There’s a provocative argument on pg 81-82 of Žižek’s Like a Thief in Broad Daylight concerning the role of fascism in the contemporary liberal imagination. The invocation of the epochal enemy emerging from outside the political sphere allows the antagonism within it to be suppressed:

The demonized image of a fascist threat clearly serves as a new political fetish, in the simple Freudian sense of a fascinating image whose function is to obfuscate the true antagonism. Fascism itself is inherently fetishist, it needs a figure like that of a Jew, condemned as the external cause of our troubles –such a figure enables us to obfuscate the immanent antagonisms that cut across our society. My claim is that exactly the same holds for the notion of ‘fascist’ in today’s liberal imagination: it enables us to obfuscate immanent deadlocks which lie at the root of our crisis. The desire not to make any compromises with the alt-right can easily obscure the degree to which we are already compromised by

He argues that we can see this at the level of electoral strategy, with the rise of a liberal politics of fear which rests on ensuring we resist the new evil which is emerging. This is bringing about situations in which “a candidate emerges and wins elections as it were from nowhere, in a moment of confusion building a movement around his or her name – both Silvio Berlusconi and Macron exploded on the scene like this”. These manifest themselves through movements which “sound similar in their empty universality, which fits everyone and everything” using “slogans [which] designate the abstract sense of a victorious movement without any specification of the direction of the movement and its goal” (pg 77). I can see why people would take issue with his argument on pg 78 about the potential implications of this for democratic politics but I think his underlying point about the antagonism remaining obscure is certainly correct, even if the conclusions he draws from this are more contentious:

A classic liberal argument for voting for Clinton or Macron against Trump or Le Pen is that while it is true that what Clinton and Macron stand for is the very predicament that gave birth to Trump or Le Pen, not voting for Clinton or Macron is like voting for an actual disaster in order to prevent a possible future disaster. This argument sounds convincing, on condition that we ignore temporality. If Le Pen had been elected President in 2017, it could have triggered strong anti-fascist mobilization, rendering her re-election unthinkable, plus it could have given a strong push to the Leftist alternative. So the two disasters (Le Pen President now or the threat of Le Pen as President in five years) are not the same: the disaster after five years of Macron’s reign, if it turns out to be a failure, will be much more serious than the one which did not happen in 2017.

While I’m not convinced by his argument that it would be better for Le Pen et al to win because it gets tensions out in the open, I nonetheless find his concerns about the longer term trajectory of our present impasse extremely plausible:

The sad prospect that awaits us is that of a future in which, every four years, we will be thrown into a panic, scared by some form of ‘neo-fascist danger’, and in this way be blackmailed into casting our vote for the ‘civilized’ candidate in meaningless elections lacking any positive vision … Meanwhile we’ll be able to sleep in the safe embrace of global capitalism with a human face. The obscenity of the situation is breathtaking: global capitalism is now presenting itself as the last protection against fascism; and if you try to point out some of Macron’s serious limitations you are accused of –yes, of complicity with fascism, since, as we are told repeatedly by the big (and not so big) media, the extreme Left and extreme Right are now coming together: both are anti-Semitic, nationalist-isolationalist, anti-globalist, etc. This is the point of the whole operation: to make the Left –which means any true alternative –disappear.

Even if I wasn’t a supporter, I’d have been fascinated by Labour’s use of social media in the last election and how this built upon prior successes in successive leadership elections. The new book by Steve Howell, deputy director of strategy and communications during the election, contains many fascinating snippets about this that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Perhaps the most interesting is the Labour leadership’s embrace of social media outriders which I’d seen speculated about but never confirmed. From loc 818 of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics:

But, if I was ever frustrated by some of those early discussions, one thing that would always lift my spirits was the irrepressible activity of what were known in LOTO as ‘Jeremy’s outriders.’ There were dozens of them on Twitter and Facebook who, day in and day out, were pumping out great material exposing the Tories and putting across many of our arguments. I include in this organised groups such as JeremyCorbyn4PM and Momentum, but mostly they were people acting on their own initiative out of sheer personal commitment. And some of them, such as @Rachael_Swindon and @ScouseGirlMedia, have suffered a fair bit of abuse and harassment for their trouble. The two outriders I had most contact with were Eoin Clark and Peter Stefanovic. Eoin will be known to many people for his @ToryFibs Twitter feed and its forensic rebuttal of Tory claims and attacks in detailed memes. Peter specialises in hard-hitting videos on the NHS, on the miners’ compensation, and in support of the WASPI campaign against the raising of the state pensionI  age for women born in the 1950s. When I suggested to Jeremy that we should invite Peter in for a chat, he was very enthusiastic. The meeting was one of the highlights of those early weeks. Peter’s passion for what he was doing was inspiring and infectious. He had given up his day job as a lawyer to spend a year campaigning and was eager to persuade the groups he was working with that a Corbyn-led government would address their issues. “That was an incredibly important meeting,” he told me recently. “We discussed what might be included in the manifesto and that allowed me to go back to WASPI, the miners, and the junior doctors to tell them what Labour would do.”

What does this mean in practice? It’s hard to say but it seemingly reflects the most prominent examples of a much broader spectrum of engagement, extending as far as Howell having regular exchanges via DM with independent activists who provided on the ground perspectives of unfolding events which couldn’t be reached through the party machine. The importance of this could be overstated but I’m interested in how it strengthened their conviction to drop or downplay tactical aspects of political communication which were held as certainties by those within the party organisation. It’s also easy to imagine this activity being seized upon in the event of a poor result as an example of the leadership’s willing embrace of a filter bubble.

Earlier this week, a leading figure in Italy’s governing centre-left PD party explained how they were looking to Emmanuel Macron for inspiration in the pitch they were making to the electorate. Their prospects look rather bleak, as an internally divided party trails the populist Five Star Movement in an election most predict will lead to a right-wing government. Perhaps even one led by Silvio Berlusconi. Are the PD worried? It seems not because they believe history is on their side:

Gozi, who is fluent in French and English and was educated at the Sorbonne and LSE, sees himself as part of the “Erasmus generation”, a group of younger leaders who see the European Union not just as a bulwark against nationalist wars, but as a multiplier of sovereignty.

He has also been at the centre of the argument that a stronger Europe can halt populism, rather than feed the alienation on which it thrives. “This has become the real new political cleavage in politics. It is now so obvious,” he said. “Are you confident that Italy can be a key actor in a new Europe capable of taking back control on immigration, security and achieving growth through reshaping the eurozone? Or do you believe the answer lies within our national borders?

What I find bewildering is how this ‘new’ division is cited as a reason for confidence. A party whose ‘third way’ centrism has led them into an electoral dead-end will effectively offer the same thing to a weary electorate, convinced that the tide of history is turning. Whereas in reality, the open/closed dichotomy has governed the imagination of liberal politics for decades! The capacity to repeat what one has already done, with ever increasing confidence about its relevance in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, represents a pathology likely to elude any explanation other than the psychoanalytical.

A fascinating insight from Steve Howell, deputy to Seumas Milne, concerning how to kick back against the ‘political rulebook’ beloved of the centrists:

In his interview, Howell, who is writing a book called How the Lights Get In – Inside Corbyn’s Election machine, also described how the team around the leader faced scepticism from other parts of the Labour party at the start of the campaign.

He said the group around Corbyn were warned that there were “certainties” in election campaigns that could not be shifted, including:

  • that you can’t move opinion more than 2 or 3% in a campaign
  • that online voter registration campaigns don’t work
  • that manifestos are irrelevant
  • that the reason “non-voters” are labelled as such is because they do not vote
  • and that the drop in turnout among young people was a “law of nature that was irreversible”

Howell said Corbyn’s team could not “be a mirror image of their certainty” and be sure that their ideas would work, but they did believe it could be different, “that an online voter registration campaign could work; that you can expand the electorate; [and] that a transformative manifesto would have a broad appeal and excite people”.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/30/labour-older-voters-new-strategy-to-push-up-vote-jeremy-corbyn

This is a fascinating exchange between Owen Jones and Alastair Campbell, bringing to life many of the themes I’ve been preoccupied with in the last few months.

I agree with Owen’s claim that Campbell’s world view is in crisis. The promise of the modernisers rested on a basic electoral proposition: triangulation was necessary to win power because elections are won from the centre-ground. His reflections reminded me of some of the discussion by Hilary Clinton in her post-election book.