380. The clinging (VII)
Yesterday, someone suggested to me that James Bond is a significant franchise because it provides Britain with considerable soft power, so-called. Yet soft power is an illusion, however favourably people look on Britain because they care for James Bond or the Royal Family. When I say to someone, “Move that regiment to Vienna,” and they do it then I have power; if I have to say, “Could you possibly, given that you hold me in such high esteem, move that regiment?” then I have little power—almost none. At any moment they could turn around and say, “Nah.” Now, yes, perhaps they would do what I said because they liked me for some sentimental reason or it gratified them to be helpful; but this is not power—rather, it is persuasion.
Politicians, journalists, and women persuade people to do things. I am not sure that persuasion is always wrong, but given the people who tend to use it as a tactic it seems more likely to be wrong than right. Power, by contrast, delivers reliable results; and it does not just describe a man’s relations with his fellow man: it also applies to technology, science, and law—areas where you “say”, “Do this,” and then a machine or legal process or experiment does what you said.
Soft power exists as a myth—in the pejorative sense—because we just lived through an insanely ideological century where apparently it really, really mattered what people thought. Whether you were progressive or Marxist or fascist was a big deal; and all the ideologies seeped through into mass popular culture. The idea that soft power is important is itself a religious idea, but it was augmented by the democratic myth—again, in the pejorative sense.
The idea that Britain has soft power from James Bond relies on the notion that the masses in various countries consume the films—enjoy the films; perhaps many hate the whole franchise—and then input into government through democracy; hence British “power” operates indirectly—perhaps more people vote for a party that is vaguely pro-British in some international dispute. Of course, democracy does not work like that. What the masses think never matters; it is all decided by elites, and these elites have quite a firm grasp as to their interests and are unlikely to be swayed by a movie they care for. Okay; perhaps sometimes they are, but again: this is persuasion, not power.
As with many contemporary phenomena in Britain, the notion that there is a vast British soft power that operates through culture and language is pure, as we say online, “cope”. It started post-war when some Conservative politicians began to cast Britain as “Greece to America’s Rome”—i.e. the Greeks were conquered by the Romans, but the Romans were educated in and admired Greek thought and art as the gold standard. By the 1990s, this had developed into Tony Blair’s vision of “Cool Britannia”; a wish that industrial and military strength could be substituted with the Spice Girls and state-sponsored adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. This was the same cope as before, just less sophisticated—out with Britain as Solon to America’s Caesar, and in with Posh and Becks to America’s, er, the Kardashians?
This is not to say that ideas and culture do not matter. Stalin was a largely pragmatic guy—Machiavellian—but he still had some minimal beliefs about socialism that were not pretence; there was no “mask off” moment where he went, “Ha! Ha! All that business about Marxism was a screen for my personal aggrandisement.” He would make decisions that from pure self-interest were irrational because he really wanted to implement an attenuated socialism. So ideas matter and persuasion matters: the way Stalin came to believe in Marxism matters; the way contemporary elites came to think “white supremacy” is an important topic matters. Persuasion and ideas have real influence; but both Stalin and Hitler loved a good cowboy film, and they were still opposed to the Americans.