Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Is Age a Social Cleavage?

As we grow older, we become more conservative - so goes the adage. And observations of politics tend to bear this out. The average age of a Conservative was 68, as of 2013. Compare this with Labour, which presently stands at 42. Gatherings of UKIP find an over preponderance of the middle-aged to the elderly. The youthful, it appears, have better things to do with their time.

It gets even starker when we look at voter turnout by age. According to Ipsos MORI, 43% of 18-24s turned out at last year's general election compared to 78% of over 65s. In the latter age group, the Tories had a 24 point lead, whereas in the younger cohort Labour had a 16-point advantage. The differential turnout killed the party's chances, to put it plainly. And it's far from a Britain-only phenomenon. About events over the water, we've had people who really should know better moaning about young women (and young people generally) turning their backs on Hillary in favour of Bernie Sanders. In the Iowa caucus, Bernie obliterated Hillary in the under 29s category by 84% to 14%. He also had a 21 point lead in the 30-44 category. Hillary picked up sufficient and commanding support among older Democrats. A very similar pattern was in evidence at last night's New Hampshire caucus. What is happening?

Historically speaking, the (non-Marxist) political sociology of social conflict has identified four cleavages that tend to structure the political culture of various liberal democratic states in various ways. The main contentious points in politics tended to boil down to the conflict between centre/periphery, state/church, land/industry, and owner/worker. In (most of) Britain, the primary tension is the last cleavage, as evidenced by the persistent domination of Conservatives and Labour. Though with a geographically imbalanced economy and London-centric political elites, it could be argued that tensions between centre and periphery are already playing a role - hence the SNP's runaway success. Other countries have cleavages with roots in religion that still play a large role in conditioning their politics, and so on. Can age then be described as an emerging tension set to shape politics?

Of course, to a degree it already has. In Britain, anything that upsets the over 65s is electoral bromide - a lesson the Tories have taken on board. The differentiation of the old and the young is also an outcome of long-standing social policy orientations - it is the young who bear the brunt of the housing crisis, of low wages, insecure work, and debt, of changes to the social security system, of panics around feral youth and criminal gangs. The policies on the other hand that have benefited property owners, the changes to tax, pension credits, and the so-called triple lock, in which the basic state pension is increased by whichever is the higher of growth in average earnings, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), or 2.5%. But why does its political manifestation work through in disproportionately progressive, disproportionately conservative terms. Is it really as simple as the old going for the right because they will protect their hoard of goodies and pensioner benefits?

No, I would suggest it's not that simple. Yes, of course differing material circumstances and perceived largesse by the state heavily conditions things. Just listen to what "millenials" (shudder) have to say about their support for left wing politicians and movements: it's about poverty, about directionless, about competition for scarce decent jobs, about the chances of never owning their own homes. What this is doing, structurally speaking, is locking large numbers of young people out of the social bargain. As the history of the early 20th century shows, radical and revolutionary organisations build mass support up over time because they represent a constituency that is not or is only in part integrated into the social system. If workers have stable jobs with wages sufficient to reproduce themselves and their families, revolutionary politics has little appeal because of the stakes they have in the system. If those stakes aren't there, then social integration is jeopardised and no number of New Labour-style "social exclusion" initiatives are going to paper over the problem. Presently, however, this disaffection of the youth has been filtered to a degree through the established political parties, transforming Labour in the process, for instance. But what happens if Labour doesn't win the election, or Bernie Sanders isn't nominated, or SYRIZA push austerity policies? Social disaffection and anomie is most likely, but other more radical forms of politics cannot be ruled out.

And the old? The kinds of fear-mongering peddled by the Tories at the election plays particularly well among older voters. There's a growing disaffection and cynicism here too, but one with different sources and consequences. The social anxiety one might be tempted to say is being deliberately inculcated is, in the main, is mediated. The ceaseless tales of moral and social collapse found in the press and fanned by broadcast news can make the world look like a terrifying and unpleasant place, confirmed by gay and minority ethnicity visibility, the occasional snippet of a foreign tongue while walking down the high street, and their children struggling to find a decent job and/or getting soaked by ludicrous private rents. Their mediated remove from the direct experience of social anxieties in the here and now leaves them more prey to the appearance of rather than the reality of things. Young progressives are likely to lay their predicament at the door of government and/or business. Their (retired) parents instead connect the surface level dots between poor prospects, wages, and the housing shortage with mass immigration. The greater one is socially distant from a group of people, the greater media opinion conditions the attitudes and meanings associated with them.

This isn't to say all old people are conservative and all young people are nascent socialists, but when attitudes cluster in this way in particular age groups, it makes sense to try and advance a theory that could help to explain why this is the case.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Hillary Clinton: It's the Politics, Stupid

Time bullshit was called on Hillary Clinton's cheerleaders. You know what I'm talking about, the avalanche of comment saying that she must win the Democrat nomination for presidency, regardless of her record and views. And to a piece those defences are, at best, willfully clueless, and, at worst, bad faith.

Before we go there, let's get the caveats in. Were I a registered Democrat with a vote at an upcoming caucus, my support would go to Bernie Sanders. This is because his politics are closer to mine than Hillary Clinton's, and the chance of him burying the Republican contender - whoever that dysfunctional oaf turns out to be - are roughly the same as Hillary's. For the record, despite having politics closer to Jeremy Corbyn on most issues, during the mass primary that was the Labour leadership campaign, I ended up voting voting for Yvette Cooper on the grounds that she was the candidate most likely to best the Tories. Obviously, I appreciate the majority of readers would disagree. Nevertheless, I'm sure everyone would accept that Jeremy saw off Yvette and Liz not because they were women or the party is irredeemably sexist, but because of his platform. It's not rocket science.

Which is what makes the imputed sexism suggested by Hillary's defenders so infuriating. Take Sophy Ridge's view. Going through a brief potted history about women going for high office, she laments that Hillary has bucketloads of experience, is eminently qualified for high office, before noting that the rug has been pulled from under her: "Clinton has jumped through the hoops set for her – proving herself as a Senator and Secretary of State, extricating herself from her husband’s shadow - only to be told that she's been doing it all wrong."

The same is true of a very similar piece in the New Statesman by Sarah Ditum, who suggests Hillary is being forced to live up to higher standards on account of being a woman. While it is true she has suffered appalling sexism throughout her career, to suggest her record should be ignored because she is a woman ("women have the right to political office exactly as men do, and that means that we can do it well or badly, feministly or unfeministly – just as men have been doing for millennia. Women are entitled to be wrong and mediocre sometimes") is sheer tokenism and, one might suggest, contrary to the spirit of what feminism is about.

And then there is the truly idiotic missives from Gloria Steinem and Madelaine Allbright. For Gloria, one of the most influential and important feminists alive, to suggest young women are going for Bernie Sanders over Hillary because they're thinking "where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie..." is hardly going to endear young women to these arguments. For Madelaine, it's a case of their "being a special place in Hell for women who don't help each other", clearly indicating that women Democrats should do their sisterly duty.

This is frustrating, but not at all surprising. The heart of the matter is politics are changing. As the old solidarities underpinning the old politics pass into the night, so-called values voters (or, indeed, non-voters) appear to be growing in number. This isn't a cunning ruse to keep a woman from entering the White House as someone other than the First Lady, but a result of long-term demographic changes afflicting all Western liberal democracies. As far as "values" left wing voters are concerned, it's not enough to back someone who will do things that are damaging to our people just because they're not the conservative candidate, they want someone who reflects their policy preferences and priorities. Hillary is an experienced figure and competent politician more than capable of doing the job, but what matters most for those young women in Iowa who neglected to lend her their votes is politics.

Yes, Hillary is establishment politics, and she's being judged on the basis of them. Were she to be President, it's unlikely America would look much different after two Hillary terms, what with its rising inequality, demonisation of immigrants, acute pathological social anxieties, awful treatment of the poor and carte blanche for big business to run rampant. She has many supporters down Wall Street for a reason. And, lest we forget, while Bernie Sanders has forced her to tack to the left in some instances, one position she hasn't rolled back was on social security. Seeing as cuts to state support disproportionately hit women, it's telling that her supporters instructing women to vote for the woman are blind to the tens of millions of women at the sharp end, women whose only media exposure is when the cameras come to ogle them and use them as the butt of hypocritical morality tales. Do they then stand to gain more, and be empowered by the policies and action (and inactions) of a Hillary or Bernie presidency? I think the answer is so obvious it's testing the reader's patience to have to spell it out.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

New Blogs January/February 2016

It's the first Sunday of the month, so time for a new left blog round up.

A View from the Attic (Labour) (Twitter)

Bad Tempered Brummie Bitch (Labour) (Twitter)

Disclaimer Magazine (Unaligned) (Twitter)

Electable Labour (Labour) (Twitter)

Megan Corton Scott (Labour) (Twitter)

Middle Vision (Labour) (Twitter)

Theo Bertram (Labour) (Twitter)

The Queerness (Unaligned/LGBT rights) (Twitter)

If you know of any new blogs that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up appears on the first Sunday of every month, usually.

Will there be a Snap Election in 2016?

Toby Perkins caught the punditocracy unawares last night by floating the possibility of a snap election later on this year. Now hold on a minute, doesn't the Fixed Term Parliaments Act prevent an election from being called at the Prime Minister's convenience? Yes, that's right. Unless two thirds of Parliament think otherwise. Here, Toby sets out the circumstances under which this may happen:
I believe that the forces unleashed within the Conservative party are so great that, whether Cameron wins or loses [the EU referendum], many of their MPs and activists will feel it is time for a change at the top ... In the event that Cameron goes, I expect his successor to look very keenly at whether the Labour party is capable of fighting a snap general election ... If a new Conservative leader demanded a general election it is impossible to imagine how Labour could refuse to go to the country.
So a new Tory leader comes in off the back of EU turmoil and seeks to establish their legitimacy by calling for an election which, they calculate, is a proposition Labour cannot refuse. The Tories believe the political price Labour would pay for not going along with their scheme would make the fall out of Gordon Brown bottling the election-that-never-was look like a mild x-ray. 

I do not buy it.

That the Tories have a huge war chest is common knowledge among politics watchers. It was widely observed prior to the general election that they had resources enough to fight two. However, what they lack is timing. Having an election immediately after a round of local and regional elections, and the EU referendum runs the risk of politics fatigue among the electorate. When moaning and whingeing about the last election "going on too long" was a refrain not unknown to campaigners, a government "forcing" more politics down the public's throat might encourage a layer of anti-political establishment voters to punish the government with bloody minded votes. Also, remember this would come after weeks of inescapable coverage about the Tory leadership contest as well. Second, do not underestimate the jitters of newly-elected Tory MPs. There may be fewer marginal seats as was this time round, but having just arrived in Parliament a segment of the new intake will be loath to go through the stress and uncertainty of another campaign when they still have four years to run.

On the Labour side, as Toby notes the party is ill-prepared, despite now moving into war footing for the other elections taking place. Any damage the Tories hope to inflict on Labour for refusing an early election would, because of the fatigue factor, likely to be slight. And, as many MPs are convinced that the party presently constituted is not palatable as an electoral alternative, the chances they would vote for what they think might be an early departure from the green benches aren't great. Wearing a more cynical hat, however, for some on the right of the party an early election followed by a heavy defeat would, to their mind, mean the end of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and the notion a hard left platform can beat the Tories.

While Toby is right that the party should tool up, the likely balance of politics after May/June and the interests of all concerned make a general election a remote prospect. It's best to concentrate on the ones immediately in front of us, not phantoms of futures unlikely to arrive.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Twitter Doesn't Have to Die

If you're someone who sinks endless hours into Twitter, you couldn't have failed to spot #RIPTwitter trending overnight and for a good portion of the day. It has been suggested that the company wishes to introduce a fundamental change to the service.

As every Twitter user knows, the feed is constantly updated with most recent tweets first. The powers that be apparently want to do away with this function and introduce an algorithm into proceedings. This will look at your missives, the accounts you retweet, and the people you follow to filter your feed and deliver tweets it thinks you will find most relevant or useful. Coming hot on the heels of the company mulling over 10,000 character limit tweets, it's not unreasonable to conclude that Twitter is determined to kill what made Twitter Twitter.

Many have observed how Twitter is slowly transforming into Facebook. Last year, customisation of one's profile page was suddenly and arbitrarily fixed within certain limits so all looked the same. Like Facebook. The meta was shifted to the left side, like Facebook. Favourites became likes, as per ... you guessed it. In the grand scheme of things, these don't matter a great deal as they're marginal to the core micro-blogging experience. But what they do is signpost the direction of travel.

I'm happy to go with the wisdom of the crowd. Bigger tweets and the algorithmically-filtered feeds will kill the thing stone dead. Users do not need a robot buzzing away in the servers sorting their content, we can do that ourselves. If someone on my timeline consistently puts out boring rubbish I don't want to see, there's this handy function Twitter made available from the beginning. It's called 'unfollow'. For a bunch of techheads at the cutting edge of social media, what they do not understand about Twitter's appeal - as it is for all platforms - is as an experience the user curates themselves, and are happy to do so. Besides, the joy of Twitter is sometimes how random snippets of information can pop up in the feed. Every day, at least one slightly off-beam scrap is tweeted into my timeline that will make me think, or learn about something new. And from this randomness new relationships can be forged. The majority of people I interact with, for instance, are fruits of chance tweets here hitting my timeline at a particular point. I'm sure it's the same for the bulk of other users too. They start out following people they think might be interesting and/or they've heard of, and end up tracking hundreds of others on account of what they say. It's serendipitous.

It also blunts Twitter's utility as an aid for social change. It's easy to be hyperbolic about the role it played in the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but it proved its worth as a means of disseminating knowledge and news when the state had standard, centralised media under its thumb. Twitter could only play that role because of the way networks of protesters were able to connect and make unfiltered contact. With the algorithm working away, a barrier is thrown up preventing that immediacy from taking place. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that in any future uprising against tyranny the algorithm - accidentally on purpose, of course - directs users to pro-regime, state, and other establishment social media contributions as opposed to grassroots protesters. And that's before we start thinking about target advertising as a means of accruing revenues.

Ah yes, money. Lest we forget that Twitter is a business. In quarter three 2015, it posted $569m in revenue off 307m active monthly users. However, as you can see the years of breakneck growth are long behind it: the user base is topping out. And, as it happens, next week Twitter are due to post their Q4 earning and active user figures. Pundits are forecasting that this flattening trend will be confirmed. And so the pressure is on management to do something, anything. After all, one only need look over at Facebook's much larger active user base to see there is a big market for the taking. Hence the redesigns that make Twitter look slightly familiar to new users fresh from Facebook, and from this standpoint the algorithm can, looked at askance, make some sense.

Facebook and Twitter are fundamentally different beasts for different things. For most people, the former connects friends, acquaintances, and school friends, and is about having chats, sharing selfies, photos of the kids, pics of the car, and tea time commentary on the contents of one's dinner plate. Quite a few use it to interact with the wider world via groups and the like, but this is not the raison d'etre. It's used primarily to connect with the familiar. Twitter on the other hand is about moving into the world, of reaching out to the unknown and forging new connections and networks. It's ideal if one is a touch extroverted, has an axe to grind or, ahem, a blog to evangelise. For your casual punter uninterested in such things, Twitter can seem a bit pointless. Why would strangers want to see drunken tweets from your night out, or the Facebook-obligatory baby snaps? The solution to Twitter's woes, so management thinks, is to narrow the difference between the platforms. Delivering content up front without much effort on the new user's part will, they think, demonstrate its utility and hook them in.

As for the effect on existing users, who cares? In the logic of triangulation, there's nowhere else for them to go. Twitter is embedded in the infrastructure of 21st century life to a degree that economies of celebrity, the media, and politics have dependent relationships with it. For some people, especially those home bound or, for whatever reason, otherwise socially isolated Twitter is a lifeline and a life saver. Whatever happens, in the cynical reasoning of the spreadsheet and market share, there is nothing that can emerge to displace it. Except, perhaps, should China's Weibo ever go international.

It's just as well it's not going to happen after all, apparently. CEO Jack Dorsey has issued a non-denial denial. "We never planned to reorder timelines next week", he tweeted. In other words, it remains an option.

The problem with Twitter is it remains a difficult business to make money from. Promoted tweets and trends are all very well, but too many and it gets in the way. The value of the platform is tied up in the qualities of the interactions that pass across it, some of which are commercial transactions which, by the medium's nature, it cannot tap into. There is no facility for it to make money in the way eBay does by bringing buyers and sellers together. Its present revenues depends on volume, and if that slows the business model as presently constituted is in trouble. That isn't to say Twitter is doomed, but it does mean it has to accept monetisation that directly benefits the company will threaten its fundamentals. There is a solution to keeping Twitter going, but that might well demand moving away from a for-profit outfit to something else.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Remembering Maurice White

2016 is turning out to be a bit crap. We're barely a month into the new year, and this is the fourth obituary I've written. As readers now, the founder and driving force of Earth, Wind & Fire, Maurice White, passed away yesterday. His music, especially the hits the band had in the late 70s, stood out as playful celebrations of life. All of them were serious musicians, but when you know you're serious you don't have to show it off. You can let go and embrace kitsch and glitz while letting your musicianship and songwriting speak for itself.

This is what Earth, Wind & Fire did on their best known - and most overblown hit - Boogie Wonderland. Of all the disco tracks, their performance in the video summed up everything that the movement was about. Brash, confident, camp, fun. Maurice's slightly stiff dancing dad act was set off well against the exuberance of The Emotions, and the swirly sequins of the band. Even without one of the best tunes of the 1970s playing over it, there is something striking about the video, and one that deservedly sticks in the cultural memory.

It's sad that Maurice has left us, but his legacy is some of the finest dance music ever written. Sleep well.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Rereading Nicos Poulantzas

I've recently been reading Nicos Poulantzas's, State, Power, Socialism. Partly because the bright orange of the Verso Classics edition has glowered at me from the shelf for the best part of a decade, partly because I want something a little bit heavyweight to blog about (previous extended postings Lukacs, JS Mill, and Gramsci were well-received), partly as an exercise in self-clarification, and lastly because Poulantzas's work deserves wider circulation among present day socialists.

My thinking and political priorities have undergone something of a change since this blog started almost a decade ago. Then I was an unorthodox Marxist and self-regarding revolutionary socialist hanging around in an equally self-regarding orthodox Marxist outfit. And now? Good question. I still think capitalism needs superceding, that Marx provided the method and most of the basic concepts to understand it, and that the collective action of working people organised as the labour movement have something to do with transforming what we've got into something better. Beyond that, I know the revolutionary road to socialism is a non-starter. The greatest contribution the far left in the advanced countries have furnished socialist thought is to underline that argument by their spirited and persistent irrelevance. And yet the polemics of Rosa Luxemburg against the parliamentary road to socialism retain their force as history has confirmed and reconfirmed her position time and again.

It has seemed to me that a third way might be possible, but one premised on the difficult task of building up the labour movement in an era where its base is under pressure and somehow managing and transforming the state to strengthen our collective strength seemed about the best wbet. This wasn't to be a long march through the institutions, but rather using our political clout to strengthen our political hand. It is about building up a constituency whose interests go beyond dull conformity and hidden exploitation, and in so doing change the system as that collective itself changes. An impossible task perhaps, but one that could lead to very real material benefits for our people where and when such a project meets success.

This kind of project was pursued by the Eurocommunist tendencies in several continental communist and socialist parties in the 70s and 80s, without much in the way of success. Nicos Poulantzas, before his life was cut cruelly short by mental health problems, was influential in rethinking the Marxist approach to the state and couching Eurocommunism in Marxist terms. Having made his name during the 70s as a disciple of Louis Althusser via a series of innovative analyses of the state (including a bad tempered exchange in New Left Review with Ralph Miliband), State, Power, Socialism is a culmination of his thought and also, sadly, his epitaph. Nevertheless, what Poulantzas tried to do was recast the Marxist approach to the state as something struggled over by competing groups of capital, as a manager of the interests of capital-in-general, and as a phenomenon constituted by the relations of production and therefore an object and site of class struggle. The resulting argument is full of insight and foresight, of relationships still yet to be fully analysed and explored, and of the problems and opportunities this more "open" view of the capitalist state presents the labour movement. Striking something of a gloomy note, Poulantzas recognised that a constant and persistent effort of building up one's forces, capturing and transforming the state, while checking the tendencies eroding the solidarity socialism depended on was a big ask, and one far from the conceited guarantees of the revolutionary road.

Poulantazas however was to suffer a double indignity. Those who you would think might be interested in a serious intervention around the problems of socialist strategy in the advanced countries - the far left - remained largely wedded to the road map scribbled down by old Trotters. And beyond a small group interested in sociological issues around the role of the state in society, academic radicalism went voguing with post-structuralism down any blind alley it could find. The question of linking the micro-levels power operates at with wider scale processes, such as the operation of class and capitalism, were filed under 'do not bother'.

With a new spirit of radicalism in the air and a generation of activists looking afresh at what Marxism and radical social theory has to say about power, capital, and the state, a rereading of Poulantzas is timely and, I hope for those who follow this series, proves useful.

Just a note on reading State, Power, Socialism itself. Considering Poulantzas came from the Althusserian school, whose Marxism was noted for excessive technical verbiage and tortured writing, Poulantzas is as clear as the complex object of his study allows him to be. If you are familiar with basic Marxist concepts and terminology, anyone giving the book a stab shouldn't find it difficult provided one is willing to think along with it. The second relates to a point made by Mike: that Poulantzas lacked a theory of money, and therefore an appreciation of how deeply that state was constituted and traversed by class relationships. This meant, by implication, the Poulantzas offered a more radicalised version of the traditional social democratic view of the state as an institution independent of and existing above class relationships. I don't think this is the case, but I can understand why it's made. Much of the confusion around seemingly contradictory statements made by Marx in Capital can be put down to the use of abstraction as an analytical tool. As Marx planned but never wrote additional volumes of Capital on the political economy of the working class, the global economy, and the state, I take State, Power, Socialism as a contribution to filling the gap left by the absence of the last volume. As such, to tease out some of the relationships that require understanding and verifying on the basis of further research, abstracting from matters of political economy beyond general comments to bring out the specificity of the capitalist state-in-general for analytical purposes is a tried and tested method.

The format will be very similar to the previous extended discussions, looking in-depth at arguments, utilising contemporary political examples to highlight the points made, and evaluating them in light of subsequent debates and developments. As they appear the posts will be listed below.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

On Dave's EU Membership "Deal"

History remembers the last time a Tory prime minister went to Europe and came back waving a piece of paper, but the hungry beast to be appeased now is a coterie of backbench MP's, a hapless and hopeless crew blinded by stupidity and consumed by petty-minded hobby horses.

Yes, it's the obligatory EU-renegotiation blog post, seeing as Dave has unveiled a draft deal looking to be the climax of his 2015-16 European tour. And, as absolutely nobody foresaw, the thin gruel he's come home with is getting talked up as an overgenerous banquet. So the headline grabbers are the minor changes for in-work social security for EU workers, a reduction in the level of child benefit, an exemption of the UK from ever-closer political integration (which no one was forcing on us anyway), and a recognition that Parliaments can club together to change EU rules. The way Dave and his cheerleaders carry on, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole show isn't already run by the Council of Ministers, but I digress.

As someone who thinks the EU is necessary, but is in sore need of democratic reform and restructuring, this isn't a "good deal". I don't think anyone in the labour movement should be in the business of cheering on cuts to social security eligibility, regardless of where the recipients are from. And we should be wary of lending this snake oil salesman any form of political credibility, which I'm glad to see Alan Johnson avoids doing in his comment on Dave's "achievements". As this was always a package of negotiations driven by the crisis ripping up the Tory party's guts as opposed any kind of dysfunctions in Britain's EU membership. It's a deal struck to ameliorate Dave's awkward squad, nothing else.

Supposing it's all over bar the shouting, what does Dave's deal mean for politics over the next six months? Despite stressing how much he wants the British people to take a considered view and have plenty of time to mull over the arguments, the received Westminster wisdom is for a June referendum. Dave might be venal, but he's not stupid. Dragging out the Scottish independence vote allowed the Yes camp time to build up a genuinely popular movement, and one that still imperils the continued existence of the union. Dave knows a relatively short campaign leaves the fractious Leave outfit ill-placed to whip up populist Europhobia of the kind UKIP were once adept at tapping into. He also wants to minimise the damage to the Tories. In the main, as an alliance of the big fractions of British business, there are fundamental contradictions between those for whom European markets are an opportunity, and those for which it is a threat. Like the various families of Labour, if it wasn't for our electoral system and its steep barrier of entry, then perhaps the Tories would have fragmented long ago. As it stands, Dave has to avoid that eventuality from coming to pass - going early is his best chance of avoiding that fate.

The Europhobic right, however, are unlikely to be mollified by either the sham renegotiation or the short referendum campaign. They are right it changes nothing, and from their standpoint Dave is putting a false prospectus to the country. A referendum premised on endorsing a big lie means it's unlikely they will accept the result if, one hopes, it doesn't go their way. For them, they're being set up and cheated of the full and frank contest they want. If Dave is hoping to treat the running sore that is the Tory party's obsession with Europe once and for all, someone is set to be disappointed.

There's also the small matter of this May's elections in Scotland, Wales, London, and some English councils. Nicola Sturgeon has already made her views clear on the subject, especially as the SNP's campaign is best served by putting distance between themselves and her pro-EU opponents. While it's not going to have much of an affect on the return wind of the nationalist hurricane north of the border, party positioning on the EU could affect elections ostensibly fought on local/regional matters. Clarity on the part of the LibDems, Labour, and UKIP might light their chances whereas open intra-party warfare among the Tories might make them look foolish.

Leaving aside the reverberations for politics, once again the EU talks demonstrate Dave's exceptional luck. While the draft letter doesn't amount to a great deal in the grand scheme of things, to have 27 other states acquiesce either demonstrates a deftness of touch not shown in domestic politics, or a stunningly fortuitous alignment of the stars. I'm inclined to go for the latter, especially as the EU have much bigger fish to fry - the refugee crisis for one, and the now loud, now quiet stagnation and crisis in the Eurozone. Letting the UK take away a few trifles is a price worth paying for keeping the beleaguered project together. However, back home where he faces his toughest test, Dave's charmed life could be about to hit the buffers.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Terry Wogan and the Celebrity System

"We'll never see their like again" is a refrain common to the passing of major league celebrities. With David Bowie this was because of his profound influence on pop music and performance, an impact that is probably impossible for anyone to repeat ever. And then there is Terry Wogan who, I would suggest, is of a similar type of celebrity.

What? As beloved Terry Wogan is, how can he as a Radio 2 presenter, former talk show host, and longtime commentator on Europe's silly song contest be considered to have much in common with our culture-defining legend? Yes, and it comes down to the political economy of celebrity.

Anyone with a passing similarity with the sidebar of shame knows there's a gradation in the level of celebrity. At the very top are the A-listers of hot pop and film stars, and genuine legends who have distinguished themselves in their chosen fields. Their stardom is usually international in scope - to have made it big in America is more or less a prerequisite. The next level down are national celebrities of import. These can be actors, warblers, presenters, comedians, etc. In this way of grading matters, here is where you'd probably locate Wogan's celebrity. The next rung down are your soap stars, DJs, and various species of presenter and talk show host. And then at the bottom are your Z-list'ers of reality TV stars (amateur and "professional"), talent show contest hopefuls, paparazzi fodder, glamour models, and so on. This is hardly scientific, of course, but if you can think about celebrity as a broad field in which people jostle for media attention and exposure, you could certainly make a plausible stab of segmenting it in this way.

Approaching celebrity as a field has its advantages, but an emphasis on mapping out contemporary positions might ignore the specific routes taken to fame by those at the top of the tree, and miss how celebrity once worked differs from its operation today. And this is where the substantive similarities between Wogan on the one hand, and Bowie on the other start to show up.

One does not have to be a paid up aficionado of postmodern social theory to accept that what it did get right was the tendency to cultural splintering and fragmentation that started in the 1960s, and accelerated in the 80s and 90s. The consequences of which are much disputed and need not detain us here (though more here). Yet over the same period there was a strong counter-tendency to homogenisation and uniformity. This didn't express itself 1984-style, but rather the mass media as was had a narrower range while commanding audiences unheard of these days. When Wogan presented Wogan, at one point 20 million people were regularly rocking up to watch. This wasn't because the past was a foreign country (though it is), it simply reflected a lack of choice. At the time of Wogan's peak we had four terrestrial channels and a small offering on satellite. Go back even further, and TV viewers had fewer options. This meant, culturally speaking, that millions of people had common viewing habits to such an extent that these shared media reference points worked as social glue. It was then, and to a degree remains now, a common currency.

Celebrity-wise, it meant stars who made it under these conditions became a huge deal. There were a plethora of bands and singers when the rocket blew up under Bowie's career, but vast audiences on radio and TV for his work throughout the 70s conferred legendary status upon him. Consistent exposure, which was matched by only a few of his contemporaries, embedded him as an A-list fixture of the star system. And Wogan was exactly the same. A regular on BBC radio since the 60s, and a familiar television face from the 70s, Wogan attained the status of feted national treasure by ubiquity and familiarity. Whereas Bowie's fame (initially) courted notoriety, Wogan's was a gentle, if wry conformity. He wasn't someone you'd meet down the pub or in the queue at the checkout, but his was a presence, and therefore a passing, felt just as keenly by millions of people.

Terry Wogan was a survivor of the old celebrity system as it worked here in Britain. We won't see his like again not simply because he was a one-off. There are plenty of quick-witted Irish men who've made a home at the BBC, after all. No, the way it works now, that fragmentation I talked about, materially rules out the re-emergence of someone who would grow into Wogan's standing. There will always be loved and fondly remembered celebrities for as long as there are celebrities, but to have that reach and deeply held connection between a person and the thoughts and feelings of tens of millions? That time has passed.

Five Most Popular Posts in January


The five most popular posts last month were ...

1. Top 100 Independent Tweeting Bloggers 2016
2. Jeremy Corbyn, Women, and the Shadow Cabinet
3. Is the Labour Party Middle Class?
4. A Note on Laura Kuenssberg and the BBC
5. Simon Danczuk and Narcissism

I can't say I'm shocked that the annual countdown of independent bloggers clinched the top spot, but I am very pleased to not that last month was the busiest ever traffic-wise. 67,000 page views is hardly premiere league stuff, but at over 2,000 a day that will do me nicely thank you very much. Of course, one can never have too big an audience ...

Propelling the blog to dizzying heights were some ruminations on a couple of minor media scandals, if they can be called that, the demographic composition of the 'new politics', ans a reflection on one man's out-sized ego.

Posts deserving a second chance? Hmmm. Let's go for the Labour Party coup fantasy, because some people persist in believing in constitutional phantoms, and a farewell to Ellen Meiksins Wood, one of the finest Marxist minds of recent years.