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Graeme Archer

Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.

‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’

From T.S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet, the title of which is so good (“Hamlet and His Problems”) that I’ve nicked it. The concept of the objective correlative seems a useful tool for political, as well as artistic, deconstruction.

It’s useful in order to frame a response to a question that a couple of people have asked me (so I imagine it may have occurred to others): why hasn’t the Green Party UKIP-ed Labour? In an era when people are “tired” of “old” parties, why hasn’t part of the Left peeled off to a purer form of socialism?

Let’s rewrite Eliot, to see why the Greens can’t draw (many) votes off Labour, but also to identify those who might:

‘The only way of expressing latent desire in the form of politics is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a form of imagery, or a person’s idiom, which shall be the formula of that particular desire; such that when these external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion or desire is immediately evoked.’

What emotion or desire do the words “Green Party” immediately evoke? For most residents of Brighton, something un-printable; for those yet to live with Greens, maybe something anodyne like “ban nuclear reactors.” Nothing particularly Labour-ish. Since Labour voters’ emotional states aren’t invoked by “Green Party”, in other words, the Greens won’t displace Labour in any big way, regardless of how much socialism is written into their manifesto. We can ignore them.

But Labour voters do have latent desires, which not-Labour entities are successfully evoking. The two objective correlatives which Labour should worry about are UKIP (no surprises), and Russell Brand. More specifically, Mr Miliband should be worried about their idiom.

Of course Mike Read’s calypso song wasn’t racist, in the actual meaning of that word. But in the context of UKIP, a party which, shall we say, has a problem with its approach to residents of non-Anglo Saxon heritage: what sort of emotion, or latent desire, was a song about illegal immigrants, sung in a cod-Jamaican accent, engineered to evoke?

UKIP is the party of the nudge and the wink. Those nudges and winks aren’t accidental, but carefully selected “external facts”, which lead, inexorably, to the production of (a usually base) emotion. Does anyone seriously believe it’s an accident that the party chose to group with a man whose leader speaks well of Hitler? Nudge-nudge, without having to spell it out. It’s quite clever, actually, which is partly why I find it despicable.

Their nudges are designed not to produce a political solution to “immigration”, but to appeal to people who would rather Britain was as closed as she was in the 1950s, which is why UKIP is increasingly successful in attracting those parts of the working classes which bore the brunt of Labour’s deliberate re-engineering. The worst monsters, Mr Miliband, are those we build for ourselves.

A quite separate body of Labour voters – the ones who’d rather stick needles in their eyes than speak well of UKIP – salivates over Russell Brand. I watched the Newsnight interview with my jaw hanging open. By the time I’d read the comments on various Guardian articles from Mr Brand’s many admirers, my open mouth had trapped enough flies to make a nonsense of my vegetarianism. How is it possible that so many people should take this ridiculous man seriously?

Because Brand, even more explicitly than UKIP, exists to engender emotional response. He is the objective correlative for those of the Left who simply hate capitalism, but know they cannot live without it: the physical manifestation of their defining psychological contradiction. Sometimes it’s just too difficult to think about banking legislation and welfare reform. Sometimes it’s easier to join in a two minutes’ hate.

Should Brand’s extemporising about revolution carry him all the way to the EU parliament, moreover, he’ll find natural bedfellows already there. UKIP sit already with members of Beppe Grillo’s party. Mr Grillo is a comedian of oblique political intent, carried to power on a wave of negative emotion. At least the symmetry of a Brand-UKIP-Grillo-Iwaszkiewicz bonding would be pleasing, though nothing else about it would amuse.

If you buy into my hypothesis – that the purpose of both UKIP and Brand is to evoke one (base) response or other – then the inability of actual political parties to do anything about them becomes clear. No machine of rational policy can compete with one directed at emotion; they operate in non-overlapping magisteria. Of the two candidates for Prime Minister, however, it’s Mr Cameron who will be more comfortable on such nebulous ground.

Eliot’s essay argues that the lack of objective correlatives for Hamlet’s emotional responses leaves the play “certainly an artistic failure.” For “artistic”, read “political”: Mr Miliband has more problems with the voters than we’d even begun to consider.

48 comments for: Graeme Archer: Miliband and His Problems (as T.S.Eliot nearly wrote)

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