It’s been an interesting 24 hours since my friend Kate Evans (@iamkateevans) showed me an email by a contributing editor to The Sun newspaper and Women’s Own magazine asking charities for a very particular request…
I subsequently posted this email and a few observations on Agent of History here…
Since then, Kate’s been inundated with tweets and retweets, has been interviewed for an article in The Independent, and I’ve had over 20,000 views (and counting) of my original post. Even Russell Brand retweeted it, which is great! I should try to strike while the iron’s hot and offer a very brief analysis of what I think the significance of this email really is and what we can do about it. If you don’t have the time right now to read the entire post, feel free to just read the bits in bold to get the jist of my argument…
What does this Sun/Woman’s Own email really show us?
(1) Nothing we didn’t know or at least suspect!
I suspect that, in our heart of hearts, it shows us nothing that we didn’t know already. Alternatively and, perhaps more accurately, put, I suspect it just confirms our worst fears: that a large part of the ‘news’ we read in our ‘news’papers each day is actually stories prefabricated by journalists following edicts from editors and, indeed, in turn from newspaper/TV station owners and senior political figures on high. These stories clearly seek to construct a world in which the poorest, least educated, most deprived, and vulnerable people are the feckless, greedy, lazy, stupid architects of their own pathetic downfall! Homelessness, unemployment, obesity, disability, illiteracy, ill health, relationship breakdown, addiction, poverty are portrayed as conditions suffered by individuals and caused by individuals. Since these people are to blame for their own sorry states, it follows that any resources that allow them to sustain their shameful lifestyles should be stopped. The welfare system is reframed as a ‘benefits’ gravy train full of dependent passive passengers that has to be stopped if these passengers are ever to regain their independence and walk again.
(2) Poverty is political!
I don’t want here to get into a detailed discussion about the political economy of poverty. Suffice to say here that poverty is a structural necessity in capitalism since it ensures that there is an ‘industrial reserve army’ always there to cow individual workers into accepting wage-slavery; that wages remain low enough to maintain profitability; that workers are alienated from each other in competition over jobs needed to avoid destitution; and that workers are way too preoccupied in the daily struggle for sustenance and survival to question and organise to challenge the system. It is a key weapon in the class war used to divide and rule. Poverty is not fundamentally a personal, cultural, or economic problem. Poverty is political!
Levels and forms of poverty differ, of course, according to the contextual and shifting economic conditions of capital accumulation, balance of political power between capital and labour, and control over the means of cultural production. The way that poverty was defined and described in the media in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s in the UK and elsewhere was, I suspect and believe, mostly very different. I see a key moment as the neo-liberal (Thatcherite) counter-revolution of the late 1970s. Since then, I believe a central ideological objective of the ruling class – one achieved with remarkable success – has been precisely to reframe social problems such as poverty, mental and physical ill health, crime, and homelessness as individual failings. We see this institutionalisation of individualism and what’s often called the ‘responsibilisation’ agenda embedded now throughout not just the media, but the education, health, public policy, and even charity sectors.
Two years ago, I tried (unsuccessfully) to run a political economy learning group at a leading national homeless charity. There, I was struck there about how any structural analysis of homelessness, poverty or mental illness was silenced in favour of a total focus on the individual – skilling up, jobseeking, boosting confidence, correcting personal failings, etc. I’m not saying don’t do these things. I’m emphasizing the political success of the responsibilisation agenda. This is ‘hegemonic’ power in practice!
By ‘hegemonic power‘, I refer to (post-!)Marxist political theories of power shaped, in particular, by Antonio Gramsci in an Italian fascist prison in the 1930s and 1940s and by Argentine and French philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe from the 1980s. Here, it is language and signs/images that form the weapons, the cultural field that constitutes the battlefield, of politics (for Laclau & Mouffe, not just class politics but the politics of gender, race, sexuality, disability and all other structural forms of power and oppression).
What this email shows us, then, is how the hegemony not just of capital, but of patriarchy is constructed and maintained. It isn’t a coincidence that the email’s author is looking for a woman. I suspect this is for various cultural reasons, primarily because of the obscene objectification of the female body – a central mechanism of patriarchal power.
An image taken from today’s homepage (!) of The Sun newspaper
I want to make two further short, key points about this email and hegemonic politics.
(3) Avoid culturalism!
First, I don’t believe that politics is, therefore, just a ‘war of words’. Capital is a social relation between those who own and control the means of production and those who must sell their labour-power to survive. Therefore, economic conditions have a huge effect on cultural conditions. The reason why the email’s author is looking specifically for ex-fatty-scroungers is because his newspaper’s editor and owner and even the government too are needing to construct a particular ‘truth’ that excludes any consideration of current economic crisis (of capital’s inability to restart its engines and provide society-wide opportunity) and sets the working class against each other through the manipulation of our baser, negative instincts.
(4) Power ≠ Violence!
Second, when we read emails like this it is totally understandable to experience feelings of anger, but also passivity, powerlessness, and hopelessness. A perfectly rational and understandable response to this would be: ‘So, the media lies to us, fills us with hate for our fellow suffering brothers and sisters, and is run by powerful people seeking to maintain their power! What the hell can I do about it!?’
Allow me to offer an alternative reading. I see the desperation in this email as suggestive of declining and increasingly fragile hegemonic power. This email is an act of violence, symbolic violence, done to the particular poor individual they find to do their bidding, but also to poor working class people, especially women, in general. We must not, however, confuse violence with power. I remember reading Hannah Arendt who first showed me how power and violence are actually opposites! Power is always legitimacy conferred by people in some direct or indirect way. Violence is what you use when that legitimacy has gone. You can’t rule by violence alone for long.
The email shines a light into the desperation of a ruling class whose legitimacy to rule has been gradually revoked by us. We see this collective revocation in the slow retreat from formal political engagement over recent decades. The most stable regime of hegemony is founded on rule by active consent of the people, i.e. when we believe that those who rule rule in our interests. Hegemony is rendered less stable when that consent becomes passive. It’s then a case of needing to naturalise an artificial and contingent social order. In this case, the primary hegemonic task is then to make capitalism seem as natural as the air we breathe. Hence, the power and necessity of the infamous ‘TINA” (There Is No Alternative) doctrine. We are told that the world we experience is the only world there can be.
The end of TINA
The TINA Doctrine reigned supreme for around 25 years. It can probably be dated to around the late 1980s when Thatcherism and Reaganism consolidated in the UK and US (i.e. working class power was mostly destroyed), when the IMF and World Bank brought Structural Adjustment (hardcore austerity!) to the Third World, when the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc collapsed removing any ideological alternative, and when, consequently, the world was opened up for capitalist globalisation. It was destabilised by the rise of left-wing Latin American governments, and it took probably a mortal blow in the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s only been more recently in the patent inability of capitalism to revive and the concomitant creation and growth of alternative social movements, parties, and grassroots co-operative endeavours that we can see that the era of TINA hegemony is over; that the neoliberal project is on the rocks; that the discursive field of politics is thrown wide open again; and that another world is possible once more. Hence, for example, the panic over and demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing frontrunner of the Labour Party leadership campaign.
In short, this email shows us:
- How the media spectacle and, moreover, our opinions, beliefs, even our very identities are constructed;
- How it really helps to think about politics in terms of hegemony – language as weapon, culture as battlefield;
- How economic conditions are a fundamental force in shaping hegemonic politics;
- How the current conditions of economic crisis and collective reimagining have forced the 25(ish) year-long closure achieved by the neo-liberal counter-revolution wide open again;
- How, therefore, rather than interpreting this email in any disempowering way, we should recognise the media’s current daily campaign of symbolic violence that this email represents and recent panics over emergent social democratic/socialist forces as actually revealing the frailty and desperation of the ruling class.
So, what should we do about it?!
There are lots of things we can do. What you do is up to you, of course, but I would suggest that there is no innocent bystander and that acting brings such an inexpressible sense of empowerment and hope. So…
- Don’t buy these papers any more. However…
- Do check them out online. First, it’s crucial to know your enemy and to see the strategies, the discourses, the frames they are using. Second, it helps to develop our critical skills of reading and analysis;
- Spread the word online! Share your own findings and your own analyses. Don’t just take my word for it!
- Don’t be scared of theory! Theory literally means ‘to see’ (theoria), I believe. Read and use theory (political-economic, socioloigical, cultural, etc) to see the world in deeper, richer ways. Use and develop your own theories to understand the world you experience – by yourself and with others;
- Let’s talk and listen. If we accept a language-focused theory of politics, we don’t have to accept the eternal violence imbued in ideas of words as weapons and culture as battlefield. We can try to actively create new radical democratic forms of communication and society right now by coming together with others and exploring what it takes to use words as tools to rebuild, words as bridges to unite. This involves listening as much as talking, particularly listening to those who have been systematically and systemically silenced for too long (like 35+ impoverished women!) We can explore art and culture not as a battlefield, but as a way to express our individual and collective humanity.
Just some ideas for you! The particular choices you make, the particular forms these choices are articulated in are up to you. They are an expression of your particular, and our collective, humanity. They are the integral elements of the process of humanisation we seek to explore and develop.
These are my personal thoughts. Feel free to challenge and correct me. I am totally open to rethinking and revising my understandings.
Thanks for reading
P.S. If someone can teach me how to align three photos together on one line in WordPress and why WordPress doesn’t seem to recognise the lines I try to put between paragraphs and sections I’d be extremely grateful! This technical fault or, more likely, my technical ignorance is really annoying me! Thanks!