The launch of a new centrist group of seven ex-Labour MPs was met with much derision online yesterday - especially after one member of the group, Angela Smith, made a racist gaff on live TV and had to release a recorded apology. It was, as they say in centrist circles, ‘just like an episode of the Thick of It’. They have as yet no policies, no clear messaging, and no functioning website. But the prospect of a split has long elicited a sense of foreboding from at least some sections of the left of the Labour Party (markedly more amongst commentators than members, from what I can see).
Tuesday, 13 November 2018
|'Something something something... white working class'|
No writer haunts the national consciousness like George Orwell (this, as we'll see, is a very Orwellish sentence). Orwell is everywhere – from the Spectator to the London Review of Books – if everywhere means literary, middle-class England (this too is an Orwellish construction). Orwell himself was consistently mean about the English middle class. This meanness has often been understood as a form of moral tutoring, a kind of auto-criticism within the class itself. When English writers write about Orwell they adopt a certain tone – not Orwellian but Orwellish - in order to remonstrate with themselves. Half the job of Orwellishness is to remind us that there is no contemporary Orwell whilst simultaneously auditioning for the job. Jason Cowley personifies the tendency:
'With Hitchens dead and Amis becalmed, what is missing from the literary-political landscape is a figure with the significance of George Orwell or HG Wells, someone who writes novels as well as political essays and popular journalism, and to whom we can turn and learn from in moments of national consequence or crisis, and around whom others can gather, as today they still gather around Orwell.'
The obsessive habit of name-dropping (though always the same names) is accompanied by a racy, adjective-laden depiction of 'the Culture', as if anyone in the wider world had noticed 'Amis becalmed' or would care if they did. Cowley is editor of that most Orwellish paper, the Newstatesman, writing here in the most Orwellish of forms, a Financial Times long-read. Arguably, there is precisely zero call for another Orwell. Orwell never died – was never allowed to die – because Orwell never inhabited the real world. He inhabited a celestial England to which he was elevated even during his lifetime. This patriotic, sceptical cloud-land became the place from where self-declared literary titans threw dazzling thunder bolts of mild xenophobia and tawdry nostalgia down on an unsuspecting public for much of the 20th century. In his epic lament, Cowley calls Orwell a ‘Tory anarchist’ – which sounds like exactly the sort of person you’d meet in any Whitehall pub on a Tuesday afternoon – as if it’s a compliment. Orwell’s politics are supposed to be complex. This is what we are all supposed to admire about him – he liked tea, but also nationalisation. The Orwellish style – this nebulous cloud of romantic humdrum – has given several generations of whiskey-soaked ‘essayists’ an excuse to dislike Jews, Muslims and women. It’s given Orwell – or rather ‘the Orwells’ - instant access to both the left and the right. The person nobody mentions in connection with Orwell is John Maynard Keynes. But there are ringing similarities: the ‘poison pen’; the straddling of multiple literary and political worlds; bohemian eclecticism mixed with a devotion to bourgeois English mores. Keynes is the only real rival to Orwell’s claim to represent the English middle-class Man of the mid-20th century. Why the distance between them? Perhaps Keynes was too ‘queer’. Or too establishment. Orwell was from genuinely modest origins, unlike Keynes. But for all Orwell’s anti-establishment chic, he was basically a Mandarin.
There is no greater prize in ‘English letters’ – or at least among those who talk about things like ‘English letters’ - than to be declared ‘worthy of Orwell’. But the Orwellish preference in ‘English letters’ has recently got a bit more sophisticated. In the 80s and 90s, those who were ‘worthy of Orwell’ were usually to be found at serious parties talking about the loss of the stately aristocratic virtues to ‘mass culture’ or in war-torn countries profiling rebel fighters. They were anti-totalitarian to a man, methodologically individualist and made scepticism into a lifestyle choice rather than a philosophical doctrine. But then there was the Iraq War and the Financial Crash. Like the rest of culture, the Orwells have been irrevocably changed by these two signal crises of late capitalism. Iraq discredited the sceptical poise because it showed the self-proclaimed ‘anti-totalitarians’ to be rather more sceptical of some ideals than others. They were good at debunking Stalinism, not so much Neoconservatism. For all their hatred of ‘double-speak’, Bush’s campaign of ‘nation-building’ went largely unquestioned by the Orwells. Then there was the crash and amidst the new squalor of austerity and bailouts, literary England remembered the existence of homegrown poverty. Orwell’s anti-totalitarian novels (Animal Farm and 1984) were quickly replaced by his thirties journalism (Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier) as an off-the-shelf model for talking and thinking about social crisis.
Stephen Armstrong was quick out of the blocks with The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited (2011), which retraced Orwell’s footsteps through the unemployed, abandoned North of England. Armstrong had actually been beaten to it by Beatrix Campbell, whose Wigan Pier Revisited was released in the 1980s. But she was not Orwellish because she was a feminist and a pop culture critic. On the back of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level (2010), academic and popular sociology returned its attention to questions of equality and poverty. An industry was built around unveiling and cataloguing this poverty. Rolled into this was a concern both with national identity and representations of class: Kate Fox’s Watching the English (2004) treated Englishness as a ticklish anthropological subject. Some of this ‘culturalism’ predated the financial crash, when Blairism did its best to dismantle class solidarity and break society up into identitarian interest groups, the forgotten ‘white working class’ first among them. Michael Collins’s The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class (2005) helped popularise the term. The TV presenter and One Nation Tory Jeremy Paxman wrote a history of ‘the English’. The Guardian journalist John Harris started producing video diaries in which he explored the forgotten corners of ‘left behind Britain’ and chronicled the natives’ ‘legitimate concerns’. At the grubbier end of this videography were shows like Benefits Street and Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away. For some years after the recession it was hard to escape dinner table conversation about scroungers and benefits cheats. The Tories did their best to cultivate class hatred and impose elaborate forms of punishment on the feckless. Whether sympathetic or not, this cultural outpouring betokened a certain kind of libidinal investment in deviant poverty. Naturally, in these class-rule culture wars, in which poverty was a matter of culture and manners, Orwell was never far away. Ben Judah’s account of immigrant poverty in London was deemed ‘Orwell-like’ by the Guardian, though the author disliked the mood of Orwell worship. The enfolding of class into culture and culture into nation is indelibly associated with the name of Orwell. Russell Brand declared Owen Jones ‘our generation’s Orwell’. The Atlantic magazine mobilised Orwell’s patriotism in the Brexit wars. One of the best ‘Centrist Dad’ troll accounts on Twitter, ‘Simon Hedges’, exhorts its followers to ‘read some effing Orwell’.
Orwell already had a special prize for political writing named after him, but in 2015 a whole new category was invented – the Orwell prize for ‘Exposing Britain’s Social Evils’. The winner in 2018 was the Financial Times for its long read on Britain’s ‘left behind’ coastal towns. It is a rare kind of journalism that is increasingly highly prized, and incidentally like nothing Orwell ever wrote: a combination of macro-level statistics, qualitative interview, reportage, and the occasional personal insight. It insists there are practical solutions to the mental health crisis in Blackpool – hard economic measures like regulating the private rental sector and boosting education standards – while remaining unmoved by the possibility of wholesale social transformation. This view, if anything, unites the new social journalism. There is a great deal of emphasis on individual actors and activists in the public and third sectors proposing creative solutions to the dearth of community and social cohesion in deprived areas. Its Orwellishness comes from its self-conscious refusal of any utopian demand and indeed a squeamishness about formal politics per se. As with the so-called ‘Preston Model’ so celebrated by the current Labour Party leadership, necessity is seen as the mother of invention. ‘The willingness to co-operate and innovate here is born, in part, out of stretched resources,’ the FT says. There is in this willingness to celebrate people’s resourcefulness, a danger of slipping into complacency about the suffering caused by central government and the ease with which it could all be ended.
The winner of this year’s conventional Orwell book prize was Darren McGarvey’s (AKA Scottish rapper Loki’s) Poverty Safari (2017), a memoir-cum-diatribe against poverty in contemporary Britain. The writing is good and McGarvey is insightful. While acknowledging the left’s achievements and the best of its open, inclusive community activism, he is admirably honest about the deep resentments that sometimes fuel it. This psychological insight is more often than not turned inwards, and it at times makes for painful reading. There is much exploration of McGarvey’s own addictive personality, his emotional self-indulgence, and his deep frustrations. These are often channelled into a kind of political hyper-activism, a blustery, condemnatory attitude that McGarvey is quick to denounce and that most will recognise as a major part of life on the left. It is this kind of pent-up, misdirected energy that results in ‘call-out’ culture and the singling out of ‘traitors’ to the cause. McGarvey has little time for the iconography of the old left. The Labour Party and the trade unions are entirely absent from this account of life in Scotland’s poorest communities and its most radical movements. This surely says as much about the nature of the modern labour movement as it does about McGarvey’s own politics. For his part, McGarvey wants a more tolerant, understanding political culture, one that acknowledges the merits and flaws of life on opposing sides of the political divide: ‘Whether it be the left blaming the rich or the right blaming the poor, we tend only to be interested in whichever half of the story absolves us of responsibility for the problem.’
McGarvey is correct that politics has become more polarised. But how to account for it? ‘As social inequality widens and the chasms in our relative experiences become more pronounced, we make assumptions about the people on the other side,’ McGarvey says. This is a point that rarely gets mentioned in debates about fake news and angry politics. The conditions that once led to a higher degree of social consensus – long-run financial stability; a state with the macro-economic levers to manage disturbances; the production and reproduction of certain kinds of social labour by a legal apparatus and set of regulatory mechanisms that led to a high rate of social inclusion – seem to have vanished. The pervasive sense of civic corruption; the feeling that ‘special interests’ have captured the public realm; the lurching from crisis to crisis that has characterised the last twenty years or more; the acute social distress that has gripped working-class communities – these are rooted in the decreasing ability of the state to produce and regulate specific kinds of socio-economic consensus.
If a return to certain widely-shared social norms and conventions is your goal (and I’m not sure this should be the left’s goal), how do you go about getting there? Is it really the case that such profound political disagreements can be resolved by listening to the other side’s ‘legitimate concerns’? McGarvey goes out of his way to accommodate those who disagree with the left on immigration: their views should be heard; their concerns should be met with answers; their dislike of immigrants should be accepted as only one facet of their complex characters. This is all true, to an extent. But it left me feeling confused as to what all this listening, understanding, and respecting is supposed to achieve. Are we – who do not hold immigration responsible for inequality and poverty, nor even the rapid rate of cultural change – supposed to just agree with people who hold the opposite view? Is it really condescending and middle class to say that you think someone is wrong? That surely should be part of the dialogue. There is a risk in this discourse about the breakdown of civil debate, that the breakdown itself is blamed on the emerging ‘extremes’. It posits an equivalence between left and right (the ‘fascism of the left’ as Gina Miller recently put it) and blames them both for society’s problems. This is to mistake symptom for cause. Rebuilding consensus will be a process of winning serious socio-economic arguments, not simply listening to the other side’s concerns.
The book comes draped in endorsements from the very left-of-centre liberal voices – Guardian writers, novelists, think tank campaigners and crusading lords – that McGarvey abhors. In awarding the prize to McGarvey, Lord Adonis said, ‘As I was chairing the judges I had not the slightest doubt Orwell would have given the prize to this book.’ There are few who exemplify the strange philosophical and professional journey of the Labour far-right better than Adonis: from the aspiring lower-middle class, he graduated from Oxford, after which he ducked out of a parliamentary contest to become Tony Blair’s education advisor. He was the early architect of the academisation of schools, signalling the end of a period of relatively egalitarian comprehensive education in the UK. Having never held prominent elected office, Blair made him a peer and he has since ensconced himself – at Osborne’s invitation – on the National Infrastructure Board. His most recent incarnation is as an anti-Brexit campaigner of the kind that would presumably infuriate Loki. Other endorsements included Paul Mason, who said, ‘If The Road to Wigan Pier had been written by a Wigan miner and not an Etonian rebel, this is what might have been achieved.’ On occasion, Mason, like Adonis in his new book with Will Hutton, is happy to introduce new, coercive measures to regulate the migration system in the name of rebuilding social trust and belief in Britain’s failing elites. There is a macho, back-to-basics undercurrent of ‘looking after one’s own’ in all of this that echoes with a certain kind of Orwellishness. The reception of McGarvey’s book points to the increasingly broad acceptance of this position on the liberal left.
What really defines Orwellish writing is a shared assumption – a feeling, an intuition – which states that the human tendency to generalise and to differentiate at once unites communities and divides people into groups. It creates a bounded empathy, one with natural limits that cannot be extended forever. Thus, community feeling is sometimes unfortunate, but absolutely necessary and undefeatable anyway. The opening line of Orwell’s sentimental The Lion and The Unicorn (1941) serves as a neat demonstration of this shared intuition: ‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ There is a raw fatalism at work here: whatever the grand schemes of rationalists, humans will inevitably seek out the homely, the familiar, the safe. Lest this be mistaken for outright conservative romanticism, it is worth noting that Orwell does not see this as mere irrationality – a matter of the sentiments – but rather a reasonable process of social construction. It is human nature that gives us the collective ‘alikeness’ of the nation, but also divides communities into the great castes. Orwell’s argument runs something to the effect that the ‘Real England’ - the England of the vast majority – can overcome the spectre of the caste system by a democratic revolution.
There is a slew of publications that publish contemporary Orwells. The most dispiriting are the Cold War leftovers like Nick Cohen at the Obeserver and David Aaronovitch at the Times. But a more considered variant can be found at the more sophisticated literary magazines. As in depth investigative journalism is increasingly seen as unaffordable among the Murdoch-owned titans, a slimmed down version of it has migrated to the high-end qualities. The aforementioned Financial Times has had a go, but nowhere is the liberal conscience more piqued than at the London Review of Books. The latter is an increasingly natural home for vexed academics, literary types and journalists alike to hold forth on the social woes of the day. Out of this mass migration a new kind of long-form writing has emerged. Some of the most widely respected mainstream journalists now write their best work for low circulation weeklies. Technology is also at work here: the internet obviously reduces reproduction costs and expands capacity, while websites allow for increasingly expansive, multi-platform pieces to becomes major publication ‘events’. A mini-site may play host to a combination of video, infographic and written content.
This is not a case of form merely dictating content, however. There is an autonomous politics to Orwellishness that emerges out of the history of the UK’s taste for social observation and is expressed through the use of the Orwellish form of the social essay. What I want to identify here is not exactly what Joe Kennedy calls ‘authentocracy’ (in a wonderful book of cultural and political criticism of that name). Authentocracy, in Kennedy’s definition, is a diffuse ambience in popular culture that is mobilised by relatively ‘progressive’ types to make them seem in touch with the ‘rooted’ sections of the working class. It is a self-conscious adoption on the part of these progressives of a clumsily constructed ‘realism’ that is intended to compensate for their past cosmopolitanism. As if, to compensate for their embrace of global capitalism, financialisation, and the neoliberal institutions of the EU, it is enough to look askance at immigration and so-called ‘frothy coffee’. The power of Kennedy’s analysis derives partly from its extensiveness: authentocracy pervades contemporary culture. It is a general attitude, a disposition, articulated in toe-curlingly self-conscious pleas for ‘common sense’. Precisely because it is aimed at the spectre of a mass audience (the sceptical, patriotic, but largely silent ‘white working class’ majority) it appears on every available media platform. What I want to identify is rather a peculiar set of political analyses that are deployed in the course of the Orwellish literary form of social observation.
Perhaps the most controversial example of this politics was Andrew O’Hagan’s The Tower. Over the course of ninety pages the essay recounts the circumstances of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which took the lives of over seventy people. It combines a detailed factual account of the night with extensive witness interviews, biography, stylised photography, an accompanying short film, and – at the centre of it – O’Hagan as disenchanted observer. It is a self-conscious panorama-in-microcosm of modern Britain in which the writer’s eye falls on institutional malfeasance, inequality, individual foible, and mass outrage. O’Hagan is a good pick for the role: a Scottish social essayist and novelist whose previous works have been impeccably ‘bottom up’. His play, The Missing, had already been praised by The Guardian as ‘an arresting, genre-defying work – part speculative memoir, part Orwellian social reportage.’ He also carries a whiff of the authentic: as he says in the essay, he grew up on a council estate. He started out his work wanting, he says, to ‘get the bastards who did this’. He was ‘enthused’ by the general outrage at what had happened. But, in time, he finds the anger to be almost entirely misplaced. He singles out the opprobrium levelled at the local Conservative-led council as an example of how misplaced this social rage became. He often conflates well-placed criticism of the austerity that has been imposed on public services with criticism of council workers themselves.
O’Hagan sets out to show how the fire was transformed into a media and political spectacle, in which different interest groups vied to assert their own interpretation on events with scant regard for the truth. ‘The tower was a progenitor of myth, as well as sharp truths, usually both at the same time, and there was no guide as to how they might be sifted and clarified,’ he says. But it’s clear that O’Hagan has political motives of his own when it comes to interpreting the fire. He wants to tell us a story about the erosion of truth in an age of passion. He believes that the real lives of those who lived in the Tower are being erased by warring political agendas. The ‘liberal conscience’ that wanted to blame Tory austerity for the fire has, he suggests, perhaps become ‘estranged from reality’. Orwell too hated the liberal conscience – which he associated with middle-class socialists, going as far as to argue that no true working man had ever been a ‘logical’ or ‘consistent’ socialist. This thudding anti-intellectualism is a hallmark of Orwellishness: it cleaves to a common sense that dislikes outlandish claims and sees all ideology as the confection of the chattering classes. O’Hagan’s piece takes the same line on working-class activists as Orwell: they are not really working class, but merely activists. They do not ‘work with their hands’ as Orwell puts it, and so are alienated from the grubby realities of working-class life. O’Hagan reveals himself to be a distinctly prejudiced observer of events around Grenfell and no doubt his work will soon be forgotten or regarded as the apologia for the powerful that it really is. Meanwhile, the Justice4Grenfell community campaign continues to organise monthly marches to calmly but determinedly demand prosecutions against those who failed to regulate the cladding of the building. Orwellish writing seeks to depoliticise daily life and to see politics itself as something that is merely imposed on life by the embarrassing spectacle of intellectualism.
Yet there could not be a clearer case of Britain’s class system leading directly to the deaths of dozens of people, nor of people’s ability to see through obfuscation and demand justice, than Grenfell. The latter is proof positive of the political truth of daily life: those who don’t have power are readily sacrificed by those who do. It is not seen in this way by the new Orwellishness, which wants to argue instead that common sense is being betrayed by demented theoreticians of political violence and upheaval on both sides. The underlying political impulse beneath the new Orwellishness it is to police who can be a progressive and what can be considered the ‘common sense’ substance of progressive politics. By identifying a universal moral culpability for the fire (the firemen, the trade union, the redevelopers, the Tory council, the residents themselves), it seeks to rescue society from politics.
To this end, a central political distinction is constructed: between the wholesome working class and the nefarious, bourgeois ideologists. Orwell himself indulged this distinction. On the one hand, there were the dim-witted, naive working-class socialists who were entirely undoctrinaire in their thinking and just wanted to alleviate poverty. On the other hand were:
the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-in-your-beer reformers of whom [George Bernard] Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are Communists now, as they will be Fascists five years hence, because it is all the go, and all that dreary tribe of high-minded' women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat.
The world of socialism is one of dilettantes and imposters, quacks and ideologues, parasites and opportunists. What this suspicion-bordering-on-revulsion crystallises into, in political terms, is a distinctively English style of intra-class snobbery. The upper reaches of the English civil service have always been haunted by its black sheep – its Kim Phillbys and John Cairncrosses – its barely suppressed sexual deviance and the cosmopolitanism sometimes cultivated by the prodigal sons of many a colonial administrator. While this colonial heterodoxy of the English elite spawned its doughty, patriotic Orwells, it had its fair share of traitors too. This really is what Orwellishness is against: the existence of dissidence at either end of the class spectrum. It permits no truly working-class intellectualism (a contradiction in terms for this elite, Mandarin ideology) and no authentic socialism of the thinking classes. It allots to each in the social order its right place, tolerating a plebeian anti-poverty so long as it does not have ambitions to redesign the hallowed institutions of social order.
The resulting politics is invariably oriented to ‘grand reform’ projects (see again Hutton and Adonis’s new book), but usually with the emphasis on national revival and restoration. The latter should be taken quite seriously: reform-as-restoration is central to this politics. It wants to return dislocated identities to their former centrality, burying the uncertainty and impotence in concrete. In this sense, whatever new political conjugations have been formed in the light of the crisis are faddish hobby-horses of the much-maligned ‘chattering classes’ (of which these authors are – by any definition – members). In the end, its morality is based around a call to return to clear social boundaries and roles. ‘Whither Orwell?’ He’s everywhere – and don’t you forget it – but perhaps only as a constructed absence. By remaining in permanent absentia, Orwell can in fact assume a structural significance. As long as Orwell is absent, there can be an appeal for his return, and with him a return to order. In his absence, society is universally culpable, all are guilty of unreason and the antics of post-truth. If only we could bring Orwell back, we could revive the polity. All of this is a particularly hollow echo of Orwell’s own desire for a ‘democratic revolution’ which would realise the promise of Englishness.
It is in this way that the social crisis brought about by the great financial crash of 2007-8, and the resulting crisis of politics and representation since, is recuperated into a story of patriotism, national revival, freedom, truth, and journalism. For ultimately, among the new Orwells, the object of study may have changed – from 20th century totalitarianism to post-truth in the post-crash era – but the subject remains the same – the truth-seeking journalist. As one new book has it, the ‘death of truth’ is brought about when citizens retreat from civic engagement. The goal thus becomes ‘to examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the value of truth, and what that means for the world.’ Evoking Orwell in this context – as the man who highlighted the ways in which a ‘nation’ can fall to ‘demagoguery’ - is a way of rendering the social crises of the 21st century in broadly 20th century terms. Orwellishness has still not really recovered from the Cold War and continues to see the contemporary world through 20th century blinkers.
There are literally dozens of these accounts of ‘post-truth’, most of which make some reference to the aftermath of the financial crisis. To stick with the aforementioned, the author Michiko Kakutani does a very bad job of explaining why truth has fallen from favour. She makes reference to the financial crash, to rapid changes in technology, and to polarisation, yet none of these amounts on its own to an explanation of why emotion has entered politics and ‘reason’ and ‘consensus’ have been pushed aside. The question of where post-truth has come from is raised, only to be dashed by yet more examination of the psychology of the Trumpian villain. When the long durée rears its head, it takes the form of a denunciation of the slow growth of moral relativism. ‘For decades now, objectivity – or even the idea that people can aspire toward ascertaining the best available truth – has been falling out of favour.’ And why is this? Because, of course, the ‘New Left’ has been trampling on the legacy of scientific reason and calm, disinterested analysis. For while the Right has its Trumps, the Left has its deconstructivist philosophers, who are equally bad.
The intellectual world that the new Orwells are making for us – one lapped up by the Comment is Free pages of the Guardian and the Op-Ed section of the New York Times alike – is one in which an imagined consensus can be defended by recourse to a reanimated sense of patriotic purpose. It announces a kind of universal social culpability for the existence of ‘post-truth’ while telling us that a few cool heads can save us. Its invocation of Orwell harks back to the Cold War, a time when post-truth was in its supposed infancy. In doing so it provides an explanation for the crash, the social crisis, and the crisis of politics that fails to look our rotten class structure in the eye. Rather than seeing the crisis as a result of the concentration of power in the hands of the few, it sees it as the product of a generalised civilisational malaise – one that our enterprising heroes can rescue us all from.
Thursday, 8 November 2018
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
Arlen & Mercer, ‘Accentuate the Positive’ (1944)
"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)
In the new consumer world of the postwar era, popular culture was awash with demands to ‘accentuate the positive’ and ‘eliminate the negative.’ The world was called on to, as Monty Python satirised it, ‘always look on the bright side of life.’ We may snigger today at such unsubtle calls to positivity and productivity, but contemporary mindfulness discourse is really little more sophisticated. Are we really less naive today about the concept of positivity? Self care is based on treating and regarding oneself and others positively. Gender and body positivity both build a politics around the rejection various toxic negativities. Twitter stars like jonny sun (the misspelt ‘aliebn’ who dispenses ‘little pep talks’ on self-care to his 700,000 followers) tap into a desire for redemption from a fallen world:
‘my friend asked me if i was happy & i said i think im going to be & my friend said maybe thats the closest we'll come & maybe thats hapiness’
There is a dozy, heavily constructed naivety to these missives, as if they are someone’s impersonation of what they think a child might say. In fact, there is a whole genre of child-ventriloquising on Twitter, in which parents get to express their own liberal wish fulfilment in the form of some shit their kid says. ‘My 4 year-old just asked me...’ goes the tweet before the child reveals a youthful, egalitarian common sense. Often it involves the most anodyne forms of political mislabeling (‘man-sized tissues’) which seems calculatedly designed to unite as many people as possible in denouncing the softest possible cultural target. Positivity is, in this discourse, the source of resilience and strength, a natural fullness-of-being that our fallen political reality has somehow divorced us from and blinded us to.
But there is also an obverse trap - the trap of a too-protesting negativity - the so-called ‘hellworld’ pose of Chapo Trap House, the leftist podcast. Here, everything is bitterly, knowingly dejected. Interestingly, both positions - either seeking the kernel of sunny redemption in the fallen world or revelling masochistically in humanity’s destructiveness - could have existed any time since the 1990s. There is something very Gen-X about knowingly misspelt words. It’s as if Kurt Cobain’s teenage diaries, emitting some black smoke from whatever attic they’ve been locked in, are still hypnotising the politics of popular culture today.
What has become harder to sustain is a critical orientation towards the commodification of culture that does not either fully embrace the chink of light or simply give itself up to the darkness. But then that may be because of the secular crisis of critical theory itself, one stretching beyond the 1990s and back to the onset of the postwar era itself. Critical theory itself is often criticised for being overly negative, even if its greatest contemporary exponent - Habermas - is reconciled to the power of reason, consensus, democracy and - why not? - the Catholic Church. In its early days the so-called Frankfurt School could indeed be radically pessimistic, though this was as much part of its politics as its philosophy. It usually supposed that critical reason could itself escape the power of consumer culture. Only by embracing the ‘critical element’ in thought can reason escaped the instrumentalising effects of bourgeois culture, Adorno and Horkheimer argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment. At times it believed that true insight was only available in isolated moments of critical revelation, such was the all powerful effect of mass consumerism. It was natural, then, that the Frankfurt School would feel its negative method - criticism itself being a kind of proto-deconstruction - was swallowed up by the acceleration and intensification of postwar mass consumerism.
Nevertheless, there were times when the Frankfurt School could break free of its philosophical negativity and suddenly pen the most limpid of ethical propositions: "There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more.” Whatever it was in the dreaded ‘system’ of critical thinking (the dialectical method and so on) which permitted such outbursts, their scope is determined by the overwhelming ambience of pessimism. After the war, Adorno did not believe that contemporary language and thought were capable of articulating a vision of a different society that would not reproduce capitalism’s barbarism in a different form. Thus there is only the coarse demand (perhaps unfulfillable) that no one go hungry and no grand utopian alternative.
In this piece I want to argue that the Frankfurt School was not dialectical enough in how it approached the opposition of positivity and negativity in the theory of the commodity form and the spread of commodification across society. In the advance of the commodity, the Frankfurt School tended to see the spread a single, undifferentiated consumer culture: ‘Culture today is infecting everything with sameness,’ as Horkheimer and Adorno put it in Dialectic of Enlightenment. By believing that an undifferentiated process of commodification prevailed across modern societies, the Frankfurt School surprisingly neglected its twin, negative process of decommodification. Moreover, they sometimes mistook decommodification for the end or erasure of capital rather than as the negative moment of a higher capitalist unity.
There are a lot of terms being bandied about here - commodity, commodification, consumer society, criticism, and so on - so I’ll attempt first to clarify the key terms.
In Marxist terms a commodity is a good that carries a certain amount of labour value which can be realised by being sold on a market. Because it can be sold - that is, it fetches a price - it is said to have exchange value. The point that Marx made about commodities was that, despite their shiny, perfect appearance, they were in fact the product of an invisible process. The commodities that we buy are only possible as a result of a protracted labour process along with the accumulation of past labour in the form of machinery, property and wealth in the hands of company owners. The ‘form’ of the commodity - whether it is a book, some perishable goods, or an asset-backed security - conceals the social processes that underlie it. Moreover, the labour that produces commodities under capitalism is of a particular type. The labour that goes into capitalist commodities is impersonal, separated from control and ownership of what it produces, and atomised or individualised even as it is anonymously social. Whether grouped in factories or office blocks or scattered among city streets, each worker produces not for themselves but for the market. In principle, no special social distinction guarantees any of these workers a particular role in the social order: each is in theory replaceable.
The role of the commodity is to stand in place of these complex social processes. The commodity form has been described as a particular kind of reification or thing-ification: the commodity reduces and condenses social relations to the level of a mere thing.
Commodities are invested with special properties by those who exchange them. The commodities themselves are believed to be value rather than the active or living social labour which prodduces them. Just like the sacred, ritualised totems of ‘primitive’ societies, capital, Marx argues, endows commodities with spectral qualities. If this sounds overly moralising, it can also be viewed from a structural perspective that is vital to Marx’s work. Under capitalism, Marx argued, the use value of things is transformed into a market exchange value of commodities. The market has a tendency to reduce all values to mere quantities. Thus, commodities are not expressions of human need. Instead their value is measured in terms of what they can be exchanged for, that is, other commodities.
In theory, a given quantity of one commodity can be exchanged for an equivalent quantity of any other. The universal equivalent (the commodity which is used to measure the exchangeability of all the rest) is money. Thus, money is a fetish object: it is a commodity that expresses the exchange value of other commodities. It is therefore endowed with seemingly magical qualities. What determines shifts in exchange value between commodities is not social use value, but the competitive market itself. Need is met - if at all - only once the law of profitability is fulfilled. Moreover, because of the fetish nature of money, holding money (what macroeconomics today calls ‘liquidity preference’) as a store of value can be preferable to putting it to any kind of social use.
Thus, fetishised commodities conceal the real social processes involved in their own creation. Exchange value expressed in money subordinates social use value to the law of the market. As workers we are alienated from the products we produce insofar as we lack control and ownership over them. As consumers we fetishise commodities, entering a market of reified ‘goods’ rather than authentic human interactions.
Critical Theory and Commodity Fetishism
Commodity fetishism became the cornerstone of critical theory in the 20th century. Frankfurt School philosophers like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse took the theory of commodity fetishism and applied it to culture. They saw society as being increasingly infantilised by the growth of mass consumer culture. The latter produced fetishised desires for simple, mass-reproducible commodities and in the process contributed to the increasing reification of society. What the latter means is that people could no longer understand society as a set of relations between people. Instead, society was replaced by a world of things - magic objects that would supposedly fulfil various libidinal desires.
In mass culture, the Frankfurt School saw a dangerous potential for authoritarianism. The irony of the spread of bourgeois culture was that it tended to undermine the basis of its famous individualism. The era of bourgeois heroism, they believed, was long gone and it was being replaced by a consumer society that reduced the individual to a passive, desiring infant. In the aestheticisation of politics (mass rallies, heroic marches, spectacles and propaganda) that catered to consumer desire lay the seeds of fascism.
The Frankfurt School has often been reproached for seeing the potential for fascism in everything. As Stuart Jeffries argues in his history of the Frankfurt School, this was understandable. As mostly Jewish German intellectuals, they had been forced into exile by the rise of Nazism. It was the defining political experience of their lives. It made the Frankfurt School question the possibility of meaningful change to the capitalist system. Rather than a Teutonic excess, then, fascism was a peculiar political and social pact between the far right and the industrial bourgeoisie.
Where the Frankfurt School philosophers were really mistaken was in how they thought of commodification as a wider social process under capitalism. In modern political thought there is no shortage of visions of the progressive subjection of ‘nature’ to what Max Weber called the ‘iron cage of rationality.’ The Frankfurt School embraced a version of this: commodification was always, ceaselessly expanding and subjecting anything spontaneous, creative or autonomous to its law.
Surprisingly then the Frankfurt School was not dialectical enough in its thinking. What I mean to say here is that commodification comes twinned with its opposite: the equally pervasive phenomenon of de-commodification. In de-commodification, exchange value is removed from circulation and the commodity disappears. Consumption is one obvious example of this: when we eat, we don’t (only) consume exchange value (though what we consume is saturated with symbolic meaning). The commodities in question do at this very fundamental level disappear. They are used up, perhaps to be expended again in the form of reproduced labour power. After lunch we naturally go back to work.
But there are other processes of decommodification going on under capitalism. The market mechanism itself tends to reduce the exchange value of certain items. As supply outstrips effective demand, certain goods become quite literally unexchangeable. There is no market for them. Goods drop out of circulation, contributing to the vast, invisible underbelly of the market system - the waste system. In extreme cases firms actively destroy their own goods in order to increase their price. Improvements in technology brought about by the capitalist search for innovation can lower the production costs of commodities, capital goods, and the barrier to entry for competitors, this undermining the exchange value pf the goods they produce. A business going bust is a case of decommodification via the market. In recent times, digital technologies have threatened to thwart the price mechanism entirely by creating conditions of limitless, free reproducibility of music, TV shows, films and so on. As Paul Mason argues, there is no market price for something that is infinitely reproducible.
De-commodification is also, at times, capitalist state policy. Since the state is concerned with administering the social conditions that allow for capital accumulation to continue on an expanded basis, at times it will threaten particular industries in order to save the whole. Not only will it allow - indeed encourage - certain businesses to go to the wall, it will also in special circumstances remove unprofitable or dysfunctional sectors from the market by nationalising them. True, it does not do this in a democratic or socialist way. But this is nevertheless a kind of decommodification which is brought about by the very process of commodification itself.
Surely, though, labour is always commodified under capitalism? Certainly in form. There is no denying that very few people exercise meaningful control over their workplace or what they do in it or what goods and services it produces. But the content of labour is not always experienced as alienated - indeed, the reproduction of capital depends on it. When care workers, nurses and doctors look after patients, they do not see them as objects. When people spend hours at work engaged in whatever mildly diverting task is at hand - improvising a way to fix a small glitch in an otherwise smooth process - they are not in the strict sense doing it for money. They are doing it because people are good at problem-solving and irresistibly stimulated by even relatively dull puzzles. This is not an apologia for wage labour. Indeed, precisely because the form of labour is alienated under capitalism, this kind of creative, purposeful application of human skill to relatively mundane tasks is a misapplication. It is in the strict sense a waste of energy.
No doubt a Frankfurt School thinker like Theodor Adorno would reject such views as positivistic in the sense that they attribute to human beings an inherent ‘nature’ which is expressed in their purposeful actions. Adorno did not see anything to be salvaged from such references to nature. While I think there is something valuable in (an admittedly anti-humanist) concept of human nature, that is really beside the point.
I do not mean to say that human nature is creative and expresses itself through labour. Nor do I think that this misapplied human skill is the basis for an emancipated, future form of human labour. Rather I simply want to draw attention to the way that commodification and de-commodification are continually intertwined under capitalism. The social organisation of labour under capital generates the possibility for decommodified working experiences even as it relentlessly commodifies labour forms.
In his book Minima Moralia Adorno writes about the intellectual who seeks to take some pleasure from his work, but is suspected of dilettantism by those who preside over the capitalist division of labour. Thus, capitalist standards of professionalism are imposed on the intellectual in an effort to subordinate the pleasure they may take in their work to a capitalistic understanding of value. Under capitalism there is a fierce policing of the separation between value-creating labour and value-consuming pleasure. The idea of labour-as-pleasure is always at some level vaguely deviant.
Yet the continued existence of the capitalist division of labour relies on a highly circumscribed, but nonetheless real, capacity for creativity and collaboration. And in that lies the source of its strength: in the form of a commodified labour process, capital is nevertheless able to draw on decommodified experience. It is undoubtedly partly parasitic on this spontaneous creative tendency, but - not to fall into a mere vitalism - it also generates certain kinds of collaborative synergy in the way it organises labour processes. Give capital its due: it unleashes, whilst still intending to control, undreamt of opportunities for social interaction.
Even in cultural production, in the form of vintage fashion, new avenues of commodification often depend on the ability to reclaim and recycle outdated commodities. Art decommodifies by reclaiming commodities from the market and reproducing them in autonomous contexts only to return them to circulation via the art market (Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is the zenith-as-parody of this function of art in the age of mechanical reproduction). This higher sphere of commodification relies for its cache on the ability of the artist to augment existing commodity value via the imprimatur of an intangible 'creativity.'
There is a reason that the critique of consumerism so often just looks like hypocrisy: who is really in a position to criticise the consumption of others without looking at themselves? For the hippy movement, this took the form of a retreat into nature. For the critical theorists it was a retreat into ever more alembicated negative spaces.
A de-commodified mode of production?
It is sometimes assumed that because Marxism makes the critique of the commodity form the basis of its critique of the capitalist mode of production, that socialism (or more properly communism) must be a decommodified mode of production.
But socialism is not an antimodern asceticism, as if to renounce consumption by attacking one’s own living standards is to enact socialism in the here and now. A mode of production that relied on the decommodifying processes listed here would be self-immolating. It is also an absurdity: as we have seen decommodification is an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. It is the obverse of the supposedly ‘positive’ process of capitalist production. It is the destructive part of what Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction.’
Is it possible then to imagine a non-commodifying mode of production? We can relate this back to the question of reification. When we encounter commodities, Marx argues, we experience them as as magical objects divorced from the conditions in which they were produced. The same could be said of any process of cognition: when you look at a mountain, you don’t see it as a combination of different rock types or as the product of aeons of geological processes. The result of a truly non-reifying act of cognition would be an infinite regression: the mountain would break into its constitutive components and processes and those in turn would be broken up in a kind of schizoid deconstruction.
We are not going to solve the question of socialism here obviously, but it is worth pointing out that socialism is not merely the destruction of capitalist forms of value nor the closure of the avenues of value augmentation that capitalism thrives on. Rather, it is its supplementation with other, non-commodifying forms of social production. Just as we can’t approach mountains as complex geological processes, it is impossible to imagine an advanced society that does not involve forms of commodification. Nor should all consumption be moralistically and ascetically frowned on (this too, in the Protestant work ethic and the compulsion to save, is itself part of capitalism). But there are many sectors of the economy - care work for example - which already lend themselves to the absence of the commodity form and its replacement by collective, democratic, unalienated forms of collaborative labour. In the conscious regulation of the workplace through democratic means the whole is substituted for the part: we come to see and participate in work as a contributor to its totality rather than as atomised individuals. This noncommodified type of social labour is not simply the obliteration of capitalist commodification. Rather, it builds alternative layers of social relations on top of existing capitalist social ones.
What this doesn’t mean is that socialism is intent on destroying all semblance of the capitalist division of labour or advanced commodity production or any form of market exchange or the enjoyment of branded goods. These are, at best, ecological utopias, utopias of stringency, asceticism, 'detox' culture and recourse to a spurious natural harmony. At worst, anti-consumerism is a kind of austerity politics – the tightening of the collective belt to stave of the ills brought on by 'overconsumption'. Today, calitalism commodifies decommodification. Socialism merely wagers that a democratised industrial apparatus would be quicker to embrace ecological sustainability and efficiency than private monopoly control of the means of production. See, for example, the celebrated Cleveland and Preston models for really existing variants of this augmentation of the commodity form with cooperative forms of labour and finance. Socialism is not a bar to development - capitalism places its own limits on that.
Whereas the postwar generation were told to 'get happy' and to 'pack up their troubles', we are asked today to believe that happiness is only available in fleeting moments, in solitude and seclusion, in detox and retreat from the irredeemable poisonousness of modern life. Recall jonny sun's advice: 'maybe thats happyness and thats the closest we'll get.' The attempt to escape negativity through self-mastery is becoming a new kind of capitalist asceticism. It is a parodic reversion to a more authoritarian age: the total administration of the self by means of the body. This new cultural austerity seeks to liberate the subject through disavowal and self-denial. It is a mode of salvation as old as Protestantism. It promises a space outside of commodification that is just as commodified as more obvious forms of consumption.
Against this political quietism, the socialist response should be a resolute commitment to forms of collective joy and communal luxury.