Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"Fuck off moonface!" - Or Why Everyone Hates Politicians

Moon-faced PM with eye-piece

Everybody hates politicians, an aversion that only intensifies the more they declare their love for us. Unsurprising at a psychological level - no one likes a reject who persists - the public's deep dislike of politicians merits scrutiny if only because, for all our vocal and vividly expressed dislike, things at state-level carry on quite as normal. Internet anonymity has much increased the scope for consequence-free mud-slinging, of course. "Fuck off moonface," British Prime Minister David Cameron was eloquently instructed on Twitter not so long ago. He gets a lot of it, some not entirely fair. "What's the growth rate of your forehead?" one follower asked. Yet web-cover only explains the boldness of the public's scorn, not its pervasiveness. In real life, too, encounters between politicians and "normals" take place in a surreal, slow-mo atmosphere of disaster and gloom. "Bigot," was all Gordon Brown could splutter during the 2010 election as his career was ended via confrontation with a middle-aged housewife who, lest we forget, voted lifelong for Brown's own Party. That's some Iron Chancellor. The voter turnout in that election at least partially recovered from its mid-00's doldrums, scraping the mid-60s, down from around 80% in the 1950s. Yet despite the plummeting popular stature of parliamentary democracy, and to the shock and semi-amusement of Britain's elites, nothing has really happened to change all this.

How can this decline in the fortunes of the warhorses of British democracy - Tory, Labour and Liberals alike - be explained alongside the sustained stature of the State proper? I've written before about how the very obscurity of the British constitution - the legal make-up of the State - served to elevate it above the vulgarities of daily political life. This elevation was expressed most powerfully in the Twentieth Century by the symbol of the monarch, whose popularity grew even as Britain's international wealth and power decreased. This surely saved the collective neck of Westminster on multiple occasions. Yet the constitutional dissatisfactions lurking on Britain's periphery have recently become more acute, as a bungled postimperial settlement has come back to haunt our rulers. The referendum in Scotland suggests a new questioning of the balance of power in the State by British citizens.

These are, however, symptoms of political crisis not causes. What explains our abhorrence of politicians as apparently innocuous as Labour's Ed Miliband, a man who conducts his public life with all the endearing clumsiness of a panda cub? How have we summoned such a collective torrent of bile for one so cute? This revulsion has accompanied the decline of the big parties as well as partly aiding it. Attitudes have certainly changed as a result of purely economic changes (the decline of the traditional industrial sites of solidarity of both proletariat and bourgeoisie) but also because of the social and ideological elements now involved in politicisation. Bereft of former certainties, revanchism provides the basic mobilising template for voters. Hence the popularity of 'insurgent' right-wingers Ukip and the contempt reserved for the Conservatives, which in all aspects of sentiment if not of policy very closely resembles Ukip.

Repeated corruption scandals have resulted from what Peter Mair called the withdrawal not only of the public from voting but of the elites from accountability. Conservative critics like Geoffrey Wheatcroft like to blame the "professionalisation" of politics in the modern democratic age: the fact that today MPs collect a handsome pay check means they are in it for themselves - to make a living - not, as with the benevolent aristocrats of a past age, for the sake of charity and a sense of duty. Which burden of prosperity means that, perversely, politics was more meritocratic before market values were brought to bear on its unsuspecting practitioners. More likely is that the intensified "financialisation" of politics since the unleashing of speculative markets (which Wheatcroft applauds as classic Tory "good governance" and "level-headedness") has narrowed the gap between the State and moneyed interests to a crippling degree.

The parliamentary left, gathered intellectually around the New Statesman, performs little better in its diagnoses, energetic and upbeat as they are. The Labour Party's boffins - John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham, foremost among them - pop up at intervals to decry in fiercely selected buzzwords the maladies of the age - Rotherham, expenses, hoodies, rampant consumerism, the decline of core values (contorted euphemism for apparently self-elected unemployment). The idea of a crisis of Conservatism is widely-held by the paper's writers, though the depth of the Labour crisis is less ably examined. The nature of Conservatism, moreover, means that those best-placed to pick its practical failings apart - its MPs and "organic intellectuals" (Gramsci's phrase) - are inclined to anonymously denouncing Party personalities (an invisible chairman; a vacillating, conviction-free PM) as if this might draw the poison from the beast. Coded in Tory DNA, after all, is loyalty to the Party, the State and the Union rather than honest critique of the situation.

Wheatcroft identifies (in his book The Strange Death of Tory England) a Left and Right split in the Party - a division the actual Left is wont to dismiss (a Tory is a Tory, after all). In a limited sense he's right, though he doesn't capture why the two fractions of this eminently successful ruling power-bloc - responsible for constructing an almost uninterrupted chain of hegemonic social covenants since the 1830s - have only recently leapt at each other's throats. Conservatism's crisis is so pronounced precisely because of its earlier, extraordinary successes. Thatcherism's popularity and endurance are down to its fusing of two contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, a conservative drive for "restoration" of moral life and, on the other, the thoroughgoing liberalisation of socio-economic life in Britain. Naturally, these two tendencies existed in a state of contradiction, eventually exploding (under Major) around the totemic issue of Europe. The hard Right - an expression of the most reactionary elements of the Tory petty bourgeoisie - wanted an island empire merciless in its exploitation of the energies of free trade. Liberal "wets," meanwhile, wanted a confident nation firmly ensconced in European affairs, as well as a less unnecessarily punitive legal order. Europe was seen, by this wing of the Tories, not only as a means to weaken the old corporatist trade union settlement but also as a way to humanise the bureaucratic legal system. Mobilising such wide and conflicting strata would do wonders for Thatcherism in the short run, but could only mean its effect on classical Toryism would eventually be more devastating.

The crisis of Labourism is both more easily explained and less interesting: following in the footsteps of Thatcherite predecessors, the Party suffered from the same internal contradictions (having already relinquished its guiding role in the declining labour movement). Exhausting itself through a long series of foreign military interventions and domestic social reforms of Thatcherite prescription, the Party could by 2010 no longer claim much distinction from the Tories. Though they had become a more "natural" party of government than ever before, the institution of government had been discredited in the process. Pre-Blair Labour may have been electorally weak, but it was at least liked. Now the old industrial base had been decimated while no new social alliances had emerged supporting a specifically Labourist ideology - at least none that couldn't easily be wooed by Tory promises of prosperity similar to Labour's own. In a sense, both Parties have suffered dramatic losses among their classical voter bases. The conventional centre-Left account of this change is to blame Thatcherism for disempowering the traditional working class. A more honest account would be that it simply won them over as a broad layer of them got richer (or at least less strapped for cash).

In terms of class, Britain's traditional rulers (which, as Gramsci noted, had always been aristocratic not bourgeois) was wiped out by a Thatcherite "passive revolution" - a delayed ascension of the British bourgeoisie to the commanding heights of the State. Meanwhile, the corporatist class consciousness of the labour movement (as writers from Eric Hobsbawm to Stuart Hall perceived) failed to construct a counter-hegemonic ideology of its own. Ultimately, the working class (always institutionally outgunned) was definitively outmanoeuvred at the level of popular symbols. The industrial working class was, by the 1980s, in no position to speak for the nation as a whole - indeed, its could hardly speak for itself.

The struggle today is between two fractions of the once-hegemonic power bloc, finding themselves in irreconcilable conflict over the future direction and form of the British State. Ed Miliband is trying to position Labour as the Party of national unity (a "One-Nation Party," in the phrase mistakenly attributed to Disraeli). Under Miliband the Party seeks a partial return to the postwar settlement, this time mediated by negotiated, deliberative restructuring in the German style (worker representation and so on). In essence, this is a rehearsal of older, consensus-seeking pro-European arguments within the parliamentary left (think the SDP of the 1980s). Opposed to this rehashing of modified, flexible corporatism is a more muscular group of free marketeers gathered around the current Chancellor, George Osbourne. Certainly more socially liberal than the Thatcherites, they are no less pro-Atlantic nor for that matter militarist in their international outlook. Their weakness is yet again that they risk alienating the Tory old guard. One of the ironies of this generation of Young Conservatives - the first to be feel relatively untroubled by the so-called "permissive" society unleashed by Labour in the 1960s - is that they may govern socially to the left of "Blue" Labour, whose intellectuals are convinced of the need for social "rebalancing" in the face of capital's onslaught. All of this lies far ahead, however. More immediate concerns have arisen in the present scrum regarding the constitution.

Though popular mobilisations in Scotland are today impacting upon the mystical heart of the British State - i.e. its constitution - they will not be decisive in determining allegiances and victories among the ruling power-bloc. Indeed, it will be capital - both big and small - which will give the signal, and clear the ground for a future, renewed hegemony of the British State. People sense this, which is why they don't vote in the first place. With politics in crisis as a result of the decay of the Thatcherite "financialisation" of politics - and with all older models discredited - no party will easily mobilise new voters come May. The power of the average elector has been narrowed and British politics is returning to its core interests: wealth. The conflicts within the power bloc appear as so many scandals to the voters. The loss of order within the ruling class filters out as a collapse of faith among the public, primarily in Westminster but also, in a creeping sense, in the arrangement of power in the British State itself (though perhaps not in the core legitimacy of the State as such). In this context one can only speculate: if what remains of the democratic legacy of the British Twentieth Century is a narrowly capitalist (as opposed to popular-corporatist) State, is it time the electors betrayed by Thatcherism's slow decay militated against its legal, statist and economic modes of organisation? To what specific end is harder to say. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

1000 Words to Screw the Union: Against Yes and No in the Scottish Referendum

The Queen: symbolically efficient

Until a a few days ago the only remarkable thing about the debate over Scottish independence was the orderly manner in which the media had conducted the whole row. Carping on the Right there may inevitably have been, but the immovable objects of civilised opinion - from the Times to the Economist - were largely sanguine. Predictably though, as the No-lead narrowed in the run-up to the vote, the whole of the British establishment ground cohesively into action. The usual hysterics of the Daily Mail ("10 Days to Save the Union!") were tempered in familiar fashion by more sober economic reservations; a raft of quality dailies (the Independent to name but one) confidently republishing the idle threats of mass relocation by top firms and banks. Whatever shrill cries met the narrowing polls, there was an underlying sense of business as usual. Heaping the pressure on referenda - always sneered at for their unintricate populism - is well rehearsed; more a matter of routine than an expression of fear at the impending outcome, the result of which has never been in great doubt.

A few days from now the British establishment expects the Union to be popularly reaffirmed, its existence rubber-stamped for at least another generation. The fear pummelled into the electorate will no doubt have played its part in this. Yet the job was completed long before by the ineptitudes of the "Salmondite insurgency" (to coin a not very convincing phrase) and its uninspiring cheerleaders. The No campaign - headed by Alistair Darling - has been no more interesting at the level of ideas, but they are at least excused the burden of proof. After all, the proof is there in the United pudding. What has de facto been offered by the two sides is either the continuation of a political and constitutional existence no one really understands, or an even more opaque and fiddly set of new divisions. Neither holds out much hope for what, time and again, the British public says it wants: decent jobs and a functioning state. The SNP's historic gamble is that enough Scots will conclude that deepened insulation from Westminster talons will clear space for both of these to grow independently of specific internal arrangements. The pose of national liberator assumed by Salmond remains unconvincing, even for many committed to Scotland's distinctive claim to nationhood. W.H. Auden once advised,

"One should never give a poisoner medicine
A conjurer fine apparatus
A rifle to a melancholic bore."

Nor, one might add, the dream of a nation to a national dreamer.


What might, in the most optimistic of assessments, the legacy of the independence vote be? The obvious and intended one, though still not impossible, slightly stretches the rubric of optimism (seguing into blind faith). Rather, the vote risks reminding the English above all that the mysterious power of the British state - what Tom Nairn calls "Ukania" - can yet be demystified. In other words, and as Nairn has repeatedly forecast, a jolt may be delivered to the English in what George Orwell described as their "deep sleep." Guaranteeing this sleep since the end of the War - through decolonisation and de-industrialisation; mass unemployment and mass immigration; corruption and crisis - has been the dream-image of "the people" generated by its resilient ruling class. The very success of the symbolism of the British state - the pomp of Monarchy to the fore - has shielded the flimsy and at times baffling constitutional reality of the United Kingdom from too piercing a popular gaze. The Union's symbolic unity in the face of otherwise complete Imperial decline both insulated the population from the effects of its colonial losses and helped reproduce the legitimacy of the ruling class.

Time was when the Monarchy went unloved by a liberal bourgeoisie that, though it commanded the media, did not yet command the state. An obituary for George IV read: "There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king." Not the words of a radical-democratic pamphleteer but those of a Times obituarist. The essayist Walter Bagehot in the Economist took to calling the Prince of Wales an "unemployed youth." (These quotes are taken from David Cannadine's illuminating essay on the British monarchy from 1820-1977) Indeed Bagehot advocated a ceremonially refined and symbolically efficient monarchy, which after 1870 he would get. As popular suffrage expanded and the Empire grew, the Monarchy developed into a powerful modern political symbol. No royal family in the world commands such deep respect today as the Windsors. The unassailable position of this tribe in popular lore has acted - especially since the loss of the institutional clarity given by colonial administration - as a veil over the internal confusion of the state proper. Its material effect since the 1950s has been to knot the Union together by sublimating the complexities of the constitution within itself. A challenge to the Union in the form of Scottish Nationalism is also a de facto challenge to the zombified imperial state-without-an-empire which has been quietly elevated from view these past seventy years. The Postwar contradictions buried within the British state are finally rippling its surface. A reminder that the British State is neither ethereal nor eternal, but quite material and deeply inegalitarian, may yet prove worthwhile.


The arguments around the Scottish vote have underlined the paucity of the British political imagination, capable of serving up only post-imperial pomp or anti-imperial ethnicity. Needless to say, neither will do a proper job of governance in the modern, multicultural world. Wary of falling into the trap of Austrian Marxists who advocated the prolongation of the Hapsburg Empire in the hope of some future democratic federalism developing in imperial territory, I hardly wish to come out in favour of the British state. Nor do I wish to deny the strength of national feeling - surprisingly widespread - on the part of both the British and the Scots. My point is simply that the solutions on offer reproduce the old imperial mystifications and do nothing to advance the social welfare or political interests of either the British or Scottish people. The English songwriter Billy Bragg has suggested the English "take down the Union Jack" and approach the Scots for advice:

"Ask our Scottish neighbours
If independence looks any good
They just might have some clues
About what it really means to be
An Anglo hyphen Saxon in England.co.uk."

It may be that the Scottish nation has a few things to say to its English neighbours. After the vote, however, one wonders if Scotland - indeed the whole Ukania-sphere - will feel any more illuminated on matters of sovereignty than it did before. Another opportunity tripped-over then.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

"Rip It Up and Start Again": Malevich at the Tate

Portrait of a Man

"Rip it up and start again," sang Orange Juice in 1983, tearing a choice page from the book of high modernism. In similar if less modest tone, Virginia Woolfe had once observed, "On or around December 1910 the whole of culture changed." Yet beginning again from the beginning could be a perversely conservative gesture, preserving a threatened culture by returning to its roots, a la Eliot or Pound. What differentiated the avant-garde from high modernism - and made its influence on popular culture so pronounced - was not anything more radical in the aesthetics but rather in aestheticism's conventional opposite, politics. Nowhere was more passionately politically radical - nor more belatedly radicalised - than Russia. It hardly needs to be pointed out that the extraordinary social-revolutionary successes of Russian society between 1905 and 1924 enlarged the scope for radicalism and the cultural space for intense scrutiny of the new. A supreme world-historical confidence thus developed, as found in Mayakovsky, poet of the Revolution and fierce Bolshevik prophet:

"Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc., overboard from the Ship of Modernity."

The simple grammatical injunction ("Throw them overboard!") is here elevated to a grade-a formal topos through which the literary gap between political manifesto and poetry is either narrowed or erased. Needless to say, the first overboard were the paternal improvers of the Russian Nineteenth Century. Rip it up and start again indeed. Yet equally important for the avant-garde as a new direction of travel was the construction of a new mode of travel. Progress as imagined by the nation's forefathers simply wouldn't do. The avant-garde concern with smashing cultural legacy - as opposed to preserving it through radical aesthetic means, a la Elliot or Pound - also explains its great impact on popular culture.

Black Square

So to Kazimir Malevich then. His defining work, The Black Square on White Background, is frequently described in punctuational metaphors: that is, as either exclamation mark or full stop. In this sense Malevich's key work of visual abstraction is quite often grasped in representational terms. More accurate than the punctuational image in this case, however, is the aforementioned syntactical one: that is, the injunction of the avant-garde. Black Square amounts to a kind of visual correlative to Mayakovsky's "Throw them overboard." (The pair collaborated in 1914 on, of all things, some cartoon satires of the German army). So imposing is the legacy of Black Square that the Tate has chosen to offset it by screening an off-kilter American staging of the opera which inspired it, Victory over the Sun (the stage backgrounds designed by Malevich). Thus "The Icon" (a pointed title for the room; one Malevich would probably approve of) is relatively marginalised in an exhibition which builds teleologically towards it. In the midst of such distraction (fuzzy Californian accents from on screen Futurist antics puncturing any air of reverence), Black Square can paradoxically be approached with fresh attentiveness. Its world historical importance is not foisted on the spectator by the gallery but rather left to hang dangerously in the suitably cacophonous air.

The Knife Grinder

In meta- as opposed to micro-narrative terms, however, the exhibition must be deemed a disappointment. Building teleologically through nationalist agrarianism (Malevich's relatively sentimental attempt to build a specifically Russian visual language of the peasant); to the Franco-Italophile high modernist fusion of Futuro-Cubism; to Black Square itself via Victory over the Sun; and on to the high watermark of Suprematism, the remainder of the retrospective (a startling return to representation, if jarringly surreal where deposited within Stalinist realist forms) is necessarily anticlimactic. More than this, such rational progress contradicts both Malevich's intentions and indeed his method. Nicely exemplary of this is the simultaneity of styles displayed on separate sides of a single canvas. A mirror reflects a gaggle of Russian peasant women on the back of a more prominently displayed Futuro-Cubist piece. Russian avant-gardism was neither a purely organic or Narodnik agrarian phenomenon nor was it a cosmopolitan emulation of the West but a complex articulation of multiple cultural elements.


This simultaneity aside, the moment of Suprematism - surely the big draw here - is inescapably singular. Making up the central section of a circuit of rooms charting Malevich's life's work, the exhibition inadvertently makes one thing clear: the attempt to reintegrate abstraction - especially so violently conceived - into a narrative system of technical and rational development will not work. Similarly with the current Mondrian exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, the staged "escape" of the artist from the trappings of representation into the salvation of abstraction only serves to clarify the unbridgeable divide between the two.

Suprematism is supremely historical. The foremost function of art in the age of the avant-garde - at least among its foremost practitioners - was as a socially transformative, even in itself revolutionary practice. Gone were the introspection of Romanticism and the realism of the Victorian era. As Michael Lowy has said, the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin - perhaps the greatest radical thinker of his age - engaged in a lifelong critique of liberal and socialist notions of progress. His intention was to map the possibilities of new modes of artistic and aesthetic production which defied the inhuman development of industrial capitalism. Benjamin was, as Lowy argues, equally an anarchist libertarian and a Jewish spiritualist, grafting Marxian historical materialism onto a Messianic framework of human emancipation from the senseless toil of capitalism. The liberal or socialist ideologies of material progress which had dominated the Nineteenth Century - and which reached their material crisis in the First World War - were rejected in favour of new beginnings declared possible in the here and now - the Jetztseiten - into which the world had by chance been flung. Benjamin's thought was of a very avant-garde disposition, one that confronted the extraordinary barbarity of early Twentieth Century capitalism and responded in turn equally radically. Revolution was to be understood not as history's completion, but as an "interruption" of the relentless technological and industrial carnage wreaked by history.

Malevich himself called for an equally radical political transformation: the dissolution, he said rather casually, of all rational thought. Easier said than done, you might think. Indeed Malevich's wild political optimism can only be understood if it is placed in the revolutionary social context of the War-stricken Russian Empire. Like Benjamin and other Jewish intellectuals of Eastern and Central Europe, the Russian avant-garde was convinced not only of the possibility of radical social transformation but also of the crucial political responsibility of the artist in carrying it out. Artistic production was conceived as an integral part of the politics of the revolution. But what politics and what revolution? Not, as it turned out, the stodgy, ponderous world of the Second Socialist International and its creaking commitment to the development of the means of production, nor with it the incremental building of proletarian consciousness in the decaying husk of the old world. Breaks would become, as the rhythm of the slaughter accelerated, definitive and completely destructive.

The very title Victory over the Sun suggests more than mere Futurist triumphalism but a victory over time itself. The utopianism of Malevich's empty white backgrounds - blank non-places outside of historical time - was the crucial basis out of which the novelty of playful interactions between geometric forms could take place. "Suprematism is the beginning of a new culture," he said, "Our world of art has become new, non-objective, pure. Everything has disappeared; a mass of material is left from which a new form will be built." Echoing the Messianism of Benjamin, Malevich even used Orthodox cultural motifs (placing a black square in the position of an Orthodox religious icon in an exhibition) to express the spiritual element of his critique of rational progress. In some cases Malevich was engaged in a meditation on the dissolution of the symbols of the barbarous old world his art sought to break up, as suggested by a series of studies of the cross, slowly fading out of existence. The "interruption" of history (the white background) created a space in which old forms could be dissolved and new elements combined (Malevich's overlapping geometric shapes).

In his writing Malevich contrasted what he called the "order" established by "accepted additional elements" with "new additional elements" which arise from new social situations to challenge them. Thus out of the conventional philosophical opposition between movement and rest Malevich builds a theory of aesthetic forms based on revolutionary change. Suprematism is one such change, one of Benjamin's "interruptions": a revolutionary and emancipatory intrusion of the "unacceptable" into the flow of representational forms. New elements gain their strength, Malevich writes, "by deforming and reconstructing the opposing element of the norm which falls under its influence." In the last room of the Tate's Malevich retrospective there is clear evidence of this "deforming" and "reconstructing" of the acceptable by the revolutionary: superimposed over sombre representations of the agrarian peasant world butchered by Stalinism are striking geometric shapes in bald primary colours. Here again lurks the formal injunction, now layered into the old world as a part of its transformed substance. After the Revolution - indeed after Stalinism - the world could not simply return to the status quo ante. However gravely, the revolutionary energy of the avant-garde tunnelled on.