I’ve always been ambivalent about Slavoj Žižek, not least of all with the alt-right turn seemingly underway in his new book. Nonetheless, I think he gets to the point in his analysis of how Trump has been elevated into a fetish object within the liberal establishment, his garish buffoonery standing in the way of an engagement with the social antagonism that brought about the situation under which Trump could assume power. He is a symptom of a dying order and our fixation on him obscures the new order being born, including the role of a much broader radical right coalescing under his sign. There are characteristics of Trump himself which make him conducive to being fixated on in this way. As Žižek suggests on pg 185-186 on Like A Thief in Broad Daylight:

Imagine that, a couple of years ago, a comedian performed on stage Trump’s statements, tweets and decisions –it would have been experienced as a non-realist, exaggerated joke. So Trump is already his own parody, with the uncanny effect that the reality of his behaviour is more outrageously funny than most parodies of it.

An already strange man was made even stranger through his elevation, constituting himself as an assembly of tweets, clips and statements optimised to win in the attention economy. The fact he constructed this, learned tactics to entrench it and has built his life around it pursuit is something which can be seen the in biographies of Trump or even just examining his trajectory as a Twitter user. For all his absurdity, the man has gamed the attention economy on a unprecedented scale and ridden fortuitous circumstances to power in a manner that only becomes thinkable retroactively. It’s a cliche but one worth dwelling on that President Trump was literally unthinkable only two years ago. The power of his representations are given ever more force by this ontological weirdness, the forceful awareness of his ascent as something which should not have happened.

What Žižek’s book has left me thinking about is Trump as spectacle: “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”. What is at work when we are preoccupied by this spectacle? How are we connected and what are the consequences of these connections? How does our attention constitute President Trump and where is this going? I can’t recall reading anything which really gets to grips with these questions since the last election. It’s so immediate, accelerated and climactic that ontology gets subsumed under outrage, fear or strategy. But it’s important to step back and reflect on the constitution of Trump as Trump. It’s easy to imagine an alternative figure acting as a political fetish at a time of epochal unwinding e.g. an American equivalent to Macron who rose to power by uniting a divided country. But what makes the fetishism of Trump so dangerous is the spectacle of Trump which makes it impossible to look away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

I came across this extract on loc 1342-1360 of Frenemies, Ken Auletta’s new book about the declining fortunes of the advertising industry, detailing an intervention made by thought leader extraordinaire Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategist at  Publicis groupe. It was in the context of a meeting between executives from a range of agencies and Bank of America to discuss the challenging climate facing the latter:

the thoughts of soft-spoken Rishad Tobaccowala, their principal outside strategist, who she privately describes as “the smartest guy in the room.” They appear to have very different personalities. She wears oversized eyeglasses and is capable of commanding a conversation. He wears round, frameless eyeglasses and his slight frame conveys an almost professorial air, which is enhanced because he sits, Buddha-like, and does not rush to speak. In a voice so soft people craned forward or sideways, as if it would help them hear, he cautioned: “We are at the beginning of this journey.” When the bank talks about its environmental deeds, for example, it is not “a targeted, one-on-one message. It is a narrative, and it relies on emotion. Lou is right: We will know, increasingly, what people want because of their behavior. But the struggle is what does the consumer want from Bank of America. Successful companies realize we outsource the work to the customer. We do the listening and the responding. The reason Amazon in its deterministic form—or Facebook—can tell you everything is because you are creating your own bundle of what you want.” But don’t confuse a single product or purchase with what consumers want from a brand. “What Americans are asking for is, ‘Who is on my side?’ Sanders and Trump built surprising support because the message sent is: ‘They are on my side.’ If you think about a bank’s purposes, no one is as close to aligning with them as you are.”

Has anyone encountered other instances of the advertising industry explicitly invoking populists in this way? I’d be really curious to see them if so.

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.

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.

The important argument I took from Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies is that the ‘alt-right’ reflect transgression detaching from progressivism. The idea that an act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct is inherently progressive ceases to be tenable when progressive movements have institutionalised laws, rules and codes that serve progressive ends. Under these circumstances, transgressing against ‘political correctness’ or ‘cultural marxism’ can easily cast itself as authentic rebellion against received wisdom, with all this entails for its capacity to recruit.

There’s a passage in the forward to Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism which sheds light on how we got here. From xxvii:

The paradox is that “heterodoxy” itself has become conformist in liberal circles, and exercises that conformity under the banner of an antinomian flag. It is a prescription, in its confusions, for the dissolution of a shared moral order.

But that confused prescription was the progenitor of a new orthodoxy, something which Bell cautions is never “the guardian of an existent order, but is itself a judgement on the adequacy and moral character of beliefs”. The social victories of progressivism institutionalised a confusion about its character, perpetually valorising transgression even when the old orthodoxy it transgressed against had long since eroded. This is the aporia which the alt-right have (organically) exploited and perhaps why this strand of nascent right-populism has proved so baffling to orthodox liberals and leftists alike.

In an important essay earlier this year, Jan-Werner Müller identifies a dangerous tendency for leftist critics to take the claims of right-populist demagogues at face value. Suddenly vindicated in their struggle with the ‘third way’ that has dominated the centre-left, the claims of nascent populists to speak for a ‘left behind’ majority, created by the neoliberalism which has consumed mainstream social democratic parties, has imbued many leftists with a newfound self-confidence.

This risks simplifying events with a complex array of causes, like the vote for Brexit and Trump’s election, imputing them to the quasi-magical capacity of populists to speak directly to the people. In doing so, it hinders the detailed analysis of these events which we so urgently need: see for instance this important essay by Mike Davis which discusses the American conservative movement’s massive investment in political infrastructure across every state in the country.

However it also lends credence to the populist right, supporting claims of speaking for those left behind which belie the naked class hatred which some of these figures exhibited in the recent past. This is what Angela Nagle argues in her important book Kill All Normies. From pg 101:

Ann Coulter had long drawn upon the elite fear of the hysterical and easily led crowd. In her book Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America explaining how ‘the liberal mob is destroying America’ she drew upon Gustave LeBon, the misanthropists’ favorite theorist of the masses. Her writing on overbreeding, overcrowding swarms of immigrants is a direct continuation of this theme, which has been consistent in elite circles since the beginning of industrialized urbanized mass society, first applied to their multiplying native proletariat and later to new waves of immigrants. Before the ‘ordinary people’ narrative became suddenly ubiquitous on the new online right after the election results, Milo could be seen in photo shoots wearing a ‘Stop Being Poor’ T-shirt, a quote from the heiress Paris Hilton, one of his idols. After the election results he was giving talks about the white working class. The hard alt-right had also rejected the idea that the masses were their naturally traditionalist allies any longer, as the conservative establishment had typically believed. Instead, they had argued that the great mass of society had been tainted and indoctrinated by liberal feminist multiculturalism, and were close to beyond redemption. It was no longer ‘five minutes to midnight’ as the anti-immigration right had long claimed but well past midnight. While the Trumpians are busy quickly rewriting history, it is important to remember that behind the ‘populist’ president, the rhetoric of his young online far-right vanguard had long been characterized by an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture.

I wonder if Graham Turner’s distinction between the demotic and the democratic, made in the context of reality television, might be useful here. One could be said to involve foregrounding ‘the people’ as an imagined construct, the other involves empowering people as a social reality. The populist right is demotic, not democratic. This is what the leftist critique of mainstream social democracy, which I’m otherwise entirely in agreement with, risks obscuring.

How do we explain the election of Donald Trump? Far too much of the media’s response to this question has been to take Trump’s account of his own powers at face value. This scion of the elite, who never felt at home amongst the elite into which he was born, imagines himself as able to work with kings yet not lose the common touch. His use of Twitter is integral to this fantasy, resting on the illusion of unmediated interaction with everyday Americans. But the biographies I’ve read of Trump in recent months make me wonder if it goes further than this, reflecting an identification he has cultivated since his early years as a young man who felt out of place, with endless meetings with ‘ordinary people’ facilitated by his work with his father. Either way, as Jan-Werner Müller cautions in this excellent essay, we need to avoid taking the account of figures like Trump at face value:

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. 

There are many features of our political context which remain obscure if we uncritically accept Trump’s narrative of his own success. This crucial essay by Mike Davis captures many of them: the results of Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression, flight of funders away from the Presidential race towards House and Senate, investment in state-focused political think tanks, the electoral peculiarity of the American system and the psephological particularity of the result. 

However the most important feature is perhaps the weakness of the Clinton campaign. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes report in their Shattered, the Clinton campaign deliberately sought to avoid substantive engagement with the working-class electorate, so long dormant within American politics, which Trump’s campaign successfully mobilised. From pg 193:

One of the lessons Mook and his allies took from Michigan was that Hillary was better off not getting into an all-out war with her opponent in states where non-college-educated whites could be the decisive demographic. In Michigan, they believed, Hillary’s hard campaigning had called attention to an election that many would-be voters weren’t paying attention to, and given Bernie a chance to show that his economic message was more in line with their views. So Mook’s clique looked at the elevation of the Michigan primary—poking the sleeping bear of the white working class—as a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. “That was a takeaway that we tried to use in the general,” said one high-ranking campaign official.

Their analytics driven campaign was orientated towards tactical advantage in each state during the primaries, leaving them to ignore the large swathes of rural and/or working class voters whose disengagement rarely registered empirically in political models. From pg 130-131:

Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player—a senator, a governor, or a former president—could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data—he loved poring over political numbers—but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics.

What engagement took place was largely tone-deaf, reflecting the limitations of public opinion research, the insulated world of political operatives and the limitations of campaign structures which reinforced orthodoxy. Any account of the virtues of Trump’s campaign needs to be supplemented by an account of the weakness of Hilary Clinton’s.

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