The Corbyn spy hoax and the cycle of (fake) news

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Jan Blommaert

In mid-February 2018, the British tabloid The Sun published an article in which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was accused of having been involved in espionage activities in the 1980s. According to The Sun (and quickly endorsed by The Daily Mail), Czech archives and statements by a former Czech spy confirmed that Corbyn had repeatedly met Warsaw Pact intelligence agents and had been paid for his services. In a curious return to the days of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Sun claimed the existence of secret Stasi files, the contents of which might reveal numerous names of British traitors whose real identities, alas, “we will never know for sure”. But Corbyn? Yes, they were sure of him being a traitor to his country.

The allegations were swiftly turned into truth by hostile politicians and opinion makers. The Defence Secretary stated that Corbyn had betrayed his country, and another Cabinet member compared Corbyn to the Cold War cause célèbre Kim Philby – here is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy once again. In the overheated atmosphere of the Brexit debates in UK politics, heavy artillery is quickly and frequently used. Evidently, the issue went trending on social media and became headline news and a major commentary topic in all mass media as well.

#CorbynSmears

The allegations, however, were quickly debunked. Corbyn himself swiftly dismissed them as “a ridiculous smear” and ridiculed the tablois for “going a bit James Bond,” probably as a sign of fear for the Labour leader whose popularity is on the rise. The real James Bonds – British intelligence officers – backed him up. There was no evidence of Corbyn performing espionage duties for the Czech secret services. On social media, hashtag activism started at once using #CorbynSmears as the thematic label for three large types of actions: direct discussion (as in Figure 1), boomerang statements pointing towards other fake news stories by these tabloids (as in Figure 2), and more broadly focused political essays on the role of media in society (as in Figure 3). A highly effective campaign was waged on social media this way, marginalizing the voices supporting the tabloids and their stories.

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

Battle hashtags such as #CorbynSmears went trending as well, for several days, and while the tabloids made desperate attempts to raise the “free press” flag and extend their line of revelations, they lost the day. When the facts and the backgrounds are on your side, fact checking (or better: fact reconstruction) is a devastating weapon in social media discussions. The three genres of activity shown here shaped three interlocking frames of action: (a) demanding factual evidence for claims in direct one-on-one interaction; (b) background checks disputing the overall credibility of the tabloids, and (c) pointing to broader motives of political power and influence behind such forms of media reporting. Taken together and deployed en masse, they were highly effective in silencing the opponents in the online debates. The Corbyn supporters had shown themselves to be a formidable social media force on previous occasions; they did so once more in the spy hoax case.

The mass media (who a few days earlier carried the story as headline news) turned against the issue – now identified as fake news – with unusual vehemence. The Independent printed a razor-sharp sarcastic commentary piece including a summary of other outrageous tabloid hoaxes about Corbyn. And BBC Daily Politics anchor Andrew Neil mercilessly pummeled a Cabinet Minister on the question of whether or not Corbyn had betrayed his country, concluding “Surely the real scandal is not what Mr Corbyn has ..supposedly done but the outright lies and disinformation that you and fellow Tories are spreading – that’s the real scandal isn’t it?” The clip of this interview fragment went viral too, and in many ways functioned as a climax to the debate: if the BBC formulates the issue in such a categorical way – connecting “scandal”, “lies” and “Tories” in one sentence – then that’s it.

The cycle of fake news

The Corbyn spy hoax of course taps into the highly complex issue of fake news – perhaps the most important new theme in media culture nowadays, certainly after the exposure of the impact of media such as Breitbart News on the election victory of Donald Trump. And in connecion to this issue, the Corbyn spy hoax shows us a thing or two about what we can call the contemporary cycle of (fake) news. In a graphic form, this cycle can be represented as such (Figure 4).

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Figure 4

Three wheels are constantly turning in a validation debate, in which the tabloids and the social media do most of the work, while the mass media perform a relatively passive, responsive  but nevertheless decisive role. Debates about the validity of news items are hot and hectic in the first two media channels, and these validation debates are taken up by mass media at various stages of development. Thus, mass media very often make an item not just out of the “facts” of the case, but about the debates on the validity of these facts in other media channels.

What we observe here suggests a changed media environment in which it would be wrong to see social media as just echo chambers for what was produced in more traditional media channels. They now must be placed alongside those more traditional channels, as echo chambers, surely, but also in two other capacities: as critical producers of news in the strict sense of the term; and as the critical producers of the criteria for “real” and “fake” news. This latter capacity is what makes their position in this new media environment perhaps inevitably controversial, but nonetheless of extreme importance for understanding the present structure and dynamics of the public sphere and public opinion – a key concept for defining democracy.

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Trump’s Tweetopoetics

Donald_Trump_2016_RNC_speech_(4)_(cropped) Tweets

Jan Blommaert

It has been remarked before: when Donald Trump gives a public speech, the units of his speeches are tweets – or at least: he produces chunks of performed rhetoric that can be effortlessly converted into the format of tweets. Thus we can squeeze an almost unaltered fragment from his speech for the H&K Equipment company in Pittsburgh PA (18 January 2018) into the Twitter box:

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But at the same time, this fragment of his speech draws from a tweet he posted the day before the speech:

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That is the point: Trump’s offline, live discourse has an almost natural spillover quality into his online discourse. Talk is tweet, and tweet is talk.

This, then, grants some of his tweets (the most appealing ones, perhaps) an orally-performable dimension. Put simply, some of his tweets appear as chunks of discourse that can be spoken by others. In fact, they contain lots of pointers as to exactly how they can be delivered in spoken speech. In other words, they are instructional, showing his followers how to speak like Trump. Let us consider an example.

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Trump posted this tweet on his official account on 18 January 2018, and it reflects on the same speech in Pittsburgh. The tweet, note, is not a fragment of the speech. In the tweet, we see how he uses upper case for specific words and phrases – a familiar feature for those acquainted with Trump’s tweeting habits. He also uses an exclamation mark at the end of the tweet – once again, a familiar feature. Both features of written discourse, of course, are metapragmatic instructions: they suggest not just content relevance, but they also suggest a way of pronouncing: louder, and with some emphasis.

But there are more metapragmatic pointers in this tweet, and here we need to turn to what is known as “ethnopoetics” – an analytical technique designed to bring out the implicit structure in spoken discourse. When we transcribe the tweet according to ethnopoetic conventions, we get this.

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We now see that the tweet is replete with different forms of rhyme: several kinds of connections tie parts of the text together into powerful features of performance.

  • The tweet opens with “America” (in upper case). This term is repeated twice: once halfway (“shape America’s destiny”), and once in the final (punch) line: “make America great again” (in upper case). America is a central motive.
  • The term “again” – the motive of revival, so powerful in Trump’s rhetoric – reoccurs in the opening phrase and the closing phrase, each time connected to “America”. America is new in this text.
  • The “once again” in the opening line prefigures the “make America great again” of the closing line. Opening and closing are rhetorically connected, they are each other’s echo – hence the highlighting. But the repetition in the closing line is enriched by what precedes – the opening line sets the stage, then comes an argument, after which the opening line is reformulated as the conclusion of the argument. The rhetorical circle is closed.
  • So how is this argument organized? In the opening line, “America” is equated with “nation” (also in upper case). What follows is a classical “triplet” – three repetitive lines – in which he qualifies this nation. He does so by “escalation” (again, a well-known rhetorical trick): “big-bigger-reaches for the stars”. “Reaching for the stars” is also semantically connected to “dreaming” in the previous line.
  • Next, this “nation” is projected onto the audience: “You” (in upper case) followed by “are the ones who”. The term “you (are the ones who)” is the central structuring device in the middle part of the text. Trump again uses a classical “triplet” here: he organizes “you” in three consecutive, repetitive and structurally similar statements. We get a triple rhyme through the repetition of “YOU are the ones who”.
  • You is twice associated with “America” (“America’s destiny” and “making America great again”), and once with “our” in the phrase “our prosperity”. You = us = America.
  • Of these three statements, the first two display sound rhyme (destiny, prosperity), while the third one brings the climax: the central slogan of Trump’s campaign and presidency (“make America great again”). Any doubt that this would be the climax is removed by the exclamation mark. So we get: you = us = America = Trump.

This is a pretty fine example of rhetorical craftsmanship, in which literally nothing is out of place. We get a nice piece of poetically structured – and thus affectively appealing – political discourse here. This degree of poetic structuring makes the text performable: the audience gets loads of cues as to how this text should be, and can be, spoken to others. It is also no longer just a one-liner: it is a far more complex argumentative bit of text, driven by strong and very well elaborated images of good-better-best in a new America under Trump. It’s the stuff of persuasive talk.

But we get all of it in a tweet: a typically written genre of online discourse appears to display dense characteristics of spoken discourse. There is just one thing that cannot be extracted from the online to the offline world of speech: the hashtag #MAGA is the unique Twitter-only feature of the tweet. The rest of the text is exportable.

This shows us how the online and the offline rhetorical world of Donald Trump are profoundly connected. We are witnessing a new format of public broadcasting here, of presidential spoken discourse. Not just for contemplation and admiration by his audience, but for active uptake and repeated offline performance. And not the broadcasting of lengthy stretches of text, but of texts that are formatted as tweets – for retweeting as well as for repeating as tweetable speech. Trump referred to Twitter as “his voice”. Through tweets such as these, he enables his followers to imagine his voice as actually heard, and even spoken collectively as a new nation.

We get a copybook example here of “vox populism”, the version of populism that is centered around manufactured representations of the “voice of the people”: first, I teach you how to talk like me, after which I can claim to talk like you, to represent your voice and turn it into a political, “democratic” program. And virality becomes a crucial infrastructure for such vox populism: look at the many thousands who retweet my words. Surely I must be a democratic politician. I must be the most democratic one ever.

(Thanks are due to Ico Maly and Rob Moore for inspiring comments)

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Ludic membership and orthopractic mobilization: On slacktivism and all that.

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Jan Blommaert

This short research note is part of the Durkheim and the Internet project and attempts to theorize social phenomena emerging from the online-offline nexus. In what follows, I shall add to earlier steps in the project, specifically those related to “light” groups complementing, in socially relevant ways, the “thick” groups of an earlier Durkheimian-Parsonian sociological tradition (Blommaert 2017).

To recapitulate the earlier argument: in the online-offline nexus, we see a tremendous variety of new groups emerge, from social media networks (think of Facebook “friends”) to more specific topically formed groups (e.g. fandom, brand-focused, lifestyle or foodie communities) (e.g. Maly 2017). In addition, we see how ‘offline’ communities get solidified by means of an extensive online infrastructure, the most crucial function of which appears to revolve around the distribution of knowledge and the organizing of elaborate (even if “light”, i.e. not formalized nor institutionalized) learning practices (Maly & Varis 2015; Blommaert 2016). We observed that such “light” groups display “thick” characteristics: they can migrate offline and deploy powerful forms of activism there, in some instances bordering on what can be called “revolutionary” action (e.g. Costea 2017).

There is a literature that tends to be dismissive of such online-offline forms of activism, calling it, alternately, “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” and distinguishing it clearly from “real” sociopolitical mobilization and activism (e.g. Morozov 2011). I do not intend to frontally attack such dismissive statements; what I wish to do, though, is to offer suggestions for a more nuanced and accurate understanding of such forms of social practice – an attempt at reimagining “slacktivism” if you wish, by pointing to some of its crucial features and providing a theoretical vocabulary to describe and generalize them.

I believe there are two issues that demand attention here. One is the issue of group membership, the other of group mobilization. Both issues have been critical topics of social and political-theoretical debate throughout the twentieth century. In fact, they are key issues in revolutionary theory from Lenin to Gramsci, in democratic theory from Dewey to Habermas, as well as in cultural studies. I cannot go into these historical debates here and shall reserve them for future discussion. In what follows, I must confine myself to sketching the skeleton of a larger theoretical structure on what presently might constitute, in important ways, the morphology of “the public” or “the masses” as a sociologically relevant (and agentive) force.

Ludic forms of attachment

What do we know so far? We know that the online-offline nexus has resulted in the mushrooming of technologically mediated social groups of bewildering diversity and without precedent, best imagined (following Castells’ 1996 early characterization) as “networks” and enabling a vast array of new forms of identity performance and experience (boyd 2011). Identity work has acquired an outspoken level of fragmentation and mobility, something that can be imagined as “chronotopic”, in which different resources and normative behavior templates (“microhegemonies”) need to be deployed in specific TimeSpace configurations. The elaborate identity repertoires needed for adequate levels of integration in this ever-expanding field of identity work requires permanent learning and re-learning work, and most online environments can be empirically described as “communities of knowledge”: chronotopes in which specific identity resources can be formed, learned and policed.

We also know that such communities – even if they operate as real communities, including forms of leadership, normative behavioral scripts and levels of integration – are open, undemanding and flexible when it comes to membership, and that older conceptions of what it means to be a member impede a precise understanding of the actual forms of attachment developing between individuals and groups.

In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga emphasized what he saw as an important counterpoint to Weber’s rationalization drive in Modernity: the playful character of many social, cultural and political practices. In our tendency to organize societies along rational management patterns, Huizinga insisted, we risked losing sight of the fact that much of what people do is governed by an irrational logic, a ludic pattern of action. Even more, much of what we see as the rational organization of societies is grounded, in fact, in play (Huizinga 2014: 5).

Huizinga (2014, chapter 1) lists several features of “play”. I shall select a number of them.

  1. Play is significant: it is a site of meaning-making in which “something is at play”;
  2. it is, at the same time a voluntary activity often experienced as a site of personal freedom;
  3. it is relatively unregulated and unconstrained by established rules and forms of control (distinguishing “play” from a “game” such as chess or poker);
  4. it is an authentic activity in which we observe the unconstrained “playing out” of the self; it outside the range of what is commonly seen as “useful” or “effective” (it is done “just for fun”);
  5. it is enclosed in the sense that it often requires a particular spatiotemporal organization different from that of other activities; and finally,
  6. given all the previous characteristics, it is also a serious activity demanding focus, intensity and skill, and it has an inevitable aspect of learning to it.

Two remarks are in order. One, with respect to the characteristic of authenticity ((4) above), it must be underscored that it is perfectly normal to play someone else while expressing some essential “self”. In fact, forms of play in which roles are assumed by players, masks or other garments are worn or names are being changed for the duration of the event are found everywhere. In the online world it suffices to think of highly developed communities such as those of cosplay and gaming to see the point; but think also of the widespread use of aliases or nicknames on social media platforms. Just as we can distinguish a Foucaultian “care of the self” in various forms of play, we see a “care of the selfie” in online play as well.

Two, with respect to (5) above – Huizinga’s requirement of spatiotemporal “isolation” for play – we can emphasize the chronotopic nature of ludic practices. Play is often reserved for, and reliant upon, restricted and elaborately organized TimeSpace configurations. Think of a “play room” or a “play corner”, of “holiday” and “leisure” as segmented TimeSpace configurations reserved for ludic activities, but also of current expressions such as “quality time” or “me time” (a segment of time spent on ludic, non-work activities). Observe, by the way, the strong moral ring of such terms: they refer to things we absolutely need and value highly; denial of such things is often perceived as unacceptable. In online activities, the TimeSpace configuration is present as well, and relatively undemanding in addition: we need an individual and an online device, and little more is required. Which is why “spending time behind your computer” is often perceived as “asocial” or “individualistic”: we perceive an individual alone with his/her device, who is deeply involved, of course, with a community not sharing the physical TimeSpace but very much present and active in the “virtual” one.

If we now take Huizinga’s characteristics and apply them to the “light” forms of membership in online communities, we see a potential for application – perhaps not to all forms of online membership but to many of them. We can see how attachment to online groups is not (in a great many instances) conditioned by permanent, heavily ordered, policed and “total” involvement – one does not have to become an expert in, say, advanced Barbecue techniques just by visiting Barbecue-focused websites or fora, and one does not have to participate in all events on a cosplay forum in order to be a “member”. One can also enter and participate on such online platforms without subscribing to the full range of norms, expectations and cultural premises prevailing there, and one can articulate one’s participation in terms of very different intentions and desired outcomes than the next person. An online gaming forum is not a school, even if we find organized and tightly observed learning practices on the online gaming forum too. It turns the gaming forum into a ludic learning environment in which different forms of knowledge practice are invited, allowed and ratified. Such practices – precisely – are “light” ones too – think of “phatic” expressions of attachments such as the retweet on Twitter and the “likes” on Facebook: knowledge practices not necessarily experienced as such, and rather more frequently seen as “just for fun”.

Note Huizinga’s final characteristic: ludic practice is serious practice. The relatively “light”, mobile and flexible features of online communities do not prevent intense and profoundly focused forms of attachment. The experience of freedom and authenticity, and the absence of obvious “normal” forms of usefulness and efficiency might, on the contrary, precisely contribute to the sometimes phenomenal investments made by members in their attachments to such groups. There is a degree of intimacy evolving from ludic practices (including the “phatic” ones just mentioned): people make friends while playing, because play enables them to show their “authentic” self.[1]This brings us to the next point.

Orthopractic mobilization

With the image of ludic membership, we may have somewhat softened the attribute of “slacktivism” attached to forms of online mobilization. We are not seeing “traditional” groups in action here, but a ludic form of group attachment in which intentions, functions and outcomes may differ greatly, in spite of joined (and strongly experienced) focus of attention and intense learning. It is the nature of such forms of membership that excludes, I believe, traditional notions of “hegemony” as the engine driving individuals to mass action. Such forms of hegemony presuppose levels of organization, leadership, and ultimately of rationality in planning and approach, none of which can be expected in ludic online communities of knowledge.

Yet, considering these moments where online activity went hand in hand with mass offline action – think of the Romanian “revolution” documented by Costea (2017), or of the millions of people taking to the streets in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris (carrying “je Suis Charlie” banners and badges), mass mobilization is not just possible, but possible on a rarely observed scale as well. Hashtag activism is not the Holy Grail of new politics, but it is not an impotent thing either.

In order to grasp its potency, we need to introduce two elements. One: structures of feeling. Rather than the full-blown ideologies, fully understood and shared by the masses in the Gramscian tradition, online-offline mass mobilization might rely on what Raymond Williams (1977) called “structures of feeling”: inchoate mass-shared understandings of a moral/aesthetic kind translated into political reactions. Online resources offer an incredible potential for the ultra-fast sharing of sentiments, instant reactions to events, images and symbols. Those reactions can suffice to bring people out in the street, certainly when they can be generalized to broad passe partout feelings of fear, injustice or fairness.

If we accept this first element, a second one is straightforward. I suggest that we see such forms of online-offline mass mobilization as moments of “orthopractic” mobilization. The term “orthopraxy” is here borrowed from James C. Scott (1990), and refers to a display of ideological agreement not necessarily accompanied by full ideological endorsement. By absence of a full-blown ideology in online mobilization, what appears to be shared is a “common sense” – a common reaction to events easily formatted into mass-shared templates of expression: the use of banners, symbols and slogans often backed up by hashtags (“Je Suis Charlie”), mass marches and rallies, silent wakes, flowers and candlelight displays, and so forth.

The formatted character of such moments of mass action makes them “orthopractic”: people perform the restricted sets of rituals articulating structures of feeling, the codes and templates of which are often produced and distributed online. It thus becomes a mass form of “quality time” – an enclosed moment of shared authenticity, recognizable play and moral valuations to which one attends intensely and with great doses of sincerity. And while the online actions usually largely survive the offline ones, the moments of offline mobilization are impressive as well as politically significant, the more since such moments of mobilization often have a grassroots, “from below”, spontaneous and therefore unexpected nature. The mass mobilization across the EU in the summer of 2015 in favor of a more generous approach towards refugees, for instance, caught the governments by surprise and led, in some instances, to a lasting and well organized transnational solidarity movement.

Reimagination once more

The online-offline nexus produces new forms of social relationships and practices, new forms of cultural performance, and new political formats of action as well. More traditional modes of political organization – political parties, trade unions and so forth – still exist, but their capacity for mass mobilization (based on fixed and permanent membership, full subscription to a program, recognition of leadership structures etc.) is a permanent source of concern for them, while it is still considered to be a major factor of political legitimacy (and thence, of power). Such traditional modes stand, thus, in an uneasy relationship with the new forms of mobilization discussed here. The masses still take to the street, and do so in huge numbers, but not necessarily as a response to the call from parties or unions.

In describing these different forms of group attachment and mobilization I had to draw on two terms carrying, in common parlance, rather negative connotations. The “ludic” is often seen in opposition to the “serious” business of sociopolitical organization and governance. And “orthopraxy” is often seen as a fake form of ideological alignment, a “pretending to” and “doing as if” one subscribes to a political program or ideology. The same goes for the term “light” in expressions such as “light groups”: it stands in opposition to, and is seen as inferior to, “thick” groups such as those defined by nationality, race, gender, class, religion or age.

It is difficult, for the moment, to change the terms. But it is possible to change their indexical vector from negative to, at least, neutral – descriptive. And to simply take the phenomena they cover seriously and responsibly, as social facts demanding analytical attention and comprehension. It is the task of perpetual reimagination of a reality which, damn it or bless it, refuses to sit still.

References

Blommaert, Jan (2016) ‘Meeting of Styles’ and the online infrastructures of graffiti. Applied Linguistics Review 7/2: 99-115

Blommaert, Jan (2017)Durkheim and the Internet: On Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. Working Papers in urban Language and Literacies, paper 204.

boyd, dana (2011), ‘White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook’, in Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (eds), Race after the Internet, 203–22, New York: Routledge.

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell

Costea, Anca (2017) The Online Resources of Contemporary Social Revolutions: The Case of the Romanian #Rezist Revolution. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 190.

Foucault, Michel (2003) Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975. New York: Picador.

Huizinga, Johan (2014 [1950]) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. New York: Roy Publishers.

Maly, Ico (2017) Saabism and Saabists: A Digital Ethnographic Analysis of Saab Culture. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 188.

Maly, Ico and Piia Varis (2015) The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies 19/6: 1-17.

Morozov, Evgeny (2011) The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. London: Penguin.

Scott, James C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Williams, Raymond (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Note

[1] This explains the very widespread genre of “confession” on social media. Confession, as Foucault (2003) observed, is a veridictional genre, a genre of truth-speaking in which an uninhibited self communicates fundamental truths to other uninhibited selves.

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Jan Blommaert on ‘morphing’ nationalism and how language helps us to get it

Valorisation B

nationalisme_r One of the early works of Jan on nationalism (1994)

Anti-establishment, anti-immigrant and anti-EU are common messages threading together the ongoing phenomenon of the upsurge of far-right parties all over Europe. We are by now accustomed to hearing in mass media but also within academia (e.g. Bosco & Verney 2012; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2015) that the success of such political parties or extremist organizations is a direct consequence of the combined global financial and refugee crises.

In the southern fringe of the continent, a small country seems to epitomize the problem with Europe. I happen to come from that country, Greece, and spent two and a half months this year doing ethnographic research on the field with members of the currently third biggest Greek political party, Golden Dawn.

GD rally getty Golden Dawn rally in Athens

‘Laos, Stratos, Ethinkismos’ (meaning “People, army, nationalism”) ‘Antepithesi, Ethinki antistasi’ (meaning “Counter attack, National resistance”) or…

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25 years of right wing extremism in Belgium: Lessons for the present

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Jan Blommaert

The Brexit, followed by the election of Donald Trump in the US, have raised worldwide concerns about the rise of right wing extremism. The phenomenon is, however, 25 years old in Belgium. Lessons can be drawn from that longitudinal experience.

24 November 1991 is known as “Black Sunday” in Belgium. On that day, a relatively new party called Vlaams Blok radically redefined the electoral landscape in the country with a first massive victory at the polls. Prior to that national breakthrough, the party had won the local elections in Antwerp. But Black Sunday sent shock waves through the Belgian political system, and its effects are enduring.

The Vlaams Blok program

Vlaams Blok (“Flemish Block”, later renamed Vlaams Belang – “Flemish Interest”) won its seats in Parliament due to a mixture of three powerful elements. The mixture will sound familiar to observers of the present.

  1. Extreme nationalism. While in Flemish Belgium moderate forms of nationalism had been common – most Flemish parties would support a degree of autonomy for Flanders, and some more radical ones would demand a federal structure for Belgium – Vlaams Blok demanded the unspeakable: Flemish independence.
  2. An anti-immigrant program. Vlaams Blok was the party that put immigration and Islam not just on the political agenda, but made it into THE electoral trump card.
  3. Charismatic and undisputed leadership. Vlaams Blok won its first election with two highly articulate and technically competent young politicians, Filip Dewinter and Gerolf Annemans. Unbeatable in media debates and easily perceived as champions of the “common man”, these two figureheads survived several generations of politicians and are still active today. Their leadership in the party remained unqualified until very recently.

The main innovation brought by Vlaams Blok was point (2) in this list. Until 1988, immigration and multiculturalism were marginal as political themes. As a policy domain of very modest scope, these themes had emerged in Belgium in the late 1970s only, and they had emerged in the broader context of the socio-economic issues following the economic recession of the mid-1970s. Immigrants had been particularly hard-hit by the economic contraction, and politicians felt that specific measures should be taken. The problem with immigrants was defined as a socio-economic one.

Vlaams Blok brought a radically different definition of the problem. Immigrants presented a cultural and political threat to Flemish society. Their presence distorted and threatened the fundamental identity of Flanders as a white, Christian and Dutch-speaking region characterized by a set of values and preferences with which those of – notably Muslim – minorities were profoundly at odds. Since, in addition to this, the economic role of immigrants had declined due to the recession, immigrants should be turned back to their countries of origin.

Onto this anti-immigrant theme, several others could be grafted.

  1. Vlaams Blok strongly advocated a law-and-order approach openly focused on immigrant youth, seen as the source of urban unrest, waves of petty crime (often drugs-related) and widespread feelings of insecurity in some urban neighborhoods. Of course, 9/11 and the proclamation of the worldwide War on (Muslim) Terror provided powerful boosts to this aspect of the Vlaams Blok agenda.
  2. The party also advocated the restrictions of social welfare benefits and civil and political rights to “native” Flemish people, excluding immigrants from the welfare state and/or creating a dual system of social policy. Naturally, full citizenship (including the right to vote and seek political mandates) should be the privilege of “native” Flemish people only.

The most dramatic impact of Vlaams Blok, however, was more general:

  1. They redefined the meaning of “democracy”. They did so with a simple slogan: “we are saying what you are thinking”. And they added a simple argument to that, directed at their political adversaries: since we win elections, we represent “the voice of the people” and you don’t. The other parties were defined as “traditional”, an enclosed “political elite” alienated from the “common man”, and this traditional elite politics had created a “gap between citizens and politics” which Vlaams Blok had filled. The party systematically presented itself as the champion of freedom of speech, and would never stop complaining about media censorship and silencing tactics performed against them by the “elites”.

Vlaams Blok was proud of its extreme right-wing roots and program; prominent members would attend events celebrating Flemish SS-veterans of World War II, and the party established a strong network with other extreme right-wing and neofascist movements across Europe. Vlaams Blok members would proudly call themselves “right wing”, “radical” and “uncompromising”, thus adding previously unheard political self-qualifications to the political-discursive register of Belgian politics.

The impact of Vlaams Blok

The political adversaries of the Vlaams Blok reacted swiftly to the electoral shockwave of Black Sunday. A cordon sanitaire was declared by all other parties, promising never to enter into formal political collaboration with the party. Politicians would, until this day, explicitly proclaim their fundamental differences with Vlaams Blok and their refusal to enter into coalitions with them. Much later, in 2004, the party was brought to court on racism charges. The controversial trial led to a conviction, and the party was forced to change its name into Vlaams Belang.

Implicitly, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments.

This was the explicit part of the reaction. Implicitly, however, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments, in a kind of pied-piper reflex aimed at regaining the lost electoral ground. Even more: the six points listed above have, 25 years after the electoral breakthrough of this right-wing extremist party, become mainstream. Thus, while the cordon sanitaire excluded the party from power, its influence was pervasive and persistent. The party caused a decisive political-discursive shift – the same shift as the one now witnessed elsewhere in Europe and the US.

By opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted

This shift can be described as follows. By introducing new “extreme” topics and modes of political speech (qualified, systematically, as “simply stating facts” and therefore matters of “freedom of speech”), all previously “extremist” positions became “moderate”. Thus by opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted along. Concretely, when one demands that all illegal aliens ought to be deported, every proposal for repression short of deportation becomes “moderate” and reasonable in comparison to the “extreme” one. Similarly, if one demands independence for Flanders, proposals for a confederal state can be presented as moderate and reasonable, even if they are vastly more radical than previously held plans for a federal state. And so forth. The entire specter of Belgian politics moved, quite dramatically, in that direction.

Thus, after 1991, all parties embarked on large-scale exercises of rebranding and reorganization, aimed at “closing the gap” with the citizens defined by Vlaams Blok. The traditional system in which parties articulated the interests of large and well-organized civil society organizations (trade unions, religious and socio-economically defined communities, local and regional constituencies) and relied on a large membership of militants was rapidly replaced by an entirely new format of political practice based on high-profile personalities, marketing, polling and mass mediatized propaganda, later significantly expanded by the use of internet-based new media. Politicians became celebrities (and celebrities became politicians), and the voter was, henceforth, approached as a “customer” rather than as an ideologically affiliated fellow-traveler. The era of the glib and quotable one-liner and “politics-as-lifestyle-option” had arrived, replacing that of the slow and careful technical explanation of policy options. All parties desperately wished to avoid being trapped in the label of “elite”, and all claimed to express “the voice of the common man”. Populism, in short, became the default mode of politics. New types of political leaders, new types of political style, discourse, tactics and strategy were established, and new themes started dominating the political landscape.

For the same shift towards the Vlaams Blok could be seen in all the thematic domains listed above. Far more radical versions of Flemish nationalism became mainstream. And when an erstwhile “moderate” Flemish-nationalist party exploded in the early years of the millennium, a far more radical one succeeded it, called N-VA. Article 1 of their Statute identifies Flemish independence as the ultimate political goal. This party is currently the largest Flemish party, and dominates both the Flemish and the Federal Governments. More on this below.

Immigration and multiculturalism became overwhelmingly culturalized, and the socio-economic line previously followed was all but entirely abandoned and replaced by Huntington-ian discourses of “integration problems” caused by fundamental cultural-religious differences between “us” and – increasingly but incessantly – Muslims. Law-and-order repression replaced softer approaches aimed at employability, education and training, and improved social mobility for minority members. Voting rights became a taboo issue, and immigrants acquired voting rights only as part of the implementation of EU-directives in 2004. The dominant discursive and policy model now is that minority members “need to take responsibility” for their own position of inequality, that racism is too often used as an excuse for failing to use the opportunities “we” offer “them”, and that Muslim “extremism” means that “integration has failed” and that a more coercive approach is warranted.

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too. Black Sunday was explained in the media in precisely the terms defined by Vlaams Blok: yes, there was a problem of democratic legitimacy for the “traditional” parties, and yes, Vlaams Blok asked “the right questions” (but gave undesirable answers). Throughout the 1990, the mass media provided encouraging commentary for the shift towards populism and the adoption of important parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda. In a political system increasingly dominated by mass-mediatization, this support mattered, it mattered a great deal.

Lessons for today?

Vlaams Blok became the single most consistently successful political formation in Belgian politics since World War II. From its first electoral success in 1988 until 2006, the party won 13 consecutive electoral victories. It did so in spite of a cordon sanitaire which deprived voters from any hope of real executive power, and in spite of the mass copying and imitation acts of all other parties. This success story also turned Vlaams Blok from an early mover in the European extreme-right-wing universe into an exceptionally consistent political formation, and a model for several more recent similar European parties.

The tactic of copying and imitation, thus, did not pay off for the other political parties. The Flemish Social-Democrats, for instance, lost half of their electorate in the period since Black Sunday. Filip Dewinter himself would provide a simple explanation: people would always prefer the authentic brand product above its imitations or counterfeit versions. He was right, of course: given their adoption of substantial parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda, parties found it increasingly difficult to wage a convincing and consistent opposition against Vlaams Blok. And given the technical brilliance of the latter’s leaders in media performances, defeat was almost inevitable for the “traditional” parties.

The party lost some of its electoral force after the worldwide crisis of 2008, when socio-economic themes regained prominence in political discourse and programs. But the first really bad defeat only occurred in 2014, when the previously mentioned recently created N-VA party captured about one third of the Flemish electorate, led by a charismatic and highly media-friendly leader Bart de Wever. Interestingly, this party did copy and imitate Vlaams Blok – it did so almost entirely in the six domains sketched earlier – but it combined this Vlaams Blok agenda with an outspoken and radical neoliberal economic platform. Thus, the Vlaams Blok program has now acquired executive power. N-VA has cleverly exploited the huge discursive shift mentioned earlier, moving as closely as possible to the positions held by Vlaams Blok, and just adding a “moderate” (essentially a more “rational”) stylistic inflection. And it drew most of its voters in the 2014 ballot from the existing Vlaams Blok electorate.

Copying and imitation does pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift performed by “illegitimate” political actors has been normalized.

Thus, copying and imitation does appear to pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift – the expansion of what is politically thinkable and publicly sayable, performed by “illegitimate” political actors such as Vlaams Blok – has been normalized. N-VA needed the overtly extremist (and legally racist) Vlaams Blok in order to create a “normal” political place for itself. Likewise, Boris Johnson can only be explained by Nigel Farage and the English Defence League; and Donald Trump capitalizes on the efforts of an extremely radical neoconservative movement that started under Clinton and took the shape of the Tea Party under Obama. Thus, the new, radical right-wing politicians we now have emerge in a new, reshaped discursive field in which much of what was seen as shocking and politically transgressive two decades ago can be presented now as just a statement of fact, the performance of which is a matter of freedom of speech, and, ultimately, a vital sign of of a true and vibrant democracy.

“We are saying what you are thinking” has become the single most powerful political motif in recent years. In Belgium, it has profoundly transformed the political arena for 25 years, and it has been consistently successful. Witnessing the more recent re-enactments of this process of transformation elsewhere in the world is, therefore, a highly frustrating experience – the same patterns evolved, the same errors were made, and the same outcomes define a present which, looking back, was in fact highly predictable.

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TINA undressed 2: History without agency

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Jan Blommaert 

This morning, ING Bank announced a worldwide restructuration in which 7,000 jobs will be cut, about half of which in its Belgian branch. The restructuration did not come as a surprise to many employees and observers, in spite of ING having done not too badly at all – the last decade saw a net profit of around 11 billion Euro, with over 7 billion in dividend, and a 30% increase in the CEO’s remuneration last year. So it is not that the bank is on the brink of collapse or that its shares are nosediving. Thus, why this range of deep-cutting measures?

ING communicated its decision in a statement called “Accelerating Think Forward“. The restructuration is part of a strategy implemented since 2014 (“Think Forward”), which now demands acceleration, more specifically “a number of initiatives to further improve the customer experience, further grow primary customers and lending, and increase efficiency”. The bank has done quite well, as we have seen. However, says CEO Ralph Hamers, “[w]e also promised to keep getting better and that is exactly what today’s steps are aimed at. Our recent successes allow us to do so from a position of strength.”

The past is, thus, just the take-off for the future. This future is by definition not known. But nevertheless, ING reads the signs:

“Customers are increasingly digital and bank with us more and more through mobile devices. Their needs and expectations are the same, all over the world, and they expect us to adopt new technology as fast as companies in other sectors. In order to continue to lead in digital banking, we need to offer a better customer experience, that’s instant, personal, frictionless and relevant. At the same time, banks are confronted with continuous regulatory burden and a prolonged period of ultra-low interest rates. These factors put pressure on the returns which are necessary to fund growth and investments, and cover our cost of capital.”

Observe how ING suggests that the prime mover behind this plan is the customer, whose preferences, demands and expectations have shifted into a direction that demands “a better customer experience, that’s instant, personal, frictionless and relevant”. Money only appears at the very end of the statement:

“In line with our strategy, we will be introducing ING Group financial targets for 2020. We will maintain our ING Group CET1 ratio above the prevailing fully-loaded requirement, currently 12.5%, with a leverage ratio above 4%. Our target for the cost/income ratio is 50-52%. In light of the continuing regulatory uncertainty, we are not updating our RoE target (currently 10-13% of ING Bank IFRS-EU equity), but we reiterate our intention to pay a progressive dividend over time.”

Given that we are talking about a bank operating in a competitive global banking universe and owned by shareholders demanding specific levels of return on investment, it is relatively safe to suspect that the real prime mover is profit, and that the new customer experience is a means to that end.

The reversal of those two elements brings us to the TINA (There is no alternative) frame. In an earlier piece I discussed how a particular discursive use of identity forms part of the TINA frame; here we see similar things happening with history. And to summarize the point, we see how in the ING statement, a particular distinction is made between

  • history with agency, and
  • history without agency

The history-with-agency is the strategy presented by the bank. Its plan “Thinking Forward” already incorporates a clear agentive frame – it’s the bankers who think – and “accelerating” that plan is obviously also something decided more or les sovereignly by the bank’s executives. The strategy, in short, articulates how the bank intends to control a future through specific measures designed to benefit from…. a history over which they have no agency. And this history-without-agency is described in the paragraph in which the developments in customer expectations and market circumstances are given.

From a purely factual viewpoint, the bank has co-shaped all the conditions presented in that paragraph. ING customers have, for years, been pushed towards more digital and less branch-based banking activities through measures implemented by no one else but the bank (and often contested by the customers themselves). The same goes for the “regulatory context” referred to, including the “ultra-low interest rates”, which occured often both in response to existing banking problems, as well as at the request of banking lobbies. None of these forces, thus, can structly be depicted as alien, outside forces over which the bank has no control. The same counts a fortiori for the elephant in the room: profitability target setting. The shareholders are the bank, and as we have seen in the fragment above, they have received 10-13% percent “Return on Equity” – a quite extraordinary level of profit, reflecting, one could say, quite unrealistic levels of expected profit growth. And these target settings are not forced upon the bank by outside forces.

The paradox, however, is that ING presents the entire operation as a rational response – their agency – to forces of history that they can only follow, by trying to remain ahead of them. In other words: they are suggesting that they respond to historical forces by shaping them. “Sorry, but there is no other way to respond to future challenges than to create them ourselves.” This paradox is nicely woven into the delicate discourse of cause-and-effect in the statement, and this particular discursive move feeds into the TINA frame: things are what they are, there is no alternative for history than a future shaped by us. We can see this nicely in this final fragment:

“While not all plans we present today are finalized, the intended initiatives are expected to result in a reduction of ING´s workforce in Belgium by around 3,500 FTEs and by around 2,300 FTEs in the Netherlands for the years 2016-2021. These numbers include the intended move to an integrated banking platform, with the remainder of functions affected spread over intended programmes in IT, operations, Wholesale Banking and various business support functions. At the same time, we will add colleagues in parts of our business where we expect to accelerate growth given our plans to continue to attract new customers and increase lending to support the economies we are active in.”

It’s all about agency here, and incidentally the agency articulated here touches precisely those causal forces previously described as beyond the grasp of the bank – the objective directions of history in the banking world.

At the heart of TINA, there is a lie – we all know that. The lie revolves around the suggestion of non-agency, of absolute and uncontrollable actors shaping fields of action in which those using the TINA frame claim to have just minimal, responsive, and therefore rational agency. While in fact, they are the actors. In other words: they pretend to be the victims of a future they themselves are engineering. And this future is, of course, an absolute and undisputable given, to which they can only adjust their course of action.

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TINA undressed 1: Identity politics as identity without politics

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Jan Blommaert 

On a hot day in July 2016, four policemen walked onto a beach in Nice, France, ordered a Muslim woman to take off part of her hijab dress, in full view of dozens of other tourists, and fined her for violations of the local decency regulations. The incident was captured by a photographer (which makes the public undressing even more disconcerting) and the images went viral. They triggered a fierce international debate on the why and how of such interventions, in which Muslim female dress is seen as a direct index of a deeper threat – that of jihadism.

How could these four policemen see their intervention as “normal”? After all, one can question, on grounds of common sense, quite a few aspects of a situation in which four armed men order a woman to publicly undress, and sanction her “over-dressedness” on a beach as an act of indecency. The answer can be found elsewhere, in a feature of public debate which has become pervasive whenever Islam and its (real or imagined) characteristics are the theme. There is a highly peculiar use of identity in such arguments, and I shall attempt to sketch it in what follows.

As I said, the incident triggered a massive debate in mass and social media, in which broadly two camps could be discerned. One camp saw the police action as normal and argued that hijab does not belong in our society, since it is an emblem of Islamic backwardness regarding male-female equality. The other camp saw it as a transgression of civil liberties – the freedom of religion – and as an illustration of the absurdities to which the War on Terror (read: the West versus Islam) had led. Both camps overlap to some extent (but certainly not in absolute terms, as we shall see) with the traditional Right-Left distinctions in the political field.

In Belgium, too, this debate raged, and the Belgian-Flemish Social-democrats took a position which largely sided with the first camp. For this, evidently, they were attacked by fractions of the Left. And on 15 August, a member of the Social Democratic party posted the following update on Facebook (Dutch original, my translation).

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There is, in se, nothing remarkable about the text, other than that it combines several arguments found in hundreds of other interventions in these discussion. I summarize them as follows:

  1. The text makes a neat distinction between “us and them”, and both parties are treated in a fundamentally different way.
  2. The “us” party is characterized by epistemic superiority: we know how wrong “they” are, and we know what “they” should do in response to that.
  3. The “they” party is described as a situated entity in the “here-and-now” chronotope. Their actual and concrete behavior is the focus of discussion.
  4. The “we” party, in contrast, is described as absolute and timeless, in a “here-always” chronotope, by invoking “our” history (Enlightenment) and “our” values.
  5. “Their” behavior is political: concrete forms of behavior are seen as an immediate and distinct threat to “democracy”. Our reaction to this, in contrast, is explicitly depoliticized and presented as a simple factual, rational, observation.

This neat (and recurrent) separation of different universes for “us” and “them” enables the author to conclude that the Social-Democratic emphasis on law and order has nothing to do with traditional political Left-Right distinctions. It is a matter of rational reasoning – a simple statement of “problems” – which refers not to specific really-existing political directions, but to our fundamental identity. Thus, it wasn’t President Hollande’s socialism that motivated the four policemen’s action, it was the values of Enlightenment.

We see here how identity is used as a very powerful argument, suggested to transcend everyday politics and to be played out at an existential and timeless level of essential identity. Small features of “their” behavior can now be seen as absolute challenges to who we are, and as in need of responses that protect that fundamental identity. Such responses can – or must – be given by political actors of all shades and colors: actual political positions (and traditions) do not matter here, for our very essence is at stake. And just like in economic matters, addressing the threat of Islam is captured in the TINA frame – there is only one way to respond to it, and that is to defend the absolute status of “our way” and accept no compromise, let alone an alternative strategy, in that battle. Since there is just one way, this way must be “rational”.

Decades ago, scholars such as Manuel Castells, Immanuel Wallerstein and Eric Hobsbawm warned us that identity would become the battlefield of the globalized political world. They were right, and we begin to see how this battlefield is organized: by a politics of identity which denies its political – contestable and debatable – nature, and instead offers itself as an absolute feature.

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