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.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Socialism or Barbarism

People used to claim that rich countries don't have revolutions. But 2016 is proving they don't have to. Instead the angry and embittered can go to the polls and vote for some mutant excrescence of the ruling class to do the job for them.

We on the left used to say that liberal democracies were impervious to radicalism. They were almost sublime in their representative capacity, their fathomless adaptability, their underlying coercive power. Then suddenly the right did what we could never do: they overturned the system. And just to prove how easy it is, they did it with an overripe, talking pumpkin with a history of catastrophic failure.

There will be weeks of analysis about two things - who voted and why we didn't know about them in advance. There will be a sort of half curious, half repulsed prodding and probing of US society. Those who got it wrong - basically everyone except Trump voters, who knew what they wanted and simply did it - will embark on a tortuous period of self-analysis. 

What can be said already is that polling fails not because we don't have the right psephological model, not the right method of capture or mode of data analysis. Even now there will be dataheads harping on about this. The real problem is one of political representation. Our polls are failing because we don't understand the political coalitions being built and we don't register the scale of those coalitions. Our polls get all the demographics and none of the politics. We didn't see it coming because of the famous "enthusiasm" gap. But what really is enthusiasm in the political sense but the feeling of collective determination when embarking on a project that you know will change the world?

Here's why Clinton lost: she and her half of America had no all-encompassing sense of collective purpose. Shades of it perhaps - in the will to beat Trump. In the will not to lose the scant social progress achieved under Obama. But political subjects are quilted into being around unifying projects, slogans and leading figures. Where were Hillary's? 

But all of that is unfair to Hillary, who is an established politician of the first order who evinces unparalleled skill and competence. But nothing more. She is no better or worse than other mainstream politicians. This loss is not really hers but the entire political class's. Except insofar as it's a clearly sexist vote, which it is, Hillary faired no worse than any other Democratic establishment figure would have. 

To those who say simply "shoulda been Bernie" - imagine the media and market meltdown that would have greeted his candidacy and the contest between Bernie and Trump. Imagine the sabotage by Democratic elites. Imagine the nosedive in the dollar weeks before the election. His victory against Trump would by no means have been a foregone conclusion. There would have to be an inspiring mass movements for Bernie to have won. Bernie might have been better than Hillary but we can't know. There will be time for political analysis and it will no doubt come most effectively from heartbroken Hillary supporters themselves. Right now the latter need our love and solidarity.

In the weeks ahead we will need effective opposition to Trump. The key word being effective. That will involve careful consideration of political options. It will involve talking to people who voted Trump and to those who didn't vote Clinton. It will involve imagining a world after Trump. Without those imaginings we will lose again.

The world imagine by the left can't just be a repeat of the Obama years. It will lose if it continues to promise a weak defence of welfare with some moderate progress on social inclusion. We need to imagine a world turned upside down, a world beyond the market and beyond the necessity of electing rich white men to defend us from other rich white men. We will imagine a world where the people at the bottom - the pissed of, the dejected, the poor, the struggling - don't have to elect a grotesque caricature of those who already rule them. Instead they will take power for themselves. We will imagine a world of hope and dignity based on democratic participation in all of the institutions that shape our lives, from work to local government to the highest offices of state. If we don't, we will get eight years and more of Trumpism. Don't expect Trump's victory to exhaust itself, because social sadism has no natural point of exhaustion. It feeds off despair. Hope and dignity must become our alternative watchwords.

I used to snigger inwardly at the old leftist slogan "socialism or barbarism." Surely irrelevant to today's tolerant, liberal order. That order is dead. Liberal capitalism is dead. And the new barbarism is rising in its place. In the struggles ahead it will be incumbent on all who wish to live in a decent world to decide. Which side are you on?

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Problem with Post-Truth

Hillary Clinton (Photo: Magnus Manske/ Wiki Commons)
The word "post-truth" has started cropping up a lot in the media. You might have seen it or even googled it. But you're less likely to have used it yourself. That's because it's a highly unnatural coinage, appearing in the language as the name of a vague frustration. It is a custom-made word designed for a specific purpose, invented by people who believe that by naming a thing that annoys them, they explain it. It can hardly be self-applied, but rather names the actions of others whom one dislikes. 

What is implied by the term "post-truth"? What social phenomena is it supposed to identify and explain? To answer these questions we need to identify who is actually using it. It lacks the requisite specificity to originate in any sort of academic discourse. But neither has it appeared spontaneously in "natural" English. If the phrase belongs to anyone it is salaried professionals, particularly journalists. The closest any of the latter have come to explaining "post-truth" is the Guardian's Jonathon Freedland, who says: "Technology now allows politicians to communicate directly with their followers, with no need to transmit their claims through the fact-checking filter of a news organisation." Politicians no longer feel the accountable to the guardians and regulators of truth. They feel they can lie and get away with it because new technology lets them bypass the traditional authorities supposed to regulate public life and keep it on the straight and narrow. So it's all Twitter's fault, according to salaried professional journalists. No doubt the profession in question feels particularly sore about new tech taking their jobs. But Twitter hasn't made retweeting, uncritical zombies of us all.

This is not to argue there is no general crisis of representation. It is not to argue that the only people who feel befuddled are middle-class professionals scrolling down their newsfeeds in quiet disgust. The crisis of representation goes back a long way: to the erosion of postwar modes of social inclusion and political representation; to the fragmentation of national economies and the internationalisation of global production; to the recent constitutional crises in even advanced capitalist states. It is not easy to produce cultural representations of a society in that kind of flux, at least not ones that feel valid. The traditional working class is utterly bewildered by its own sweeping marginalisation. The displacement from power of the corporatist patrician classes by affectless, deracinated youngsters has left our rulers equally disoriented. Meanwhile, financialisation, inequality, war and global migration are constantly remaking populations and the social relations between them. Hard right political formations mutate by the month: from elitist euroscepticism, to populist Islamophobia, to plebeian street movements in the course of a single year. The well-behaved, reformist variant of social democracy has almost completely vanished.

The problem with "post-truth" is that it registers all of this in the form of a simple conceptual frustration. The question for most journalists surveying the series of disasters that has rocked their world in 2016 has been: "Why don't Trump supporters, Brexiters, Corbynistas, or disabled people fighting welfare sanctions see the world the way it really is? Why are they so deluded?" Hence the word is summoned by journalists to explain the problem: they're all "post-truth" is what they are. They've collectively lost the ability to tell the difference between truth and fiction. They're addicted to social media and not sophisticated enough to question the information they're getting. In other words, they're "post-truth" because they're thick. Or rather, as the Financial times columnist and George Osborne biographer (!) Janan Ganesh put it in reference to Corbyn voters, they're "thick as pig shit."

Now, even if some people are thick, it's clear this won't do as a sociological explanation of Brexit, Trump, and UKIP or Corbyn, Podemos and Sanders. It's also clear that some are guilty of participating in this "post-truth" world for their own ends. It used to be called postmodernism and it was fun: voters were déclassé consumers; politicians were salespeople; articulating what the public wanted was a matter of artifice and technique; underlying truths were ultimately malleable, subject to the vicissitudes of the society of the spectacle. Anything could be said or done as long as it played well and as long as it fed into a broader narrative. Indeed this was precisely what was celebrated in George Osborne. So presumably the people who voted for his naked manipulation of the global financial crisis in order to shrink the state must also be "thick as pig shit." To a certain extent, this is what that generation of politicians and journalists believes: the public is thick as pig shit and can be won over to anything as long as it sounds good. Well, Brexit actually proved that the public was sceptical of media narratives. And it also proved that reality could come back and bite apparently Teflon politicians like Osborne in the arse.

There is something happening and they don't understand it so they call it "post-truth." In fact what is actually happening is that the secular crisis of western democracy - one which these journalists and politicians once played for their own ends - has slipped beyond their control. Take Hillary Clinton: a master of spin and manipulation who once triangulated so hard on welfare she wound up calling black men "super-predators" is now vulnerable to accusations of chronic dishonesty by - of all people - Donald J. Trump. She has no one to blame for this but her own political class and generation. Clinton is, despite her own protests, one of the inventors of "post-truth." On almost every possible count, from welfare reform to crime to foreign intervention, Clinton has been a key figure in dismantling the New Deal and pivoting the Democratic Party sharply to the right. It is Clinton's generation of politicians who did all this while promising it would make life better. Want to "end welfare as we know it?" Just ditch all your party's commitments to job creation and strong unions, and instead impose sharp welfare cuts whilst signing trade deals that undercut the US workforce. This kind of nonsense was sold to people as the tough medicine that would get the great American middle and working class back on track. And look how it turned out. Donald Trump is a disgusting liar, but there are reasons his accusations about Clinton also being a liar hit home. She is by no means the worst politician of her generation, but she is not an exception to the rule either.

"Post-truth" commentators balk at lazy misinterpretation of data, forgetting the almost total failure of any major press outlet (from the New York Times to the Observer) to question Bush and Blair's spurious justifications for the Iraq War. They scorn exaggerations of this or that threat, whilst forgetting their own role in reproducing consistent Tory lies about Labour overspending causing the 2008 economic crash. They call Corbyn's economic policies "fantasy" while failing to ever critique the idea perpetuated by Osbornomics that you can grow the economy by cutting the size of the state. They played the game of "post-truth" themselves and now they feel sore that they have lost control of it. George Osborne never "made work pay" (wages fell). He didn't cut the debt or eliminate the deficit (the public debt has doubled and the deficit in public spending remains). But still we are told that it is the Labour Party that inhabits "La-La-Land" for wanting to spend £500 billion investing in targeted industries rather than subsidising private landlords and the rich. 

The problem with "post-truth" is that it blames a crisis of representation on the represented. It is the media itself which has utterly failed in its role of rendering the often unrelenting bleakness of modern life coherent or meaningful. There are reasons for this too, offered by the excellent journalist Nick Davies in his books Flat Earth News and Hacked! In these two tomes the veteran reporter documents the speeding up of media-time under intensifying commercial competition, as well as the ever-widening gulf between media-political elites and the wider public. The crushing of the print unions has led to newspapers becoming much more stressful environments. There is less time to research facts. AP reports and PR material are reproduced almost verbatim. The media's own post-truth era is, like that of wider society, a symptom of underlying developments. For the respected Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson a crisis of representation implies a crisis in the capacity of the ruling order to tell convincing stories about itself and the world. This is the real root of "post-truth": the formerly privileged groups of the old order are losing their capacity to regulate cultural production in their own interests. Their cultural hegemony has slipped and they are lashing out. "Post-truth" is the name they give to their own anxiety.