Editorial: Values as commodities

Journal: 
Issue: 
Winter 2013

This issue opens with another instalment from our continuing online Manifesto, this time Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea on the political role played by an appeal to ‘common sense’. The idea that we all share common-sense values, and that specific proposals self-evidently ‘make sense’ according to these precepts, is a powerful way of legitimating new policies. As Stuart and Alan point out, the assumption that everyone is obviously going to agree with what is being proposed is in fact itself a strategy to secure that agreement.

In the mean time a ferocious battle is waged over what actually constitutes popular common sense. Well-endowed supporters of neoliberalism are able to put substantial resources into shaping public opinion, through the media that they or their friends own, through the funding and promoting of experts and spokespeople, through their corporate PR resources, through donations to political parties, and through all their extended networks of power and influence. We on the left need to counter these activities by working with the grain of the good sense that exists alongside and within popular common sense - for example a widespread sense of what is just and unjust, of the rich being too powerful, of the need to look after the vulnerable. But articulating these ideas to a political project also requires work - as well as a recognition that this work is central to political activity. As Stuart and Alan argue, and as Tom Crompton argued in Soundings 54, when Labour politicians frame their proposals within neoliberal terms and rhetoric - for example when they talk about being tough on people living on benefits - they are actually undermining their own position.

Ben Little points to the ways in which the right seek to shore up their position both through using governmental power - as with the recent lobbying bill which has imposed far more restrictions on civil society campaigners than on corporations - and through trying to imitate campaigning rhetoric in their own PR. Both tactics are a response to the rise and rise of ‘cause-based’ politics in the face of widespread disaffection with political parties: campaigning groups, social movements and NGOs have come to occupy some of the ground that has been vacated by politicians, and this is seen as a threat.

But, as Ben argues, there is perhaps a more insidious problem in the way in which political power itself is now understood. For many, especially within horizontalist groups and social movements, power is seen as abhorrent; for many others issues of power have been evacuated from political discourse, with political affiliation understood as brand identification and voting as consumer rational choice. These deeper signs of the permeation of neoliberal values are good news for the right - and need to be challenged by the left.

Ben also describes the ‘networked leaderlessness’ of much internet politics, and the central role within this world of the self-contained liberal subject, ‘placed in a network of other individuals as a heroic actor able to act rapidly against oppression and self-educate to deal with any emergent challenge’. As he argues, this figure has become a contemporary ideal of emancipation precisely because s/he exists in a dematerialised and levelled out world that exists outside power relations, while still allowing a sense of connection and participation. This internet hero is able to disavow conflict in favour of emotional attachment to a cause.

A similar sense of the internet’s capacity to render power relations invisible informs Jason Wilson’s discussion of TED, the massive US-based internet talks phenomenon. TED offers planetary access to convenient 18-minute slices of pedagogy, delivered by celebrities and charismatic individuals and offering quick solutions to global problems. As Jason argues, the narrative form of these lectures suggests that a problem that has existed since time immemorial can be solved when a leading individual does something counter-intuitive as a result of ‘out of the box’ thinking - or ‘when a clever geek takes a new look at the data’. This in turn enables the political fantasy that individuals can control and intervene in complex events without engaging in any serious conflicts over values or resources.

Jason coins the term ‘solutionism’ to describe this notion that the world’s problems can be solved by the brainpower of the cosmopolitan elite - and without any conflict. And he also warns that versions of this kind of commodified education are being touted as an answer to the lack of funding for state education in the US - a commercial technological fix with added ideological bonus. 

Both Ben and Jason argue that new communications technologies can of course be of immense benefit to new forms of politics. Ben argues that Beppe Grillo’s 5-star movement, for all its problems, points to ways in which internet based mobilisation can connect with a political project, as do groups such as 38 Degrees. Jason urges us to think collectively about ways of harnessing technology to purposes of equality, and to disrupt ‘the rapidly solidifying political and aesthetic field that thus distributes the rights to think and speak’.

Vikki Boliver and David Byrne show how the idea of social mobility chimes in with the neoliberal agenda: if individuals can be seen to be able to move between social classes, inequality becomes less of a problem. Or, in commonsense terms, as long as there are ladders available the cleverest will always be able to climb them. Vikki and David quote David Cameron (quoting Churchill): ‘We are for the ladder. Let all try their best to climb.’ In the postwar period there was some mobility because of the expansion of the middle class - but not at all because those at the top swapped places with anyone. But now that the middle class is contracting and becoming poorer while position-swapping remains off the agenda - and at a time when inequality is growing exponentially - the notion of meritocracy or equality of opportunity is wearing very thin. The metaphor of the ladder misleadingly implies that all have the potential to climb on their own. Much better, as Vikki and David suggest, to return to the old slogan: rise with your class, not from it.

The values of austerity are a crucial part of the neoliberal repertoire. Tracey Jensen shows how austerity narratives reinforce the idea that poverty arises from fecklessness. While hard-working citizens are busily looking for ladders, the poor are indulging in the irresponsible parenting that is to blame for their offpring’s lack of opportunity. As Tracey also points out, the notion that individual decisions are responsible for structurally generated poverty was a key New Labour motif, and one that has not wholly been abandoned by the current Labour leadership. But the Tories have cranked up the rhetoric on problem families, while the new thrift aesthetic opens up further possibilities for the demonising of spendthrifts on benefits. Meanwhile thrift rhetoric demands that the state also stops wasting money on people who after all have only themselves to blame.

Elsewhere in the issue Virginia Crisp shows how the concept of piracy is used to mobilise support for increasingly stringent copyright laws that benefit corporations far more than artistic creators and producers. Intellectual property is likely to be a major bone of contention in future battles for equal access to knowledge. In her discussion on practices and assumptions in the newly devolved institutions Sylvia Shaw draws attention to yet another way in which those at the centre of power police its boundaries. And Dave Featherstone explores international solidarities past and present, reminding us that global neoliberalism has never gone unchallenged.

We close with three articles on the economy. The first - moving from the global to the local - is an inspiring second progress report by Alan Sitkin on the London Borough of Enfield’s project to challenge business to make a greater local contribution, and to assert the role of the local state in promoting the interests of its citizens. The second is John Grahl’s account of the waning of support for austerity measures in the EU, which ends with a sombre warning that unless the EU abandons austerity its legitimacy will also wane - to the point where the European project may become unrescuable. Finally Bryan Gould reminds us that it is only the grip of neoliberalism on our imagination that prevents us from adopting what could be relatively uncontroversial and mainstream growth policies. Here Labour’s apparent inability to break with neoliberal orthodoxy is mystifying. Policies that the government is pursuing in collusion with the finance industry are clearly unpopular and manifestly do not work.

It is perhaps in the field of the economy more than anywhere else that we see the overwhelming importance of engaging in the battle over common sense.

Soundings 55 Values as commodities