The uncertainty of politics revisited

It is a commonplace to observe that the West has entered a period of increased political volatility. The journalist Helen Lewis argues that political commentators have failed to upgrade their efforts in these new times. She stresses the role of bias in her account of why consensual predictions have not been validated by events. Moreover, she admits that political journalists can view their work as part of an entertainment industry. Furthermore, her personal antipathy to the Labour leadership mars her recent article in the New Statesman.

Importantly, Ms Lewis forgets a basic truth. Her analysis overlooks the fact that predicting election outcomes has always been a flawed enterprise. Professor Colin Hay noted that the future is open. In his text, Political Analysis (2002), he highlighted that political processes are inherently “complex, contested and contingent.” The rise of President Trump or the uneven performance of the Conservative Party may cause understandable consternation, but surprise should not be the dominant response.

Politics will ebb and flow regardless of attempts to manage populations. It is liberating to realise that political experts often attempt the impossible. The bookmakers know as much about the future as they do. This means that candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have a chance in the United States. It also implies that political defeats should be viewed with a degree of equanimity.

Hegemony can allow reactionary forces to govern whole societies. Nevertheless, the new pessimism should not make us miserable. This is because political instability can lead to widespread opportunities for progressive forces. Disaster capitalism is connected with crises that stimulate activism. The platitudes connected with centrism may replace the grim rhetoric of the moment, but the fluidity of the situation underpins the potential for radicalism.


Canned laughter for the news

The silly season used to be short. British politicians and the mass media have combined successfully to extend the period. The reinterpretation of Brexit by the extremist wing of the Conservative Party has pushed the fragile culture of the UK over the edge.

Leadership contests always tend to have a bizarre aspect. This is because the various candidates are obliged to seek the approval of activists. There is inevitably a gap between the values of the typical party activist and the beliefs of the average member of society. In the case of the Conservative and Unionist Party, this divide is a chasm. This is because the membership of the party is much older and more affluent than the bulk of the British population.

A spectacle is all about image, as the thinker Guy Debord understood.PR has only become more important in the politics of late capitalism. Social media marketing has enabled a new layer of post-truth campaigning. Politicians like Boris Johnson MP and Rory Stewart MP have become adept at using the networks which facilitate the transmission of nonsense. The two former Etonians pose as rebels. These creatures of the Establishment make grand statements about democracy. Johnson pretends to connect with ordinary people, while Stewart strikes a listening pose. Faux engagement is the ritual of the moment.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has discussed the significance of canned laughter. When we are tired from working, the television show ensures that we know when to laugh. Furthermore, fake laughter pays no attention to the quality of a joke. A programme with canned laughter takes no risks. Unlike feminist comedian Jo Brand, it will not attract the attention of the police.

Not everyone has the wealth or the health to treat the Conservative Party leadership contest as a wild drinking game. My small proposal is that Channel 4 and the BBC should insert canned laughter when screening any leadership debates. The extremist Tory politicians should not be given uninterrupted access to the media without the accompaniment of laughter. A supine media will not subject the candidates to appropriate scrutiny so there is a need to try something new.

The social construction of a Conservative leader

In postmodern democracies, media management is imperative. Ordinary people must be persuaded to vote against their best interest. A range of tactics are used. However, the subtlety of the manipulation does not always conceal the pattern.

When it comes to the British Conservative Party, there is an impressive record of electoral success to consider. This has been enabled by the use of leaders who are always deliberately different from their predecessors.

Liberal David Cameron was manufactured as different from authoritarian Michael Howard MP. Ordinary and diligent Theresa May was established as distinct from the privileged and indolent Cameron. The next Tory leader will not be well-behaved like May. Nor will they be poor communicators like her.

The trouble with this model of leader creation is obvious. Party leaders are being designed for electoral purposes only. There is nothing in the process which suggests that leadership is about listening to the legitimate concerns of the people.

Postmodern politics is about packaging. Citizens are treated like consumers. When people tire of product A, they are prompted to purchase product B. Voters are not encouraged to think. The essence of political marketing is that the individual can be seduced by appearances.

We can all buy soap powder. The diverse brands are colourful enough. But differentiating between politicians should be a dissimilar activity. Brand Boris and brand Hunt are connected with poor quality policies. The time has come to demand a more honest politics.

The burial of class war?

The British media has been ranked at 40 in terms of press freedom. Reporters Without Borders compiled an index which put the UK media below that of Burkina Faso and Chile. However, journalists in London still do report the news. The major problem is that there is a filter which prevents vital facts from featuring massively in the national conversation.

The IPPR has calculated that austerity has killed more than 130,000 British people prematurely since 2012. Cuts to public health funding have impacted massively on outcomes related to preventable diseases. Whilst the fact has been reported in the press, the focus has been on other stories.

Since the emergence of the vital austerity story, consumers of news have been distracted by a diversity of colourful events. Liverpool FC became Champions of Europe for the sixth time, President Trump attacked the Mayor of London, England played in the cricket World Cup, and the D-day landings were commemorated.

Furthermore, journalists who do work on austerity are under pressure to sex up their output. The brave Dr Frances Ryan has taken on the subject of survival sex. Readers will be outraged at stories about the unwell women forced into exploitative situations by austerity. But many of them will forget that more than 130,000 people of all genders have already died prematurely because of an economic policy.

It would appear that the British ruling class has got away with something highly significant. Its representatives have attacked the veracity of the work of the United Nations. Journalists have been trapped in a news cycle which does not permit reflection.

Contrary to public opinion, class war is rarely waged by the poor. Fractions of the capitalist class put profit above human life. And journalists are paid to help us look the other way.

The Dog and the Vial by Charles Baudelaire translated by Raymond N. MacKenzie

“Poetry affords the clearest examples of this subordination of reference to attitude. It is the supreme form of emotive language.”
I.A. Richards

Prose poetry is not the same as conventional poetry. Nevertheless, it can have the same kind of appeal to the reader. Furthermore, a prose poem can benefit from the freedom associated with a loose structure. In the case of The Dog and The Vial, Charles Baudelaire was expressing a sentiment shared by many writers. There is nothing like a lack of critical response when it comes to a motivation for misanthropy.

Baudelaire addresses his dog with style. The first and last paragraph employ direct speech, while the middle paragraph tells the story. The poet makes it clear that he is talking about a real dog (or pretending to do so) by use of the words “I”, “his” and “he”; this verisimilitude is striking.

Another technique is the switch between the formal and the informal. The poet is prepared to call his pet a “dear little doggie” and an “unworthy companion of his sad life”, as he reflects on the behaviour of his hound.

For Baudelaire, expensive perfume is wasted on a dog. He thinks that excellent poetry is wasted on the public. Writing can be frustrating, especially if one struggles to find an appropriate audience. Baudelaire adjusts to the market by eschewing delicacy. He resolves to “give them only dung, chosen with care” but whether or not the genius could do this in practice is hard to discern.

Audiences know when they are being patronised. Successful politicians rarely talk down to the people. It is fine for poets to share the anger of Baudelaire, but it would be foolish for them to lower their standards to get an expanded readership. Condescension is no solution to the conundrum set out by the Frenchman.

Sigmund Freud might have made something out of this poem. The reference to “excrement” is telling. A struggling writer may be viewed as constipated. Creativity involves letting things out. Perfectionism can block things up.

One way of escaping from the messy dilemma posed by Baudelaire is to view the creation of art as a social act. The philosopher Karl Marx was clear that we were social animals. For Marx, our work reflects our relationships within the capitalist mode of production. Such an enlightened attitude would make it unnecessary for anyone to take out their work-related problems on their pets. Animal welfare could be boosted as a result! Elitism is unfortunately part of cultural life. A democratic worldview has the potential to assist a writer to break down barriers.

Christmas: 1924 by Thomas Hardy

This poem gets straight to the point. In four lines, it communicates a clear message. The poet was not a young man when he composed the words in question.

Thomas Hardy may have felt that any complicated structure would have got in the way of what he was trying to impart. The punctuation is simple, although the first line is broken up by a full stop.

Hardy used straightforward language to ensure that the reader was not confused. He did not want to navigate complex theology. He just urged people to not depend on dogma.

Christianity is the target of the poem. But even Christians may have empathy for the position of the poet. The First World War had burned a hole in hope. Virginia Woolf pointed out that poetry gained from the catastrophe, but this was no great consolation to sensitive folk.

Drivers of the war included imperialist rivalry, but Hardy was not interested in the why. Unlike Sigmund Freud, he was not planning to write Civilization and Its Discontents. This poem is about emotion. And that feeling is close to despair.

In the final analysis, the despondent words of Hardy can stand by themselves. The great poet wrote:

“After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.”

Toads Revisited by Philip Larkin

“It is no less absurd to suppose that a competent reader sits down to read for the sake of pleasure, than to suppose that a mathematician sets out to solve an equation with a view to the pleasure its solution will afford him.”

I.A. Richards

The politics of poetry are not always complicated. Any writer should have empathy with other people. If all the feeling of a poet is directed towards themselves then reading becomes a chore.

Philip Larkin had a remarkable way with words. Moreover, he could capture the zeitgeist with an acute sensibility. Nevertheless, he tended to wallow in his own consciousness. This tendency to self-pity could lead him towards the expression of toxic ideologies.

Larkin was a prisoner of his social class. He could not step outside of his conditioning. Furthermore, he made no effort to do so. His lines on unemployed males are shameful and sociologically inaccurate. The poet must have had no understanding of economics. The capitalist system has always generated a class of underemployed people. Employers benefit from this because it allows them to pay unskilled workers less than if there was actual full employment. Larkin wrote:

“All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.
Think of being them!
Hearing the hours chime,”

This stanza is devoid of truth. Weakness may be generated by long periods of unemployment, but it does not cause it. There is something of a macho culture about the poem. As a librarian, Larkin was not really entitled to his dubious connection between masculinity and labour.

Not all of Larkin’s poetry is nearly this crude. He had a sharp eye for the beauty of nature and wrote:

“…in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn”

Cut Grass is a poem that deserves multiple readings. The deliberate insertion of a compound word without a hyphen makes one think. Perhaps summer was the season that suited Larkin the best. Moods can be delicate things.