This issue opens with another instalment from our continuing online Manifesto, this time Stuart Hall and Alan O'Shea on the political role played by an appeal to 'common sense'. The idea that we all share common-sense values, and that specific proposals self-evidently 'make sense' according to these precepts, is a powerful way of legitimating new policies. As Stuart and Alan point out, the assumption that everyone is obviously going to agree with what is being proposed is in fact itself a strategy to secure that agreement.
In the mean time a ferocious battle is waged over what actually constitutes popular common sense. Well-endowed supporters of neoliberalism are able to put substantial resources into shaping public opinion, through the media that they or their friends own, through the funding and promoting of experts and spokespeople, through their corporate PR resources, through donations to political parties, and through all their extended networks of power and influence. We on the left need to counter these activities by working with the grain of the good sense that exists alongside and within popular common sense - for example a widespread sense of what is just and unjust, of the rich being too powerful, of the need to look after the vulnerable. But articulating these ideas to a political project also requires work - as well as a recognition that this work is central to political activity. As Stuart and Alan argue, and as Tom Crompton argued in Soundings 54, when Labour politicians frame their proposals within neoliberal terms and rhetoric - for example when they talk about being tough on people living on benefits - they are actually undermining their own position.
Ben Little points to the ways in which the right seek to shore up their position both through using governmental power - as with the recent lobbying bill which has imposed far more restrictions on civil society campaigners than on corporations - and through trying to imitate campaigning rhetoric in their own PR. Both tactics [End Page 4] are a response to the rise and rise of 'cause-based' politics in the face of widespread disaffection with political parties: campaigning groups, social movements and NGOs have come to occupy some of the ground that has been vacated by politicians, and this is seen as a threat.
But, as Ben argues, there is perhaps a more insidious problem in the way in which political power itself is now understood. For many, especially within horizontalist groups and social movements, power is seen as abhorrent; for many others issues of power have been evacuated from political discourse, with political affiliation understood as brand identification and voting as consumer rational choice. These deeper signs of the permeation of neoliberal values are good news for the right - and need to be challenged by the left.
Ben also describes the 'networked leaderlessness' of much internet politics, and the central role within this world of the self-contained liberal subject, 'placed in a network of other individuals as a heroic actor able to act rapidly against oppression and self-educate to deal with any emergent challenge'. As he argues, this figure has become a contemporary ideal of emancipation precisely because s/he exists in a dematerialised and levelled out world that exists outside power relations, while still allowing a sense of connection and participation. This internet hero is able to disavow conflict in favour of emotional attachment to a cause.
A similar sense of the internet's capacity to render power relations invisible informs Jason Wilson's discussion of TED, the massive US-based internet talks phenomenon. TED offers planetary access to convenient 18-minute slices of pedagogy, delivered by celebrities and charismatic individuals and offering quick solutions to global problems. As Jason argues, the narrative form of these lectures suggests that a problem that has existed since time immemorial can be solved when a leading individual does something counter-intuitive as a result of 'out of the box' thinking - or 'when a clever geek takes a new look at the data'. This in turn enables the political fantasy that individuals can control and intervene in complex events without engaging in any serious conflicts over values or resources.
Jason coins the term...