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.

 

 

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. .

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.