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Long before the covid-19 crisis there was comment on the gradual development of a societal problem, a relatively large number of people who can be characterised thus:

# They do not use mass media, and tend to refer to print, radio and TV as “old people’s media”.

# They have a very restricted group of contacts both in the real world and on social media. Their attitude to polls is revealing; they don’t believe polls because they’ve never been polled and because the results never conform to the views of people they know – on or off-line.

# They confine participation in discourse to a select number of issues shared by on-line friends, groups, and chosen “influencers”.

# They regard all opinions as free and equal, and do not particularly value education or expertise.

# They are actively antithetical to anything they consider “establishment” and they utterly disparage politics.

This is the large cohort identified by Steve Bannon and later Dominic Cummings as ripe for mobilisation behind Trump, Brexit and Johnson. Conventional media and the political system were powerless against political and social media sophisticates who knew this cohort, its vulnerabilities and triggers.

It might now be educative to speculate on the likely attitude and actions of this cohort to the covid-19 crisis and in particular to controls on movement.

Many of this cohort would not be aware of the crisis in any detail, neither would they have been in discussions with any informed person. Insofar as they might be aware of the science, they would regard it as an opinion, having the same status as their own opinion or that of their chosen influencers. They would regard controls as an assault on their freedom and what they would expect of the derided establishment; they would resist, mock and very likely express this by doing the opposite.

Citizens outside of this cohort who participate generally speaking in a world of discursive politics, daily news and meaningful conversation look at behaviour in breach of advice and controls re Covid-19 and tend to see it as stupidity or mindlessness. They are wrong. They should look at it rather as the behaviour of people with whom they share very little, perhaps almost nothing. It is an exaggeration but it might be useful to view the cohort as a long neglected tribe allowed to grow in numbers, easily manipulated, sharing little culturally with the educated, informed majority but now posing a health risk.

This problem didn’t start with Covid-19; it has been developing for decades.

 

 

 

If the UK Conservative Party and others like them are successful in destroying the real democratic and welfare gains of the past century, it is likely because opponents – both liberal and socialist – seem to lack the wit or the nerve to challenge. It’s as blunt as this: no one is pro-establishment.

The genius of what is happening lies in occupying the term “anti-establishment”. The stupidity lies with opponents who can’t see what is happening or are either so in thrall to their traditions or fear the contumely of their comrades that they fall back on safe familiarity.

When Dominic Cummings announced that he was recruiting outsiders, wreckers, to smash the traditions and expertise of the UK civil service, “pro-business” liberals lined up to offer mindless support. They had to; to do otherwise might seem like changing sides. After everything they had said about inefficiency and lack of enterprise, they couldn’t manage now to say anything remotely supportive of the established civil service. Many of them know that the Cummings wrecker, devoted exclusively to science and maths, is a parody of real science graduates, and yet they felt acquiescence to nonsense was the best course. Being seen as anti-establishment was more attractive than revealing the truth.

Because both Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon, Trump’s onetime advisor, have explicitly said that they are plundering socialist tradition, the tacit support of socialists is more sad and culpable. Instead of hurrying to the defence of parliament and the whole range of hard-won institutions on which future reforms depend, the majority of socialists want to do the opposite. They want to remain true to their revolutionary tradition and they want to avoid the criticism of fellow socialists. They want to do as they’ve done before: to mobilise the people against parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, i.e. the establishment. They therefore argue for getting among the people, agitating, setting up counter structures: being anti-establishment.

The progressive position now and certainly the socialist position should be to defend the establishment so as to resist the right wing project to roll back the state and destroy so many gains on which decent living depends.

Boris Johnson’s opportunity to become prime minister of the UK came in the context of Brexit. That meant he had to pick a side and in doing so he relied on what he knew. For years he had been paid extraordinary fees for journalism consisting of daft lies about the EU. However, he wasn’t lying in a meaningful sense because his untruths were open and transparent; being found out was not a consideration. He knew that he had an audience demanding his yarns on one side and a naive opposition on the other. What was unknown were the numbers of citizens on each side.

Dominic Cummings – among others – had access to the required data. Following Steve Bannon – Trump’s one time advisor – with his emphasis on Lenin, Cummings shared with some on the left a desire to destroy the democratic state and the establishment.* Crucially, he knew too the nature of the most significant divide in society, and he had the figures and the technology required. Unlike traditional Leninists, he and many others know how to use bourgeois democracy to destroy itself.

Perhaps in quiet moments Boris Johnson wonders how he got himself in among this lot but he realises that their analysis is essentially correct. He knew that his choice was between being a demagogue or a democrat, between siding with those citizens who despise participative, argumentative politics as “establishment” and those citizens amenable to argument. He chose because he had to; there is no effete middle ground.

The opposition, however, is fractured because too many liberals and leftists cannot or will not face these changed circumstances. They prefer to think and act according to their traditions.

When Hilary Clinton referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, there was adverse reaction from the left but the reaction was of two kinds. Firstly, there was distaste for the terminology but there was also a defence of the people to whom she was referring, the sort of people who – it was argued – would be supporters of the left were it not for lies told them. Similarly, in Britain a commentator, bemused by Johnson and Brexit supporters’ acceptance of lies, put it down to “the bovine credulity of the minority”.**

There is a very basic issue in political communication here. Consider that familiar old belief that citizens are alike and if treated with respect, told the truth and presented with arguments most will go with the best argument. There are two problems here – one for the Left, especially the Marxist left, and one for all thinking people.

On the left many socialists – even those who say they have abandoned revolution in the meaningful sense of the word – retain a dilemma: should citizens be won over by presenting them with compelling argument or should citizens be manipulated in their own best interests.

The former risks being dismissed as social democracy or even liberal democracy. The latter is a legacy of revolutionary socialism, and the idea is to grasp leadership of popular protest movements and try to give them expression in class terms. It quickly parts company with anything recognisably socialist for a very simple reason: an unwillingness to interrogate “class” means acceptance of opinion pollsters’ definitions. The unfortunate outcome is that “working class” loses its Marxist, transformative meaning. It comes to refer to a mere pressure group, a pressure group that is there to be led or represented in the competition for resources demanded of the “establishment”.

It is at this point that Dominic Cummings, Steve Bannon and their likes can see their best chance of winning. Society is divided between passive citizens who seek demagogues, and decry politics and debate, and participative citizens who rely on debate and the truth on which it depends. Because liberals and leftists are united in a refusal to confront passive citizenship, they go on talking among themselves about truth and discourse, and patronising passive citizens, never dreaming of confrontation – no matter how foul and right wing the beliefs expressed by “ordinary people”.

Democracy would be unthreatened if the number of passive citizens were small or if there was no effective means to mobilise them. The Brexit campaign – especially its on-line component demonstrated the opposite.

Democracy – representative democracy – is threatened because the means to destroy it by popular will now exist and its defenders “the establishment” cannot throw off their traditions to defend it. The idea of defending a progressive establishment against “ordinary people” is too much for them. The likes of Bannon, Cummings and Johnson must hope that it remains so.

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*https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/06/lenin-white-house-steve-bannon


**https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/31/britain-has-become-a-land-of-permanent-crisis-suits-blustering-liars-of-brexit

There is a great deal of talk about a divided Britain. There is almost no talk about the nature of that division, a division which is present in other countries.

There are of course many divisions in British society but Boris Johnson, his adviser, Dominic Cummings, and others fully understand today’s primary division. This understanding produced a referendum result and explains subsequent Brexit tactics, especially the systematic lying which so bemuses thinking citizens. It bemuses to the extent that a commentator wondered about “the bovine credulity of the minority”.* It is both rude and inaccurate to describe these citizens as “bovine”. Though they are not deceived, they are certainly credulous in seeking untruths and charismatic leadership – they seek a demagogue. Their numbers are too great to be dismissed as a mere minority. Crucially, any aspiring demagogue now has the media to address them and to mobilise them into a potent political force.

It’s far from a secret. Firstly, Dominic Cummings is the unlikely bearer of a gift to democracy. He despises democracy and would destroy it, yet he tells how the Brexit referendum was won. He tells of a society with millions of disaffected citizens, uninterested in politics, argument, complexity or claims/counterclaims about truth, and the means to deliver the messages they want. Secondly, the whole thing was dramatised for television.** Thousands of people know about this.

Most democrats, however, spurn the gift and pretend that the TV drama never happened or was just a scary fiction. They prefer to believe in the existence of a society which if it ever existed, has vanished over the last several decades. It is the traditional belief in a Demos composed of equal citizens who participate through public discourse and if they have strange beliefs, it is because someone has successfully deceived them. The naive democrat thinks that merely countering the lies will bring deliverance.

The naive democrat simply refuses to countenance the existence of millions of citizens who prefer lies, who indeed demand lies, who want leadership and who utterly reject public discourse. This naivety is irresponsible and dangerous because it surrenders reality to the enemies of democracy.

Regrettably it is mainly leftists who refuse to confront today’s reality but it is understandable because they have a lot to lose. This isn’t the place to rehearse Marxist theory or history but some points have to be made. Suggesting that Leftists need to question their most fundamental thinking is asking a great deal but it must be asked of them because democracy and indeed left relevance is at stake. Essentially the left will be pained at the very notion that positions taken up by poor or working people are to be opposed, and at the harsh reality that so many of them reject the left’s patronising approach to liberation by telling them the truth. Most of all – and despite sharing their views – leftists will be embarrassed by taking sides with thinking liberals in defence of a democracy that relies on thought and public discourse and against a democracy that relies on huge numbers of those they consider their natural constituency. The very structure of political society has changed as has the technology to speak to it. For the left to opt out by pretending that it is still the 20th century is to abandon the struggle of our time.

Too few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, can bring themselves to acknowledge that Cummings is indeed right in just one terrifying respect: he’s addressing a new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a relevant counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen – dismissed by Cummings, Johnson et al. as “the establishment” – on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

A change is urgent because those passive citizens – encouraged and patronised – may be inching towards the majority capable of ending the established laws and structures on which non-revolutionary-left advance depends. That is what Johnson and Cummings want; listen to them.

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*

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/31/britain-has-become-a-land-of-permanent-crisis-suits-blustering-liars-of-brexit

** “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, Channel 4.

 

 

Today a British woman tried to stabilise the UK constitution: the Queen did as the Constitution requires of her and acceded to her Prime Minister’s request. She knows full well that the constitution is in peril and she certainly wasn’t of a mind to do more damage. She’s aware too that she has very probably undermined the monarchy.

Earlier this year another British woman tried to do something similar. Theresa May tried to steer a Brexit deal through parliament so that the UK could appear to act according to the referendum decision while maintaining the sovereignty of Parliament. *

Both women know the importance of a constitution – a country’s basic law – on which all citizens depend. They know that lawless tyranny is the alternative to a functioning constitution. They know too that under the existing constitution the Brexit referendum was incompatible with the sovereignty of parliament.

A fundamental choice in the design of a democratic constitution is whether to make the People or their Parliament sovereign. It cannot be both; a choice has to be made. The good news is that there really is no need to pit people against parliament as long as constitutional provision is made to prevent it. The bad news is that the UK made no such provision.

Take a look at Ireland whose system of government is modelled on that of the UK. In Ireland referendums are relatively common because the constitution says the People are sovereign and yet there is a stable Westminster-like parliament and government. The whole works tolerably well because all the parts are subject to the constitution and the constitution – while changed from time to time by referendum after fraught public controversy – enjoys popular support. Referendums do not challenge the constitution because they are part of the constitution.

No such constitutional clarity exists in the UK. Following the Brexit referendum this has led to a clash between popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty.

It’s a sorry state of affairs that will have to be addressed. Both Theresa May and the Queen have acted to try to maintain the constitution in the short term because its breakdown is unthinkable. Should the UK survive this intact, consideration might be given to a written constitution which would provide for referenda and circumscribe what they might decide. The danger is that if drift continues, constitutional change may be decided in the streets and the outcome could exclude democracy.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/deciding-brexit-theresa-sees-the-constitutional-threat/

The EU seems increasingly glad to see the back of the UK. However, they have a moral responsibility to the millions of British EU citizens who want to remain so. They also have a duty to avoid facilitating the Johnson plot.

Johnson and his cronies are reliant on the date October 31st. They view it as an expiry date that is positioned perfectly to suit their purpose. Their plan is to get out of the EU by passing the deadline and then criticise the EU for instituting border controls. In this atmosphere they will then fight a general election portraying themselves as “the people” versus “the establishment.

Should the EU act as it can, the plotters could have a problem. You see, the UK didn’t set the date, doesn’t own the date and in EU terms has no control over the date. The date was decided by the EU in the face of British opposition. It came about when Theresa May applied for an extension to June. The EU granted an extension but decided to impose October 31st as the end date. It is, therefore, the EU’s date and the EU could change it without reference to the UK.

If the EU were to move their extension end date to, say, January 2019, that could not of course delay Brexit. The UK could still consider itself out on November 1st. In that scenario there is considerable change because while the EU would do absolutely nothing, a resolute Johnson regime would have to express Brexit day in some form of border controls.

In other words, EU action on their own date would force Johnson to take responsibility and deny him not merely a fig leaf but handy cooperation on a date that has turned out to suit him.

Dominic Cummings isn’t running Britain and those who trot that out are missing a very real threat. Dominic Cummings is an advisor to the UK Prime Minister. His advice is taken because it is based on a plausible, compelling argument that crucially is located in the really existing present and in that respect it doesn’t face a rival.

What little opposition it faces is of three equally irrelevant types. Firstly, some are based in the vanished industrial world of the mid 20th century. Secondly, there is the tragi-comical pseudo-opposition, sharing the same “people power” sloganeering that energises the Cummings argument. Thirdly, there are the ad hominem attempts to portray Cummings as mad.

The first and second – sad to say – are leftist and their proponents would be upset by any suggestion that they support Cummings but that’s not the suggestion. It’s different and it’s more than a suggestion; the reality is that they inadvertently strengthen the Cummings argument. Firstly, the left is too often strangely unaware that thinking people find it easy to spot an argument made nonsense by reliance on conditions long gone – in this case the conditions of mid 20th century industrial capitalism – and whatever problems thinking people might have with Cummings, it’s clear that at least he’s talking about the world as it is today.

Secondly, Cummings advice to the UK Prime Minister is to try for a general election in which the P.M. would campaign for the people against the politicians. Familiar? Of course it is. Sections of the left have been positing the people against variously the government, the state, the political class, the establishment for years with no regard to whether “the people” were calling for left or right movement. They were simply “the people” and anti-establishment; they were to be followed until they could be led. Cummings, however, knows the difference between left and right and where the people are headed. He can thank those on the left who refuse to think for helping to mobilise his people.

Thirdly, ad hominem attacks are easy but pointless. Reading Cummings blogs etc. will reveal a man who reveres strong leaders, authority, manliness and Bismarck.* That’s certainly eccentric, some might view it as crazy and he’s been described as a sociopath. That’s all irrelevant because it leaves his argument and analysis of society untouched. Should those who despise the man achieve his downfall, nothing more will change. The views, analysis, argument will remain unchallenged by anything both plausible and relevant to today – and “the people” will remain mobilised against the establishment.

Cummings is astute but it would be silly to assume that he is unique. There are certainly others as aware. He knows a lot but three things are uppermost in his mind and make anti-democratic voting possible.

i) The flaw at the heart of mass democracy

A very old fear among democrats is that as the franchise extended and extended, greater numbers of passive, easily swayed voters became available to demagogues. This cannot threaten democracy as long as their numbers are relatively small or they are beyond the communicative reach of the demagogue.

ii) The antagonised passive citizen

With universal franchise many passive citizens declined all participation while some others voted for a variety of reasons other than deliberation and judgement but few were hostile to the system itself – the establishment. That has changed. Cummings is one who has watched the polls for years. He knows populism and the nature of it. He understands the current meaning of “anti-establishment” and the numbers involved.

iii) The demagogue’s medium

It is no longer possible for democrats to ignore the passive, inactive, disaffected citizen because now they are many and because now they can be reached and mobilised. Cummings proved this with his Brexit referendum campaign. Relying on data mined from social media he then used social media to deliver approaching-bespoke messages to citizens who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to politics or who seldom voted or who were otherwise disaffected. He knew the kind of message that would get their attention and he knew how to reel them in.

Essentially Cummings knows that he is dealing with a world changed and that he is threatening democracy which he despises. He concentrates on the passive, disaffected citizen. Communication is not directed at those who are concerned with truth and argument; they are the establishment and irrelevant. There is no need to confuse matters by addressing them. They are no longer essential to winning a majority; they are not needed.

The problem is that few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, care to acknowledge that what Cummings describes is indeed the new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a plausible counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

There is a degree of urgency in all this because while opponents of the Cummings perspective ignore the thoughtful citizen on whom democracy relies, his passive citizens may be inching towards a majority.

* https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/dominic-cummings-boris-johnson-otto-von-bismarck-brexit-a9045941.html?fbclid=IwAR3fTSMLgx-gquc7QWyT4OGSf_NTcZ2wVNQD-kYOCXNbJRttInzX5qKYlmE