Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"What Really Matters?" Becoming Volatile.

Australia's 2010 federal election is presenting with all sorts of symptoms of a political and cultural malaise. A primary symptom is the palpable disconnection between the citizenry and leading politicians, rendered nowhere so much as in the distaste many feel about the method of the previous Prime Minister's untimely dispatch by a Labor party spooked by falling opinion polls and a combined onslaught from News Ltd's national broadsheet, talkback radio and the grand wrecker of federal politics, Coalition leader Tony Abbott.  This disconnection is also due to a political reporting and commentating media culture that has been denuded of expertise in policy areas and which seeks to make 'gotcha' moments: where politicians are caught in a back-flip or inconsistency, or revealing slip. The failure of both major parties to stake out long-term, thought-through policy positions on a set of interconnecting problems and opportunities--a response to global warming and climate change, peak oil, physical and social infrastructure, health, water, population policy, alternative energy, indigenous citizenships--which are argued for, explained and narrativised is also a symptom of this malaise.

Some analyses of this illness in the body politic have honed in on the Neoliberal causes of these problems. Gary Sauer-Thompson has run a series of posts which link the malaise to the Neoliberal mode of governance that I've argued, as well, has come to dominate our political culture. Gary, points to an opinion piece by Overland editor Jeff Sparrow on the ABC's Drum Unleashed site, which diagnoses the sickness currently afflicting Australian political culture as being caused by the embedding of market rationalities into everyday life:

the commodity called 'politics' can only compete by adopting the forms used by the TV producers who specialise in reality programming. Channel Nine's decision to hire Mark Latham should be understood in those terms: it's the equivalent of livening up a dull episode of Big Brother by introducing a minor celeb into the house. But Gillard's pledge to henceforth be true to herself should also be familiar to television aficionados, for it's a common stage on the 'winner's journey' on every reality show. The huffing contestant on The Biggest Loser breaks down in tears and then, after a hug from Michelle, vows to dig deep and redouble his training: that's what makes good entertainment product.

Such is the dilemma facing political journalists. A reporter might be deeply fascinated by policy and its implications, but if he or she brings back footage of two middle-aged people arguing behind lecterns when everyone else screens the human drama of Kevin confronting Julia, the ratings will tank. 

The problem, then, is not about the media so much as about the market into which media is sold.

One of the most socially significant developments in Australian political and cultural life over the last few decades has been the evolution of neoliberalism from a fringe doctrine to a philosophy now largely ubiquitous. The neoliberal turn was always about more than pure economics, involving an insistence that notions of individual autonomy, consumerism, efficient markets and transactional thinking should be extended into all social relations, even - or, perhaps, especially - those that had previously been dominated by quite different rules. 

Not surprisingly, the results have been profound - and you see them very clearly during an election. 
I agree with all of this, but I think we need to specify what the dominant forms of markets are in the early twenty-first century. There needs to be greater recognition of the extent to which the embedding of market thinking and market techniques into political culture is increasingly modelled on markets in financial derivatives. This might sound like a slightly wacky, unreconstructed Marxist approach. But I'd like to just lay out some thoughts below and see what you make of them.

1. Neoliberalism and the drive: feedback loops.

In a much-anticipated and needed return to Crikey yesterday [pay-walled],  Guy Rundle analysed the malaise. Here's a key, summary section of his essay:


Twenty years ago, we — or the political elites — made a decision to shift the centre of gravity from public to private life, in a whole range of areas, from social expenditure, to pensions, to the question of work hours and wages, in every conceivable field. That is, of course, but of a larger global process — and one, to a degree beyond the control of individual governments — but we really ram-rodded it here, off a fairly collective base.
The result has been a certain type of society in which both the space for public life, and the means by which people without much social power could project themselves into it, has been diminished. Where in the 1980s we were talking — briefly — of the 35-hour week, we are now heading towards the 48-hour week (and two salaries, to afford a house), performed by people living in spec-built suburbs with little amenity, in under-serviced cities, and in conditions of diminishing, not increasing, social mobility for themselves and their children.
In these circumstances, the private choice — the cable TV, the McMansion, the retreat to the home space and to the defiant, antinomian cry (much heard in the UK election) “I don’t do politics” — becomes overdetermined, becomes the only real choice there is. Yet even as people pursue their lives in the wilderness of plasmas, they are privy to a never-ending cascade of information informing them that a) the current way of life is politically, economically, and ecologically unsustainable and b) the gap between their lives and the levers of power is so huge there’s bugger all they an do about it in the current framework.
Those things that need a public sphere in order to exist — such as the res publica, and a genuinely pluralist media — lapse into a non-democratic condition, the res publica
To blame the public for the changed conditions of their life, and the way that earlier decisions by an elite shaped their lives, is to finger the victim, not the culprit. A series of cave-ins, ducked battles, and soft options by the people who controlled parties, papers and powers, and a refusal to stand up to the genuinely malign, has brought us to this point. It seems distinctive in the world — there is a collapse of political legitimacy everywhere, but only in Australia have I seen this degree of total exasperation and frustration, combined with an inability, at the moment, to imagine how it could be done any other way. The topic is cancer, indeed.
What I want to hone in on is Rundle's notion of a round-about in which a media-political economy-political parties-pollsters-public circle just keeps rolling along: a sort of feedback loop in motion. Jodi Dean has analysed the connections between Foucault's  Neoliberalism (as the Birth of Biopolitics) and the Lacanian drive in terms of a turn towards life, and away from sovereign-state forms of power: a feedback loop without an object.

2. Sunday morning.

Rundle, in his Crikey essay, takes aim at Paul Kelly as Kelly has jumped on the bandwagon of bemoaning the lack of grip the political class has on what is happening in the election and yet Kelly has been at the helm of the Neoliberal onslaught for over 20 years. Kelly, until recently, appeared as the press corp doyen on the ABC's Insiders show. When Sunday morning TV used to be governed by regulations that demanded commercial stations have religious programming (from memory in the 60s and 70s) the intellectual leader of the Democratic Labour Party and mentor of Tony Abbot, Bob Santamaria, used to appear on Sunday mornings to give his culturally conservative, Catholic and agrarian socialist perspective on politics. Kelly had slid into this time slot and role in recent times. You could argue that Kelly is a right-wing Labourist, much like Santamaria, although they would disagree violently on the role between markets and the state.

So, it's been interesting to see who and what has filled this significant time slot on the Insiders recently. Kelly has been gone for a while, but now there is a segment called "What really matters?" which is hosted by Michele Levine the CEO of Roy Morgan Research. The slot is backgrounded with aerobics-style dance music--a trend in political reporting these days, along with the playing of songs whose chorus literalizes a personality characteristic--which signals a high-energy loop in which we do something that makes us fit, flexible, ready. Levine presents her analyses of marginal seat polling, which includes some qualitative responses, pop-psephology, and pop-demographics.

From Santamaria, via Paul Kelly, to political polling in marginal seat expertise. What is this drift signalling?

3. Sitting on the fence.

What circulates in loops like the one Rundle describes? If Neoliberalism has become the dominant set of techniques and ideas by which all kinds of objects, selves, institutions are conducted, guided, governed, then how are these forms of market reasoning coming to the surface in the current election campaign?Applying the methods of market research to political polling is one way we can see such embedding of market techniques in political culture. But surely such polling only registers what people think, feel or hope for? In case you think I'm about to run a media-manipulates citizens in the interests of capital line . . .well, I am. But rather than argue that what is going on is a conspiracy designed to dupe people, my contention is that we are all--the media, bloggers, politicians, the public . . .-- subject to the mentalities by which finance capital must continue to circulate around the globe; accelerating and with maximum income streaming potential. How do you obtain a financial advantage, how do you manage risk in your electorate, how do we seek investments in our electorate? Make your seat marginal.

The feedback loop of current politics finds its most symptomatic expression in the dialogue that occurs between marginal seat electors, the media, the pollsters and politicians.  That is the primary loop in our political culture, and it is governed by the logics of making an electorate, making yourself as an elector, volatile.

Watching SBS's forum show Insight, last night, which asked swinging voters from marginal seats to give voice to their opinions, I was struck by how little it mattered that they grasped policy or understood basic institutional functions and history. What mattered was that they were confidently undecided. They were swinging, they were certain that they were 'sitting on the fence'.  They were trading on their volatility as human capital. It didn't matter what implications policy had for anyone outside their business or family. What mattered was how they could attract the best investments in their human capital by wavering, swinging, fence-sitting.

4. Human capital: the subject as derivative.

Critiques of Neoliberalism often stall at the level of the state and forget about the embedding of market reasoning and techniques in everyday life. Similarly, the vantage provided by much Marxism is limited in focussing on the alienation caused by the commodification of labour. These are both valuable, albeit, restricted modes of critique and analysis. What Foucault's analysis of Neoliberalism as governmentality offers is an understanding of how liberal-capitalist practices and thought fundamentally shifted in the 1960s and 1970s.

These new or Neo-liberal forms reconceptualised human labour as human capital. This might appear as a minor ploy. But the shift from conceiving of the human subject as the seller of labour to an entrepreneur of one-self, and investor in one's human capital, is a profound one. This massive shift has coincided with and been caused by the exponential growth in financial markets, and markets in financial derivatives, which are traded not on the basis of underlying asset value, or their growth in value, but on the magnitude of their volatility. Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee write

The financial community's development of the concept and modelling of volatility was [an important] step in the objectification of risk. The central idea is that the market can best describe and predict the behavior of abstract risk by measuring its variability over time. The understanding is that the magnitude rather than the direction of change in the values for a specific derivative communicates all the financial information necessary to price it. Note that the measure of volatility tries to formally incorporate the contextual social information that had to be removed to produce abstract rick in the first place. The social is reintroduced in, and misrecognized as, the history of a derivative's volatility. The result is that all the complex socio-historical forces that shape the value of asset underlying a derivative are now simply a pattern of price movements. (Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk, Duke, 2004: 146)

5. Becoming volatile

When political parties converge over primary questions of political economy, and their policies are conducted as auctions which require one side to take a seemingly opposite position to the other, and the question for parties is not how to break up the Neoliberal consensus but in what directions will we fiddle around the edges, pander to fears, makes promises that will be easy to break and hard to deliver, voters seek advantage in any opportunity.

They invest and sell their vote. Whether they sell short (bet against) or long (bet for), it doesn't matter anymore. They are selling to grow their income stream. They are advised and guided by the political stock-brokers, agents and analysts that people the assemblage of the pollsters-media-politician machine. They are in a constant state of  trading the volatility. Becoming volatile.