The negative wears the trousers

'Real' is what we may call a trouser-word. It is usually thought, and I daresay usually rightly thought, that what one might call the affirmative use of a term is basic - that, to understand 'X', we need to know what it is to be X, or to be an X, and that knowing this apprises us of what it is not to be X, not to be an X.

But with 'real', it is the negative use which wears the trousers. That is, a definite sense attaches to the assertion that something is real, a real such-and-such, only in the light of a specific way in which it might be, or might have been, not real.

'A real duck' differs from the simple 'a duck' only in that it is used to exclude various ways of not being a real duck - but a dummy, a toy, a picture, a decoy, etc. And moreover I don't know just how to take the assertion that it is a real duck unless I know just what, on that particular occasion, the speaker has it in mind to exclude."

JL Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (1962)

The above piece of godawful marketing dreck caught my eye the other day and reminded me of the Austin quote for some reason. One point worth adding, however. Back in the old days, advertising slogans were meant to be clever and witty, dreamt up by literary types like Fay Weldon or Salman Rushdie for the delight of the general populace.

Yet it's impossible to think any thought whatsoever has gone into the above. In fact you can picture the process that led up to it - various marketing brand manager types had a 'brainstorming session', and the raw transcript of their brainless jabber is presented as the finished product.

It follows that the relationship between marketeers and marketed-to has changed since the days of Weldon/Rushdie. Rather than thinking of ourselves as consumers, we are being positively encouraged to think of ourselves as marketeers. We are meant to participate in the marketeers' conversation, to agree with it...

Ideology today
Three studies in consumer desire

A peculiar microtrend in consumer advertising has recently caught my attention: a penchant for unexpected dialectical reversals in the normal ideological discourse of consumerism.

Whether this constitutes a symptom of something significant underlying — perhaps mass advertising reaching a certain saturation point, or more prosaically, an impending consumer debt crisis — I'll leave for you to judge. For now I'll outline three examples of what I'm talking about.

1: Persil commands you to get dirty

The first example — both in terms of chronology and simplicity — is Persil's recent Dirt Is Good campaign. The telly adverts feature luvvable kids getting all mucky in a suburban garden, overseen at just the right distance by a wry and knowing Mum figure.

The superficial message is standard feelgood Live Life To The Full fare... but there's something not quite right. The oddity is that Persil — a brand that we expect to promote the virtues of cleanliness — is instead extolling dirt.

Of course you're meant to notice this. Consumers are thoroughly resistant to washing powder firms ordering them to be clean(er). So instead Persil orders you to be dirty. Momentarily beguiled, our defences come down, and Persil-qua-signifier ruthlessly lodges itself into our unconscious. Ker-ching.

It's an ecological commonplace that we in the West consume far more washing powder (and other "cleanliness" products) than could ever be justified in terms of need — which is why firms like Persil embarked on promoting cleanliness-as-ideology in the first place (fast moving consumer goods were pioneers in mass advertising, cf "soap opera").

What this ad marks is a new departure that draws out the diabolical irrationality of consumer capitalism: we are now consuming so much washing powder that firms have to encourage us to get more dirty in order to sell us any more packets. A milestone of sorts has been passed.

2: Orange commands you to turn your mobile off

The dialectical reversal in the Persil campaign is at the level of discourse — the sales patter switches from Clean to Dirty, but the consumption of the product is unaffected. Persil is not telling us to wash our clothes less, it is telling us to get actively filthier and then wash our clothes more.

The latest adverts for Orange exhibit a deeper level of reversal. They operate through a pair of slogans, one of which is Good Things Happen When Your Phone's On. This line promotes Orange mobiles through the standard tactic of listing all the "features" that your life is incomplete without. It amounts to nothing more than the missionary position of techno-porn, and need not detain us further.

The second slogan is the crucial one: Good Things Happen When Your Phone's Off. Yup, that's right, Orange wants you to buy its phones in order not to use them. The Useful silently and effortlessly flips over into the Useless.

Of course Orange can still make money with your phone switched off, what with all the "value added" messaging services it offers: voicemail, texts, email — all of which is faintly repulsive (diseases get communicated too, y'know). But that's not really the point here.

What Orange have latched on to is that the greatest enjoyment we get from our mobiles these days is when we switch them off. The delicious guilty pleasure we get from this (doubled for us Londoners, who can also lie about it by pretending we were stuck on the Tube) is worth immeasurably more than any number of idiotic bleating ringtones or affectless digipix.

In an age of 3G gizmos bristling with ever more "features", our desires inexorably condense around the degree zero of electronic gadgetry, their universal "feature" — an off switch (also, incidentally, one of the most likely components to malfunction).

So: in this case the dialectical reversal is not just at the level of discourse, but penetrates deeper into commodity consumption itself. The mobile phone ceases to be a functional object and instead becomes a pure object of desire — all the better when not used.

3: Ikea commands you to work less

The third and final example penetrates deeper still — beyond the sphere of consumption altogether and into the murky realms of productive labour, capitalism's dirty little secret. And where the Persil and Orange ads are at best irritating and at worst presumptious, this one is truly obscene.

Ikea's latest Life Outside Work campaign for its flatpack furniture promotes itself on its allegedly low prices. But it's not the usual "buy this bargain and spend the spare cash on something else" line — instead it argues that lower prices mean you don't have to work for so long.

This breaks a tacit taboo in advertising discourse against explicitly referencing the source of all wealth. Rather than flatter us by pretending we're bourgeois consumers, it rubs our noses in our grubby proletarian status.

As if the concept of the advert wasn't humiliating enough, the execution goes further still. The telly ad features a white collar office (and it's not just the collars that are white) with a lone worker suddenly getting up and calmly/heroically walking out of the building early.

And in a grotesque mockery of collective action, the other workers start gormlessly clapping and cheering and singing Negro spirituals all the while remaining firmly in their places as Our Hero flounces out to meet his Perfectly Pretty Wifey. They embrace. We puke. Credits roll.

What makes this so cruel is its illustration of what Marx called absolute surplus value. The simplest and most brutal way that the bourgeoisie can squeeze more labour out of us is by extending the working day. And limiting the working day was one of the first demands and key battles of the 19th century workers movement (as detailed by Marx in Capital).

Fast forward 150 years and we now have the extraordinary spectacle of Ikea urging us to take back our absolute surplus value (on a strictly individual basis, natch). And why? For justice, liberty, solidarity? Nope. So they can get their grubby mitts on a larger slice of our ever decreasing wages.

And all this is happening while the global ruling class is openly discussing plans to prop up its profits by increasing the retirement age to 70 — a move that would represent a truly staggering ratcheting up of absolute surplus value, and a historic setback for the working class. Little wonder that Ikea was set up by a fascist.

"We consume the product through the product itself, but we consume its meaning through advertising. Picture for a moment our modern cities stripped of all signs, their walls blank as an empty consciousness. And imagine that all of a sudden the single word GARAP appears everywhere, written on every wall... Advertising's true referent is here apparent in its purest form: like GARAP, advertising is mass society itself, using systematic arbitrary signs to arouse emotions and mobilise consciousness, and reconstituting its collective nature in this very process."

[crosspost from Lenin's Tomb]

The politics of What If?
Zizek on counterfactuals

Exhibit A: witless reactionaries desperately trying to justify the summary execution of an innocent man in London last month by armed plain clothes police officers. Their strategy? Constant hysterical invocation of an absurd counterfactual scenario: "What if he actually had been a suicide bomber?"

Exhibit B: witless warmongers desperately trying to justify the embarrassing lack of WMD that were the supposed motivation for the invasion of Iraq. Their strategy? Constant hysterical invocation of an absurd counterfactual scenario: "What if he actually was planning to nuke us in 45 minutes?"

What both these examples (and there are countless others) demonstrate is the preponderance of counterfactual scenarios in the arsenal of reactionary ideologues. This phenomenon is neatly dissected by Slavoj Zizek in his latest essay for the London Review of Books, ostensibly a review of a volume of "what if?" essays by "leading" historians.

The conservative sympathies of the 'what if?' volumes become clear as soon as you look at their contents pages. The topics tend to concern how much better history would have been if some revolutionary or 'radical' event had been avoided (if Charles I had won the Civil War; if the English had won the war against the American colonies; if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War; if Germany had won the Great War) or, less often, how much worse history would have been if it had taken a more progressive turn.

Zizek also notes how conservative historians justify their parlour games by negative reference to "historically determinist" caricature of Marxism, and asks "what should the Marxist's answer be?" His initial strategy is to debunk the notion that Marxists are "dumb determinists who can't entertain alternative scenarios".

Since the non-occurrence of the October Revolution is a favourite topic of 'what if?' historians, it's worth looking at how Lenin himself related to counterfactuality. He was as far as he could be from any reliance on 'historical necessity'. On the contrary, it was his Menshevik opponents who emphasised the impossibility of omitting one of the stages prescribed by historical determinism: first bourgeois-democratic, then proletarian revolution...

There is a much deeper commitment to alternative histories in the radical Marxist view. For a radical Marxist, the actual history that we live is itself the realisation of an alternative history: we have to live in it because, in the past, we failed to seize the moment...

In the revolutionary explosion, another utopian dimension shines through, that of universal emancipation, which is in fact the 'excess' betrayed by the market reality that takes over on the morning after. This excess is not simply abolished or dismissed as irrelevant, but is, as it were, transposed into the virtual state, as a dream waiting to be realised.

This all very well and good, but I feel it doesn't address the thorny issue of how to distinguish the "good" Leninist approach to counterfactuality from the "bad" reactionary one. I suspect the critical factor here involves the temporality of the "counterfactual" – Lenin's "what if we don't act now?" is an urgent demand addressed in and to the present, a call for a decision over emergent possibilities. The conservative version, in contrast, involves no such sense of urgency or presence – it is a retrospective justification of a series of events that have already taken place.

This suggests that the Leninist "counterfactual" is not a counterfactual in the strict sense of the term. The notion of a counterfactual only makes sense within the analytic conception of "possible worlds" (cf Kripke), where all the possible worlds are "realistic", but only one of them happens to be actual. The laws of the worlds are all the same, all that differs is the contingent quality of actuality (its "modality"). That is why something that happens in an alternative world is counterfactual, ie both factual and not factual.

The Leninist position owes nothing to this Kripkean picture – instead it involves a much deeper conception of intertwined potentiality and actualisation in this world, with time and subjective decision somehow wrapping the two together. I guess this is what Benjamin was getting at with his "theses on the philosophy of history" (which Zizek namechecks)... something I confess I've never entirely understood.

[crosspost from Lenin's Tomb]

Trouble at the Telegraph
Galloway's libel victory

I've been following the George Galloway libel story with a personal as well as a political interest – I was working for the Telegraph at the time of the smear – so I was doubly satisfied to see my former senior management come a cropper in the High Court last week.

The atmosphere in the Telegraph office back in April last year was bitter, but subdued. Most journalists, in my section at least, were openly anti-war, and many had been on the huge Stop the War Coalition demo on 15 February 2003. We were also in the midst of a protracted battle for union recognition, which we won a few months later.

Given this backdrop, us hacks instantly clocked this story for what it was: a politically motivated attack aimed at discrediting an anti-war movement that had unleashed rebellious sentiment across the country, even stoking discontent among the paper's own staff.

The fact that the story was a blatant smear was also clear from the start. Even if one naively accepted the documents "discovered" by the Telegraph at face value, the obvious inference was that someone was using Galloway's name to fiddle money out of the UN oil-for-food programme.

What the documents expressly did not demonstrate that Galloway actually was in Saddam's pay, as the Telegraph suggested he was, implicitly in their news presentation and more explicitly in their leader column. Nor was there a shred of evidence to that effect.

Nevertheless, I had my doubts over whether Galloway would win his libel action – not because of any demerits in his case, but out of a more basic suspicion of the British judicial system. I found it awfully difficult imagine a High Court judge ruling against an establishment bastion like the Telegraph and in favour of a firebrand leftist troublemaker like Galloway.

As it turned out, my worries were misplaced – not only did Galloway win, his victory was unequivocal. The damages payout of £150,000 was towards the upper end of the scale, indicating a punitive element, and David Eady's judgement systematically trashes the Telegraph's feeble defence case.

One question arises: given the political significance of this case, why wasn't there a ruling class stitch-up, à la Hutton Report? There are two answers to this. The first is that had the Telegraph won, it would have set a very awkward precedent: that the media could get away with smearing any public figure on the basis of skewed presentation of dubious evidence.

But that alone isn't enough to explain the thumping one-sidedness of the High Court verdict. There wasn't a trace of reluctance in David Eady's judgement, nor were there any sophisticated caveats. This raises the intriguing possibility that disgust at the conduct of this war – and in particular, at the warmongers' contemptuous attitude to legality, civil rights and truthfulness – has penetrated deeply into the heart of the legal establishment itself.

One final nuance. There has been a change of ownership at the Telegraph since the Galloway smear, with Conrad Black being ejected in disgrace and the Barclay twins buying up the newspaper group. Unusually, however, Black's senior editorial appointments remain in place.

I wonder how long this state of affairs can last. The Barclay twins were certainly keen to settle the case – an out-of-court deal was scuppered at the last minute by the Telegraph's senior editors. The Barclays recently appointed Andrew Neil to oversee the Spectator – a similar move to bring the Telegraph to heel wouldn't be surprising.

That would be deliciously ironic: a scurrilous attack aimed at dividing the anti-war movement backfiring so spectacularly that it ends up dividing the pro-war conservative establishment instead.

But even if we don't see faction fights breaking out at the Telegraph, Galloway's victory is in itself a victory for everyone who opposed the war. Cigars all round for those who stood by him – and shame on those few backsliding fainthearts who didn't.

Leninism today
Ascherson on Deutscher on Trotsky

Neal Ascherson works as a political journalist for the Observer, but he is also a seasoned political operator in his own right, being active on the right wing of the Scottish Labour Party in the 1970s and running for office as a Liberal Democrat today.

I can't say I've ever been particularly taken by Ascherson's work or his brand of left-tinged establishment-oriented liberalism. But his review of Isaac Deutscher's biography of Leon Trotsky (recently reissued by Verso) in this week's London Review of Books is a thoroughly impressive piece of scholarship.

What distinguishes Ascherson's piece from typical liberal responses to Trotsky and the Bolshevik Revolution is its acute awareness of a certain fashionable moralistic consensus over the stakes of this exemplary historical event.

Ascherson deftly sketches the contours of the received wisdom:

Most contemporary readers of history probably agree that the "real" revolution was that of February 1917, and that the October power seizure by the Bolsheviks was little more than an opportunistic coup d'état... Lenin, it's said, in no way offered an alternative to Stalinism. In fact, it was Lenin who created the machinery of inhuman oppression which Stalin merely continued... It was Lenin who established the Bolshevik monopoly of political power... It was Lenin during the Civil War who licensed the Red Terror – executions, family hostage-taking – against the class enemy.

He proceeds to personally distance himself from this cosy ideological consensus, while acknowledging its hegemonic force:

My own feeling is that this approach is too crude to last. The Bolshevik Revolution was more "authentic" and popular than we currently admit; to see Soviet history merely as inherited homicide is an excuse for not thinking about it. But while these versions last, their sting affects Trotsky too... if the three giants of the Revolution were, in the current view, "as bad as each other", why should Trotsky – the one who never held the leadership – be of special interest?

Then, in a striking gesture that resonates with recent work by Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, he spells out the link between the unthinking liberal caricature of 1917 and the "post-ideological" humanitarian dogma that underlies and sustains it:

The real abyss separating Deutscher from modern historiography is a moral one. An average British history graduate today will have been taught to evaluate revolutions on a simple humanitarian scale. Did they kill a lot of people? Then they were bad... Isaac Deutscher saw history differently. His standards are not those of Amnesty International. Instead, he measures everything against the cause of the Revolution. The Trotsky trilogy has a spinal column of moral argument running through it which can be reduced to this question: did this or that course or idea help to fulfil the Revolution, or divert it from its true purpose?

The rest of the piece goes into detail about Deutscher and Trotsky – suffice to say it's an astonishingly accurate and well-informed overview, right down to noting crucial details such as the distinction between the Trotsky/Deutscher "deformed workers' state" view of Stalin's USSR and the rival "state capitalism" theory.

Ascherson's overall view of Trotsky is warm and generous, but by and large he absorbs Deutscher's tragic outlook and accepts the pessimistic historical outlook that flows from it. Nevertheless, the final sentence of the article is unexpectedly sharp in its rejection of the "End of History":

All that can be said is that when the unimaginable climate of revolution returns, as in some shape it will, young men and women will read and understand Trotsky and Deutscher as we no longer can.

Finally – anyone interested in a more detailed Marxist analysis of Deutscher should read Neil Davidson's comprehensive and lucid article in the latest issue of International Socialism (not yet available online, unfortunately).