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. 





Thursday, 6 October 2016

Labour will only win if they tell the truth: public spending and immigration are good

A Crisis of Trust

Anyone who lives in Britain - including and especially those who don't really follow politics - know what Labour is widely perceived to be bad at. Those things are: leadership, spending too much, and being soft on immigration. As today's YouGov polling shows, that hasn't changed.

It's also true that Labour has been misrepresented. Public spending as a proportion of GDP fell in the Blair/Brown years and the Party was by no means lenient on welfare during the boom. The party broadly continued Thatcherite policy on spending and leadership style. Blair in particular was neurotically controlling, even autocratic. Though Blair was particularly keen on immigration from Eastern Europe after those countries' support for the invasion of Iraq, the party consistently talked tough. Blair trumpeted "tough immigration laws that work" in 2005. Brown promised "British jobs for British workers" in 2009. Even the supposedly left-wing Ed Milliband had his famous immigration mugs.

So why don't people buy the idea that Labour is a tough, no-nonsense party that favours strong central leadership, fiscal rectitude, and a firm hand toward foreigners? Maybe it's just the media. Or maybe it's because, in practical terms, Labour is less good at presenting itself as those things than the Tories are. The Tories may not be very effective in reality. They've doubled the public debt, failed on their own deficit target, increased immigration and bowed out at the first sign of trouble over Brexit. Their central pledge to the electorate was that they would eliminate the deficit by 2015. It stands today at £70 billion and they've ditched any serious commitment to eliminating it. The Tories promised to cut immigration and they increased it to a record high. Growth has stagnated, investment is in decline, there's is no real productivity in the economy. The Tories are worse than incompetent - they haven't got a fucking clue. But they are better at looking like they can control immigration and clamp down on the public finances.

There are many reasons for this and "the media" is one. Another is deep public perception, based on historically informed, socially constructed expectations. Another still is the easy intellectual detente between the Tories' top strategy advisors and those who shape media narratives proper. The whole apparatus of the Tory Party - part state-hugging machinery, part intellectual network enveloping the top universities and the press - is geared toward shaping and in turn performing for public perceptions. 

True, this is all massively unfair. Some Labour people are good at what the Tories do - or try to be. Largely, because they are expensively educated and very wealthy, they resemble the Tories. Unsurprisingly they advocate a strategy and a path to power that mirrors the Tories. In some cases they also advocate similar policies. But that's not really the point. The point is they keep losing.

YouGov polling data confirms what they've all been saying: the public doesn't trust Labour on leadership, public finances or immigration. The current leadership is hardly going to change that. So the logical conclusion is to "meet the public where they are, not as they should be." It's true that Jeremy Corbyn can't get the country to agree with him. 

So let's assume three things. Labour gets a tough-looking leadership. Maybe it's Dan Jarvis. Maybe Labour gets a poll boost among older voters. That would be fantastic. Now, suppose Labour outlflanks the Tories on immigration. Let's say they promise to cut immigration not just to the tens of thousands but to the mere thousands. And they promise not only to cut public spending but to halve the public debt. The problem isn't that these things wouldn't be popular, it is that no one would believe a word of it.

And why not? The Tories themselves promised to cut net migration to the the tens of thousands - and it rose. The Tories also promised to eliminate the public deficit by 2015 and reduce the public debt - they have abandoned the former and doubled the latter. It's not fair that they get away with this, but they do. And Labour won't get away with it. The Tories will be trusted on fiscal credibility and immigration even if they systematically fail on their own terms. Labour, on the other hand, won't be believed no matter what they promise.

The Labour Party can do two things to respond to this: they can collectively point out the failure of the Tories and they can campaign for a convincing alternative. That is all. There's no cheeky triangulation that will pull this off. There's no spin that can cut those corners. It is hard work. It's probably boring for people to listen to. But it's the truth.

Take immigration. After years of talking tough and being perceived as soft on immigration, many senior Labour figures are now leaning toward talking tougher on immigration. Invariably these are pro-EU, pro-single market people who see being anti-immigration as a tactical and rhetorical device to win over racist little Englanders. In their world, consistency can be sacrificed for the sake of appearance. They forget that even in a postmodern world people still want convincing, persuasive stories about the world that make sense. Simply declaring yourself anti-immigration, whilst at the same time being pro-EU, won't persuade anyone. People aren't stupid and they'll just think you're duplicitous. Which is basically what everyone thinks anyway.

People have consistently been lied to about immigration. It's happened in unprecedented numbers, then they've been told it's a bad thing. Whilst they've been told that it's a bad thing and that it should be cut, it's continued to rise. As many have told them it's got out of control, some have suggested it can only fall if we leave the EU. Now that we are leaving the EU, it's becoming clear that it may still not fall.

How can anyone in the Labour Party - a party marked by lies and treachery and famed for being pro-immigration - believe that by talking tough on immigration they can win people over? The problem with rational actor theory is that it forgets people can detect bullshit. And people's bullshit antennae are off the scale when they hear Labour say "we want to cut immigration." No one believes it and they never will. Because it is bullshit.

What's the best thing Labour could possibly say on the proverbial doorstep? Here's an idea: "Fine, cut immigration. Kick every single foreigner out if you want. It might even make you feel good for a week or two. But do you really believe for one moment that this would help you get a good job? Or a decent house? Or a good school place for your kid? Or a decent health service?" And even if those questions are left unanswered, the silence they provoke will be a kind of progress.

The Labour leadership alone can't do this. Resentful backbenchers with their embarrassing subservience to the right wing press certainly can't do this. But a million fired up Labour members in every community across the country can. Nobody said transforming and rebuilding the country would be easy. But it will be easier to persuade enough people that immigration and public spending are good than it will to persuade them that Labour really intends to cut either.


Monday, 26 September 2016

Bourne and Form: Why does genre fiction always fail?

Image credit: Wikimedia commons


The Bourne series is almost unique among recent Hollywood films in winning significant critical praise for its marriage of le Carré-lite intrigue and visceral psychodrama. But the series' most recent outing, titled simply Jason Bourne, has been disappointing. The film met with a broadly muted response and has the lowest critical rating of any of the series on the aggregate site Metacritic. A confession: for my teenage self Bourne made Europe cool. The Bourne films were the first in which I really cared about location. Two things I saw excited me: first, the often faded glamour of central and eastern Europe; and second, the ease with which Bourne slipped between different worlds, always the master of whatever local language he stumbled across. As an amnesiac super soldier, Bourne has the uncanny ability to do things he doesn't know he can, and Damon's famously baffled brow somehow made this unwitting mastery believable. So he would slip unrecognised through the world's customs controls armed only with a fan of fake passports and an apparently polyglot unconscious. Bourne made the rest of the world feel accessible.

But in this most recent outing the characteristic fast-cutting, high-impact action sequences feel merely super-imposed on an exotic background. Regardless of the setting - from a riotous anti-austerity protest in Athens to a sun-baked Las Vegas strip - events take place against a backdrop which is interactive rather than actually alive. Technology is an obvious factor in this evolution of the series: at times the chase scenes resemble sophisticated platform games. But equally important are the conventions of the narrative form itself. The real disappointment of the Bourne series is that the longer it continues, the more completely it must shed the ambiguities which made its early premise compelling.

In the Bourne films women are either peripheral office-dwellers whose characters can be quietly discontinued (Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen in the earlier movies) or, if they are involved in the hunt at all, they die (love interest Franka Potente and erstwhile ally Julia Stiles). Women are hard to feature in the lone wolf drama except as marginal accomplices or sexualised sidekicks. The uneasy presence of women in the series is not down to a lack of imagination on the part of the writers, but is a symptom of the lone wolf form itself. Political ambivalence or contradiction in the series is symptomatic of what the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson calls the ideology of form. Jameson in his The Political Unconscious views narrative as a "socially symbolic act" or a way of endowing the mute substance of the world with meaning. In Bourne the narrative constructs a central semiotic opposition between personal identity - namely, Bourne's own subjectivity - and the social whole - represented by its guardians in the headquarters of the CIA at Langley. Yet this binary can be unpacked. While Bourne the subject represents personal identity and its quest for freedom/moral responsibility, Bourne the agent has already sacrificed his personal identity for the perceived good of a greater social whole. Meanwhile, the representatives of that social whole feature in two forms - those who are "handmaidens" of the social good and those who have been corrupted by power. Each position in this square stands in a relation of conflict with the others. Thus, Bourne does not simply become one with the social whole by relinquishing his individuality. In fact, he becomes a dehumanised agent of the forces of corruption. However, the problem remains that if Bourne simply reasserts his personal autonomy - his individual freedom - he is simultaneously turning his back on the "greater good." It is at this point that narrative form steps in with a solution.

At the end of the series' most recent instalment Bourne stands revealed as an unconventional patriot, with the suggestion that he will maintain his new-found personal conscience whilst assisting the compromised forces of the CIA in his own, independent way. The strictures of the form impose a certain type of closure on the narrative, and it is one that redeems both the individual and, by extension, the notion of a greater social good. Jameson stresses how form enables the construction of "imaginary solutions to real social contradictions." If in everyday life we find that notions of personal identity conflict with the good of the social whole, form finds a way of reconciling them. At the beginning of the saga Bourne is the victim of a mistaken reduction of individual self-sacrifice to the social good: he has sacrificed himself, his ethical autonomy, to the secretive "Blackbriar" project, which is in fact run by corrupt CIA elites. He must now rescue himself by vanquishing the elites' power over his identity and reclaiming his identity and autonomy. But this leaves open the question of his own need to serve the social good. The lone wolf narrative presupposes a certain kind of solution: Bourne can escape his own alienation by casting himself as a patriot-beyond-the-law. The most recent film ends with the suggestion that he will serve the law virtuously but not be reduced to the status of a law-abiding citizen.

This throws up a series of problems with regards to place, gender, and politics. If the real drama of Bourne focuses on the struggle between the individual and the social whole, the collective dramas of place are necessarily reduced to backdrops against which the real events take place. The subjectivity of the lone wolf is necessarily male, with "honest" brokers between Bourne and the law played by women (Allen in the earlier films, Alicia Vikander in the latest). The male hero cannot simply be reincorporated into the level playing field of the law, in which all are equal and therefore identical before the law's universal judgement. So Bourne remains above the law, outside of the social whole, but with the power to act on it and for its own good. The passivity of the social whole is here metaphorically feminine, with the masculine role one of mastery and action. The social good, meanwhile, is that perceived ethical substance which underlies the rabid corruption of the law's human representatives. Despite the corruption of those in charge, Bourne shows no interest in exposing them to the wider public. He has no time for whistle-blowers or hackers or internet freedom fighters. By the end of the most recent instalment in the series Bourne resembles a superhero-like figure: he is tasked with standing beyond the law, a lone individual, intent on saving the law from itself by his own special means. His enemies are those tempted by the eternal lure of power and/or personal greed. Thus, the conclusion implies that Bourne's earlier search for identity was just a prelude to his real story as unambiguous defender of authentic American values against a sea of corruption.

The early movies in the franchise were enjoyable precisely because they were the initial instalments in a series which was as yet unfinished. If we were to know the entirely predictable conclusion in advance we wouldn't like them. \bourne is not unique in the respect. Almost all episodic fiction that starts off well ends badly. This continual disappointment of episodic genre fiction - fantasy, sci-fi, detective thrillers and so on - is not simply down to creative exhaustion. It is a fundamental limitation of a form which, however exploratory or ambiguous the initial premises, must result in certain kinds of resolution. In short, we are disappointed by an inevitable happy ending which is nevertheless demanded by the form. This raises a question, which I will attempt to answer below, about why modern audiences are almost always disappointed by conventional endings and yet narrative fiction is for the time being unable to provide alternatives.

Fredric Jameson argues that individual texts resolve their inner systems of binary oppositions by formulating a political allegory or "ur-narrative." In the case of Bourne we have the allegory of the struggle to preserve individuality and personal autonomy in a morally compromised world. But the discovery of this political allegory brings us to the limits of what Jameson describes as the "first concentric circle" of criticism and to the borders of a second. In the second field of criticism texts are reconstructed not as containers of semiotic systems of meaning, but as carriers of "ideologemes" - that is, elements of class-based ideology. In the Bourne series the conflict between the individual and society is not bridged by an alteration to society as such but rather by the individual's elevation above that society. Bourne is the ideal capitalist subject, a master of blind social forces, able to bend them to his will in the name of a greater social good. Despite the early ambiguities of the series, in which institutions in an advanced capitalist society are open to question, the social good is in the end reaffirmed as identical with the interests of US power. At this level of analysis an alternative, anti-capitalist narrative is obvious: Bourne could side with the anarcho-utopians and hackers against the dominant institutions of US power in an ongoing battle for his own soul and the liberation of others.

Why would such an outcome not work at the level of narrative itself? Why does the suggestion that Bourne's heroism be converted into an anti-capitalist liberation project feel so inherently ridiculous? It is at this point that Jameson's third and final circle of critical analysis makes its appearance. At this final level of analysis, the text is constructed as an expression of cultural struggles within an overarching mode of production. This latter is a Marxist term used to locate in a single concept all of the dominant and subaltern categories through which social life is organised. The capitalist mode of production, for example, is dominated by modes of organisation of social labour, elaborate systems of social and private property rights, the coercive reinforcement of political power through the state, appropriate forms of political representation, and specific forms of cultural production. Nevertheless a mode of production is not hermetically sealed, but contains traces and anticipations of past and future modes of production within itself. The coexistence of rival sign systems within a mode of production creates a dialectical struggle which plays out in culture. Form is therefore the property of a given mode of production. In Jameson's analysis form itself becomes a kind of content - the ideological expression of the mode of production to which it belongs.

Marxist critics are famously obsessed with history, and Jameson believes that it is ultimately to history that texts owe their authority. As a Marxist critic Jameson believes certain texts are more adequate to the demands of history than others. Some texts reinforce the status quo while others challenge it. The literary critic Hayden White has noted the parallels between Jameson and Jean-Paul Sartre in the way that both see life as being "worked up into a story" via its connection to the past and its projection into the future. For Jameson "the human adventure" must be one continuous tale "sharing a fundamental theme." The Marxist critic restores the buried continuity of a "single master narrative" to the surface of the text. Where there is a weakening of narrativizing capacity in the cultural production a particular social group, we find evidence of social crisis. Bourne is interesting not because the narrative form itself is in crisis, but because its resolutions cannot help but feel inherently false. The fact that the conclusion of the latest instalment in the series feels so inadequate says less about the series itself than an underlying crisis of narrative representation. As is often remarked, Jason Bourne is not James Bond. In fact Bond is never really confronted with any of Bourne's ethical and moral dilemmas. 

This comparison of the Bourne and Bond series provokes a question. Would it be possible to endlessly re-stage the first Bourne film in the same way that each episode in the Bond series is essentially a re-staging of all the others? Of course, Bourne's permanent entrapment in a world where his own identity was forever undisclosed, where his past and future were permanently withheld, would land the audience in the world of the absurd. Precisely because it is a form which constructs a connection with the past, and projects identity into the future, Bourne must resolve its story into a formal conclusion. The crisis consists in the fact that the old resolutions are historically inadequate, while the possibility of an alternative form is yet to be born. The real ultimatum is this: should narrative fiction "come to terms" with this lingering sense of dissatisfaction or seek to overturn it?

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Labour "moderates" don't understand why they're losing again

Tom Watson, Labour's own Ser Gregorstein?
Credit: Rob Knight, Wikimedia Commons


How has the Labour "mainstream" reacted to a second impending defeat in the Party, and its fourth consecutive electoral defeat (to Corbyn twice within the party and under both Ed Milliband and Gordon Brown in successive general elections)? Almost to a man (they are mostly men) they have stared into the abyss and blinked. 

Labour is an irrelevance. We know it is irrelevant because it's in the news every day and they all keep saying that it's irrelevant. The entire media is ghoulishly drawn to, even obsessed with, Labour's irrelevance, its stinking awful shitness. One person who is especially sure that Labour is an irrelevance is Blair lackey and stalwart of the "modernising" faction Alastair Campbell. He is so sure of this that he keeps cropping up in the media to blame "the posh boy revolutionaries" who are "pulling the strings" of Labour and, of course, to plug the release of his latest diaries. I only mention these diaries because they cover the years after his ejection from Tony Blair's government, when he was revealed as personally responsible for the "dodgy dossier" that sanctioned the Iraq War. The diaries end with Blair's 2005 pyrrhic victory on one of the lowest turnouts ever, with millions of working class voters deserting Labour. But of course none of the resulting squalor is Campbell's fault.

Campbell is someone who once - disastrously - pulled the strings of power himself. He should know it when he sees it. And those he accuses of being "posh boy revolutionaries" - i.e. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell - are clearly pulling few strings. In this grinding war of attrition, it is quite clear the power lies not with the leader but forever elsewhere. Each time activists and members take a step towards making party structures fairer, more transparent or more democratic, the locus of power shifts, and new decisions emanate from some previously unseen compartment of the machine. 

There is a nice visual metaphor for  the amorphous, diffuse nature of power and it occurs every time someone takes a photo of Tom Watson. There is one famous photo of the Labour Deputy giving a wry side-eye to Jeremy Corbyn at some event in "happier times." Watson does much the same when he sits alongside Corbyn in Parliament. He wears an inscrutable, strangely assured smile aimed at no one and nothing in particular, hands clasped angelically across his front. This is the inscrutability of power made flesh. As Michel Foucault said, power is everywhere and nowhere at once. It can't be dissected and labelled. More specifically, when power is located it morphs into something else, manifests itself in other channels.

Watson looks like a mere old school fixer, a crooked hangover from the age of the "organisation man." Even his burly demeanour somehow suggests the 1970s. He'd fit perfectly into a world of grubby meetings in pre-fab office blocks, all drooping blinds and the smell of stale smoke. But that smile and the vaguely artificial sheen of his face distinguish him slightly from the knuckle-dragging Labour right. He is more insidious - gliding through Labour's internecine strife, never breaking a sweat. Das Gleitende: that which slides, moves, slips. That which cannot be pinned down.

Given Watson's peculiarly contradictory position - as the embodiment of a form of power which is itself diffuse, porous, disembodied - it is unsurprisingly difficult to grasp his own stance on matters Labour. Nor is anything he says of much interest in itself: “I thought [Corbyn] would realise that to lose the confidence of 80% of your MPs means that you can’t lead the Labour party," he told a Guardian journalist. This thought, so plain and out of context as to be almost empty of significance, is only betrayed by Watson's own reputation as the ultimate Labour deal broker. It was after all Watson who triggered Blair's resignation by quitting the front bench. If he is reminded of those machinations now, he is not letting on. Watson talks through his plans for Labour as if they were technical fixes to a faulty engine, but they are all ultimately political and amount indeed to a return to exactly the kind of situation where his own resignation could bump off the likes of Tony Blair. The real enemy appears to be the "disastrous" outbreak of one-member-one-vote democracy in the Party. Recently Tom Watson lost his cool, just for a moment, when his tongue got in the way of his grammar and he spoke of "Trotsky entryists" "caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can, and that's how [they] operate." This rare clunkiness suggests Watson is struggling to make the picture fit. The ultimate backstage Brownite fixer, whose own head contains the blueprints for a root and branch rewrite of Party rules, wants to criticise others for their factionalising.

Watson will either outlive us all or be felled in combat - perhaps to rise again, like some parliamentary Ser Gregorstein, to defend his MPs from rampant cultists. But he will become so toxic in the process that eventually he will be marginalised, reduced to what his burly form portends - the mere fixer, the oafish brawler, the walking wrecking ball.

Yet even for the most reflective of "moderates" the Labour story takes the form of tragedy. And with the tragic form come definite ideological inflections: a narrative based on fatally flawed heroes is limited to accounts of individual quirks and failings. Beyond that lies merely the cosmos, vast and uncontrollable. There can be no deeper or more thorough explanation. So, for Jason Cowley, editor at the New Statesman and fellow traveller of the Blair years, Labour's Golden Generation - all white, male Oxbridge graduates, all expertly picked by Tony himself - fell on the swords of their own arrogance. "In 2000, everything seemed set fair for the Golden Generation. Nothing could stop them from dominating public life for decades to come. Apart from one another, as it turned out."

Well, the scene is set for some fratricidal bloodletting. Yet for Labour moderates there is scant catharsis. To briefly survey the scene at curtain fall: David Miliband lies skewered by his own Brussels-regulated banana; Ed his "quasi-Marxist" brother drowned in a sea of unfeeling, professorial wonkery; the other, rounder Ed has morphed into a cool dad, a real life David Brent, his frustrated, under-appreciated higher functions channeled into fumbling footwork on Strictly.

It is necessary to restate what a total, catastrophic failure these people have been. Not only from a leftist point of view but also by their own standards. David Miliband ran for Labour leader - too late - and lost. His brother won and then lost the following general election. Balls came third in the leadership election then lost his parliamentary seat. Burnham failed to win the Labour leadership twice and now wants to be mayor of Manchester, to no one's great enthusiasm. Insofar as an explanation is given - by Campbell or Cowley or anyone else - it is simply that Labour grew too brash, too self-confident, too distant from the electorate. This, mind you, was a deliberate choice - a simple mistake, a quirk of personality and/or natural exhaustion. Presumably the solution is to redo the whole thing as before but this time at less distance from the electorate. In the impoverished imagination of the Labour moderate, who has discounted from the beginning any serious redistribution of wealth, power or control, this new closeness to the electorate can mean only one thing: bashing immigrants. Except they forget: Blair and then Brown and then Milliband did that. And they still lost votes.

David Miliband has announced today the real cause of Labour's crises: not accidents, he says sagely, but "choices" - a whole series of them - got them where they are. This accident/choice opposition (brother Miliband is aware of the great philosophical debates after all) sets the scene for some glorious Blairite cadence, as he swings like a pendulum between clanging abstractions:

"Some of [the choices] have been small, others large, but together they have turned the party inwards rather than outwards, looking to the past rather than to new ideas, resting on easy rhetoric rather than taking hard decisions – and above all seeking to distance ourselves from our time in government, rather than building on it, in terms of both policy content and political culture and dynamic."

Doesn't it send shivers down your spine? This is the sort of nonsense Blair once cultivated, a toned down version of which he sometimes slipped in to his speeches or amplified for the purposes of pleasing 'Marxism Today' readers. There's nothing wrong with binaries, of course, but just look at them in isolation and it's like a nursery school sing song - small/large, inwards/outwards, new/old, easy/hard and so on. This say-what-you-see list is the quality of thought we have come to expect from Labour's best and brightest. 

Underlying David M's rhetoric is the simple proposition that people make choices and sometimes they are bad ones. Now, in the context of a spiralling debate on the nature of structure and agency, this statement of the obvious might chime with clarity. But that is not what we have and it is not what it does. Rather this bald presupposition is the sum of David's thinking on the subject and it provides what little theoretical framing he gives to his swooping rhetoric. In the end he comes across as a chiding uncle, the spinner of home truths you've heard a thousand times before.

These are not stupid people. They were indeed the future once. Many were expensively and no doubt effectively schooled. Some have demonstrated, in their time, a more cunning grasp of the cogs of a media-dominated democracy than Jeremy Corbyn ever has. Mandelson is possibly more post-Marxist in his strategic thinking than McDonell. All of which suggests that their inability to think their own predicament through is a symptom in the Freudian sense. There are things that hide in plain sight. For people outside the situation the explanation is obvious. But for all their detective work the Labour moderates are incapable of recognising the clues as clues. So the explanation - their own retreat from democracy; the systematic erasure of party politics from daily social life by neoliberal political practice; the crisis of social democracy and representative politics across the west - eludes them. In the structure/agency debate they should be having, the Blairites are those who made history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. Those conditions have overtaken them. They are histories' dupes - the more foolish for believing they could keep abreast of its wave. 



Monday, 12 September 2016

The Tories Can Be Beaten on Grammar Schools



Ignoring the manufactured controversy over selective education (comprehensives have been a startling academic success, grammar schools not), there is decent residual opposition to the expansion of educational selection. In August a poll by YouGov gave the expansion of grammar schools 38 percent support. Almost every party in parliament is officially opposed to the idea. Despite suffering underfunding and competition from the private sector, the comprehensive system remains the best option for most children.

Consequently a split is emerging in the Tory Party between grammar-loving traditionalists and modernisers. It could be that the grammar plan is a feint by May to keep Brexiters on side. Or it might be genuine: she has promised to see it through, despite cabinet opposition. The former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan took to Facebook to declare, “The evidence is now incontrovertibly clear that a rigorous academic education does not need to be the preserve of the few.” The Telegraph reports that one unnamed senior cabinet minister felt the Tories had too small a majority for such a confrontation. The Tory party chairman too has voiced concern.

These may be sage words. Theresa May is in danger of significantly overplaying a weak hand. You wouldn't know it from the media, but May is only Prime Minister on the back of a catastrophic miscalculation by her hapless predecessor and an ensuing internal party stitch up. Even this remarkable string of events was the outcome of years of failure on everything from the budget deficit to productivity to immigration. The Tories are a weak governing party, a fact that the opposition only began exploiting properly last year.

Internal Tory splits over whether to pursue further academisation and the opening of more free schools or to go back to the sepia-toned days of high Tory grammars may not look like fertile ground for the left. Significantly the driving force of academisation in the last government, Michael Gove, may support May on the policy. Yet if divisions do continue, Labour will have ample space to exploit them for its own ends.

Last year, with the glow of the Tories' election victory still fresh, the new government's spending plans for the parliamentary period were revealed by a coalition of activists, politicians, and lords to be a scam - a way to further grind down the poor in order to make the Tories look tough on the deficit. George Osborne's spending plans - along with his lofty ambitions to be PM - were crushed. Key to this process was a Labour opposition leadership finally willing to fight the Tories on principle.

Despite the widespread good vibes about May emanating from much of the media, the Tories are not in a substantially better position now. Indeed the trouble is worse after Brexit. The Tories are good at image. The media - and some of the middle class - laps up their centrist poise. But the substance remains the same: they are woefully outdated, intellectually poorly equipped, and badly prepared for the tumultuous country they must now govern.

Labour needs to weaponise Tory divisions over policies like May's grammar school expansion. Just as they did last year, when billions in cuts to the poorest were avoided, Labour can help scupper Tory plans by exploiting their weaknesses.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Why are the Conservatives electorally invincible?

British Prime Minister Theresa May: the latest Conservative politician to position herself in the "centre ground"
(Photo credit: Policy Exchange via Flickr/Creative Commons)
Cast your mind back a year: the Conservative Party had won a majority in parliament for the first time since 1992 and they were gearing up for a jubilant conference. This new majority government would, the electorate was assured, reach for the centre-ground of British politics. They would "steal Labour's clothes" on policies like the national living wage. They would pepper their firmness with fairness. The Shadow Chancellor George Osborne was being hailed as a political genius even by his left-wing critics. He had dispensed with stodgy, old fashioned commitment to facts, ascending instead to a stratospherical realm of pure spectacle. Osborne went beyond even Blairite spinners of yore, as Blairites had always implicitly conceded that reality was thing that had to be spun. For Osborne the chief raw material was not cold fact but whatever messaging popped into his head and seemed tof it the moment. The Tory Party, and moreover the vast majority of the British press, seemed more or less content with the happy accident of a Tory majority. What few minor hiccups lay ahead could be gently massaged as they bubbled up.

And then 2016 happened. It turned out that many Tory manifesto pledges had been written with no intention of them ever being enacted. The scale of the promised cuts to government expenditure along with simultaneous tax cuts was impracticable. Labour opposition and the first stirrings of internal Tory descent put paid to Osborne's tax credit cuts. With no feasible avenue left for his planned spending cuts, Osborne's spring budget collapsed in days. Eurosceptic Ian Duncan Smith resigned from the frontbench. The Prime Minister was implicated in a tax evasion scandal. And then the Brexit vote - one manifesto pledge the government could not dodge - ended the careers not just of the Prime Minister and his Shadow Chancellor but practically the entire liberal core of the leadership.

An unprecedented disaster for a majority government unlike anything experienced since the Tories' last tenure in full control during 1992's Black Wednesday. And yet the government has survived, albeit in slightly mutated form. The cabinet had shifted to the right. It is a little more authoritarian than before but not much. It is certainly more eurosceptic. Its anti-immigrant bullying is likely to be more pronounced. Perhaps it will take a slightly more interventionist approach to the economy. But all of these add just a shade or two of true blue to the Cameron-Osborne universe. Theresa May's arrival as prime minister - via a blatant party stitch-up - has been greeted with a cathartic swell in popularity. The Conservative Party's long-nurtured appearance of competence, self-assurance, and steely commitment to weathering the storms of crisis have seen them reach undreamt of polling heights. They have benefited amazingly from a crisis they made.

What explains this startling success? The Conservative Party's historical role as protector of the Union (and in times past of the Empire) gives it considerable clout in British society. The Conservatives are the favoured party of the British state and are existentially bound up with its survival. Yet because of the association of this most durable of parliamentary forces with the task of maintaining the British state, left-wing critics are sometimes tempted to treat the Conservatives as "anti-theoretical" or "anti-intellectual." The apparent pragmatism of Tory policy in achieving its stated goals masks deeper political and moral values and often implicit ontological assumptions. Amongst these is the belief that the endurance of a particular state of affairs - say, the institutions of this or that state - can be viewed as a good in and of itself. The roots of this view can be traced to a profound moral and political pessimism which has often dominated English philosophy: if human nature is frail and reason an unreliable guide in a dangerous world, those customs and habits of collective life which endure the passage of time can serve as an always-imperfect shield. The Tory philosopher David Hume called custom "the great guide of human life." Tradition, custom, and the slow build up of institutions were the English sceptic's response to French rationalism, with its violent political factionalism. Democracy was, for Hume, an "enthusiastic" extravagance. The worldview of modern Toryism was forged in a period of arch-reaction, when convulsions across Europe led to the need for a highly statised, pragmatic power politics able to defend people from the violent outcomes of their own high ideals.

The endurance of high Toryism has some relation to the great internal strength of British state institutions and the tightly knit bloc of hegemonic interests which oversaw its modernisation. The British state has endured largely undisturbed since the English Revolution. And the Tory Party has always been there for those seeking to deepen or entrench their representation within it. The Tories have never been simply the "managerial committee for the affairs of the Bourgeoisie," but indeed have viewed their role as preserver and sometimes as developer of its national institutions. This commitment to the state - to the Union of the British Isles - is not pragmatic at all but rather intensely moral. It is premised on philosophical assumptions about human nature and the nature of social life. It therefore plays a role in constructing the terrain of Tory politics and constraining its capability for action. Thus, Disraeli's great move to enfranchise a narrow section of the (male) working class in the Second Reform Act of 1867 can be seen as a simple act of pragmatism. After all if the Tories didn't do it, Gladstone's Liberals would. But it can also be seen in the broader pattern of the Tories permitting the arrival of a certain rising class strata into state representation. It is an integral part of arch-Toryism to see itself as smoothly directing social change to the state's long-term advantage. Disraeli may have lost the 1868 election but he secured a not-insignificant fraction of working-class support for Toryism for a long time to come.

The inheritors of this legacy are, however, nowhere to be found among the Party's recent leading lights. The Tories have become victims of their own success. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher led a rapid and highly effective counter-revolution against British state "corporatism" - one stubbornly resisted by old school Tory elites. The latter resisted for what turned out to be good historical reasons: the complete transformation of British state functions actually eroded the old Tory levers of power and influence over society. After the departure of Thatcher herself the Conservative Party entered over a decade of crisis, one which resulted in the marginalisation of the old Tory elite and the emergence of a comfortably neoliberal, socially open-minded, free market, small-state, low tax grouping as the new rulers of the party. But the Cameroons, as they were dubbed, operated a weightless hegemony over a party whose internal traditions had been worn threadbare by the neoliberal onslaught on the British state. For a party so thoroughly imbricated in the traditional functioning of the British state, the upheaval of neoliberalism was bound to be problematic.

Here's where the story returns to George Osborne. If postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, neoliberalism is its political and managerial ideology. George Osborne was supposed to be the political master of both. But in the end the very victories of neoliberalism, those which had brought the likes of Osborne and his predecessor Tony Blair to power, had simultaneously undermined the internal consistency, the raison d'etre, the morale and the actual capacities of the British state. The unintended result of the victory of neoliberalism over the British state and the national economy can be read off in a long list: the financialisation of all the major actors in the economy; the internationalisation of production; the growing dependence on credit to finance consumption; the eternal growth of trade and current account deficits; the race to the bottom on wages and welfare; the decline in productivity and the rise of shit, low-paid jobs; the stagnation or decline in public spending on crucial public goods and state-backed investment; the collapse in unionisation; the collapse of political participation; the retreat of political parties from communities and active social life; the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands in the south of England; the fraying of the tethers of social solidarity between British regions and countries. This decay of institutions resulted in a series of slow crises and sudden catastrophes for British elites and for the Union itself: the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, the erosion of the two-party system, the collapse of public trust in the state, the near-miss of the Scottish referendum, the bull's eye of Brexit.

Why are the Tories electorally invincible? Among the many factors why, the key is the survival instinct of the social groups who are emotionally, ideologically, and materially integrated into the British state. The Tory Party today is fixed rigidly to this ever decreasing patch of earth, fending off multiple threats to a decreasing pool of wealthy and moderately well off voters. It is not Tory health that has made them victorious but - paradoxically - the long-term ill-health of the system they are pledged and trusted to defend. Those in the media currently celebrating the revival in Tory electoral fortunes need only look at the long-term trends or remind themselves of the events of the last year. Many of those who work in the media along with much of the higher-paid salariat are genetically predisposed to the political centre. But just as they got the last year so wrong, they are wrong again now. Because what they forget is that reality can always come back to bite you, no matter how sensible, centrist and serious your government appears. Another implosion is surely on the way.