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, Ben Moore gives his thoughts.
Let’s deal with Boris Johnson first. 2019 marks the endpoint of a transatlantic cycle that first saw Brexit anticipate the nativist politics of Trump, then the electoral success of Trump anticipate the electoral success of Johnson. Let us hope that the Conservative win of 2019 does not point to Trump’s re-election in the USA, though it is entirely possible, especially against a Democratic party divided between a depleted red-state Democratic politics (Biden), a technocratic and pragmatic centre-leftism (Warren), and a genuine but fragile socialism (Sanders). This comparison is more than just frivolous, since in both the UK and the USA we have seen the success of figures drawn directly from the stereotypes of the national unconscious, representing a retreat into parodic fantasies of the past. Adding to Isabel’s comments about Johnson’s poshness, in Britain (though not so much Scotland) there is clearly a powerful residual pull towards a figure who represents inherited, aristocratic, over-optimistically self-confident authority. When he says ‘let’s get Brexit done’, we also hear ‘play up! play up! and play the game!’ In America, this fantasy is instead that of the larger-than-life businessman, a non-philanthropic Rockefeller Jr, epitome of brash wealth and self-aggrandisement; the dream and nightmare of capitalism. If Johnson’s hero is Winston Churchill (or rather, one suspects, himself reimagined as well Churchill), Trump’s greatest and only hero is Trump.
In both cases, many voters have accepted these figures as what Lacan calls the subject supposed to know – or to adopt James’s formulation, the subject supposed to desire. Johnson’s shift to a language of one-nation Conservatism in the wake of his victory (standing behind a podium that ominously read ‘The People’s Government’) looks like a pragmatic shift towards the centre, but is in fact the consolidation of this libidinal position. One-nation Conservatism goes back to Disraeli, whose ‘Young England’ novels in the 1840s, such as Sybil, imagined not a true uniting of all parts of the nation, but rather a mobilisation of the aristocracy as the partners and true leaders of the people, whose flourishing is imagined to have been stymied by the liberal middle classes. In the nineteenth century this was a move against a Whiggish model of capitalism that threatened landed wealth and rentierism, while in the twenty-first it is reinvented as a mobilisation against what Dan identifies as the unity of thinking and working on the left. Which is to say, ‘the people’ do not include those students, intellectuals, activists and minorities who instead stand in the people’s way. The problem the Conservatives are storing up here is that whereas in the 1980s Thatcher was able to match a conceptual uniting of the rulers with the working class through economic bribes – the right to buy one’s own council house, the possibility of shares in privatised utilities – in 2019 the only economic carrot on offer is increased investment in the NHS, which is to say, a slight correction to structural under-funding. This meagre promise that some basic public services will be restored is likely to feel increasingly paltry as the new parliament drags on. The danger is that this lack is compensated by an escalating scapegoating of that ‘bad’ fraction of the people who do not deserve to be counted as people – the part of those who have no part in Rancière’s terms – such as immigrants, the unemployed, criminals and religious minorities.
To believe in Johnson as a true leader of the people requires an immense act of disavowal. He is, of course, a verified liar, unreliable, untrusted by grandees of his party and by members of his own family, and so on. So transparent is his position that many commentators have made this a criticism of the Labour party: against such an untrustworthy and indeed unpopular figure (as Trump is also unpopular despite his popularity) how could you not win? This is where we must remind ourselves that alongside the Labour shift in Brexit position to which James and Jaice draw attention, which is undoubtedly important, the 2017 Conservatives also had Theresa May as a leader rather than Johnson. She is a good illustration of why a (relatively) pragmatic and moderate figure, who is, at least at first, quite popular among her own MPs – in May’s case popular enough to be in the end elected unopposed – is not necessarily the panacea imagined by centrists. In 2017, it was Theresa May who looked unsure and lacking vision – her ‘strong and stable’ catchphrase relentlessly mocked, as she was forced to row back on policies such as the dementia tax.
In 2019, the Conservatives and their accomplices in the national media were instead successful in portraying Corbyn as lacking clarity, having no vision over Brexit, being complicit in anti-semitism and so on. Partly this is vulgar projection – it was Johnson, not Corbyn, who wrote two articles on Brexit, for and against – but more importantly, at the core of these attacks is the claim he does not know what he wants (unlike our guy). The commendable aspiration of the Labour manifesto was made to appear as policy incontinence rather than a coherent vision for the country. At the same time, Brexit has taken up a vast amount of the affective and intellectual space available for radical change for many people. On the one hand, the possibility of Brexit shows that an earth-shaking realignment in UK political, social and economic life is indeed possible, but on the other hand, the Labour Brexit position – which is in many ways very sensible – looked like vacillation, or worse, imminent betrayal (to both sides). This sense of unreliability seems to have transferred to the rest of the policy programme: if you are not sure about this issue, why should we trust your promises on that one? These are problems stored up over many years, and the good news is that the media landscape is in a state of flux, and that the emperor’s new clothes of Brexit dividends will soon be revealed never to have been there at all (or rather, not there for us).
What does this mean for the regeneration and positioning of the left through the coming years? On the one hand, it is vital to counter the investment that clearly exists in those dual figures of national fantasy, Johnson and Brexit. This battle cannot be fought in the world of facts alone – we all know that Johnson is a liar and a philanderer, and many high priests of Leave now happily concede that Brexit will not in fact make us richer, but this is not enough. Against the false and hollow one-nation unity of people and born-to-rule leaders, we need to construct a narrative of fairness, which does not articulate fairness in terms of resentment (these people do not deserve their benefits, those people are holding me to account unfairly), but in terms of giving people a fair chance, which is to say against structural inequality. Equality of opportunity, properly understood, is and should be a left position. Poor healthcare, a bad benefits system, an iniquitous private rental system without adequate state provision, growing climate crisis. All these things intersect with the labour market and workplace concerns that the left must also continue to voice. And at the same time, to return to Dan’s closing remarks, they are sources of inequality that work against the unity of thinking and doing, the acts we undertake and the way we conceptualise the significance of those acts in the world. Against the false unity and fantasies of the Conservatives, we can consolidate the important work done on the left in recent years by not only pointing to Johnson’s inevitable failures, but also by building a transformative programme that feels both personal and social, both radical and realistic.
Ben Moore is co-editor of Everyday Analysis and lecturer at University of Amsterdam.