Red Ken Read
Tuesday, June 13 2000, 5:36 PM
The election as Mayor of London of "Red Ken" Livingstone, a politician generally regarded as being on the far "left" of the British political spectrum, has been widely interpreted as a rebuff for the government of Tony Blair. Having been expelled from Blair's "New Labour" Party, Livingstone ran as an independent, and handily defeated the party's hapless candidate. His triumph was immediately heralded as a victory of the "left" over the "right", and Livingstone is currently being held up as proof that radical politics can succeed in the postmodern era of corporate and media domination.
However, the true significance of Red Ken's election lies precisely in his ability to transcend the Enlightenment metaphor of "left-" and "right"-wing. His success depended on the votes of many who were appalled by his policies as leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980's. Livingstone won by rising above politics. And in that sense, far from representing a challenge or focus of opposition to Blairism, his victory confirms the practical and intellectual hegemony of the "Third Way".
This term, popularized by Anthony Giddens' eponymous bestseller, describes the "post- political", "consensualizing" "good governance" espoused by Clinton, Blair and, to varying degrees, the Western European social democrats. The "Third Way" takes as its most basic proposition the assumption that, as Giddens puts it, "no-one has any alternative to capitalism". But it differs from earlier holders of that assumption by viewing the market and the corporation, not just as pillars of economic prosperity, but as models for every kind of social institution and sphere of civil society.
Blair's studied, deliberate adoption of corporate style and vocabulary, his replacement of political debate by marketing, even his presentation of an "annual report" on his government's performance, spearhead a more general corporatization of the culture. We notice this process in the minutae of daily life and speech when, for example, airlines begin referring to passengers as "customers", and advise them to be "conservative with your space management". And, increasingly, we notice it in the baroque, grotesque forms now taken by what was, until quite recently, regarded as the separate sphere of "politics".
Political campaigns have always been advertising campaigns. Nevertheless, the influence of marketing techniques on politics has dramatically increased over the twentieth century. We have now reached the point where, in confirmation of the dialectical law, quantitative change has become qualitative change. It is not that the form of political campaigns has obscured their content: rather, their form has become their content. Already, ordinary voters know how foolish the pundits are when they complain that too much attention is being paid to "presentation" as opposed to substantive "issues". Presentation is the issue.
Since the watershed Kennedy-Nixon campaign, it has been assumed that the candidate who shows the surest grasp of marketing techniquesselecting the appropriate "product concept", establishing a pleasing image and brand name recognition, showing the most sensitivity to polls and the most dextrous manipulation of focus group datawill win an election. Today, as democratic politics is eviscerated into marketing alone, it is assumed that this candidate deserves to win. This is the essence of the "Third Way": it is a dialectical aufhebung, which transcends interest-based politics, issuing instead a direct, unmediated appeal to the individual qua individual.
Blair's consensualizing strategy follows the model of "triangulation" invented by Clinton's former advisor, Dick Morris. In his book Vote.com, Morris argues that the USA is moving away from a republican system of indirect representation, towards a democratic system of direct government by the people. In the near future, he claims, America will be run as a continuous, virtual town-meeting, thus obviating the need for political representation altogether.
This prospect is frequently hailed as facilitating a return to the pristine, paradigmatic democracies of ancient Greece. As Morris puts it, "What small size and intimate geography permitted ancient Athens to accomplish, the Internet will let America and the world accomplish." The difference, however, is that ours is a market society, while Athens was not. In the Republic, Plato specifically warns against allowing "salesmen" any influence on politics. Political affairs are to be governed by reason, not by the rhetoric of the huckster. Therefore, the Athenians denied political rights to those whose position in society had deprived them of the education necessary to think in rational terms.
A market society makes no such restriction, because market success is not achieved by rational means. Market success is achieved by rhetorical means. A direct democracy operating in a market economy must therefore inevitably install marketing as the means to achieve political power, and as the basis on which political decisions are taken.
So far, this process is mainly discernible in the disintegration of what we might call "institutional mediation". The collective organizations which once represented the interests or views of groups of peoplepolitical parties, trade unions, the news mediaare becoming obsolete. The most conspicuous beneficiaries have been Clinton and Blair, who won power by abandoning traditional party loyalties and beliefs, and who have retained it, at least in Clinton's case, despite an astonishingly hostile media campaign. In a society where leader-writers, columnists and commentators were influential, Clinton would have been destroyed by Monica. He survived by ignoring mediation, and addressing himself directly to the individual voter.
This is also why Red Ken can comfortably be elected Mayor without any party organization, and in the face of vicious and complete media hostility. But the "left" should hesitate before celebrating his triumph as their own. Red Ken did not win the election because he was on the "left"; he won because his appealing personal image seemed more important to people than his position in some mythological political geography of "left" and "right". He won, in other words, for exactly the same reason that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair won. Blair's megalomania may have been vexed at Livingstone's election, but he should not lose too much sleep. In the manner and cause of Red Ken's victory is revealed the true scope and extent of Blairism's hegemony.
David Hawkes is an associate professor of English at Lehigh University and an occasional contributor to Bad Subjects.