The deal the Conservative Party struck with the Democratic Unionists to retain their Commons majority raised some interesting issues about the Neo-Conservative project. Moreover, viewed in the context of their election campaign confusion over tax cuts the deep Tory fault lines are laid bare.
In earlier blogs I described the abrupt change in the nature and direction of the Conservatives since the accession to the leadership of Theresa May. In these blogs I pointed to a close meshing of ideologies between Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May. You can read these posts here and here but the essence of my argument is the Conservative abandonment of the pursuit of neo-Libertarianism to a largely Neo-Conservative outlook.
Although the situation is a complex one the difference hinges on the size of the Government. Neo-Libertarians want to shrink the State and cut taxes, with the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne providing a perfect cover. Neo-Conservatives, however, favour a much larger state (though not at the citizen level) with higher taxes to support it. Like the Neo-Libertarians they want the state withdrawn from the business of extendeing personal rights and protections (the Welfare State) and see a big project (Brexit for example) as the best way of mobilising patriotism, maintaining social cohesion and justifying the destruction of those rights.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this
What went wrong? In my posts I pointed to an influential figure in American right wing politics, David Brooks. A central plank of his idea ifs that you cannot rely on consensus or inclusive politics to drive through a neo-Conservative programme, but instead it must be spearheaded by a closr-knit family (the Trumps) or a strong (and stable!!) individual (supposedly, Theresa May). To the disappointment of the neo-Cons, in the US Trump is proving too incoherent, unpredictable and ill-disciplined to really make an effective impact. As we have seen in our UK election, Theresa Mat has proven to be uninspiring, uncharismatic and incompetent. Any similarity between May and a Boudicca/Britannia figure evaporated very swiftly during the campaign and she proved to possess almost no talent to persuade anyone to follow her in a bonfire of rights in exchange for national greatness.
For many of our fellow citizens the pursuit of neoliberal economics has resulted in atrocious working conditions, low wages, surveillance and an impermanent job on zero hours contracts at the beck and call of employers who can dismiss them with impunity. While writing a post a few weeks ago about the talent show Let it Shine it occurred to me that this form of TV normalises the neoliberal position in the name of entertainment.
This issue was highlighted a few years ago by Nick Couldry of Goldsmiths College in the context of reality programmes such as Big Brother (you can find a copy of his article here). Couldry calls such programmes a secret theatre of Neoliberalism as the structure of such programmes obscure their links to oppressive labour conditions in the guise of playful entertainment. Couldry points to a number of characteristics of such shows including continual surveillance and subservience to an absolute external authority which are both issues of concern at JD Sports and Sports Direct warehouse workers. Another feature, team conformity in which dissent is arbitrarily punished is clearly seen in the JD Sports situation. One of the problems faced by agency workers is the way in which their situation engenders a subservient mindset. While of a different nature the nature of reality TV formats impose similar psychological conditions.
What about the other genre of reality programme, the talent show? This, by the way includes Trump’s The Apprentice. Again we can see the factors of neoliberalism in play. The projection of manufactured authenticity is a vital component. the entertainment version of the Asda personnel manager’s insistence on a ‘mile of smiles’, where as Couldry mentions, every smile must nonetheless be a ‘real smile’. Likewise, if the contestant does not live up to expectations they are discarded by viewer votes and the competition rolls relentlessly onwards.
In the context of widespread discontent about the neoliberal pursuit of globalisation, Couldrey makes some a telling comment:
There is no basis for challenging the national vote, any more than we can individually challenge a corporate decision to downsize; the consequences must in both cases be borne individually.
Finally, programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing also demonstrate a feature of neoliberalism quite separate from working conditions, namely alienation and cultural exploitation. Artefacts (in this case dance formats) are appropriated, stripped of emotional content and repackage into a standard entertainment industry format.
So when you next sit down to enjoy a reality programmes, think about how the conditions endured by the competitors are shared by minimum wage and zero hours contract workers. The difference is that the contestants are there by choice and can decide to walk away ay any time. For many workers in Britain’s warehouses and supermarkets there is no such relief, fully justifying Couldry’s claim of cruelty.