Depoliticisation and after

James Butler has thoughts! You should probably read’em! However, this take seems stale:

Such permeating cynicism arises above all from depoliticisation: the claim, advanced over the past few decades, that ideological difference is dead, markets ought to be insulated from political contestation, and politics is merely a set of technical quibbles between administrators. Depoliticisation has produced a more professionalised politics with narrower routes of entry, and constrained what is agreed to be politically possible: thus the sad post-Thatcherite trawl of crumbling PFI schools, underfunded hospitals and outsourced public services. If the possibility of significant political change is denied, popular revulsion becomes increasingly anti-political, rejecting the legitimacy of democratic deliberation.

I can remember when this was definitely true, in about 2006. But I would defy anybody to look at British politics (or really any other politics) since the Great Financial Crisis, and even more so since the beginning of the Referendum Era in 2014, and see a set of technical quibbles between depoliticised administrators. Technical quibbling about administration would be infinitely preferable. Instead we have had a ferocious escalation of partisan and ideological conflict in every direction, with a related liberation of fantasy from the constraints of administration.

Phyto-sanitary regulations in Northern Ireland were made into a topic where a passionate emotional allegiance to one side or another was expected of everybody, where this allegiance was integrated with allegiance to a political party, to factions within the party, and to individual leaders within those factions. The conflict was expressed in explicitly ideological terms which had no lexical meaning in terms of the matter at hand. It was discovered that there was a Tory way to maintain drainage channels in the Somerset Levels, and a Labour way, and a whole suite of emotional valences and style tropes were naturally attached to each one. Although the SNP’s independence white paper was watered down enough to include keeping the Queen, the BBC, and the Regiments, it still resulted in the creation of a completely hermetic world of alternative facts and a characteristically nationalist venom towards anyone outside it. Depoliticised centrist quibbling, eventually, went for its own ride on the tiger of transferred nationalism, to borrow an idea from Orwell.

And really nobody seemed to care about the details. It seems almost crass to go back over this, but the government keeps being repeatedly astonished by basic Wikipedia level facts about the functioning of the EU, precisely because it cut the administrators who dealt with it ever since 1972 out as long ago as Cameron’s renegotiation. Michael Gove thought we would automatically be members of a nonexistent European Free Trade Zone even though he also wanted the EU to dissolve in a second Völkerfrühling. Jeremy Corbyn told a radio station in Sheffield he wanted Ed Miliband to re-open the Yorkshire coalfield. Caroline Lucas thought she would be prime minister at the head of an all-party, all-women coalition except for those horrible Labour people. The disgraced Liam Fox thought jam would solve all our trade problems. Change UK thought they could shred all their bank statements and the auditors wouldn’t notice. I am only quoting the most grossly cartoonish examples.

It’s not even true to say that the limits of the politically possible have become more constraining. To take James’ evidence, the last few years have seen the end of new PFI projects, without anyone much noticing.

The point about routes of entry to politics, though, is interesting. James’ quote above about an increasingly professionalised politics is familiar, again, from a decade ago. There were too many technocrats with strong academic qualifications and an apprenticeship as a ministerial special advisor behind them. We needed people who were authentic, who spoke human, who brought wit and charisma and story. Now look at us. Does anyone think the current government is overloaded with technocrats? The one headed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove with the support of Dominic Cummings?

That list, though, does speak to James’ next point. The routes of entry to politics have indeed become narrower. Gove, Johnson, Cummings, and the BBC’s Andrew Neil all have one thing in common, their membership of the extraordinarily successful influence network centred on the Spectator magazine. The next-most successful such network is the one founded by the former members of Living Marxism, and the No.10 Downing Street staff is shot through with its alumni. At some level this is just to say that influence networks of Oxonians rule the country, and the LMers’ weird backstory makes this one visible, as a radioactive tracer poured into a lake makes the networks of its ecology visible. But the two networks are alike in important ways. Both are networks, first of all, of journalists. Secondly, they are networks of journalists who write opinion editorial.

(It’s more surprising James didn’t notice this seeing as he’s made a life’s work of creating a rival media influence network. It’s not a bad idea!)

I imagine this is because none of them can be trusted not to make stuff up. Less flippantly, both the Spectator and the LM crowd’s various outlets prided themselves on offering the same thing. They were the founders and past masters of the hot take, the magazine considered as a diversified portfolio of opportunities to achieve outrage, and ideally also second- or even nth-order outrage at the first set of readers’ outrage, an ironically Keynesian multiplier effect given their opinions on economics. The unique selling point was that they were “controversial” or “provocative” and also “witty” compared with a public sphere dominated by, yes, technical quibbles between administrators. To put it another way, faced with a depoliticised media market, they set out to politicise everything, chiefly guided by optimization for response, and therefore by the pursuit of conflict and drama. In their formative era, they were largely defined in opposition to the Blair and Clinton governments, and in any case it was always going to be tough to escape this.

Long before it could be said that Twitter or Facebook’s business model was based on trolls, it was true of the generation of opinionators who made their careers in the 90s and who now rule. It is no surprise that they prospered in the Internet era.

This said, it is hardly a more professionalised politics. Max Weber’s Politics as a Profession is largely an appeal to fairly conservative students in the context of the German revolution to channel their ideals into the new state’s civil service. Weber defines professionalism as an ethos of responsibility, and contrasts it to the charisma of the leader or the appeal of mere violence. Yeah no. If it is more professional, it is professional in the pejorative sense public-school sportsmen used to use, which survives in the football term “professional foul” for an act of calculated cheating. In other words, it is not professional, but rather, mercenary.

4 Comments on "Depoliticisation and after"

  1. “Apolitical technocrat” (cerebral, in touch with the data, firmly committed to gradual progress by way of What Works(TM)) and “fantasy flag-waving” (emotional, in touch with gut feelings, passionately committed to being permanently angry) sound as if they’re poles apart. But then I think of the independence referendum, and PV, and this tweet from Flying Rodent, and I wonder. (Get back on the blog, FR! That tweet took me ages to find…) Perhaps if Remain had won in 2016, we’d still be governed by people who want to keep everything much as it is while driving the rest of us mad. So that’s some consolation.

    I think something has changed since the mid 2010s, though. The melancholy thought came to mind the other day that it actually was Jeremy Corbyn’s fault, in the sense that the system was set up to cope with

    – incremental, technocratic change on the basis of general agreement that the post-Thatcher settlement is All There Is
    – occasional bold lurches to the Right, just to keep things fresh
    – wild, spite-fuelled rage about meaningless issues

    and he offered none of that. A bold step to the Left, breaking with neo-liberalism, and supported by a rhetoric consisting mainly on being personally nice and pointing out that people need houses and schools? That couldn’t be assimilated, and once it had taken hold it couldn’t be excluded in the usual way; the only way to get rid of it was to crank up the rage and spite, and then keep on cranking. And once you’ve started, how do you know when to stop? Before you know where you are, you’re setting places at the table from people from Guido and Spiked and God knows where else. (Who is the BBC News guy with the Fascist contacts?)

    Sorry, everyone, but we did it; we drove them mad.

    PS You make a good case for the clownishness of the Left as well as the Right, but I’m going to ignore that because a) it doesn’t fit my thesis and b) it’s too depressing.


  2. The demented writers of this season missed a trick by not making disgraced anti-vax doctor Andrew Wakefield part of the extended Cummings-Wakefield family. He’d fit right in.


  3. I’d push back on this; one interpretation would be that the two tendencies you describe are the first two things Phil mentions – this I think is what dsquared was claiming on twitter – with Iraq being the break point.

    The problem is that this ignores the populist rhetoric of New Labour early on – mainly but not exclusively played out by authoritarian home secretaries (Straw’s rhetoric about ‘real gypsies) – and similarly ignores the technocratic flavour of some of the ‘populists’ (Gove at the Environment Agency).

    I think the important question is what do you do post 2010 if you are a technocrat? In fact we know what happened — they generally plumped for austerity – with Blair castigating Milliband for not being sufficiently enthusiastic for the punishment beatings.

    So in that situation incremental technocratic change is off the table if a country has already had their Blair figure – and the only game in town is populism – which tends to feed on itself.


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