Who dares dissent from the gospel according to Silicon Valley? There is – we are insistently told – no alternative to the invasion of capitalist cyberspace into all areas of consciousness and culture. Anyone who expresses even the mildest scepticism about social media and smartphones is roundly denounced as nostalgic. The old, desperate not to seem out of touch, rarely dare question the young’s compulsive attachment to their smartphones. Anti-capitalists join with
tycoons to celebrate the potentials of network society. In article after article, conference after conference, the “new” is routinely equated with “the digital”, to such an extent that is now difficult to remember a time when “technology” wasn’t a shorthand for communicative software. When mobile phones entered the marketplace, they were the object of mockery: who could be so self-important as to believe that they needed to be contactable everywhere and anywhere? Now, everyone is required to act like some cross between a hustler always on the make and an addict jonesing for contact.
But how has this model of progress, in which history culminates in the glorious invention of iPhones and apps, become so uncontested? And, if we attend closely, isn’t there a desperate quality to all this cheerleading? Addicts always rationalise their compulsions, but the desperation here belongs to capital itself, which has thrown everything at the great digital swindle. Capital might still swagger like some data cowboy, but iPhones plus Victorian values can only be a steampunk throwback. The return to centuries’ old forms of exploitation is obfuscated by the distracting urgencies of digital communication.
What if Silicon Valley was not – as we are relentlessly hectored to believe – a stupendous success story but a massive monument to failure? In Defence of Serendipity encourages us to pose this counter-intuitive question. Sebastian Olma demonstrates that neoliberal capitalism has systematically destroyed the conditions which allowed Silicon Valley to emerge, at the very same time as it pimps 70s California as the definitive model for all cultural as well as business innovation. In Olma’s narrative, Steve Jobs and the other Californian oligarchs come to seem like the hapless figures from a fairy tale. They wished to totally transform the world, but instead they received unimaginable wealth. Their devices only led to more of the same: the ‘changeless change’ of a capitalism that endlessly crows about innovation in a manic attempt to cover over the glacial monotony of its homogeneity and repetitiveness. The Silicon Valley princes provided capital with new tools of capture and captivation. More than that, they gave capital a new hymn sheet, a way to sell drudgery as creativity and hyper-exploitation as sharing, so that we are all expected to be “passionate” about our cyber-serfery.
It is by now screamingly clear that innovation does not spontaneously effloresce when capital dominates society and culture. Generalised insecurity leads to sterility and repetition, not surprise and innovation. The conditions in which the new can appear have to be produced and nurtured. This, Sebastian Olma demonstrates, is the real import of the concept of serendipity when it is properly understood. The irony of Silicon Valley is that its very hegemonic dominion has contributed to the disappearance of such conditions in the capitalist world. Silicon Valley emerged from the serendipitious synthesis of the counterculture and state-sponsored cybernetics, but neoliberal capital has destroyed the possibility of a counterculture even as it has annexed and subdued the state. In Defence of Serendipity shows that that the real future is building itself beyond the instrumentalising urgencies of business, in the spaces between a new bohemia and a revived public sphere.
Hug a Tory
‘From the early records of Greek and Latin slang, where [words for pig] were used to describe the female genitalia through to modern uses of ‘pig’ to mock the police, the fascist and the male chauvinist, pigs seems to have borne the brunt of our rage, fear, affection and desire for the ‘low’. [But] it was precisely the ambivalence of the pig, at the intersection of a number of symbolic thresholds, which had traditionally made it a useful animal to think with.’ – Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression
As I said earlier, it is hard not to enjoy the ridiculing of Cameron. But if we take a step back, it should be clear that an atmosphere of sexual humiliation is one that favours current forms of power rather than dismantles them. Robin James points out the role of hazing in sexual abuse, and in some ways we can consider the whole range of ways in which the English haute-bourgeoisie initiate children into its ranks as a form of abuse. This is one of the points I was trying to get across in my piece on humour in the latest New Humanist (below). Boarding school and the top end of Oxbridge are environments designed to produce the very hardening and insensitivity which allows Tories to dehumanise and demonise the poor. Class wounds everyone, especially the ‘privileged’.
The Strange Death of British Satire
(reposted with permission from the Autumn 2015 issue of the New Humanist)
Watch one of the BBC’s political programmes – such as the Daily Politics and This Week, both fronted by Andrew Neil – and you encounter a particular tone. British television viewers are unlikely to take much notice of this tone because we take it for granted. Take a step back, however, and it is really rather curious. These ostensibly serious programmes are conducted with an air of light mockery, which Neil, with his perma-smirk and smugly knowing air, personifies. The tone, I believe, tells us something about the widespread disengagement from parliamentary politics in England. (The situation in Scotland is now rather different: the popular mobilisation after the independence referendum has reversed the trend towards cynicism about politics that still dominates south of the border.)
Take This Week. The whole show is conducted in a lamely comic style that it is hard to imagine any sentient creature finding amusing. Guests are required to dress up in daft costumes and present their arguments in the form of limp skits, pitched at an audience whose implied level of intelligence is imbecilic. The atmosphere is matey, informal, and the overwhelming impression is that nothing much is at stake in any of the decisions that parliament takes. While Neil’s dog pads about the set, former Tory leadership candidate Michael Portillo chats on a sofa with professionally amiable Blairite Alan Johnson – no class antagonism here, only mild disagreements. Politics appears as a (mostly) gentlemen’s club where everyone is friends. People from working-class backgrounds, such as Johnson, can achieve entry to this club, provided they accept its rules. These rules are never actually stated, but they are very clear. Parliament is not to be taken too seriously: it is to be treated as a (boring) soap opera, in which the lead characters are self-serving individuals who don’t believe in much beyond getting themselves elected. On no account are any intellectual concepts to be discussed, unless to be sneered at as pretentious nonsense. It has to be accepted that nothing very significant will ever change: the basic co-ordinates of political reality were set in the 1980s, and all we can do is operate inside them.
If you were designing a programme specifically to put people – especially young people – off politics, to convince them it is a tedious waste of time, then you could hardly do better than This Week. The programme seems to be aimed at literally no one: if you are staying up late to watch a programme devoted to politics, then presumably you are pretty serious about politics. Who wants this unfunny froth?
It would be bad enough if this tone of mirthless levity were confined to This Week, but it increasingly dominates political coverage of all kinds on the BBC. It thoroughly permeated the BBC’s election-night coverage this year, which Neil anchored. This trivialising tone is perhaps even more troubling than the problem of bias (as is well known, former Murdoch editor Neil was a Thatcher cheerleader; Nick Robinson, the BBC’s former Political Editor, meanwhile, was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association). The election-night coverage was notable for the disconnection between the shock and alarm that many in the audience felt about an unexpected win for the Conservative Party, and the guffawing banter of Neil and his associates. Reading out tweets and sharing gossip, the grinning Laura Kuenssberg, who has recently replaced Robinson as the BBC’s Political Editor, seemed to treat the whole evening as a jolly good laugh. Perhaps there isn’t that much at stake for her – she was, after all, born into immense privilege, the daughter of an OBE and a CBE, and the granddaughter of a founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
But where does this tone – with its strange mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent – come from? The quick answer is class background. The tone of light but relentless ridicule, the pose of not being seen to take things too seriously, has its roots in the British boarding school. In an article for the Guardian, Nick Duffell, author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion (Lone Arrow Press), argued that, from around the age of seven, boarders are required to adopt a “pseudo-adult” personality, which results, paradoxically, in their struggling “to properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them.”
“Boarding children,” Duffell continues, “invariably construct a survival personality that endures long after school and operates strategically … Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish or foolish – in any way vulnerable – or they will be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out on to others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are on the run.”
Now that the working-class perspective has been marginalised in the dominant British media and political culture, we increasingly live inside the mind of this psychically mutilated adolescent bourgeois male. Here, ostensible levity conceals deep fear and anxiety; self-mockery is a kind of homeopathic remedy that is used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation. You must never appear too much of a swot; you must never look as if you might like or think anything that isn’t already socially approved. Even if you haven’t attended boarding school yourself, you are still required to operate in an emotional atmosphere set by those who did. Andrew Neil, who came from a working-class background and attended a grammar school, attained access to the top table by simulating the mores of the privately educated elite. Thatcherism depended on the conspicuous success of people like Neil – if they could make it, so could anyone.
No programme did more to normalise the mode of mandatory light mockery than Have I Got News for You. In a 2013 essay for the London Review of Books, “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, Jonathan Coe positioned Have I Got News for You in a genealogy of British satire going back to the 1950s. Coe argued that, back then, satire might have posed a threat to the authority of establishment politicians who expected unthinking deference from the electorate. Now, however, when politicians are routinely ridiculed and a weary cynicism is ubiquitous, satire is a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.
No one typifies this more than Boris Johnson. Coe points out that Johnson’s success crucially depended on his appearances – sometimes as guest presenter – on Have I Got News for You. The atmosphere of generalised sniggering allowed Johnson to develop his carefully cultivated, heavily mediated persona of “lovable, self-mocking buffoon”. The show allows Johnson to present himself as a hail-fellow-well-met everyman, not a member of an old Etonian elite. In this he has been abetted by his sometime antagonist Ian Hislop. Hislop always has the guffawing, self-satisfied air of a prefect who’s caught out some slightly posher kids stealing from the tuck shop. No matter what the infraction, Hislop’s response is always a supercilious snigger. While this snigger might be conceivably appropriate to MPs being caught with their trousers down, or even with their over-claiming on expenses, it seems grotesquely out of kilter with the kind of systemic corruption that we now know has occurred over the last thirty years in Britain, in everything from Hillsborough to the phone hacking scandal to paedophilia involving major establishment figures – not to mention the behaviours that led to the financial crash. As the editor of Private Eye, Hislop has played an important part in exposing these abuses. But on television his mocker-in-chief persona serves ultimately to neutralise and cover over the extremity and systematicity of the abuse: one snigger fits all situations.
Coe’s discussion of Johnson is strikingly similar to the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.
In the UK, this concept of a “spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle” goes beyond politics in the narrow sense. The populist right-wing celebration of this energy is surely what kept Jeremy Clarkson in his job as a presenter of Top Gear for so long, and its appeal is what must have motivated over a million people to sign a petition calling for Clarkson to keep his job after he had punched a producer in the face. The prevailing media culture in the UK allows the privately educated Clarkson to come off as a plain-speaking man of the people, bravely saying what he thinks in the face of an oppressive ‘political correctness’ that seeks to muzzle him. The success of Top Gear is another testament to the power – and, sadly, international appeal – of the English ruling-class male mentality. Who, more than Clarkson and his fellow presenters, better exemplifies this bizarre mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent? What, after all, is it safer for a ruling-class adolescent male to like than cars?
Clarkson is just one of a range of British television celebrities who play the role of pantomime villain; a persona entirely devoid of compassion for others. Except this is a pantomime with real blood. Take the former Apprentice star and Sun columnist Katie Hopkins, for instance. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned her likening of refugees to “cockroaches” for its obvious echoes of Nazi rhetoric. Hopkins is allowed to get away with this because of what we might call the innate postmodernism of the English ruling class. Both she and Clarkson say hateful things, but with a twinkle in their eye and their eyebrows ever so slightly raised.
There is an immense complexity at work in this ruling-class mummery. The humour allows Clarkson and Hopkins to be conduits for a racism that has very real, very tragic effects, whilst also letting them off the hook. The humour reassures them, and their audience, that they don’t really mean it. But the problem is that they don’t have to “mean” it: they help define the terms of debate, and allow migrants to be dehumanised, whatever their “true” feelings about the issue might be.
However, Hopkins’s persona was troubled when she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year. While much of the time she stayed in role as a spiteful, hard-hearted bigot, there were inevitably moments when the facade cracked, and she could be seen caring for others. While this increased her popularity – she almost won the show – it was also in danger of destroying the Katie Hopkins brand.
Most tellingly, her greatest moments of vulnerability came when she was asked to accept tenderness from others. In order to survive in the harsh and emotionally retarded world of the English ruling-class male she was trained for in private school and at Sandhurst, Hopkins has clearly been required to forgo any public acceptance of warmth or kindness from others. Sadly, the wearing of such character armour is not now confined to Hopkins and the rest of the privately educated elite.
Self-educated working-class culture generated some of the best comedy, music and literature in modern British history. The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics, but also entertainment and culture. In the UK, comedy and music are increasingly graduate professions, dominated by the privately educated. The sophistication of working-class culture – which combines laughter, intelligence and seriousness in complex ways – has been replaced by a grey bourgeois common sense, where everything comes swathed in a witless humour. It’s long past time that we stopped sniggering along with the emotionally damaged bourgeoisie, and learned once again to laugh and care with the working class.
Reposted with thanks from the New Humanist.
A new mix and a new tumblr, Base Consciousness from kpunk/Mark Fisher.
Quick mix to explore some of the moods in the wake of the election defeat: initial shock then renewed militancy and sense of purpose ….
So, the election results are in and it’s 1992 but with “Ed Sheeran and Rudimental rather than Rufige Kru”. Depressing? Yup. But where do we go now? Below is an extract from kpunk’s most recent post, outlining some potential strategies we can adopt in the face of the election results. Read the whole post here. – TS
I present below a number of strategies, practices and orientations, starting from the most immediate (something groups can do right now) and moving towards the more remotes. The list is of course not exhaustive; and I can’t claim credit for coming up with any of the strategies myself. The point is to share them, add to them, elaborate them.
The chief obstruction to all of these steps is what, in a trenchant and clear-eyed analysis, Ewa Jasiewicz calls “time poverty”:
Our time is under attack. Work will be intensified, worse paid, and more casualised – if we don’t have it, we’ll be working to have it; mandatory and supervised job searches and workfare will see people forced to spend their time locked into coerced, computerised distraction. A real, diverse, working class self-representative movement needs to include people facing and living these experiences, but how will that happen when we’re too tied up working?
Access to time and our own labour is key and will determine participation and the ability to organise. If we can’t have our own time to organise, we can’t organise, we can’t meet each other, we cannot find each other. Work and the benefits regime – which is work under different conditions and profit margins – are key sites of struggle. Solidarity will need to step up if we are to win workplace disputes and strikes, refusals of workfare and support for people getting sanctioned, so that people have more control over their time and labour.
All our commons are under attack. The condition of time poverty and its roots – intensification of labour, welfare repression, criminalisation and incarceration – have to be recognised as major obstacles to movement, diversity and power. These obstacles need to be tackled if we want to overcome the ideology of wage labour as a determinant of human value on a popular level.
The problem is that, in order to struggle against time poverty, the main resource we require is time – a nasty vicious circle that capital, with its malevolent genius, now has … This problem is absolutely immanent – writing this and the other posts I have completed this week has meant that I have fallen enormously behind on my work, which is storing up stress for the next week or so.
The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #it’snotyourfault We must try to do everything we can to politicise time poverty rather than accept blame as individuals for failing to complete our work on time. The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time” properly. However, we can use the scarce resources we already have more effectively if we work together to codify practices of collective re-habituation (setting new rules for our engagement with social media and capitalist cyberspace in general for example).
Any way, here goes:
1. Talk to fellow workers about how we feel This will re-introduce care and affection into spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated. It will also start to break down the difference between (paid) work and social reproduction on which capitalism depends.
2. Talk to opponents Most people who vote Tory and UKIP are not monsters, much as we might like to think they are. It’s important that we understand why they voted as they did. Also, they may not have been exposed to an alternative view. Remember that people are more likely to be persuaded if defensive character armour is not triggered.
3. Create knowledge exchange labs This follows from what I argued a few days ago. Lack of knowledge about economics seems to me an especially pressing problem to address, but we could also do with more of us knowing about law, I suspect.
4. Create social spaces Create times and spaces specifically dedicated to attending to one another: not (yet more) conferences, but sessions where people can share their feelings and ideas. I would suggest restricting use of handhelds in these spaces: not everything has to be live tweeted or archived! Those with access to educational or art spaces could open these up for this purpose.
5. Use social media pro-actively, not reactively Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events like Thursday. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. Facebook can be useful for discussions and trying out new ideas, but attempting to debate on Twitter is absurd and makes us feel more stressed. (He says, thinking of the time when, sitting on a National Express coach, perched over his handheld, he tried to intervene in an intricate discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy – all conducted in 140 characters.)
6. Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda Again, this follows up from what I argued in the Communist Realism post. Capitalist realism was established by constituting the figure of the lazy, feckless scrounger as a populist scapegoat. We must float a new figure of the parasite: landlords milking the state through housing benefit, “entrepreneurs” exploring cheap labour, etc.
7. Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption Capital has to be seriously inconvenienced and to fear before it yields any territory or resources. It can just wait out most protests,but it will take notice when its logistical operations are threatened. We must be prepared for them cutting up very rough once we start doing this – using anti-terrorist legislation to justify practically any form of repression. They won’t play fair, but it’s not a game of cricket – they know it’s class war, and we should never forget it either.
8. Develop Hub struggles Some struggles will be more strategically and symbolically significant than others – for instance, the Miners’ Strike was a hub struggle for capitalist realism. We might not be able to identify in advance what these struggles are, but we must be ready to swarm in and intensify them when they do occur.
Summer is coming
The Lannisters won on Thursday, but their gold has already run out, and summer is coming. What we saw in the debates dominated by Nicola Sturgeon was not a mirage – it is a rising tide, an international movement, a movement of history, which has not yet reached an England sandbagged in misery and mediocrity. Comrades, I hope (ha!) for the sake of your mental health and your blood pressures that you didn’t see the right wing tabloids over the weekend (tw for class hatred): middle England crowing over its “humiliation” of “Red” Ed. Well if they think Ed was Red, wait until they see the coming Red Swarm. Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….
Flatford on Wednesday morning
Also, a request to anyone with Labour connections…
Can anyone who has any influence in the Labour Party please ensure that as many people as possible read the pamphlet Jeremy Gilbert and I wrote last year? It was specifically designed to counter the Blairite monopolisation of the rhetoric of modernisation, so it has many arguments that can be weaponised in the current struggle to stop Blairism coming back from the dead.
Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
This was the front page of the Guardian on the day my son was born nearly five years ago. That year, my wife and I earned fifteen thousand pounds between us. I was working as an hourly paid lecturer in adult education and in a university, as well as doing some freelance writing and copy-editing. We were able to survive without living in penury because of the three hundred pounds a month in tax credits we received.
This was the way Brownism and Blairism worked: allowing low wages and precarity to proliferate with one hand, mitigating their effects with benefits on the other. By then, like most of the population, I loathed New Labour. Labour had become so capitalist realist that surely it couldn’t be much worse if the Tories got in? I shared the widespread view that elections don’t change much: all that’s on offer are minimally different versions of the same thing (neoliberalism).
It soon became very clear that this was not the case. Cameron and Osborne unleashed Capitalist Realism 2.0, the most audacious confidence trick in recent political history: make the poor and vulnerable pay for the bank crisis. Use the crisis as a pretext to destroy even more of the welfare state. Sigh their fake sighs, and tell us what “difficult choices” they had to make …
Today, if my wife and I earned what we did in 2010, we would receive only 50 pounds in tax credits a month.
Of course, for me, working like this was something of a bohemian lifestyle choice. If I’d wanted to, I could probably have got better paid work – after all, only a fool would expect to enjoy working for a living. But what of all those stuck in low paid precarious work forever? The disabled? The long-term sick and the chronically mentally ill, forced back to work?
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
I wasn’t very interested in this election a few weeks ago. To be honest, even though I had been commissioned to write a piece about the TV coverage of the election, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to watch the first debate (I’ll watch it later) until Laura Oldfield Ford, excited by Niciola Sturgeon’s performance, texted me and asked what I thought. I switched on ITV+1, and the process of re-awakening that has occurred in the last few weeks began.
For reasons I will explore more fully in subsequent posts, I have spent the last year in a state of de-activation. I was thrown back into the privatised connectivity of the OedIpod, with its constant stream of low-level anxiety and compulsive micro-enjoyments. I couldn’t write, except in a mechanical way; what I produced seemed stillborn, stilted. My main mood altering drug of choice, music, didn’t work. I binged on box sets. I enjoyed time with my wife and son, but there was a fugitive quality to this enjoyment: my fingers always itched to reach for my smartphone. There was always something I should already have done that I hadn’t – the urgencies piling up, like a flashing red light constantly blinking in my peripheral vision, never letting me settle. Most of these urgencies were small things, they didn’t matter too much, but perhaps there would be some long-forgotten urgency was going to calamitously re-emerge, too late for me to do anything about it? I’ll just check …
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
The coldly terrifying thing about this state of dejection was that it was not a completely paralysing depression – more a kind of exhausting drudgery. It felt liveable; indeed, it felt like I could – perhaps would – live the rest of my life in it. Perhaps I have expected too much from life. Now I would have to adjust to misery, like everyone else does. Others were much, much worse off than me. It wasn’t like I was to chip ice off the windscreen in the morning. I had been precarious for years – now I was in well-paid secure employment. Why couldn’t I just be happy? OK, so I had to do marketing promotions, complete ‘quality’ paperwork, amend module proposal forms six times – but it was hardly coal mining, was it?
You see, you see:
I had become once again the compliant subject of capitalist realism.
“…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”
Engines of dejection
Bifo is right. It wants us to be dejected: not so catatonically depressed that we can’t work, but not so confident and secure that we will refuse to do bullshit jobs. (What is this it that wants us to miserable? Why, the real management of the Overlook Hotel of course. Our misery is like nectar to it …) Capital needs people desperate, scrambling on the edge (watch Tory MPs laugh at starving families!), it needs people scrimping and saving and crossing off lists, it needs people to be grateful for any work, no matter how poorly paid, no matter how insecure, struggle after struggle, year after year …
In the last five years, after the initial euphoria of dissent in 2010 and 2011, an acrid fog of despair has slowly but ineluctably sunk over what Cameron, chillingly, calls “our country” …. choking the social energy out of institutions (no time to talk, sorry!) … reducing workers to automata issuing commands to one another … diminishing, at every level, our capacity to care …. no time, no time …. no money … don’t know, I’ve got to go mate …. looking over our shoulders, fearing the worst …. maybe it will be me next … better stay in line … accept the extra workload, I’m afraid that’s how things are now …
Pain now, more pain later ….
Misery is over (if we want it)
The last week or so, I have, each day, played with my son for a few hours, been out on long walks, enjoying extended time with my wife, and managed to write thousands of words. Why can’t life always be like this? Why indeed? It’s only been possible because I have decided to suspend all my bureaucratic obligations until after the election. (Back to “proper” work tomorrow: so expect another post in a year or so.) I have managed to do this, not by some heroic act of magical voluntarist will, but because of a lift in mood that is not just personal. Scotland, Syriza, Podemos … it’s taken a long while for the significance of these developments to filter through to me … but talking to comrades … attending, as a so far inactive member, to what Plan C are up to …. feeling the electricity that Russell Brand has generated …. All of this has gradually returned to consciousness during this election campaign. I don’t think I’m the only one. But have we awoken too late to stop the Tories? Has their smog of dejection de-activated enough people – people who were hardly likely to have been reactivated by Labour’s campaign?
The two most obvious parallels for this election would seem to be 1974 – a weak Labour government, propped up by smaller parties, or, ominously,1992, with Labour crushingly defeated by John Major’s Tories after they were expected to win. Shaun Lawson makes a strong and convincing case for why today might turn out to be a re-run of 1992. Much of this is to do with the unreliability of polls. Because of the so-called “shy Tory” phenomenon – voters not admitting to pollsters that they would vote Conservative – the polls were spectacularly wrong in 1992. Major didn’t only win, the Tories ended up with the largest amount of votes ever cast for a political party in Britain. Lawson argues that, despite polling being adjusted to factor in the shy Tory effect, current polling may still be inaccurate (because, for instance, it tends to be internet-based, which biases things towards a younger demographic).
I’m not sure how convinced I am by the parallels with 92, however, for two reasons.
1. Hyperstitional effects. As Baudrillard argued, we can’t treat opinion polls as neutral positivist descriptions since they might well affect the very thing they are claiming to predict. It seems likely that this might have happened in ’92.
The atmosphere leading up to the 92 election was very different to that preceding the current contest. There was the disastrous Sheffield Rally. Kinnock’s triumphalist shout of “We’re alright!”, still excruciatingly embarrassing to remember nearly twenty five years on, not only destroyed the “statesmanlike persona” he had confected, it gave the impression of a manic and jubilatory over-confidence. The premature celebration came off as unseemly, desperate – as if Kinnock himself, never mind the electorate, couldn’t quite believe that he would be Prime Minister. It also gave Murdoch’s press something to really stoke the fears of reluctant Tories with, especially when the polls were suggesting that Labour would win: look, they think they’ve won! If you’re thinking of staying at home, don’t – every vote is needed!
It isn’t really like that this time. Polls are predicting a hung parliament, not a Labour victory – there isn’t the same resource of fear to feed off. Victory for Labour is uncertain, not an imminent possibility that needs to be desperately averted. Furthermore, while the Tories have certainly tried to scaremonger, a Labour government now is not the terrifying prospect that it could be made to seem in 92. After Blairism, Labour is no longer the Other to neoliberal commonsense that it could be presented as then.
As I said in the last post, Miliband has kept his campaign emotionally subdued – no extravagant promises (“I want to under promise and over deliver”); no messianic fervour (this by contrast with Blair as much as Kinnock). It’s true, Miliband doesn’t seem to have Prime Minesterial gravitas, but, then again, neither did John Major, surely the least likely Prime Minister ever.
2. We’re in New Times
In 1992, we were still in the high pomp of capitalist realism. The crash had not yet happened. There was still something on offer to those who wanted to vote in their own interests and let everyone else go hang.
The Tories have nothing very much to bribe most of their supporters with this time. Without the false balm of the “Big Society”, they only have a negative message – it will be worse under Labour – and a muted promise: pain now, a little less pain later. Is this enough to motivate the wavering?
Neoliberalism is finished as a project, even if it lurches on, thrashing around like a decorticated terminator. We’re finally groping our way, blinking, out of capitalist realism. The psychic blockade that prevented us from thinking and acting is lifting. This has only registered in this campaign in some minor way with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens (the multi-party nature of British politics now is of course another way in which we are in new times by comparison with 74 and 92). If Labour manage to form a government, we will be celebrating a Tory defeat far more than we will be hailing a Tory victory.
But nothing is certain at the moment. I don’t think there will be much certainty tomorrow either. My feeling is that things will be very volatile over the next few weeks. One thing is for sure: we need to be prepared to mobilise if the Tories attempt a coup. And they surely will …
Normal capitalist realist service was resumed on Thursday, on the BBC Question Time Leaders Special. With the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens absent, horizons contracted, expectations lowered, we were once again asphyxiating in the Oxbridge-Westminster bubble. This was most obviously signalled by a discursive exclusion: “austerity” was never mentioned, so we were back on the arid terrain of a debate the terms of which were set by England’s austerians in 2010. The question, once more, was: who would cut the deficit quickest?
Miliband further deflated the mood – I think deliberately – by explicitly ruling out a “deal” or a “coalition” with the SNP.Given the right wing press’s scaremongering, Miliband’s denying that a deal will happen might have been necessary in order to make the conditions for such a deal possible. Any equivocation would surely have been seized upon by the right wing media, and relentlessly used to stoke up the fears of voters less likely to vote for Labour because of the prospect of a coalition. The audience members imploring Cameron and Miliband to be honest about possible deals were as ingenuous as those who hailed the programme as a triumph of participatory democracy. Neither leader could “be honest” about how the vote is likely to go on Thursday because that very speculation could change what actually happens. Such is the state of our current “democracy”: everything is distorted by media projections, by politicians’ (second) guesses as to how voters may behave in response to those projections, a whole phantom science of feedback.
Baudrillard: “Polls manipulate the undecidable. Do they affect votes? True of false? Do they yield exact photographs of reality, or of mere tendencies, or a refraction of this reality in a hyperspace of simulation whose curvature we do not know? True or false? Undecidable.”
For most of this campaign, Cameron has given every impression that he far rather be tucking into country supper than demeaning himself hustling on the hustings.
Defending the status quo is not as energising as tearing it down, and comfortable Cameron never had the class resentment-jouissance that drove grocer’s daughter Thatcher to battle trade unionists and old school Tory grandees alike. For him, it’s a career, not a mission. Cameron has never seemed like a man burning with conviction; he comes across more like the captain of some public school cricket team who whose main motivation for winning is to remind uppity comprehensive kids who’s boss. On Thursday, Cameron finally went into bat for his class like he meant it.
He needs to. This election is pivotal. Either the Tories can “finish the job” of looting and pillaging everything working class struggle built, or they themselves could be on the brink of destruction. The Conservative Party haven’t won an overall majority since 1992. It’s difficult enough keeping this party of opportunists, quislings and crazies together at the best of times; if they fail to win again, will even Boris be able to prevent meltdown? And with the Tories in disarray, the right could finally be forced off the centre ground that they won and radically re-defined under Thatcher.
Pumped up, calmed down
In front of the BBC cameras, Cameron’s performance wasn’t quite as slick as his upper lip, but he discovered a poise that he has seldom mustered in the past few weeks. The problem with Cameron getting pumped up last week is not only that it looked pathetically forced (his claim that he was “pumped up because I am” was a transparent deception as well as a tautology. He was “pumped up” because Tory backers demanded that he at least gave the appearance of caring). The more serious issue is that such displays of simulated passion undermine Cameron’s key appeal, which has to do with projecting casual authority: what David Smail, writing before Cameron came onto the scene, called “[t]he confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister.” Cameron’s accent, his posture, his smirk, convey a consistent message: relax, I’m in control, defer to me. When he strays from this “ease and familiarity”, he risks looking angry and/ or uncomfortable, and apparent affability gives way an affronted sense of class superiority, as in the “calm down, dear” incident.
Presenting the Tories as the nasty party has been counterproductive, the fake letter of support from small businesses devolved into yet another Thick of It farce, but Thursday’s flooding of the audience with Tory supporters posing as undecided voters worked. Cameron was back on home territory: the bizarre inverted world of English capitalist realism in which referring to a global banking crisis was desperate reaching for excuses, and austerity was the only possible course of action for any prudent government. (The best thing about New Labour was Alastair Campbell – a skilled operator and a technician, an expert on how to win ground on a hostile media terrain. It’s hard to imagine that, if he were still running things, that Labour would have been ambushed like they were on Thursday.)
A picture of discontented new wealth
Under the questioning of businesswoman Catherine Shuttleworth, Ed started to look like a supply teacher who had earnestly planned an interesting and informative lesson, only to find out that the kids just wanted to humiliate him, whatever he said. The Tory narrative of Labour profligacy was once again established as a self-evident truth that only a fool and/ or a brazen liar would contest. This narrative was all the more convincing when it was re-cycled/ re-cited by a “concerned businesswoman”, “struggling to survive in a tough climate”. The subsequent exposure of Shuttleworth as a probable Tory plant will not erase the impact of her TV encounter with Miliband, if only because complaining about the audience not only implicitly concedes defeat, it makes Labour look like sore losers.
For the moment, let’s believe Shuttleworth’s story that she isn’t a Tory. (Although note that even the DM whitewashing is carefully worded: Shuttleworth only denies that she’s ever been a member of the Tory party, not that she’s a lifelong Tory voter, which is of course impossible to prove or disprove.) The question then would be why she should be so ready to blame hard times not on the government which has been in power in the last five years, but on the government which was in power when she actually built and grew her business? Miliband’s pitch – Labour is all about supporting small business owners – is part of a strategy that could be fruitful in the long run, since it could break the alliance between small business and corporate capital which has been so central to the installation of capitalist realism. But Shuttleworth’s response to these overtures shows that breaking that alliance will be a long and hard struggle. She immediately started bleating on behalf of Tesco – as if Tesco didn’t enjoy its greatest success under New Labour, and as if its downfall wasn’t a direct consequence of the very corporate tyranny that Miliband was moving to attack?
While Miliband was correct not to capitulate to nonsense about Labour overspending, it was clear that Labour has left it far too late to challenge the dominant narrative. On the face of it, Labour’s acquiescence in the austerity myth has been inexplicable. Paul Krugman writes of:
the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.
Why this weakness? In part it may reflect the fact that the crisis occurred on Labour’s watch; American liberals should count themselves fortunate that Lehman Brothers didn’t fall a year later, with Democrats holding the White House. More broadly, the whole European centre-left seems stuck in a kind of reflexive cringe, unable to stand up for its own ideas.
You say “reflexive cringe”, I say “reflexive impotence” … Labour’s slowness to respond to the crisis was not merely some failure of judgement or strategy; it was a consequence of how deeply capitalist realism had saturated the party. There was no question of Labour using the crisis to impose its own programme, because, by 2008, it didn’t have much of programme beyond capitalist realism. Everything had been set up for a corporate appeasement, and there were neither the organisational nor the intellectual infrastructure to come up with anything new. Capitalist realism wasn’t something that Labour was waiting out and planning to overcome, one day; it was embedded as an effectively permanent baseline set of conditions – conditions which receded from visibility even as they imposed strict limits on what could be said and thought.
I’m in a trance, I don’t ask questions
Following Wendy Brown, I argued that capitalist realism can be understood as a kind of dreamwork. In this dreamwork, briefly interrupted in 2008, the banking crisis is some repressed trauma which is known about but never confronted, a Real that the dreamer stays asleep to keep avoiding. Capital is the dreamer here, and, insofar as capitalist realism is sustained, we remain figments in its dream. Yet capital is also our dream, which, Matrix-like, has constructed the virtual reality in which we think we live from our energy, our desires and our fantasies.
You would think that mention of the banking crisis would produce some cognitive dissonance when set against the narrative of Labour profligacy. If there was a global financial crisis, how could Labour also be responsible for the deficit? No doubt, part of the success of the “Labour did it” story is due to the hold of folk politics. A narrative about incompetent politicians maxing out the credit cards is easily digested; it’s far more difficult to assimilate the opaque and abstract mechanics of finance capital. But one of the most valuable insights in Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown comes from his account of cognitive dissonance itself. Referring to the work of Leon Festinger, the social psychologist who worked extensively on cognitive dissonance, Mirowski reminds us that cognitive dissonance is not a threat to false beliefs. On the contrary, cognitive dissonance is a mechanism by which false beliefs can be maintained when confronted with evidence that directly disproves them. In fact, as Mirowski writes, Festinger’s crucial claim was “that confrontation with contrary evidence may actually augment and sharpen the conviction and enthusiasm of a believer”. Mirowski quotes Festinger:
Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart…suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view.
This points to a relationship between desire and belief that has been posited at least since Hume and Spinoza’s critiques of religion: we believe in part because we want to believe. But we also want to believe because the belief has become core to our subjectivity.
If you get too burnt you can’t come back home
The great mystery of neoliberalism is to what extent its advocates “really” believed it. Was it ever anything more than a ruse to restore ruling class power and wealth? Of course, the answer to this partly depends on which advocates we are talking about. It’s possible that certain key proselytisers for neoliberalism never believed it, and only opportunistically fixed upon it as a way of destroying the “red bases” of working class power. With others, it’s more likely that a belief was aided by the desire to believe. This desire was motivated by economic interest, of course, but also by certain libidinal satisfactions: the pleasures of seeing the working class defeated, of seeing the poor and vulnerable stripped of social security. For a certain English petit-bourgeois sensibility, Thatcherism was the equivalent of a riot: a jubilee of destruction, a temporary autonomous zone for a reactionary desire that feeds off suffering and misery.
And as I was standing by the edge
I could see the faces of those led pissing theirselves laughing
(and the flames grew)
Their mad eyes buldged their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger
The funeral pyre will be re-lit if the Tories win on Thursday (bring some paper and bring some wood/
bring what’s left of all your love for the fire), and after five more years, there won’t be much left … The NHS will have been gutted, sold off by stealth; education will continue to be asset stripped, ripe for yet more corporate plundering …. the most vulnerable will be pushed further into destitution, women and children first …
This is why Cameron’s android smoothness, like Boris’s bluster, is so crucial for the Tories. It is a cloaking device, obfuscating the project, keeping the gibbering libido hidden behind a humanoid face and a calming, plummy voice. Imagine if Gove (who’s been pushed back into the attic for trying just too hard to be one of the posh boys – so vulgar, so nouveau) – imagine if Gove, with his defrocked pantomime dame pout, his lickspittle lips smacking with the class hatred that only a class traitor can feel, imagine if he were leader….
By contrast, Cameron’s strength is that it is hard to work up much class hatred for him. People that wealthy and privileged are like rare beasts: something you hear about but rarely encounter. In fact, I’ve seen more pandas in the flesh than old Etonians. You also get the sense that Cameron has no particular animus towards the poor – it’s rather that the experience of poverty is so remote for him that he simply cannot understand it, except as some theoretical possibility. The poor are pixellated background characters in the blearily cheerful steampunk simulation that Dave projects: everything’s fine so long as you don’t look too closely.
Dismantling capitalist realism
But let’s return to Mirowski’s summary of Festinger’s research:
Philosophy of science revels in the ways in which it may be rational to discount contrary evidence, but the social psychology of cognitive dissonance reveals just how elastic the concept of rationality can be in social life. Festinger and his colleagues illustrated these lessons in his first book (1956) by reporting in a neutral manner the vicissitudes of a group of Midwesterners they called “The Seekers,” who developed a belief that they would be rescued by flying saucers on a specific date in 1954, prior to a great flood coming to engulf Lake City (a pseudonym). Festinger documents in great detail the hour-by-hour reactions of the Seekers as the date of their rescue came and passed with no spaceships arriving and no flood welling up to swallow Lake City. At first, the Seekers withdrew from representatives of the press seeking to upbraid them for their failed prophecies, but rapidly reversed their stance, welcoming any and all opportunities to expound and elaborate upon their (revised and expanded) faith. A minority of their group did fall away, but Festinger notes they tended to be lukewarm peripheral members of the group. Predominantly, the Seekers never renounced their challenged doctrines. The ringleaders tended to redouble their proselytizing, so long as they were able to maintain interaction with a coterie of fellow covenanters.
Mirowski makes an analogy with proponents of neoliberal economic doctrine, who – far from abandoning this doctrine after its discrediting in the crisis – held to it even more doggedly. This is what Miliband faced on Thursday. Blank stares of mesmerised true believers seven years after the saucers didn’t arrive. Shuttleworth’s interjection like some Manchurian Candidate trigger, provoking automaton-applause …
This shows how difficult the task of dismantling capitalist realism will be. A whole process of deprogramming, involving new narratives, new libidinal attractors, as well as new ways of sharing knowledge, will have to be undergone. While this is certainly a formidable challenge, it is something that is already underway and which we can intensify quite quickly.
Of particular importance, it seems to me, is a popular demystification of economics and “the economy”. The austerity myth has only seemed credible because of a widespread economic illiteracy – an illiteracy I very much share. Economics functions now much as theology functioned in the medieval world – as an intricate and elaborate system of concepts, objects and reasoning that is closed to non-initiates. We need something like a Reformation in/ and against capitalist economics – the equivalent of the Bible being translated into English. I think this could be done, not by a series of large-scale conferences, televisions, or films – although of course these wouldn’t hurt – but virally. Small groups of people, including at least one individual who is an expert in economics, could get together and talk through some key concepts and principles, major economic events, etc. This could take place in private homes, in universities and colleges, in social clubs … In addition to everything else, this would also serve the function of reviving sociality, of re-building a class consciousness that has been dissipated by the individualising tendencies of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism.
Back to Thursday, here’s “entrepreneur” Chris. “A ban on zero hours contract would prevent me from running my small business …” Well, would it now? We’ve heard many versions of this plaint over the last few months, from businesses big and small. What this amounts to is saying that, these businesses cannot function without super-exploiting workers, and they cannot function without indirect government subsidies (with benefits supplementing low wages). Hold on a minute: didn’t the capitalist realists make their “hard decisions” to close down nationalised industries on the grounds that they weren’t viable and they were draining too much public money?
We need a new, communist, realism, which says that businesses are only viable if they can pay workers a living wage. This communist realism would reverse the capitalist realist demonisation of those on benefits, and target the real parasites: “entrepreneurs” whose enterprises depend on hyper-precarious labour; landlords living it large off housing benefit; bankers getting bonuses effectively or actually out of public money, etc.
But the concept of communist realism also suggests a particular kind of orientation. This isn’t an eventalism, which will wager all its hopes on a sudden and final transformation. It isn’t a utopianism, which concedes anything “realistic” to the enemy. It is about soberly and pragmatically assessing the resources that are available to us here and now, and thinking about how we can best use and increase those resources. It is about moving – perhaps slowly, but certainly purposively – from where we are now to somewhere very different.
Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.