Saturday, 20 March 2010
This is probably best manifested in the programs god forsaken obsession with visual metaphors. The latest edition provides a perfect example (the first 90 seconds really have to be seen to be believed). It opens with Andrew Neil introducing the show with the loose conceit of being, for some reason, James Bond. Some accompanying Mission Impossible music is played, interspersed with some piss poor 'technological looking' graphics. Then there's John Pienaar who gives us an interminable round up of the week through the prism of jogging puns. This is usually complimented at some point by a celebrity, wheeled out by their agent to talk about a cause they care about. Usually they admit to "not knowing much about politics really", but that they really think we should care more about the elderly, or something. At this point Neil usually engages in some limp banter to fill the gaps.
All this sits in bizzare juxtaposition with the show at its best, which is essentially when they actually get round to detailed discussion with the shows regular pundits (essentially establishment figures) Michael Portillo and Dianae Abbott or a guest of some intellectual weight, on the weeks' political goings on and their wider implications. It can be genuinely engaging and informative.
Why, then, does the program so regularly feel the need to dumb itself down? I think it is basically because it's obsessed with retaining the attention of 'young people (TM)' and/or the politically disaffected. But this is bizzare. The show goes out at 11.35pm, straight after Question Time. Most of the people watching are already engaged to some degree. Perhaps I'm being a snob, and it's just an attempt to unbutton politics in a way I complained needed to be done here. But it still doesn't make sense if you think about it. Does anyone need to have the weeks political events elaborated on by Quentin Letts in an astranaut suit, talking about how the governments recent housing initiative was "brought back down to earth"? Is anyones understanding of the world lubricated by listening to Craig David talk about the merits of personality politics? "Oh I was going to switch this off and take no particular interest in public life, but look, Toby Anstis really seems to care about local planning regulation".
All this points to some fundamental anxieties at the Beeb. It is increasingly operating under the same logic as commercial competitors. This is that peoples attention spans are essentially incredibly thin and can only be retained by novelty, or failing that, celebrities; basically, the lowest common denominator. Be that true or not, it is not the BBC's job to perpetuate this - they have the budget, the mandate and the position within public life to be able to offer something different. This in a way cuts to the heart of the BBC's current existential dilemna. To what extent does it chase ratings in an 'inclusive' way that justifies a universal license fee ("A BBC for everyone" etc.), or is it's chief function to provide what other channels cannot?
This Week shows us that the the Corporation is not particularly confident in its own skin, that it thinks itself too high brow. If it's historical mantra is to "inform, educate and entertain", it is increasingly jettisoning the first two in pursuit of a narrow vision of the latter. Obviously it's important that the BBC 'does' low-brow at some point in its schedule, but should this really extend to late night political discussion shows? Likewise, Question Time is becoming increasingly devoid of public intellectuals or commentators, instead favouring bland 'talent' (think Adam Rickett!) who usually have very little to say. You can even see it running through programs like Match of the Day 2, with its growing tendency to throw in some wacky illustrative graphics - no, calm down, just show us the football!
The BBC's role is to be a standard bearer for quality. It may think by making essentially serious programs more zany that it will fend off accusations of elitism, but by so prolifically lowering itself to its rivals level it trivialises both its subject matter and, in turn, itself. It's like a close friend who constantly competes for your attention by randomly throwing in slang words and wearing a cap backwards. Just be yourself, mate!
I've had another response to my first blog on political apathy. After Joe kindly sent me his the other day, Josh sent me something adding to it, putting a slightly different slant on it. Anyway, it's great and I wanted to stick it up here!
Some immediate thoughts:
I think talking about politics as justice is a useful way of illuminating what we're talking about. I would say the main problem is there are too few differing conceptions of justice in our politics. That doesn't mean I just want people to imagine 'the good life' and fight for it in a prescriptive, abstract sense. That is just half of it. Fundamentally I mean conceptions of justice in a diagnostic sense, if that's not too arsey. That is to say, how one makes sense of the world. Take the 'Peoples Politician' program Josh mentions. It's clear from the program that people don't necessarily engage on the level of grand ideas; they want drains unblocked, bolders moved and so on. That's perfectly natural. The trouble is they have no story to tell themselves about why their drains remain unblocked (other than perhaps 'politicians don't care') – rather than, for instance, privatisations, sub-contracting or cut backs in public services. Blocked drains or pot-holes are taken in an individual, atomised sense – they aren't thought about collectively, as part of a wider political narrative. These issues are political, but they aren't politicised. Hope that's not putting too fine a point on it, but I hope this argument can take us away from the 'pragmatic bent v. intellectual glamour/grand visions' dichotomy Josh presents at the end.
The decline of trade unionism is difficult to avoid here, given it linked up the 'pragmatics' of politics and the wider, more socialist vision that was predominant in the Labour party until the late 1980s. This isn't a call to revive socialism or a hankering over the old battles of the 1970s per se, but I think we really feel the lack of alternative narratives and beyond the green movement, or some social democratic elements in Labour/Lib Dems, there is little prospect of this changing.
Anyway, i've done that angle to death. I think Josh is spot on to talk about levers. Efficacy is the key word here and it was implicitly flagged up throughout the 'Peoples Politician', too. People have to see that making the effort is worth it. Just how impotent most Mps are to effect the wider problems stares us in the face here, and we need to go beyond reductive ideas that re-balancing power between executive and legislature necessarily equals 'gridlock', but that's another discussion. I also agree that education is vital – what excuse is there to not be taught an overview of the different political ideologies, rather than just institutions, in secondary school or six form? I've heard it said that teachers will foist their own agenda on kids, but I don't see why that is unavoidable – it hasn't necessarily been so in other controversial areas, like RE or History.
That said, I can't help thinking that talk of education is too easy. If we both agree that civil tradition is vital and that the UK has too little of it, can something so deep seated simply be changed through education? I think the problems are fundamentally situated and perpetuated by our constitutional set up, which limits the influence people can have outside the ballot box. The solution is not just teaching people 'where power lies'; I think that fact is actually part of the problem.
On politics happening in Westminster; I disagree that this is really changing. The battles may be fought in ever changing spheres, but the war still unfolds in central London. The way it reaches us, which is what i'm most interested in here, is still predominantly filtered through the political-media class in Westminster. Mark Oaten touched on this – no matter where politicians go or on what platform (real or cyber) they speak, they always stop to think: “How will this play with colleagues, the media”, I.e Westminster. Furthermore that policy is formulated elsewhere doesnt mean people necessarily feel they can influence it there. More elected mayors might help things, but local politics actually has to matter to shift where we get our politics from so to speak, and in the context of huge centralisation, the hardly noble standing of councillors/local organisers and a withering of the local press, I'm not too hopeful. That said, the powers and position the London Mayor has in the cities concious is a source of optimism.
Anyway, i've once again written too much! Really appreciate the response and hope more will follow :-)
Saturday, 13 March 2010
I agree completely that the use of language is vital, in fact I might go as far to say that it the most important thing. So, aware of the limitations of our tools, let me offer a slightly different angle on ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.
I see ‘politics’ as the process of power and decision making distribution. In this, I wouldn’t limit it to states or government but wherever agreement is sought, on a course of action or dispute resolution. People recognise this process inherently involves give and take – see the popular usage of the phrases ‘office politics’ and ‘family politics’ to mean the ways by which those structures reach consensus (however successfully). Note that politics doesn’t apply in a strict command structure, no accommodation is necessary between the views of army generals and privates. Politics is the ‘art of the possible’ of compromise and deal making.
‘The Political’ on the other hand is a conception or explanation of society and the ‘good life’, (something you alluded to in your summarising paragraph) whether it’s at a local, linguistic, level as you describe or in formulating and applying a systematic explanation and solution to the perceived woes of society. So, feminism is right to assert that ‘the personal is the political’, our societies vision of harmony is in the family as we define it.
You are spot on about American exceptionalism – the deification of the ‘founding fathers’ has built an axiom upon which all American discourse rests, ‘the political’ has been set and as you say interpretation is the game (at which FDR was the master in the framing of the four freedoms and claiming of the mantle ‘liberal’). Consider then, the counterexample a British society where the state and the distribution has come about entirely by ‘politics’. The evolution of the UK has been through power accommodating and compromising itself in the pursuit of its own maintenance – as inspiring as the Magna Carta is, it’s essentially a deal as later the mollification of burning class conflict would be. That is not to say that actors within British history were not political, but there are no set truths of the British political. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, post-war we were able to re-define national success from imperial glory to basic welfare.)
However, despite this, I think the causes of apathy in both countries (and indeed many others) have similarities, in the inability for the practioners of ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ to respect each other’s discipline. There is a conception of both forces as almost viral – able to infect and damage people and institutions. This is most clearly seen in the ritual disappointment of politicians who win support with a inspiring vision of society (‘the political’) but are forced to compromise, take symbolic positions. They’ve ‘caught’ politics. This can be observed clearly (and frequently) but the reverse is also true. Those who focus on more practical issues and outcomes resent the imposistion of doctrines, ideology and ‘the political’ as at best naivety or indeed as dangerous, blind to practical consequences. Its often expressed as the populist cry of ‘why can’t we/they just sort it out?’ meaning don’t take – infected – decisions to fit your system of beliefs. Constieunts feel equally alienated from a representative who is engaged in constant horse-trading and one who checks her bible or das kaptial before every vote.
With both ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ having been perjoritised important parts of public life are ‘taken out of politics’. The Supreme Court or the Bank of England montary policy committee take vitally important decisions supposedly devloved of all ‘politics’ and ‘political’ factors. Now I can see the obvious vast merit in both bodies, their decisions are respected by particpants (litigants or the market) because of their structure and have mostly been quite wise. But it is lunacy to pretend that these decsions actually took place quarentined from eitheir ‘politics’ or ‘the political’ – witness the court’s (admitadly occasional) acqiuenscene to public opinion or the backgrounds of BoE governers and Fed chairmen (Greenspan was famously close to Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand!). I raise this because, as Habermas would descirbe it, these decisions have now been ‘de-coupled’ from public interaction.
One way out of this ‘toxicfication’ trap is shown by President Obama whose campign was in many ways a ‘politcal’ defense of ‘politics’. He emphasised America’s unity and assert the value and importance of using ‘politics’, and democracy, to improve the ‘good life’. Naturally, we can see this didnt last long but all of society and culture has to be continually re-asserted and as activists we must promote not only our issues but politics as the field for them.
Some quick thoughts:
Only point I disagree with is politics as the 'art of the possible' in a restrictive sense; in so far as I think it implies politics or government as an essentially practical process. I think we should see parliamentary politics, for instance, as the arena where different ideologies or views of the 'good life' robustly exchange views and force one another to different positions. The trouble comes when there is no broad range of ideological views or one over-whelmingly dominates. Then politics becomes what I think you see in the UK today; largely managerial, where pragmatism is an ideology in itself. Pragmatism should be a position argued to, rather than one started from; this just serves the political status quo. We shouldn't see, I don't think, Obama as 'catching politics', but rather engaged in a struggle against other ideologies that have a significant advantage in American politics for lots of reasons, and that have watered down his proposals, have forced him to be 'pragmatic'.
His side needs more dogmatic advocacy, rather than defeatism from the left which sees politics as grubby, as Martin Kettle beautifully outlines here. This is where I think that FDR quote from the first post has most resonance: he wants to and we must make him etc.
Anyway, i've blabbered on for too long here. Really interesting response, any more would be greatly welcomed :-)
Friday, 12 March 2010
Following the Beckham endorsement, I thought now would be a good time to write on Manchester United fans anti-Glazer protests. They are really interesting from a number of angles, not all footballing. They seemed impossible in spring 2005, when I faintly remember my Dad and I rather forlornly traipsing down Sir Matt Busby Way with others who were handing out leaflets for Shareholders United (SU) around Old Trafford. SU were belatedly trying to rouse support from United fans to buy enough shares in the club to prevent the Glazer takeover. They failed to do so, most fans did not care, and SUs impotence compounded the profoundly depressing spectre of seeing one of the worlds most prosperous clubs saddled with the £650 million of debt (now £717 million after refinancing), which the Glazers had borrowed to leverage the buyout. To meet eye-watering interest payments alone they have since ratcheted up ticket prices, introduced abominable ticket schemes, under-invested (not one penny net) in the squad and personally siphoned money from the clubs accounts for personal use.
Thousands have since boycotted and protested from 'the outside' but now a huge swell of resistance to Glazers reign has taken hold from inside Old Trafford too, taking the form of vocal, prolonged anti-Glazer protests and banners during games. Its been brilliantly visualised by fans casting aside the clubs famous red colours to don it's original 19th century green and gold, “until the club is sold” (see here from 1.10 on for a great example). This has coincided with the emergence of a group of partially-United supporting bankers - the 'Red Knights' - who are working with Manchester United Supporters Trust (SU's reincarnation) to launch a bid for the club, as well as public endorsement by United legends past and present (probably).
But it would be wrong to view, as done here, the protests as simply a matter concerning Manchester United fans, or even football per se. It is rather, as one of the Red Knights has said, a kind of “social phenomenon”. In fact, it's not much to do with the team – United have been successful on the pitch in spite of the Glazers.
The anti-Glazer movement implicitly (whether it knows it or not) challenges the idea of a football fan as a passive consumer, an atomised observer of their clubs fortune. It's mostly being driven by a hardcore bulk of fans pissed off on a broader scale with the commercialisation of the club, and football, that has taken it away from what they perceived it should or was intended to be (hence the old colours). Not least this is things like not being able to stand, smoke or drink on the terraces as well as the pricing out of the clubs working class fan base, all of which have long been blamed for the decline in matchday atmosphere and experience.
By demanding and attempting to force the Glazers to sell the club to owners who would put fans at the centre of its operation, the anti-Glazer protest looks to claw back the idea of a clubs principle responsibility to its most passionate fans; it looks to re-place it within its 'community'. An alternative club set up by those who boycotted in 2005, FC United of Manchester, works as a model for this. The G&G protests have also given some previously alienated fans a new sense of identity, a kind of rebel spirit that distances them from the 'asian tourist' or 'gloryhunter' stereotypes surrounding United fans (many of United's hardcore fans have long seen wearing red replica shirts as 'plastic' or synonymous with these stereotypes).
The anti-Glazer protests have worked as a rallying point vocally and visually, on top of just looking pretty damn cool. It also lets a lot of people feel like they are a part of something. This last point shouldn't be understated. To this end, it's interesting to look at the way different anti-Glazer protests are constituted.
MUST is a more traditional, hierarchical activist organisation which draws on the volunteered experience of a small band of dedicated professionals to plot strategy. It lobbies Manchester United, the government and places stories in the press. More recently it's liaised with potential buyers for the club. Equally as important is its role in disseminating information among fans and the media on the clubs finances/debt, putting it in a firm position to dispute and undermine the club's official “nothing to see here” line. This was especially critical around the time the Glazers revealed their bond prospectus.
But it's probably fair to say that MUST owes its (now over 130,000 strong) mailing list, and the G&G movement more broadly to word of mouth among spontaneous groupings of United fans. Though Twitter and Facebook has played a part, this is mostly centred around networks of hardcore, match going fans and particularly on Red Issue forum (which conceived the green and gold idea) where a lot of those fans exchange ideas on protests as well as tips on “how to get a shit stain out of a pool table”, obviously.
Both MUST and the G&G 'movement' need each other to sustain momentum. G&G could easily have fizzled without MUST's efforts surrounding the Red Knights, yet such defining pictures as this could scarcely have occurred without the more organic forms of protest, nor could MUST alone have engineered such ubiquitous and accessible form of protest as G&G.
The anti-Glazer movement, then, currently has its foot both inside and outside of institutions, and Old Trafford, to great effect. So far, it has shown the utility of various forms of power and protest; it has publicly humiliated the Glazers in front of their sponsors (as club attempts to rip banners down and silence players show), which has put pressure on them to sell up and are close to providing them a money-making route out. It also spreads awareness and encourages people to boycott, which is where fans can have the most immediate impact.
However MUST has yet to explicitly endorse an outright, wholesale boycott. Here they face a dilemma that possibly threatens it's symbiotic relationship with the G&G movement. It could end up alienating its hardcore element if its seen as not standing up to the club sufficiently and in the way deemed most effective. Plenty of fans, though, still can't bring themselves to boycott and resent the implication that they're a lesser fan for it. Here MUST may re-ignite old divisions over the virtues and efficacy of fighting from 'within' or 'without'. Neither is it certain that enough money will be found to convince the Glazers to sell or to wipe Uniteds debt, nor how the essentially corporate-minded Red Knights would actually implement the fan-centred model it has promised.
However, whatever occurs in the following months or years the anti-Glazer protests have been pioneering. It has over-come cynicism time and again from within its own base and from opposition fans. It has shown how effective activism can be when enough people care to think and act collectively, especially when institutional and non-institutional, old and new, confrontation and collaboration styles of protest are combined cohesively. There are signs that it's working as a template for other fans, even among hated rivals, who have been similarly shafted by greedy owners. Building on the APPG Football report, pressure should also be brought to bare on the government and footballing authorities to implement changes which would consolidate fans aims. To this end, hopefully the meaning of MUST and the G&G movement will be to start to re-shape ideas of what ownership means, the way fans think about football and football in turn thinks about fans, an era where financially ruinous leaches like the Glazers are an unpleasant memory. Keep the faith!
Sunday, 7 March 2010
I think the nub of the problem and the solution is in the distinction between politics and the political. Politics is probably best understood as the public square, the arena where the collective issues of the day are fought out. The purest manifestation of this is Parliament. But it's slightly wider than that; it's current affairs, it's the sphere in which priorities and ideas jostle for attention, converging and congealing to form the surface of what we call public life. This is mostly played out by the politicians, their staff and the media class in Westminster.
But the political is something else. It's the way we construct our daily realities, construe who 'we' are against who 'other' people are. It's the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things. How for instance, do you interpret a homeless man you might encounter on your walk to work – how did he get there and whose fault is it? What I think might determine whether I give him some change. Our answers are mostly defined by the language we use. Is someone a benefit scrounger or are they forced to subsist off the state? (do they 'claim' benefits or do they 'receive' them?). Does a banker 'earn' their bonus or do they 'pocket' them? And so on, you get the idea.
The problem in the UK today, I think, is the detachment of politics from the political. This is not just because the politico-media class in Westminster is obsessed with point scoring over gaffes, splits and coups rather than 'the issues'. They are, but it's because the issues get conscripted into that point scoring. It's claim and counter-claim. Point scoring becomes a matter of survival even for those with the purest of intentions.
In this environment, understandably, 'party lines' emerge to save embarrassment. A game is created between politicians and the media in Westminster with it's own internal, self-perpetuating logic; what one should and should not say publicly. As this re-creates itself, the terms of the debate become ever more narrow, ever more distant from the political. "Fine", one could argue, "politics has always involved point scoring". But add in 24 hour news cycles and the post-Cold War decline of socialism as the credible, alternative vision of society and politicians, and politics, is talking at us more while saying less than ever before.
Whatsmore, the public are told by the media, rather one sidedly (think The Thick of It, Peter Oborne, Andrew Rawnsley et al), of this process and are thus inoculated against what they perceive as spin. In this context, politicians are 'othered'. They appear to us buttoned up, awkward, blathering in a language unrecognisable; they are not one of us (this can happen to anyone to be fair. I, for instance, thought of calling this post 'the anatomy of apathy', a title so po-faced and remote that it could only be the product of a mind which has read too many political science journals!). Thus, when politicians do get the chance to spell out a different vision of society it's pretty sanitised and by then we already have a tin ear to them.
The result is pretty damning for the way we view private and public life. As we become disconnected from politics, current affairs become events that just happen, things just are. The intrinsically political stories we tell ourselves in private life are unhooked from public life. Perhaps we blame the government (“they”, “the politicians”) or 'the way of the world' in an abstract and rather arid sort of way, but there is no vocabulary in the public ether with which to grasp and articulate a better vision of society, no political overlay through which events can be viewed. The result is it becomes extremely difficult to convince people that politics shapes our lives, not just through determining the allocation of resources, but through representing our collective conscious; politics as morality in practice, as Vaclav Havel termed it.
Making this point, historian Tony Judt recalls his experience of listening to exhausted British passengers on a train regale one another contently about their exhaustion and frustration with civil servants, doctors and politicians; not once did they join up the political dots or get angry. Things just were.
It would be disingenuous if we didn't ascribe this malaise in very large part to the post Cold War consensus on free-markets and business. Hopefully the financial crisis will open up new space for a more social democratic vision which may alter received wisdom in Westminster, but there's no room to bang on about that too much here. What is also true, however, is that despite considerably more consensus on economics, American political life doesn't show the same disaffection. On this, Irving Howe wrote brilliantly in Politics and the Novel:
"The Americans failed...to see political life as an autonmous field of action.... Personalizing everything, they could not quite do justice to the life of politics in its own right.... Personalizing everything, they could brilliantly observe how social and individual experience melt into one another so that the deformations of the one soon become the deformations the other."
As the Tea Party movement shows, Americans might get angry with government, or even not vote, but at least they actually get angry; most do it with an alternative vision of what they think America should be. This hints at the issue of citizenship. Politics and the political are inexorably connected in the US through the constitution, which enshrines certain universal values to individuals. With this language in the ether, most political argument or rational is centred on differing interpretations of such values – what is life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness? Etc. This lends itself much better to thinking about ones relationship with the state or to ones community. Despite the despair of the Bush years, this helped give rise to the activism which propelled Obama into the White House in a manner British politics cannot presently hope to replicate.
A UK constitution might help shape what it means to be British, what our rights and obligations are by giving us some shared concepts the meaning of which we can contest.
This is all very abstract, however. The main problem in the UK is that politics only happens in one place: Westminster, or at least London. Our electoral system breeds an obsession with the swing voter. The efficacy of engaging in politics is pretty poor too, with few access points (especially given we still have, ludicrously, an unelected upper chamber) and a Government which castrates Parliament. Clearly the whole system needs to be bust open, but we can't do this as long as talking about politics remains uncool or remote. Speaking to an activist on reforms, Franklin Roosevelt said “I want to do it, now make me”. In my very brief experience, politicians or public servants are not bad people, they just live in their own worlds with their own rules of survival. We can and must change these rules to make politics political again and to start thinking collectively. We have to recover an idea of politics as morality in practice. We have to believe that politicians, power or political institutions are not inherently dirty things; that instead they have the capacity to articulate differing visions of the 'good society'. They want to, we must make them.