Thursday 3 March 2022

Making Sense of Nuclear Psychosis

A collective psychosis has gripped a band of Twitter users, politicians, and columnists over Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Without any cognisance of consequence, a narrow spectrum of Labour warmongers, liberals, and Tories call for a NATO-enforced no fly zone in the skies above the East European battlefield. Decades of cheering bombing practice over Middle Eastern targets has eroded their collective sense. It's almost as if you have to sit them in a chair and patronisingly explain to them that the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, the Taliban, and the people of Yemen don't have the means to strike back at the Western alliance whereas Russia does. And the gift of its retaliation goes beyond random knife attacks and the occasional suicide bomb. With six thousand nuclear warheads on tap, it is quite capable of incinerating its enemies. Seeing their newspapers go up in smoke is little consolation for hundreds of millions of deaths and an irradiated Threads-style hellscape.

Are these people really that stupid? No. They know why NATO won't be taking up arms against Russia any time soon. Some might privately agree that a no fly zone cannot be implemented because it's a dumb idea. But they go ahead and say it anyway. But why? What possible good can come from winding up their readers and social media audiences by arguing a blossoming of mushroom clouds is worth risking to show how tough the West is?

Turning to someone who knew a thing or two about causing outrage might be helpful. Better known for planting bombs with the Rote Armee Fraktion than anything else, prior to her descent into terrorism Ulrike Meinhof was a journalist who wrote for and edited konkret. This popular and influential magazine on the emerging West German New Left gave her pause to reflect on the political economy of the press generally, and the position of the columnist. In her rasping, uncompromising style her 1968 article on 'Columnism' took on the MVPs of print media. She wrote,
The investor expects two things from columnists. They should develop their own personal reading public, preferably readers who would not buy the paper if they weren’t in it. That is the profit factor. Columnists who cannot achieve this will sooner or later lose their job. Then there’s the prestige factor. The columnist’s fenced-in but independent thinking gives the whole paper the aura of independent thinking. The columnist’s outrageousness gives the paper the aura of outrageousness. The columnist’s occasional and courageous expression of unpopular ideas gives the paper the aura of courage to express unpopular ideas.
She paints a picture of the occupational hierarchy. Those doing the grunt work of minor stories and regurgitated press releases quickly learn that "they can do this, and that, and they write even if they haven’t finished thinking; they write without having read the necessary books. Good journalists turn the topic into the object, and do what they want with this object." This is writing for the sake of space filling, of shoving in blocks of text so the page looks full. It cultivates an ability to turn one's hand to almost any story. It's a frustrating, deadline-missing experience for junior hacks but those who stick it out can become the star columnist where they bring this light-minded approach to opinion pushing. For Meinhof, columnists are an editor's "best lackey", and are grateful for their elevation to this more indolent position as long as they behave "as though it were possible to have an opinion on any topic in the world, expressed in a text that is always the same length."

This is a position jealously guarded, and helps explain the obsession with cancelling. She wrote, "The publisher assigns the columnist the role of leading the readers ... Columnists cannot give their space to their readers. If they knew someone who could do a better job, they cannot ask that person to write in their place. That would frustrate the readers, who have, after all, grown accustomed to the one. Columnism is a personality cult." By creating stars, as per the Hollywood system, readers will keep coming back to buy the product and advertising space on or opposite their page can be sold at a premium. Columnism is inseparable from market logics, "we want the columnists’ freedom to be recognised for what it is: a prestige and profit factor, a fraud for the readers, self-deception ...".

You can certainly see all these traits among our media friends of radioactive fallout. The glib manner the spectre of nuclear war is passed over, as if it was no more consequential than deciding what jumper to wear that day. Knowing their offhandedness is an invitation to outrage, it keeps a brand going, guaranteeing exposure - and bankability where the papers are concerned. This might help explain the cynicism and the performative stupidity of a Dan Hodges, for example, but politicians and internet randoms? What unites Defence Select Committee chair Tobias Ellwood, EU supergrifter Femi, and youthful Blairites ostentatiously (and farcically) matching Putin's bellicose hints with nuclear threats of their own?

In the age of the internet and social media, we are all prey to columnism. Followings are an imagined approximation of social standing, an at-a-glance metric of influence and reach. The coming of the attention economy incentivises a veritable incontinence of opinion spouting. No matter how outlandish, stupidly, or self-evidently cynical the take there are audiences who lap it up. And this rough form of social capital can be traded in for economic capital, ranging from Patreons and Buy Me a Coffees to merch to paid gigs to getting taken on as a columnist. The attention economy is now vitally important for politics as well, giving outsiders a chance to make inroads into the mainstream or raising one's profile if normally overlooked in favour of more senior figures. See Oliver Dowden's recent play, for example.

Anything and everything can be a stake in the culture wars the attention economy thrives off, almost as if they don't have real world consequences. We've seen this with Brexit, Covid and the vaccination effort, and now nuclear holocaust. They are signs obeying the logics of the economy of the signs, and what they denote and connote doesn't matter as long as attention is attracted. And if it's not, they're rapidly substituted for something else that might. Ulrike Meinhof died in 1976 in apparently mysterious circumstances, but there's nothing mysterious about how columnism has escaped the pages of the press and weaved itself into the social fabric.

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Anonymous said...

It is a sad, sad, day for most of the UK 'Left' (liberals), and the entire UK MSM, and of course the Starmerite New, New, Labour Party, that one of the few sane, historical context-providing, articles in our press in our current days of crazy bombastic war mongering, should come from that eccentric controversialist, Christopher Hitchens , in the DAILY MAIL. FFS !

All Hitchens does in this excellent article is spell out the continual oppression of their ethnic Russian minority by the Far Right dominated Ukranian governments over more than a decade, and the egging-on that the EU and NATO provided for this behaviour - leading inevitably eventually to Putin's savage invasion. There are merely rival gangs of robber oligarchs behind this war, egged on by the expansionist capitalist forces of the EU, and the military industrial complex behind NATO. Socialists need to stand back, take a deep breath and stop buying into the skewed, war-mongering narrative spewed out daily by our own capitalist class , its mass media, and the Labour Leadership. Starmer's recent suggestion to a Ukranian journalist that a 'No-Fly Zone' is a tactical possibility in Ukraine, shows he, and Labour, and the supposedly 'liberal, UK press have seriously 'lost it'. A 'No Fly Zone' attempt would absolutely inevitably lead to air combat between NATO and Russian warplanes, and an escalation ratchet leading equally inevitable to thermonuclear war. Neither Washington nor Moscow, nor the bandit oligarch owned and controlled Ukraine, but International Socialism.

Anonymous said...

Oops some sort of brain-fade typo there -- I of course meant the eccentric, controversialist, PETER Hitchens !

JN said...

We should be clear that it is a war of aggression on Putin's part and there is no excuse for that, just as there is no excuse when our own government invades another country. We should be neither apologists for Putin (who has always been a war-monger; see Chechnya) or cheerleaders for NATO.

JN said...

That having and being willing to use nuclear weapons is considered acceptable and 'moderate' in mainstream politics is a perfect example of "the banality of evil". Nukes are morally equivalent to gas chambers, IE: an instrument of mass murder. The difference is that they're more efficient.

Jim Denham said...

Well done JN for at least recognising that Russia is the aggressor here, and therefore the main enemy. Sadly sections of the mainstream right and the the far right (increasingly indistinguishable these days, if you read the Telegraph or Spectator - or Peter Hitchens) and sections of the "anti-imperialist" left (Morning Star, Stop the War, etc) are acting as Putin's useful idiots and betraying the Ukranian people's armed resistance. Actually, it strikes me that the Morning Star is presently in its "Stalin-Hitler pact" phase: formaly neutral but in reality pro Hitler ... I mean pro Putin.