What do ‘we the people’ want? #4

The story so far. A new player emerged this past week, Labour’s National Executive Committee, which eventually failed to find a way to keep Corbyn off the ballot. However, if this was good news, the NEC also voted under AOB – and after enough people to give Corbyn a majority had departed – to exclude new members from the electorate. Given that this move wasn’t scheduled as part of the meeting’s agenda, but tacked on as an afterthought, it might seem a little naughty, at least. Legal action is pending. Subsequently the NEC also issued a decree – what else can we call it? – banning local party meetings that might, inconveniently, pass motions in favour of Corbyn or, just as inconveniently, add to the number of CLPs voting to no-confidence sitting MPs. For the latter decision, the pretext was the threat of violence, although there have been conflicting reports of those meetings where violence and/or intimidation are alleged to have taken place. As with the brick through the window at Eagle’s Wallasey office, one always has to ask who benefits from violence/intimidation, or even from just talking about it. Anyway, elections to the NEC are currently taking place, so the balance of power might shift again. Needless to say, Corbyn continues to be ‘unelectable’ even though opinion polls – which might or might not be reliable – show Labour ahead of the government, at worst just behind. Either way, this is far better than might have been expected, given the behaviour of the PLP; but nothing Corbyn does will ever be adequate to satisfy his enemies.

1

Durkheim famously divided the world into the sacred and the profane, ‘two worlds between which there is nothing in common’.[1] He was talking about the importance of religion in society but sociologists since then have used the concept of civil religions to address the way in which secular (or secularising) societies are organised similarly. One might also consider the relationship between the sacred and the imagined community, given that the sacred refers to the group rather than the individual;[2] and one might use these ideas to think about recent events, the so-called ‘coronation’ of a new prime minister (the attendant rituals a fine illustration of civil religion), as well as the ongoing conflict between Labour establishment and the broader membership. Durkheim went on: ‘The forces which play in one are not simply those which are met with in the other, but a little stronger; they are of a different sort.’ That is, a distinction between what is considered legitimate and what can be dismissed as illegitimate.[3] In Foucaultian terms, we can see how what can be said is constructed, while any other statements are rendered unsayable: leaving aside the question of whether or not the media will report what you say, you can say the words, but the prevailing discourse will refuse to ‘hear’ them, that is, accept the legitimacy of what you have said.

For example, to say that talk of violence and intimidation fits the (‘Trot entryists’) narrative promoted by Labour’s right-wing PLP, does not go far enough. That no one could deny the intimidation of Corbyn himself, or the abusive language used on social media, seems to be less important than the idea that some intimidation is deemed to be sacred and some profane; some behaviour/tactics/statements are instantly legitimate and cannot, therefore, be seen as intimidation, whereas the same or similar behaviour/tactics/statements are unacceptable when associated with others. As I watch a test match on television I see cricket fans allowed to drink alcohol openly; while football fans – more easily associated with mob violence – cannot do so.

It has been suggested that some MPs had to be, for want of a better way of putting it, persuaded to join the anti‑Corbyn movement and contribute to the vote of no confidence. This observation, however, is rendered invisible, of no account; if such a point is raised, it can be easily denied when those issuing the denial (for example, MPs) are said to represent the group in question. For the sacred is beyond criticism. Further, if nothing else, MPs and not-journalists expressing themselves on social media have been guilty of language that might best be avoided; nothing, of course, happens precisely because only MPs and not-journalists would be able to denounce such language as a form of intimidation. However John McDonnell’s description of the plotters as ‘fucking useless’ – clearly a joke if to the point, given the failure to defeat Corbyn – has to be condemned (for the record, it might be argued that McDonnell should have learned by now that different rules are going to be applied to anything he says or does; Ken Livingstone seemed to admit as much when he said he regretted his comments on Hitler and Zionism because they gave his enemies ammunition).

2

If Durkheim, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, often seemed to be describing a society that no longer existed, one can, nonetheless, apply his observations today. This is the case with religion, as with, for example, his account of the totem, ‘the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from the others, the visible mark of its personality, a mark borne by everything which is a part of the clan under any title whatsoever, men (sic), beasts or things’. This is how the imagined community comes into being and how conflict between PLP and membership can be read: one has only to understand that the clan with which the PLP wishes to identify is the political establishment, not the party as such … all of which brings up, first, this week’s so-called ‘handover of power’, and then what might be called the ‘handoff of power’.

The transition from one government to the next is fictional, certainly, a performance of continuity that commentators opted to find reassuring, all in the national interest; even if Cameron’s replacement by May will change nothing, a reactionary Conservative government continuing on its merry way as though nothing has happened. Astonishingly, some who might be expected to know better even suggested May’s speech could have been made by a Labour leader; they might have done better to ask what else she might, reasonably, have been expected to say (nothing remotely resembling the truth about what should be expected from ‘her’ government).

In the context of events in the Labour party, where a peaceful transition is assuredly not possible, media coverage found something comforting in the certainties or predictabilities of a ritual that included Cameron saying he had ‘advised’ the Queen to give May his job, then May saying the Queen had ‘asked’ her to form a government (whatever May and Windsor did talk about, May’s Spectator article from 2005 likely did not feature). Throughout, TV personalities pretending to be reporters gossiped outside 10 Downing Street as, behind them, ministers came and went, performing busyness for the cameras. That this piece of street theatre was quite opaque was, of course, intentional; television viewers should have been reminded of their distance from power (while events in the Labour party speak of nothing so much as a proximity to power). At the same time, not‑journalists take to social media and – when not abusing Corbyn and/or his supporters – demonstrate their capacity for clinging, limpet-like to sources who will probably never be named but are real nonetheless (crucially, I must be the first to tweet that X has been appointed or Y has been sacked).

And so to the Labour establishment’s internal manipulation of rules, the ease with which the party has demonstrated where organisational power lies. Cameron morphing into May should properly be taken as a reminder that, where power is concerned, nothing is likely to happen so effortlessly. It is a ritual to be performed for television. By way of contrast, banning members from voting is seen for what it is, an attempt to rig the ballot. Similarly, banning meetings is difficult to justify. Suddenly, there is a possibility that scare stories about intimidation and mob violence will start to lose any persuasive power they might have had to begin with.

These two stories – May’s ‘elevation’ and the Labour establishment’s disdain for democracy – illustrate the difference between ideological and repressive state apparatuses. Rather than simply reporting ‘what is going on’, of course, the media only ever construct what we understand of ‘politics’ and, therefore, play a key role in defining and reinforcing the distinction between sacred and profane. When struggle makes the sacred appear forced, not a ‘natural’ state of affairs, force and repression have to take over. For the media, what is comforting and predictable about politics – reduced as always to a Westminster-based soap opera – is their own continued role as players. The PLP leak anti-Corbyn stories and use the media to perform discontent; so MPs know full well the nature of the symbiotic relationship they enjoy with not-journalists. The hierarchy of credibility insists that Downing Street gossip has status; whereas what is said in a Momentum meeting does not. The transition to a May government is the performance of order, with ministers falling into line even when sacked; whereas the pro-Corbyn rally – when reported, which cannot be taken for granted, of course – is the performance of disorder. More attention is given to McDonnell’s ‘fucking useless’ joke than to any Corbyn speech about social inequality.

[1] In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life – citations taken from Readings from Emile Durkheim, ed Kenneth Thompson, Routledge, 2004, 110ff.

[2] In his discussion of the EU referendum’s Leave vote, Peter Hallward references, to similar effect, Rousseau’s distinction between a ‘general will’ and a ‘will of all’. Reprinted in The Brexit Crisis: A Verso Report, Verso Books, 2016, 31-36.Available online.

[3] A new report from the LSE discusses the way media coverage, from the outset, delegitimised Corbyn’s status as Labour leader. See: Bart Cammaerts, Brooks DeCillia, João Magalhães and César Jimenez-Martínez, Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press: From watchdog to Attackdog. London School of Economics, 2016.

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