Five theses on youth & the sociology of the UK election

by | 14 Jun 2017

(or some quickly gathered thoughts)

British Conservative Party poster, (1929)

Thesis 1.

Contemporary capitalism rarely appears simple. Back in 1848 Marx wrote in the opening of The Communist Manifesto about how “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” But already things were more complicated. Marx’s analysis hinged on showing how the opposition of these two classes was founded in the relation of domination of capital and wage labour. Suddenly, unable to leap into pure identification with a class, people become split and split up. For Marx, only in revolution, is the identification with a class, if only to abolish class society in turn, possible. Yet if the analysis of capitalism offers ever more dialectical complexity and obscurity, it also has crystalline moments full of clarity. The election provided one of these in terms of how the parties rallied support. On the one side was a popular movement, the conviction of disenfranchised people convincing others like them to vote similarly. On the other was big capital, and in particular the traditional mainstream media: broadcasting companies, newspapers, and the Conservative Party in the guise of a PR agency. As striking as the crowds of door-knockers on one side was the complete lack on the other, and vice versa for promotion in the mainstream media.

Thesis 2.

The official analysis of the election result rests on the resuscitation of myths about a “jilted generation” and the analysis of so-called “intergenerational politics.” Whilst it is true that many more utung people voted in this election than in any over the past 20 years, this probably has very little to do with youth. Instead it has to do with the poverty of younger people: they are unlikely to be property owners, and are significantly less likely to have well paid professional jobs. The far greater division is between home-owners and renters. Home owners at this time are already terrified: since the Brexit vote the pound has lost between 15% and 20% of its value, with no correction (as we see in the international markets like the FTSE). Residential house prices have dropped month on month for four months now too. In terror, home owners were voting for the conservatives to conserve only one thing: the value in their homes. But ultimately this is part of a wider delusion: the bubble in house prices, combined with ever the ever increasing financialisation of this sector has for a long time given the impression of a growing economy. That there has been no real growth, and that one part of the population has essentially been paid off to ignore this fact with ever more spurious and speculative pricing of residential property, is simply more obvious to those who have none. Local governments have profited as much from this growth as private landlords, as they set themselves up to sell off and redevelop estates. The great swing in support for Labour came from those who, without the capital, have not been able to buy into the myth. Meanwhile Labour support has almost certainly increased amongst renters from all age groups.

Thesis 3.

Parliamentary politics in the West in the last few years has been characterised by new movements for populist candidates. It is significant that most people in these movements consider their politics to be “post-ideological” in one sense or another: they are distrustful of “professional politicians” (is this the final conclusion to an argument Weber began exactly 100 years ago?), of centralised messaging, and of advertising more generally. People involved in these sorts of politics have the strongest convictions that they are absolutely capable of seeing through lies, are not duped by the messages of corporations whether they be companies trying to sell products or political parties trying to win votes. Today, amongst a large part of the population, the belief in freedom from ideology constitutes the greatest victory of ideology. These changes have also led to transformations in the domain of advertising. Back in the 1940s sociologists would remark that once the telephone had been invented the technology underwent a change to create the radio, in order that for the sake of profit a technology of reciprocal communication between people became one in which people were spoken to but could not reply. The more recent transformations in this line is to maintain the centralisation, ownership and profit of the media, but to distribute the capacity to broadcast, so long as these broadcasts are subject to privatised generic platforms. It is believed by many users of these new forms of media that the democratisation of broadcast – despite the lack of democratisation of ownership and profit – amounts to a media that is more truthful, and less ideological.

In real terms this means that the old-fashioned modes of advertising (adverts on TV and on the radio etc) are becoming defunct. People are not only less and less engaging with these old media (instead accessing the same content online, without sitting down at the TV or buying a newspaper every day) but the modes of advertising associated with them are broadly considered authoritarian by ever more people. The status of advertising on the internet is somewhat different. Advertising is widely acknowledged the owners of platforms to be an annoyance to users. And if there is any significant difference between people of different ages in the election, it is that younger people mainly have adblocks on their browsers. Platforms are currently cementing their monopolies by encouraging users to pay for a service without adverts. Meanwhile, adverts that take the form of social media, whether they be corporate crowdfunding or astroturfing are increasingly successful. But perhaps most successful of all is the work of the platforms themselves, which have cemented monopolies in the media. If an older generation are more susceptible to more obviously authoritarian and centralised media, they are also savvy in criticising the establishment of monopolies. The younger generation have shown exactly the opposite tendencies, with very few criticisms of  truly monopolistic media, from Twitter, Google, YouTube, Facebook, to Instagram, etc. ever being levelled so long as those media offer apparently free expression.

If a real regime change in the media can be spotted here, it becomes obvious that the Conservative Party campaign operated in older models of centralised, authoritarian advertising, while the Labour Party campaign rested on the newer apparently decentralised models. Even to the extent that the “attack adverts” against Corbyn on YouTube and Facebook were simply invisible to most younger users because of adblocking. But ultimately it should be remembered that the real political economic interests of the “new media” are much the same as those of the “old media.” For the moment most of the large platforming corporations have tried to give an impression of being socially progressive. YouTube went as far as putting a link to a video at the top of every page a day before the election encouraging people to vote (i.e. supporting Labour who would always benefit from an increased turnout, especially amongst the demographics who use YouTube.) Yet we should not be surprised when these corporations eventually reveal their interests in political campaigns in years to come, which will likely be even more right-wing than the popular press of the late 20th century. Only in accepting the ideological character of one’s own positions, only in working through the negativity of one’s own dislocation from truth, will this be combatted.

Thesis 4.

From these transformations it is possible to establish a putative characterology of the electorate. On one side are those stubbornly formed through subjection to the old-fashioned model of centralised authority. They are ego-weak and resigned, as faithful in their opinions as they are to the state and the past. On the other side are those who see themselves as dissenters and protesters, free from corporate control, and wanting to bring about a state of freedom identical to their own.

From the 1960s onwards notions of radicalism were dominated by the threat of “recuperation”: the idea that any truly radical act would in turn be subverted and put to use by capital for profit. During the last decade this model has been overcome. It is not radical history that sells – the iconic martyr on a tshirt or the nostalgia of ’68 – but the assumed radicalism of the present. It is not now the worry that radical acts might be bought up and repurposed: instead capitalism merely sells the idea that whatever you do, so long as you do it in some privatised media space, is already radical. To those who believe they know the “truth”, and they know it by the fact they are tweeting it, they seem constantly assured they are breaking new ground even when they are promoting the state hiring tens of thousands of more police officers.

That the mass media of the twentieth century conditioned mass ego-weakness has not been overcome by a resurgence of ego-strength, but instead by something like identity-strength undergirding new multiform communitarianisms. Far from Marx’s analysis in which nearly all of one’s life is split off from oneself as labour power, the new identitarians reach for a reconciled life in their transfiguration into pure semblance. Little do they seem to care that these semblances are entirely owned by others, and little do they care how they look so long as they seem expressive. In this way hidden conservatism combines with the universalisation of fashion.

Thesis 5.

The establishment of a new “cult of youth” remains a signficant and dangerous threat for radicals. Walter Benjamin once remarked that “The Social Democrats preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren.“ Hope in the past is happily exchanged for hope in the future. But what is most worrying about today’s youthful voters for the Labour Party is that whilst being adults they persistently cast themselves as grandchildren. Far more dangerous than the dream of a better future for those who will live later is the regression in which one persistently fantasises oneself as a messiah in the shape of a wunderkind. Under the spell of auto-infantilism all real movement into moments of danger, all moments in which one’s desire might be frustrated by reality, are ruled out in advance. For this reason expression leads more easily to voting than to struggle and violence

On the other side in our characterology, hatred lives in a cul-de-sac. That the Conservatives returned the highest vote share demonstrates that a seething isolated rage remains the dominant affect in UK politics. But this hatred, by those who feel it as an affliction, is directed at all the forces of change. It demands things go back to the way things were (even if they were never truly that way.) And it is fueled by its own impotence.

On one side of this divide are those who believe they will bring about change but do nothing, and on the other are those who actively want to undo change but can’t. The only political transformation that would reconcile this division would be for the young to recognise their own maturity, to ache through the mounds of death and used up people upon which they stand; and at the same time for those who are older to be freed from the powerful and dominant notion that age is a burden through fantastic freedom made concrete. All of this is to outline the need for a new and avant-garde politics of the ego. Until then, not only are we doomed to the endless idiotic regurgitation of myths about a new politics of the young, but also we ourselves will be responsible for bringing about a second catastrophe – as the ideological structures of the new media reveal themselves in force – whose heralds we blotted out.

Reposted from Prolapsarian


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