Thursday, April 2, 2015

The SYRIZA infomercial

An infomercial is a shamefaced commercial, whose shamefacedness compels it to appear as presentation of "information" in order to sell a product more effectively. It is therefore a fusion of two genres of discourse that is at the same time a pseudo-fusion: the discourse of "information" is merely a carapace, whose purpose is to protect and reinforce the discourse of advertising.

Writing on politics, traditionally another genre of discourse than informercials, generally falls under two categories: journalistic writing, whose characteristic is the production of the illusion of a reporting "objectivity", and explicitly political writing, characterized by a more explicit foregrounding of the writer's own political principles and ideas. 

Marxist political writing is by its nature the most explicit of the subgenres of political writing: since Marxism is, among other things, a critique of the dominant ideology, ideological presuppositions, both on the side of the writer and on the side of that which the writer discusses and argues for or against, must be visible and consciously expressed.

My argument here is that a great deal of the writing that postures as political writing, and even --implicitly or explicitly-- affiliates itself with Marxist political writing these days is in fact an instance of the extension of the discourse of the infomercial in the arena of political expression. It is, additionally, that, at least when it comes to international writing on Greek politics, this is nowhere more frequent than in writing on SYRIZA, whether as a rising political force, or, since 25 January, as a government partner.

I will here refer to an article that appeared a couple of days ago as a textbook illustration of this argument. The article in question is "Syriza - two months on: where is the hope?" by Kevin Ovenden, as published in Counterfire.

The author begins by posing a rhetorical question that draws upon SYRIZA's electoral slogal ("Hope is on its way") and asks "Is hope even alive?", only to answer immediately with "an unequivocal 'yes'."[1] In the process he repeats a very basic infomercial strategy in SYRIZA's own political discourse: the prominent use of abstract notions, with a positive semantic charge, as substitutes for rational and concretely grounded argumentation. Throughout the period of its rise, SYRIZA turned words like "rupture" [rixi], "hope" [elpida], "red lines" [kokkines grammes] or "solidarity" [allilegyi] into totems, words that were invested with a well-nigh magical power and efficacy in somehow creating a political reality just by being uttered. They could be so invested because they always appeared in isolation from context, just as they do in advertising slogans. SYRIZA's ideologues have deployed "rupture", for instance, in thousands of different instances; but they never bothered to explain either what "rupture" consists in nor from what it is a rupture, nor through what means they expected such a specific "rupture" to become possible. Using phrases like "SYRIZA represents a politics of rupture", they converted the word into an empty signifier on which anyone could project whatever they liked, into a solicitor of individual fantasies and desires, just as a slogan functions in advertising (e.g: "Impossible is nothing" or "Keep walking"). Additionally, this mantra-type deployment of language allowed SYRIZA the ability to change the meaning of all their slogans as they saw fit or to modulate them for different audiences. Recently, for instance, SYRIZA MEP Dimitris Papadimoulis glossed the slogan of "rupture" thus: "Rupture with corruption, solution with Europe" -- a goal no neoliberal would find in principle objectionable, given neoliberalism's own heavy reliance on what Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has lauded (in the context of the 20 February agreement with the EU) as "creative obscurity"-- the generative power of ideological obfuscation, in Marxist parlance, to produce political effects.

Repeating this very characteristic strategy in his own piece, Ovenden then proclaims "hope" to be "alive" without bothering to explain what he means by "hope". "Hope" in what and for what? Instead, he immediately slides into a disclaimer: his is not "facile optimism or self-delusion", he reassures us, though, given the fact that there is absolutely no indication of the content of "hope", judgment on whether it is delusional or falsely optimistic is, in Hegelian terms, "infinite", like judgment on whether the color yellow is "bitter" would be. The grounds of "hope" nominated --"the initiative, courage, struggles and mutual solidarity of the popular masses"-- don't quite resolve the problem: the "popular masses" are not some organic produce of the Greek land; they are politically organized in different and antagonistic camps, with different goals; they are no more characterized by "mutual solidarity" than any human being in the world (Greeks don't have a special "solidarity gene"); their "initiatives" are never simply theirs, whether it is because they respond to NGO funded social media calls or because they respond to a call by their trade union -- they reflect, horror of horrors, successful or less successful initiatives "from above", from organized and planning-conscious decision-making centers. In Ovenden's imagination, on the other hand, politics has reverted to mythical nature: the "popular masses" are a "wellspring" of spontaneous social movements, ex nihilo providers of mobilizational bounty that are magically inexhaustible, because, presumably, Greeks don't have pedantic problems or worries like everyone else, but are somehow committed to ... well, "hope" and "change" as pure emblems of "the good."

It doesn't take long for the infomercial unconscious of this type of writing to erupt on the surface of Ovenden's text explicitly. Here's his political appraisal of the wellspring of political infomercials itself, SYRIZA: "It is worth recalling just how refreshing Syriza's slogan [hope is on its way] was in today's Europe of ironclad consensus between the parties of the centre-right and centre-left over the policies of austerity and neo-liberal capitalism."

Political analysis is here fully equivalent to the appraisal of a slogan; but more impressively, that appraisal comes in the form of another slogan: Syriza's slogan was "refreshing", just as Cool Aid or Gatorade might be (later on, the Greek left is similarly described as "vibrant", with the magical economy of analysis one would expect from the presentation of the effect of Tide detergent on textile colors). What made the slogan "refreshing"? The "ironclad consensus" that dominates "today's Europe". Being out of tune with that consensus, the slogan "refreshes." Who does it "refresh"? What does this "refreshment" amount to in a society with 26% official (approximately 40% real) unemployment, a society where one sees --and I have seen-- people searching in the trash for food? Does the "refreshing" quality of the slogan pay school fees? Pay the electricity bill? Put food on the table? Provide elementary health services for those who can't afford private clinics? It does not, but it remains "refreshing" to Ovenden's ears because these are not Ovenden's problems. His problem is that he wants a "refreshing" word because the "ironclad" consensus is boring and unexciting, and these are qualities fundamentally inimical to, well, advertising.

Throughout the piece, a sensibility trained on commodity language has substituted political thought: what Ovenden notes as objectionable about Schaeuble is that he is "a dull, provincial, tax lawyer." If he were an urbane, exciting hipster, it appears, his policies would look a whole lot more appealing -- a hypothesis that is not at all arbitrary, given the fact that image is the basic reason why Yanis Varoufakis is hailed as a "radical", despite the intensely neoliberal character of his proposals -- see his ingenious idea for a "fat tax" on people who have no money to adopt the 60 euros a meal diet he showcases in his Paris-Match photographs.

Those who have had the courage to continue reading Ovenden's piece may well have had the opportunity to observe that all traditional markers of political analysis --analysis of the distribution of wealth and poverty, of social inequalities, of the causes of this or that conflict or problem-- have been substituted with a language of deracinated, free-floating affect. "Hope", Ovenden tells us, is "interwoven" with "indignation", so that "despair" can be fought against with "righteous anger". Later on, Ovendon heads one of his sections "Manifestation of desire" (as always, affect is hypostatized as autonomous, so it would be banal to ask "desire for what"?), and speaks learnedly on "betrayal" (of what, by who, according to who?) and of "confidence" (in what?) I am aware of the image of Greeks as "passionate" and "emotional" people, but this is going a bit far: society has been converted into a therapy group whose daily routine is organized in terms of some claptrap scheme of moving from one band of an emotional rainbow to another; reason has been eclipsed by affect in ways that are eerily reminiscent of fascist irrationalism; class relations have evaporated into thin air, supplanted by some kind of neo-Aristotelian theory of humors in the body politic. Unsurprisingly, there is not a single reference to "capitalism" in the whole piece; in Ovenden's postmodern universe, the critique of political economy has not yet been invented, so the crisis Greece is not alone in experiencing is described, pace Syriza, as "humanitarian", as if it were the result of an earthquake, a draught, or to stay true to the genuinely retrogressive and irrationalist drive of the "postmodern left", of "locusts", of the sort that God sent against Pharaonic Egypt. Equally unsurprisingly, in this arid landscape of abstraction where the only possible salvation lies in shamans and their trade in magical words, "hope" of the Syriza-Ovendon variety proudly exhibits its vapid inanity as a badge of honor:
As I wrote in January, the election campaign did not bring jubilant crowds or joyously hopeful eruptions at rallies or in spontaneous gatherings. There was a considered optimism. People hoped to hope.
The content of hope is hope; or, to put it otherwise, the hope of which Ovendon speaks has no content. It is pure form, just as it is in advertising. This is not a mark of its degeneration and destitution, but of its "considered" nature, though what exactly a denuded form of affect can have possibly "considered" through rational means remains a mystery. But mystery, which shrouds everything in this piece, is of course an old acquaintance, the calling-card of the commodity form itself as it appears in the bourgeois mind: 
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.
The transformation of political analysis into an infomercial is nothing but a sign of the penetration of commodity fetishism into the language of political analysis; in itself, this is no scandal. Political thought never grows in isolation from the relations of production, so it is quite logical that the commodity relation surfaces within writing that pretends to "explain" or analyze political choices. What is a scandal is the self-designation of politics-as-commodity fetishism as "left" or "radical"; and even more so, its reception in the terms of its bombastic self-presentation. Everything that is critical and reflexive in the Marxist tradition has been eradicated without a trace in what pretends to represent it in spirit in such interventions as Ovendon's. Indeed, reading Adam Smith would be vastly more productive and progressive as a gesture: regressing to what was progressive thought in the late 18th century at least allows one the hope --if I can be allowed a single use of the term-- that one may eventually stumble on to Marx. No such hope exists for those succumbing to the infinite retrogression offered in spades by the pundits of the "postmodern Left."

[1] Compare with the virtually identical --and identically inane-- strategy in another Anglophone piece entitled "The SYRIZA Moment: A Skeptical Argument". There, the author poses the issue of SYRIZA's self-designation as a radical left party and then concurs that it is radical ("and radical it is"), on the basis of what SYRIZA cadre member Stathis Kouvelakis says in his Jacobin interview. In other words, the proof that the self-description of a party corresponds to the self-description of the party in question. Adding insult to injury, this fundamental failure to follow basic procedures of empirical logic presents itself as "a skeptical argument."

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