In my opinion, much of what passes for public discourse these days can be characterised as antipolitics. In this post I’m going to deconstruct four images from modern life, which bring the shape and definition of antipolitics into focus. I’ll start with an image from British politics, before narrowing my focus to Scotland and then to Glasgow. I’ll then finish up by looking at a familiar trope from the world of social media. In the process I hope to convince you that much of the recent public activity people highlight as exciting and positive is actually the very opposite of politics.
Image one: Labour MPs voting with the Tories to introduce the Charter for Budget Responsibility
You may have heard about this one. In January of this year, five months before the General Election, Labour joined the Conservatives and Lib Dems in voting for a charter that commits the government to balancing the structural deficit by 2018 (a government that we didn’t then know would be a Tory majority).
This served as the hors d’oeuvre for George Osborne announcing his budget surplus law after the election, which will legally require governments to run a surplus when the economy is growing.
With both of these ruses, Osborne cemented his position as his generation’s leading practitioner of antipolitics.
Osborne reminds me increasingly of Jose Mourinho. It’s not just the undeniably classy tailoring. Osborne shares with Jose a flair for denying his opponents any space. In football, Mourinho is acknowledged universally as the game’s leading defensive tactician. He can set his teams up to play enormously effective and often attractive attacking football, but when he needs a 0-0 draw he knows better than anyone else how to get one. Osborne, similarly, plans and works obsessively to suffocate his opponents and leave them no space to operate. And the Budget Responsibility Charter was his masterpiece.
Labour MPs have taken a great deal of punishment for signing up to Osborne’s charter. An interpretation of its terms, seized upon with relish by the SNP and others, projected public spending cuts of £30bn over three years. It’s fair to say that few Labour supporters were thrilled by the prospect. So why support the measure?
But that’s the devious brilliance of Osborne’s strategy. What else could Labour do? The Tories spent five years smearing Labour as the architects of the global economic crash, and then dared them to vote against a charter for budget responsibility. Can you imagine the headlines if Miliband and Balls had defied the Chancellor? They might as well have called off the election for all the chance Labour would have had, the spendthrift, reckless bastards.
Everything about the charter was a winner for Osborne. Labour had to back it, which made their supporters queasy and gave their social democrat opponents the best material they’d had in ages. Meanwhile he didn’t have to worry about the implications of the policy – either he’d make lots of cuts, or he’d just ignore the fact that he hadn’t. Y’know, like he always does.
The budget surplus law that he announced following the election win is another act of antipolitics. Osborne is attempting to strangle at birth the next Labour leader’s attempts to develop a progressive fiscal policy. Any serious attempt to invest in the country’s infrastructure will require a level of borrowing made near-impossible by a legal obligation to run a surplus. Labour will then be reduced to tinkering around the edges of public spending, which hardly affords them much opportunity to design an attractive and distinctive policy platform.
Fundamentally, Osborne is a politician, not an economist. His fiscal policy is almost always focused on party political advantage rather than the health of our economy and society. His budget charter and surplus law are recognised by most economists as baffling, absurd nonsense, but they make perfect sense to me as acts of antipolitics. By effectively criminalising public sector borrowing, and narrowing drastically the government’s capacity to spend, he has slipped Labour into a fiendishly tricky straitjacket. Osborne’s agenda is to delegitimise the sort of fiscal policy that a future Labour government would largely be founded upon. It will be a brave Labour leader who proposes to rescind Osborne’s legislation.
His tactics are outstanding, it has to be said. The good news, though, is that Mourinho was eventually worked out by Ferguson, and then by Guardiola. A positive vision of politics, such as Blair and Brown constructed in their early years, might yet break down Osborne’s catenaccio. The trouble is, who among Labour’s leadership contenders reminds you of Fergie or Pep?
Image two: someone signing the petition to recall Alistair Carmichael
A veritable tableau vivant, this one.
Has there ever been a political stramach from which fewer people have emerged with credit? I struggle to remember anything comparable.
Let’s remind ourselves of the basic facts of the case. An official minute is produced of a meeting between the First Minister and a French ambassador. The minute contains various juicy details. It is leaked by Carmichael’s special advisor to the Daily Telegraph during the General Election campaign. The headline-grabbing claim in the Telegraph’s story – that Nicola Sturgeon wants the Tories to win the election – collapses before print copies of the paper reach the posh shops, thanks to some basic fact-checking by BBC and Guardian journalists. Carmichael says he don’t know nuffink about how the memo came to land on the desk of the Telegraph writers. He is later unmasked as its leaker at the end of an inquiry claimed widely to cost well over £1m. By this stage he has been returned as one of eight Lib Dem MPs, but with a drastically reduced majority, and no cabinet job. Petitions are then signed and crowdfunders funded in an attempt by Carmichael’s opponents, mostly nationalists, to force his recall. It is then quietly pointed out that the parliamentary recall legislation is not yet in force, so that goes nowhere. Carmichael opts to wait it out. He waits, still.
Where to start with all of this?
Let’s start with the leak. Ask anyone who knows anything about how government works and they’ll assure you that leaks are an absolutely normal means of doing business. Alistair Campbell wrote at the time of l’affaire Carmichael about the concept of the MTBL: the memo to be leaked. Politicians have been tipping off lobby journalists forever. That’s where the phrase ‘lobby journalist’ comes from – journalists stood around in the lobby of the Commons waiting for passing politicians to pass them stories. How else are they going to get the truth out? The government doesn’t want bad news getting out, so politicians need to smuggle it into the public domain. So sometimes this can be in the interests of the country.
Meanwhile, perhaps less nobly, characters like Campbell himself plant stories with journalists to manipulate the balance of power within the government. After all, Blair couldn’t exactly have muttered about Brown’s ‘psychological flaws’ on Newsnight. There may at times be a place for this, but it’s underhand and brutal. And where character assassination replaces reasoned argument, we have surely entered the reams of antipolitics.
How to categorise the Sturgeon memo, then? Somewhere between the two poles, I’d say.
As a calculated (albeit not terribly well calculated) attempt to discredit an opponent in the middle of an election campaign, the French letter was a seriously cynical exercise.
The outraged citizens who have been campaigning for Carmichael’s downfall (despite their favoured party winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats; how many do they need?) end their thought processes at this stage, but there’s surely more to the story. And here we encounter another strain of antipolitics.
The leaked memo was an official government document. The document included testimony that the SNP leader wanted Cameron as Prime Minister. During the election campaign, the potential role of the SNP in expediting government legislation was a key issue. The memo suggested Sturgeon was saying one thing in public and the opposite in private. And would a Tory government really be such bad news for a party committed to levering Scotland out of the UK? Surely not, so there’s a degree of plausibility there.
Now, clearly everyone involved disowned the memo straight away, and I have no doubt the key line in the memo was inaccurate. But put yourself in Carmichael’s shoes. That’s an explosive memo right there. Not only is there obvious party advantage to be had, but I think there is a genuine public interest in leaking that memo. The SNP leader keeps telling Scottish people to vote for her party in order to ‘keep Labour honest’, but actually wants the Tories to win? An eventuality that became more likely every time Sturgeon appeared on national TV offering to prop up a Miliband premiership?
This is where the antipolitics comes in among Carmichael’s opponents. They either think he had a hand in manufacturing a government memo, which is deeply conspiratorial, or they don’t think there can be a public interest in exposing hypocrisy when it appears to emanate from the mouth of our First Minister.
To be clear, I daresay there was no such hypocrisy. But presumably Carmichael didn’t make the document up. If he thought its contents were genuine, and I don’t see any reason to disbelieve that he could have done, then the leak is arguably justifiable.
That’s why I don’t really see Carmichael as the villain of the piece. It surprises me that the anger of the angry voters hasn’t been directed at the Telegraph instead. As I mentioned earlier, the BBC and Guardian journalists detailed to look at the story dismantled it in a matter of hours. The Telegraph clearly didn’t bother to check it out. Now, I appreciate that there would have been limits to who they could have approached without the scoop being compromised, but they must have been able to do something.
More to the point, all of the political journalists know Sturgeon, and they agreed to a man and woman that the alleged remarks didn’t sound like her and would have been entirely out of her discreet character. It was a massive balls-up.
But that’s not Carmichael’s fault. The Telegraph didn’t need to run the story. It was a decent leak, but it should have been buried by the investigations desk. So what was the Telegraph up to? Character assassination instead of reasoned argument; antipolitics.
Image three: someone shouting ‘Red Tories’
How boring these people are.
I went to the Scotland United Against Austerity demonstration in George Square on Saturday. In the last few months I’ve also gone to the CND anti-Trident march and another march, I think organised by the STUC (they all start to merge into one after a while). I’ve always gone to marches, ever since my mum took me to a Mayday rally when I was younger. Some of the best days of my life were spent at political demonstrations – Mayday was always good fun, and I’ll never forget the protests against the Iraq war.
I used to love going to demos and marches. They used to really cheer me up. People were welcoming and positive and their anger was an energy. The vibes were good.
These days? I’m not so sure.
The atmosphere has changed so much since the referendum. You can really feel it in the air. There’s a bitterness around, and the anger of the crowd is much more negative than it used to be.
The imagery has changed too. You used to see brilliant trade union banners that were like tapestries. The labour movement has always made good banners. But nowadays it’s mostly Saltires, often with the word ‘Yes’ in the centre, and sometimes with the dreaded words ‘something inside so strong’ at the bottom. And there is next to no visible evidence of the Labour Party anywhere.
I don’t blame Labour supporters for opting to avoid these events these days. It can’t be much fun to give up your weekend to hear a succession of speakers call you Red Tories.
I made the mistake of exploring the back of George Square in Saturday, where all of the wild ones lurk. By coincidence, a speaker from (I think) the Fire Brigades Union took to the stage at that point. I couldn’t see the stage above all of the Saltires so I was oblivious to her identity, until I became suddenly aware of a rising passion around me. Dozens of people started screaming abuse at the stage and booing with all their might. A megaphone appeared, and a chant of “Labour Party? No way!” was attempted. (The ‘Labour Party’ bit was delivered with a hilarious ‘as if!’ sneer).
Oh yes – the FBU speaker had the audacity to be part of the Labour Campaign for Socialism.
Just as I worked out what was going on, the speaker mentioned Jeremy Corbyn. And the booing increased!
At times in Scotland over the past year it’s been difficult to distinguish likely provocateurs from genuine extremists. On Saturday I gave up trying.
Spend a bit of time with the more one-eyed elements of the independence movement and you become conscious of another form of antipolitics. Where politics should be about negotiation, these guys have no interest in respecting alternative views. People who disagree with them must be shouted down and delegitimised.
Much has been written about Scottish nationalism as a sort of displaced religion, and I recommend this piece and this piece wholeheartedly on that theme. But it’s not just a religion. The wilder elements of the independence movement have sublimated their identities to a sort of cultural superego, an imagined community of lost souls. A great deal of psychological material is being worked through at these demonstrations, and the participants often don’t look very well.
Hypothesis: nationalism has given some unhappy members of our community a release from psychic pain – which they have subsequently projected onto the Scottish Labour Party.
Image four: someone getting blocked on Twitter
Twitter has been good for politics: discuss.
An interesting question, that. I love Twitter and it has improved my quality of life immensely, but you do see some sights.
Many people have observed the echo chamber dynamic of social media, through which Twitter users reinforce their worldview by following people who hold the same views as them. If all you see on your timeline are opinions you agree with, you start to believe that your opinions are held by everyone. A bit like me during the referendum, for example. Then reality turns out to be different, and it can be quite a shock.
(In parenthesis, I tried to respond to the surprise No vote by widening my horizons to understand the 55% of the country who thought differently to me. It’s the best political decision I’ve ever made. I feel so much better informed, educated and challenged now that the words of Chris Deerin, Euan McColm, Alex Massie, David Torrance, David Knowles, Fraser Nelson and others complement my existing Guardian-ish reading).
That’s all well understood, I think. But recently I’ve started to notice a subtly different, but arguably more worrying trend.
Not content with only following people who replicate one’s own worldview, there is a fashion on Twitter for what we might call preventive blocking. That is to say, even if someone with a different worldview has never interacted with you, you block them anyway – because by disagreeing with you they assault your very identity.
We’re not talking about nazis here. Many of the recipients of unprovoked blockings that I’ve witnessed have been entirely reasonable (and, frankly, bewildered) people.
To illustrate this point, I’ll introduce an intriguing cultural ‘debate’ that has developed recently, albeit one that seemingly only exists in the heads of some angry people on Twitter. This is the great TERF debate.
A TERF is a ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’. The claim is that a strand of radical feminism is prejudiced against trans-people (or is transphobic, to adopt the jargon).
Some feminist writers whose work I admire have been left with enormous question marks above their heads as a result of this.
I’ll try to describe the argument. The version of feminism that inspires the TERF accusation is premised on the idea that women experience the world differently to men, on account of social practices and assumptions constructed around biological sex differences. Therefore, if your biological sex is female, you will experience certain objective consequences. And the social structure that conditions the life experiences of biological female people is patriarchal. To be honest, I didn’t actually think of this as an especially radical vision of feminism – the arguments seem pretty mainstream to me – until its adherents were suddenly being labelled trans-exclusionary radical feminists.
An alternative perspective downplays objective biological sex differences and emphasises subjective identity. The trans critique of radical feminism (which I should stress is by no means accepted by all trans people, regardless of how it might be presented online by its most strident advocates) is that you can just decide to be whatever you want to be – that you can be a man or a woman or whatever just by deciding you are one.
I will be amazed if there is a single radical feminist anywhere who does not support the rights of trans people. It would be completely contrary to the feminist spirit of supporting difference for any feminist to discriminate against them. So who are these TERFs, then?
The argument seems to be that radical feminists hate trans people because they insist that one’s life history has a bearing on your social position.
For example, imagine someone who is born biologically male and who presents as a man until adulthood. At the same time, they identify privately as a woman from an early age, before finding peace in their twenties by presenting as a woman.
The disagreement derives from the relative emphasis placed on subjectivity and objectivity. From what is presented as the trans perspective, she was always female, because she had a female interior life. In the view of some feminists, by contrast, she grew up without experiencing the objective structural conditions of patriarchy the way she would if she had been born biologically female. That doesn’t stop her being a woman, but it’s at least a distinction worth noting.
The radical feminist position (at least as it plays out in this debate) is that you can’t just reduce gender to what someone feels in his or her heart. There is an observable, public, political and structural aspect to gender, which affects people’s life chances and can’t just be wished away.
I don’t share this because I have enormously strong views on the topic. I can see where both sides are coming from. Rather, what alarms me is that people engaged in the debate cannot.
A frenzied delight seems to be taken in blocking and ridiculing people from the other side of the debate. Do a quick search for “TERF” on Twitter and you’ll be horrified. I genuinely thought people must have been wishing death on trans people when I first encountered this stuff, rather than making fairly standard observations about the structural character of political experience. The feminists are often more puzzled than aggressive, but you’d still wonder how the subjective identifications of trans people came to obsess some of them so much.
The point is, the difference is not so large between people who think trans people should decide their gender any time they like, and people who support trans rights while noting that objective gendered experience has social significance. We should be able to work together on this stuff. But instead it’s a massive Twitter piss fit all the time.
Underlying this is a perennial problem with identity politics. Identity politics invests decisive political significance in people’s salient characteristics, such as their race, gender, sexuality or whatever. Identity politics movements have been hugely constructive in raising consciousness and awareness of inequality, but the downside is that they often reduce the complexity of human life to a single population characteristic.
I’ve noticed a further extension of this on Twitter. There’s an increasing tendency for people to become spectacularly angry when people disagree with them. This isn’t the simple frustration we all feel when our opponent remains immune to the elegance of our argument. It’s the fury of someone who thinks their identity is being attacked.
This is the logic of identity politics – your opinions are part of your identity, so if someone disagrees with you they are attacking your identity. Thus, we have the widespread phenomenon of Twitter users blocking anyone who thinks differently from them. This is more than an echo chamber – it’s an active denial of the rights of other people to have different opinions to yours.
In other words: “I think this, it’s part of my identity, so if you don’t think this then you are attacking my identity, which is an act of violence against me, which I must resist and avenge.”
The hole in the logic is that surely if you block someone for disagreeing with you, or even simply express a different view that they might accidentally stumble upon, you must be attacking their identity? But no, there’s no logical issue here, because these other people are not just being blocked. It’s more than that: the reality of their very minds is being denied.
“The only opinion that matters is mine, because it’s part of my identity.”
Politics should be appreciated as a public practice, between people who interact with each other to negotiate from their different perspectives.
But what I’ve just described is solipsism: the very opposite of politics.
It is accepted as a commonplace in Scotland that the referendum was a good thing because it politicised so many people. I largely agree with this – and I know from personal experience how much it re-politicised me.
But what the four images above demonstrate is that not all action that develops from a sense of politicisation is necessarily positive. Indeed, certain acts or attitudes borne out of political energy can actually prevent, repress or disfigure politics.
Thus we find George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Secretary of State, conceiving fiscal policy primarily as a means of preventing opposition parties from advocating public spending. We see the dark art of the Westminster character assassination at the heart of the Carmichael affair, running alongside the bias and lack of curiosity that afflicts the opponents of ‘unionist’ parties. We note how the regular gatherings of the Scottish left, which were once such heterodox, pleasurable and colourful morale-boosters, increasingly feel like pressure cookers, pulsing with psychic pain, and excluding traitors. And we register a similar visceral fury on Twitter, exercised by adherents of a certain form of identity politics who claim to be oppressed by the very existence of people who think differently to them.
At the very least, politics requires us to accept that other people are allowed to have an opinion. I would suggest that we should also at least entertain the possibility that other people’s opinions are worth listening to. Then who knows? We might even like what we hear.
Include other people. Only open minds will dream up movements through George Osborne’s Sicilian defence.
Antipolitics is bad for your health.