Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Brexit, The Conservative Party and Theresa May: using Orwellian language and tactics

The author has recently been re-reading Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four". Apart from the brilliant insights into human psychology and politics, it's now hard not to be struck by how much of what Orwell was warning us about (such as the insidious use of language) is actually used - quite openly - by our political masters.
In one respect, the book represents an astute warning; in another (and in the wrong hands) of course, it may represent more of an authoritarian "manual".

Orwell's influence on British culture has been massive over the decades; his language has permeated many aspects of popular (and political) culture. What is striking, though, is how his insights in language and politics have been used by some modern-day strategists almost as a template to follow, as we shall see below...

"He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future"

Today this is called creating a "false narrative". Orwell's insights here go back to how, for example, the Nazis propagated the myth of Germany being "stabbed in the back". The Soviets, at a whole new level, had people literally "airbrushed" out of existence.

Orwell saw this tendency, as he demonstrated in "Nineteen Eighty-four". In the story, the all-powerful "Party" re-wrote history and talked about the time "before the Revolution" as one of chaos and exploitation; the protagonist, Winston Smith, made the observation that half the population didn't remember, and the other half weren't even born. This was what made the job of falsifying history easier.

In Britain, the "false narrative" has been used by the Conservative Party (by whoever has been in charge) to denigrate the record of the Labour Party. Most commonly, it has used "The 1970s" to represent a time of chaos, inefficiency and mass unemployment, so that any attempt by Labour to make economic or social reforms is seen as taking the country "back to the 1970s".
The convenience here is that anyone over the age of, say forty-five, has no real memory of what the 1970s were like; so for all intents and purposes, the Conservatives may as well be correct in their assessment. The younger generation have no real way of knowing, while even the older generation's memories have probably also fogged over time. Conservative strategists are well aware of this, and this "mythologizing" is an essential part of the repeated message: things are better now; things were worse before.
(That being said, when appropriate, the reverse can also be true: regarding the EU, in order for the "Brexit narrative" to make sense, it must be seen that Britain was a success before it entered the then-EEC, regardless of the reality i.e. that Britain entered the EEC precisely because Britain was weak. In this narrative, it was the EEC - and its successor the EU - that made Britain weaker and more inefficient, and so on. This "false narrative" about Britain and Europe was one of the many reasons people voted for Brexit)

But in the UK, this use of "false narrative" has become even more brazen in recent years. The financial crisis is a very recent event, which happened less than ten years ago. In the same way that Margaret Thatcher blamed Labour for the problems that occurred in the 1970s (when she was actually part of the Conservative government during that very time), David Cameron was blaming Labour for the financial crisis of 2008. This is a little like Stanley Baldwin blaming Ramsey McDonald, the then British Prime Minister, for the Wall Street Crash. It's a nonsensical position.

Labour did not "cause" the financial crisis through massive government overspending, as the Conservatives' "false narrative" claims; if anything, it was guilty of loosening regulations on the banks to the point where banks took ridiculous risks, like in 1929. The Conservatives at the time were, in fact, saying there were too many regulations on banks prior to the financial crisis. They were also matching Labour's spending plans. But the "false narrative" put all that right.
But as we have seen, people's memories quickly fog over, making people want to believe what they're being told; after all, if it's a simple message, it's easier to remember. You can then forget what you "thought" you remembered.

"Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same"

The above quote describes the organising system of the all-powerful "Party" in Orwell's dystopian novel, "Nineteen Eighty-four".
In the UK, the term used for "who wields power" is often referred to as "the establishment". This term can be applied to any person or institution that supports the ruling status quo. In this way, "the establishment" is not reliant on one person, or even on a small group of people, but is supported more as a system of beliefs and traditions, like a self-contained "culture". In order for this culture to survive in Britain as long as it has, it cannot remain too exclusive or inflexible: it must remain as a marker of prestige for those who wish to obtain power, but the conditions for entry must be seen to be transparent. For this reason, while entry into "the establishment" is often about family and connections, in theory entry can also be attained through the correct educational background. This element of amorphousness is what has kept "the establishment" in its inviolate position as the pinnacle of Britain's social hierarchy.
It is true that in recent years various scandals have tarnished its image, but the all-encompassing nature of its influence has meant that these can be brushed under the carpet or ultimately dismissed as the actions of "a few bad apples" rather than a symptom of the nature of its organisation. In any case, large parts of the media are ran by people who also buy into its "culture".

The Conservative Party is the accepted political wing of "the establishment": anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. Progression through the ranks of the party should thus be considered in the same way as that as entry into the "establishment": having the right connections and education is essential.
The Conservative Party thus exists as the enabling arm of the "establishment's" interests; the "public face", if you like. The establishment surrendered the democratic franchise in nineteenth century, mainly as a way to prevent the threat of revolution from the masses. From the period after the Second World War to the end of 1970s (i.e. a period of about thirty-five years), the establishment surrendered large areas of the economy to government control, again mainly as a way to go with the prevailing orthodoxy at the time; it had already done so under wartime conditions, and the then-popularity of "Social Democracy" meant it was politically expedient to do so. As we have already mentioned, the 1970s were then used as an opportunity to "re-align" the political orthodoxy away from "Social Democracy" and back towards what might be called "establishment control", which existed in greater purity before the onset of the Second World War.

Since then, as we have seen, a "false narrative" has been created propagating the myths already described. What hasn't been mentioned yet is the necessity for inequality for the hierarchy to remain powerful: this was something that Orwell was well aware of, as he discussed in "Nineteen Eighty-four".
By the end of the 1970s, the level of inequality in the UK was the lowest ever recorded (another fact that has been conveniently "forgotten"). This sent some in "the establishment" into paroxysms of fury, as it came at their expense, and indirectly threatened their status. What was needed was a movement that was both pro-inequality and yet also seen as pro-worker...

"The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and believing both of them"

Called "Doublethink", this is in evidence everywhere. Another word for it might be a "logical contradiction": such as using seemingly illogical arguments to justify a belief.
One example of this is so-called "trickle-down" theory, used by Neo-Liberals in the Conservative Party since the 1970s: this is the idea that by making conditions for the wealthy easier (such as reducing their taxes) this somehow also makes things better for the poor i.e. that the extra wealth available to the rich "trickles down" to the poor through the rich using their extra wealth to invest more and thus create more jobs. The problem is, it's just a theory: there's no actual evidence it's true.
It's not even clear that those in the hierarchy of "the establishment" truly believe it either, but it certainly provides them with a seemingly "altruistic" explanation they can give to the masses for their self-interested actions.
Another example of this is how George Osborne grabbed for the Conservatives the mantle of "the party of the workers"; rhetoric that has been continued by Theresa May. Using the same logic as that of "trickle-down theory", the Conservative Party - the party of "the establishment" - claim to represent the interests of workers because they are interested in a strong economy that "lifts all boats". But the reality is that the kind of economy the Conservatives advocate is one where seemingly high employment is achieved through a highly-insecure, low-paid workforce living on the bread line.

As said by Orwell, it is "a vast system of mental cheating". Those in the higher echelons of this hierarchy have no illusions about what they are doing: they are defending their own interests in the best way they can, by making black seem as white.
While those higher up are under no illusions, those lower down have to be able to convincingly spread this "Doublethink". In "Nineteen Eighty-four", Orwell described how many "Lower Party" members had a kind of "saving stupidity" that enabled them to believe two mutually incompatible beliefs without any difficulty. You can sometimes witness this with some of the less intelligent (but no less dumbly-loyal) members of the Conservative Party: from the "nice-but-dim" activist types, to even members of the government, who get can intensely flustered and confused when their nonsensical contradictions are pointed out by more astute opponents. Those that are able to repeat these contradictions convincingly when challenged, or even better, make their more astute opponents seem like idiots for not understanding nonsensical party policy, are the most valuable to the cause.

"The prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity"

Continuing from the theme of "Doublethink", this strategy has also been applied to the opposition, in particular the Labour Party, where they are derided as a joke, but also deeply feared as a mortal threat.
This was a theme that Orwell again touched on in "Nineteen Eighty-four", in his portrayal of the arch-enemy of "The Party", Emmanuel Goldstein: seen as both a figure of ridicule and a figure of fear, he was the ever-present threat that nobody had seen; likewise, "The Brotherhood", the mysterious and anonymous ranks of Goldstein's followers that were blamed for every internal setback encountered.
If the Conservative Party were to imagine an opposition of their dreams, they would probably not go far wrong with Jeremy Corbyn, who seems to epitomize everything they hate in the "old" Labour Party; likewise, Corbyn's movement from within the Labour Party, "Momentum", seems like an organisation designed for ridicule, while holding a vice-like grip on the Labour Party itself: engineered, it would seem, to perpetuate the eternal, hopeless leadership of Corbyn and his successors.

In the same vein, parliament is seen as blocking the people's will, and judges are "enemies of the people": in other words, Brexit was initiated to restore the sovereignty of parliament and the rule of law, so the government could take it away.

"Brexit" was a power-grab dressed up as the opposite; giving "power to the people", so they could give it to those who knew what to do with it. An "anti-establishment" vote was hijacked by the establishment before anyone knew what was going on.

"When war becomes continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous"

Or put another way, when a "war" has no feasible end in sight, it also becomes meaningless. Whatever the "war" is, it becomes an end in itself. This may be a "war" from without, such as against an exterior "enemy", or it may be a war from within, such as against forms of internal opposition. Ideally, it must have elements of both aspects. The "war" can never be truly won, for that would defeat part of the main benefit of having the "war". But the main reason for the "war", was the depletion of resources without raising the standard of living.

That was how Orwell saw things in "Nineteen Eighty-four". While once government was engaged in a "war on poverty", these days it would be more accurate to describe an undeclared "war on the poor": "austerity" and all its associated policies, such as welfare reform, and side-effects, such as food banks and homelessness, could be described as nothing less. Because "the poor" tend to vote Labour they are seen as "the enemy" first of all, and secondly, a segment of society that it is easy to stigmatize. This was one reason, privately of course, that George Osborne gave for being against building more council housing - it would only help Labour voters.
Apart from the benefits of making the Conservatives seem keen to get the economy on the right track, "austerity" works on various levels. First, it acts as a form of divide and rule among the masses, pitting the so-called "strivers" against the "skivers". Second, it allows the government to cut back on "non-essential spending" on services and allow the voracious and amoral private sector to fill in the gaps. Third, reduced spending on the criminal justice system means that increased levels of crime will increase dysfunction and chaos at the lower end of the social spectrum, feeding into a self-perpetuating loop of social deprivation, and creating further scapegoats for the government to blame. The constraining circumstances of "Brexit" over the coming years are likely to make this "war on the poor" seem endless.

At a day-to-day level, people are more worried about staying safe and having enough money for the bills and food on the table to worry about why it's happening and who's really to blame.

"From the "proles", nothing is to be feared"

This contemptuous language comes directly from the pages of "Nineteen Eighty-four", but can also found amongst the inner circle of the Conservative Party, which explains why many of the policies are designed the way they are: the last point made in the previous paragraph sums up why this is. The "proles" are seen as a sub-class to be jeered at, despised, and attacked for even daring to enjoy themselves through their own devices. The "culture war" against what was once called the "working class" has made them despise their own kind. The poor - the "proles" - are most dangerous when they are happy through their own devices, so therefore their happiness must be treated with deep distrust.
Instead, their happiness should be manipulated and manufactured: jingoistic nationalism is the "default" setting to distract them from their woes. Having the population united against a common exterior enemy acts as an "opium of the masses", conveniently distracting them from any uncomfortable reality at home - in the case of the UK, the government's ongoing "austerity" programme.
The oncoming situation of "Brexit" therefore acts as a prime opportunity for this to be put into practice, as we can already see from some of the regular headlines in the media.  The masses are deemed to conform to the idea that unquestioning patriotism and simplistic jingoism is their "default setting": conversely, as mentioned, the threat of "war" from without is another instrument at the government's disposal. Not an actual, fighting war: more of a "cultural war" with Europe; therefore, any Europeans living in the UK should be seen with instant suspicion, and any British citizen that espouses any residual pro-European sentiment (i.e. "Remainers") should be seen as being latent traitors to the country. This feeling has been seen in the British press for years, which was part of the background campaign that led to the rise of UKIP (more of an extremist wing of the Conservative Party) and the eventual Brexit vote.

"Big Brother is infallible and all-powerful"

Some fun has been had at Theresa May's expense recently: from her troubles in eating chips with her fingers, to her fear of meeting the public. The strategy the Tories are taking is nothing new - making politics about personality is as old as the hills. What's different about how they are doing it today is that they are making the election much more about voting for "Theresa May" than about voting Conservative than has been seen by parties and the leaders in any election in living memory. In some places, campaign literature is all about Theresa May with barely a mention of her party.

This is no doubt down to Lynton Crosby, architect of the Tories' last election victory. One-on-one, in the public's perception, May wins hands-down any contest with Jeremy Corbyn about leadership.
But there is more to it than that. Partly it is a conscious act of distraction (one of Crosby's "dead cat on the table" tactics): because with a fair segment of the population still bearing doubts about the Conservatives' sincerity (who'd have thought it!), it's better to make it a vote about the person rather than the party. Furthermore, and as mentioned by the author in a previous article, there is a fair amount of "Groupthink" in the air following the referendum: people psychologically want to "get on with it", and therefore want to get behind the leader; regardless of their previous doubts, they will vote for May. Following from that, there is a tendency to therefore see in Theresa May a person that embodies "the spirit of Brexit" i.e. an aspect of "mythologizing" of the national leader in difficult times. Her previous faults are now seen as strengths. With Europe now seen as "the enemy" (again), it's not difficult to imagine some in the Conservative Party wanting to engender an almost Churchillian-like cult of personality around her.

To an extent, therefore, the strategy of minimizing May's real contact with the electorate (rather than meetings with party activists) is not only because the strategists have seen how deeply unnatural she is with people (Thatcher had the same issues, though that is hardly an endorsement). The same tactic was done with Cameron in the last election, but he was more naturally gregarious and seemed to enjoy campaigning; Theresa May seems to enjoy campaigning not a jot, shows strong signs of control freakery. No, the other reason may be to add to the "mythologizing": the less people see of her, the more people will project on to her want they want to see in a national leader. In other words, Theresa May, for the Conservatives, is presented as less of a leader than more of a symbol, almost in the same semi-divine status that some reserve for the Queen. Whether this is truly intentional or merely unconscious is hard to know at this point; strategy-wise, it may well be the first masquerading as the second.

In this way, the seeds have been sown; we will soon know what kind of harvest they bring, and who for.

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