Friday, 31 January 2014

The Return of the Trimdon Trimmer

Tony Blair's call for the international community to get behind Egypt's General (soon to be Field Marshal emeritus) Sisi initially sounded like a parody. On second thoughts, it occurred to me that it might be out-of-control spinning by the Egyptian regime, and thus another example of their epically bad media management. On third thoughts, I realised that Blair had probably said the words and presumably meant them. The clue that this is echt Blair is to be found in the the choice of clichés, some of which are beginning to sound rather jaded, hence the easy assumption of parody.

"The fact is, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress. The army have intervened, at the will of the people, but in order to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic. We should be supporting the new government in doing that". Mutatis mutandis, this sort of language could have appeared in support of any authoritarian putsch since Napoleon III (and there are obvious Bonapartist parallels in the developments in Egypt over the last three years.)

It's the foregrounding of hope and progress that tells you that this is the work of the Trimdon Trimmer. Hope is mere pabulum, but progress is the neoliberal cliché par excellence, if you'll pardon my French. It is so flexible, so opaque, that it can always be wheeled out, regardless of the evidence on the ground. For years we have been making progress in Afghanistan, like Iraq before it. But progress also has a more fundamental meaning, which goes right back to the enlightenment roots of neoliberalism. It presumes a teleology, a belief that we are "on a journey" to a better place, "the next stage of development" (there is a set path, with no possibility of diversion).

The suggestion that the army has intervened "at the will of the people" should be taken with a pinch of salt. As Tony Dale pointed out today at the LRB, Blair has had a hard-on about the idea of a "popular mandate" since the middle of last year, when he claimed that 17 million Egyptians poured onto the streets to depose Morsi. More sober analysts reckon the demonstrations amounted to around 2 million across the country as a whole. To put this in context, the 15th February 2003 protest against the Iraq War is thought to have mustered at least 1 million, and possibly nearer 2 million, on the streets of London alone, with an estimated 6 to 8 million protesting worldwide. This did not lead to a change in policy, let alone government.

Lord Sedgefield continues: "Right here in Egypt I think it is fundamental that the new government succeeds, that we give it support in bringing in this new era for the people of Egypt. And, you know, we can debate the past and it's probably not very fruitful to do so, but right now I think it's important the whole of the international community gets behind the leadership here and helps".

While the faux-chummy punctuation of "you know" is pure Blair, the formulation "right here" recalls the 1999 Fat Boy Slim song, Right Here, Right Now, which sampled the phrase from the 1995 SF film, Strange Days, set in the near future of ... 1999 (the film, poorly regarded at the time, has a resonance today in light of Google Glass and that whole surveillance thing). You suspect Blair will gradually come to symbolise the late 90s in a way that the mid-70s are symbolised by Kevin Keegan, Brut and (sadly) Jimmy Savile. The term "new era" is stock bollocks, but his suggestion that it isn't fruitful to debate the past is hilarious when you consider the ideological importance of the legitimation of history in "the land of the Pharaohs". Here you see the inescapable contempt that teleology has for the past, whether in the guise of neoliberal nostrums about progress or the Taliban dynamiting statues of the Buddha.

A significant aspect of Blair's personal influence on modern neoliberalism has been the extent to which the religious foundations of the secular concept of progress have been tenderly excavated. This influence did not end with his departure from Number 10, but has been raised to a whole new level. It is no accident that he has chosen to focus his talents on the Middle East, where (according to the man himself) "religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century's epic battles". I have a horrible feeling he may have already visited the site of Meggido and stared purposefully into the middle distance.

The worry is not just that Blair sincerely believes this ahistorical nonsense, but that he is actively working (with a lot of money behind him) to impose this Manichean worldview on the rest of us: "the purpose is to change the policy of governments: to start to treat this issue of religious extremism as an issue that is about religion as well as politics, to go to the roots of where a false view of religion is being promulgated, and to make it a major item on the agenda of world leaders to combine effectively to combat it. This is a struggle that is only just beginning".

Of course, we shouldn't fall into the trap of believing that Blair is a religious fundamentalist in the usual sense. His fundamentalism is ultimately political, rather than religious. But the psychic toll that this has taken on him (he was a self-declared socialist and CND member in 1983, when he started as an MP) has resulted in an ever greater belief that his weltanschauung is ordained by Heaven. To quote from the website of his own Tony Blair Faith Foundation: "the Faith and Globalisation Initiative (FGI) programme fills the vacuum of knowledge surrounding the role of religion in the modern world. It prepares the current and next generation of leaders by providing policy advice, research and analysis". The "vacuum of knowledge" and the "next generation of leaders" are phrases that would have appealed to Diderot and Jefferson.

No comments:

Post a Comment