This excellent essay by Jan-Werner Müller in the London Review of Books raises an important issue about the forms of political mobilisation facilitated by social media: 

Trump has called himself the Hemingway of the 140 characters. He has ‘the best words’. He loves Twitter, he says, because it’s like having one’s own newspaper, but without the losses. Twitter shares something of the echo-chamber effect of Facebook, but it also makes possible a form of direct identification between the individual citizen and the supposedly sole authentic representative of the people. It is hard to see how this might have been possible before, at least as a matter of daily experience: perhaps going to a party rally and feeling a direct connection with the leader while surrounded by others who feel exactly the same thing. Now, that sense of a direct link is just a click away, day and night: ‘Hey, I’m up at 3 a.m., and so is he, and he’s thinking exactly what I was just thinking!’

This is an illusion, but it is a powerful one. Media-savvy politicians can exploit it in unprecedented ways. For instance, in Italy the anti-establishment Five Star movement emerged from Beppe Grillo’s blog. ‘Hey folks, it works like this: you tell me what’s going on and I will play the amplifier,’ he’d written to his followers. Grillo had been a well-known comedian before entering politics. He has never merely amplified the concerns of ordinary people; the way il popolo speaks is decisively shaped by his leadership even though he has no official position of authority. Trump of course had also been a TV star, someone partly famous for being famous. But the peculiarity of Trump is that he seems the equivalent of Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi merged into one person. Whenever he was accused during the campaign of being just an entertainer, he could point to his competence as a businessman; whenever it was pointed out that his ventures mostly went bankrupt, he could respond that he was primarily a media star.

What forms of political organisation emerge from such a dynamic? Fleeting and fragile ones, predicated on imagined links with the leader rather than relational bonds between the followers. This gives reason to be hopeful but it also creates dangerous incentives for the leader, inviting them to escalate their rhetoric in order to mobilise a base over whom, at least as a collective, their hold remains unreliable. The problem is, as he puts it later in the essay, “The supply of enemies is inexhaustible.”

This is why it’s so important to refuse the story such populists tell about their own success. They ascribe an outcome with complex origins to their own quasi-magical powers to connect with ‘the people’:

Liberals have been wringing their hands at their seeming inability to reach citizens with ‘fact-checks’ and incontrovertible demonstrations of Trump’s continual self-contradictions. It’s curious that in their despair they have resurrected some of the clichés of 19th-century mass psychology. While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics. Some trusted him because he told it like it is; but in other cases the trust came first, and led them to believe that he was telling them the real story. 

Reading the excellent Selected Exaggerations, a book of interviews with Peter Sloterdijk, I was struck by his remarks about taxation and the state in an interview from 2001. He bemoans the punitive taxation he claims exists in Germany, arguing that it reflects a broader domination of society by the state. German citizens are “punished for success” and the trust society is based on gradually finds itself eroded. On loc 1798-1813 he goes on to call for a ‘social movement of entrepreneurs’:

SLOTERDIJK: Precisely. There are countless areas of redistribution that could be organized much more intelligently and efficiently by alternative means. I am thinking of unemployment benefits, of the whole welfare state that should be organized more in terms of incentives, much more in terms of entrepreneurship and less in terms of the consumer state.

METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: Are you saying that entrepreneurial thinking is supposed to save the welfare state?

SLOTERDIJK: Yes, entrepreneurs will raise the banners of hope again. Without a movement of entrepreneurs, as there was once a workers’ movement, the economy can no longer explain itself adequately to society.

METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: And what will be written on the banners?

SLOTERDIJK: ‘Entrepreneurs of the world, unite’ –what else? At the moment only entrepreneurs can convincingly represent the interests of the industries and services that produce the hardware, that is, the real value of productive industry, against the phantom superstructure of speculative finance economy. Only an entrepreneurs’ movement can act in the anti-capitalist way that is needed now. It is time for entrepreneurial anti-capitalism.

METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: The entrepreneur as alternative to the distorted picture of globalization, of the anonymous flow of money around the globe?

SLOTERDIJK: Entrepreneurs must show that an operative economy, not the dictatorship of the lottery bosses, is the foundation of the market economy. Entrepreneurs are the social democracy of tomorrow.

METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: Are you serious?

SLOTERDIJK: Of course. At the moment entrepreneurs may describe themselves in neoliberal terms, but this is becoming increasingly false as the years go by, because in the end they can only justify themselves as producers of the net value that serves the other side of redistribution.

It’s a fascinating interview, filled with remarks I object to deeply. What struck me was the parallel to the themes (though not their articulation) of the contemporary populist right, both in the US and the UK. The awkward combination of populism and capital, fulminating against the 47% while framing it as a progressive revolt in the universal interests against a overweaning state captured by dependents. Genealogically speaking, it’s obvious that Sloterdijk was not a progenitor of the Anglo-American populist right. But philosophically speaking, it’s perhaps meaningful to suggest that he was. At least in so far as what he’s doing here can be classified as philosophy, though that’s perhaps a topic for another post.

An absolutely fascinating article from Arlie Hochschild, whose new book on the American right sounds like a must read:

Traditional Tea Party supporters wanted to cut both the practice of cutting in line, and government rewards for doing so. Followers of Donald Trump, on the other hand, wanted to keep government benefits and remove shame from the act of receiving them – but restrict those benefits, implicitly, to native-born Americans, preferably white.

http://isa-global-dialogue.net/the-american-right-its-deep-story/

There’s an interesting extract in this Guardian article about the growing civil war in the Republican party, concerning the adoption of Trump’s tactics by aspirant politicians within the party:

Trump’s refusal to support McCain and Ryan comes exactly one week before Ryan faces a primary challenge from the businessman Paul Nehlen, a candidate who has sought to emulate Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Nehlen has branded Ryan “a soulless globalist” and attacked him as the candidate of open borders.""

On Tuesday, Trump praised Nehlen for running “a very good campaign”.

McCain is also facing a primary challenge at the end of August from Kelli Ward, a former Arizona state senator who has accused the 2008 Republican nominee of being “directly responsible for Isis”. If the five-term senator manages to fend off the primary challenge, he still faces a competitive general election against the Democratic representative Ann Kirkpatrick, in what McCain has described as “the race of my life”.

Although Arizona was once solidly Republican, the heavily Latino state is now considered an electoral toss-up because of Trump’s unpredictable effect on candidates whose names follow his own on the ballot. For over a year, McCain has also called on Trump to apologize for saying he prefers “people who weren’t captured” to prisoners of war, like the senator was himself in Vietnam. Trump has not apologized.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/02/donald-trump-paul-ryan-john-mccain-re-election-endorsements?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Given (a) Trump’s likely sponsorship of them (b) the relative and growing weakness of the party’s elites (c) a general tendency towards the ‘acceleration of bullshit‘, in which awareness of opportunities for advancement circulate more rapidly than was previously the case, I wonder if we’re liable to see a growing army of American demagogues. Perhaps Trump was just the beginning.

I really like this framing by Zizek on pg 177 of his Trouble in Paradise. The discourse on ‘populism’ should be read through this lens: the bewilderment and scorn elites feel when this polite agreement breaks down.

In this sense, in a democracy, every ordinary citizen effectively is a king –but a king in a constitutional democracy, a king who only formally decides, whose function is to sign measures proposed by an executive administration. This is why the problem of democratic rituals is homologous to the big problem of constitutional democracy: how to protect the dignity of the king? How to maintain the appearance that the king effectively decides, when we all know this is not true? What we call a ‘crisis of democracy’ does not occur when people stop believing in their own power but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide the guidelines, when they experience the anxiety signalling that ‘the (true) throne is empty’, that the decision is now really theirs. There is thus in ‘free elections’ always a minimal aspect of politeness: those in power politely pretend that they do not really hold power, and ask us to freely decide if we want to give them power –in a way which mirrors the logic of the offer-meant-to-be-refused, as mentioned above.

A really interesting section from Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise, analysing the challenging facing populist movements who have mobilised successfully around an imagined national unity. From pg 144:

At a more directly political level, US foreign policy elaborated a detailed strategy of how to exert damage-control by way of re-channelling a popular uprising into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist constraints, as was done successfully in South Africa after apartheid, in the Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, and so on. At this precise conjuncture emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to take the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of ‘totalitarian’ temptation –in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been getting a little bit obsessed with Donald Trump in recent months. There’s certainly a risk of overstating the threat that he poses, such that a preoccupation with the man himself risks obscuring the systemic conditions that have facilitated his emerging status, but I’m increasingly convinced we’re witnessing what might be a culmination of sorts stemming from decades-long trends in American politics. Furthermore, it’s one which might lead to an existential change in the system itself, as an epochal realignment of voters and even the disintegration of the GOP begin to seem like possibilities.

This passage from Ezra Klein captures what I think is the ideological heart of this emerging movement and it’s rather sinister:

This is more than an aside; this is the core of Trump’s ideology. The protesters who interrupted his rally, the political correctness that kept the police from cracking their skulls, the press that takes the hippies’ side — this is why America has stopped being great. We were strong, and we were tough, and we didn’t take this kind of shit from anybody. And now we are weak, and we are scared, and we take this kind of shit from everybody.

http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/3/12/11211898/donald-trumps-ideology-of-violence

From InfoGlut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 3148:

the deadlock of representation doesn’t simply foreclose the purchase of shared social representations, it simultaneously frees up the field for the proliferation of imagined narratives and counter- narratives. The result is a kind of bestiary of the imaginary: a familiarly disturbing world in which claims once relegated to the political margins start to mingle with those once considered serious and credible. It is a world populated by death panels, in which providing healthcare and welfare is one step away from the Nazi death camp, in which foes of abortion claim that women’s bodies naturally protect them from being impregnated by rape, in which centrist Democrats are pursuing a covert agenda of euthanasia and eugenics. Once upon a time, the thorough debunking of all dominant narratives would have been taken as a form of liberation – doesn’t it free up the field, after all, for “subjugated” knowledges? The answer is yes, but only at the cost of their efficacy. In a world in which the shifting strands of discourse lose their purchase, the two- way relationship between power and knowledge is, in a sense, severed.

This week’s George Monbiot column in the Guardian is excellent. It paints a vivid picture of the full scale of corporate capture of the democratic process at a time when the Institute of Directors proclaims a “generational struggle” to defend the “principles of the free-market”:

The corporate consensus is enforced not only by the lack of political choice, but by an assault on democracy itself. Steered by business lobbyists, the EU and the US are negotiating a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. This would suppress the ability of governments to put public interest ahead of profit. It could expose Britain to cases like El Salvador’s, where an Australian company is suing the government before a closed tribunal of corporate lawyers for $300m (nearly half the country’s annual budget) in potential profits foregone. Why? Because El Salvador refused permission for a gold mine that would poison people’s drinking water.

Last month the Commons public accounts committee found that the British government has inserted a remarkable clause into contracts with the companies to whom it is handing the probation service (one of the maddest privatisations of all). If a future government seeks to cancel these contracts (Labour has said it will) it would have to pay the companies the money they would otherwise have made over the next 10 years. Yes, 10 years. The penalty would amount to between £300m and £400m.

Windfalls like this are everywhere: think of the billion pounds the government threw into the air when it sold Royal Mail, or the massive state subsidies quietly being channelled to the private train companies. When Cameron told the Conservative party conference “there’s no reward without effort; no wealth without work; no success without sacrifice”, he was talking cobblers. Thanks to his policies, shareholders and corporate executives become stupendously rich by sitting in the current with their mouths open.

Ours is a toll-booth economy, unchallenged by any major party, in which companies which have captured essential public services – water, energy, trains – charge extraordinary fees we have no choice but to pay. If there is a “generational struggle to defend the principles of the free market”, it’s a struggle against the corporations, which have replaced the market with a state-endorsed oligarchy.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/07/bullying-corporations-enemy-within-business-politicians

What confuses me is the unwillingness to make political capital out of these trends. Certainly, something like the TTIP will tend to be abstract and covert (by design) hence rather difficult to describe succinctly. But surely one government locking in another to the privatisation of the probation service through absurdly expensive clauses is rather easier to explain? Let alone massive subsidies to putatively private public services.

Is the malfeasance here not IOTTMCO (intuitively obvious to the most casual observer) and hence rife for exploitation? Is it just a matter of Labour politicians lacking the nerve to repeat the message ad nauseam in the same way the Conservatives have with strivers and skivers? Or has their political socialisation left them having internalised the governance habits of New Labour to such an extent that they can’t imagine abandoning triangulation?

Quite a lot like this I’d imagine. I’ll never understand the contempt with which some on the left regard Owen Jones. I think this is great: 

1) A statutory living wage, with immediate effect, for large businesses and the  public sector, and phased  in for small and medium  businesses over a five-year Parliament. This would save billions spent on social security each year by reducing subsidies to low-paying bosses, as well as stimulating the economy, creating jobs because of higher demand, stopping pay being undercut by cheap labour, and tackling the scandal of most of Britain’s poor being in work. An honest days’ pay for an honest days’ work would finally be enshrined in law.

2) Resolve the housing crisis by regulating private rents and lifting the cap on councils to let them build hundreds of thousands of houses and in doing so, create jobs, bring in rent revenues, stimulate the economy and reduce taxpayers’ subsidies to landlords.

3) A 50 per cent tax on all earnings above £100,000 – or the top 2 per cent of earners – to fund an emergency jobs and training programme for young unemployed people, including the creation of a national scheme to insulate homes and businesses across Britain, dragging millions of out of fuel poverty, reducing fuel bills, and helping to save the environment. All such jobs will be paid the living wage, supported with paid apprenticeships rather than unpaid “workfare” schemes.

4) An all-out campaign to recoup the £25bn worth of tax avoided by the wealthiest each year, clamping down on all possible loopholes with a General Anti-Tax Avoidance Bill, as well as booting out the accountancy firms from the Treasury who help draw up tax laws, then advise their clients on how to get around them.

5) Publicly run, accountable local banks. Transform the bailed-out banks into regional public investment banks, with elected taxpayers’ representatives sitting on boards to ensure they are accountable. Give the banks a specific mandate to help small businesses and encourage the green industries of the future in each region.

6) An industrial strategy to create the “green jobs” and renewable energy industries of the future. It would be focused on regions that have been damaged by deindustrialisation, creating secure, skilled, dignified jobs, and reducing unemployment and social security spending, based on an active state that intervenes in the economy, learning from the experiences of countries such as Germany.

7) Publicly owned rail and energy, democratically run by consumers and workers. As each rail franchise expires, bring them back into the public sector, with elected representatives of passengers and workers to sit on the new management boards, ending our fragmented, inefficient, expensive railway system. Build a publicly owned energy network by swapping shares in privately run companies for bonds, and again put elected consumers’ representatives on the boards. Democratic public ownership instead of privatisation could be a model for public services like the NHS, too.

8) A new charter of workers’ rights fit for the 21st century. End all zero-hour contracts, with new provisions for flexible working to help workers. Allow all unions access to workplaces so they can organise, levelling the playing field and giving them a chance to improve wages and living standards. Increase turnout and improve democratic legitimacy in union ballots by allowing workplace-based balloting and online voting.

9) A universal childcare system that would pay for itself as parents who are unable to work are able to do so, and which would take on the inequalities between richer and poorer children that begin from day one.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/owen-joness-agenda-for-hope-we-want-a-fairer-society–and-heres-how-we-can-achieve-it-9086440.html