Monday 30 October 2017

On Tory Phantasmagoria

The world is a terrifying place, and even more so if you lack the tools to understand it. Pity the mainstream of politics who eschew even the most basic truisms of sociological thinking. You know, the revolutionary notion human societies are constituted by social relations, and these contain dynamics and flows of different scales and power that can be described, analysed, and explained. Its absence does go some way to understanding why sundry pundits and politicians can't get to grips with the Corbyn phenomenon, lack a handle on why Brexit and Trump happened, and lest we forget are puzzled by the stubborn refusal of Labour's northern heartlands to roll on over for a belly rub from UKIP.

When sociology is missing the world assumes monstrous proportions. For establishment thinking it presents as an elemental force unknown and, worse, unknowable in its capricious natural state. Hence why a hauntology, as coined by Jacques Derrida, of bourgeois and, in particular, Conservative thought might be useful for laying open the silences and contradictions embedded in its structuring principles. In his Spectres of Marx, Derrida plays around with the phantoms, vampires, and sundry undead summoned by the Ouija of Marx's metaphors to fashion a new spirit of radical critique from the bones of official communism. The spooks and the ghoulies, however, play an altogether different role in Tory thinking. In Marx, the other worldly was summoned to hasten the end of capitalism and give power to the gravediggers' elbow. In Conservatism, phantoms have two qualities. There's the hauntism, of the nightmare of capital's mortality that must be exorcised time after time. On the occasion of the dread centennial of the Russian Revolution, Dan Hannan's latest incantation is typical of this trend, and misses the mark with all the characteristic dishonesty he can muster. But there are also the vapours Tories call into the world to do their bidding, and here are a few recent examples conjured from the ether and put in service of Brexit.

Last week, Jacob Rees-Mogg attacked Bank of England governor, Mark Carney as an "enemy of Brexit". Since his appointment, Carney has opposed Brexit and consistently talked Britain and its economy down. And for good measure the BBC were criticised because it "always wants to blame things on Brexit".

Also last week, government whip Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to university vice chancellors asking for lists of academic staff who taught on European affairs generally, and Brexit specifically. Course materials and lecture notes were also requested. Philip Davies, the grotesquerie representing Shipley added in the whip's defence "everybody knows that is what is happening. I speak to lots of students and they all say that what you get is one way traffic of left wing indoctrination with lecturers forcing their opinions on their students."

On the happy occasion of this year's Conservative Party conference, nominal foreign secretary Boris Johnson said we need to stop treating Brexit "like a plague of boils". The Financial Times got some stick for not towing the party line and refusing to radiate official optimism about Britain's prospects outside of the European Union.

And, without wanting to tax the reader's patience further, we finish with Andrea Leadsom who, over the summer, told Emily Maitlis "It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic ... The country took a decision, this Government is determined to deliver on that decision."

The common thread here is the phantasm, a ghostly rhetorical ruse that, thankfully, does not require the services of Derek Acorah to pinpoint. Regardless of what one thinks about Brexit, it is obvious the government are flailing over the negotiations and don't really know what they're aiming at. This is exacerbated by the collapse of Theresa May's authority, the signs of a slowing economy, dire warnings of a no deal scenario and the stubborn (some might say decadent and deluded) belief of the Brexit ultras that these are but preludes to the permanent sunshine of an "independent" Britain. If it looks like a shambles and sounds like a shambles ... and this is a crisis cooked up entirely by the Conservative Party. Dave gambled everything on keeping less than a handful of Tory seats out of UKIP's hands, and lost. Learning nothing and in her overweening arrogance, Theresa May staked her personal authority on an unnecessary election, and failed. Decisions and actions have consequences.

But not if you accept phantasmic thinking. If you follow the logical direction of their arguments, Brexit isn't a mess because of Tory vanity, complacency and incompetence but due to outside influences. For Leadsom and Johnson, it's the disloyal media talking Britain down. For Heaton-Harris and Davies, Brexit would be a beautiful thing were it not for lefty academics poisoning the minds of young people. And the fool Jacob Rees-Mogg is happy to pin economic damage on the commentary offered by the Bank of England. Whether named individuals and institutions are guilty of Brexit bias or not is neither here nor there, the fact is they are apparitions: formless and transparent tropes to hang the blame on if everything goes wrong. It's a convenience, but also represents mental blockage, a studied refusal to see the world as it is, to take responsibility for their actions. And because Tory phantasmagoria pops up time and again, ironically, their ectoplasmic spatterings of the immaterium is a material practice intertwined with the earthly pursuit of power and interest.

Consider the following. Riots are always caused by outside agitators or criminal elements, never the background realities of daily life or precipitating factors like police harassment and violence. Consider Islamist terrorism, it's the strange mystical power of IS videos and memes that recruits young Muslims, as if the heady mix of social atomisation, toxic masculinities and, in some cases, official encouragement does not exist. Have a think about industrial action, if only the workers could be spoken to directly without union militants getting in the way, and so on. Ghosts of arguments are summoned to simplify complex issues and cover for the complicity of authorities, which not only make them material - they come into the world dripping not in ichor, but in bad faith.

It's a tried and tested response to challenges, and one that has an inglorious track record of working. Until now the potency of Tory phantasmagoria rested on the power of the press and broadcast media. Now it has been significantly weakened and grows more threadbare day-by-day, the terrifying spectres of the recent past deployed to attack their enemies look ever so absurd. Their Freddy Kruegers and Pennywises today exude all the menace of a Scooby Doo monster. And now the Tories find themselves bedevilled by two great fears. Of facing a recently resurrected socialism and, yikes, communism too on something of a level playing field, and a dawning realisation the phantoms called up in their defence are seen for what they are: stratagems of self-serving bullshit.


Speeedy said...

Interesting and informative post, although by the end I was put in mind of an Elvis Costello lyric I habitually misheard, but which nonetheless seems to fit the bill:

The teacher never told you anything but white lies
But you never see the lies that you believe
Oh you know, you have been captured
You feel so civilized
And you look so pretty in your new lace sleeves

Unknown said...

Thank you