Normal capitalist realist service was resumed on Thursday, on the BBC Question Time Leaders Special. With the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens absent, horizons contracted, expectations lowered, we were once again asphyxiating in the Oxbridge-Westminster bubble. This was most obviously signalled by a discursive exclusion: “austerity” was never mentioned, so we were back on the arid terrain of a debate the terms of which were set by England’s austerians in 2010. The question, once more, was: who would cut the deficit quickest?
Miliband further deflated the mood – I think deliberately – by explicitly ruling out a “deal” or a “coalition” with the SNP. Given the right wing press’s scaremongering, Miliband’s denying that a deal will happen might have been necessary in order to make the conditions for such a deal possible. Any equivocation would surely have been seized upon by the right wing media, and relentlessly used to stoke up the fears of voters less likely to vote for Labour because of the prospect of a coalition. The audience members imploring Cameron and Miliband to be honest about possible deals were as ingenuous as those who hailed the programme as a triumph of participatory democracy. Neither leader could “be honest” about how the vote is likely to go on Thursday because that very speculation could change what actually happens. Such is the state of our current “democracy”: everything is distorted by media projections, by politicians’ (second) guesses as to how voters may behave in response to those projections, a whole phantom science of feedback.
Baudrillard: “Polls manipulate the undecidable. Do they affect votes? True of false? Do they yield exact photographs of reality, or of mere tendencies, or a refraction of this reality in a hyperspace of simulation whose curvature we do not know? True or false? Undecidable.”
For most of this campaign, Cameron has given every impression that he far rather be tucking into country supper than demeaning himself hustling on the hustings. Defending the status quo is not as energising as tearing it down, and comfortable Cameron never had the class resentment-jouissance that drove grocer’s daughter Thatcher to battle trade unionists and old school Tory grandees alike. For him, it’s a career, not a mission. Cameron has never seemed like a man burning with conviction; he comes across more like the captain of some public school cricket team who whose main motivation for winning is to remind uppity comprehensive kids who’s boss. On Thursday, Cameron finally went into bat for his class like he meant it.
He needs to. This election is pivotal. Either the Tories can “finish the job” of looting and pillaging everything working class struggle built, or they themselves could be on the brink of destruction. The Conservative Party haven’t won an overall majority since 1992. It’s difficult enough keeping this party of opportunists, quislings and crazies together at the best of times; if they fail to win again, will even Boris be able to prevent meltdown? And with the Tories in disarray, the right could finally be forced off the centre ground that they won and radically re-defined under Thatcher.
Pumped up, calmed down
In front of the BBC cameras, Cameron’s performance wasn’t quite as slick as his upper lip, but he discovered a poise that he has seldom mustered in the past few weeks. The problem with Cameron getting pumped up last week is not only that it looked pathetically forced (his claim that he was “pumped up because I am” was a transparent deception as well as a tautology. He was “pumped up” because Tory backers demanded that he at least gave the appearance of caring). The more serious issue is that such displays of simulated passion undermine Cameron’s key appeal, which has to do with projecting casual authority: what David Smail, writing before Cameron came onto the scene, called “[t]he confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister.” Cameron’s accent, his posture, his smirk, convey a consistent message: relax, I’m in control, defer to me. When he strays from this “ease and familiarity”, he risks looking angry and/ or uncomfortable, and apparent affability gives way an affronted sense of class superiority, as in the “calm down, dear” incident.
Presenting the Tories as the nasty party has been counterproductive, the fake letter of support from small businesses devolved into yet another Thick of It farce, but Thursday’s flooding of the audience with Tory supporters posing as undecided voters worked. Cameron was back on home territory: the bizarre inverted world of English capitalist realism in which referring to a global banking crisis was desperate reaching for excuses, and austerity was the only possible course of action for any prudent government. (The best thing about New Labour was Alastair Campbell – a skilled operator and a technician, an expert on how to win ground on a hostile media terrain. It’s hard to imagine that, if he were still running things, that Labour would have been ambushed like they were on Thursday.)
A picture of discontented new wealth
Under the questioning of businesswoman Catherine Shuttleworth, Ed started to look like a supply teacher who had earnestly planned an interesting and informative lesson, only to find out that the kids just wanted to humiliate him, whatever he said. The Tory narrative of Labour profligacy was once again established as a self-evident truth that only a fool and/ or a brazen liar would contest. This narrative was all the more convincing when it was re-cycled/ re-cited by a “concerned businesswoman”, “struggling to survive in a tough climate”. The subsequent exposure of Shuttleworth as a probable Tory plant will not erase the impact of her TV encounter with Miliband, if only because complaining about the audience not only implicitly concedes defeat, it makes Labour look like sore losers.
For the moment, let’s believe Shuttleworth’s story that she isn’t a Tory. (Although note that even the DM whitewashing is carefully worded: Shuttleworth only denies that she’s ever been a member of the Tory party, not that she’s a lifelong Tory voter, which is of course impossible to prove or disprove.) The question then would be why she should be so ready to blame hard times not on the government which has been in power in the last five years, but on the government which was in power when she actually built and grew her business? Miliband’s pitch – Labour is all about supporting small business owners – is part of a strategy that could be fruitful in the long run, since it could break the alliance between small business and corporate capital which has been so central to the installation of capitalist realism. But Shuttleworth’s response to these overtures shows that breaking that alliance will be a long and hard struggle. She immediately started bleating on behalf of Tesco – as if Tesco didn’t enjoy its greatest success under New Labour, and as if its downfall wasn’t a direct consequence of the very corporate tyranny that Miliband was moving to attack?
While Miliband was correct not to capitulate to nonsense about Labour overspending, it was clear that Labour has left it far too late to challenge the dominant narrative. On the face of it, Labour’s acquiescence in the austerity myth has been inexplicable. Paul Krugman writes of:
the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.
Why this weakness? In part it may reflect the fact that the crisis occurred on Labour’s watch; American liberals should count themselves fortunate that Lehman Brothers didn’t fall a year later, with Democrats holding the White House. More broadly, the whole European centre-left seems stuck in a kind of reflexive cringe, unable to stand up for its own ideas.
You say “reflexive cringe”, I say “reflexive impotence” … Labour’s slowness to respond to the crisis was not merely some failure of judgement or strategy; it was a consequence of how deeply capitalist realism had saturated the party. There was no question of Labour using the crisis to impose its own programme, because, by 2008, it didn’t have much of programme beyond capitalist realism. Everything had been set up for a corporate appeasement, and there were neither the organisational nor the intellectual infrastructure to come up with anything new. Capitalist realism wasn’t something that Labour was waiting out and planning to overcome, one day; it was embedded as an effectively permanent baseline set of conditions – conditions which receded from visibility even as they imposed strict limits on what could be said and thought.
I’m in a trance, I don’t ask questions
Following Wendy Brown, I argued that capitalist realism can be understood as a kind of dreamwork. In this dreamwork, briefly interrupted in 2008, the banking crisis is some repressed trauma which is known about but never confronted, a Real that the dreamer stays asleep to keep avoiding. Capital is the dreamer here, and, insofar as capitalist realism is sustained, we remain figments in its dream. Yet capital is also our dream, which, Matrix-like, has constructed the virtual reality in which we think we live from our energy, our desires and our fantasies.
You would think that mention of the banking crisis would produce some cognitive dissonance when set against the narrative of Labour profligacy. If there was a global financial crisis, how could Labour also be responsible for the deficit? No doubt, part of the success of the “Labour did it” story is due to the hold of folk politics. A narrative about incompetent politicians maxing out the credit cards is easily digested; it’s far more difficult to assimilate the opaque and abstract mechanics of finance capital. But one of the most valuable insights in Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown comes from his account of cognitive dissonance itself. Referring to the work of Leon Festinger, the social psychologist who worked extensively on cognitive dissonance, Mirowski reminds us that cognitive dissonance is not a threat to false beliefs. On the contrary, cognitive dissonance is a mechanism by which false beliefs can be maintained when confronted with evidence that directly disproves them. In fact, as Mirowski writes, Festinger’s crucial claim was “that confrontation with contrary evidence may actually augment and sharpen the conviction and enthusiasm of a believer”. Mirowski quotes Festinger:
Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart…suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view.
This points to a relationship between desire and belief that has been posited at least since Hume and Spinoza’s critiques of religion: we believe in part because we want to believe. But we also want to believe because the belief has become core to our subjectivity.
If you get too burnt you can’t come back home
The great mystery of neoliberalism is to what extent its advocates “really” believed it. Was it ever anything more than a ruse to restore ruling class power and wealth? Of course, the answer to this partly depends on which advocates we are talking about. It’s possible that certain key proselytisers for neoliberalism never believed it, and only opportunistically fixed upon it as a way of destroying the “red bases” of working class power. With others, it’s more likely that a belief was aided by the desire to believe. This desire was motivated by economic interest, of course, but also by certain libidinal satisfactions: the pleasures of seeing the working class defeated, of seeing the poor and vulnerable stripped of social security. For a certain English petit-bourgeois sensibility, Thatcherism was the equivalent of a riot: a jubilee of destruction, a temporary autonomous zone for a reactionary desire that feeds off suffering and misery.
And as I was standing by the edge
I could see the faces of those led pissing theirselves laughing
(and the flames grew)
Their mad eyes buldged their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger
The funeral pyre will be re-lit if the Tories win on Thursday (bring some paper and bring some wood/
bring what’s left of all your love for the fire), and after five more years, there won’t be much left … The NHS will have been gutted, sold off by stealth; education will continue to be asset stripped, ripe for yet more corporate plundering …. the most vulnerable will be pushed further into destitution, women and children first …
This is why Cameron’s android smoothness, like Boris’s bluster, is so crucial for the Tories. It is a cloaking device, obfuscating the project, keeping the gibbering libido hidden behind a humanoid face and a calming, plummy voice. Imagine if Gove (who’s been pushed back into the attic for trying just too hard to be one of the posh boys – so vulgar, so nouveau) – imagine if Gove, with his defrocked pantomime dame pout, his lickspittle lips smacking with the class hatred that only a class traitor can feel, imagine if he were leader….
By contrast, Cameron’s strength is that it is hard to work up much class hatred for him. People that wealthy and privileged are like rare beasts: something you hear about but rarely encounter. In fact, I’ve seen more pandas in the flesh than old Etonians. You also get the sense that Cameron has no particular animus towards the poor – it’s rather that the experience of poverty is so remote for him that he simply cannot understand it, except as some theoretical possibility. The poor are pixellated background characters in the blearily cheerful steampunk simulation that Dave projects: everything’s fine so long as you don’t look too closely.
Dismantling capitalist realism
But let’s return to Mirowski’s summary of Festinger’s research:
Philosophy of science revels in the ways in which it may be rational to discount contrary evidence, but the social psychology of cognitive dissonance reveals just how elastic the concept of rationality can be in social life. Festinger and his colleagues illustrated these lessons in his first book (1956) by reporting in a neutral manner the vicissitudes of a group of Midwesterners they called “The Seekers,” who developed a belief that they would be rescued by flying saucers on a specific date in 1954, prior to a great flood coming to engulf Lake City (a pseudonym). Festinger documents in great detail the hour-by-hour reactions of the Seekers as the date of their rescue came and passed with no spaceships arriving and no flood welling up to swallow Lake City. At first, the Seekers withdrew from representatives of the press seeking to upbraid them for their failed prophecies, but rapidly reversed their stance, welcoming any and all opportunities to expound and elaborate upon their (revised and expanded) faith. A minority of their group did fall away, but Festinger notes they tended to be lukewarm peripheral members of the group. Predominantly, the Seekers never renounced their challenged doctrines. The ringleaders tended to redouble their proselytizing, so long as they were able to maintain interaction with a coterie of fellow covenanters.
Mirowski makes an analogy with proponents of neoliberal economic doctrine, who – far from abandoning this doctrine after its discrediting in the crisis – held to it even more doggedly. This is what Miliband faced on Thursday. Blank stares of mesmerised true believers seven years after the saucers didn’t arrive. Shuttleworth’s interjection like some Manchurian Candidate trigger, provoking automaton-applause …
This shows how difficult the task of dismantling capitalist realism will be. A whole process of deprogramming, involving new narratives, new libidinal attractors, as well as new ways of sharing knowledge, will have to be undergone. While this is certainly a formidable challenge, it is something that is already underway and which we can intensify quite quickly.
Of particular importance, it seems to me, is a popular demystification of economics and “the economy”. The austerity myth has only seemed credible because of a widespread economic illiteracy – an illiteracy I very much share. Economics functions now much as theology functioned in the medieval world – as an intricate and elaborate system of concepts, objects and reasoning that is closed to non-initiates. We need something like a Reformation in/ and against capitalist economics – the equivalent of the Bible being translated into English. I think this could be done, not by a series of large-scale conferences, televisions, or films – although of course these wouldn’t hurt – but virally. Small groups of people, including at least one individual who is an expert in economics, could get together and talk through some key concepts and principles, major economic events, etc. This could take place in private homes, in universities and colleges, in social clubs … In addition to everything else, this would also serve the function of reviving sociality, of re-building a class consciousness that has been dissipated by the individualising tendencies of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism.
Back to Thursday, here’s “entrepreneur” Chris. “A ban on zero hours contract would prevent me from running my small business …” Well, would it now? We’ve heard many versions of this plaint over the last few months, from businesses big and small. What this amounts to is saying that, these businesses cannot function without super-exploiting workers, and they cannot function without indirect government subsidies (with benefits supplementing low wages). Hold on a minute: didn’t the capitalist realists make their “hard decisions” to close down nationalised industries on the grounds that they weren’t viable and they were draining too much public money?
We need a new, communist, realism, which says that businesses are only viable if they can pay workers a living wage. This communist realism would reverse the capitalist realist demonisation of those on benefits, and target the real parasites: “entrepreneurs” whose enterprises depend on hyper-precarious labour; landlords living it large off housing benefit; bankers getting bonuses effectively or actually out of public money, etc.
But the concept of communist realism also suggests a particular kind of orientation. This isn’t an eventalism, which will wager all its hopes on a sudden and final transformation. It isn’t a utopianism, which concedes anything “realistic” to the enemy. It is about soberly and pragmatically assessing the resources that are available to us here and now, and thinking about how we can best use and increase those resources. It is about moving – perhaps slowly, but certainly purposively – from where we are now to somewhere very different.