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.