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.

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