The General Election of June 2017 will be remembered for the shock advances made by the Labour Party and the failure of the Conservatives to gain an overall majority. The Conservative Party, led by Theresa May, then desperately struck a deal with the DUP, the party emerging from Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’, a group with a terrorist past.
May’s speech outside No.10 on June 9 announcing this deal was disgraceful. She used ‘the appalling attacks in Manchester and London’ to legitimise her lack of legitimacy, which was utterly disgusting in itself. She is seeking power through former terrorists to attack current ones. She seeks power for power’s sake in the name of ‘cracking down on the ideology of Islamist extremism and all those who support it.’ We need to write these moments down for later, remember them, they are revelations of the elite establishment’s game of ‘ruling over’ at any cost, not ‘ruling for’. These very old underground wells of power are usually hidden, but here they are suddenly revealed, as Burroughs wrote, in ‘the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’
Yes, the attacks were appalling, but what have any of them got to do with the EU? And May is seeking to address the attacks with the Unionist Party? And she uses the words ‘legitimacy and ability’ and ‘certainty’? And the Queen has given assent to all of this? It is time for the full rejection of the entire elite assemblage: Here is dialectics at a standstill; the profane illumination at zero-hour, the sick freeze frame.
But I was braced to return to the sociopathic Britain on bad steroids I know: The further rise of this weird, refigured octopoid far right like a constantly morphing and returning super-flu. The privatisation of everything. The end of even the concept of a public good or a commons. A pro-laissez-faire government, for half a decade. Further advocacy that we go more Thatcherite, which isn’t even possible, even if you want it, as nobody is giving stable or worthwhile work in signficant quantity. At least if we’re all supposed to go out for the loot then give us a situation where it’s actually possible without turning to crime: But I don’t want that situation and I never did. I want a strong and fair democratic state.
We have been so far adrift from that for so long that I don’t think most of us fully realise it. Everything was a lie, but people aren’t so stupid, even if they can be gullible. The great dream of upward mobility is dead, but so is the safety net, which has turned into a prison fence in universal credit, permanent surveillance. This was the first glimpse that Labour might win, just working through the obviousness of that, and the undealt with crash of 2008. Something had to happen.
The Tories couldn’t have lost it more thoroughly if they had actively tried to. The dementia tax, ‘we will take your home if you get dementia, to “care” for you, but not anyone else.’ Trying to take Halifax at the same time as they close hospitals there, and in nearby Huddersfield: Even a tolerable death seems out of our grasp. The older have been denied the work of youth and the youth denied the possibility of getting old – culturally – and none of us can be fully adult in any of it. Even those with permanent contracts on full time hours are scared to the living death of slipping down into the chaos below. This is about everyone’s lives, it is about all our qualities of existence. Even those with lots of money, their children would have had to live with the walking dead, everyone would have been affected, not just those ‘below’ them. The situation was one in which just being a decent citizen was very hard. This situation has been partially refused, but it is only partially. Although partial is good enough for now because the only response to a Tory landslide would have been some sort of internal exile, no more ‘out there’.
But this isn’t a panacea. The continuing and escalating carpet bombing of disingenuous media, superficial messages and fragmentary images has not stopped. Labour have a very hard task, they now have to convince those who didn’t vote for them this time, should we have another General Election. This will be more of a stone-squeezing exercise than the campaign Labour have just fought. But the Tories have to deal with Brexit and stagnating wages, this toxic cauldron has not been neutralised and its impact on the country could have been scapegoated onto Labour by the right. There are great mercies here. The Tories face two opposite pressures now, to move both fast and slow. The tension might bust them. Labour equally have pressures that could buckle them internally. Try not to throw up your hands at the first thing that goes wrong, there will be screw-ups, because what is being attempted is genuinely radical.
But all over my social media I see people celebrating as though Labour actually won: They didn’t; we must be much more cautious. The tropes bang onto the timelines with little thought, creating naive imagery pileups. One quotes Marx on the Labour Party, Chartists and Utopia: Firstly, Marx and Engels were just as often sniffy about both Labour and the Chartists; secondly I could find quotes from the Marx-Engels correspondence that equally fit this moment, on the late nineteenth century failure of the north to produce anything like a revolution.
These people will no doubt bemoan my lack of ‘faith’, but I am proud of it, because properly calibrated cynicism is a potent philosophical tool, where ‘belief’ is a dangerous one. What happened here was nothing short of miraculous though. I grant you that and fully celebrate it with you: But perspective is exactly what is needed now in order to pull off the main event.
Many of the posturing ones are university workers, like me, except those universities are now run by centre right business elites, which makes the revolutionary rhetoric even more ridiculous. At 9.30 in the morning of the historic day of the election result, in which Canterbury and Kensington both went red, the Vice Chancellor of one of the universities I work for sent an email around to all staff:
‘Dear colleague’ he began, after ‘the heat and noise of the General Election campaign we now must prepare ourselves for a period of instability, with a hung parliament and a minority government.’ He then described the ‘four freedoms’, which he defined as ‘movement of people, goods, services and capital’ saying that they ‘are indivisible’ (after, of course dividing them into four parts). The ‘four freedoms’? The freedom to sell yourself or languish in a doorway. He then made a highly cryptic statement, that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’
‘The university sector cares about borderless access to students and staff, research and innovation funding’ he continued: No it doesn’t, it cares about being a business. You don’t even get access if you live right next door to the university, unless the fees are paid: You don’t need to look to national borders to find barriers to access.
‘But more will be asked of universities’ he says, we ‘will be required to demonstrate our social and economic value and to play a full role in this regard.’ So that would be the ‘four freedoms’ then? Cream surplus value for yourself or sink, and stuff everyone else. Prove there’s a worth to your work beyond what it actually is that fits into the so-called ‘four freedoms’ of capitalism. If your work does not fit this grid, force it in until it does, even if its shape is fundamentally altered through doing so.
He then says that ‘we’ have ‘always maintained that a tough stance on immigration was likely to have a significant impact on universities’, that the ‘government cannot achieve its lower net migration target without a major reduction in international student numbers.’
This statement says ‘you voted for this fundamental erosion of the game I play and now I am going to hurt you.’ These wizened neoconservatives will be crawling out from under their stones all over. I would rather remain outside academia for the rest of my life with a healthy society than stay in it under their vision: But that may simply come to pass.
This, finally, is what we have to face: That these underground wells of power we can see briefly will not magically dry up anytime soon; sinister forces really do lie behind the sliding scenery. We must of course focus our anger at that situation into our efforts to overcome them, but history is not fully on our side yet.
However, I now feel a powerful complex of staunch refusal, yearning, and an autonomously operating philosophy of active cynicism: These are not self-effacing forces, they are motive ones.
The attention of the social sciences to what became known as ‘mobilities’ is very welcome, particularly the excellent work done by the Mobilities journal and its extended networks, with a (roughly speaking) centre at the University of Lancaster.
Mobilities ‘examines the large-scale movements of people, objects, capital, and information across the world’, and carries a strong sense that the elite are globally active, very mobile, while the worst off are not mobile at all.
But ‘mobilities’, like ‘cultural capital’ and a slew of other Bourdieusian terms – in fact any social science category you care to name – can be skewed and reified, made more solid than it is, less mobile in itself. When this happens it can happen in a bad order, politically, ideologically.
There is good evidence for the reification of the term ‘mobilities’ in mainstream media. In the Financial Times recently, David Goodhart claimed himself as an ‘anywhere’, a mobile, successful upper class boy. His middle class status and his mobility were all of a piece: The proof of one confirmation of the other; but Goodhart sides with the ‘somewheres’, those rooted in the landscape with strong ties to place, but without the ability, or rather the human capital, to flourish elsewhere.
Goodhart sets up the class divides of Britain as consisting roughly of a quarter of mobile ‘anywheres’ and a half of rooted ‘somewheres’. The ‘somewheres’, although not all of a piece, contain, in his analysis, Nigel Farage’s supporters. Goodhart himself has become sympathetic to Farage’s comments that he felt uncomfortable on a train in Britain when he couldn’t hear any English being spoken.
This appears to allow Goodhart to make the intellectual and ideological journey to the right that wishes to transport the ‘anywheres’ that he tellingly doesn’t mention in his article, the stateless refugees, out of the country.
Goodhart locates his empathetic shift to the ‘somewheres’, the rooted, in his dissatisfaction with Etonian Marxism, which in turn is located in his failure to make 1st XI football and 1st XI cricket team. This is not just nauseating tripe, it is dangerous, delusional rhetoric. He says:
‘If you went to the most famous school in the land you are often regarded as a social freak, a tourist in your own country.’
Goodhart is not a tourist in his own country: He claims that he is so on the front page of an FT supplement; the statement itself and the place of stating it eat each other.
What he was really doing was marking a clear rightward shift in the Financial Times, which could be detected all over that issue (18/03/2017).
Goodhart suffers from that minor malaise that many privileged people do, and the middle classes generally: They thrive anywhere, but do not feel they ‘belong’, like the the lower orders, and they want some of that warm, sexy, gritty, authentic and real world for themselves.
Except that ‘world’ is a constructed fantasy of their own. Like any constructed vision it edits certain things out and retains others. What they want is all of the perceived social ties without any of the agonism, struggle, pointless labour and fruitless searches for meaning the lower working and underclasses have. They want what they see as the community of the ‘somewheres’ without any of its problems, but with the cars, houses, fine wines and clothes of the ‘anywheres’.
They want to be in with the ‘somewheres’ but in the sense of, you know, the captain of the rowing team. The fact that Goodhart imagines that this cluster of demography he thinks he has identified knows he exists, thinks he can help, or, frankly give a toss about any of this – what I am writing now included – is a sheer delusion.
Goodhart is definitely part of another world for me, as I had to look up what the 1st XI football and 1st XI cricket team even meant. But he is part of a world that is at the centre of power, it is ‘at home’. I am an oddity. A curveball. A skint working class man who reads the Financial Times. I am the insider-outsider he tries to claim for his side, except I am firmly against him. What Goodhart is really signalling, all the way through this piece, to the elites, is that the shift to the right is alright.
When Goodhart sides with the ‘somewheres’, those rooted in the landscape with strong ties to place, he is also siding with ethnocentrism in a country where the Visaless are transported from shady airport prisons, for instance the one that is part of Manchester Airport, to remote places away from social contact, in some cases Glasgow, where they are then deported back to the hell they escaped from. G4S will then present an inflated bill for their services to The State. I am describing something that recently happened, as told to me by a researcher.
Goodhart says he is trying to save liberalism from its own over-reach. But it is really an under-reach. Revealingly, Maurice Glasman is listed as a mentor in this conversion, along with Michael Lind, Eric Kaufmann and Jonathan Haidt. His big claim comes in quite abstracted macro form, perhaps the most dangerous ideological form there is. He says that mid 20th century modernism came with the caveat that cultural universalism was never guaranteed. ‘The moral equality of human beings’ doesn’t ‘mean we have the same obligations to all human beings’. Where this was written he never says. In a land that barely has a constitution, it is a big claim to make.
Glasman, if you know his rhetoric, is all over this piece, but the damaging work on class by Mike Savage is also part of this problem. The simplistic idea that mobiles and immobiles are the class structure comes out of his work. It is then cited as though it is a stable, neutral science and an easy set of binaries, it is not.
Goodhart claims that he is more on side with the somewheres by further enabling their ethnocentrism, by seeing it as a neutral and stable floor. What research has shown is that the post-industrial slump zones are the places where the term ‘English’ is preferred to the more inclusive ‘British’. A map of Britain that matches the maps of Tory capitalist revanchism that rooted the somewheres in their own emiseration for decades to the benefit of their enrinchment.
He describes this as post-liberal rather than centre right: He thinks he is centre-left.
They can’t touch it, what they are. This complex is perhaps the most telling thing here: The political spatial metaphors are moving around again, like walking goalposts. I have also heard, this month, a description of the Tory party as ‘leftwing’. My jaw hit the floor. But former liberals like Goodhart cannot call themselves right wing. It would spoil the finish of the wine they chose that week, with immaculate taste, with taste that disguised its own taste by making sure it chose unpretentiously.
Goodhart also describes Steve Bannon’s conversion, 9-11, alongside his own recent epiphany. The blindness and hypocrisy is staggering. On 9-11 2001 the American imperialist footsoldiers they created returned as monsters.
The end of postmodernity is implicated in all of this. The idea that we can turn away from relativism to Truth. It is easy to see how postmodernity and relativism would be rejected, because I feel the desire rising in me to reject it too.
I sense this desire most strongly through my everyday encounters. I became interested in an example of ‘killing with kindness’ this week, a response to a friend, someone nursing a grievance of some sort who communicated it with something unexpectedly pleasant, in order to make a point buried under the surface. Claiming it and aiming it is infinitely more ethical and moral than all of that sinister shadowplay. The surface of language always conceals as much as it reveals, but to use it like that is the agonistic equivalent of dumb insolence.
But the main point to make with this anecdote is that here is how postmodern relativism was never a panacea. It never solved anything, it only forced a deeper repression of the rawer human urges, and we have a massive return of the repressed in Trump.
A friend also pointed me to a website for the Realist Left this week. The ‘Realists’? A fundamental conservatism always asks us to ‘be realistic’, but we never know what’s being announced when the annunciation to ‘be realistic’ arrives. In the case of the Tories an end of public life in favour of a national stitch-up which acts on behalf of laissez faire ‘business’. But it isn’t ‘the real’. This is drawing on Lacan and overlaps with some of the things Zizek and then Mark Fisher said, but asking us to be realistic suggests there is a fundamental non-ideological stable floor to knowledge, a place we can all just go and stand in where everything will be better, like ‘common sense’, but there isn’t, it doesn’t exist.
The biggest problem isn’t the split between identity politics and something ‘more stable’. The problem is that a kind of neo-Kantianism is being suggested. Although to say they’ve reached neo-Kantianism is over-reaching too. But it’s positivist, this stuff, its nostalgia is only the surface problem, but the deeper one – more dangerous because better concealed – is that it ‘posits’ that there is something solid out there we can locate. The only philosophy and politics I can tolerate has to arrive with all its negativity showing – that there is nothing at the heart of the something, or the negative, the absolute negation of what is posited – this is coming from Hegel, modified in turn by Adorno, Lefebvre and Gillian Rose.
Perhaps more immediately graspable is that this stuff shares much with Trumpism in that it yearns for something stable over the relativism of postmodernity. Need I say more? The search for certainties and authenticity, if pushed to extreme, will lead to fascism. But it’s also extreme to paste this group with that slogan. A more correctly measured critique would just be to say that we are always asked to ‘be realistic’ when someone is axing jobs, livelihoods, breaking up families with the structural violence of capitalism.
But there is a fundamental schism within the logic of the believers that they seemingy cannot reach: Belief and The Truth are different things. The current geist says we now have ‘belief’ in place of facts produced by experts. The left think that they are horrified, but they aren’t, because they have, in Britain, their own belief in Corbyn, as the Americans have in Trump.
This is the ultimate end of modernism, the rejection of technocracy for pure ideology. This is very interesting, precisely because a minor cult of New Modernism has been rising for some time. We have Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and the following popular books such as Guide to the New Ruins and the various Modernist Societies. But these good intentions arrive via a nostalgic rearward view, a turning away from the present into a past seen as more caring, something which actually characterises trauma. The Neomods project utopian flights forward and are very critical of Postmodernism. But the New Modernists often present us with a contemporary collage of Modernism, a positive, celebratory version, without its horror, madness and war.
All of these things are evangelistic and nostalgic at the same time. They cannot be described as Postmodern as they are characterised by the fundamentalist belief in an idea, but they do not have enough velocity to fully pull free from the condition of Postmodernity either. Modernism seems to contain the idea that it is exceptional. That it is exempt from nostalgia. It isn’t. Like St Paul on the road to Damascus, the Neomods have been struck by the revelation that Modernism has gone, but it is always with us. The New Moderns are Pauline. They wait, yet it has already arrived. It has been torn violently from us, that which we love. But wait, it is also all around us. This in fact shares with Derrida the wait for deferred meaning in ‘Différance’, something that sat very well with Postmodern discourses.
The Neomodernists return to belief in modernism right at its very nadir: There is no coincidence here.
The new leftwing turn in the Labour Party and Neomodernism says that belief is good and cynicism is bad. But if that belief is produced through blinkering, then is the belief in itself good? Blind loyalty is no longer loyalty, we’d have to use another term, give it another name.
Phil BC, who blogs as A Very Public Sociologist, wrote a great post on ‘naive cynicism’. It says that attacks on Owen Jones for being a Corbyn critic equalled Jones’ ambitions for the leader of the Labour Party and job of Prime Minister. Phil BC says that it isn’t necessarily the case. This is true, but it isn’t necessarily not the case either. The key point to make is that belief or cynicism are not reliable strategies, they are attestations. They are both equally potentially flawed and both equally potentially potential. Phil BCs comments urge belief over cynicism. I urge us not to lose our productive cynicism when the populist rightwing turn also involves a turn to blind belief.
It is belief that produces fanaticism. I am very cynical about Alberto Toscano’s book on Fanaticism, it seems to conceal its own belief in Marxist fanaticism as it lays out its cases. It conceals it in a way that reveals it, and that concealing tells you more about fanaticism than the information actually posited there: This is the dimension of the book that I believe.
This work is the product of a contemporary ‘Agambenism’ that finds glimmers of revolutionary potential in the most hopeless of places, and Agamben himself has more lately and far less likely found it in strict monastic regimes: You have to be looking pretty hard. Hardt and Negri are also products of this kind of fantastical X-Ray Reading. I would love to believe Negri’s prison book The Savage Anomaly but I don’t. That there is some wonderful Spinozan turn to be found in 1968.
Obscure leftwing texts are one thing, but most of the world’s population doesn’t spend its time there. We might then turn here to the perhaps more troubling phenomenon of the Armchair Strategists. Armchair Strategy largely equals Social Media, summa totalis. It is the recycling of superficial messages emerging in and being re-processed through social media. There is Armchair Strategy about What Is To Be Done in Syria, perhaps the most ludicrous posturing, in all but the most informed writers, Bob From Brockley I will offer as a special exception. But this continues into What The Labour Party Must Do and on and on. Social Media is roughly 50% provision and 50% hindrance. This is how D.W. Winnicott once explained institutions. But the Armchair Strategist believes that they have the solution, if only they could be in the chair.
The current leftwing critique of Orwell is part of this. That Orwell was somehow an establishment stooge all along and must now be refused in the search for a purer leftwing figure. This search for purity, truth and the correct position are all over the political dial. I believe in Orwell precisely because he was flawed, as all humans are flawed, and contradictory and fallible. Nobody is perfect. But I would go further and argue that faced with the situations and presented with the information that Orwell was, I would rat on the Stalinists too.
I will go much further and say that many of the hardest critics of Orwell are not magically immune from doing exactly the same thing, were they there now, without much of the historical constellation laid out for them, a map into the past from the present. Because what they don’t have is a map to the future. This is the big problem of Armchair Strategy and so it usually attacks moves made in the near or distant past as soon as they are seen to have not been quite the best decisions.
There is a temporality, then, to our relationship with belief and the truth. Our relationship to belief and the truth is slowly, imperceptibly shifting. The point of this article is to begin to track the cultural movements involved in that. What we see in all the examples I have given here is not postmodernism, but a turn to Neobelief.
When David Goodhart converts to the localised, when the Agambanites and Negriistas begin to scry hidden dimensions in texts, when the Amrchair Strategists reveal how obvious it is what needs to be done in Cairo. When the more zealous Modernists proclaim that mass, top down planning was great all along. They are all engaging in Neobelief.
In the week the new Greater Manchester Mayor took office for the first time, I attended two events.
The first was the Manchester University annual JMCE lecture, which this year was given by constitutional lawyer Rodney Brazier. His theme was Brexit, Politics and Constitutional Law.
The second was organised by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Humanities in Public programme and was titled Manchester as Cosmopolis. It addressed global migration in a changing United Kingdom.
At both these events, things were said that Andy Burnham might bear in mind.
The first event set the wider context. Rodney Brazier went right back to 1688/9 and the birth of the UK Parliament. From here, he suggests, after Brexit, treaties cannot overwrite parliamentary sovereignty. We might return to Hegel and a philosophy that worships The State and values Right over other forms of statecraft.
This was roughly the case until 1971-72, when the UK agreed to ‘an enlargement of sovereignties’ in compact with Europe ‘in the general interest’. Yet Brazier explains that it took 20 years for a legal dispute to arise because of this expansion of sovereignty, over fish, in 1991.
The details are not exactly racy, but the Merchant Shipping Act of 1988 was dropped, as it conflicted with EU law. From here, the matter was taken up by the tabloids, with performed fury, a precursor to the contemporary moment: ‘Foreign courts’, ‘meddling’, rampant British Nationalism.
Yet Parliamentary sovereignty was part of the compact with the EU, in 1991. It wasn’t separate. The EU was meshed with expanded, plural UK sovereignty. Where they were separated out by the tabloids and far right is where the ideology lies: The supposed great bonfire of British values did not happen for 20 years, and when it did, it was largely created by the British tabloids. Nobody should be surprised that UKIP began here, in 1991.
Brazier explains that between 1991 and 2016 we experienced a rise of discourse around ‘The European Project’ that was treated with derision by the rightwing tabloids. These tensions heated steadily until Cameron gave the spark of a vote. By this point, the erosion of trust rooted in the banking crisis of 2008 and the 2009 expenses scandal was dangerous: Through austerity ‘we’ pay for ‘them’, the bankers, MPs, Euro MPs, ‘The European Project’.
The tabloids had paraded examples on relentless drip feed for over two decades that added up, in the minds of tabloid readers, to ‘a picture’. Freedom of movement was blamed, rather than the lack of state competence. ‘Experts’ were kicked and the giant expert kicking conga goes on.
After Article 50, the ‘great repeal act’ means that EU legislation will remain enshrined in UK law until it is overturned. At this point, with modifications, we will be back to the situation of 1688-1972.
As Article 50 is triggered, we begin a long return to a narrowed field of sovereignty that is unlikely to reign in the banks. Yet it is capitalism that has left us with the seemingly contradictory result of a deep cynicism of government, plus a more singular and possibly heavier sovereignty.
Here again we might return to 1689, then later Hegel and a philosophy that worships The State and values Right over Treaty. The dangers should be clear: The Macron versus le Pen campaign involved a rejection of traditional parties in France.
Similarly, Trump has no political experience and is not part of the political dynasties. Mr Burnham may have won 63% of the vote, but the turnout was just under 29%. This said, every move our new mayor makes is a move in a paranoid, eye-filled landscape of sheer cynicism. I don’t envy him. I wish him luck.
At the second event, Manchester as Cosmopolis, former Manchester Evening News correspondent Andy Spinoza explained that the Northern Powerhouse ‘is a proposal, not a plan.’
The Northern Powerhouse started as a transport project, as Manchester underperforms in relation to London and the Southeast. The city cluster of Manchester-Leeds-Sheffield are seen as close, yet apart, and the transport solution, including HS2 – although Burnham is rightly sceptical about it – is meant to partly deal with the problem.
But the idea that getting to Leeds from Manchester faster, or vice versa, might deal with stagnating wages, exploitation and short-termism, is obviously mad, a hangover of the Blairism that Burnham is seen as a remnant of. The magical connect-up is as mythical as the mystic trickle-down, and Andy Spinoza owns a PR company called Spin Media.
Spinoza explains Burnham’s role as ‘soft power’, what an academic might call ‘pouissance‘, the power of conviction, rather than the ‘hard power’ of ‘pouvoir‘, the can do and will do. He has some hard power, Burnham, a new say over health, social care and other services. Burnham thinks too many luxury apartments are being built, and he is setting up shop as the mayor of social justice, but he is also perceived as a Blairite.
Our new mayor may well be viewed as Janus right now, double-masked and characterised by arrivals and exits, but when he finally leaves, history will fix his face forever.
The great Saskia Sassen then arrived at the Cosmopolis event, for the keynote speech, and suddenly there were many more things on the table that Burnham should consider.
Sassen began by describing some global cities of the north, with their vast, visible luxury zones. These zones are what Sassen calls ‘de-urbanisation’, cities as monocultures for the wealthy. Manhattan was given as an example, half full and for the rich. ‘A monster’ that crawls in and eats neighbourhoods from within. London’s Docklands is another example, as is Salford Quays, although much more modestly so.
Sassen gave us the big picture of how global cities came to be what they are: From World War Two to the 1970s, ‘the corporate’ was in-house, vertical, hierarchical, with upward movement inside. This came to a radical end when they went global. The old vertical model was mirrored in the buildings, for instance The Seagram Building, completed in 1958.
But we cannot read what is going on through the buildings any more. This is not a comment on postmodern architecture: The knowledge is now the infrastructure; not the buildings. Apparently Goldman Sachs has 100 physicists developing ‘intermediary instruments’. If we want to see the structures of corporate knowledge, I thought, we might perhaps find a way to look at their notebooks.
There is the more well known phenomena of ‘offshoring’, but Sassen explains how the corporation shifted its strategies of sourcing knowledge, as well as raw materials and production, drawing what it needs from multiple wells, a culture that clusters in global cities.
This, like vertical upward movement until the 1970s ‘is not an innocent process’. Sassen says 100 leading intelligence companies have branches in 600 cities. What then, is Manchester’s knowledge specialty? And to what other global cities is it connected? Andy Burnham is for ‘the digital economy’, but really, what is this, The Sharp Project? It is still so very vague.
Sassen understands the potential riches clearly: Google and Facebook are virtually risk-free enterprises, unlike the motor industry, which recently had cars withdrawn again with corresponding losses.
So, if they can pull it off, great, scrolling pound signs, but there are huge pitfalls and traps here. To explain these Sassen describes how sub-prime had ‘nothing to do with a mortgage’. It was a financial instrument that had ‘dressed itself in the clothing of housing’. ‘Houses’ had become material assets, and no coincidence that a lot of investment is now geared up to asset stripping.
The crippling irony is that sub-prime was a move to an asset-backed financial product after the simulacra of derivatives markets. After 2008, after all of this collapsed, we were given a series of absurd show trials and a set of phony recalibrations of risk and compliance legislation. Here again, Sassen moves around her subject a little more tangentially, explaining how we have ‘International Standards’, ISO, but the use of those quality guaranteed products is not enquired after, nor, I might add, are the supply chains or the exploitation of labour required to produce their ‘standards’.
Her key point here is that when ‘the global’ sets in, stability rots off the core: Manchester is global and is preparing to shift up a level of velocity in the global game. That is why the city is a building site, its circuits are being re-wired. But these circuits, to use a crass metaphor, are not being PAT tested before they run.
Sassen explains how the credit default swap market nearly doubled each year from 2001 through to its titanic crash in 2007. She explains how debt in households in Eastern Europe is largely owned by German, Austrian and Swiss banks.
The parallel phenomenon is hollowed-out urban space. For instance, Giles Fraser recently explained in the Guardian how his East London parish is being emptied by overseas capitalist investment.
And a man of the cloth should be concerned: Sassen tells us that this business is ‘extractive’; but the injections of capital themselves, the buying of the properties, are also a potential cause for concern, as dirty money launders through property.
Sassen shows a list of the acquisitions of existing properties by national and foreign investment. London is right up there with a jaw-dropping 40.5%. Manchester is lower down the list, at No.23 globally, hovering by Miami, but this is astonishing in itself.
Sassen shows a map of the iconic buildings in London, owned by one Chinese investor. To ‘a mayor’, she says, watch what happens to the physical assets. You need to know how to handle them, ‘or it will eat you up’. Look at what is happening in London, she says, public servants cannot afford to live there. Her message is stark.
Earlier, Andy Spinoza assumed that Blair’s ambition to get 50% of young people into universities, rather than providing job-focused education, is a further obstacle to the Northern Powerhouse ‘proposal’. But those in real hard power government such as Boris Johnson, did they do a bricklaying course? No. Are we then to conclude that proles are needed for the NPH pump-house? I guess so.
Spinoza describes people ‘getting on their own two feet’, and how there is currently too much bureaucracy for business startups. More laissez faire is classic Tory rhetoric. But there is an unspoken industrial romanticism under all of this too, that ‘up north’ we roll our sleeves up and do dirty jobs.
Under this is a yearning for Empire, it is latent in any ‘Make Us Great Again’ rhetoric. It lies under Trump’s rhetoric, drawing on a yearning for the days of the USA as a world power in full stride, and it is latent in this kind of city pride chest-beating.
When placed next to Sassen’s analysis, this kind of chest-beating begins to glow in dangerous colours. During Sassen’s talk, a line from Spinoza that stuck in my head returned: Apparently ‘we’ are to show that we can be trusted by ‘London’, by Parliament and The City, that we can be responsible with these new powers.
I began to wonder about the provenance of this vision of a Parliamentary ‘big other’ that was being raised by Spinoza. Where else has this notion been raised? What is its history?
So, during questions I asked Spinoza if this perceived need to compete with the city of London and the Southeast could be found in policy. ‘No’, he said, the idea that Manchester needs to prove its manly credentials were taken from a Manchester Evening News interview with Andy Burnham. Manchester’s masculine leadership, plus ça change, at the same time as we’re being told everything is changing.
This swagger about Manchester competing with the southeast is not in policy. They are cultural assumptions, to be found, as Sassen explains it, at the fuzzy edges of knowledge paradigms. They are to be challenged.
Therefore, in whose name is this great Manchester race being declared? I take Sassen’s ‘message to a mayor’ as for Burnham, and if it wasn’t intended as one, I wish to turn it around and send it his way myself: When people start talking of ‘competition between cities’, Sassen explained, ‘the only winners of that line are the corporations’. Sassen is completely sceptical of the notion of competition, ‘cities compete far less than leading corporate actors lead us to think’, she explains.
Sassen warns that the cities in the global game are in trouble, as they risk being ‘kidnapped’ by global finance, and Manchester is in that top 100. This means overseas investment in property. Buildings and streets that appear public are often owned by corporations. For instance Potsdamer Platz appears public, but is private, as is much of Docklands London. Here again we can turn to Salford Quays and the massive public-private fudge of the BBC and the offshore wealth of Peel Holdings and its shell operations.
Sassen tells us that ‘the law of urban land is often very old law’, but that the more creative lawyers are now creeping into public spaces. But they also creep vertically, upwards and downwards, for this is the new revanchist frontier. Career progress no longer means a slow journey from the Post Room to the Board of Directors. But physical expansion globally is going vertical, unless Burnham follows through on his thoughts about building on the green belt. Sassen explains how these compacts of legal advice, global speculation, investment and statecraft are ‘colonising the future’ of cities to ‘deal with the current electoral cycle.’
This involves the same infinite deferral of judgement that led to 2008, a deferral of judgement that carried on after 2008 and continues to hang over us. It doesn’t just hover abstractly over some mystical place called ‘the global’ that we need not worry about, it hangs over Manchester, right now, in the form of roving giant blades.
It is Peel eyeing up more infrastructure and opportunity. It is Deloitte U.S. priming the ground for overseas investment in Manchester via cultural journalism that blurs into a tourist guide. It is the Chinese consortium CMC at Manchester City football ground.
Sassen explained that although she loves the phrase, she doesn’t ask about the ‘right to the city’, now isn’t the time, but we must ask ‘who owns the city?’
Of course, she also asked us to find what the specialised difference of a city is. What then, Mr Burnham, is Manchester’s specialised difference on the global stage? But more importantly, who owns it?
There are two vectors here, travelling in opposite directions, through the same city, and re-shaping it as they go. There is the morphing of the UK constitution into something far more monosyllabic, and the opposite vector of a complexifying and ever-more predatory capitalism that The State cannot and will not reign in.
A concluding question might be ‘what are you going to do about all of this in the name of “the people” you so ardently profess?’ And ‘if your powers are too limited, who is going to do something about it?’
But that would be a naive question, and a naive demand to make. But I cannot imagine that these two vectors are going to neatly harmonise. The criticisms of ‘the global’ of economics and the current populist rightwing cultural geist are unlikely to be neatly separated either.
‘It is very unusual for anything that happens in the university to have repercussions, because the university is designed to ensure that thought never has any repercussions.’
– Lacan, 1967
It comes on you slowly. The rage is all heat sweats. It has no immediate, single identifiable source. Uncomfortable family conversations. A devious implementation at work, one that is inarguable but also clearly unjust. A bad traffic encounter.
The heat sweats build, droplet by droplet. Condensation misting up the windows, until it gets so bad that you have to stop driving and wipe it away.
The clear view outside offers no respite. Grey in all directions and rapidly misting up again. You move on.
In 2014 it wasn’t immediately clear that publishing a book with the rage left in was the right thing to do. In 2017 it seems obvious. What I did with my book Small Towns, Austere Times, was try to show you how it feels when your class interests are being attacked and the attackers are being protected: This is how I have felt all my life.
Except this time, in my first book, Small Towns, Austere Times, the working class interests are being protected and the middle class ones are being attacked.
Now we see how the stifled rage of this situation was felt all over, not just by a researcher returning to his ‘home town’, whatever that means, and messily trying to make sense of it, but by everyone.
I ‘toured’ the book, for want of a better word, it sounds ridiculous. I received uncomfortable reactions. Then in Durham, at the Anthropology of Britain conference, I was told that a community group and some supportive Anthropologists were ‘furious’ with the book.
Welcome then, all of you, to rage. I sometimes wonder whether I should have done a nice little neat number and got a nice little neat academic position.
But I also sometimes wonder whether I should have opened the book with the following sentence: ‘This is a full declaration of class war’.
But I can’t inhabit that. It sounds ridiculous. It feels ridiculous. We all live among the smashed fragments, the broken middle.
However, in this book I still inhabit the symptoms of the class I emerged from. Maybe I should seek psychoanalysis and gain full pathological accreditation for my journey to The Other Side.
I definitely dumped a bunch of writhing psychological eels on all of your desks, with all their complex aromas, for very particular tastes. Lacan made a comment that children were, at a certain stage of development, ‘eggy’. Neither cultured nor uncultured by language. Neither raw nor cooked. This book is served neither raw nor cooked. It was semi-intentionally half-prepared in a university kitchen, before being delivered, undigestable for some, a delicacy for others.
The book is an intentional blistering sore. One of my respondents recently said of the book:
‘I admire the result and your ability to explain it, but there is something I am not convinced by, about how you have distinguished the target and measured out the anger and grief. I’m not clear in reading the book that you justify the public and half suppressed rage you direct at those involved. It feels like the rage is bigger than the identified target and therefore something else isn’t being identified – that perhaps stands behind the target – in this sense the question for me is not about whether angry ethnography and writing is justifiable, but about how accurate the investigation and diagnosis are, of the emotional responses of anger, rage and joy.’
I agree with much of that. I wasn’t fully aware of this dimension of the book, even when it came out.
The book is a living and livid sign of what happens if you consciously expose the psychological bare wires of research, but in trying to do that, you also semi-consciously expose your own attempt to cover some of that exposing, processes that will be at play in all research, at some level.
Or rather, processes that are usually more successfully concealed. I actually now think that if I have made a contribution to knowledge with this book, that is it.
The same respondent I just quoted called me an ‘impolite ethnographer’. I think ‘bloody rude’ fits better. In this book, I protect my own class interests and attack others. I am from the town I research, I went to its terrible secondary school and I watched my parents get by on twelve hour shifts before the minimum wage existed, in a house without much in it, that we were only in because the council decided to revoke a condemnation and sell it off for very little. They grew up surrounded by real rural poverty, in Warland, up the road, in houses you could only honestly call ‘hovels’, with stone floors. They are now desirable places to live.
But my work is not authoritative because of this either. I am very clear that ‘being from’ does not give me that. It is nervous, shaking, troubled. That is what ‘being from’ gives me. However, I think this is precisely what gives my book its legitimacy.
One universal about small town research is the base level ‘mood’ – in Heidegger’s sense of that word – that people do not like other accounts of ‘their town’. Todmorden is not ‘my town’, it never was, despite a traceable ancestry to the start of record-keeping. It isn’t now and it never will be.
This book is not necessarily mine now either, even though I take full authorial responsibility for it.
But that word in my respondent’s account: ‘justifiable’; justifiable to whom? The middle classes? Dear middle classes, this book is what happens when an ‘indigenous’ – I don’t like the word, in fact I hate it – tries to make work on your terms, in your project, and fails, but then offers that failure as the work.
Michael Keith has described how ‘angry writing’ is routinely excluded from academia, emotion is not just discouraged, but taboo. He also argues that in many ways the ethnographer is always already unethical. I agree with all of that.
Michael has addressed ‘the manner in which academic protocols fraudulently prohibit certain textual strategies whilst celebrating others’, that ‘in focusing on aesthetics, reflexive anthropologists evade rather than resolve questions both of ethics and of epistemology’ and that this ‘can be understood in terms of the responsibility of the author or scriptor with reference to the presence of anger in academic prose’.
Michael then outlines his urge to question ‘the manner in which anger routinely disqualifies writing from academic status.’
He says ‘what angers me about ethnographic work generally is that a sustained vogue for reflexivity so commonly casts a crisis of representation’ over everything and that the ‘smugness of the academy sits comfortably beside ostentatious angst over the academic method.’
‘Reflexivity’ he says, ‘decays into narcissism.’
‘What angers me specifically’ he says, is ‘that in the identity crises of everyday rites of credentialism’ academics ‘cast themselves as an “Other”, pursuing an elusive vogue in social theory, sociology, or, perhaps this week, anthropology.’
But for Michael none of this is ‘a passport to a ringside view of the exotic nor a form of methodological avant gardeism.’
He goes on to explain a moment where he recorded a number of racist dialogues from the back of a police car without intervening. He calls this ‘indefensible’, but adds, with bitterness and irony, that it was ‘reflexively so.’ If his work was reflexively indefensible for not intervening and naming, I wonder if my work is reflexively indefensible for doing so, or is that its rather sharp point?
What is clear is that many of the mainstream respondents think that the anger in my book disqualifies it from academic status.
It is not that they don’t have the ears to hear, it is much worse than that: They don’t have it mapped into the fibres and sinews of their bodies, it isn’t pulsing through their nervous systems like a disease.
Asking one to not live in one’s symptoms was in many ways what bourgeois modernity was all about. I inhabit my own symptoms and that is viewed as a disgrace.
But extreme caution must be exercised here: When the classed and gendered subject returns and offers their own pathologies as something that is indistinguishable from a kind of exclusive belonging, as a kind of entitled ethnocentrism, alarms bells should ring.
A former colleague is now researching me as a kind of exploded classed subject. I’m in her research, which is as interesting for me as for her.
The targets of my book do cover a bigger, more un-touchable, much more painful blister. A bigger set of targets. A couple appear in my book. They place willow woven garden tools against the walls of a ruined former health centre that is about to be turned into a supermarket, which actually never arrives. Another blistering sore, from anyone’s perspective.
This couple were militating in their own symbolic way against unseen powers, global powers, and they were militating in the local. Those powers were bigger than themselves and bigger than the ruined health centre.
That was probably around 2011, and now, in 2016, the Referendum on EU membership and the US election. It was a misrecognition becoming culture, the placing of those willow tools.
But I misrecognised my own rage too. I was them and they were me, at the same time as they seemed like my opposite. The neo-Nazi in my book was the same. The presentation of semi-concealed fury in the book, directed at certain targets, but not others, was offered as political honesty, but I must add to my conscious attempt to simultaneously conceal and reveal, a semi-conscious attempt to reveal and then belatedly conceal my own class anger and bitterness: An even bigger rage, a vaster grief and a longer mourning for a perceived lost stability that never existed; now everyone is doing it.
It’s the ‘new thing‘ although Hegel might call it a kind of negative geist, or Spinoza ‘the sad passions’.
The book had to come out in the form it did, for those processes to come to the surface. They were only retrospectively diagnosed.
If it had lain unpublished it would have lain undiagnosed, by myself or anyone else. It had to ‘come out’ in all senses. We have just seen an outing on a national scale. An exorcism.
Then we looked to America and saw it there too. Now it is all over the west. I think even if you are a highly ‘ethical’ researcher coming into my book, ethical in that you’ve done all the right things, as our institutions tell us to right now – not my version of ethics – then you won’t be spared in there. You won’t walk through unscathed, and that’s the point. That is the journey I want everyone to take. We are all in the broken middle, not just our ‘subjects’. It is supposed to be both troubled and troubling, it can be no other.
There are ramifications for departmental ethics here. The ethical confessional is at the wrong end of the church. It is by the door where you enter: It should be at the back as you leave; I am going in neither end.
In Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah there’s a scene in a barber’s shop, where the respondent can’t go on, but Lanzmann makes him. The story must be heard, for the future. Asking if this was or wasn’t ethical in some binary way is mad.
Ethical decisions are messy and bloody, they are not the imposition of some a priori agreed behaviours.
In Todmorden, during research, I sat and listened to a disgraceful speech about how the working classes cause all the damage in town, followed by a claim that a bunch of hippies who run a limited company provided ‘earth care from cradle to grave’, as the real ‘care’ was being badly done by a besieged and privatised NHS.
I think including that scene was both reflexive and ethical. Most universities wouldn’t agree. But many universities can no longer be called universities.
But then recently, I remembered how my aunt died. She choked to death in front of her husband, because of a misdiagnosis by a useless doctor who still practices, in Todmorden. And when that memory was retrieved, in fact just as it was forming, before it fully arrived, I felt the exact same swell of rage I felt at that talk, during research.
There is one misrecognition that has seemed to be difficult to shake, and I am hoping it will get easier now: What I have been trying to tell you all along is not whether green growing is a good thing or a bad thing; what I have been trying to tell you is what happens to the social under deracinated forms of localism.
Back then, there was casual everyday racism and horrible comments about migrants, now, to invoke Beck’s methodological nationalism, we have just uprooted ourselves again by one entire scale. We have retrenched to ‘the island’. Back then, there was a neo-Nazi, who I showed a picture of posing with guns, in front of swastikas and reproductions of romantic landscapes in oil, from his public blog, to a room in Sunderland with only fifteen academics in it, and got a pompous bollocking for it, and now there’s a savage spike in racist abuse and the MP Jo Cox is dead.**
If you really don’t get it by now and you are still angry with me then there is nothing more to do.
Britain is now the place for an anthropologist: I don’t count myself as one; but it is the place for an anthropologist because it is a land of sheer contradiction. Britain is a series of hubs in a global network of trade and finance, some of them offshore, oil rigs and so far Gibraltar and other strategic nodes. Yet the inhabitants just narrowly voted to impossibly make the border of the island contiguous with the border of the nation state.
This will be impossible. It was partly a vote for safety out of psychological fear when the results will only bring its opposite. Like Setha Low’s book on gated communities, fear of the other is only increased by distance and enclosure. I am convinced that a large part of this mess can be attributed to the fact that not everybody is educated to understand that the coastline and the nation state are not quite the same thing.
In the media, some maps of the Referendum voting results were presented in blue and yellow. 48% voted to remain, around 52% voted to leave. But what if we mapped the island’s voting in 48% and 52% grey? We would get a visual ash cloud, covering everything. 48% and 52% grey are almost impossible to tell apart.
But don’t get them confused, because that would be to invite trouble, and at exactly the same time, 48% and 52% grey are as opposite as black and white.
This is no riddle. There is no contradiction here. This grey is now the political hue of the entire island. It is a more accurate map than the blue and yellow ones: This is my particular dialectical take on things.*
The Leavers voted for the binary dream of an island cut off from the EU and in doing so they potentially brought the EU much closer. By triggering a second Scottish Referendum, they may have already placed a new un-moated EU nation right at their borders. How easy do Leave voters think that border will be to police? Without boat patrols and radar? Myriad individuals fleeing across the wilds, tunneling. After making a much easier trip to Scotland on an EU ticket, entry to England should be a cinch. That Leave-voting Cumbria will get these escapees first gives me some pleasure.
But these internal divisions could be seen immediately after the general election in 2015. Manchester wanted to secede to Scotland and if you believe Paul Mason’s new map of the island the day after the general election results, Scotland to Norway.
What is happening is very complex, but the big point to hold to here is that the attempt to block out the nightmare of otherness, to put walls between ourselves and the other, only ever brings the other closer.
Here we can add to the skill and craft of the anthropologist that of the psychoanalyst. I strongly suspected the result would go for Leave. The work I did on the Future of Cities project for the Government Office For Science mapped testimonies to ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’: The picture we have just seen, erroneously recorded as ‘rural versus urban’ in the media recently, was already under that data, which was processed by Sundas Ali, not myself.
In the small town I wrote about, a large part of the working class subjects are post-industrial. ‘Rural’ is a confused and abused paradigm that is often applied to Todmorden.
A very large number of people turned out to vote on European Union membership who wouldn’t usually. This might give me pleasure, but this was a political bonfire of old rotting wood, of bitterness and resentment. 72-3% heat, with a 48-52% grey ash cloud. Choking, spluttering.*
There is now a politicised mass as well as a political mess, but what was clear about that vote is that the nation is split. Its psyche is divided into two warring halves.
One thing is certain. The new working class politics, if we can even call it that, is not going to be ideologically internationalist. Global powers rule them, they cannot see those powers, but they rightly loathe the effects of those powers in terms of how they play out in their lives.
This just happened at an island level, then we saw how the rage of it had been stifled all over the globe. I only showed it happening at the level of a small town, in myself as well as in those I encountered.
There isn’t necessarily a positive here, but where is it written that there needs to be one? Surely the bourgeois demands such things of the subjugated in order to continue that subjugation?
Opening it out, dissecting the sick social body and pinning the folds back to see what is at stake, what is eating at the organs, and negating, cutting so that we might return a more lively body than the one that went under, perhaps that is really all we can do.
It probably isn’t utopia as most academics think of it, but perhaps it is the only place the toxic masculine classed subject can go to.
Hanson, S. (2014) Small, Towns, Austere Times, the dialectics of deracinated localism. London: Zero.
Keith, M. (1992) ‘Angry Writing’, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol 10, Issue 5. London: Sage.
* I made these points more fully in a small post-referendum book called Clocking Off, published by Fold Press.
** It is possible to argue that fifteen academics in a room is a big audience: The book hasn’t sold a hundred copies yet, and the month after appearing live on Radio 4 to discuss it, it sold ten copies worldwide, before returning to 0, +1 or minus figures each month (Zero charge me for review copies).
I took a walking tour around Manchester. This was a fringe event that coincided with The British Sociological Association conference in April 2017.
Myth and concrete are entwined in Manchester, they are in constant dialogue. This was the main theme of the walk, although each stop covered a site of the many different walks I could have planned, the science walk, the occult walk, the pop history walk, the politics walk, the conflict walk, the slum walk, the gentrification walk…
Here are some things that might be of interest to follow on from the walk: A paper Mark and I wrote for Cultural Studies, on the Urbis building as a looking glass; and two issues of the Urbis Research Forum Review, 1.1 on the Mancunian Way, and an issue on landscapes, 1.3, including a piece I wrote on atom-splitter John Cockroft. Here also is the Manchester Left Writers series on ‘the northern powerhouse’ for Open Democracy:
Here also is a Centre For Urban and Community Research Street Signs blog post about the walk:
My friend goes to a leaving party in a bar in a trendy part of the city. It is for an academic he knows at a big university. Many of her colleagues are there, including a woman who works in admin, in the department of the academic who is leaving. She is there with her boyfriend. They are dressed in hipster retro-rocker style fashion, with tattoos and 1950s rock’n’roll clothes.
The boyfriend, who works for a major international company, begins to explain how he hates diversity workplace policies and that ‘a lot of people are getting really angry about it’. He says he has a ‘yellow boss’. My friend walks away. The evening continues. An hour passes and more booze is consumed.
The admin staff member and her boyfriend then corner my friend and start asking him about his politics. They ask him why, if he is so into LGBT politics, he doesn’t like President Trump who has enshrined LGBT rights in law. They keep pushing. They ask for my friend’s views about the ‘oppression of women in the Middle East’. They bring up the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandals. They carry on pushing.
The entire conversation is a string of extreme right-wing talking points and English Defence League tropes. Exasperated with my friend’s unwillingness to engage, the hipster retro-rocker boyfriend finally asks my friend to define his politics. My friend answers, ‘I’m a communist’. The boyfriend becomes enraged and starts to jab his finger at him, saying, ‘You’re fucking shit you are! You deserve to get battered!’ and ‘I should batter you right now…’ He storms out of the bar, and his girlfriend says to my friend ‘he is right, you are scum…’
Stunned, my friend stands there before leaving the bar, loudly calling out ‘He’s a fascist! This guy is a fascist!’
OK, it was a boozy university party, not a scientific study. But the divide between back room and academic staff has always been pronounced in universities and many middle class academics seem blind to the full extent of the populist rightwing turn.
The social world inside these liberal pockets is hypersensitive to anything that might be interpreted as a slur against difference, at the same time as it is almost completely desensitised to class. Not only this, but the quality of discourse that many working class people find perfectly acceptable, with all of its frankness and factory floor language, is not just frowned upon, but policed in the middle class liberal atmosphere of the university. There are serious consequences for those detected, and ultimately ejection from the rarefied atmosphere, unless behaviour is modified.
Habermas’s ‘communicative competence’, the idea that ‘communicative situations’ can be created where all have an equal say in a public sphere, has become grimly relevant again.
Habermas explained how the Public Sphere emerged through the late 17th and 18th century and then on into the cultural explosions of the 19th century, where it was finally eaten away by capital and privatisation. But Habermas’s communicative competence, if it ever worked as a theory, has historically buckled. Communicative competence always arrived on the odourless breeze of neo-Kantianism. Habermas’s work in many ways tallies with the whole Euro-project that is now collapsing, its idealistic desire and its terrible failings.
The idea that ‘communicative situations’ can be created where all have equal say, equal access to cultural capital and vocabulary, is what universities strive to put in place. But wishing it into being is a naive hope.
However, there is much to say on the current ‘communicative situations’ to be found all around us in universities. I’m getting a strong sense that the more right wing opinions are becoming emboldened and getting out there, in the public sphere.
In the spirit of a more materialist philosophy, and against the neo-Kantianism of Habermas, I want to begin again with those actually existing historical examples. Here then, are some more recent scenes from university life.
I go to an event in a trendy part of the city. I see someone I know and she greets me with a kiss on both cheeks, saying, ‘I have to greet people Euro-style now’. ‘Virtue-signalling’, saying or signifying something ‘right on’, became a handy term for the right to hit liberals with recently. After Brexit, virtue-signalling is taking on new forms, and here is one of them.
Later, I’m in a discussion group at an evening class. The topic is immigration and one of the attendees says ‘why would you let the enemy in? The muslims?’ Later on, an academic colleague describes how in Mein Kampf, Hitler makes comments on the Austro-Hungarian state he grew up in, claiming that it was intolerably diverse. The connection between this and the comment made in the discussion group arrives as a physical, adrenal spike. I shiver.
For some reason, at this point I remember how I took one of my research informants to an academic event, a working class guy. He was wearing a hoodie and jeans. Some people stared. My informant started to feel out of his depth. He seemed to be visually shrinking in front of me. He couldn’t concentrate on our conversation and started drinking faster. Eventually, he said, ‘this isn’t my kind of place’ and left.
Days roll on with unremarkable banality, in the fog of my own interior monologue. Then suddenly I’m talking with academic colleagues and one starts to rail against ‘toxic masculinity’. This discussion then turns into a narrative of disgust over how males are reacting to their disempowerment.
The negative afterimage to virtue-signalling can be found in this kind of dialogue: Although the university will swarm around particular kinds of behaviour and condemn it as offensive, that same behaviour can be found in this kind of ‘back room’ situation, which the sociologist Erving Goffman described; ties loosened, speaking freely to friends in the university café.
Only this ‘speaking freely’ is directed precisely at those the university would clamp down on for speaking freely like this, were they doing so audibly in the university space. The grubby, classed subject with their potentially racist opinions, Reddit account and coarse manners.
The hypocrisy here is deep. They may never directly say that those people are inferior, but the dialogues themselves say it clearly enough. ‘New men’ who ‘get feminism’ being withering about those who don’t still sounds toxic to me whether you call it masculine or not. At the same time universities preen and posture over their supposed openness and tolerance, completely blind to the presence of fascist staff members.
To be clear, I engaged in this conversation as actively as everyone else. I am not free from contradiction, only for me, the contradiction is precisely where philosophy begins, not where it ends.
But we have to pause and consider what else is at play here. The post-industrial classes, astray, in post-industrial zones, are the collateral victims of the movements of capital. So when somebody asks them to ‘get with the programme’, what is also being asked of them?
Can I please be present when the people asking them to get with the new social programme find themselves redundant and behind the curve, precisely at a time in their life when they least need that?
Because that’s what we are dealing with here: There is an implicit but omnipresent assumption that people bring themselves ‘up to scratch’ in terms of their cultural capital and behaviour in order to sell their labour by the hour in a marketplace. If it isn’t up to scratch they don’t go to market and are sneered at by those who do. Or rather, ‘they’ get a very particular set of marketplaces for their caste. Universities, with their increasing focus on ’employability’, are training people to leave their caste. The unspoken corollary is that this redundant caste must wither and die as all that is solid evaporates and god help it if it tries to enter the university on its own terms.
‘Professionalism’ is a big problem here. It is not a neutral category, a stable place of correct discourse. It is a petty bourgeois mode of communication. Respect and respectfulness are not neutral universal categories either. They are produced by the middle classes, as is professionalism. To ask one to not live in one’s symptoms was what modernity was all about, and that is still with us: Those who differed from the produced norm were not just sidelined by the Nazi or Stalinist regime.
Of course, that is a very extreme parallel to make. Universities have a deep phobia of morality, preferring a discourse around ‘ethics’. But in ethical departmental meetings this is boiled down to a tick sheet list of oaths that look like morals. The way the liberal mode of communication operates within university spaces is a de facto morality.
I encountered this in relation to my first ethnographic work, Small Towns, Austere Times, when lecturing to Anthropologists who talk the good talk about multiple voices and modes of ethnography, but then clamp down on the classed subject siding with his own tribe as unethical. When their ethics and my ethics clash, and they point the finger at my ethics, they make a moral, not an ethical judgement. Mark Fisher described this ‘grim’ situation:
‘…where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent – and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate…’
Ethos, ethnography, ethics: Ethos is the spirit of culture or geist; ethnography is a writing (graph) of that spirit of culture; but ethics is still defined as a morality, pretty much everywhere except in university culture. The way ‘ethics’ is written into university culture is as something that is neither moral nor amoral. It is portrayed as flexible, open and inclusive, and yet still acts as a stable floor to meaning.
I thought universities were supposed to be really open and tolerant places, but actually, some of them must be counted among the most draconian places I have ever worked. I thought universities had an atmosphere where all felt able to speak. But here, staff are scared that people might have opinions about their opinions, therefore they don’t give their opinions. Nobody needs to discipline precarious temporary staff: The outspoken ones are simply not re-hired. It is a system that empowers the mediocre and creates an atmosphere of paranoia and unfreedom.
The way to begin to fight it is to write articles like this one: But the way to properly deal with it is to say all this inside these so-called public institutions; but to do so is to head for the door marked ‘Exit’.
It might be tempting to think that this rhetoric of ‘ethics not morals’ and talk of ‘flexible subjectivities’ floats over the awful scenes I have described without touching them, that it is just ineffective fluff. But it is worse than that, the ethical rhetoric and post-hippy culture creates the spaces for the situations I describe.
I have seen how a philosophy of ‘we’re all a bit loose here, everything is a bit radical and non-conformist’ has bred real abuse. But I have also seen how some of the greatest testifiers to that philosophy have been the most prohibitive, bullying and abusive. I have seen this both as a member of staff and as a paid worker for a trade union.
One last scene in the university: I send a polite message to a line manager about pay and copy colleagues and union officials in. I am then reprimanded by the union branch and a colleague for it; it isn’t just that the contradictions are unspeakable in universities, some basic forms of speaking at all are deemed completely outré.
At another institution, I watched how the union branch aided a ‘restructure’ by a group of bullies. When asked if they were complicit with the process, they stated that they ‘had no evidence’ that this was going on, despite informal conversations to the contrary.
‘What are they going to do?’ I asked the branch secretary, ‘write it down for you?’ ‘That they are taking over a fragile department and culling whoever they can to then replace them with their friends?’ He didn’t reply.
It was a voluntary, unpaid hand-holding exercise by union reps, in a feral department takeover situation, later claimed as a triumph, because there were ‘no compulsory redundancies’ (just horrible, passive-aggressive coercion into ‘voluntary severance’).
At this point I can only conclude that I am totally convinced by Henri Lefebvre’s statement in his work on The State that the aims of the modern trade union and state capitalism are exactly the same. Union ‘process’ cannot touch the seething underbelly of social life and so is itself structured by the default neoliberal processes of the contemporary university: It is gagged and shackled precisely by its mode of communication; it thinks it has chosen this mode, but it never paused to make a decision in the first place.
The problem isn’t that the union is too radical, but that it isn’t radical at all: It is a structural, voluntary adjunct of the university; not an opponent of its current state of being.
‘Ah, but how come the “university” wants to get rid of the union then?’ you may reply. Well, they want to get rid of you too, at the same time as you are a structural part of the university, along with all the other staff and features of working life that stand in the way of increased profit, for instance pay over the summer months. There is no contradiction here.
To return to Habermas, in order to unseat him, we now have a bipolar communicative sphere: On one unlit side we have seething, faceless agonism; on the other, stifled, silenced ‘professionalism’ with a human face, hiding its pain in the bright glare. But these things are not neatly separable. Our situation is that of maggots in the communal rice store: The good and bad are not easy to separate and we are all affected. You only have to sniff round the edges, where talk is looser, or booze is flowing, to see the contradictions and hypocrisies.
There is little point clinging to Habermas’s hopes for the public sphere. But that public sphere needs to be radically refigured and this is precisely where it gets difficult.
There’s a lot of heated discussion around safe spaces for students in universities at the moment. Safe speaking spaces are all very well, but they are pointless if they simply remain pockets of discourse where the converted are preached to. They need to spread out into the places where they are most unwelcome. To do that, hard words are required. But hard words, at the moment, are abolished in official spaces, only to flood back pathologically through faceless internet forums.
One can see it in the university admin employee with far right opinions who has to deal with all kinds of diversity policy on a day-to-day basis: Clearly her daily activities and her political opinions do not match; recourse to internet forums is inevitable.
There is a detectable opening up of racist discourse, and that is horrifying, but as soon as we enter into the touchy, liberal discursive space of the university on its own terms we have lost. Not only do we collude with the prevailing direction, we enable it. This is exactly Habermas’s space of communicative equality. Habermas hoped for the European project to expand, and to America, which is bleakly, drainingly ironic: Now we have ‘post-truth’, the maggots and rice are one.
Last week I walked into the building I was due to teach in to find The Army, having set up their stall, collegially talking to students with the aim of recruiting them. Safe spaces? I felt like reporting this as part of my responsibility to The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, or my ‘Prevent Duty’.
Discussions around safe spaces of discourse for students, in terms of whether or not to bring in controversial speakers, seem to be projected from a completely different world to the one I inhabit. It might be tempting to say that the distance between the safe and unsafe space of discourse is the distance between the academic office and the pub, or the student seminar and the halls of residence.
But it isn’t, as the speakable and unspeakable are still going on in inside the university, both in terms of stifled opinions and as evidenced by recent horrible scandals. It isn’t that the policing is too weak, it’s that the attempt is even made. Something completely different needs to happen, even though direct intervention from Mars tomorrow morning is more likely.
The excessive hand wringing over communication in the university is not only functionally dishonest, probably at a completely unconscious level, it is ineffective on its own terms. But what it really is, underneath what it professes to be, is a structural scene of communicational competence which ensures that everyone speaks in their mode. The middle class mode of professionalism and respectfulness that functionally outlaws the real ‘criticality’ that now needs to take place.
Asking for a miraculous return to pragmatics and ‘intelligent populism’ when the ground lies like this is naive. Asking for utopia is never going to work. It is mere dreaming. One begins in the shattered present and then negates and negates: This is not the best strategy; it is the only strategy ever possible. Agonism, sadly, is the only way forward.
And we must negate, and we must firmly grip the fascism that is re-emerging, emboldened and out there, and deal with it: I am not claiming that being ostentatiously free to say whatever you please equates with either progress or freedom; but the liberal left are simply not learning from what has just happened. The institutions, universities particularly, are often slow to catch up. But if they do not change things will only get worse. You cannot handle what is happening by being nice, friendly, or more liberal. You cannot deal with it actively by continuing to live in your comfortable amnesiac bubbles.
There is a fence. On one side we find the ‘mwah mwah’ of the newly imposed habit of a Europhile greeting, signifying disappointment at the decision to leave the EU. On the other side we have commie bashing thuggery: Plus ça change and all change, at the same time. New borders are drawn up through public virtue-signalling, as fascists become publicly emboldened. At the same time, the two ‘sides’ intermingle but rarely encounter each other.
The rise of everyday fascism must be countered wherever it is found. But the liberals have to accept that the storm and stress they are struggling to understand on the other side of this new fence was partly produced by the sealed world they live in.
The rightwing need to accept that their ways come out of a patriarchal, brutal culture of imperial domination, and I count myself among those who emerge from it. I still inhabit some of the symptoms of that emergence: Rebirthing slime that attracts disgust and sometimes anger; I have not taken psychoanalysis to make the full accredited journey to the ‘other side’ of middle class life, thankfully.
I inhabit my own symptoms. But heaven forbid I bring those symptoms into the university on their own terms, with their classed, oppositional spirits.
But the idea that I or ‘they’ simply ‘get with the programme’ is disgusting: Firstly because middle class liberals assume that it is their programme in the first place, and that the othered must come into that space, and it is a space, as Henri Lefebvre figured it. Secondly, they assume that the tools of remaking the classed subject are simply to hand to be used, but are being ignored, they are not. You don’t know about what you don’t know. You don’t miss what isn’t there to see, precisely because it’s absent. Thirdly, there is the naturalised demand that ‘they’, the othered, shift to match the culture of those making the implicit demands.
There is a developmental totalitarianism to all of this, and it matches the vertical class model: That the middle classes are more civilised, that you move up the ladder, or you take routes out. To suggest that they need to come down the ladder and take a journey inward is to be faced with the sheer incomprehension of those who unconsciously inhabit their elevated cultural caste as a naturalised state of being.
That incomprehension and your state of being are one, just as it is in the working classes. Yet the working classes are being asked to continually emerge from their incomprehension into the light of the middle classes.
After the crash of 2008 there was no revolution. After 2015 and 2016 there was no rush to recalibrate the disciplines inside the academy in relation to what happened outside its walls. This is telling. The assumption here is that all is well inside the academy and outside there are toxic subjectivities to be found. These are possibly to be researched, as ‘subjects’, to be travelled to and returned from, as one might travel to New Guinea before coming back with intellectual capital.
‘It’ is not neatly outside the university. Communication in our various public spheres is not about competence, it never was. At the first most basic level it is about who is in those public sphere institutions and who is outside (and if you have a smart mouth you will be out, not in).
At the second level it is about who has been pre-loaded with all the signifiers of upper middle class life and political rhetoric. It is about whose communication is deemed stylistically unspeakable, and whose is to be applauded. Orwell explained that the middle classes communicate like bats, via high-pitched shrieks at a frequency nobody else can pick up.
This lack of a level playing field is precisely why we should unsentimentally say goodbye to Habermas’s idea of the public sphere, but oddly, in order to go through some sort of horrible agonistic processes in order to try to bring it about at a future time. If that can be pulled off, the process is going to be messy. I doubt it can be achieved. But the sheer hypocrisy of the university needs to be faced. We have to fully wake up to the lack of permeability many of our institutions suffer from, not just universities, which has led to this situation in the first place.
I would love to believe in Mark Fisher’s brilliant essay Exiting the Vampire Castle, but I don’t. The diagnosis is precise and correct, but there is no way to clear the bourgeois subjectivity out of the way without insulting it. It shapes the discourse. It is the discourse of right and the supposedly oppositional unions inhabit it too. At the same time, the far right are going public. They are largely doing so outside the space of the university, even if it is detectable on the campus fringes.
Exiting the Vampire Castle suggests that we can walk out of the evil lair of the evil one. The way ‘ethics’ is written into university culture, as something neither moral nor amoral, flexible, open and inclusive, and yet still a form of control, means that Merlin’s Misty Cave of Magical Mirrors is a better metaphor for what we are in.
We, all of us, are not cleanly separated from the bad object. Our lives are not like a computer game where the hero flees Dracula. We are enmeshed in the mirror, our identities morphing into those of Merlin. Look into the Merlin myths (for there are many) he was not a Gandalf-like figure, he was closer to Loki, the trickster-hero rooted in Icelandic mythology.
This is Merlin’s Misty Cave of Magical Mirrors, and the middle class liberals are absolutely tripping in it. I want to ask all the liberal middle classes who are already beginning to disagree with the points I am making here, do you have ‘clean’ and non-violent dreams?
Like prohibition, this unconscious gagging of the stigmatically classed subject just creates even worse ghettoes, where the bile flows all the more thickly. Internal bleeding that will lead to a deeper social malaise. As we can see the bile is only handled in a slightly different way by the middle classes.
Welcome then, to anger. It has been burning underground for decades, precisely because of you, now what are you going to do about it? You cannot get around it, sneak under or over it, this is a return to Agonism, ‘let’s all get nervous’.
You can see the nervous incomprehension all around. ‘How did we not see 2016 coming?’ Well, some of us did. After the smelling salts have been taken, the middle classes then offer themselves as the solution to the problem, blind to their role in the problem itself. This might take the form of making some gallery work or creating a research strand about ‘it’, the problem, ‘out there’.
Can some of you at least wake up to the fact that you can no longer, like neoliberalism, offer the cause of a problem as the solution to that problem?
My working papers are initial forays that are looking for a home in a journal or book in a more developed form. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you think a working paper might fit your journal or collection once it is expanded. My working papers are also resources for others that are citable, but of course as ‘working papers’. Please see the guide at the bottom of the first page on each paper. I feel it is important that the preparatory nature of the work here is included if it is cited in a publication.
So, here is No.1, which gives statistics and commentaries on the final death of Postmodernism in the university. It also speculates on the dark and unknown space opening up afterwards.
Fold Press have just put out the second little book in the Blazer series, an extended essay by J.D. Taylor. I wrote the introductory essay to that book. It is the second in the series, the first was my Brexit response, Clocking Off.