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.

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.

 

 

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.

So where isn’t NATO when you really don’t need it?

Hard as it may be to remember now, there was a time twenty-five years ago when the future of NATO looked like being short and undistinguished. The end of the Cold War took NATO completely by surprise, and the organisation and its members were in a state of frozen disbelief for quite a while. I remember being in NATO headquarters in January 1990: half of the offices were empty, as though the bureaucrats had run away to hide somewhere, and there was an almost tangible atmosphere of depression and shock throughout the building.

Of course, NATO did not die then, because its continuation served the interests of too many different states and lobbies. Although nations had claimed throughout the Cold War that the only reason for NATO’s existence was the Soviet Threat, and that this was why millions of young men were conscripted every year, and hundreds billions of dollars spent on defence, there was always much more to it than that.

An incomplete list of reasons why states really supported NATO would include the following. For the United States, the chance to have a decisive voice in European security issues without being militarily committed to the defence of the continent. For Britain, the chance to exert influence over the United States, and to play a role through NATO that it could not have played otherwise. For Germany, a ticket back to international military respectability. For France, the hope of not being left alone as in 1940. For many smaller countries, on the other hand, NATO was a useful counterweight to the developing Franco- German axis that threatened to dominate Europe. For Belgium, it was another international organisation to add to the collection. For just about every European state it was a way of keeping Germany under control, as well as providing assurance of international help if some of the continent’s large and powerful Communist parties looked like coming to power.

Whilst these factors were well understood, for obvious reasons they were seldom talked about in public So after the confusing first few years, it was necessary for NATO and its member states to come up with at least a formal new justification for its existence. Unfortunately, NATO was set up as a wartime military alliance, even if few people believed after the mid-1950s but it would ever actually fight a war. An essentially military organisation, organised along the paralysingly bureaucratic lines of the American military, was always going to find it hard to do other things successfully. Efforts at defence reform in Eastern Europe were best a modest success. Other attempts to extend NATO’s mandate into softer security areas (most recently Afghanistan) were in general a failure. When NATO actually came to conduct military operations, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, it turned out not to be very good at them. So if it couldn’t do war, and it couldn’t do peace, what could it do?

The answer, or at least an answer, turned out to be enlargement. Indeed, for most of the twenty years that followed the Cold War, NATO was primarily occupied with getting bigger. In spite of what is sometimes alleged, this was never a deliberate long-term plan. The assurances that the Americans gave the Russians in 1990 that NATO would not expand towards the East were probably at least partly genuine at the time. Certainly, many European capitals were very worried about the possibility of uncontrolled expansion of a military alliance which one day would find itself on the borders of Russia. But what else was NATO to do? It was like a bike: either it goes forward, or it falls over. And the potential problem of German tanks on the Russian border was one that future generations of politicians and generals could be left to solve.

Well, we are there now. In a sense, also, we are back where we were in 1990, except that all the pieces are considerably further east. Unable to expand any further, and with most of its members decidedly unenthusiastic about declaring war on any more Arab states, NATO is effectively forced into a posture of military confrontation to justify its existence. As it has been from the beginning, NATO is desperately casting around for a role, and allowing itself to be driven by events in the direction of anything that looks promising.

Over the last generation, American governments have been more or less enthusiastic about NATO depending on their complexion. Some Republican administrations have been decidedly lukewarm, but in the end have always come round, prodded by the foreign policy establishment. But, whilst it’s too soon to draw conclusions, it’s quite possible that one of the effects of Trump’s election victory will be to finally begin the process of burying NATO. The neoconservative hawks who have dominated American foreign policy for so long do appear to have been strangled, or at least put in cages, and the policy of confrontation for its own sake seems to be over now, for which we can all be thankful. NATO, which has been in an existential crisis for more than 25 years, is perhaps about to be put out of its misery.

The difficulty is that we have become used to the rhetoric of “defence” and of Europeans “taking responsibility” and “paying their share”. This rhetoric is the biggest single obstacle to actually seeing and dealing with European security problems as they really are, which have little to do with NATO, except inasmuch as it is a large part of many of the problems. For a long time, we had Cold War nostalgia by people who missed the certainty that the Cold War provided. We now have Cold War nostalgia by people who missed it in the first place because they were too young. Wars have been fought for many bizarre and improbable reasons in history, and we may have escaped, through Clinton’s defeat, the first war ever to have been fought out of nostalgia and the desire to escape an existential crisis. .

Followership is not enough.

It was famously said of the politicians of the French Radical Party under the Third Republic that they had no political platform except “to be in power”. That’s probably truer of more politicians, in more political systems, than we might like to think, but it shouldn’t obscure the fact that, here and there and from time to time, there have been political leaders with a bit of vision and determination who have, you know, led.

Leadership now seems horribly old fashioned, when most politicians today aspire to followership, if they have any aspirations at all. Yet there are political figures – Lloyd George, Roosevelt, De Gaulle –  who were prepared to take on enemies and beat them in order to achieve things they believed were important. I was reminded just today that Neville Chamberlain – vilified for trying to prevent the Second World War – introduced some important social legislation during his time as Prime Minister, and not without having to fight for it.

Just as listening to the people and trying to meet their needs has been rebranded as “populism” (if not Fascism or even Nazism), so decisive government has been rebranded as “authoritarian.” We’ve reached the point where Hilary Clinton’s main qualification for being President is apparently that she’s not actually going to do anything, for example about America’s health care crisis, because it’s all too difficult.

But of course you’d have to be hopelessly naive to think that just because government is sitting on its hands, nobody else is in charge. The current hysteria about “authoritarian” political leaders is just a way of saying that the rich and powerful should be allowed to  continue to make the rules for their own convenience, without any interruption from the likes of you and me. No words of condemnation are too strong for leaders like  Vladimir Putin who actually are decisive, and have tried to exert the power of government.

Whether western elites like it or not, I fear we are in for a period of authoritarian rule, although in quite what form we don’t yet know. Certainly just asking banks to be kind enough to obey the law hasn’t been very successful. When the need comes to send the police in to close the banks down and arrest the senior managers, I’d rather a democratic government gave the order. But the longer the political class displays nothing but followership, the less likely that is.