You may think “well you could have fooled me”, but I put quite a bit of thought into what I write here. I agonise, sometimes for seconds on end, over whether some word is going to turn what was intended as a sturdily crafted block of good sense into a leaky bag of warm shit.
A few years back I read Keywords by Raymond Williams, and a few other books, and I began to realise that words matter. It isn’t that prior to this point I had been reading washing machine instruction manuals and Raymond Carver short stories with the same kind of satisfaction. What I mean is, when it comes to politics, the words we find to work out a life in common, whether in our own heads or talking with others, have a life and weight and history of their own. They aren’t like slaves who will do your will. It isn’t just that we speak the words, but that the words speak through us.
The most memorable example Raymond Williams uses is underprivileged. I don’t have the book to hand at the minute to quote the exact passage, but his gist is that when you talk about people being underprivileged, you’re making a value judgement in a context where it’s already established that privilege –which literally means ‘private law’- is to the good.
If underprivilege is the name given to the situation of someone who doesn’t have enough food, or is homeless, or unable to read or write, or is deprived medical treatment for a condition, then that also means that food, shelter, education and health are not things all people have a right to because they are basic human needs, but subject to the rule of private property. Talking about ‘underprivilege’ is entirely consistent with the worldview expressed from the podium at Conservative Party conferences. Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s declared he wanted ‘privilege for all’.
Not everyone who uses the word ‘underprivilege’ intends it to have that kind of connotation, of course: it’s just that our way of thinking about the world is shaped by the ideas of the powerful. Or, in Marxian terms, ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force’.
I was reading an insightful piece by comedian Russell Brand in the New Statesman earlier today. It’s all over the shop – full of arresting images, and vividly expressed ideas that I like and largely agree with. He’s right that the existing political system exists to serve ruling economic elites; that voting is a waste of time; that capitalism’s pursuit of individual interest leads to the destruction of the planet; that the great legacy of left-wing struggles is being dismantled and lots of people don’t notice since they never had any memory of those struggles in the first place; that a socialist revolution is a fundamental necessity; and – that ‘the price of privilege is poverty’.
But at the same time he also talks quite a lot of bollocks, at least by the standards of sensible people who spend a lot of time worrying about what words like ‘underprivilege’ mean. I mean, a ‘Spiritual Revolution’? May Day as ‘a pagan holiday where we acknowledge our essential relationship with our land’?
When he goes on about this stuff it sounds a bit too close for comfort to, well, the Freemen and their mates.
At the risk of coming across as a po-faced English tutor, I think Russell Brand can be a very good writer, but he can be let down by a really scattergun vocabulary. It’s as though he’s not really thinking properly about the words that are coming out. But is this such a bad thing? Am I far too concerned with bringing polymorphously perverse terminology under control? Should I give my own libidinous verbal urges free rein?
There’s another bit in the article where he talks about confusing seriousness with solemnity, and the need for good humour: I agree with this completely, and am totally against the idea that someone who veers into Freeman bollocks (which also confuses seriousness with solemnity, but in a different way) should automatically be consigned to a quarantine of the politically unacceptable.
I also watched Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman. A lot of people have been talking about how eloquent he was in it. To be honest I find some of his rhetorical flourishes a bit annoying, but what I thought was great about the interview was the way he undermined Paxman’s long-marinaded gravitas.
Paxman is a symbol of Britain’s heavily mediated representative democracy. His hard-nosed interrogator persona helps sustain the idea in the public mind that all there is to politics, to democracy, is representation, and that politics is unthinkable without the arcane rituals of parliament, without the voting fetish, without the other televisual personalities known as ‘the politicians’.
It wasn’t so much what Brand had to say –though talking about socialist revolution is always welcome- as the way he responded to Paxman’s establishment auctoritas: not by trying to match it or provide his own version, or pretend, as all those aspiring to political power do, to have all the answers, but by deflating it and subjecting it to ridicule.
There’s an insightful moment in Brand’s interview where he talks about visiting the Houses of Parliament and notices how the fixtures and fittings are the same as the ones you get in Eton and Oxford, and how the symbols are intended to assure certain people that they’re at home there, and others that it isn’t their place. When I heard this bit, though, I began to wonder whether it –the Houses of Parliament- is anyone’s place any more. I mean, it is not as if the Houses of Parliament, the Commons in particular, are a site of democratic deliberation that captivates public attention.
That spectacle –where public debate takes place at the seat of sovereignty- has been largely hollowed out. Fewer and fewer people care any more about what gets said there and more and more people think that anyone who wants to go there is a crook. In this regard, I think the route one approach of socialist revolution, through solemn declarations and a suitable representative vehicle to State power, is doomed to multiple organ failure. The real question is whether new spaces for creating new political possibilities can be established and sustained, bearing in mind that no-one is going to have all the answers to begin with.