Gambling for them and us

Today we’re meant to be grateful to our political masters in the UK. They have decided to regulate the gambling sector at last. But we are still not protected from the vagaries of what academic Susan Strange once described as casino capitalism. The next recession may not be distant and the banks that triggered the last crisis have not been reformed adequately. We are still waiting for a Robin Hood Tax to address the problems caused by trading in derivatives. Taxing financial transactions in the City could actually add to the stability of the economy.

Admittedly, the addictive machines in the bookmakers were impacting adversely on ‘problem gamblers.’ Individuals could gamble up to £100 in less than a minute. The Government has opted to reduce the maximum stake to £2. However, the intervention will be far too late for many families.

This week saw the demise of American author Tom Wolfe. His Dickensian take on Wall Street, The Bonfire of the Vanities, may have been more colourful than accurate, but the text was a powerful reminder of the gap between the traders and the masses. This gulf in lived experience has only widened since the publication of the popular novel. The divide in the UK has been highlighted by divisive recent remarks made by the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. His apology cannot conceal that the Bank of England appears to be institutionally sexist. It might be less relaxed about the inflation prospects if it had a better gender balance.

We might not be able to gamble our lives away in a happy hour any more. But it remains the case that the powerful can gamble our lives away without an hour of remorse.


The postmodern simulation of tribes

The word tribe speaks to the past. There is something of the primitive associated with it. And yet the algorithm-driven postmodern present creates tribes out of us. Social media networking and the consumption of traditional media are changing who we are. Virtual reality and lived reality are pushing us into groups. Aggressive political marketing sets fire to our traditional loyalties. Many of us can be given labels. Our views can be pigeonholed and held up for derision.

One of the first methods of attacking supporters of Jeremy Corbyn was to group us all using a dismissive discourse. Our individuality and our history was erased. At best, we were called Corbynistas. We were researched and prodded. Bourgeois journalists sneered that we were followers of Leon Trotsky. Others suggested that most of us were too young to know about political reality. The diversity in our views was suppressed. Any unusual opinions were ridiculed. A tribe had been formed and the postmodern media set about trying to discredit it by any means necessary.

Now there is a reactionary tribe or two present in the British body politic. They are often males who love money and detest political correctness. They are opposed to immigration and hostile to the postmodern. While they may have gained from global capitalism, they have a nationalist identity. Their supporters may vote against the interests of their own social class. When they make statements that reflect their unease with contemporary reality, their opponents shout “gammon” at them. A tribe has been established and its views are likely to harden.

In these circumstances, we should try to exercise our independent thought. If we support Corbyn, we may still question his nuanced policy on the European Union- a third referendum on the issue might not be such a disaster.  If we oppose mass immigration, we may still think about the historical benefits that a diverse culture has brought to our lives. In other words, we can refuse to become tribes- we can challenge the misconceptions that others may have about us. Sensitive Corbynistas and flexible gammon can cut through the media stereotypes.

The postmodern was once associated with jokes. But the laughter is now at our expense. Jean Baudrillard highlighted some of the problems with media culture in the 1980s. The theorist wrote:

“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody.”

The left should not descend into the mud. People cannot be reduced to gammon. For example, we may have a drunken uncle who could be described as gammon. He should pay his taxes, but he should not be denied a barbecue in the sun. And if he wears a shirt with pineapples on it, we should not laugh.


Who Needs the Cuts? by Barry Kushner & Saville Kushner

This text is a readable exploration of media mendacity about the economics of the UK. It points out that there was insufficient scrutiny of the claim that the country was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010. The parallel made by the then Chancellor George Osborne was with Greece. But the position of Greece was unique; trapped in the Eurozone, many of its creditors were foreign.

Professor Simon Wren-Lewis documented how media understandings of the economics of the UK often ignored expertise. This permitted austerity to be depicted as a policy of prudence. Mr Kushner and Professor Kushner have worked to illustrate how the public was offered a discourse that reduced dissent. In the 1980s, Thatcherism was highly controversial- three decades later public sector cuts were portrayed as the responsible thing to do.

Obviously, the argument draws attention to the pivotal role of bankers in the lead up to the Great Recession. It stresses that the Labour government did not spend too much when the economy was strong. It looks at how the national debt and the deficit were never out of control by historical standards. Taking a broadly Keynesian perspective, it views the imposition of cuts as having a negative impact on growth. By examining empirical data, it reminds people that the economic policies of the Conservative coalition government were ideological in nature.

It could be argued that the social polarisation exacerbated by Tory policies helped to trigger Brexit. Nevertheless, it is important to touch upon an issue which has been largely neglected by the authors of this work. The cuts have benefited various social classes. Landlords, large corporations and affluent bondholders have filled their boots as a result of the deprivation exacted on the many.

The public discourse about economics in the UK has shifted, partly because of the Corbyn surge. The conservative media has responded by triggering culture wars. Debates about snowflakes, gammon, and gender fill up the space, while the poor continue to pay the price for the crisis of neoliberalism. It is important to avoid being distracted, and to keep focusing on the pounds and pence.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This grim novel of imperialism and racism has a new resonance in the era of President Trump. There is a brutal poetry within the psychological narrative. The vagueness of the language adds a mystery to the story. The famous critic F.R. Leavis alleged that the imprecision of the adjectives deployed was frustrating for the reader. But each individual may make their own judgement. Those who value atmosphere may give Joseph Conrad the benefit of the doubt; English was not his first language. Furthermore,  Conrad wrote:

“We live, as we dream- alone.”

The brevity of the text means that the development of the characters is somewhat limited. However, it does not diminish the power of the journey. The emphasis on light and dark means that the reader is always thinking about appearances and reality. Crude racist language reminds one of the prejudice that much of the West has maintained towards Africa and its people. Racism deprives individuals of their humanity and allows them to act without compassion.

The question is whether or not we can view Trump as a powerful version of Kurtz. There is something “contemptibly childish” about the character in the novel. Is there not a really childish quality to the showmanship of Trump? When Trump described nations as “shithole countries” he was clearly engaged in constructing a racist discourse that would have fitted in with the simplistic imperialism of Conrad’s time.

Sections of the mainstream media are keen to give Trump legitimacy. Their line is that if he can achieve X or Y then we might have underestimated him. But the point is not whether Trump can be efficient. Why should we tolerate intolerant rulers who do not care about the lives of ordinary people? It makes sense for people to campaign for change, instead of passively waiting for change to happen. Trump is a dangerous distraction who must be displaced: it is ‘business as usual’ for some of the elites who run our lives.

Of newspapers and Nietzsche

I always prefer to read progressive philosophy. But it is worthwhile to try to understand other perspectives. To that end, I was wrestling with some discourses of Friedrich Nietszche. And I discovered that it is not only philosophers of the left who have been troubled by the distortions of the mass media.

Readers may be aware of the pivotal social role accorded to the mass media by the neo-Marxist Louis Althusser. He framed the mass media as one of the central Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). He comprehended that the reproduction of capitalism was lent legitimacy by thought-making. For him, the capitalist state has never relied on repression alone. Following something of a structuralist path, attentive to the complex thinking of Jacques Lacan, Althusser postulated that ideology did not simply reflect the economic base of a society. The French genius reasoned that the beliefs we had were of massive importance to our working lives and stressed:

“above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production.”

Nietzsche was seeming less systematic in his analysis of the state and the media than Althusser. However, his comments about the media were scathing. Even if his remarks came from a reactionary viewpoint, they merit a cursory inspection. This is because they illustrate that newspapers are not simply neutral channels of entertainment and information. There is something disturbing about their unaccountable power.  Nietzsche ranted:

“They steal for themselves the work of inventors and the treasures of the wise: they call their theft culture- and they turn everything to sickness and calamity. Just look at these superfluous people! They are always ill, they vomit their bile and call it a newspaper. They devour one another and cannot even digest themselves.”

The advent of the social media has given more of an international dimension to these questions. It has challenged traditional news sources at home and abroad. The Guardian has become a tabloid and it has declined in quality. This has attracted a lot of attention. However, people who have stuck with the paper will have noticed its pursuit of readers in the United States and Australia. This strategy might not have maintained standards, but if we view a paper in terms of its attempt to spread an ideology then it cannot be seen as trivial. Liberalism was once viewed as a natural partner of capitalism, but the success of Trump, Brexit, Putin and China have thrown this assumption into doubt. Liberalism is not going to disappear, but reinventions of liberalism may be less liberal than its old forms. Liberal media will be increasingly exposed to socialist criticism as its distorting prism becomes more blatant.

Campbell and Progress: a marriage of inconvenience!

Alistair Campbell has underlined why the Labour leadership is still in quite a good position after the slightly disappointing local election results. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was understandably grumpy at the lack of progress. But the latest move by the distrusted spin doctor has taken some of the pressure off Team Corbyn.

Campbell is the personification of the dark arts of politics. He has a reputation which is worse than that of Machiavelli. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn might not have ever been the leader of the Labour Party if the controversial communicator had not trashed the Labour brand.

Regardless of the details, Campbell’s dreadful reputation is still contaminated by the disastrous Iraq War. He is the last person who can shift public opinion on the European Union. The antithesis of a British Macron, his lack of persuasiveness is only matched by his lack of self-awareness. His decision to speak at a Blairite conference was ill-timed. Furthermore, if he wanted to sway Labour members he should have taken his message to a more moderate part of the party. Moreover, his contention that the problems of Labour are not being amplified by the media or the right of the party is absurd.

Campbell thinks that an admiration for a football team and an honesty about his health problems gives him an authenticity. But the extent of his ideological delusion can be revealed by quoting his own words. As a sectarian figure at a sectarian event, he complained of sectarianism:

“I agreed some time ago to speak at today’s conference organised by Progress, often described as the moderate wing of the Labour Party. Here is the speech I am making this morning. It is time to get real; about how bad international politics is, with Trump and Putin in power; how bad Brexit is, with both main parties letting down the country by failing to be truthful about how their own tests are not being met, and how Brexit will damage the country; how bad things are for Labour, and how the leadership needs to confront the tough questions, not pretend they don’t exist, or pretend that they are all got up by a hostile media or has been sectarian Blairites.”

The Labour leadership has endured a bumpy couple of months. However, the goodwill members possess towards them is not exhausted. The ideal of a democratic Labour Party is a living one. Nobody can predict the outcome of the next election, but Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell must be comforted by the intellectual weakness of his internal opponents.

Sympathy for Polly Toynbee?

Reading a bizarre take on the upcoming local elections by a conventionally successful journalist, I could have become riled. There was the obligatory reference to Labour’s anti-Semitism problem, there was the fanciful positive endorsement of struggling Labour urban councils, there was the typical attempt to turn politics into a horse race, and there was the pointless speculation about how the votes would fall. A little nod to the real suffering of vulnerable citizens was featured, and there was a sly dig at a Tory council that had got into financial trouble, but this was local politics lite.

There was no real analysis of how councils have failed to fight the austerity being imposed by the central government. There was no mention of how ordinary people struggle to pay their council tax. And there was no focus on how Momentum is transforming political campaigning in England. Cynicism about what could be achieved by councils lacked insight into the realities of budgets. Some local councils have reserves which could be dipped into, while others could allocate their resources away from expensive experiments in outsourcing.

But one must have sympathy for postmodern journalists. They have to comment on a diversity of topics. Their social class often means that they are out of touch with the lived realities of ordinary people. And they have short deadlines. All they crave is clicks and comments; it’s no way to exist.

And Polly Toynbee may have had a really unhappy childhood. Her father was so alarmed at the possibility of nuclear war he took suicide pills on vacation. Worse still, he told his daughter about the existence of the tablets. Toynbee is sometimes taken to task for allegedly having a villa in Tuscany, but I think the controversial centrist deserves such a retreat to make up for the odd holidays of her youth.