The title of this post comes from A Quiet Place, a civilisational collapse horror thriller currently winning critical acclaim for its deployment of silence to produce a film which is genuinely terrifying in a way few others are. It tells the story of a family struggling to survive, amidst the social collapse which has ensued from the arrival of murderous creatures prior to the start of the film. Blind and deadly, the creatures stalk the ruins of America, using their acute hearing to detect their pray before dispatching them with terrifying alacrity. The film takes place almost entirely without dialogue, as the family use sign language to communicate while they carve out a continued existence in spite of the desolation surrounding them.

It was starkly reminiscent of It Comes At Night, exhibiting the same preoccupation with domesticity after civilisation has collapsed. In this case, the eponymous creatures stalk the woods at night, transformed by an infection which has ravaged the world. Both films adopt a rural frame for their dramas, telling stories about sustaining existence on a remote farm or in the woods. Self-restraint takes on a ritualistic dimension in each. Through careful discipline, control and quarantine it becomes possible to ward off the dangers lurking beyond the confines of the house. Or rather that is what is hoped. Failures of restraint, or the inability of even the best laid plans to prepare oneself for contingencies, serve as crucial dramatic devices in both cases.

Both families are patriarchal, even if more warmly so in A Quiet Place. As well as the shared labour of family life, this father seeks to instruct his son in survival skills so he can protect his mother and sister. Away from the family, he tinkers with devices to better equip his children while systematically working through radio frequencies in the hope of finding some authority remaining somewhere who can help make things right. Befitting the near-millennial status of lead actor and director John Krasinski, the farm is wired with Home Alone-esque devices ingeniously crafted to facilitate the possibility of escape. If only we plan ahead, we can cope with what is to come. So we have been raised to believe.

The director and screenwriter of It Comes At Night, Trey Edward Shults, undoubtedly a millennial at 29, leaves me inclined to frame these films in generational terms. What can we find in the psyche of a generation which entered the adult world amidst the devastation of the financial crisis? By far the biggest threat in the films comes from the social order. Even the best prepared family can be undermined by the unpredictability of other people, interrupting domestic routines or neutralising careful preparation through their unexpected actions. Family life shrinks in both films, encompassing the nuclear family and their daily routines. Everything external to this enters in as threat and loss. A Quiet Place takes this to a disturbing extreme, with even life within the family presented as a threat to itself. A child playing with a toy, the everyday noise of a family and the birth of a child all become occasions to fear for one’s life. Still they soldier on, in a performance of stoicism tinged with an undercurrent of despair. They persist with surviving, investing their daily lives with the security of ritual and coping with the intrusions of dangers as effectively as they can.

These are bleak films and I’m fascinated by their bleakness. They reflect a retreat from the world, collective horizons giving way to the all encompassing embrace of family life. Beyond which lurk terrors which defy our comprehension and capacities. If we do what we should do, working hard to protect our families, we might find our way through the storm. A possibility which A Quiet Place tantalisingly and ambiguously hints at towards the end, adopting a change of key which I read as an ironic play on the audience’s expectations of resolution. The spectre of safety lingers on while misery, decay and death mount up within the once safe confines of the home. Yet we continue onwards, putting one foot in front of the other, working hard and putting our faith in the power of self-discipline and careful planning. This is the only way we have been taught to keep the terrors at bay. Yet we can no longer relying on it working. But who are we if we can’t protect them?

In the last week, I’ve found myself obsessing about the use of social media in #USSStrikes. This was probably inevitable, helping with two social media campaigns related to the strike while also being someone who studies social media. In preparation for a teach out later today and to feed into the social media strategy for my local branch, I spent a couple of hours this morning preparing some thoughts on social media strategy for #USSStrikes and reading a really helpful paper someone sent me about @UCU.

In this 2015 paper, Andy Hodder and David Houghton offered a systematic analysis of @UCU’s twitter activity over a four month period. They frame this in terms of the uptake of the internet by trade unions, which in the earlier literature was “centred around debates on optimistic and pessimistic opinions about the possibilities for the Internet to enable union renewal” (174). The core claim of the optimists was a now familiar one: internet communications made it possible to flatten the hierarchies of trade unions, producing a more distributed and democratic discourse in the process. However the pessimists recognised that new communications technologies can be taken up by existing elites within organisations in order to extend their control over deliberation, contrary to the assumption of a binary opposition between bureucracy and the internet (174).

Hodder and Houghton reconsider these considerations in terms of the emergence of social media, which they recognise as less a technological innovation (for these capacities existed in ‘Web 1.0’) as an extension and mainstreaming of existing opportunities, facilitated by a technical infrastructure allowing much greater opportunity to access the internet. This leads them to stress how a platform like Twitter has no intrinsic democratising effect on trade unions, simply offering another channel through which the existing leadership can formulate, communicate and manage a collective message:

However, for example, while Twitter largely facilitates interaction and conversation between users, it still enables a union to control what message is coming from an account, and to monitor and control the content of such communication. Therefore, the way in which social media platforms are used by unions can reinforce the power and
authority of union leadership. (175)

The novelty is in how fast moving these platforms are rather than how organisations approach them. It is possible these communications challenges drive pluralism through making traditional message discipline difficult to sustain and incentivising engagement as a root to increasing visibility online. Their empirical study sought to clarify this through three research questions:

1. Is the content of the message in line with mobilisation theory?
2. What is being said by trade unions on social media?
3. Who are the audience?

The four month period in which they collected and categorised all @UCU tweets (original, retweet or conversational) included four instances of strike action. The original tweets were coded in terms of mobilisation theory: framing of an injustice, attribution of blame for the injustice or evidence of action. 61.79% of the original tweets could be coded in this way. They take this to mean that “although UCU is using a modern platform to communicate, the content of the majority of tweets (61.79 per cent) remains in the traditional style of unions” which I’m not sure I agree with (185). In a parallel analysis, all  tweets were subsequently categorised as recruitment, campaigning, external campaigning, strike building, strike action, solidarity, engagement, news, other. This analysis produced a range of interesting findings:

  • There was little use of Twitter for recruitment during this period: only 4 instances. I found this particularly striking given it was during a period where there was repeated industrial action, higher visibility and a greater propensity of non-members who were engaging with @UCU to join.
  • This finding on pg 181 seems particularly important: “An interesting approach UCU adopted was to tweet to those affected by industrial action—students—explaining the reason, purpose and necessity of such action”. My hunch is the capacity of social media to not only generate solidarity between staff and students but also to produce action on the basis of this has barely been tapped.
  • Another finding on pg 181 which seems interesting: “UCU frequently retweeted posts that linked current issues to wider cultural references, or current Twitter trends, often containing humour. For example, a parody of Monty Python’s The Life or Brian, ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?’ had been tweeted by users in a video entitled, ‘What Have the Unions Ever Done For Us?’, which listed union successes. Links to the profession were also made around Valentine’s Day, when a Twitter trend for academic valentine’s poems was hijacked by users writing similar style poems about the pay dispute, which UCU often retweeted.” My impression has been this has declined with time but I’ve not examined it systematically.
  • They note how useful social media is for allowing “workforce that does not have common, set hours or a physical place of work when they are not teaching or attending meetings” to signal their participation in strike action, expanding visibility beyond the picket line (182).
  • @UCU was on the whole more active during strike periods, retweeting more often but engaging in less conversation (182-183). This presumably reflects greater engagement coupled with greater demands on the time of union staff. But could carefully escalated conversational engagement prove to be a crucial strategy during strike periods? In its absence simply retweeting more could be seen as “an attempt to demonstrate some form of controlled interaction with followers” (186) without the underlying reality.
  • It was interesting to note that in spite of the decline in conversational engagement, @UCU was well engaged with publications such as Times Higher Education via Twitter: “UCU was particularly engaging with the Times Higher Education’s request via Twitter for details on those VCs earning more than £100,000 per annum. In these tweets, the language became increasingly subversive towards institutions, VCs and UCEA, especially regarding pay deductions for participation in the strike action.” 
  • Tweets were used to coordinate strike action, being “sent to indicate when strike action began, but also when members
    should return to work, coordinating the different picket lines and those working from home who had ‘downed tools’ in their own way” (183). Coupled with the aforementioned conversational strategy, I wonder if this could be used more directly in order to address some of the confusion and uncertainty which circulated online in the run up to the current extended period of strike action?
  • Unsurprisingly, sharing solidarity messages was a distinct feature of @UCU’s tweeting during the period.
  • Another interesting observation they made in the paper was the non-existent relationship between the size of a membership and the size of a Twitter following for the trade unions they analysed.

It was particularly interesting to see who UCU was engaging with. This classification is difficult on social media and the author’s chose to interpret multiple self-identifications into which ever was most relevant to the union:

Towards the end of the paper, the authors acknowledge the limitation of focusing only on @UCU. The question which seems urgent to me is: how are branches using social media? Can it be analysed in the terms above to understand strengths and weakness? How can @UCU maximise its engagement to harness the reach and creativity of these branches? How can branches develop their own strategies which hook in to national campaigning in an effective and sustainable way? These issues are not a million miles away from ones which Labour has dealt with in the last two years, as the run away success of their social media strategy has come from building a flexible and open relationship with a vast array of affiliated initiatives.

Any thoughts on this are much appreciated. We are shaping the local branch’s social media strategy on the fly, as I suspect are many other branches around the country. To whatever extent time allows, it would be great to share experiences and coordinate action, particularly as the strike continues beyond this week.

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

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

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

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

One of the most interesting arguments in Kill All Normie by Angela Nagle was her claim that transgression has been decoupled from its contingent association with the left, being taken up by the alt-right in a profoundly reactionary way. I’ve been thinking back to this while reading Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff. Trump seems to embody this process, even if he doesn’t necessarily understand it. From loc 458:

Trump’s understanding of his own essential nature was even more precise. Once, coming back on his plane with a billionaire friend who had brought along a foreign model, Trump, trying to move in on his friend’s date, urged a stop in Atlantic City. He would provide a tour of his casino. His friend assured the model that there was nothing to recommend Atlantic City. It was a place overrun by white trash. “What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model. “They’re people just like me,” said Trump, “only they’re poor.” He looked for a license not to conform, not to be respectable. It was something of an outlaw prescription for winning—and winning, however you won, was what it was all about. Or, as his friends would observe, mindful themselves not to be taken in, he simply had no scruples. He was a rebel, a disruptor, and, living outside the rules, contemptuous of them.

Reading Factories for Learning by Christy Kulz, I was fascinated to learn of the new right’s cultural war on the educational establishment in the 1980s which I had only been dimly aware of. I knew the central place of the local authorities in this but I hadn’t realised how central education was to these attacks. From loc 376:

These changes intersected with the widely publicised ridicule of some local councils as bastions of ‘loony-left’ policies by New Right Conservative politicians and the popular press. The New Right used numerous fictitious tales targeting white anxiety to attack anti-racist education, presenting it as the cause of British cultural decline (see Gordon, 1990). Concerns over local anti-racist movements were crafted ‘into popular “chains of meaning”’, providing an ‘ideological smokescreen and hence popular support for the Thatcherite onslaught on town hall democracy’ (Butcher et al., 1990: 116). Outlandish tales of political correctness gone awry blurred the lines of causality, with New Right organisations tying left-wing extremists and slumping educational standards to the development of anti-racist education (Tomlinson, 1993: 25–6). Many local authorities adopted less robust approaches to race equality towards the late 1980s owing to negative publicity, while the Labour Party avoided directly identifying with radical urban left authorities. Sally Tomlinson (2008) describes how there was far more commentary on anti-racist, multicultural education than action within schools. Yet the political climate of the late 1980s veered towards framing anti-racists, rather than racist attitudes, as the problem (Ball and Solomos, 1990: 12).

In a recent article, Michael Burawoy warned about what he termed the spiralists. These are “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. While he was concerned with university leaders, I observed at the time that the category clearly has a broader scope than this. Reading Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury, I’m struck by the role of spiralists within the Whitehouse who are objectively enablers of Trump while subjectively congratulating themselves for restraining him:

Still, the mess that might do serious damage to the nation, and, by association, to your own brand, might be transcended if you were seen as the person, by dint of competence and professional behavior, taking control of it. Powell, who had come into the White House as an adviser to Ivanka Trump, rose, in weeks, to a position on the National Security Council, and was then, suddenly, along with Cohn, her Goldman colleague, a contender for some of the highest posts in the administration. At the same time, both she and Cohn were spending a good deal of time with their ad hoc outside advisers on which way they might jump out of the White House. Powell could eye seven-figure comms jobs at various Fortune 100 companies, or a C-suite future at a tech company—Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, after all, had a background in corporate philanthropy and in the Obama administration. Cohn, on his part, already a centamillionaire, was thinking about the World Bank or the Fed.

These figures regard themselves as performing an important public service, enforcing moderation on the immoderate and providing competence in an executive characterised by incompetence. They will then be justly rewarded for this service, spiralling out of the Whitehouse and on to bigger and better things. Who could blame them for this? After all, they have spent time and energy giving to the public sector when they could have made so much more money in the private sector. This is a crucial rhetorical strategy of the spiralists: their ambition is justified by their public service but their public service is a tool of their ambition. They approach it as a means to elevate themselves, increasing their standing and seeking out new opportunities, while expecting to be praised for that which they have forsaken in the process. The ascent of the spiralists understands itself to be motivated by much weightier things than money.

The evidence would suggest I’m not alone in being somewhat gripped by Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury. One of the central themes of the book is how no one, including the candidate himself, expected Trump would win and what we have seen since then has been a rapid adaptation, self-serving and bewildered in equal measured, as the apparatus around him tried to make sense of a situation in which they never expected to find themselves. From this standpoint, the ‘post-truth’ character of Trump’s administration with their ‘alternative facts’, comes to look like a pragmatic adaption to a chronically incapable candidate rather than anything more sinister. From loc 873:

The media, adopting a “shocked, shocked” morality, could not fathom how being factually wrong was not an absolute ending in itself. How could this not utterly shame him? How could his staff defend him? The facts were the facts! Defying them, or ignoring them, or subverting them, made you a liar—intending to deceive, bearing false witness. (A minor journalism controversy broke out about whether these untruths should be called inaccuracies or lies.) In Bannon’s view: (1) Trump was never going to change; (2) trying to get him to change would surely cramp his style; (3) it didn’t matter to Trump supporters; (4) the media wasn’t going to like him anyway; (5) it was better to play against the media than to the media; (6) the media’s claim to be the protector of factual probity and accuracy was itself a sham; (7) the Trump revolution was an attack on conventional assumptions and expertise, so better to embrace Trump’s behavior than try to curb it or cure it. The problem was that, for all he was never going to stick to a script (“ his mind just doesn’t work that way” was one of the internal rationalizations), Trump craved media approval. But, as Bannon emphasized, he was never going to get the facts right, nor was he ever going to acknowledge that he got them wrong, so therefore he was not going to get that approval. This meant, next best thing, that he had to be aggressively defended against the media’s disapproval.

This isn’t just a matter of gossip about political leaders or a corrective to the excessive abstraction pouring forth from an intellectual class on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It allows us to recast politics in micro-social terms involving absence, failure and incapacity rather than simply telling stories of the powerful exercising that power in pursuit of their established projects. Fire and Fury tells a vivid story of how the Whitehouse revolves around managing the incapacities of Trump, as the staff struggle to come to terms with their willingness to play this role (in a manner which can just as readily be cast in terms of incapacity). From loc 1989:

Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: he didn’t process information in any conventional sense—or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all. Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television. But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention. The organization therefore needed a set of internal rationalizations that would allow it to trust a man who, while he knew little, was entirely confident of his own gut instincts and reflexive opinions, however frequently they might change.

However the incapacities of others provide a valuable object for one’s own strategic capacities. The point is not to counterpoise a strategic and agentive analysis to a non-strategic and non-agentive one. This misses the obvious ways in which absence, failure and incapacity structure the field of opportunities to which agents strategically respond. As Wolff recounts on loc 2009:

It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.” However alarming, Trump’s way of operating also presented an opportunity to the people in closest proximity to him: by understanding him, by observing the kind of habits and reflexive responses that his business opponents had long learned to use to their advantage, they might be able to game him, to move him. Still, while he might be moved today, nobody underestimated the complexities of continuing to move him in the same direction tomorrow.

As he writes on loc 2046, “If Trump cared about something, he usually already had a fixed view based on limited information. If he didn’t care, he had no view and no information”. This created openings for all the senior figures in their pursuit of power and influence. Bannon styled himself as the high priest of Trumpism, exercising power over the President and others through becoming deeply conversant with his writing and speeches, able to quote back Trump’s intentions in a way which cast him in the role of a consistent and strategic actor. Wolff’s description of this is particularly resonant:

Bannon’s unique ability—partly through becoming more familiar with the president’s own words than the president was himself, and partly through a cunning self-effacement (upended by his bursts of self-promotion)—was to egg the president on by convincing him that Bannon’s own views were entirely derived from the president’s views. Bannon didn’t promote internal debate, provide policy rationale, or deliver Power-Point presentations; instead, he was the equivalent of Trump’s personal talk radio. Trump could turn him on at any moment, and it pleased him that Bannon’s pronouncements and views would consistently be fully formed and ever available, a bracing, unified-field narrative. As well, he could turn him off, and Bannon would be tactically quiet until turned on again.

Meanwhile Priebus was able to offer endorsement from the political establishment which has previously loathed him, while Kushner brought the prestige of the business elite who had never taken Trump seriously. The president seemingly wanted all of these, representing an important vector through which chaos ensued within the Whitehouse, alongside many others at all levels of the organisation. Reading these accounts, it’s hard not to be sceptical of accounts of ‘post-truth’ et al as overly abstract and epochal accounts which obscure a messy all-too-human reality, albeit one that could ultimately produce outcomes of epochal significance.

One of the most obvious ways to read Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States is as the emergence of a neoliberal populism. The popular backlash against a socio-economic system unable to provide an acceptable quality of life for the majority of its citizens is harnessed by entrenched elites, with the intention of leveraging this uprising to support an intensification of precisely the conditions it is a response to. We can see this through the near wholesale adoption of the Ryan policy platform by the Trump administration, as well as the rapprochement with elite donors facilitated through the Pence vice-presidency:

On Election Night, the dissonance between Trump’s populist supporters and Pence’s billionaire sponsors was quietly evident. When Trump gave his acceptance speech, in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he vowed to serve “the forgotten men and women of our country,” and promised to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Upstairs, in a room reserved for Party élites, several of the richest and most conservative donors, all of whom support drastic reductions in government spending, were celebrating. Doug Deason, a Texas businessman and a political donor, recalled to me, “It was amazing. In the V.I.P. reception area, there was an even more V.I.P. room, and I counted at least eight or nine billionaires.”

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/23/the-danger-of-president-pence

Despite the superficial civil war taking place in the Republican party, the political topology of its near future can be seen as in many ways as a continuation of what came previously. This ideological alchemy is rendered possible by market populism, skillfully analysed by Thomas Frank over many years, framing the expansion of ‘economic liberty’ as the extension of democracy. The subordination of democracy to capital is coded as democratisation against the wishes of cultural and political elites, allowing a deeply reactionary movement to style itself as a radical insurgency acting on behalf of ‘the people’.

However, the role of the far-right in Trumpist populism potentially complicates this analysis. This is a genuine uprising, pulled towards the Republican party by elite donors (or rather their strategists) and pushed towards it by the quasi-Leninist vanguard within the far-right (supported by the cultural shock troops of the online armies they influence). It is a combustible mix, inherently unpredictable in its outcomes. But it doesn’t exhaust neoliberal populism per se. In fact, it’s deeply shaped by the American political scene, not least of all the idiosyncratic figurehead around which these trends have coalesced.

We can expect that neoliberal populism in Europe will take a different form. Enter the figure of Emmanuel Macron, described by Selim Nadi in a recent Salvage essay:

Macron, rather than breaking with the established trend toward more racist authoritarianism, is leading us into a new kind of authoritarian populism that fits perfectly with the neo-liberal reform he wants to pursue in France. Indeed, Macron is reorganizing France precisely so as to secure the neo-liberal hegemony which has had such disastrous effects for the whole French working class, and especially for those workers originating from France’s former colonies.

Moreover, instead of ending the state of emergency, Macron seems intent on creating a legalized permanent state of emergency, which will not be the exception anymore, but rather the rule—and whose effect will be to repress any attempts coming from the Left to organize against Macron’s reforms.

http://salvage.zone/uncategorized/the-meaning-of-macron/

This ultra-insider, whose has cultivated power and influence with astonishing effectiveness since his teens, styles himself as an outsider: leading the doers, the sayers, the actors of France in an uprising against the sclerosis that has gripped their country. It’s easy to be sceptical of the crowds surrounding him but I’ve become convinced the more I’ve read, watched and listened that En Marche! is very much a movement. It has drawn its strategy from the mainstream ‘centre-left’: David Plouffe, Jim Mesina, Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell all advised the campaign. The consultancy specialising in ‘grassroots campaigns’ which planned their strategy was founded by three Harvard-educated French former Obama volunteers (pg 200-201). But these strategies changed by being pursued outside the shell of an existing political party, producing energising scenes of the would-be Jupiterian screaming at a crowd hungry for change:

If we take their claim to have produced a movement seriously, it raises important questions about the sectors of society who have been mobilised in this way and the potential outcomes of this mobilisation. How will their nascent politics be shaped by the likely conflicts arising from Macron’s contested economic agenda? My hunch is that there’s a reactionary politics lurking behind the superficially optimistic rhetoric of grassroots democracy and start-up culture. En Marche! and the Tea Party strand of Trumpism could not be more different but this is because the French bourgeoisie and the reactionary part of the American bourgeoisie could not be more dissimilar. The underlying class composition of these movements seem to have some commonalities, as Nadi hints at here:

Hence, Macron really appears as a new embodiment of the different sections of the French bourgeoisie — dispensing with the artificial boundary between the Socialist Party, the Center and the right-wing Les Républicains. Macron’s bourgeois bloc managed to unify some sections of the traditional right-wing, a section of social democracy, and even some elements of ‘civil society.’ The mythical division between state and ‘civil society’ is a very important source of legitimacy for Macron. By assembling politicians who are not members of established political parties, he created a sort of contemporary Third Estate in order to secure the political hegemony of the French bourgeoisie.

http://salvage.zone/uncategorized/the-meaning-of-macron/

His authoritarian intentions are (arguably) a matter of record, as he has spoken at length about the French longing for a Napoleonic figurehead and his intention to fill this perceived gap. His apparently liberal stances are belied by his commitment to normalising the state of emergency, as Nadi describes:

While Macron seems to want to end the formal ‘state of emergency’, his proposal is in effect to legalize it, to include it in the common law. Hence it will no longer be a state of ‘emergency’ but just the regular state under which France will exist. As a matter of fact, his current draft legislation, entitled ‘law for the reinforcement of the fight against terrorism and for the reinforcement of homeland security,’ legalises many of the tools of the state of emergency. These include home-search, house arrest, closing of places of worship (obviously, this will mainly target Muslims), monitoring private communications, and so on.

http://salvage.zone/uncategorized/the-meaning-of-macron/

His government could pave the way for far-right rule in the future, as Phil BC pointed out immediately after his election. However, I’m increasingly wondering whether sections of his base might themselves transmute into organic supporters of the far-right in the unfolding of the social conflicts which pursuing his agenda will inevitably aggravate. Much as we shouldn’t assume fascism in America will come in the form of jackboots, we shouldn’t assume neoliberal populism in western Europe will come in the form of a reactionary reality television star.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In today’s Guardian, Neal Lawson offers a cautious reading of Corbyn’s Labour, accepting the ascendancy of the left within the party but urging it to look outwards. I’m sympathetic to many of the substantive points Lawson makes in the article but there’s a rich vein of problematic assumption running through their articulation which needs to be challenged. I’m pretty sure that in Lawson’s case, the peculiar style of fin de siècle social theorising once dominant within British sociology, about which I wrote a PhD thesis, played a crucial in consolidating this outlook.

However, the problem extends beyond those who have taken Giddens, Beck and Bauman’s diagnosis of late modernity a little too seriously. In fact, I’d suggest the popularity of the aforementioned authors was in part due to their reflecting an emerging common sense, rather than being the originators of these influential ideas and motifs. In recent years, we’ve seen this transmute into what I increasingly think of as the ideology of platform capitalism: disruption has become the last refuge of the third way

I recognise that Lawson is as far on the left of this movement as it is possible to be, though he so uncritically reproduces some of its core axioms that it would be a mistake to identify his core ideological home as anywhere else. The combination of business and activism, profit and principle, found in his own biography is a striking expression of the ethos of New Labour. There are two core assumptions underlying his article which need to be pulled out, analysed in their own right and dispensed with:

  1. Social democracy “lost its power” because “a lack of responsiveness and heavy doses of paternalism made state socialism unpopular” while “the idea of free markets chimed with a more individualistic age”. It is a purely cultural reading of an epochal shift, with one idea ‘losing its power’ while another becomes dominant because it ‘chimes’ with the spirit of an (assumed) new age. The historical variability of how centre-left parties have struggled in recent decades, something which can’t meaningfully be considered in abstraction from the ‘modernising’ strands dominant within so many of them, finds itself reduced by Lawson to the (empirical) decline of a particular phase in the existence of a single welfare state. Explanation of this trend is replaced by a woolly historical narrative, in which one set of ideas loses to another because of a vaguely specified epochal shift. It’s pure Giddens: the collective gives way to the individual, the traditional to the modern, the secure to the flexible. It’s neither explanatory nor descriptive in any straightforward sense.
  2. The spirit of the age is “networked and collaborative” and “21st-century socialism will be participatory”. After all, “things move fast and nowhere is this truer than in politics” where, warns Lawson, we see a “swarm” which “can and will keep shifting”. The conceptual structure of this is analogous to the ‘cult’ accusations made by the Labour right: a nascent movement is reduced into a behavioural compulsion gripping a mass, driven in this case by the affordances of digital media and the susceptibility of millennials to be swept along. It’s a refusal to engage with the reality of the events taking place, reducing them into an epochal schema in order to advance a prior set of axioms about how ‘progressive’ political ends ought to be pursued. It is already decided by the analyst that the actors at what Filip Vostal terms ‘mega-forces’ (globalisation, technology, acceleration, digital media) so the empirical actors are reduced to manifestations of these forces.

This is only a brief attempt in response to an article I largely agreed with on a practical level. But the hunch I’m increasingly driven by is that ‘networked socialism’ is a re-articulation of ‘social markets’: it’s an ideological vehicle which, though sometimes correct on substantive issues, imports the conceptual structure of the ‘third way’ into debates about the future of the left.

In the last few days, I’ve been reading Hilary Clinton’s What Happened and reflecting on it as an expression of a political centrism which I suspect is coming to an end. These self-defined ‘modernisers’ sought to adapt their respective political parties to what they saw as a new reality, necessitating that they be ‘change-makers’ while responding to change. The claims of the modernisers usually play out in two registers: the psephological and the epochal. The former is straight-forward as a case to adapt to shifts in the electorate themselves and their distribution across constituencies. These changes might be driven by other parties, necessitating adaptation to a changing political landscape. From loc 3544:

I came of age in an era when Republicans won election after election by peeling off formerly Democratic white working-class voters. Bill ran for President in 1992 determined to prove that Democrats could compete in blue-collar suburbs and rural small towns without giving up our values. By focusing on the economy, delivering results, and crafting compromises that defused hot-button issues such as crime and welfare, he became the first Democrat since World War II to win two full terms.

However, the epochal claims modernisers make are more ambiguous. As an empirical exercise, it is obvious that there are connections between social change and electoral change e.g. how post-industrialisation leads to a recomposition of the working class. There nonetheless tends to be a discursive separation between the two, in terms of how modernisers account for their strategy and tactics, which invites explanation. For instance, Tony Blair was prone to speaking in terms of epochal change, framing the new labour project in terms of globalisation and technology changing the landscape within which politics takes place. The influence of Anthony Giddens was undoubtedly key here, but this is nonetheless something which was drawn upon after the psephological case for new labour was already formulated.

This raises the question of the relationship between them: is the epochal language of modernisation merely a flowery idiom in which a basically psephological case is being made? I wonder if it serves a more subtle role, as switching between the two displaces the moment when political axioms confront empirical reality. If the psephological case is challenged, it’s possible to fall back on talk of modernity and globalisation. If the talk of modernity and globalisation is challenged, it’s possible to switch to a case framed in terms of electoral strategy. This ideology of moderation and empiricism postpones an encounter with its own empirical limitations, ensuring its adherents remain able to sustain their identity as pragmatists surrounded by fanatics.

In other words: the world ‘out there’ becomes oddly charged for modernisers, invoked continuously but in ways that distance themselves from it. It is a traumatic real which they avoid at all costs. It blinds them to their own role in creating the conditions to which they claim to be responding. Declining trust in politicians, disengagement from the political process and the subordination of politics to the media are presented as epochal shifts to which parties must respond strategically, as if this relationality plays no part in driving these political transformations. At one point in the book Clinton reminds me of Adorno, opining that “Solutions are going to matter again in politics” as she places her pragmatism in a bottle floating forward into an uncertain future (loc 3264). What Happened? The end of modernisation.

Yesterday morning I bought a copy of Hilary Clinton’s new book What Happened and was surprised to find myself gripped by it. I’d expected a turgid and unlikeable text which I’d skim through in order to supplement my understanding of the last Presidential election with the authorised account of the losing candidate. To my surprise, I’m enjoying the book and finding Clinton far more likeable than I expected. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I’m fascinated by it, for reasons which have nothing to do with the election.

It’s a disarmingly honest book which is doing multiple things, including protecting her reputation after last year’s debacle. However, I find it hard not to believe her claim that writing the book was cathartic. It charts the end of two defining features of her life over decades: buffering and triaging. The former is Jon Stewart’s term for what you “could see happening in the milliseconds between when Clinton was asked a question and when she answered; the moments when she played out the angles, envisioned the ways her words could be twisted, and came up with a response devoid of danger but suffused with caution”. As she points out on loc 1630-1651, criticism of her for this is manifestly gendered:

People say I’m guarded, and they have a point. I think before I speak. I don’t just blurt out whatever comes to mind. It’s a combination of my natural inclination, plus my training as a lawyer, plus decades in the public eye where every word I say is scrutinized. But why is this a bad thing? Don’t we want our Senators and Secretaries of State—and especially our Presidents—to speak thoughtfully, to respect the impact of our words? President Obama is just as controlled as I am, maybe even more so. He speaks with a great deal of care; takes his time, weighs his words. This is generally and correctly taken as evidence of his intellectual heft and rigor. He’s a serious person talking about serious things. So am I. And yet, for me, it’s often experienced as a negative.

What for her is seen as disingenuity or inauthenticity is in Obama coded as, at worst, aloofness. To spend one’s life “keeping a tight hold on what I say and how I react to things” sounds exhausting and the “relief” she writes of having always found with “friends with whom I can be vulnerable and unedited” might now become a more general feature of a life which is in the process of slowing down and opening up. She writes on loc 398 of the sudden experience of freedom which the electoral defeat had granted her:

So when a friend said she was sending a box full of her favorite books . . . and another said he was coming up for the weekend even if it was just to take a walk together . . . and another said she was taking me to see a play whether I wanted to go or not . . . I didn’t protest or argue. For the first time in years, I didn’t have to consult a complicated schedule. I could just say “Yes!” without a second thought.

I read this as the end of triaging. This was most intense during a campaign in which an endless sequence of events was coupled with back-to-back radio interviews while travelling. But it was a feature of her life more broadly, in which the constant support of an extensive staff extended her capacity to fill her life with commitments, appointments and obligations. I found it fascinating to read these, admittedly still carefully polished, descriptions of her experience of the time (and of time) after the election. It’s only much later in the book that you start to realise that even then she wasn’t alone, being surrounded by all manner of staff even during what she experiences as an unprecedented withdrawal from the world.

If we read her book in this way, against the backdrop of her transformed life, it shines as a biographically framed account of a political creed. This book represents a form of life, in a manner we rarely see with senior politicians. It presents the worldview of a ‘moderniser’, one of the architects of a ‘centre-left’ now slipping into history, grounded in her own orientation to the world and understanding of her own life. This centrism was always ideological, albeit a strange ideology of moderation and empiricism (revealed as an ideology by its chronic failure to adapt to a world that has demonstrably changed on an empirical level). This book illustrates how centrism, as with all ideologies, organises everyday experience in a way that connects considered positions with situated affectivity. As can be seen in Clinton’s account of centrism as the emotional labour of politics. From loc 1831-1849:

Dramatic spiritual conversions aside, emotional labor isn’t particularly thrilling as far as the political media or some of the electorate is concerned. I’ve been dinged for being too interested in the details of policy (boring!), too practical (not inspiring!), too willing to compromise (sellout!), too focused on smaller, achievable steps rather than sweeping changes that have little to no chance of ever coming true (establishment candidate!). But just as a household falls apart without emotional labor, so does politics grind to a halt if no one is actually listening to one another or reading the briefings or making plans that have a chance of working. I guess that might be considered boring. I don’t find it boring, but you might. But here’s the thing: someone has to do it. In my experience, a lot of the time, it’s women. A lot of the time, it’s dismissed as not that important. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

This might all be mistaken. The book might be a careful part of a rebranding exercise, seeking to rectify the Clinton brand in order that the dynasty might continue when Chelsea runs for office. But if we accept that politicians are people, we confront micro-social questions about their lives and biographies which I’ve always found fascinating (not least of all because the nature of politics leaves politicians disinclined to help us answer them). I’m finding this book oddly fascinating and I now feel much more affection for Hilary Clinton than I did a few days ago.

Edited to add: I wrote this when half way through the book. The second half of the book is much less likeable and leaves me much less sympathetic to Clinton. It’s still a surprisingly interesting read though.