Monday, 29 August 2016

Why are the Conservatives electorally invincible?

British Prime Minister Theresa May: the latest Conservative politician to position herself in the "centre ground"
(Photo credit: Policy Exchange via Flickr/Creative Commons)
Cast your mind back a year: the Conservative Party had won a majority in parliament for the first time since 1992 and they were gearing up for a jubilant conference. This new majority government would, the electorate was assured, reach for the centre-ground of British politics. They would "steal Labour's clothes" on policies like the national living wage. They would pepper their firmness with fairness. The Shadow Chancellor George Osborne was being hailed as a political genius even by his left-wing critics. He had dispensed with stodgy, old fashioned commitment to facts, ascending instead to a stratospherical realm of pure spectacle. Osborne went beyond even Blairite spinners of yore, as Blairites had always implicitly conceded that reality was thing that had to be spun. For Osborne the chief raw material was not cold fact but whatever messaging popped into his head and seemed tof it the moment. The Tory Party, and moreover the vast majority of the British press, seemed more or less content with the happy accident of a Tory majority. What few minor hiccups lay ahead could be gently massaged as they bubbled up.

And then 2016 happened. It turned out that many Tory manifesto pledges had been written with no intention of them ever being enacted. The scale of the promised cuts to government expenditure along with simultaneous tax cuts was impracticable. Labour opposition and the first stirrings of internal Tory descent put paid to Osborne's tax credit cuts. With no feasible avenue left for his planned spending cuts, Osborne's spring budget collapsed in days. Eurosceptic Ian Duncan Smith resigned from the frontbench. The Prime Minister was implicated in a tax evasion scandal. And then the Brexit vote - one manifesto pledge the government could not dodge - ended the careers not just of the Prime Minister and his Shadow Chancellor but practically the entire liberal core of the leadership.

An unprecedented disaster for a majority government unlike anything experienced since the Tories' last tenure in full control during 1992's Black Wednesday. And yet the government has survived, albeit in slightly mutated form. The cabinet had shifted to the right. It is a little more authoritarian than before but not much. It is certainly more eurosceptic. Its anti-immigrant bullying is likely to be more pronounced. Perhaps it will take a slightly more interventionist approach to the economy. But all of these add just a shade or two of true blue to the Cameron-Osborne universe. Theresa May's arrival as prime minister - via a blatant party stitch-up - has been greeted with a cathartic swell in popularity. The Conservative Party's long-nurtured appearance of competence, self-assurance, and steely commitment to weathering the storms of crisis have seen them reach undreamt of polling heights. They have benefited amazingly from a crisis they made.

What explains this startling success? The Conservative Party's historical role as protector of the Union (and in times past of the Empire) gives it considerable clout in British society. The Conservatives are the favoured party of the British state and are existentially bound up with its survival. Yet because of the association of this most durable of parliamentary forces with the task of maintaining the British state, left-wing critics are sometimes tempted to treat the Conservatives as "anti-theoretical" or "anti-intellectual." The apparent pragmatism of Tory policy in achieving its stated goals masks deeper political and moral values and often implicit ontological assumptions. Amongst these is the belief that the endurance of a particular state of affairs - say, the institutions of this or that state - can be viewed as a good in and of itself. The roots of this view can be traced to a profound moral and political pessimism which has often dominated English philosophy: if human nature is frail and reason an unreliable guide in a dangerous world, those customs and habits of collective life which endure the passage of time can serve as an always-imperfect shield. The Tory philosopher David Hume called custom "the great guide of human life." Tradition, custom, and the slow build up of institutions were the English sceptic's response to French rationalism, with its violent political factionalism. Democracy was, for Hume, an "enthusiastic" extravagance. The worldview of modern Toryism was forged in a period of arch-reaction, when convulsions across Europe led to the need for a highly statised, pragmatic power politics able to defend people from the violent outcomes of their own high ideals.

The endurance of high Toryism has some relation to the great internal strength of British state institutions and the tightly knit bloc of hegemonic interests which oversaw its modernisation. The British state has endured largely undisturbed since the English Revolution. And the Tory Party has always been there for those seeking to deepen or entrench their representation within it. The Tories have never been simply the "managerial committee for the affairs of the Bourgeoisie," but indeed have viewed their role as preserver and sometimes as developer of its national institutions. This commitment to the state - to the Union of the British Isles - is not pragmatic at all but rather intensely moral. It is premised on philosophical assumptions about human nature and the nature of social life. It therefore plays a role in constructing the terrain of Tory politics and constraining its capability for action. Thus, Disraeli's great move to enfranchise a narrow section of the (male) working class in the Second Reform Act of 1867 can be seen as a simple act of pragmatism. After all if the Tories didn't do it, Gladstone's Liberals would. But it can also be seen in the broader pattern of the Tories permitting the arrival of a certain rising class strata into state representation. It is an integral part of arch-Toryism to see itself as smoothly directing social change to the state's long-term advantage. Disraeli may have lost the 1868 election but he secured a not-insignificant fraction of working-class support for Toryism for a long time to come.

The inheritors of this legacy are, however, nowhere to be found among the Party's recent leading lights. The Tories have become victims of their own success. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher led a rapid and highly effective counter-revolution against British state "corporatism" - one stubbornly resisted by old school Tory elites. The latter resisted for what turned out to be good historical reasons: the complete transformation of British state functions actually eroded the old Tory levers of power and influence over society. After the departure of Thatcher herself the Conservative Party entered over a decade of crisis, one which resulted in the marginalisation of the old Tory elite and the emergence of a comfortably neoliberal, socially open-minded, free market, small-state, low tax grouping as the new rulers of the party. But the Cameroons, as they were dubbed, operated a weightless hegemony over a party whose internal traditions had been worn threadbare by the neoliberal onslaught on the British state. For a party so thoroughly imbricated in the traditional functioning of the British state, the upheaval of neoliberalism was bound to be problematic.

Here's where the story returns to George Osborne. If postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, neoliberalism is its political and managerial ideology. George Osborne was supposed to be the political master of both. But in the end the very victories of neoliberalism, those which had brought the likes of Osborne and his predecessor Tony Blair to power, had simultaneously undermined the internal consistency, the raison d'etre, the morale and the actual capacities of the British state. The unintended result of the victory of neoliberalism over the British state and the national economy can be read off in a long list: the financialisation of all the major actors in the economy; the internationalisation of production; the growing dependence on credit to finance consumption; the eternal growth of trade and current account deficits; the race to the bottom on wages and welfare; the decline in productivity and the rise of shit, low-paid jobs; the stagnation or decline in public spending on crucial public goods and state-backed investment; the collapse in unionisation; the collapse of political participation; the retreat of political parties from communities and active social life; the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands in the south of England; the fraying of the tethers of social solidarity between British regions and countries. This decay of institutions resulted in a series of slow crises and sudden catastrophes for British elites and for the Union itself: the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, the erosion of the two-party system, the collapse of public trust in the state, the near-miss of the Scottish referendum, the bull's eye of Brexit.

Why are the Tories electorally invincible? Among the many factors why, the key is the survival instinct of the social groups who are emotionally, ideologically, and materially integrated into the British state. The Tory Party today is fixed rigidly to this ever decreasing patch of earth, fending off multiple threats to a decreasing pool of wealthy and moderately well off voters. It is not Tory health that has made them victorious but - paradoxically - the long-term ill-health of the system they are pledged and trusted to defend. Those in the media currently celebrating the revival in Tory electoral fortunes need only look at the long-term trends or remind themselves of the events of the last year. Many of those who work in the media along with much of the higher-paid salariat are genetically predisposed to the political centre. But just as they got the last year so wrong, they are wrong again now. Because what they forget is that reality can always come back to bite you, no matter how sensible, centrist and serious your government appears. Another implosion is surely on the way.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Trump is a Love Thing

The cultural theorist Joan Copjec memorably described Ronald Reagan as the "Teflon Totem."1 The media, she said, was so obsessed with reporting Reagan's flagrant lies and "idiotic blunders" that they missed the real point, the core of the President's unshakeable appeal: the love of the American people for their leader. For all the rational evidence of Reagan's gross incompetence, he somehow emerged from each attack unscathed. Though the media exhaustively documented his every mishap "it could not - by its own incredulously tendered admission - menace the position of the president himself." She argued that the media was guilty of a "realist imbecility": the assumption that what mattered was the raw substance of the thing, not the intersubjective beliefs involved in elevating Reagan beyond rational criticism and into the arena of love. For love, she argued, following the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, is immune to concrete criticisms of this or that characteristic. After all, we love the other unconditionally whilst acknowledging their personal failings. The American public felt no different about its Teflon President.

Not insignificantly, for this article at least, a future Republican presidential candidate played an anecdotal role in Copjec's description of the media's imbecility: after Ivana Trump confronted her husband Donald over his infidelity, news crews rushed to report on the empty spot outside a motel where the confrontation had taken place. Citing Roland Barthes, Copjec related this obsession with the raw object - the referent, the dull, empty space of an event - rather than its actual significance to an "illusion." The media, in her view, tended to ignore the unique qualities of the enunciator (the person who speaks) and look only at the objective circumstances in which they speak - yielding an empty space where a proper explanation should be.

Donald Trump has been carefully cultivating a relationship of stagy antagonism with the media for thirty years and has benefited from a similar type of dynamic to Reagan. But Copjec's argument is that figures of this kind - who inspire deep libidinal devotion in their audience - are in fact strengthened by the endless cataloguing of their idiocies. Trump is impervious to rational criticism because he embodies, for some Americans, a moment of pure innocence which precedes all doubt. Although Copjec does not blame the media for Reagan's success, it is easy to extend her critique to those who rather hysterically cry foul over Trump whilst forever returning for more. Trump, of course, is ratings dynamite - but the news networks' and the highbrow media's investment in the Trump car crash goes far beyond the profit. The US specialises in this revulsion-attraction to its leaders. In America the citizens resist the abstract uniformity which their citizenship entails and "require instead this master to accredit our singularity." To be fair, the USA hardly has a monopoly on such offensive buffoonery, from the enduring popularity of Boris Johnson in the UK to Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Copjec's argument is that sometimes America and the world needs a Reagan - which implies in its turn a further question: Why this time did it get a Trump?

Trump is in fact startlingly unpopular: according to the Huffpost Pollster page he currently has a sixty-three percent unfavourable rating among the US electorate. By contrast the gaffe-prone Vice President Joe Biden can boast that only thirty-seven percent of the electorate find him unpalatable. And yet somehow this bewildering character, who is actively disliked by the vast majority of US voters, stands a good chance of becoming President. To understand Trump's success and his dubious distinction of being the most brazenly offensive, polarising candidate in modern US history, it is necessary to look at the class make up of his support.

As an extensive survey carried out by the PRRI and the Brookings Institution shows, deteriorating living standards and fear of foreign infiltration (in whatever phantastmatic form) have been conjugated into a single discourse among certain sections of the American public. The survey showed that sixty-two percent of white working-class Americans believe things have got worse in the US since the 1950s. Meanwhile, seventy-four percent of Republicans and eighty-three percent of Trump voters feel that "foreign influence" over the US should be curtailed. According to the New York Times Trump leads Hillary Clinton among white working class voters without a college degree, often by large margins. It is often assumed that latent or explicit sexism and - more problematically - lack of education are driving the anti-Clinton vote. The accusations of sexism are undoubtedly true, but those feelings alone cannot explain the enthusiasm that greeted Trump among these voters before Clinton received the Democratic nomination. Writing in the Atlantic Ronald Brownstein declared, "Trump was lifted by a coalition that largely believes the America it has known is under siege." Trump's biggest audience, Brownstein writes, lies precisely "at the intersection of immigration and terror."

In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine the left-wing writer Michael Kazin argues that the Trump phenomenon is best understood "as an amalgam of three different, largely pathological strains in American history and culture." First, hostility towards immigrants - especially towards those whose religious and ethnic identity "clashes" with that of the majority. Second, populist right-was ing hostility to the corruption of the ruling elite - directed especially at the state (Big Government and so on). Third, attraction to the outrageous charisma of a wealthy outsider. Though Kazin provides a succinct sketch of the individual components of Trumpism, the medical metaphors ("pathological... strains") mask the absence of an explanation of its origins. Similarly, Brownstein argues that, "From the outset [Trump] has stressed three principal identities." First, the politically savvy business executive who can revive the economy. Second, the political outsider untethered to corruption. And third, the "embodiment of resistance to demographic and cultural change." It is this latter, Brownstein argues, which has been most prominent and consistent. If Kazin identifies the cultural strains of Trumpism, Brownstein identifies Trump's method for capitalising on them.

But we are still no closer to understanding how inchoate fears about falling living standards and lack of status have been so tightly conjugated with fear of "foreign influence." Indeed it is not clear if the latter signifies a single phenomenon or a bundle of anxieties about the changing colour of US communities, the increasing visibility of minorities in US public life, the ever-present threat of terrorist violence and the encroaching reality of global disorder. Who does this political messaging really appeal to? As Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight website argues, the extent of Trump's working class support is often overplayed: Trump supporters tend to be slightly better off than the median US earner. They are not the poorest who have been excluded from jobs, social security, healthcare, and homeownership by globalisation. "Class in America is a complicated concept," he argues, "and it may be that Trump supporters see themselves as having been left behind in other respects." This is a story, then, of relative decline for a "class fraction" of US society which has been heavily racialised by the US polity: the conservative, white, blue collar worker done good, who was the anointed centre not only of America's lived social reality but also of its reams of propaganda during the Twentieth Century. That stereotype has never been the entire truth of the US working class, but was nevertheless bought and sold as such. It was lived by millions in the postwar era of full employment and homeownership and rising incomes as such. It didn't matter that so much of America's minority working class was permanently excluded from that settlement. Now it has collapsed and its one-time beneficiaries are seeking violent self-validation. According to Drew DeSilver at the Pew Research Center, "A look at five decades' worth of government wage data suggests that... for most US workers real wages - that is, after inflation is taken into account - have been flat or even falling for decades, regardless of whether the economy has been producing or subtracting jobs." Today's average wage adjusted for inflation stands roughly at purchasing power parity with the average from 1979. Little wonder then that white workers in particular view the 1950s as a golden age. And little wonder also that they perceive this relative decline in racial terms - after all, the US was in the 1950s an openly racist society. The white working class is also a racialised construction, replete with a set of presumed social characteristics which elevated them for decades above inferior, truculent minorities. The US remains a violently racist place today, one in which poor people of colour are blamed for their own poverty and those threatened by stagnating incomes can all too easily retreat into a readymade racial comfort zone.

Donald Trump may be generally unpopular - but he is unpopular only among certain sections of a society riven by sexual, racial, and class conflict. Among other sections he is wildly popular. He may consistently lie and abuse others and even prove himself utterly incompetent. But this is not really the point. Because for some Americans he is the long-awaited confirmation of their right to exist - the object of their love. Much of the media has played the role of foil to Trump - publicly exasperated but deriving a covert pleasure from his various slanders and entirely unable to leave his side even for a moment. What would it mean to have a media which, instead of rushing to the broken, forlorn spaces that the Trump car crash vacates, was able confront the hideous source of his antics?

1See: Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists, Kindle location 2200