What do we think of when we imagine elites exercising their power? There are many ways we can approach such a question, with varying degrees of abstraction. But reading The Divide: American Injustice In The Age Of The Wealth Gap, by Matt Taibbi, has left me preoccupied by how they practice revenge. It’s easy to imagine our contemporary plutocrats having an impulse towards revenge, as we trundle ever more inexorably towards what appears to be a dark neo-feudal future. The structural constraints upon vengeance are weakening, reflecting the declining accountability of plutocrats, accompanied by a diminishing sense that such figures are part of the social order and bound by the same rules as those within it:

Such considerations can easily fuel a dystopian imagination, powerfully expressed in Peter Frase’s idea of exterminism. His concern is with the growing tendency of the rich to regard themselves as persecuted and seek to withdraw themselves from wider society. As he writes on loc 1471 of Four Futures:

But the construction of enclaves is not limited to the poorest places. Across the world, the rich are demonstrating their desire to escape from the rest of us. A 2013 article in Forbes magazine reports on the mania, among the rich, for evermore-elaborate home security. 11 An executive for one security company boasts that his Los Angeles house has security “similar to that of the White House.” Others market infrared sensors, facial recognition technologies, and defensive systems that spray noxious smoke or pepper spray. All this for people who, although rich, are largely anonymous and hardly prominent targets for would-be attackers.

Paranoid though they may seem, large numbers of the economic elite appear to regard themselves as a set-upon minority, at war with the rest of society. Silicon Valley is a hotbed of such sentiments, plutocrats talking openly about “secession.” In one widely disseminated speech, Balaji Srinivasan, the cofounder of a San Francisco genetics company, told an audience of start-up entrepreneurs that “we need to build opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology.” 12 For now, that reflects hubris and ignorance of the myriad ways someone like him is supported by the workers who make his life possible. But it demonstrates the impulse to wall off the rich from what are deemed to be surplus populations.

His suggestion is that such defensiveness might over time become offence. Not in the generic sense in which the accumulated privilege of the plutocrats necessarily entails a relationship of offence to wider society. But in the much darker sense of deliberately seeking to eliminate surplus populations. In a speculative but thought-provoking account, he draws together a diverse range of trends which collectively point towards the increasing willingness of elites to sanction intensifying violence against ever greater portions of their populations.

How seriously should we take this? I’m not sure. But I realise my interest in the revenge practices of elites is motivated by a concern to elucidate where our present conjuncture could one day lead. There’s a disturbing story in The Divide which the author summarises on pg 248:

The Fairfax fiasco is a tale of harassment on a grand scale, in which the cream of America’s corporate culture followed executives, burgled information from private bank accounts, researched the Canadians’ sexual preferences for blackmail purposes, broke into hotel rooms and left threatening messages, prank-called a cancer-stricken woman in the middle of the night, and even harassed the pastor of the staid Anglican church where the Canadian CEO worshipped on Sundays. They worked tirelessly to instigate phony criminal investigations in multiple countries, tried relentlessly to scare away investors and convince ratings agencies to denounce the firm, and in general spread so many lies and false rumors to so many people using so many different false names that they needed a spreadsheet to keep track of their aliases.

What’s so grim about this tale is the personal animus which seems to be at work here. As well as their initial financial motivations, they really want to destroy the life of the Fairfax chief for rather indiscernible reasons. The reporting isn’t complete by any means but it’s a fascinating and disturbing account of one of the most extreme examples of revenge by defensive elitists I’ve come across. I’d like to find and study more examples of this to better understand that characteristic defensiveness which I’m beginning to try and theorise, as well as where it might lead us in future.

In the last year, Facebook Live has been plagued by occasional headlines reporting on shocking instances of violence being streamed through the platform. The sporadic quality of these reports easily creates an impression that this is exception. There have always been violent crimes, right? Therefore it stands to reason that the spread of the platform would inevitably create occasional incidences in which it featured in such crimes. However as this BuzzFeed analysis makes clear, such incidences have been a regular occurrence on the platform since its inception:

Facebook Live has a violence problem, one far more troubling than national headlines make clear. At least 45 instances of violence — shootings, rapes, murders, child abuse, torture, suicides, and attempted suicides — have been broadcast via Live since its debut in December 2015, a new BuzzFeed News analysis found. That’s an average rate of about two instances per month.

When it launched, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted Live as “a great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.” But from its inception and over thee many months that followed that became darkly true — to terrible effect. Videos of shootings, murders, suicides, and rapes began to show up on Facebook with alarming regularity.


What should we make of this? There are important issues raised about the accountability of platforms, as Facebook have refused to comment on this trend and instead simply pointed to past statements by Mark Zuckerberg and their committed to hiring new moderators. But there is enough evidence of a relationship between Facebook Live and violence that we should take seriously the possibility that in some cases the platform might be contributing to crime generation rather than merely reflecting it.

The disturbing possibility invoked in the article is that there is a mimetic dynamic at work, as the possibility for immediate notoriety and a growing list of exemplars incline people towards horrific acts which might have remained embryonic without these two conditions:

Some criminologists worry that broadcasts of violent crimes to Facebook Live might lead perpetrators of violent crime to view the platform as a means of gaining infamy, bypassing the traditional filter of the media. “The most likely impact is that it’s going to be a model of how to distribute and immortalize your act,” Ray Surette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, told BuzzFeed News.

Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, agreed. “It’s making it easier for people to gain notoriety instantly without gatekeepers,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I definitely think there’s a mimetic effect.”


The mainstream media have previously been gatekeepers to such notoriety. But now it’s possible to achieve it through virality, assuming moderators prove unable to near immediately remove such videos. There’s an incredibly bleak book by Franco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, which offers useful resources for making sense of this possibility. He argues that mass murderers are “the extreme manifestation of one of the main trends of our age” involving “people who are suffering themselves, and who become criminals because this is their way both to express their psychopathic need for publicity and also to find a suicidal exit from their present hell” (pg 3).

In such crimes we see a “violent acting out, as disconnected from a conscious elaboration: just do it” (pg. 56) but one licensed by a desire for infamy. It is this fame which motivates the act, offering the possibility of transcending one’s own subordination by living on forever, showing them forever:

Like the large majority of the generation that has grown up in the Neoliberal decades, the young Eric Harris is totally persuaded that the strong have the right to win and predate. It is the natural philosophy that he has absorbed in the social environment in which he was educated, and it also the underlying rationale of the video games that he loved to play. But the young man knew very well that he was not going to be a winner in the social game. Instead, he decides that he will be a winner for a moment; I’ll kill and I’ll win; then I’ll die. The murderous action is conceived as revenge for the humiliation that he has suffered in the daily game of competition. (Pg 50)

The infamy is what ensures that victory will live on. It cannot be reversed. Through their actions they achieve the status they were constantly seeking yet could never receive within life. As with much work of this type, it’s speculative social science of a sort that can be critiqued on empirical grounds. But the underlying thesis is one we should take seriously: the promise of infamy coupled with the release of violently acting out is a socially produced temptation in a profoundly unequal society which valorises ‘winners’ while attacking ‘losers’. These exceptional acts need to be understood as extreme responses to social conditions which are pervasive.

If there is any accuracy to these claims, we ought to be extremely concerned about Facebook Live. The barriers to entry for Berardi’s ‘heroes’ are lowering radically: the pathway to infamy can be found in the everyday object of the smartphone, rather than being reliant on recognition from the mass media. What might seem like exceptional cases, inexplicable in terms of wider social forces, could in fact herald the dark future of mediatization.

Practitioners of social philosophy regard what they do as valuable, imbuing it with a sense of importance which is reflected in the often scholastic way in which readers cite and engage with such work. How seriously should we take this judgement? Does social philosophy have intrinsic worth? Or could it be considered a peculiar form of speculative journalism?

Reading a recent book by Matt Taibbi led me to reflect on this question for the first time in a while. After enjoying his account of the Trump election campaign, I’ve been working my way through his previous books. In The Divide he explores how rampant income inequality in America has reshaped the criminal justice system, creating a two-tier system which complicates traditional notions of equality before the rule of law. From pg 207:

In other words, there’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.

What struck me about this argument was how easily I could imagine it being advanced by someone like Zygmunt Bauman. The terminology would be different, the tone would be different and the context would be different. But the argument Taibbi develops in this book is one which converges with the thesis Bauman developed in books like Globalisation and Wasted Lives. In fact I’m pretty sure I could restate the core argument of Taibbi’s book in persuasively Bauman-esque language.

This is a period of Bauman’s work I really like, something I observe to make clear that this isn’t just another dismissal of the Liquid Modernity cottage industry. But reading Taibbi’s entertaining and informative book, I was left reflecting on whether social philosophy of this sort has intrinsic value over-and-above journalism of the kind Taibbi engages in. What does the abstraction actually contribute? We can easily delude ourselves into thinking that abstraction inevitably brings us closer to the truth beyond appearances, the way things really are. But it can also simply obfuscate, rendering partial judgements with an unclear empirical basis as authoritative statements about epochal change.

This isn’t an argument against social philosophy. It’s an attack on the implicit hierarchies expressed in how we compare it to other ways of telling about society. There’s much we can learn from exploratory investigative journalism that leads to social critique. But doing this requires we have the confidence to laugh in the face of those who might accuse of us of seeking to become “a mere journalist”:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

In the last few years, I’ve become a little obsessed with speed. It seems this often leaves me coming across like an accelerationist. I occasionally flirt with the idea that I’m a slightly peculiar form of left-accelerationist, but it’s more for rhetorical amusement than genuine conviction. In fact I find much of what’s written about the politics of speed inadequate, with my interest instead being in a political sociology of speed. By the former, I mean a valorisation or condemnation of speed, exploring the emancipatory potential in speed or seeking salvation through slowdown. By the latter, I mean an analysis of how speed is a vector through which power operates in social life. The concerns of the former often obstruct the analytical imperatives of the latter, though of course accelerationists inevitably address these questions as well.

What made me reflect on this was an interesting example I stumbled across in The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. On pg 127-128 he describes the enforced slowness which results from data-driven policing inspired by a ‘broken windows’ philosophy of crime:

If you’re charged with a crime, and you get notice of a court appearance, you have to show up to a packed room at an appointed time that in reality is only an approximate time. If it says 10: 30 a.m. on the notice, you may end up waiting three, four hours for your case to come before the judge. During that time you are permitted to do exactly one thing: sit in court and watch the action. There is no talking, sleeping, eating, or reading in any of the courtrooms like the one on Schermerhorn Street. You must pay attention to the judge at all times. Some of the judges are insanely touchy about these rules, too. Judge Charles Troia, a glowering dark-haired man who runs a courtroom on the eighth floor, has a particular mania for talkers and readers. He has his court officer bark out instructions on the matter repeatedly throughout the morning. “In case you missed the sign,” the officer yells out, “there’s no reading, eating, or sleeping. Listen up! It’s going to be a long night.” The ban on reading is particularly odd, given that some of the judges have literary ambitions. Judge John Wilson, who by the time this book is published will have moved from the Brooklyn courts to the Bronx, is notorious in this courtroom for having authored a children’s book called Hot House Flowers.

This looks like hyperactive activity when considered at the level of the police, with 22,000 people arrested for loitering in a typical year in New York City. But from the perspective of those regularly subject to such nuisance arrests, it’s profoundly decelerative, with one interviewee describing how “you come to court and you’ll sit there all day waiting for your name to be called” and how he had “probably sat ten hours in the three times” he had come to court (pg 125). This is an example of the chronopolitics of speed, something which manifests itself relationally within an institutional context. It’s hard to theorise if we remain on the level of treating speed as what Filip Vostal calls a ‘mega force’. For this reason our starting point needs to be the political sociology of speed rather than the politics of speed.

Later in the book he recounts the analogous experience of a welfare office. From pg 333-334:

On the morning of October 15, 2011, she shows up at the Seventy-Third Street office at 8: 30 a.m. It’s a giant hall with linoleum floors and plastic chairs—exactly what you’d expect, like a DMV, only even more depressing. There’s already a huge line of people. “People were standing up against the walls, there was people everywhere, all over, it was crazy,” she says. The drill is, you show up, take a number, and wait—and wait. Markisha takes her number and sits down. An hour passes, two hours. She has no idea when anyone is going to see her, and all the people in the packed room are in the same boat. Mothers with children are in the office, and by late morning the children are starting to get antsy because they haven’t eaten, but you can’t leave the place or you lose your spot in line. 

A chill goes through the room in the middle of the day when a woman steps outside the building to get a smoke and returns to find that her number has been called. She has to leave and come back another day. More hours pass. Markisha is squirming in her seat. By the late afternoon the crowd, which not only hasn’t subsided over the course of the day but has just gotten bigger, is turning hostile. At around three in the afternoon there’s a screaming match somewhere in the recesses of the office. Markisha can hear a man yelling at a welfare worker because a glitch in the system has cost him his benefits; something about a wrong address, which they’re telling him they can’t fix. He storms out of the office to oohs and aahs. 

By then the place is a zoo. “The kids is running around, because they hungry,” she says. “They’re running around, snatching stuff off the walls, drinking water, screaming.” The scene gets so intense, Markisha ends up pulling out her cell phone and taking a video panorama of the chaos. Nobody even blinks when they see her standing up filming the nightmare. You see all kinds of stuff in here: Who cares about some girl filming something? More hours pass. It’s after five now. A young Latin man just ahead of Markisha goes in and just as quickly is dragged out by security when he explodes at a worker after finding out he can’t get his food stamp card—Markisha doesn’t know why. “I’ve been here since eight o’clock in the morning and I’m still here after five o’clock!” he shouts. “I’m just coming for my EBT card! I need my EBT card!” Security drags him past Markisha, chucks him out the door. “I was like, dang,” she says. “I didn’t know what to think.” Finally, at 5: 30, after nine hours, Markisha is shown into an office where a bored-looking older black woman stares blankly at her from behind a mass of papers.

From pg 335:

But the kicker is, if you get all the way through the process, and actually get your meeting, and you get approved, they then tell you to go home and sit tight for your P100 search. And they don’t tell you when that will be, except to say that it’s generally within a week and a half. You then have to be at home at all times until they show up—it’s like sitting shivah, except you have to do it for more than a week. “If the investigator shows up and no one’s there,” says Halpern, “they shove a card under your door that says, ‘We could not verify your eligibility,’ and you don’t get your benefits.”

From pg 344:

Two is that there’s an explosion of errors that are infinitely more difficult and more expensive to sort out than they would be if someone with personal knowledge of the case was involved from the jump. Now there’s an endless parade of Annas and Diegos and Markishas filing formal appeals with the state, explaining their whole life stories from the start in each meeting, instead of just calling a caseworker on the phone, reminding them of a fact or two, and having them change a number on a screen. The system therefore clearly doesn’t really work for the state, either. It’s like opening a hospital where no doctor could ever see the same patient twice—the bureaucratic version of Memento, where the characters have to go back in time to re-create a whole universe of facts from the beginning in each new scene.

Much of the reaction to Labour’s election success last week has been framed in terms of their ‘rewriting the rules’. One particularly explicit example of this can be seen in an article by Jonathan Freedland, an enthusiastic critic of Corbyn, pontificating that Corbyn took “the traditional political rulebook” and “put it through the shedder”. What are these rules that had formerly seemed so influential?

  1. Young people don’t vote. Any enthusiasm you create with them will come to nothing because they won’t turn out on election day.
  2. UKIP voters are Tories. If UKIP ceases to be viable then most would switch to the Conservatives.
  3. Divided parties never win elections. Unless a party can pull together at the local and national level, it can’t achieve success.
  4. Economic credibility is crucial. If a party is not perceived as being economically competent then there is no chance voters will trust it.

There are certainly more rules like this. The conventional rulebook wouldn’t have proved so influential if it only had four points in it. But where do these rules come from? How is this conventional wisdom formed? How does it become so influential that the metaphor of the ‘rulebook’, adhered to by all ‘serious’ commentators and operators, can be taken seriously?

Part of the answer lies in the fixation on the ‘political centre ground’ which is embedded in the dominant wisdom of Labour modernisers. The first cohort fought and won against the Labour left in the 1980s. The second cohort grew up in the Labour establishment moulded by these predecessors. The internal struggles of the 1980s cast a long shadow over them all, a fight to drag the party to a political location and then keep it there. As Alex Nunns describes it on loc 4468 of The Candidate:

The political centre ground, in this view, appears as a clearing in a forest—a fixed location—and politics is a simple orienteering exercise where the parties are given a map and a compass and told to go and find it. Occasionally they inexplicably wander off into the woods and have to be scolded by journalists until they take their navigation task seriously again. The great, unpredictable social and economic forces that constantly sculpt new historical terrain are, in this Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme version of politics, merely gusts of wind that must not blow the parties off course. Nothing changes.

Despite this professed concerned for ‘what works’, adherents of the political rulebook often display a remarkable lack of empirical interest in the political world. This can produce odd juxtapositions, such as the Blairite candidate Liz Kendall being backed by supporters who saw “understanding what it takes to win an election” as the most important characteristic of being a leader while all the available data suggested her chosen tactics for winning the leadership election were heralding no success whatsoever. The invocation of ‘what works’, the celebration of oneself as pragmatist foregoing childish moral indulgence in pursuit of success, licenses a weird disregard for how the world works. This is I think because it’s not pragmatism in any meaningful sense but ideology. The political centre ground is a theory of politics. Furthermore, it’s a painfully simplistic theory of politics unable to adapt to changing circumstances. As Nunns goes on to write on loc 4484,

The trouble with such a static, ahistorical view is that it is unable to account for new phenomena, much less understand people’s motivations for acting in unexpected ways. So when hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously decided they had other priorities than hopelessly trudging around looking for a centre ground that, mysteriously, kept moving further away, these professional political pundits could only dismiss them as either insane or self-indulgent.

Such a theory of politics resists falsification. It in its original context, it reflected a degree of engagement with the world around its progenitors. In a important sense, New Labour started as a psephological analysis of a changing electorate and a tactical case about engagement with the media. Over time, it became folk wisdom, espoused by all ‘serious’ people as a way to demonstrate their seriousness, increasingly cutting it off from any meaningful analysis of the circumstances in which their serious business was being conducted. It might resist falsification but its advocates greedily seized upon confirmation. As Nunns points out, Labour’s continued rightward shift yielded little success at two elections, but the eventual victory of 1997 was taken as a sign that the moderniser’s case was correct all along. They had vanquished their foes on the left and, what is more, no ‘serious’ person could doubt they were right to do so. Perhaps there’s a risk that this hubris be repeated by the Labour left today. Everything I say below stands in my mind as a caution about what is to come, as well as an account of what has passed.

This analysis had become a folk theory, so obviously correct that repudiations of it could no longer be taken seriously. The culmination of this process was the ascendency of Cameron, the heir to Blair, who made the same case in relation to his own party, albeit primarily with regards to social issues rather than economic ones. Much like the Labour modernisers, what become an article of faith originally began as a psephological analysis, developed through the polling of Lord Ashcroft, appointed Deputy Chairman of the Conservatives under David Cameron. The intellectual case these originators assented to became a point of division and contention within the party, as people flocked to join their cause or lashed out against it. What interests me are the subtle changes that occur as groups are led to defend or attack reflective arguments and how this changes how people relate to such arguments. My contention is that a theory of politics that was already relatively immune to falsification becomes a guarded axiom unable to be seriously considered or any longer reflected upon.

This was the process by which a reflective analysis of political change transmuted into a folk theory and ossified even further into the political rule book. How was this reinforced by media commentators? After all, it’s their discursive power which is so crucial to accepted/acceptable accounts of ‘how things are’ in politics. At one level, it can be explained in terms of the patronage networks that exist between senior politicians and senior journalists. As Nunns writes of Andrew Rawnsley’s contempt for Corbny on loc 4406, “Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion—with considerable skill—the books and journalism that had won him acclaim”. But there’s a broader process at work, insightfully captured by Phil BC in this post. I’ve quoted the relevant section at length here but please do read the whole thing in full:

Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that’s what appears to matter – it’s where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn’t on the radar, because they don’t see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It’s all such a sideshow to Parliament’s main event.

A similar sort of process is at work with our professional Westminster watchers, but is ramped up to a higher degree. Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that’s what appears to matter – it’s where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn’t on the radar, because they don’t see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It’s all such a sideshow to Parliament’s main event.

This focus is also bounded by the media the commentators produce. Famously, the BBC take its lead for what the hot politics stories are from the front pages of the broadsheets. Likewise, hacks in other operations parasite off the BBC and each other to fill the schedules, put stuff out, and meet the insatiable appetite for hot takes. The result is little time for thinking, a scramble for a story or an original angle, and a tendency toward herding thanks to the recursive universe generated from the quantum foam of chatter. It produces a mode of thought that is based entirely on appearance without trying to understand what may lie behind what immediately presents itself. For instance, the Tories are the new party of the working class because minimum wage rises. Labour’s members have foisted the disaster onto the party because atomised members of the public tell focus groups. There is no sense of movement, little idea that parties as expressions of interest evolve and move, nor that the people who support them, actively or passively, have connections with multitudes of normal people that can pull, persuade, cajole masses of them and transform them into a collective that starts making its own history. As none of them regularly go on the doors outside of the capital, they have to rely on what the pollsters tell them and, as we saw last night, only two of the established firms come out of the election with any sort of credit.


Thus we have the ‘political rulebook’, the framework within which political reality is interpreted, adhered to by all serious political figures and commentators. It’s empiricism of a particularly stupid sort, oblivious to its own theoretical underpinnings and all the more dangerous for it. It maps the most superficial contours of political life in order to better navigate one’s way towards the mythical centre ground and for no other purpose. In the next post of this series, I’m going to consider what it is about opinion polling that lends itself to such uses, what the consequences are for political leadership and how economic depoliticisation plays a role in propping the whole thing up.

If this is an accurate account, it’s remarkable that he seemingly remains devoid of bitterness about this treatment. From The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, loc 6251:

“You are not fit to be prime minister,” the widely unknown Bridget Phillipson tells Corbyn. “It’s time to be honest with yourself. You’re not a leader. You need to go for the sake of the party,” remarks Ivan Lewis. “You are a critical threat to the future of the Labour Party,” chimes in Jamie Reed. “You’re not uniting the party. You’ve got no vision. The only person who can break this logjam is you by resigning,” pronounces Chris Bryant. “You’re not just letting the party down, but the whole country,” declares Labour’s only Scottish representative, Ian Murray. When he claims—without evidence—that his staff in Edinburgh have been “intimidated” by members of Momentum, another MP shouts “Scumbags!” Murray tells Corbyn to “call off the dogs.”

It’s conventional wisdom that Corbyn’s leadership campaign was the target of brutal coverage by the media. I was interested to learn in The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, that this wasn’t quite how the campaign itself saw the situation. Understanding why can help elucidate the surprise that was #Election2017. From loc 4591-4556:

Ask some of Corbyn’s allies about the press coverage they received during the leadership contest and a surprising response comes back. “There are very few campaigns on the left that I’ve been involved in where we’ve had good press,” says Jon Lansman, “but this is one of them.” His definition of “good press” is unconventional, a variation on ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ Of course there was hostility, but the campaign managed to connect with its intended Labour audience in spite of it. “We always made the agenda. The others didn’t get a look in. We were the story throughout.” It was all about Corbyn. Because of the scale of interest, the campaign’s press officers found that along with the dross came greater opportunities to place their stories in the media than would normally be afforded to a left candidate. “The majority of things we tried to land landed, and in the ways we wanted them to land,” says James Mills, who was seconded to the press team from CWU. Whatever was being thrown at them, Team Corbyn pushed on with scheduled policy announcements, getting out a positive message that Mills believes cut through.

This dynamic within the print media played out in turn within the broadcast media. Not only were the campaign setting the agenda, with journalists responding in ever greater numbers to the issues they were raising, it led to increasing television coverage which highlighted the mismatch between the construction of Corbyn as a dangerous radical and the nice beardy chap who no one could really take much of a personal dislike to. From loc 4530:

Broadcast media followed a journalistic agenda that was still largely set by newspapers, despite the precipitous decline in their circulation. But broadcast had an inbuilt corrective missing from print—viewers and listeners could see and hear Corbyn for themselves. “They threw everything at Jeremy and it was so over the top that when he came on TV you expected him to be a combination of all sorts of villains,” says McDonnell. “When he came across as just a nice bloke answering questions honestly, that was it.”

This is something which the media themselves could be drawn into. As Phil BC insightfully pointed out some time ago, professional commentators are prone to confuse an absence of the presentational skills common amongst the political elite with a profound naïveté, as if Corbyn and McDonnell hadn’t spent their entire lives negotiating the political machine with some success from a position of marginality. As he asked in response to media astonishment at McDonnell’s apparent competence in his first speech at a Labour conference as Shadow Chancellor, “Were they really expecting him to commit Labour to a programme legislating for full communism?”

An escalating media campaign against Corbyn brought him endless ‘earned’ media, while offering an opportunity for the public to make up their own mind about the hyperbolic cliches in terms of which such media warfare was inevitably fought. If he got dragged into this, perhaps punching back against the onslaught, he likely would have been torn apart as self-defence would be cast as ‘gaffes’ and replayed endlessly. But by choosing to ignore media condemnation, in a way analogous to but different from Trump, it could be exploited for the benefit of the campaign. A similar effect was at work with denunciations from within the party. After Blair’s famous speech in which he attacked members drawn towards Corbyn as needing a heart transplant, the campaign saw an immediate influx of donations and volunteers.

I’d like to understand the mechanisms at work here: when do media attacks have their desired effect and when do they simply drive welcome coverage of a candidate? How does social media work to undermine the former and bring about he latter? One clear effect is that fighting back against this media onslaught can provide a way for followers to participate. There are legitimate issues which can be raised around ‘digital activism’ but I find it plausible that this social media activity helped the campaign consolidate, amplified its message and drew people into ‘offline’ participation. Though how, if at all, these effects worked to blunt media attacks is a more complex question. From loc 4530-4545:

Perhaps the most important factor explaining why the press onslaught backfired was the existence of social media. The old press no longer enjoyed a monopoly on having a voice. Through Facebook and Twitter ordinary people could critique and rebut journalists’ output directly. “Every time the mainstream media attacked Jeremy the social media shield would go up around him, bat it off, and get to the truth of the matter,” says Marshajane Thompson. Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 per cent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of the other candidates. 78 “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more,” believes Ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation run by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips).

There was an interesting finding before the election that there were more Labour tweeters who also tended to tweet more. There is a wide network, retweeting Labour candidates, with a larger and sustained focus on Corbyn than was the case with the Conservatives. Identifying what role this played in the general election will be central to understanding the rise of Corbyn. My suggestion is that the use of social media in the earlier leadership election would be a useful place to begin this inquiry.

How has social media contributed to the growing success of Corbynism? In asking this question, we risk falling into the trap of determinism by constructing ‘social media’ as an independent force bringing about effects in an otherwise unchanged world. This often goes hand-in-hand with what Nick Couldry calls ‘the myth of us’, framing social media in terms of the spontaneous sociality it allegedly liberates as previously isolated people are able to come together through the affordances of these platforms. It’s easy to see how one could slip into seeing digital Corbynism in these terms: the power of social media allowed ordinary labour members to come together and take their party back from the Blairite bureaucrats. Such a view would be profoundly misleading. But social media has been crucial to events of the last few years in the Labour party. The challenge is how we can analyse this influence without allowing ‘social media’ to take centre stage.

It’s useful to see these issue in terms of institutional changes within the Labour party. Membership had declined from 405,000 in 1997 to 156,000 in 2009. The election of Ed Miliband in 2010, with his union-backing and soft-left presentation, led to a surge of 46,000 new members. This stabilised throughout the parliament, with continued new members replacing those who left or lapsed, before another small surge took membership past 200,000 in the run up to the 2015 election (loc 377). The fact this influx of new members took place while social media was on the ascendancy in the UK implies no relationship between the two trends. But it’s interesting to note that substantial numbers of new (or returning) members were coming into the party at precisely the moment when new tools and techniques for interacting with each other and with the party itself were coming to be available.

It is convenient for some to blame social media for how events unfolded. We see this view reflected in the complaints of some on the Labour right that the nomination for Corbyn in the first place represented MPs crumbled under an orchestrated social media onslaught. However as Nunns ably documents, we can see a clear political calculus at work in many cases, with many feeling the need to keep the left onside, within their constituencies and beyond. In some cases, he speculates, such pressure provided an excuse to act on pre-existing concerns. There can be a cynical aspect to attributing causal power to social media, deflecting the assertion of incoming members and refusing to engage with developing trends that might threaten one’s political self-interest.

However what fascinates me is those for whom these events were inexplicable. In a way, it is a flip side of attributing power to social media, even if there might also be a cynical aspect to such a judgement. We account for events we don’t understanding by blaming a mysterious new element (‘social media’) which interrupted something that was previously harmonious. If these events are seen as inexplicable, what does it say about the person making the judgement? As Nunns observes, it was the subterranean nature of Corbyn’s early campaign which allowed later mass rallies and mass actions to appear as if they were the work of some malign outside agency. The processes through which he gathered support were largely invisible to party insiders and this rendered the eventual outcomes close to inexplicable.

Hence the preponderance of bewildered lashing out, vacuous psychologising and conspiratorial theorising about a planned influx of far-left activists. These tendencies are more pronounced when the activity in question is disorganised. As Corbyn’s press spokesperson described the leadership campaign, this central organisation which sought to direct national activity was often “at the reins of a runaway horse”. To a certain extent these incoming groups were disorganised, sometimes acting in ways which reflected that, striking fear in the heart of some MPs familiar with limited contact with ‘the public’ under strictly defined conditions. These ‘normal people’ might prove baffling to career politicians:

We can see a positive myth of us and a negative myth of us, defined by a shared belief that social media has facilitated a transformation of the Labour party. Where they differ is in whether that involves authentic members taking their party back or outside agitators invading the party with malign intent. If we want to understand the role of social media in bringing about Corbyn’s ascent, we need to reject both and look more deeply into how the new tools and techniques they offered were just one amongst many factors in bringing about a profound transformation in British politics.

In the last couple of days, I’ve been reading The Candidate by Alex Nunns. It’s a detailed and insightful account of Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour party and the conditions which made this possible. After the election, it can also be read as as an analysis of broader conditions which might facilitate Corbyn’s ascendency to government. What both events share is their unsettling of political assumptions, as nascent transformations in political life made themselves felt for the first time in outcomes which professional observers of politics dismissed as impossibilities.

There’s an insightful discussion in The Candidate of this infamous dismissal of Labour members as ‘morons’ by Blairite apparatchik John McTernan. It took place in the run up to the leadership election when the first authoritative poll gave Corbyn a huge advantage over his rivals:

What fascinates Nunns about this is how the bewilderment of the presenters led them to so openly reveal their biases. The underlying assumptions which bind together establishment worlds of politics and the media stand repudiated by these events and the presenters “struggle to keep their journalistic footing for five minutes of balanced analysis, even as the political terrain falls away beneath them” (loc 4070). As he goes on to observe on loc 4086:

In such moments of political flux, when a sudden development cannot be made to fit into the standard patterns of reporting used to depict the world, underlying biases are revealed. The genuine shock evinced in the Newsnight studio was reflected across the media; the shared assumptions and sympathies echoed in the vast bulk of the reporting and commentary that followed.

We have seen a lot of political flux in recent years. It would be absurdly inaccurate to see this uncertainty as something unique to the 21st century. There have been many other periods of world history characterised by a similar degree of uncertainty, as well as the the obvious point that ‘our’ certainty has often been ‘their’ uncertainty e.g. military adventurism during a relatively stable period of British politics. So by ‘political flux’, I mean events which can’t be incorporated into the intellectual frameworks dominant within the media and politics, usually taking place within national politics but sometimes aggregating together like an outflowing of nested bubbles across the globe.

But I believe media saturation represents a turning point because it leaves events unfolding more quickly, due to the affordances of digital communications, as well as folding back bewildered commentary into those events themselves. The political terrain can fall apart much more quickly and we can many more conversations in the period of time in which it is falling apart. There has been a qualitative and quantitative change in how such moments of uncertainty are constituted, as well as how they can generate new events.

Under these circumstances, I’m increasingly convinced there are new openings for public intellectuals. Probably not for hedgehogs but rather for foxes: discursive power falters in these moments of uncertainty and there’s new opportunities for influence available to those who can quickly and plausibly offer sophisticated explanations of events & maps of ways forward while the existing arbiters of political reality are quite openly wondering what the fuck is going on. There is a place opening up for a new kind of intellectual here. Can the established conditions of critical social thought give rise to it?

The notion of relational authoriality, which consistency demands I acknowledge emerged in conversations with Jana Bacevic, conveys a relational realist perspective on the question of authorship. It rejects the notion of the liberal individual as the origin of a text while continuing to insist that there is a definite causal story to be told about the emergence of any text, encompassing individuals and the relations between them. Relational authoriality stresses how creative production happens through interaction, direct or mediated, between individuals who care about what they discuss. People debate, discuss and digress about things that matter to them. It’s this concern to enter into dialogue, sometimes with the parties involved changing as a result of the process, which provides the relational underpinning to creative production. It might be that a particular individual takes forward this raw material, running with it and placing their mark on it in a way which leads to it being recognised as theirs. But this simple wouldn’t be possible without these prior networks, acting as the creative ecology within which individual authorship becomes feasible. Every completed act of authorship has its own history of emergence and accurate accounts of it will lead back to individuals, interactions and relations.

I was led to think back to this line of thought when reading Shattered: Inside Hilary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. As is often the case, speeches and speech writing figure prominently in the book. I’ve read a lot of campaign books over the years and I’ve always been gripped by these details. In part this is because political speeches are such a crucial part of the politician’s craft, with their (perceived) success or failure being integral to the fluctuating fortunes of political careers. This isn’t simply an American phenomenon. Consider the acclaim which greeted David Cameron’s 2005 conference speech, delivered without a lectern or notes, widely seen to have tipped the leadership contest in his favour. We can see a parallel in Ed Milliband’s first conference speech as Labour leader. Much of the increasing ‘plausibility’ of Corbyn as a political leader, at least amongst the commentariat, rests on the increasingly polished way in which he delivers speeches.

Why does this matter so much? There are many reasons why accomplished delivery are valued in an age of media-saturated politics. But I wonder if a fetish of delivery reflects a denial of relational authoriality. In reality, all who have considered it must surely recognise that politicians do not straight-forwardly write their own speeches, allowing them to meaningfully claim ownership of them in an individualistic sense. These are team efforts, at best produced through careful collaboration between committed partners and at worst produced mechanically through committees. We can see the character of politicians, as well as the nature of the organisations they inhabit, reflected in how they approach these challenges. Contrast the dialogical collaboration between Obama and trusted aides with the byzantine, sometimes conflicting, structures which Clinton often established for speech writing. But these are subtle judgements, pointing to relational authoriality rather than individual authorship, which sit uneasily within the individualistic frame of ‘political leadership’. We fetishise delivery of speeches, as well as the perceived strength of the individuals who delivery them, as the spiralling complex of governance ever more outstrips the capacities of the ‘strong leaders’ we praise.

How do we explain the election of Donald Trump? Far too much of the media’s response to this question has been to take Trump’s account of his own powers at face value. This scion of the elite, who never felt at home amongst the elite into which he was born, imagines himself as able to work with kings yet not lose the common touch. His use of Twitter is integral to this fantasy, resting on the illusion of unmediated interaction with everyday Americans. But the biographies I’ve read of Trump in recent months make me wonder if it goes further than this, reflecting an identification he has cultivated since his early years as a young man who felt out of place, with endless meetings with ‘ordinary people’ facilitated by his work with his father. Either way, as Jan-Werner Müller cautions in this excellent essay, we need to avoid taking the account of figures like Trump at face value:

While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics. 

There are many features of our political context which remain obscure if we uncritically accept Trump’s narrative of his own success. This crucial essay by Mike Davis captures many of them: the results of Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression, flight of funders away from the Presidential race towards House and Senate, investment in state-focused political think tanks, the electoral peculiarity of the American system and the psephological particularity of the result. 

However the most important feature is perhaps the weakness of the Clinton campaign. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes report in their Shattered, the Clinton campaign deliberately sought to avoid substantive engagement with the working-class electorate, so long dormant within American politics, which Trump’s campaign successfully mobilised. From pg 193:

One of the lessons Mook and his allies took from Michigan was that Hillary was better off not getting into an all-out war with her opponent in states where non-college-educated whites could be the decisive demographic. In Michigan, they believed, Hillary’s hard campaigning had called attention to an election that many would-be voters weren’t paying attention to, and given Bernie a chance to show that his economic message was more in line with their views. So Mook’s clique looked at the elevation of the Michigan primary—poking the sleeping bear of the white working class—as a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. “That was a takeaway that we tried to use in the general,” said one high-ranking campaign official.

Their analytics driven campaign was orientated towards tactical advantage in each state during the primaries, leaving them to ignore the large swathes of rural and/or working class voters whose disengagement rarely registered empirically in political models. From pg 130-131:

Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player—a senator, a governor, or a former president—could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data—he loved poring over political numbers—but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics.

What engagement took place was largely tone-deaf, reflecting the limitations of public opinion research, the insulated world of political operatives and the limitations of campaign structures which reinforced orthodoxy. Any account of the virtues of Trump’s campaign needs to be supplemented by an account of the weakness of Hilary Clinton’s.

While many see the term ‘curation’ as modish and vague, I see it as an important concept to make sense of how we can orientate ourselves within a changing cultural landscape. However I can sympathise with the thrust of these objections, in so far as they take issue with a sense of curation tied in with the worship of the new. Such a use of the term is possibly dominant, framing the curatorial imperative (selecting from available variety through filtering, commentary and evaluation) as a specialisation which emerges to cope with the late modern world. If we frame curation in this way, we miss out on the opportunity to explore how it has changed over time. See for example Nick Couldry’s Media, Self, World loc 1732:

Some literary cultures have been distinguished by the richness of their practices of commentary: the Jewish tradition of cabbala is frequently cited, but the ancient world’s general scarcity of textual objects meant that written manuscripts often reached people with the commentary of previous readers’ (so-called ‘scholiasts’) embedded within them, a tradition which reaches us now via the comments written in medieval versions of Greek texts.
Now we are entering an age of commentary for the opposite reason: because of the almost infinite proliferation of things to read and look at, we need to send signals to help each other select from the flux. At the same time, and for related reasons, our ability to send comments and signals has been massively extended by digital media: we take it for granted that by emailing or uploading a link we can point at something interesting we have just read and so alert someone on the other side of the world. The scope of commentary as a practice has been massively enlarged.

It is important that we can address problems and opportunities created by specific technologies without circumscribing our accounts in a way that limits them to these technologies. If we do so, we fail to recognise the continuities and we are inevitably left with anaemic conceptions of the human and the social which tend to be exhausted by the social-technical. From loc 1534 of Couldry’s book:

From searching, other practices quickly develop: practices of exchanging information by forwarding weblinks to family, friends or work colleagues, warehousing sites that collect recommendations from users so other users can narrow down their search practice (Digg, etc.), and tools for pre-ordered searches (RSS feeds and other alerts). These various search-enabling practices are increasingly prominent in everyday life as people seek to optimize their access to the vastly expanded flow of potentially relevant information. Their dispersed agency (anyone can forward a link or signal that they ‘like’ a post) contrasts with earlier centuries’ ways of disseminating interesting material: for example, the ancient and medieval world’s florilegia produced by groups of scholars, often in monasteries, who collected interesting quotes from otherwise obscure books into new volumes. Now not only do individuals (from their computers or phones, wherever they are) make the recommendations, but system interfaces, such as Digg and reddit, enable them to recommend cumulatively. Some commentators hope that ‘collaborative filtering’ and other collective forms of information sorting can challenge the dominance of Google and even create new forms of social bond.

How do we ensure we recognise these contrasts? How can we explore them in a way which allows us to productively theorise continuities and differences? There’s a fascinating meta-theoretical challenge here which I’d like to engage with seriously in future.

Reading Shattered, an account of Hilary Clinton’s failed election campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, I’ve been struck by how limited political modelling has proved in recent elections. This had been in the case in the 2008 primary contest with Obama, in which the unprecedented character of his candidacy (as well as the candidate himself) repudiated the assumptions built into the campaign’s models. From pg 132:

By the time in 2008 that she realized Obama had a better strategy for racking up delegates by dominating her in low-turnout caucus states and among African American voters, it was way too late for her to reverse the cold mathematical reality of her defeat. In that year, African Americans had voted as a bloc in southern primaries, delivering massive delegate hauls to Obama.

We can see similar tendencies throughout the 2016 campaign. The primary challenge provided by Bernie Sanders confounded expectations, as can be in his mobilisation of first-time primary voters in Iowa. From pg 116:

Reading the data in the boiler room, members of the analytics team were surprised by the reports on new registrants. The overall number was a little more than they had expected. But they had also underestimated the margins for Bernie. The first-timers were breaking 90 percent to 10 percent in his favor. Running the data through their models, they could see why the race was so tight.

The subsequent developments are a good example of the practical implications of such changes. The campaign can overcome such failures but, through doing so, might fail to learn the lessons. From pg 116:

Hillary’s get-out-the-vote team on the ground, bolstered by a handful of talented veteran organizers, had been built with the expectation that Bernie wouldn’t do as well as he did. They overperformed, and their work had bailed out the analytics squad. That was good news in that Hillary had eluded defeat, but the outcome served to obscure flaws in Elan Kriegel’s modeling—namely, that it hadn’t correctly accounted for the number of new registrants or the degree to which they would break for Hillary—and Mook’s corresponding allocation of resources for in-person contact with caucus-goers. “The seeds of what we see across the campaign were present there,” said one person familiar with the campaign’s strategy and tactics. “It was a warning sign that they just barely scraped by, and I don’t think they took that seriously.”

If we rely on past and present data to predict future events, the weakness of the model we use will reside in its capacity to cope with genuine novelty. One response to this might be to account for such novelty as once-in-a-lifetime chance occurance. But one of the conclusions we might draw from the Centre for Social Ontology’s Social Morphogenesis project is that social novelty is being generated at an ever-increasing rate. In large part this is because novelty breeds more novelty: the unprecedented character of Obama’s candidacy generated novelty in ideological form, political constituency, electoral methodology and communications strategy. This novel campaign then provides the backdrop for Hilary’s failed campaign, transforming the inherited context to a much greater degree than any campaign did prior to Bill’s own.

This might seem like a unnecessarily abstract way of saying politics is becoming more unpredictable. But I think it’s important that we attempt to account for that unpredictability, its origins, character and consequences. The question which really fascinates me is who will be empowered if, as seems likely, these failures trend towards ubiquity. In light of this, it’s interesting to observe how closely Donald Trump’s instincts converged with Bill Clinton’s. From pg 128-129:

Neither a traditional poll nor Mook’s preferred analytics—voter-behavior models based on surveys and demographic data—were as finely tuned as his own sense of political winds, Bill thought. They were an important part of a modern campaign but not the only part. “You couldn’t place all of your eggs in the data/polling basket,” one of Bill’s confidants said of his thinking. “He had the ability to sort of figure out what’s going on around him, to sort of take everyone’s feedback and synthesize it and measure [it] along with his experience and then report back.” Bill had done this thing twice. His handle on politics was as natural as Jimi Hendrix’s feel for the guitar. Hillary couldn’t grasp the sentiment of the electorate, the resentfulness white working-and middle-class Americans felt watching the wealthy rebound quickly from the 2008 economic crisis while their families struggled through a slow recovery. Her team didn’t really get it, either.

And from pg 130-131:

Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player—a senator, a governor, or a former president—could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data—he loved poring over political numbers—but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics.

In a recent editorial in Current Sociology, Michael Burawoy warns about what he describes as the ascent of the spiralists. He finds these figures throughout the UC Berekely administration, accusing them of being “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. There are naive spiralists and experienced spiralists but between them they are transforming the university system:

Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

His analysis of the spiralists is heavily focused upon higher education:

Spiralism is not a function of pathological individuals but of an executive class who conceive of themselves as visionary innovators with new financial models, traversing the globe in search of  private investors while complaining about recalcitrant legislatures and conservative faculty. They  blame everyone but themselves for the plight of the university.

However I think the concept has a broader purchase than this. Reading the recent account of Hilary Clinton’s failed campaign, Shattered, I was struck by how many of the key figures could be seen as spiralists in this sense. In their concern for their own advancement, seeing the campaign in terms of opportunities to position themselves for their next job, the possibility for collective purpose  amongst the top operatives was fatally undermined.

It’s a descriptively rich concept but it’s also an explanatory one. How does the concentration of spiralists shape organisational outcomes? Under what conditions will spiralists be attracted to organisations? Can certain sorts of organisations ever redeem and transform spiralists? The editorial Burawoy offers doesn’t delve into these questions but the concept he offers is a potentially powerful one. 

It could be read superficially as an implied contrast between instrumental rationality and value rationality. But I think it’s more subtle than that. It points to particular intended and actual trajectories through organisations, opening up the relations between spiralists and their unintended consequences for the spiralists themselves and the organisations they work within.

How significant can a tweet can be? We can point to isolated cases of individual tweets going viral, creating controversy and producing material outcomes in the world. But isolated tweets rarely have such significance. Instead, we need to look at a Twitter feed as a unit of analysis, taking someone’s entire output on the platform as a sustained trajectory of action. This is precisely what Peter Oborne and Tom Roberts do in How Trump Thinks: His Tweets And the Birth of a New Political Language. It’s not a systematic analysis and there are clear limits to it e.g. the failure to state any principles upon which selections have been made from Trump’s output. But I found it a thought-provoking book, both in terms of understanding Trump’s self-formation as a political figure and how we might approach Twitter methodologically.

There are trivial though interesting biographical details which can be ascertained about Trump through the examination of the feed. For instance the consistency with which he tweets extremely early in the morning and very late at nights lends credence to his claim about sleeping little. Looking at how these tweets are sequenced raises fascinating questions about how Trump spends his time and the psychological state in which he takes to social media. From loc 4084:

In this extraordinary sequence of Tweets, despatched in less than two hours before dawn on 4 March, Donald Trump accused his predecessor of illegally tapping his phone and of being malevolent or mentally ill; attempted to conflate Obama’s routine meetings with the Russian Ambassador at the White House with Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s undeclared discussions during the election with the representative of a foreign power; and poured scorn on Arnold Schwarzenegger for his failure to sustain Trump’s TV franchise.

As they say, “Twitter is the medium which allows Trump to expose these thoughts to the world in real time”. Uses of Twitter which seems ill-judged can reveal much more about the user than their learned capacity to deploy it for personal gain. But the more important features, to which Osborne devotes much of his attention, concern his evolving strategy and relationship to the platform. He offers a plausible narrative of Trump coming to find his voice on Twitter, a process tied up with his developing preoccupation with the power of the platform and the reach it affords him:

My twitter account is now reaching more people than the New York Times-not bad. And we’re only going to get better! 11:14 AM –4 Apr 2012

With almost 1.3 million followers and rising really fast, everyone is asking me to critique things(and people). Finally, I will be a critic. 11:41 AM –11 Jun 2012

Today we just passed 1.4 million twitter followers.. 11:09 AM –23 Aug 2012

Happy to have just passed 1.3M Twitter followers. Love communicating with everyone daily. 3:51 PM –2 Jul 2012

Today we just passed 1.4 million twitter followers.. 11:09 AM –23 Aug 2012

Happy to have just passed 1.5M followers on twitter. We picked up over 14,000 yesterday alone. It’s great to speak to everyone daily. 10:31 AM –4 Oct

My twitter followers will soon be over 2 million-& all the “biggies.” It’s like having your own newspaper. 10:07 AM –17 Oct 2012

Wow, I have just exceeded 2 million followers-and in such a short time! 10:38 AM –14 Jan 2013

Obviously in no sense does he ‘reach’ this headline figure. There is a revealing naïveté about how he treats this follower count, something it is hard to ascribe to a strategy of simply trumpeting his own demonstrable advance in social media status. We can’t know that he cares about this stuff. But the evidence suggests that he does. His preoccupation with the size of his following is allied with an irritation that not all the reaction he generates is positive:

It’s okay but why do the haters (& losers) want to follow me on twitter?? Get a life! 1:39 PM –12 Feb 2013

My Twitter has been seriously hacked-and we are looking for the perpetrators. 12:00 PM –21 Feb 2013

Twitter will soon be irrelevant if lowlifes are so easily able to hack into accounts. 1:57 PM –21 Feb 2013

I have many great people but also an amazing number of haters and losers responding to my tweets-why do these lowlifes follow nothing to do! 3:34 AM –24 Apr 2013

Wow, I’m at 2,200,000 followers but I’d love to get rid of the haters & losers—they’re such a waste of time! 11:50 AM –25 Apr 2013

But it ultimately seems to be worth it. On numerous occasions he draws the analogy between his personal platform on social media and owning a newspaper. When he enters the presidential race, he styles social media as facilitating his one-man fight back against a crooked established which is stacked against him. Driven by the value he finds in the platform, he continues to celebrate numerical milestones as his Twitter career continues:

“@Heaveenly: @realDonaldTrump how does it feel to have 2.1 million followers” Great like owning The New York Times without the lo$$es! . 8:04 PM –7 May 2013

Just hit a million on Facebook-http://t.co/FDv4aLoomz

Wow, honored to just pass 2.5M followers on @twitter. Thanks to all my followers. We are going to have a great year together.

Congrats everyone-we topped 4 million today on Twitter-and heading up fast! 1:41 PM –1 Sep 2015

He writes about his tweeting in terms of a relationship with his followers and a personal capacity he excels it. As he put it in a Tweet from July 2014, “Many people have said I’m the world’s greatest writer of 140 character sentences”. His professed skill at tweeting is what underwrites his imagined relationship with his followers. Through his skill, he builds a relationship with his followers and through the ever-expanding platform that ensues, he accumulates power. As he declares on 17 Oct 2012, “My twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.”

He regularly reflects on the specific practices which lead him to accumulate followers:

Everybody’s talking about my doing twitter during the likely very boring debate tonight. @realDonaldTrump #DemDebate 10:09 AM – 13 Oct 2015

#DemDebate was really boring but had a lot of fun live tweeting and picked up by far the most followers. 9:57 AM – 14 Oct 2015

Brian–Thanks dummy–I picked up 70,000 twitter followers yesterday alone. Cable News just passed you in the ratings. 12:14PM -7 Nov 2012

This includes retweeting his followers, selectively landing a platform to those without visibility, resonant of his election rhetoric about the forgotten, at least when they talk in a way congruent with his own ego:

“@redneckgp: All you haters out there, STOP trashing the only candidate @realDonaldTrump that will put ALL OF YOU & AMERICA FIRST #trump” 9:32 PM –8 Apr 2016

Dennis Bryant (Twitter handle “RedneckGP”) at this point had seventy-five Twitter followers. He suddenly found himself retweeted to Trump’s then 8 million followers. Trump loved to lift his supporters from obscurity. This was one way he established an emotional bond with his supporters.

“@phickeyma: When I come home from work my Twitter page is filled with Donald Trump tweets…Love reading them…So Bold & Truthful.” 5:36 PM –18 Oct 2013

Trump loved to retweet messages from his followers, thus forging a personal bond with voters. In the election year of 2016 Retweets would come to form approximately half of his Twitter output.

What interests me is his developing relationship with the metrics. As he sustains his engagement on the platform, he reports upon his own ‘progress’ in ever more granular ways. He’s concerned with what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. He has data about his ‘growth’ ready-to-hand. There is a relational biography here concerning himself and the platform, as well as the real and imagined relationship it facilitates to his followers. I’m interested in what this case illustrates about imagination and social media, how numbers become means through which dreams come to seem realisable. I’ll come back to this in a later post but I couldn’t resist ending on this tweet:

With almost 1.3 million followers and rising really fast, everyone is asking me to critique things(and people). Finally, I will be a critic. 1141 AM – 11 Jun 2012

In the last few years, I’ve been intrigued by how changes in student housing track a broader transformation of higher education. The obvious change in the UK has been in student numbers, with major implications for the demographics of cities with major universities:

Between 1994 and 2012 the number of undergraduates in Britain grew by 45%, to 1.8m. Until recently, the housing stock changed little to accommodate them. Students clustered in neighbourhoods near universities, typically filling up old terraced houses. In Leeds, they spent much of the 2000s gradually spreading from old back-to-back houses in Hyde Park, which is near the two main universities’ campuses, into Headingley, a more middle-class district farther from the centre.


However since 2007, the number of students living in private halls of residence has more than doubled to 102,000. It has been a sustained area of growth for investors since the financial crisis, at a time when comparable investment categories have decelerated, with private sector investment estimated to have grown from £350m in 2009 to £2.1 billion in 2013. The growth since then has been even more substantial:

The UK purpose-built student accommodation market is estimated by Knight Frank to be worth £46bn and new developments completed this year are expected to total a record £4.7bn.

Last year, £3.1bn worth of student halls were sold – more than double the amount traded in 2013 and 2014. All five of the biggest deals – worth a combined £1.5bn – were sold to overseas investors. The largest transaction was the purchase by the property arm of Temasek, the Singapore state investment fund, of a portfolio of 25 student buildings in several cities including London and Manchester.


There are many factors which seem to be at work here:

  • opening up a new category of luxury accomodation for students whose ‘needs’ were unmet by previous housing regimes
  • depending on specific factors of the student experience (possible atomisation, relative privilege, informational disadvantage etc) to extract higher rents than would be possible through the wider lettings market
  • student numbers increasing faster than universities can invest in infrastructure to house them
  • the ‘unbundling’ of the university and the opportunities created for private providers when they lessen their commitment to student services
  • the opportunity hoarding of the middle class under conditions of austerity & the transfer of parental resources into ensuring an effective student experience
  • the appeal of a relatively buoyant asset class in a wider context of declining returns

However the one which interests me most is what this suggests about the future of higher education. It is being evaluated as one of the most reliable institutional areas in which to invest, in the sense that student numbers are expected to grow. But what are the aggregate consequences of these changes likely to be for higher education? Could this emerging political economy of student housing generate unintended consequences which act back on the sector itself?

There’s an intriguing argument in The Mediated Construction of Social Reality, by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, concerning our dependence upon digital media and how we respond to its failure. From loc 5527:

We feel the costs viscerally: when ‘our’ media break down –we lose internet connection, our password stops working, we are unable to download the latest version of software required by the device or function we want to use –it is as if the social infrastructure were itself, in some respect, breaking down: recursivity has been interrupted, ontological security becomes threatened.

I take their point to be that our reliance upon digital media isn’t simply about specific purposes. For digital media to fail does not frustrate us because it impedes a particular purpose. In an important sense, our purposiveness as such, has come to rely upon digital media. For this reason, there is a latent trauma inherent in its breakdown. We experience its failure in terms of a impeded capacity to act within the world, as opposed to simply frustrating specific actions.

The argument is underdeveloped, as can be seen by the “in some respect” clause within it. It’s nonetheless an important and provocative one. It left me wondering if anyone has done qualitative research about experiences of wifi breaking down in terms of the affective fallout from such a failure? My experience of this has tended to be one of whole categories of action being foreclosed when this happens, as in a real sense I lose the ability to proceed with my work, rather  than it simply being a contingent impediment to particular tasks. I imagine there’s a great deal of variability in how people respond to such a situation but I nonetheless think Couldry and Hepp are pointing towards something very interesting.

An exercise in free-writing, undertaken at a writing workshop at the Becoming Academic conference at the University of Sussex.

I write to eliminate the clutter in my head, the accumulated debris which emerges within me as I make my way through the world, trying to understand my experiences as I go. If I am free to write, I am free to be within the world and my experience feels most full and most thick when I am externalising my internal reactions to the world. What C Wright mills called ‘the feel of an idea’ preoccupies me and my orientation to the world feels changed in those times when I seize upon that feeling, run with it it and make something new ‘out there’ from a reaction I had ‘in here’ to the world. But what can be difficult is when I can’t run with that feeling, when nascent ideas bubble up inside of me but circumstances preclude my running with them. Contingencies intervene and prevent my exploration of these things I feel moved to explore. If I don’t write, I feel in partial motion, stuck in the early stages of a range I cannot complete. If I can’t write, I feel somehow incomplete, as if my capacity to react to the world is subtly mutilated. I write to eliminate the clutter in my head and without writing I am inundated by mess.

I wonder if there is something performative about my writing, as if I bring myself into being through the process of doing it. I wonder why I feel so compelled to share my writing, as if it somehow isn’t real or can’t become real unless it is out there in the world. It’s a repeated exercise, conducted thousands of times, which has left me feeling extremely comfortable with the prospect of sharing my writing. But I’m still not entirely sure why I do it and at times it feels like a compulsion.