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The flag protests and the propaganda of peace

December 22, 2012

It is interesting how the flag protests are being framed in the media. So much of the coverage and comment has focused on the dreadful impact of road blocks on retail and the damage being done to the Northern Ireland ‘brand’. It seems that what we are being presented with is a conflict, not between the old foes of unionism and nationalism this time, but one between the apparently incomprehensible, atavistic behaviour of loyalist protestors and the commercial interests of a thoroughly modern Northern Ireland. This is illustrated beautifully on the front-page of today’s Belfast Telegraph (22 December 2012) that carries a story about how shoppers have defied the flag protesters and brought some “Festive cheer at last for retailers’.

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This framing of the dispute as being between bad old politics and virtuous consumerism is an example of the ‘propaganda of of peace’.

Two very clever blokes, Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker (quite the most charming gentleman of my acquaintance), wrote a book about this a couple of years ago, entitled (not unsurprisingly) The Propaganda of Peace. The book looked at a broad range of media and cultural representations of Northern Ireland during the peace process and argued that just as people sometimes need to be persuaded to go to war, in Northern Ireland the public need to be persuaded that peace is possible. As you might expect, the media played a key role in this, with films, television dramas and comedies, newspapers, museum exhibitions coming behind a message extolling the virtues of peace.

McLaughlin and Baker argue that essentially there are two ‘narratives’ within the propaganda of peace. The first promotes peace and reconciliation (and there’s not much wrong with that) but the second is concerned with Northern Ireland’s interpellation as a constituent of neo-liberal capitalism after years spent relying on subventions from the British exchequer.

The two narratives are crystalised in the picture below of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness seated in the entrance to IKEA on the outskirts of Belfast on its opening day in December 2007. It’s an image of once sworn enemies now united beneath the banner of a global consumer brand, which in effect presents peace and capitalist enterprise as somehow underscoring one another.

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The problem with the propaganda of peace is that it can brook no political convictions or allegiances. In global capitalism the only legitimate expression of human identity is through consumption. As Eric Hobsbawm has argued, ‘Free-market theory effectively claims that there is no need for politics because the sovereignty of the consumer should prevail over everything else.’ Similarly, David Harvey, points out that this is ‘a world in which the neo-liberal ethic of intense, possessive individualism, and its political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization.’

This is one reason why loyalism’s politics and fierce sense of community is a problem in the new Northern Ireland, where commercial and consumer interests trump every other form of human organisation. In the neo-liberal world that Northern Ireland sleep-walked into undercover of the peace process, collective cultural identities are fine, as long as they can be configured as ‘lifestyle-choices’ or packaged as examples of heritage for the consumption of tourists. Seen in these terms, why should loyalism be reconciled with the peace process?

Which brings me back to the point I was making in the last post, if the peace process is to succeed in any meaningful sense then we need to start talking about the quality of the peace that is being proposed. Do we want a peace that privileges vacuous consumer identities or one that provides people with meaningful contexts within which to experience and live their lives?

Peace in Northern Ireland has got to mean something more than ‘business as usual’

December 19, 2012

Last Sunday hundreds joined a peace vigil at the Belfast City Hall calling for an end to the violence engineered in response to the city council’s decision to fly the Union flag on designated days only.

Now, I’ve been on a lot of peace demonstrations in my time but I couldn’t be arsed going to this one. These days Northern Ireland politics bores and exasperates me in equal measures, and the row over the Union flag and the response of the peace demonstrators are perfect examples of why this is the case.

The whole flags dispute looks to me to have been manufactured for sectarian advantage. After all, designated flag days have been uncontroversial with regards to other public buildings: why not Belfast?

What would have been wrong with unionists accepting the Alliance Party’s compromise of flying the flags on designated days? They are happy enough with this arrangement elsewhere. Come to think of it, why did nationalists propose taking the Union flag down altogether in the first place?

In truth, flags is the sort of issue that Northern Ireland’s political mafia of the mediocre can confidently apply themselves to, because they’re fuck all use when it comes to the big social and economic issues.

Political correspondents can offer whatever complex, smart-arse analysis of the situation gets them paid by their newspaper or broadcaster, but the simple truth is that sectarian parties, produce sectarian politics, produces sectarian conflict sometime or other. It’s not fucking rocket science.

No doubt the unionist leaflet distributed in Belfast that singled out the Alliance Party for special attention is part of the DUP campaign to regain the east Belfast seat it lost to Naomi Long at the last Westminster election. But events have quickly spiraled out of mainstream unionism’s control, an indication perhaps of just how out of touch the two main parties are with grassroots loyalism.

But I wonder how ‘in-touch’ any of Northern Ireland’s governing coalition are with people on the ground anymore, and in particular their working class constituents. They’ve been asking many of them to survive on optimistic forecasts of a better Northern Ireland to come for a long time now. But the peace dividend that our political class once confidently pointed to as a reward for good behaviour has gone. It evaporated in the face of a capitalist inspired economic calamity. Now communities are confronted with crushing austerity: an issue to which none of the parties speak with any integrity or authority.

Many of the young loyalists on the streets and being arrested won’t remember the ‘troubles’. They don’t know what fire they’re playing with when they engage in violent protest. But equally important is the fact that they belong to a generation emerging into a world of shit jobs, low pay, cuts in education, welfare and health care. True, none of them have ever thrown a stone in anger at the dismantling of Britain’s greatest institution, the NHS, but who has?

In Belfast the politics and language of class is under-used and less understood. But what people do have recourse to in that city is sectarianism as a long-standing way  to voice and demonstrate their frustrations and alienation.

If this was London or Manchester or Liverpool, and working class youths were involved in such public disorder, you can be sure that there would be some commentators highlighting issues of joblessness, poverty and the lack of opportunity. Of course, they may have had to struggle to be heard over the predictable chorus of condemnation that is routine when the state is confronted with trouble on the streets. Nevertheless someone in the media would be taking seriously questions about social, political and economic exclusion. But because this is Northern Ireland the debate is confined to one about bigotry. And that in itself just reproduces the centrality of sectarian discourses in Northern Ireland political life.

Bigotry is without question a problem. I’d go as far to say that some of the behaviour has been fascistic. And at one demonstration in Ballyclare, a prominent banner read: ‘Democracy isn’t working’, which suggests that some loyalists protestors are happy to propose an Arab Spring in reverse.

But it is not just loyalist demonstrators that are despairing of democracy. The Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce (BCTC) has expressed its disappointment that the vote on the flying of the Union flag was taken so close to Christmas, a time of the year eagerly awaited by retailers. The predictable disruption in the city is eating into profits, they say. Couldn’t the vote on the Union flag been postponed to a more opportune time? Damn that pesky democratic process and the trouble that arises out it. It’s just so commercially inconvenient. At least Greece and Italy have set a fine example of how to deal with democracy when it just isn’t working for the markets – suspend it.

Meanwhile, there are now more Union flags flying in Northern Ireland than at anytime since the Twelfth and unionists want to open a debate up about the flying of the flag over Stormont, an issue that we all thought was settled a decade ago. Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, points out that the Union flag tends to be raised on days associated with royal occasions, such as royal birthdays. And he worries that with the death of a few royals the number of designated days has dropped and so Northern Ireland looks and feels a little less British. Relax, Mike. The hereditary principle means that no matter how many royals expire, there’ll be more coming along behind them. Why, the Duchess of Cornwall is pregnant at the moment and there is speculation that it might be twins. Hurrah, two Union flags flown together above Stormont on at least one new designated day!

Now the main unionist parties are proposing a Unionist forum where loyal Ulster folk can talk about and progress their attachment to immaterial symbols of Britishness. It’s so easy to mock this initiative (I’ll resist the temptation here) but what of nationalists? How are their plans to remove symbols of British influence from Northern Ireland working out?

There are more Union flags, massive disruption, more political controversy over the issue, commerce moaning because its beloved Northern Ireland ‘brand’ has been sullied and unionism has at last found an issue around which it can unite. Well done, lads. Fucking ace strategy.

Which brings me to the peace demonstrators in Belfast on Sunday.

Look, I hate to sound tired and cynical, but they’re just not helping. For a start, what the fuck do they want? Everybody wants peace. Ask the most belligerent bigot and he or she will tell you that they want to live in peace. But peace cannot be founded on the mere absence of physical conflict. That might be a start but it’s not a sustainable end in Northern Ireland. Peace has to have a quality. It has to be a particular type of peace.

The anger and resentment in working class loyalist areas has to be addressed. Their disenfranchisement needs to be taken seriously, no matter how ugly its articulation. And least we forget that republicans have their own dissidents.

In the face of these challenges, calling for peace in the name of ‘business as usual’ is just futile. Worse than that its a dereliction of democratic and political responsibility.

The problems in contemporary Northern Ireland are not new. In 1998 most of us voted for peace but there was never an honest debate about the quality of that peace. And that’s a debate that isn’t just about how we get Prods and Taigs to love each other a little. It’s a debate that has to be about class and redistribution as well as communal recognition. It has to be about gender, race and sexuality. That’s the debate that we need to have now before it’s too late.

The problem with leaving it in neutral, Ed, is that it might roll down hill again

October 4, 2012

‘Given the situation in Northern Ireland, the most important thing the British government can be is an honest broker. It is very hard to be an honest broker if you are also an electoral candidate. Being a part of the electoral competition I don’t think is a great prescription for being the honest broker that we need.’

So said Ed Miliband yesterday (3 October 2012) when asked whether Labour would stand candidates in any future Northern Ireland elections.

This will bitterly disappoint Labour Party members in Northern Ireland who have fought long and hard for the right to join and form constituency parties this side of the Irish Sea. (I should make clear that I’m not among their number, despite my Labour sympathies.) But beyond the dismay of local Labourites, Miliband’s position is worrying because it is based upon a dangerous illusion that the British state and any government, Labour or otherwise, can be purely neutral on the question of Northern Ireland, or present themselves as mere ‘honest brokers’ refereeing the dispute between unionist and nationalism.

First of all, in what conceivable way could a future Labour government be neutral about a territory over which it will continue to exercise considerable political, economic and social control? What would ‘neutral’ policy and political decision making look like?

Secondly, how easy is it for neutrality to slip into disinterest and neglect? Unionism subjected Northern Ireland to corrupt and discriminatory government for decades until the civil rights movement brought the abuses to international attention. Unionist misrule happened while Westminster feigned neutrality, or was it disinterest or just plain neglect?

Neutral is a cop-out. Neutral is political cowardice. Neutral is potentially perilous in this context.

If politics in the North of Ireland is to progress towards anything approximating a functioning democracy – rather than the sectarian head counting it has at the moment – then it needs the sort of left-right politics that parties like Labour play a constitutive part in. Otherwise the place is doomed to endless political precarity at the hands of Stormont’s current Mafia of the Mediocre, who demonstrate regularly that they’re real forte is arguing over the issues of language and parades but they’re fuck all use at anything else.

So shit or get off the pot, Ed. Either sue of Irish unity or come up with an imaginative response to the new constitutional arrangements that the Belfast Agreement of 1998 heralded. There is a Labour party in Britain. There’s a Labour party in the Republic of Ireland and both are members of the Party of European Socialists. Northern Ireland is part of the UK. There is a North-South Ministerial Council, established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998), to ‘develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland’. There’s a British-Irish intergovernmental conference. Isn’t there a council of the Isles knocking around somewhere also, all provided for under the terms of the Agreement? Go look at the new constitutional arrangements that were negotiated – and which affect more than Northern Ireland – and come up with something more appropriate than ‘neutral’.  Commit Labour to taking some democratic responsibility for and in Northern Ireland, or else fuck off out of it.

The enchanted glass of Downton Abbey

September 30, 2012

It looks like Downton Abbey is to get a prequel about how the Earl and Countess of Grantham met. It’s writer, Julian Fellowes has said:

“I do actually have an idea of doing a prequel of the courtship of Robert and Cora, when all those American heiresses were arriving in London.

“They had a slightly troubled courtship, because she was in love with him before they married, as we know, and he married her entirely for her money,

“I sort of feel there’s something quite nice in there because he’s a decent cove, and so he feels rather guilty about this which has affected their marriage beyond that.”

Yawn….

I hate Downton Abbey and it’s BBC competitor, the reprised Upstairs, Downstairs. Both dramas offer that section of the public that cares for such shite, the ideological comfort of ‘the enchanted mirror’

As Tom Nairn argues:

“Like anyone else, the British look into a mirror to try and get a sense of themselves. In so doing they are luckier but ultimately less fortunate than other peoples: a gilded image is reflected back, made up of sonorous past achievements, enviable stability, and the painted folklore of their Parliament and Monarch. Though aware that this enchanted glass reflects only a decreasingly useful lie they have found it naturally difficult to give up”

Nairn is referring to the enchanted mirror of monarchy but the same might be said of the period drama’s Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. Their’s is a hierarchical world in which all social conflicts and tensions can be resolved without any serious restructuring of class relations. Its stratification appears natural and only the deviant are incapable of finding accommodation within it.

A prequel would be interesting if it gave us a glimpse into how the Earl of Grantham’s illustrious ancestors acquired the family’s wealth. How did they benefit from the acts of enclosure, for instance?

For all the period dramas, bodice busters and literary adaptations on British television – and the world of strict hierachies they depict – class is little more than a template upon which their dramas play out. Since class appears as natural and insurmountable, all stories are satisfactorily resolved only once everyone is in their place.

Is Media Studies producing ‘compliant labour’?

September 9, 2012

I’ve been ploughing the through some old journals and come across Lee Salter’s review of Mike Wayne’s Marxism and Media Studies: Key Concepts and Contemporary Trends (2003) for Historical Materialism (14:2). Salters welcomes Wayne’s contribution but it’s the reviewer’s comments about Media Studies that the preface his review of the book that really caught my attention.

He begins by pointing out that media studies is a subject area that has ‘struggled to define and defend itself’, with its roots in forms of media analysis that pre-date the formation of a Media Studies discipline and are hard to reconcile – the liberal Pluralist/Uses and gratifications approaches and critical/Marxist perspectives.

In the UK, Media Studies is heavily indebted to Marxism, although as Salter points out, Marxists are often dismissive of Media Studies. He writes:

Certainly, the development of the field of media and cultural studies was influenced by the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy and the related ‘cultural turn’ that did so much damage to Marxism. Further, as cultural studies developed as a discipline, it moved further away from the materialist underpinnings that Williams and others had retained, and towards an idealist grounding. For example, Stuart Hall, one of the key figures in the CCCS, tended to treat media as primarily an ideological tool rather than a commodity. Such are the shortcomings of idealist critiques that they have the potential to seek redress for ills in discourse itself almost as though they were the logical consequence of the method. As Peter Jones points out, even left-wing media analysts such as Norman Fairclough are capable of fetishising the media to such a degree that he calls for a bourgeois government to communicate more effectively. This is to say nothing about the far deeper material structures of language that Fairclough’s discourse analysis is supposed to expose.

He goes on:

Alongside idealism in media studies is fragmentation. This not only exasperates the existing ‘mono-medium and media-centric narrowness’ of media studies,but also threatens to limit the practical role of the latter. Though Stuart Hall argues that a great deal of early reception research was ‘funded for the purpose of identifying how to deliver specific audiences to advertisers’ and was guided by what he referred to an as ‘unholy patronage’ of research institutes, media companies, public relations and advertising agencies, it is notable that academia as a whole is becoming increasingly difficult to separate from the direct demands of the economy. The fragmentation of the subjects makes it easier to instrumentalise knowledge.

Now this is the world of Media Studies that I recognise, having arrived relatively recently: it’s one were the intellectual content of the discipline is being eviscerated and replaced with something nebulously referred to as ‘skills’. As Salter argues:

Trends in education policy, more generally, illustrate an increasing tendency to allow industry to dictate the content of education. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, What the system requires of teachers is the production of the kind of compliant manpower that the current economy needs, with the different levels of skill and kinds of skills that are required in a hierarchically ordered economy. Though MacIntyre is here referring to schools, the argument holds because the English university system is ‘diversifying’, ‘vocationalising’ and absorbing further education. Thus, whereas film, television and writing have critical potential, as mass media in the form of cinema, broadcast, print and, now, computer-related media are becoming increasingly important (and profitable) sectors of the economy, critical interrogation becomes increasingly antagonistic to the demands on media education. Instead, there is an increased need for a cognitively and practically specialised workforce engaged in the mass production and communication of ‘culture’ as a set of commodities. Thus, the knowledge and practical skills required by, say, a film production company are specific to that company’s need to create profit in that industry. In this sense, the industry creates the demand and the education system supplies the human commodities to meet that demand. So, on the one hand, media studies programmes need to be formed in such a way as to appeal to the industry and, on the other hand, students take an instrumental stance towards studying media – it is understood to be a means of getting a job. For example, the growth in the number of media practice degree courses may well be mistaken for a return to the productivist paradigm and opposed to the consumerist paradigms dominant in media studies. However, studying media production in abstraction from broader questions of productive relations leaves media production firmly in the hands of capital and portrays relations of production as natural. The knowledge acquired by students is just enough to become a cog in a specific part of the machine, whereas the creativity acquired is sufficiently detached to facilitate its exploitation. Accordingly, these demands on media studies and the pressures on universities to meet them, threaten to empty media studies of its critical potential. Media studies departments become worker-training centres. Therefore, we cannot detach the fortunes of media studies from those of education and knowledge in general and we cannot detach the fortunes of education and knowledge from broader socio-economic changes. But the increasingly narrow focus of media studies prevents students from recognising this context.

That’s pretty much where we are, I think.

The academic and the vocational… separating the wheat from the chaff?

August 26, 2012

‘Why don’t we separate the academic kids from those who are more vocationally inclined?’ I hear you ask.

Now forgive me for putting words into your mouth, especially if they have never crossed your mind, but you’ll concede that distinguishing the academic from the vocational is a popular topic of conversation these days, not least among parents. Often I find that you can read it as polite code for: GET MY GIFTED OFF-SPRING AWAY FROM ALL THOSE GORMLESS CHAVS!

Some try to dignify it by pretending that they want the best for all children. They protest that all they are proposing is that different types of schooling and education meet the particular needs of individual children. Therefore it makes sense that grammar schools and higher education should be reserved for the academically inclined, while secondary schools and further education colleges – or something equating to the old polytechnics – should cater for those who are referred to as being more ‘hands on’ or vocationally orientated.

On occasions this thinking is given an egalitarian polish with the insistence that vocational qualifications should be held in the same esteem as the academic. But what I find curious about all of this is the assumption that people are either academically inclined or vocational in their orientation. Apparently it is inconceivable that people could be both… or in my case neither, since I’ll confess that I showed no aptitude nor interest in academic or vocational studies as a school boy.

I understand that some pupils and students perform better in education than others, and there may be a variety of different reasons for this – relative attention, confidence and socialisation – but I doubt that variations in educational achievement can be sensibly mapped onto a fairly arbitrary division between the academic and the vocational. This is a difference we have manufactured and institutionalised.

There is no gene that I am aware of that predisposes some people to academic qualifications and generously remunerated work and others to a vocational education and relatively lower pay. I suspect that the insistence on a rigid separation of the academic kids from the vocationally inclined has more to do with the maintenance of class distinctions from one generation to the next than anything inherent in pupils themselves.

If the naturalness of such a division is questionable, then its efficacy today must be disputable also. Doesn’t a world that distinguishes between academic and vocational routes through education belong to the age of heavy industry and manufacturing, when work was divided between manual labourers and those who managed them? Hasn’t the world changed with the ‘digital revolution, and the rise of the knowledge economy and creative industries? Or maybe it hasn’t. Perhaps, despite technological advances, we remain divided into what Richard Sennett refers to in his book The Craftsman, as animal laborans and homo faber. The former, the beasts of burden, condemned to drudgery and routine; the latter their social superiors whose job it is to stand as the ‘judge of material labour and practice’ without ever partaking in it.

Animal laborans

There is a curious disconnect between political rhetoric and policy at the moment. On the one hand, we have been lead to believe for sometime that national economic success depends upon producing a highly skilled, educated workforce. The implication here, it seems to me, is that if we produce more graduates, national prosperity will follow. I’m not entirely sure that it’s as simple as that. But I’m equally uncertain about what the government is doing on the other hand. At the moment education policies such as the abolition of the EMA, raising of fees and the ham-fisted tackling of grade inflation looks an attempt to discourage large numbers of young people from pursuing an education that, let’s face it, one way or another is going to cost the state. It has the added effect of further institutionalising elitism in education - animal laborans and homo faber, again.

After all, what is the point in spending money on educating people for menial, precarious work where technological changes mean an endless and restless revising of skillsets every three or four years? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here.)

Homo faber

It’s a pretty miserable and inegalitarian vision of the future. But I always think that if you want a glimpse of the world to come look at education policy. And at the moment the Tories are undertaking a rigorous programme in separating the wheat from the chaff, as they would see it.

Education that includes assessment will always discriminate. It has to. But does it need to be so socially divisive? Our aptitudes and interests as pupils, students, workers and citizens may lie in different areas. We develop at different rates; our enthusiasms and talents may change over time. If we really want to harness our full human potential, wouldn’t you think that encouraging comprehensive and continuous forms of education would be the order of the day? What we have at the moment is an increasingly punitive, economically deterministic and divisive education system, geared towards reproducing class inequalities.

On holiday with Adorno

August 4, 2012

I’ve been on holiday. Tuscany (don’t you know!), staying in a small village just outside Lucca, making trips to the beach when the temperature was unbearable inland. That’s why it’s been relatively quiet on Media Studies is Shit.

I took a few books with me on holiday, one of which was a collection of essays by Theodor Adorno, called The Culture Industry.

I was really looking forward to reading one particular essay called ‘Free Time’, which was first published in 1977. In it Adorno writes that free time is merely the ‘continuation of the forms of profit-orientated social life’, illustrated in the ironic expression, ‘leisure industry’.

Among the examples that Adorno offers of the encroaching of ‘profit-orientated social life’ what we like to think of as free time is camping, an activity once dedicated to getting way from it all, sleeping out beneath the stars, free of work and domestic chores. Now camping is catered for by a leisure industry that turns your tent into a home-from-home (when surely the original point of camping was to escape this) and simultaneously transforming our desire for escape and respite into private profit.

As Adorno points out:

The industry alone could not have forced people to purchase its tents and dormobiles, plus huge quantities of extra equipment, if there had not already been some longing in people themselves; but their own need for freedom gets functionalized, extended and reproduced by business; what they want is forced upon them once again. Hence the ease with which the free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them.

There is, Adorno argues, ‘something vacuous…about the notion of free time’ and to illustrate further (and confirm his status as a miserablist and killjoy) he makes reference to sunbathing.

An archetypal instance is the behaviour of those who grill themselves brown in the sun merely for the sake of a sun-tan, although dozing in the sun is not at all enjoyable, might very possibly be physically unpleasant, and impoverishes the mind. In the sun-tan, which can be quite fetching, the fetish character of the commodity lays claim to actual people they themselves become fetishes. The idea that a girl is more erotically attractive because of her brown skin is probably only another rationalization. The sun-tan is an end in itself, of more importance then the boy-friend it was perhaps supposed to entice. If employees return from their holidays without having acquired the mandatory skin tone, they can be quite sure their colleagues will ask them the pointed question, ‘haven’t you been on holiday then?’ The fetishism which thrives in free time, is subject to further social controls.

Now, I’m not a sunbather. I have that classic Celtic complexion that goes red and freckly in the sun but I am not averse to lazying under a parasol on the beach all afternoon. I’m also mindful that Adorno spent much of his career in California. Had he spent any time in Belfast, he might have a greater appreciation of the sun.

But I take his point: free time ‘does not merely stand in opposition to labour. In a system where full employment itself has become the ideal, free time is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labour.’

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