The Spin Cycle: Truth and Appearance in Politics

Timothy Bewes

Very soon after one starts thinking about the concept of spin, it begins to lose its coherence. To talk about 'spin' is to talk about two things: (i) public opinion, and the excessive attention which politicians are 'nowadays' thought to pay to public opinion; (ii) ideology and false consciousness – the concept of spin presupposes a distinction between a spun and an unspun world, between our contemporary, 'media-led' reality and an earlier, more 'believable' version. It is, in this respect, a version of the Fall of Man myth, and, like all such metaphors, is riven with political and philosophical contradiction. We only become aware of our existence in Paradise the moment we are cast out of it. Similarly, political honesty is a condition which can never be enjoyed except retrospectively. We never experience an earlier, 'unspun' world; we can only ever remember it, and experience it as something lost.

Conversely, the moment when we become aware of the existence of spin is the moment of its disappearance. Effective spin requires a general unawareness of its existence. The contemporary visibility of spin and spin doctors, we must assume, inhibits their effective operation. 'Soundbites' are today immediately recognisable as soundbites. In the same way that the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden is the moment of their birth as individuals and 'subjects', so, perhaps, the appearance of the concept of spin represents our accession to adulthood as political subjects. At this point, the concept itself seems on the point of disappearing into the ether. Spin is an inherently paradoxical concept – yet it structures our political reality like no other.

There are several versions of the spin hypothesis, as it is entertained on the left:

(1) The government has no substantial ideological agenda behind it; it is like a leaf blown about in the winds of public opinion. Thus, war-mongering Blair is a man whose long term ambition is to scotch public opinion of the Labour Party as a party of mealy-mouthed pacifists, for example, and to assume Margaret Thatcher's title of the leader who is not for turning, etc. Thus Blair is accused of playing to the gallery; his Princess Diana speech was an astute act of politicking, lacking sincere feeling, calculated to gratify the hounds of public opinion, and securing his own mandate as the politician who understands the people. New Labour ministers, likewise, are professional politicians, interested in holding onto power only; not in changing the world. What we have is the triumph of image over substance – new Labour represents the ultimate in postmodern politics: substance-less, aspirational and ideologically pragmatic.

(2) The second version of the spin hypothesis is implicitly a critique of the first: the Labour government does of course have an ideological agenda, and, like all ideological operations, its greatest wish is to appear not to be ideological. Labour is committed to the medium (rather than the message) precisely because it recognises the emphasis which 'today's world' attaches to presentation and appearance. Labour is dealing with the reality of the modern world. It is highly competent in its manipulation of the media since, despite the carping of the left, it has maintained a consistently high level of popularity in the polls. It is precisely the critics on the left, supporters of the first hypothesis, who fail to understand the power of the media, and who cherish an idealistic, thoroughly naive attachment to a truthful political world which has long vanished, which probably never existed at all, and which arguably has no relation to political reality anyway.

(3) The third position is a radicalisation of the above. Since the idea of spin proposes the distinction between a spun and an unspun world, the concept itself lends support to the idea of an existing domain of politics outside 'vested interests'. The concept of spin is itself ideological. Thus the critique of government spin, and the very attempt to burrow beneath it, bolsters the illusion of a sphere free from the operation of ideology. The Guardian, according to this analysis, is the greatest gift to new Labour, since its campaigning attacks on the government, and its personalization of the spin issue by focusing on 'spin doctors', perform the useful task of containing the enormity of the 'image over substance' issue. 'Which of these men runs Britain?' asked a Guardian headline under a photograph of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, immediately polarising the issue into the politician, on one hand and the evil mediator on the other. The idea is conveyed that, were Mandelson or Campbell to be picked off by the journalists; were the government forced to replace Mandelson with Mo Mowlam, say, or Clare Short – then the current 'malaise' would begin to be solved: this is the explanation for the misplaced hilarity on the left when Mandelson lost his job over the Geoffrey Robinson affair. Beneath the spin-mongering there exists, even rudimentarily, a vestige of 'authentic' politics and politicians; all we have to do is retain our faith in the possibility, at least, of an honest, sincere politics and that possibility is in some sense present.

The concept of spin hereby maintains a model of politics and politicking which is metaphorically spatial (like the base and superstructure model of ideology); beneath the surface there exists the substance. Thus the concept of spin is part of the ideological work of the government; spin is a line which we are being spun, and the media are absolutely complicit in spinning that line. This is the intellectual left approach, theoretically informed, highly sophisticated, and convinced most forcefully that it, at least, has not been spun a line about spin.

Which one of these three analyses is correct? Which, in other words, is the underlying truth, and which have merely the appearance of truth? The question is dependent on the very terms presupposed by the concept itself. Any one answer runs the risk of affirming the terms which would also authenticate the other two. 'Spin', perhaps, is better understood in terms of levels of mediation rather than standards of truth and falsehood, or image and substance.

This becomes clear as soon as we consider the question of how the 'culture' of spin might be reversed. When senior Labour figures insist on the need to counter the accusation that new Labour is more concerned with image than substance, they outline an objective which is by definition oxymoronic. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do not say that we have to get back to real policies; they say, rather, that we have to convince the electorate that we are more interested in substance than image; we have to refocus attention on our achievements rather than our appearance. The effect of such insistence can only be the inflation of the concept itself; there is no simple reversal out of the spin phenomenon, which is no mere phenomenon, no glossy veneer. The attempt to refocus attention from image to substance is not the removal of a layer of mediation between electorate and politics, but the insertion of one. The suspicion must arise that there is no truth lying beneath the veneer because the veneer itself is the truth. The substance of new Labour politics is an emphasis of image over substance – which is not to say that contemporary political reality has no substance. What is called 'spin' is constitutive of political reality, and is central to the operation of contemporary politics; to talk of 'spin' and 'spin doctors' unreflectively is to be completely caught up in the ideological agenda of new Labour itself.

In this situation Peter Mandelson, the 'master spinner', functions in the same way as the Hollywood movie The Truman Show. Just as the film buoys up our sense of contemporary reality by producing the fiction of an entirely constructed world – one which, as the conclusion of the film shows, the hero is able ultimately to step out of – so Mandelson buoys up our sense of the legitimacy of the political institution. The idea of the spin doctor already seems unbearably crude; spin doctors are 'the men in the dark' as Clare Short famously called them; Mandelson is a 'devious manipulator', demonised by the left on that basis, a symptom of the deterioration of politics into 'soundbites'. At Ken Livingstone's launch rally for his campaign to stand as Mayor of London, Livingstone attacked the spin doctors of Millbank and Downing Street, and their culture of 'anonymous briefings' in which, he said, the journalists willing to report them are complicit; and he insisted that his campaign for the Mayorship would be conducted solely in terms of policies, not personalities. Such rhetoric is not only crude, but disingenuous, since the policies of the candidates for Mayor of London are almost indistinguishable. As Livingstone is no doubt aware, the campaign for the Mayorship will be conducted almost solely around personalities, his own personality – a reputation for 'telling it how it is', for plain-speaking and integrity, for being a 'man of the people', for avoiding the chauffeur driven cars and the paraphernalia of ministerial office – being easily his biggest advantage.

The 'spin doctor' can only be replaced by a superior form of spin which manages successfully to pass itself off as plain-speaking honesty – or alternatively, manages to point up its disingenuousness frankly as evidence of its own political 'realism'. In an article in New Left Review during the Kosova war, Tariq Ali wrote of the contradiction between NATO's knowledge that the bombing of Yugoslavia would inevitably precipitate a flood of refugees, and new Labour's failure to prepare for this flood. He quotes Clare Short speaking on British television: 'if the West had been seen to prepare for the refugees, people might have assumed this to be "the inevitable effect of NATO's bombing action".' Ali calls this statement 'the grotesque logic of this entire operation in a nutshell'; indeed, it expresses an extraordinary level of bad faith. It also demonstrates that Short has no problem with the tactics of the 'men in the dark' in the political arena (as opposed to the personal one, in which, she has said, she felt continually undermined by them).

These examples demonstrate that 'appearance' is the predominant concern even for those politicians whose reputation is for 'speaking their minds'. Integrity in politics gives way to the appearance of integrity – and these are vastly different things. There is no longer any subjective identification, nor any possibility of subjective identification, with party politics. The prevailing climate is one of subjective withdrawal from the political process. Voting takes place in an attitude of pragmatism or even resignation; landslide victories are achieved with low electoral turnouts. The appearance of mass enthusiasm, paradoxically, is created in a situation of prevailing apathy. The mass consensus claimed by new Labour should give rise to critical suspicion; in politics, mass engagement by definition fails to produce mass consensus.

Spin must be seen in terms of this wider process of mediation or, better, objectification, which means the gradual predominance of objective (external) culture over subjective (internal) culture – the gradual predominance of the concern for appearance, in other words, over actuality. Yet objectification is not simply a historical process, but the result of particular decisions taken, or not taken, by society. Objectification, which is the erosion of truth in politics, or the replacement of 'substance' with 'appearance' as the truth of politics, is indissociable from capitalism. Its effect is to compel people to think instrumentally – to think in terms of interests rather than truth. It is to strip the possibility of subjective investment from politics, or rather, to enforce a very particular subjectivity which recognises the objectifying principles of inevitability and 'modernity', of globalisation and market forces, of pragmatism and 'the world as it is'. Such principles are the organising principles of capital itself. The critical response directed towards the manifestations of those principles (the journalistic critique of the 'culture of spin', for example) remains fixated on those manifestations, bestowing reality upon them. Such criticism takes its place at the table of capital as its 'salaried and honoured nuisance', to use Adorno's phrase.

In this way, capitalism demeans our humanity by treating us according to the play of interests, rather than by what makes us specifically human: our capacity for thought. Contemporary party politics, by focusing on appearance to the exclusion of thought, denies this capacity. As such it not only demands but compels, indeed, presupposes, our subjective withdrawal. New Labour excludes all engagement except on the most alienated, objective (or pragmatic) level. Politics cannot be founded on bad faith; the parliamentary process operates according to the following anti-political premises: people do not think; they act in accordance with their interests; there is no such thing as truth.

The logic of new Labour is calculating and anti-thought; 'politics' is an inappropriate signifier for what is little more than the administration of the interests of capital. The concept of 'spin' simply fails to comprehend the truth of this situation. Not only is it both self-delusory and futile to expect anything from the party political process; participation in it necessitates subscription to the bad faith inherent in its logic. It is this blackmail – that either you abandon your attachment to subjective identification with the political process, or you abandon your attachment to remaining within the orbit of influence – which one must reject; indeed, it is no choice at all. The principle of politics is subjective engagement; in a society which compels alienated participation, non-participation is a political imperative, and a necessary stage in redefining the terms of participation. Participation in the world on its own terms will inevitably leave it just as it is.


Timothy Bewes is a Research Fellow at John Moore's University in Liverpool, and the author of Cynicism and Postmodernity (Verso, 1997).


Balancing Acts

The Hard Centre by Jeremy Gilbert

Technocrats or Intellectuals? By Geoff Andrews

The Spin Cycle: Truth and Appearance in Politics By Tim Bewes

The Art of Life By Jonathan Rutherford

The Long Revolution by Wendy Wheeler

From Signs of the Times to Signing the Times By Mark Perryman