Monthly Archives: September 2015

Since Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a serious candidate for the Labour leadership, media coverage has been governed by a politics of fear and the language of catastrophe. The Guardian’s recent ‘long read’ – long, perhaps, for any who have a limited attention span, admittedly the kind of reader the media usually prefer to contemplate – has described les événements as ‘an earthquake’ and ‘the political shock of a generation’; and this same newspaper had managed, earlier, to follow Corbyn’s successful debut at Prime Minister’s Questions with a note of caution, describing an ‘era of political disaggregation, [in which] Labour is fragmenting more than most’ – all before ending with the apocalypse, citing a ‘cabinet minister’ who spoke of ‘destroy[ing] the Labour brand’. When Corbyn became party leader, government ministers lined up to mimic speak-your-weight machines, repeating word-for-word (one we prepared earlier) a message about the ‘threat to national security’. Within the Labour party itself, of course, there have been forecasts aplenty that this is the end, we’re all doomed (for Margaret Beckett, ‘the worst political mistake I have ever made’). However, anyone who does wish to be serious about Corbyn’s leadership will acknowledge that he and John McDonnell have simply moved the debate a little to the left. Even Lord Turnbull, a former Osborne supporter, now says the government’s economic policy has been politically motived (as 2015 winds down and the days get shorter, it hardly needs Yanis Varoufakis to make that particular claim). To defend the increasingly indefensible, then, the politics of fear risks risible melodrama, but that is the form it must take.

It should be of some interest that political discourse can only be presented as fear and melodrama. It is not simply a question of ‘biased reporting’ (evident though distortion and, often, blatant lies have been in most print and broadcast media output). Rather, the issue has become the way in which the speaker must affirm their allegiance to a norm, one that designates Corbyn as, not only marginal to the political consensus, but representative of the unsayable. One might refer to a dominant ideology or the Overton window and call this norm ‘neoliberalism’, which quickly becomes ‘common sense’ and must be defended with what might come across as religious zeal: Thatcher’s ‘no alternative’ 30+ years on. Not least, it is significant that popular support for Corbyn soon attracted the dismissive term Corbynmania, as though dismissing it as irrational was the only way to cope with the possibility that such a candidate might, just might have widespread support (and opinion polls must be spun to suggest that the opposite is the case). This New Statesman article, for example, describes the process in terms of some kind of psychological determinism: if the words ‘mob’ and ‘fanatic’ don’t appear, they can be easily inferred.

It is evident that Corbyn has ‘moved political debate leftwards’; but that form of words fails to fully capture the simple fact that the language of politics-as-is has become demonstrably inadequate. One might easily mock the government’s (or, perhaps, to be as precise as Downing Street would wish it, that should read the Conservative Party’s) rhetoric about national security; although it might not appear so amusing when a military coup scheduled for 2020 is taken into account. This is the politics of fear and nothing new, of course (how many times have the tabloid press so bravely exposed ‘the most dangerous man/woman in Britain’?); and it makes for a convenient tactic for those who wish to pre-empt discussion. However, any discussion of political discourse should go further to ask how language not only describes but also constructs consensus. To illustrate this point, consider France’s ‘Je suis Charlie’ phenomenon. Two recent books describe the aftermath to the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015, when there was a desperate need to produce and advertise a consensus on free speech and opposition to terrorism, even if it meant closing down discussion.[1] Given the hypocrisy involved, it was not just about ‘a defence of free speech’; and there was a perceived need to redefine French national identity in such a way that it precluded any questioning of ‘Je Suis Charlie’. The issue was reduced to a simplistic ‘with us or against us’ (as George Bush put it following the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001).

Melodramatic gibes and empty rhetoric about a threat to national security notwithstanding, none of this means that Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has become, somehow, the equivalent of a terrorist attack involving loss of life. Further, it is pretty obvious that ‘Je Suis Not Jeremy’ has proven less successful as a marketing campaign than ‘Je Suis Charlie’, even if the need for a disclaimer probably makes the point: the construction of these cases rests on an assumption that ‘we are at war’. Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem becomes almost treasonable, even when that anthem can be so easily ridiculed and that story has been followed by one suggesting he would fail to kneel before the Queen when joining the Privy Council. However, the latter story might have no more substance than many that have been written about Corbyn. If French national identity is based on some kind of post-Revolution ‘equality and fraternity’, British national identity (still) includes a notion of politics-as-tradition; and so a fear that Corbyn and the so-called ‘new politics’ might be about to tear up the rule book is what generates this particular case of ‘with us or against us’.

The hysterical language of the so-called War on Terror can be adopted and adapted without ridicule and might pass without comment, so established is it as common sense. And so, by way of conclusion, it is worth thinking here about Thomas Pynchon’s take on the manufactured response to the attack on the World Trade Centre (aka ‘9/11’, nothing if not a branding exercise, arguably the reason why he refused to use that term in Bleeding Edge). In his 2003 Foreword to a new edition of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty‑Four, Pynchon addressed precisely this issue when he wrote of the modern surveillance state (part of what Foucault would call a disciplinary society) and ‘social control on a scale those quaint old twentieth-century tyrants with their goofy mustaches could only dream about’.[2] He is making a point that invokes the enforced conformity Delphy and Todd describe when they discuss ‘Je Suis Charlie’: the kind of totalitarian society that we might have in mind when we think of ‘quaint old … tyrants’ isn’t what we should expect to see today. If Conservatives do currently dream of ‘destroy[ing] the Labour brand’, their fantasy is given substance by the logic of advertising: the Labour Party could disappear as easily as did Woolworth’s if, indeed, it is no more than just another brand.

Nonsense about national security might be no more than we should expect from David Cameron; and talk about overthrowing an elected government might be no more than we should expect from Murdoch newspapers (quoting an ‘unnamed general’ who, like The Guardian’s cabinet minister, might or might not exist – the purpose of the story is to ‘get it out there’). The point is that the debate – instead of confronting head-on the supposed inadequacies of Corbyn’s politics, and his opponents cannot claim they haven’t been the time and space – must necessarily position the speaker in relation to politics-as-is, as though the alternative is a step into the abyss. It is problematic for the anti-Corbyn front (both within and without Labour) that he cannot be denied, as Thatcher might have put it, the oxygen of publicity. Both Corbyn and McDonnell as shadow chancellor have roles that mean they must be allowed a platform; and so the unsayable quickly becomes both sayable and, perhaps, common sense. If that isn’t enough to make voters fearful, something might well be happening.

[1] Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, Verso, 2015; Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie?, Polity Press, 2015.

[2] Thomas Pynchon, Foreword, in George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Plume Centennial Edition, 2003, xvi.

It is all of a week since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, and The Guardian has an opinion poll which can be read several ways: that Corbyn remains behind Cameron as a likely prime minister is, perhaps, less interesting, given the propaganda offensive of the past week, than the simple fact that Labour has not lost ground. Insofar as we can accept the validity of such exercises, the ‘Corbyn factor’ has not, thus far, cost Labour. There is nothing to report. In the past week the media have been forced to give space to Corbyn (interviewed properly by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News – cf the earlier attempt at a hatchet-job from Krishnan Guru-Murthy, back in August; or praised for his performance at Prime Minister’s Questions) as well as John McDonnell (the Labour left is finally represented on Question Time). However, any progress made has been in spite of a relentless attack on Corbyn from some quarters, none of which should have been surprising (most obviously, hysterical nonsense written by Dan Hodges for the entertainment of Telegraph readers, but any list of the usual suspects would range far and wide).

Sometimes an attack on Corbyn has worked in his favour, simply because it gave him the hearing no one expected when he was first nominated by Margaret Beckett’s morons. For example, in the final leadership debate, on Sky, Adam Boulton must have thought he could help the other candidates by challenging Corbyn at every opportunity (Owen Jones said it had turned into ‘grill Jeremy time’). In the event, of course, Corbyn was simply able outline views that are usually ignored. More common have been the attacks that have nothing to do with reporting ideas. The Sky functionary (should he be called a journalist?) Darren McCaffrey has evidently decided that Corbyn’s leadership will be his meal ticket. There have also been men with cameras (again, should they be called photographers?) harassing Corbyn at every opportunity. A helpful hint, guys: we know what Corbyn looks like, and even what he looks like when walking through a doorway, and even what he looks like when walking to a car and trying to get in. None of this needs to be recorded over and over; if he ever decides to do it walking on his hands, he might agree to issue a press release so you can go and take pictures of that, of course. The purpose of this tactic, let there be no doubt, is to draw Corbyn into some kind of reaction that all of a sudden becomes newsworthy because it reflects badly on him. This is the story they thought they had when, mid‑week, a Man With Camera was injured, but the story failed to unfold as they had wished. Some journalists are worthy of the title, of course, and Norman Smith has spoken intelligently on the way Corbyn has forced journalists to think about what they are doing. He did not use these words, but he raised the possibility that what we are seeing is a paradigm shift when received wisdom is challenged and what counts as ‘normal’ is open to fundamental revision. On the one hand there is the BBC’s pathetic response when asked to describe Cameron as ‘the right-wing prime minister’; on the other hand there is Smith, and individuals like him, and constructive thinking. The institution and those happy to do its bidding verses the individual prepared to be reflective, examples of what Foucault called governmentality in a disciplinary society.

Since Corbyn’s candidacy was declared and became a serious proposition, and particularly since he became leader, the neoliberal consensus has been interrogated, and so has the way politics is performed. Corbyn has been put under the kind of intense scrutiny one might think more appropriate to something placed under a microscope in a laboratory. Up to a point, this might be what any new leader would have to expect: think of Chukka Umunna’s early withdrawal from the leadership contest, supposedly because he saw the way media intrusion, even then, was going. However, Corbyn is not what anyone has expected a political leader to be like. His success has seen forecasts of a Labour split as the ideological battle over hearts and minds goes on. Moreover, on a more personal level, Corbyn uses public transport (or did);[1] and he has an allotment (Tory landowners who think feudalism a good idea might even be able to relate to this, in a patrician kind of way). If this, indeed, is part of a paradigm shift, there is resistance in the form of a perceived need to ‘understand’ Corbyn (‘the new’) in conventional (‘old’) terms. One might think here of Foucault’s argument that power can only be exercised over free subjects, which necessarily includes the freedom to resist. For all concerned (media workers and journalists, Labour figures speaking out against Corbyn, his supporters, the wider electorate, Corbyn himself modifying what he says and does to find a workable compromise) there is a need to learn a new script. A perhaps trivial example of this process is offered by David Cameron’s attempt to follow Corbyn’s lead in PMQs: he soon forgot his lines (as he, a few minutes earlier, had accused the Opposition back benches of forgetting their lines).

There has, then, been an attempt to identify a ‘new politics’ which can be incorporated in what we already know: ‘this year’s fashion’. Here, Corbyn can be linked, effortlessly, not just to Bernie Sanders, but also Donald Trump, not to mention Marine Le Pen: all this from the Financial Times yesterday, in an article which, I kid you not, tries to highlight ‘authenticity’. Forget about politics, it’s all a question of style: as Michael White wrote in The Guardian, in August, after a brief moment ‘in the sun’, such individuals and movements soon fade away. In the week just ended, a Guardian article has quoted an unnamed cabinet minister saying they want to ‘destroy the Labour brand’. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is the soundbite politics based on nothing changing, a variant on White’s talk of fashion.

As White’s wishful thinking had it, ‘the elite absorbs their message and recovers’. Since becoming leader, Corbyn has had to backtrack (or so it has been presented) on policy, but also on singing the national anthem (an issue of some concern, it seems, to those who believe in feudalism). This should have been a non-story (initially denounced by the Corbyn team as ‘tittle-tattle’) but the symbolism was important. The photograph published showed others apparently not singing, but Corbyn was the main subject of the image. The story was about him singing or not singing, not what others were doing. This might have been an event to honour those who served in World War 2; it was also a photo-opportunity, one embraced by Michael Fallon, who gave the impression he was singing his heart out. The rugby match Corbyn missed because he thought meeting constituents more important (by my reckoning, the so-called ‘snub’ was only corrected, in the Mirror, on Saturday evening) was similarly a photo-opportunity that requires actors who know their lines and how to hit their mark when the cameras roll.[2]

As part of his work on governmentality and its successor biopolitics, all of which is to do with the way the individual is integrated in society and manipulated to that end while having the freedom to exercise agency, Foucault described the way sovereign power changed as society evolved. Given that the fuss over the national anthem has reminded one and all of the fiction that is Her Majesty’s government (including the bizarre requirement, apparently, that new privy councillors have to kneel before her), this does seem a good note to end on. Sovereign power is no longer confined, simply to life and death; in a modern society it is more concerned with the establishment and policing of norms. With the decline of the idea of an all-seeing god, surveillance is a rather more mundane affair, be it CCTV cameras or the tracking of what we do online. Or the treatment of a political leader who can be accused of ‘going back to the 1980s’ even while he represents a movement that cannot be adequately described as yet. If the ‘new politics’ includes the Occupy movement and the anti-capitalist protests that go back, at least, to Seattle in 1999, ‘we’ are still trying to work out what it looks like.

[1] Perhaps a political culture in which anyone and everyone used public transport would be welcome.

[2] I would like to think Corbyn will continue to resist these pressures to conform, but that is easy for me to say from a safe distance.