James Wallbank on Thu, 18 Oct 2018 12:57:00 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Bad news for Brexit Junkies! - worse news for Labour and remainers

Hi Ted,

I'd suggest that the lack of education in media literacy and critical literacy are the key things which have rendered the UK population vulnerable to the sorts of rhetoric-based exploits that you identify.

I recall in the 1980s and 1990s, educationalists persistently identified the need for these literacies, to enable citizens to navigate the electronic media environment. Persistently, these calls for education were marginalised, ignored, or transformed into "online safety" training. The component of critical analysis was entirely dumped.

To understand just how bizarre the political situation is in the UK, it's worth reflecting on who is a member of the Conservative Party, which has ruled for the majority of the last century. Apologies in advance for the excessive emphasis:


Yes, you read that right. Average. 70.

To make matters even more bizarre, the Conservative Party now benefits more from bequests than it does from membership fees.

The nation is literally being ruled by the Party of the Dead.

Is it any wonder that it is reactionary?

Best Regards,


On 16/10/2018 17:24, tbyfield wrote:
On 16 Oct 2018, at 9:54, James Wallbank wrote:

Well, quite clearly I'm beginning to sound like a member of the tinfoil hat brigade - but seriously, the level of democratic failure and delusional thinking at the highest levels of governance are hard to explain in other ways.

I agree with your analysis in spirit, but all of those things were true when the UK joined the EU — so it doesn't do do much to explain why this and why now?

The nihilistic turn that many established nations are taking is maddening because it's hard to tell whether the driving forces are structural or, instead, if we're seeing the resurgence of the 'great man' model of history (yes, peanut gallery, I know this lot isn't very 'great'). In theory, those two ways of thinking about society are radically different; in practice, they seem to be converging. A handful of people who fancy themselves great have fumbled and maneuvered their way into positions, political and discursive, that allow them to seize — or maybe 'surf' — structural forces. The fact that they're jabbering, sophistical narcissists is all the more frustrating, because anyone with a shred of optimism left would think those personal qualities would make it impossible to rise to such power. And yet we also know that those personal qualities are ideally suited to key aspects of how media works now, again ranging from the structural (for example, the temporal model of 24/7 constant-coverage media machines) to the personal (Rupert Murdoch and his ilk). So what we're seeing isn't just a collapse of the national regimes, we're also seeing the collapse of an epistemic regime that was tied to the heyday of — and depended on — those national regimes to establish facts. People like to cite that chestnut about everyone gets their own opinion but not their own facts, but *in fact* what we're seeing is a rising world in which people *do* get to have their own facts — for a while. The first question is for how long, and second is what comes next?

In the US the concern is that the GOP under Trump is assembling a one-party state at an alarming rate. Much of the basic work had already been done before Trump came along, and his forces are now mainly connecting the dots. The result may well be a governmental regime that's adept at manufacturing its own facts on a just-in-time basis — basically shoving crazy short-term noise into media pipelines and networks in order to dominate both *how* things are 'framed' (bleh) and *what* is framed — 'content' (even more bleh). In practice, this relies heavily on subverting the segments of the government whose strength has been that they moved *slowly*: the technocratic and procedural layers of the executive branch, fact-finding mechanisms of the legislative branch, and the analytical authority of the judicial branch. Given the right conjunction — autocratic leaders, solipsistic ruling parties, minority parties in thrall to institutionalism and good manners, and judiciaries systematically subverted over decades — this has been surprisingly to accomplish within individual countries.

But this turn involves several (maybe many) countries, which is where it gets really messy. It's hardly worth mentioning the importance of the community of nations to restrain individual countries' excesses, but what happens when these nihilists start to cooperate? We're seeing that all over the place: cabals meeting here, theaters of the absurd there, shadowy influence networks playing next-level jurisdictional games with data, employees, processing. Again, that's not new: for example, the homogenization of politicians and campaigns was clear in the '80s, and the rise of multinational news systems like News Corp heavily shaped the politics of the '90s. But we're only beginning to see how deeply political media consulting has been internationalized, and there's a growing sense of defeat that any existing institutions will be able to establish the facts, let alone determine whether they were criminal, let alone prosecute and the people, organizations, and networks involved.

And that's where your analysis, though largely accurate, becomes dangerous. It may help us to understand some of the structural conditions driving nihilistic projects like Brexit, but because it doesn't address my initial questions — why this? and why now? — it doesn't do what's needed: help to lay a basis for new frameworks, institutions, and procedures that are capable of restraining this turn. The dilemma that minority parties face is that they're largely limited to assuring people that the institutions can be renewed through normal civil processes and that we can return to some semblance of sanity. What they can't do is frankly acknowledge the possibility that these institutions are 'broken' or hopelessly inadequate to the challenges. Again, this isn't especially new: we've seen it in proxy wars, flags of convenience, the rise of multinational capital that juggles entire nations, the subversion of the very idea of a nation into offshore tax-havens, extraordinary rendition, and so on. And yet I think we're facing a fundamental break on a new order — of the kind that in the past required international war-crimes tribunals, truth and reconciliation, or lustration. But those processes rely above all on facts, which in many ways have become just another commodity. And what they rely on, second to that, is some sort of fiduciary entity: persons, organizations, corporation to attest or to prosecute. A new generation of jurisprudence will need to squarely address the problem of the network. There are precedents (for example, in how organized crime has been prosecuted), but they're too scattered and particular for the problem at hand.

Again and again, most of this isn't new. In my recent research I've been gobsmacked to find how little scholarly attention has been paid to the history of public-opinion polling, which — of course – is the basis of the kinds of analytics used so effectively to manipulate public opinion. Most of the 'work' has been done by people in business schools, who are committed to anything but epistemic stability grounded in historical fact — which is why they love 'case studies,' a genre that's the bastard child of Vasari's art-hagiography and quantitative trivia. There are a handful of books on the subject — notably done by women, like Sarah Igo's _Averaged American_ and Liza Featherstone's _Divining Desire_ — but before that most of the work was tangential and squirreled away in the (wait for it...) 'great man' mold of ~'60s/'70s business-political biography. What's missing is the basic insight that opinion-polling *turned opinions into empirical facts*: the fact that someone held an opinion became a fact as effective — maybe more so — than natural facts. The impact of that turn can't be overstated — and what we're facing now is its consequence: the ability to mass manufacture 'facts' on a scale capable of subverting major nations. Yes, yes, not new, Chomsky etc, etc — but general systemic criticisms like his aren't enough. Ian Hacking is more useful, IMO.

But to return to your point, it may just be that your fourth item...

(4) Britain is notable in being the only European nation to have failed to rid itself of hereditary rulers. Of the 250 or so Dukes in Britain (that's the highest level of the aristocracy outside royalty) around 180 of them still own the land that their ancestors owned just after the Norman Conquest. That represents nearly 1000 years of occupation. They will stop at NOTHING to retain their hidden power.

...may turn out to be the UK's salvation. If (when IMO) they recognize just how badly Brexit has damaged their interests, they may decide to do something about it. Despite its catastrophic stratification, the US has no such chthonic power. Normally I add 'Yet.' to a ending like that, but not this time, because I don't think that's how it'll end.


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