Friday, 23 October 2015

On Democracy. Thoughts post-Corbyn.. (1)

The concept of democracy has shrunk and withered to mean little more than parliamentary elections every 5 years, But in terms of its history, origins and hopefully future, Democracy exceeds this meagre ration. One essential element is that ordinary citizens can accede to power. In other words, you are not entitled to rule because of money (plutocracy), hereditary (monarchy) or even expertise (technocracy). The only condition of eligibility is that you are a citizen. The corollary of this is that those who rule are not a class apart, but only citizens granted the temporary grace of office. Privileged access to power because of wealth (Murdoch) or hereditary (Prince Charles) are profoundly undemocratic and should alarm those genuinely concerned with the idea of democracy. Needless to say swearing fealty to an hereditary monarch has nothing to do with democracy, it is in fact directly opposed to it. This is not a polemical point. It's internal to the concept of democracy itself. The existence of the monarch is a vestige of a pre-democratic system, albeit now co-opted and metabolised by modern celebrity culture.

Secondly, democracy is ongoing. It doesn't strike up for a couple of months every half decade and then obediently stop. This seemed to be the false assumption behind the clucks of outrage when  'the left' continued to rally and protest following the general election result in May. 'Democracy has spoken, how dare they contradict', intoned the reproachful pundits. They had misunderstood: democracy is not pronounced through a megaphone once every five years, it's not like a puff of smoke from the Pope's chapel announcing a new dispensation, it's an ongoing and multitudinous commotion. The democratic proposition is pronounced each and every day. 

Thirdly democracy empowers because it's to do with people intervening directly, not through delegates. This is part of the DNA of democracy: the demos speaking rather than being spoken for. Picking up placards and banners, strategic slogans and mobilising chants, and making those in power - always transients - aware of this greater presence, aware that democratic power resides not in the proxies but ultimately with the body politic, the People. And yet protest and rallies and 'taking to the streets' is typically reported only according to the sole metric of violence and volatility. Was it peaceful or were there clashes is the repetitive question asked by the depressingly unanimous press. 

In the ceaseless commotion - of the multitude or of the parties - necessarily there is dissent. And this is not a negative. Dissent is what hones and sharpens, defines and focuses. And yet, in our media democracy, dissent is never represented as this vital and necessary force. Never do we hear of this but only 'civil war' and 'strife', 'split's and 'divisions'. The media have been using these same moulds to cook their stories for decades.  

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Press narcissism..

The press report as widespread what exists only in and through the press. Was the 'fury' over Jeremy Corbyn not singing God Save the Queen an event which occured significantly outside the press claques and various rent-a-quote politicians? Was the Fiscal Charter debate 'overshadowed' by the Labour 'u-turn' any place other than in the reporting of it? Now the press tells us that Seumus Milne has taken a battering, except that he's only been 'battered' by the press.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Corbyn and the Re-definition of Politics

In response to the death of Denis Healey, David Cameron tweeted: "[He] told his party hard truths about Britain having to live within her means." Not an innocent remark, obviously, but (even here) a party political bullet fired at the current Labour party, recycling the general drift of Tory election rhetoric of Labour profligacy and tightening the purse strings. And yet of course, debt has significantly increased under the Conservatives, with Osborne famously borrowing more in 3 years that Labour did in 13, and a list of economists as long as your arm have refuted the charge that Labour overspending was responsible for the deficit or that Austerity (a politically loaded misnomer)  was an effective response to it. The whole rhetorical edifice on which the Conservatives built their campaign was in this sense, and as one leading ex-Tory peer put it, a lie or a 'delusion' which Labour had neither the courage nor the guile to counter. But what matters, evidently, is the manipulation of 'perceptions', and much of the election was fought out as a theatre or game of such 'perceptions', more or less divorced from economic reality.

Elsewhere Cameron tweets that "A 7-day NHS is vital for working people". Odd, as one would the think the NHS is for everyone who's ill. What about pensioners and children, the unemployed? But of course, the best way to understand the statement is not in terms of  meaning but in terms of rhetorical effect, whereby the phrase "working people" conjures the spectre of the "shirkers" who deserve nothing. This binary - of the hard working people and the shirkers who accept hand outs - was, again, a staple of Tory rhetoric, despite figures indicating the huge numbers of working families also relying on welfare payments due to low pay and absence of affordable housing, or other findings that the majority of poor children were from families also in work. Again, "Hard working people"  is one counter in a rhetorical game, a game - once more - of 'perception', unchecked by verifiable fact.

At a previous party conference, Cameron said he wanted "privilege for all" - a claim that was trivially nonsensical, since exclusion is inherent in the concept of privilege, and 'universalising' privilege is an oxymoron. And yet the commentariat ran with this (non-) idea  as if it had intellectual content, as if it were a meaningful proposition. What was going in was something like this: The Conservative party is seen as the party of privilege so strategists try and re-invest 'privilege' with different meanings in order to redress the perception. It's a politics purely of the signifier, of the appearance.

Last week, (8th October) The Guardian reported that Cameron's "War on Poverty" is 'belied by the figures', just as other figures from the IFS showed that the "living wage" was offset by decreases in Tax Credits. But the Guardian is too generous in assuming that the "war on poverty" or the claim that the Tories are the "party of labour" relate to actual intentions or actual or prospective policy. Rather, this is a rhetorical raid on terms that have traditionally belonged to Labour, and Tory strategists see an opportunity to appropriate these signifiers for their own party. Similarly, Cameron reports that he is staking out the centre ground, a claim dutifully repeated by the BBC and the newspapers. In fact, he is only staking out a claim to the rhetoric of the centre ground, to a more or less empty set of terms. Let's take the example of "austerity". Corbyn is routinely referred to as 'hard-left" and even "extremist" for his opposition to austerity. In fact, among economists, this position is uncontroversial, even  fairly mainstream. Cameron, on the other hand is never referred to as 'hard-right', or even 'right wing'. To the press, only the left is visible, and a version of the political spectrum that places Cameron in the 'centre' is certainly a fiction and a victory in the game of 'perceptions'.

Whether it be "politics" "democracy" or "patriotism", the terms in which political and economic reality are couched and talked about are so degraded, so often merely false, as to prevent real thinking and debate, and to constitute, in effect, a diversionary spectacle. Take "democracy": The TTIP trade deal is a real, even existential threat to British democracy and 'british values'. But there is little sustained analysis or outrage about this. Instead we get a pantomime version of the "threat to British values" in the form or Jeremy Corbyn's silence through God Save the queen. When Corbyn's silence was referred to as politically disastrous, this was an implicit admission that the meaning of 'politics' has now dwindled to mean something like PR Strategy and the manipulation of 'perceptions'*. From this point of view principles and beliefs can only be interpreted as 'gaffes' or 'blunders'. Politics proper has disappeared. 

Instead, politics has become a game played with counters such as 'British Values', "Hard working people" "sound economy" "patriotism" "democracy" etc, which are little more that bundles of effects and connotations over which the parties fight with Lilliputian sound and fury, counters which touch only occasionally and tangentially on real economic and political forces. It should come as no surprise that this politics of 'perception' and empty signifiers should also favour a right wing agenda.

If the name Corbyn refers to the flesh and blood individual, in his 'mismatched clothing' and open necked shirt, who has been subject to a campaign of orchestrated vilification and mendacity from press and Conservative party alike, it also names, or named, the desire for a different politics, or rather, for a return to politics proper. The media's fixation on Corbyn himself, on his clothing, his bike, and the other marginalia, is itself symptomatic of what the "desire named Corbyn" would contest and go beyond. 

*Yet 'perception' is a bit of a misnomer too, since whereas a 'perception' of, say, a tree means a real tree seen from a particilar angle, the perceptions engineered by spin and rhetoric are free-floating and create a substitute reality for public consumption.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Perennial Tropes of Anti-Left Rhetoric

The tropes of anti-Left rhetoric have scarcely changed in decades, and certainly very little since the 1980's when I started taking an interest in politics. There are a number of invariant motifs, some of which I've outlined below:

* The pretence that there is left wing dominance in the fields of opinion and education. Thus, the use of terms like ‘the left (or liberal) establishment’, ‘the left-liberal consensus’ etc. Correspondingly, the dramatisation of yourself as a beleaguered iconoclastic minority fighting an entrenched consensus. The most trite Daily Telegraph common sense passes itself off as courageous dissent

* The attribution to the left of a fixed and fanatical mindset. The enemy is in thrall to ideology, uses abstractions to measure reality, sees things in terms of a pre-conceived template etc.Corbyn as 'Ideologue.'

* The left is simulataneouly merely ‘fashionable’, or trendy, and a "throwback" to the 1970's/ 19th Century etc. 

* The left is equated with immaturity - "sixth form debating societies" "undergraduates" (Varoufakis as "Kevin the teenager") .

* Supporters of any left-winger figure are to be seen as 'cult' like, irrationally attached to their Leader. From Chomsky to Corbyn

*The left is always represented as ‘middle class’, imagined as isolated from the real world, dangerously naïve, treacherously permissive and implicitly unpatriotic (they are working against what the country stands for etc). In producing this spectre of the 'middle class' leftist, the Right simultaneously lays claim to a fake populism.

(n.b., Whereas you might think The Mail and The Times are middle class papers reflecting middle-class preoccupations, for The Right, 'the middle-class' are exclusively Guardian readers and the Guardian is the quintessentially middle class paper.)

* Any left wing person not also in poverty is necessarily a 'hypocrite', a champagne socialist etc Only conservatism is compatible with any degree of material wealth.

* discrediting the vocabulary of the left. The use of this vocabulary only ironically or contemptuously. For example, capitalism is never spoken of directly, but phrases like “They [the left] blame all this on the evils of capitalism” or “I suppose you think this is all about nasty American imperialism”. The insinuation that this vocabulary is only a set of empty phrases and slogans.

It can be seen that each of these motifs is both a portrait of an enemy (who threatens) and an implicit self-dramatisation. Thus: The attack on the spectral middle-class is also the declaration of a no-nonsense populism; opining about left-wing dominance in the media entails a corresponding stance of valiant dissent; the charges of fanatical rigidity and trendyness lay claim to a normal commonsense viewpoint; accusations of left-wing ‘jargon’ and ‘sloganeering’ are also about legitimising one’s own ‘natural’ and transparent language.

In every age the self-appointed commentariat try to pass off these rusty old ideological tools as the free products of their own brains.