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The TV drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, gave an entertaining, accurate and worrying glimpse of the future of political communication and of democracy itself. It would be comforting to think it particularly British but it could happen anywhere. The conditions are certainly present in Ireland and the methods will be applied where and whenever possible.

A first glance can lead off into the mistaken view that this is all utterly new and a product of the net society. The reality is that today’s technology is being used to exploit something that has been ever present in democracy and feared by democrats.

The Brexit e-campaign
Before going on to talk about that old and feared weakness in democracy, lets look at what the Brexit campaigners did and which is available to any campaigner, party or candidate with the will and the money to emulate.

1. They studied the issues, fears, prejudices etc. which preyed on the minds of their target voters.
2. They distilled these feelings into a small number of slogans which connected the feelings of their targets to the political objective of their clients.
3. Knowing what their target voters wanted to hear, they told them: that delivery – or indeed their voters’ deliverance – was not only possible but crucially it was without any risk of negative consequences.
4. They achieved messaging that was close to bespoke. Using extensive data, amenable on-line voters were identified and sent simple, tailor-made messages – telling them what they wanted to hear.

In brief, this amounts to nothing more than routing quite particular, near-personal messages to voters, messages telling them that voting the client’s way will sort out their issues or whatever concerns them. Familiar? Of course it is. That’s because it’s not new. However, the delivery system and the scale of information on the targeted voters are new, i.e. there is now the web and the ability to mine it for masses of personal data.

There is, moreover, one other new feature – and it’s crucial. Opponents of democracy with deep pockets have become aware of something radical. They know that undesirable election results can be achieved by using today’s technology to exploit democracy’s oldest and most intractable flaw: the manipulation of passive citizens, their target audience. Mass manipulation has become both possible and affordable.*

The risk of tyranny inherent in democracy
Generations of democrats have worried about the dangers of passive – as opposed to participative or deliberative – voting. The march towards universal suffrage consisted of reforms allowing wider and wider participation in voting. Each enlargement was supported by democrats who saw all as equal – at least in terms of voting – and opposed by conservatives who feared what the uneducated mob or easily swayed herd might vote to implement.

As any democrat would be quick to point out, the conservative arguments were not only elitist but served to defend wealth and other privileges. However, the arguments were not dismissed as nonsense. Democrats could see the danger of huge numbers of votes cast without deliberation. John Stuart Mill for example feared the masses, feared that they might impose majority doctrines and limit liberal freedoms, might be easily swayed by and elect demagogues. Mill considered weighted voting – giving more than one vote to the educated – but eventually he placed his faith in people. He argued that the responsibility of voting would change voters, that – aware of the power of their voting decisions – they would engage, examine arguments, deliberate, come to judgement and only then vote. In other words, voting would improve them: make participative, engaged, republican citizens of them.

Fairly similar arguments appeared in recent decades when the democratic potential of the net became apparent. Net optimists felt that those deprived of the information necessary to full citizen participation would find it on-line; citizens would free themselves of the influence of demagogues, conventional wisdom and anyone who would stifle information.

Today’s demagogues and other anti-democratic chancers who want to win an election without winning an argument know full well that Mill’s faith and the hopes of net optimists have not been realised. Not only are there masses of voters – perhaps constituting a majority – ripe for manipulation but the technology exists to find and message them.

There is of course a question of law here. The e-Brexiteers certainly violated electoral laws – laws on funding – and they violated emerging norms, soon perhaps to become law, in relation to gathering and effectively selling personal data. This raises the question of whether electoral law is capable of protecting democracy from an inherent flaw which has been routinely exploited largely without criticism by virtually all parties and candidates.

The little anti-democratic attacks that became the norm
What the e-Brexiteers did differed only in scale and efficiency from conventional campaigns. Indeed, it’s likely that for a very long time now electoral success has been impossible without patronising passive voters who have no wish to be addressed with political arguments or talk of risks, priorities, alternatives, unpleasant consequences, clashes of interest etc. On the contrary, they want to be soothed, told that their problems will be solved or that sought-after resources will be delivered. Candidates know this and crave effective methods for delivering a simple, preferably local, targeted message. In Ireland cynics reduce this to the cliche, “All politics is local.”

Political campaigners use many different media. Taking a look at one of the oldest reveals it to be a small, inexpensive version of what the e-Brexiteers did so spectacularly on a huge scale. The similarity is so great that the difference is almost pathetic.

Now, very few people will admit to paying a blind bit of attention to political leaflets/pamphlets delivered into their domestic letterbox. Most regard these as junk mail and bin them on sight. This is well known and it can be hard to explain why campaigners resort to them. Explanations are offered: they’re relatively cheap; they give some level of public visibility; delivery can give loyalists and activists something to do; and crucially in a world of mass media, leaflets can be localised.

The most cursory look at leaflets reveals that they tend to have little or no political content in any meaningful sense of the term. They deliver useful public information on the likes of welfare entitlements or changes to the tax regime. They tie the candidate to the locality in two ways: pictures in the locale or with local notables at an event; and expressions of support for local campaigns for, say, a swimming pool, a library, playing field or school.

There is no intention here to open up a discussion of local political leafleting. The practice is raised merely to illustrate that patronising local, passive citizens is a mundane, accepted feature of political campaigning. That it is so accepted is telling: democracy has been reduced to numbers and the thoughtful, deliberative, participating, republican citizen has been largely forgotten. Securing a vote has become a tactical affair of showing concern for or involvement in resolving issues. Argument is not uppermost and contradicting a voter would be almost out of the question. Indeed pointing to the existence of thoughtful, republican voters risks being dismissed as elitist or “out of touch”.

Long promised comes to pass
It is hardly surprising then that when the technology and data became available to exploit the passive citizen, it would be used enthusiastically by those smart enough to realise its potential. What is surprising is that so many who ought to know about or who pretend to know about democracy express shock at a large well-executed attack on democracy while they have been unconcerned at the thousands and thousands of small but similar attacks that have been allowed to form an accepted part of the political process. What the e-Brexiteers did was waiting to happen and the ground was prepared by activists, many of whom now appear shocked and silly.

– – – – – – –
* There’s a seeming paradox here which will be left for now: the mass is accumulated by near-bespoke messaging.

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A constant theme among leftists who regret the success of right wing populists is that the traditional left parties are responsible for their own decline in that they allowed themselves to become out of touch with … well, with whom? That’s never made entirely clear. Vague labels, however, are liberally sprinkled: working people, traditional supporters, working class, middle class, ordinary people, ordinary working people etc. The thrust of this approach is that the people they have in mind were there for the taking and the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers in the cases of USA and UK took them. Essentially it is an argument for some kind of left wing populism, i.e. tell these people something they want to hear so that they won’t be seduced by right wing populists.

The problem for a left approach like this becomes apparent when some of its advocates talk simultaneously of left parties returning to or sticking with their principles. Again, there’s no clarity, no attempt to discuss principles or indeed values. Without such discussion – without critical examination – a very important doubt is suppressed. The question that seldom, if ever, arises is this: What if traditional left values or principles are incompatible with telling those “ordinary people” what they want to hear? That is to say, there is a fundamental problem when “ordinary people” want, say, tax reductions, privatisations, more competition etc. etc. or even the impossible, say, the clock turned back and jobs, long-automated, restored.

However, there are just two groups being in touch with whom is fundamental to socialism.

Out of touch 1

The industrial working class was identified by Marx as having historical purpose because their values and progressive demands were universal and certainly not because they were a rabble easily seduced by leaders offering political baubles.* Their heirs are present today, more than willing to listen, more than capable of political argument, knowing well when they are being subjected to patronising bollocks or offered some factional, preferential crumb to be denied to others. No party in Ireland is addressing the working class. For sure, there’s no shortage of parties – sometimes with an upper class leadership – who think that raucous, rude, sneering, anti-establishment, ignorance and name calling is somehow working class but they ignore the real deal.**

A major preoccupation of the working class today is that their ambitions have now more or less been thwarted by the latest iteration of capitalism, i.e. I.T. and the disappearance of huge numbers of middle level, satisfying, well-paid jobs. There is no point in telling these people that those jobs can be resuscitated, or replaced in sufficient numbers by new similarly good jobs or that security in low paid, low-skill, low-status jobs will have to do. They are working class; they’ll see right through it. Anyone seeking their attention – never mind their support – better have a good argument or at least show that they live in the 21st century and understand the problem.***

Out of touch 2

Almost everyone who makes policy tends to be out of touch with the poor. There are two aspects to the failure. Firstly, economics based on rational choice either discounts or utterly fails to grasp the short time-scale necessarily of interest to those with immediate money problems. That is to say, those with insufficient money this week cannot seriously be asked to evaluate medium or long term possibilities. Secondly, well off activists and policy makers tend to sacrifice the poor to grand policy. That they could lose their income or that they are dependent on the state should be uppermost in debate but it seldom – if ever – is. Bluntly, the precarious position of the poor demands that they be the priority. Paradoxically, when it comes to this kind of neglect, socialists combine little excuse and a poor record. Their universalist and egalitarian thinking, together with the likelihood that they will know poor, working class people, should ensure that they be constantly aware of the poor and certainly of the different outlook of those with immediate money problems. The failure for socialists is most likely rooted in the revolutionary tradition and the commitment to grand schemes which subordinate the needs of a group – even the poor – to the greater project. However, in truth this is as right wing as it is left. When in the UK the privileged Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of short term deprivation over Brexit which would take perhaps 50 yrs to work out, he was not very different to the Irish anti-austerity leftists of some few years ago. They, when the Irish state had a mere three months’ money left to pay state workers and welfare recipients, wanted to reject conditions demanded by the state’s only lender. In that scenario they hoped something would turn up so that the poorest in the country could be paid; they wanted at best to gamble and at worst to sacrifice the welfare of the poor on a long term objective.

In touch

Having excluded the working class and the poor, there would seem now to be even less clarity on “being in touch”. Not so. In fact it’s pretty clear. What Irish socialists and in particular the majority in the Labour Party want is to be popular with those they see frequently either in media or in person. These could be the attendees at a large protest, a popular campaign waged by a civil society group to obtain a concession from the “political class”, attendees at a political clinic or those whose doors were selected for a canvass.

The common feature is that there is no intention to argue or convince anyone of anything. Indeed the only out-group seems to be the top 1% and they are usually to be sacrificed not for egalitarianism but to maintain the structure of inequality across the 99%.

A note to the declining Irish Labour Party

There are two possible routes to survival. Because they are incompatible a decision is required. Neither offers certainty of success.

The first is to engage along with every other party in the state – without exception – in the crowded, competitive market of “fairness”. Labour’s objective would be to get a slice large enough to ensure survival. While that course allows for marches and fists in the air, it’s a conservative, managerial position. It’s a competition in ideas and policies (which any rival can steal) aimed at issues. It’s a competition too to have one’s best issues accepted as newsworthy. There is no requirement to have an overall achievable objective and no requirement to argue for anything that would change the existing structure of inequality.††

The second is to look to the working class and universal values, and to argue for change in the conditions of the 21st century. This would put the Party out on a limb, i.e. unlike all the competitors in the fairness free-for-all. The doubt that absolutely has to be faced is whether or not there are sufficient voters open to that approach as would ensure the Party’s survival. The audience is comprised of the working class (In the meaningful as opposed to the polling sense) and others who might – sharing the participatory/republican outlook – be open to an argument for change.

In crude marketing terms it’s like this: When you’re on 3%, the choice of competing in the consumer market or of being more specialised and quality oriented is a difficult one.

The temptation is to do the familiar regardless of changed circumstances.

____________

These are links to my blog. Each expands a little on the respective points above

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/10/getting-a-firm-grip-the-labour-party-jobs-and-the-working-class/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/its-odd-in-ireland-all-the-parties-like-grass-roots-campaigns-and-no-one-is-in-opposition/

There’s a very longtime acquintance of mine, a man I admire. I know him through the Labour Party. He’s dependable, thoughtful, well read, a retired industrial worker and experienced shop steward. He’s more than a pollster’s or a sociologist’s category; he’s real working class and holds the values to prove it. He’s a socialist; he and the Labour Party are a natural fit but there’s something wrong these days.

I bumped into him in town recently. He’s great company and I was glad he suggested a pint.

He was bothered and thoughtful about a meeting he’d attended the previous evening. He feels left out and odd at party meetings. The discussions, he says, are too confined to gender, identity, management and liberal issues generally and when they refer to work and trade unionism, they go on about organising as if nothing much had happened in the last 30 years or so. (As for me, he says that I’m not much better, always on about inequality of income, republican citizenship, and the type of work – jobs – that he doesn’t recognise.)

He has no difficulty with any of the liberal, cultural, identity issues. They’ve always been there – part of the movement – and he’s always taken the progressive position. No, the problem is what has disappeared, and disappeared to the extent that he now seldom speaks at meetings because the things of his concern, expertise and experience don’t appear on agendas anymore.

There is no industry and industrial worker that he recognises, no factories. Yes, he would like a return to that way of life, when there was stability and the expectation that the next generation would come up a bit in the world. He is not, however, like those duped by Trump; he knows those jobs are now in low-pay countries or gone forever, designed and automated out of existence, no longer necessary.

What can I possibly say to him? We’re both working class and know the score. He took a route that ended in redundancy in his early fifties and apartment blocks on his factory site that once nurtured a whole community. I didn’t take a route at all, I just drifted, did alright and now talk about the changed world but without his profound sense of loss.

When we meet, we have two areas of common ground. Firstly, agreement that the trickle down economy with well paid, permanent, satisfying jobs is gone. What we have now is a small number of high-expertise jobs at the top end, a lot of low-skilled, poorly-paid, boring, insecure jobs at the other end and in the middle, yes, some – but not many – old-school, good jobs with new titles. It is a different expression of capitalism, of exploitation and of yawning inequality. It is a loss about which the party seldom, if ever, talks and in that silence ignores “old-Labour”, those who planned prudently for upward mobility. While patronising attention is often paid to the “left behind”, little consideration is given to those whose plans and aspirations have been thwarted by a change that has made jobs befitting their hard-won education very scarce indeed.* 

He likes and I like too Jack O’Connor’s and other trades unionists’ approach to improving standards, security and wages by way of labour reforms and collective bargaining but that doesn’t speak openly about the fact that so many good jobs are gone for good and what that means for society and socialism. It’s a hard position for a party that has so linked work and prosperity but that’s the very reason Labour cannot credibly avoid it. Discussing traditional labour responses to the new situation without regard to how we deal with the loss is a drift away from socialism. The most fundamental change in industrial society cannot be ignored.

Secondly, he can’t stand it when gougers are described as working class. He gets apoplectic over the screaming, foul-mouthed thuggery – some of it lead by upper class nits – that is too often presented as working class. He expects the Labour Party to talk about the working class. Like me, he sees his class as setting a standard for decent behaviour.** I express that a bit differently: that working class is characterised by a set of values and that is what Marx saw when he identified the agents of progress. ***

This is where our recent conversation got really interesting, agreed and controversial. What we edged close to was a sense that the Labour Party needs to help take back the meaning of working class, get it back from pollsters, patronising professionals and upper class dilletantes, and state it as a set of values. That’s not vague; it’s quite clear and most know exactly what we’re on about. Yes of course, it would take a book-length piece to spell out the markers of working class membership, to contrast it with markers of lumpen loutishness, and to tie the difference to a political programme but perhaps that’s not necessary. For now let’s just set down opposites – streotypes, if you like – and leave it at that because in truth anyone steeped in the labour movement knows the difference only too well but is normally too polite to draw attention to it.

A working class kid is reared neither to look up to nor down on anyone and never, ever to resort to crude abuse – and here’s a small, sharp identifier, an easy way to tell the difference these days: there is no chance whatsover that they would refer to someone as a “c*nt”.


Grave offence is taken when media label such conduct and abuse as working class. 


It’s time the Labour Party spoke up for the working class to prevent it being traduced by the media and to prevent its record, good name and historic role being tarnished by lumpen yobs.

 

 

 

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

The Dáil cannot sack the Garda Commissioner. That’s the prerogative of the Government. Now, if we want to change that – i.e. to make it that a Commissioner’s job is at the pleasure of the Dáil – let’s discuss it and if it’s desirable, make the change.

Let’s not, however, mess about asking the Dáil to vote no confidence, calling on the Government to act, and pretend that this doesn’t usurp the power of Government.

Assuming that the backers of the Dáil motion are not fools, unable to appreciate the significance of their move, then their motive must be to put two institutions of the state at loggerheads. There is a pattern here of trying to damage the wider (small ‘c’) constitution. Remember that there was an attempt to legislate for abortion in case of fatal foetal abnormalities, knowing that the move would be unconstitutional. Moreover, on water charges the Dáil is moving towards instructing the Government to act illegally.

Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.

In the matter of the Dáil motion aimed at removing the Garda Commissioner the best outcome would be a decision that it is not a matter for the Dáil, second best would be a majority abstention, leaving the “anti-establishment” with a ridiculous victory, and third would be to defeat their motion.

People are frequently asked to choose between two things neither of which they particularly like. Sensibly they think about preferences and make a decision. That’s what happened in the USA. Millions of voters preferred Trump to Clinton and the other candidates. There are commentators – and unfortunately some are leftists – who try to create not merely a bogus equivalence between two candidates but an absolute equivalence. They want to say that in choosing between Trump and Clinton, one might as well toss a coin. Well, coins weren’t tossed. Citizens thought about it and expressed their preference. Millions of them preferred Trump and there is no way of whitewashing their choice.

Don’t patronise Trump voters. They are not deluded fools, victims of a trick or even misguided. His voters prefer his views, his policies and him.

Those who reckon the result is down to Clinton’s candidacy are trying to avoid facing up to the fact that just less than half of the US citizens who voted preferred a man of this calibre. When people decide to do something truly awful, it’s best to face it.

While there are no details as yet as to the motivations of the murderers of the English soldier at Woolwich, the web is already alive with opponents and defenders of Islam. More significantly for those of us who value public discourse, many thoughtful and tolerant people are taking the position that Islam – and by extension all religion – is not a problem. Paradoxically it is this kind of blanket tolerance that can lead to trouble.

For as long as religion is “respected” in public discourse, particular religions will be attacked because of the actions and statements of their most extreme adherents.

When we discuss values and matters concerning values, religion has to be ignored and certainly cannot be allowed become a trump card. For example, debates about abortion cannot be side-tracked by stuff about respect for catholic beliefs and nastiness to gays cannot be permitted because the speaker believes in Islam. When a society takes seriously claims that something should be or not be because God or a prophet said so, it encourages belief as opposed to argument. Every single cruel, divisive and – yes! – inegalitarian belief should be hauled out from under religious cloaks and tackled.

When that has been established, we can say with some confidence that an act of barbarity had nothing to do with religion.