debt and deficit are less of a focus. Labour must also promise a more inclusive, more open society to win in the liberal big cities. Labour's message under Corbyn has been the tangible promise to "rebuild and transform Britain so that no one and no community is left behind." I'm still convinced this is a winning slogan - backed up by sound policies that are popular.

To gain ground, even to tread water, in this election, will take the entire progressive half of this country to accept Corbynism's key tenets - even if it still doubts the messenger.

But more than this, the whole of the left will have to unite around Corbyn in particular. This is a view which is anathema to many - both more liberal, pro-EU types and the anti-borders, extra-parliamentary left. 

Why is it worth supporting the apparently doomed project of Corbyn's leadership - even for those who do not think he has done well or feel betrayed over Brexit?

The simple answer is that the country is open to a radical break with the politics of the last five, ten, even thirty years. Liberals cannot win with the status quo. Radicals cannot win by backing out of electoral politics. Right now, Corbyn is the only hope for progressives to maintain a serious presence in British politics.

Corbyn offers the progressive sections of society something important: a way forward. He is not a conventional politician. He is a lifelong enemy of Westminster elites. He also has distinct political virtues: he is unflappable, cool under pressure and an uncompromised advocate of equality. When I vote for Jeremy Corbyn, I'll do so with the belief that he would make an excellent prime minister.

I want to see things from the Labour leadership too: clearer, more radical positions on the future of British society. An insurgent, passionate mood and a way of acting which defies the dull conventions of Westminster politics. The promise of a democratic transformation of our rigged political system, our unfair society, and our economy which generates inequality. More effective communication.

But these things can only be communicated by us - the Labour movement at large and everyone who opposes the rightward drift of British society. Consider it your duty to help that process.

If Corbyn goes through this election tarnished as a liability by even those who sympathise with his politics, then his politics will die with the election. I believe Corbyn could deliver the change he promises if he were elected. More importantly, I believe utterly in the politics that made him Labour leader. I want that politics to survive this election - and if Corbyn's leadership becomes just another sad side story in Britain's march to the right, it will further damage that politics.

So here's what we say on the doorstep and at work and at home and in pubs and on social media when people say they don't like Corbyn: he's a lifelong supporter of people like you and me. He's campaigned for things that benefited you and me his entire political life. He's not in it for power. He's in it for us.

The political symbolism of Corbyn being crushed will resonate far beyond June. It will affect discourse in this country for years. We need to stand up and say - for any strategic mistakes the inexperienced leadership has made - this guy is one of us. He represents the best side of this country. 

It's precisely because the left has to outlive Corbyn and establish itself as a powerful, organised and influential part of society - campaigning against racism, inequality, war, and the wasted lives created by an unjust system - that it's so important not only to vote Labour but to cheer Corbyn all the way. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Time to ditch Corbyn?

If you listen carefully, you'll hear the murmurs in the ranks. Maybe, just maybe, it's time to ditch Corbyn.

Here are four reasons this would be a bad idea. Not to say his leadership is "working" in any conventional sense. The data is clear and widely known. Labour is tanking everywhere. He is widely unpopular with everyone outside his base. There is no clear policy on either of the two most important issues - Brexit and, related, immigration.

But here in brief are the five reasons to keep Corbyn for now - reasons that anyone (left or right) who wants to see the long-term existence of the Labour Party maintained should at least consider.

1. Good things are - very slowly - happening below Labour's surface. The membership appears to still be increasing. People are getting active in the party - albeit unevenly. Broad positions on investment, industrial strategy, fiscal and monetary policy are being sketched. New ideas are bleeding through. Excellent, young (admittedly mostly left wing) MPs are coming through - Angela Rayner, Kate Osamor, Rebecca Long Bailey, Cat Smith, Clive Lewis. This deep rejuvenation of the Party is vital in the long-run.

2. Corbyn could straddle the divide between liberal and 'left behind' voters in a progressive way and keep just enough of Labour's voter coalition intact during the Brexit process for Labour to survive. Corbyn is moderately eurosceptic, liberal and in economic terms an interventionist. Only that combination can appeal to both sides.

3. If another leader were in place - say, Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith or Yvette Cooper - all evidence suggests Labour would be offering another referendum on Europe and curbs to freedom of movements. In other words, the David Cameron 2015 position. This would be a disaster for many obvious reasons.

4. Yet another leadership contest would hit Labour's polling and demoralise activists. Corbyn has a mandate and his leadership has to be allowed to play itself out.

It's true that Labour has no clear position on either Brexit or immigration, but that's less because of Corbyn and more because of the many conflicting views in the party. Just as the Tory vote has been firmed up by Brexit, Labour's has been fractured. Changing the leader won't help.

It is worth recalling that Corbyn's policies are broadly very popular. But people don't believe he can implement them. There are two possible reasons for this and they are always at play when socialist parties propose radical changes in a neoliberal context:
1. People don't trust the political process - from the individual politicians to the institutions. They don't think politics does what it should and they don't see Corbyn as a break from that.
2. People don't believe that radical but desirable policies can be implemented in a time when market power predominates over the state. 

Corbyn's issue is that either he personally is incapable of delivering in his promises or the system in which he's participating will not yield those reforms to him. Corbyn has a lot of baggage and his early days as leader were not exactly persuasive. But it will take time before someone on a surer footing, younger and better able to play politics, can sell Corbyn's popular policies in a way that makes people believe they can really be implemented. 

Corbyn deserves another year. Then he - and all of us who want a radical Labour government - need to decide.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Brexit is a Simulation

The craftiest thing Theresa May's government could do right now is follow through with exactly what it's promising. To disguise itself as itself. Where the default position is cynicism, no one will ever expect the Tories not to be lying, not to be concealing some hidden motive.

Official Brexit so far has been tantalisingly, provocatively ambiguous. 'Brexit means Brexit' had a double function - as a reassurance to leave voters, and as a sort of coy provocation to the press. All the liberal hair pulling last year about this slippery turn of phrase was really just a refusal to see the obvious. Brexit means 'hard Brexit.' The opposition of the latter to some fantastic alternative -'soft Brexit', 'non-Brexit' - was always a mere disavowed hope of despairing liberals.

Brexit means hard Brexit because there was never really any other Brexit - speak to anyone, especially the angry pleb-types on Question Time, and they knew what they meant by Brexit. This was the problem with the assumption that Brexit could be shaped, because it was just a 'howl of pain from the void', one that could be answered with either the angelic voice of liberalism or the angry puffed up face of populism. People knew exactly what they wanted and the issues weren't 'too complex for democracy.' People assumed the economic hit of leaving the single market was worth the punt. And that's what the government is now doing - with 39 percent backing. That figure represents both those who now back a hard Brexit and the Tories' current vote share. There's a near perfect, reactionary alignment on the right of politics. And it means Brexit.

Voters back the Tories over Labour by a ratio of three to one deliver on the Brexit referendum. Sceptical remainers warned this would happen: leaving the EU would re-unite the Tories, much of the British establishment, and many of the voters who left them for UKIP. It would leave an already weakened centre-left floundering and embittered, while the radical left would be the primary victim for its frustrations. As long as Brexit remains the key divide in British politics, Labour is bound to lose. Brexit added to an infection that was already debilitating for Labour - coarsening a split amongst its factions that might otherwise have stayed hidden. Just as the right has stiffened its resolve, the left of British politics and its old alliances with the liberal centre are, structurally speaking, a mess.

But to paraphrase that most cliched of pop-postmodernists (after all we live in a cliched version of a postmodern dystopia) Jean Baudrillard: Brexit is a simulation - it relates to no underlying Real. As any philosophy bro waxing lyrical about Nietzsche and shit at your first year party will tell you, reality no longer exists.

"To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have. One implies a presence, the other an absence," Baudrillard (probably) says. All I'm arguing is that we should openly partake of this honest naivety. Today's critics of May all leapt at the chance to accuse her of wanting to have her cake and eat it. Well, why not? What else is she supposed to want? What's the alternative? The faux-realism of the 'grown-ups' - the AC Graylings of the world - who keep piously insisting that Brexiters will crash back down to earth when they realise they've shaved a couple of percent off GDP? I'd rather the apocalyptic naivety. It's always far better in politics to promise the impossible than tut and tell people to grow up. Politics is fuelled not by sensible men saying sensible things but precisely by impossible demands. 

But of course there is a Real and it's my belief that the Real comes back to bite you. Not in the form of the apocalypse - the climate crisis is taking care of that - but as a world-historical anti-climax. Brexit - to Grayling's credit - probably does mean two percent shaved off some phantasm of projected future wealth (what better example of a simulation?). It probably does mean a hit to the British economy. And it means other bad things too, though that depends on your subject position: for migrants, for the poor, for those who don't have savings or investments or property. For me. But fuck all that - Brexit really means something slightly tedious for most. It means some imaginary future Polish shop won't open. It means an imaginary future Labour government won't get elected. It means the minimal change May can make to our migration policies and the minimal hit to the economy she can get away with. It means Germany looking just tough enough and controls on immigration looking just militarised enough.

But enough is never enough. It never hits the spot. Because the more you crack down on migration, the more the thirst for it grows. That's the problem with a perverse fixation - you don't cure it by feeding it. Each hit needs to be bigger. 

Brexit will mean the Tories win the next election. Brexit will do just enough to keep reality feeling real. And then the same lingering disappointment with our shitty lives will kick in and we'll want to do something else, something more. And we'll go stumbling in to the next world-shaking crisis. Want to imagine the future? Imagine the tedium of Tory government forever, rocked only occasionally by sudden, inexplicable spasms of rage, before life returns to dull normality, only this time a little crueler. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Farewell Free Movement?

It has been a strange day for the Labour leadership team, with the new 'populist' Jeremy Corbyn coming off rather a lot like death bed-era New Labour.

There was the 'human touch' tweet involving "teaching" Piers Morgan about Arsene Wenger. Then the pre-briefed volte-face on Freedom of Movement. The strained morning sofa appearances. The semi-retraction cum botched explanation that Corbyn hadn't "changed his mind" on immigration (just maybe his policy - or then again maybe not). A raft of other "thinking aloud" moments. And all this before the trailed speech had even been given.

So, for those still listening, where does Corbyn now stand on immigration? The answer is - exactly the same place. Only striking a slightly different pose. This is one problem that populists sometimes run into: with the emphasis on rhetoric, we are supposed to suspend concerns about substance. But eventually the posturing of populists can lead to exactly the same cynicism it's designed to counter.

Now, there's also the specific problem of thinking you can talk your way out of the "immigration issue." Blair once promised "tough immigration laws that work." He policed borders. He went after "illegitimate" asylum seekers and opportunistic economic migrants. New Labour created much of the Right's anti-immigrant language.

At its best populism creates new cleavages between the majority and the elite few. It is able to name its political enemies and isolate them. Needless to say this has risks. But it is important to accept that in politics there are enemies and we should call them out - the billionaires, the oligarchs, the tax dodgers and the political elite. Bernie Sanders does all this very well. But its limits can be seen in the wink-wink-nudge-nudge discursive contortions of Podemos. What they call "transversalism" sometimes just looks like a fudge. Trump's asset is his clarity. Left-wingers looking to dodge difficult questions with a rhetorical gloss end up backed into a corner.

Corbyn has sunk rapidly into the latter group. His stance on immigration risks satisfying no one. While much of the public want 'answers' to immigration 'problems', this sounds like New Labour waffle. There is nothing to say people will believe anything Labour says about migration, even and perhaps especially if it starts announcing targets.

Also, it's not at all clear if the public appetite for migration controls can really be  satisfied, as if all the migrant bashing will end if numbers dip below 250,000 or even 100,000. There's of course the small economic matter that fewer migrants will reduce GDP, see a fall in employment, reduce the tax base, and lead to more poverty. But besides the 'material' side of it, there is the fact that sadism is by nature unquenchable.

Corbyn was confusing and looked insincere. He managed to remain pro-FoM throughout the entire Brexit campaign. His new tone just sounds off. Labour won't be wooing back thousands of disenchanted white people on the strength of this.

Meanwhile, the liberal centre and the hard right are revelling in Corbyn's supposed ditched principles. He's given the worst people in the British media further fuel and in the worst, disorganised, Thick of It way.

Although I wrote at the time of the EU referendum that I thought freedom of movement should be defended, I don't want it to be the sword the left dies on. Immigration has many upsides and almost no downsides. The few negative effects that can feasibly be attributed to it can be counteracted by a decent government with a constructive industrial policy. My evidence for all this was a recent LSE report (link below). Moreover, migration is a good for labour as such: if capital is free to move, labour must be too. Otherwise wages really do become a race to the bottom, with capital free to choose the lowest wage areas.

But with Theresa May content for Britain to leave the single market, a change to Britain's migration system is assured. Free movement between Europe and the UK is effectively dead already. This a cold political fact. Jeremy Corbyn is perhaps attempting to communicate that truth today. But his intervention lacked clarity to say the least.

The speech was overshadowed by Corbyn's precise language on immigration and the meaning of legal cap on pay - but perhaps that was the idea. Part of me wonders if Corbyn's whimsy has just been the beginning of an apparently spontaneous (though secretly tightly managed) process of flooding the press with contradictory ideas designed to spur on the base a la Trump's Tweetstorms. But then I remember: no, that's  just Corbyn. No doubt someone somewhere has called yet again for his resignation. The one good thing is, as these haphazard media appearances multiply, people aren't even listening to those siren voices any more.

People in Corbyn's camp need to do some serious thinking soon: do they want to gain a point or two in Opinium's latest poll, or do they want to set the party on a forward path that can feasibly persuade people of social democratic solutions in the longer term?

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Weird Centre: "Rational" Bloggers and the Trumpification of "Sensible" Guys

Super sensible: Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Maajid Nawaz


The Clarion Project is a think tank which, in its own words, exists to expose "the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation." In 2008 alone the organisation spent $19 million to this end. Operating at that time under the name Clarion Fund, it distributed millions of DVDs in newspaper supplements to American swing states, detailing the threat of radical Islam to the United States. Clarion has received millions in donations from organisations such as the conservative Donors Capital Fund and is closely linked to the pro-Israeli Settlement group Aish Ha Torah. The former declares it was "formed to safeguard the charitable intent of donors who are dedicated to the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise."

Clarion's productions have also reached officialdom, with the New York Police Department showing their film The Third Jihad to officers in 2012, Mother Jones reports. The latter documented alleged efforts by radical Muslims to subvert the US constitution. According to the New York Times, Clarion's board included a former Reagan adviser and an ex-CIA official.

Up for particular scrutiny was one Sheldon Adelson, billionaire donor to Clarion and erstwhile Democrat, who had recently poured millions into Newt Gingrich's primary campaign. Gingrich and Adelson shared a deep  distaste for Palestinian statehood, with both dismissing Palestinian nationalism as "invented."

Adelson once considered himself a Democrat, but his strange journey through the world of mega donations brought him from supporting Gingrich in 2012 to endorsing Donal Trump in 2016. Indeed he was Trump's biggest single donor. Despite protesting the direction of policy under Obama, Adelson still describes himself as "liberal on several social issues." So what was he doing donating to both Clarion and Trump?

Clarion sits at the peculiar nexus of conservative political ideology and the interests of the extremely wealthy. Adelson's political trajectory is cited here not because it is exceptional, but because it is increasingly normal. 

Adelson complained about two perceived ills in Obama's America: first, an overweening state bent on socialist reform and second, tolerance of or at least quiet acquiescence to radical extremism. It's in the blurred line between the two - a critique of the bureaucratic, anti-business state which morphs into the patrician, paternalistic, flabby state benignly fostering its own destruction by poisonous "interest groups" - that liberalism and libertarianism shade into conservatism.

Since Trump's election there has been a lot of talk of the "alt-right" as a new threat in mainstream politics. But often unmentioned is the alarming conversion of supposedly rational centrist voices to conservative ideas. Since the War on Terror, one-time liberals have increasingly resorted to violations of human rights in supposed defence of their most cherished values. It is a view that has been widely taken up by those who pose as unideological centrists. Their enemies are most commonly the multicultural "left."

The US comedian and TV show host Bill Maher - supporter of gay marriage, universal health care, ending climate change and other worthy ideals - is also a vehement critic of "radical Islam." His guests have included Maajid Nawaz, the "anti-radicalisation" activist behind the Quilliam foundation. Nawaz's work matches the state's hard power with ideological soft power. He wants to inspire grassroots movements against radicalism. "Why is nobody else doing this?" a bemused Maher asked, apparently forgetting the huge collective efforts of both the US and UK intelligence services during the War on Terror.

Nawaz's organisation was heavily funded by the Blair government and was influential in the setting up of the government's Prevent agenda. Quilliam advocates liberal values by mass violation of Muslim's civil liberties. As Arun Kundnani points out in his book The Muslims are Coming, Muslims living in the west are the most surveilled population in the world. The level of documentation dwarfs that of the Eastern Bloc countries, even if it is more discriminating in its targets.

Nawaz must be distinguished from the likes of new atheist and fellow Maher guest Sam Harris. For the latter Islam is innately violent and war-like; for Nawaz it at least has the potential to be changed. "It is time we recognized—and obliged the Muslim world to recognize—that “Muslim extremism” is not extreme among Muslims," Harris has written. The article would appear to imply that a majority of Muslims are extremist because that's how their religion works.

The "anti-radicalisation" narrative's blind spot is of course the total failure of these efforts - the years of anti-extremist propaganda, outreach, infiltration, surveillance, the entire War on Terror - to prevent the spread of violent and reactionary ideologies in the Islamic world or anywhere else. Moreover the terror attacks continue. The suggestion that the spread of religious reaction and terror (the two are not identical) might be caused by decades of instability, war, social upheaval, and death is met consistently with scorn. A term shared by Nawaz, Harris, and ex-leftist writers like Nick Cohen is the "regressive left", used to denote anyone who supposedly "sides" with jihadists against the US. 

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other self-styled "new atheists" use this moniker to characterise all those on the left who in their view have abandoned the classical principles of the Enlightenment. There are two interwoven strands to their argument and it is worth unraveling them. On the one hand, they argue that the left has abandoned its Enlightenment roots and embraced cultural relativism. On the other, these critics have a tendency to say that the left likes to silence debate and crush open dissent. This results in debt-encumbered, multi-racial, working and middle class students who are engaged in anti-racist activism being redesignated "the enemies of tolerance." 

It is clear who these new atheists really take offence to: for all their talk of defending free speech from its authoritarian enemies, what they really want is for these young, often multiracial activists to shut up. Moreover their arguments tend to be highly anecdotal, selective and unrepresentative. They claim the left always supports religious freedom over secularism. But it is precisely the left that has been most forward in critiquing Merkel's cosy arrangements with authoritarian Turkey. They claim the left silently tolerates non-western bigotry and violence on the basis of "cultural relativism." But who on the left has failed to criticise Modi's India or Saudi Arabia? Yes, the left reserves the right to criticise the US in particular, because if the left doesn't nobody else will. This is plainly not the same as making common cause with terrorists.

Clearly the trajectories of Dawkins, Cohen et al. and the likes of Sheldon Adelson are not the same. They start from different premises and end up in different places. But they share a few strands of DNA. Both are almost always critical of "the left" and defensive of the US state. Whilst claiming the heritage of a modest empiricism, they silently endow the US with a profound historical role as bearer of the Enlightenment tradition. Though the conservative right sees "socialism" everywhere it looks, the new atheists see "relativism."

Their concrete convergence is not to be found in their immediate ranks. One can safely assume that Dawkins profoundly and authentically dislikes Donald Trump. Rather it is in the weird, ever-shifting world of internet politics that this peculiar convergence of centrism and the authoritarian right is taking place.

There has been a great proliferation in recent years of YouTube vloggers and Facebook pages dedicated to the notion of political "skepticism." "We come not to praise ideologies, but to bury them," claims The Rationalists' Facebook page, replete with Descartes-in-cool-dude-shades banner. The tone and pose is one of common sense indignation. The pages tend to blame "both sides equally" for what they see as the "stupidity" of public life. Of course, the claim to be against all ideology is an act of ideology par excellence - usually one backed up by anti-systemic, radical conservative assumptions (corrupt politicians; lying academia; clientelistic big business; corporatism etc.). And so it proves. Except the likes of the Rationalist now have a publicly legitimate language in which to argue thanks to the likes of Nawaz and Dawkins and Bill Maher et al.

Their "skepticism" and appeals to "common sense" mask a quite vehement hatred of black student movements, indeed of any form of leftism. As the centre has been dragged to the right over the years, this racially-coded paranoia has been granted a footing in mainstream culture. They talk too about the "regressive left." They invite Nawaz and Cohen onto their TV shows. They hold forth on the authoritarianism implicit in student "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings." They label themselves pro-equality "anti-feminists". They have a most exclusive concept of common sense and they use it exclude any form of left-wing dissent as "irrational." 

It would be easy to see these pages as yet another side to the famous "alt-right," except that they see themselves as the sole defenders of civility, openness and tolerance in a world of extremes. The site RationalWiki documents literally thousands of mini-projects and meme-movements claiming to reclaim the "rational" centre ground from extremists. They don't deny climate change. They're sometimes for "tolerance" of homosexuality - as long as nobody shouts about it publicly. They are dedicated to atheist enlightenment.

The following quote from blogger Jen McCreight is exemplary: “”It’s time for a new wave of atheism ... that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime."

A quiet ontological leap has been made: from "skepticism" of religious belief to "skepticism" of supposedly wild claims about social objectivity. They mean neither the skepticism of empirical science nor the philosophical rationalism of a Descartes, but rather a position of a priori doubt about any claim of injustice. Never mind that 194 black people have been killed by US cops in 2016 alone or that black men are much more likely to be targeted by cops than any other demographic. Because they aren't suffering the worst racial abuse of any minority ever in history, people have no right to complain about these statistics or the wider racially-charged atmosphere of US politics. 

On the more respectable side of the debate are characters like Gad Saad, a professor of marketing and "YouTube celebrity", who spends his time attacking the "thought police" who "control what we can say" and defending "truth and reason" from "infection" by the "grotesque" ideas of postmodernism. Saad has been a guest on Sam Harris's podcast where he defended his right to talk about "biological" and "evolutionary" differences between races. There are few people who would wish to censor research on this topic, but he claims he is being silenced because it isn't politically correct. The likelihood actually is that people object to his drawing unwarranted political conclusions - for example, he is against affirmative action - from his speculations on the evolution of race. 

Saad's Facebook page is filled with attacks by dubious sites like Campus Reform on the apparent intolerance and unreason of modern students. The aforementioned Campus Reform was founded and is owned and funded by the Leadership Institute, a conservative organisation run by millionaires that aims to "identify, train, recruit and place conservatives in the politics, government and media." Do such explicit conservative political intentions themselves pose no risk to Saad's cherished notion of common sense reason? If they do, they seem to be of infinitely less concern than the student left. After all Campus Reform seeks explicitly to make universities less liberal by encouraging waves of discontent aimed at liberal decisions made on campuses. They keep a record of "victories" - including sackings they have successfully induced. Surely no threat to tolerance or reason there.

What seems to particularly annoy Saad about "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" is that they are invoked by people who have not experienced racism or persecution to a historically comparable degree to, say, Jews in Europe or in the Middle East outside of Israel. But that's like saying if I lose my job I should be happy because my boss didn't murder me with his bare hands and bury me under the porch in the name of "streamlining."

It's hard to understand what annoys all these commentators so much about campus safe spaces. After all we all use them. The sharp distinction between public and private is always mediated by various types of semi-public and semi-private space. Like Whatsapp and private messenger, we want to communicate with those we trust via channels that allow us to feel safe. What upsets many of these - mostly white, mostly male - online campaigners is that there might just be somewhere - anywhere, no matter how small - that they're not immediately welcomed and encouraged to speak their mind at tedious length. 

In these wild parts of the blogosphere, you're only ever a few clicks from some complaint about "SJWs" (social justice warriors). But note the difference: the alt-right speaks to a constituency that feels wronged - the "Forgotten Man" of mulchy Americana; the people whose narrow band of status is threatened by any mobility on the part of "the blacks" or migrants. Whereas this strange new breed of common sense centrism wants to believe that the world would be ok if everyone just stopped shouting.

It's worth pointing out the kind of world this rational centrism presupposes. It's one where the world is almost always naturally fair. Where bad shit is just cosmic. Where you put up or shut up. Injustice is highly exceptional. Even in those rare cases it is unlikely to be rectifiable since you can't blame people for doing what they're naturally predisposed to do. Demanding justice is just a form of childish attention seeking. "Quit whining about racial profiling," Saad says. Others have got it worse. Consider yourself lucky the cosmos doesn't rain down actual fiery comets at you. Not only do they not believe in injustice, they don't really believe in justice either. Justice is just a word imposed over a more primal law - the evolutionary law of the jungle. It's an ugly world and there's nothing you can do it about it.

From gender to racial equality, from global terrorism to economic crises - the supposedly rational centre wants the world to speak unanimously or not at all. And the opinions the world should hold should be its own or they should be silent. In effect the centre has been trumpified.


Thursday, 10 November 2016

What happened in the US elections - and why?

If you're shocked by what happened in the US elections, the best thing you can do is get yourself an explanation. 

Here are some short points towards that:

1. In an erratic and unpredictable situation, electoral victory boils down to enthusiasm
Trump took the Presidency because his voters believed in him and the vision they shared. Trump's voters are potentially far fewer than Clinton's. But their powerful vision of a protectionist America carefully limiting access to domestic rights is an increasingly potent one. 

2. Trump got the same number of votes as Romney (who lost). Clinton got seven million fewer votes than Obama. Trump didn't win - Clinton lost. The campaign itself must take some responsibility
While Trump galvanised his smaller pool of voters, the Democrats put theirs off. Voter turnout fell dramatically and the losses were all Clinton's. If she had tacked convincingly to the left after defeating Sanders in the primary she would have won. This was a tragic strategic error. Equally shocking is that Trump's extremist, anti-Muslim rhetoric took the entire Republican base with him.

3. Trump's victory signals the collapse of the centre
You'll hear a lot about this, but it will be explained in terms of the pathologies of working class voters. This is inadequate. American society is in crisis. At its root is the long-term transformation of the US economy, but its form is a crisis of political representation. Turnout is around 50% - a catastrophe for any kind of legitimacy for the incoming administration. The US establishment has lost its power to tell persuasive stories about itself and the world. That vacuum is being filled with all kinds of seething misogynistic, racist and homophobic resentments. 

4. The US state and most of its governing institutions are also in a crisis of neoliberalism, one connected to the crisis of US society
The US state's tax base has shrunk, privatisations and outsourcing have reduced public oversight, and law enforcement has become increasingly militarised to deal with the constant social upheaval caused by the retreating state. The US fiscal model has long been characterised by over investment in military innovation and stagnation and under investment in public services like health. This has produced inertia and corruption at every level of US public life, producing a rich array of morbid symptoms, from NSA spying to an obstructionist, right-wing fundamentalist Republican Party. Trump's victory has to be seen in light of this catastrophic breakdown of state functioning and legitimacy. Likewise with the failure of the political class to introduce long overdue reforms to Wall Street and the electoral system. Remember: Clinton won the popular vote. She got more votes than Trump, despite her losing seven million voters. Yet she lost.

5. The US media's revenue model is collapsing, and its fixation on Trump is a result
Already today the New Statesman is running an article about how social media is responsible for Trump. This is a flagrant lie. In March this year CBS CEO Les Moonveswas secretly recorded saying, "Trump may not be great for America, but he's great for us... Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going." Trump is a creation of the traditional media, who depoliticised and decontextualised his every statement, treating it as part of a fun, ratings-boosting circus. They offered little to no analysis of why Trump was winning. At one point when the two candidates were almost level in the polls, ABC World News Tonight had devoted just one minute of air time to the Bernie Sanders campaign compared to eighty-one for Trump. The traditional media helped Trump every step of the way in their desperation for ratings. This was not primarily to do with social media.

6. Polls weren't that wrong - but interpretation was
HuffPost was giving Clinton a 91% chance of victory on the strength of poll data that put her on average two points ahead of Trump. Those polls were within the margin of error and they should have been read as such. Data on early voting also suggested young people and  black voters weren't showing up even in their previous relatively low numbers. This was ignored. Everyone was convinced the Clinton's electoral machine would pummel Trump. What was missing was any account of enthusiasm on the Trump side and the politics surrounding it. Shallow obsessions with scandal and electability led to a decontextualisation of Trump and a complete absence of political analysis. Yet again the liberal centre was proved wrong and the simple reason is because its constituencies are collapsing and its ability to understand or represent the world falling to pieces.

7. Because it is rooted in these crisis conditions, Trumpism won't exhaust itself. It will have to be killed.
Another way of saying this is that Trumpism didn't just happen - it had causes. An you won't be able to bury your head in the sands and wait for Obama 2.0 so that everything can go back to normal. Trumpism feeds on despair and demoralisation. So those opposing him need an alternative. And while the promise of social justice and equality will be crucial to that, it is in politics that people experience inequality. The left has relearnt how to talk about social inequality. But it needs to talk about democracy too - after all, this is both a social crisis and a crisis of political representation in and beyond the state. The left must offer dignity to all, and the way it achieves that will be through rebuilding democracy from the ground up.