Mark Hurrell.


Weeknote 15 – 16

21 January 2020

To understand why Brexit became such an issue in the first place, one must first ask why a populism of the right has so far proved more adept than the left at capitalizing on profound shifts in the nature of class relations that have affected not just the UK but almost all wealthy societies; second, one must understand the uniquely nihilistic, indeed self-destructive, role of centrism in the British political scene.

First of all, that the nation’s economy would continue to be driven by finance, construction, and real estate. Second, that budgets should be balanced by gradually defunding or contracting out public services. Third, that public assets should be privatized, but not entirely, so that large institutions such as the NHS or higher education should operate as a kind of hybrid of top-down bureaucracy and 'market forces.'

Such public-private hybridization was pursued by Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron alike. It is by now commonplace almost everywhere. Wherever it is pursued, it results in the same effect — almost everyone ends up spending more and more of their time filling out forms. But in the UK the process was taken further than perhaps anyplace on earth. The passion for paperwork now runs from the apex of the system, where City traders manipulate complex financial derivatives betting how long it will take a British family to default on their mortgages, to the increasingly arcane documentary evidence required to prove one’s children qualify for public housing. The UK is currently home to roughly 312,000 accountants — an extraordinarily high percentage of the working population. (Together with the nearly 150,000 British lawyers, they constitute a significant portion of the total workforce.)

This simultaneous embrace of markets, and of rules and regulations, represents the soul of what’s sometimes called 'centrism.' It’s a decidedly unlovely combination. Nobody truly likes it. But the talking classes had reached an absolute consensus that no politicians who departed significantly from it could possibly win elections.

The Center Blows Itself Up, David Graeber in the New York Review of Books

I personally think that business and private money has a lot to answer for, but if you’re going to have a social fabric in a society that is sustainable and binding — which we don’t have right now, and it’s getting worse — you have to have some sort of central set of principles, you have to have a state that is functioning well. You can’t just rely on, ultimately, the profiteering mindsets of people, to generate ethically good things

Youth clubbing: Inside a new generation of London studios, by Ciaran Thapar for Crack Magazine

This, I thought, is what it looks like when the culture warriors win? There’s a hole in English culture, a fundamental lack of substance. In his recent book New Model Island author Alex Niven suggests that England as a nation, having donated its identity to an empire that has now fallen, doesn’t really exist. England’s regions, once powerful economic and cultural entities that provided alternative modernist identities, have been stripped bare by deindustrialisation and disinvestment over the past 40 years, leaving a South-East/London-focused centre of gravity to the country’s life that holds on an imperial malaise in stead of a national identity.

The newspaper industry and England’s print media is at the cultural centre of that gravity hole. The strength of the newspapers is a unique aspect of English culture, compared to the US or other European nations. The print media draws its ideas from a staggeringly narrow sector of English society — a study in 2014 showed that almost half of England’s newspaper columnists went to Oxbridge, a higher percentage than even the House of Lords — with a unique dynastic element: Toby Young’s father was a baron, Polly Toynbee writes for the same paper as her father, Jacob Rees Mogg’s father was also a baron who edited the Times, Giles Coren and Victoria Coren Mitchell’s father was also a columnist, Marina Hyde and Camilla Long are both the daughters of barons. The executive editor of the Sunday Times is the son of the former editor of the Guardian. Patrick Wintour is the son of an editor of the Evening Standard; his sister is the editor of Vogue. All of these people, it goes without saying, are white. All but two went to Oxbridge, and one of those is Anna Wintour. You get the point. Perhaps getting paid to have opinions is genetic.


I find it hard to imagine that Harry can regard the press with anything less than disgust. Before Princess Diana’s death, which, at the time, both media and public agreed was partly down to obsessive press coverage, she was little more than reckless and indecent. After, she was a saint, and everyone agreed this must never happen again, and the Daily Mail promised not to publish paparazzi photos again. Of course, they didn’t, and within years photos of his mother’s corpse were on TV and in magazines, and the Daily Express was weekly running headlines such as 'Perhaps Diana should have worn seatbelt'. They did that to his mother, and they would do it to his wife given half a chance, before branding her a misunderstood martyr too. They are lying, venal scum without an ounce of moral fibre, with no understanding of the meaning of self-reflection. In their own eyes they are the backbone of contemporary English culture. To an extent they are right, and that should weigh on their shoulders as a heavy shame.

Meghan and Harry Windsor haven’t left the Royal Family, they’ve left the British media. And, honestly, who can blame them? Instead, we can learn from them. Faced with a loaded dice, bound never to be anything more than a sounding board for the racism and misanthropy of English culture warriors, Meghan simply chose not to meet the enemy on the field of battle. If you don’t have to, why would you? She is the first major deserter of the culture war.


One by one, the subjects of the culture war are backing away. Nobody wants to be friends with English culture any more, the toxic “character” in your group of friends who has developed “banter” as a personality, who calls you a gay cunt then says calm down mate, it’s just a joke, who holds his finger to his nose and does a goose-step whenever there’s a German in the room. Mark Francois’ Top Gear-style antagonism works in gaining airtime and column inches, but produces nothing of value. Coverage of Meghan Markle has, likewise, produced nothing of value — nobody has gained a moment of insight, a shred of understanding of themselves or the world, nobody has been enriched or moved. There is nothing here for us.

Of course, opting out totally is neither possible nor desirable; yes, the culture warriors thrive on having something to push up against, but sometimes things need to be resisted, loudly and clearly. But if we must fight the culture war, we should do it as guerrillas, striking on our own terms before retreating to our communities, where we can continue to build our lives, our systems of support, our music, writing, politics, sport, gaming and blogging scenes, rather than pouring endless energy into an outrage machine whose only product is our own exhaustion and defeat. Jay reiterates to me the same maxim, all the time: “Your attention is sovereign. The media thinks it owns it.” I believe, more strongly than ever, in the personal and political implications of that. We are personally responsible for where we put our energy, our attention, and we can change our habits of engagement with a media culture that is currently, quite clearly, our enemy.

Meghanomania and the Big Bong by Huw Lemmey

The current idea of a civil debate leaves a lot of room for bad-faith actors — people who ask for data, get it, and then shift the goalposts. Fueled by online debate culture and toothless journalistic ‘bothsidesism,’ folks took the bait because they thought they could convince these people. Turns out that was impossible.

We keep having the same video game arguments and it’s driving me bonkers by Heather Alexandra on Kotaku

The mobile web is broken and unfettered tracking and data sharing have made visiting websites feel toxic, but since the ecosystem of websites and ad companies can’t fix it through collective action, it falls on browser makers to use technological innovations to limit that surveillance, however each company that makes a browser is taking a different approach to creating those innovations, and everybody distrusts everybody else to act in the best interest of the web instead of the best interest of their employers’ profits.

The browser wars are back, but it’s different this time by Dieter Bohn on The Verge

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