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.


The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

Books  can be understood as relatives of other books. I would never have read The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende if I had not experienced One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Magical realism and big families must have made an impact on my imagination way back when. Hence I picked up a memoir by Allende and found that real family sagas can be almost as dramatic as fictional ones.

Unfortunately, this memoir contains quite a lot of misery. Even when families have money they have their disappointments. Suffering comes in many forms. Some pain is haunting, occasioned by people passing away far too soon. Other anxiety is ephemeral, such as concern for fading personal appearance.

Much of this text is set in California. Allende is interested in politics and is broadly progressive in orientation. Certainly, part of the lengthy narrative is tormented by the excesses of the Republican Party. At the same time, Allende was of mature years when she put together this account. Comfortable with feminism, she seems less assured in her dealings with other aspects of the debates surrounding gender. Perhaps everyone could do with the insight of Professor Judith Butler. Professor Butler wrote:

“If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.”

Allende is a sincere writer. She holds a mirror to the difficulties inherent in composing fresh work. Furthermore, she is open about how much effort a postmodern writer has to devote to marketing. Prepared to travel and to give something back to less fortunate people, Allende is an admirable figure with a great sense of fun.

Her memoir ended with an honest tribute to the authentic love she shared with her husband. However, this neat conclusion has been ripped up by later events. Her marriage ended as her husband found further grief too much to handle. This tragic outcome shows that life has a way of throwing harsh challenges at people who have done their best. There is something random about the world which tidy arithmetic can never capture.



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.

Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

This text has something of a masterpiece about it. I read a translation by Ellen Marriage. The prose carried the reader along in a remarkable fashion. Here was love, romance, Paris, sex, and money in a lively drama that on occasion seemed to anticipate the dark realism of Émile Zola.

Honoré de Balzac was writing before Freud, but he had an abundance of insight into the dynamics of the family. He comprehended that the bond between fathers and daughters may be a really strong one. This succinct novel will be appreciated by anyone who understands the strains which capitalism can place on the family. It is no wonder that some Marxists have appreciated the powerful writings of Balzac.

Certainly, money dominates the plot of this colourful narrative. It is all about the difficulties and hypocrisies of trying to get by in a world dominated by fashion. Balzac knew all about what Thorstein Veblen would later describe as conspicuous consumption. The question of credit gives the story a contemporary edge.

Altruists might not enjoy the tragic aspects of this tale. And sensitive people might object to unflattering references to Jewish people in the text. It is perhaps important to note that sensibilities change over time. Balzac died long before the Dreyfus Affair divided France, and it is impossible to know if he would have given his support to the progressive side. Balzac connected Jewish people with lending money, but in this work people from other backgrounds are engaged in this activity. Perhaps Balzac and Charles Dickens can be viewed as writers of their era. Nevertheless, it has been argued in literary scholarship that Balzac was too odd to be a consistent anti-Semite; the evidence across his work has been interpreted as showing complex and influential Jewish characters where they are featured.

While literary controversies rarely reach firm conclusions, the ending of this book is certainly a solid one. The protracted suffering of a man who has loved too much remains moving to this day. As one gets old, love can be perceived in new ways. Instead of seeming sincere and necessary, it may appear as a cruel delusion.

Echo chambers and fake news: elite contempt for social media

It is understandable that social media gets a bad press. After all, conventional journalists like to have their output appreciated by a respectful audience. Moreover, many politicians appreciate gentle scrutiny from people who attended the same schools as they did. But it is the unpredictable nature of modern electorates, and outbursts of independent thinking, which have put social media in the dock.

Many stories carried in the ordinary press are slight. And some are almost entirely constructed of interpretation. The traditional newspaper needs to be full, and it needs to sell. Meanwhile, orthodox politicians hate alternative views of the Syrian conflict being in circulation. The Western ideal is that political dispute should not impact on the conduct of foreign policy.

It is in this context that the frenzy of establishment journalist Nick Cohen can be understood. This former man of the left is swift to condemn anybody who might dissent from hegemonic interpretations of contemporary events. He is vitriolic about conspiracy theories and left populism. The insistence that evidence gathering should be part of the response to an alleged chemical attack by Russia is grist to his content mill.

An echo chamber is supposed to describe a situation where somebody is affected by the presence of views which reinforce their own. The idea is that cognitive dissonance could develop over time. However, a modern user of social media has access to articles produced by The New York TimesThe Financial Times, The Morning Star and The Guardian– a richer diet of news than many readers in earlier eras would have had. If an awareness of media bias is retained then an individual is not part of an echo chamber. Sharing views that are similar to our own is equivalent to talking to our friends or political associates- in earlier times such activity was not disparaged.

What constitutes fake news is controversial. For populists of the right it may simply mean content which they have a problem with. However, there may be some news which genuinely lacks authenticity. It is important to consider the purpose of the media as a whole. Ultimately, most news intends to entertain. Other news aspires to work as propaganda. We are haunted by the famous dystopias of the past. Whether journalism spreads anxiety, discusses the weather, or seeks to satisfy the pleasure principle, it has a limited shelf-life. Sometimes we should remember the old adage: no news is good news.

Clegg, game theory and halting the new Cold War

Nick Clegg did a disservice to his own party when he penned How to Stop Brexit. Many people are hostile to the Brexit process, but his argument fails to persuade the reader when it comes to strategy. Firstly, it fails to appreciate that Clegg is a completely damaged brand. Secondly, it argues that the uninspiring former Prime Minister John Major should be given a major political role in the future. Thirdly, it urges Europhiles to join the Conservative Party or the Labour Party, upsetting Liberal Democrats and everyone else who does not believe in reducing politics to a single issue. Fourthly, Labour Party members may be irritated by the inability of Clegg to appreciate the novelty of the Corbyn surge. Clegg reduces enthusiasm for Corbyn to a personality cult, ignoring the fact that an embryonic social movement has begun to evolve. He compares the popularity of Corbyn with his own fleeting moment in the sun, underestimating the extent to which the Labour leader has changed the political weather.

To be fair, Clegg does exhibit a surprising talent with his rhetoric. However, the Liberal Democrat punchbag leaned on Sam Macrory to produce content and style. Without the input from Macrory, the text would lack polish. Unfortunately, the way in which Clegg advises readers to write to party leaders is reminiscent of clictivism. An authentic Europhile campaign would trust people to use their own initiative.

The UK has not severed its links with the European Union yet. There is time for Brexit to be reversed. But the political forces identified by Clegg appear weak and divided. If the Labour Party changes its mind on the European issue, it is improbable that the argument of Clegg will have made a substantive difference. Momentum and the trade unions are likely to feed into the evolving policy debate within the Labour Party, while other party factions and think-tanks will continue to make their recommendations.

The deployment of nerve agent in the UK may impact on the Brexit debate. Whatever the truth of the serious allegations, many people might feel that the UK is at risk of being isolated on the world stage. The tit for tat diplomatic expulsions may remind individuals of Cold War manoeuvres, but the lack of an ideological battle means that the context is different. Both the UK and Russia have authoritarian aspects, and emotion should not cloud the decisions which are made.

It is not in the interest of the bulk of the British population for the sabre-rattling to continue. Jingoism will only work in favour of the elite. The government may puff out its chest by playing further games, but it would do well to focus on those policies which it must implement. As Theresa May is too weak to address the domestic agenda properly, she should be conciliatory with her European partners. The diplomatic incompetence of Boris Johnson is inappropriate for these times and the Prime Minister would enhance her position if she replaced him going forward. A new Cold War is not inevitable- constructive engagement is the best option to pursue.

SKWAWKBOX and crowd management

The overt bias against Jeremy Corbyn in much of the media triggered the creation of sites like SKWAWKBOX. Pluralism in the production of content is a healthy thing in a country which aspires to be a democracy. Democracy is not the end of a process, but something which needs to be fought for on a continuous basis. And a diverse media is part of that struggle.

However, questions may be asked about SKWAWKBOX. Like any other producer of content, the site needs regular updates. This means that it may have a tendency to chase clicks. More serious is its hostility to Jon Lansman. Obviously, Lansman was instrumental in the creation of Momentum. Since then, he has made controversial decisions. But there is no objective reason why the veteran political operator should not have stood in the contest to be the General Secretary of the Labour Party.

Any political strategy has risks. And the move by Lansman did have the potential to shake things up. But turning the Labour Party into a democratic social movement cannot be done by stealth. The resistance to change is strong within the different party structures.

SKWAWKBOX is entitled to back a candidate for any post. However, its shrillness means that the reader may lose faith in its credibility as an information source. While Jennie Formby is a candidate with many appropriate qualifications, the excessive enthusiasm of SKWAWKBOX is not doing much for her campaign. Is SKWAWKBOX engaged in the manipulation of crowds, or does it have something valuable to say to its readers?