Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Tits Out for the Lads

The reaction to the retirement of The Sun's Page 3 has been notable for the complete absence of wank. By which I mean, no one has mentioned the role of masturbation. Some commentators have suggested that soft-porn in a daily newspaper lost its value once the Internet opened the firehose of hardcore, but this misses the point that online porn elbowed out top-shelf mags, not tabloid newspapers. Nobody bought The Sun instead of Men Only. Some men did by the paper to provide material they could both safely leave around the workplace and tuck under an arm as they wandered off to a toilet stall for a mid-morning hand shandy (it was less obvious than unhooking the Pirelli calendar). Presumably their needs will now be catered for by The Daily Star.

I'm not suggesting that the disappearance of Page 3 is due solely to a decline in workplace wanking, but it is worth noting the impact of two developments. Joan Smith amusingly suggested a positive role for the Internet: "What made the difference was the internet, which allowed a new generation of women to articulate their opposition to Page 3 and support each other in the face of a backlash". In fact, the key technological change was not the Web or Twitter, but the appearance after 2010 of cheap smartphones supporting video streaming. The key social change has not been the rise of third or fourth-wave feminism but tighter workplace monitoring, with some employers now docking pay or requiring formal requests for loo-breaks. In such a closely inspected environment, the five knuckle shuffle either becomes an unaffordable luxury or necessitates the "quick hit" of a two minute video.

Rupert Murdoch's decision is widely seen as epochal, but I was pleased to see that the paper had not lost its sense of proportion when it said that "Page 3 of The Sun is where it’s always been, between pages 2 and 4", suggesting they might have momentarily considered retiring it, like a football club ostentatiously reserving the squad number of a celebrated player. One thing that Murdoch and his critics had in common was the claim that Page 3 was "old-fashioned", but this is as redundant as saying that Eastenders and Coronation Street are old-fashioned. The question is, what sort of old-fashioned? Rent-a-rant defenders have tried to put it in the tradition of British bawdy, but a better clue was provided by one critic, Stella Creasy, saying "we didn’t need boobs with our breakfast tables", as if most people still got a paper delivered and had time to read it over their boiled egg and soldiers before setting off for work. Surely they have convenience stores and coffee shops in Walthamstow? And do they really still say "boobs"?

While many have associated Page 3 with Benny Hill, a man who literally ran away from adult women, a more troubling spectre has been Jimmy Savile, with many pointing out that The Sun only stopped using 16-year old models in 2003 and was happy once upon a time to dress them in school uniforms. Famously, the paper ran a countdown in advance of Sam Fox's 16th birthday, having featured her previously but without exposed nipples. Paul Gadd (aka Gary Glitter) is currently appearing at Southwark Crown Court (and on a double page spread of The Sun, no doubt). But I think it is wrong to imagine, as Joan Smith does, that "The sexual revolution made Page 3 possible", not least because it was more Health & Efficiency than Forum. This was a cultural artefact of the 70s and 80s, rather than the 60s, and one that looked quaint by the 90s with the arrival of "lads' mags" and their recuperation of Robin Askwith and all his works. Page 3 was of its time, and therefore inescapably Thatcherite, and you wouldn't explain her away as an opportunistic byproduct of second-wave feminism.

Another critique of Page 3's failing powers centres on the increasing use of candid shots of nude or partially-clothed slebs across the media. Some of these will be as staged as the traditional model photos while others are on the border of an invasion of privacy. In contrast, Page 3 was highly formulaic, from its fetishistic staging to the language and tone of the caption. In other words, it was looking increasingly tired up against MailOnline's human zoo, the 'sidebar of shame', which appears to have cornered the mass-market in both self-righteous prurience and borderline lewd since the demise of The News of the World. One common assumption is that MailOnline appeals mainly to women, just like the print version, hence the obsession with physical imperfection and diets, however it appears to do equally well among men, and quite possibly the same "lads" who used to buy Loaded in the 90s and are now fascinated by Kim Kardashian's arse.

Why did Page 3 last for 44 years? It wasn't Murdoch's stubbornness in the face of feminists, nor his commitment to free speech (announcing its demise in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings has predictably stimulated the usual suspects into concerns over self-censorship). I think the clue is that it has almost covered the entire working life of the core Thatcher generation. Someone born in the mid-50s would have been a teenager when Page 3 appeared, and will now be approaching retirement. Up to the 70s, women tended to vote more for the Conservatives than Labour. The Thatcher breakthrough owed much to the initial maintenance of that advantage augmented by a swing to the right by male voters. From the 80s onwards, women have shifted left, coincident with their growing presence in the labour market. Though there is much talk at election time of targeting women, in reality it is male voters who have been more likely to "swing", particularly those in their 20s and 30s. Blair's embrace of "Cool Britannia" was a psephological calculation, not just starfucking.

I think the chief reason that Page 3 has been retired is that the target demographic has been dispersed due to economic and social change. The primary sector and manufacturing continue to decline. Transport and warehouse workers have ended up on short-term contracts or been obliged to become self-employed, so downtime means you're not earning. Workers generally are up against the clock. Offices have become increasingly sensitive to overt sexism as women have advanced, so not only are the topless calendars disappearing, so too are magazines as both sexes (and particularly the young) retreat to the Internet on phones and tablets. The Sun even appears to have gone out of fashion as a token of laddishness and ironic class contempt on City trading floors, where a ruffled copy open at page 3 (seriously "manhandled") was a way of marking territory in open-plan offices. In London, it is now unusual to see a paper being read on the Tube other than the free Evening Standard.

Page 3 was a serious work of ideology, and specifically performative gender, not just in its portrayal of women as fluffy-headed, antiseptic pleasure bots, but in its implicit portrayal of the working class male as more-cock-than-brain yet as sexually sophisticated as a sausage roll. We should celebrate its demise as the last weak fart of Thatcher's mouldering corpse, but we should also recognise that it represents a kind of proletarian defeat.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Characters in Search of an Author

Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan employs a number of familiar Russian tropes: the bleak but beautiful environment; the lure of Moscow; the pettiness of rural tyranny; the farce of bureaucracy; the hypocrisy of religion; the punishing seriousness of drink; the impossibility of doing right. This hyper-Russianness has caused the film political problems at home, where after initial support by the Ministry of Culture it has been branded unpatriotic and offensive, while its foreign reception has focused too much on the supposedly looming presence of Vladimir Putin, who is actually no more prominent than the brief and oblique references to Pussy Riot. Though it is an openly political film, in the widest sense of that word, narrow politics is in danger of obscuring the art.

I suspect the change in the attitude of Russian officialdom, ahead of its delayed general release in the country (with the swearwords cut, due to a recent blasphemy law), owes much to the inflection of the film's interpretation abroad. That interpretation was always going to biased by the traditional Western image of Russia, which assumes that the "existential despair" the Minster of Culture complained of is as common as borscht, that the state is both vicious and incompetent (banning transgender drivers), and that Russian culture is dominated by dissident weirdness (recreating the Eye of Sauron) and self-consciously theatrical politics. In fact the film is far more universal in its analysis of defeat, and angry rather than despairing. Zvyagintsev insists it is based on a true story about a planning dispute in the USA, and given this week's arson attacks in South Oxfordshire, I can quite believe it. What has coloured the reaction, first in the West and then in Russia, is the "new Cold War" vibe.

The setting is the far north west, near Murmansk - a bleak tundra coastline of weak sunshine and roaring waves, with the wrecks of old boats and the bones of a whale embedded in the white sand. The story centres on the age-old and ultra-modern issue of property rights. Kolya repairs cars and trucks for a living, often as a favour to his mates in the Traffic Police. He lives with Lilya, a Chekhovian heroine who works in a fish factory, and Roma, his truculent teenage son from an earlier marriage. His self-built home, overlooking a bay, is being compulsorily-purchased by the council, headed by the outrageously corrupt Vadim, for a derisory sum. Kolya suspects Vadim intends to build a mansion in its place. He calls in his old army buddy, Dima, now a smooth Moscow lawyer, to help secure adequate compensation. Dima proposes the threat of blackmail, exposing Vadim's corrupt practices to more powerful officials in the "vertical", rather than the angry confrontation that is Kolya's default setting. Everyone drinks, and criticises the drinking of others.

As the Hobbesian title makes clear, this is a tale about authority, but the twist on the standard cinematic treatment of the subject is that these are characters in search of it, rather than rebelling against it. Kolya seeks justice from the state, Vadim seeks sanction from the church, while Roma both wants and rejects his father's authority. The tragedy stems from the refusal of those who are offered a position of authority to accept it: "I am not your confessor". This is because authority entails moral responsibility, and none of the characters can bear that burden. Instead they make do with naked power, from physical abuse to institutional corruption, or they submit to that power and exploit the limited opportunities that come their way. The cold air hums with the threat of violence and betrayal, as well as the music of Philip Glass's Akhnaten (another tale of authority).

Leviathan provides an interesting contrast with the year's other "foreign" film hit, Ida, which is also in the running for the Oscars. Pawel Pawlikowski's beautifully shot monochrome film also explored the themes of church and state, justice and betrayal, self-sacrifice and escape. There is less drinking, but a lot of smoking, and jazz. In the Poland of the early 1960s, the violence is historic and authority still intact, not least because of the legitimation of the struggle against the Nazis, but a reference to the promise of Gdansk, where antigovernment riots broke out in 1970 and Solidarity was formed in 1980, hints that this authority will shortly erode. Lilya in Leviathan could almost be an older Ida who chose not to return to the convent and has regretted the loss of authority ever since.

In the West Leviathan is seen as critical of Putin, whose framed picture appears on a wall (apparently in situ when the film crew borrowed the location) and who is referred to obliquely in the company of earlier, Soviet leaders. The simplistic interpretation is that this parochial backwater is a microcosm of a nation riddled by corruption and a lack of moral accountability, but in a Russian context this can also be interpreted as a plea for authority, which is precisely Putin's political pitch. This nuance has been lost in the noise of the government and the Orthodox church condemning Zvyagintsev's work as an insult to the nation, but it bears repeating that this negative reaction largely occurred after the film's foreign success. Like it or not, events in Ukraine have heavily influenced reactions to the film both at home and abroad. For the West, Leviathan is evidence that Putin's domestic support may be fragile; for Putin's supporters, it is evidence that the opposition is unpatriotic, potty-mouthed and quite possibly gay (the only sex-scene is heterosexual, but there are shots of the buff Dima in the shower).

Leviathan is a Dostoyevskian tale in its polyphonic structure, as much as in its biblical references, father-son relationships (Vadim and the Bishop, as well as Kolya and Roma), compulsive behaviour, guilt and suicide. There is even a last-minute reprieve from a firing squad. The bishop is a cynic who owes a debt to the novelist's Grand Inquisitor, but he also has something of the assurance of the Soviet-era ideologist and the smoothness of the modern "biznessman". Everything is process and the correct observance of form. At the end of the film, it is revealed that Kolya's home has been demolished to make way for a new, onion-domed church. This could be a concrete metaphor for the new-old Russia of Putin, but the choice of a church rather than a mansion for the mayor suggests that Zvyagintsev is concerned more with dishonest than honest corruption; pernicious ideology rather than the quotidien abuse of power.

In contrast to the bishop, the parish priest is poor and righteous, but he is also a fool. His sermon to Kolya is the standard quietist nonsense about Job accepting God's will, but the scene tells us another story. They meet in the store, where Kolya buys ("what else") two bottles of vodka and the priest multiple loaves of bread. Kolya offers to carry the priest's load back to the ramshackle presbytery where a Russian Mrs Doyle passes on a loaf to a nearby swineherd. We finish with the sight of pigs troughing swill. Though some Western critics have seen the priest as the moral centre of the film, largely because of the contrast with the venal bishop, this small parable within the larger story suggests that the consolation of religion (the bread of Christ) is just more pigswill.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Clash of Civilisations

One of the themes of the reaction to the Paris killings has been the insistence in the mainstream media that this is not a "clash of civilisations", which contrasts with the populist clamour on social media that Muslims must share collective responsibility. While they have not employed the phrase, anti-immigrant political parties clearly think along these lines ("fifth columnists", "Islamists have declared war" etc), with newer pressure groups like Pegida, whose very name embodies the concept ('Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West'), gaining media prominence. Despite their protestations, many liberal commentators have also internalised the trope, with some eager to see parallels elsewhere ("There is no connection, of course, between the Paris tragedy and the conflict in Ukraine ... But there is one common element. It is that the very essence of Europe ... has come under attack") and others dropping the mask altogether.

The clash of civilizations trope originated in an article by Samuel Huntington in Foreign Affairs in 1993. This was essentially a rebuttal of the democratic universalism advanced by Francis Fukuyama in 1989's The End of History? It is politically neoconservative - an essentially pessimistic assessment of geopolitics that advocates confrontation abroad - in contrast to the more optimistic stance of neoliberals centring on the beneficial spread of liberal democracy and markets. In practice, US policy has long been a combination of the two (military force plus the IMF). Huntington's key development was to substitute "civilisations" for the traditional realist model of competing nation states and (after 1945) ideological power blocs: "The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. ... The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."

Huntington's definition of the unit of "civilisation" was both monolithic and vague, which resulted in it being lazily identified with religion and race by sympathisers and debunked by critics like Edward Said. Though foreign policy wonks still occasionally use the term in respect of US-China rivalry, the popular understanding since 2001 is that the clash is between Islam and the West. In Huntington's reading, attempts to export democracy are counter-productive specifically in the Middle East: "In the Arab world, in short, Western democracy strengthens anti-Western political forces". This hints at the Orientalism of neoconservatives, which is contemptuous of the "Arab street" and equates authoritarianism with stability. Though Islam is the particular bete noire, it is easily blended into a non-Occidental stew: "the paramount axis of world politics will be the relations between 'the West and the Rest'". This is a continuation of the anglocentrism and racist paranoia of a century ago. For Huntington, "a central focus of conflict for the immediate future will be between the West and several Islamic-Confucian states". The modern "axis of evil", from Iran to North Korea, is an echo of the Mad Madhi and Fu Manchu.

The basis of the thesis is a number of truisms: there are cultural characteristics that span nation states; there are geopolitical boundaries that have historically witnessed a lot of conflict; and nations are gradually merging sovereignty into supra-national economic blocs. However, it does not follow from this that the dominant geopolitical unit of the future will be a pan-national "civilisation", nor that conflict is inevitable at its edges. Huntington ignores that pan-national characteristics are multiple and overlapping (e.g. language versus religion); that conflict points often have as much to do with geography, technology and social pressures as civilisational friction (e.g. Somalian pirates are the product of shipping lanes, speedboats and a failed state, not the proximity of Kenyan Christians); and that supra-national economic blocs are examples of pragmatic cooperation whose participants usually draw the line at ceding national sovereignty (e.g. the European Union). Huntington's "civilisations" are ideological constructs.

Unsurprisingly, the thesis has been used as an intellectual justification for the rejection of multiculturalism. As Richard Rubinstein & Jarle Crocker noted, Huntington's "Spenglerian pessimism has Social Darwinist as well as realist roots; in the struggle for survival and supremacy, victory belongs to the civilization most culturally unified, most determined, and best adapted to the pursuit of global power. Therefore, Huntington sees multiculturalism - 'the de-Westernization of the United States' - as a grave threat to U.S. and Western interests." Instead of being applied to conflicts in the border-lands that Huntington identified, such as the Balkans and the Caucasus, the "clash of civilisations" trope has tended to be wheeled out in response to jihadi terrorist acts in the West since 9/11. Gradually this has been extended to any behaviour seen as objectionable, subversive or simply too Muslim: Abu Hamza preaching outside Finsbury Park mosque, the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham, the Rotherham sex abuse scandal. The loss of nuance in these situations (Abu Hamza was a known menace, the Rotherham abusers' religion was incidental) means that Islam is treated as suspect by default.

A key premise of Huntington's theory is that globalisation has led to a weakening of nationalism and thus a revival of religion: "the processes of economic modernization and social change throughout the world are separating people from longstanding local identities. They also weaken the nation state as a source of identity. In much of the world religion has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of movements that are labeled 'fundamentalist' ... The revival of religion ... provides a basis for identity and commitment that transcends national boundaries and unites civilizations." The idea that economic modernisation weakens national identity is dubious. By this logic, the USA, at the bleeding edge of economic modernisation, should have the world's weakest sense of nationhood, rather than being the home of patriotic flag-wavers. This causal relationship makes no better sense in the "civilisational zone" of Islam.

In the Middle East, nationalism grew in tandem with, and was strengthened by, economic modernisation during the 50s and 60s. It was the stagnation of the latter, in no small part due to the "resource curse" of oil in the 70s, that provided the fertile soil for the growth of political Islam, not a decline in nationalism. Iran, the only Islamic theocracy (i.e. where the head of state is a cleric), is a nation state with a long history of antipathy towards Arab states. More recently, Turkey's aspirations as a national power have been fuelled by economic growth, while the ruling AKP party is fundamentally conservative rather than Islamist. The idea that religion unites civilisations is easily disproved, both by the centuries-old Sunni-Shia schism and the more recent objection of UKIP voters to Christian Poles. There is also the small matter of religious belief, which, after the recalibration in the early 90s, has continued its long-term global decline. Religiosity is inversely correlated with living standards, hence the antipathy of religious authorities to secular modernity in the West as elsewhere.

Huntington subsequently claimed that he was talking in terms of cultural legacy rather than actual religious affiliation, but many of the footsoldiers of the "clash" ideology see it in Manichean and religious terms (from Anders Breivik to online trolls), while those neoliberals and secularists (like Richard Dawkins) who frame the clash as being between the Enlightenment and "Medievalism" are guilty of the soft bigotry of Orientalism. In practice, religion remains the opiate of the (poorer) people and a minor concern for sophisticated political realists. The USA has no difficulty maintaining a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the latter's Wahhabism and sponsorship of Salafism abroad, and it should hardly need stating that the growth of jihadi terrorism owes as much to American instrumentalism in Afghanistan in the 1980s as it does to a revival of religious feeling.

Huntington also pointed to a change in elite behaviour: "In the past, the elites of non-Western societies were usually the people who were most involved with the West, had been educated at Oxford, the Sorbonne or Sandhurst, and had absorbed Western attitudes and values. At the same time, the populace in non-Western countries often remained deeply imbued with the indigenous culture. Now, however, these relationships are being reversed. A de-Westernization and indigenization of elites is occurring in many non-Western countries at the same time that Western, usually American, cultures, styles and habits become more popular among the mass of the people." If local elites are playing up religion or other indigenous allegiances, this is because the advance of democracy has required them to secure popular support (e.g. Imran Khan in Pakistan and Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan). London is currently thriving in no small part due to its role servicing the educational and cultural needs of elites from other "civilisations", including new customers such as the Chinese.

As well as the power of religion, Huntington suggested that civilisational homogeneity underpinned the growth of regional economic blocs: "On the one hand, successful economic regionalism will reinforce civilization-consciousness. On the other hand, economic regionalism may succeed only when it is rooted in a common civilization. The European Community rests on the shared foundation of European culture and Western Christianity. The success of the North American Free Trade Area depends on the convergence now underway of Mexican, Canadian and American cultures." The irrelevance of religion can be seen both in the current friction between Germany and Greece, which has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, and in Bulgaria's determination to cleave to the EU rather than a Russian-led Orthodox bloc. Far from Mexico (a "torn country" in Huntington's analysis) becoming more Western, the USA is demographically and culturally becoming more Latino, hence the increase in xenophobic protests in Texas and Arizona.

Though Huntington saw the border between the West and the Orthodox East running down the middle of Ukraine, he also saw that country as firmly within the Russian civilisational zone, much as it had been under the Soviet Union: "In 1991 and 1992 many people were alarmed by the possibility of violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine over territory, particularly Crimea, the Black Sea fleet, nuclear weapons and economic issues. If civilization is what counts, however, the likelihood of violence between Ukrainians and Russians should be low." Huntington died in 2008, so he didn't live to see the Russian annexation of Crimea. He might have claimed that the fissure in Ukraine is civilisational - between the Catholic West and Orthodox East - but this doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Kiev is historically Orthodox and the Catholic population, at about 6% of the total, is both physically and demographically marginal.

The break up of the Cold War blocs, and the peripheral conflicts this gave rise to, led Huntington to assume that the edges of his conceptual civilisations would be the key friction points in future: "In the coming years, the local conflicts most likely to escalate into major wars will be those, as in Bosnia and the Caucasus, along the fault lines between civilizations. The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations." It is worth recalling the lessons of the earlier world wars. The Great War started as a fault line conflict between Catholic Austria-Hungary and Orthodox Serbia. Though this appears to support Huntington's thesis, it ignores the fact that there were repeated Balkan wars over the preceding 40 years, also involving the Islamic Ottomans, that did not escalate. The reason why Sarajevo in 1914 led to a world war was the antagonistic alliance system within the Western bloc. Indeed, both world wars could be considered essentially civil wars if we think in Huntington's civilisational terms (the mid-century war against Japan fits Huntington's scheme better, but without the conflict in Western Europe and North Africa it is unlikely that this would have been seen as a "world" war).

Huntington's tour d'horizon came at a time when the USA (which he routinely conflated with "the West") was top dog: "Military conflict among Western states is unthinkable, and Western military power is unrivalled. Apart from Japan, the West faces no economic challenge." The purpose of this statement (which 20 years later looks quaint given the rise of China and the stagnation of Japan) was not to crow, but to warn the West that its then-current supremacy was already in jeopardy as non-Western civilisations started to flex their muscles in the post-Cold War environment. As ever when the rise and fall of civilisations is evoked, the tone is a mixture of the bitter and the elegiac, a style traceable back via Oswald Spengler and Arthur Toynbee to Edward Gibbon. Though Johnny Foreigner may be the ostensible target, Huntington's real regret is for a mythical past when the common people and minorities knew their place, and when the brightest and the best ran the show.

Huntington mostly keeps his reactionary nostalgia in check, but his worldview is inescapably anglocentric, snobbish and implicitly racist. While the West includes Australia and New Zealand, it does not (yet) include Mexico or the Caribbean. It's goal should be "to incorporate into the West societies in Eastern Europe and Latin America whose cultures are close to those of the West". This is realpolitik peeping through, as Huntington envisages a Western bloc that includes some Latin Americans (Mexico and perhaps a rehabilitated Cuba) and some Eastern Europeans (the Baltic states), yet manages to retain its civilisational identity.To suggest that there is a common culture and set of values that unites Tallinn and Tijuana, but which is simultaneously alien to St Petersburg and Istanbul, is absurd.

Just as he merges the non-West civilisations into the hostile blob of "the rest", so Huntington happily absorbs subaltern cultures into a WASP-dominated "us", which indicates the all-too traditional imperial thinking at the heart of his thesis. His original article proposed 7 or 8 civilisations: "Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African". The afterthought is telling, echoing the condescension towards African culture that has been an imperial commonplace since the nineteenth century. These old prejudices continue to bubble up. For example, Nigel Farage's "fifth column" comment was widely criticised for unreasonably tarring all Muslims with the same terrorist brush, but the underlying message of the term is that foreigners are untrustworthy: a commonplace of xenophobic propaganda.

Perhaps the worst effect of Huntington's clash of civilisations thesis has been to surface these prejudices. While traditional realpolitik's pride in its objectivity and dispassion was ideological, it did operationally assume that the West was confronting rational actors and that the external constraints on these actors, such as geography and resources, were comprehensible. The shift to a geopolitics based on culture created opponents who were potentially incomprehensible and unpredictable. The result was that US strategic thinking on deterrence shifted in turn to a conscious employment of irrationality in the 1990s. In The Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence, the Department of Defense was quite open about this: "That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries", and "the penalty for using Weapons of Mass Destruction should not just be military defeat, but the threat of even worse consequences". This suggests that the trashing of Iraq after 2003, and the use of exemplary torture, was not some emotional over-reaction or miscalculation but conscious policy, rooted in an unwillingness to engage or understand. So much for the advance of civilisation.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Charlie Don't Surf

The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings has been self-indulgent. To call it the "French 9/11" is obviously over the top, but it is also depressing when you consider that most days witness equal or greater body-counts from muslim-on-muslim jihadi violence in the Middle East. Likewise, to describe the murder of twelve people as an "attack on freedom" is no more accurate or helpful than claiming, as Marine Le Pen promptly did, that Islam is at war with France. To suggest that we should all stand in public squares brandishing pencils is the sort of imbecility that Michel Houellebecq, whose caricature adorns the front of Charlie Hebdo's current issue, has long satirised. The media's fascination - with London-based TV news anchors having apparently decamped en masse to Paris - probably owes as much to professional empathy as proximity, but it also owes something to the post-Leveson desire to paint themselves as champions of freedom.

There is a suggestion in the reporting and wall-to-wall commenting that terror on the streets of Paris still has a global significance that elevates it above terror in other areas of France, such as the killings in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, or even other countries. Inevitably, parallels are being drawn with 1789. Hari Kunzru offers liberal even-handedness: "The caricature of the jihadi as a medieval throwback, animated by ancient passions, may be comforting to those who would like to wrap themselves in the mantle of civilisation and pose as heirs of Voltaire, but as a way of actually understanding anything, it’s feeble. ... The jihadi movement is a thoroughly modern beast, which ironically owes much to the French revolutionary legacy of 1789. Though they are religious millenarians, looking to bring about global submission to the will of God, they are also utopian revolutionaries, and have adopted tactical thinking from the various movements that trace their legacy to Paris, and that inaugural moment of modernity."

Kunzru ironically fears that we are being manipulated ("I want to get off the damn bus"), but still recycles the warped vocabulary of "this war", "self-dramatising young men" and "lost boys" (the prime suspects, now dead, were in their 30s and clearly hardened). The significant thread back to 1789 does not run from the jihadists to the Terror, but from Charlie Hebdo to the Parisian media of the Revolution, and specifically Le Pere Duchesne, the radical newspaper published by Jacques Hébert in the early 1790s, which combined performative offence (essentially lots of swearing, aping the supposed manners of the sans culottes) with demands for egalitarian policies and increasing terror against counter-revolutionaries and speculators. It was a leading voice in the campaign for dechristianisation, which, together with its scurrility, would eventually lead to conflict with Robespierre, who favoured the deist compromise of the Supreme Being and the bourgeois ideology of Virtue (which certainly didn't include such liberal use of "foutre").

The counter-revolution and the restoration of the monarchy would drive the politics of the enragés underground, but the tone of vigorous profanity and nihilist contempt that Le Pere Duchesne popularised would remain an influence in French culture throughout the nineteenth century, providing a vulgar chorus to the angry but well-mannered duet of the curé and the schoolmaster that would lead to the gradual separation of state and religion during the Third Republic. This can be seen both in the "realism" of bourgeois French literature (compare Emile Zola to Thomas Hardy), and the proto-modernist reactions against it (compare Arthur Rimbaud to Robert Browning). Rimbaud's famous jibe at Verlaine - "What a cunt you look" - is a perfect example of the "gouaille" that links Le Pere Duchesne to Charlie Hebdo.

From the Third to the Fifth Republic, this contemptuous style would be a vigorous undercurrent of French culture, recuperated and exported globally as "naughtiness" (French postcards etc) and the daring of the demimonde. Obscenity never lost its political role, its ability to épater le bourgeois, which informs the work of authors as different as Céline and Genet. There has never really been an English equivalent to this instrumental obscenity (our causes célebre, from Lady Chatterley's Lover to The Romans In Britain, are ridiculous in comparison), though it is a robust presence in Scottish literature - James Kelman, Irvine Welsh et al. It finally died in France in 1968, as Paris gave up its role in the cultural avant garde and settled for the technocratic virtue that is the true inheritance of Robespierre (Houellebecq's schtick is a disgust with both this empty virtue and the mephitic corpse of '68).

Charlie Hebdo is a soixante-huitard in denial. While Le Pere Duchesne was not the authentic voice of the sans culottes - Hebert was a disappointed bourgeois who used his influence to live high on the hog until he met "the republican razor" - it did reflect a genuine lese-majesté and its uncompromising aggression was admired by its constituency. Some English commentators have wrongly described Charlie Hebdo as the French equivalent of Private Eye. That role is taken by the venerable Le Canard Enchainé, which focuses on political and financial scandals and is consequently dependent on the political and financial classes (much as Private Eye is). The UK equivalent of Charlie Hebdo's spirit of irreverence can be found somewhere between The Sun and Viz. To a large degree, the magazine's limited success (it has long been more talked about than read) is down to it occupying a empty space in the market created by the dull and "virtuous" mainstream French media (there is no real equivalent of our tabloids). The French like to believe they are still capable of "farting in the Pope's face", but their hearts are not really in it.

The political opportunism of Nigel Farage ("a fifth column", the "encouraged division ... of multiculturalism") and Marine Le Pen was predictable, but so was the demand by Andrew "Nosey" Parker of MI5 for more surveillance powers. As Kunzru rightly notes, "We have cracked [down] and tightened for a decade and a half and all we have to show for it is a bloated, unaccountable security state that is eroding the cherished freedoms we claim to be so eager to protect". The news that Charlie Hebdo is to print 1 million copies of its next issue is also opportunistic, though forgiveably so. Its normal circulation is about 45,000, which is down from a peak of almost 150,000 a decade ago (in contrast, Le Canard Enchainé sells around 500,000, while Private Eye sells around 220,000). It will likely revert to under 50,000 within a few months, and then continue its journey south.

The Internet is a challenge for all print media but it poses a more acute problem for ephemeral magazines, particularly those whose content is largely confected opinion rather than selected news. While magazines and newspapers that rely on leaks and scoops will survive, because of the high cost of sourcing such content and the vested interest that political and economic elites have in the media, those whose primary selling point is humour and/or outrage have already been swamped by the Internet's ability to generate and disseminate such material at enormous scale and zero cost (consider the circulation of the ISIS decapitation videos). The attempts by established satirical magazines to move online have largely failed, and even the exceptions, such as The Onion, have been unable to generate sufficient revenue since their print versions folded. Increasingly, the audience for ephemeral print media is ageing. Many of those soixant-huitards are now about 68 years old, funnily enough.

In the circumstances, defending Charlie Hebdo as an icon of press freedom is a dead end. I can't help feeling that some of the defensiveness and protectiveness of other journalists stems from their anxiety over an increasingly poorly-rewarded career and the constraints imposed by economic "realities". Blaming this all on mad jihadis is convenient, and dressing it up as an attack on freedom, in language that echoes the 1790s, elevates the status of the media above ordinary people. As ever, the real beneficiaries of such outrages can be found in the party of order, demanding retaliatory drone strikes on Yemen and more surveillance of the Internet. We've even turned out more armed policemen at British ports, to defend us against "those who wish us harm", as if the Paris killers were determined to extend their spree to London, following in the profane footsteps of Rimbaud and Verlaine.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Occupy the Centre Ground

The terms "left" and "right" originate in the physical drama of the French National Constituent Assembly of 1789, when supporters of reform and supporters of the monarchy separated on either side of the assembly president's chair. The "centre" dates from the Legislative Assembly of 1791, being the unaligned deputies who sat in the lower rows of the banked seats on either side. These became known as La Plaine (the plain), in distinction to La Montagne (the mountain), the radical Jocobins who sat higher up on the left, facing the constitutional monarchists (les Feuillants) on the right. Though this sounds like a position of some vulnerability, it would be La Plaine that would cast the pivotal votes to execute the king, and the subsequent history of the Revolution, from the Thermidorian reaction to the Empire, was largely driven from the centre.

For all the focus on the left-right dichotomy in political philosophy, it is the centre that has always obssessed political pragmatists, none more so than Tony Blair who recently commented "I am convinced the Labour Party succeeds best when it is in the centre ground". According to The Economist, Blair believes that Ed Miliband has dragged Labour to the left, which only goes to prove how foreign the former PM has become, having spent so much of his time since departing the reality distortion field of Number 10 in the company of mega-rich megalomaniacs. Even the Tories have given up on the Red Ed jibe, preferring to focus on Miliband's competence in handling a budget deficit or a bacon butty.

The reappearance of Blair in domestic politics (and the mythologising of his "skill" at winning) reminds us that we have four weary months of electioneering to look forward to. Others are more obviously calculating in their public lunacy. The Telegraph insists that UKIP are swinging left, the evidence being their plans to ring-fence NHS spending and further raise income tax allowances (i.e. adopt Tory policies). The Guardian, worried that the plebs are getting restless, reinvents radicalism as Blakean mysticism, which it offers as a spiritual tonic to its own tired sophistication because "We inhabit a world in which politics is calculated, targeted and practical, constrained by the possible, fearful of failure and inevitably modest in its goals", apparently. This makes for an interesting contrast with the hopey-changey mood in Greece.

Paul Mason, who is one of the least parochial political commentators in the UK (that's not saying much), wonders if the real challenge of Syriza and Podemos, assuming electoral success in 2015, will be in "restoring the power of agency to deprived and shattered communities" rather than radical economic reform. He is certainly correct to suggest that the economic policies of the "new left" are actually little more than mild social democracy - "a Keynesian fiscal union with a high welfare state" - rather than the redistributive terror bruited by the media, but his romanticism leads him to ignore the warning signs that a stylistic rejection (he notes the mantra of the "radicalised young" is "I don’t want to live in an economy") and the fetishisation of autonomy ("the state must get out and stay out of their private lives") are the same impulses that fuelled the neoliberal turn after 1968. Lest we forget, the long march through the institutions of the 1970s resulted in Kim Howells emerging as a New Labour minister and later chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.

A diversion of the left's focus away from job creation and reduced inequality, towards more divisive or marginal issues such as immigration and abortion, would serve to reinforce the hegemony of the economic order, so we shouldn't assume the media campaign against Syriza will focus exclusively on fiscal meltdown, any more than the Tory press will limit itself to doubts over Ed Balls. That the debate on the welfare state has been reframed in cultural terms (eating habits, scroungers, immigration) is no accident. As Mason says, "But here’s the problem: in a neoliberal world, even the basic welfare state can look revolutionary. Most projections for the survival of free-market capitalism involve the creation of greater inequality, a smaller state sector and a lower-paid workforce." This is true as an observation of the current hegemonic stance, but it would be wrong to think that institutional capitalism isn't flexible enough to moderate its own behaviour in order to safeguard its medium-term future. Just as the UK is perfectly capable of properly funding the NHS, so the EU is perfectly capable of pursuing an expansionary fiscal policy.

Many commentators have insisted that Syriza will lack leverage in negotiations with the EU because a Grexit isn't a credible threat, either because the impact would be marginal or because it has already been priced-in by the market. But this misses the point that the EU is already suffering a crisis of legitimacy in the face of the posturing of the likes of UKIP and the FN, which points to its own weakness rather than the strength of the Europhobes, and that a flanking move on the left would pose a serious threat, especially if it is couched in social democratic terms. As Mason perceptively notes: "Because if basic Keynesianism and an expanded welfare state are not permissible, and if the European institutions are seen actively to collude with attempts to sabotage them, a change of sentiment about the EU on the centre-left might follow." In other words, Syriza might reveal that the "centre ground" that Blair insists we must govern from is a narrow, elitist space, not the broad plain of legend. The valley may have been inverted to become a mountain peak.

Ultimately, the European project of continental cooperation rather than competition, which Syriza supports as much as the neoliberal parties do, depends on the assumption that there is a broad popular consensus from right to left, with only ultra-nationalists and loony-lefties outside of it (hence Syriza is routinely tagged as Marxist in the media, even though most of its supporters are ex-PASOK). The existential threat to the EU comes from the right, in the form of a swing to autarky (however nonsensical that would be in practice), not from the left, but an intransigent attitude towards the left could ultimately boost the far right (notably in France). For this reason I suspect that Brussels will prove willing to "soften" its stance on debt and austerity, in the interests of "solidarity", particularly if the quid pro quo is the advance of neoliberal mechanisms (fiscal oversight, public sector deregulation etc). Though many commentators claim that the push for convergence has stalled for a generation, this is clearly no more than a tactical pause (the logic of neoliberal capitalism has not changed) that could well be terminated by a stimulus from the left.

Similarly, the UK election debate is already being framed in terms of a centrist consensus (there is no alternative to austerity) under threat from radicals, even though UKIP are a mess and there is nothing radical about either the SNP or the Greens. In the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that there is talk of grand coalitions, and that this idea finds a welcome home at The Guardian. Ian Birrell provides an analysis that borders on parody: "Elections are a form of crowdsourcing, the wisdom of crowds ensuring the result reflects national desire ... a sceptical electorate does not want to hand either party untrammelled control of the country. In keeping with the current mood, a national government would see Cameron remain prime minister and the Tories retain control of the Treasury (replicating how Labour held both posts in 1931). Labour’s leader would be deputy prime minister, with the party overseeing education and health, although presumably it would need to revert to its previous stance on private sector involvement."

You don't need to be a Labourite to recognise the toxicity of invoking the memory of Ramsey MacDonald, nor do you need to be a cynic to question the special pleading over private sector involvement in the NHS (Birrell has long been an advocate of privatisation). Even more amusing is the so-last-decade waffle about crowdsourcing, which equates democracy with fund-raising, and the category-error conflation of this with the wisdom of crowds. A first-past-the-post election is a strategy for selecting a single opinion ("candidate X is the winner"), while the wisdom of crowds seeks to broaden the set of opinions under consideration, being nothing more than the pre-Internet adage that two heads are better than one.

The idea of the centre ground, as the legitimate source of political authority and the meeting-place of coalitions, is an abstraction that has a spatial equivalent in the politics of popular protest. Marches head towards the centre. To physically occupy the central square, particularly in the city that houses the seat of government, is to demand recognition as the legitimate will of the people. Traditionally, this would be resisted and dispersed, or at least robustly controlled in democracies, not least because of the "lessons learnt" from the French Revolution. The problem in the age of mass-media was that the reality of state power - the truncheon, the tear-gas - became more politically costly to exercise, from Prague and Paris in 1968 to Seattle in 1999.

This gradually led to a change in tactics, however the new playbook owed as much to privatisation as conscious design by the authorities. As public spaces were sold off and urban regeneration erased the gaps of postwar cities, the idea that civic buildings were public (regardless of actual legal status) also receded, hence the routine violence of security guards clearing campus building occupations today. As the locus of power became ever more diffuse, the traditional modes of protest - marching towards power, occupying buildings symbolic of power - gave way to the passive-aggressive occupying of public squares (Zuccotti Park and St Paul's were feeble in comparison to Greenham Common). Now that the squares are increasingly being fenced off, it can only be a matter of time before some enlightened government builds a protest pen, for our safety and convenience.

To occupy a public square increasingly means to willingly corral protest for the convenience of the state (kettling assumes that protestors can be herded). Once you reach your destination, there will be no further progress. By the time of the Occupy movement, it became obvious that the state's best strategy was to patiently wait for the protestors to lose heart, alienate the wider public via unsympathetic media (TV still reaches more than Twitter), or drift away in the face of bad weather. The persistent occupation of public space, with tents and soup kitchens, is an act of defiance but not one of strength. As the days pass, the protest cannot but help take on the appearance of a refugee camp.

This is a lesson that the Chinese appear to have learnt well, as they showed in Hong Kong. Even Russia - where the occupation of space has long been seen as the monopoly of authority and even an art form, from Red Square marches to Putin's stage-managed gatherings of music fans and bikers - has largely opted for containment of its intermittent protests since 2011. It's worth remembering that Russia's affront at the Maidan protestors in Kiev owed much to the assumed breaking of unwritten rules, namely storming government buildings. Similarly, the Egyptian "revolution" was arguably a case of the (deep) state being willing to patiently sit out the protests until the Muslim Brotherhood's naivety presented the opportunity for a coup. In Greece and Spain, much of the emotional strength of the left arises from the over-reaction of the police to the "indignant" protests of 2010-12. They've probably hired consultants from the Met since then.

We seem to have reached a stage where public protests and indignation are no longer seen as unusual or surprising, and where the state seems willing to stand by so long as private property is not threatened. Perhaps 2003, and the worldwide protests against the Iraq war, was the point when the neoliberal order realised it could safely ignore popular protest. Protest has become socially normalised and commoditised, with its physical sites multiplied and its virtual sites, from online petitions to Twitter-storms, seemingly without limit. It's worth noting how the Occupy movement originated as a meme (i.e. a commodity), and how it was quickly franchised and institutionalised.

Just as the central square has evolved from a field of liberty to a field of control, so the centre ground of politics is now held to be as irate as the flanks. The "angry centre" is no longer an oxymoron, even if the "radical centre" remains a nonsense. Apparently, the centre demands fewer immigrants, more health spending, higher wages and lower taxes all at the same time. Of course, this is actually a construct. By personifying "the electorate" (like "the people" or "the nation"), we create a monster of apparent contradiction. This allows the political "realists" to patronisingly dismiss democracy as regrettably incoherent, which they have been doing ever since the French reactionary Joseph de Maistre coined the maxim "Every nation gets the government it deserves" in 1811. Thus Ian Birrell flattens the plurality of the "wisdom of crowds" and insists that the singular electorate is really determined on a grand coalition, which, as in 1931, means a leading role for the party of order.

This attitude serves not only to diminish democracy, but to obscure what Birrell terms "national desire". The truth is that the centre, in the sense of popular opinion, has always been to the left of the political consensus when it comes to the material issues of life, such as jobs, wages and welfare, not to mention more doctrinal issues such as nationalisation and foreign affairs. Much of the supposed incoherence is a projection that arises from the manipulation of common attitudes (a distaste for waste and a fear of personal debt) into political prejudices (a hatred of scroungers and a fear of public debt). Most of this incoherence evaporates when individuals register the relevant facts, such as that unemployment benefits are miserly and the public debt is small by historic standards. Public opinion and the opinion of the public are not the same thing.

The less flattering nickname of the centre grouping in the French Legislative Assembly of 1791 was Le Marias, the marsh. The present-day centre ground increasingly looks like a narcissistic quagmire. I doubt Tony Blair appreciates the irony.