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.

http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/why-did-pundits-get-election-wrong.html

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.

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 his wonderful memoir, Adults In The Room, Yanis Varoufakis reflects on the frustrations of politics and how they compare to academia. From loc 5504:

Possibly because of my academic background, this was the Brussels experience I least expected and found most frustrating. In academia one gets used to having one’s thesis torn apart, sometimes with little decorum; what one never experiences is dead silence, a refusal to engage, a pretence that no thesis has been put forward at all. At a party when you find yourself stuck with a self-centred bore who says what they want to say irrespective of your contribution to the conversation, you can take your glass and disappear to some distant corner of the room. But when your country’s recovery depends on the ongoing conversation, when there is no other corner of the room to retreat to, irritation can turn into despair –or fury if you grasp what is really going on: a tactic whose purpose is to nullify anything that is inimical to the troika’s power.

I found it fascinating to read this. Since encountering this paper by Richard French a few years ago, I’ve been interested in the implicit conceptions of politics which animate the publicly-orientated activity of academics. How do they think power works? How do they think problems are solved? How do they think challenges are negotiated? It seems as if Varoufakis’s intellectual interests (particularly game theory and political economy) left him well attuned to the dynamics of power but his nostalgia for academia certainly resonates with what French argues here:

Many academics misunderstand public life and the conditions under which policy is made. This article examines misconceptions in three major academic traditions—policy as science (e.g., ‘evidence-based policy’), normative political theory, and the mini-public school of deliberative democracy—and argues that the practical implications of each of these traditions are limited by their partial, shallow and etiolated vision of politics. Three constitutive features of public life, competition, publicity and uncertainty, compromise the potential of these traditions to affect in any fundamental way the practice of politics. Dissatisfaction with real existing democracy is not the consequence of some intellectual or moral failure uniquely characteristic of the persona publica, and attempts to reform it are misdirected to the extent that they imagine a better public life modeled on academic ideals.

Ever since I was a philosophy student, I’ve been interested in how we conceptualise individuals and groups. The two are connected in my mind because, if groups are composed of individuals, our concept of individuals is going to condition our concept of groups and vice versa. However discussion at this level of abstraction can seem remote from the real world. In fact this is what led me away from philosophy and into sociology when I encountered it as a masters student. But this wasn’t my rejecting a focus on concepts as much as a desire to see how those concepts operate in the world.

I was thinking of these issues again when reading Jana Bacevic’s From Class To Identity, a study of education reforms in former Yugoslavia. How we conceptualise agency is a key concern of the book from the outset at the level of its object (claims about groups are a crucial factor in educational reform) and its explanatory framework (claims about groups are crucial to explaining the link between education and conflict). For instance “linear, one dimensional or causal explanations” such as “educational discourses -> exclusionary identities -> war” make (inadequate) assumptions about agency while being “hardly helpful in the understanding of the dynamics between education and conflict” (pg 7). Agency is often left unexamined in such processes, particularly when researchers are examining trends at the macro-social level. From pg 9:

Consider, for instance, practices of military recruitment: going into the army (in countries without mandatory conscription) is frequently the choice of people who come from poor, discriminated or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. Knowing the ubiquitous (and at least partially causal) connection between education, income and social status, it is both reasonable and empirically sustainable to assume that these people also happen to have lower educational levels. But do they go to war because they are not educated? Or do they go to war because they are poor and marginalized, so enlisting may give them an opportunity to earn (legally or illegally) wealth, security, and status they could otherwise not hope to attain?

If we fail to recognise the role of agency in such dynamics, we render the political opaque. From pg 17-18:

In other words, instead of the teleological understanding of the political dynamics of the Western Balkans as progress towards European integration and away from the communist past, this book will aim to bring the political back into the analysis of policymaking. In this context, the notion of “political” is closest to the meaning in which theorists such as Chantal Mouffe (2005, 1993), Ernesto Laclau (1994), and Jacques Ranciere (e.g. 2010) utilize it (cf. Ruitenberg 2011, 98). This means understanding politics as a place of, and for, the challenging, contestation, transformation and deliberation of different ideologies related to what constitutes a good society, who should rule it, and how its benefits should be distributed.

Treating agency in the abstract is not a retreat from the political but rather a precondition for its adequate exploration. Claims about individuals and groups are fundamentally contestable, if not necessarily contested, constituting vectors through which political struggle is pursued. The success of such strategies leads their advocates to leave the stage, with the results of their scheming appearing to be self-evident and incontestable. But these deploy particular understandings of individuals and groups which exercise a causal influence through their embedding in policy agendas and organisational processes. From pg 19:

Rather than a self understood and “natural” part either of dealing with the communist legacy, or of European integration of the region, then, policy agendas and particular decisions are seen as fundamentally political, in the sense in which they actively engage in creating, constructing, defining, organizing, using and mobilizing, or, alternatively, suppressing, containing, manipulating and controlling particular political and group identities.

We face a challenge in distinguishing between these various claims about agency, the social processes through which they are rendered natural and the real properties and powers of agents in virtue of which they are able to pursue or contest such claims. Abstraction is crucial to meeting this challenge because it allows us to distinguish between individual/groups and the claims made about them. In part this is a matter of theoretical literacy, ensuring we have the vocabulary we need in order to draw these distinctions, preventing us from getting tied up in the discursive contest and letting the world which is being contested slip away from us. But it’s also concerned with the reality of the agents themselves, their characteristics and capacities, the contexts that have shaped them and how they’ve shaped those contexts.

How widespread is this? From The Confidence Men, by Ron Suskind, pg 585:

Emanuel, with his day-to-day focus on “getting points on the board,” scrambled for quick results, trying to win each day’s news cycle. As Bob Rubin told one of his many acolytes in the White House during a phone call, “Rahm’s more inclined to want to get a bill passed than really be worried about what’s in the bill.”

This is disturbing and skilful stuff. A performance of populism quite unlike the rhetoric of it which we’re much more familiar with:

“The other night in the debate,” he told thousands in Manchester, “they asked Ted Cruz a serious question: what do you think of waterboarding? Is it OK? I thought he’d say absolutely, and he didn’t. And he said, well, he’s concerned because some people –”

A woman near the front of the crowd interrupted. “He’s a pussy!”

Trump admonished her for saying “a terrible thing”.

“You know what she just said?” he asked. “Shout it out, because I don’t want to say it.”

“You’re not allowed to say that,” he continued. “I never expect to hear that from you again.”

Trump paused, looked out at his election-eve audience and leaned into the microphone: “She said he’s a pussy.”

The audience cheered – shouting “Trump! Trump!” – before he gave the woman a mock admonishment and returned to his rambling, more than 45-minute speech. “For the press,” he said, looking up at the television cameras, “this is a serious reprimand.”

http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/feb/08/trump-repeats-insult-from-crowd-member-calling-cruz-a-pussy

There’s a really fascinating article on Tech Crunch describing the political views of start-up founders in Silicon Valley. It makes the point that there’s a communitarian streak, albeit a very strange one, underpinning the politics of digital elites. To describe them as libertarian misses the ideological specificity of a cohesive current of opinion that has emerged in tech: denial of social conflicts, hyper-optimism about change and the desire to reshape other institutions to be more like start-ups. 

Earlier today Tony Blair gave a speech in which he finally took the gloves off. As someone with a growing interest in theorising post-democracy, I found it oddly intriguing. To anyone acquainted with the writing Anthony Giddens was spewing out in the 1990s, it was familiar stuff. Despite the fact his politics would long since have placed him in the centre of the Conservative party, Blair’s position is  framed in terms of social democratic politics:

Social democratic politics in the early 21st century has one great advantage; and one large millstone.

The advantage is that the values of our age are essentially those fashioned by social democracy. We live today in a society that by and large has left behind deference, believes that merit not background should determine success; is inclined to equality of opportunity and equal treatment across gender and race; and believes in the NHS and the notion at least of the welfare state. This doesn’t mean to say this is the reality. But even the Tories, in the open, have to acknowledge the zeitgeist.

What should give the Labour party enormous hope and pride is that we have helped achieve all this.

However, the large millstone is that perennially, at times congenitally, we confuse values with the manner of their application in a changing world. This gives us a weakness when it comes to policy which perpetually disorients us and makes us mistake defending outdated policy with defending timeless values

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/22/tony-blairs-speech-on-the-future-of-the-labour-party-in-full

This has always been the premise of Blarism. It started off as a psephological position (the changing composition of the electorate necessitates a recognition of the newfound ‘aspiration’ of swing voters) which grew into a pragmatist’s analysis of media power, in which winning over print media came to be seen as an unavoidably necessary step which only the truly idiotic would fail to recognise. Giddens codefied these intellectual tendencies and gave them the air of historical inevitability, claiming to illuminate the unfolding of social change while nonetheless seeking to bring it about through his energetic search for intellectual sponsorship amongst the ranks of the powerful.

Nonetheless, Blarism effects to be a pragmatic concession to a changing world. A reinterpretation of social democratic values for late modern times. Its ethical theory, in so far as it has one, rests on those values for its moral force: “if you really care about social democracy, you’ll support new labour because we’re the only way you’ll be able to put those values into practice”. This leaves it caught uneasily between the affirmation of values and embrace of pragmatism. It affirms both yet in doing so empties the former of substantive content to the gain of the latter. It’s axiomatic that ‘social democratic values’ are shared yet the intellectual framework is setup in a way which obscures questions of exactly what these values are and how they might change after 13 years of power. ‘Values’ becomes a cypher for the ends to which we will exercise power, invoked to silence dissent in a way that becomes ever more meaningless with each iteration, while the constitutive pragmatism disposes the cohort of Blairite politicans to a form of moral agency which we might charitably  describe as elastic. The ‘social democratic values’ become a vanishing point, a pole of identification which retreats further into the distance the more concrete decision-making becomes, with tactics, triaging and triviality rushing in to fill the void.

But this means Blairite critique can get really weird. As Blair put it today,

We then misunderstand the difference between radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary, and radical social democracy, which is all about ensuring that the values are put to work in the most effective way not for the world of yesterday but for today and the future.

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/22/tony-blairs-speech-on-the-future-of-the-labour-party-in-full

This assumes those ‘values’ are static. It assumes that the question is merely one of how best to implement them in a changing world. The case for Blairism is that its sensitivity to the reality of this changing world, its commitment to ‘modernisation’, means it is (down to its very core) better able to enact these values than is ‘radical leftism’, with its ‘reactionary’ character. But by taking ‘social democratic values’ as axiomatic, it’s left rhetorically shackled to something the adherents of Blarisim viscerally oppose as people. This becomes clear when Blair says that “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”

But I thought the point of Blairism was that it was a way of winning elections, recognising late modernity in a way that left it able to ensure that the values ‘we’ all share find a place in an out of control world? It turns out there are more values, other values, which don’t enter into the rhetoric of Blairism. Values which are what motivate the Blairites. But what are these? Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear. The speech ends with some fascinatingly banal tactical considerations (Labour should “work out what a political organisation looks like today”) and then this gloriously vacuous passage:

We won elections when we had an agenda that was driven by values, but informed by modernity; when we had strength and clarity of purpose; when we were reformers not just investors in public services; when we gave working people rights at work including the right to join a union, but refused unions a veto over policy; when we understood businesses created jobs not governments; and where we were the change-makers, not the small -c conservatives of the left.

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/22/tony-blairs-speech-on-the-future-of-the-labour-party-in-full

Even read charitably, the status of these claims is unclear. Are they statements of strategy and tactics, to be evaluated on their success in winning elections? Are they statements of principle, to be argued for on their own basis or as straight-forward assertions of ‘social democratic values’ to which we are all assumed to assent? Or are they something else entirely? History whispers in Blair’s ears, it always has. Unfortunately, its message has been to trust his instincts, giving expression to those deeply held beliefs which would have led him to join Cameron’s Conservative party if he had entered political life twenty five years later.

Wonderful quote by Edward Said featured on Corey Robin’s blog:

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

For an intellectual these habits are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.

http://coreyrobin.com/2015/04/20/the-avoidance-of-the-intellectual/

It reminds me of C Wright Mills on the responsibility of the intellectual:

As a type of social man, the intellectual does not have any one political direction, but the work of any man of knowledge, if he is the genuine article, does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his politics, in the first instance, are the politics of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality. In so far as he is politically adroit, the main tenet of this politics is to find out as much of the truth as he can, and to tell it to the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. Or, stated negatively: to deny publicly what he knows to be false, whenever it appears in the assertions of no matter whom … The intellectual ought to be the moral conscience of his society at least with reference to the value of truth, for in the defining instance, that is his politics. And he ought also to be a man absorbed in the attempt to know what is real and unreal.

See below for comments by the Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in this article that are by now rather familiar. This notion can be formulated in many different ways but at root it seeks to redeem ‘free-market capitalism’ by agreeing with leftist critics and disowning the excesses of the last few decades, denouncing them as the result of a perverse corporatism which we now need to overcome:

Instead of blaming capitalism for inequality and environmental degradation, Mackey suggests that we should look at the actions of governments. Departing from the dominant idea that states have retreated from the market over the past three decades, Mackey argues states have become more interventionist than ever, and that in the process they have “fostered a mutant form of capitalism called crony capitalism” that is to blame for many of the problems societies face today. Mackey does not see crony capitalism as “real” capitalism. Instead it is a product of big government in which politicians trying to preserve their cushy jobs develop symbiotic, parasitic relationships with businesspeople too lazy or unimaginative to compete successfully in the marketplace. In Mackey’s story, crony capitalism has been exacerbated by the rising power of the financial sector and shareholder value ideology — the idea that firms are nothing more than a stream of assets designed to maximize profits for shareholders. Mackey argues that this obsession with greed and profits has “robbed most businesses of their ability to engage and connect with people” and has created “long-term systemic problems” that destroy profitability and that can be deeply damaging to people and to the planet. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/free-market-conscious-capitalism-government/

It might be confirmation bias on my part but I feel like I’m seeing this sentiment expressed with ever greater frequency. It becomes sinister when you consider it alongside the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the politics of austerity and the disturbingly post-democratic direction of European politics. Are we seeing the emergence of the cultural formation which will accompany the final and formal subordination of the social democratic state to the market economy?

Reading this excellent paper in the Sociological Review reminded me of this video which I’d not seen for ages:

The comments on the video would be interesting to analyse in the terms Malcolm James adopts in the paper:

Back when Pro Green was a G. Now he’s makin tunes to ensure he gets that energy drink sponsorship. money over music, cant hate but dont rate

Rather then seeing Professor Green as engaging in a performance which has shifted with time, he’s instead regarded as having foregone his prior authenticity in pursuit of material gain. I wonder how widely accepted this view is?

I recently started reading the Ian Fleming novels for the first time. While I expected some unpleasant sentiments in them, I’ve been surprised by quite how vitriolic Bond’s misogyny is:

And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them.

‘Bitch,’ said Bond, and then remembering the Muntes, he said ‘bitch’ again more loudly and walked out of the room.

Casino Royale, Pg 32

This was just what he had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men. And now for this to happen to him, just when the job had come off so beautifully. For vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched and probably held to ranson like some bloody heroine in a strip cartoon. The silly bitch. […]

The idea was a straight swap. The girl against his cheque for forty million. Well, he wouldn’t play: wouldn’t think of playing. She was in the Service and knew what she was up against. He wouldn’t even ask M. This job was more important than her. It was just too bad. She was a fine girl, but he wasn’t going to fall for this childish trick. No dice. He would try and catch the Citroen and shoot it out with them and if she got shot in the process, that was too bad. He would have done his stuff – tried to rescue her before they got her off to some hideout – but if he didn’t catch up with them he would get back to his hotel and go to sleep and say no more about it. The next morning he would ask Mathis what had happened to her and show him the note. If Le Chiffre put the touch on Bond for the money in exchange for the girl, Bond would do nothing and tell no one. The girl would just have to take it. If the commissionaire came along with the story of what he had seen, Bond would bluff it out by saying he had had a drunken row with the girl.

Casino Royale Pg. 116-117

Through the red mist of pain, Bond thought of Vesper. He could imagine how she was being used by the two gunmen. They would be making the most of her before she was sent for by Le Chiffre. He thought of the fat wet lips of the Corsican and the slow cruelty of the thin man. Poor wretch to have been dragged into this. Poor little beast.

Casino Royale, Pg 137

I recently stumbled across this old* Huffington Post article by James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward, speculating about what a British fascism would look like. I don’t think it’s actually very good but it’s a fascinating question to ponder.

And yet, were a far-Right government ever to win power in Britain – and never get too complacent, for a Searchlight poll last February found a staggeringly high number of voters who said they would be prepared to vote for party of the far-Right if it renounced violence – what might it do in its first year of power?

This is pure speculation of course, but interesting all the same, I think.

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/james-bloodworth/british-fascism-what-would-british-fascis_b_1454971.html

One of my favourite works of fiction in recent years was Dominion by C.J. Sansom which depicts a Britain that surrendered in World War 2 and has become a satellite state of Nazi Germany. I found it much more plausible than Bloodworth’s speculations but perhaps that’s in part due to gradually showing this world over 500 pages rather than baldly stating it in a 1500 word blog post.

Thanks to Danny Birchall for sharing this film – “It Happened Here”:

There’s also a 2004 documentary drama which addressed this question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NnsRCt8TGM (embedding disabled)

I wonder if counter-factual drama of this sort can be included within the remit of design fiction for digital public sociology?

*Well 2012. I’m not sure when that became ‘old’.

Because we’re leaving them to their own devices
The poorest are making all of the sacrifices –
The cost of living crisis, house prices, the cost of a deposit,
I don’t give a shit
But yes of course we should address it
So we will blame the deficit on people claiming benefits
And as we debate what people get from the state
We don’t care about how long people have to wait in A&E
We don’t care about your GP
We have to get the money, it’s important to me
And as the NHS is being sold off
It’s businesses that get the profits in their pockets

Make sure the toffs stay better off
Make sure the money stops at the top
Take every penny from the hands of the many
And give everything to the few

Where is the fairness? We couldn’t care less
One tax law for the rich and another for the rest
And we will take interest in the very richest
Let us make the poor their bitches
Tax evasion is a man-made disaster
These are the people I serve as Chancellor
I know the answer is to fill
The wallets of the rich and balance the bills
On the backs of the poor.
The rich pay less tax
Let us make sure they don’t pay any more
And as my chums move their money offshore
I am the one holding open the door
Let us be the party that makes you cry
But madness is voting for the other guy

Good morning everybody
Our ideas are partly fear
Of people from different cultures coming here
And when I hear our policies about ethnic minorities
We’re the only party that actually believes in social mobility
Cos our ability to push migrants on a boat
Is my personal priority
Yes, the majority of our policies
Blame people who come from other countries

Employment legislation, blame immigration
Excessive regulation, blame immigration
Bad education, blame immigration
No qualifications, blame immigration
Radicalisation, blame immigration
Unhappy situation, blame immigration
The intimidation in our nation
When we blame immigration
Is a total abomination

At home and abroad, we can afford to press pause
And put the needle on the record

Make sure the toffs stay better off
Make sure the money stops at the top
Take every penny from the hands of the many
And give everything to the few
We are not all in this together
We want to help the rich get richer forever
The poor will get a chance never
We don’t give a damn about you

Since I first encountered the notion of a calling, I’ve found it a difficult category to expunge from my thought. It appeals to me greatly on a personal level: it points to the higher dimension to human experience which I believe tends to be ‘flattened out’ in the culture of liberal democracies. It helps us attend to the possibility of work that is meaningful and non-alienated so as to give shape to a life and provide the qualitative distinctions of worth in relation to which we can orientate ourselves existentially.

However I find myself increasingly troubled by the appeal this has held for me, as well as how notions of this sort might buttress exploitation under contemporary conditions. For instance consider the ‘perils of passion’ in the video game industry, as detailed in this excellent Jacobin article:

Again and again, when you read interviews or watch industry trade shows like E3, “passion” is used as a word to describe the ideal employee. Translated, “passion” means someone willing to buy into the dream of becoming a video game developer so much that sane hours and adequate compensation are willingly turned away. Constant harping on video game workers’ passion becomes the means by which management implicitly justifies extreme worker abuse .

And it works because that sense of passion is very real. The first time that you walk through the door at an industry job, you’re taken with it. You enter knowing that every single person in the building shares a common interest with you and an appreciation for the art of crafting a game. Friendships can be built immediately – to this day, many of my best friends arose from that immediate commonality we all had on the job.

This is an incredibly enticing proposition; no one who goes in is completely immune to it, no matter how far down the totem pole of life’s interests gaming is. And there are few other jobs quite like it.

Geek culture takes such strongly held commonalities of interest and consumption far more seriously than most other subcultures. I recently wrote a piece for this publication which was, in part, about the replacement of traditional class, gender, and racial solidarity with a culture of consumption. Here, in the video game creation business, is the way capital harnesses geek culture to actively harm workers. The exchange is simple: you will work 60-hour weeks for a quarter less than other software fields; in exchange, you have a seat at the table of your primary identifying culture’s ruling class.

http://jacobinmag.com/2013/11/video-game-industry/

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Another example can be found in the comics industry, as far back as the early days of the contemporary corporations. With the original creators leaving, having scarcely been rewarded for much of the creative labour underlying the emergence of Marvel Comics, the corporation turned to “a new generation of creators, wide-eyed twenty-somethings who flashed their old Merry Marvel Marching Society badges as though they were licenses for breaking rules”. The grievances of those original creators faded from view as their creations inspired a new generation willing to work under precisely the conditions which had forced their predecessors to leave.

What about higher education? Does a sense of social science as a calling leave people continuing to chase a career which is in reality only available to a fraction of those pursuing it? Does it lead to an acceptance of precarity as a way of life, with the harsh realities of labour relations within the academy being softened by the rewarding ideal of a calling? Part of my political and theoretical problem here is that I don’t want to fall into the trap of denying the reality of passion by reducing it to an instrument of exploitation. Doing so makes it difficult to explain precisely why people persist in these fields in the way that they do. But we must conversely refuse a naive reading of ‘calling’, which I see in terms of a cluster of concepts of which ‘passion’ is just one, in moral terms so as to neglect this pernicious systemic trend.

Another way to frame this question: how seriously should we take latte art? I’ve more than once had a conversation with a barista about this practice who clearly takes great satisfaction from it. However it’s hard not to wonder if this is a cynical attempt to introduce craft and creativity into a job which some would consider the archetype of zero hours employment. I’d love to visit latte art competitions in an ethnographic capacity to explore how seriously the participants take these endeavours and how pervasively such events are permeated by corporate imperatives. Till that day, I’m left to speculate that this is a case of craft being encouraged by owners for reasons that are largely self-serving, even if they understand their motivations in terms of a benign concern for the well-being of their employees.

As anyone who reads my blog regularly might have noticed, I’m a fan of Colin Crouch’s notion of post-democracy. I’ve interviewed him about it a couple of times: once in 2010 and again in 2013. Whereas he’d initially offered the notion to illuminate a potential trajectory, in the sense that we risk becoming post-democratic, we more latterly see a social order that might be said to have become post-democratic. He intends the term to function analogously to post-industrial: it is not that democracy is gone but that it has been hollowed out:

The term was indeed a direct analogy with ‘post-industrial’. A post-industrial society is not a non-industrial one. It continues to make and to use the products of industry, but the energy and innovative drive of the system have gone elsewhere. The same applies in a more complex way to post-modern, which is not the same as anti-modern or of course pre-modern. It implies a culture that uses the achievements of modernism but departs from them in its search for new possibilities. A post-democratic society therefore is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite. I did not say that we were now living in a post-democratic society, but that we were moving towards such a condition.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/five-minutes-with-colin-crouch/

Crouch is far from the only theorist to have made such a claim. But I think there’s a precision to his argument which distinguishes it from the manner in which someone like, say, Bauman talks about depoliticisation. My current, slightly morbid, interest in representations of civilisational collapse has left me wondering what entrenched post-democracy would look like. Asking this question does not refer to an absence of democracy, for which endless examples are possible, but rather for a more detailed sketch of what a social order which was once democratic but is now post-democratic would look like. While everyday life might look something like that which can be seen in Singapore, ‘the city of rules’ as this Guardian article (from which the picture is taken) puts it, I think there’s more to be said than this. However we can see in Singapore a vivid account of how micro-regulation can be deployed to facilitate a city in which ‘nothing goes wrong, but nothing really happens’ as one ex-pat memorably phrases it in that article. Is it so hard to imagine efficiency and orderliness being used to secure consent, at least amongst some, for a similar level of social control in western Europe or America?

Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian
Photograph: Bildagentur-online/Schoening/Alamy via the Guardian

Perhaps we’d also see the exceptional justice that intruded into UK life after the 2011 riots, with courts being kept open 24/7 in order to better facilitate the restoration of social order. There’s something akin to this in mega sporting events: opaque centralised planning overwhelms democratic consultation, ‘world cup courts’ dish out ad hoc justice, the social structure contorts itself for the pleasure of an international oligopoly upon whom proceedings depend, specialised security arrangements are intensively deployed in the interests of the event’s success and we often see a form of social cleansing (destruction of whole neighbourhoods) presented as a technocratic exercise in event management. We also see pre-arrests and predictive policing deployed to these ends and only a fool would not expect to see more of this as the technological apparatus and the political pressures encouraging them grow over time.

These security arrangements point to another aspect of a post-democratic social order: the economic vibrancy of the security sector. There is a technological dimension to this, with a long term growth fuelled by the ‘war on terror’ coupled with an increasing move towards ‘disruptive policing’ that offers technical solutions at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but we shouldn’t forget the more mundane side of the security industry and its interests in privatisation of policing. This is how Securitas, one of the world’s largest security companies, describe the prospects of the security industry. Note the title of the page: taking advantage of changes.

The global security services market employs several million people and is projected to reach USD 110 billion by 2016. Security services are in demand all over the world, in all industries and in both the public and private sectors. Demand for our services is closely linked to global economic development and social and demographic trends. As the global economy grows and develops, so do we.

Historically, the security market has grown 1–2 percent faster than GDP in mature markets. In recent years, due to current market dynamics and the gradual incorporation of technology into security solutions, security markets in Europe and North America have grown at the same pace as GDP. This trend is likely to continue over the next three to five years.

Market growth is crucial to Securitas’ future profitability and growth, but capitalizing on trends and changes in demand is also important. Developing new security solutions with a higher technology content and improved cost efficiency will allow the private security industry to expand the market by assuming responsibility for work presently performed by the police or other authorities. This development will also be a challenge for operations with insourced security services and increase interest in better outsourced solutions.

http://www.securitas.com/en/About-Securitas/Taking-advantage-of-changes/

Consider this against a background of terrorism, as the spectacular narrative of the ‘war on terror’ comes to be replaced by a prospect of state of alert without end. We’ve not seen the end of the ‘war on terror’, we’ve seen a spectacular narrative become a taken for granted part of everyday life. It doesn’t need to be narrativised any more because it’s here to stay. Against this backdrop, we’re likely see an authoritarian slide in political culture, supplementing the institutional arrangements already in place, in which ‘responsibility’ becomes the key virtue in the exercise of freedoms – as I heard someone say on the radio yesterday, “it’s irresponsible to say democracy is the only thing that matters when we face a threat like this” (or words to that effect).

Crucially, I don’t think this process is inexorable and it’s certainly not the unfolding of an historical logic. It’s enacted by people at every level – including those who reinforce the slide at the micro level of everyday social interaction. The intractability of the problem comes because the process itself involves a hollowing out of processes of contestation at the highest level, such that the corporate agents pursuing this changing social order are also benefiting from it by potential sources of resistance being increasingly absent or at least passive on the macro level.  This is how Wolfgang Streeck describes this institutional project, as inflected through management of the financial crisis:

The utopian ideal of present day crisis management is to complete, with political means, the already far-advanced depoliticization of the economy; anchored in recognised nation-stated under the control of internal governmental and financial diplomacy insulated from democratic participation, with a population that would have learned, over years of hegemonic re-education, to regard the distributional outcomes of free markets as fair, or at least as without alternative.

Buying Time, pg 46