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.

From How The World Changed Social Media, by Danny Miller et al, loc 1203

The stand-out figure here is from industrial China. This is probably the site where people’s working day involves the most unremitting labour in factories. It is therefore not all that surprising to note that they use gaming as a means to relax and to separate themselves from work. In fact this reflects a wider emphasis upon the use of smartphones for entertainment more generally, a feature that clearly emerges in this additional survey conducted by Wang7 on smartphone usage among 200 handset-owning respondents in her field site. These workers usually do not have the spare time, money or energy for extra social life after long hours of heavy labour. At the same time, in addition to the relaxation that such games provide, gaming is also viewed as a major way of hanging out with friends online, especially among the young men.

Online gaming is also a very important aspect of social media (especially Facebook) in southeast Turkey. The most common games were Candy Crush Saga, Ok and Taula. Gaming is a way to socialise with new and old friends. People play these online games not only with known friends but also with strangers. There are possibilities that these strangers might also become new friends through gaming. Online gaming is also used to flirt discreetly with people of the opposite sex. For the very young (i.e. children in primary school, aged 8–11 years) gaming is probably one of the main reasons for using social media.

What can we learn about a social order from the forms of leisure that thrive within it? The rhythms of Candy Crush, reward punctuated by denial, look extremely interesting from this point of view.

The authors go on to suggest on loc 1296 that games can also provide status consolations, at least as evidenced in their Chinese field site: “This may be especially appealing among factory workers since even the status of having achieved a higher level in games can become important when one’s status is so low in the offline world.”

From Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, loc 2429:

Work has become central to our very self-conception –so much so that when presented with the idea of doing less work, many people ask, ‘But what would I do?’ The fact that so many people find it impossible to imagine a meaningful life outside of work demonstrates the extent to which the work ethic has infected our minds.

I’d add to this that the more time we spend triaging, attending to the immediate and urgent rather than the diffuse and important, the more difficult it becomes to imagine lives for ourselves beyond the horizon of our present conditions.

From Corbyn: Against All Odds, by Richard Seymour, pg 22. There’s a huge opportunity for the Labour left but also a huge risk, as momentum has built for an anti-austerity platform that might no longer be relevant:

“It is not clear what will happen to the debt/speculation economy, or the ‘property-owning democracy’ where large numbers of people supplement their income by borrowing against the rising value of their homes. When even George Osborne gives up his threatened ‘emergency’ austerity budget, abandons his ‘fiscal rule’, and leading Tory candidates openly talk down austerity, one going so far as to propose a massive borrowing and spending programme, the coordinates of the old consensus are clearly disintegrating. This is one of those moments when a degree of political imagination and initiative will make a decisive impact for the next few years at least”

As Seymour goes on to observe, “in the context of a generalised crisis of politics and the established way of doing things, anyone who has some ideas about how to change things can gain a hearing.” The book on the American right I’ve just read, Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire, makes a compelling case that the resurgent free-market right capitalised on precisely this opportunity, despite the fact their ideas were inane and contradictory. 

From Corbyn: Against All Odds, by Richard Seymour, pg 15:

Adam Phillips suggests that our rages disclose what it is we think we are entitled to. We become infuriated when the world doesn’t live up to our largely unconscious assumptions about how it should be for us. What might the fury of Labour’s right-wingers, as well as their media allies, tell us about their sense of entitlement? Their denial about the depths of Corbyn’s support among the members, their seeming belief that they have a right to be safeguarded against the critical and sometimes harsh words of activists, all suggests a zealously proprietorial attitude to the party.

As he goes on to observe, “at no point has the membership been anything other than an object for management and discipline”. This newfound capacity of the membership to impose a leadership from the far left represents a challenge to the depoliticisation of the party: the management of the membership has broken down and, with this, so too has the professional socialisation of much of the PLP. Perhaps the ensuing disorientation goes some way towards explaining the more self-destructive extremes of their behaviour? 

The promise we can find in this present mess is that a successful defence of Corbyn’s position leads to a longer term reinsertion of social movements into both internal party politics and the broader political system. From pg 21:

Corbyn, unlike many of his parliamentary colleagues, understands the relevance of mass politics, the politics of social movement. He has appealed over the heads of parliamentarians and pundits, to the ordinary membership, trade unions and the wider left to support him in his job. That has been, confoundingly enough for his opponents, a successful. This suggests that parliament is not the end of politics, and that what takes place in its chambers depends in great part upon the organisation and political clarity of hundreds of thousands of people working outside them. That isn’t an insignificant yield for ten months in the leadership.

This is something that had been progressively lost over the lifetime of New Labour’s rule. From pg 28:

Members voted with their feet, becoming inactive or resigning, while voters began to boycott the polls in unprecedented numbers. As if the whole idea of fighting for a party that had become so symbiotically dependent upon the banks, business, the media and the less liberal wings of the state was so crushingly dispiriting, so lacking in promise, that millions simply gave up

From Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, by Douglas Rushkoff, loc 72-86:

A few weeks later, there was nothing to smile about. Protesters in Oakland were now throwing rocks at Google’s buses and broke a window, terrifying employees. Sure, I was as concerned about the company’s practices as anyone, and frustrated by the way Silicon Valley’s rapid growth seemed to be displacing instead of enriching the people of San Francisco and beyond. But I also had friends on those buses, trying to make a living off their hard-won coding skills. They may have made $100,000 a year, but they were stressed-out, perpetually monitored, and painfully aware of their own perishability. “Sprints”—bursts of round-the-clock coding to meet deadlines—came ever more frequently as new, more ambitious growth targets replaced the last set.

We may all be on the same side here. Google workers are less the beneficiaries of an expanding company than they are its rapidly consumed resources. The average employee leaves within a year 2 some to accept better positions at other companies but most of them simply to break free of the constant pressure to perform. Taking the bus gives them more time to work or just relax instead of driving. They are human beings.

I find his suggestion that recognition of growing inequality by Google workers leads them to pursue their careers more forcefully very plausible:

Google’s employees are not oblivious to the increasing poverty outside the bus windows on their way to work. If anything, such sights only make these workers cling to their jobs all the more desperately, leaving them less likely to question the deeper processes at play.

From Intern Nation, by Ross Perlin, loc 2379:

(A small-scale survey in the U.K., conducted in 2010, found that a whopping 86 percent of recent graduates and soon-to-be graduates were willing to work for free, despite considering it exploitative.) As the cost of copying and disseminating (but not creating) content has plunged towards zero, no one is quite sure what to charge for in the digital world. The position of interns is not unlike that of many young journalists, musicians, and filmmakers who are now expected to do online work for no pay as a way to boost their portfolios.

This is powerful stuff from Corbyn in his recent LSE lecture:

I am not talking here about the aspiration of the delusional Del Boys – “This time next year Rodney, we’ll be millionaires” – not the importation of the individualist American Dream. (As an aside, the US comedian George Carlin once said “They call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it”.) But real aspiration is the aspiration for a secure home, a secure job, a productive job that satisfies and enriches life, the security of knowing your loved ones will be well cared for when they get old or fall sick, the security of knowing your children, nieces or nephews will attend a good school, the aspiration to know your family, friends and neighbours are getting on OK too, and that you have the time, opportunity and the facilities to enjoy some decent leisure time.

These are the things that make the good life and democratic government has both the responsibility, and the capacity, to guarantee them. A government that runs as little as it can get away with has no industrial strategy, has privatised key parts of the economy necessary for a decent life, has abdicated its social and economic responsibilities.

People will not trust, and will not have faith in a government that abdicates its responsibilities through privatisation, deregulation and neglect. People know that to change things you need power when government appears powerless to change things. People won’t have faith in it to change things when government gives its powers away. People lose faith in it.

Something to remember as the Tory-led condemnation of Labour’s alleged anti-Semitism reaches fever pitch:

Shadow education minister Lucy Powell ran day-to-day operations for Labour’s 2015 general election campaign. That year’s dog-whistle consisted of telling the electorate, again and again, that Labour had never apologised for destroying the economy, and that Ed Miliband stabbed his brother in the back and would almost certainly do the same to Britain.

Powell says she felt much of the coded language in the Tory campaign was about Miliband being Jewish, not least the focus on him mishandling a bacon bap. Other messages about his ethnicity verged on the subliminal: repeated references to his roots in north London, a more Jewish area of the city, for instance.

While Powell thinks Crosby might well have been behind this strategy, she says she doesn’t believe for a minute that he is antisemitic or Islamophobic. It’s simply expedience: “It’s pure cynicism – he doesn’t care what the means are by which he can move swing voters. But once he finds it, he’ll just go after it, even if it’s wrong or personal or immoral, or in some cases all three.”

Powell believes the demonisation of Miliband was largely ineffectual. It was only when Crosby and the Tories found their dead cat that anything began to stick. After Miliband’s popular promise to crack down on tax dodgers and non-doms, Conservative defence secretary Michael Fallon “revealed” that the Labour leader would strike a power-sharing deal with the SNP, and was willing to sacrifice Trident to do so. Trident was the dead cat: the story came out of nowhere, says Powell, was wholly unfounded – and it worked. “They were on the back foot about tax evasion and sent Michael Fallon out there with a baseless story,” Powell says. “But with highly emotive language and a couple of splashes in their friendly press, the strategy worked, knocking the other story off the agenda.”

From John Harris in the Guardian:

Whatever his suitability for the job, Corbyn is where he is for one reason above all others: the fact that Britain’s post-1979 journey into a new reality of a shrunken welfare state, marketised public services, rising inequality and an impossible job market had reached a watershed with the deepening of austerity, and there was a need for a clear moral response, without which Labour was in danger of shrinking into meaninglessness.

A really interesting BuzzFeed article about the use of smart phones on building sites to increase efficiency (the 30% of on-site time that is regarded idle, for reasons attributed to ‘miscommunication and disorganisation’) and their implications for workplace surveillance. What’s particularly striking is that inefficiencies are often the result of the complex subcontracting arrangements now ubiquitous within the construction industry:

According to Frinault, 30% of time workers spend on-site at commercial construction projects is idle — not because workers are lazy, but largely because of miscommunication and disorganization. There’s also the problem of “rework” — doing a task, and then having to do it over again. For example, a subcontractor might be told to cover a hole with drywall; the next day, an electrician who wasn’t finished wiring an outlet comes in and tears that drywall out again, and the drywall hanger has to come back and redo it. With Fieldwire, Frinault hopes to improve the communication channels between subcontractors.

His app, which raised $6.6 million in October, doesn’t locate workers on a map; it locates tasks on a blueprint — tasks that foremen can then check off in real time as they are completed. The purpose of Fieldwire is to record and share information as synchronously as possible. “It may seem invasive,” said Frinault’s co-founder Javed Singha, “but the reality is these guys are recording all this information manually anyway.”

This app is apparently being used on over 35,000 construction sites internationally. An even more invasive app has been developed by former Navy engineers:

Rhumbix, an app meant to be in the hands of the workers themselves, is making an even bolder ask in terms of transparency. Not only do workers clock every hour of their day on Rhumbix, but the app also tracks their location, and even some of their movements. Rhumbix is the invention of two former Navy engineers, Drew DeWalt and Zach Scheel, who took a class together at Stanford and decided to build a startup. “I said, every phone has GPS in it,” Scheel told BuzzFeed News. “Let’s try to create a system like the ones we use now in the military to help improve the system we use for construction.”

With Rhumbix, workers clock in and out at the beginning and end of each work day. While they’re on the clock, the app tracks their movements, both in terms of motion (moving or stationary?) and location (on the job or out to lunch?). This data is presented to managers in two ways: as a live safety snapshot, which shows where workers are at any given time, and as aggregated and anonymized labor time data that can help the bosses figure out how much is being spent on different activities. This tracking can benefit the worker — for example, a worker who had passed out on a hot roof due to sunstroke was discovered when the Rhumbix app alerted his foreman that he wasn’t moving. But the app can also be used to, say, prove that workers who claim they worked through lunch actually didn’t.

At present the Rhumbix data is anonymised and aggregated when presented on the dashboard for managers. But how long can this last? As a general rule, if a weakly held moral commitment is the only thing preventing a service-provider from offering a much demanded service to existing customers, it’s unlikely to provide durable in the face of, say, declining sales or a difficulty raising further venture capital. Charmingly, their take on this question is to say “You’re going to have to trust us a little bit”.

It’s worth considering this in terms of what was until recently established practice within the construction industry. Given the existence of a UK industry wide blacklist has been conclusively established, ruining the lives of many who had the temerity to demand basic safety obligations be met on site, you’d have to be painfully naive to imagine these new technologies won’t be used for work place repression. For instance, if a manager wanted to rid a site of a ‘trouble maker’, use their Rhumbix data to demonstrate an unacceptable amount of ‘idle time’ as grounds for dismissal. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine how Rhumbix could end up tracking collective organisation on site. Even if the data is aggregated, surely it would represent a grouping of the work force for a face-to-face meeting? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this technology can be used for workplace repression and I fear we’re on a slippery slope.

In The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, there’s a great discussion of the expansion of bureaucracy in American healthcare. From loc 1728-1737:

Between 1968 and 1993, the number of managers and administrators tors in U.S. health care rose fourfold from 719,000 to 2,792,000, outstripping the growth in the number of physicians, which less than doubled from 430,000 to 761,000.4 The very high growth in of administrators ministrators changed the structure of employment in the health care industry dustry significantly. Between 1969 and 1993, the percentage of the total health care workforce employed in administration rose from 18 percent to 27 percent, while the percentage of physicians in the total health care workforce declined from 10.8 percent to 7.4 percent, and the total percentage of nurses fell from 40.6 percent to 36.3 percent. In U.S. hospitals, employment of administrators rose sharply, even as the number of patients declined.’ On an average day in 1968, U.S. hospitals employed 435,100 managers, administrators, and clerks to support the care of 1,378,000 inpatients. By 1990, the average daily number of patients had fallen by 39 percent to 853,000, but the number ber of administrators serving them had risen by 280 percent to 1,221,600. In 1968, there was one administrator for every three patients, tients, in 1990, 4.3 administrators for every three patients.

There’s a similar story that can be told about the expansion of bureaucracy in higher education. What drives this? In part I think it’s socio-technical innovation in auditing coupled with growth of an administrative class within organisations charged with utilising and intervening on the basis of this expanded capacity for audit. The constant drive to rationalise and reengineer organisations generates an ever expanding class of those driving the process who are insulated from the discipline they’re enforcing elsewhere.

This is compounded by counter-bureaucratic tendencies in other institutions. The particular kind of bureaucratic bloat digital capitalism gives rise to goes hand-in-hand with institutional isomorphism. The precise dynamics are specific to institutional spheres but the trend itself cuts across them. This is the example Simon Head cites:

The existence of this MCO bureaucracy has given rise to two counter-bureaucracies: one within doctors’ offices as physicians hire administrators to deal with MCO case managers, and another in hospitals pitals as managements hire administrators for the same purpose.

This is not the centralised bureaucracy of popular imagination but rather a bureaucratic build up within and across all organisations. I’d agree with the argument David Graeber made earlier this year that bureaucracy has been rendered peripheral in the popular and social scientific imaginations at precisely the time when it is becoming more prominent than ever. 

Under such circumstances, I think the best hope for a leftist politics might be to reframe statism in terms of modernisation, overcoming the gross inefficiencies of the digital capitalist market place. Consider this example cited by Simon Head on loc 1711:

In February 1994 the New England Journal of Medicine published a research paper that sheds light on this last claim. The paper looks at variations in insurance coverage for a trial of an experimental treatment of breast cancer, autologous bone marrow transplant. Tucked away in the study was a remarkable statistic: The physicians running the trial had to deal with 187 insurance companies providing coverage for the 533 participating patients. Each company had its own database, expert panel, treatment guidelines, and bureaucracies of medical monitoring and control.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 1209. I wonder what ‘innovations’ have emerged in the ten years since this was book was published?

There are at least five distinct types of monitoring software. First, there are what might be called “classic” monitoring products, software that embodies the Taylorist preoccupation with timing and measurement: How long do agents take to answer a call? How long does the call last? How long does the agent take to “wrap up” the call by completing clerical tasks that may have arisen in the course of the call? Second, there are “quality-monitoring” products-software that eases the manager’s task of measuring the agent’s “soft skills”-his warmth and politeness, and whether his demeanor has strengthened ties of intimacy and loyalty between company and customer. Third, there are what might be called “total monitoring” products, software that simultaneously multaneously monitors what is happening on the agent’s screen and what the agent is saying on the telephone. With this “total monitoring,” it is possible to know whether the agent is following a prescribed script and accurately relaying the information and recommendations provided by product databases. Fourth, there is software that monitors Internet and E-mail “conversations” between agent and customer, and which can, if necessary, integrate this monitoring with the parallel monitoring of telephone conversations. Fifth, there are the digital technologies that are embodied in many of these monitoring products and that have made possible this forward leap in the scope and intensity of monitoring.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 630-647. Taylor’s  experience of industrial resistance to his methods led him to replace this participatory aspect with an elaborate system of inspection and control:

But perhaps the most important portant contribution of Japanese manufacturers to the theory and practice tice of scientific management has been to develop what can be called its participatory side. Taylor himself envisaged that workers themselves could suggest ways of adding to the speed and efficiency of their routines, tines, provided that management always had the final say in deciding whether an employee’s suggestion was acceptable and exactly how the design and timing of tasks should then be altered. In the The Principles of Scientific Management Taylor wrote: 

Every encouragement … should be given him [the worker] to suggest improvements, both in methods and in implements. And whenever a workman proposes an improvement, it should be the policy of the management to make a careful analysis of the new method, and if necessary essary conduct a series of experiments to determine accurately the relative tive merit of the new suggestion and of the old standards. And whenever the new method is found to be markedly superior to the old, it should be adopted as the standard for the whole establishment. The workman should be given the full credit for the improvement, and should be paid a cash payment as a reward for his ingenuity.’ 

In Taylor’s lifetime the fierce resistance of the skilled machinist to scientific entific management so poisoned Taylor’s own view of the workforce that this participatory aspect of his doctrine was largely ignored by Taylor lor and his disciples. Their view was that improvements to the “one best way” were decided by management and then had to be imposed on a reluctant workforce: Thus Taylor’s elaborate burueacracy of planners and supervisors. It has been left to modern Japanese corporations such as a Toyota and Nissan to develop the participatory side of scientific management. To best understand how participatory Taylorism works at a company like Nissan, one must first describe the corporation’s unending ending campaign to improve productivity by speeding up the pace of operations.

But as Head notes, there’s a paradox here. Under the Japanese model, workers make suggestions which contribute to the acceleration of their own work: why voluntarily make your own job harder? In part this reflects the lack of institutional structures through which the demands of participatory Taylorism could be resisted. From loc 665:

It was puzzling to me why employees at a place like Nissan should willingly collaborate in speeding up their work routines, particularly since it was and is company policy not to reward workers who come forward ward with suggestions that are acted upon. It was clear that employees on the line were already working under great pressure. At the time I visited ited the Nissan plant there was a story going around about a visiting delegation of managers and trade unionists from BMW’s Munich base. After being shown the line, the visiting Germans were asked what they thought. After an awkward silence, one of the unionists remarked “Well, some of our people are over fifty.” It was indeed hard to see how anyone much over forty, let alone fifty, could long survive the pace at Nissan. So why should Nissan employees be thinking of ways to make the line even faster? 

One obvious explanation was that there has been no strong union at Nissan to place checks on management’s drive for “speed-up.” In auto assembly plants, resistance to speed up has been the a chief task of unions since the 1930s. It was the cause of the UAW’s first great strikes against Ford and GM in the 1930s and a leading cause of the UAW’s strikes against GM in the winter of 1997-1998. But the “big three” Japanese autornakers-Toyota, Honda, and Nissan-have kept the UAW out of their U.S. plants, and Toyota and Honda have kept their British-based European plants union-free. At its Sunderland plant, Nissan san deals with a weak union, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical trical Union (AEEU), once Margaret Thatcher’s favorite union. Representing about a third of the shop floor workforce, the AEEU at Nissan acts much like a company union that has given management carte blanche to run the plant as it sees fit.

However Head offers a further explanation in terms of the time horizons of the worker suggesting improvements, from loc 684:

For the worker, therefore, this participatory Taylorism involves a trade-off between tween the convenience of doing the job in a simpler, less burdensome way, and the inconvenience with speed up, of also having to do the job just a little bit faster. From the perspective of the assembly line, this saving ing of effort through kaizan can easily loom larger than the price to be paid with the seconds, or fractions of seconds, of speed up. However, over time these seconds and fractions of seconds can pile up.

From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 704:

Soft flexibility ibility involves changes to the appearance and styling of a product, such as occurred on the auto assembly line at Nissan, with its variety of dashboards, boards, seats, radios, and carpets. This flexibility can easily be accommodated modated by a work regime that remains wholly Taylorist in design. Hard flexibility refers to something much more ambitious, the ability to vary not merely the outward appearance but the basic engineering structure of a product, so that a single machine shop or assembly line can turn out, within a single day, more than one model of an automobile, bile, computer, or video recorder.