Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Sound and Fury: Signs of a New Politics?

8 Sep 2015

You could be forgiven for thinking that the contemporary political air is ever ‘full of sound and fury’. For example, witness the furore over the decision to include a service with refugees in a recent episode of the generally fusty ‘Songs of Praise’. The Express subsequently spoke of the BBC having provoked ‘fury’ for arranging to film the programme in a ‘lawless ghetto’; the initiative clearly framed as a threat. Nigel Farage’s reported comments provide an important pointer to the roots of the indignation, i.e., “It’s overtly political and an attempt by the BBC to try to influence the debate. I am wholly opposed to it. It looks and feels like political activism to make us look at the migrant crisis differently”. Damian Collins MP (Media and Sports Committee) also opined “I don’t think it is appropriate at all to insert Songs of Praise into what is a very complex political and international situation” and called for the episode to be cancelled. The Sun underlined the need for a defence, asserting “Calais is burning and the calls going out are for more CS gas, more razor wire and more troops — not more choirs”.

Similarly themed emotional sounds and furies have been expressed around the Corbyn challenge in the Labour Leadership contest. Alistair Heath, Deputy Editor of the Telegraph, headlined an article “a Corbyn victory in the Labour Leadership battle would be a disaster”, in arguing for initiatives such as “public ownership of railways” and the prospect of “demonising business”, i.e. entryism of different ideas and practices, such as: inclusivism, a broader definition of the public, a politics of hope, again perceived as discordant with and in turn a clear threat to contemporary political orthodoxies. Inevitably this threat has been framed in more emotive, arguably apocalyptic language by the press, for example in the dystopian nightmare painted by the Daily Mail’s David Thomas, the theme of defence again figured strongly. There has been an extensive media campaign in support of a defensive tactical response to this perceived threat of Corbyn to the electoral prospects of the Labour Party and benefit for the Conservatives, for example the #ToriesForCorbyn Twitter campaign. However, sounds from sources such as Conservative Home, the Spectator and other commentators on the right have tended to be more muted and reflective.  ‘Conservative Home’s Daniel Hannan notes that facilitating a Corbyn victory could well be a bad move in that it could encourage decadence and so weaken the Conservative Party’s defences.

These three key themes: difference, threats and defence, have echoed through a wide range of political interventions, for example, responses to the Church of England’s pastoral letter at the beginning of this year, Iain Duncan Smith’s response to the Trussell Trust’s call for a dialogue over foodbanks and so on. Arguably all of these debates provoke the question, ‘why on earth are these various differences perceived as so threatening, and the current political settlement perceived as in need of defence’? In some senses, perceptions of threats and the need for defences seem inexplicable. Many key features of the current political settlement, referred to here using the shorthand Neoliberal Corporate Capitalism (NLCC), have become both generalised and increasingly entrenched within the foundations of law, politics, a range of institutions (including the Church), policy and indeed common sense. In many respects their various parameters and processes seem to have become set in stone, and to extend the metaphor, have assumed the form of a solidly founded, new orthodox temple. However, on closer inspection, it may be argued that the foundations of this new temple are somewhat shaky, masonry and scripture often paradoxical, contradictory, incoherent and so ‘cracked’. Arguably interventions such as the Corbyn campaign, the refugee church service in Calais and often local faith-based interventions and beyond, have been instrumental in contributing to an emerging, penetrating structural survey which has revealed increasing numbers of cracks and so challenged the new orthodoxy, and in turn, gestured towards a politics of the new. They have done so in relation to a plethora of features and in a wide range of contexts, far too many to detail here. However, two brief examples can hopefully form contributions towards the illumination of this broader contention.

One example of a ‘crack’ in the prevailing orthodoxy is revealed through challenges to the contradictory NLCC propositions that the appropriate boundaries within which difference should be expressed, are defined at the same time, as broadly open in relation to peopled business and markets, and yet for working people and refugees, are invariably bounded and so limited by ‘the nation’. The Bishop of Dover challenged David Cameron’s use of the term ‘swarms’ in demarcating this difference and called for the need to remember our common humanity, a subversive charge which dovetails with and highlights the contradictions between such forms of differentiation and neoliberal contentions around the foundations of an individualism which makes claims for equal moral worth, negative liberty to enable the free articulation of difference. Both the Bishop of Dover’s arguments and related claims, form a more fundamental subversive charge in that it is underwritten by a rubric which affirms 100% universality and the affirmation of the sanctity and relations of all humans, companion species and indeed the very fabric of the earth – thus affirming difference not as limiting or divisive, but rather as a relational, universal principle, mode of existence and production in its own right.

A second example of a crack in the prevailing orthodoxy, is the NLCC proposition that difference can also be coherently and adequately conceived through the relations of a myriad of atomised, market individuals. This logic has been challenged in various ways, such as emerging sharing economies. In addition, DEMOS and the Cinnamon Faith Action Audit evidenced the volume and reach of faith-based modes of production in the public sphere, the majority of which are increasingly outward facing, forming relational forms of difference. Richard Reddie in his research with Black community churches argued that there has been a ‘step change’, from tea and sympathy towards more openness and engagement. Faith-based modes of production which involve the creation of differential relations which cut across NLCC boundaries of difference are also evidenced in activities which have proliferated. Further examples include the efforts of foodbanks to forge community and organisational relations in response to the growing prevalence of food stress, and challenging pathologised forms of difference as found within the logic of government discourses around recipients. Clear attempts to reframe difference as relational are also evidenced in the activities of various Occupy movements, such as Christian Occupy, Occupy London, Manchester, Glasgow and arguably the Corbyn campaign. As the Guardian’s Matthew d’Ancona observed, “a quite different form of politics is emerging, with a quite different structure… it is “synchronic” (cross-sectional) rather than “diachronic” (part of a serial narrative, with a before and after)”. A phenomena which William Temple Foundation’s Director Chris Baker gestured towards, when reflecting upon the trans-local nature of faith-based groups.

I could go on, however, two important points can be made. First, for the future, the paradoxes, contradictions and incoherencies as ‘cracks’ implicated in the prevailing orthodoxy in some or perhaps many respects, may ‘signify nothing’ i.e. have no future – perhaps one insight into the broader puzzle of why the contemporary political establishment is ‘full of sound and fury’. Second, that faith groups need to pay careful attention to the logics which they confront and engage with, in terms of their own practice, and in particular to ensure that they are able to make coherent and meaningful contributions to the emergence of a politics of the new. If not, they too may be inevitably subject to the criticism that their interventions amount to little more than an indulgence, “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

Tina Hearn is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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