The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England and the Fourth Estate

Erik Empson

It is a rare thing that oppositional movements gain as much airtime as has been afforded to the recent protests against the war. Indeed, whereas before, hundreds of thousands of people could march through the capital without the slightest whimper of recognition from the established media, now it seems television can not get enough of the drama. The shift is not that easy to fathom. But a number of different trends have come together here.

The first most obvious reason is the internal divisions within the camp of the western establishment; the geopolitical significance of a Europe potentially pitted against an over-zealous American administration, and here the increasingly tenuous position of a prime minister whose prominence derives largely from the struggle to continue to play the role of intermediary to American interests in Europe. At the same time, the USA attempts to circumvent the power of 'old Europe' by building wider alliances in the newer eastern European countries, which threaten to destabilise the emergence of a new economic bloc with its own economic power base that would potentially decentre US economic might. Within 'Old Europe' there is a new Europe, one with its sense of purpose, and a significant section of established power for whom the exercise of unilateral political might is directly an affront to the new and evolving mechanisms of social and political law. Yet as much as they might seem apart, both regimes are different responses to a very similar problem, this is ongoing struggle of maintaining institutional coherence and political authority. Both suffer the problem of accountability for what is. All have a problem of responsibility. The more advanced sections, the power brokers that are in it for the long haul, think in terms of consequences - they are the levers of the reluctant state. The state in its normalcy that is so well attuned to responding to events by getting things bogged down. How appropriate then that its the French with their bureaucratique fixations, that have set in motion the auxiliary mechanisms of establishing proper 'justification' - which the papers call 'just cause'.

Over a million people converge on London. The majority of these people are not affiliated, nor actively engaged in 'politics'. They think Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator who should be punished, on the whole they believe that with a UN resolution the war would be just and on the whole they believe that on a demonstration it is 'best to do what the police say' because 'there must be good reason for it'. The rhetoric of this anti-war feeling draws equivalences between western sponsored terror and the crimes of the regimes it targets. It calls for the King's head. But insofar as it does that it sees itself as in the dominions of an American Lord. 'Tony' is seen as a wayward friend, local councillor turned bad or as the ombudsman destined to deliver on various money back guarantees. In Britain this is how we think of justice: as what is due.

Two more important factors can enter the picture here and they are closely related. The commercial media and the 'leadership' of the anti-war movement. The media establishments have changed nothing in their underlying support for the right of our government to intervene abroad, this would never provoke the slightest prevarication. But they do vacillate over particular interventions. Much to the chagrin of the professional revolutionaries in the Stop The War Coalition, the Daily Mirror has moved into to try and occupy an apparently empty space of representation. 'At least the Mirror is doing something' run the quotes under pictures of celebrity signings. Financial pressure exaggerating its own illusions as to being the check on government and the voice of the people it is able to publish 'Stop War' headlines on a patriotic ticket.

Meanwhile, the institutional left is getting more airtime than ever before. Its pandering for recognition has, un- noticed, resulted in serious populist modifications of demands. At the same time, its increasingly technical, conservative and traditional approach to political organisation is exhausting itself. But the long honed techniques of representative saturation, stewardship, of giving grandeur and respectability to its conventions of marches, rallies and speakers simply bottoms out when the commercial publicity resources of the Mirror Group and one and a half million people come to town. It became impossible to engineer a media semblance of the old organisational frame of left politics. Not enough placards and paper sellers. And so we had a glimpse of what a protest without banners and placards would be like, without the kind of exposures of self- identity and affiliation that obstruct communication so much. By tearing off the Socialist Worker, or The Mirror advertisement at the head of the placards, the multitude was acting in tension with 'the people'.

The sound bites stolen from the breathless and exasperated representatives of the anti-war movement are invariably those that refer to the deficit of the political. Warnings are issued to government that this popular dissent exhibits the breakdown of the conventional relationship between state and individual. What is put into the mouth of radical left, or what they are allowed to say.or perhaps simply what they have now come to believe: is that war will threaten the legitimacy of our state. Far from the project of accelerating that breakdown, they are now given airtime as the voices of this malaise, curiously locked into a discourse that at least at one time they didn't accept. For a while it was puzzling why the London anti-war marches were never attacked by the police, as has been the norm for large scale assemblies. It is becoming more ar why this is the case. It is more than the comforts found in sharing the same techniques of power, those stewards in fluorescent jackets that were a little too cosy with their helmeted buddies. It is more than the organisers' desire to be respectable and responsible. It is because the demonstration serves to tacitly re-embody the underlying authority of control society. By responding to the spectacular machination of the state i.e. the very semblance of direction and authority the war is designed to achieve - the state resussitates its coherence and direction it is so to speak, re-centred. (and of course many elements of the establishment are delighted that the particular causality of this overall victory will be Blair).

The anti-war protests are about trying to clamber back a political authority tacitly and complacently given up. The problem seems to be that the 'people' are trying to convince the 'multitude' to farm off this power to another body to defer it one more time. This is destabilising a struggling Blair for sure, but it fails to address that the imperatives for this war emerge out of this dialectic of authority and responsibility and the incapacity of a state to convince its subjects that it is acting in the general interest. In current times it seems it is only here that mass oppositional movements can arise, in the context of a dissatisfaction with a state, because only here can other bodies that think in terms of states move in to fill the representational deficit. The truth of this is found by the poor demonstration turnouts in France.

At the end of the demonstration a representative of CND demands of our group that we put some change in her bucket. We must reimburse her for a service, she needs recognition, and she is doing this for us. The speakers on the podium thanked us for coming. The left and the media are competing to be the space of mediation between ordinary aspirations and the reconciliation of political authority. But the multitude responds with mutual distrust. The multitude is seen as an apolitical mass that needs to be involved and organised in the 'political', but the multitude exists as subject precisely by refusing to be subject, it makes a show of strength and withdraws.

This withdrawl is crucial to understanding the enigmatic processes of transition from imperialist control regimes to the bio-political topographies of Empire. To all of those that seek to act under the appearance of the representational guise, this withdrawal is the worst possible thing. However for those of us breathing the same air as these dissenters, and opposed to the manufacture of the war from start to finish, it is something of a liberation it is a step outside of the control paradigm, it is a step outside the liberal politics of consent - whilst consituted political agencies rush to fill out the exposed but now vacated spaces- the multitude, whose activity far outreaches the boundaries of political terrain, continues to evolve its own multifarious dimensions of affective activity. No doubt the organs of detached power will continue to hurry after it and recuperate a language of consent. Let them. So long as they fear anti-political and a- political behaviour they will fail to be part of its enormous creative potential and socially manifest expressions of and desires for non-separated social being.

Erik Empson

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