Monday, 17 November 2014

Defending old formulas - the establishment-left keeping real radicalism in its box

Where would the Establishment be without the 'establishment-left'? The question might seem strange, even oxymoronic. But when it comes to questioning elite structures and dominant narratives there's a whole left-liberal 'buffer class' holding back real radicalism with 'sensible' injunctions to stay within prescribed political and media boundaries.  

From Labour-upholding affiliates to Guardian columnists, the establishment-left play a vital role in maintaining safety-first politics.

Their idea of 'real change' amounts to little more than re-packaged party policies and finding puppet-head replacements, as in the unedifying spectacle of panicked Labour plotters trying to dump Ed Miliband for someone more electorally 'palatable'.

The same rearguard reaction is evident in Owen Jones's and the Labour left's endorsement of Neil Findlay for Scottish party leader. There's recognition of the crisis within Scottish Labour, but no radical effort to deal with its causes or opportunities.

They cling, instead, to notions of a 'rejuvenated' party, the belief that 'new leadership' will have a transforming effect. But do such appointments and alterations remotely touch upon the key structural problems of a sclerotic 'democracy', an archaic Union, a neoliberal-enforced system, a war-addicted imperialist state?   

As with an establishment Labour left, just how useful are most trade unions when faced with real, radical engagement? Closely intertwined with the unions and 'traditional' Labour, a similar tragedy of strategic thinking can be seen with the UK Communist Party, still, whatever its other merits, locked in an old doctrinal cage, unable to contemplate the opportunity of serious left advancement. 

How come, when the overwhelming forces of the left and a mass movement of poor and working class people organised for a progressive Yes in Scotland, the CP alongside Labour and leaders of big unions like Unite were stuck in the same rigid groove campaigning for No?

Now contemplating the mass of Yes street feeling, they, like Jones and others on the establishment-left, now look to Findlay as some sort of 'left saviour'.  

Yet, for Irvine Welsh, the same contradictions remain:
Leftist pundits embody this dilemma, forensically dismantling the party for its shortcomings, yet seeming to assume it can magically resurrect, and then remold the UK state, as it did in 1945-70. In the meantime, they support the de facto preservation of this exploitative and elitist state. To argue to maintain a divisive and reactionary UK state on that basis, pretending it’s about ‘worker’s solidarity’, is both self-deluding and an insult to the intelligence of everybody else. Slavering on like a Hovis advert about the traditions of British working class resistance can’t disguise the fact that you’re bending over backwards to preserve a state that has been doing everything in its power to negate and crush this resistance for the last 35 years, and practically since it’s inception, right up to World War Two. The tragedy of the British left is that it’s got so used to playing this perennial losers game against the UK state. This obsession with protecting it, and continually rolling the same dice, which is so obviously weighted against you, has surely now expired as viable strategy.
For Welsh, even if 'autonomy' was ever granted to Labour in Scotland, the ongoing independence issue only intensifies the problem for Labour leftists:
The problem is if this happens, the party almost inevitably becomes part of the pro-independence movement, a place where many of its natural supporters, before they gave up on it, felt it should be. If you’re left wing, believe in the decentralisation of power and are anti-nuclear weapons, as most real Labour people are, Scottish Indy becomes not so much a catastrophe, as a natural position.
When it comes to being part of something truly radical, doing rather than saying, being engaged in a new paradigm - the establishment-left revert to default mode, picking around the edges, mediating the issue, seeking palliatives, trying, above all, to find ways of rescuing the old formulas.

Establishment-left celebrities perform the same kind of holding role. A little tweet exchange recently with Rory Bremner helps illustrate such conformity to 'tried-and-trusted' positions.
Rory Bremner @rorybremner
At times like this I try to remind myself that the Union is for life, not just for Halloween.

John Hilley @johnwhilley
.@rorybremner Talking of guising, Rory, remember that you helped argue for its lifeline. #YesAlliance

RB: I know. The irony's not lost on me. Tweets occasionally nuanced.

JH: Fair enough, but nuanced tweets on Union life little comfort to radical Yes seeking to break foodbank society and end Trident.

RB: I know, but I'm not sure Indy would either. My argument was fight injustices together, not separately.

JH: A Yes vote would have given real impetus to radical change for all, rather than liberal, token notions of 'fighting together'.
Again, wasn't it typical that Bremner, the 'sage cynic' and 'comedy radical', just couldn't step outside that establishment-left bubble when a real moment of change presented itself?        

In assertive contrast, Russell Brand, who, despite his worthy calls to reject a decaying party political system, was savvy enough to advocate for Yes as a form of imaginative direct action.

And, of course, the role of the establishment-left is vitally evident in the current backlash against Brand himself.

Marina Hyde at the Guardian is the latest to pour such scorn on Brand. Note here Hyde's deep annoyance at being absent from her 'vanguard' column while the main avalanche of criticism came crashing down on Brand, and how she's now making up for it by getting her own belated piece of formulaic dismissal across.

Such reaction illustrates the insecurities of establishment-liberal-left journalists who fear being tainted with Brand's radical ideals and having their 'we are the public guardian' roles usurped.

None of this is conspiratorial. It's an automatic herd reaction in formulaic defence of their 'status' and grasping for editorial approval, all in line with the safe corporate-political order. Crushing 'upstarts' like Brand thus becomes a territorial imperative.

As Media Lens show, that hostile closure has intensified as Brand progresses from 'jokey Newsnight exhibit' to active dissident. Hence the increased use of ridicule and smear in an attempt to keep us all in the fold. 

But isn't Brand himself favourably courted by an establishment-left, from Owen Jones, Johann Hari and Mehdi Hasan, to the New Statesman and Huffington Post? Yes, but to what effect? Much of that 'approval' comes as both sympathetic flirtation with Brand the figure and as an exercise in 'sensible-left correction'; a kind of indulgent policing and tempering of his ideas.    

Stay within the accepted frames of thought, we're still coerced and urged. Don't follow Brand's 'pointless anarchism'. Think what you're giving up. Even if the system's imperfect, those like Jones implore us, remain within it and use your vote for the 'best change possible'.

Power elites have the greatest interest in maintaining those frameworks of permissible thought. But it's most often establishment-left-liberals who do the vital shepherding.

Brand is routinely castigated for having no other formula: what's your alternative, what do you propose instead, they demand? But the question can be more usefully turned around: actually, what do you propose? Look at the myriad crises and untold misery capitalism has caused: are you saying that this system is remotely acceptable? What's your alternative?

The problem is not just that they have no answer, they're not, unlike Brand, even asking the question.  Indeed asking why they're not posing that question, while demanding an answer from Brand, is a vitally radical question in itself.

On which challenging note, please watch this brilliant edition of Brand's The Trews on the relentless, formulaic posturing of 'passionate' politicians, our similarly rote-framing media, and, in the face of this enduring, box-ticking failure, the urgent need, commends Brand, for real forms of direct, participatory democracy.

They may continue mocking him, but the establishment and its vital liberal-left buffer will be watching Brand's anti-party political broadcasts with growing discomfort. 


David Sketchley said...

Hi John.

Wondered if you'd read Owen Jones take on Podemos here in Spain in the Guardian? Not sure what he says about the UK but his take on Podemos seems doesn't seem to be "re-packaged party policies and finding puppet-head replacements".

He writes: "But Podemos has undoubtedly thrived only because it has shredded the old left’s clear that Podemos is now surging because it eschews standard leftwing terminology. “In order to do politics differently, we need to do language differently,” Podemos’s Eduardo Maura tells me. “When you do politics, one of the things you have to ask yourselves is – what are you aiming at? You could aim at people who already have a political identity, who are an already signed-up leftist. We are trying to talk to people who don’t necessarily have this kind of identity.”

Clanko said...

Subscribed and bookmarked!

Unknown said...

Excellent article John , right on the money.

Unknown said...

This paragraph in particular incisive.That exactly right , they can demand that from Brand but don't feel any obligation to offer an alternative themselves.He has to provide the answer but they don't.I think he ins tapping into current that will grow stronger, its a current they completely out of touch with, as it grows I could see them getting more and more perturbed and probably more and more nasty.

"Brand is routinely castigated for having no other formula: what's your alternative, what do you propose instead, they demand? But the question can be more usefully turned around: actually, what do you propose? Look at the myriad crises and untold misery capitalism has caused: are you saying that this system is remotely acceptable? What's your alternative? "

John Hilley said...

Thanks, all.

David, Owen Jones rightly praises the rise of Podemos. But while, as he says, there's different political situations in Spain and UK, he still can't see beyond the prevailing party system, and his ultimate faith in a rejuvenated Labourism. It's the same old formula.

Also, Jones enthuses over Podemos, but where was the same effusive praise and, more importantly, active support for the great people-driven Yes movement?

John Hilley said...

Comment from Media Lens Editor David Edwards (at ML message board 17/11/14):

Thanks for a really excellent piece, John. You write:

'But isn't Brand himself favourably courted by an establishment-left, from Owen Jones, Johann Hari and Mehdi Hasan, to the New Statesman and Huffington Post? Yes, but to what effect? Much of that "approval" comes as both sympathetic flirtation with Brand the figure and as an exercise in "sensible-left correction"; a kind of indulgent policing and tempering of his ideas.

'Stay within the accepted frames of thought, we're still coerced and urged.'

Very well said. And does this perhaps explain why Brand has ignored our alert - otherwise very well-received - reviewing his book and the media reaction to it, even though it's one of very few reviews to engage with, understand and defend both his politics and spirituality? This may well be down to the influence of the 'left-liberal "buffer class"' you mention.

Has Brand arrived at a position where he's calling for the overthrow of the Establishment while viewing our kind of rational criticism of the Establishment's all-important liberal propaganda arm as untouchable? Is it really more 'strategic' to keep quiet and take media attacks on the chin? Or could he try to expose the structural logic and pattern of these attacks to raise public awareness of the role of the media in thought control?

As I noted in the alert, it's easy to forget the extent to which Assange was initially a respected and admired figure. It's not at all hard to imagine the corporate propaganda system undermining Brand's reputation in a similar way. But it would be incredibly difficult for him to turn his fire now on the Guardian, Independent and New Statesman when so many of his advisors and friends have major interests there. Also, given the ferocity of media attacks, and with the Guardian still hosting his work and supporting him to some extent, he may, like Greenwald, feel that he needs all the friends he can get. And that's the problem - take on the corporate media system as a whole and you're out on your own.


John Hilley said...

Reply to DE (at ML board):

Thanks, David. Yes, this aspect of Brand's 'positioning' is really fascinating.

It's intriguing to speculate on why Brand appears not to be acknowledging your fine review, particularly as it deals with the core issues of spirituality/compassionate politics, as well as the media backlash.

Many possibilities occur. Perhaps he's still unaware of your output - unlikely. Maybe he wishes to avoid endorsing particular commentators, even highly approving ones. Or perhaps, as you suggest, he may, with some nods from the 'left-liberal buffer class', be more keen to keep a certain favour with the liberal cabal media.

I wonder, if the latter, whether Brand still really sees a lot of these issues through a conditioned liberal media lens rather than the more radical Media Lens?

He's made general criticisms of his treatment, as in this tweet:

"It's weird how highly paid, privately educated journalists who work for the corporate media attack my book Revolution."

But he seems to be holding fire on the Guardian et al.

Interestingly, he's just tweeted his approval of this piece by media analyst Justin Schlosberg at Huff Post, which includes this comment:

"On that note, Brand knows full well that his celebrity status and comic intellectualism quenches the 'serious' news media's thirst for ratings, and gives them an alibi against charges of elitism. But he exploits that loop hole just as much as they exploit him, in order to give airtime to ideas and causes that would otherwise never see the light of day. What's more he articulates the plight of the New Era Estate or the Fire Brigades Union not as "piecemeal causes" but as part and parcel of a new politics of the left that is centred on "creative direct action"".

So, he may simply be seeing his involvement here as a tactical quid pro quo, tempering his criticism in order to get exposure.

The real test, I suspect, will come when the Guardian - as we're now seeing - really ratchet-up the Assange treatment.

But, I agree, he's still some way-off from turning his attention on the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman etc as major impediments to radical change.



Media Lens (two-part) review of Russell Brand's Revolution: