Did Brexaustion kill Corbyn’s media strategy?

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Jan Blommaert

The outcome of the UK elections of December 2019 led some observers to state that social media campaigns are not really decisive. Sure! But that doesn’t mean that more traditional forms of campaigning and media coverage are decisive either. Something else is going on: we should look carefully at the interaction of mainstream and social media in contemporary political campaigns if we want to figure that out.

Brexaustion & Corbyn’s defeat

The UK elections of 12 December 2019 were, to say the least, hard-fought. Unprecedented levels of agression and hyperbole were displayed by all parties during the entire campaign, which ultimately ran on two sets of issues: the Brexit issue with its polarized camps on the one hand, and the end to austerity and the comeback of an equitable welfare state in Britain on the other. While Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour focused on the second issue – a new post-Tory Britain – Boris Johnson’s Tories exclusively addressed the first one. And the Tories won, they won big. For Corbyn, a disastrous defeat concluded an intensive campaign.

This campaign “won the argument but not the battle” according to Corbyn. It was a big gamble for Labour to try and develop a campaign agenda in which Brexit only played a secondary role – Labour, if returned to power, would roll back the Tory austerity policies of the past decade, and then submit Brexit to a second referendum.

But Brexit, obviously, was the dominant theme. Or rather “Brexaustion”, the widespread sense that the Brexit discussion had been dragging on, annoyingly, for far too long and needed to be concluded here and now. It was Brexaustion that informed and triggered the Tories’ central slogan in their campaign: “Get Brexit Done”.

The fact that the themes brought forward by Labour were of minor importance to Johnson’s party is illustrated by the numerous misrepresentations, lies and manipulations produced by Tory campaigners on such topics. Publicly displayed awkwardness or embarrassment, as when Johnson snatched a reporter’s phone when a picture of a sick child was shown to him, did not matter as long as the central topic – Brexaustion – remained safe and solid.

Occasionally, and in the last days of the campaign, Johnson would adopt some key demands from his opponents in his own campaign rhetoric – investments in the NHS’s public health provision, for instance – so as to infuse his Brexit message with a message projecting a better future after Brexit. The campaign was great in its simplicity (or simplism, some would argue). And it won the day for Boris Johnson.

Superficial analyses

Of course, there was no shortage of interpretations and analyses of the Labour defeat in the hours and days following the dramatic election night. Several such analyses articulated a sense of betrayal by Corbyn and put the blame for Labour’s catastrophic result squarely on him, his leadership style, his lack of clarity on Brexit, and his stubborn insistence on different campaign themes.

Others argued that the defeat of Corbyn’s electoral program heralded the end of ‘the Left’ in its current form in Britain. And of course, all observers agreed that Corbyn had to step down as party leader, and that Labour would have to change its ‘Left’ direction to a more ‘centrist’ one or vice versa.

In the same breath, these observers claimed that Johnson’s Brexit agenda had commanded overwhelming support in Britain and that opponents of Brexit needed to come to terms with that fact. Note in passing that, while such demolition jobs of the Corbyn campaign were plenty, lionized film-script like accounts of Johnson’s victorious campaign also flourished.

Analyses so shortly after a political drama of historic proportions are evidently prone to overgeneralization, partiality and simplification. It’s a genre of political commentary which we should approach with much reserve. The clarity of the Brexit issue, for instance, and the fact that it’s Johnson’s understanding of what Brexit meant in the elections that now defines the parameters of the debate – both these points are deeply flawed. For the SNP (Scottish National Party) also ran on the theme of Brexit but blended it with several other themes.

The point made here is: Scotland doesn’t want Brexit, and certainly not on the terms defined by the Tories. Scotland needs an end to austerity and demands protection of the NHS (here are the key campaign points of Labour). If Tories wish to push their agenda through, Scotland will demand independence. The SNP was able, by means of this blended and more complex platform, to carry Scotland in a landslide victory. We see here how the Labour pro-welfare state agenda points did work electorally, when blended with a strong regionalism and a clear anti-Brexit (and anti-Johnson) stance. Boris Johnson won Westminster, but the SNP won Scotland.

The social media issue

One of the issues emerging in reactions to the election results was, unsurprisingly, the role of the media. During the campaign, Labour supporters very frequently complained about the mainstream media bias in favor of the Tories.

Corbyn himself had repeatedly insisted on the perverse role of “billionaire media tycoons” in the public campaigns against him and his party. And when the results of the election became clear, the UK’s mass media – and not just its tabloid section, as we saw above – were blamed for their contribution to the outcome. In the same breath, it was said that social media campaigns had failed.

Let me start by noting that Labour ran an amazing, intense social media campaign in which nearly all platforms were saturated with high-quality messages, and which drew large audiences towards Labour’s social media channels. Judged from social media only, Labour had succeeded at re-setting the agenda and direction of the election campaign, and polls suggested that Labour had managed to seriously narrow the lead of the Conservatives in the polls. Clearly and convincingly, Labour had won the elections on social media.

Of course, all of that proved to be pointless on December 12. Labour’s dominance and brilliance on social media may have “won the argument” as Corbyn said, but not the election. It succeeded in a few things – winning hearts and minds, and more votes than Blair’s Labour in 2005 – but not in winning seats.  So fingers were pointed at Britain’s mainstream media and their anti-Corbyn bias.

Some Corbyn supporters concluded from this that the massive investments made in social media campaigning had been futile, given the substantial predominance of traditional media in the UK.

A weaponized hybrid media system

We are stuck in an either-or argument here: one has to choose between either mainstream media or social media. And superficial analyses add to this: it’s Johnson’s mainstream media dominance that defeated Corbyn’s social media dominance. Obviously, such an either-or argument does not hold water. Here are some points to consider.

One: most of what can be read in the way of analyses focuses exclusively on the campaigns, i.e. the messages directly emerging from the political actors themselves during the relatively short period leading up to the elections. Seen from that perspective, things are clear: the quality and intensity of Corbyn’s social media campaign were unmatched by that of any of his competitors. Yet he lost.

Looking at the campaigns alone, however, reduces contemporary political discourse to discourse produced by professional politicians and party staff alone. While we know that most political discourse today is produced and circulated by a multitude of actors – people like us. So rather than just looking at campaigns, one should look at the totality of exposure in contemporary mass-communication.

Two: that is where mainstream media come in. As observed by BBC’s Amol Rajan (in an exceptionally perceptive post-election analysis), “It is very interesting that many of the most viral clips on social media from the past few weeks were initially broadcast on traditional media.” Such mainstream media materials, in other words, became crucial objects in the social media campaigns. This effectively sinks the either-or imagery of mainstream versus social media: we see a hybrid media system at work in which (a) the different media types coexist and sometimes coincide while they diverge on other moments; and (b) a very broad range of actors ensures the production, circulation and uptake of political messages, most of whom are just rank-and-file citizens.

Three: contemporary advanced political campaigning involves the coordination of actions on very different media, not a properly segmented specialized division between social media work and mainstream media. One needs to generate precisely the kinds of intense interactions between different parts of the media system described by Amol Rajan in which elements from mainstream media are integrated in social media strategies and vice versa, creating a totalized ‘bubble’ of well-organized messages. We can call this the weaponization of the hybrid media systemthe creation, planning and coordination of a ‘total’ media strategy aimed at saturating the entire media system and exploiting the algorithmic environment in which the media system operates. And let it be the case that Boris Johnson’s campaign was run by the undisputed master of this game, Dominic Cummings (one of the architects of the successful pro-Brexit campaign in 2016).

Four: such advanced political campaigns are not aimed at converting ‘the public’ (i.e. the so-called ‘masses’) but at converting specific publics, usually the voters in ‘swing constituencies’. It’s micromarketing targeting specific groups with specific messages so as to create the ‘bubble’ mentioned above, not mass marketing targeting everyone with generic messages. The ultimate objective of such campaigns is not the population but the electoral system: it’s okay if the opponent gets more votes, as long as s/he loses the battle for elected representatives, and a series of small but significant victories is to be preferred over a bigger but ineffective one. This explains why Corbyn’s Labour obtained more votes than Blair’s team in 2005 but significantly less seats (and why Hilary Clinton won the popular vote while Trump won the White House in 2016). We should look at total exposure, as said above, but also at distribution when examining communication strategies.

Five: analyses based on the campaign alone are also restricted in time and tend to address just what went on from the moment a campaign officially starts until the moment of the elections. While in the weaponization strategy just mentioned, infrastructures, messages and target audiences need to be identified and prepared long before such campaigns start, and algorithms need to be made sensitive to items deployed en masse much later.

There is ample evidence that the Tories have been doing just that: creating social media and algorithmic infrastructures in which anti-Corbyn and anti-Labour campaign messages could be tested and disseminated long before elections came in sight, and in which specific target audiences could be identified and ‘bubbled’. This might explain the rather lacklustre social media performance of Johnson and the Tories during the campaign: most of the work had already been done long before the campaign had started.

It also shows how wrong it is to suggest that Boris Johnson only benefited from his support in the mainstream media. While there is no doubt that some “billionaire media tycoons” clearly preferred a Conservative victory over a Labour one, support structures had been installed across the entire media system before things really took off. When Jeremy Corbyn tried to insert a different line of arguments into the campaign, most of the space there had already been taken by the “Get Brexit Done” of the Tories, certainly in the ‘swing constituencies’ that were sensed to determine the result.

Johnson, or Cummings behind him, may not have designed a specialized social media campaign (while Labour clearly did). But they designed a hybrid media weaponization campaign in which the entire field of media exposure was attacked and in which specific game-changing audiences were relentlessly addressed. So while Corbyn won the battle on social media, he lost the war on this broader media exposure front.

How to analyze this?

The point is that most of this weaponization strategy remains invisible during a campaign. Like in war, one thinks of guns only when they start firing; the question of how such weapons got into place and were supplied with ammunition, personnel and directions of fire is usually a matter only addressed by military historians. By the time the campaign really starts, the weaponization strategy has shaped its ‘structure’, its ecosystem. And this means that analyses of the communication effects in elections now need to be longitudinal, pay attention to events in the background as well as to those in the spotlights, that they need to address the entire media system rather than segments of it, and look carefully at the distribution of communicative actions over specific audiences.

This approach has implications: three very widespread assumptions need to be critically reassessed.

One, the idea of ‘campaigns’ as self-standing and all-decisive periods of communication has become an anachronism. Campaigns are permanent these days and accurate analysis of the political process will need to be able to spot the seemingly unrelated and innocuous little signs, the significance of which can now only be judged in retrospect. This significance is, note, electoral rather than related to, say, popularity or legitimacy in the eyes of ‘the people’.

Two, the idea of the individual politician or party as the core actor in political communication is equally an anachronism. We need to address and identify the various specific collectivities that ensure production, circulation and uptake of political messages, as well as the algorithmic infrastructures used in the process.

Three: the idea of political communication as a process evolving between politicians and ‘the people’ (in clear and stable relationships) equally needs to be revisited. Sophisticated campaigners appear not to worry too much about what ‘the people’ think and how they react, and they have no difficulties explicitly antagonizing segments of ‘the people’. They are targeting specific segments of the population and keep electoral effects in mind, rather the thing we like to call ‘public opinion’. In addition, the uptake expected of specific audiences is active and productive – commenting, reposting, liking, and so forth, creating new political messages within and beyond the bubble – and not just ‘listening’ or other forms of passive uptake. Audience selection, audience design and active audience involvement are crucial in any analysis.

Apart from offering obvious analytical benefits these points will, incidentally, help overcome one of the nastiest aspects of current poor campaign-focused analysis: the (often heard) claim that people ‘out there’ – usually those belonging to the working class or otherwise stigmatized groups – are passive receivers of messages and just ‘believe’ the rubbish they are being fed by the tabloids. Much more complex things are going on, and it is high time for us to start getting our heads around them.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on message

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Jan Blommaert

(Also published on Diggit Magazine)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to the US House of Representatives during the tumultuous midterm elections of late 2018. Running for the Democrats in the 14th District of New York – including the Bronx and part of Queens – she won a landslide, crushing her Republican opponent with 78% of the vote. Born in 1989, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest female Congresswoman ever. And not only that: she became a digital media phenomenon of global scope.

From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to AOC

The point of departure for what follows is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a highly unlikely candidate for such instant political stardom. Born in the Bronx as the daughter of lower middle-class Puertorican parents, submitting a CV in which academic brilliance is blended with activism and with menial jobs as bartender and waitress, and – more than anything else – proudly proclaiming unambiguously socialist principles: this is not the stuff that dreams are made of in the contemporary world of high office in the US. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is clearly an outsider.

But here is the thing: during her campaign and even more after her election, the image of the outsider was and is consistently, and quite brilliantly, used in her favor. This image  became the umami ingredient in terrifically designed and effective social media campaigns creating waves of viral popularity for which only Mr Trump himself provided a precedent. But with a difference: whereas the social media campaigns of Trump and others were overwhelmingly financed by corporate donors, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign funding was drawn from civil society and individual sources – her top donor is Columbia University and in the list of industrial sectors providing funding, the category of “others” (read: people who cannot be associated with an industrial sector) largely leads the pack. Crowdsourcing and volunteers provided the basis for Ocasio-Cortez’s enormous exposure and visibility during and after the campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign used all social media platforms – there is nothing exceptional to that. However, there is again a difference worth noting. Her campaign YouTube channel looks dismal with its 7.800 subscribers; the one million friends and followers of her Facebook page  are a crowd commanding some more respect. But things get more impressive. Her main Twitter account (user name @AOC) is followed by about 2,5 million people, and – most remarkable of all figures – the official Ocasio-Cortez Instagram account counts 1,9 million followers, which places her nicely into the league of global entertainment and sports stars (many of whom follow her account). Posts there get hundreds of thousands of likes and tons of comments.

In fact, it is through her intense usage of Instagram as a strategic mass-communicative device that Ocasio-Cortez stands out and innovates political digital culture. While the Twitter account is dominated by largely political updates, it is on Instagram that Ocasio-Cortez merges the roles of politician and popcult influencer. And it is there that we see the smart and carefully curated visual display of someone at once glamorous and plebeian, wearing designer fashion and Walmart, young and mature, sophisticated and plain, model and politician, frivolous and professional. All of these dimensions are picked up by followers and eagerly commented on, as we can see below. While the Twitter account is the brain, the Instagram account is the heart of Ocasio-Cortez’s communication strategy. And it’s a massive success.

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The effectiveness of the strategy becomes clear when we look at a detail: the fact that her name has become a media and public opinion acronym. AOC rapidly became, like FDR and JFK before her, the shorthand name used by supporters and opponents alike to talk about the unlikely candidate from New York’s District 14. Its effectiveness also becomes clear when we look at another phenomenon: the amount and intensity of media aggression directed at AOC. Ocasio-Cortez has become the target of daily avalanches of media criticism from her opponents. And in the same way as with Donald Trump in 2016, this negative exposure turns her into an even greater icon and creates a veritable brand, called AOC.

This brand label, incidentally, can be read on any bottle of French wine or on French cheese, where it stands for Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée and flags the authenticity of the origin of the product, along with its exclusive qualities and flavors. There is no end to the creative associative wordplay and innuendo that can be performed through the use of “AOC”, and the main indexical vector of “AOC” – let’s not forget – is positive.

AOC is on message

AOC is the outsider in Washington DC: this was the central theme in her campaign, it was the message. The message was constructed in two ways. One, by emphasizing her humble origins and her very modest material circumstances in self-presentations such as the central YouTube campaign clip. And two, by responses to opponents attacking her for being “out of place” in the world of high politics.

To start with the first, the campaign clip (viewed about 800.000 times) opens with a shot of AOC in a plain bathroom getting ready for a public appearance, accompanied by the statement “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family”. The frame is clear: the “normal” profiles of people running for high office in the US include such wealthy and powerful family backgrounds. AOC pictures herself, right from the start, as an outsider. But the title of the clip is The Courage to Change, and here is the full message: by running for office, AOC displays the courage to change the political system. It is exactly by being an outsider that she will be an agent of change – it is because I don’t belong here that I must be here. We hear an echo here again – be it an echo from within an entirely different socio-economic corner of society – of Mr. Trump’s central campaign message. Only outsiders can “drain the swamp” on The Hill.

The message, evidently, is powerful. And Ocasio-Cortez hammers it home relentlessly, by posting pictures on Instagram featuring other outsiders – her newly elected female peers in Congress (especially the Muslima Ilhan Omar, as in the Intagram post above), members of ethnic and Native American minorities, ordinary folk, suffering people.

And it is played out in virtuoso ways whenever Ocasio-Cortez comes under fire from opponents claiming that she is the wrong person for Congress. When in early January 2019 critics “unearthed” a ten-year old video of AOC, a student then, dancing on the roof of Boston University, a barrage of moral accusations was launched at Ocasio-Cortez. Mainstream as well as social media cried wolf about this “clueless nitwit” who obviously lacked the gravitas required for service as a member of Congress. AOC responded instantly with another video on Twitter and Instagram. The 11-seconds clip was a masterpiece: it shows the outsider in front of her office door in the House, dancing to Edwin Starr’s classic “War (what is it good for?)” and stating, with a wink, “Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too!” The clip got more than 20 million views in three weeks’ time.

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The point made here is: “I won’t be changed by Congress, Congress will be changed by me” – I will continue to do the things others consider transgressive and out-of-place, because that is what change is all about. And in that sense, transgression becomes the very thing she broadcasts: the suggestion that people must get used to someone who doesn’t fit the standard formats. She posted updates saying that House staff keep mistaking her for a spouse or an intern, and when a photoshoot in which she wore a very expensive set of designer clothes was being used by critics to doubt her humble origins and socialist orientation, she simply had to state that the clothes were of course not hers but borrowed from a designer for the photoshoot, and that they were inspired by the vintage look of left-wing radical activist Angela Davis – and the topic was entirely hers. Again, Twitter and Instagram were the main fora for such media-counterterror actions. With stunning visual self-presentations accompanied by concise razor-sharp statements, she dominates debates on these fora.

People are “on message” when the features they display adequately point towards the image they try to convey of themselves. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has understood the tremendous affordances of social media for “messaging” and takes political digital culture to yet another level. For rarely has anyone been so spectacularly “on message”. And while she’s in actual fact merely a (very) junior Congresswoman with a lot to prove, she’s risen to be one of the biggest things in the contemporary global political and celebrity worlds – in no time at all. Her maiden speech in the House is the most frequently viewed video ever produced by CSPAN.

Is she punching above her weight? Well, her first real policy proposal – to raise the top tax rate for the very wealthy to 70% – morphed from unspeakable and too-silly-for-words to a prime time national debating topic and opinion poll winner in a matter of weeks. It looks as if the weight categories have been redrawn lately…

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Why has Cultural Marxism become the enemy?

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Jan Blommaert

In the colossal manifesto Anders Behring Breivik wrote before killing sixty-plus members of a Norwegian social-democratic youth organization in 2011, “Cultural Marxists” are a prominent category of “traitors”. It is due to the Quisling-esque sellout to the enemy by this overrepresented elite that Europe is now threatened by a genocidal Islamic Jihad, to be perpetrated by the millions of Muslims who immigrated into European countries – so it reads. Consequently, they deserve the death penalty, and Breivik executed more than sixty of them.

Cultural Marxism: the monster

Admittedly, Breivik was an eccentric and a freak even by the standards of ultra-radical European nationalists. But the logic of his ideological constructions is more widely shared and features as a template for fractions of the New Right in Europe and beyond. And the phrase “Cultural Marxism”, still rather marginal in 2011, has in the meantime become a stock term in political debate and in neoconservative writings, and it has precisely the meaning it had in Breivik’s manifesto. In the words of an American organization called “Western Mastery”,

Cultural Marxism has become the cultural branch of globalism. The enormous impact of this ideology on Western culture cannot be understated. It has effectively demolished societal structures and propagated cultural perversion. It has created a society that is racially mixed but extremely politically divided, sexually promiscuous, abrasive, hedonistic, and flat-out bizarre.”

So: what is this monster? And why has it become such an enemy of the Right?

Silly old Marcuse

When Cultural Marxism is described in such writings (and Breivik’s manifesto can serve as an example once more), fingers are pointed in two directions: to Antonio Gramsci and to the Frankfurt School. While Gramsci’s role is somewhat ambivalent – he is implicitly hailed as the inventor of metapolitics, and his strategies have been widely adopted in conservative and New Right politics – the Frankfurt School is usually presented as guilty of a long list of charges. It was the Marxist approach to mass culture developed by Adorno that provoked the “cultural perversion” mentioned in the fragment above, because Adorno exposed the bourgeois foundations of what we generally perceive as beauty and quality. And as for Herbert Marcuse, his “Eros and Civilization” is presented as a frontal attack on the robustly patriarchal and heterosexual Western sexual order, and the harbinger of the “sexually promiscuous, abrasive, hedonistic and flat-out bizarre” characteristics of contemporary Western social life – where abortion, divorce, and equal rights for LGBT people are legally inscribed in the mainstream. Marcuse destroyed (single-handedly, it seems) the age-old structures of authority in family life, in the system of education, in sexual partnership, and he really is the bad guy in stories of this kind. The more since he apparently had an “enormous impact on Western culture”.

One could, of course, spend ages offering factual refutations of almost everything said and written about this representation of “Cultural Marxism” and its enormous influence. But conspiracy theories, even when dressed up in the fancy clothes of academic discourse, are “reasonable” but not rational, and even require an outright disqualification of rationality as the foundation of their plausibility. Even so, Marcuse and his fellow Marxists definitely receive way too much credit for the perceived decay of sexual morals and patriarchal structures. It would be quite “reasonable” for those who blame Cultural Marxism to simply Google “Benjamin Spock” and the “Kinsey Reports” – American sources firmly grounded in the Liberal tradition (not that of Marx), and arguably vastly more influential in the post WW2 Western world than the works of Adorno and Marcuse. Blaming the latter for causing everything that is detested by neoconservatives is a clear case of convenient overkill. And now we can move on to more serious issues.

The cultural branch of globalism

In his address to the UN General Assembly in late September 2018, President Trump declared “the end of the ideology of globalism” and welcomed the “doctrine of patriotism” – a doctrine of “mind your own business”. I’ll return to his interesting choice of words in a moment; for now we can observe that it is exactly this element – the rejection of globalism – that unites Breivik and Trump, Orban and Le Pen, Brexit and Wilders. Globalism is the real enemy, for it presupposes a degree of democratic egalitarianism (the liberty and fraternity of the French Republic and the “all men are born equal” of the American one). And it comes with things such as immigration and sociocultural and political diversity, solidarity with people elsewhere in the world, respect for transnational agreements and loyalty in international cooperation in systems such as that of the EU, the UN and NATO. Taken together, the term “globalism” is the umbrella for everything that is wrong in the eyes of the actors just listed. And all of them militantly promote “patriotism” and its associated lexical field: “nationalism”, “sovereignty”, “independence” and “liberty”.

Trump interestingly qualifies globalism as an “ideology”, and he uses the latter term here as “false consciousness”, as a flawed and distorted representation of reality propagated by ideologues. Ideology, when used in this sense, opens a frame in which terms such as “brainwashing”, “thought control”, “propaganda” and, more recently, “political correctness” co-occur. And here, of course, we encounter the Cultural Marxists once more.

In Breivik’s manifesto, the term Cultural Marxists is very often accompanied by and equated with “Leftists” (of course), with “multiculturalists” and, curiously, “feminists”. Who is guilty of allowing these millions of Jihadists-in-spe into our countries? Yes, the Cultural Marxists are, for it is their “enormous influence” that spawned feminism, which then, in turn (due to, one can read, the softer side of femininity), has made our societies weaker and less confident. And Cultural Marxism is, in itself, a “multiculturalist” project in which the venerable traditions and canons of our Western cultures are critically questioned, deconstructed, ridiculed and denied the solid superiority they used to have. Cultural Marxists, and by extension the entire Left, are in essence postmodern “relativists” (another bad word in these kinds of discourse universe), and their relativism has led to the present threat of cultural, political, and ultimately physical genocide. They have successfully detached the people from their sociocultural roots, and this is a capital crime in Breivik’s eyes.

Cosmopolitan precursors

There are precedents for this, and they are not the most pleasant ones. The meanings now covered by the terms related to Cultural Marxism were at several moments in the 20th century covered by the term “cosmopolitan”. In Nazi Germany, cosmopolitanism was seen as the opposite of “German-ness”, and it was very often used to describe the supposed innate characteristics of Jewish people. The Jews were described as people lacking roots in the German “Volk” and in the Aryan race; due to that, they could not be assumed to be politically loyal to Germany and bore the suspicion of cultural and racial “pollution” – which motivated the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 as well as the “Final Solution”.

The term cosmopolitanism was also used in Nazi propaganda to connect the Jews to Bolshevism, or, slightly reformulated, the foreigner to the Left. The argument was that the Soviet revolution was led by Jews (such as Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev), and that the ensuing international work of the COMINTERN was part of a Jewish strategy to achieve global power. The Jews had invented Bolshevism so as to lure others into a mass movement which was meant to make them the rulers of the world, in short. Since the COMINTERN also influenced communist and socialist parties in Germany and elsewhere, the connection between Jews, German left-wing political opponents and foreign interference in German politics could be conveniently made. The Reichstag fire of 1933 was blamed on underground COMINTERN agents and led to the political purge of the German Left. German socialists and communists were the first inmates of Dachau. The Left, so it was explained, could never be “patriotic” because of its allegiance to political internationalism – remember “proletarians of all countries, unite!”

For Stalin, the proletarians of all countries were just fine, but those of the Soviet Union needed to be, above all, “patriotic” – loyal to Stalin and embodying the values of the Stalinist Soviet Union. In 1946, the Zhdanov Doctrine was introduced, forcing artists, intellectuals and scientists into a straitjacket of what would now be called “political correctness”. Jewish intellectuals were a particular target of the enforcement of this doctrine, for (in an echo of Nazi propaganda) the Jews were suspected of “rootless cosmopolitanism“, of a preference for influences and developments “from elsewhere” lacking (and thus betraying or sabotaging) the true character of the Soviet Union and its culture. Here, too, cosmopolitanism was seen as a threat to power, stability and sociocultural tradition, and people whose profession invites an openness to such influences (think of, precisely, artists, scientists and intellectuals) were identified as prime targets for repression. Interestingly, such targets were often accused of political alignment with … Leftism: Trotskist, anarchist or social-democratic inclinations, i.e. foreign influences at odds with the views of the Soviet, “patriotic” variety of socialism.

What’s left of Cultural Marxism?

There is, we can observe, a long discourse tradition in which the present attacks on Cultural Marxism fit. But let us now return to the 21st century.

It is hard not to see reflections of the 20th century “rootless cosmopolitan Jew” in the ways in which the American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros is represented in current political discourse in Hungary. Soros – not a man of the Left by any standards – fell out with Viktor Orban over the Hungarian stance towards refugees in 2015. What followed was an avalanche of accusations in which the “cosmopolitan” Soros was accused of interference into Hungarian domestic politics through the transnational institutions and NGO’s he controlled. In other words, his “globalism” was attacked from within the “patriotism” which is Hungary’s current doctrine, and the trigger for the attack was that prototypical 21st century icon of “globalism”: migration.

The backlash against Soros quickly focused on the usual suspects: intellectuals. The Central European University in Budapest, one of Soros’ transnational institutions described as “a bastion of Liberalism”, came under threat of closure. In the same move, the gender studies program at one of Hungary’s leading universities lost its accreditation. As explained by a leading Hungarian politician,

“We must raise awareness to the fact that these programs are doing nothing to lift up our nation. In fact, they are destroying the values-centered mode of thinking that is still present in the countries of Central Europe”.

It is highly unusual for the government of an EU member state to interfere in what used to be called “academic freedom”, and the measure met severe criticism internationally. Orban, however, remained unperturbed even when the EU threatened Hungary with unprecedented sanctions. In his view, cheered on by the likes of Nigel Farage, the EU should stop preventing its member countries from using their sovereign powers. The EU, in short, is way too “globalist” an institution, an alien body that should not take the place of “patriotic” national governments.

We can see, through this example, that the trope of the Cultural Marxists as sole, or main, agents of “globalism” is in actual fact a canard of considerable size. Soros is not a Cultural Marxist; there is, in fact, little evidence that he has ever been influenced by any form of Marxism. He is a cosmopolitan entrepreneur, though, whose reach of activities is global – but in a very different sense than the one intended by Marx and Engels when they wrote “proletarians of all countries, unite!”

The same goes for the EU, of which one can say all sorts of things but not that it is a vehicle for Cultural Marxism. I invite critical readers to, for instance, consult the texts of the EU Commission’s Horizon 2020 program and identify fundable topics in which we detect the “enormous influence” of, for instance, “Eros and Civilization”.  And as for immigration, I welcome (critically though) analyses in which the German employers‘ repeated emphasis on the necessity of a qualified labor force of refugees (including Muslims, ladies and gentlemen) to maintain the German economy’s growth rate can be turned into a Breivikian Leftist conspiracy to weaken Europe and its peoples.

Roger Scruton, in a more civilized argument than that of Breivik, might view these German employers as “xenophiles” – people who have a preference for foreign cultures and who are, vice versa, “oikophobic”, displaying an aversion of what is ours. “Xenophilia” is yet another term we can add to “globalism” and “cosmopolitism”: it’s the wrong kind of openness to the world. But the flaw in the argument is obvious: according to Scruton and his followers, xenophilia is typically a Leftist attitude, incompatible with that of, say, Orban, Farage or Baudet. Yet, it appears compatible to that of international entrepreneurs such as George Soros or the management of Siemens and Volkswagen. Or such as Angela Merkel and the EU Council, for immigration is very much regulated by governments, not by Cultural Marxists writing books and holding speeches. As advocates and agents of immigration and political Liberalism, all those unlikely xenophiles appear to stand on the left of Cultural Marxism these days.

Globalism and globalization

We can see that the argument connecting Cultural Marxism to all that is wrong with the present Western world when seen from a Right-wing or conservative viewpoint is terrifically muddled and incoherent. It’s an easy shot: connect your political opponent (the Left) to the lack of national political agency due to international collaboration systems (“globalism”) and a racialized, ethnicized or culturalized and moralized version of a national utopia (polluted by migration and threatened by Muslims, feminists and LGBT people), and you have a discursive template that enables you to explain everything while actually addressing nothing. It’s a political-discursive passe-partout, reasonable for those willing to believe it, but profoundly irrational. The latter was demonstrated by President Trump himself. Shortly after solemnly declaring the end of “globalism”, he called upon the UN Security Council (one of the great fora of post-WW2 “globalism”, if you wish) to back the US sanctions against Iran. Thus, his new doctrine can be reformulated as “mind your own business, while I’ll mind everyone else’s”, and transnationalism hasn’t yet left the building.

Part of the incoherence is the confusion of a fuzzy and highly elastic term such as “globalism” with a highly precise and concrete concept such as “globalization”. Globalization is the development of a worldwide system of cooperation, mutual influence, exchange and interaction, and it has “hard” economic and political dimensions as well as “soft” cultural and ideological ones. People such as Soros, the Siemens and Volkswagen managers and the EU leadership are very much in the business of “hard” globalization, and so is President Trump. But both dimensions cannot be easily separated, for an important part of that “hard” globalization is a global industry of “soft” cultural and ideological commodities. (This, one should note, is the decisive insight of the Frankfurt School’s Cultural Marxists).  Rupert Murdoch‘s worldwide media empire is a major actor in it, and while this empire makes quite a bit of “hard” money, it also considerably influences the “soft” cultural and ideological aspects of societies included in the empire. Mr Zuckerberg’s Facebook-Twitter-etc. industry does the same. If there is any real “enormous impact on Western culture”, it should be sought with its real actors, not with those who merely analyzed it. And if we look for the “cultural branch of globalism” (or, more precisely, globalization), perhaps we should look in that direction are well.

So why is the so-called “globalism” of so-called Cultural Marxist such an enemy? Perhaps the – paradoxical – answer can be found in globalization. Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the most insightful scholars of globalization, described years ago how globalized capitalism required a multiplicity of individual states, so that unfavorable business conditions in one state could be played off against favorable ones offered by other states. Large interstate systems or agreements – think of the EU now – can be favorable for business because they shape large markets; but they can become unfavorable because they would have the power to impose and enforce constraints, regulations and restrictions across that large market. The latter tendency is what “globalism” stands for in President Trump’s speech: it’s a rejection of multilateral economic regulation, to be replaced by “patriotism” – a monopoly over regulation in one’s own country.

Wallerstein also described how, in conditions of increasing globalization, culture would become the major battlefield. It is through the use of culture as an argument that individual states can make arguments in favor of protecting their own scope of agency and refuse or minimize more far-reaching forms of transnational integration. The process is cyclical, Wallerstein argues: phases of increasing integration (and, typically, of economic growth) would be accompanied by emphases on universalism, while phases of decreasing integration (and, typically, of economic recession) would be accompanied by emphases on racism and sexism.

We are far removed here from Leftist xenophilia and oikophobia, from “globalism” versus “patriotism” and from Cultural Marxists-multiculturalists-feminists. We’re in a world here of pretty robust historical facts. I would invite people to, at least, explore them, for looking at the hard facts of globalization and its effects can be massively helpful in addressing the catastrophically twisted ideas of people such as Breivik.

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Ergo: exploring the world of alternative facts

Capture Conway

Jan Blommaert

This short note is part of the Online with Garfinkel project.

It’s late January 2017. Donald Trump had just been inaugurated, and his Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in his first press briefing, had referred to record numbers of spectators at the event. This claim was swiftly and conclusively debunked. NBC submitted this “demonstrable falsehood” to senior White House staff member Kellyanne Conway, and her reply became the stuff of legends. According to Conway, Spicer had merely offered alternative facts, not falsehoods. This statement marked the beginning of what has, in the meantime, become an institutional discourse tradition: confrontational debates over the truth, over fake news, over what constitutes reality-as-we-know-it.

For many, the very term “alternative facts” is an oxymoron, since facts are absolute. Either things are facts, or they are not, and relativism when it comes to factuality runs counter to most of our cultural assumptions about what constitutes knowledge and truth. So here is the question: how did Conway come up with this oxymoron? And how come people believe such things?

Rational versus reasonable

Part of the answer is general, another part is specific. Let me start with the general part. Garfinkel and other interactionists – think of Everett C. Hughes, Aaron Cicourel and Erving Goffman – will be useful in formulating this general part.

The point of departure is a fundamental assumption used in ethnomethodology and related branches of interactionism: in their everyday conduct, people continuously try to make sense of what goes on around them, working from details and singular events towards larger frames in which such details and events can be made to fit and become meaningful, recognizable as instances of social order. We are sense-making creatures seeking coherence – that is the summary of this assumption. We seek such coherence by trying to fit small things into bigger frames. And in thus seeking coherence, we are reasonable. This latter term, however, demands utmost precision and clarity.

First, being reasonable should be distinguished from being rational. In fact, we will see below how critical this distinction is theoretically as well as in the political, ideological and sociocultural practices I shall mention later.

Being rational is the form of orientation to knowledge and truth we have inherited from Enlightenment and modern science: it stands for a “facts only” approach and for strictly logical forms of argument in which disciplined rules of hypothesis-building and evidence support are being employed in explaining issues or answering questions. Such answers are conclusive and yield facts, the status of which is absolute. This rational orientation to knowledge comes with an attitude we call “objectivity”, with a degree of detachment and disinterestedness in making arguments. In our culture, it is widely seen and institutionally embedded as a superior orientation to knowledge (which is why Habermas, for instance, saw it as the key to the construction of a healthy democratic public sphere). Facts, rationally established, are also disembodied items, not tied to people or communities but transcending them. Facts are usually “hard”.

Being reasonable is a much less precise orientation to knowledge, and – not to put too fine a point on it – “reasonable” stands for “credible”, something we and our interacting others are ready to accept as true, correct, valid, and to which we are ready to be held accountable. It is undoubtedly a form of reasoning in which explanations are offered, but it does not rely on a codex of disciplined and disciplinary rules. Garfinkel coined the term “ethno-methods” to denote such forms of being reasonable: people in their everyday lives build and use “theories” of how things are and should be, and these theories structure their conduct and interactions with others. Such theories are “subjective” and often irrational, even if they can be experienced as unshakably true, as “visibly rational” (to quote Garfinkel). Culturally, however, they are perceived as inferior to rational orientations towards knowledge: they are the stuff of “folk” theorizing, “opinion” and “common sense”. This is “soft” stuff.

It is important to realize that both orientations to knowledge, the rational as well as the reasonable, share crucial features. Both are ways of making sense of reality-as-it-occurs-to-us, and both do so by establishing explanatory patterns we call ergoic – from Latin “ergo”, meaning “because” or “therefore”. Ergoic patterns are patterns of explanation in which small things – evidence – are explained in terms of bigger and more general propositions – theory. We observe a phenomenon or event, and it can be explained as related to a larger and more general pattern: it is what it is because (ergo) it fits into the larger pattern.The difference between both orientations to knowledge is in how ergoic patterns can be and are being made, the conditions under which ergoic patterns are being ratified: strict  rules of method apply to rational orientations, while such rules are absent (or at least hugely less rigorous) in reasonable orientations.

As Garfinkel and others explained at length, we are reasonable most of the time and rational, in the sense specified earlier, whenever we feel we need to be. Being rational, one could say, is a historically specialized form of being reasonable; the fact that we judge it to be the superior orientation to knowledge does not automatically make it into the most widely practiced one. After all, Mr. Spock came from another planet.

This is the point where we can become more specific and return to Mrs. Conway’s world of alternative facts.

Making the rational unreasonable

Mrs. Conway used her notion of alternative facts as a rebuttal of what the NBC anchor submitted to her as “demonstrable falsehoods” – the ridiculously inflated numbers of spectators at Trump’s inauguration. The NBC anchor, we can see, made his claim from within a rational orientation to knowledge. Facts are facts; no bargaining can be admitted when such facts are “demonstrably” established, and other accounts are in the same move conclusively and in absolute terms established as non-facts, as fiction. No two ways about it: it’s about proof, not about belief.

Mrs. Conway’s baffling reply (obviously irritating the NBC anchor) marked a moment in a political evolution in the US, the origins of which are older and instances of which more widely disseminated. Her statement marked the moment when that evolution became institutionalized, when it became the voice of the White House. And the evolution it marked is the rise of New Right-wing metapolitics. In what follows, I will describe four crucial features of such metapolitics.

1. Disqualify the rational

The first feature is the consistent disqualification of the rational as the superior orientation towards knowledge. This is done by a systematic denial of the sociocultural connotations we attribute to the rational: its status as objective, disinterested, detached voice serving as a critical instrument for democratic political systems. These connotations are replaced by their exact opposite: a conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory can be quickly summarized. Rational “facts” are a tool of oppression, a creation of a Left-wing elite (sometimes called “cultural Marxists”) aimed at suppressing and dismissing – here it comes – alternative facts. These alternative facts are experienced by “ordinary people”. But they never make it to the headlines of the mass media, the textbooks used in training university students, or policy papers, since the media, the world of expertise and the major political instruments are all in the hands of this over-represented “Left-wing” elite. Rational facts are, consequently, lies maliciously spread by these elite actors, while the facts experienced by “ordinary people” are ridiculed, their reality dismissed as fiction.

Consequently, it is not those who are officially licensed to be rational, define facts and non-facts, and speak the truth who should be listened to. Quite the contrary: the truth is in our hands, and we are those who are truly rational.

Capture Truth

Another convenient consequence of this conspiracy theory is that absence or scarcity of evidence does not cripple one’s version of the truth – it confirms it, since facts are deliberately withheld from the “ordinary people”. Similarly, arguments are immune to rebuttals using rational, “objective” and “hard” facts, since such facts are … deliberately constructed lies, attempts at thought control or brainwashing, or political correctness.

The connection between democracy and the rational orientation to knowledge, inherited from Enlightenment and institutionalized in education, media and politics, has been disqualified. In its stead, the reasonable orientation to knowledge moves towards the center of what is seen as a democratic system. It moves from “soft” to “hard”, to something unshakable.

To this disqualification of what we can call “institutional” rationality, another extremely powerful feature needs to be added.

2. Moralize the truth

We have already seen how the disqualification of rational orientations to knowledge included a focus on the actors: “facts” were to be dismissed because they were produced by the wrong people. The disembodied nature of rational facts, thus, is replaced by a profound and analytically crucial merger of knowledge, person, and morality. The truth, so it is claimed, is in the hands of honest, decent people. The truth, in other words, is no longer lodged in “objective” facts, the status of which cannot be challenged in random ways. It is lodged in concrete people who embody the right moral values. The truth becomes a matter of identity.

Of course, the truth is and has always been a profoundly moralized concept, which is why our vocabulary of terms for handling the truth is deeply moral in nature and projects moralized identities upon people. When we speak the truth we are “honest”, “sincere”, “reliable”, “truthful” and so on; when we don’t we are “liars”, “dishonest”, “untrustworthy”, “false”, “corrupt” and so forth. A term such as “fake news”, consequently, is not just a judgment of a particular chunk of knowledge; it includes a moral judgment of its actors, of those who produce, believe and circulate it.

Capture dishonesty

When the truth is moralized, we are moralized, and so are our actions. When we wage a struggle, the struggle is not a vulgar one – for power or money – but a struggle for values. After all, we are fighting for the truth, for a society governed by the truth. Our struggle, thus, demands all that is attached to moral greatness: courage, determination, sacrifice, discipline, persistence. Which is why such struggles are often imagined not merely as wars but as crusades.

Capture crusade

Such imagined crusades can take ludic shapes, as in the meme just shown. But they can also be deadly serious, as in the case of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

Capture Breivik crusade

Breivik, as we know, described a new Knights Templar order in his long manifesto, reaching back to the early crusades. And he assassinated about 70 “liars” and “traitors”: members of a social-democratic youth movement in Norway. Crusades are real.

3. Do the ergoic work

We have seen earlier that ergoic patterns are at the core of what “being reasonable” actually means; we have also seen that it consists in relating small things – incidents, events, phenomena, occurrences – to larger patterns, to a “theory”.

This theory, we also saw, does not require the disciplined methodical underpinning of a rational theory. Absence of evidence simply constitutes proof of its validity; scarcity or falseness of evidence as well. What is required is (a) a Grand Narrative and (b) some evidence. A widespread Grand Narrative is that of Islam as a hostile religion, and of Muslims as engaged in a Jihad against “us”. This highly elastic proposition is directly connected to another very flexible theme: immigration. Immigration is always “mass importation” of “potentially dangerous enemies” who will eventually exterminate the populations of the Christian West.

Capture Wilders

(Translation: Fight with me… MORE MORE MORE: truth; no more political correctness; freedom of speech, our highest good; renewed sovereignty, no more EU-puppet; closed borders, no more Muslim migrants. LESS LESS LESS: ban Islam, a political ideology of conquest; get rid of the Qur’an, a book replete with hatred towards you; close al mosques, centers for jihadists; no more Islamic schools, poisoning. A Free Netherlands, Our Netherlands, Vote PVV, Party of Freedom)

We shall all perish because of the complicity of our leading Left-wing elites, who are actually (and especially through transnational systems of governance such as the EU, the UN or NATO) conspiring with the Arabs against us, in attempts to Islamize Europe. These elites, therefore, are our enemies. We shall perish through genocidal Jihad, and/or through demographic genocide – the gradual but steady increase of Muslim populations in the West, eventually turning “us” into a minority.

Capture Eurabia

Evidence for this Grand Narrative can be found in the smallest anecdotes relating to Muslim intolerance, aggression or cultural-religious assertiveness: women wearing the hijab, halal food in mainstream supermarkets, the use of Arabic as a publicly displayed language, Muslims complaining about violations of their rights and freedom of religion, Muslims attacking or verbally abusing non-Muslims, Western politicians meeting their Middle-Eastern counterparts or giving speeches at Muslim religious events (often qualified as soumission, following the title of a novel by Houellebecq) – there is no limit to what can be used as “facts” to prove the theory, and if there is a shortage of such facts, they can be manufactured.  Here is a short list of such hoaxes retweeted by Donald Trump.

Capture Trump retweets

The latter takes us to the fourth and final feature.

4. Use all the affordances of social media

Social media are excellent platforms for this kind of ergoic work. The economy of circulation on social media is characterized by speed, frequency and intensity, and quick ergoic patterns can be established by exploiting these affordances through short, often visual (or visually-supported), messages such as memes or gifs, or through the crisp and concise reiteration of the Grand Narrative as shown in some examples above. Veritable saturation bombardments can be performed this way.

Here are some examples, and note the ergoic patterns we observe in them.

CaptureLebanon

Capture London has fallen

Capture Allahu meme

Capture making muslims

The world of Ergo-ism.

Such ergoic patterns constitute “alternative facts”. They form a self-contained “truth”, immune to any form of factual refutation, for such refutations are – within this world of alternative facts – seen as conclusive evidence of the truth. Grounded in everyday forms of reasoning and sense-making, they have explanatory power, they create coherence in how people view their world, and they define individual and group identities. Supported by an infrastructure of social media offering unique affordances tailor-made for such quick-and-dirty explanations, they become extraordinarily persuasive – persuasive enough to turn electorates toward candidates and parties embodying the moralized “true” truth.

We live in a world where such ergo-ism defines the codes and standards of mass information and public debate. Whether this development is likely to make us “great again” is highly questionable. It is the topic of intense debate as well. And one element in such debates is inevitable: it is insufficient to simply disqualify such forms of ergoic work as a new form of obscurantism, as an endless supply of nonsense and unbelievable inferential quantum-leaps. We are facing here the rationality of our times. or better: the rationalities of our times, for there are multiple rationalities competing in the public sphere and reshaping what we used to call Modernity. Yes, the very term “alternative facts” could qualify as the ultimate marker of post-Modernity, since it turns something absolute – the rational orientation to knowledge – into a relative thing co-existing alongside a range of alternative ones. But even when we admit that we should address the puzzling moral absolutism with which such alternative versions are held to be the one-and-only truth. This is, if anything, an absolutist relativism – in itself quite an unbelievable thing.

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Did anything happen in May 68?

image-a-la-une-format-3

Jan Blommaert

Half a century ago, a wave of revolt hit countries as far apart as Japan and Czechoslovakia, Germany and the US, Mexico and France. Certainly due to its high profile around the Parisian Quartier Latin, where students confronted the regime of the legendary General De Gaulle during riots in May and June of that year, the events were nicknamed “May 68”.  And under that name, the events became the object of heated controversy. The 50th anniversary of May 68 will be no exception to that.

Nothing has happened

As we know, May 68 in France ended when De Gaulle rallied his supporters and won the elections of June 1968 by a landslide. And it was the great French conservative thinker Raymond Aron who proclaimed shortly after the end of the revolt that rien ne s’est passé – nothing really happened in May 68. The order of De Gaulle’s republic had been restored, after all, and the bourgeoisie as well as the police state that were the joint targets of the revolt were still firmly in power.

While this version of the events became mainstream, another one was added to this. May 68, claimed the likes of Bernard-Henri Lévy, was a moral and cultural crisis, a vague counterculture with unspecified values, nothing more. It was a revolt against the cultural patriarchism, the traditional (masculine) structures of authority and the puritan morality of a conservative society, and it was above all a movement of individual empowerment and liberation. Young kids just wanted to be free, free to listen to rock music, grow their hair and wear blue jeans, make love not war, and tell their fathers to mind their own business.

This, in the eyes of more radically conservative thinkers, had led to a moral anarchy, a radical relativism of identities, values and norms and an over-the-top rejection of what was stable, good and true. May 68 has since become a bête noire for the New Right, and for half a century now it has been consistently blamed for almost everything that went wrong in Western societies since the 1960s: immigration and multiculturalism, feminism, sexual promiscuity, the liberal use of drugs, the normalization of homosexuality, the attacks on what is seen as robust masculinity – in short, May 68 destroyed all that was normal in societies such as ours. But other than that, nothing had really happened. Nothing politically at least.

May 68 was a decade long

Well, I’m not so sure about that, because in such accounts of what happened in May 68 only a fraction of the events is discussed. A decade of worldwide turmoil – the 1960s – is reduced to a couple of weeks in which students (and only students) threw bricks at the police and painted funny slogans on the walls of their university halls. Why they did that, and why in so many places and in this way, is conveniently deleted from the narrative. So let us look at some elements that surrounded May 68. We shall see that it was actually a decade long.

The students did not just paint funny slogans on walls; they openly, loudly and relentlessly criticized the system of power characterizing their societies: the power incorporated by De Gaulle in France, Johnson and Nixon in the US and the Communist Party in Prague. In all of these cases, the power regime was connected – openly, loudly and relentlessly – with the Cold War which had led to increasing militarization and more aggressive policing, with millions of young men drafted into national military service on their respective sides of the Cold War divide, and with powerfully developed surveillance and repression resources aimed at (even moderate) public dissidence. In the West and elsewhere, the Vietnam war became the iconic object of protest; but it wasn’t the only issue.

Vietnam became iconic because it was part of the huge wave of decolonization that characterized the 1960s, and because it showed how decolonization had been swept up in the power play of the Cold War. The 1960s started with Fidel Castro proclaiming the end of US imperialism in Cuba, soon followed by the failed US-backed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs, and by the Cuban Missile Crisis that rendered the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse palpable everywhere. The colonial empires were rapidly replaced by independent states, the leaders of which often proved reluctant to enter into neocolonial relations with their former rulers. Mao Zedong theorized the “Third World” as a catchword to define the refusal of newly independent states to choose sides in the Cold War; the US intervention in Vietnam, as well as several other interventions against the rulers of the newly independent states, proved that the the Cold War protagonists didn’t like such forms of non-alignment. This kind of intervention was called imperialism by the May 68 activists, and they rejected it. In their eyes, alternative (read: socialist) roads to development and sovereignty should be, at least, allowed.

They also rejected it because the Cold War overseas imperialism was mirrored by what they identified as the return of “fascism” at home. The Cold War imposed anticommunism as a state doctrine in all NATO member states, and this had concrete consequences. It meant, for instance, that after the post-War “denazification” purges, military and security staff recruitment in countries such as Germany and France now displayed a preference for people with strong right-wing sympathies (including actual ex-nazis and collaborators) over people favoring socialism or communism. Maurice Papon, the powerful police prefect of Paris in the first half of the 1960s, was such a former collaborator, but it took until 1981 before he was convicted for direct involvement in the death of Jewish subjects under the Vichy regime.

With chiefs such as Papon, the police assumed the shape of a military and intelligence outfit outspokenly aimed at crushing any form of action that could be seen as pro-Soviet, however far-fetched. In other countries, similar processes occurred, and the targets of heavy-handed police interventions often included trade unions and striking workers, suspected of (directly or indirectly) assisting the socialist cause and destabilizing society. In the UK, an Emergency Powers Act was introduced in 1964; in Germany, similar laws were voted in 1968 to quell the widespread political and labor protests. The general current was to increase the power of the forces of order while reducing the civil rights of citizens (certainly when they were organized), and to increase the use of police violence in cases of unrest. The 1960s ended with TV-footage of Chicago police forces brutally beating young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and with National Guardsmen shooting at students on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio, killing four.

TV-footage in that decade also included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shooting of student leader Rüdi Dutschke in Germany and of two miners during a strike in Belgium, the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach and several Vietnamese Buddhist monks, and endless reports on bombings by American B52s in North Vietnam. The entire decade was one of unrest, large-scale dissidence and extreme violence. May 1968 was one moment in which much of this crystallized into a remarkable form of protest and rebellion, characterized by alliances between students and workers, men and women, urban and rural activists, black and white ones, intellectuals, artists, journalists, workers and lay people.

Everyone saw May 68

The 1960s ended also with another piece of historic TV-footage, seen across the world: the landing on the moon. And here is one dimension we should not overlook: the 1960s were the decade of television, of a new global mass media culture. And this, too, had an impact. TV-sets became a normal item in the homes of middle class and working class people alike all over the West, and with literacy levels rising, newspapers and magazines thrived. Jointly, the expansion of the new mass media created a globalized scale of image and content distribution which conclusively transformed the culture of the 20th century. Nothing remained outside the scope of the media now, even if it came from the exotic peripheries or from otherwise obscure corners of the world.

In the 1960s, not just the Beatles became global icons. Mao, Castro, Che, Nehru, Nasser, the Shah and the Negus, Nkrumah, Boumedienne and Kenyatta also rose to stardom. So did the North Vietnamese warriors Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and so did the Czech anti-Soviet activists Jan Palach and Alexander Dubchek; so too did Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Among the most iconic images of the decade is that of the black US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in antiracist protest during the medals ceremony at the Mexico 68 Olympic Games. In the small Belgian village where I spent my childhood, my primary school teacher pinned the photo, cut from the local newspaper, on the wall of our classroom; it was there for months.

Vietnam and the Cold War imperialism it bespoke became a worldwide focus of protest and mass mobilization not just because the Cold War affected (and infected) large parts of the world. It became iconic because these parts of the world were now effectively connected by streams of media information and imageries. Vietnam was the first truly global mediatized war, which is why it became the object of effectively globalized protest and resistance and why such protest assumed similar shapes in very different places. Vietnam was the moment when the Cold War became a globalized object of reflection, analysis and popular imagination, affecting global as well as local issues. “Vietnam is in our factories” was a popular slogan among the French workers during the enormous strike that accompanied the student protests in May 68.

May 68, consequently, was a global mediatized event as well – perhaps the very first globally shown instance of popular mass protest in the West, and like Vietnam, a moment in which previously separate dots were connected. The protests were not parochial; people openly, loudly and relentlessly proclaimed international solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, in the factories as well as in the ex-colonies and in the jungles of Vietnam, with women, immigrants and the victims of institutional racism in South Africa and the US. Intellectually, the events accelerated the recognition of voices “from below” or “from the margins” (advocated by Sartre, but also by historians such as E.P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Carlo Ginzburg and sociologists such as Howard Becker). It also provoked a new critical study of power – with Foucault as its main architect – and it kick-started the study of globalization processes (think of Immanuel Wallerstein) and worldwide structural inequalities (André Gunder Frank, for instance). It also laid the foundations for the international peace movement, the movement against nuclear weapons and movements for sustainable development and environmental awareness. In many ways, the world as we presently know it was shaped in the late 1960s. The effect of May 68 was massive, and it was above anything else, political.

Everything happened in May 68

The world as we presently know it is of course largely neoliberal and conservative. And this, too, can be partly attributed to May 68. I already mentioned the conservative backlash against the events of 1968 – the reduction of the events to a moral and cultural crisis, a loss of traditional values, a counterculture and so forth. But there is a more complex part to that story, which I can only briefly sketch here.

The focus on Vietnam in May 68, and the intellectual work that surrounded and followed it, marked the end of classical imperialism as a viable doctrine. It was effectively destroyed by the challenge of tiers-mondist (“Third-World-ist”) worldwide solidarity, framed initially by Mao Zedong’s theory of Third World non-alignment. But this challenge, in turn, caused old-style imperialism to be transformed into an amalgamation of neoliberalism and ethnocentrism. Both took another decade to enter into full force, and the end of the Cold War turned them into the cornerstones of a new world order.

Through neoliberalism, the neocolonial ties between the First and the Third Worlds could be rationalized, depoliticized and made “objective” in the form of purely economic, financial and monetary transactional relationships. At the same time, domestic social unrest could be equally turned anodyne, by reducing the political reading of class antagonisms to a depoliticized reading of balance sheets, efficiency and human resources management. The politics of inequality was converted into the economics of equal opportunities and free enterprise.

The political dimension of imperialism morphed into a heavily moralized ethnocentrism, in which “objective” racial, class and civilizational superiority was replaced by individualized, case-based judgments of moral compatibility. People in, say, Congo or Sierra Leone should no longer be seen as victims of extremely disadvantageous rates of exchange in the world markets and of exploitation by multinational corporations extracting surplus value without fair return. They were victims of corrupt leaders and warlords, and the latter – the Third World leaders – should “take responsibility” for their people’s well being. Worldwide solidarity was replaced by “we cannot solve all their problems”. And as for immigrants from such countries, they could always be accused of refusing to contribute to their country’s progress, and of not fitting in the codes of norms and values of their host societies. As Balibar and Wallerstein outlined in the early 1990s, class struggle and race theory had been replaced by softer, but equally effective discourses of cultural and moral compatibility. Similar discourses of moral and cultural compatibility can be (and are) deployed with respect to “domestic” issues of deviance and marginalization. “Hard” political analysis has been replaced by a rhetoric of blame, responsibility and character.

Raymond Aron was quite wrong in his appraisal of May 68. Those who now try to reduce its scope and impact to rock and roll, LSD, and flowers in one’s hair are quite wrong as well, as are those who rant against the “May 68 generation” as the architects of a society of hedonistic individualists devoid of any respect for values, traditions and norms. May 68 was above all else a political event in which a lot was re-imagined and redefined. The worldwide protests laid bare some of the major fissures and contradictions of the post-war world; they shaped modes of globalized social, political and intellectual action that marked the end of that part of the 20th century and the beginning of the part that spilled over into the 21st century. May 68 was big, very big.

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

Jeremy-Corbyn-Michael-Eavis-Glastonbury.jpg

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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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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