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.

Russian intelligence services doing their job, shock horror.

Well, I was waiting for the self-pitying neurotic hysteria to die down, but it hasn’t. Maybe it will over the next week or so as Trump consolidates his power. (As of the time of writing he hasn’t been assassinated).

Take a deep breath and put yourself in the position of the Russians. (Yes, I know it’s difficult but try hard). There’s an election coming in the US and you want to know all you can about the major candidates. In the case of Clinton (whom you view as a dangerous and aggressive psychopath) you want to know more than she is saying publicly. Accepting that all politicians lie, your judgement is that she lies more than most, so that it’s important to know what she and her coterie really think. So maybe you hack into her party server (which seems to be about as secure as a meringue in a coffee grinder) or you just make use of leaks you come across naturally to brief your leader. This is what all intelligence services do. This is what all intelligence services are supposed to do. A Russian intelligence service that was not trying to find out everything about US electoral candidates would not be doing its job. Can we at least calm, down, stop hyperventilating and accept that?

Trump: Back to Normal at Last?

You had to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the discomfiture of the punditocracy with the results of this week’s US elections. It’s egg-on-face time in a big way, and a time moreover of reckoning for western politico-financial elites, if they were only intelligent enough to notice it, which they are not.

But enough of the laughter. Assuming Trump survives long enough to be inaugurated, we have the intriguing prospect of a return to a healthier kind of politics, and with that the replacement of the technocratic, can’t-do model of the last generation. Older readers will remember a time when governments actually did things. This was before they turned themselves into PR merchants for vested interests, dancing to the tune of whoever pays or threatens them the most.

Trump, very simply, has his own money. He does not owe anybody, and his foreign policy, for example, is not for sale. US foreign policy has for decades now operated in the very narrow area of freedom permitted by various overlapping and conflicting lobbies, but it’s hard to imagine someone as aggressive as Trump becoming just a front-man for Saudi Arabia or Israel. Rather than trying to appease his enemies, Trump, as a good American businessman, is likely to try to destroy them. The neoconservatives, the Israel lobby, the oil-rich Gulf states; all, I rather suspect, have a bucket of cold water coming, did they only realise it. They can offer him nothing that he wants, and I really wonder whether these, or any of the other lobbies, would be wise to try to threaten him. We’ll see. Actually, we might see something rather interesting.

America: How Farces End

The Hegel-Marx first-tragedy-then-farce thing has been applied often enough to the current political situation in the United States  that I don’t need to give it another outing here. Enough to say that the election campaign (if that’s really the word) that is going on at the moment has gone somewhere beyond farce, into some absurdist, surreal, tragic, hysterical state, incomprehensible to foreigners and no doubt disturbing for Americans who will have to live with the consequences more than the rest of us.

But let’s remember the underlying logic of farce. The protagonist is trying to conceal something, deceive people, and avoid discovery at all costs. As the problems pile up, the protagonist resorts to more and more desperate measures, and more and more outrageous lies, until everything finally goes bang.

US politics is currently in Act 5 of this farce. For years, the power elite has managed to divert peoples’ attention from inequalities of economic and political power, domestic rapacity and foreign wars, by promoting marginal, if hysterically-conducted, arguments about peripheral social issues. But that’s not working any more, and the power elite is desperately running around closing doors, looking under beds, hiding incriminating evidence and lying in its teeth, hoping to delay the inevitable explosion by a few more years.  So it’s officially true, for example, that opposition to neoliberal kleptocratic economics means you are both a Nazi and a Communist.

This can’t work much longer. If Clinton wins, the system will stagger on for a few more years (not necessarily four) before exploding. If Trump wins, the bang will come sooner than that. But unlike a farce, this isn’t taking place in a theatre, but in a nuclear-armed country. The final outcome could be anything but farcical.

The Outer Party gets worried ….

When we think about politics, we tend to think in metaphors. When we fail to understand a political situation, it is usually because we are using the wrong metaphor.

 

For the last generation, the de-politicisation of politics has meant that elections are presented essentially as football matches, or, in the case of presidential elections, something more like horse races. Of course, football teams are basically interchangeable, distinguished only by their shirts. And that’s the way that politics has been going, where tribal loyalty to a particular party, independent of what it stands for (if it stands for anything) obscures all the more fundamental questions of political programmes. So, to vary the metaphor, a presidential election is simply seen as a race between two different competitors, ignoring policy issues except inasmuch as they might tactically be used appeal to some set of voters or other.

 

Now this is very convenient for certain people. The draining away of all real political conflict over the last generation has enabled politics to be presented – and not entirely falsely – as just a sport. What we actually have instead of real political competition, is something closer to the Party in Orwell’s 1984, with the exception that the inevitable policy debates and power struggles are played out in semi-public, rather than being hidden behind the closed doors of a totalitarian state.

 

But in the end, this difference is more apparent than real. The Party is a more or less permanent alliance of political, financial and media interests, able to co-opt governments and nowadays to largely ignore public opinion. Now of course, it is important not to fall victim to paranoia: the Party is not all-powerful, it is not completely united, and its operatives, intelligent as they may be, have been acting in a pretty arrogant and counter-productive fashion just recently. But it remains the major, and in some cases the only, important political actor in most countries today.

 

Which brings us naturally to those who are challenging the hegemony of the Party from outside. Because the Party, as in Orwell’s novel, has no ideology as such, and exists only to be in power, it is open to challenges from the Left or the Right pretty much indifferently. This is why in certain countries (Greece, Spain…) the challenge appears to come from the Left; whilst in others (France, America…) the challenge appears to come from the Right. But in each case, the challenge is coming from outside the system, from those who are not, and do not want to be, members of the Party.

 

You will remember that in Orwell’s novel there was an Inner Party and an Outer Party. The Inner Party, held all the actual power. Members of the Outer Party toiled at jobs like that of Winston Smith, who these days would be a blogger at a vaguely progressive website. If the penalties for saying the wrong thing these days are not as drastic as they were in the novel, nonetheless, Outer Party members lead a pretty insecure life, dependent on favours from above. Which is why there is so much hysteria about the possibility of Donald Trump doing well in November. It is less that he might win (I have no idea) than that if he does well, the whole system is likely to come crashing down. The Inner Party, with its mansions, its stock options, its aircraft and its overseas boltholes, will probably be able to run fast enough, and early enough, not to lose very much. But the Outer Party, which is doing quite well out of the current system, has nothing similar to fall back on. It is that more than anything else that explains their current hysteria. What future is there in being a blogger defending so-called free trade agreements if all of those agreements are torn up, along with heaven knows how many other things? It is always the subaltern class that resists change most violently, after all, and the servants of the wealthy who have the most to lose.

Clinton: Let’s have another civil war

I’m getting increasingly worried that part of the US opinion-making system that supports Clinton (or at least hates Trump) is becoming genuinely unhinged. This is an example of the kind of thing I mean.  Constitutional scholars are now seriously arguing that some states Clinton expects to win should refuse to accept a Trump victory and secede from the United States.

The point of course is that a Trump victory is unacceptable, whatever happens, because he is Not One of Us. Therefore, it is increasingly being argued, a Trump victory would be illegitimate, because we don’t like him. Now there might be some practical problems associated with that attitude (the electorate, for example) but sophisticated arguments could be deployed to argue that the people had been deluded, the system rigged, the candidate was unacceptable or had cheated and so forth. If you think this is reminiscent of the US (and western) approach to elections in countries where it blatantly favours one side, then, well, you’d be right. In fact, there’s a good chance that some kind of constitutional coup or secession engineered by Clinton would be accepted and applauded by Right-thinking People in the political system and the media, not only in the US but around most of the world.

Whether actual, you know, voters, would accept such an outcome is unclear. I’ve thought for some time that the violent disintegration of America was likely, and not far away at that, but I always thought the initiative would come from the Right. It’s beginning to seem possible, at least, that it might come from whatever the other direction calls itself these days. What an irony it would be if, after devastating so many other countries, Clinton were to finish by destroying her own.