Saturday 5 August 2023

A Comment on Political Commentary

Apart from the handsome careers it occasionally awards, what is the point of political commentary? It's a question I've been asking a lot since cutting back on writing thanks to the tedious trinity of burn out/having nothing to say/intervention of other interesting things. What sparked my recent episode of introspection was this piece for UnHerd by chief academic Conservative Party whisperer, Tim Bale. The article doesn't say much. He talks about past hubris circa the 1997 general election and he enumerates the difficulties the party had adjusting to being out of government. Bale discusses how opposition parties fall back on fundamentals while celebrating their time in office, and how the Tories then believed voters shared the rose-tinted specs they looked at their recent past through. He says opposition is crap because one cannot shape public opinion, and success in second order elections can delude a party into thinking the issues they run with are more of a vote catcher at the crucial general election than they actually are. The Tories' recent lurch into pro-motorist, anti-green rubbish off the back of the Uxbridge by-election being an apposite demonstration of the point.

What have we learned from spending a few minutes with Bales's take on the Tories? Not much. Except that the times Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn shifted politics on Europe and immigration, and austerity and economics respectively were impossible accomplishments seeing as they were achieved from opposition. But there is no sense here of why the Tories turned right in the late 1990s, nor a discussion of how they are likely to go even further right once Labour dispose of them at the next general election. What's missing is explanation. We have a superficial description of recent political history, but no grasp of the social relations, the articulations of interests, the networks between Tory MPs and capital - sometimes embodied within the person of a politician, such as Rishi Sunak's relationship to the City and his closeness to InfoSys - that can lay out the trajectory of the Tories. I haven't read Bale's latest book on the Tories after Brexit, but the common refrain from reviews is the he-said she-said approach - that the thorough scholarship is not paired with a convincing narrative that ties together and offers an argument about the crisis the Tories are in. I don't know if that's a fair criticism, but it's certainly one that can be made about his earlier history of the Tories from Thatcher to Cameron.

And this is where most political commentary sticks. At the level of opinion untroubled by a cognisance of the forces in play. But superficiality doesn't mean it comes without a depth of affect. The frothing nonsense served up by The Mail and The Telegraph is not meant to be "true". Its job is speak at existing prejudices, whip them up if necessary, and cohere groups of support for the Tories. Most liberal/centrist and centre left commentary is little different. Though UnHerd is an unusual venue for Bale's missive, this genre of comment, which is published plentifully elsewhere, reinforces the idea that the Tories are crazy, blinded by ideology, dogmatically mistaken, and not fit to run a bath let alone a country. It too coheres a constituency characterised by an anti-Tory sensibility that dissociates their opposition to and distaste of the Conservatives from any claim on interests. Save the ardent desire to see the state run properly, because that's in everyone's interest.

When the right has to confront its opposite number, it's rarely a contest of ideas as per the useless marketplace metaphor. They hype them up as conspiratorial elites, often on the most spurious of grounds, or propagate stories that demonstrate their hypocrisy. This is how the Tories have handled Keir Starmer, and that this happens time and again shows it's more than a rhetorical feature among a range of possible strategies. It's a structural projection of their own organic relations with capital, the state, and other fundamental institutions. This is their everyday, and it cannot but condition how they view political opponents. Likewise, centrism avoids ideas too. Their technocratic habitus is the root of their critique of the right, hence the ritual use of 'ideology' and madness as explainers of Tory actions. And why they will always have time for a "good Tory". I.e. Someone who shares aspects of their very grown up, disinterested, results-oriented view of how to do politics and how the state should be run.

Faced with something outside of their experience, the result is complete overreaction. For the Tories and the rise of UKIP, it staked Britain's EU membership to prevent the shedding a three or four seats to the misfits, loons, and closet racists. Losing the referendum was a small trifle to be paid for keeping the party going. For the centrists, it was their demonology of Jeremy Corbyn and the movement assembled behind his candidacy and leadership. To save the Labour Party, it was necessary to destroy it. Even now, the centre and the Labour right have no explanation for how and why Corbynism happened. All they knew is it had to be stopped, and that's the only lesson that need be learned. Whereas for most of the right, UKIP and the Brexit Party were warnings - and reasons to stick with traditional concerns.

Political comment, establishment political comment then is always expressive. And in so doing it more or less encapsulates the two orientations of the British ruling class: those who have no problem with or compunction about the reality of the state as an institution of their class, and the other who are squeamish of its reality, prefer to forget it, and will go to almost any length to deny it.

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Blissex said...

A large fraction of media "political commentary" is simple-minded propaganda, just a series of bare statements or claims using "catching" words.

This simply reflects that in the UK most overt politics is not that different from student politics, based on personalities and gotchas. Most "political commentary" is "apolitical", because as to political positions "there is no alternative".

Our blogger here is one of the few to mention that politics is about class interests, that is power and money, and very few "political commentators" bother to mention them.

Anonymous said...

"Even now, the centre and the Labour right have no explanation for how and why Corbynism happened."

Are you kidding me...?

I bet they do. And they take great care never, ever to articulate it in the open, because for anyone else to hear it would not serve their in-group interests in any way. They'll no doubt be very smug to see you write that they don't have one.

Dialectician1 said...

"I've been asking a lot since cutting back on writing thanks to the tedious trinity of burn out/having nothing to say/intervention of other interesting things."

I'm with you there, bruv. There is definite wholesale burn out amongst most on the left during this limbo period between the so-called 'government in waiting' and the slow and tortuous death of the current incumbents.

What more can you say about the Tories? Their neoliberal project has reached the barbarous final stages where, apart from the NHS, there is little left to sell-off and 'financialisation' was a one-trick event that staved off the international collapse of capitalism in the 1980s. Everything now is rent, rent, rent. For this current bunch of scoundrels, their last vestige is the confectioned culture wars, which ought to take our minds of the accelerating eco-destruction of the planet.

What more can you say about Labour? The days of the false hope offered by Corbyn have long gone. However, the hangover remains with the stark realisation that we're back to the same old Labour Party: it will offer to prudently 'manage' capitalism - but in a more humane way. Starmer is no different from past Labour leaders (apart from Corbyn, of course). Like Blair, his politics are 'non-ideological' in that he will continue where the Tories left off. Of course, Starmer will be authoritarian. He understands that with the collapse of civic society and increasing public squalor, there will be a need for more riot cops - and more insidiously - periodic purges on the 'enemies of the state'.

Meanwhile, while the planet burns and the storms rage, you can be sure that our collective ire will be focused elsewhere: 'stopping the boats', the 'gender wars', eco-tribes versus the petrol heads, the Ruskies, etc.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Perhaps the biggest problem is that most political commentators have swallowed the prevailing economic orthodoxy. They all believe that growth is the only way to provide more funding for those public services they accept as necessary - though they argue a lot about the extent of these. This means that discussion is narrowed down to to-and-fro about "fiscal rectitude" and minimising tax while optimising service delivery.

There is background muttering about the decline of "productivity" but no apparent understanding of why, and what this means for the economic model they imagine as the only possibility. This leads us to TINA, and an increasingly pessimistic obsessing over how to grow the economy while keeping at least approximately to a net zero trajectory. Or wouldn't it be easier just to imagine the climate crisis away? On the one hand a huge investment in green energy and industries, on the other a free market liberation of the masters of the universe, held back by bureaucracy, wokeness, eco-bores and the useless baggage of need.

All this ignores that economics is really all about how we use the limited resources we have and to decide that we need a clear vision of what we want as a society / culture. We never ask ourselves what is the point of government, and, given the very real fixed parameters of planetary boundaries within which we have to stay if we are to survive, what sort of society do we want to live in. Because this question is never asked, we continue to play games where illusions are given more substance than realities. So most of our political commentators are simply judging the competitive deck chair arranging taking place on the liner upper level as it heads towards a series of ever larger icebergs.