Alistair Cartwright resists the temptation to laugh at the cynicism of Telegraph article attacking the People's Assembly
My first instinct on reading Dan Hodges’ report on The People’s Assembly, published in the Telegraph last week, was to smile, and then thank him. Bad press can be good press, especially when it advertises a campaign’s calendar of action. After all, this is the man who wrote back in December 2011 that we need a ‘start the war coalition’ to meet the threat posed by the peaceniks. It was a nice tribute to the antiwar movement. As Tony Benn said, ‘First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you’.
But to laugh at Dan Hodges would be to mirror the general tone of his article, to return cynicism with cynicism. And it’s the cynicism which is disturbing - not so much the content but the tone.
Hodges calls the actions proposed at the People’s Assembly ‘ugly and threatening’, and talks about ‘mass confrontation and civil lawlessness’. And yet at the same time he characterises the Assembly as ‘the same old people, handing out the same old leaflets... the left endlessly debating itself’. He laughs at everyone he encounters. Owen Jones is the ‘Justin Bieber of the left’; the moment when delegates link arms in a symbol of solidarity reminds him of a ‘surreal rendition of Auld Lang Syne’. It’s a strange mixture of masked horror and exaggerated boredom.
At one level this is just plain, old, bad journalism. Analysis is deliberately reduced to zero. The charade of ‘balance’ and objectivity normally acted out by the broadsheets and other respectable outlets is also dropped. Compare for instance coverage in The Times and the BBC, both of which reported surprisingly truthful versions of the Assembly’s aims. Instead Hodges’ article is full of remarks about how people are dressed, about the paraphernalia of leftwing gatherings (leaflets, tents, paste tables etc), and about the most superficial snippets of conversation. The writing seizes on these fragments at every opportunity; take them out, and there is nothing there.
I have to say I didn’t notice Frances O’Grady’s ‘tropical print dress’, or Owen Jones’ ‘trademark plaid shirt’. I doubt many others participating in the Assembly did either. What I did notice - along with the spirit of solidarity, the festival atmosphere, and the serious discussions of strategy - was anger, a lot of anger. It had an intensity I haven’t seen since the student protests of 2010, and that I would usually associate with the kind of outpourings elicited by Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
The session on the housing crisis was full of this kind of anger. Delegate after delegate stood up to rage at the bedroom tax. In the process they began to invent tactics and alternatives: the possibility of councillors refusing to enforce the tax; the need to connect legal battles with street protests; the significance of attacks on squatters’ rights in terms of a broader attack on democratic rights; the idea of rent strikes conducted with trade union support; and the fact that rent control would actually lower housing benefit bill. Of course none of this was in Hodges’ article.
It might sound like what Hodges is doing is reportage. But reportage means discovering the whole story through the smallest details. Hodges works the other way round, he starts with a preconceived whole and chop up it into isolated bits. To discover the whole in the detail involves listening to people, listening to objects and places too - listening for the smallest whisper. In this way reportage tries to sketch the emotional tone of a scene. By contrast Hodges glosses over it with his own prejudice. The tone of his articles doesn’t convey what other people are feeling, it’s what the author is feeling.
Third level of false consciousness
So, what is the emotional tonality of the cynic? It’s not just that he laughs at others’ misfortunes. More than that, he neuters his own critical self. Hodges calls himself ‘a Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest’. He counts himself among the opposition to the Tories but wishes his party could be more like them. His position is a an extreme version of New Labour: neoliberalism swallowed whole, never fully digested (different in this way from a true Tory), but constantly regurgitated. Similar in this way is Brendan O’Neil, also blogging for the Telegraph, who attacks gay marriage and apologises for Islamophobia from an anti-liberal, apparently socialistic stance.
The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (more a liberal than a socialist) described cynicism as a third level of false consciousness: first comes deceit (being the perpetrator or the victim of it), then comes ideology (‘they don’t know if, but they’re doing it’ - Slavoj Zizek paraphrasing Marx), and finally there is cynicism.1 The cynic knows the falseness of what he is doing and yet he does it all the same. This might sound like deceit but there is an important difference. The deceiver deceives for his own immediate gain, i.e. in order to overcome something; he still retains a sense of struggle with the world, even if he is on the side of the victor and not the victim. The deceiver’s Nietzschean instinct, his will to power, is still intact. Whereas the cynic has decisively abandoned all of this. This isn’t to say that he lacks self interest - he has plenty of it. But he has successfully dissolved his self interest in the great sea of the status quo. He draws every sustenance, every vital need from submission to the status quo. What’s missing from the emotional profile of the cynic are things like joy, sadness, courage - and yes, anger.
I suggested earlier that Hodge’s article resonates with a kind of cruel laughter. In fact there isn’t even laughter, not real laughter. Not laughter of the kind that Mark Steel knew how to draw out of the crowd at the People’s Assembly. Laughter like this comes bubbling up and overflowing. The cynic doesn’t laugh, he grins. The Greeks knew what they talking about when they coined the term: ‘Kynikos’, deriving from ‘kyon’, meaning dog. A cynic is one who bares his teeth (his canines) like a dog.
One moment in the article is particularly revealing in this sense. Hodges quotes Owen Jones in a passing conversation, goading him to comment on one of the sectarian divisions the left still faces: ‘ “They have nothing to do with it. But I’m not a McCarthyite like you. That was a joke, by the way. Say I said it with a wry smile of something.” It was all said with a wry smile.’ This is classic cynicism, the multiplication of falseness (in this case irony), distancing an already distanced meaning, raising it to the third degree.
How then to diagnose the style of right-wing bloggers like Dan Hodges? I’d argue that what this style represents is the postmodern spirit writ large in the form of political journalism. Postmodernism is obsessed with surfaces, it reduces content to style, history to retro-effect. That’s why Hodges calls the people running stalls outside Westminster Central Hall, ‘refugees from the 1970s’. (When in fact everyone knows the current crisis is far deeper than what happened in the 1970s; when in fact the movements that have erupted over the last few years - The Arab Spring, Occupy, the revolts in Turkey and Brazil - are something quite new). The cynic sees everything through the lens of cliché, a smoked glass inscribed with a pre-determined grid of options, each one thoroughly demarcated, each equally accessible and equally meaningful - or meaningless.
The deadening effect of all this superficiality eventually takes its toll. The cynic thinks he can keep his distance, take his pick of whatever style, label this that, and that this, but eventually the neat array of superficialities that he has placed between himself and the world - in an attempt to screen it and make sense of it - covers over him like a second skin, like a mask he can’t unprise.
If we had to find an image to represent this condition, it might look like Steve Bell’s cartoons of David Cameron: the pink bulge of the PM’s forehead grows like a balloon; like a clown conjuring the anatomy of a dog out of knots of trapped air, the form takes over his cheeks, chin and nose; finally the rubberised surface of the forehead detaches from the body and Bell draws Cameron's head stuck inside a condom, complete with teat on the top.
Or has anyone noticed how Charles Saatchi - adman, art collector and Thatcher’s brand manager - is looking more and more like a Chapman brothers’ mannequin? These images are not cliché but physiognomy. They depict an attitude or posture, a specific inclination towards the world.
Above all the cynic dislikes strong emotions. He finds they make him queasy. In a sense this is just a reflection of a common message delivered by the ruling elite to the unruly mob: we don’t mind if you voice your dissent, it’s ok to disagree, but please, no shouting!
But strong feelings - joy, sorrow, love, rage - are part of what makes us human. The cynic gives up on his humanity, and with it everyone else’s. His dog-like appearance (teeth bared) is a death’s head. Wyndham Lewis, the English painter, poet, founder of Vorticism and sometime fascist, understood this brilliantly. In Blast, the infamous literary magazine he produced in 1914-15, we get the following lines:
Quack ENGLISH drug for stupidity and sleepiness
gums, canines of FIXED GRIN
Death’s Head symbol of Anti-Life
CURSE those who will hang over this
Manifesto with SILLY CANINES exposed.
While the grinning death’s head is an emblem of everything the Vorticist opposes, it is at the same time his ideal, a sign of strength and vigour:
BLESS ENGLISH HUMOUR
It is the great barbarous weapon of
the genius among races.
BLESS this hysterical WALL built round
BLESS the solitude of LAUGHTER.
BLESS the separating, ungregarious
Hence the recurring motif of grinning, semi-mechanical devils in Wyndham Lewis’ paintings.2 With cheeks and foreheads faceted like the steel shell of a tank, they fulfill the dream of the Futurists - another avant-garde expression of the fascist imagination, at least before Mussolini grew uncomfortable with their non-conformism - to fuse human and machine in the heat of catastrophe. What Lewis’ poem-manifesto shows is that a point exists where the cynic’s universal disparagement flips over into the fascist’s maniacal self-affirmation; at the same time there is a point where the fascist’s mortification-of-self flips back into the cynic’s self-contradiction.
I don’t want to suggest that Dan Hodges is a fascist - not by any stretch. But I do want to show the unconscious dark side of his cynicism. It’s a poison that can, at some level, affect the whole of society. One woman speaking from the floor of the session on ‘Welfare not Warfare’ called it ‘brain pulp’. She gave the example of Cameron’s plans to celebrate the anniversary of World War 1 next year. Another word close to this feeling is apathy. Another, more simple, is fear. Cynicism and fear thrive in societies based on alienation, commodification and competition. But as Lindsey German, convenor of Stop the War Coalition said in response, we can begin to provide an antidote when we bring people together, when we relate politically to the most urgent problems of people’s lives, and when we organise and take collective action.
That’s one reason why November 5th is an important date - the day the People’s Assembly has called for a national day of civil disobedience. To pull it off we’ll need to harness all the emotions that were coursing through the chambers of Westminster Central Hall last weekend: anger and hope, in equal measure.
1 Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
2 Thanks to Deborah Iovine for several of these observation about Wyndham Lewis.
Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.
More articles from this author
- "They want to break us, but we're not broken": why UCU strikers are stepping up the fight
- The uninsurable future of British cities
- Safety last: fire at New Providence Wharf shows Grenfell tragedy is system-built
- 'The whole community has come together': Tower Hamlets residents fight back
- Living in a Ghost Town: Covid-19 and the crisis of the city centre
- A wave of evictions is heading our way: get ready to resist
- New research shreds Johnson’s 'Covid-secure' workplaces