"History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."
“History that repeats itself turns to farce. Farce that repeats itself turns to history.”
The post-mortems are already well under way. Over the past couple of days, anyone with broadband access, a left-leaning philosophy and an axe to grind has taken to the internet to give full vent to their fury at the general election result. Today it was the turn of Saint Tony and Lord Mandelson.
Lacking the technical expertise, ideological intellect or employment-sanctioned authority of most commentators, it is not my desire to add to the vast column inches of calumny or criticism here, but merely to make a number of observations (pithy or otherwise).
For a lot of Labour supporters, there is still a sense of palpable, traumatizing shock. The trauma is too great to comprehend: it has to be seen to be believed. Perhaps it didn't really happen: the general election was almost entirely virtual, little more than a simulation of parliamentary democracy. And on the day itself, our jolly jaunts to the polling station and congratulatory tweets didn’t make it feel any more real. In fact, the campaign - with its surfeit of scripted stump speeches, repeated soundbites, stage-managed appearances and rallies in empty warehouses – didn't take place. At all.
Being unemployed and largely housebound in caring for two small children, I dodged much of the rolling TV coverage (Ceebeebies doesn't really do politics). Despite this, I absorbed a steady flow of news intravenously via BBC Radio 4, live blogging and social media. Baudrillard famously recorded that “we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning”. News from the election campaign came in a steady tsunami of bitty torrents. Every day seemed to bring a new brouhaha: another announcement, policy, controversy or gaffe. But no one canvassed with clipboards in our street; we received only three flyers from fringe parties. Yet out there, across the UK, politicians politicking and a plethora of media were applying the first rule of blanket coverage:
“The futility of everything that comes to us from the media is the inescapable consequence of the absolute inability of that particular stage to remain silent. Music, commercial breaks, news flashes, adverts, news broadcasts, movies, presenters — there is no alternative but to fill the screen; otherwise there would be an irremediable void.”
We oscillated between passive absorption via the airwaves and active consumption via social media, both of which subordinated positive political activism. This sense of conditioning became pervasive and persuasive, filtering out alternative voices, generating a self-contained cluster of personally-approved, endlessly-repeated consensus. An exemplary reflection of Jean-Francois Lyotard's belief that:
"A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at 'nodal points' of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be. Or better: one is always located at a post through which various kinds of messages pass."
It’s hardly surprising that many on the Left expected Miliband to become our next Prime Minister. The sense of shock, indignation, outrage and despondency by the time of that first exit poll, and latterly on the morning of 8 May, with its consciousness-shattering severity was thanks largely to the consensus-reaffirming views of the selective networks in which we had immersed ourselves.
We’ve been here before. While I'm too young to distinctly remember the 1992 general election, retrospectively the parallels between Kinnock’s election disaster and Miliband's are queasily familiar. I'm probably not the only deluded voter who believes history will judge Miliband as one of the finest Labour Prime Ministers we’ve never had, particularly if the party returns to the Blairite centrism some have called for since the defeat. His intentions were honourable, his style of presentation flawed, but more human than Vulcan, dignified in defeat.
In actuality, he’s no Kinnock – although his unveiling of a chiselled stone of promises in the dying days of the campaign sank his chances in much the same way that Kinnock’s stumble on the stones of Brighton beach in 1983 skittled his. Both leaders represent the great unwanted in a political culture which values visuals above vision, unfettered free markets over Keynesian statism. Whoever Labour picks for their next Premier, they’ll need a HD-ready face and the ability to look statesman-like in waders (for the next time the Tory heartlands flood).
There is a presicent scene in David Hare’s play The Absence of War – which I blogged about back in February – which prefigures Paxman’s grilling of Miliband. During a live TV interview Hare’s Labour leader, George Jones, is repeatedly challenged on his ability to lead party and country, before his tormentor, prodding Jones on his concealed removal of a manifesto pledge, provokes him into a passive-aggressive gaffe: “Are you calling me a liar?”
During Miliband’s own acutely uncomfortable Q&A – where he was labelled a ‘north London geek’, fumbled his words when professing himself “tough enuss” (sic) to take on Vladimir Putin, and was condescendingly asked ‘are you alright Ed?’ at the close – it was still possible to feel a frisson of conviction that he was beginning to win the argument, and had miraculously emerged with his reputation enhanced.
Cut to Miliband’s appearance on BBC’s Question Time election special several weeks later: his discomfort at the probing questions from a number of Conservative-supporting ‘undecided’ voters sealed his fate. To one particularly derisory audience member Miliband said: “I can see I’m not going to convince you”. As a metaphor for his relationship with the majority of middle England, it was remarkably apt. This was the moment – as Alan Johnson perceptively wrote in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian – the momentum unmistakeably shifted in favour of the economy-focused campaigning of Cameron’s Conservatives.
Following the rout of 7 May, politics now occupies a sphere defined by hubris and humiliation, arrogance and self-abasement: progressive, supposedly right-thinking representatives from across the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party have been turfed out of office and sent to the job centre. Taking over the leadership of either party is now a poisoned chalice, an impossible rebuilding job. How many of us had hoped it would be the Conservative Party defeated, fractured and facing the wilderness this weekend.
History will be less kind to Clegg, I feel, irrespective of the tone of his farewell speech. He must have known the effect of joining the coalition and reneging on his manifesto pledges. The appeal of office was simply too great; now none of their frontbench ministers – bar Clegg, ironically – will set foot in Parliament for the next five years. The loss of over 40 seats is a disturbing price to pay, but they played into the Conservatives’ hands. They’ve now shrunk back to pre-Paddy Ashdown levels of support, and are once again a political irrelevance.
The rise of the SNP is less of a phenomenon given the outcomes of the independence referendum. As for the SNP and UKIP: any appeal to nationalism will generate successive waves of support. It’s only the vagaries of the first past the post system which has guaranteed success for the SNP, rather than UKIP. Scotland is more likely to be allowed to leave the UK than our political masters allow the switch to proportional representation to enable other marginal parties to further fragment UK politics.
Which has led many on the left to the following conclusion: those who voted Tory do not care about the poor, sick, disabled, unemployed. There is some credence in that. But just as every SNP supporter is not a bekilted, woad-daubed, Sassenach-baiter, not every Conservative elector is an immigrant-hating, fox-hunting nimby Etonite. It is a surprising, nay harrowing, result to those of us who believe in social democracy, but we overlook the fact that culturally-speaking conservatism with a small c has always ruled in England. Even Tony Blair knew that. And as we age, our views become more conservative and more staunchly held. Conservative hegemony is here to stay.
Just as the 63% of people who didn’t vote Conservative will now be ruled by a majority Tory Government, so for the 44% of people who didn’t even bother turning up to vote life will go on. The political fortunes and life cycles of those who work in Parliament remain as distant, distrustful and irrelevant as ever. They’ll carry on regardless of who is in power, disinterested and disenfranchised, with a vague sense of contempt for its machinations. These are the people the Conservatives rely on sending them to power, just as much, perhaps, as those who vote for them. Their tacit acceptance of the status quo is an endorsement equal to that of the nondom press barons. The "irremediable void" of this election was the irredeemable democratic deficit it enacted.
In the past 48 hours Cameron has made his pitch for a return to ‘One Nation Conservativism’ – even though this wasn’t the platform or campaign upon which he sought re-election. So perhaps this result does reflect a return to the ‘me first’ days of uncaring Thatcherite Conservatism; or perhaps it’s another extension of what Lyotard identifies as Western cultural eclecticism: a postmodern hybridization of 1980s high concept gloss alongside austerity-era activity, where political affiliation and activism simply constitutes another lifestyle choice and the ethics of our representative democracy. The irony being that those who face the greatest difficulty under austerity are least likely to like bake sales, bunting and kale chips. Back to Baudrillard:
“Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.”
The authenticity deficit and incoherent campaigning by our politicians are two of the factors creating disengagement with the political system. But in another sense this deficit and incoherence (or hypocrisy) offers a perfect encapsulation of our cultural malaise. This plurality of eclecticism and retro-feverishness negates the possibility of unifying under anything grander than what Lyotard terms petits recits: anti-austerity, student fees, #jesusicharlie etc.
Under the pluralistic tendencies of late capitalist cultural eclecticism, what hope of refocusing our attentions on the grander narratives of reconstituting social democracy? One is reminded of of Steven Lukes third dimension of power. In Power: A Radical View, Lukes separates power into governments' ability to make decisions publicly, its power to set the decision-making agenda, and the power to to influence the wishes and desires of their subjects via the ruling ideology. On this third dimension of power, Baudrillard is scathing:
“Human rights, dissidence, antiracism, SOS-this, SOS-that: these are soft, easy, post coitum historicum ideologies, 'after-the-orgy' ideologies for an easy-going generation which has known neither hard ideologies nor radical philosophies. The ideology of a generation which is neo-sentimental in its politics too, which has rediscovered altruism, conviviality, international charity and the individual bleeding heart. Emotional outpourings, solidarity, cosmopolitan emotiveness, multi-media pathos: all soft values harshly condemned by the Nietzschean, Marxo-Freudian age... A new generation, that of the spoilt children of the crisis, whereas the preceding one was that of the accursed children of history.”
Not that I much care for Baudrillard. But we spoilt children of the crisis do face a crucial choice at this moment: history as farce, or farce as history. One thing is for certain: it'll take more than ritually trashing Whitehall once in a blue moon to change things.