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 serialised report. Here, Isabel Millar responds.
Shock horror! How on earth could so many previous Labour voters possibly have voted for the racist, misogynist, elitist nightmare on Downing Street that is Boris? Perhaps this election has shown once again that we must take heed of Lacan’s words of warning in the appendix of Seminar XVII:
‘What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one’.
Apart from the enormous Brexit question (or voter turn-out) which I leave to others to discuss, I think we need to be far more pessimistic about the electorate’s motivations. Boris, like so many successful right-wing politicians, has the affable, approachable and humorous confidence that only comes with a private school education and a thorough Bullingdon club hazing. And depressingly, more important than high moralism or admirable ethical stances on the big questions, people can imagine themselves having a laugh or a drink with Boris, chatting about the football, the wife or indeed the Chablis. It seems there is nothing more mesmerizing to the ears of this country than the full bodied and redolent tone of privilege that bellows forth from Boris’s blathering lips. It doesn’t matter what nonsense he spouts, he throws in a reference to the Classics and maybe a Latin quote, and everyone goes weak at the knees. Nobody seems to notice that he is actually rather dim, because with an accent like that you can get away with murder. And what makes it all the more palatable is that his blundering and comical eccentricity gives an air of “lovable (yet exceedingly well educated) klutz” to what is just reactionary and opportunistic dog-whistling.
Sadly, whilst we may believe we want a “fairer society for all” at a time of complete impoverishment both financially and culturally, people are vulnerable and want immediate relief from their own discomfort and uncertainty. They feel safe in Boris’s hands, because he has that superhuman quality of “poshness”. No matter what is thrown at him, whether it’s sleaze or scandal, he can dust himself off and take care of business. That’s comforting to people even though they may also think he is a complete arse. Recall the famous Two Ronnies sketch “I look down on him, I look up to him, I know my place” etc. The masochistic identifications and structures of deferral and authority remain riven into the national psyche, yet disavowed. In short, could it be that many people who may have publicly supported Corbyn, privately wanted Boris? It’s the nice boyfriend who treats you well and would make a great life partner (but is boring and wears bad shoes), versus the horrible abusive ex who has cufflinks and good aftershave. And we all know how that ends.
Having touched on the libidinal effect of “poshness” on the electorate, however, I also think it is important to briefly draw attention to the language of class and how it is strategically utilized by the left. I think that basing our political strategies on (what has become) the floating signifier “working class” in our current context is problematic for various reasons. Firstly, on a simple subjective level it may well be a problem for people who don’t identify as working class and feel that the constant Corbynista mobilization of the “working classes”. does not really reflect them and feels outdated. (In part, we have decades of the neoliberal governmental push towards the “entrepreneurial self” to thank for this. It seems that the more disenfranchised people become, the less likely they are to identify with grand notions such as “revolutionary change”). Furthermore, given the limited number of designations of socio-economic groups we have at our disposal, the language of class is a very blunt analytical tool (partly why the more Foucauldian concept of ‘intersectionality’ became important in recent decades yet not without its own problems). And as a good friend (and Marxist) who shall remain nameless remarked to me; the term working class does indeed have subjective/ideological/political/economic weight and consequences. Agreed, but I fear that we have lost these profound meanings in the way it is used today, certainly in Britain. The fact is the left are not all “working class” not culturally, nor financially. And what does class even mean as we use it in contemporary political rhetoric? Is your class defined by your parents’ class? Or whether you own land or property? Or because of your profession? Or your education? Or your access to wealth? Or what university you went to? Or what newspaper you read? Or your accent? Or what books you have read? Or where you live? Or can we just self-identify?
It is such a delicate and intricate combination of factors that make people identify themselves or each other as one class or another, whether positively or negatively. And the static language of class is not compatible with the idea of social mobility. Granted, social mobility is itself a “neoliberal idea” as oft pointed out by Zizek and Lazzerato among others, but nevertheless an aspiration that many voters cling to, hence this depressing Tory win. To retort that the working class is pure form without content (i.e. a universal condition) would seem to be a luxury only afforded to the academic cosmopolitan elite. Which, whilst it has theoretical and philosophical weight, seems to lose its effectiveness when translated into the everyday discursive matrix. This is of course not to deny the existence of class and structural inequality (and the real material effects of economic disadvantage, discrimination, racism, sexism and historical and institutional inequality proliferated by capitalism etc.), but in contemporary Britain it would seem it is much harder to use class as a primary rallying cry for a progressive and inclusive politics. Using the “99%” doesn’t seem to do the trick either, as the landslide victory for the Tories after a decade of austerity sadly shows. The election result forces us to work harder than to fall back on the refrain “unite the working classes” or “the 99%”. This is not a matter of disavowing the problems of class inequality, but rather that we need to look for new political strategies to do so.
So, what is to be done? Rather than licking our wounds and stubbornly sticking to the same unsuccessful routines, we must now think how to recapture our audience and offer a different programme for a leftist politics that works for everybody and that will get us a Labour government. This is, (god forbid) NOT a call for a return to New Labour, but a reinvention of our optics and master signifiers. This requires different tools and tactics than before. In psychoanalytic terms, a more nuanced analysis of the different modes of political enjoyment and ambivalence at work in our identifications with leaders and also of the new social bonds emerging in the coming decade. What is required, I would argue, is not just a return to Marx, but a return to Lacan.
Isabel Millar is a PhD candidate at Kingston University, School of Art in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Theory. Her research is on Jacques Lacan, Sex and Technology.