Posted on facebook recently, this early 1990s ‘Viz.’ parody of the red-top / tabloid hatred of benefits recipients during the last Tory recession leads me to make several points. In fact I think that realistically I could write all day and possibly all week about it, but I will limit myself to just three:
Firstly, it’s hard to shake off the overwhelming impression that today’s newspapers, when seen in the light of this historical context, are nothing if not comics that have become autonomous and unmoored, in the popular consciousness, from their connection with some form of entertainment. Startlingly, it’s as if they were originally put there to ‘send up’ a certain attitude, but became alienated from this function and ended up expressing the very thing they were intended to satirically mimic. Maybe this appearance can tell us something much more general about the level of cultural awareness, and how it has been progressively assaulted, stunned, and traumatised by the mediations and insertions of late capitalism, to the point of developing as a defence a schizophrenic disconnection with discursive level, a severe atonality that does not distinguish between different qualities of information. This atonia is also symptomatic of an always-on digital age, since the internet is most certainly guilty of presenting qualitatively different sources as if they were equally weighted or modally homogeneous. This peculiarity of the online plays into that ‘fair world’ level playing-field fallacy which supports the emergence of reactionary and counter-revolutionary groups like men’s rights activists and the economic-freedom-is-also-freedom market libertarians. The always-already skewed and distorted frame in which social antagonisms are even approached or engaged with is obscured by the frame of the mediating device and the discursive apparatus. The reality of various social asymmetries, inequalities, and axes of oppression is elided in advance of any interaction, yet it is just such realities which were to be discussed.
Secondly, during the Big Benefits Row, Annabel Giles mocking Hopkins’ puerility (‘shhh, the adults are talking’) got the audience clapping vigorously whereas argued refutations based on statistical and empirical information alone generally fell flat. Maybe there’s a lesson in that about the cultural mythologies created by ideology, and how, while being resistant to argumentation alone, they are nonetheless susceptible to more ‘formalist’ tactics of interruption. In such a ‘bear pit’, as Owen Jones called it, defamiliarizing and foregrounding the level of discourse and the unspoken rules about how to approach and engage with an issue seems more effective than argumentation on the level offered. This apparently worked for Viz in the early 1990s, and to some extent it worked for Annabel Giles last week. The long-term argument of the Left, its economic and political rationalisation, on the other hand, generally falls on deaf ears or is only heard by those who already subscribe to it. Perhaps we need to process this realisation a bit more thoroughly. Can propitious tactical interruptions create the occasions for more weighty strategic interventions?
Thirdly, today’s Edwina Curry, Katie Hopkins and a host of yellow press hacks must not have realised they were satirical figures in themselves. They make me want to dig out my old Fast Show and Harry Enfield episodes and view those Tim-nice-but-dim and Loadsamoney caricatures. How is it possible for modern, educated people to so perfectly coincide with the stock figure of the dim, opinionated and bigoted Right-winger without any cognizance of this? The fact that what is said and done today in all (apparent) earnestness by the Right wing has already been done and said thirty years ago as farce should, in any sane world, give us pause for thought. Is there some kind of limit at which stereotype and reality converge in a hyper-real semblance that undermines the distinction? These are very weird times. However, I’ve said that such commentary originates only in apparent earnestness, irrespective of the sincerity of those who only propagate and reproduce the message — largely those with petite-bourgeois aspirations, anxious about their own position within a social hierarchy. I say this because partly I am of the suspicion that dumbing down to a level that doesn’t really exist, in the hope of actually creating that level as the practical and popular standard, is something like a regulative ideal of the Tory. It’s not that all right-wingers are anti-intellectual, more that the reproduction of an anti-intellectual political climate is strategically expedient. People must never realise the true value of the abstract labour they collectively generate through intellectual activity or they will compose the dreaded thing: a self-conscious class, an agent with the ability to change history. Instead value must only ever be realised through the channels already expropriated by capital and regulated by state imposition of markets.