Doomsday Scenarios? Decisions, Deals and The Donald

 

Professor Rolland Munro discusses the difference between decision making, and doing deals. Can a entrepreneurial business leader run an economy in the way that they run their business?

 

Much attention is focused on the “decisions” being made by Donald Trump in these first weeks of his Presidency. Decisions once upon a time relied on getting good information and correctly analysing it. But far from hoping Trump might make even sub-optimal decisions, the optimistic expectation is rather of his “muddling through” – although without Charles Lindblom’s thoughtful science to help him.

 

What the media has its eye on is Trump’s inexperience in government. Since the art of government is partly about understanding how institutions sediment into other institutions – bringing into play Weber’s law of unintended consequences – one could hope a new President might adopt a policy of incrementalism. To the contrary to such caution, Trump appears to epitomise Amitai Etzioni’s figure of the reckless, someone who can’t or won’t cope with information: “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”

 

Yet despite pundits circulating his vocabulary, what seems to be overlooked is how Trump’s own language reflects himself and his moneymaking background. As with some other entrepreneurial billionaires, Trump’s focus is solely on making a “deal”.

 

Famously, for example, Bernie Ecclestone, the former boss of Formula One, never made notes in meetings and wouldn’t sign a contract. As he put it, whereas there wasn’t a contract in which he wouldn’t find a loophole, a handshake from him was forever.

 

In contrast to the arts of decision-making honed in institutions like the CIA and Department of Justice, deals are often done blind, on trust, or just on what seems right at the time. With deals you win some and lose some, but decisions tend to be judged good or bad.

 

This difference matters to someone like Trump, particularly since decisions have a habit of getting examined retrospectively, with the added disadvantage of the decision- maker being held to account. For example, his decision to run a bogus university (to teach people how to make money) keeps coming back on him. Whereas the practice of “cutting a deal” – as in a card game like poker – speaks of the luck of the draw. If you get dealt a bad hand, you just move on. To the next deal.

 

Recalling Henry Mintzberg’s proposal that action is a better unit of analysis for management than decision, Trump’s “strokes of the pen” are better seen as actions taken by him to reflect the “deal” he did with the American people. Vide: make me President and I’ll give you back your jobs, banish Muslims and build a wall. In his own mind, Trump is doubtless going full steam ahead to keep his word. That’s what those who “do deals” do to keep their reputation. Better to go bankrupt, than welch on a deal!

 

From the televised debates, we learnt Trump’s “smart” move is tax avoidance: to let the taxpayer bail him out via the Inland Revenue Service. This time though the fact is that, as President, it is now the nation that could go bankrupt. The prospect of dividing the US from global trade stems from his apparent aversion to multi-lateral deals.

 

More problematically, Trumps inability to undertake genuine decision-making, means much more than bankruptcy is at stake. Sticking to his comfort zone of holding out prospects of bi-lateral deals to other leaders, like Mr Putin and Mrs May, may lead on to the kind of isolationism that makes any nation vulnerable to war. So it is not Trump who will be the target in a “High Noon” shootout, doubtless one of the many heroic films he lives in. The torpedoes of today are nuclear and may all too easily mean Armageddon.

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

After Brexit, Trump?

 

Dr Fabian Frenzel of the Management and Organization Division of the School discusses the Anti-Trump protests across the UK and what they mean for Brexit Britain. How are the two connected?

 

UK wide protests against the Trump administration have hit the streets since the new president issued a controversial travel ban for seven predominantly Muslim countries last week. Nowhere outside the US have protests against Trump’s travel ban been as fierce and widely shared. A petition to parliament asking to revoke Theresa May’s invite to Trump for a state visit to the UK in summer has now reached nearly 2 million signatures. May has thus far rejected this demand, insisting on the diplomatic necessities of Realpolitik.

 

In response some MPs compared May’s approach to Trump to the appeasement policies of British government with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, indicating just how controversial her invite is. More protest are planned by a newly formed Anti-Trump coalition that enlists an impressive number of UK celebrities. Nation-wide marches are planned on the 20 February, the day Parliament is scheduled to debate the petition.

 

Such strong rejection and near spontaneous outburst of protest, mostly mobilised via social media without the involvement of larger organisations or parties, are by now a familiar feature of protest cultures across the world. The Anti-Trump protests are examples of collective affects, broadly shared sentiments pitched up via the power of algorithms and connectivity. It is wrong to dismiss social media as mere echo-chambers, reflecting only those sentiments one already holds. Some issues resonate broadly, while others remain fringe concerns. Once people take to the street in the numbers we saw this/last week, it is clear that something has hit a nerve.

 

The question is why the Anti-Trump protests resonate so strongly in Britain. I got some ideas about this when I attended the spontaneous protest against Trump’s travel ban in Leicester. I was surprised to find that far from everybody in the crowd seemed to be united. A fellow migrant saw me and shared her views: “Typical British anti-Americanism, she quipped: If they care so much about freedom of movement, why don’t they protest against Brexit?”

 

I replied that most people in the demo were likely to be opposed to Brexit, but she had a point. No one was out on the street when the House of Commons voted for the Brexit Bill this week. The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, had even ordered his MPs to vote for Brexit. At the same time he fiercely criticised Theresa May for seeking closer ties with the US.

 

This makes very little sense.

 

Theresa May’s encounter with the new US president was the result of frantic diplomatic efforts in which May bargained for being the first foreign leader to meet Trump and for a quick free trade deal after Brexit. In return Trump asked to meet the Queen: He got it.

 

Brexit Britain has little choice but to seek closer ties with the US. Only the US has an economy strong enough to offer some replacement of the economic benefits of the single market. Via closer ties with the US the UK financial sector can hope to maintain its world leading position, even if EU markets becomes harder to access. Politically, it is only on the side of the USA that Britain may hope to have some relevance in the world, once its leaves the foreign policy co-ordination of the EU.

 

None of this British geopolitical constellation is new. Long before Brexit, Britain maintained relative political and economic independence as a result of carefully balancing its position between the EU and the US.

 

The balancing act is not only a question of diplomacy and national interest, it also deeply affects the British identify.

 

Parts of the UK public are evidently allergic to EU influence, but as the protests against Trump show, public sentiment is also fiercely opposed to any sense of dependence on the USA. With a president as controversial as Trump, this is even more so. Few people made the link between the Anti-Trump protests and Brexit last week. But it may well be that the unease and anger displayed results not simply from the politics of the new American president, but equally from the fear of being closely associated with it.

 

The question many Britons may ask is: when we leave the EU, will we be forced into a closer alliance with Trump’s USA. The answer to that question is almost certainly yes. Brexit Britain needs closer ties to the US at the precise point where the US turns out to be a very dubious partner indeed. Protests against Trump in Britain may well signal the beginning of a new wave of Anti-Brexit mobilisation.

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

Do Managers Make Teams Successful?

 

ULSB PhD student Rasim Kurdoglu (rsk15) considers just what we can learn from Leicester City’s lack of success this season.

 

Unlike most industries, managers in team sports are paid less than many of the team players. Sport is an activity in which team players’ performance is directly visible, therefore clearly appreciable. But surely the manager is important too? Most people who work in a Business School would agree that managers have important leadership and decision making roles in any organization. But does that mean that they are magicians, heroic leaders who produce success or failure?

 

It was fascinating and surprising to see Leicester City Football Club as the champions of 2015-2016. However, the same team’s struggle in the Premier League in 2016-2017 is equally surprising. So, assuming that not that much has changed about the team, the fans, the league, the stadium, then is the success and failure down to management or not?

 

Let’s look at some academic theory and see what we can learn. The economist Friedrich Hayek asserts that if a game is played fairly then there is nothing wrong with rewarding people for the results they achieve. In that sense, he would see no problem with managers claiming full credit for success and then reaping the financial benefits of it. Therefore, for him, managers could be understood as the creators of success or failure.

 

The sociologist Max Weber had a different view. He believed that social inequalities lack a rational explanation, are not the result of justified rewards for success. Instead, the successes and failures that we see in society have more to do with luck, or who your parents happen to be. Despite Weber’s common sense, it seems that Hayek’s is the dominant view in our time, particularly amongst the winners.

 

Turning back to Leicester FC’s success then. Of course we should credit the value of manager Claudio Ranieri’s strategies and tactics, his team line-up, his communication skills and so on. It would be perverse to ignore his contribution, but to say that the manager was responsible for the success would be an incomplete explanation. Even more so since we currently observe a serious decline in his team’s performance, although it has the same management and only a few changes in the team.

 

Indeed, we only need to listen to Ranieri himself. I have watched his interviews many times. There is a single notion I consistently hear in his explanations, and which reflects his general humility. This notion is ‘spirit’. He regularly talks about the ‘good spirit in the team’.  Spirit is a beautiful and a poetic concept, perhaps an invisible element of success which cannot be captured by any single factor. Probably, Ranieri was also struggling to make sense of what was happening as he repeatedly invoked ‘spirit’ like a ‘ghost’ in the team, and which could explain their astonishing success.

 

What is the ‘spirit’ which gives rise to all the confidence, enthusiasm, courage and ability last season, but which seems so lacking this season?

 

It seems to me that the ghost in the team is something that couldn’t possibly be reduced to the manager. In 2015-16, the players, the manager, the club’s Thai owners, were in some sort of harmony, combined with luck, that could never be reduced to one factor.  If there is a lesson, it is that spirit, harmony, is a complicated prescription for success. Trying to make our lives simple with explanations such as the superiority of a single manager simply doesn’t work.

 

This isn’t to say that Ranieri didn’t matter. Of course he did. Yet we should not forget that Ranieri is himself a product of the spirit he describes. He was born out of this harmony just as much as he can take some credit from creating it. In that respect, it is neither fair nor accurate to isolate one cause for success.  Last season was a culmination of a beautiful collective effort, and both manager and players should be proud to have been a part of it. And the lesson for the Business School? Simply that one should not imagine that a heroic leader with an MBA will guarantee success, because luck and spirit matter just as much.

 

Thanks to Martin Parker for helping me with this piece.

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

Why target people with ads who are turned off by targeted ads?

For several years the DNT (Do Not Track) initiative has been trying to formalise a standard feature for the worldwide web to allow users to tell a website whether they are happy to have their activities tracked by the website and their partner. These initiatives have been opposed by a group of organizations with clear interests in the digital marketing market (IAB in particular). They have confused, obfuscated and in some cases intimidated participants in the project. This lead the New York Times to describe DNT as a ‘slow death‘.

But, I came across this interesting study by Goldfarb and Tucker. Put very simply, they find that consumers respond best to ads which are contextually targeted or highly visible on screen but that contextually targeted and highly visible ads perform relatively badly. The paper speculates that consumers privacy concerns might be the explanation for this effect. A targeted and visible ad reminds consumers that the site is tracking them and makes them more critical of persuasive communication.

So, just imagine the power of knowing which consumers cared about privacy and “detargeting” them – but perhaps using highly visible ads instead. In the paper, Goldfarb and Tucker estimate that 5% of digital ad spending is wasted targeting people who are turned off by targeting. That’s a spicy meatball.

 

Originally published at socialstudiesofmarketing.wordpress.com

Don’t mention the War

Stephen Dunne, Lecturer in Social Theory and Consumption and the School, considers the strange role played by mottos in the marketing of Higher Education 

 

When the University of Leicester recently changed its corporate logo, the decision was made to omit its inaugural motto from the crest’s imagery. And so a few Latin words, themselves translations of an earlier spiritual vernacular, were excised. Here’s a brief explanation of what that decision amounted to, why it was taken and how it was made.

 

As the upper middle class targets of Universities once knew, the Ut Vitam Habeant which used to adorn the corporate logo makes a conspicuous nod to John 10: 10. It is there, those chaps used to have to recognise, that Jesus Christ presented to the Pharisees the nature of his pastoralism which had been and implied the promise of his sacrifice which was to come. He suggests the way to his followers, that is, in order “that they might have life”.

 

The new logo no longer obliges audiences to know what Ut Vitam Habeant means or even where it came from. Rather than being invited to process the previous logo’s peculiar invocation to compare the University of Leicester to the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, contemporary target markets and the wider stakeholder community receive a very different message. The word of higher education brand consultancy now has it that image shall supersede text. With this, the life given by the Lord withdraws from the world of our logo. To those who would listen, the new logo speaks only of its own silence.

 

How has this shift in emphasis been received? Well on the one hand, “[C]urrent and potential students”, following “nearly 18 months work…involving workshops, focus groups and one to one interviews” are said to have welcomed the new logo’s “more modern, digital feel”. But the move hasn’t been seen as a blessing which has entered everybody’s lives, by the responsible agency’s own admission, since “some alumni, naturally rooted in their pasts, are mourning the loss of some of the more traditional elements”. The new logo’s very existence symbolises the victory of the ‘modern’ over the ‘traditional’. That’s what we’ve been asked to believe by the agency, in any case.

 

This is strategic marketing in action. The decision to remove Ut Vitam Habeant implies that bookish Latin – and all the legalised bureaucracy and theologised obedience that goes with it – is no longer the contemporary university’s principal currency. Rendered affirmatively, we might say that an appeal to the idea of a University as a site of rational dialogue, whatever its linguistic mode of expression, has become obvious if implicit. You don’t need to be able to speak Latin to come here, the present absence of a motto now says. All the world’s languages can make equal claims on learning, it follows. And there is probably some progressive reassurance to be found in the crediting of such an interpretation.

 

An alternative interpretation – not necessarily that of “some alumni” – renders the omission of Ut Vitam Habeant as a proxy for the anti-intellectualism through which Universities seek to substantiate their contemporary function. And why not?! What good is the naive and anachronistic appeal to rationality and impartiality these days while we’re being drip fed the idea that we’ve had it with expertise, given up on truth and capitulated to populism! Wouldn’t it be much better if contemporary university occupants got involved in the real world, instead of clambering further and further up the ivory tower? Isn’t it time – now more than ever – for academics to intervene within political affairs, to put their erudition to use? That’s what many people now say.

 

But that has always been what many people have said. It predates 2016. It predates the Book of John. It even predates Thrasymachus, who told Socrates that “The just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger”. Those who find little consolation in the reign of real-politic, by contrast, aspire to a juridical situation in which reason, rather than arbitrariness, reigns sovereign. Universities have provided one possible foundation for such an aspiration, one practical manifestation of the Christian determination to make contemplation its own reward, one institutional articulation of the Socratic ethos which invites wisdom’s light into the world. Their very existence suggests that reason, powerlessness in the face of violence, remains nevertheless capable of disarming power. The symbolic abandonment of such an institutional principle isn’t just a strategic marketing consideration, then, though it is at least that.

 

As for “Ut Vitam Habeant”, it hasn’t been utterly sacrificed to strategic marketing’s requisite pragmatism. Whenever it now appears within University of Leicester communications, the motto now evokes a collective debt to the war fallen, it reminds us of the institution’s inaugural foundation as a symbolic mode of literal memorialisation. The maintenance of this implication, today, is both entirely well-meaning and utterly disingenuous. John 10:10 makes a general appeal to all those who might live on, not a particular appeal to some of those who have fallen. Ut Vitam Habeant, then, is a humanist ethical principle which need not be disparaged as exclusively Christian. But it must not be construed as exclusively or even predominantly a British principle either. Neither then or now. Remembrance should not be a political obligation. And it should not be a unique selling proposition either. The institutional expectation – even the organisational invitation – for the spiritual salvation of the British Monarch is precisely not what Ut Vitam Habeant means. It comes closer to its opposite, in fact. We should remember the fallen not because we are told by others that we should do so but because our inherent capacity to reason might compel us to do so.

 

And don’t even get me started on Elite but not Elitist.

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

Trump and the risks of narcissistic leadership

Professor Mark Stein discusses how Donald Trump shows signs of being a narcissistic leader – and why people have good reason to be concerned.

In 2013 I published a paper about the risks and problems of the narcissistic leadership of a New York based billionaire businessman. The paper happened to focus on Dick Fuld, but in 2016 it may well have focused on another New York based billionaire businessman, Donald Trump. Lehman Brothers’ Headquarters, where Dick Fuld was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, was after all just a stone’s throw from Trump Tower.

Trump has all the characteristics of a narcissistic leader, and all the warning signs are present: we have good reason to be concerned. One key feature of the narcissistic leader is hubris, an exaggerated sense of one’s own value and worth. Trump emblazons buildings, aeroplanes and golf courses with his own name; regularly speaks about how he has ‘good genes’; and talks of how uniquely talented and clever he is.

 

Other key characteristics are the narcissists’ over-inflated view of their own power and knowledge, something Trump is often prone to remind us of. Trump talks of how he will re-shape the balance of global power, redressing the way, as he puts it, America has been ‘raped’ by other countries. This suggests that, aside from a large degree of naivety, he has omnipotent delusions about his capacity to exert influence, and an over-inflated view of his ability to understand and shape global politics.

 

Narcissistic leaders also tend to be contemptuous of others who they see as inferior to them. Trump’s now notorious suggestion that he has the right to sexually assault young women because he is a ‘celebrity’; his shocking mimicry of a disabled reporter on live television; and his branding of Mexicans as rapists and drug-dealers; are some of the ways in which he shows contempt for others, many of whom will be the very citizens he will act as President on behalf of.

 

An inclination for vengeance is yet another feature of the narcissist, one which also has deeply worrying consequences. Trump’s working up his supporters into a frenzied excitement about Hillary Clinton’s emails, shouting ‘lock her up’; as well as his threats to prosecute any woman who accused him of sexual assault etc., all speak of a deeply ingrained need for revenge.

 

The delusional nature of Trump’s narcissism and his excessive view of his own power and knowledge are laid bare by the fact that – somewhat ironically – he made his name by presiding over the American television version of ‘The Apprentice’: Trump has served no apprenticeship whatsoever for the post of he is about to assume, with every one of the previous 44 US Presidents having served in senior positions in government or in the military or both, where Trump has held no such position. This speaks of an extraordinary sense of grandiosity, of a failure to learn and develop, leaving Trump to feel that he can assume a position – the most powerful in the world – without any obvious preparation for the post.

 

Worryingly, while they may manage adequately when times are good, narcissistic leaders tend to deteriorate rapidly when there is a downturn. Indeed, the central argument of my paper is that narcissistic leaders may be ‘incubating’ problems that only become manifest at a later stage because such leaders become persecuted, and often highly vengeful, when the going gets tough. Put differently, the over-confidence of narcissistic leaders is often just a mask that is used to protect them against deep vulnerability; and being vulnerable or ‘thin-skinned’, they tend to react sharply, vengefully and sometimes brutally when times are difficult, and this may only become manifest at some later point in their career.

 

Given that Trump will be working closely with many Republicans who have made it clear that they have a visceral dislike for him; that he will have to work alongside global leaders who are profoundly dismayed and in deep shock about him and his approach; that he seeks to dismantle the very foundations of post-war US governmental policy, both domestic and international; and that he has no obvious skill or experience to be doing this job; the ‘going’ looks not just ‘tough’ but tumultuous and extraordinarily difficult, and for that reason Trump’s reaction is likely to be highly problematic. Because of these character issues, whatever our political views, we should have deep concerns about a Trump presidency.

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

Glam Rock Socialism

The music writer Simon Reynolds has a new book out, Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and its legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century. To coincide with it’s publication, he wrote an article in the Guardian with the headline, Is Politics the New Glam Rock? Funnily enough my fellow Free Association writers and I wrote our own article a few years back, proposing Ziggy Stardust as a potential model for the kind of political leader that could fit into a libertarian socialist politics. Despite starting from a similar move, thinking political leadership through the terms of Glam Rock, Reynolds’s conclusion couldn’t be more different. He holds Donald Trump up as his example of a politician in the Glam Rock style and that’s certainly not what we had in mind. Of course, pop culture is ambiguous and contradictory by nature, that goes doubly so for Glam, still it’s interesting that those ambiguities can be worked out in such different directions.

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There’s three parts to Reynolds’s case for Trump as Glam stomper. He begins by arguing:

Trump’s appeal is generally seen in terms of his doom-laden imagery of a weakened, rudderless America. But there is something else going on too: an admiring projection towards a swaggering figure who revels in his wealth, free to do and say whatever he wants. Trump is an aspirational figure as much as a mouthpiece for resentment and rancour.

This idea of projection is vital in understanding the relationship between fan and icon, or follower and leader. It describes the way icons act as screens upon which fans project their own desires. The most successful icons come to stand in for particular social fantasies, which can tell us much about contemporary society. So what fantasy does Trump represent? I think its the fantasy of a sociopathic version of freedom.

Adam Kotsko argues, in his book Why Do We Love Sociopaths?, that the overwhelming popularity of sociopaths in contemporary TV, from Tony Soprano to Jack Bauer to contestants on The Apprentice, reveals an obscured social fantasy of what it would means to be free. The hypothesis is:

that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: ‘what if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?’ And the answer they provide? ‘Then I would be powerful and free.’

Doesn’t this reflect part of Trump’s attraction for many Americans? His lack of human empathy, backed up by his money, frees him from the rules and bounds of human decency within which the rest of us are trapped.

If Trump represents a sociopathic aspiration, then it’s his glitzy vulgarity that links him to Glam. To this Reynolds adds a secondary charge of shared megalomania.

Trump and the glam rockers share an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention. Trump actually plays “We Are the Champions” by Queen (a band aligned with glam in its early days) at his rallies, because its triumphalist refrain – ‘no time for losers’ – crystallises his economic Darwinist worldview.

While all icons and leaders want attention some want it in order to further a cause. Tump and the Glam Rockers are accused of wanting attention for attention’s sake. Which leads us to the final characteristic with which Reynolds ties Trump to Glam, his inconsistency.

Bowie conjured up new personas to stay one step ahead of pop’s fickle fluctuations and keep himself creatively stimulated. With no fixed political principles, Trump’s only consistency is salesmanship and showmanship: the ability to stage his public life as a drama.

Of course, the ambiguous play between authenticity and artifice is central to the attraction of pop culture and Glam Rock pushes this to the extreme. But it’s here that Reynolds undercooks his analysis in the Guardian article. He has to play down Glam’s artifice in order to link it to Trump. In Shock and Awe, on the other hand, he goes much further and reveals aspects of Glam that lead away from a Glam Rock Trump.

Glam rock drew attention to itself as fake. Glam performers were despotic, dominating the audience (as all true showbiz entertainers do). But the also engaged in a kind of mocking self-deconstruction of their own personae and poses, sending up the absurdity of performance… Glam idols… espoused the notion that the figure who appeared onstage or on record wasn’t a real person but a constructed persona, one that didn’t necessarily have any correlation with a performer’s actual self or how they were in everyday life.

Trump’s inconsistency is lazy and insouciant; it’s very different to Glam Rock reinvention. I get no sense that there’s a real, more nuanced Trump hiding beneath the mask. He is Trump all the way down; an empty vessel built of immaturity and insecurity all packaged up with a sociopathic sheen. Such emptiness can actually be an asset for an icon, making it less likely that people’s projected desires will be contradicted.

By contrast, Reynolds holds up Jeremy Corbyn as, “the real anti-glam leader of our age… viscerally opposed to – and fundamentally incapable of – political theatre”. Corbyn’s shtick is sincerity. As Gary Young perceptively argues, Corbyn’s supporters don’t come to his rallies “to be entertained” but “to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics.” It’s an approach that builds on the Left’s desire to be seen as decent and honest but in some ways it plays into the prejudices of the seething mass of ressentiments coursing through British society. I worry that Corbyn represents the fantasy of historical consolation, his decency says ‘we may lose in the here and now but history will prove us right in the end.’

Another strategy presents itself when we look at how Reynolds positions Glam Rock historically in Shock and Awe. He sees it as a transitionary moment in the move away from a countercultural structure of feeling. “Abrasive honesty and an appeal to ‘reality’ and the ‘natural’ were the most formidable weapons in the counterculture armoury”, says Reynolds. Glam is cast as a reactionary move that emerges when that armoury becomes exhausted. “It was a retreat from the political and collective hopes of the sixties into a fantasy trip of individualised escape through stardom.”

Our own position is very different. We live in a world in which individualised escapism is firmly in the driving seat, celebrity is routine and banal, and the idea of a counterculture seems impossibly remote. But at the same time the coordinates of change are flickering back into life. In many countries young people are shifting Left, while active social movements are animating some of the stars of pop and sport; Beyonce’s performance at Superbowl 50, for instance, or Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. In these circumstance perhaps Glam could act once again as a model for a transitional moment but this time in the opposite direction, helping us move from individualised escapism to collective engagement.

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That would be a strategy of pushing through Glam rather than withdrawing from it. Embracing the openly constructed nature of Glam icons, with their “mocking self-deconstruction of their own personae and poses” to create the kind of radically de-mystifying model of a political leader we suggested in Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.

It was precisely the explicit otherworldly inauthenticity of Ziggy Stardust – a supposed emissary through which alien visitors were speaking – that made him such an effective transferential figure. Whereas [Johnny] Rotten’s persona could be mistaken for the actual person of John Lydon, this was less the case with Ziggy. Yet many wanted to adopt the persona because it showed them a way forward: they used it to change themselves and to recognise others who were doing the same. Moreover, it was the suicide of the character, with Bowie killing it off and adopting a new one, which forced the audience to recognise the mechanism of transference. Unlike the final Sex Pistols gig, this transformation didn’t treat the fans as imbecilic subjects of a swindle. Instead it revealed Ziggy Stardust as a shared contrivance through which both star and audience were transforming themselves. Of course even this is not enough for us. The trick is to do away with the star while retaining the character.

It’s unclear what this strategy would look like practice. Perhaps we could start by reconceptualising our figureheads as comets rather than stars, after all they don’t generate their own illumination but are brought into visibility by the active social forces moving through them. To go further we could draw on our long history of collective pseudonyms, such as Captain Swing and Ned Ludd, who became points of unity despite being enacted by different individuals. Then there are the multi-user names experimented with in the 1980s and 1990s, of which Luther Blissett is the most famous. This in turn led to the invention of San Precario, the patron saint of precarious workers, a figurehead for the common condition of workers who don’t share a common workplace. In a similar vein we find the precarious superheroes who hoped to spark a kind of psychic defence by pointing out where the really heroic endeavours are to be found in contemporary society. We might even find it in pop music, with the rebirth of past icons within the problems of the present, or even the future. Which ever way it works out Glam Rock Socialism needs icons that counteract the sociopathic myth that we don’t need other people. They need to be icons that undo themselves, revealing the charisma of collective intelligence beneath the myth of individual genius.

The post Glam Rock Socialism appeared first on freely associating.

Originally published at http://freelyassociating.org/

The future will only contain what we put into it now

Fredric Jameson described one of the impasses of postmodern culture as the inability ‘to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.’ The past keeps coming back because the present cannot be remembered.

Mark Fisher: Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures

It’s hard to find traction these days. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, they slip out of your grasp or melt away to nothing. So it’s easier to cling to the past. Safer, too. If you want an aesthetic representation of our own current experience, perhaps you can find it in Bake-Off, Brexit or the latest reboot from Hollywood.

The fact that the past keeps coming back seems to be part of the post-modern condition, the sense that the present is somehow broken or inaccessible. As such, it’s inescapably bound up with the logic of advanced capitalism. Neoliberal principles are being relentlessly applied to the field of art and culture, asset-stripping recent history for bite-sized chunks that can be sold back to us. It’s a vicious circle because this then feeds into a cynical (half-assed) subjectivity which is quick to embrace lazy, cut-price nostalgia – like those never-ending “Do you remember Spangles and Spacehoppers?” TV shows. This is culture as comfort-food, an oppressive regurgitation of the same pap masquerading as something different. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re running on the spot, fiddling while Rome burns.

But just as there’s more than one past to excavate, there’s also a different sort of looking back. Sometimes you need to reflect precisely in order to go forward. We’ve been raking over the bones of our own dead – writing about 1980s anarcho-punk for a new collection by Minor Compositions as a way of writing about the political impasse of 2016.

Like punk, anarcho-punk had a conflicted relationship with the past. While it liked to position itself as a rupture, a break with all that had gone before, there was also a clear continuity with many aspects of 1960s counterculture – something which Crass would make explicit later on. In The Kids Was Just Crass we argue that whatever the claims of any pop-cultural revolution, there can be no wiping out of the past, no Year Zero. Instead, “moments of excess open up the future precisely by reconfiguring the past, unclogging history and opening up new lines of continuity”.

Perhaps there are now other lines of continuity to explore. Anarcho-punk emerged some 35 years ago under conditions which seem eerily familiar – a rampant Tory government, a deepening economic depression, a grassroots Labour left under attack from its own party, a groundswell of racism fuelled by fears over immigration, etc – all played out against a backdrop of impending global apocalypse. The word ‘crisis’ loomed large then, just as it does now. Crisis? Yeah, sometimes it feels like we’re always living through a crisis – if not a crisis of the state, then a crisis of the economy, or a crisis of movement. But in the early 1980s it definitely felt like we were living at the fag-end of an era. And in retrospect that’s exactly how it turned out. There’s something similar about 2016, a sense that our world has been interrupted, put on hold.

In the years following the defeat of the Paris Commune, Stephane Mallarmé defined the era as inert time, a period when “a present is lacking.” That also seems fitting today: the present cannot be remembered because it barely exists. It’s hardly surprising that the past keeps coming back to haunt us as we try to work out how to step into the future.

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The post The future will only contain what we put into it now appeared first on freely associating.

Originally published at http://freelyassociating.org/

Zombie ads

A little while ago, I did some empirical research on outdoor advertising. We travelled round Nottingham photographing every outdoor ad we came across. One thing which we noticed when collecting the data was that many outdoor ads are out of date.

Time and time again we saw adverts for movie’s which opened months before and special offers that had ran out. I’ve been thinking about these and I think the best way to describe them is zombie ads. My guess is that outdoor media owners have some low value inventory where it simply doesn’t make sense to remove ads but people don’t want to use the space that much. So once they’ve put ads up, they get left in place.

This seems like a sneaky way for advertisers to get a lot more exposure for their ads than they pay for.

 

Originally published at socialstudiesofmarketing.wordpress.com