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.



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.

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.

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.

A bunch of amateurs

People complain about politicians for all sorts of reasons these days, but one of the more persuasive arguments is that today what we have are overwhelmingly “professional politicians” who have never so much as served in a sweetshop before becoming involved in politics full-time. And that’s largely true: most of our current leaders have never actually done a, you know, job, but rather followed the politics degree-intern- research assistant-party hack- elected member route. So yes, in a sense they are professionals.

But we might pause at this point and think what “professional” is supposed to mean. It doesn’t mean “spend your life doing nothing else” as you might talk of a professional supermarket cashier. It usually means passing exams, doing training, having recognition, and, most of all, doing the job to a professional (i.e. adequate) standard. But our political class is not “professional” in that sense: they are the equivalent of doctors who haven’t been trained to use a scalpel.

In turn, that’s because old political skills like “getting elected” don’t have much of a place any more. The single political party that exists in most western states, with its wings and tendencies, its old guard and its young turks, its moderates and its radicals, resembles rather the kind of single party that used to exist in the Soviet era, except that these days factions are theoretically separate parties. Which is why the skills of our modern politicians are Soviet-era ones: bureaucratic politics, finding patrons, dispensing patronage, controlling the discourse, packing committees and so on. The only external actors they court (a development since Soviet times) are the media and wealthy donors.

Which is why, finally, they are amateurs. In France, François Hollande, a professional party man all his life, is presiding over a government expiring from terminal confusion and an inability to get anything done. Merkel, Cameron, Obama, all fundamentally fit the same stereotype, lacking conventional political skills entirely, and attempting to substitute for that an aura of entitlement and natural privilege.

But that’s gone now. Curiously, the most effective performers in politics at the moment are outsiders, people who haven’t spent decades inside the system, moving from party hack to elected office, to chair of an international NGO, to a job at the UN, to a post back in government again. The Le Pens and the Trumps actually know something about the world outside, which is why the insiders are so scared of them. And their appeal to votes (actual, you know, voters) is based squarely on this awareness of life outside the magic circle. I don’t know whether Trump will demolish Clinton later this year, as he seems perfectly capable of doing, but if he does it will be because, in the end, she’s an amateur and he’s a professional.