Je Suis ‘Not Jeremy’?

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.

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