Thursday 10 July 2014

Choices? Tough

I can't avoid Hilary Clinton. There she is, in every bookstore, leering unsettlingly out at me from the special displays where Thomas Piketty's book used to sit. As much as I don't want to think about it - and good god, I'm not going to read the fucking thing - I have some thoughts on her book.

Specifically, the title.

Hard Choices. Oh my.

It has already long-since occurred to many of us who notice such things that the rhetoric of hard choices, tough decisions, or some variation on words or theme, serves only the purpose of lowering expectations, and, generally, of signalling a rightwards orientation. It was a favourite rhetorical trick of Tony Blair's, and it has now become a standard of David Cameron's. The point of the hard choice is to signal to the public that, while there are many things the speaker wishes to do - really, honestly, earnestly - in a better world, that unfortunately, things being what they are, with the need to engage with the grim realities of the world, so on and such forth, those priorities will simply have to change. It's not what we wanted. It was a hard choice.

Observers may well notice that so many of these things which are described as hard choices actually bear a strong resemblance to the long-held convictions and ambitions of the speaker or writer. Cuts in the UK are routinely described as difficult decisions; the Opposition are constantly invited to demonstrate that they are ready and willing to make those hard choices, ie. to throw their ostensible constituency under the bus in the name of the market. All our parties - as they are in the US - are broadly aligned around the same program, with only distinctions in tone and emphasis to be made. We can make the point - and many do - that there aren't very many choices, and they never seem especially hard. The point is the signalling. Politicians are on your side! They wish they could help! But, you know, the world, bad things, terrible threats.

This is useful because it suppresses debate and reinforces the idea that we live in a post-ideological age. There are no arguments to be had, no competing ideologies, no politics; only hard choices. You can believe what you like, but the world works in this one way, and you have to compromise, to accept that reality, to get power (this is compromise not in the sense of reaching an agreement with another side, so much as the sense that a wall with a hole in it is "compromised"). Once you've got that power, you can't use it, except in narrowly prescribed lines. The hard choice is the rallying call of a technocratic political elite that is almost farcically insular and homogenous; it ensures that the few radicals who do somehow get into the system are shunted to the sidelines as unrepresentative mavericks; dangerous intrusions of the dread ideology into a politics-free politics.

Anyway. What's interesting to me, then, is that Hilary Clinton is leading the charge for hard choices by slapping it on the front of her book. Obviously this is a reaction to Barack Obama. The Audacity of Hope turned out to be a millstone around his neck as he turned out to offer neither hope nor audacity; "hope and change" turned out to be the most empty of slogans as Obama turned out to be an aimless, pointless mediocrity rather than an inspirational figure of charisma and unity. The Democrats have governed on a platform of doing the bare-minimum to maintain party discipline and loyalty among their voting base, not by offering much of concrete worth to their constituents so much as stoking up the threat of the Republicans. Meanwhile the real ideological battle is not being fought; as witness endless "liberal" Facebook memes trumpeting Obama's competence in terms dictated by the enemies of most Democrat voters: in terms of managing the structural deficit, bailing out industry, and killing military targets. Clinton's book, then, surely signals nothing more than a realignment of Democrat party messaging with their intentions.

Obama offered the world and delivered next-to-nothing; Clinton is also offering next-to-nothing, but she at least is making sure you know it from the off.

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