The Undone Button

The visibility of the ideological state apparatus does not remain constant but ebbs and flows. Its visibility is particularly heightened, argues Richard Seymour, when something challenges it.

In this case, the rise to political prominence of a socialist candidate, to the extent that the leadership of Labour is once again aligned with its founding mission, and firmly opposed to austerity, poses a threat to that hegemony over discourse in which the economic policies of George Osborne and the Conservatives can no longer be considered as unmarked. By ‘unmarked’ — a term from semiotics — we designate the term within a paradigm which dominates the alternatives, by appearing in the form of consensus, the norm, the ‘common sense’ or ‘realistic’ option. It forms, as it were, the ‘generic’ choice just as ‘man’ can be used as the generic noun despite its place in a paradigm in which exist other possibilities for the generic noun — possibilities which then become ‘marked’ by a series of differentiations from ‘man’. To a large extent, the triumph of neoliberalism over the past 30-40 yrs lay in the way it neutralised (and normalised) the right wing economics of a particular school to the extent that they assumed an unmarked position. We see the legacy of this process (which correlated perfectly with the Blairite practice of political triangulation) today in the way that written articles across the media persistently premodify Jeremy Corbyn as ‘left wing’, but leave David Cameron unmarked. What a groundswell of support for Corbyn has achieved, however, is to question the assumption that this way of setting the political field in view (a ‘way of seeing’ entrenched by neoliberalism) is a true reflection of the actual state of affairs in absolute political terms. In other words, the shift in support evidenced by the election of Corbyn to Labour Leader opposes and to some extent brandishes the power to shatter the ideological illusions (and practices, ways of seeing and of speaking) of neoliberalism.

Articulated with this opposition to neoliberal hegemony is the appearance of a faultline within the assumed consensus of neoliberalism itself; we now witness the appearance of several articles issuing from voices within establishment economics demanding it be recognised that there is nothing particularly radical about Corbyn’s proposed policies. In other words, hegemony can take the form of a battle over what is and what is not to be considered ‘mainstream’, and it is slowly becoming recognised that the relatively mild social democratic reforms that constitute Jeremy Corbyn’s economic proposals are far from outlandish but form the very bedrock of the Labour Party raison d’être. While ‘New Labour’ gets stuck in a delicious trap of its own making, unable to do anything but fall back to its Thatcherite ‘no alternative’ line (against the evidence of the IMF itself), and looking increasingly irrelevent, the Conservative party no longer appear as if they can so commandingly occupy, or have exclusive rights to, the full field of economic possibilities or even the most realistic, normal position. This change, which we would not be amiss in calling the ‘re-politicisation of the appearance of politics’, is what the old order, the neoliberal consensus, cannot tolerate, and which so provokes it. The expositive, revealing experience of suddenly seeing the reigning economic model politically situated once again is akin to it being divested of ‘security’, of it being ‘exposed’ to inspection and scrutiny, and criticism. No wonder then that such a challenge provokes a response smacking of the return of repressed : panicky, hot-tempered, moralising, somewhat delusional, and very much ridiculous.

Another symptomal artefact of the response to challenged neoliberal hegemony must surely be the increased obsession with the minutiae of ritual, the performance of practices of respect, from dress code to singing of anthems. Predictably, such a pathological response attracted notice:

Perhaps the most telling response belonged to those who focused the entire array of their fault-finding acumen on the way Jeremy apparently left his topmost shirt button undone. It were as if the future were staked on a unique point, a master signifier or quilting point (point de capiton) that held the symbolic world together, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s top shirt button.

The quilting point is that which is grasped for feverishly by neurotics, particularly those in fear of entering a psychosis. In a panic there is a desperate attempt to prevent the sliding and slippage of signification by the demand that things ought to be ‘the way they ought to be’ — in other words, a futile grappling for a foundational moment that will serve to cover over the circularity and lack within language (i.e. within the Other). An anxious rush of prescriptive demands quickly ensue in an attempt to sew the symbolic order back onto a stable signifier. We are pressed to cover over the lack of a master signifier, whether it be respect for queen and country, veterans, or for the fastening of a shirt button.

Of course it is not the empirical button itself that counts here; Tony Blair for example appeared numerous times in shirts worn more casually than this, and indeed for a time the purposeful adoption of a casual style became a common part of the neoliberal managerial ‘skill set’, along with bosses who would pretend to be your friend and lend a sympathetic ear (while firmly opposing your membership of an established union). Those chilling images — at one time everywhere — of a grimacing Richard Branson with his long wild locks and a denim shirt unfastened to show a seductively casual décolletage spring to mind.

What mattered more lately was the symbolic context, the intolerable eruption of popular support for Corbyn against the contingent background of dutiful grovelling to establishment rituals at the Battle of Britain ceremonials, bringing to a head an absolute clash of discourse. A furious impotence hovers over and within the British Establishment, resulting in a reflex of savage authoritarianism whenever you poke or provoke it.

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