Brexit: Clowns to the Right of me…..

It’s common enough in politics to call your enemies or people you disagree with idiots, and it’s not always an exaggeration. But the staggering level of incompetence and insouciance displayed by the UK’s current government towards the Brexit negotiations actually puts us into entirely new territory for malevolent stupidity and a complete inability to see past the political advantage that might accrue this week.

Of course, as Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics. Of course every major political actor will be calculating how to get out of the Brexit débacle with a whole skin. Of course there will be very few figures thoughtfully contemplating the consequences of their actions in a decade’s time, ready to sacrifice their political careers for the greater good if necessary. That’s politics, and the rules don’t change very much.

But the British people have, in general, been entitled to expect a minimum level of sheer competence from their politicians, even if they don’t agree with them. You don’t aspire to be Prime Minister if you lack even the most rudimentary political skills, any more than you expect to be a champion footballer if you have two left feet. But the general level of total uselessness on display in the present government is quite unprecedented. In earlier times, it would have been safe to say that the British government machine (once the envy of the world, remember?) was capable and efficient enough to deal with Ministers who were complete idiots – and there were quite a few. No longer: the machine has been vandalized and sabotaged to the point where it simply cannot cope any more.

At the moment, ordinary people don’t see this. The realization will dawn when things start to go seriously wrong, when imports don’t come, when exports don’t go, when planes don’t fly and holidays are cancelled, because the government has frittered away time when it should have been negotiating, striking political poses and stabbing each other in the back. Then, I think, the wrath of the British people will be terrible to behold.

It’s already clear that the Tory line will be “it’s all the fault of Brussels” and it’s true as well that Brussels has played its hand badly from a PR point of view. But governments are in the end responsible, and I don’t think that’s going to work as an excuse. If I were Theresa May I’d start running well befog 2019. Now would be a good time.

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Dunkirk: They don’t make them like that any more.

I remember being mildly amused at the reception given to Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, where critics fell over each other to praise the “realism” of the opening scenes. How, I wondered, could they tell? Had they been there? Had they served in the military at some point? In fact, Spielberg does seem to have made an attempt to portray the landings reasonably realistically, but that’s not the issue. “Realism” in this context means that those scenes coincided exactly with the common perception of war at the time (large scale senseless massacres) which critics who had never handled anything more lethal than a cooking knife had grown up with, and so expected. And as any literary critic will tell you, “realism” is one of the most artificial of all artistic modes.

Watching Dunkirk, or rather Dunkerque, in a cinema in France (where the film has been well received) made me understand why even the critics who praised the film extravagantly had trouble with its lack of “realism”. Not enough soldiers, not enough aircraft, too much emphasis on the “little boats” and so forth. This is fair enough (and partly reflects Nolan’s conscious decision not to use CGI effects) but ignores the fact that the film is a symbolic treatment of a myth. the symbolism is centered around the elements (earth, water, air and fire) and starts with earth (the sandbag barricade) and ends with fire (the destruction of the aircraft, not coincidentally a Spitfire). It moves, obviously, and cyclically, through these four elements, all in their own way dangerous and treacherous. (Here we recall that the name of the boat featured in the film is the Moonfleet, the name of a popular novel about smuggling and shipwreck which I read at school in the 1960s).

In some mundane ways, you could argue that the film is realistic enough: death is random and omnipresent, people are frightened, selfish, cold and soaked to the skin, pilots worry about how much fuel they have left. But the film works best if we understand that it is cast in a mode that we have little experience of today: the heroic. By heroic, I don’t mean Brad Pitt gunning down fifty terrorists with a single machine-gun burst. I mean the attitude of heroism, of ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights, and doing what has to be done. Hardly any of the British characters in the film fire a shot, apart from the pilots, all three of whom eventually fall from the air onto the elements of water and earth, accompanied each time by fire. Many of the characters (including the nurses who die in the hospital ship) are civilians. Mark Rylance, as the weekend sailor, calm and assured, taking his unarmed boat where it’s most needed, is a mythical figure of everyday heroism, probably unimaginable in today’s society drenched in cynicism and consumerism, and the kind of man that probably every boy born in the 1950s would have wanted as a father. Indeed, in its stoicism and quiet heroism, as well as its lack of special effects, the film is partly a homage to the black and white films of the 1950s on which I grew up.

In a whole lot of ways, they don’t make them like that any more.

France: Apocalypse in about a month.

With only three weeks to go before the first round of the French Presidential election, the media are in full politics-as-horse-race frenzy. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, which grinning face will give the victory speech after the second round, and that’s pretty much it.

Lost in all this is the terrible, lamentable, really not very good, performance of the two major parties. Hamon (Socialist of a sort) and Fillon (official candidate of the Right) can barely muster thirty per cent of the vote between them. Can you imagine it, what has become of the two major parties of one of the most powerful nations in the world? Think Labour and the Conservatives, or Republicans and Democrats, with thirty per cent of the votes between them.

Now of course these are not the parliamentary elections: they come a few weeks later, and the party machines should be capable of turning out a higher vote. But we’re looking here not just at a rough patch politically, but at the end of an entire political system. It’s going to get a lot rougher between now and May, and even rougher thereafter. This is big news, probably the end of the Fifth Republic as we know it, and the media and the political class have no idea how short a time the current system has to live.

 

My franglais is not efficient

You may have seen that Paris is bidding for the Olympic Games again, this time for 2024. You may also have seen that they’ve chosen a slogan in English – franglais, really. It’s Made for Sharing.

Think about that for a minute. Does it mean anything? Did whoever made it up think it meant anything? Cities aren’t “made” for a purpose, after all, any more than the Olympic Games are. Is the assumption that all of the visitors return home with a small piece of Paris? For the benighted who don’t speak English, there’s also a slogan in French, Venez, Partarger, which does at least mean something. A decent English translation would be “come and join in” or “come and share the experience”

Joking (mostly) aside, this is important because it reflects a much wider problem in France, and especially among French elites who are going through one of their periodic obsessions with copying other countries – in this case the Anglo-Saxon ones. This extends to the wholesale, and often clumsy, importation of English words into French political and media discourse, as well as into advertising. The problem is that the French aren’t actually very good at foreign languages. They are not as bad as the British (and certainly they are more willing to try) but they still aren’t that good. The standard of English teaching in France is, well, variable, and you very rarely encounter the kind of fluency in English, even among the well educated that you find in Germany or the Netherlands. Few large organisations have specialist translators. This doesn’t prevent the widespread and often inelegant use of English as a status symbol by a certain category of aspirational French individual, often with hideous results, or the clumsy and misleading presentation of the world’s favourite tourist destination in information for visitors. Ironically, this is even having an effect on English itself, where the language of Shakespeare is turning in a globish pseudo-language. For example, the confusion between translating efficace as “efficient” (i.e. cost-effective) and “effective” was lost many years ago: “this medicine is efficient” anybody? Most non-native English speakers have now totally confused the two.

The obsession with the slavish imitation of others, is, of course, a symptom of the lack of confidence in their own country, its culture and its language, which is now pretty much universal among French elites. Indeed these elites, independent of their political views, share a sense of embarrassment at being French, and some go so far as to criticise those who take pride in their history and culture as racists or xenophobes. So when Presidential contender Emmanuel Macron asserted recently that there was “no French culture” no one was surprised, and nobody important was offended. Macron, the symbol of the French elite’s aching desire to be un-French, speaks (bad) English at every opportunity and seems proud to do so.

So as World History replaces French History in schools, and the language of Moliere is increasingly replaced by the language of Trump, you have to wonder where, if anywhere, this is all going to end. Would a President Macron make Franglais the official language of the country? Until recently that would have seemed a joke. Now I’m not so sure.

Is America a failure of marketing?

If there’s a single dominant theme of advanced western societies today, it’s popular anger. This anger, often incoherent, often poorly focused, is mostly directed against what people see as “the system” or “the elites” who they feel have betrayed and abandoned them. So pervasive has this discourse become that even the most elite of establishment politicians feel obliged to position themselves against “the system”; the latest and least credible being Emmanuel Macron, a serious candidate for the French Presidency who is a millionaire former merchant banker. What’s going on here?

First, we need to distinguish between popular anger and elite anger. We’ve seen a lot of elite anger recently, in the reaction to the Brexit vote, in the wider challenges to the current European financial and economic system and, perhaps most of all, in the reaction to Donald Trump’s election.Elite anger is a form of narcissism, a childlike scream of rage and disappointment that the elites can no longer have what they want so easily, that people are calling them unpleasant names, or, in the case of the US, that the toys they have played with for a generation are being taken away. In a society that prizes feelings above facts, and demands nor simply protection from bad things but even from hearing about bad things, all this is perhaps not surprising.

But I’m not really concerned with that here, except for one interesting point. Clinton supporters have been busy finding someone to blame for her recent catastrophic defeat, and I don’t know (or frankly, care) enough about American politics to act as some kind of adjudicator. But I was struck by how many times it’s been suggested that the problem was with “the message”, or that “people didn’t understand.” In other words, what we have here is  failure of marketing. If the marketing had been better, people would have “understood” and Clinton would have won.

Of course politicians in every country worry about the “message” and why it is or isn’t getting through. But it’s especially important in the US, because the US is the home and origin of Public Relations, and indeed PR is probably the only industry in which the US has consistently been a world leader.  It was also the first society to be built, deliberately and methodically, on public relations rather than on real political and economic structures  Consider the phrase “The American Dream”, which is a bit shop-soiled now, but still in use. What’s a dream? A dream is something that by definition is not real. So tens of millions of immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were sold a dream, rather than a reality. The reality was that most of them would have had a better life if they had stayed where they were.

The politics of the deliberately manufactured dream has been the dominant mode in the US ever since. The present is great but you don’t realise it. The future will always be wonderful when it eventually arrives. If you don’t see that it’s because you are too stupid to understand. This works for a while, reinforced by a powerful and sophisticated propaganda machine, in ways first spelt out by the journalist Walter Lippman in the 1920s. But the problem with PR, of course, is that in the end it’s not real, and there’s a limit to how far and for how long you can persuade people that black is white and up is down. It would be easier if elites were hypocritically and deliberately lying, but the problem is that they have employed and manipulated these dreams for so long, they have started to believe them. They no longer think they are lying.

But ordinary people think they are. The anger that we’re seeing is not about finding someone to “blame” for the apparent inability of so much of the population to understand  the wonderful benefits of globalization.  It’s the anger of people who realise that they have been systematically lied to over a long period of time, and that the lying is still going on. It’s the anger of people who realise that, behind the PR there actually is nothing. We’re in Wizard of Oz territory here, where everything is smoke and mirrors and there is nothing behind the curtain.

So what’s a poor, misunderstood elite to do when people have finally realised that PR and the world are two different things, and get angry? Search me. There’s nothing else, after all, but dreams to use as weapons. If I were them I’d start running now.

 

 

Fillon: Schadenfreude à la française.

The German word schadenfreude –  usually translated as something like “a malicious delight in the unhappiness of others” – refers to a concept that’s not especially nice, and by and large it’s something that we shouldn’t cultivate. But there are exceptions.

Most of us like seeing the hypocritical, the arrogant and the corrupt cut down to size, and no matter how many charitable feelings we manage to conjure up, there will be occasions when we think that somebody’s misfortunes are richly deserved: karma, if you like, with added moral sauce. In a world where the rich, powerful, arrogant and hypocritical seem to get away with everything all the time, it’s hard not to see the humbling of one of them as the limited and temporary reinstatement of a bit of moral order in the universe.

So after a year which featured, among other things, the humiliation of David Cameron and Hilary Clinton, and the apparent banishment from politics of Nicholas Sarkozy (but watch it, the slimy bastard may yet be back), we start 2017 with the hilariously entertaining crucifixion of François Fillon. There’s a kind of mad narrative purity in the Fillon story, almost as if he was setting himself up for a fall for twenty years, deliberately cultivating a false and hypocritical image and then making it easy for people to find out what he had done. Whatever the final result, the Fillon story will go down as an archetype of how to destroy a political career through stupidity and arrogance.

Consider. Here’s a man whose Presidential programme involves forcing people to wait longer for their pensions, and getting rid of half a million public sector workers, while wielding the lash of austerity with evident relish. Here’s a man who mentions his own honesty, his own integrity and the need for an “irreproachable” President in every speech, and takes the whole family off to church on Sunday. Here is a man who won the primary elections of the main right-wing party by contrasting himself with Juppé (who had served a suspended prison sentence for corruption) and Sarkozy, about whom nothing else need be said. Here’s a man who even his detractors thought was basically honest in a deeply corrupt political system.

But here’s a man who was employing his wife, or arranging for her to be employed, as his parliamentary assistant on and off for nearly twenty years. He somehow never got around to mentioning that fact, and indeed both he and she denied that she was working, and nobody ever seems to have seen her in her alleged place of employment. So he (or she or both) pocketed nearly a million Euros, more than most French people ever earn in a lifetime, at the taxpayer’s expense, and for doing no obvious work. Oh, and there was her non-existent but well-paid media job, the use of his children as assistants when they were both students, the mysterious consultancy with unidentified clients, and whatever new revelation will have surfaced by the time I finish typing this.

So here’s a man, one is tempted to say, who either has a political death-wish, or is so arrogant that he thinks the law and the rules don’t apply to him. Here’s a man who lied, with the complicity of his wife, over the course of twenty years, about something where the truth could easily be demonstrated. Here’s a man who disobeyed Denis Healey’s first rule of politics – when you’re in a hole, stop digging – and has flailed around, offering excuses and explanations which blow up in his face almost as soon as they are uttered. Here’s a man who doesn’t seem to actually deny the accusations, but who presents himself as a the innocent victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Here’s the man who would probably have been President of France.

Here’s a man who richly deserves everything he’s currently undergone, and everything he’s about to get. I don’t feel sorry for him at all.

Irresistible forces, immovable masses, and the sh*t hitting the fan.

When I was a student, a horribly long time ago, one of my professors, the kind of person who was always intolerant of intellectual laziness, explained to us one day why the idea of an irresistible force meeting an immovable mass was rubbish. After all, he said, if a force was irresistible, then no mass could be immovable, and vice versa. I was impressed by this, and occasionally mention it to my own students.

Nonetheless, in vernacular speech we continue to use this expression to mean that something very powerful is about to collide with something very strong, and it is not obvious which will prevail. I was thinking of this, obscurely, while I was looking at the new book by Mark Fisher, which I mentioned in a post recently. The late lamented Fisher quoted Slavoj Zizek as saying that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than it was to imagine the end of capitalism. Now Zizek is not known for his sense of understatement, but there is some truth in the idea that capitalism has come, in a matter of a generation or so, to dominate the ideological space in a way nothing else has for hundreds of years. I suppose the last time anything similar happened was in the 17th century, before science has started to make too many inroads into religion. If you look at the, sermons of John Donne, for example, you can see a highly intelligent man struggling and failing to understand that there were some people who literally did not believe in a supernatural God. Similarly, after several centuries when different orthodoxies fought it out with each other, it is true that there is today no obvious articulated alternative to capitalism. And you find support and adulation of it wherever you go. This, if you like, is the immovable mass.

But it’s not immovable. I said above that there was no “articulated” alternative, but that’s not to say that people don’t hope and wish for a better system. It’s just that there is no single, powerful system of ideas to which they can turn. But recent history shows that there is a limit to how far you can simply ignore ordinary people. For all that the post-modern list theorists have done well to alert us to be importance of discourse, and for all that George Orwell said in 1984 about making certain thoughts unthinkable, in the end we do have emotions and thoughts and we do find an expression for them. In the absence of an articulated ideology, this tends to come out in a rather rough and undeveloped form. We have seen this in the case of Brexit, we have seen this in the case of Donald Trump, and will be seeing it again and again over the next few years. The absolute incapacity of ordinary people to accept capitalism as it now is, and to demand change, is, if you like, the irresistible force.

So what happens now? I think there are two basic possibilities. One is a kind of ginormous explosion, which may actually destroy the current political and economic system as we know it. I leave you to consider whether you think that would be a good idea or not. The other possibility, floated over the last few months and potentially very interesting, is what James Petras has called “nationalist capitalism”, which would be a kind of return to the period before the madness of neoliberalism, where protectionism and economic nationalism went hand in hand with more attention to the needs of ordinary people. Obviously, this could come in many varieties, some good, some bad. But when even the rich are beginning to realise that neoliberalism will eventually eat itself, then it may be but on this occasion it’s the irresistible force that wins, and not the immovable mass.