Politics, language, possibility

Recently, I have been more enthusiastically self-identifying as a socialist. I do this less defensively, less furrow-browed, in a more openly confident spirit. Now I say I’m a socialist not only because of my political views but also as a provocation and because – although there are myriad reasons to think I am wrong or perhaps historically maladjusted – I enjoy the reactions and commonly find that people’s protests and disagreements actually amount to less than a hill of beans, especially in a time when the trusted politics of compromise with capital seems, to put it mildly, strained.

But I think this annunciation of bold confessions is more than just my personal whimsy. There are also deeper shifts in the language of politics at work here. Tectonic shifts that make it more seductive and possibly empowering for anyone who thinks politically with any conviction to despair a little and look for modes of conversation that are more fitting to a time when the perennial and major political issues – order, legitimacy, justice, ideology and so on – are paradoxically particularly lively but articulated in a deadening idiot language by those who claim to represent us or frame the issues of the day.

There is a well-trodden story here, at least in the UK and arguably many other places. In the UK, political historians often start with Tony Blair and the autocue. Blair and his writers famously broke down public address into sentences bereft of the comforting familial feel of nouns linked to adjectives and bundled with pronouns. What we were offered was terse idiotese. Shorter sentences. Simpler messages. Repeated soundbites. Shorter, simpler, repeated. Despite her meticulous attention to text, Thatcher introduced elements of this discourse before Blair, a component of her neoliberal populism. Beyond Westminster, anyone with eyes and ears open can recognise a foreshortening of public political discourse in our media. TV news has gone to extreme lengths to process all political events and issues into absurdly simplified, rapid reportage designed to service infantilising graphics in a way that beggars credibility. Chris Morris’s satire turned out to be premonition.

Between Blair’s legacy and the CNN-Sky-Fox mediatisation of politics we can see a broad rump of emaciated political language, and it is thoroughly depressing. During a rainy weekend in Uganda and with a very limited selection of TV channels (news or religion; I looked forward to the evening schedule when the wrestling channel started), I watched the ubiquitous CNN for a few hours and found myself amazed at how it was possible to watch for extended periods and think absolutely nothing at all about anything, back and forth from the half-hourly global weather reports.

It is fun to give an account of these well-recognised changes but other shifts have taken place and overlain the anaesthetisation of political language, producing more complex and interesting effects. Firstly, one can recognise a new kind of emotional discourse in politics. What might be called ‘conviction politics’, one in which politicians and all manner of political pundits and entrepreneurs seek to appeal to their spectators like Weberian neo-charismatics, affected and character-driven. Theirs is the language of the right thing to do not rights; it is the narrative of ‘truthiness’ not truth. It starts with ‘I believe…’ (which is the worst first sentence of a paragraph in a first year undergraduate’s politics essay), not ‘we should’.

Secondly, there is a mystical political discourse, entirely pernicious and largely the fault of what some have called (in a different but related context) ‘economics imperialism’. This discourse starts with religion and ends with science. It starts with metaphysical representations of ‘the market’ or ‘finance’ or ‘currency’, as if these things were rather like phlogiston, ether, or a deity: obscure, powerful forces that exist in a state of indifference to the endeavours of humankind even as governments so desperately to engender ‘confidence’ in them. It ends with a language of ‘science’ in the increasingly arcane lexicon of global finance. Here, derivatives, hedge funds, credit ratings and so on take numerical forms that represent them in ways that resemble Newtonian facts, generating a politics of numerocracy: rule by numbers.

Such grand mystifications lurk in the dark arts of economese, like the explanations of global financial crisis and the politics of austerity. The explanations of economic crisis offered by public intellectuals are often alienating and complex. What they communicate is the message that these are matters for the experts and that the experiences of turbulence that lead people to find their banks closed, their pension funds ruined, their jobs gone, their pay frozen, their hours increased should be met with a kind of fatalism that issues from a (purposeful) failure of most politicians and public intellectuals to give an account of crisis in which people matter as political agents. Who then remembers that the recession was caused by financial markets collapsing and that the subsequent public debt was largely a result of Western states paying their way out of the effects of this?

Beyond the economese of ‘troubled’ assets, quantitative easing, labour market flexibility and so on is a third discourse which is, in its way, a little more poetic, even if the stanzas are far from edifying. This is a figurative political language: the ugly metaphor of ‘belt tightening’ and the demonstrably erroneous simile in which politicians argue that ‘we’ need to spend less and earn more as if a national economy were basically a big version of an indebted lower-middle class household. We must be responsible, not spend beyond our means, face difficult times. Right, kids?

The image I am offering is of a linguistic terrain of depleting market populism in which soundbites and advert straplines converge in political banality. On this terrain, frail trees grow, offering the paltry blossoms of mystical market fatalism, befuddling economic technospeak, and familyhood homilies about facing tough times. Is it any wonder that the fairly moderate but ostensibly heretic manifesto of Jeremy Corbyn has been so appealing to such a surprising number of people? Was it really so surprising that the gurning xenophobic populism of Farage leapt ahead of the vapid verbal Horlicks of Nick Clegg?

This is the spirit within which talking about socialism emerges. And, it is worth noting that the language and promise of socialist ideas have proven to be remarkably tenacious. My discovery of socialist ideas in the late 1980s took place precisely on the eve of them become pervasively unfashionable. It seemed to most that socialism as an idea was on its way out, and for some little was left to get excited about beyond the tweaking of liberal governance in an age of ‘globalisation’. But, despite the obvious complete absence of strong examples of socialism in the world and the general collapse of many socialist parties, socialist ideologies remain. In some contexts, they flourish. There is still plenty of fight in them. One might say, reasonably, that socialist political movements persist as marginal contrarian discourses whilst sensible people gather to discuss how best to regulate capitalism and promote ‘democracy’. That brings us back to the situation we live in: the weak political discourses evoked at a time when capitalism seems a rather less willing partner to forms of social democracy or commonwealth.

Socialism is at its heart the historically most hopeful way of thinking about politics beyond the endless institutional tweaking that a reconciliation to capital involves. There are lots of other compelling liberation ideologies – some kinds of feminism, anarchism, ‘race’ politics, and queer politics being the main contenders – but these do not concertedly address the questions of capital in the ways that socialism does, and they are also potentially open to a comingling of norms and ideas with socialist thinking. Socialism is not intrinsically millenarian like religious and nationalist politics is (although some like to think it is); it is not necessarily authoritarian (although this characterisation has been powerful ammunition for its opponents); and it provides a broad remit for the humane, justice-seeking, and radical political imagination.

Onwards to a red tide of socialist imagination… and don’t spare the bourgeoisie!

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