In response to the political events of this bleak week, the editors at the Everyday Analysis Collective will be offering their reflections, putting their individual viewpoints into conversation within this report. In this piece, James Smith responds.
More than some commentators, I attribute our quandary virtually entirely to the Brexit pincer grip, which might as well have been custom designed to destroy a social democratic party dependent simultaneously on – to invoke the usual archetypes – socially conservative towns and liberal/progressive cities, the white working class, ethnic minorities of all classes, and university graduates. I also think it’s important not to allow our enemies to erase the 2017 election as a model, which remains the one moment of reprieve in a pattern of consistent decline that has been meted upon the party under leaderships drawn from all its factions now since 2005. That said, I agree with my fellow editors that it is time to embark on an assessment of the psychodynamics of the appeal of Boris Johnson’s style of politics, since we will presumably live with it for at least five years. Johnson and his colleagues have shown they have zero compunction about how low they are willing to stoop, but far more concerningly, all parts of the establishment have confirmed in this election that there are no social or professional consequences for doing so. The unrest Johnson’s policies will produce will be followed by a redoubling of the nationalist cynicism with which this election was fought.
Everyone is a populist when they think their side is winning. Everyone is a misanthrope when disabused of the idea. In a tight election (and Corbyn supporters have been in them pretty much continuously since 2015), we are disinclined to look ‘the people’ squarely in the eye, and certainly don’t want to put them on the couch. In the aftermath of a bad one, there is a temptation to be too disgusted to think it even worth doing so.
But those of us who agree with the tenets of psychoanalysis always have to proceed from the insight that a person is only a compromise of drives, that their love is also hate and that their repulsion is also desire. They ‘love their neighbour as themselves’ only in the respect that most of us fucking hate ourselves. Understanding this needn’t make one misanthropic. As Freud himself concedes, it has not stopped people from creating wonderful shared projects and performing acts of selfless mutual beneficence in politics. But every time the left has succeeded in getting consent to provide anything on universal grounds, it has done so in the teeth of the insight of the folk tale Slavoj Žižek is fond of telling. A man is offered anything he wants by a magical fairy, with the condition that his neighbour will also receive whatever the man wishes for in double measure. ‘Take my eye’, the man replies. The left should have nothing to do with the kind of Rousseauvian populism that believes ‘the people’ to be good and pure in themselves (much less its centrist technocratic equivalent, that voters always ‘see through’ the excesses of a bad manifesto or a divided party). Liberation means everything for everyone, whether they deserve it or not, and whether or not they’ll be happy when they have it.
In Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism and some essays updating its argument once Johnson won the Tory leadership, I argued that the trope Isabel identifies so well as that of the ‘bad boyfriend’ is indeed part of the power of figures like Johnson and Trump. People who don’t think they agree with these racist, philandering pre-Oedipal devourers nonetheless can enjoy the performance of unregulated desire they put on. They do not (as the classical definition of populism runs) ‘speak on the people’s behalf’, so much as desire on the people’s behalf. My own desires are frustrated and incoherent. The porridge is always too hot or too cold. But this guy… he seems to be getting it just right.
The gamble of Corbynism was that – unlike our anemic centrist rivals – the left could replace the racist, sexist performances of desire engaged in by the right with ones of shared generosity; that the Keynesian policies of big investment in our manifestos were, in their way, a far more scandalous breaking of establishment taboos than calling women in burkas letter boxes; and, therefore, that free broadband and a 4-day week could take the symbolic place of Trump’s junk food binges or Johnson’s shagging in people’s desiring constitutions. The other part was that the new mass membership inspired by Corbyn could make it seem like being on the left is a desirable, thrilling, jouissance-laden activity in itself. This would still be my analysis of what went right in 2017. I think it still explains the fact that, unlike 2010 and 2015, the 2019 defeat bequeaths us a totally unprecedented voluntary campaigning machine (and a radicalised and politically articulate youth), even if its performances of shared joy have not this time been sufficiently libidinally enticing to the wider public.
The Brexit supporters in the seats we lost were utterly justified in rejecting the ‘Remain’ party Labour allowed itself to be pressured into becoming. But there’ll always be something (who knows what the next ‘Brexit’ will be), and we need to be able to solicit people’s desires in their contradictory complexity better next time, and in the interim. Corbyn was a saint and as hard as nails. Most of the qualities or past actions we are told made his failure inevitable were also the prerequisite of his successes. Yet if one thing about his self-presentation stands out to me, it is that he tended to frame the policies as being about ‘doing good’ for others in some way: ending foodbanks, saving those suffering on Universal Credit, rehousing the homeless. With that presented as the ‘true’ motivation behind offering those who are not the weakest in society cheaper rail travel and childcare, too many were able to respond, ‘take my eye’. There are other plausible affective registers available to the left, than the simple will to do good or to be good. And we now have time to find them.
James A. Smith is a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and the author of a new book, Other People’s Politics: Populism to Corbynism. He has written for the Independent, Jacobin, Novara Media and other publications.