Wednesday 9 May 2018

On the Centrist Fetishising of Talent

The PLP loses one of the persistent grumblers and stirrers, and in all likelihood will be replaced by someone from the left. How then, how can Heidi Alexander's resignation be described as a "fresh blow against Jeremy Corbyn"? Well, in all honesty it can't. Unless something goes catastrophically wrong during the coming Lewisham East by-election (are we going to see core group hostile theatrics immediately before polling day?), Corbyn and the left are going to be strengthened. We get what we want and, well, Heidi gets what she wants too. Win-win, as the management gurus put it.

This post isn't going to crow (much) over her departure to Sadiq Khan's office, but I am interested in a common theme that greeted her resignation, and those of sundry others. This is the notion of "talent". Or, to be more accurate, its fetishisation. Now, I don't know a great deal about Heidi beyond her political persona. She was an enthusiastic participant in the coup that never was, chaired Labour's successful mayoral campaign in London, and is reportedly relaxed about NHS marketisation, even to the point of employing a private health lobbyist. Of course, none of this is ideological. Simply a case of "what works".

This is all fine and dandy, but do the skills that got her from jobbing around a MP's office back in the day to a plum seat to a City Hall berth evidence exceptional talent? Not really. Public speaking, giving good presentation, project management, organising skills, networking, and awareness of current affairs are very handy abilities to have, but they're not exactly scarce. Millions of people have them and, as the job market continues to shift in the direction of immaterial labour, more and more are acquiring them. What Heidi possesses then is not "talent", but something else: social and cultural capital.

We've discussed this before in the peculiar and seemingly effortless segue George Osborne made from front rank Tory politics to Evening Standard editor with less journalistic experience than your average Parish Council newsletter writer. What mattered the most, what Evgeny Lebedev purchased him for, were his connections in the establishment and, crucially, influence over whatever happens to the flailing and failing Conservative Party in the coming years. That wasn't all, though. Osborne is a true believer. While claiming to eschew dogma and embracing "common sense", he genuinely believes the policies he pursued were the best for all concerned. Yes, doing so meant ignoring facts, suppressing critical reports, and telling outright porkies. His cracked ideas came with a barrage balloon full of bad faith and, entirely coincidentally, the policies these informed reasserted the economic distribution no Tory ever objects to: the movement of wealth from the mass to the minority.

Heidi is a different kettle of fish, but the same logics benefiting Osborne are the ones that have conferred her the London transport gig. She has connections, pull, and weight in the Labour Party, in the wider wonk community, and she has a certain media profile - including good relationships with sympathetic journalists. She knows how to be responsible for big projects and understands the political sensitivities surrounding a potentially controversial portfolio better than a business person or a career civil servant. Her politics are also pretty identical to those of her boss, and as a close ally they're likely to be close on most if not all issues. It isn't the skills that are decisive then, it's the social and cultural capital. This is the field of politics, and she has the dispositions and feels for the game most appropriate to it.

In his approach to unravelling the social, Pierre Bourdieu noted all fields have a property to them, an 'illusio'. Participants in a field have to subscribe to that which imbues their activities with worthy meaning, though often it is meaningless and transparently ideological to those viewing from the outside in. The Tories and their shamanic incantation of GDP figures and numbers in employment, the pretence of passion for customer service when getting a retail job, being a fearless defender of the truth for journos, sticking to insipid managerialism to catch the swing voters, you get the picture. The illusio is a consensual hallucination everyone must accept to be taken seriously by others as a valid and serious participant, and as such what was illusory takes material form as it is embedded in and kowtowed to in the course of the everyday social life of the field.

This brings us back to talent and its fetishisation. For those who cry about the departure of "talent" from the PLP, its invocation is an injunction for mourning. In the absence of any other prized political quality - charisma, popularity, originality, intellect - all that's left is the spinning of commonplace skills, because it's rude and undermines the field of politics (and any other field, for that matter) to talk about someone's elevation in terms of cronyism. It also has the, again coincidentally, handy by-product of not having to engage with the politics. An invocation of talent is an avoidance strategy. Because, to be sure, the old Labour establishment are defeated and don't know how to come back, and the last thing they want to confront is their abysmal refusal to take stock of their predicament in public view.


WillORNG said...

The "talent" touchstone is an appeal to authority type of logical fallacy.

Phil said...

A comment from the Facebook on charisma:

Agree, was having this discussion last night. Cliff Geertz is very good on this. But there is social capital and social capital. Charisma (in Weberian terms) is an expression of social capital because it expresses the ability to synthesise radically different cultural expressions - I don’t think it can be denied that, to an extent, Sadiq has this. Whereas the norm for politicians nowadays is to draw their social capital from a very narrow well - the whole “Westminster bubble“ hypothesis Which leads as you have argued to this fetishisation of talent or competence. Give me lucky generals, as Napoleon wrote.

That’s why Ken Livingstone seems to be so universally hated; he had tory parents, but is in the Labour Party; he moved from South to North London to get a seat on the GLC; he was in local government, then national politics, then local government; all of this contradicts the popular myths about how politics is organised in this country. And that is what constitutes charisma.

Lidl_Janus said...

"That’s why Ken Livingstone seems to be so universally hated; he had tory parents, but is in the Labour Party; he moved from South to North London to get a seat on the GLC; he was in local government, then national politics, then local government"

That might have once been the reason, but 'constantly banging on about Jews and Hitler in ways that drain all goodwill' has surely superseded this. He certainly doesn't "synthesise radically different cultural expressions" nowadays.

Anonymous said...

An ex-Labour MP who is the long term partner of another ex-Labour MP and now long term member of the Lords said to me 3 years ago on speaking about who gets supported by the party to get seats 'it is not how good you are in the Labour Party it is just about who you know and how you serve their interests' Perhaps this is the 'talent'? I just hope we are moving away from the deference in the Labour Party.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember Livingstone constantly banging on about the Zionists and Hitler. I remember him mentioning it and then everybody else constantly banging on about it.