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This is Not Propaganda. Adventures in the War Against Reality. Peter Pomerantsev. Review: The Internet and the Liberties of the Moderns.

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This is Not Propaganda. Adventures in the War Against Reality. Peter Pomerantsev. Faber & Faber. 2019.

“L’information, le surcroît d’information sur nous-mêmes, est une sorte d’électrocution. Elle produit une sorte de court-circuit continuel où l’individu brûle ses circuits et perd ses defences. ” Information, the overabundance of information, is a kind of electrocution. It creates a kind of continuous short circuit, in which the individual burns up its circuits, and loses its defences. Jean Baudrillard. La Gauche Divine. 1985.).

“The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism” wrote Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Adventures in Modern Russia (2005) is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as has been the case with twentieth century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting them and rendering them absurd.” The son of Russian dissident exiles he was struck then, and in the present work, by the way that “facts” has ceased to matter.

In this new book on “influence campaigns”, “what might be causally be referred to as ‘propaganda” Pomerantsev explores “the wreckage”, the “dark corners of the Internet where trolls torture their victims”. “We are” he writes “becoming subjects of our own data, as if the data is rearranging our relations and identifies with its own logic”. On a wider canvas than Putin’s Russian Federation, whose “social media squadrons” still haunts the landscape, the writer’s adventures take him to where politics has become a “struggle to control the construction of identity.”

This is not Propaganda comes amongst other studies of how what Jean Baudrillard called the “simulacra” of information in today’s social media. Far from burning out identity it is claimed that the world of hyper-reality has come to play a key role in politics, and, above all, elections. Richard Seymour, it is said considers that this planet, the Twittering Machine, is managed by ‘fascist technology’ that cuts people off from society, a “stand in” for community. By showing the political effects of social media, Pomerantsev both indicates that Seymour would be out of his depth in a puddle, and that Baudrillard’s prediction that postmodern hyper-reality – the digital society – would absorb political passion into ‘post-politics.’ (1)

In the Philippines Pomerantsev finds that that political use of social media illustrates something very different to a mass escape from the material world. Visiting Manila he meets Maria, the creator of Rappler, the Philippines’ first Internet-based news site. For reporting the extra judicial killings ordered by the country’s president, Duterte, they began to receive death threats, at the rate of ninety an hour. A cascade of smears followed. An organised form of warfare, with the real menace of being killed, was conducted through cyberspace.

Efforts by the Kremlin to stir up civil war, an even more flagrant case, in the Ukraine draw Pomerantsev. It was “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg.” This fight, in which Corbyn adviser Andrew Murray participated on the Russian side, portrayed the 2014 Ukrainian Orange Revolution and protests in the Maidean as a “neo-fascist US-orchestrated conspiracy”. This “information war” was an important part of “next generation warfare”.

Syria is another front-line. The activist Mary Ana who ran humanitarian medical aid to the country, along with human rights groups, like the White Helmets, and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, illustrates the way Assad regime used the Internet, “When she punched ‘White Helmets’ into YouTube” she found “wall-to-wall coverage claiming that they were actually terrorists, or that they were actors and everything they did was staged, or that they were a British secret service psy-op, or that they didn’t actually exist at all..” (Page 178) Assad’s murders are hidden behind these torrents of lies, propaganda treated with indulgence by political figures such as the former British MP Chris Williamson.

Populism and Identity.

After the disinformation spread by genociders This is not Propaganda turns to “Pop up Populism”. The transformation of the many and “the people”, he argues, can be seen in the Brexit vote. Against a “well-identified enemy”, the EU, not just the hard right who initiated the Leave project, but, one could add, parts of the British left adopted the “guiding fairy tale” of taking back control. Meeting Chantal Mouffe, and without academic deference for her and Ernesto Laclau’s theories of populism, he is struck by how flexible her claim that “identities are the result of political construction” can be. Playing in this game – a play in which ‘charismatic leaders’ can be an instrument of ‘left’ and right politics – Génération Identitaire, the language of “freedom of speech, democracy, openness to new ideas” can be used to bolster right wing fringe parties. It is the basis for national populism, a far from a marginal force.

At the forefront of this politics stands, Russian “political technologists”. Gleb Pavlovsky, the author recounts, has been able to “unite utterly disparate groups around a rotating enemy; oligarchs ar first, then metropolitan liberals, and more recently the whole outside world” (Page 223). Putin can, “stimulate global influence by purposefully leaving the fingerprints of his hackers and information operations all over the world”.

Will companies like Cambridge Analytica, who study “behavioural change” through social media, determine the political future? Are left and right being washed away by using people’s Facebook and Google preferences to harness them to new identities? Is China’s heavily controlled Internet and model of how identity can still be shaped and controlled by a one-party state in the age of technological innovation?

Modern and Ancient Liberties.

The 19th century French liberal Benjamin Constant, (De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes. 1819) claimed that in the ancient Roman and Greek world people led public lives, that as citizens they were free, in at least the sense that they decided on war and peace, while as private individuals they were subordinate, watched, and oppressed. In modern times, he claimed, it was the private sphere that was free, the site of individual independence. One can doubt the liberties of ancient republics, and efforts to replicate them following the French Revolution. But he offered an important insight. To simplify, in today’s liberal societies have been seen to offer a “private” domain, separate from public politics. Constant equally  warned, two centuries before theorists of “post-politics”, that in a commercial society people could become so absorbed in their private lives that they would neglect public duty.

One of the main political effects of social media has been to abolish the distinction between public and private politics. Not by making the “personal political”, but by breaking down the space between our emotions, identity, and politics. This is not the full story, since neither is everybody absorbed in social media nor is it without a liberating potential in networking politics from the ground up. It is equally not proven that the “political technologists” like the far right  ‘Bot-herders’ in Nizhny have mastered the art of shaping everybody’s electoral choice. Boris Johnson’s Get Brexit Done cannot be put down to Internet influencers, nor is it clear that the Conservatives are now about to use identity populism to rule by.

Can these forces wash away the push for autonomy and human rights that has also marked the ‘modern’? The latest book by “rooted cosmopolitan” Peter Pomerantsev, which should have as many readers as possible, should firmly indicate that there are many out there with a different story to tell.

 

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(1) Oliver Eagleton. MIND-FORGED MANACLES? Review. Richard SeymourThe Twittering Machine. New Left Review No 120.Nov/Dec 2019.

Written by Andrew Coates

January 19, 2020 at 1:26 pm

Corbyn’s “left populist” moment? Labour to fight election as true “Party of the people”.

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Labour Appeals to a Better Future, Not Just Fighting ‘Elites’.

General election: Corbyn to position Labour as true ‘party of the people’

Jeremy Corbyn will seek to scorn Conservative attempts to portray themselves on the side of the people against the elite, kicking off his election campaign by promising to side with the public against a “corrupt system” run by those with vested interests.

On Thursday, the Labour leader will single out individuals, including the Sports Direct boss, Mike Ashley, the financier Crispin Odey and the media owner Rupert Murdoch, as examples of individuals Labour’s policies would target.

In an attempt to get onto the front foot before parliament is dissolved next week, Corbyn will stake out Labour’s ground in a battle that will help define the campaign.

Whether it’s the Guardian writer’s angle or not some may see in this approach  the ‘left populism’ of theorists such as Chantal Mouffe.

This, abstract, theory uses a on the division between the “people” and the “elite” to argue for ways which the left can “federate the people”against the oligarchs, and the “system”.

As Mouffe puts it,

To adopt Laclau’s definition, populism, the creation of a people, has to do with the establishment of a boundary between an “us” and a “them,” between the people and the establishment. Of course, this “us” can be constructed in very different ways, since the people is not a given, but corresponds to a political construction that also stands in relation with a “them.” The whole question is what kind of relations are to be established between this “us” and this “them.

Mouffe has ignored that the strategy of ‘left populism’ has failed in France, where Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise (LFI) scored only 6,3% of the vote in this year’s European elections, and in Spain, where Podemos has electorally stagnated and split.

The splinter group, Más País, is led by Chantal Mouffe’s friend, Íñigo Errejón and appears to have become a broader “progressive” front of left of centre campaigns and ecological  organisations promoting a Green New Deal.

The Westminster University Professor recently advised the Labour Party to follow her line of march.

In Britain, as in the rest of Europe, the way to answer the right wing populist offensive is the construction of another “people” – through the articulation of a project that can link together various demands against the status quo. A project in which both leavers and remainers could feel that they have a voice and that their concerns are taken into account. One signifier for such a project could be a Green New Deal – which articulates multiple environmental and economic struggles around a demand for equality and social justice.

It is not hard to find an echo of this point in Corbyn’s speech,

To be sure, such an “us” will never include everybody. It does, of course, require a “them” and the drawing of a political frontier. But we can have a frontier that makes democracy more radical – one that pits the people against the oligarchy, and the many against the few.

Centrist politics will not defeat Boris Johnson’s right wing populism

Going back to the 1950s ‘post-Marxist strategy’ of European social democracy, converting class based socialist organisations  into ‘people’s parties’, has not worked even with modern radical additions.

As cited above one of the main problems with left wing populism is that it has not, so far,  been a success with the voters.

It is not just that the “people” is not a “floating signifier”, that is, up for grabs by political will, but the language of  ‘elites’ and the “system” can be used by left, right, or extreme right, without doing anything more than stirring up hostility and drawing up political borders.

National populists have proved better at using this language. Emotional appeals to the Nation against “globalist elites”, to the vague promise of ‘sovereignty’ have worked.

To defeat ” “Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-the-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Girly-Swot Big-Girl’s-Blouse Chicken-frit Hulk-Smash Noseringed-Crusties Death-Humbug Technology-Lessons Surrender-Bullshit French-Turds Johnson will go down as the worst prime minister in British history. “Tu-whit tu-whoo. We voted to leave.”  (Stewart Lee) we have to offer something better.

An approach, based on appealing to a solid programme of change and detailed reform,  instead of dividing society into the “people”and a “corrupt elite” is the basis of the democratic socialist approach. Our appeal is above all based on the idea of a better future. A defence and exploration of Labour’s policy agenda was offered recently by James Meadway

The economist, who has worked closely  with John McDonnell, argues for putting Labour’s economic programme centre stage.

He sets out some of the broader, socialist inspired, framework for Labour’s challenge.

Winning the General Election

In an election any time soon, Brexit will be the central issue. The whole election could be polarised around this, and the Tories will also want to try and mobilise their base around social issues — particularly crime. But with the rank injustices of our society so clear, we should be confident about getting them onto terrain often thought to be their strongest: the economy. We can turn this supposed strength into their biggest weakness.

Reflecting on the 2017 election he says that the new agenda should draw on its strengths, notably its emphasis on anti-austerity.

Now we have the thought-through basis for  “bold new policies on how we will end austerity”

Labour’s existing plans for how it will manage the public finances create huge opportunities. We have £250 billion to invest through the National Transformation Fund, earmarked for capital spending like transport, buildings, and scientific research. We should be using that pot to go up and down the country to the places that haven’t seen real investment for forty years or more, and talk through how it will make a difference.

Coming from the New Economics Foundation he cites, “Labour for a Green New Deal”.

He points to “The question of ownership”,

We want to go further: a fundamental transfer of wealth and power in favor of working people, their families, and their communities. That will mean transferring privatised assets back to the public sector — under democratic management, with workers and consumers having their say.

But it will also mean going beyond this point and starting to place the wealth of our society under common, democratic, and decentralised forms of ownership. It means local governments owning renewable generators; or community-owned solar generation; or worker-owned firms; or platform cooperatives, like a “People’s Uber,” owned and managed by the drivers.

This also centres on ” Inclusive Ownership Funds (IOFs),

The IOFs mirror Thatcher’s scheme by steadily transferring ownership of major companies into the hands of their workers. Every year, 1 percent of the largest companies will be transferred into a pot, owned collectively by every worker in that company.

In conclusion Meadway states,

This is a hugely ambitious programme: end austerity, invest everywhere; deliver a million green jobs for a Green Industrial Revolution; put wealth and power back in the hands of ordinary people. But the next election won’t be won with anything less.

Many would like to see Labour take up the issue of what should replace the failing poverty creating Universal Credit system.

Others would like something better than “put it to another vote” position on Brexit.

It is hard to see this, today,  winning the national populist vote of those who back the hard-right Brexit, or imagine a left wing ‘Lexit alternative will come along at the last minute.

Labour leader tells supporters Boris Johnson has failed ‘and that failure is his alone’

 Labour’s plan is to negotiate a new Brexit deal within three months – and put it to a referendum within six.

Corbyn said voters would be asked to choose between a “sensible” Brexit deal, and staying in the EU, insisting, “it really isn’t that complicated”.

We need to campaign against the free-market Brexit project, the only actually existing Brexit there is, full stop.

The Fall and Rise of the British Left. Andrew Murray. Review: Socialist “Common Sense” Faced with “Brexit Derangement Syndrome”.

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The Fall and Rise of the British Left. Andrew Murray. Verso 2019.

Can the Labour Party “contribute towards opening up the way to socialism?” Answering this question in 2013 Andrew Murray responded, “The main working-organisations have set it as their task to try to accomplish that transformation after the disastrous New Labour episode…” Today, 2019, “The movement around Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership has changed the political weather for good. There has been a ‘leap’ as Lenin would have understood it. Gradualness has broken, the left has an opening” (Page 165). The Fall and Rise of the British Left is a history and strategic guide by UNITE the Union’s Chief of Staff about how “after a lamentable absence, socialism is back.”(1)

The Fall and Rise is not a straightforward narrative. There is a sparse chronicle of Labour’s century old conflict between the “transformative and integrative” wings (Simon Hannah. A Party With Socialists in it .2018). Murray quickly dismisses Ralph Miliband’s view that the commitment to the Parliamentary system and social reform within that framework rendered it an improbable vehicle for socialist change. The “roots” of the party in working class communities, culture and organisation” made it a “menace to the ruling class in the 1970s and 1980s” (page 13) Labour’s 20th and early 21st century is telescoped into the years leading up to New Labour and Tony Blair’s lifting of this threat by their acceptance of a “market driven economy” and “neoliberalism”. (2)

Murray’s book concentrates on the period of his “own active political life”. It bears the “imprint of many comrades”, including Tariq Ali thanked for “support and political commitment”. As may well be expected the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), which emerged from the “death spiral” of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPBG), from which the author, from the faction Straight Left, surfaced into Labour more recently than the collapse of the USSR, have a place.

Stalinism.

The Communism of the Soviet Union passed away in 1991. Suggesting that a “a particular vision of socialism was compromised” Murray continues, that it was “marked by heroism and enormous self-sacrifice alongside extraordinary self mutilation, by modernisation and brutality, by rapid progress and crippling inefficiency, by the gleam of the future and the baggage of history.” (Page 62) This is both gradioise and low,  a justification of his own decades long support for the USSR. There is no further grappling with what Sheila Rowbotham in Beyond the Fragments (1979) called the “trauma of Stalinism”. The “correct ideas” by “advanced” organisations, such as the CPGB played an obvious role in Britain in sustaining the myth of the USSR’s socialism, modestly calls the “only model yet created of a post-capitalist society”. Murray shrugs this off. A “proper assessment” is “beyond our scope”.

Turning to his own political life Murray looks at some of the controversies that took place in the distingrating CPGB. The Forward March of Labour Halted? (1981) debate is skimmed. There can be no return to the 1970s and the idea that free collective bargaining is the motor of left union struggle. Some parts of the New Times sketch of ‘post-Fordism’ are true. Now socialism needs a new basis, drawing on the insights of the ‘fragments’, hung around the essays in the already referred to Beyond the Fragments (1979). For Murray these centre on making politics more open to women, the values of “solidarity and caring” and learning from green politics, and “new social movements”, perhaps today seen in terms of ‘intersectional’ struggles.  The implication he makes is that small British far-left ‘leninist’ groups were on a par with the vast state tyranny of the Soviet Union in bad practice. It is a thoroughly dishonest appropriation. 

Anti-Imperialism.

Andrew Murray is keen to recognise the strengths of the “socialist and communist organisations of the past”. The tradition of studying politics seriously and mass protests can be contrasted with professional Westminster bubble politics. This left’s support for “struggles of people over the world against imperialism” a “virtue of the twentieth century left” is paramount for the long-term leader of the Stop the War Coalition (StWC).

The importance of anti-imperialism forms the backdrop to his account of the 2003 campaign against the Iraq intervention, a war with long-term disastrous results. Murray notes that (in a cumbersome phrase), that the “broad progressive politics of the anti-war movement” had not been allied for a push inside the “more conventional Labour and left politics” (Page 100). Describing this alliance he does not specify the politics of the principal Muslim force involved with the StWC, the Muslim Association of Britain, (MAB), an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, which not everybody would call ‘progressive’. This optimistic assessment of the role of Muslim politics on the left girds his favourable account of “charismatic leader” George Galloway’s career (perhaps the Brexit Party has yet to register on the Murray radar). Respect, he asserts had a real Muslim base, and its appeal was an “anti-imperialist” and “class” not a “communal one” (Page 147) Few would agree with this rose-tinted picture of the activities of Respect in the East End and elsewhere, studded with communalist incidents and allegations of financial malpractice. 

NATO and military intervention largely exhaust the discussion of imperialism. An account into the new geopolitical set up created by globalised economies, and the assertions of national sovereignty by armed states, which countries fit into the category is not developed. Why fighting imperial powers is a priority rather than supporting struggles for democracy and human rights (as in the Arab Spring) is left hanging in the air. How anti-imperialism can help any resolution to the Syrian conflict, or could have halted the genocides inflicted by Daesh, and the mass murders of the Assad regime, is not explored. The StWC has played a discrafeul role in this conflict, systematically promoting the rights of nations (the  Assad regime) over human rights.

Human rights are a bugbear in The Fall and Rise. The “imperialist left” of the 2006 Euston Manifesto, widely seen by critics as a justification of liberal interventionism, gets special attention. It “articulated the preference for individual rights over the collective, which has come to preponderate on much of the Western left, a flowering of the more poisonous seeds of the politics of personal identity and human rights.”(Page 97) Such rights trump the “rights of nations” and justify Western, external, intervention. Movements for human rights, linked to and voicing the demands of social movements, theorised by writers such as Claude Lefort and Étienne Balibar, are written off as an excuse for humanitarian intervention, the culture of narcissistic complaint.

“Brexit Derangement Syndrome”

The Labour adviser has more than one occasion to express strong views on “rancid identity politics, ‘othering’, on the basis of race, nationalist education, geography or a potpourri of assumed values.” (Page 214) He traces their effects in the polarisation around Brexit – singling out “Brexit Derangement Syndrome” that infects those opposed to leaving the EU. While it, he generously concedes, includes “many progressive people” and “marches against nativism more than for neoliberalism”. But the Brexit Tories could only intensify” not cause, and that they are not part of a movement “for progress.” Pages 214 – 215) In short, the internationalist anti-Brexit left are caught up in an illness, one that has unsettled their judgement.

“Class unity” for progress on a “broadly left social democratic basis” is the remedy.  Not the pro-European, or  Hillary Clinton strategy of the “new enlightenment”. The idea that class based politics has to be anti-Brexit is ruled out by fiat.

Can “nativism”, the identity politics of the right, the heart of the national neoliberal Brexit strategy, also be cured by this medicine? Can Murray’s friends in the CPB, and the Counterfire leader Lindsey German, who promote their own elusive People’s Brexit develop an alternative? Murray’s keen political nose has not found a whiff to share of it. Some can argue that their actions have only fuelled the national populists by offering illusions about the magic powers of national sovereignty. All the UNITE chief of Staff can say is that “capitalism is the problem, not whether the decisive location of its administration is London and the nation state or Brussels and the apparatuses of globalised market coercion.” (Page 215)

Is socialism, Murray cites Corbyn, “the new common sense”? (Page 178) It is not encouraging to read the name of Chantal Mouffe in the next lines, The theorist of a left populism that is in crisis across Europe, from the split in Podemos (a breakaway Más País offers an electoral challenge) to the decline of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise (LFI), claims that the Left has the possibility of building a “new hegemonic order”. How this is coming to be is far from clear. The pages on Momentum, the would-be organic intellectuals of the left and civil society,  are uncritical, and skate over  internal disputes over the democratic credentials of the organisation. There is no discussion of Mouffe’s views on ‘federating the People’ against the floating signifier of the ‘Elite’ (For a Left Populism. 2018), nor on Mélenchon’s claim that the ‘era of peoples” has replaced that of class conflict (L’Ère du peuple. 2014)

Despite the inability to come to terms with the author’s own (recent) Communist past, an unfamiliarity with Labour Party history, its hackneyed anti-imperialism, the winks at the New Left, and squints at today’s demands for human rights and recognition, the score settling (against Paul Mason, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Nick Cohen), and the appearance of Corporal Jones, The Fall and Rise of the British Left is a valuable book. Murray laments that there is no consensus on foreign policy, nor will there be one when his side uphold an ambiguous line of issues such as Syria. But at the centre of Labour’s plans are John McDonnell’s economic projects with a wider scope than restoring public finances and local government funding. Developed by a talented team, they extend from social ownership, the control of the finance sector, and, above all, ending austerity and democratising the public services ravaged by new public management. They, and other Labour policies, are designed to ensure that “democracy wins”. In this, for the moment at least, the movement is everything.

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  1. Left Unity or Class Unity. Andrew Murray Registering Class. Socialist Register. 2014. The Merlin Press. 2013
  2. See Chapter Three The New Left and Parliamentary Socialism. In Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, Michael Newman. Merlin Press. 2002.
  3. Beyond the Fragments. Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, and Hilary Wainwright. Merlin Press. 1979.