Privatising Despair

 In Imaginary Insurrections I tried to show how Gordon Brown co-opted the idea of insurrection into the rhetoric of New Labour during his Washington speech, how he tamed it: first by putting it into the past (the insurrectionary thought which preceded what’s since been achieved); then by making the crowd, the opposition, the insurrectionary multitude part of the ruling, undemocratic elite which is what New Labour actually is (22% of the voting population as of 2005; though now it is probably worse).

In Ms Harman’s Tame Kangaroo I tried to highlight a closely related trick, to show how Ms Harman pointedly conflated the coercive violence of the lynch mob with conventional models of legality to produce what she called ‘the Court of Public Opinion’ in a piece of rhetoric which showed up disturbingly (as the assault on Civil Liberties also does) New Labour’s quasi fascist inclinations.

Not that there is anything very new in this technique: New Labour has employed it from the beginning. Before his translation to Cardinal Blair of Baghdad, for example, Bishop Tony used quite regularly to jump the barrier between, say, the providers of a central service (for which he was broadly responsible) and those who found themselves victims of its delivery, co-opting their complaints.

And now, in New Labour’s plans, announced by Alan Johnson and James Purnell, that the unemployed should all be offered counselling, preferably CBT, the managerial version of the ‘talking cures’, we have the latest policy counterpart of that same principle.

In 1936, 200 people marched from Jarrow to Westminster to protest against unemployment; not an insurrection, to be sure, though it was something.

In 1981 Norman Tebbit mischievously rewrote that episode to attack the riots then taking place in Handsworth and in Brixton.  A good example of the jam tomorrow version of reality upon which capitalism relies:

‘I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking until he found it.’

Unsurprisingly, what New Labour now propose, at a cost of £13m in freshly invented money, is no more helpful than Mr Tebbit’s plucky memorial and very much more despairing even as rhetoric: not merely the diversion of political anger into sturdiness and self help along the lines of Samuel Smiles but actually the full privatisation of social discontent through its elimination from the social and collective (ie political) sphere and its extrusion into the private, the personal and the ‘mental’.

Should there be mass unemployment and consequential anger and despair, in other words, and this seems by no means unlikely, then the fault will lie not with the depredations wrought by neoliberalism, of which New Labour is a part. Rather it will have come about through individual failures to perceive exactly how half full the glass is. And should there be a solution in New Labour’s terms then this will come about not through the emergence of some new social subject already present in potential, through the ballot box or across the barricades, but simply through getting used to how things are.

Which is a gloss on political impotence, of course: the dissipation of political energy and  endeavour and how they come about through Bourdieu’s social suffering into the ‘symptoms’ of ‘disturbed’ individuals.


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