Campaigning after the coup?

For Matt Sparke, neoliberalism “has been variegated and experimental, both in the original moments of implementation as well as in subsequent episodes of failure, correction and adaptation.” Real world examples of a contested ideological concept include the brutal agenda pursued in post-coup Chile and the bland class compromises associated with Third Way democrats. However, what remains of neoliberalism after the Great Recession and the election of President Trump is highly controversial. Whilst Philip Mirowski contended that true believers managed to negotiate the financial meltdown, the erratic nationalism associated with the current moment has led thinkers such as Wendy Brown to make more nuanced statements about the complex nature of contemporary conservatism.

Neoliberalism has long been a mutant belief system. Its ability to evolve has been coupled with its capacity to fuse with other ideologies. Nevertheless, there comes a point when neoliberalism becomes a redundant term. This is where the concept obscures more of reality than it illuminates. With the continuation of the Trump circus and the nonsense unleashed by Boris Johnson, the term is losing its relevance in the geographical area where it was once most dominant.

The colossal violence that has been done to neoliberalism in Britain can be shown by two recent events. Firstly, the removal of the Conservative whip from individuals committed to neoliberalism exemplified the arrogance of the new conservatism. Secondly, the futile BBC interviews conducted by Andrew Neil showcased collusion between members of the right. Asking politicians questions after neoliberalism is pointless. The actors do not feel obligated to make reference to facts or truth. An interrogation cannot embarrass a contemporary politician because a lack of attention to detail is not an issue when democratic accountability has been suspended. Even the reinstatement of democracy would not make politicians focus. Pugnacious performance is everything in the new era.

It would seem that the British coup implies that conventional political campaigning is obsolete. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell might want to discuss the idea of a shorter working week. But who is going to listen to him when fear and anger are drowning out rational debate? And what use is voting when the leader of Conservative Party can suspend Parliament on a whim? Even paying tax seems foolish if it is going to feed an undemocratic state.

When one thinks about the negative achievements of neoliberalism, the neutering of the trade unions was critical. The British trade union movement was a reservoir of power and collective wisdom. It may have been imperfect, but the truth is that it was a barrier to dictatorship. The labour movement cannot campaign as it once did, because the Conservative Party has exploited its media hegemony. The notion has been spread that the suspension of Parliament was not illicit because it was followed by the offer of a general election.

While one court has judged that the prorogation of Parliament was not the right thing to do, because the Prime Minister did not make the move in order to clear the decks for his policy platform, this legal objection may be overridden. Activist Paul Mason has correctly identified that the deliberate implementation of chaos is central to the appeal of Johnson. However, his analysis has not highlighted how postmodernism has influenced governance structures. Postmodernism has coloured the populism of the left and the right, undermining the truth structures central to rational debate. The possibility of evidence-based policy has vanished. In these circumstances, careful thought is required as much as action.

Another referendum on the European question offers no escape from post-truth politics. Even if the people make a better decision than they did last time, this is not necessarily the best way forward because alienation and anger shall remain. In these acrimonious circumstances, the revocation of Article 50 without a referendum could be an incendiary act. A general election may seem like the optimum exit from the impasse, but this could also boost dangerous non-class antagonisms. The truth is that we should begin to think about building a Popular Front. The aim of this move would be to unite diverse people who would like a return to conventional politics. Members of the Labour Party must make their own decisions, but blind loyalty to any abstract principle is unlikely to be helpful. There are no easy answers, when the democratic rights of the people have been curtailed.

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Biological sub-citizenship: the new class war?

“Notwithstanding all the social determinants of health involved in creating these kinds of biological sub-citizenship, there is a tendency in more neoliberal societies to focus only on individual behaviours as an explanation. This can quickly turn in socio-cultural discourse into a way of blaming the victims and obscuring the more complex causal pathways in which poverty, oppression, dangerous behaviour, and embodied experiences of biological sub-citizenship all intertwine.”
Sparke, M., Austerity and the embodiment of neoliberalism as ill-health: Towards a theory of biological sub-citizenship, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 187, August 2017, Pages 287-295.
“Every year organisations and communities around the world come together to raise awareness of how we can create a world where fewer people die by suicide.”
Samaritans on World Suicide Prevention Day (10/09/2019)
“So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary subversive side, which will overthrow the old society.”
Marx, K. The Poverty of Philosophy 1847.

Charities tend to focus on the symptoms of socioeconomic illnesses. The recent history of the UK has illustrated the severe limitations of this approach. Sections of British society have been battered by waves of cuts. This economic warfare has disoriented much of the population. Austerity has exacerbated social division, without leading to a healthy economic recovery. Meanwhile, the elite has stopped respecting the basic conventions associated with the British Constitution. This move against Parliament, justified by anti-European discourse, is a blatant attempt to divide and rule. The manufactured crisis has the hallmarks of a crude imitation of American politics. While the Labour Party struggles to oppose the imposition of a new social order, it is becoming clear that part of the precariat is collapsing into a category which has been called ‘biological sub-citizenship’.

Momentum has produced a video which has highlighted how scapegoating is nothing new. This propaganda showcased how British and American politicians have unleashed chaos. Keen to avoid accountability for their actions, these establishment figures have encouraged ordinary people to blame one another. Jews, gays, disabled people, and immigrants have all come under attack. However, the video did not demonstrate how the assault on ‘the other’ has a psychological function.

In times of socioeconomic uncertainty, lashing out at ‘the other’ is a way of maintaining one’s social standing. It can even give somebody a kick. An individual can think that at least they are not one of ‘them’. However, this spurious sense of belonging can have much more serious implications. When the bureaucratic systems associated with health and welfare delivery become infected with false ideas of biological supremacy then the differential treatment of folk acquires a really sinister dimension.

Clearly, the populism of the right values people on a sliding scale. It is like understanding intersectionality in reverse. Affluent white heterosexual men are ranked highly, and everybody else has to fall into line. Discussions of economic inequality cannot get to grips with this dramatic reconstruction of society. Neither liberalism nor socialism has all the answers when speaking up for subordinate groups. It is politically important to allow the voices of others to tell their own stories.

Obviously, postmodern politics has elements of the circus about it. In these circumstances, the politics of distraction have proven highly effective. Social media and the traditional media have combined to create a dazzling spectacle. We all think that we can make a contribution to the debate. However, we underestimate the addictive aspect of news. Sticky sites pull us into silo thinking. In this context, it is vital to focus on fighting the hatreds that are being fostered.

It is clear that humans are not ordinary animals. We have the capacity to be massively destructive. At the same time, our fate is not determined by our genes. Our behaviour is not governed by this or that, despite the insights of Marxists and psychoanalysts, we do retain some capacity for choice. Hence, the future is still open. Politics is not about personalities. It is about learning. Therefore, there is still room for cautious, reflective and defiant optimism.

Reading Sliding Doors as the Brexit film?

Gwyneth Paltrow starred in Sliding Doors, making sure that her English accent cut the mustard. Her character experienced two sets of reality, even though she coped with similar situations of deceit and suffering in both. In the film, she survived and accumulated wisdom, while working hard. Although the movie was a 1990s romantic comedy, it can be interpreted as analogous to the tragicomedy of Brexit.

Brexit is a traumatic experience. It involves being lied to by men who have a reputation for being charming. In a sense, we have all become characters like that played by Paltrow. We may well lack her beauty, but we are in the same deceived position. However, we do not have the agency associated with her role. Nor do we all possess such helpful friends.

Real life is about structure and agency. We are located in a class structure. This means that we must act with others to have a political impact. There is a real problem associated with collective action. Perceived free riders can attract opprobrium, deserved or not. Not everyone has the resources to maintain the bourgeois work ethic that allows some individuals to prosper. Building and sustaining coalitions is not the easiest of tasks.

When we watch a film, our experience is not simply the product of its content. Too many film critics with small columns neglect the shared meanings that flow from our discussions with others. The opinion of a friend can highlight something which we have missed, while we may persuade someone else to understand a moment in a new way. No one viewer will pick up on all the meanings, silences, continuity errors, jokes and details in a narrative.

While the film is inherently optimistic, the current political conjuncture lacks that outlook. Nevertheless, understanding the primitive feminism of the story is worthwhile. And no piece of kitsch should be automatically received as pure escapism.

Roland Barthes, Boris Johnson and the Bastard

“For Barthes, wrestling is like ritual, pantomime, or Greek tragedy, where what is important is to see some struggle being played out by actors who do not represent realistic individual characters, but ideas or moral positions. The ‘bad-guy’ wrestler, the ‘bastard’ as Barthes calls him, appears to fight cruelly and unfairly…”
(Bignell, 2002)

In recent years, PMQs has failed to showcase parliamentary politics properly. David Cameron used the session for PR, whilst Theresa May was prone to obfuscation. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown contempt for the political process as a whole.

Johnson is a highly educated man. Nonetheless, he is engaging in postmodern populism because he is trying to exploit English nationalism. Hence, his performances are like those of a thuggish wrestler. Insulting the leader of the Opposition in a childish way is nothing to him.

Postmodern populism of the right is all about machismo. It appeals to individuals who suffer from toxic masculinity. Nevertheless, it can strike a chord with old-fashioned women who want men to be men.

There is little point in calling Johnson a bastard. But being aware of his role is crucial when it comes to devising strategies against him. His braggadocio may go too far. He risks being seen as unpatriotic and unprincipled if he loses control of his shambolic behaviour.

Perceptions of Johnson as unpatriotic may begin to spread for three further reasons. Firstly, his economic policy is tanking the currency. Secondly, his tactics are threatening the longevity of the UK. Thirdly, the support he receives from President Trump makes him seem to lack autonomy. In short, British people of different political persuasions could soon tire of his antics.

“A week is a long time in politics.”

The current chaos in British politics, connected to the European question, is making several commentators think back to the turmoil of the 1970s. The British elite was concerned that the country was becoming ungovernable, and the idea of a coup involving Lord Mountbatten was not regarded as impossible. Meanwhile, Labour leader Harold Wilson passed on the baton on the basis of ill-health.

At an anti-coup protest in Birkenhead last night, two Labour MPs gave their opinions on the current crisis. In front of a small crowd, politicians of different ideological persuasions denounced the undemocratic behaviour of Boris Johnson. With regard to the message of Margaret Greenwood MP, there was little ambiguity. She was clear that a general election could help to resolve the impasse.

However, Alison McGovern MP was less transparent. She articulated a pro-European message, correctly identifying the point that the working class has no country. She gleaned this opinion from remarks made by her grandfather. He had suggested that a railway worker in Barcelona had a lot in common with a Liverpudlian worker in the same industrial sector.

Unfortunately, it was not made apparent whether the MP would vote for an early general election. The apprehension of centrist politicians in the Labour Party is that such an election could facilitate a no-deal scenario. The problem with such caution is that timidity can confuse the electorate. Furthermore, it can divide the labour movement. Labour has to come together soon or it could collapse entirely.

In short, the coup by Boris Johnson has compounded the divisions in both political parties. The split in the Conservative ranks may be more obvious, but the gaps between Labour politicians are more worrying. This is because Labour should be standing up for the most vulnerable people in society, while heeding the wisdom of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. During his long career, he has resented the rise of neoliberalism in the European Union. But he is firm with regard to opposing the catastrophe of no-deal by any means necessary. Hence, he is in full campaigning mode. As observers and participants, ordinary people are going to discover that Wilson was correct. As his truism suggested, “a week is a long time in politics.”

Taxation without representation?

During the run-up to the English Civil War, John Hampden thought it inappropriate to pay tax if he was not being represented. His refusal to hand over ship money made him a major national figure. The concept of no taxation without representation came to the fore once more before the American Revolution.

History is a complex narrative but it would appear that Boris Johnson’s coup has made a complete nonsense of the parliamentary process. The MPs which the British people have elected are being effectively silenced during an important period of national discussion. His peremptory move and lack of respect for parliamentary sovereignty has truncated the rights of every citizen. As a result, we have the spectacle of politics without the substance of democracy.

Normally, people pay taxes in the hope that the resources will be spent on public services. However, the accountability of these services is partly derived through the electoral system. If the representatives of the will of the people are hindered from voting on legislation through chicanery then the procedure breaks down.

If a capitalist state moves away from democratic norms then this will be viewed by big business as an opportunity for making extra profits. The doctrine of shock therapy could well be deployed against the health and wealth of ordinary people. In these extraordinary circumstances, some individuals or groups may express their dissent by not paying taxes.

Brexit is not the English Civil War but it is partly a manifestation of English nationalism. This exclusive ideology is contemptuous of Scottish nationalism, Irish nationalism and Welsh nationalism. Hence, it poses a potent threat to the existence of the UK. However, the alliance between President Trump and Johnson has exacerbated the explosive situation. The lack of respect for truth which is central to the modus operandi of both individuals means that democracy is being rolled back. How popular outrage should be best expressed remains unclear.

Would the British people spot a coup?

“Custom is the first check on tyranny; that fixed routine of social life at which modern innovations chafe, and by which modern improvement is impeded, is the primitive check on base power.”
(Bagehot, 1867)
“The new Queen’s Speech will be about an agenda for improving the NHS, helping police fight violent crime, stopping violent criminals getting out early, investing in science and infrastructure, and attacking the cost of living with aggressive tax cuts and other measures.”
(Number Ten, 2019).

The British constitution is a complicated thing. Poorly codified, it is ill-equipped to deal with post-truth politics. In addition, the complex aftermath of the Brexit referendum has undermined the perceived legitimacy of the system. Many Brexiteers want MPs to implement a swift departure from the European Union, whilst lots of Remainers have yet to accept the outcome of the vote. In these circumstances of conflict, interpretations of the constitution will differ.

It is worth bearing in mind how frustrated Brexiteers have become. The idea that a new relationship with the European Union could take several years to achieve is not palatable to all of them. Fed by parts of the media, the average Brexiteer does not necessarily accept that a departure from the European Union cannot be achieved in a hurry. Even a No Deal exit would lead to further negotiations. However, unscrupulous politicians can easily play on their anger to suggest that constitutional norms are an obstacle to getting on with the job.

At the same time, those people who hope for a cordial relationship with the European Union have become obstinate. Sections of the press have concentrated upon the threats to health and wealth associated with the Brexit process. Consumption of such stories has prompted waves of panic buying. Business people have been distracted by the hope that Brexit can be abandoned. The polarisation of opinion has set people against one another.

Of course, there are apathetic individuals who have tuned out of the political process. Many people voted in the Brexit referendum but have disengaged from party politics since. The old cynicism about politicians has re-emerged, as the idea that parliamentarians are self-interested has made a comeback. As the political crisis evolves, this feeling of disenfranchisement is dangerous. Those who are not conscious of their liberty may be the first to lose it.

What would constitute a coup is open to interpretation. Such events have been common in South America, but recognition of the lack of legitimacy associated with seizures of political power is always variable. The major problem for British people is one of complacency. Being unaccustomed to swift power grabs leaves one vulnerable to the threats associated with authoritarian forms of rule.

Much will depend on what happens in the United States. Despite the safeguards associated with its Constitution, the superpower has entered a phase where its population is being disorientated. The President and the mass media have managed to make truth history. If this situation persists, establishing where the UK is in terms of democracy is going to be awkward.