Sunday, 15 November 2015

Press Narcissm and 'Public Opinion'

Narcissus didn't simply fall in love with himself, but mistook himself for another. Similarly the press apparently misrecognises its own chatter as the rumblings of the 'Public', of the multitude, or of the Zeitgeist itself:

"It's too late for Jeremy Corbyn, the public's already decided what it thinks of him" (Telegraph 12/11)

"British public backs David Cameron over Jeremy Corbyn 'terrorist-sympathiser' attack." (International Business Times October 2nd)

"Jeremy Corbyn seems to be opening up to public opinion - after being seen out and about with The Sun under his arm". [The Sun]
We the demos, the people, are offered an image of what 'The Public' are thinking. The public is 'furious' or 'outraged'.. but this is always merely a supposed public, presented for our silent consumption. 
'Public opinion' assumes there is a subject called the British Public who speaks, in the same way as an individual speaks. But the demographic designated by 'The British Public' is split  and fractured according to class, ethnicity, gender and other factors, but the spectre of "The British Public"  suggests that there is a national - British - interest that supersedes any class or factional interests. (And, conversely, polls that look at opinion by class, gender, ethnicity etc are largely ignored.) There is no univocal 'British Public', but as a phrase it's rhetorically useful in identifying enemies or cynically passing off journalistic opinion as something else. 

Public opinion polls are not an exception to this but a prime example.   Polls are not seismographs registering the tremors of debate and dissent across society. They do not drill down into the commotion of the multitude. They entail not questions that the public are debating,  picked up belatedly by the media. Rather they are the media's questions, fired at members of 'the public'.
 HuffPost UK Poll Exclusive: One-Third Of People Think Jeremy Corbyn Is 'Britain-Hating' And 'Terrorist-Sympathising' After David Cameron's Attack"
Or, more accurately: 1034 people respond to leading questions couched in David Cameron's language.The numbers themselves are relegated to the small print and there is almost no info as to how the demographic was sourced - as usual consumption triumphs over production. This 'poll' serves only to perpetuate and add legitmacy to Cameron's puerile rhetoric, a rhetoric resting on misrepresentations and flawed assumptions. 

The terms in which polls are couched serve to bolster and legitimise the orthodoxies and loaded rhetoric of the largely Conservative press. Opinion polls are flash plebiscites whereby a few hundred randoms are enlisted to serve as the voice of millions and ratify taken-for-granted assumptions or prefabricated outrages.   In an age when there are now so many other means of gauging what large numbers of people are preoccupied with and discussing, a sounding of a 1000 or so people as to pre-determined questions is an anachronism 

There are many forums for the free-associations of citizens, offline and on, but the media is not really one of them.  Increasingly the public, or rather the multitudes, groups and factions which this term disguises, are speaking to each other, and have no need to be informed of what Public Opinion is because they are too busy forming it. 

Friday, 23 October 2015

On Democracy. Thoughts post-Corbyn.. (1)

The concept of democracy has shrunk and withered to mean little more than parliamentary elections every 5 years, But in terms of its history, origins and hopefully future, Democracy exceeds this meagre ration. One essential element is that ordinary citizens can accede to power. In other words, you are not entitled to rule because of money (plutocracy), hereditary (monarchy) or even expertise (technocracy). The only condition of eligibility is that you are a citizen. The corollary of this is that those who rule are not a class apart, but only citizens granted the temporary grace of office. Privileged access to power because of wealth (Murdoch) or hereditary (Prince Charles) are profoundly undemocratic and should alarm those genuinely concerned with the idea of democracy. Needless to say swearing fealty to an hereditary monarch has nothing to do with democracy, it is in fact directly opposed to it. This is not a polemical point. It's internal to the concept of democracy itself. The existence of the monarch is a vestige of a pre-democratic system, albeit now co-opted and metabolised by modern celebrity culture.

Secondly, democracy is ongoing. It doesn't strike up for a couple of months every half decade and then obediently stop. This seemed to be the false assumption behind the clucks of outrage when  'the left' continued to rally and protest following the general election result in May. 'Democracy has spoken, how dare they contradict', intoned the reproachful pundits. They had misunderstood: democracy is not pronounced through a megaphone once every five years, it's not like a puff of smoke from the Pope's chapel announcing a new dispensation, it's an ongoing and multitudinous commotion. The democratic proposition is pronounced each and every day. 

Thirdly democracy empowers because it's to do with people intervening directly, not through delegates. This is part of the DNA of democracy: the demos speaking rather than being spoken for. Picking up placards and banners, strategic slogans and mobilising chants, and making those in power - always transients - aware of this greater presence, aware that democratic power resides not in the proxies but ultimately with the body politic, the People. And yet protest and rallies and 'taking to the streets' is typically reported only according to the sole metric of violence and volatility. Was it peaceful or were there clashes is the repetitive question asked by the depressingly unanimous press. 

In the ceaseless commotion - of the multitude or of the parties - necessarily there is dissent. And this is not a negative. Dissent is what hones and sharpens, defines and focuses. And yet, in our media democracy, dissent is never represented as this vital and necessary force. Never do we hear of this but only 'civil war' and 'strife', 'split's and 'divisions'. The media have been using these same moulds to cook their stories for decades.  

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Press narcissism..

The press report as widespread what exists only in and through the press. Was the 'fury' over Jeremy Corbyn not singing God Save the Queen an event which occured significantly outside the press claques and various rent-a-quote politicians? Was the Fiscal Charter debate 'overshadowed' by the Labour 'u-turn' any place other than in the reporting of it? Now the press tells us that Seumus Milne has taken a battering, except that he's only been 'battered' by the press.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Corbyn and the Re-definition of Politics

In response to the death of Denis Healey, David Cameron tweeted: "[He] told his party hard truths about Britain having to live within her means." Not an innocent remark, obviously, but (even here) a party political bullet fired at the current Labour party, recycling the general drift of Tory election rhetoric of Labour profligacy and tightening the purse strings. And yet of course, debt has significantly increased under the Conservatives, with Osborne famously borrowing more in 3 years that Labour did in 13, and a list of economists as long as your arm have refuted the charge that Labour overspending was responsible for the deficit or that Austerity (a politically loaded misnomer)  was an effective response to it. The whole rhetorical edifice on which the Conservatives built their campaign was in this sense, and as one leading ex-Tory peer put it, a lie or a 'delusion' which Labour had neither the courage nor the guile to counter. But what matters, evidently, is the manipulation of 'perceptions', and much of the election was fought out as a theatre or game of such 'perceptions', more or less divorced from economic reality.

Elsewhere Cameron tweets that "A 7-day NHS is vital for working people". Odd, as one would the think the NHS is for everyone who's ill. What about pensioners and children, the unemployed? But of course, the best way to understand the statement is not in terms of  meaning but in terms of rhetorical effect, whereby the phrase "working people" conjures the spectre of the "shirkers" who deserve nothing. This binary - of the hard working people and the shirkers who accept hand outs - was, again, a staple of Tory rhetoric, despite figures indicating the huge numbers of working families also relying on welfare payments due to low pay and absence of affordable housing, or other findings that the majority of poor children were from families also in work. Again, "Hard working people"  is one counter in a rhetorical game, a game - once more - of 'perception', unchecked by verifiable fact.

At a previous party conference, Cameron said he wanted "privilege for all" - a claim that was trivially nonsensical, since exclusion is inherent in the concept of privilege, and 'universalising' privilege is an oxymoron. And yet the commentariat ran with this (non-) idea  as if it had intellectual content, as if it were a meaningful proposition. What was going in was something like this: The Conservative party is seen as the party of privilege so strategists try and re-invest 'privilege' with different meanings in order to redress the perception. It's a politics purely of the signifier, of the appearance.

Last week, (8th October) The Guardian reported that Cameron's "War on Poverty" is 'belied by the figures', just as other figures from the IFS showed that the "living wage" was offset by decreases in Tax Credits. But the Guardian is too generous in assuming that the "war on poverty" or the claim that the Tories are the "party of labour" relate to actual intentions or actual or prospective policy. Rather, this is a rhetorical raid on terms that have traditionally belonged to Labour, and Tory strategists see an opportunity to appropriate these signifiers for their own party. Similarly, Cameron reports that he is staking out the centre ground, a claim dutifully repeated by the BBC and the newspapers. In fact, he is only staking out a claim to the rhetoric of the centre ground, to a more or less empty set of terms. Let's take the example of "austerity". Corbyn is routinely referred to as 'hard-left" and even "extremist" for his opposition to austerity. In fact, among economists, this position is uncontroversial, even  fairly mainstream. Cameron, on the other hand is never referred to as 'hard-right', or even 'right wing'. To the press, only the left is visible, and a version of the political spectrum that places Cameron in the 'centre' is certainly a fiction and a victory in the game of 'perceptions'.

Whether it be "politics" "democracy" or "patriotism", the terms in which political and economic reality are couched and talked about are so degraded, so often merely false, as to prevent real thinking and debate, and to constitute, in effect, a diversionary spectacle. Take "democracy": The TTIP trade deal is a real, even existential threat to British democracy and 'british values'. But there is little sustained analysis or outrage about this. Instead we get a pantomime version of the "threat to British values" in the form or Jeremy Corbyn's silence through God Save the queen. When Corbyn's silence was referred to as politically disastrous, this was an implicit admission that the meaning of 'politics' has now dwindled to mean something like PR Strategy and the manipulation of 'perceptions'*. From this point of view principles and beliefs can only be interpreted as 'gaffes' or 'blunders'. Politics proper has disappeared. 

Instead, politics has become a game played with counters such as 'British Values', "Hard working people" "sound economy" "patriotism" "democracy" etc, which are little more that bundles of effects and connotations over which the parties fight with Lilliputian sound and fury, counters which touch only occasionally and tangentially on real economic and political forces. It should come as no surprise that this politics of 'perception' and empty signifiers should also favour a right wing agenda.

If the name Corbyn refers to the flesh and blood individual, in his 'mismatched clothing' and open necked shirt, who has been subject to a campaign of orchestrated vilification and mendacity from press and Conservative party alike, it also names, or named, the desire for a different politics, or rather, for a return to politics proper. The media's fixation on Corbyn himself, on his clothing, his bike, and the other marginalia, is itself symptomatic of what the "desire named Corbyn" would contest and go beyond. 

*Yet 'perception' is a bit of a misnomer too, since whereas a 'perception' of, say, a tree means a real tree seen from a particilar angle, the perceptions engineered by spin and rhetoric are free-floating and create a substitute reality for public consumption.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Perennial Tropes of Anti-Left Rhetoric

The tropes of anti-Left rhetoric have scarcely changed in decades, and certainly very little since the 1980's when I started taking an interest in politics. There are a number of invariant motifs, some of which I've outlined below:

* The pretence that there is left wing dominance in the fields of opinion and education. Thus, the use of terms like ‘the left (or liberal) establishment’, ‘the left-liberal consensus’ etc. Correspondingly, the dramatisation of yourself as a beleaguered iconoclastic minority fighting an entrenched consensus. The most trite Daily Telegraph common sense masquerades as a samizdat. [Corbyn coverage shows this to be the exact reverse of the truth]

* The attribution to the left of a fixed and fanatical mindset. The enemy is in thrall to ideology, uses abstractions to measure reality, sees things in terms of a pre-conceived template etc.Corbyn as 'Ideologue.'

* The left is simulataneouly merely ‘fashionable’, or trendy, and a "throwback" to the 1970's/ 19th Century etc. 

* The left is equated with immaturity - "sixth form debating societies" "undergraduates" (Varoufakis as "Kevin the teenager") .

* Supporters of any left-winger figure are to be seen as 'cult' like, irrationally attached to their Leader. From Chomsky to Corbyn

*The left is always represented as ‘middle class’, imagined as isolated from the real world, dangerously naïve, treacherously permissive and implicitly unpatriotic (they are working against what the country stands for etc). In producing this spectre of the 'middle class' leftist, you simultaneously lay claim to a fake populism.

(n.b., Whereas you might think The Mail and The Times are middle class papers reflecting middle-class preoccupations, for The Right, 'the middle-class' are exclusively Guardian readers and the Guardian is the quintessentially middle class paper.)

* Any left wing person not also in poverty is necessarily a 'hypocrite', a champagne socialist etc Only conservatism is compatible with any degree of material wealth.

* discrediting the vocabulary of the left. The use of this vocabulary only ironically or contemptuously. For example, capitalism is never spoken of directly, but phrases like “They [the left] blame all this on the evils of capitalism” or “I suppose you think this is all about nasty American imperialism”. The insinuation that this vocabulary is only a set of empty phrases and slogans.

It can be seen that each of these motifs is both a portrait of an enemy (who threatens) and an implicit self-dramatisation. Thus: The attack on the spectral middle-class is also the declaration of a no-nonsense populism; opining about left-wing dominance in the media entails a corresponding stance of valiant dissent; the charges of fanatical rigidity and trendyness lay claim to a normal commonsense viewpoint; accusations of left-wing ‘jargon’ and ‘sloganeering’ are also about legitimising one’s own ‘natural’ and transparent language.

In every age the self-appointed commentariat try to pass off these rusty old ideological tools as the free products of their own brains.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Corbyn and the Press

On Friday, I went to hear a still impassioned 89 year old John Berger at the British library, talking about painting and politics. I remembered a quote from him that I’d copied into a notebook: “Today the discredit of words is very great. Most of the time the media transmit lies,” a quote that might form a fitting coda to a week of Jeremy Corbyn coverage.  

Let's start with the New Statesman. Their political editor describes Corbyn stepping up to PMQ with the "confidence of an ideologue", except it's difficult to see how this ‘ideologue confidence’ differs from the confidence of a long-standing member of parliament, or someone with an emphatic party majority. Similarly, The Times refers to Corbyn's ‘Chairmen Mao Style bicycle’, except it's difficult to see any empirical difference between this and, well, a bicycle. The Sun devote a full page to claiming that Corbyn is accepting a Privy Council invite in order to 'grab' the 6.5 million Short money available to opposition parties, except the short money isn’t related to membership of the privy council at all, and Corbyn states that he hadn’t been invited to join at that point in any case .The Metro says that Corbyn has done a 'u-turn' in appointing women to the cabinet, except he'd always promised a cabinet that was 50% women, and delivered just that. In fact this is the highest percentage of women ever in a shadow cabinet. Nonetheless, the “Does Corbyn have a women problem” is a headline replicated across the BBC, Telegraph and New Statesman. The meme was planted before the leadership result with the “women only carriages” farce.  A Guardian pundit ridiculed Corbyn's foray into “policymaking, ” and others condemned this ‘policy proposal’, except it never was, in any shape or form, a policy proposal, as a cursory moment’s googling would reveal.  Then of course a “fury” over Corbyn not singing “God save the Queen”, and how this was disrespectful and unpatriotic, except: 1. It’s difficult to see where this ‘fury’ existed outside the press and MP clucking company; 2. that singing a song promising to serve a hereditary monarch has nothing to do with democracy or the defence of it, nor with the RAF or Army 3. That in a modern democracy that supports freedom of belief, conscience and expression, this non-singing should also be a non-event.  Later on Channel 4 Corbyn is asked by Jon Snow if he loves his country, except this question rests on the non–sequitur that love of a modern democratic country and love of the hereditary monarch is the same thing, and C4 clearly lacks the courage to depart from the script. 

All of the stories above, a random spillage from the back of a lorryload, if put before a court of law or a court of reason, would fall apart and be thrown on the dung heap. Over and again, we are dealing with falsifications, misrepresentations, non-sequiturs, supposition, speculation, and irregular facts forced into pre-existent holes. We are also dealing with the press as a chorus to a spectacle engineered largely by themselves. 

The situation is now pre-emptive of parody. The latest headline concerns Corbyn’s ‘snub’ to the national rugby team – not attending yesterday’s match due to pre-existing constituency commitments. Again, the assumption is that carrying out his democratic mandate – the very stuff of our national political system- is less important, less ‘nationally’ important, than an empty symbolic ritual. Had Corbyn gone to the match, as several tweeters pointed out, headlines would have doubtless been something like “Corbyn gets a free ride to Rugby match, neglecting constituents”. There is something like a headline generator algorithm here, guaranteeing that two different Corbyn behaviours will always add up to the same negative result. So, the unprecedented 50% gender parity obstacle is sidestepped by insisting that only the 3 “top jobs” as designated by historical convention actually matter, thereby producing ‘sexism’ as the reigning meme. Where opposites always add up to the same negative spin we can only be dealing with a pre-existing intention to destroy. We are dealing, in actual fact, with propaganda. 

Various pundits urge Corbyn to employ a PR man. (Again, the headlines can be predicted: “Honest”Corbyn brings in Spin doctor.”) Not singing the national anthem, they opine, was “bad politics”, where “politics” has collapsed into spinnability and media take-up. Undone top buttons and mismatched clothes, or sleeping with someone in the 70’s are likewise, it seems “bad politics”, Except they’re not “politics” at all. Politics proper takes place elsewhere, in the immiseration of the poor, the selling of national assets, the distribution of wealth and power and their concentration in non-elected hands. 

How politics proper will be rediscovered is open to debate. Perhaps it’s foolishly optimistic to think that the dominion of the mainstream press is shrinking, as people talk to their fellow citizens online as never before, and disseminate, at speed, fact-checks and counter arguments; foolishly optimistic to observe just how quickly the anti-Corbyn nonsense and directives have been countermanded and corrected, to hear the clamour and range of opposition beyond the media spectacle, and to sense that a growing community is out there that wil  not be drowned by the deluge of crap. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Rain drops - from a fiction in progress

There were two signals that i took, that i take, to be premonitory of death. One is little spots of rain on my face and hands, even which i'm indoors, or when the sun is shining. Now and then i feel them, little needle points of cool rain. The other, the other signal, is racing shadows in the corner of vision., small shadows like a bird darting for cover, like a scuttling insect. I try to catch it with a stare and its gone.

 I remember my father ceasing to have weetabix for breakfast and developeing a taste for grapefruit. Not longer after that he died. There was a funny taste in his weetabix , and even though he tried a different packet it was still there, it had been infected with a new taste that he found unpalatable. It made him switch to grapefruit, which he'd never eaten before. suddenly he liked grapefruit and found weetabix infected with a werird taste. This is how death reveals itself, in tiny insidious changes, little holes in the fabric until suddenly one day the whole thing disintegrates. The software of our experience has been corrupted. In dreams there is often something similiar. Everything seems normal but a tiny detail is wrong. The newspaper on the table has your face on the front cover. Your wife is drinking orange juice but her hair is on fire. These are the cracks through which Death will enter. And mine, i feel, will enter through raindrops and shadows.