Sunday 11 February 2024

A Rude Reminder

I watched some proceedings of last week's Popular Conservatism conference as part of my duty to the labour movement. And it was a dull affair. Nothing different was said that we hadn't already heard at 2023's National Conservatism conference. Or at the virtually identical contemporaneous gathering of the Conservative Democratic Organisation. Or any of the other overlapping and interlocking Tory factions multiplying like rabbits on the back benches. It was the convinced serenading the converted, as we heard about the evils of wokeism, unelected bureaucrats, the left's long march through the institutions (if only!) and how, as far as Lee Anderson was concerned, coal is a renewable resource because it comes from plants. Not even Liz Truss's third stab at the pitch she gave during her last two comeback speeches ticked the worthy-of-attention box.

What did, however, was a viral exchange between Jacob Rees-Mogg and former Newsnight journalist, Lewis Goodall. After giving a speech railing against elites Goodall asked whether, given his millions, Rees-Mogg was part of the same wealthy out-of-touch elite he had just been attacking. He exploded. Goodall was shook by Rees-Mogg's furious reply that denounced him as a "left wing journalist" whose impartiality was in question. Reflecting in a piece for the New Statesman, he mused this was symptomatic of the Tory love-in with Trumpian "post-truth" politics. While that describes the contours of the PopCon/NatCon/ConDem alphabetti spaghetti of Tory factionalism, it does not, in fact, provide a satisfying explanation for why Rees-Mogg's studied politesse came apart after a relatively innocuous question. What does is the fact Goodall unwittingly broke the golden rule of politics.

Writing about the dynamics of cultural production, Pierre Bourdieu argued that it's best to understand music, art, film, the theatre, and literature as fields structured not unlike economies. Participants compete with one another over the stakes, accolades, and economies of recognition particular to them. In other words, what is at stake is the accumulation of cultural capital. The more one has, the greater their clout within that field, the greater their interests are synonymous with the continued legitimacy of that field, and - sometimes - the greater the possibility of converting cultural capital into economic capital. That is to say, in the non-Marxist sense, money. For Bourdieu, each field has an ideology that goes with it. This is the illusio, which determines what can and cannot be said and done. Transgressing the illusio, such as suggesting writers of literary fiction owe more to (and have an interest in) the commercial imperatives and viability of their work than disinterested concerns with artistic fashions is about the biggest faux pas one can commit. Art for art's sake as an explanation for the writerly preoccupation with auratic works remains as much the illusio of middlebrow and high literature today as it always has.

It applies to British politics as well. The Westminster illusio has it that parliamentarians are motivated by service to their constituents and their country. Regardless of their views, everyone is united by their respect for the constitution and that they will do what is best for those who voted them in. When you look at the career of someone like Rees-Mogg, we (ostensibly) see a preoccupation with parliamentary sovereignty. Indeed, that was the topic of his turgid speech that prefaced his snapping at Goodall. We can disagree with him, but - as the illusio goes - one cannot question his sincerity or integrity. He's motivated purely by public service. Goodall's question inadvertently pressed a pin into this balloon of pompous nonsense. British politics, like all politics, is a struggle between interests. The reason so many wealthy business people, like Rees-Mogg and like the Prime Minister enter into politics is not for something to do in their dotage. It's a case of securing their class interests.

Despite his landed gentry countenance and the baubled family tree to match, Rees-Mogg's money comes not from the exploitation of 15th century serfs but the financial alchemy of hedge fund management. He is a creature not of the country sets and the boxing day fox hunt, but more properly of the City. And it's this, just like Rishi Sunak, that overdetermines his politics. The firm he co-founded, Somerset Capital Management, specialises in 'global emerging markets' - a euphemism for leeching off some of the poorest and most exploited workers on the planet. This was preceded by a career in the City. Given this pedigree, is it any wonder he's long lined up with that section of finance and commercial capital that was (and is) enthusiastic about Brexit? And that for all his seemingly archaic concerns with parliamentary sovereignty, this specious rhetoric is nothing more than a cover for an authoritarian politics that brooks few checks on the executive by the courts, by subordinate state institutions, and by supranational organisations and treaty obligations. There is a direct line between Rees-Moggs's politics, filtered through his webs of archaisms, and his very capitalist class interests. There is not one thing he has ever done nor will ever do that might compromise his understanding of doing right by those interests.

And this is why Goodall had to be shot down without the usual etiquette. The profusion of Tory factions might seem mad from the standpoint of what he calls the ""unthinking" centrism in politics", but it's tied both to a particular interpretation of where the Conservatives see themselves now, and the fact the party has allowed itself to become tied to the most backward sections of the British ruling class. A fraction whose hyper consciousness can't stop them worrying about what Keir Starmer and Labour might lead to, are concerned they're not going to have significant political power for a very long time, and are flailing about in despair as their politics lose purchase on the minds of the electorate. But even now, these class dynamics have to be denied. The illusio of politics must remain in play because if it's suggested that Rees-Mogg, the PopCon farce, and all the ferment on the right of the party is rightly seen as the last gasp of a discredited and diminishing class fraction, it could be the last gasp of a discredited and diminished class fraction.

Image Credit


David said...

It would be worth stopping up for to see this figure lose his seat.

Blissex said...

"the left's long march through the institutions (if only!)"

But "the left" for nationalist tories are the globalist whigs (aka "centrists", "neoliberals") and indeed and especially when Mandelson governed they took great care to parachute their "sponsored" representatives everywhere they could ("personnel is policy"), in the civil service, the media, parties, ... The same largely happened when Clinton governed in the USA.

The enduring problem for the "whigs" is that "socially liberal, economically conservative" is unpopular under universal suffrage, so they have to circumvent elections by taking control of nominations and appointments to place their own (and they also have to buy off at least some of the socially conservative voters with big property income increases).

Anonymous said...

I think the illusio transgressed by Goodall can be explained rather more simply than that.

He forgot all about realpolitik, and failed to distinguish elites and Elites.

Elites are, of course, the "good elites" (from their perspective, which is not ours). That is to say, the right-wing ones. Their eliteness comes from breeding and capital; they remain devoted to those exact class interests; and whatever pretenses of virtue and intellectualism that they might possess are bent soley, duplicitously, and cynically towards the maintenance of those class interests. If any shred of their capital was genuinely earned by them (inevitably via grubby means), then they are to be regarded as paragons of entrepeneurialism, and the grubbiness never mentioned. They are not to be referred to in the same breath as the other "elites". Never must it be suggested in public that the Elites are not fundamentally on the side of the common rubes (people who are not elites), who in reality are to be maintained as the Elites' unwitting servants and feedstock.

Those other elites are naturally the "bad elites": the scapegoats for populism whenever right-wing Elites have need to employ it. The eliteness of bad elites comes from genuine virtue and intellectualism, as best they can practice it. They are academics, authors, celebrities of one sort and another, and so forth, whose social positions and platforms come not from connections and class larceny, but from being publicly sympathetic, and from publicly defensible achievements: achievements that could be laid out in full detail before the populace and expect to command more respect than derision. For reasons that are best discussed elsewhere, these elites tend towards left-wing politics. Their class consciousness conflicts with that of the Elites, thus making the two groups enemies - sometimes deadly ones, whenever the elites might have the ear of the populace in zero-sum class interest. And, of course, the Elites would hate the elites sufficiently merely for having things that they themselves don't. They suffer the elites to exist in the first place only because of their utility during times when there is uneasy peace between the competing class interests. Otherwise, all avenues for "the wrong kind of people" (people who are not right-wingers, supporting the class interests of the Elites) to acquiring recognition and platform would be firmly closed and the gates tightly kept.

Therefore, whenever it's time for the knives to be out, the Elites predictably muster what resources that they do have vast superiority in - capital, connections, etc - and turn it full blast towards driving a wedge between the elites and the populace of common rubes. And because the Elites in officially capitalistic societies are solely right-wing, committed to maintaining and expanding established vested interests; while the elites are more often left-wing, daring to attempt an assault on vested interests... anyone who opposes the Elites is automatically to be smeared as a left-winger, aligned with the bad elites, and opposed to the good of the populace, regardless of what prior credentials that they might have possessed towards none of those things being true.

That's why it's drearily predictable that Truss would rage repeatedly against "the left-wing economic establishment" on behalf of her Tufton Street ventriloquists. And why it's drearily predictable that Mogg would explosively accuse a right-wing journo of actually being left-wing, just as soon as the hapless journo forgets the capital-populist tune, forgets who his betters are, and gets his elites mixed up.

Aimit Palemglad said...

So @Bliss, do you believe "Economically liberal, socially conservative" is what is popular under universal suffrage, or would it be "Economically and socially conservative" that rocks most voter's boats? Do tell.

Imagining you know what appeals to everyone else is tempting when we only have real experience of our own emotions and desires. We project our inner experience out onto all those figures out there that occupy our world, never really sure if they have an inner life at all. But we presume that they are reduced versions without the depth and breadth we have. It's easy to package them up and assign them motivations and urges, simplistic and easily manipulated. Unlike ourselves, with our complexity and mix of motives competing and jostling for headspace.

Once we start down that road, believing we uniquely have a special insight and that we can classify and categorise others, the temptation then is to rank them into worthy or unworthy, deserving or underserving, my people or my enemies. That is a dark and dangerous road. It is a lonely one, too, because ultimately you will be left isolated, the only real human in a sea of zombies. Turn away. Take a breath and recognise that most people are mixed up, unsure, anxious, and looking for connection. We have interests but we are not defined by those. They are transient. They can be risen above.

Politics seeks to define us by our interests only. It characterizes us not by who we are, or who we could become, but by what we have and do. If life is a struggle for enlightenment, politics is the battle to avoid it. To narrow our thinking into the purely material. To diminish others, and by doing so, diminish ourselves.