Sunday 12 April 2009

Smeargate and Anti-Politics

The silly season must have started early this year. Mainstream bloggers, the press and the 24 hour rolling news media have gone crazy over 'Smeargate': the revelation that Damian McBride, the prime minister's chief political advisor (pictured) was plotting a series of smears against leading Tories. The email was leaked and picked up by Paul "Guido Fawkes" Staines, the fans flamed by Iain Dale, and was run in the press by the Torygraph. The tawdry contents of the email can be found here.

None of this should come as a surprise. The Tory front bench might be an ideas-free zone but the
New Labour project is ideologically exhausted. As a creature of high neoliberalism it is woefully unsuited to what are becoming post-neoliberal times. Its reflex actions remain stamped by the old environment, hence its preference for de facto nationalisation of most of Britain's banking sector but without assuming state control, and not forgetting Mandelson's scheme to part-privatise the Royal Mail - though this is unlikely to happen as the government are having a hard time finding someone who will invest. The only way it can respond to political opponents is through negative campaigning. It is incapable of challenging the Tories on the ideological front, and so has to respond with pathetic smearing. A case in point was Labour's "strategy" in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election last year, when it resorted to pretty desperate class war rhetoric against the successful Tory candidate, Edward Timpson. And as if to underline the point, the West Midlands Labour slogan for the upcoming European elections is 'Stop the BNP'. Pathetic.

These sorts of scandals are ten-a-penny. But do they really matter in the grand scheme of things? They certainly exercise the Westminster Village and their hangers ons in the media and mainstream blogging, but outside of that few people care whether Derek Draper and other Brownite insiders are for the chop. But what it does is contribute to a general, incoherent anti-politics sentiment. This makes it easier to play the populist card, as
UKIP and the BNP have found, but by far the biggest winner is political disengagement. Why bother turning out to vote if all you're going to get are out of touch careerist hacks in it to feather their own nests? It's going to take more than MP's expenses rule changes and a sleaze clean-up to fix Britain's eroding political system.


Paul said...

Good post, I agree every word. Just been having my own little rant on same with broadly same conclusions re: anti-politics.

ModernityBlog said...


as you say, this story has been doing the rounds and you put it well, particularly with:

"But what it does is contribute to a general, incoherent anti-politics sentiment. This makes it easier to play the populist card, as UKIP and the BNP have found, but by far the biggest winner is political disengagement. "

The wider problems of political culture and power feed into that.

On the one hand, those *in* power (New Labour) want to keep it at all costs.

And on the other, those without it (chunks of the British Left) are largely prisoners of their own political cultures, which often are not too dissimilar from the shenanigans that go on in the Westminster village.

I suspect that until you have some genuine organic working-class and trade union activism not much will change, but in the interim we have to find ways of impeding the growth of the xenophobic far right and British neo-fascists.

Phil said...

Just come incoherent thoughts:

This culture of anti-politics has been around for a while now - you could probably locate it at the point when Labour became New Labour, but this isn't to say prior to 1994 there existed some golden age of political engagement. The alienation attendant in all capitalist societies generate depoliticising pressures, which is mediated by a country's political system and they way political elites present politics to wider layers of the population beyond the politically committed.

The key features of anti-politics are irreverence, inchoate anger, disengagement and negativity. Left-wing politics, and by that I exclude Brown, his cronies and the government hangers on, exemplifies the best in politics. In short, we are the direct opposite to anti-politics. But in a culture where anti-politics is rife, the far left has shown to be unable to thrive.

Dinner up!

Phil said...

Just to quickly dribble out some more thoughts before they evaporate ... the anti-fascist slogan, 'Hope not Hate' is rubbish, but at the same time is an accurate diagnosis of what is needed to challenge anti-politics. The problem of course is Labour - because it is effectively a campaign to mobilise a Labour vote - has long abandoned politics that could be described as progressive and positive.

The only way I think this can be challenged from the left is getting stuck into workers' struggles and steadily building up our store of activists, while avoiding throwing fuel onto the anti-politics fire.

Rob said...

I wonder about this. Whilst I do agree with you, I think we have to be careful not to define 'politics' too narrowly when talking about the generation of anti-political attitudes. Because whilst people are clearly disenchanted with politicians in power and withdraw from activity in institutional politics, it doesn't necessarily follow that we can characterise these attitudes as 'anti-political'; so you say:

Why bother turning out to vote if all you're going to get are out of touch careerist hacks in it to feather their own nests?

My worry here is that politics is overly equated with bourgeois formal politics. I worry that this can play into the hands of institutional politicians, take Blears' attack on Monbiot, she was able to accuse him of 'carping on the sidelines' precisely because she identifies everything outside of bourgeois formal politics as anti-political.

So, for me, (and I don't think I'm being pedantic) we need to be quite clear about what we mean by politics and anti-politics. In a way I'm quite tempted to invert this, and say that since politics is something like the active involvement of people in shaping their everyday lives, or that politics involves radical choices, bourgeois 'politics' in general is itself anti-political, insofar as what it represents is crass-managerialism. The BNP 'populism' is just the anti-political flipside to already-existing-anti-politics. What we want to do is radically (and so politically) reconfigure things.

This is what leads me to question you're description of some of the emotional characteristics of anti-politics. My problem is that the negation of these things isn't necessarily what I would think of as political (in the sense I allude to above), one can be reverent, engaged, positive and happy and still be involved in what I would think of as an anti-political system (Obama may prove to be instructive here).

Personally, I'm not so quick to dismiss negativity and irreverence, although I admit this may be because I can't stand the twee-ness of hope-centric politics.

Phil said...

Yes, you're right. Anti-politics is 'anti-political establishment' politics but I don't think it's a particularly fertile ground for socialist politics. This will change as greater numbers of our class are thrown into struggle - then we'll be in a better position to draw on anti-politics tropes ourselves.

Re: hope, I'm no fan of that political language either and for the likes of Searchlight to push 'vote hope not hate' is bloody stupid - as if anyone outside their depleting ranks thinks the Tories and Labour offer something positive!